“Lily”, she pleaded, softly. “Lily”.
Lily was lying on her back, a thin blade of grass in her mouth. She whispered something, but her voice got drowned by the discordant army of ten thousand crickets. They invaded the garden back in June and seemed now so natural, so vital, that the girls believed them to be the way the plants talked to each other. The strange language had no pauses and no intonations and you could waste a lifetime trying to understand it. You could learn Spanish, Russian, even Latin or one of those odd Eastern alphabets, but you could never understand this insane rumble inside the garden.
“Lily, but to steal!.. From my own mother. I can’t do that. Yes, I tried once, but it was not serious. Just a doll in a toy shop and…”
She could sense Lily rolling her eyes in quiet exasperation, and grew silent. Of course she was only looking for excuses. Her mother? A toy shop doll? Lily was the strong one, the one who had all the answers, but then Lily would not have to steal. She would just be standing there in her white summer frock, her freckles and her pale blue eyes glowing in the first shades of twilight. Tonight. Lily was only supposed to take the matches and light the two Chinese lanterns they had long hidden inside the shed. Behind an old rug and a few boxes of paint. Lily’s hands would remain white and silky and beautiful. It was her mind that would have to bear all the guilt. She was supposed to enter the dark bedroom down the hall and take two of the best-looking rings from her mother’s jewel-box. Lily’s idea. “They will make us look beautiful. And then we could sell them”.
It would have to be tonight, because of the summer. According to Lily, each season was different. Autumn was all over the place. Winter was never going to stop. Spring was about to start. Summer was always coming to an end. This one, too, did not have much to go on. A few more restless days, a couple of sleepless nights, and you were back to school and somehow older and smarter and more mature. As they kept telling you, from schoolteachers to grandmothers. Well, not this time. This time they had a plan, and it was so like Lily to think of something as reckless and brilliant as a sky lantern.
“I will do it, Lily. You know I will”.
Lily smiled. It was not that she was winning again, it was this lethargic hum of the garden, full of roses and carnations and daffodils and lilies, and the fact that it was all going to be all right. Tonight. That sweetest, most priceless word of them all: tonight.
The grass was delicious – the smell, but also the taste. Last summer, when Lily first appeared at the garden gate, her silhouette so languid and so elegant against the green intensity of the hedge, she explained which blades to choose and how you should always go down to the root. She explained many other things, too, about the most ‘improper’ dreams and those fascinating lanterns that had some Oriental magic hidden inside their tiny candles. In moments like that she sometimes saw the face of her mother. It was shame, confusion, doubt. If only her mother knew about a girl called Lily, a girl she spent all her days with, what would she think?..
Oddly, she never asked Lily about her mother. Or about her house. Or her garden. Lily rarely spoke about herself – and if she did, it was like she was imagining something or else talking about another girl whose name was ‘Lily’. They never met in the street or walked along the fields and other country houses. And she never asked Lily about her garden. Was it wild and overgrown? Did it also have white roses that shimmered in the dark? Were there ten thousand crickets hopping from one flower to another? Instead of asking these questions, she heard herself talking about magic lanterns and describing the smell of each flower in the garden.
And then, when she could no longer suppress her words and her questions, there was her mother’s voice coming from the house. Dinner. The word she dreaded so much, because she would have to let go of Lily. But now maybe for the last time.
“I will bring you some carrot cake. I hate carrot cake”.
She sprang up to her feet, straightened her frock and looked upwards into the afternoon sky that was always so dim at the end of August.
“But will it really? Will it really?”
Lily nodded. Of course it will.
Lily was waiting for her in the garden, standing there in her white summer frock. They both put rings on their fingers (all nervous and slippery as she had fumbled with the lock of the jewel-box), and Lily took out the matches. Her movements so smooth, so confident.
She almost missed it: the way the candles were lit and one of the lanterns soared up with the wind.
“Where are you going, Lily? Where are you going?”
But just as ever – there was no sound. The lantern was rising higher and higher, above the garden and into the dusk, its dark red glow gradually sucked into the sky. If you looked hard enough, you could see a small white lily stuck to its side. But the wind was too heavy to notice. Like she herself did not notice the few remains of the carrot cake pecked away by the birds. She did notice something else, though, something round sparkling beside her feet. Lily had left it behind. Crying, she took the ring off her finger, threw it into the hungry blades of the grass and held on to the weightless balloon with the black symbols she could not read. She was ready to follow, but her feet remained standing.
When the girl let go of the lantern, it flew upwards trying to catch up with the first one. One that was no more than a bright speck in the overwhelming darkness above her head.
And underneath, amid the crickets and the hum of the night, there was a voice growing dimmer and quieter and then at some point no more than a whisper:
“Where are you going, Lily? Where are you going?”