From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Keeping Lilly

I don’t know where she came from. It was just that one day she wasn’t there, and the next, she was. My brother and I lived beside a lake on the edge of the town. My name is Stella. Jack was a hunter, and I was a fisher. Every morning when he left for the woods, I packed my things and pushed the boat off the banks of the lake. Neither of us returned until late evening.

“Stay safe,” I’d tell him.

“Don’t drown,” he’d yell.

My father was a psychologist. My mother was a therapist. When they lived, they studied each others’ souls, and somehow conceived my brother, then me. When they died, they left the two of us a giant puzzle to put together. My brother put his half away. He never liked puzzles. I kept mine, and every day I tried to come a little closer to putting it together.

The first day I saw Lilly was two weeks ago, just past dawn. I was fixing a leak in the boat when I saw bubbles in the water, to the left. I thought it was a fish, but it wasn’t a fish. It was a girl – which was strange because we had no neighbors, and the only time I saw other girls was when Jack and I walked into the town on the weekends. We went for food — I never caught anything in the lake, and my brother always gave himself away before shooting the deer.

“Hello?” I asked. The water bubbled again, and a girl my age put her head out of the water and held on to the side of the boat. She reached out a hand, and I pulled her into the rowboat. Her hands felt cold and thin and smooth.

“Hi,” I said. She was wet, but there wasn’t anything to dry her in the boat, so I gave her one of Jack’s shirts. She jumped out of the boat like a fish or an eel, so I took it back. She swam beside the boat and I helped her in again. We were already sisters.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Lilly.” Her hair was green and her eyes were green, and both looked very soft. Her legs were pale like the sky, and all her movements came in waves.

“I’m Stella,” I said. I kept on pinching myself to try to wake up, but I knew she was real when she sneezed, because people don’t sneeze in dreams. She started to shiver, and I slowly offered her the shirt again. This time she wore it, and I no longer had to compare her body to mine. “Do you live here?”

“Yes,” she said. “Sometimes.” She shook her hair, and green drops danced away from her. She smelled clean and clear, like air from the top of a tree. Everything she said was a whisper.

“I’ve never seen you before,” I told her.

“You come here every day,” she said. It sounded like an accusation.

“I’m sorry.”

But she didn’t say anything back. She just stared at me, and I felt like something lost in a cave. So I didn’t talk, and she didn’t talk for a while. Strands of hair moved like slow fingers. I wondered if she could control them. I wondered what it felt like.

“Stella?”

“Yes?”

“Tell me a story. Please.”

* * *

I have a memory of sitting in my mother’s arms. It’s somewhere sunny, with so much light I can’t see anything beyond her face. But it doesn’t matter, because that’s as large as the world needs to be. She is lying on her back, and her hands are warm. I am four years old, and this is the age where everyone will tell her we look exactly like. “Huda may be mad, but her daughter keeps her sane,” the people say. But there are no people to disturb us. Not even the boys—my father, my brother. It’s just us.

She is laughing, and I am laughing. We play rock-paper-scissors, but use my name, her name, and my brother’s name for the objects. “The only rule,” my mother says, “is that Stella wins everything.”

* * *

I thought of a memory, but I couldn’t think of a story, so I told her about my life and about my brother. I told her about how it had always been as if there were three families in our cabin; one of me and my father, one of Jack and his mother, and one of Jon and Huda that did not include me or my brother. I had learned to avoid talking about the accident with friends at school, but only after I ended up at the hospital, as a “danger to myself;” an involuntary committee. I told her about the boys who ignored me because I stood out in the wrong way. But sisters – even ones with green hair – didn’t laugh or cry or tear out hearts. So I told her about my parents, and about the accident, and how they’d died, one after the other, like kamikaze moths mating beside a candle. I told her how the silk wings smelled, how they crinkled like old leaves underfoot. But she didn’t pretend to understand, or go out of her way to tell me she was sorry. My sister wasn’t afraid—she just talked about the lake, and how it didn’t taste like the ocean. She looked sad.

“What does it taste like?”

“I don’t know.” Lilly trailed a hand in the water and scooped it in her palm. She tasted it, and I tasted it. “Like empty,” she decided. “It tastes empty.” And I realized—even if just for a moment—it was possible for someone else to miss something as much as I did.

“I think he misses the deer on purpose,” I told her. I leaned back in the boat, and looked at the clouds overhead.

“Why?” Slow green strands above her forehead pointed toward me when she spoke, like living shadows of her thoughts.

“I don’t know.” I had an idea, but it took the whole afternoon to show her why someone would do something wrong on purpose, even when he knew how to do it correctly. She did not understand, but she said she wanted to.

“I would like to meet him,” she said. She looked at me, and I could almost see my reflection in each green swirl. But there was something else there. I’m not sure what it was, but it made me miss my father less, and I wondered if Jack could see her, she could make him miss our mother less. I closed my eyes and tried to keep it inside me. I put my hands over them to seal it in.

“I’ll tell him to come tomorrow,” I said. When I opened my eyes, she was gone, and the only trace left was a widening ripple beside the boat. She did not make noise. All at once I was alone again, but this was a different kind of alone. For the first time, it felt like something was missing. Like the last time I watched a sunset with my father compared to the first time I saw one without him. It was the same sun. It wasn’t supposed to be different. But things could be – would be – different in a good way if my brother could only see her. He wouldn’t be the way he was if I could show her to him. So I would bring him tomorrow.

* * *

But he didn’t come tomorrow. I told Jack, and he didn’t believe me.

“I’m not coming out to the lake with you, Stella,” he said. “We have enough to worry about without you seeing things.”

“But I’m not seeing things – I’m seeing her,” I said. I followed him outside and helped him gather sticks for the fire. “You’d like her.”

“Stella,” he turned. “We don’t have the money for a psychiatrist.”

I didn’t talk to him for three days after that. It would have gone on for much longer if not for Lilly.

“It isn’t worth fighting over,” she kept saying.

“He always did this,” I told her. It’s true; he did. When Jon and Huda – our parents – were alive, he always made fun of me when he heard me. But I wasn’t talking to myself. I told Lilly this, and she just looked tired. Some days later, she told me why.

“I have to go soon,” she said. “And I don’t know if I can come back.”

“Where?” I could feel panic inside, welling like clouds. It sounded like rocks falling from tall trees, tearing everything on the way down.

“I can’t stay here anymore,” she said. “I have to go home.”

I asked her where home was, and she pointed toward a far corner of the lake; farther than I had ever been.

“Don’t fight with him,” Lilly said. “You shouldn’t lose him because of me.”

It was late afternoon, and I could barely see her in the sunlight. It had been this way for weeks now, and she wouldn’t tell me why, so we continued to pretend nothing was happening at all. But sometimes when we spoke, I felt like pulling out the stop in the boat, and sliding into the water with her.

“I’ll ask him one more time,” I finally said. She didn’t seem to hear me at first, so I said it again. She just looked at me, and even in the sunlight, I felt cold.

“The next time I see you will have to be the last,” she said.

I closed my eyes, and ran shaking hands through small hair. Mine was still black, but not like my mother’s. It was that of a girl, and I wanted that of a woman. In the boat, Lilly’s looked like mine: tired. Her hair no longer moved when she spoke, except for just before, or just after, she entered the water. She was fading. I decided my brother would see her at least once before she left. He had to.

* * *

My father was a magician. My mother was a hypnotist. When they lived, they inverted each others’ souls, and somehow adopted my brother, then me. When they died, they left the two of us a broken kaleidescope to look through. My brother put his half away. He never liked riddles. I kept mine, and every day I tried to come a little closer to putting it together.

It was a year ago. I was twelve. My brother was thirteen. My parents were a thousand miles away. They said it was for a conference on the other side of the country, but I think they just needed to see the ocean. I did not want them to leave.

“You’ll have to take care of your brother while we’re gone,” my father had said. We sat on the roof of our house. Our legs swung over the edge. It was midnight, and we spoke in low voices.

“He’s older than I am,” I said. “Shouldn’t he take care of me?”

My father smiled, then sighed. “It’s true.” He nodded. “But he isn’t as strong as you are. He sees things so…”

“…practically?” I cut in.

“That’s it.” He looked at me. “I think he gets it from your mother’s side.” I smiled. But somewhere inside, I felt something bad. It was hard to put into words, but it was there, like water in my ears. I wanted to scream something wild and dangerous. I wanted to say ‘you’re going to leave me, leave him, and spoil everything!’ I thought selfish thoughts as only a twelve-year old could, but I pushed them aside and focused on leveling my voice in the night.

“If you’re going to go, and you’re not coming back, why would you leave us behind?”

“Your mother and I love you, Stella. Your brother too. We…we’re going to do everything we can to come back to you – but…I don’t know how to explain it much better than that, for now.” He lay flat against the roof. His eyes were closed, and his chest moved up and down unevenly.

Even in the starlight, I could tell he was crying.

“You don’t sound like you’re coming back. Neither does she.”

My father sat up, and began to answer. But Jack came out the front door below, and began to call our names. I wished as hard as I could for him to go away, but my father whispered “you shouldn’t wish for things like that” in my ear, and for him, I stopped.

“Huda says the two of you should come in,” Jack said. “It’s cold out here anyway.”

* * *

“I saw her again,” I said. My brother and I sat opposite each other at the table. I said it in between bites of salmon. He didn’t look up.

“Jack, I saw her again.”

He looked at me while dipping bread into the stew between us. “Did you? While you were fishing?”

“Her name is Lilly.”

“Oh really?” His hand shook, and he dropped the bread into the stew and swore softly. It was under his breath and it sounded like ‘damn.’ I sat on my hands and pretended not to hear. “Did she tell you this, or did you give it to her?”

“She told me. She tries to tell me things, but she’s very quiet.”

“Stella, I don’t want to hear any more about this. About her, about things you see that you know aren’t there. This isn’t healthy.” He poked the bread out with a fork and dropped it on her plate. “It isn’t.”

I couldn’t think of what to say, so I met his eyes and nodded. Then I thought of something else.

“She has green eyes.”

He looked at me and his eyes were not green but were closer to the color of thunder.

“You have to wake up sometime, Stella.” he said. “You can’t live in a dreamworld with dreamfriends in a dreamlife anymore.”

I didn’t say anything. But then I remembered something my father had told me, and I turned his words into mine. “But what if this isn’t something to wake up from?” I stamped my foot against the wooden floor. “What if you’re the one dreaming, and I’m the one trying to wake you up?”

Jack stood up and left the table. I got up and followed him. He pushed me back into my chair. He was stronger than I was. I sat still, pressing my palms against his until he lowered them.

“Don’t follow me, Stella,” he said. “Not if you’re going to talk about it. I don’t need to hear anything about ghosts or spirits or anything coming to haunt us. If mother and father had been alive to see you…” he stopped, an instant before whatever he said might have allowed me to hate him forever. He took a deep breath.

“If that’s what you want to tell me – stories about girls in the lake that only you can see, and things you hear and feel and think are real but no one else can touch – don’t. I’ve heard enough.”

I followed him to the front of the cabin we’d bought with the money left over after the funeral. We sat on the front steps and threw rocks down the path that led to the lake. It was evening,and the sun set behind us, throwing long shadows past us. It turned leaves into fire and water into gold, and I felt if this was possible, then most things were.

“What if I showed her to you?”

“Stella, you said — ”

“I know. But what if you came with me tomorrow, and you saw her, and you saw that she was real? Would you believe me then?”

“And what would happen if I came, and she wasn’t there?” Jack said. He’d stopped trusting people since the accident. He called the priest a liar when he gave the eulogy. “What will it take for you to stop dreaming?”

I thought it over. “If she doesn’t come, I won’t talk about her,” I said.

“Never?”

“Never.” He stopped folding blades of grass into smaller blades and looked at me.

“Okay.”

I felt light. “Thank you.”

He didn’t say anything. He just looked at me for a very long time, and I was afraid that he was afraid that I was losing something inside.

“We have almost no money left,” he finally said.

I felt the pebble inside me clatter against my heart. “Well, we can sell something.” I picked up a stick and tried to plant it in the ground. “I don’t need all my fishing reels.”

“Stella,” he looked at me. “It’s bigger than that. I wish it were smaller, but it isn’t.” He picked up a rock and threw it. It clattered down the path and the crickets went quiet for a moment, before continuing to talk to each other. “We might have to sell the cabin.”

“This is ours,” I said. “It’s all we have.” I stared at him, and did my best to keep a level voice. “This isn’t ours to sell.”

Jack didn’t say anything. He just kept on throwing rocks, and all I could do was watch.

That night, I wasn’t sure anymore if I thought she could heal him, or if I had begun to think he could heal her. I was losing both of them, and I no longer knew what to do. I went to sleep and dreamed of Jon and Huda. We were in a field, and the lake was on one side, and our cabin was burning on the other. I looked at my parents and asked them to help us. They began to make love, and they did not see me. I turned to the cabin, and ran. My brother and my sister were inside; I could see them through the window. Every time I asked them to come out, it started to rain, and they burned without me. The third time I woke up, I grew tired of the nightmares, and I left my room through the window so as not to wake my brother. I walked to the edge of the lake and looked at the moon. In the lake I saw my reflection; those skinny arms and legs. The small body with small breasts that was invisible to all the boys in school. I fell asleep on the earth, and when I woke up, it was nearly twilight, so I went back to the cabin, crawled through the window, and slept without dreams.

* * *

The tractor-trailer tore through the shell of the car so cleanly, it was almost sliced in half. The doctors say they died instantaneously, but I know that couldn’t have been true. I know this because in the middle of 3rd period, just before lunch on the day of the accident, I had a seizure that lasted for minutes instead of seconds, and when I woke up, Jack was not there laughing and smiling and trying to cheer me up the way he always did, but instead clutching a picture of our family between his fingers, and crying freely. We stopped going to school the next week, and after a month, people stopped asking about us.

I’d once read these things were supposed to bring siblings closer, but it never happened between my brother and me. Before the accident, even though we had both taken after the opposite parent, me going everywhere with my father when he wasn’t spending time with his wife, and my brother nearly always with his mother when she wasn’t spending time with her husband, we had still understood each other – more than twins. It only seemed casual when compared to the still deeper level at which we took solace in our parents. At school, the children had long ago taken to asking whichever of us was available the schedule of the other – whether Stella would be able to go to the movies with the girls on Friday, whether Jack could give this or that student shooting lessons with his bow – realizing how in tune with one another we were.

But after the accident, it was me who went “crazy”, and he who went sane. Everyone thought I was the one who couldn’t handle the world beyond Jon, the girl who tried to follow her father into death and dreams because she could not face reality. But it wasn’t that way. I wasn’t the one afraid of dealing with what happened. My brother was. He hid in a world of practicalities and unyielding pragmatism. He visited Huda’s grave as if he thought she was there. When she was alive, he would never have acted in such a way. They were alive together; they laughed at death, at the idea of anything absolute. It was one of the things I loved most about our family.

The four of us were dreamers, each in our own world that sometimes overlapped with the ones of the other three people we loved more than the life around us. My father had his world, my mother had hers. I had mine, and my brother had his. But after they died on their way back to us, the threads unraveled, and he left his tangled like the webs of melancholy spiders. I found myself busy, a keeper of memories – and the breakdowns were a consequence of managing four worlds in one body.

My parents were my therapy – a thousand seizures from four to twelve held no power over me when I was with either of them. When they left, there was nothing to stop them, and they now came freely, along with the breakdowns. I sometimes wondered if I was keeping my promise to my father – taking care of my brother – while my brother was failing to keep one he must have made to his mother – taking care of me. It was an unhappy thought

Yet he tried. We both did. It was just that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t deal with things in a way I thought they needed to be dealt with. The way Jon, the way Huda would have dealt with them. I did not know if Lilly could help him – make him – deal with their deaths with me. But I had to try. I had to see.

* * *

The next morning, my brother did not go to the woods to hunt. We met outside the cabin, sun on our heads. I untied the boat from its tree. He threw his boots inside. We pushed the boat off the banks, and I did not mind that my feet were wet.

“This isn’t good weather,” he said. He was right. There was no sun; only clouds. There would soon be rain, and I didn’t want it to rain. The last time it had started raining while Lilly and I were in the boat, she had left, and I didn’t see her for days. She said the rain made her feel like she was drowning; somehow in and out of the water at the same time. I didn’t understand, but I tried to. I was the only one in our family who could not swim.

But today, the rain gave me hope. I told myself that if it rained, it would bring good things. It didn’t matter what the things were, as long as they happened while my brother met my sister. I told myself that nothing could make me trade my brother for her, that I would find a way to keep them both. Jack took the oars, and I trailed my hands in the water as he rowed. It was cold, and soon my fingers went numb. I looked at the ripples and tried to see beneath the surface. Everything was gray, and the only sound came from the splash, splash, each time the oars broke above the water. It started to rain.

“Where should I take us?” Jack asked.

The truth was that I didn’t know. We’d never made a meeting place. And she told me before that she could hear the boat from underwater. She said the oars were noisy.

“Maybe here,” I said. We were a quarter of a mile away from the shore, and it was drizzling lightly – like fog, but with sound. Jack pulled the oars out of the water, and I sat very still in my side of the boat, and we both began to listen.

She did not come.

I fell asleep. I don’t know how much time passed, but when I woke up, the sun was in my eyes, and I saw long shadows across the water. There were birds, and there was no rain. On the other side of the boat, Jack and Lilly were talking to each other. I could hear them laughing. I stayed absolutely still so they wouldn’t know I was awake; so they wouldn’t know I knew they were there and I knew they were alive and I knew they were aware of each others’ existence.

I saw my brother kiss her, and I told myself this meant he would find a way for us to keep the cabin. That he would help me find the words to keep Lilly here, with us. I saw her kiss him back, and I knew that the three of us would stay together forever. I told myself this over and over and over as I closed my eyes. I did not let it go, even as I saw Lilly slip underwater – as I saw Jack follow her – as I stayed inside the boat and screamed. I watched the moon rise.

* * *

My father was a holy man. My mother was a soothsayer. When they lived, they lived in each others’ souls, and somehow forgot my brother, then me. When they died, they left the two of us a burning blanket to put out together. My brother froze his half right away. He was afraid of fire. I kept mine, and every day I tried to come a little closer to wrapping it around my body. An hour later, I no longer cared if they returned or not. Lilly was not one of us. My brother chose her, and it was not my place to stop him, to stop her. I went through the house and took the things I needed. I left the door unlocked, in case anyone lost and cold and hungry passed by. On the table I scribbled a small note for him.

“she is not your sister.”

A moment later, I re-entered the house.

“love. stella.”

I filled a small bag with food and water, and set off toward the ocean. All along the way, I dreamt of Jon and Huda, and their thoughts held my thoughts. I knew he would meet me there. I did not know if I would forgive him. But I would try.

* * *

We were in a field, and the lake was on one side, and our cabin was burning on the other. I looked at my parents and asked them to help us. They ran away – but they returned, a moment later, with an entire ocean. We ran to the cabin. My brother was inside. Huda opened the door just as the wave, ten thousand feet high, reared above our heads. There was an infinite roar behind us. I held my father’s hand. We shut ourselves inside as all the water in the world crashed down upon us.


Michael Obilade is a resident of western Kentucky and eastern Massachusetts. His stories have appeared in TQR, Verbsap, Cafe Irreal, and Spinetingler.

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