The arrangements appeared over the course of several days on the steps of the church, wreaths and sprays filled with baby’s breath and chrysanthemums and other blossoms that shrunk the rough-hewn doors with their splendor. Tilly’s mom would point out the flowers to her in a low hush and she would giggle as she tried to repeat the names, rolling the syllables around with her tongue like they were globs of caramel.
It was the season when the pink crowned mountains gave way to a cool darkness that shuttered doors in its wake. But Tilly sensed an energy in the air, an undercurrent of transformation that crackled through the town in the waning twilight. People walked the streets and muttered angrily at the yellowing peaks in the distance. Young men in uniforms rolled through town in convoys of vehicles she had never seen. And, all the while, the flowers lining the steps of the church grew more bountiful. Colors and smells and dazzling bouquets that filled her with wonder and awe but were met by others with averted glances and bowed heads.
Somewhere there’s a photo from around that time of Tilly’s eighth birthday party, her face illuminated with joy as she opens a present emitting a strange, disinterred glow in the black and white image. But the faces around her are blurred and downcast. Parents and sister are nearby, close and loving, but mom’s smile is dimmed and dad’s eyes are tired. Afterwards, when they told her the workers were building a dam that would flood the town and surrounding land, she screamed and cried and told them she wasn’t going anywhere. But everyone had to move, they told her, and it would be a town like this town and a house just like this house. Just not this house in this town.
It wasn’t long afterwards that the familiar landmarks around her began to disappear. Structures and buildings that could be saved were hauled away or stripped to their foundations. Workers dug up the coffins and the headstones from the graveyard and moved them to the new town to be reburied in a similar field. Things that could be put back together were put back together in the same way they had been before. Gaping pits and hardened wheel tracks were left in their place. Only the church, with its heavy stone walls and holy ground, remained untouched for the coming flood.
When it came time for her family to leave, Tilly took a spot in the bed of the pickup truck amid a mess of clothes and chinaware and other portable possessions that had been haphazardly piled together. Her father had tasked her with keeping an eye on their belongings and the weight of the responsibility temporarily distracted her from the heaviness of moving. Tilly felt like a baby bird as she burrowed herself between framed photos and curtains and suitcases until she was ensconced in the detritus of their life.
She could hear her sister softly humming through the open window, the noise mingling with the rattling plates and cups as they made their way through town. Boarded windows along Main Street concealed barren rooms that would soon become forgotten rubble. They turned a corner and she watched several uniformed boys carry a large couch out to a waiting truck. Beyond them was the church, the structure rising above a mess of wilting flowers that whipped across the sidewalk and grass in the autumn wind.
The pickup slowed as they passed and she watched a cluster of petals swirl upward in a tumult of color around the top of the steeple. The light from above seeped into the oranges and yellow-reds and blues, translucent specks that became shards of colored glass delicately twisting in the air. Time itself seemed to be caught in the vortex of their dance, a malleable force that dematerialized as it inhaled the beauty of the petals that hovered and spun and shimmered.
A corona of dust kicked up by the truck hung loosely in the air around Tilly and she swatted the drifting specks away with a vertical hand. Her fingers moved quicker and quicker until she created an opening in space large enough for her little body and leapt from the bed of the truck. Tilly ran toward the church steps, ignoring the shouts of her parents and the sounds of cracking porcelain and falling boxes as she welcomed the petals down from the sky with outstretched arms.
Different shades of color grazed her face and body as she laughed and twirled around in their presence. Mystical violets and delicate azures and bold oranges, all mixed together in the palette of life. Tilly squeezed her eyes tight, hoping that she could freeze herself in that moment and that scene forever. But time didn’t stop. When she opened her eyes the wind had passed and the petals had fallen and the scene had ended. By the time her father got to her, Tilly’s laughter had turned to tears.
She had been back only once, years before now, to visit the site of the town. When they were a few years older and already starting to drift apart, Tilly and her sister hitched a ride out to the reservoir to look out at the expanse of water. Every new generation believes that they will be the last, vigilantly waiting for the destruction of life and the end of all things. This was their opportunity to stand on the precipice of extinction in the relative security of their existence. But her sister only had faded memories of the town, and the water didn’t know that its bottom was pockmarked with smashed foundations and cracked pavement. Only the top of the church steeple, the cross aslant the blinding blue, remained to mark the town’s presence, a silent sentinel forever standing watch over an unobtainable past.
Now a much older woman living with her son in a distant city, Tilly often had nothing to do during the day but sit and reflect in an empty apartment. Sometimes when the weather was nice she would try to go for walks to free herself, for just a little while at least, from the artificial clutter that seemed to dominate the end stage of life. Feeling particularly antsy on one of those summer days, Tilly decided to go for a stroll in the nearby park. There was an almost cloudless blue canvas painted above the city, and the warmth, offset by a light breeze that helped to temper the heat, brought out a crowd of others in search of respite from the pressing highrises.
Tilly walked cautiously along the side of the path, hands clasped behind her back, careful to avoid the runners and the bikers and the dogs on long leashes that stopped every so often to take tentative sniffs at the ground. Ahead of her the trail bent away from an open field of green where a small crowd had gathered around a gleaming object. It was only slightly taller than the heads that bobbed around it, somewhat rough in form and vaguely familiar, but its appearance had drawn in bicyclists and families and joggers and photographers and reporters and countless others who made up the clump of bodies.
As Tilly got closer she saw that it was a lone Doric column, the fluting on the shaft reflecting back the light from its cyan surface. It seemed to come from nowhere, this fully formed thing, emerging from the ground like a fantastical lightning rod that filled the park with its presence. She wandered from the path until she was upon it, another body in the crowd with another pair of eyes trying to comprehend. A man was down on a bare knee in front of her recording the column with his phone and she stood motionless behind him watching it on his screen. It seemed to vibrate and hiss, an internal rattling and banging that traveled from the column to the phone to her. Tilly turned and gave an inquisitive look to the woman beside her.
“There’s a man in there,” she said, waggling her eyebrows a little for dramatic effect. “An artist, apparently. He’s breaking his way out.”
“Why?” Tilly asked, taking a step back from the kneeling man to reevaluate the column with this new information.
“Why not?” the woman shrugged. “It would take away from the experience if we knew.”
Tilly turned back away, allowing the scene to engulf her in a wave of contemplation. She watched and thought for minutes, for hours, for a lifetime, standing and staring, thinking into the column, into the percussive sound of chiseled rock. And then the incorporeal artist manifested into existence, dusty and waist-deep in cracked marble. Above his respirator-covered face sat an elaborate papal miter, adorned with a bright galaxy of polished stones and other jeweled adornments. His gloved hands, still gripping the implements of his release, rested on the shattered rock as he jutted his ornately covered head toward the mass of people, eyes rich with the luster of freedom.
The crowd reacted with a collective straining and lifting of heads, a sense of rediscovered wonder, people trying to see the depths of things lost in the everyday habit of sight. But it takes a lifetime of moments to see. Where others saw fractured motion and the tearing down of barriers, Tilly saw the drowned church poking through the choppy blue surface. She saw the petals in the jeweled stones that crowned the broken steeple. She saw her childhood and the reservoir, the past and the present, all blended together into a new moment, a bridge between what was and what is, time drained out of history, stripped down to its most primal elements and chiseled out of life.
Tilly walked away in a waking daze, back to the path, one foot instinctively placed in front of the other, cautiously advancing. The trail curled through a small grove of manicured oak trees before opening up again and hugging the artificial pond at the heart of the park. There were benches lining the edge of the water and she made a beeline for the first one that she saw. She had to stop and think, to process the fantastical and real, to think about all of the known and forgotten moments that made up the whole of her life, all of the experiences just underneath the surface that are waiting to escape back into being.
She squeezed her eyes tight, trying hard to bring back the little girl inside of her. In the blackness of her mind she could see the colors raining down again, arms stretched up above her head toward the shower of blossoms. All of it so familiar and so near, aromas and tingles drifting softly on an autumn breeze. The way the sun’s rays shone through the translucent petals, a kaleidoscope of soft fire floating above her and permeating her very being. Even now, sitting far away from the flooded town, she still sensed a strange beauty, an imprint of what had once been that still lingered like a thin scum on the pond’s surface, as if the density of her life was compressed down to that one moment and scattered across her life like petals on the wind.
Tilly knew it was time to go home, that her son was back from work by now and would be worrying about where she was, but she wanted to enjoy this moment for just a little while longer. She sighed and stretched out her tired legs, waiting for the next moment to happen. And, as dusk drew near, the sky returned some of its color to the water below.
Place de Stalingrad
by D. A. Hosek
... I'm not foolish enough to think that I would be able to sell real art ...
It Goes Like This
by Shome Dasgupta
... I am on the brink of extinction ...