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Down Where the Best Lilies Grow

fantasy by Camille Alexa

Odette’s maman says she plucked her along with other skinny reeds down by the shallow brackish waters of the Durendal Fen near the water’s tail end where the best mud lilies grow among the beaked sedge and whorl grass.  There the small lilies push up, tiny stars tossed against green and black, blossoming like white prayers to hazy dappled cloudshine, offering themselves like virgins opening legs after wedding vows.

Now Maman lies dying, a bitter-spirited woman calling her only daughter a thing of bleached bone, leached blood and dank marshy waters, fashioned of the sodden limbs of the fen’s waterlogged dead, not birthed at all.

You’re not my child, she croaks, twig fingers clutching the neck of her elixir bottle.  You’re a marsh baby, just a Little Bit of the bas lieu.  A creature of fenwater blood and hollow reed veins and sponge moss muscle.

The fen drags at Maman’s rickety-stilt cabin, waters older even than Maman, their name from sometime long before, someplace far away.  Durendal, Odette knows, was the sword of Charlemagne’s greatest champion, and once belonged to Hector of Troy.  Its hollow golden hilt housed the blood of Saint Basil and a scrap of the Blessed Mary’s raiment, and Odette thinks on this as she scours watery willow roots for the reagents of Maman’s midwifery: herbs to help with bleeding and hemorrhage, with pain and memory, with forgetting and sorrow.

Maman’s voice wafts from the cabin, carrying over the fen’s chitinous insect whirr.  Little Bit!  Little Bit!  Bring you your maman’s elixir –.

Odette grabs the last brown bottle, its neck fluted and delicate like a trumpetflower crusted with dried brown medicine and mean old woman spittle, both dribbled to obscure the paper label.  Years ago, Maman bought ten crates of Le Docteur’s Elixir Miracle from a traveling tinkerman with a squinty eye and a cleft lip and a painted wagon promising strange beasts. The tinkerman let Odette part the dank velvet curtains draping his wagon and crawl in, and she saw the pale misshapen things in jars and cried. She’d thought they’d be alive. But they were just poor sad dead things in jars, every one.

Here’s you your elixir, Maman, Odette says. Maman seizes the fluted bottle with trembling fingers, drags it to her crinkled lips.  Odette knows better than to guide her hand; last time, Maman offered to slice it clean off with the gutting knife and drop it into the marshwaters along with the stillborn deBourde twins from across the fen.

Don’t mourn les enfants, she’d told Odette when she caught her leaking tears.  We’re all just a bit of fenwater and mud in the end.  A big bit or little bit, but all returning to water one way or another, sooner or later.

As fen midwife, Maman helps everyone out of this world, same as she helps them in:  swaddled in bleached linen, their eyes closed and their mouths open.  When someone passes, Odette leads the procession down to the water’s edge where the best lilies grow.  Everyone stands with heads bowed, caps in hands, and says last words before lowering loved ones into the brown muddy water between reeds, where undercurrents suck toward deeper channels and down, down into cushioning muck.

And then, day or night or anyplace in between, the marsh moths come.

They cluster thick and soft and pale around the swaddled linen bundles floating outward on insistent sluggish currents tugging always at the bottom of the reeds and making the white mud lilies sway and bob like nodding heads in church.  White, white, white, those moths. Whiter than lilies. Whiter than bleached bones. Whiter than sunshine when it tilts hard and blinding into Odette’s eyes and doesn’t let go.

Those moths are the spirits of les enfants, Maman has explained, rising up out of tiny bones deep in the muck, unfurling death-pale wings to sunshine, celebrating as we weep, knowing they take another home to mud and to water

Maman’s voice comes again now from the back of the cabin: Little Bit!  Little Bit!  Bring you your maman’s elixir. But Odette arrives to find an empty room, only a shallow dent in the mattress, the sweet smell of rotting moss, and a single moon-white moth on the rough-spun pillow, glowing faintly in the midday gloom.

The creature fans its wings:  open, close.  Open, close.  Larger than any moth Odette has ever seen, dark swirls lacing its upper wings and the single black spot of an eye staring from each of its lower.

Maman? Odette whispers, leaning close.  Maman –?

At her breath on its wings, the moth shudders, rises, beats toward the glassless window. Odette stumbles after, heedless of shins scraping unpainted splintered sill as she scrambles over, blood trickling down her legs.  She tangles in her skirts to fall heavily into soft damp earth beneath.  Scrambling to her feet she staggers after white wings flitting toward the bas lieu.

At the water’s edge, where the best lilies grow, the moths already gather.  They come gusting in on white clouds of themselves, clustered so thickly they block the sun as they wheel like one creature between it and the girl.

Odette thinks on Charlemagne, and on Hector of Troy.  She thinks on the Durendal sword, on its golden hilt with the blood of Saint Basil and a scrap of the Blessed Mary’s raiment.  She thinks on small sad dead creatures floating in jars, and she thinks on Maman.

Bone-white moths drop one by one to cover cuts on Odette’s legs and obscure mud-water splotches patterning her skirts.  They rest at the base of her fingers like heaving white jewels on rings lighter than air.  They brush her face, antennae mingling with eyelashes, dusting Odette’s lids and cheeks and lips with fine powder.  And when the moths flutter out, out over the fens, winging toward the deep cold channels of waters emptying outward into the sea, Odette follows, laughing.

copyright July 2011 by Camille Alexa

Camille Alexa lives mostly in Portland, Oregon and sometimes in Austin, Texas. For more about the author or her 2010 Endeavour Award finalist book, Push of the Sky, go to Camille Alexa.

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3 Responses

  1. […] My story “Down Where the Best Lilies Grow” is live at 10Flash Magazine.  Available in its entirety at the site. […]

  2. Glad I followed the link… wonderfully creepy and alluring. As ever, Camille doesn’t disappoint.

  3. Great evocation! Loved the rhythm of it.

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