The Lily

Not long ago a man was troubled by the burdens of his life. He drank and he ate. He drank spirits to chase away his demons and ate more food than his body required because eating made him feel safe.

He lived alone in a large dilapidated house with big windows. The house sat on a hill that looked over the valley to a bigger hill on the other side. He had worked all his life to buy the hill and built three stone cottages on the hill. The middle of the three shared a wall with each of the other two and they all shared the same roof.

To one side his neighbours were young and newly married. Each night they sang and laughed. He often heard them making love as the wall between the cottages were not thick.

His neighbours on the other side were a wizened old hag who lived with her adult son. They had no money, didn’t work and argued every night. The hag was always late with her rent and the man didn’t have the tenacity to throw her and her son out onto the street because they had no money.

The young couple always paid their rent on time, but each week they paid in food, not money. At first the man liked the idea of not needing to shop for himself so he agreed that their rent would be a big meal they would prepare for him every week. The man didn’t want to evict the couple because their laughter made him feel happy and the food they cooked tasted delightful.

At the end of each month the man looked at his savings and got more and more worried as the money grew less and less. He had spent his entire life working to save to buy the hill and build the houses. The rent he would earn would pay for his retirement because now he was too old to work.

This was the life he had chosen for himself. A lonely man trapped between joy and misery.

A few years passed. The old hag grew angrier and her son became lazier. Each night the old man heard the old hag shouting at her son to get a job because one day the old man would die and they would be homeless.

Then one evening the young couple told him they had saved all their money like he had and they were going to build a splendid house of their own on the big hill on the other side of the valley. They gave the old man a photograph of themselves to say thank you for everything he had taught them over the years. The photograph burned in the man’s eyes. It made him angry, but he didn’t show it. He just smiled and took the food from the couple as payment for their last week of rent.

One night, after the young couple had finished their singing to one another, and the old hag had stopped shouting at her lazy son, the old man’s house fell cold and silent. He had eaten the last of the food left by the young couple and gone to bed cold and miserable.

A sad grayness befell his bedroom. It permeated everything it touched. And just before dawn, a grey aura glowed from his bedroom window and shone into the dark valley below like a lost moonbeam.

Inside the bedroom, the resting-place of a disturbed man, yesterday’s thoughts were scattered over the floor. Growing increasingly restless, the old man’s face contorted. The years of pain danced across his furrowed brow. Tossing and turning, swaddled in his bed linens, he wrestled with his tormentors. Then for a moment his heart palpitated and sank in his chest. His arms went limp and he became calm, sleeping quietly. In his deep slumber, he could sense the room around him and almost touch he bedside table with the fingers of his mind.

In a desert cemetery under a burning sun an obelisk, worn by centuries of sandstorms, stands tall. An ancient totem still in use with a solitary white lily growing at its base. The wind stirs and sand kicks up but the lily stands true and unbending. Sand covers everything.

And the old man stands alone.

Deep down, for some strange reason, the old man knows why he is there. He has been expecting this. At his feet is a fresh burial. A grave. The wind grows stronger and the old man stares down at the grave and fights the wind to stay on his feet in the shadow of the obelisk. Like a challenger to the crown the wind blows harder and the old man is forced to take shelter behind a rock. The wind knocks him off his feet but he doesn’t fall. Staggering forward, his head bent low to shield his face from the sand, he looks for the obelisk. The obelisk has crumbled in the wind. Particles that once held the eternal message carved into the obelisk now pepper the old man’s body.

The old man looks up from the bottom of a small dune as he struggles to stay upright. A crucifix stands isolated at the top of the dune. All the surrounding sands shift under the pressure of the wind, yet the dune remains obstinate and calm. The man bound and nailed to the crucifix is dead. The old man stops fighting the wind and stands in awe of the crucified man, taking in the wrinkles on his skin, the imperfections on his face, the marks of time on his hands. The dead man raises his head and stares with a heart-piercing cold, right into the old man’s eyes. The old man screams and the crucified man laughs through the pain of death and the heads of white lilies begin to fall from the desert sky, cascading like rain over the two men. Each petal melting as it touches skin. Soon the sand is covered in a crisp meringue blanket.

Back in the decrepit bedroom, the grey aura split with the first rays of the dawn and the old man woke from his sleep with a jolt. He listened to the house. Everything was silent.

He sat up and slid his feet out of bed onto the cold wooden floor.

He crossed himself, but had never once stepped foot in a church. The valley below his hill had no churches. Even though he had slept all night he was just as tired as the night before. The malaise his face said more than his voice ever could. He straightened the shirt he slept in and made his way through to the bathroom.

The bathroom mimicked the bedroom’s eclectic styling. With years of singledom weighing heavy on the shelves. The old man leans on his basin, staring into his eyes in the mirror on the wall. From the shaving shelf below he took a cigarette from a damp packet, slid it into the corner of his mouth and lit it. It smouldered as he stared at himself in the mirror. Like the old man, the cigarette had succumbed to the vicissitudes of life and bent into an ugly form.

He breathed gently using his nose, not once taking a draw on the cigarette.

He turned on the shower, disrobed and get under the water once the cigarette had gone out.

He leaned on the wall under the shower, both forearms flat on the wall, his forehead resting in the cradle made by his arms, wondering what he would fill the day with. As each droplet of water struck him it imparted a little energy. As each droplet struck him it shattered into a hundred more droplets, each landing on him in turn. And each instilling the old man with energy. Revitalised he raised his head from his forearms and smiled up into the monsoon.

He looked down to his chest and scratches the hairless skin with his chewed fingernails. A mole-like growth grows on his chest. It was small like the bud of apple blossom. Flesh-coloured but tinged with crimson and blossom-pink.

The old man examined it with two fingers as it grows through his skin. Suddenly it burst open, unfolding and two small thick worm-like stamen lay between his fingers, unfurling in the rain. They wriggled, separating themselves from the bud and fell into the shower.

Another bud came from under his skin then fell from his body without leaving a mark. It came to rest in his hand. He examined it closely and it too unfolded its outer casing to let two stamen wriggle free. The bud opened further, revealing itself to be a white lily head, its petals tinged with blood. The old man turned rigid in terror. More buds came through his skin. As each tumbled from his body to land in the shower it unfolded into a carpet of petals. Blood drained down the plughole.

The old man’s torso now had rivulets of blood tracking down it but no wounds. His arms flailed everywhere. He was panic-stricken. He slipped on the blood and began to fall.

The old man slept like he’d never slept before. A thousand-year sleep. As the grey aura of the decrepit bedroom split open under the warmth of the first rays of morning sunlight the old man awoke with a jolt. He rose from his bed and crossed himself even though he had never been to church. Still feeling tired he ran his hand over his smooth chest before making his way through to the bathroom.

He leaned on the basin in the bathroom, staring deep into his own eyes in the mirror on the wall and feeling the full inertia of sleep.

He lit a cigarette but didn’t smoke it.

He turned on the shower, disrobed but before he got under the water a tall glass vase of lilies caught his eye. It stood proud on the window ledge, the early morning sun casting a halo round the flower heads. It didn’t belong in this room. He had never brought flowers into the house. But he smiled and slept on knowing that he was always meant to be here, right now. In the moment. His moment.