This story is by Anita Merriman and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lillian sat in the front row, the flag having been tri-folded and placed in her hands, and realized that she was pissed. “All know that the drop merges into the ocean,” she thought. “ . . . Was that how it went? She wanted to share this quote with Edward when he returned from the war. She had memorized it for him, damn it. Then, the question, hard as stone. “How am I supposed to do this alone?”
Lillian worked with a vengeance. Weeds needed to be pulled, dirt turned, cucumbers and onions planted. She rose early to beat the heat, but ended up working all morning and into the afternoon with no break. She thought of going inside for a glass of iced tea when the sky blanketed her, gold and still, and charged her with such a heavy fatigue she could barely resist the urge to lie down right there with her criss-crossing thoughts, right there beside the twisty, tangly jasmine vines.
She lowered herself to her knees
Just as time slid a little bit sideways, Lillian saw that entangled in the jasmine vine was a baby, diapered, wavy hair twisted and knotted with blossoms. Lillian was struck at the beauty of this baby who did not show any signs of distress. “Well, whaddya know about that!” she whispered. “How will I rescue the young thing?” She thought perhaps she should clip the baby’s hair but a sadness engulfed her at that thought, and Lillian decided to snip the vine instead. She approached the child, who reached out her perfect baby arms and perfect baby hands to Lillian, and Lillian said, “Everything is okay, . . uh, baby.” She knelt on the ground and the baby crawled right into Lillian’s lap, her cloth diaper smelling like jasmine. Lillian smoothed the baby’s hair and the child leaned into her with such ferocity, that Lillian thought the baby wanted to crawl inside of her so Lillian opened her heart and let the baby nestle there. The baby looked familiar but where did she come from? She hadn’t had a visitor in weeks.
“Edward! Edward, look!” she called, and stopped. “Whaddya know about that!” she whispered under her breath. Edward had been gone for years. Her thumb lifted to her temple.
She remembered the day he had to go, to report for active duty. He had knelt, cupped her barely rounding belly, kissed it and said, “This’ll only take a minute, buddy!” But it hadn’t been only a minute at all, and she felt, right there in the doorway, the broken glass sharpness of her loss.
Lillian looked around. In her arms was no baby. She held her hip where the pain was sure to be sharpest and found there was no pain. She leaned into her hand trowel to push herself up, but rose with unusual ease, as if pulled to her feet by a magnet. Knees steady, back feeling strong, she felt she had been unfolded and smoothed out. In the thick of the heat she waded through her twisty tangly garden up to the house. Once inside, she propped herself in kitchen doorway, just for a breath. She blew a strand of her coarse gray bob out of her eyes and saw the stove light. She hadn’t the vaguest idea how long the stove had been on. Had it been on all night? Was anything even in the oven? Distressed, forehead furrowed, her left thumb lifted to her temple, as if plugging a hole.
A hand cupped her cheek gently and she rested her head there for a moment. She realized that she was tired. She would have that glass of iced tea. Then she would move the weeds to the dumpster.
The oven clock chirped and a train wreck of accusations and explanations blasted through a working tunnel of memory. The people! Oh my God, the people- her boss, a deposition, a lie detector test, her accounting error at work, so abrupt her dismissal and the isolation that followed.
A wave of warm wind pulled tears from her eyes, spread them back over her temples into her white hair. Holding on for dear life she braced herself on the door frame. “No. No, no. Not going,” she said.
She knew that this happened sometimes, this departure, but rarely recalled where she’d been. She knew that she was Lillian Wallen and that she was at her home on Cullom Avenue in Chicago. She knew she took medication daily and that the chirp on the timer was a reliable reminder. She knew that from time to time she used the calendar from the previous month and the world had not fallen apart.
She knew that the adults who brought children for visits were her own children, but only sometimes remembered their names. She knew this angered them. She knew she had a stupid number of grand kids, but the baby belonged to none of those people. That beautiful baby! Who did she belong to?
“ Wait,” she said, and plugged the hole in her temple. She leaned on the door frame, laughed at herself. She thought she would rest.
The fatigue – of pushing her fatherless children into social acceptance, like heaving them onto a wicked ceaseless merry-go-round all those years. The recalibrating when the war was over – other families reunited with fathers, husbands, brothers – had been debilitating. Yes, she would rest for just a minute, maybe fix some tea.
A stronger wave came, pulled Lillian from the doorway and carried her through the hallway into the living room where she saw the rug. The Persian rug, its jewel toned geometric center and the jasmine vine border more vivid now than the day they’d bought it. Lillian had chosen it instead of a ring. “You can get me a ring later, after the war,” she had pleaded, and Edward had agreed. They talked about how they would keep this rug forever, even when children came and beyond that, grandchildren. They had howled with laughter imitating how they would talk and chew when they grew old. Together. It was supposed to be together. The last time they had made love was on this rug, their young bodies had stretched and entwined the night before he had been ordered to report for active duty. Damn you, Edward.
Lillian stood at the edge of the rug. She received the image.
Time stepped sideways.
Her heart pumped a tangy scrumptious pain from one ventricle to the other, over and over again, and it was needless to try and tell the difference between excruciation and bliss. She stared into the jasmine vine.
“I read the most beautiful quote,” she said to Edward’s picture on the mantle. “Everyone knows that the drop merges into the ocean . . .”
She saw herself coming out of the factory, saddle shoes, dungarees, hair in a triangle scarf.
She saw Edward wading through water towards a shore, rifle in both hands up above his head.
“ . . .but few know . . .”
She saw herself in the hospital delivery room, calling for her own mother.
She saw Edward walking towards her, arms outstretched.
“ . . .the ocean merges into the drop,” she called to him. “Isn’t that beautiful?”
“It really is,” he said. “It really is.”