Sandra Gail Lambert
I called them ladies-of-the-valley. We lived in Norway and down the hill from our house was a forest. It seemed so very far away. It probably wasn’t since I was only six. Deep in the forest was a place the sun reached through to the ground and at the edges of the light, in its shadow, was a place where the flowers spread over the forest floor. I’d sit among them and spread the skirt of my dress around me. The bare skin between my panties and the top thigh band of my leg braces pressed into the wet slickness of the ground. The white pearls of flowers about to open would perch on my fingertips, and they seemed to have no weight. Cars, construction, my mother’s voice, and the confusions of where to sit on the school bus or why no one sat with me and the relief of reaching the classroom and the kindness of the teacher also lost any substance. The honey perfume of the disturbed plants rose around me.
It turns out that lily of the valley and all of its parts—stems, roots, flowers, leaves—are poisonous. It slows the heart.
When I was nine, the woods, which I by then thought of as nothing but an empty lot, and now know as a remnant of massive virgin forest, were cleared. But there was still the hill behind my house too steep to build on. I’d walk up it as far as possible and then drop my crutches and scramble with my hands to the top where I’d sit among pine needles and low-bush blueberries. I’d reach and reach until I ate a circumference of berries. From there, through trees, was a view of mountains in a blue mist. The muscles around my eyes rearranged themselves to let my eyes focus into a far distance. When I was young I thought that seeing far away, like through a telescope pointed at the stars, would let me see into the future. Now I know that telescopes show us the past. They show us the light of stars long after the star itself has exploded and gone dark.
When I was thirteen I could name a lot of what I needed relief from. Not being allowed to stay up and watch television programs the rest of my classmates watched, the pain of the contraption put on my legs at night that was supposed to untwist my bones, a tattle-tailing little sister: I could name these affronts at great length and with the unrelenting harshness of a teenager, but only in my head. I was considered almost too old for a spanking, but not quite. A door slammed in reaction to parental intransigence or a poorly timed and so overheard screaming argument with my sister could still lead to the quick rattle of a buckle, the slick sound of a belt pulled through loops, a humiliation. I had learned to be careful. And I had learned the comfort of stolen alcohol. But also, sometimes, in our front yard, a deep winter sun would shine slant through the grove of silver birch. The ice coating the limbs exploded in light. The white of the trunks became translucent, and I’d put my hand out and imagine it sinking through the bark.
Sandra Gail Lambert writes fiction and memoir. Her work has been published in New Letters, Brevity, the North American Review, Water~Stone, DIAGRAM, and Arts & Letters. The River’s Memory (Twisted Road/2014) is her debut novel. Find her at www.sandragaillambert.com or on Twitter @sandralambert and Facebook.