Stiff Lillies by Lesley Warren


She could smell flowers.

It was like waking up in a plastic forest. Everything bright and white and sterile as a doctor’s office, a film set. Stiff lilies like wax effigies gaped around her in mute horror.

Though she couldn’t move a muscle, she could feel her body, and it no longer hurt. It was wearing a layer of makeup thick as cream cheese and shiny patent shoes and thin tights and the cream dress with the roses round the collar and the hem. She’d never liked it, but she hadn’t got to choose it and they couldn’t afford another. It made her mother clasp her hands together and say things like “Don’t you look just adorable” and her friends grimace and roll their eyes in sympathy. They were here now, her friends. Crying and crying and glancing round through sly pinched slits of eyes to see whether they were doing it right, the mourning. Feelings, when overdone, aren’t cool. But no-one told that to the girl in the casket. Sucks to be you.

Nobody, she realised, could see her body from the waist downwards. It was buried five fathoms deep in a fragrant sea of violets, of ferns, of baby’s breath. She was Snow White, or Rose Red, sleeping in a meadow. A big baby doll with glass eyes, dreaming under a fairy coverlet of woven flowers.

She sent her awareness down there, down into the no-name private place. The gash between her legs that had torn wide like a scrap of paper had been packed tight with cotton and stitched shut.

It had been fun, at first. She’d got a slight summer tan and her legs were toned from swimming and she felt cute and confident in her body. When the boy – taller, stronger, older – approached her, she’d enjoyed saying casually to Molly and Jessica “Oh, you guys go ahead, I’ll catch up with you later” and watching their faces flicker though surprise and envy back to excitement, like those little books you could flick through the pages of to see a bird taking off from a stump. 

This had never happened to her before, but she knew what to expect from the movies. They’d started with some hand-holding through the park, a sidelong hug on a bench, a kiss after ice cream from the van. She could barely get it down, though it was her favourite and he was paying: a kaleidoscope of butterflies wove in and out between her ribs and beat a fluttering tattoo in the soft dark pit of her stomach. She ended up giving him half of her chocolate Flake. A sticky little smear of strawberry rouged her top lip. He dabbed at it with a gentle fingertip, making her blush. “You’re so cute when you’re shy,” he said, holding out the finger for her to lick clean. Her happiness was like a balloon, pumping up bigger and bigger in her chest and crowding out her breath until she thought she would float away from the magic of it all.

Before she knew it, the sun had gone down and it was cold. A crisp breeze rose from the damp earth, richly redolent of decay. Goose pimples rose on her bare arms and Veeted legs, but not just because of the temperature. He wasn’t following the script. He wasn’t taking her dinner or putting her on a bus home. They were still on the same park bench and everyone else had gone and he was touching her. When his hand went south of her skirt she knew she was supposed to demurely move it away and say “Well, I think I’d best be going” and then he’d sigh and say “No, don’t go” a lot of times, followed eventually by “Are you sure?”, before walking her back home, where she’d immediately phone her friends and share all the gossip. That was how this kind of thing was meant to go. It was her bad luck that she had the kind of eyes that always seemed to be saying something. I know things, their slight silver slant said. I’ve done things you wouldn’t expect from a girl like me. I’ll do them to you if you want me to. But her heart was still that of a child and her eyes were God-given liars. They flashed like quicksilver across crowded bars, across school playgrounds at break, alighting on nothing, flitting like dragonfly wings. How was she to know, that fateful day, that she’d caught a heart on the fishhook of her gaze and, by merely blinking, reeled it in?  

That’s what he said, anyway, as he pinned her to the ground. Like it was her fault. She was too disappointed to feel the fear she knew she was meant to be feeling. A mulish resentment began to simmer in her stomach. 

She had always pictured death as something dramatic – a magician’s flourish as the final curtain came down – but hers was nothing; it was less than nothing. It was anticlimactic, like the end of a long-anticipated film that turns out to be all style and no substance. Her mouth tasted of blood and sadness. She had no idea how beautiful she looked – a defiled baby starlet, fresh-fallen from the sky – so she didn’t know that it was just infuriating him more. Red-faced and panting, he aimed a swift kick to her head like a football so that it jerked on the stem of her neck, and all she could think as her eyes rolled back in her head was my God, he is ugly, so ugly. The handsome prince, regressed into the warty toad: a fairytale in reverse. Hatred was not an emotion she was familiar with, but it shook her from head to toe now. She couldn’t feel the blows; she merely watched from above as he desecrated her beautiful body. Mummy, Mummy, Petey is hurting my dolly. 

Finally he was spent. He spat at her as a parting gesture, took her little straw handbag and melted into the night, his footsteps muffled by fog and distance. She was alone, and she was afraid. Tears choked her throat. She lay still and waited for the life to finish draining from her, like rainfall seeping slowly into already waterlogged soil. The indigo air was cool on her face. The chittering insects made curious little forays into the coves of her ears, the pretty cornfield tangle of her hair. She waited. Finally the stars appeared, but too late, and blurry; they were heavy on her lashes. A soft grey disillusionment weighted her eyelids until they closed.

They were filing past her now. A parade of tear-stained faces loomed over her, weird and detached from their bodies like bobble-headed parade floats. Stop, she tried to scream. I’m still in here. But nobody heard. Little Peter in his church clothes stood on tiptoe and stared at her like a fish in a pet shop tank. Helplessly she watched those plump little fingers crest the coffin’s edge and then disappear from sight forever. Her father’s glance was swift and efficient – a quick sweep over her body from head to toe, his eyes purposely darting away from her face before folding into himself like a black paper crane and steering her brother away. Her mother was the worst. She was long past the point of crying; her body was at the funeral, but her mind and heart and soul were adrift on a black tide of grief. Her cold lips grazed her daughter’s forehead as mechanically as they had done every night since she was born – the welcome-to-the-world-little-one kiss become the goodnight kiss become the goodbye forever kiss. Butterflies erupted in her stomach again, but bigger this time, great prehistoric moths of blind panic with a wingspan big enough to make the coffin quake. No, Mum, come back! But her mother was already gone.

Then he appeared. 

His stride was lazy, long, with a soft suggestion of swagger at the shoulders. 

No. No. Don’t you fucking dare. 

Her murderer leaned into the coffin and kissed her cold mute mouth, his live lips prising hers apart, his wet tongue snaking between her teeth. Hot, impotent horror engulfed her. She began shouting in her head: Let me die or let me out! LET ME OUT! LET ME –

A glass roof closed over her. 

Six men rose in the front row and bore her away down the aisle like a bride in reverse; she lay sedate and beautiful as a princess felled in the full bloom of her youth, suspended in a crystal cradle. She saw the sky flashing overhead in undreamed shades of lavender and wisteria and dove. Tears would have filled her eyes to see it, if she were still alive. It was all so beautiful.

They lowered her into the ground. Three single red roses hit the lid of her casket. She stretched her mind’s eye wide and swore to herself she’d imprint this final image onto every fibre of her being for all eternity – the faces of the three people she loved most in the world, their hands still outstretched in a silent farewell. Then the earth thudded onto the lid and the sky was blacked out patch by patch until the velvet darkness fell forever. 

As despair engulfed her, she tried with a last valiant effort to force her eyes shut, but they remained fixed and staring. 

Then there was nothing but time, and the silence of the grave.

Her story was over.

She could smell flowers. 


Lesley Warren lives for language. Born in the UK to a Welsh father and Filipina mother, she now works in Germany as a translator. Drawing on her own experiences, her writing spans the themes of alienation, “otherness” and mental health struggles. When she isn’t writing, she is probably either at a rock concert, trying to get her eyeliner even or drinking coffee.

Published 10/27/22




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