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Ditch Lilies

by Werner A. Low

While we were having lunch on the patio, my father told me that when he was younger—about my present age I thought he was saying—he’d tried it the other way around, several times, but it had never worked. I squinted back in time and said that I seemed to recall one spring when he’d uprooted a clump of hepatica from the Reservation and planted it on the hillside behind our house, picking a spot that wasn’t shaded by the white pines, maybe even testing the soil to try and match the pH in the woods.

“Yes,” he nodded, that was right, and he remembered thinking how the color of the litmus paper was close to the color of the flowers he was hoping to grow there. But it hadn’t worked. The shiny, liver-shaped leaves made it through the winter, but there were no flowers in the spring, and by the end of the summer it was all gone.

He confessed that he’d also tried to bring in some purple lady slippers, and a couple clumps of wood violets that were actually—he loved the irony in this—cadmium yellow, but neither of them had made it, either, and he’d come to think that maybe that was just as well. He knew where all the wildflowers were in the Reservation, and when they would be out—for example, that the hepatica and blood root flowered early, before the canopy leafed them into shade. Those wildflowers were among friends in their special spots, like the lady slippers that stood like spectators on a particular hillside deep in the forest—and not just a couple of them, but hundreds and hundreds over about a half a mile. He had a calendar of when to look for what, and it gave his long walks a mission, especially after mother died. And so he had stopped trying to bring them in, years ago, telling himself that it would not have been the same to have a few specimens imprisoned on his seven acres. It might have even been wrong.

We’d spent the morning sticking labels on things—what was to be given to whom, what was to be sold, what was for charity, what could be tossed, and the 20 percent that would fit in his efficient new condo. The biggest problem was the canvases in his painting shed, because there were hundreds and hundreds of them, none small.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” he said, “and the shed will burn down while we’re on our walk. If you could persuade the insurance company that they’re worth even a thousand apiece, you and Sandy would do very well.”

Although my father had been a surveyor, by trade, he’d painted his whole life—all landscapes and still-lives, not even the shadow of a human being in any of them. He’d exhibited at half a dozen shows, a couple dozen paintings hung in parlors and bedrooms across the country, and he had one piece in a museum in Cleveland, and but he’d never come close to making the mark he’d dreamed of when he was younger.

The Reservation bordered his property, and as we headed out, after lunch, he stressed that this would not be his last walk through these woods. He was keeping his car, and his new place was only 11 miles away, so he’d drive over from time to time, especially in the spring, before the horse flies and mosquitoes took over. Nonetheless, it felt like a last walk to me, since I lived 1,009 miles away (according to the Internet).

We each carried a plastic bag, as always, and picked up cans, candy bar wrappers, and even filtered cigarette butts along the main trail. Then, at a spot I remembered, we swung off into the deeper woods, following what looked like a wild animal path.

He had the route planned out, and made a point of taking me past the “famous” places—like the gully where, one spring, we’d found a dead mother raccoon with three babies curled into her chest, still embedded in ice and snow; the vernal pool where, in addition to catching (and releasing) many yellow-spotted salamanders, I had once held a smaller and more delicate blue-spotted salamander in the palm of my hand; and the deeply shaded block of hemlocks where, as he’d told me several times, he wanted some of his ashes scattered.

“Not that you have to worry about that too much, at 69,” I said.

“I’m not worried at all,” he said. “Death will be easy for me. I just worry that you kids aren’t ready to stand on your own yet.”

It was a joke. And it wasn’t.

That Reservation spans 3,200 acres, and we hiked into one of the most isolated corners—far from any of the marked trails. At a certain point I could feel that we were getting close to something, but I had no idea what it was, even though he had sort of told me.

Finally he stopped – not suddenly, as if he’d heard or spotted something, but slowly and deliberately, like a car coasting up to a light. I stopped beside him. I didn’t see anything special about this spot, so I looked at him for a clue. His eyes were fixed on the hillside that faced us, so I looked up there, and then it was easy to see: five or six spots of such a bright and particular shade of orange that I knew immediately what it was.

“Ditch lilies?” I said.

“Yup,” he nodded. “Europa. Though they hail, originally, from Asia.”

“And you put them there?”

He nodded again, making a point of not looking at me.

We climbed up toward them.

I’d always liked daylilies, and these orange ones the best, even though they were considered common. I liked it that, while they only bloomed for one day, they seemed to bloom for a month because there were so many buds. I liked it that they were “spunky little bastards,” as my father had often said. And I liked the story about how he had literally pulled a few specimens out of a ditch, many years earlier, when he and my mother didn’t have enough money to be shopping at garden supply centers, and planted them alongside the driveway of our first house—the house they bought right after I was born – and those few had eventually expanded into a full and rich bed of flowers from which he had taken a few bulbs to his present house.

“When did you put them in?” I asked, as we stood over them. Because they looked solidly entrenched.

“The spring before last,” he said. “And they seem to like it here. But not so much that they’re going to go crazy. The light is only so-so, the soil is acidic, and they would rather that it was wetter. So I don’t see them going kudzu on us. If I leave them here, that is.”

I looked at him and wondered if he was asking me for permission. That would have surprised me, because my father had never been one to ask my permission to do anything.

“Does that mean you haven’t decided?” I said, putting it back on him.

He said he worried that there was a certain artificiality to it. Not that this would be the only case.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He said that there were several spots in the Reservation where homes had once stood, and around them there was still myrtle, pachysandra, sunflowers, even some zinnias.

“If I worked at it I could probably list 50 naturalized species that are out here in one place or another,” he said, sounding more confident now, like a lawyer with a solid case.

I must have made some kind of face because he nodded and said, “But you’re right, this is different.”

“The Trustees wouldn’t approve,” I said.

“No,” he said, shaking his head, “they wouldn’t. Those old farts.”

I took a deep breath and looked at the brown pine needles on the ground to my right.

He took a deep breath and looked at pine needles on the ground to his left.

Then we headed back.

We walked in silence until we got back to the main trail. Then, as he was tipping the rain water out of a red and white beer car, I asked him what his thinking was.

He repeated that he liked the idea that the occasional person might happen by, not that very many people got out that far, be surprised by the burst of orange, wonder how the daylilies had gotten there, as he had wondered about the people who lived in the houses where there were now just tumbled fieldstone foundations. Because of the color one of them might even say, “It looks like Paul Gauguin passed this way.”

“Is it also that you want to leave a mark?” I asked.

Although he paused a second, it wasn’t to reflect on my question, because I was sure that he had already given the subject plenty of thought. He had always been a man who thought things through – who surveyed them, as it were—and took firm positions.

“Yes,” he conceded. “That is part of it.”

My thoughts slid from Gauguin to Rousseau. My father had several times told me that Henri Rousseau had never left Paris, but had painted his exotic jungle scenes from books and from visiting the botanical gardens. I hadn’t thought about it this way when I was a kid, but I now wondered if that was what he’d been getting at – that if Rousseau could live in the city, and Kafka could work at an insurance company, was there any reason why a surveyor with a wife and two kids couldn’t be a serious painter?

I felt a little guilty about that, about arriving when my father was only 21. Not that he had ever blamed his suburban life on me or my sister. To be honest, though, I couldn’t picture anyone as tight as him leading the Bohemian life style of an artist.

When we got back to the house we sorted through a few more items. In fact, there hadn’t been that many decisions to make because my father, an incredibly organized person, already had a good idea who should get what. It was more a matter of confirming that I wanted certain things now, and would be happy to receive other things when “that time” came. So the only real question that remained as the time drew near for us to head to the airport was the shed full of paintings.

I said that I just didn’t know what to say about that, that it wasn’t really my place.

He nodded and said that he understood.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll make that decision,” he said.

I nodded, semi-reverently.

“But I do need you to decide about the other thing,” he said, and with a little edge, as if he was accusing me trying to get away.

“You mean the lilies?” I said.

He nodded, fixing me hard with his eyes.

He was right; I had hoped to duck it. And even now I approached the question very carefully, though probably the same way that he would have if I had asked him a similar question. I mean, somewhat legally.

“You said that you finally decided that it would have been wrong—I think you actually used the word ‘wrong’—to bring some wildflowers into the yard, right?”

“Yes,” he admitted.

“Well, then, isn’t this kind of the same thing, just backwards?”

“Yes,” he nodded, “I guess it is.” But he didn’t go on to say that, therefore, he shouldn’t have done it, and would undo it. He just looked at me.

My father was the kind of person who, when I was a kid, if he told me to be home by ten he meant by 10:00, not 10:05, or even 10:01. And if he offered me a $100 bonus for all As, he didn’t mean three As and a B+. I had always respected those principles and, particularly, the consistency with which he had enforced them, even if I had later come to feel, when I had my own children, that there had been a certain detachment in it—that having rules helped him to not have to feel the complexity of emotions.

So now, if I was to honor those principles, I would have to say that it was wrong, and he should dig the lilies up and put them back in the yard before the closing. And that was exactly what he thought he should do – I could see it in his eyes. But I could also see a glimmer of something else, which might or might not have the death that he said he wasn’t afraid of.

There was a long, balanced moment in which I could have tipped either way. But then, with a sudden and surprising certainty I said, “I think you should leave them.”

His face swelled with suppressed joy.

“I do think it’s a little wrong,” I added, partly to cover the fact that I was choking up a little. “But I think you’ve earned the right. I mean, how many wrong things have you done in your life?”

“Not many,” he conceded, shaking his head. And now he looked like he might be about to lose it.

“Maybe not enough,” I said, raising an eyebrow admonishingly, like him looking at my B+ in French.

He sighed, and smiled, and did about 19 other things at the same time.

We took off to the north and then banked west, right over the Reservation. I could tell where it was by where the lights were not—a large blanket of darkness.

I squinted at the corner where the ditch lilies were sleeping, closed up for the night. I pictured them like a campfire that’s been put out, a couple of embers still glowing in the ground. And I imagined myself going back there, years in the future, after my father was gone, perhaps after spreading his ashes in the hemlocks first, then heading over, and wondering, before I got there, what I would find. A couple specimens? A hillside dotted with them? Or not a trace?

Then the plane leveled out and the sky filled with stars.


Werner A. Low's poems and short stories have appeared in more than a dozen literary magazines. A novel, The Prophet of Essaouira, is looking for a publisher.
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