Chapter 14: Jilla and Me novella

The next day proved cold and sunny.  Mani was out the back of our place, sawing some wood to make shelves with a new saw he’d bought.  I put my fleece jacket on, and wandered out.

“Hold this end while I measure up, can you?”

I knelt on the cold ground and Mani bent back to the wood with a tape measure.  He made a mark with a pencil, which he then tucked behind his ear. 

“Mani.”

“Mm.”

“What did you mean the other day about Brena?  When you said she sold things to the soldiers?”

Mani didn’t look up, and spoke as if addressing the wood. 

“She said you knew something.”

My heart jumped, and I swallowed.  “No-one’s told me.  I guessed.”

“Guessed what?”

Clever.  “About Brena baking something into the bread.  And selling it.”

Mani put the tape measure in his pocket and stood up.  He looked down at me, still crouched and holding the end of the piece of wood.  I was dead.

“This is the first and last time you are ever going to mention this,” Mani looked into my guts as he spoke, his voice like metal.  “You don’t know what you’re talking about, so leave it alone.  The village needs you to leave it alone.  I’m only going to say it once.”

I stared at him, petrified.

“If I hear whispers that you’ve been asking questions again, I’ll batter the living shit out of you.  I don’t care what it takes.  Have you got that?” 

Slowly, creakily, I nodded once.  The inside of my mouth was dry as bone.

 

I had run, gasping in the cold, to the stream.  The whole village, that’s what he’d said.  The whole village was involved.  In dozens of other cellars, belonging to people I had known all my life, harvests of red flowers were growing, slowly.  The pollen, whatever it was, had sent me to sleep and I’d barely touched it.  Who knew what it did when it was eaten, or cooked. 

I’d seen men exist in a drugged world before now, when the fighting was at its fiercest and no-one ever returned once they’d left us.  Unable to cope, they’d gone with minds focused on other things, just as real. They’d said goodbye to their families with empty eyes, barely recognising them.  Seeing them only as colours.

I stared at the stream.  The sky had fallen towards earth, laden with grey cloud.  I knew what it was that was pulling at Jilla’s feet, dragging her away from life.  I had thought her stories were from a vivid imagination.  I hadn’t known she was an addict.

Her time at Jan Creusel’s – all those hours – she must have been exposed to enormous drifts of flowers over the months, maybe years, that this had been going on.  And Leni, he was sure to be involved – his cellar was probably being used too.  Jilla was surrounded with the pollen, day and night.  No-one had noticed. 

It began to snow.  I stared at the fir trees as they crowded innumerable on the opposite bank, silently turning white.  Their lethal shelter seemed tempting.  As the snow started to fall thick and fast, I turned and ran as I’d never run before, back to the village.

 

 

 

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Chapter 11 – Jilla and Me novella

I saw Jilla later that day, as the sun was setting.  I was back at the standpipe and the temperature had dropped suddenly, forcing me to wear both new fleece jacket and Teren’s coat over the top of it.  Jilla was walking up the hill past the Zabowski’s place, from the direction of the stream and I would have bet a million kronas that I was right earlier, that she’d been in the forest alone.

“Hello.”

At first she seemed hardly to hear me, then she slowed and looked up, as if in surprise to see where she was.  “It’s almost dark.”

I nodded and turned off the standpipe tap, holding my red plastic bucket awkwardly away from my body.  It was heavy and my arms shook with the effort.  I slowly walked along the plank and stepped off onto the hard ground, still frozen under the grass.

“Will you come to the woodshed later?”

“Yeah.”

Jilla turned towards Jan Creusel’s place.  “I’ve got something new to tell you.”

 

*                      *                      *                                  *                                  *

“A long time ago, when no-one travelled outside of their village their whole lives, a magician appeared one evening at the door of the church.  Everyone inside stopped talking, and the magician walked into the church with his black cloak and strode up the aisle.  He told everyone that he could produce sunlight at night, heat from rocks and the smell of cinammon from sand.”

In the woodshed, we had lit three candles for more warmth and our gloved hands were held out to them.

“Everyone left the church to follow the magician to the village square.  No-one had seen a magician before, and no-one thought he could do the things he said he could.  But one by one, the magician conjured those things: he shaped a glowing globe of light between his outstretched hands, that bounced and shimmered in the faces of the villagers.  He picked a pebble from the ground and warmed it in hands until it glowed red, but he wasn’t burned.  Then he took a small glass vial from his cloak and poured out a tiny pyramid of sand on the palm of his hand, and when he blew it into the air, the smell of cinnamon wafted out on the breeze.”

I looked up from the candles at Jilla.  She stared at the three flames in front of her.

“All the people who saw the magic were afraid and they wished they hadn’t followed him to the square.  There was a long silence and all they could smell was cinnamon, stronger and stronger.

But the magician hadn’t told them he could also make them forget.  And an hour later, he was gone, and the villagers found themselves sitting back in the church, with no memory of either him or his magic.”  I stared at her.

“For a long while afterwards, people kept remarking on how there was a smell of cinnamon in the air and wondering where it came from.  But then they even forgot that it hadn’t been there always, and they didn’t notice it any more.  They told themselves it had always smelled like this, and that this was the way the world smelled.  The magician never came back, and his grains of sand are still floating in the air around the village even now.”

 

*                                  *                                  *                                              *

The next day I saw Jan Creusel as I was making one of my many fact-finding tours of the village.  He smiled at me, and I was in such a mood of optimism that I found myself telling him I’d seen Jilla the previous evening.

“Ah, so it was you in my woodshed was it?”

I nodded, realising he knew we went there often.

“And did Jilla have a new story for you?”

“Yes. About a magician.”

“A magician?” Jan paused for a second. “Did it have a happy ending?”

I thought about that for a while.  Most of Jilla’s stories were like listening to an accident happen by tiny increments.
“I don’t know.”

Jan nodded at me, unsmiling.  Then he continued on his way down the hill, leaving me standing there thinking of the smell of cinnamon.

As I stood staring into space the sound of voices, loud and celebratory cut through my thoughts.  I raced up the hill to see what was going on, and saw Conrad, one of Mani’s long-time foes, coming the other way at a great pace.  He had always been friendly to me, so I shouted to him as he passed.

“What is it?”

“It’s Dr Blenvic – he’s back!”

“Dr Blenvic?”

But Conrad had gone already, racing back home to be the first with the news.  I saw the doctor then, surrounded by old friends and well-wishers, dressed in his army jacket, his own, not borrowed, and carrying a mammoth duffel bag of grey khaki.  He had been called up early as all medical professionals were, and no-one had heard anything from him since the day he left.  As time passed, death was assumed to have caught him.  It seemed a miracle that almost five years later he could walk back into the village, unharmed, smiling as if he had left the previous week.

I rushed to see him up close, but the crowd around him was such that I couldn’t get anywhere near him, so I climbed up onto a broken wall to look at him over the hats of the well-wishers.  He looked older, weather-coarsened and thin.  This was no surprise.  What seemed supernatural was his similarity to the person he had been when he left.  The same eyes, the same walk, the voice that was deep, reassuring to anxious mothers and consolatory to their husbands.  Here he was, hugging the men, kissing the women, kneeling down to the kids who were too young to know who this celebrity was.

Amidst the screams and shouts of happiness and the group of smiling faces, Dr Blenvic suddenly looked up at me, standing on the wall of what used to be a house.  We looked in each other’s eyes for what seemed to me to be a long time.

Time can do strange things sometimes; I’d noticed before that it sped up and slowed down, that it wobbled on its course round the clock when no-one was looking.  Now it took on the soapy telescopic coating of a dream.  The doctor saw me – a thin boy in a second-hand coat standing on the ruins of a house that had been a beautiful red-tiled building the last time he’d seen it.  I knew that I was looking at a ghost. He nodded to me, holding my gaze, and after a second I jumped down from the wall, and ran to tell Granma.

 

Chapter 8: Jilla and Me novella

A few days later I was toiling up the hill to the Simonic’s again, for bread.  The red and white striped shopping bag trailed in the mud behind me, and I was wearing one of Mani’s old jumpers on top of two of mine.  It was bitter, and I was surprised to see Mani at the bridge as I approached the house, apparently talking to one of the peacekeepers.  I dawdled, watching: he hadn’t seen me yet.

They were deep in talk, their heads close together, obviously speaking softly.  The peacekeeper smoked a roll-up, the same as Mani’s and they laughed quietly to each other, often.  Mani noticed me first and I saw him nudge his friend.  His friend the peacekeeper.  I stopped short, voiceless.

“What’re you doing up here?”

“Bread.”

He nodded, once.  “Well go on then.”

I turned sharply and strode to the Simonic house and knocked loudly on the door, staring straight ahead of me.  Their four eyes bored into the back of my neck as I waited and I flushed red.  Pinpricks of sweat darted under my armpits, itchy and unpleasant.  At last the door opened and Brena told me to come in.  I was in her kitchen before she’d finished speaking.

“What’s the matter with you?  Cold is it?”

“Freezing.”

“Mm, it’s winter for sure any day now.  No coat?”

“Not yet.”

“One of Teren’s old ones is here somewhere – it would probably fit you.” She appraised me for a few seconds, “you’ve grown a lot this year, you know.”

“I know.”  I was pleased to hear it though.  It meant I was growing up.  I didn’t feel like a kid and I was sick of looking like one.  Maybe I was going to be as strong as Mani was.  I was his brother, after all, we couldn’t be that different.

“Sit down and I’ll look for it – I know I saw it a few weeks ago somewhere.”

Brena opened a cupboard door next to the stairs and rummaged through the darkness inside.  She stood back up straight, her hands on her hips.

“Where was it?  It might have been upstairs now I think about it.  I won’t be a minute.”  She climbed the stairs and I heard the floorboards creaking above me and the sound of more cupboards being opened.  I sat on a chair, happy to wait in the warm with my loaf of bread in my bag.

I’d been sitting there for only a few minutes when I became aware of a subtle odour underneath that of the constantly baking bread.  It was a pleasant smell, sweet like treacle but with a bitter top note, like salt.  It reminded me of nothing.  Again, a spark lit up in my mind, showing me nothing but making me uneasy.

Brena came heavily down the stairs – she’d found the coat.

“Here.  It’s warm – he hardly wore it before he grew out of it.”  Brena’s son Teren had been three years older than me when he was still alive.  I had once made a den with him behind the doctor’s place, where we swapped passwords, made unnecessary and obscure rules and pretended we were in hiding from supernatural powers.  That was six lifetimes ago.

“Thank you.”  I put the coat on.  I remembered Teren wearing it, sitting on a log in the den, sharpening his penknife.  I was glad I had his coat.

“Well I’d better get on then,” Brena tied her apron on.

“Yeah.” I started toward the front door, turned around on impulse.  “Brena?”

“Yes?”

“What are you cooking apart from the bread?”

Unexpectedly Brena laughed, loud and harsh.  She paused, eyeing me with a cold glint that hadn’t been there a moment ago.

“Someone’s been talking, have they?” she nodded to herself.  “Well that’s no surprise around here.  You’re a clever one aren’t you?  You’ll work it out for yourself some day, and probably long before you should do.  But you won’t hear it from me – now get out of here and tell your brother to come in if he’s still out there.”

I was shocked and stepped out of the house quickly, relieved to be gone.

“Mani, Brena says to go and see her.”

Mani was still by the bridge, but his peacekeeper friend had gone.  He ground out his roll-up under his shoe, and walked past me without a word, opening Brena’s door without knocking and closing it firmly behind him.

Chapter 7: Jilla and Me novella

“My Granma told me about you.”

Jilla and I were walking away from the village.  On a rare mild Saturday in the near-constant assault of cold, we had decided to follow the path on beyond the back of the Zabowski’s place where it led under the firs.  This was a small wood but we knew it led on to another once you crossed the stream, and then you were beginning to walk among trees so tall and numerous that you suddenly knew you were in the forest.  And the forest was as old as time and twice as dangerous.

“What about me?”

“About your mother and Jan Creusel.”

“So what?”

“Nothing.” We walked on silently.  I could hear the trickle of the stream just ahead as it ran over the rocks.  It would be full and running fast because of the rain.

“What d’you do in Jan Creusel’s house?”

“It’s always warm.  I play with Buruk. And find out secrets.”

“What secrets?”

“I tell you the secrets I find out.”

“But those are just stories.”

“They’re secrets that I find out.  No-one else knows them. That flower I gave you?” I nodded.  “The hermit in the cellar grows them.  One time there were thousands, millions, all red and heavy in the air.  The next time, there were none, except just that one, on the floor.”

“Who is the hermit?”

“I’ve never seen him: he doesn’t know I’m there.  No-one knows I find out the secrets except Buruk. I see what the hermit grows in the dark.”

“Plants don’t grow in the dark.”

“His do.”

We crossed the stream by a plank that had been laid across it years and years ago.  I remembered crossing that stream behind my father and Mani.  I saw the waterstained boots he always wore, the length of his stride almost two of Mani’s and my own desperate attempts to keep up with them both.  It felt like a billion ice ages had come and gone since that memory and yet that plank was still there.

Once over the stream we plunged into the trees and suddenly the world shifted. As the branches were whipped about by the wind, they moved as though to attack.  The air was green-scented and dark; it was springy underfoot.  This was the start of the forest, the forest we were told about when we were little; told about and told about.

Don’t go too far in – you’ll never come back out.  It’s old, older than anyone can remember and it creeps up to the stream, waiting to cross it and come to the village.  Every winter, the men go to the edge and cut it back, and every spring new fir trees grow.  Don’t play under the trees – you won’t notice the dark getting darker or the silence getting stronger until you hear an owl above you and feel how alone you are.  Then you’re lost, and once you’re lost, you’re dead.

We walked in silence.  I didn’t want to ask more questions and I didn’t trust what Jilla was telling me.  Yet I had the flower. For a second a spark had been lit.

We were daring each other to stop and suggest turning back.  Daring without speaking.  I looked across at Jilla every now and again as the stream’s noise faded behind us and then it was a thick quiet that we walked through.  Her hair hung to her jawline, tangled, and she walked on as if she were crossing the street to the standpipe.  She didn’t look at me.  As we climbed over a fallen tree without comment, I suddenly knew that Jilla had been here before.  She knew where she was. At that moment I wanted to be in the village, anywhere, talking to Brena in her kitchen, splashing freezing water on my shoes – anywhere but in the forest with Jilla.

“Let’s go back.”  I had caved in first.

“Why?”

“This is boring.”  I turned and climbed back over the fallen tree, not looking at her.  I was cold all at once, and almost jogged in my hurry to get back to the stream.  I could hear Jilla some way behind me, her feet cracking twigs and a cough every once in a while.

“You’re going the wrong way.”

I jerked to a halt and looked up.  Jilla was right.  I had veered off the main path onto a barely visible track, probably made by animals.  And I hadn’t even noticed.  I was afraid then, more afraid than I had been for over a year.  I was alone with Jilla.  And if I had been alone without her, I would probably have been dead by this time the next day.  No-one knew where we were.  Including me.

“Come on.”

Jilla led me the way we had come.  It was further, so much further than we had ever walked on the way out. Trees flickered in my peripheral vision as I concentrated on the ground, watching my disembodied feet go one in front of the other.  I was panting dryly, and could form no words.

Jilla too was silent, but Jilla often was.  I knew that she wasn’t scared, she had come here by herself, maybe many times, and told no-one. She wandered, seeing what wasn’t there, making sense of the things most of us would never confront.  Her eyes were glazed, watching the world as if it were somewhere she would never visit.  I felt close to panic, and then I caught the first sound of the stream and almost wet myself as warm relief pulsed around my veins.

Standing on the bank of the stream, the world shifted back to normality again.  But I was quick to cross the plank, and I didn’t look back, even though a voice in my head told me that I should.

Chapter 6: Jilla and Me novella

*            *         *           *                   *                  *                *                       *
“Out by the river, where it runs across the moorland, there’s a woman who walks in bare feet at midnight.  She’s looking for the husband she should have had, but who was shot before she ever met him.”  Jilla and I had deserted the orange plastic crate at last: the evenings were acid cold now and even though we were under a roof we both shivered.

“Every midnight when the sky is clear and the wind blows, she walks to the river and drops in a silver coin, and when the ripples clear she sees his face.”  Jan Creusel’s woodshed was well made.  The rain drummed on its tiny tin roof, but we remained dry and ignored it.

“He’s beautiful – he has green eyes, dark hair, long to his shoulders, and he laughs at her.  He’s waiting for her to die.”  I was too thin: I was growing quickly and the cold felt like metal to me.  We had a candle and our hands were held palms-down above it, for heat.

“She knows that she loves this man she has never met.  One night she lies on her back in the water, with her silver coins one over each eye, waiting to pay the ferryman to take her across to her husband.  And the water turns warm as her beautiful man puts his arms around her and pulls her down to his river bed.”

*            *                *                *         *               *               *              *                *                      *

“Jan Creusel tells me you and that girl have been in his woodshed.”  Granma stirred the pot of boiling potatoes, one hand on the small of her back.  Steam and warmth, earth-smells and the scrape of metal on metal.
“So what?”
“Just be careful that’s all.”  She didn’t turn round, but her thoughts weren’t on cooking.
“Careful of what?”
There was no reply.

Jan Creusel was one of the few men left.  His place, built by him, stood by the standpipe and was next to the Zabowski’s and their gang of seven kids.  It was always busy around that way, and Jan’s place was the backdrop to our streetlife, but none of us had even been inside.

Only Jilla ever went in.  Jan Creusel was strange – his hair was long and tangled and his eyes were different colours.  Granma said he’s had an unlucky life and really, that was something to think about after the past few years.  She said as bad as things got, at least she wasn’t a Creusel.  Unluck rubs off, so I avoided him when I could.

Outside his place, his dog always kept guard.  Mani told me it was a wolf.  It may have been; its eyes were yellow.  It was beautiful and loyal, sitting up in a silent stare if any of us dared approach the front door.  It never barked and the name we gave it was Buruk.

Jilla and Buruk had an understanding.  We would all have loved to gloat as we ran our muddy hands through his fur on our way into Jan Creusel’s, but it was only Jilla who could do this.  Buruk tolerated no-one else, and timid advances were repelled with a sub-sonic growl.

It occurred to me one moment at the standpipe that Jilla spent her time at Jan Creusel’s, and that I had no idea what she did there.  I was surprised.  It was the first time I’d been seriously interested in something that had nothing to do with me.

Ice cracked underfoot as I made my way back to our place, eyes on the ground.  Granma was mending some trousers by the stove, comfortably.  I sat down at the table.

“Granma, tell me about Jan Creusel.”
She stopped what she was doing for two seconds: I counted them like a heartbeat.  Then her needle moved again as she thought for a moment.

“Jan Creusel was born under a bad star,” her voice was pleasant to listen to – she was feeling expansive and warm.  “When he was born, his eyes were two different colours – that’s an unlucky sign.  He’s clever, no doubt about that, but no girl would go near him with eyes like that.  Jan Creusel fell in love with someone that didn’t love him back.”

I didn’t want to interrupt her chain of thought.

“The girl he loved, and loves still, married another man when they were all young.  A long time ago now.  Jan’s never got over it. We all thought he’d die away, but he’s still here, when almost everyone else is gone.  The woman’s husband turned out to be a poor fraction of a man.  He got another girl pregnant.  Then he died.  The girl had the baby.”

Granma stopped and shook her head, looking so sad I almost got up to go to her. “Soon after, she killed herself.  They say she was mad.  Mad to sleep with that man and mad to leave a new-born baby girl alone in the world.”  Again she shook her head, but this time as if to clear it.

I could hear some of the Zabowski kids playing outside. “What happened to the baby?”

Granma looked at me. “When Jan Creusel isn’t looking after her, she tells you stories in his woodshed and then goes home to her uncle.”

Chapter 5 – Jilla and Me Novella

Back at our place I hid the flower under the narrow trestle I slept on.  My first instinct: to keep it from Granma and Mani.  As I lay down, and the blanket covered my head I looked at the utter black in front me.  I could hear Granma wiping breadcrumbs off the table with the flat of her hand, opening the door and slapping them off onto the ground for the birds.  I allowed myself to think about Jilla.  Was she lying as I was, facing an emptiness filled with a single flower, or was she busy, creating, weaving, casting spells and saving it all up to tell me tomorrow?

Jilla was always absent.  But I still listened to her in the evenings on the orange plastic crate, even though it was almost too cold to do anything of the sort.  Granma was surprised that I was out so much after dark, but quickly forgot about the surprise and remembered she hadn’t peeled the carrots yet, or that she had to go up to the Simonic’s.  I was swiftly drifting beyond her reach.

Mani wasn’t a kid any more.  I saw this with envy and pride when he pulled a bloody t-shirt off one afternoon at the table.  His shoulders were broad and muscular, muscles moving beneath the skin, powerful and attractive to me with my scrawny frame. His chest and stomach had real dark hairs and he smelled of dirt and clean sweat.

He’d started smoking thin spitty roll-ups and when Granma was out he’d sit at the table with one between his fingers, staring at the wood grain.  He spoke less and was distracted by his own thoughts a lot of the time.  I became worried, protective of him.  Six years older than me, he was soon going to be one of the first young men the village would have since the fighting broke out.  His friends and enemies too, they became aware of the eyes of our village on them, the expectations that no-one voiced, but which were heaped on to them from all the female households, so tired of being the only strong ones left.

During these few short weeks I remembered that I had a brother, that this was lucky.  I stopped sneering at him over the stew bowls and began asking him questions.  At first he was rude, wary of my sudden interest in his opinions, and would quite often give me a slap for what he suspected was sarcasm.  But soon he got used to it, and for the first time we started to talk as brothers instead of as kids. Even Granma noticed.

“Mani, you and your brother talking together, it’s good to hear.”  A rare pause in the ceaseless timetable of housework.  Mani nodded briefly to her as she spoke to us from her seat at the table.  “It’s good Mani, I’m tired of you fighting.”

“Granma…”

“He’s your brother.”

“Yeah and he’s a pain in the ass.”

“Shut up shit-face.”

“You can both say what you like.  I know you talk, that’s good enough.  One day you’ll be glad about it.”

We both glowered with embarrassment at this unfamiliar exposure.  Granma took a sip of her hot drink.  “Mani wash your hands before you sit down – you’re filthy.”

“Mani, how come the Simonic’s have a nice house and everything?”

Mani looked up from the roll-up he was making and then back down again.

“Brena’s been lucky, that’s all,” he lit his cigarette, “she’s taken the opportunities that came up.”

“What do you mean? She sells the soldiers bread too?”

Mani snorted, smoke puffing out of his nose dragon-like.  “Among other things.”

I frowned, not wanting to ask more.  What else was Brena selling?  Not sex.  Granma would rather have starved than buy her bread from a woman who slept with soldiers.  What else was there to sell?  The village had nothing.

I thought of Jilla’s perfect flower.  There were things I didn’t know about, secrets I barely wanted to understand.  There were connections sparking like train tracks when metal wheels scrape over them in the dark, on the way to unfamiliar places.

Chapter 4 – Jilla and Me novella

I reached the Simonic’s house, still a real house with a tiled roof.  Brena opened the door.  She wore an apron that looked new.  I blinked.

“Well!  Bread is it?”

“Please.”

“You’d better come in.”

As I waited for Brena to reappear from the kitchen I panicked, realising that my eyes had filled with tears.  Too suddenly, here was what I’d forgotten I missed.  The house was warm, had stairs and good old rugs.  Plates matched, cutlery belonged together.  It was safe and permanent. The smell of bread was almost too much – I turned and opened the door again, letting in the cold of a different night.

“Where are you going?  Here.”  Brena held a brown loaf out to me, dropping it in Granma’s bag when I failed to take it from her.  “Are you alright?”

I nodded.  She looked at me, seeing me properly for the first time ever in her life and mine. Then for a small fraction of part of a second she looked at the floor.
“Go on, it’s getting dark early now.”

I left, my head low, sight blurred, heart breaking.  There was no magic, no paths leading me off into other places.  Just a red and white nylon shopping bag, with only one loaf of bread pulling me where I didn’t want to go. I felt the water leak out of the corners of my eyes, my nose run, my throat freeze with the effort of not wailing out.  I sat on a dark uprooted kerbstone.  I could no more go home crying than I could bring back the dead.

The loaf was three-quarters eaten and I was rinsing off the tin plates we still used under the standpipe near Jan Creusel’s place.  Mud sucked at feet and trouser bottoms here.  A swamp of food scraps.  I stood on a board laid over the top of the muck, leaning out to stop the freezing water splashing my legs.  It was getting very cold.  I jumped: Jilla was watching me from a few metres away.  I looked back at the standpipe and realised I’d sprayed water onto my filthy shoes.

“Shit.”

“Did you see the soldiers?”

I nodded.  She’s seen me go and come back from the Simonic’s house.  Had she seen me crying? I realised I didn’t care.  I was tired and my faith was gone.

“Did they talk to you?”

“No.”  I turned off the standpipe and jumped back to more solid ground.

Jilla didn’t move.  She wanted to talk to me.  But it was so cold, my feet were wet and my eyes felt swollen and slitty.  I would spend the night lying facing the wall with the blanket completely covering my head and my knees bent up to my chest.  She knew this. Jilla must have slept this way every night.

“I’ve got something for you.” I stared at her, the plates dripping from my left hand.  I saw then that she had a flower, a startling scarlet bloom with a moss green, furry stem.  Its petals were pristine and feathery, its centre saffron yellow. I’d never seen a flower like it before.  She held it out to me and I took it, trance-like, shocked.

“Where did you get it?”

“The hermit in the cellar.” She didn’t smile.

“What….”

“It’s the only one.”  She took a deep breath.  “Bye.”

“Jilla…”

Everything spun inside out again.  In my raw hand I was holding the perfect flower.  And it was the only one in the world.