Wood Lilies | Emma Grillo

8 mins read

The only flowers you can’t pick on the island are wood lilies. They shoot out of the ground in clusters, orange with brown flecks on their petals, and in 1978 the state passed a law that made it illegal to pluck or otherwise tamper with the entire body of the plant. That part was important, and they spent four days getting the language right. Before it was just illegal to break them at the stem, and tourists would come and lift the whole plant out by the roots to take home to their yards, where they would molder for months before sloping into the ground. The tourists would parade the dismembered wood lilies across the gangplank of the 8pm ferry, clumps of dirt falling from their limp roots into the dark green ocean below.

The visitor center on Main Street put up posters and passed out fliers, and the state started sending over a trooper on the ferry each morning during the tourist season. He confiscated 30 plants that first year, but by then it was too late. Wood lilies cannot be planted, they only grow. The locals took to stealing them out of the trooper’s makeshift office on the ferry and throwing them into the ocean, a more dignified burial than watching the mayor’s son forcefully tend to them in the window box outside city hall.

For many years we could see the wood lilies from our house, down in the small swamp our front door opened into. There was always a smell of sulfur during that time, back when the swamp was brackish and the town hadn’t yet built a road cutting it off from the sea. My grandmother used to remind us that in times of trouble we can eat the bulbs, that a form of salvation can be found there.

That same swamp is where they found the dead boy, only a few years younger than me. My sisters and I watched the state trooper carry his bloated body past our front porch – they were close enough for us to see that his hair was matted with brine. My grandmother let us watch as long as we promised to hold our breath when they went past. Death is contagious if you aren’t careful. We wore rags tied around our faces for the rest of the week.

They brought his mother over from the mainland to identify the body, and they arrested her not long after. She told them she couldn’t remember where she had been for the past week, that it was an empty hole in her brain. There’s only one jail cell on the island, and they had to clear years of papers and broken office chairs out before they could lock her in it. My sisters and I saw her waiting in the trooper’s car, where she looked down at her hands even when we stuck our small faces against the windows. She did the same when they brought her off-island for trial a week later, and when they sentenced her a week after that. She didn’t speak once during the trial, and when a journalist wrote a book about the island years later, he would say that she never spoke again. She just sat in a small prison on the mainland staring at her hands for years, until one day her head sloped toward the floor and never stopped.

No one could find the boy’s other family, so the Quakers agreed to bury him in their graveyard. There was a small funeral attended mainly by young women, and then they all tied back their hair and dug into the ground with rusted shovels. The town donated a plain headstone to mark the plot, which stood out against the lonely expanse of grass.

The night after the funeral my grandmother woke my sisters and me and handed us rags for our faces and trowels with splintered handles. She led us down to the swamp where we dug every wood lily out of the ground and marched their flimsy bodies single file to a rowboat on the shore. She looked like a ghost in her white nightgown that tied at the wrists, rowing us out to where the harbor opens up into the sea. We pitched the wood lilies off the sides one by one, watching their stiff orange heads bob in the moonlight before sinking under the surface.

I never saw as many wood lilies in one place again as I did that night, and for many years I have been unable to shake the moment when they were suspended just so, the moonlight making the water around them glow from beneath the surface. By the first frost most of the lilies on the island had been infected with basal rot, and those that did bloom the next summer had a yellow tinge to their leaves and gave off a foul smell from the root.

Three field researchers came over from the mainland and sampled the soil and planted new bulbs but none ever took, and no one from the mainland could ever understand why. It was the same year that a winter storm swept three houses into the sea, and everyone else watched their cellars fill with water. Families who had been on the island longer than ours began to move away, and the tourists who bought their homes spent most of their summers replacing wooden shingles and fighting off the decay that spreads so much faster on an island.

My grandmother stopped sitting on the front porch after that summer, and instead hired one of the Quakers to build her a deck coming out from the back of the house, where she remained motionless for days at a time. She positioned her chair just so, and we brought her cookies with orange frosting that she ate for breakfast. Eventually she too sloped forward toward the ground and never stopped, and when I sat in her chair the morning after they buried her emaciated body, all I could see was a thicket of trees blocking the views she had once had of the ocean.

Emma Grillo is a writer based in New York. She mainly writes short fiction, and her fiction has appeared in Atticus Review and Meridian Journal. She also writes non-fiction, which has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Vogue, Vice, and others.