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Lilacs Out of the Dead Land

Matt Mikalatos is the author of fantasy novel The Sword of Six Worlds and a moving memoir, Sky Lantern. You can learn more about him here: mikalatos.com. Years ago he planted a tiny maple tree in his yard. It turns a gorgeous flame red in the fall and is now taller than the house.

The seed cost a year's salary.
It arrived in a small wooden box, packed in pearl-colored satin. He turned it gently in his palm, where it stuttered against the glint of gold on his finger, polished and nut-brown, with swirls of lighter color.
He unfolded the onionskin directions and followed them like a sunflower follows the sun. He washed the smooth seed in warm water before wrapping it in strands of her hair and packing it in pungent midnight soil that crumbled in his hands.
The sapling sprouted and seasons passed but the tree did not speak. It was straight and smooth-barked and in the fall the leaves flared with flame nearly the shade of her hair but only nearly. Sometimes in the spring there were delicate coral flowers, curved and smiling.
He heard from an old woman who bought a box bursting with seeds, straight and black as fire-hardened nails and she had thrown them in her yard and her husband had sprouted messages, thousands upon thousands that jumped up in the breeze and kissed her and reminded her to take her purple pills and whispered remembrances of sun-drenched picnics.
A father's daughter had come as cuttings, something like bamboo, and on summer days he could hear soft laughter when the wind touched the shadowed leaves above his head.
A woman planted lilacs, purple petals outlined in pale white, which burst to life in threes like the three children in the car accident and every other year they forgave her with sweet summer perfume that caused her eyes to water.
If his tree spoke, she spoke only to the singing birds. Her messages were carried off by the children who crawled in the cradle of her branches. He drifted daily into her shade. He brought her anniversary cards. He put his head against her and slept. He laid cut flowers at her roots, and swept away the wilted petals. She was not the tree, he knew this, but he told the tree he loved her, would always love her.
One day in late fall when he sat beneath her in the increasing gloom, when her shade was washed out by darkness and her branches raised up like skeletal hands, he found himself staring at a stem. This crisp fallen leaf, jagged and fragile, at the thickest part of the stem, had an unmistakable letter stamped into it. The letter "e."
He broke a twig and found a jumble, letters swirled and overlapping and he raced to his garage to get the loppers and in the thicker branches he found a chaos of letters, and he clutched the tree, trembling and asking, was this really the way, was this how she would speak and he ran, slipping, to the garage and got the hatchet and he bit into the bark, and hacked and wept and swung until the tree fell to one side and there in the rings, repeated in seasonal circles LIVELIVELIVEPLEASELIVEOHMYDARLINGLIVE.
He crawled in among her branches, crying hard, and held her one last time before he went inside, shaved and washed his face, and started the long journey back to the land of the living.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, June 6th, 2016

Author Comments

This story started with a prompt in a contest at Codex Writers, about plants which could do something interesting or strange. I eventually remembered a poem I hadn't read in more than 15 years... Jack Gilbert's "Marriage" from the collection The Great Fires. In that poem, the narrator finds a long strand of his deceased wife's hair wrapped in the roots of a plant he's re-potting. I knew then I needed to write about plants which let you communicate with the dead. The title is a reference to the opening lines from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." Since the story was so short, and the inspirations were both poems, I did my best to make the story function as a sort of prose poem itself. For me, this story is a reminder to live and love today. I hope you enjoyed it.

- Matt Mikalatos
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