The Lilac Thief Legacy

Chapter One: Peace

We would walk on the white beach of Marco Island, stale bread wrapped in a recycled red-and-blue polka dot bag, and toss hardened crumbs to droves of seagulls that descended into my mother’s hands, peeling shrills of joy. My mother would be encircled, looking like something out of a Hitchcock movie, the seagulls eating right from her hands. All she could do was laugh. I would always be afraid of the enormity of my mother’s momentum for joy. I spent most of my life on the sidelines of her social dazzle, which ignited a room like the multitude of expressions from her big blue eyes—eyes that seemed to cast an open door into her heart.  

People loved her. When she stopped reaching out and retreated, no one could understand why. I found it painful that so many people were annoyed with her seclusion—as if at eighty-two, she was still obligated to remain a star. She was burning out. She was afraid to hear about who she used to be. Sometimes when I speak of a wonderful moment in our lives, she gives me a vacant stare before remarking, “If you say so.” There is now an indifference where there once was a warm, vivacious soul.

  As I stood by her bedside watching her rest, I remembered how she took such pleasure in holding a stranger’s lilac bush hostage. She clipped away branches, leaving them wet with scissor scars, and then we’d run through the yard in hysterics. We were lilac thief cohorts filled with glee, and our house would be fragrant with the smell of free, stolen flowers.  Nothing represented spring more than the lilacs, meticulously placed by my mother in vases around our home. Once I had my own lilac bushes, the thrill of the memories seemed to bring a smile to her melancholic, aging face.  

But this isn’t a story about stealing lilacs.  This is a story about stealing the breadth of beauty from a soul.  A story about innocence and violation, and something sacred being plucked thoughtlessly from between the legs of a young girl.  This is my mother’s pain, the promise stolen from her. And this is a story about my pain in watching her age and never coming to terms with what he did according to his pleasure.  I would avenge his abuses one way or another.  

Because of what my mother experienced, I suffered from night terrors. It seemed to always happen when I was wickedly tired. The dreams would rush fast and furious like a tsunami of images. Some were happy and poetic flights of romance. Tonight, however, was filled with fear. Dogs, dozens of them—feral, ferocious and biting me. I felt no end to the small boxer-like mouths with sharpened teeth, ripping at my flesh while I clung tightly to my snowy white toy poodle Adonis. I protected him, my arms staying wrapped around his little Persian lamb body as the droves of dogs devoured me.  

I screamed loud, horrified yells of “no” as a man, shrouded in darkness, stood still and watched with a sneer of contempt. But I found no end within my sleep. My resolution was only to awaken, startled, to my dog snoozing. He appeared just as startled by my nocturnal—and apparently nonsensical—commotion. It was always helplessness, this fury of conflicts literally biting at my legs and consuming me. My dreams seemed to mirror my inner turmoil. My mother would awaken in the same way when I would visit and sleep in her bed. We believed we were safe with one another, though we never felt it. Never. 

But there were moments in beautiful homes, or on wonderful trips, moments when we could steal away from the memories that held us hostage like the lilacs we grasped in our hands. Sometimes what seems so lovely on the surface is filled with the stench of a sewer. Such is a rapist’s hold post-trauma. He did ruin my mother’s life. 

I had built my house as if in a dream, with a bedroom that contained all the trappings of a spa—a hotel suite with a living room and sauna, a place to retreat and rest. Yet I clung to nights of pure terror. I always returned to one thought, about how I never knew that paradise would feel like such hell. My life was easy in some respects, along with the diffidence. But I wasn’t quite sure how being a lawyer was easier than being a poet.

Not all was lost to imaginary satanic incarnations crippling me in my sleep. When awake, I found a refuge in my books. I felt sorrow at times that my mother would never live long enough to read all the books in the world.  Yet she, like my wise Aunt Domenica before her, would read each day of her life, any book that she could find. A multitude of words pressed with images that rolled like old Kodak slides.  It all seemed so romantic and luminous while the arid stench and steam of the New York subway jostled me awake into my next stop.  Such is the life of an aging, melancholic lawyer closeting a poet in her briefcase.


Chapter 2: Cold Case

I sat at counsel table, staring out the window as cherry blossoms shivered in the raw spring air. I thought about a poem I once wrote, on cherry tree charades. The judge’s ruling for yet another motion in my cryptic years of lawyering boomed in a monotone, white-noise backdrop to the pirouettes of poetic thoughts.  I played the words in my mind: the cherry tree charades, milk white bark so bare, and words like I only know today what’s growing and is gone. I was nineteen when that poem emerged. I loved the deep union of emotions with branches, bark that seemed to tell a story. Like the cuts of wood, a hieroglyphics tale set against lawyers spitting arguments at one another.  Lizards of legal analysis spewing venom in the corridors.

“Counselor, counselor, Ms. Sloan, do you have anything to add?” the judge bellowed.  

As always, I would reply with grace and decorum. “No, Your Honor.” Another morning of tension, turmoil, some form of conflict resolved by dumping the arguments into the judge’s lap for decision. I suppose I somewhat liked the idea of not being responsible. I liked the idea of blending in the dark as a lawyer, never quite making any true waves. Yet my writing, my poetry, screamed truth, dreams, life. My poetry, my writing, was mine. The words were my vibrancy.  

As I roamed through the old courthouse hall—graced with marble pillars as large as a lion’s den at the coliseum—I saw Jimmy, a sheriff’s deputy and my dear friend.  He came racing toward me with his twinkling blue Irish eyes and flaming red hair.

“Jen, I need to talk to you,” Jimmy exclaimed, half out of breath.

 “Can’t it wait?” I proceeded down the hallway in my usual frenetic pace.

“No, Jen!” Jimmy grabbed my arm so tight, I could’ve been bruised. “Listen, your uncle Harry’s death is being opened up for investigation and family members will be interviewed. I wanted to warn you.”

I stopped dead in the hallway and stared, half in terror—as if the snarling dogs were at my feet.  I felt faint, like someone had stopped the air to my lungs.

“What the hell for, Jimmy? The old coot rapist died from a heart attack.” I almost yelled the words in a loud hysteria of terror, my panicked squeals echoing against the marble walls.  I hated the way everything echoed in a courthouse, like a bag of dozens of marbles had dropped on the floor.  Overwhelming sounds of falling glass that seemed infinite and menacing.

“Apparently, some new information has come through about your family having had some real issues with him,” Jimmy said with a stern stare.  “And the old man got a nasty blow to the head before the heart attack,” he said quietly.  

“My family had ‘issues’ with him? He was no good and everyone knew the ‘issues,’ Jimmy—so what? Well, this is just shit wonderful!” I sneered.  “My mother, at sixty-five years old, is a person of interest?” Now I wasn’t bordering on hysterics, I was enflamed. Demonic, dead Uncle Harry still haunted us.

“Just keep your eyes and ears open, Jen. I wanted to warn you.” 

“There’s nothing to observe. He’s dead, period. Who cares if he was murdered? Serves him right!”  I ran like wildfire down the hall, fuming with anger.


Chapter 3: Emptiness

My lone-wolf lifestyle wasn’t all my fault. Aunt Domenica’s husband Harry was a familial rapist. He created, from the 1950s and on, a lineage and carnage of Me Too souls in our family.  Aunt Domenica turned a blind eye and poked her nose into a book rather than kill the demon. She would sing and hum as she cut lilacs in her yard and planted petunias. In retrospect, the humming was a mantra to ward off his evil bellowing. The fragrant flowers masked the stench of his vile abuse. He probably was the man in my dream the other night.  

My mother was a brilliant, beautiful teenager who took the wrath of Harry’s menace. At his funeral, I stood next to her and as we stared down at the dead man in the coffin, my mother seethed and said, “I should just spit on him. So long, you bastard!”  

To this day, I could swear as I walked away from my uncle’s coffin, I heard a spitting sound.  

Harry’s death had been a mystery.  I thought it was a heart attack.  Now after seeing Jimmy at the courthouse, I wasn’t so sure. There was a buzz of new evidence to unpack. No one deserved to know how this haunting affected me and my mother, who still screams expletives in the quiet of night. How sad that Me Too includes the spouses, lovers, relatives and children of one demonic disgrace for a human being. How sad that Me Too took so long.


Chapter 4: Harry

How odd that Uncle Harry was usually kind to me, and yet he ruined my mother’s life.

Harry was a woodworker in his spare time.  An undertaker by trade. I believe he was involved in some black-market body part scheme. At least I pegged him for that type. I would sit on an old wooden stool, which was flecked with paint and cuts from years of abuse, while he worked on some creation. I was never alone with him. Aunt Domenica was always smiling, half in terror with a shaky voice, pretending to be interested in what her husband was doing. I didn’t realize she was being protective.

At times it was confusing. Family dinners of amazing Italian food, a jug of cheap red wine always next to Harry’s feet. I was thrilled that the whole family, including my parents, were eating together. It always seemed out of nowhere when my mother and Harry would start an argument.  

The last argument was the grand finale: Harry, in his demonic voice, said to my mother, “Why don’t you go get yourself a quart and get out of here?”  The storm would ensue, and that turned out to be the last time they spoke.  He deserved whatever manner had ended his life. 

My brilliant, beautiful mother—who possessed more than enough brains and the ability to read incessantly—wanted to be the lawyer. As fate would have it, money and opportunity simply didn’t exist for her. However, my mother made sure I received an education. The sins that scorned and torched my mother like a California wildfire only blackened any trust in men.   


Chapter 5: Dr. Julian

I sat waiting for Dr. Julian in my favorite café on Seventh Avenue. Staring out of the elongated front window, I watched raindrops slowly descend upon the pane like newly-formed tears dripping down a sorrowful child’s salty cheek. As Julian crossed the street, I felt my mood lift a little.  

“Well my dear friend, how are you?” Julian exclaimed as she gave me a warm motherly hug.

“So-so, Julian,” I sighed.

“I suspect you’re still sleepwalking or doing your night-terror wanderings?” she asked with a knowing nod.

“Yes. It’s even worse now, and apparently my mother is just as bad,” I said, looking down at the initials of past intoxicated lovers who left their engravings on the table. “I don’t know how to deal with this alone any longer, and when I have tried to bring the subject up with my mother, she actually dismisses it.”

“You have a sleep disorder, certainly. You belong in a sleep study, and I’m sure that any hint of such a course of therapy for your mother wouldn’t fare well with her. Let me ask you this, are you at least recording your movements with the cameras that I suggested?”

“Sometimes, on my computer. I have the videos saved.”

 “At some point, my friend, this has to be dealt with if you want to move on in your life.”

The conversations always ended in the same way: that I needed to get further help.  


Chapter 6: Jennifer’s Dreams

I left Dr. Julian and retreated like a lost puppy to my home. I was on edge, worried about why Harry’s death was being raised now. I settled in for the night and decided, as I always did, to take the Scarlett O’Hara approach and leave it for tomorrow. My life really was made up of stress, dreams, and the occasional moments of joy. And now that the investigation into Harry’s death was playing out, he was haunting me in death just as much as he had in life.

Why did his death have to come up again now, a good five years later? I thought.

Harry—this black void of nothingness. A dead old man who spent most of his life terrorizing women and carting dead bodies for rich funeral home directors. Not to mention the body parts. I remembered being in an elevator with my aunt, Harry and a dead body on a gurney.  Harry taunted me, when I was only seven, that he would pull the sheet down so I’d see the dead body.  He was such a sadistic bastard.  I screamed and hid behind my aunt, covering my eyes.  

A kindness seemed to come over Harry and he told me that he wouldn’t really show me the body. Then, out of nowhere, an alabaster and blue-veined hand fell out from the sheet. It looked like a Halloween decoration. I couldn’t decide if I felt terror, excitement, or wanted to laugh in hysterics. But Harry began to chuckle and so did my aunt, and soon, I joined in the morbid joviality. 

Yet everything with Harry emanated from being a bully and terror.

Harry had big teeth like a horse and he almost drooled at times. His black eyes shifted from kindness to cruelty with the stroke of his temper. He was like a monster man in a De Maurier novel. A towering and lanky undertaker in a cheap white shirt with yellow sweat stains and an ill-fitted dark suit. Yet he was paternal and kind at the same time. The mixed feelings always haunted me. 

As I drifted to sleep, I thought, I must check my laptop in the morning.

Adonis snoozed from the comfort of his luxury dog-bed and I drifted into a wave of sleep that felt safe and comforting.  As I lulled myself into the oceanic state of nocturnal bliss, that man—the creepy, contemptuous man—appeared from a dark alley. Rain seemed to be surrounding him, torrential rain that bounced off the brim of his fedora as he leered at me. He opened his hand, half-visible in the swirling mist of fog, and showed me a small carving tool. It was engraved with hieroglyphic letters and a bleeding heart and scarab drenched in black blood. As I reached to take the tool, he pulled it away and disappeared.  

Adonis’ rapacious snoring woke me in the early morning. I felt haunted. I felt watched as I awoke to the dim morning rays that creeped through half-open window blinds. The daylight seemed daunting as the dream became like a worm in my head. I pulled myself together and greeted the morning with coffee and a walk into the crisp air. 

Then police cars pulled into the driveway, lights ablaze. I saw Jimmy emerge, his face a ghastly white and my laptop in his hand. I snipped a lilac from a bush on my property, one pervasive thought in my mind: Who killed Harry?

A version of this story was originally published by Me First Magazine.