Bebe Kelly: Reclusive; retired software engineer; faithful reader; gardener; collector of languages and words.
Deep in the woods outside of town, where pretty much no one ever went anymore, Darling Lily used to live in a small cottage.
Darling Lily's wits had been handled a little roughly by the gods when her fiance was killed in the Great War. For a few years afterward, she wandered the streets of our town trailing her lace shawls behind her in the dust and looking into windows and faces, searching, searching. More than one young buck fancied he could catch the attention of those pretty, mad eyes but of course, none of them ever did and after awhile, none of them tried anymore.
Her parents tried to keep her locked away in their proper house with its proper picket fence at the end of Maple Street but it was no good; Darling Lily was as clever as any small animal about escaping. Her parents kept a maid who dressed Darling Lily and combed her long curls into order each morning and picked the straw and bird feathers out of them at night when she had been recaptured or came to roost. At first, it was sad to see such a fine young woman wandering aimlessly, smiling and humming and peering in doorways but after a time, Darling Lily's wanderings were simply part of town life. People grew accustomed to her sweet sad face peering in windows while they baked or her silent presence joining them on the front steps in the twilight cool.
When her parents died, a cousin from St. Louis helped Darling Lily sell the big fine house on Maple Street. Not long after that she moved out to the cottage in the woods with a housekeeper, the housekeeper's caretaker husband and six brindle cats. Lily passed in large part from the town's memory then and when she wandered, she wandered where most townsmen couldn't see or remark.
Another big war came and went. Darling Lily's caretakers made regular trips into town for supplies but no one but old timers like myself could have guessed who they might be. Those of us who did remember Miss Lily decided it was for the best that she was safely tucked away out in her rustic cottage. Our town wasn't so small anymore and the rush of automobile traffic would have been outright dangerous for a spirit like hers. Once in awhile someone would mention her during beery ramblings at the tavern and then one of us would drive out there just to spy the cottage and see that all was still well.
And once in awhile, one of us would even catch sight of Miss Lily on the porch or in the garden. The years had done little harm to her calm beauty, in our opinions; she was still as sweet looking as we remembered even with her gold curls gone grey and tucked up neatly these days. Her blue eyes were as piercing as ever and she would still vanish wordlessly if anyone tried to talk to her. With her old fashioned air and those lace shawls, she seemed like a ghost of gentler times.
One day, some of us were sitting around at Johannsen's hardware when the gossip turned to a traveling salesman that had been chased away from someone's parlor after being caught rifling the silver chest. Talk was he'd been seen at a few other houses on the outskirts of town so he was probably moving on, helped here and there by a less than friendly shove. I recall the jolt my heart took at hearing this. I told the boys some small lie and got in my old truck to head over to the woods.
All the way out to Miss Lily's I kept thinking how stupid it was to think anyone could live like some sort of free will o' the wisp in this unkind day and age. I didn't know how fast that old Ford could go until that day; we made it to the cottage in half the usual time. I pulled right up into the drive, for the first time ever, piled out and ran up the front walk as fast as I could. By the time my boot hit the bottom stair, Miss Lily herself was standing on the porch watching me. I pulled up short, yanked my hat off and stood huffing for a minute. Good heavens, but I could barely breathe!
Miss Lily looked at me with those amazing blue eyes and sighed. "You'd better come in, Milo Wilcox. You look like you're going to have a heart attack."
These were the first words Miss Lily had said to me in easily forty years. They weren't the last, thank goodness.
As I said at the start, Darling Lily used to live in a cottage in the woods. Now she lives in a fairly nice, if I do say so myself, farmhouse over by the old mill. I've learned a lot from our association over the years, most of it in the last couple.
I've learned that grief and madness are close cousins but both have a way of healing. I've learned that freedom is hard to give up after you've had a taste. I've learned that it's always best to ask when you're not sure what someone is thinking. I've learned that a living woman with a sharpish tongue and a way with cats is a far better companion than even the prettiest ghost.