Lily and the Ways of Women
Lily’s hobby didn’t start innocently enough. In fact, it started by breaking one of the ten commandments; ‘one of the Big Ten’, as Lily’s Grannie called them, and from that sinful starting point it evolved into a game between Lily and God, both of whom (by all appearances) played it with great joy.
Lily never had a mother and father. They’d been killed a year after she was born in a freak windstorm that had brought down the old oak in the back yard. The behemoth of a tree had been invisibly weakened by a rotten core, and with a strong gust and a rending crack, it pierced straight through the bedroom window to crush her parents where they lay. Yet, for the carnage it caused, the murderous oak spared poor little Lily in her crib at the foot of their bed, and in the morning, when the firemen chopped their way through the tangle of branches, they discovered her sleeping still amongst the twigs and the leaves. Sometimes she dreamt about the tree but Lily couldn’t remember her parents at all, and she often thought it was like they’d never existed, except for the carnal moment that resulted in her physical presence. Grannie never spoke of them. She had no pictures to show Lily, no stories to share, nothing to prove that they’d lived and died. Grannie liked to forget the past: she said it wasn’t healthy to ‘dwell’. Sometimes she’d catch Lily in a moment of daydreaming and, batting her on the shoulder with bony knuckles, she’d bark, “Don’t dwell! It does no good to DWELL.”
Dwelling was almost a sin. If it had been Grannie up on the mountain instead of Moses, she probably would’ve told God to add that one to the list. ‘Thou shalt not dwell.’
As it stood, the Big Ten were written in sepia ink on a slip of foolscap and taped to the door of the fridge, so that every time Lily sought nourishment for her body, she was forcefed nourishment for her eternal soul. She knew the commandments by heart by the time she was five. When she was ten, she made a glib references to “Mrs. Deaver’s big ass’, which caused a hush to sweep across the quilting bee who gathering in the parlor on Fridays. In the kitchen, away from delicate ears, she pointed to the fridge and defended her words by saying that God Himself had used that sort of language, but Grannie didn’t take that well, and doubled the punishment to two hours weeding the turnip patch.
Her hands covered in filth and speckled with nettle stings, Lily supposed that if Grannie had been in charge, no one would be allowed to covet his neighbor’s ‘rump’, although why anyone would want to swap bums was quite beyond Lily.
So she had no parents and only an aging grandmother to care for her, and her world was small and secure, living in a little house on the crest of a hill; it was only a matter of time before Lily ached for more. It was no longer enough to stand at the gate and peer down into the valley, it was no longer enough to wave at strangers as they passed on the road. Forbidden to speak to the quilting ladies after her unfortunate description of Mrs. Deaver’s posterior, Lily watched from the kitchen door and wondered at the marvels beyond her grandmother’s turnip garden. She peered with intense interest at the women who came to sew: Mrs. Gail, tall and stately, with a high blonde bouffant and rubbery crimson lips. Mrs. McCallum, her horn-rimmed glasses turning her eyes into glittering feline emeralds, wearing a dress of purple velvet and a collar of ecru lace. Sitting in front of the window, she looked remarkably like Boots, who reclined along the sun-drenched sill and flickered his tail in contentment. Then there was Miss Colleen, sickly and delicate, with blotched skin the colour of a turnip rind and watery eyes that protruded slightly from under bushy black brows. She constantly wiped her narrow nose with a handkerchief that had dissolved into a filmy cobweb of cotton stitching held together with snot.
But they were all so interesting! They captivated Lily to no end! She wondered what her own mother might have looked like amongst all those women, and what it must be like to be womanly, and wear lipsticks and expensive scents. Grannie insisted that Lily’s wardrobe consist of old shirts and oversized corduroy pants. Strangers passing by often mistook her for a boy.
“I don’t want you tarted up like the whore of Babylon!” Grannie proclaimed when she asked for a dress. “A brazen little Jezebel! Under my roof? Never!”
So Lily watched from a distance, both physically and philosophically, when the quilting bee descended on her grandmother’s parlor. She longed to know what it must be like to be a woman. It was on one such occasion that she was struck by a nasty thought, a devious plan, that planted itself in her mind and grew with a fierce tenacity, refusing to be weeded. The quilting women left their purses and jackets in the front hall; what if she took a tube of lipstick? Just one little tube of lipstick? Just to try?
“They wouldn’t miss it,” she rationalized.
“But God sees all.” her conscience warned, “Thou shalt not steal, remember?”
Lily pursed her lips, wondering what all that makeup must feel like against the skin. Did it taste funny? Did it stick your mouth closed with the weather turned warm?
She gently closed the door between the kitchen and the parlor, and creeping to the refuse bin, searched inside for.... Ah ha! There it is! Lily pulled out a smelly bone from last night’s roast, and holding it at arm’s length, dashed into the yard. Poor ragged Rufus tugged at his rope and bayed when he smelt the bone, and just out of reach, Lily waggled it in front of his nose and dragged it along the ground; he stared and slavered and lolled his sand-speckled tongue. She continued to drag the greasy bone up the steps, across the porch, through the kitchen, and gently opening the door to the parlor, she waited until the ladies laughed at a ribald jest before rolling the bone over the rug.
“Oh dear, Camilla, that was delightful!” crooned Mrs. Gail, then, pausing, said, “Do you smell something?”
Lily dashed into the yard. Rufus yipped and bounced like a spring, all four paws leaving the ground, and greedily licked the taste from her fingers. She untied the knot on his collar and he launched himself towards the open kitchen door. When she heard the yeowl of Boots and the happy barks of Rufus mingle with the screeches of the lovely ladies, she knew her way was set clear. God was momentarily distracted.
Mrs. Gail’s purse lay open. Lily plunged her hand in and withdrew a tube of lipstick and a bottle of perfume, and stuffed both inside her oversized shirt.
She waited until after dinner to go into the bathroom and lock the door. Grannie was busy outside with her telescope, for it was a clear September evening and there was nothing she loved more than to stare at the stars for hours on end. At least, that’s what she told the quilting bee. Lily knew the telescope’s lens rarely pointed above the horizon, often trained downhill towards the windows of the neighboring houses. Lily, secure in the knowledge that Grannie would not soon be returning, set about inspecting her stolen treasures.
She withdrew the lipstick from its case and rotated its base until the crimson pillar rose above the black plastic tub. With trembling fingers, she leaned forward towards the mirror, pursed her lips and traced the outside edge of her mouth. It was like drawing with a crayon that had sat too long in the sun. The lipstick smelt oily and musky, and it felt tacky against the sensitive skin of her upper lip. She pressed hard and left a thick layer of red goo over her mouth. The color was garish and bright, and Lily thought it made her look ugly and ungainly instead of beautiful.
Then, setting the lipstick aside, she pulled out the stopper from the vial of perfume and set it under her nostrils; the smell was so strong, it made her cough. This wasn’t perfume, it was poison! The fragrance was as pungent as rancid flowers rotting in a puddle, but she swallowed hard and poured it generously over her hands. The clear liquid seemed too cold, and the thick scent filled the small bathroom until Lily though she might gag. She tried to wash it off, but soap and hot water did nothing to mask the awful smell, and when she tried to wipe off the lipstick with a piece of toilet paper, it only smeared the red pigment across her chin. Lily splashed hot water over her face but nothing helped.
A sharp knock on the door made her jump. “Lily?” said Grannie through the door, “Are you alright?”
Lily scrambled for a towel, scrubbing it across her mouth, turning the bottom half of her face into a red smear.
“....uh...fine?” she replied after a pause.
“You’ve been in there for a goodly amount of time...Are you having difficulty passing a solid?” asked the old woman. Then after a moment, she added, “Do I smell perfume?”
“No!” Lily barked, “Don’t come in!”
She heard her grandmother’s heavy boots on the hardwood floor of the hall, disappearing towards the back door.
Opening the tiny window helped. Lily fanned in the cool night air with one hand and she wiped the dampened cloth over her mouth with the other. It came away stained crimson, but that couldn’t be helped. If she was quick and quiet, she could sneak it into the laundry hamper and tuck it under the clothes already there, and her grannie would never notice it.
Lily unlocked the door and opened it a crack.
Grannie, spindle arms crossed, perched on the opposite side of the hall. Her rubber boots were by the door. She stood in her sagging stockings, her white hair wispy and wild.
“Oh.” was all Lily said, the smeared washcloth clenched in one hand.
Those glittering raven’s eyes narrowed. “Are you wearing lipstick?” Grannie bent forward and, seizing Lily’s chin between fingers as strong as pinchers, tipped her head back. Lily saw herself reflected in her grandmother’s glasses. “Merciful heavens! You are! Where did you get lipstick?”
Lily fidgeted with the washcloth. “I took it. From Mrs. Gail.”
“You STOLE it?!?!?!”
She scowled, feeling foolish. With her lips still stained, she knew she looked like a clown. “But Mrs. Gail probably has a whole DRAWER full of lipsticks, and a HUNDRED bottles of perfume!”
“You stole a bottle of her perfume, too?” Grannie exclaimed. “Lily, this simply does not do! Oh merciful heavens!” She shuddered. “You must take them back! You must take them back and BEG for forgiveness!”
“And you must do it immediately!” Grannie continued, her voice soaring to a high, fevered, fanatical pitch. “Do you understand? Your eternal SOUL is imperiled!” Grannie seized Lily by the shoulders and, thrusting the lipstick and perfume into her hands, hurried her out the door. “Go! My goodness, go swiftly!” She made a clumsy sign of the cross and pushed Lily into the backyard.
It was a short walk downhill to the Gail farm, and even though the hour was late, the full moon shone brightly. The air was crisp and smelt of wood smoke. From the road, Lily could look down into the valley and see the tiny lights of the town clinging to the edge of the sea, where they sparkled and shone like stars that had fallen from the sky.
The Gail house was dark. The garage was empty, Mr. Gail’s truck was gone. Lily slowed her steps until she walked as quietly as a shadow over the gravel driveway.
She knew, from watching through the telescope, that the Gails kept a spare key under the back porch. She slipped into the back yard, and darted her hand under the steps, patting blindly until her fingers snagged on a crooked nail. There, cold as ice, hung the spare key. With it in hand she crept up the back stairs and pressed her ear to the door. All was quiet: the Gails were out for the evening.
The door opened with a small squeal and Lily darted into the Gail kitchen, closing the door after her. While the moon had been shining brightly outside, inside was as black as pitch. She flicked on the light above the stove. It cast a faint yellow circle, just enough to find her way passed the dining room and up the stairs.
She had never been inside an empty house before, and it felt like a hollow shell, full of strange noises that made her quiver with excitement. There was no need to walk quietly, but she did nonetheless, staying close to the walls as she picked her way towards the master bedroom.
All was black inside. Lily squinted, but the heavy velvet curtains blocked any scrap of moonlight that might help to illuminate her way. She considered feeling her way around the room with outstretched hands, but realized that she knew nothing of the layout of the house, for she’d never before been inside the Gails’ home. She patted her hand along the wall next to the door until she found the switch, and flicked on the light. The lamp blazed so fiercely that tears formed in Lily’s eyes.
Immediately she saw a lump on the bed, a sleeping figure covered with a quilt. Lily gave a squeak.
Mrs. Gail, disturbed by the sound, rolled onto her back and gave out a tremendous snort. Lily jumped to her toes, ready to run.
But instead of waking to the glare of the lamp, Mrs. Gail began to snore, a loud rattling honk like an angry goose.
Lily crept forward and saw that the woman wore a black velvet mask over her eyes, designed to block out the light. With her hair tangled over the pillow and her face covered in cream, her mouth half-opened and her tongue hanging out, Mrs. Gail didn’t seem half as lovely as she did during the daylight hours, and Lily, feeling a laugh ready to burst, bit her lip and hurried to the dresser. She returned the bottle and the makeup with as much stealth as she’d taken them, and stole one more quick glance at the snoring woman before turning out the light, rushing downstairs, and bursting into the safety of the cool autumn evening.
“Well?” said Grannie when she arrived home. “Are you forgiven?”
A joyful peace filled Lily’s heart. The act of stealing had been purged from her record. God had not struck her down with a rotten tree or a roused Mrs. Gail, and so He must be ....pleased? She was certain He’d seen it all, from Rufus and Boots to the velvet mask over Mrs. Gail’s podgy face, yet He hadn’t raised a hand to stop her. Perhaps He’d even planted the idea. Perhaps, as He had toppled the tree and stolen away her mother, He was willing to guide little Lily in her lessons of what it meant to be female.
She gave a toothy smile, still flecked with bits of red. “I suppose I am.”
That was how it began. Lily wanted to know about women, so she decided to learn all she could from what she could borrow, but only with the heavenly promise that the object be returned as stealthily as possible. The trick was to ensure that no one ever knew it was missing, and she learned more from the returning that from the taking. It was easy to take an item, but not so easy to replace it and, like Mrs. Gail, she was blessed with the wonderful opportunity to see women in their moments of repose, when their guard was down and the show was over. A pocket watch from Mrs. Simpson, or a cigarette case from Miss Colleen, or a brooch from Mrs. Deaver. How much more interesting it was! When a stolen treasure weighted heavily in her pocket, a thrill of excitement rushed through her blood and Lily felt reanimated, reborn, renewed! She couldn’t NOT return the item; a balance must be struck, the universe must be restored to its rightful order, and God’s Commandments must be cancelled out by the corresponding good deed!
And at the moment of return, when she stood in a stranger’s bedroom, treasure in hand and heart full of happiness, Lily often thought that it must be nice to be God, and see all, and know how people look and act when they think no one’s watching!
Kim Bannerman no relation to Murray.
Published On: July 1, 2011
Permanent Location: http://www.forgetmagazine.com/110701c.htm