The War of the Marigolds
There were marigolds in the water. Left to their own devices, in the years of uninterrupted solitude, they had thrived, growing wild and prolific. As she closed her eyes, they blurred and it was like sinking into a pool of golden sun.
Is this what dying feels like? she wondered. If so, she liked it. Bright and ambrosial, it had the smell of sun ripened fruit. It conjured her youth, and a time when she too might have thrived and grown into a blither, less cautionary version of herself. But reality had pierced the marrow of her. In the process, her spirit had seeped out, whether slowly or all at once, she couldn’t be certain. But it had left the rest of her sunken, derelict and consumed by longing. Each day she woke more tired than the day before, until she felt like a hungry shadow. All darkness in the brightest light.
Today, her limbs had a tired but satisfied ache from her ramble through the woods. They sighed beneath her as she collapsed into the grass on the bank of the pond. Was it her dizziness? Or were there were butterflies circling around her? Round and round, a procession of fluttering, silken veils. She could feel their wings whispering against her skin.
Charlie. He had given her butterfly kisses. When he was 17 and she was 16, he had flickered his eyelashes against her cheek and let them linger there. It tickled and she had laughed. Her laughter uncovered a place of sweetness inside her that grew. Had he created it or had it always been there? She considers the unanswerable question. It nestles in her mind, an indulgence to savour.
His eyes were blue, cloudless, and full of promises. The thing she most remembers about him was his laugh. Deeper than she expected, it changed the temperature of the air.
He had transferred in mid-semester to the local high school. Just shown up one day, with a faded backpack and the slumped gate of someone accustomed to being a foot taller than everyone else. His appearance, ineffably ordinary but strikingly at ease, had caused a ripple. The girls looked, the boys considered. She ignored him. Because she was the kind of girl who did her thing and generally kept to herself. But it happened so naturally, just unfolded, really. Like the pages of a pop-up fairy tale book edged with sparkles she couldn’t bear to press back down. It summoned her before she knew it was her story.
He caught her eye in Algebra class, and held it, his eyebrow arched with a quizzical expression. The heat spread up her neck and tingled.
His thought flickered through her mind, a lit candle: What use is Algebra?
And she had silently shrugged her response on impulse: Algebra is for people who like to put things in boxes.
He laughed out loud, then, explosively guffawed. The pulse of the class was temporarily resuscitated. Shaken from their malaise, students twisted in their seats to gape, hoping for a reason to keep breathing. But it was just the new boy spontaneously laughing. Just a little dose of crazy in an ordinary day.
From the start, she had known what he was thinking. But more than that, they had been able to talk, mind to mind. It was shocking, disturbing, even. She had read about telepathy and had dismissed it as fantasy. Something you might watch late at night on a sci-fi station. But this was an actual real life encounter with it. It was like waking up to a UFO on the front lawn or talking to dead people…crazy with a capital K. How had she heard him, and how for the love of Christ had she known how to respond back? She thought it was bonkers. She questioned it. And doubted it. She was about to discard it as the fabrication of a bored and restless mind. But then it happened. Again.
In the cafeteria, at lunch, she was contemplating the wilted, sweaty french fries and congealed swamp that passed as gravy, when she felt a breeze and the hairs raised on the back of her neck.
It looks like things go to die in there. I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.
She swiveled suddenly and he was behind her. She must have looked like a deer caught in the headlights, frozen in fear, ready to bolt, but curious.
“I’m Charlie,” he said.
She had seen his mouth move this time. “Who are you?” she blurted. What are you?
“Charlie,” he repeated a little more slowly, “is who I am.” I promise not to bite. But I can’t say the same for the food here, he added silently.
Her mouth twitched and she smiled, despite herself.
It was like he had always been there. People grew accustomed to him, just absorbed him. It was so effortless to know him. Was this one of his gifts? she wonders. They relaxed around him. And his presence in her memory is like soothing water.
He lived a few blocks away from her in a rental house with his mother and sister. It had a yard that backed on a ravine. People said the ravine was haunted. It was overgrown with vines and trees whose gnarled limbs twined into each other. But they loved to walk in there. It was a magical place, full of winged creatures, birds and butterflies, mostly. Stray animals dogs and cats would appear and nuzzle against his legs. He would pat them idly or just continue along. In her memory, he was like the pied piper come to life.
She tried to keep her guard up, but it was impossible. How could she resist the magnetic pull of him, when she could feel him at any given point of the day? Did other people have this…ability? she pondered. Was this a secret that no one spoke of? Did their minds connect? Were they also carrying on covert conversations, their emotions swirling behind the smooth surface of their faces? The world seemed rife with mystery. She even ventured to ask her Mom if she had ever heard Dad’s thoughts when he was younger, before he had died in the war. She tried to sound casual. But her Mom had snorted contemptuously, “What? Like a psychic?”
She asked Charlie once, why they could connect mind to mind, but he said he didn’t really know why.
“Some times you just know parts of things. And what those parts create is unexpected.”
He had reached out and tugged a lock of her hair and it was as if he tugged away her doubt. It sighed and blew to dust.
She recalls a memory of a lazy afternoon they spent together. An amalgam of many similar afternoons, it is so satisfying in its ordinariness. She has relived the details so often, that, now, she is unsure whether they are real or embellished. She remembers, they recline on her bed reading books, heads at opposite ends. She watches the leaves of the oak tree swaying and press against the window. The afternoon sunlight is soft and fading. His dark curly hair tumbles in his eyes, a mop without direction. She silently admires his plaid shirt. Later, he gives it to her, without any comment, just hands it to her. His eyes are full of a strange light, a mix of owlish wisdom and innocence. He is ageless in her memory. And they are best friends. But she is also someone else, untouched by despair yet.
In those days, she would wake up and find he had placed a question or a comment inside her mind. Let’s go for a walk later in the ravine. Meet me before school?
It would give her a delicious shiver. It was like email but so much better. He managed to do it without ever being intrusive.
Good night. Sweet dreams. See you on the other side. He would whisper in her mind late at night.
When they walked in the ravine one day, she reached out and put her hand on jagged fence. She gasped. A shock surged through her as it ripped the flesh of the palm of her hand. Her blood was red like crushed berries. It throbbed and the pain swam to her head.
He steadied her as took her hand, calmly wrapping it in a sweater he had tied around his waist. He kept it pressed firmly between his hands. It felt hot and prickly. When she tried to pull it away, he said, “Hold on.” And then, “A little longer.”
“What are you doing?” she asked, focusing on the frown line that creased his forehead. A tree branch without direction.
He shrugged. It was as if a silent wave surged from his hands to hers. It flowed through her and engulfed her in a funnel. And, he was still, paused somewhere in between.
“Monica?” He peered at her, waking her from her trance, calling her back.
When she looked, unbelievably, the cut was gone and so was the pain. Except for a streak of copper brown against her palm, it was as if it had never happened.
“How did you that?” she questioned.
“Do what?” he answered with a shrug.
Do you heal things? She asked, stopping him, hand on his shoulder. Seriously, do you?
He regarded her levelly for a moment. Things decide to heal themselves. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of asking.
How… she had more questions. But then he kissed her. Pulled her tight, and she felt the layers of him brush against her. His heat was a blanket and it wrapped her up inside a jumble of things. It made her feel inside out. And for a second her vision blurred and it was like she could see atoms, the grains of the universe, dancing.
I love you Monica, he whispered to her that night as she fell asleep. And I will never put you in a box.
She opens her eyes from her golden sleep. Her brother, Ed, sits on a rock across the pond watching her. He is long dead. So she knows he is a ghost or a delusion, a product of the pills she took earlier.
“You,” she spits with disgust. Bile rises in her throat. Surprised at how much she hates him. Still.
He says nothing, just watches her with his mean cat eyes.
“It was your fault he died!” she screams, fury boiling to the surface.
He says nothing, just watches. How could he have been her brother? How could someone so cruel share her blood?
Ed was her opposite. Blonde, outspoken, confident. He was an overachiever. He was popular, a ‘chick magnet’. Girls would call in an endless string, with growing desperation. He would ignore them, until she would finally take pity and tell the latest it was over. Her mom loved him most and this filled him with something unfortunate: a sense of infallibility.
But, then, Charlie appeared. And her brother liked him, too. This was a surprise as they seldom agreed on anything. Charlie could make Ed, her otherwise humorless brother, laugh. When Charlie was over, they would sometimes watch TV or go fishing or just hang out. Charlie softened Ed’s harshness and made up for his lack of empathy. They became peaceful cohabitants in the same house. They had someone in common, someone they agreed on.
But a few days after she and Charlie first kissed, everything changed. She heard the screen door slam. It was Ed, red-faced and fuming. He threw her a scathing glance and turned away. He hurdled a bottle against the wall. Shards of glass exploded everywhere.
When she asked him what was wrong, he said, “Charlie always throws the fish back. He’s a fucking waste of space.” A vein pulsed at his temple, green and blue. And she knew enough to keep her distance. She also knew the fight had been about more than fish.
Ed held grudges. His heart had been hot or cold since her earliest memories of him. When incited, he was not to be crossed. And this was no different.
When she asked Charlie what happened, he sighed regretfully. “Ed happened…”
Each time she sees him, it is like falling into happiness. She spends more time away from Ed, who broods around the house when he isn’t at his job as a lifeguard. Charlie’s little sister Tabitha smiles a toothless smile and sits beside him on the couch watching TV. They flip quickly through images of carnage of the growing war on the continent. The war that everyone said wouldn’t happen. And then everyone said would soon be over. But, instead, had lasted more than three years and taken someone from everyone. Charlie’s mom is gone most of the time, working two jobs. And so they make an easy trio without Ed. A triangle without edges.
But Ed’s resentment burns brightly. His meanness finds endless tedious expression. Locking her out of the house, throwing out her dinner. Little things that make her wonder, how he can hold so tight to the past, with such certainty. Then it is summer and he is doing flips off the dock, at the lake, showing off for the local girls. Blonde and bronzed, looking like a California surfer, he miscalculates and clips his head on the edge. He disappears into the water. For brief seconds, it is like he was never there.
She remembers him limp and lifeless on the sandy shore. A body without a soul. The other lifeguards are unable to revive him. His face has a greenish tinge. Then, Charlie is kneeling beside him. No one stops him. He is all business. He puts his hands on Ed’s chest then holds them there. The lifeguards watch in shock. The tension mounts in the bystanders as they grow more bewildered. Then, Ed coughs up water and bile and returns to the land of the living. Everyone is grateful, except Ed, who, inexplicably, holds it against him.
A few days after the lake, all the wind gushes out of her suddenly. She leans against a wall. She has a metallic taste in her mouth and a ringing in one ear. Charlie. Everything ok?
Just fine, he answers after a minute of silence.
When she meets him later, he has a bruised, swollen eye. He admits her brother was the culprit.
Later, she presses ice against it. “Why can’t you heal it like my hand? Or my nasty-assed, waste of space brother? You saved him after all.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” he answers.
“How does it work?” she stares at him.
“I don’t choose. It just…happens or it doesn’t.”
She confronts her brother. Beams him with a textbook and then another.
“What is your problem? What did he ever do to you, except save your life?”
“Maybe it didn’t need saving. Did you ever think of that? Maybe I didn’t want to be saved.” He lunges and squeezes her arm so hard she winces. “Don’t worry, one day I will return the favour.”
These words give her a chill. They are a threat that linger.
When Charlie gets drafted for the war, it is the worst day of her life. There is a draw at school for all students over 17. It is a new measure to pull from younger citizens as older soldiers have been killed and wounded in increasing numbers. He should be exempt. He hasn’t been a Canadian resident long enough. When his name is announced over the loudspeaker, she a feels a dull thudding sensation and wakes up on the floor. There must be a mistake. But apparently the rules have been changed in time for Charlie.
He will go for novice training and then join the forces in Europe. That’s where the conflict is especially bad. She cannot bear the thought of losing him, but worst, she cannot bear the silence he will leave behind.
They make love for the first time a week before he leaves.
“This isn’t because you feel sorry for me leaving?” he asks sheepishly. “Because if it is, I’m not stopping you.”
She tugs his shirt over his head.
No…it’s just because.
Well, that is the best reason…He kisses her, again and again.
She falls asleep and when she awakens, he is sitting in a chair staring out the window.
“Charlie?” She wraps a blanket around her shoulders. The room is freezing.
“Charlie? Where are you?” She shudders. He is like a ghost. “Charlie?”
Her fingers reach out to touch him, but his skin is so cold. The coldness creeps into his eyes. They are vacant mirrors. She reaches out for him but can’t find him. He blinks and shudders. It as if he has emerged from the tangled lines of the future.
All next day there is an ache in her stomach and a lump in her throat.
He stops her at the door. “Remember one thing? Promise me? No matter what?”
“I promise,” she answers.
“Forgiveness turns the tide.”
“What?” She blinks.
“Forgiveness turns the tide.”
Her voice quavers with a surge of disdain. “Is that a riddle? Who should I forgive? Anyone in particular?”
But he smiles and kisses her mouth. His kiss swallows the pain, the doubt, melts the despair. It is a kiss she never forgets.
Forgiveness turns the tide.
It stays with her long after his departure. It comes to her in odd moments of days when his face has faded. The words linger.
Her brother has escaped the draw. His jubilation only increases after Charlie departs. It is like his anger and joy snarl together in an electric swirl. She hates him for it. Now she hates him. He lives loudly and it mocks her. He sometimes looks at her as though he has a delicious secret.
It is two years later, and Ed is shipping out to be a peacekeeper. It is a coveted position, traveling to one of the peaceful territories. She has finished her physician’s assistant diploma and has come to watch him go, anticipating the relief of his exit.
Seconds before he leaves, he leans in close, mouth next to her ear, “It was me,” he whispers with malice. “I had them put his name in. I made sure it got picked. There was a girl and…let’s just say, she didn’t take much convincing. They never do.”
She stares at him and blinks. Her stomach dives. She should be shocked. But part of her has always known.
“Why?” she asks finally. She grips his arm. “Why?”
There is a moment of truth, when the mask slips and she sees him. The sickness, the sorrow, the lost boy.
“I could hear him, too.”
“I could hear him, too,” her brother, the ghost repeats it now as he sits by the pond.
“That secret language you thought was only yours. The telepathy. But he never spoke to me. He never spoke to me! I couldn’t stand it. I heard it all…”
She summons her contempt. “Should I feel sorry for you? Because I don’t. Not even now.”
“Forgiveness turns the tide,” he says. And it is as if Charlie has spoken through him. The word shiver through her. How could he know his last words to her? She stares at him, stunned.
Charlie trains to be a medic. He speaks to her in little bits and pieces at first. They are like gifts of reassurance, just little feelings and words in her head. Give my love to Tabs or I could really use some Doritos. But he never answers her questions, never tells her how he is, really. Sometimes she wakes with her heart pounding, full of terror and a rotten taste in her mouth. And the smell of burning flesh. Indescribable, it is terribly sweet and putrid. It lingers. She has terrible nightmares. She sleeps less and less.
Then one day, there is silence, like static after a phone dangles off the hook. It is after they have been relocated into the country to avoid the bombing. She tries to find him. To reach out for him. Charlie, please…please answer. And she prays to God, the God of the ravine, of the earth and the sky.
She works in hospital as a PA. She searches each of the patients’ faces for something. A sign of him. But gets nothing
Then one day, her brother sends her a letter. “I had a message. Charlie is dead. I’m so sorry.”
And so he delivers the worst blow yet. Had he meant it as an act of kindness? She wonders, a kind of twisted attrition for his cruelty? Or was it to rub the salt in? Maybe, she thinks now, even he didn’t know.
And then he dies too, in a car bombing a few months later.
She wants to feel glad, to savor the irony, rejoice that the monster who took Charlie from her is dead. But she can’t. Because that would make her a monster, too. And some part of her is not a monster. Not yet.
And there’s her mom, who dies after Charlie, from cancer of the liver. She fades quickly sinking into her grief. Consumed by disappointment and futility.
“Will I see him again?” her Mom asks her one day close to the end.
“No, I don’t think so,” the words form before she can think. Her own coldness should shock her. But she has grown used to it. Her mom still craves Ed in her last moments. Ed who never loved her at all or her mother enough. And it is Ed who took Charlie from her. Ed who twisted her heart into something unrecognizable.
She has heard that people can move back up the coast. Return home. Home…the word feels foreign, like an exotic food or a beach vacation by a tranquil sea. The promise of security, of her own bed, of life before beckons. Her house is there. Dusty but still in one piece. But his memory is everywhere. She looks up one morning and the sky is blue and cloudless. And it is like staring into his eyes. So she swallows a bottle of pills. She finds her way to their old pond, in the haunted ravine, where she has to fight her way through the over grown tangle of oak and poplar trees, bushes, water reeds, and marshy grasses.
Maybe she will find peace, she thinks, and it will be like gently nodding off into sleep. But, instead, there is her brother’s ghost. And his soul is no longer empty. Maybe it never was. So she forgives him. If it is possible to forgive a ghost.
She knows he loved Charlie too and love unreturned is an anguish she has never had to feel. And she can only imagine the torment of not being loved by Charlie. And perhaps, just perhaps, she has haunted him all this time.
Forgiveness turns the tide, she says silently. A single tear trickles out of his eye and she knows that the ghost that used to be her brother understands.
She wants to ask him so badly: “Where is Charlie? Have you seen him?” But instead when she opens her mouth, out pours the pills and stomach acid and the contents of breakfast.
When she looks up. He is gone. And so is her chance to know.
The war slows and then ends, with an uneasy peace. Some people return. Many don’t. Most are something in between friends and strangers. Older, thinner, frayed. She enrolls in college, to give herself a routine. His mom moves to another town. But Tabitha returns and stays with her. She is grateful for her company.
Good-night. Sweet dreams. See you on the other side. Her eyes fly open and she sits upright in bed. And she wonders if it is a recording, an echo, or a ghost of his voice from so long ago. Something beats a rhythm on the bedroom window, like a pair of wings. She rushes to the window but there is nothing but the tiniest grey moth fluttering helplessly.
The next day the phone rings. It’s Tabitha who picks it up. Blonde and 16, the age she had been when she met him for the first time. Her face tells the story of resurrected hope. “It’s Charlie. There’s been a mistake. He’s alive.”
He has been in a coma for many months. He is full of tubes measuring, pumping, moving fluids. The nurse says, “He shouldn’t be alive. You should know. It’s unlikely he will ever gain consciousness.”
“I used to be a PA,” she says fumbling.
“Then you know there isn’t much hope.”
The doctor leaves it up to Tabitha who leaves it up to her. Will she take him off life support?
He looks old and frail and locked away, as though he never was a boy at all. His hair is greying at the temples. How could she end him now? He has survived. How could she decide to finish Charlie?
She watches him for signs the next few days. She waits for his voice in her head. But there is only the background noise of the monitor.
She tries a joke: Charlie. Wherever you are, don’t eat the gravy.
His eyelids flutter as if dreaming. She knows this means nothing. She strokes a patch of grey hair. She tries again: I don’t think much of your new hair colour.
His eyebrows lift again and his mouth seems to flicker. Now I am losing my mind and finally going crazy.
So, she observes the details of him as if it might help her decide. She notices an old pink scar running across his cheek, as though it was slashed. She traces her index finger in the air above it, close but not close enough to touch. She notices a heat in her fingertip and a familiar electricity. Like the static before a storm or clothes fresh out of a dryer. Do his fingers twitch?
She knows this is just another reflex, common in coma patients.
She leans over her him.
Charlie? She sighs and a tear trickles down her cheek and then another. They land on the skin of his collarbone.
She climbs into bed and lies in the sliver of space beside him.
Are you in there?
She takes her finger and hesitantly brings it to the scar on his face. Does it look lighter? She traces it slowly, his skin is hot, and his brow crinkles in a familiar way.
I am finally completely losing my mind. I am making it up. I am hallucinating.
She places her hand over his heart. And she feels the pulse thud pulse and the accompanying monitor. Then something does happen.
The pulse seems to speed up. And that would be nothing, but the monitor does too. And his eyes are open. Are they looking at her or is that just a reflex? His pupils move. She stops breathing.
If you keep holding your breath, you’ll pass out. And you’ll be the one in the bed. And trust me, the service sucks.
Charlie?! “Are you awake? Say something? Do something!”
It would be easier if someone would get this fucking tube out of my throat.
She buzzes for the nurse. Who looks like she spilled her soup down her front she is so surprised. She speaks very loudly. “Do you know where you are? You were in a coma for some time.”
She’s the nasty one. Tell her I’d like to put her in a coma.
She suppresses a laugh. “He knows.”
He reaches an arm for her. Come back here. Don’t be a stranger.
She crawls in beside him. He continues. I was remembering the first time I saw you, in Algebra class. I’d eat gravy every day. Hell, I’d swim in it, just to be able to kiss you again.
She kisses his dry parched lips as the room fills up with doctors and nurses. Eager for a reason to see this medical anomaly. Eager for hope. He doesn’t disappoint. And she laughs because she never ever imagined being this happy again. Its sweetness exceeds her expectations. She knows that this must be joy.
His survival is a miracle. They don’t know how it is possible. The internal injuries, the brain damage should have finished him. But she has seen him do the impossible. He has come back from a vegetative state. His heart is weakened, though. Over the next few weeks his breathing is raspy. They give him oxygen to take with him. She thinks he just needs a little more time to heal. Sometimes, Tabitha hugs him so hard he coughs and gasps.
“Death by hugging. Good one Tabs.”
And her happiness flows like water. All of the details are small gifts. All of the time they shouldn’t have. Eating lunch, talking. They walk in the ravine, side by side. But this time, animals visit. He is not the pied piper. It is like they know what she won’t admit.
They communicate mostly through telepathy. Mind to mind. Heart to heart. Sometimes she catches him staring at nothing and his eyes are rivers of darkness. They hold hands. There is always some part of them touching.
I saw my brother. One day, I took some pills. And his ghost showed up. He doesn’t seem surprised, so she continues. He told me…that he heard us. You know, telepathically? And it tormented him.
He blinks. I didn’t know. I thought it was just between us…
He loved you.
Yes, love. Love turned to hate…turned back to love. He sighs.
“Now you know what I want?” He is in bed. He has a hard time getting up. It is Spring and the birds sing and the world blooms outside them as if celebrating. She thinks it is cruel that there could be so much beauty and vitality all around him. The sky shimmers a deep satisfied blue. And then later, she thinks it is nature’s way of offering him an invitation, of making its own promise. He smiles, “A butterfly kiss…”
“If you promise it won’t be our last,” she answers with trepidation.
He says nothing but puts his hand over hers. His breathing is raspy, full of liquid. She wishes that she had his gift. To heal.
I can promise to give you a butterfly kiss every day for eternity.
She smiles and her eyelashes caress his skin in the old way. But her tears are salty and streak his cheek. She wipes them away and when she looks back, his eyes are closed.
She feels the swishing sensation. She knows it is the ether of him, his once bright spirit, leaving the room.
She knows her brother will meet him and it will be as if they are old friends. Because both boys hurt and loved and lost. And found peace. Forgiveness turned the tide and she could only hope the world would follow.
She often visits the pond in the wood, brightly lit with marigolds. Now lush and blooming on the edge of humanity despite all its turbulence and volatility, it is impossible to distinguish where they end and the water begins. Having accepted the rhythm of their own short lived beauty, they have discovered a bountiful harmony. They are the best kind of victors, the victors of the seasons through sheer endurance, without even knowing it. The silent observers of the cycles, of their own end and rebirth, threaded through the water, searching for sunlight. But their color, the gold spun orange, she thinks, is the color of hope. And. She wonders if they witness her. And whom they will witness after her.
And, sometimes, she feels a tickling on her cheek and she knows it is Charlie keeping the promise of butterfly kisses.