by Judith Ennamorato
As a child she could will them to materialize simply by closing her large hazel eyes for a couple of minutes and believing: truly believing. That appeared to be the key…true belief as opposed to ‘pretend’ belief.
Almost immediately, scores of lilies bloomed profusely around her, their heavenly scent pervading every nook and cranny of the well-appointed nursery. In awe she beheld the gilt-like pollen tucked within each milky blossom like precious jewels caste in snowy satin. Sitting atop her splendid four-poster bed, young Lilly would bask in the opulence until the blooms’ hypnotic fragrance induced her to lay a mass of Titian ringlets upon the down-filled pillow, hands clasped in prayer, her heavy lids surrendering to the dusk.
“Now I lay me down to sleep… I pray the Lord my soul to keep’.If I should die before I wake… I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Her prayers were most vital to the ritual of the lilies; of this she had no doubt.
Accompanying her father to church on her sixth birthday, Lilly had been captivated by the sermon that had embraced the invincible power of faith. She was well versed in the topic of faith, for she knew instinctively that mere wishing was futile whereas believing, truly believing was the key.
While dining with her father that evening, the conversation had shifted to the theme of the morning devotions. From the far end of the mahogany table he had peered over the rim of his spectacles, inquiring as to whether or not she understood the precise meaning of faith. How proud she was as she revealed to him, for the first time, the miracle of faith that occurred every evening in her nursery. With an amused gleam in his eye her father had rewarded her honesty with a condescending smile and she was deeply saddened by his lack of faith in her.
“But it’s true Papa!” she cried. “I just close my eyes and believe real hard and the lilies appear.”
With unaltered countenance her father had changed the subject and the child never again mentioned the lilies to anyone.
That same evening, while sitting amongst an exquisite array of blooms, her father had paid a rare visit to the nursery to bid her goodnight. The moment he opened the door the lilies vanished. The child didn’t find this mysterious. “After all,” she thought, “I have faith and Papa doesn’t.”
Now, eighty years hence, her ritual with the lilies having long been put aside with other childish things, she still maintained an enormous amount of faith, evident in her nightly prayers. Lately, however, she was finding it increasingly difficult to recall even the first line of the simple litany. It had happened again last night leaving her confused and unable to sleep.
Ignoring her untouched breakfast tray on the chipped Arborite dresser, she rose from the gray vinyl chair to stand in front of the sole window of the stuffy room, pressing her nose child-like against its icy surface. Mimicking her daily ritual of the last twenty-five months, she craned her thin neck to better view the outline of the once stately mansion that had been home to her and her widowed father until the infamous stock market crash of 1929 culminated in his bankruptcy and ensuing suicide.
Alone and penniless, she had taken a tiny flat in town, securing a sales position in the nondescript milliners shop located on the main floor of her newfound lodgings. Following the demise of the owner some twenty-nine years later, she purchased the establishment, changing the name to “Miss Lilly’s Hat Shoppe.” Time passed, each day a dull repetition of the previous, but through it all, her faith remained intact. She never married, carving instead a respectable, quiet life of her own. Forced to dispose of her business two years previous as a result of rapidly failing health, she reluctantly heeded her doctor’s counsel and took up residence at Acorn Hills Retirement Lodge.
Home to seventy-two aged or infirm “guests,’ as the lodge staff were required to call them, Acorn Hills was located on the sprawling parcel of government owned property that had once been her childhood home. As she scrutinized the ravaged structure in the distance, she reminisced that as a child she had likened the mansion’s myriad windows to great luminous eyes, friendly eyes, eyes that were now sightless as a result of the timeworn planks haphazardly nailed around the casements.
Tearing her gaze from the abominable view, she sighed; a heavy sigh, rent from the heart. Lowering her head she attempted to find solace in worship, but still, the simple words of the prayer eluded her.
The tiniest of prism-shaped tears escaped the corners of her faded eyes as she mournfully glanced upward, mistily viewing the onslaught of giant snowflakes drifting lazily from the sky to rest silently upon the frozen earth. She witnessed the density of the flurries until her view of the mansion was all but clouded. The hazy view reminded her of the exquisite glass paperweight her father had presented her with following one of his many business excursions in Zurich. She recalled with clarity the ornately carved Swiss chalet, bedecked with colourful lilliputian window boxes that had adorned the center of the globe. Intending to delight the child, he had lightly shaken the souvenir before placing it upright in her eager hands; but to Lilly’s dismay, the precious little habitation had been veiled by a multitude of glittering flakes. About to protest, she observed the twinkling scales alight to the floor of the crystal sphere. Wishing to prevent the artificial blizzard from ever again obscuring the picturesque chalet, she had tenderly cupped her palms around the fragile treasure before tiptoeing upstairs to her nursery where she gingerly placed it upon a high glass shelf from where it could be admired.
Her reverie was shattered by shrill voices emanating from the room next door’the argumentative timbre a sign to Miss Lilly that her neighbor, Mr. McCarthy, was refusing as usual to ingest his daily medication. Finding herself still at the window, she was gratified to see the snowfall gradually ebbing, thus allowing her to contemplate once more on the ghostly mansion in the distance.
Her eyes were drawn toward the dilapidated balcony on the second floor, distinguishable from the others by its graceful cupola. She recalled the many times she had coaxed her nanny to set out the miniature table and chairs on the sunlit gallery. In her mind’s eye she envisioned herself as a child, meticulously attired in a starched pinafore the colour of daffodils, presiding over a tea party to which three of her favourite dolls had been invited. How happy she had been, chatting to her vacant-eyed guests while pouring make-believe tea into their china-blue cups.
She stood vigil by the window until the inevitable curtain of darkness descended upon the great house. She didn’t go to bed that night, choosing instead to sit in the lumpy vinyl chair, her papery hands clasped in the attitude of prayer; but try as she might, the words still escaped her.
The initial hint of dawn found Miss Lilly clad in her best navy coat, wisps of silver hair tucked under a silk violet scarf, slip unseen from the side door of the institution into the blustery winter day. Crepe-soled slippers enabled the frail woman to avoid slipping on crusty layers of snow covering the ground as she walked with faltering steps toward the prodigious manor some five-hundred yards distant. As she drew closer to her goal, the thought occurred to her that access to the interior might prove impossible. However, upon reaching her destination, she was relieved to find the main portal unobstructed. Ripped from its hinges by nature’s wrath, the elaborately carved door lay smashed inside the black and white marble foyer of the frigid house.
Stepping precariously around the splintering chunks of wood, she made her way toward the circular oak staircase. Tightly gripping the dust-laden banister, Miss Lilly initiated the tedious ascent up the creaking stairs, pushing to the back of her mind the searing pain shooting through her arthritic joints. Nearing the top landing, she paused to catch her breath, which issued forth into the frosty ether like puffs of nebulous smoke. Upon reaching the second floor, she tread purposefully down the long shadowed corridor toward the nursery. Once there, she was delighted to find the original French doors still standing, the stained glass panes miraculously intact. With trembling hands she turned the crystal knob and opened the door in anticipation.
Brightened by tapered slivers of light flooding through the boarded windows, the room was vacant save for a moldy down-filled mattress carelessly strewn in the corner. Shuffling slowly across the rotting floorboards she awkwardly managed to seat herself upon the ancient bedding. Carefully removing her scarf and slippers, she placed them neatly on the floor beside her, glancing up just in time to observe a family of renegade mice scurrying across the room before disappearing under the closet door.
She lay down; the impact of her bulky coat forcing puny clusters of exposed feathers to scatter into the musty atmosphere. Placing her arm across her eyes to block out the rays of light, she lay upon the antiquated mattress all day, oblivious to the whistling gusts of icy wind sweeping persistently into the decaying nursery. She lay there until, at last, a smile crept across her parched lips, for finally the words to her childhood prayer flowed into her mind. Folding her hands for the final time, she began to pray.
“Now I lay me down to sleep’I pray the Lord my soul to keep’If I should die before I wake’I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
They found her the next morning. Considering the sub-zero temperature, they weren’t surprised that she had frozen.
They were, however, at a loss to explain how the sumptuous bouquet of lilies she clasped in death had managed to survive the frost.