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Lilac Time

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Autumn’s a river winding down through the forest, a whisper of frost and a roar of color. Leaves fall into the other river, the one made of water, and flow on towards the immeasurable horizon, where the ocean teems on what might be the edge of the world. Nothing’s known but Betty’s coming, sure as the wind, which lacks constancy save for its presence.

Betty comes in red, a handkerchief tied over her dark curls, battered suitcase in one hand. She cuts a striking figure against the smoky blue of the sky and the dust of the road, drifting to the edge of the treeline.

"You been waiting for me all this time," she says, laying a hand on a birch.

Truth tumbling from those scarlet-painted lips is enough to draw Helen out of the maples. "Can’t a body make up a bed and dress up a chicken just for her own self? Get along, Betty."

Betty laughs, stepping into the shade to pull Helen into her arms. Helen reciprocates, leaning her head on Betty’s shoulder, breathing her in. With the leaves stained red and the cold setting in always comes Betty, but sometimes it’s a carefree Betty and sometimes it’s an empty Betty and every time it’s a Betty with a new scar. Helen swallows past the pain in her throat and steps back, drinking her in up close.

"Where did you get that dress? You look like one of them hollies."

Just like that, Betty closes up and moves out, like her spirit's gone beyond her body, heading south past the cold. "I been traveling, you know. I been to see the River Man."

Helen shivers. "River Man don't talk to nobody."

"I never said he talked with me, just that I been to see him. Some things get bigger than words." Betty smiles slowly, like her mouth needs to remember the motion, and she sways where there is no breeze. "Funny how things come and go."

"Funny," Helen echoes, heartstrings pulled taut. "Come on, we best get moving before dark."

"It's always dark in these woods," says Betty, but takes her hand nevertheless.

For a time, they walk down the faint path in silence save for the swish of leaves underfoot. Betty's hand is dry, warm save for the tips of her fingers. Helen's hand tightens in reflex, trying to draw out the encroaching cold. Betty murmurs a wordless reassurance and strokes her thumb over Helen's, like Helen is the one in need of comfort. Perhaps she is: after all, it takes strength to let life carry you away, to surrender to the current.

Helen smiles at the sight of her cottage. It's homely and it's home, sure enough, with its gray thatched roof and white peeling paint. She's posted paper over the crack in the window that appeared after the last time Betty left, and Betty says nothing save for a polite, "That's nice new curtains."

"You sit yourself down while I get you something to eat," Helen commands, unlatching the door. "Tell me some stories from the road."

There's that smile again, the hazy one like looking at Betty through smoke. "Best come sit down before I get to tale telling. I got plenty of stories for you," says Betty.

*

This year winter falls upon the forest like a wild animal, savaging trees with the weight of snow. Helen doesn't need to do much looking for firewood, just bundles up and hikes off to where she heard the last branch crack, then drags the branch back to chop into smaller pieces.

"Spooky noises all in these woods," Betty says. "Like fingers breaking, or hearts."

"Glad to see you awake," Helen replies, shaking the snow off her shoes. Seems like Betty's been sleeping since the first snow fell, a howling white that seemed sure to smother the sleeping house.

"Sure I'm up?" Betty asks, and takes a shuddering breath. She looks like a deer caught wandering the woods in January, all eyes and starving limbs. "I was having a dream, Helen. The sky cracked open like an egg. One of the pieces of sky pierced the sun and it dripped over the world, drowned it in yellow. I thought somebody should sweep away all that mess, but then I got to crying and thought maybe somebody should put that egg back together. It ain't the egg's fault for breaking."

"It ain't," Helen answers. She wants to sit down on the bed and put her arms around Betty, Betty who makes less sense every passing day, but they'll both freeze if she doesn't finish rebuilding the fire.

So Helen makes up the fire with quiet hands, looking out the window and praying in her heart that what she sees aren't snowflakes, that another storm isn't on its way. They're low on things to eat and she can only add more water to the soup so many times. At least the fire's throwing warmth across the cottage, the crackling more friendly now that it's from warmth instead of cold.

"You're in a thinking frame of mind," Betty observes, and at least now she's sitting up in bed. "You never like hearing my stories in winter."

"Your stories get sadder the colder it gets," Helen replies, straightening up and brushing the soot from her hands. She crosses the room, floorboards cold even through her socks. Betty lays her head on her shoulder and Helen buries her fingers in curls. "Why's that so?"

"I'm remembering what I told River Man."

Helen's fingers still. "You musta told somebody else. River Man don't talk to nobody, he don't see nobody."

"Can't mistake a man with water for eyes and weeds for hair, no matter how scared you get." Betty closes her eyes in a sweep of black lashes over brown skin. "He didn't say nothing to me, like I said, but I told him to come pull me underwater. Yes, I did."

Helen can't breathe for not crying, but then the wind picks up outside and she finds it within her to talk over the sound of falling snow. "Then what did you say?"

Betty's far off in her memory, remote as frost. "I said I didn't want to die, but I'd rather be killed here, where it's natural, than out in the city. He looked at me, I was in my summer dress even though it was coolin' off, and I was up to my ankles in that muddy water, and he opened his hands. They were empty but they dripped water, little teardrops I'm sure they were. I got to go, I realized, Helen's waiting for a story. I hear you crying, girl, but I ain't worried about drowning. You got warm tears, like summer rain. I ain't scared of you at all."

Betty presses a light kiss to Helen's cheek and Helen feels the moisture there for the first time. "Nobody's scared of me," she says, with a watery little chuckle. The fire pops to punctuate the end of her sentence.

"It's 'cause you're good," Betty replies.

"What happened after that?"

Just like that, Betty's gone again. "It ain't about the after. It's what happened before."

*

Spring melts off the trees in swollen buds, runs rivulets down the trees until it churns the rich soil to mud. Helen knows it's too cold for it but steps out barefoot anyway, feeling the beat of the earth and the first faint touch of sun on her skin. Winter sun is a glare shot straight from a blue eye; it's spring sun that turns the world into a place that's almost safe.

She says as much to Betty, who's looking more and more awake these days, if not the lady in red of autumn, and Betty lifts her arms to stretch, back arching. "Almost safe's the right word for it."

Betty won't go outside, not until the last of the snow's gone and the lilacs are near ready to start, but she's sweeping the floor now, door cracked open to let in the fresh air. Inspired, Helen spends one morning walking out to the nearest farm, where the farmer studies her with the same narrowed eyes but accepts Betty's money anyway.

Helen makes it as far as the gate before she starts running, one hand over the vegetables in her basket. One of the dogs bays behind her, and she should've started running sooner but she didn't want to hear the farmer's laugh, all braying menace. Teeth catch in her skirt and she turns around to tug it free, unable to suppress a little scream of terror when she catches sight of the dog's muzzle, pink gums and yellow teeth bared. Her skirt rips and she runs on.

The walk back is so long it settles her nerves, though her hands don't stop shaking until after the third mile, and she can't remember a song she wants to sing. Something spiritual, something sweet, but nothing comes.

It just figures that Betty's moved outside, beating Helen's one threadbare little mat against the side of the house. She turns, raising an arm in greeting, but then something changes in her face, some indefinable horror running through her whole body, and the mat falls to the ground.

"Don't hurt me," gasps Betty, and every word is a slice across Helen's heart.

Helen sets down the basket and holds up her hands, slow and gentle like she's trying not to startle a deer. "It's Helen. The one you ain't scared of."

"That's a lie." Betty's voice is thin as a ghost's, her fists clenched against some remembered foe. "Helen is safe. Helen is where you can't find her, no one can."

"It's almost lilac time," Helen says over the beat of her desperate heart. "I never seen such a fool for flowers as you. I'm waiting for the day a bee flies right up your nose, it's always in one of my bushes. Do you remember how purple this little place gets, how sweet it smells? Every year you say it's magic. Every year you say you'd stay if only the lilacs bloomed the year round. Every year I pray for them to stay just a few days longer. When the lilacs go, it's a matter of time before you do. Wish I knew what your angel tells you when it's time to move."

Betty's hands loosen at her sides, her fingers uncurling like strange flowers. "My angel don't talk to me except for giving me a feeling," Betty says, and she's still floating up from whatever memory closed over her head, but she's growing clearer all the time. "The feeling gets to my feet and I got to go. I'd stay if I could." She closes her eyes and when she opens them again, it's Betty, Betty like when she was a girl. "It ain't lilac time yet."

"Spring's a rough time for growing," Helen says. "If you don't mind troubling yourself, I could use a hand fixing my dress while I make us some dinner."

*

Summer presses in on all sides, heavy and liquid with promise. Promise of what, Helen doesn't know, but there's the purple promise the lilacs fulfilled, and maybe that's enough to keep them going for this year. Betty's got that wayward step to her feet again, a kind of lightness in her walk that means goodbye. Helen breaks off some lilacs for a kitchen table bouquet and buries her face in the bundle, her heart a study in contradiction. Betty's always happier when she's about to wander, but she comes back crisscrossed with hauntings, or could be that it's just the old wounds flaring up again.

Helen fills up a vase with the blooms and heads back outside, where she can hear Betty singing. It's a lonesome song, more fit for winter than summer, but Betty's voice drips like honey from the comb and it fits just the same.

"It's comin' round my soul / It's way beyond control," Betty croons, arms spread wide beneath the trees. She trails off, turning to look at Helen, though Helen hasn't made a sound. "Them lilacs will still be there when I get back, won't they?"

"The sticks, at any rate," Helen agrees, swallowing past the hard, hot ball in her throat. "They always are."

"You keep 'em so nice for me," Betty agrees, her whole countenance lit up from the inside. Green, she's wearing green, color of the lily pads in a quiet corner of the river. Could be she wove her dress out of the stuff, for Helen hasn't seen it since last year.

"This is early for you."

"I ain't leavin' 'til tomorrow." Betty smiles and tucks a dandelion behind Helen's ear, ignoring the way Helen wrinkles her nose. "I know I'm always after breaking your heart, but mine's always planted here."

"You told me once you tore out your heart and fed it to the river."

"A woman can have two hearts. You oughta try growing another."

"You oughta try growing some sense."

The laugh that passes between them is like a thunderclap, breaking the tense humidity. "You got all my sense," Betty murmurs, scarcely audible over the soft rush of the river in the distance. "I just got my stories."

"You still won't tell me your true story."

"Every story I tell is true. Don't be callin' me a liar, girl."

The rest of the day is full of the same kind of light-hearted talk, but the choked up ball of tears never quite leaves Helen's throat, and it rises up again as the sun goes down. She presses her knuckles to her mouth as summer rain patters on the roof. She should have known, should have guessed from the shape of the clouds for the past few days. She's a fool six times over.

The door slides open not long past midnight.

Helen counts to ten Mississippi before she gets up, winding a scarf around her head to keep off the worst of the rain. It's just a summer shower, more dripping leaves than anything else. "Doesn't even have a good pair of boots," Helen says, too loud in the still silence of the cottage. It's too full of lilac smell, this place. She's not of a mind to stop Betty--she's not fool enough for that, whatever other foolishness she allows. It's just such a shame, Betty sneaking off in the dead of night like some thief, when the only thing she's stealing is the chance to say goodbye.

There's a point where the forest winds down and the river bends toward the road like a lover. It's there that Helen stops to watch Betty go, her boots sinking into the soft river mud, the ball of tears breaking open. She can't tell if Betty ever turns to look back in the gloom, but she raises a hand anyway, stretching out with the trees. Betty walks on into the night, her dress a slip of green hope, taking with her the vitality of the cottage, save for her memory. Helen cannot move to wipe her face, though at least the rain has stopped. Strange how it hurts to return to life; strange the pain of walking into the future without ever quite leaving the past behind.

"Strange how they come and go," Helen says, the sound of her voice changing the echo of Betty's words.

The water rippling where there is no wind is her only reply.