I left a woman in bed recently. Suddenly. Left her lying, hips scooping toward something I couldn’t give her.
I’d been mouthing the rungs of her ribcage, climbing higher, an ardent mountaineer, when she shifted and with her, the light. The blue glow of the stereo conspired with the beams of a passing car and her arching spine to reveal the vase, winking in the corner. Her exposed neck bloomed white as the skin on the back of mine chilled.
I could just make out the glint of quick-blinking eyes as she took in the sight of me, hopping away and into a pant leg, then feeling for the doorknob in the dark.
When I was a kid, we lived a few doors down from a funeral home. It was an ever-tidy, pillared Victorian number, all frosting details boxed in by stolid white fencing in the front and chain link in the rear.
In summer, geraniums, always white, marched up a wide, flat walkway certain never to trip some sniffling widow in mournful orthopedic shoes. The rear yard aproned away from the building: one subtle, manicured slope emptying into woodland. If we were careful, we could get from our house and behind the chain-link fence unseen.
My sisters found it. They dragged me there as a toddler to play in what they called the Fairy Wood. They needed a gnome, for their game.
Later, after the forest was braided in police tape and flashlight beams striped those summer nights, I learned it was Bob Teller’s job at the funeral parlor to clear away unclaimed arrangements after a wake. And, it seemed, a lot of people died in our small town with more flowers than the dead or living have use for.
In a lot off the side of the building was a dumpster for garbage bags full of spent tissues and cone-shaped water cups. But the flowers, those Bob Teller tossed over the fence and into the forest.
I remember whining about going with them, my sisters, until I saw the small mountain of blooms.
My sisters rouged their cheeks with the plucked stamens of lilies, dabbing at the saffron dust with powderpuffs of chrysanthemum. They scooped whole handfuls of white rose petals into the air and danced in the downfall. They wove daisies into ragged wreaths and commanded me guard the forest while they readied for Coronation Day.
I tired of my tree-stump post quickly that first time. But the smell on the air and the sight of flowers piled higher than my head, buttressing a disparate chain-link fence—that stayed with me. It looked like magic: as if, past the meshed diamonds of metal from the land of men, the space beyond grew liminal.
Long after my sisters moved on to real makeup, I kept visiting the Fairy Wood.
I thought about scribbling a note in the hallway of the woman’s apartment building and slipping it across the doormat. But I didn’t have a pen and I could see shadows shift with her footfall in the bar of light beneath the door. That, and what would I have said? Sorry to run, but you seem fond of lilies. Thanks for a nice time. X.
The last time I entered the Fairy Wood was the second week of summer vacation after second grade. I thought I could taste freedom hanging in the air. Like pollen, only sweeter.
I brought along a sack of marbles, including my luckiest cat’s eye with the ribbon of yellow I liked to think of as trapped sunlight; three sticks of gum; fourteen plastic soldier figurines (seven a side); my Swiss army knife; a miniature notebook; and a pen that could write in four different colors depending on which part you clicked.
Leaving the house that morning, I was an adventurer off on expedition; a war commander plotting his battles.
If I’d been brave enough to go back, I’d have searched for that marble. But I lost it for good that day, along with some other, less solid things, too.
I fashioned lily-roofed tents from twigs and flowers: sweet-smelling, umbrellaed fortresses. Paths I edged in snapdragon stalks, hemming in carpets of fallen pine needles. I tore piles of daisy petals to toss whenever a marble strike met its mark, causing dainty, noiseless explosions.
My plastic-pistoled men were moving behind hydrangea palisades when I heard the first sound.
Growing up where we did, deer were as plentiful and insistent as squirrels, roaming from hillsides into backyards and highway traffic. I heard the snapping of sticks and didn’t bother looking up. One, because I was slightly scared of any animal larger than our dog, a border collie, and two, because I had myself mostly convinced that’s all it was, a deer. Though I sounded my men’s next few rounds a little softer.
By the time I made it to my car, my palms were glazed and fumbling. The woman was on her stoop, swearing in a gaping silk bathrobe. She didn’t give a fuck about me and said so, loudly. Her décolletage shone spectral in the moonlight, even from a distance.
Part of me admired her, standing there, silvered and screaming and not caring who heard her. I knew she was far braver than me, than I’d been or could be.
I sat in my car, wiping damp hands against pants that, I realized, were inside-out.
My dad had talked about the sound a deer makes when it’s hurt or scared, like a baby crying. He’d said, Son, someday I’ll take you hunting and you’ll see. Only he didn’t pronounce the ‘g’ and barely the ‘t’.
He’d told me how, after his first kill, there on the forest floor with snow seeping through to his knees, he’d knelt, as his own father showed him how to field dress the animal. He’d screwed off the little cup topping his metal thermos, pressed it against the torn flesh, and handed my father the cup of still-hot deer’s blood. He’d said, to my father, Drinking the blood of your first kill is how you know you’re becoming a man. My dad promised to do the same for me.
So when I heard the soft, stumbling cry carry on a perfume breeze in the woods out behind the funeral home, I knew it must just be a downed deer. That I’d heard no shots fired only occurred to me much later, in the interminable hours I spent revisiting that moment.
When I heard the cries grow louder, turn all the way to pleading, I pressed flatter down on my belly, stilled the soldiers in my hands, and chanced a glance beyond the hummock of flowers.
I recognized the man. His face and body were most of what I could see, and his tufty, cotton-white hair. It was Mr. Tillepaugh, the school counselor. He always wore diamond-patterned sweater vests over collared shirts, even on hot days. He sometimes wheeled a TV cart into our class to show videos about saying no to drugs and dealing with bullies. He had a dragon puppet with a shimmery stomach that helped narrate the videos. His white hair always bounced a bit when he really got going with the dragon puppet.
My best friend Jeremy went to see Mr. Tillepaugh each Friday morning, once his dad left for “some piece of trailer park trash with a big rack.” That’s what Jeremy’s mother said. I didn’t know what a big rack was, but I was jealous each Friday morning when Jeremy returned to class sucking a caramel. He said Mr.Tillepaugh kept a dish on his desk and let him take as many as he liked. Once, he said, Mr. Tillepaugh let him put the dragon puppet over his hand.
My first thought that day was to call out and wave hello, but I didn’t.
Mr. Tillepaugh wasn’t wearing a diamond-patterned sweater vest. Or his pants, which I remember thinking was odd and possibly not good. He wore a white T-shirt, dark in the middle with sweat and rumpled up his back, which was hairier than his head.
I’d seen my father pee in the backyard or on roadsides during long trips, but Mr. Tillepaugh was lying down, his belly pressing against the forest floor, like mine. Except he kept moving backandforth, backandforth, backandforth. From where I watched, I couldn’t see the girl beneath him.
She cried out again. And again. It stopped sounding like a hurt deer but kept sounding animal.
I thought of jokes made on the school bus that I didn’t understand, but seemed daring and forbidden, so I’d laughed anyway.
I saw her arms, pale and white as the lilies I hugged, dart out from underneath and flail, catching only the groundcover of fallen leaves and rust-colored needles from some other season. I thought her hands looked like starfish left too long in the sun. I fingered the few marbles still in their pouch and wished I could give them to her, close her hand around the lucky one.
I saw the woman point both middle fingers at the sky and me as I turned out of her lot. I drove to my apartment with my mind so far from the action and gears and wheels and roadways beneath it that I didn’t remember making the trip. I missed my exit and had to double back.
I parked under a cone of light spilling from a streetlamp and wrestled my wallet from a jacket pocket.
I know it doesn’t absolve anything, not really. But it’s become ritualized, bordering on sacred. If I just ease her picture out now and again, careful to unfold each furring seam of the flannel-soft scrap of newsprint between my living fingers, then it’s almost like I’ve not forgotten. As if I could. As if I need reminding. Still, it feels the slightest bit like reconciling something in those moments, those small, private, rubbed-raw memorials.
Other people carry snapshots of grandkids and pets wearing bowties or tiny sweaters, concertinaed one atop the other in a sleeve of partitioned plastic, just waiting to be shaken loose, shown off.
I carry the decades-old obituary of the thirteen-year-old girl I watched Mr. Tillepaugh rape in the forest near my house. She was in the same grade as my middle sister. They used her school picture from the previous year, the obituary explaining in polite, careful language that she’d died tragically, unexpectedly. An article from the same day’s paper said in equally polite, but formal, language that a coroner’s report revealed a heart condition of which her parents had been previously unaware. The man whose hair bounced in time with his do-gooder dragon puppet had raped her into cardiac arrest. Sometimes, memory convinces me that the galloping thrum I heard that day was her heart beating double-time, a trapped thing so desperate to flee its cage of bone that the sound escaped her body, even if she couldn’t. But I know, really, it was mine.
I stayed in the Fairy Wood for hours that day, the space becoming somewhere from which I could not escape but also nowhere I could stay. I was meant to be back by lunch. I knew my sisters would grow nervous if I wasn’t home before our mother finished her shift at the hospital. But only because they all had plans that night and knew Mom wouldn’t drive them anywhere if they’d spent the day losing me. Still, I didn’t move. My marbles rolled away and I did not reach for them. I didn’t even chew my gum.
I watched Mr. Tillepaugh stand, after what felt like a very long time, and hoist his khaki dress pants back up around his waist. Somehow, the pleat down the front remained. He carefully tucked in his white T-shirt. That always bothered me.
Amber rectangles of light blinked and disappeared as other people in my building went about the business of living. The sky purpled toward morning.
I found it, the obituary, in a garbage can in the garage a few days later, after the whole town seemed to permanently tense and tauten, one big held breath. It was soggy with clinging coffee grinds and a used filter, flattened to the paper like some failed parachute. There was a front-page picture of the woods where they found her body. I could just make out the base of a white, floral mountain in the grainy foreground of the shot. It looked smaller than I remembered.
Even as I dug for it, I wasn’t entirely sure what the newspaper contained, only that I’d watched my mother read it, tut solemnly with brimming eyes, and quickly spirit it away, coupons and all.
About a week later, the same paper published a story naming the girl’s rapist and speculating over his pending sentence. People seemed to think the fact that she’d been found wreathed in flowers taken from the funeral home made it all worse, sicker somehow.
Later still, stories of girls in neighboring towns appeared, detailing how Mr. Tillepaugh had hurt them.
That September, just after school started back up, I heard my father suck his teeth in a gratified, bitter sort of way while reading the Saturday edition. “Serves him right,” he’d grunted. Mr. Tillepaugh was found in his garage, where he’d closed the door, pushed back the driver’s seat, eaten an egg-salad sandwich, and turned on his car and waited to die.
That last time in the forest, before the sun settled fully into the tree line and I ran home, I skimmed as many of the flowers off the top of the mound by the chain-link fence as I could. I left the sick-sweet smelling blooms edged in brown and already beginning to rot.
In college, I came across the phrase la phosphorescence de la pourriture and thought instantly of the flowers and the girl’s face and the way, even beaten and gone, it glowed. She’d applied robin’s-egg eye shadow that morning. I never told anyone.
My arms full of flowers, I walked closer – so careful of each step, each wincing sound intruding on the vacuous silence of that space. I could see her hair, lemony and soft-looking, an aureole even in the fast-gloaming forest.
I had seen my sisters in bathing suits and one of them fully naked once, accidentally. But I’d never seen their bodies look like that.
I placed the lilies on her hair, making sure to let nothing tangle, only rest.
Coronation Day in the Fairy Wood.
Image: Lady from Pixabay.com