Flowers for Her Hair, 1918

by Lydia Sanders

The girl was laid out on her aunt's kitchen table. It was a solid and homely piece of furniture with roughly cut legs and crosspieces to brace the heavy planks that formed the tabletop. As I saw her across the length of the house and through an open door, the spare weight of her form seemed hardly to merit such sturdy support. In life, she couldn't have stood even as high as the shoulders of those matronly figures draped in dark muslin who surrounded her in the murky kitchen now.

Dozens of people stood with me in the living room, having come to intrude upon the girl’s quiet in response to some social obligation. Or maybe they came in response to that strange desire people sometimes have to drink deeply of borrowed tragedy in order to enjoy the release that follows—a sense of having earned some ease. The living room lights were turned slightly higher than those in the distant kitchen. Some low-pitched conversation that had begun as murmured consolations had turned to discussions of the limited availability of fruit in the city this season, or the employment prospects of one local son or another who would be home soon from the front in France or Northern Africa.


These mutterings, easily ignored anyway, seemed to fall away as I moved to stand in the arched doorway to the kitchen. There I looked at the scene from the outskirts, rather as one experiences a memory, like a display of something already fully formed. There I could see that the girl's skin did not glow, nor could it be described as “luminous” or “polished,” as it was fashionable to portray such persons in the florid accounts of these events that appeared so often in the newspapers that fall. Rather, her skin had the flat look of an unused sheet of parchment—perhaps one that had remained for a very long time forgotten inside the abandoned portfolio of some artist, aging and decaying in its fallow state. Her hair, though, did give off a wholesome sheen under the dim gas lights, announcing the recentness with which it had streamed behind her as she ran and bounced gaily in play.


Four or five women bustled about the girl, like plump gray hens pecking at a pile of grain. One of them folded and refolded the girl’s hands on her chest, first trying for an attitude of prayer, but on failing that, simply wove together the small fingers so that they might hold each other in place just over the band of ribbons in the high-waisted gown they’d put her in. Another woman clucked repeatedly as she tucked a loose lock of hair behind the girl’s ear, only to watch it fall free again and again. Yet another woman opened the kitchen door to allow entrance to a tall, bearded man who stooped to enter, carrying a wooden box. The man hung his head, eyes avoiding the girl on the table, and held the box out as two of the women unpacked tins of teacakes, and a third opened them and arranged the cakes on a platter. As soon as the last tin was taken up, the man swung out the door with his empty delivery box and not a glance backward. The slamming door made a rush of air that rustled the hair and the skirts of the parchment-skinned girl.


To think!—only that morning, the kitchen table had served breakfast for the family. I could imagine griddle cakes and fresh milk and slabs of greasy salt pork. Would tomorrow’s breakfast taste different, tinged with the talcum that the jostling women rubbed on the girl’s bare arms and face? Or with the honey scent of the sweet alyssum that, tucked over her ear, held her hair in place and tried to overpower some other, faintly dark musk?  Perhaps those who lived here would never again eat breakfast without some image of the girl here. And perhaps that clinging image would come to be comfortable, like a seat cushion sat upon regularly, which retains the precise form of both chair and back, and without which the sitter might never be entirely at ease in the chair.


Standing in the doorway, I began to think about another girl—a sister who chased flying leaves through the orchard on a day like this one but long past. That long-dead girl’s clothing had fluttered with the movement of air, too. At some point on that disappeared afternoon, the two of us had plucked some flowers from the fall garden—a few hardy pansies and marigolds—and she had tucked a sprig behind one ear. As I watched from the edge of memory, I saw her spinning, her hair streaming out, flying free of its ear-anchor and loosing the flowers to the wind.


Other moments rose up now. I remembered squirming beside that twirling girl on an unyielding pew, both of us feigning prayer while making funny faces at each other sidelong. At the very moment of the end of prayers, the end of captivity, our folded fingers had slid apart and our young bodies had flown out the door. And I remembered walking together like a dance down the line of trees beside the grass, and her chattering about everything until her skin glowed pink with excitement at the very thought of whatever wonder her mind had struck upon.


But I had forgotten myself. I moved back into the living room, back into the crowd of mourners where I could share in this ritual of sympathetic motions. Having come and shared in the muted conversations, having glimpsed the scene in the kitchen, and having tasted the dry lemon crumble of store-bought teacakes, it seemed safely within convention to slip out the front door and to meander homeward. The wailing and the drama of the funeral procession were yet to come, but my missing that portion of the events couldn’t be taken amiss. Instead, perhaps a stop at the tavern would be in order: to have a drink, in remembrance or in sorrow or in relieved jubilee; to sit alone with the images that now seemed stolen from the dead girl’s family breakfasts; to sit at the stool on the far end, where the living scents of the bakery next door wafted past whenever the door was opened.