When I See Lily Again


Emily Hart 

Copyright 2019 by Emily Hart  

 


 

Photo of book cover, "Portrait of Jennie."


     I have always loved the hauntingly lyrical novel A Portrait of Jennie, by Robert Nathan and the 1949 film based on the book.  So this story came to be about another artist who has an encounter out of time.  Fiction is the place where truth abides.  There is a bridge.  Believe what you know.

     The first time I saw Lily she was standing on the bridge at Victoria Island, playing Pooh sticks in the late afternoon of a spring day.  I had been painting the bridge earlier and was now reading while I waited for the paint to dry so that I could pack up and return to my rented room.  I had not seen the child come to the bridge -- one moment I looked up and she was there.  It wasn't unusual for me to get lost in a book and be oblivious to my surroundings so that didn't seem strange to me.  I watched her for a while, as she tossed the sticks over one side of the bridge and dashed to the other side to see which stick was fastest.  She still had that elfin look that children lose so quickly these days.  I judged her age to be about eight, give or take a year.  When she clapped her hands in triumph at "her" stick winning I laughed aloud.  Pooh sticks had been a favorite game of mine as a boy often playing alone.  

     As if my laughter was a greeting the child ran over to me. Unhesitatingly  she put out her hand and with the seriousness of "company manners" said "My name is Lily."

     "My name is Joseph," I responded.  Feeling the weight of adult responsibility at twenty-three, I added "You really shouldn't go introducing yourself to strangers and shaking hands."

     "How would I meet you if I didn't?"

     I had no answer for that logic.

     Not waiting for an answer she looked at my painting.  "My bridge!  You've painted my bridge. . . but you forgot to put me in."

     "You weren't there when I painted it," I explained.

     She looked so disappointed that I added "Or I surely would have painted you too."

     "Well I'm here now," she reasoned.

     "I'm afraid I don't have time to paint you now, but how about I do a quick sketch of you that you can have?"

     "To keep forever?"

     "To keep forever."

     "Alright, Joseph."

     The way she said that startled me -- it sounded so sober, as if she knew a secret she wasn't quite ready to tell me.

     I took out my sketch pad and tried to capture something of that elfin nature. 

     "Remember to include my moon," she instructed, raising her hand to show a small crescent moon shaped birthmark on her left hand.

     I obliged and tore out the page and handed it to my little muse with a flourish.  Most people are the worst critics of their own portraits but this commission was well rewarded by her look of delight.

     "It's like looking at myself in a mirror -- but like the mirror is in a different room."

     It was a strange observation for a child to make and again I was unnerved.

     "Thank you for my picture, Joseph," she said ever so politely, then ran off.  She crossed the bridge and was out of sight.
   That night I did another sketch, this time of the bridge and a little girl playing Pooh sticks.  I'd give it to Lily if I saw her again.  

     Weeks went by before I returned to that spot in the park, again to paint the bridge.  This time it was early morning, not afternoon as before.

     "Will I be in this one?"

     I turned -- Lily stood behind me, looking at the painting in progress.  Something was different about her -- her hair was shorter -- it had been a page boy and now was quite short -- a pixie.  She had a coltish look, as if the elfin baby fat had suddenly dropped off and her limbs were unsure which way to go.

     Oh! Of course!  How foolish of me -- this must be Lily's older sister.

     "If you like I can put you in, Lily too.  Is she here?"  I meant here in the park, naturally.

     "I'm right here, Joseph," the girl replied, seeming puzzled.  

     "Lily?"

     "Yes?"

     "You're Lily's older sister, right?"

     "No, I'm Lily.  I don't have a sister."

     The crescent moon birthmark was there so I told myself I just hadn't gotten a good enough look at her last time and children do have growth spurts and a different haircut can make quite a change.  That was the logic I applied to the situation.

     She stood on the bridge more patiently than most models I had painted in the past.  She didn't chatter or demand to know how the painting was going.  I gave her the drawing I had done of her playing Pooh sticks as "payment" for modeling for me.

     "Now I have a collection."

     "Two sketches hardly makes a collection."

     "But you'll paint me or draw me every time you see me so this is a start."     

     I began to say I couldn't promise to do that, but she looked at me with such confidence I found myself nodding.

     "Thank you for my picture, Joseph," she said again and again ran off, over the bridge and out of sight.

     This time I didn't wait weeks, but returned to the bridge every day.  I came early and stayed late.  I did sketches and paintings and sold a fair number -- usually to tourists wanting to take home some local art and happy to get it at a bargain.  I had almost given up on encountering my little muse again when I saw Lily walking across the bridge.  I cannot say how I knew it was her -- until I saw that crescent moon.  She had changed again.  The coltish look was gone, she was noticeably taller and her hair was long.  Not really a child anymore, but not yet a woman.  Not possible.

     "Hello, Joseph."   

     Was this a joke?  It must have been an older sister the second time I saw her, and this one older still.  What an idiot I had been to fall for it before!  They must really be having a laugh at my expense.

     "Alright, you can tell the others to come out now.  They're nearby, right?  Don't you realize what a dangerous game you are playing, making up to a strange man and making a fool of him?"

     The girl -- I didn't know her name -- looked hurt.

     "I thought you would be happy to see me, Joseph."

     I couldn't lie -- I was, in spite of being the butt of a joke.  I couldn't let this farce go on, though.

     "What is your name? And your sister's name?"

     "Lily.  I'm your Lily, Joseph, and I told you I don't have a sister.  Don't you remember?"

     I let out a sigh of exasperation.

     "Let's be done with this -- you are the older sister of a little girl named Lily who I made a couple of sketches of and another girl I painted standing on this bridge and I have a good mind to tell your parents exactly the kind of nonsense you've been getting up to!"

     "Oh, Joseph, when will you believe what you know?  I'm doing my part.  I believe in you; can't you at least try to do yours?  If you don't try I'm afraid . . . ."

     "Afraid of what?"

     "Afraid it will be too late."

     "Too late for what?"
     She did not answer with words, just looked at me.  

     "Would you like me to draw you today?" I found myself asking.

     "Yes, please."

     The girl leaned against the bridge railing and I went to fetch my drawing pad and charcoal.  She was still there when I returned.

     "I won't be angry if you tell me the truth now.  It actually was a rather clever prank and I've gotten some good pieces out of it so I should thank you for enticing me to come here over and over."  I hoped with that lead in she'd be reassured and "fess up."

     Instead she kept silent so I stayed silent as well, working on mutely.

     "There -- finished."

     She ran down from the bridge to me and exclaimed, "Oh! This one is the best!"  She tried to take it from my hands, but I held fast.

     "No, this one is for me.  If you want one for yourself you'll need to come back and pose for me again."

     "I'll come."

     She left, crossing over the bridge.  I thought about following her, even to trying to trail her home, but somehow that felt as if it would be against the rules.  What rules I wasn't sure, yet this experience felt fragile and I knew I must be careful not to shatter it.

     The next time I saw her only a few days had passed -- for me.  Obviously it was different for her.  

     "I missed you, Joseph."

     The day was almost over -- this was the latest she had come to me.  As she held out her hand to me I saw the crescent moon birthmark.  This Lily could have been almost the same age as me.

     Believe what you know.  I was on the brink.

     I did another drawing of "girl on the bridge" and this time gave it to her as I had promised.  I showed her some of the other work in my portfolio.  I desperately wanted her to like it.

     "I'm glad that I am the only girl you draw."

     She was right; I had ceased to draw others."  That bit of vanity and maybe jealousy pleased me.

     "You are my muse, you fey creature."

     We walked along the riverbank, holding hands, talking about such things as the pluck and knock of the tide, the way a dying candle leaps and gutters and sighs and how the sun seems to curl up in the leaves and spill out just before dark.  We came back to the bridge and stood at the crest.  I kissed her.  I could now.  I had never thought of kissing her before.  She stretched up on tiptoes.  I still had to bend down to reach my Lily. That kiss seemed like the one I had waited for -- always.  

     Then I said, "I should stand down a bit and you should stand here and then we'd be at an even height so kissing would be easier."

     "No, I like this better," she protested.

     "Why?"

     "Because I like looking up to you."

     Kisses past counting . . . .

     "Are you going to be older the next time I see you?" I asked, teasing.  I wasn't entirely sure if I was joking, though.

     "I'm trying to get to the right age, but it's terribly hard.  Sometimes I'm not sure which direction to go in."

     "Well, this isn't going to work if you get much older."

     "You're beginning to believe in me, aren't you, Joseph?"

     Beginning to believe . . . .

     We met again and again, almost every day for weeks and this time Lily was always the same age.  We never left the park.  That seemed to be one of the "rules."  I sketched or painted her, always on the bridge.  We could walk and hold hands and talk about books and music and plays and art and the names of the constellations and seeing the pyramids and the Sphinx one day and who was the best Doctor Who and we could play Pooh sticks and we could kiss.  Kisses past counting . . . .

     One day Lily didn't come. More days went by and still she didn't come and still more and seasons changed and as the air grew colder so did I.  It was difficult to sustain belief.  

     "Too late, too late" the water lapping at the riverbank seemed to say.  

     Winter came and I wasn't painting outdoors, but I still came to the bridge, waiting.  I always brought a sketch pad -- just in case.  Some days I wondered if I had missed her -- come too late or too early, hadn't waited long enough?

     Then she was there again and the months that had passed for me were again years for her -- long, long years.  At first I thought the snow had made a lace mantilla on her hair -- then I realized it was her hair that was white.  We stood on the bridge and held hands.  I pulled off a glove and kissed the crescent moon and tenderly pulled the glove back on again.  Silent tears coursed down Lily's withered face.  I thought of a phrase from an old poem -- "bare ruined choirs."

     "I tried so hard. I tried to be your Lily forever, but I couldn't stay.  I'm so very tired; I don't think I can make it happen again.
     Believe what you know.

     "My turn to try -- though I don't know how or what I'm supposed to do.  I will catch up to you, Lily, my Lily forever."
     She nodded -- old woman and girl as one. 

     I did one final sketch, an old woman standing like a bride in lace veil.

    When I had finished she did not look at the paper, but said "Let me go now," and walked away.  The snow made a curtain for her exit as she crossed over the bridge.

     I have traveled and made a modest living as an artist.  Lily, reigning in my memories, has been my only model.   Perhaps Lily waited for me out there, somewhere in the world.  Sometimes in years to come I would think I saw her and my heart would begin beating again, but it never was, never was my Lily.  I never married of course.  Sometimes believing got too painful and the world was too lonely.  I am sorry for that.  Now that I am old I understand that there are worse things than being lonely.  Not being able to say "You can return to me with nothing to forgive" is one of them.

     I go to the bridge every day now.  I think -- no, I believe -- that one day when I see Lily again she will be that fey child I first saw and I will be a boy carrying sticks and we will meet at the crest of the bridge and drop those sticks over one side and rush to the other side of the bridge to see which is fastest and we will have every year, every moment we were cheated of this time through.  

     I believe.  Please.

 Emily Hart seeks out bridges for playing Pooh sticks and listens to the rhythm of the pluck and knock of the tide.
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