Summer came late that year, so Spring was long and colder than usual, rather winter still right there amongst spring in a blend, and all new life stuttered for a while. The small green buds of stem and branch stayed small and green, and the grey cygnets of the brook kept their black bills and downy coats long into the season. Farmers said they should have planted rocks for the seeds frozen solid in the fields. They spoke of it in the pub and the church, in the blacksmiths waiting on horseshoes and fire tools. They talked it over, and over, and over. “Better off pressing light bulbs into the dirt and hope to grow a glow than wasting good seeds in these frosts. Aye, better off stuffing tulip bulbs into light fixtures, pray flowers will brighten the place up a bit”.
It became so, that day was just a lighter shade of night, the pale hard land unbroke by first flowers, and the pale sullen people were meek and composed themselves meekly. They held their heads drooped like a Snowdrop’s so if seen from behind they looked decapitated and from the front disconsolate, and they began to hate the sky but didn’t dare curse it, so instead cursed their fowl or tea gone cold, a bootlace come undone.
Each night ice crept through our windows and come morning we’d see it there, like the mark of something that snuck in and then out without waking us, without taking a thing; something patient and vicious, something terribly quiet and without eyelids. The house was old, had no central heating or a window much thicker than a sheet of paper, so when we took our baths we’d stay in till we looked picked from a briny jar, because the cold felt like it could kill you, and when we ran out of firewood my Mother spent the rent powering the electric heater from 86. Each morning the ice would be there and by breakfast it dripped, and seeped, and bloated the sills; so when summer at last arrived the wood contracted in the heat and over time began to smile sort of.
It started with a cold rain composed of close big drops, and as the rain warmed, the earth warmed, day by day until the full splendour of summer bored down. It fell hard into the roads and fields, washed through doorways over mats that said welcome before muddied shoes, and made our dark hair blonde at the ends. It filled the air and the birds sang through the mornings just as they do in the cold months, but people would finally listen, for they had stopped before, shiver-struck and taciturn. Cloth dried so fast twenty loads of washing could be done before evening twilight, even in between the other chores; and every single old wooden peg buckled from the work load. Hard little apples appeared in the tree beyond the drive, swelling and flushing until the branches arched a bit from the weight. With little true wind the weathervanes rested oddly atop the church and smithy, drifting idly towards their own slanted weight. One looked out to the north east, and one south west and both of them together as such seemed disoriented, like chickens lost their coop.
The last clouds dissipated quickly and left the raw blue bleeding down, the whole thing so bare you could see unmoored seeds of the cottonwood tree drift a quarter mile, If your eyes and patience were good; and a sparrow clear ’till the earth curved. It was strange to see, undressed of murk and haze, of moon and star, and of prayers; people pray less when the weather is right, and smile more, and though it is not, the world seems right and good. Things changed inwardly and outwardly. Even the church appeared made of paler brick, and leered across the road with its hot gravestones; bloodless Jesus on the cross hung clear to see through a window. At first the Lilac tree was all black bark and nothing else. Stood smallish, it reached out into the garden like a deathshand, until flecks of pale green threaded through its thin branches and It flowered in firm green bunches. They softened, and warmed. and a purple blush took hold. Opened fully, they were somewhat like portly ladies in floral dresses jolly amongst the butterflies; swarms, clouds, storms of butterflies. If you shook a branch they would fracture and flutter and then regroup around the blossom. And if some great, rare gust stirred them all at once the shadow cast shrouded half the garden.
Sun scorched the land and dried the dankest portions of the back garden, and the night brought no rains. The wood store roof was more dry than the logs. Tufts of grass erupting from the gutters edge had baked a honeymoon yellow, and beneath the rabbit hutch was parched ground, salted with dry powder mud. The ants and the woodpigs all gone away somewhere with the clouds and the sheep’s wool. Skinny spot lights cut through the dark where slate had shuffled on the shed roof, illuminating forgotten and broken things. It put shocks of shadows on everything, spinning all down the day, growing long; and people pulled them round the village on their errands like the family hound. They put away hoods for wide brimmed hats, and where the children’s faces were pinched with them, bald men wore freckles on their skulls. They went blood red to bed each night, and woke as sore as the colour ought to feel, and as they shaved they didn’t face the mirror anymore but looked out, worrying through their windows at the bayoneting rays; and cut their cheek often.
Some days my sister took me out turning rocks and picking wild flowers, folding through the tall couch grasses. Looking for field mice and grass snakes. The cotton candy grass just turning purple stuck to our socks in streaks, and we’d go home cut up by bullthistles, with yellow-green hands, and grass beard in our hair, to put the flowers in a vase on the kitchen table: Daisies and Dandelions, Forgetmenots and Dog Roses, Poppies and Elderflower. From then on the kitchen was my favourite room in the house. Even after they wilted and petals of all colours littered the tabletop.
It all went off like a hand grenade and set things to moving outward from our little garden. Worms drilled deeper in search of moisture and stopped turning the topsoil, so that the earth clenched beneath the grass. They moved down, down and drank with the deep roots of the Lilac tree. Snails climbed the side of the house for the guttering, but the walls were hot and dry, and quickly their opal streams grayed and dwindled to a hair line, and they cooked dead to the wall, not a metre up. They clung there for a few days before the empty shells fell for the cat to paw about the earthy drive way. Each day sun drowned the country, darkness seemed an old, peculiar thing; could no longer picture it right and felt it must now be gone, even from the other side of the earth. But thin dusk would settle and we’d sit for supper outside, not needing coats or blankets, considering the cool dry night.
People talked about great profits and good harvest, with olive skin and deep smile lines. They spoke of new cars with pull down roofs, picnics, and family come to visit. Some were full of stories of seaside trips, the best ice cream in the world, and the sea warm as a bath. Older folks arthritic joints relaxed in the heat so they walked long walks through the lanes and down the stream. They stopped speaking about the old days so much and talked about right now. Children hummed and buzzed among each other, like bees at the brambles, and the vicar gave no sermons on the wrath of God or the fury of Hell. The Lord giveth, The Lord giveth. And if a person is only as good as his word, then each was kind and true, for if someone had vowed to help another in their garden or to patch roofs they kept their promise and relished the opportunity to be outside.
When word spread of the storm whatever bound us in such delight guttered out. It came in from the East and people spoke of it like war, or end of days. Some said it was fortunate that it was coming in slow. Time, they said, to prepare, to get the washing done, and set buckets under holes. Others said that a slow storm is a storm that lingers on us all. It moved like a wounded animal, gnawed off its own legs, dragging itself slow and bleeding hot blood; the torn black clouds swelling until the whole sky was a black suffusion. Hot rain fell in sheets while we ran bare foot through the warm streams on the roads and roared with the animal in the sky. It rained so hard and for so long it was as though the villagers had done nothing to prepare and floods rushed, merging at the bases of hills. Trees folded over like corn from the scythe. Cars drowned out. Dead pets rose from shallow graves and wheeled in the drift of the water. Bones and half rot and just buried things all in a mix. And us right there in the middle of it all.
The grew clouds left behind were stuffed in so tight one more might’ve capsized the heavens. They captured the heat and the air grew humid, each day hotter than the last. Ripe red apples that fell from the tree yellowed, and melted out on the ground. The Lilac blossom turned brown and started to die. Brambles between the fields decayed. Everywhere ants writhed across disfigured fruit, and the air grew thick with flies. One rabbit sat down in our hutch and died next to its sister though their bottle was full, and the heat pulled a stench from the corpse, twisting with the spoiled sweetness of the apples and turning honeysuckle; until each individual foulness was lost in the conjuration of a deathly new one. This is the way it was. All goodness in departure, and ten million flies to fill the gap.
All going, dissipating somehow like the clouds did; dissolving sort of, or lifting up and off. The flowers, the fruit, the smells, the spirit, spilling through our fingers. It was although all the peace, and beauty, and comfort were winged and migrating, and we could not, or didn’t know how. I saw it all in my mind, in throngs pitching across the sky, garroting and piercing clouds. And one day the phone rang, and we were told that my Grandpa left also, to join the shimmering cast of the great migration, and I wondered if we had been left behind because we were no part made of beauty, or goodness. We the hibernators. We the abandoned. We the fiends.
The rapture went on, and on. The Lord taketh, The Lord taketh. And left all the rot and stink, everything lost, ruined. All gone but for the butterflies. Their numbers were slaked, but spheres of wing and colour still bustled at the purple blossom left in the branches. The last migrants, the shallows of the dragged lake, dregs and ashes. If only you could keep it somehow. Keep it present and fresh, alive in the midst of death. If only there was a way, some vessel that could do it, and you could have it on the mantle, or you could keep it in the cupboard with the herbs and jams and take it out when you really needed it, in storms, or after nightmares. If only you could keep it.
I didn’t mean to kill when I walked out into the garden that day, over to the Lilac tree with scissors in my hand and a jar. Even as I cut blossom from the tree and put it in, I didn’t mean any harm. As I caught the butterflies inside too, all that would fit. I didn’t mean it. I opened holes enough for summer to breath, see, but not so big it could get out, and flies in, and it didn’t matter about everything going cause we had this right here. Just the right size to cradle in our arms. To look at the day when the leaves outside were stomped underfoot and the frosts came again, and the ice on the windows. Summer in a mason jar. I just thought, If only you could keep it, like a pet, or a picture in a locket, or somehow, anyhow.
We woke to find butterflies, dead, enough for a soup for two. Stacked like Dog-Rose petals on the kitchen table, and of the Mechanopsis, and Forgetmenot; petals of all colours. Somehow even separate, as beautiful as the whole. But they crinkled and thin clear lines cleaved the colour. They curled and writhed, peppered with wasted yellow pollen, and they began to smell like old breath and melting butter. They stiffened and brindled, scuffed as a tomcat’s ear, and after that, all that was left were ashes. I took them up into my hands but they crumbled between my fingers on to the floor, and with the sweat of my palm formed an ink that scurried the creases of my hand. That was it then. The thing would be back soon. The thing without eyelids, but a great many teeth, the Death-God. And one morning checking the window for his slick, I looked out at the land and the plants, the animals and the fields. I looked at the Lilac tree. I saw its blossom crying down. I looked to the church across the road, bloodless Jesus on the cross hung clear to see through the window. I looked to the graves, their disrepair, and I saw the sky thick with prayers.