Short Fiction

Daffodil

In the same way he did every morning, he smoothed over his pillow and tucked it under the bedspread while he propped the other pillow against the headboard and left one corner of the sheet folded over. In case she ever found her way there, he wanted her to know it was okay to slip between the covers and sleep.

Then he tugged at the corners of the bedspread, making sure each corner draped to the floor, catching the morning sun streaming in through the window to shimmer against the green and yellow daffodil print sprawled against a pure white background.

On a cold bright January morning like this one, he had stopped in at the old coffee shop along the river road where he sat at a small booth and looked out the window. The sun had a metallic quality about it, piercing the dark blue of a winter sky and glinting off the snowcaps of mountains towering over the town. He had been up there a few times, up in that blue, beyond the timberline, looking down at the world with nothing to hear but the swirling hiss of mountain winds. There, he had been lifted up out of the maelstrom of life and sunk into the depths of something harsh and real – something undeniable and powerful that he knew would last forever.

That was how he had felt when he had first seen her eyes. He had to admit there was a curve to her hip that spurred a delicious palpitation in his chest. And there was something sultry about her walk. She never hurried and he could wait forever until she arrived – watching her come towards him with her shoulders set back just enough to imbue a regal command of everything around her. But she wasn’t haughty.

She was a waitress, but you wouldn’t know it except for the steaming coffee pot in her hand and the brown skirt draped just above her knees with an order pad and pencil tucked in its front pocket.

She had leaned over just enough to pour coffee into his cup and caught his eye with a gaze that veiled something sweeping back into the darkness to some place he had never seen before. But he had felt it there, like the wind-swept peaks sturdy beneath his feet as he felt his soul fly out away from him. She had taken it away from him in one inescapable moment that would never return.

She had seen it, too. A tremor had rippled along her bottom lip as she sucked in a short breath she thought he didn’t hear.

And then he wanted to say something about the ocean of daffodils flung across her blouse, as if somebody had thrown a bucket of them at her and they had stuck there, forever green and yellow and singing.

He had started to talk, but then she said something. As if reading his mind, she had spoken in a soft husky whisper that only he could hear. “I wish somebody would bring me daffodils.”

Girls, and then women, had always been on the periphery of some maze that was governed by rules and tribulations he had never understood. It had always been a game fought, not played, and he had grown weary of it even before he was no longer young. But in her breath, all of that had been swept away, trampled and scattered to the winds in the simple truth of her wanting something that only he could give her. And all of this flashed into his consciousness like a single stroke of lightning that sizzled and faded to reveal a world where he was, for the first time, awake.

“I will bring you a thousand daffodils,” he had said.

When she had finished filling his cup, she had tipped the coffee pot away, holding it by her side as they stared at each other. All he could smell was the soft curls of her hair that swept back from her face and fell into a dark silky stream behind her shoulders. His breath came and went with hers. Her cheeks blossomed with a dull pink around the gentle contours of her nose. Her lips trembled, begging for a kiss. Behind her eyes, he saw a constellation of promises that had waited an eternity to find their steward.

Now, like a photograph that could never fade, the image hung in front of him whenever he closed his eyes. The blur of days melded into the fading tapestry of things forgotten, but that one moment daily repainted itself in his mind’s eye, never letting him go, never abandoning him to the swarm of doubts that said he would never see her again.

In the years that followed, friends relentlessly introduced him to women they knew, women they worked with, friends of the family. One had even introduced his sister. They were too early, or too late, or too aloof or too interested without seeing what was really behind his own eyes. They were all like ships far off in the dark, flashing the wrong signals and pointing in the wrong direction so he could not see them.

But the icy snows still sang from the mountaintops in glistening swirls of white diamonds curling away into the harkening blue. A face like hers had once launched a thousand ships. And now it launched a thousand moments … of waiting.

Through them all, he came back on bright winter days to sit at the small booth and look through the window to watch the world change. Apartments and stores rose up from the earth and crumbled back down, clawed into oblivion by bulldozers and cranes so that newer versions of themselves could strut and fret their hour upon the stage.

The small pageant of women introduced to him lost interest, got married, had children, then grand children. The gray and stiff hands of clocks swept through all their fading shadows. Still, steam curled from his cup and icy white whipped from the mountains. Whenever he closed his eyes, her daffodils still shone in the morning sun of spring.

Until, one day, in a bed soaked by the same January sun that splashed across his table, an old woman opened her eyes in a different way. Her eyes glistened with a glint nobody had ever seen before. Decades of not knowing parted like a curtain to reveal a candle whispering on a dark stage that had locked itself away years before, when she had woken up in a hospital with her head bleeding and her heart pounding. Every moment before then had gone from her, forgotten and lost in a past she would never know. Her life had started over that night, building from that first memory of blood and pain.

Now, her lip quivered as she sucked in a soft breath and tasted the shadow of a moment from those lost years. With a gasp, she reached out with bony fingers to clutch at the arm of her son – a noble man, graying in his own way, who had stood vigil in her waning hours long after the others had given up and politely slipped away. He winced as her grip tightened and her gaze burrowed into his own, a final spark lit by a fire forgotten, now remembered and new again. He winced at the pain of her fingers digging into his arm, then smiled with a child’s delight because he hadn’t felt her so strong for so long. Her resolve in the gray hour of forfeiture made him feel younger than himself for a moment. So he smiled even as he winced. She pulled him close, staring into his eyes to demand a last promise. “Before I go,” she said, “you must do this for me.”

He reached down and cupped his hand over hers. “Anything,” he said. “Anything you want.” Her face shimmered with crimson shadows one last time as a smile stretched away the years. She closed her eyes, nodding and humming the memory to life. It glimmered on the horizon of an endless sea of things forgotten. But she remembered now. Daffodils and steam. The gnawing ache in her chest at the look of him. How she had been so scared. How she had yearned for his kiss. How he had promised to bring her a thousand daffodils.

But she had forgotten all of that when her blood had trickled across black ice. That morning had remained locked behind a door, along with everything else that had ever happened to her before that moment when she had cried out in pain and forgotten everything. She was born into a second life that night, ushered in with a blaze of lights, shouting men and a cold plastic stretcher as they hoisted her into the ambulance.

The daffodils he had promised would never find her.

She knew it had to have been a long time. But, really, it was just a moment ago. And so she smiled and hummed and her son thought she would yet stay a while longer.

Sitting at his table in the coffee shop, he saw the man walk through the glass doors and stop just in front of the register. He knew who the man was immediately. The man had her eyes and they pierced the shroud of time like a beacon in the night. The man walked towards him slowly, carrying a long white box. Cradling his cup, he watched the man sit down across from him and set the box on the table, gently, as if it were made of sugar crystal.

He eyed the man sitting across from him, picked up his coffee and took a sip, then stared at the box over the rim of his cup. He set the cup down and brushed his fingertips along the lid of the box, as if he were now, finally, running his fingertips along her arm and coaxing a kiss from her trembling lip. Then, just as gently as the man across from him had set it down, he lifted the lid from the box.

Inside the box lay a single daffodil in a bed of tissue paper. A small white card lay next to it.

He picked up the card and stared at the back of it for a long time. He could imagine the unknown as any promise unkept that he cared to chose. It could be any declaration that would tell him the waiting had finally brought him the only gift he had ever loved. He could stop it from being any of a thousand choices of words that would stab through his heart and leave him gasping for empty breath and no reason to take it.

He closed his eyes. The hair on his neck stood up and he felt a chill slither along his arms. Sweat beaded on his forehead and the sound of dishes clattering in the kitchen rose up like thunder. He took a deep breath in through his nose, smothering himself with the daffodil’s scent. His heart beat the same way it had on that bright January morning so long ago, when he had first seen the curve of her hip, the sculpted pout of her lips and the crimson blush on her cheeks. When he had seen the very reason men drew breath dancing in her eyes. The scent of the daffodil, he now realized, was the scent of a promise.

The sun still pierced the sky and glistened off crystal clouds of ice that sang from the mountaintops.

He realized, at that moment, what he had seen in her eyes that bright January morning so long ago. She hadn’t known why, but looking at him while her cheeks blushed and her lip trembled, she had asked him to do something. She had asked him to hold on to their constellation of promises, to keep them safe. To keep them alive. To never let them go.

She had asked him to wait.

He opened his eyes to see her words revealed to him, written in bright yellow strokes against a pure white background. They swirled in graceful arcs written with the ink of all his years of waiting.

Kiss me.


©2017 Michael J Lawrence

 

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