White Lilacs

by Grace Andreacchi

The first time I caught sight of him he was just a boy really, no more than twenty, the Church was crowded and hot, it was Easter Sunday and there were flowers everywhere lilies hawthorns and white lilacs. He sang one of the Bach cantatas, I had to crane my neck to see him, a fragile boy with a head of thick, curling bright hair combed carefully back out of his eyes, he sang so beautifully, a warm sweet boyish voice, high and pure almost as light as a child’s. I knew from that moment that I would always love him more than anyone else in the world. The first time I spoke to him he was coming out of the canteen, there was something tucked under his arm rather awkwardly, a brown paper parcel, he was walking quickly with his head down and so we collided in the doorway. ‘Excuse me, please’ he said and blushed, and smiled at me easily the best smile I have ever seen. I love you, I said. I am going to marry you… ‘You sing at the Nikolaikirche,’ I said. ‘I saw you on Sunday.’ He allowed that this might be true. The next time I saw him he was sitting at one of the bad tables way at the back at the Empire Café. He wore a shiny old evening suit that was probably older than he was, he wore a melancholy expression and was smoking a cigarette languorously, like a tough guy in the movies. He waved when he saw me and I sat down at his table but this time I couldn’t think of anything to say. ‘How did you like my singing?’ he said. He looked at me with enormous twilight eyes, it was an urgent question that must be answered with absolute honesty. I have been looking into those eyes all my life, I thought. ‘It was beautiful,’ I said, speaking with absolute honesty into those astonishing eyes. He had just finished a set, I had come to the Empire on purpose to hear him, he was beginning to get a name for this sort of thing. Tears rolled down my cheeks when he sang those sentimental songs. ‘Did you really think so?’ he said. Marry me, I said. Kiss me this minute before I die. ‘It was so beautiful you made me cry, indeed you did!’ I said. He made me cry, makes me cry, present tense. Will always be able to make me cry. ‘This isn’t what I want to do,’ he said. ‘I want to be an opera singer…’ ‘You will,’ I said. He asked me to a concert he was giving the following week at a church in Potsdam.

It was on a day in spring. All the way to Potsdam the rain had been pelting down but just before the train pulled into the station it suddenly stopped, the sun came out and the whole world was now glittering as if a shower of jewels had just fallen from heaven. I stepped out onto the platform and immediately caught sight of him standing about a hundred feet away, his arms full of white lilacs. That fragile, somehow melancholy figure. Then he caught sight of me as well and waved as if from the deck of a ship and we walked towards one another slowly at first then faster and faster till we were actually running towards one another, smiling into one another’s eyes. I was only nineteen and did not bother to hide what I was feeling. Why should I? You are the One, I thought. I have found you, and I will never let you go. Once we were face to face he stood there smiling at me and holding those lilacs – they were just a bunch of wild lilacs he had cut in the fields, they grew in great abundance all along the railway sidings, and the air was thick with their scent. I love you! I said. ‘Are those for me?’ I said. He seemed to have forgotten he was holding the lilacs, he just stood there smiling at me, he hadn’t said a word. Then started as if he’d just woken up and handed them to me, still wordlessly. I put my face right down into them and the million tiny petals tickled my cheeks and kissed my lips and my forehead as I breathed in their overwhelming, sweetly melancholy scent. ‘Oh how beautiful!’ I said. ‘I love lilacs, they’re my favourite flowers…’ ‘They’re just wildflowers,’ he said, blushing slightly. He blushes like a girl, I thought, what a delicate boy he is. I love this delicate boy. I love him to distraction and we have only met – what – two weeks ago? Oh but I have known thee forever, from before the world began, my Prince… ‘I love anything wild,’ I said. ‘They’re much nicer than store-bought flowers, don’t you think? They have such a scent! Come, try for yourself…’ I held the lilacs out to him and he stooped a little, bent his head and buried his face as I had done in their white beauty. A lock of hair fell across his forehead and when he looked up at me again I saw a few of the tiny white petals clinging there. Gently I brushed them away with a white-gloved hand. While I did this he stood perfectly still, smiling like an angel. ‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘This way, Madame, if you please!’ He gave me his arm and we walked together not the streets but the air itself pure spring air made of nothing but sunlight raindrops lilacs we walked all the way to the church we saw nothing but each other.

‘Invite him for dinner,’ said Mama.

‘He’s shy,’ I said, ‘I don’t know if he’ll come.’

‘Of course he’ll come,’ said Papa, ‘What nonsense! Bring the young man round for a proper inspection. Does he have something to be ashamed of?’

‘Of course not,’ I said. ‘He’s simple, that’s all – you’ll frighten him, Papa…’

‘Oh my, if he frightens that easily I don’t think I’d have him if I were you!’ said Papa.

‘It’s not you he’s interested in,’ said Mama.

‘That’s just what I was afraid of! You’re already making fun…’ I said.

‘Nobody’s making fun, Matti, just invite the young man for dinner – what’s so complicated?’ said Mama.

‘You are,’ I said.

‘Nonsense,’ said Papa. ‘We’re simple people as well, theatre people. What’s wrong with that?’

Johannes came to dinner. He brought us a parcel of calves’ liver, something that was very hard to get, the blood had leaked through the paper and stained his hands and the gently frayed edge of his shirt cuff. He handed this bloody packet wordlessly to Mama, along with another enormous bunch of white lilacs. I took the flowers and arranged them in a vase, noticing that the bottom petals also were stained dark with blood. Mama called to Marthe, the cook, who marvelled at the liver. ‘My father’s a butcher,’ Johannes said. These were the first words he spoke to my family. ‘A useful profession these days more than ever,’ my father said. Johannes blushed. My little sister Lise went right up to him and gave him her hand, which he kissed solemnly. ‘Matti says you want to be an opera singer,’ she said. ‘My Mama’s an opera singer!’

‘I know,’ he said. He wouldn’t look at my mother, who was smiling at him, but he looked at Lise and smiled easily, that smile again.

‘I’m Lise,’ she said. ‘I’m going to be a famous pianist when I grow up.’

‘Of course you are,’ he said.

‘Matti plays the violin,’ she said. ‘Have you heard her? She can play all the Bach partitas and I can play the Preludes and Fugues. Are you going to sing for us? Mama wants to hear you sing.’ Johannes said nothing but continued to smile that ravishing sweet smile of his. Lise still had hold of his hand. ‘Are you Matti’s young man?’ she said. ‘Are you going to marry her?’ ‘Lise!’ I said. Johannes didn’t say anything, but he allowed Lise to lead him to the sofa where she sat down beside him and whispered something in his ear that made him smile even more if that were possible. Then she gave me one of her looks and said ‘If you don’t marry him, I will!’ ‘Lise!’ I said. Everyone was laughing. ‘It’s a promise,’ Johannes said. ‘If Matti won’t have me I will certainly marry you!’ ‘Wait a minute,’ she said. ‘I want to show you something…’ She disappeared off to her room. ‘It’s love at first sight…’ Papa said, smiling at Johannes. Lise came back with her beloved Struwwelpeter held flat against her chest. She sat down beside Johannes and opened the book. ‘Look here, he looks just like you!’ she said. She held up the book for all of us to see the picture of the boy with the full head of hair and melancholy expression. ‘But I did comb my hair!’ said Johannes, laughing as hard as any of us. ‘This is what it looks like combed. You should see it in the morning when I get up! I look like a wild animal!’ He growled like a beast and pretended he was going to eat Lise, who went mad with delight and beat him off with the Struwwelpeter.

Mama had the liver cooked with onions and we ate it along with a blood red burgundy Papa said was only right on a special occasion like this. After supper Mama sang an Italian song accompanied by Papa at the piano, then Lise played one of her beloved fugues with that serious self-critical air that always seemed comical to me in a child so young. ‘Please won’t you sing something for us?’ she said, turning those shining eyes of hers on Johannes. He didn’t make a fuss, but got up and looked through the music, quickly chose something and showed it to Papa, who nodded in agreement. It was a song from ‘die Schöne Müllerin’ and the whole time he was singing this song he looked directly into my eyes. My knees were trembling my heart was in my mouth I thought dear God let me die of happiness right this minute for I shall never again be as happy as I am now with this boy’s eyes shining into my eyes and his sweet urgent voice piercing my heart. ‘Dein ist mein Herz!’ That is what he sang. And gave to me, that Sunday afternoon in May, the raw and bleeding implacable gift of his heart. Mine forever.

Into the Woods

Johannes came for us in an old clattery wooden cart, it was the same they used to deliver the meat, he said, but not on Sundays, his father had allowed him the use of it for the entire day. At the front of the cart stood a gentle white horse, his coat carefully brushed. Lise went mad when she saw that horse. ‘His name is Falada,’ said Johannes. ‘Here, give him something to eat and he’ll give you a kiss.’ He reached into the cart and took an apple from an overflowing picnic basket. Lise held out the apple and Falada took it in one bite, munching thoughtfully while eyeing her sideways, then suddenly turned his great white head and nudged her shoulder. Lise stood very still, not sure whether to be afraid or not. The horse put out his large, thick tongue and licked the side of her face and neck. She gave a little scream and clung to Johannes, who was laughing softly.

‘He’s not going to bite me? Is he?’ she said.

‘Of course not, Schwesterlein. He likes you very much. Falada never bites anybody, do you old boy?’ And he patted the horse’s neck with that fine hand of his. Then lifted Lise into the cart, and turned towards me. ‘May I have the honour, Madame…’ he said, and bowed low as if he were inviting me into Cinderella’s carriage. There was a red and white checked woollen blanket spread across the wooden seat, I can still see that blanket, exactly the way it looked, with bits of hay clinging to it. He smoothed the blanket though it didn’t need smoothing and Lise and I sat down. Then he took hold of the reins and said a quick word to the horse and we were off, clattering through the streets of Berlin under the ever-changing greengold shadows of the morning.

Soon we had passed the outskirts of town and were out into the broad open country where the sky stretches all the way to the perfectly flat horizon. Not a cloud in sight, only blue sky and greengold fields of ripening grain, and the endless allées of apple trees whispering gently in our wake. We passed through village after village, each with its small, stalwart brick church pointing hopefully towards heaven, its cluster of houses, its animals and children dotting the fields. As we drove along the bumpy lanes we sang, just old songs that everybody knows about flowers and love and springtime. Lise was singing the loudest of all, I was afraid she’d sing herself hoarse. ‘Settle down,’ I said after a while. ‘You’ll tire yourself out like that.’

‘No I won’t!’ she said.

‘You want to save something for later,’ I said. ‘Don’t you want to go swimming? You quiet down and let Johannes sing something for us now.’ She crept up to where he was sitting and put her face round to look at him.

‘Will you sing one just for me, please?’ she said.

‘Very good, little Princess – I will if you promise to sit still and listen,’ he said. Lise crept back to her place at my side, a big smile on her face. He sang a song about a little bird that misses its mother, a funny old song that was also a little bit sad.

When we entered the woods it was like entering a great quiet church on a hot day, suddenly cold and still, and filled with strange echoes. I felt a shiver down my back. Water was glinting in the filtered sunlight – we came to a lake lined with reeds taller than a man. ‘This is the place,’ said Johannes. He drew the cart to a halt and we got out. A strange cry came to us across the water, it must have been some sort of water bird but it startled us. Among the reeds a number of swans, their white shapes drifting like clouds upon the dark green water. On the face of the lake golden chains of seeds and tiny broken leaves, above the lake bright insects whirring, the arms of the drooping willow, the wild roses in clusters and the golden pears, and in the depths of the lake the summer sky and the whispering treetops, the clusters of wild roses.

‘I want to show you something,’ said Johannes. He was speaking in a whisper now. ‘Come this way,’ he said, so we followed him, away from the lake into what looked like an impenetrable thicket. Something whirred in the dense foliage – a bird? an animal? Johannes pulled at a thickset pine branch and beneath was an old broken gate, half off its hinges. We passed through and found ourselves standing before a little tumbledown chapel. It wasn’t really much more than a heap of stones, a young oak had made its way through the floor, and the stone walls were barely visible beneath the quivering vines. But the small, square bell tower was still upright, and wore its pointed hat with a certain air of defiance.

‘It’s a church,’ said Lise. ‘A teeny tiny church in the woods…’

‘It’s what they used to call a Lady Chapel,’ said Johannes. ‘It was built a very long time ago, to honour the Mother of God.’

‘God doesn’t have a mother, that’s silly,’ said Lise.

‘Don’t mind her, she’s such a little heathen,’ I said.

‘Well Jesus definitely had a mother,’ he said. ‘Mary was Jesus’ mother, and this chapel is hers. Come, I’ll show you…’ He pushed at the door and as he did so there was a sudden flash of red and a little half-grown fox cub darted out and disappeared into the wood.
Inside all the green things were growing wild upon the walls, twining themselves over the altar and round the lovely bones of the old stone windows. The startled birds fled as we entered, leaving only the clatter of their wings behind them. The three of us stood quite still, as if under a spell. Behind the altar the whitewashed wall had been cleared of all the vines and debris. There was a small round window at the top of it and just below this, painted onto the wall, a Madonna in a faded blue dress with a baby on her lap was sitting on a slightly crooked throne. She did not look directly at us, but slightly off to one side, and the expression on her full, childish face was sad and serious. The baby Jesus, who was nearly as big as his Mother, held a little bird in his hand.

Johannes walked up to the painting and looked at it for a long minute, smiling a secret lover’s smile. ‘I found it,’ he said, turning around to smile at me now. ‘Nobody cares about it, nobody even knows it’s here. It was under all these vines, totally overgrown.’

‘You cleaned it up?’ He nodded.

‘Nobody knows about it. You won’t tell?’ We promised never to tell. I wondered who he thought would be interested in this old painting in the woods anyhow…

‘She’s my own,’ he said. ‘Like my own mother…’ I knew that his mother was dead, had died when he was still only a small boy.

‘So you’re taking me to meet your mother?’

‘Why not? Didn’t I meet your parents? I want you to marry me, so we have to meet all the relations. It’s normal.’

What did he just say? Did he say that?

‘Then let’s have a wedding,’ said Lise. ‘We can have one right here.’

‘What a good idea,’ he said. ‘Go and get the flowers for the bride and we’ll have it right now.’ Lise went running off to look for flowers. ‘You will marry me, won’t you?’ he said, smiling at me again. Those smiles of his! I never knew anyone to smile like that, only angels are supposed to smile like that, with all the heart in the eyes. I said yes.

Soon Lise was back with her arms full of wild roses. Johannes twisted them into two wreathes and put them on our heads. ‘Now you’re my Queen,’ he said to me, ‘and that makes you the little Princess.’ Lise stood solemnly while he placed the wreath upon her dark hair.

‘Who’ll be the minister?’ she said.

‘Our Lady will do it,’ he said. So we knelt down before the awkward little Madonna and said that we would be true to one another in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death alone should part us. But we were not thinking then about death, for at twenty nobody does. Lise said the words along with me, softly under her breath, pledging also to love him through every sort of calamity, till death should part them. I didn’t try to stop her, what would have been the point? She loved him too much to be stopped, she was all in earnest, she was only seven. When we had done with the vows she strewed more flowers across the broken pavement. ‘I claim the first dance!’ said Johannes, and began to waltz me round and around the little chapel, all the while humming at the top of his voice a waltz from Johann Strauß. Lise too was dancing, and soon we were laughing too hard to keep it up, but just collapsed in a heap all three together and then went running out into the sunshine.

‘Time for lunch!’ said Johannes, rubbing his hands together. We spread the blanket on the ground and unloaded the basket. There was so much lovely food – sausages that tasted of earth and applewood, a whole loaf of dark bread, even butter, and those fat golden pears from his father’s garden… I don’t believe anything has ever tasted as good since. While we ate the whole chorus of woodland birds sang for us gentle songs rippling above our heads in time to the swaying shadows. Mother had given us a bottle of wine and we drank it all, Lise too, though I knew I ought not to allow it, I hadn’t the heart to say no. Soon my head was spinning and the insects seemed to be talking much louder than before, though I couldn’t quite make out the meaning of their chatter. Johannes was lying on his back, the dappled light caught in his eyes. I rolled over onto my stomach and looked down into them.

‘You’re eyes have spots,’ I said. Dozens of bright golden flecks were floating on the surface of his deep grey eyes. For a moment I thought I saw the sky in there, the clouds and the birds, and the overhanging branches… He smiled and blinked a little. ‘You ate all the sausages,’ I said.

‘No I didn’t!’

‘You did! I saw you do it! Lise, didn’t he eat all the sausages?’

‘You ate as many as anybody,’ she said. ‘Don’t be stupid.’

‘You hear what our little sister says, don’t be stupid…’ said Johannes. He took hold of my hand and drew me close. He was wearing a white shirt open at the throat, the sleeves rolled to the elbows, I could see the smooth wall of his chest as he bent towards me, and his naked forearm strong and slender with a light down of gold upon the pale skin. Then he was kissing me, with kisses so soft, so deep, I thought – this is what I have been waiting for all my life, this is exactly what I have been longing for for my whole life long only I didn’t know it – how is it that I didn’t know… We lay on that blanket and kissed and kissed, it seems to me we must have been kissing for hours or days or even years, there was no time in it, for we kissed the way a dog eats, the way a bird flies, simply and correctly and without thought, and in our hearts was perfect joy.

You’re not supposed to watch people when they’re kissing. It’s boring anyway, all they do is lie there. I wouldn’t want to go on kissing all day like that, it’s stupid. I wonder if there might be any fairies living here in the forest? I wonder if I might find that fox cub again and make friends with it…

Lise wandered off to look for the fairies. First she looked in the mossy nooks under the great old oak trees, but she found no fairies there. Then she looked among the pale, curling ferns, parting them carefully with her fingers – she found many small wildflowers, pink and white, some of which she picked, but alas, she found no fairies there either. She headed for the lake, slipping and sliding on the muddy bank, for she wore her city shoes, which are not made for this sort of thing at all. Quickly she grasped at the branches of an overhanging willow and slid to a halt. Before her was the lake, covered in water lilies, thick and darkly green. The reeds reached right over her head, shutting her into a bright watery palace. The swans took no notice of her, for they were very busy, dipping their long heads continually among the water lilies. A dragonfly settled on her arm, and she watched it without moving. His wings are glass. He is made all of glass like a Christmas angel. The dragon fly flew away. No fairies here either. Lise was sure they must be somewhere nearby. Here was something – a small, overgrown path. She began to follow it, deeper and deeper into the forest. Soon she could no longer see the place under the oak tree where they had spread the blanket. Sunlight poured down through the treetops, covering the path in greengold light. This must be the way to the fairies’ castle. I’ll bring them these flowers as a gift. Those fairies are so tiny, they can use them for umbrellas when it rains… The path twisted and turned and sometimes it was so narrow she could barely pass along it at all. After a while she noticed the day was no longer bright and sunny but had begun to grow cold and dark. Ahead of her there rose a tall, round stone tower, it cast a long dark shadow over the path. Lise stood very still, looking up at the tower. A witch must live there. From the tower came a strange and terrible sound, like the scream of a great bird, but there was no bird anywhere to be seen. Then she saw a face at the window, high up in the tower someone was waving to her. A woman in a blue dress with a face like a witch, pale and terrible but also beautiful – the woman was beckoning to her, begging her to come closer, and still closer… When she was right at the foot of the tower the woman suddenly smiled, showing her terrible teeth and a terrible mouth big enough to swallow Lise whole. The mouth opened wider and wider and just when it seemed certain the witch would swallow her Lise suddenly found herself inside the room at the top of the tower. The woman was gone, but a man was standing there, at least she supposed he must be a man, but he had a dog’s head on his body. He was dressed all in black, soldier’s black, and on his dog’s head was an officer’s black cap with a shiny silver skull that glittered at her in the dark. The inside of the room was very dark, and many small lights were winking and twinkling from different places on the walls, the lights were blue, or else they were white, moving and changing in circles around her, or were these only the stars turning round in the sky… There was a strange smell, a very bad smell, something was burning, and then a loud noise, a very loud noise, and it was coming from outside the tower just above their heads. There was a noise like the biggest thunder in the world and the tower shook and shook and then began to break apart. All this time the man with the dog’s head stood perfectly still, watching her with his nasty black dog’s eyes. He had a whip in his hand as well, but he didn’t say a word, only watched silently as the floor opened up beneath their feet… and now she heard the witch’s terrible screams, wordless and shrill, like the cries of a great bird.

We must have fallen asleep in one another’s arms, for when we sat up it was beginning to grow dark and Lise was nowhere to be seen. ‘Oh my God! Lise! Where can she be? Lise! Lise!

‘She can’t have gone far,’ Johannes said, but he looked worried too.

‘What if she’s fallen into the lake?’ We rushed towards the lake but found no small white body floating among the indifferent swans. ‘Where could she have gone? Lise! Lise!’ We called and called, stumbling among the trees, calling, shouting, no Lise anywhere.

‘She’s lost! What if we never find her?’ Johannes was bent over, pulling reeds from the bank and twisting them together; he looked up, and I felt my heart turn over at the look in his eyes. How is it that he only has to look at me for me to feel safe?

‘We’ll find her,’ he said. ‘Don’t get so hysterical. People get lost in the woods sometimes, but they also get found. She hasn’t been carried off by the fairies you know.’ He had made a torch from the reeds and lit it, a great smoky flare went up. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘Let’s use our heads. Where would she go? Look, here’s a little path – she probably went that way.’ We followed the path but it soon split in several directions, each time it split he would look carefully at the ground and then say ‘this way’. It grew completely dark and the moon rose and began to shine through the trees, covering the path in silvery light. We found her at last, sitting on an old overturned boat beside a stream, huddled together, shivering and crying. ‘I’m sorry!’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry!’ Her eyes were enormous with fear, I had never seen her like that before.
‘Lise, what happened? Are you hurt?’

‘There was a witch…’ she said, and began to sob very hard. ‘A blue witch, and a man with a… a man with a head like a d-dog…!’

‘A witch? Lise, at your age…’ But Johannes put his hand on my arm, motioning me to be silent, then knelt down and took her up in his arms.

‘Never mind, little Princess, you’re safe now,’ he said. We both of us believed him. We believed in him completely. He was just that sort of boy.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Grace Andreacchi is a novelist, poet and playwright. Works include the novels Scarabocchio and Poetry and Fear, Music for Glass Orchestra (Serpent’s Tail), Give My Heart Ease (New American Writing Award) and the chapbook Berlin Elegies. Her work appears in Horizon Review, The Literateur, Cabinet des Fées and many other fine places. Grace is also managing editor at Andromache Books and writes the literary blog AMAZING GRACE. She lives in London.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Painting by Kreso Cavlovic

3 thoughts on “White Lilacs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s