The Iron Writer Challenge 98
500 Words, 5 Days, 4 Elements
A Tiger Lily
E. Chris Garrison
Ira fled his parents’ home in the middle of the night wearing his sister’s riding habit and his mother’s makeup. Having served a tour of duty in the Dixie Army, he slipped past the fort’s patrols and out onto the road. No looking back. It was now or never.
Lights of the fort left behind, Ira tripped over stones in the rutted road. From atop his wig, he covered his eyes with philostogen-infused night goggles, which illustrated the night in vivid, unnatural colors. The road wound ahead through the mountains to the border.
Ira’s thoughts whirled and worried. If I make it by morning, I’ll slip past the guardpost and on into a new life! If I’m caught, the Colonel’ll have his pansy actor son flogged to within an inch of his life. Again.
The click of his boot heels on paving stones quickened.
A steam-powered coach chugged up from behind him on the road. He leaped, but dazzling magnesium headlights caught his skirts before he rolled into the bushes.
The spoked wagon-wheels ground to a halt to the tune of squealing brakes. The coachman leapt down, conferred with someone inside, then took a few steps toward Ira’s hiding place.
“Y’all come out now, ma’am. Your pretty dress’s gon’ be full of brambles. This midnight road’s no place for a lady!”
An accomplished stage actor, Ira was no stranger to voice disguise. In a feminine tone, he said, “I’m comfortable here, please move along!”
“Ha, you’re quite the tigerlily ain’t ya? Bold as brass! We’ve got a full head of steam; the boss and I can help your journey. Come on out?”
Ira shivered as his walking sweat dried in the cool night air. “Thank you, kind gentlemen, but as you said, the roads at night are dangerous, why should I trust you?”
“Why, trust comes from shared secrets. Supposin’ I guess your name, will you accompany us?”
Ira let out a laugh, mindful of its pitch. “A guessing game? Botticelli under the stars?”
The coachman’s guffaw echoed in the night. “No time for such a long game, the boss has to be moving; we’ve got our own secrets.”
Ira shifted his crouch and peered into the dark at the stranger. “One guess and then on your way? I accept.”
“I’ll wager you’re Ira Stillwell, ain’t ya, young lady?”
Ira’s heart leaped into his throat. He could not utter a sound.
“It’s okay, don’t run! Here’s our secret: I’m with Chisolm’s Carnival Caravan, and the ‘boss’ is someone else who aims to escape the United States of Dixie. We’re bound for New England in the morning. You can come with us, if you dare.”
“B-but how did you know?”
“Easy peasy! I’ve seen you up on stage! Also, you left your long blonde hair in the roadway. Shall I fetch it for you?”
Ira stood and stepped into the road. “Yes, please. And from here on, it’s Ida, if you please.”
The coachman grinned and held the door for her.
I made my way through the dark across the slate-shingled roof, stepping carefully on the sloping tiles, my wet cloak drawn close. The engines of the patrol zeppelins sputtered and thrummed in the darkness as they kept their vigil above the ruined city. Reaching the edge of the roof, I turned and lowered myself down to the stone window ledge. The leaded window panes were filthy, streaked with the black acrid sleet that had fallen all day from a heavy gray sky. I wiped the greasy soot from the glass with my sleeve. When the view did not substantially improve, I flipped my goggles up, the lenses clicking neatly on their hinges. They too were coated with the black, foul-smelling grime.
Beyond the dirty glass I saw the children sitting on wooden stools. Before them a white-haired woman sat in a high-backed wheelchair. A fire burned within a massive stone hearth nearby, the capering flames painting their faces in flickering bands of shadow and orange light. The old woman was speaking to them but I could not hear her words. I removed the Listening Device from the pouch on my hip, attached the tethered cup to the window pane, and meted out a portion of the wire, hoping to transfer the sound from within the room to the conch-shaped receiver, which I then wedged in my right ear.
Her mouth moved and a heartbeat later I heard her voice in my right ear, punctuated with brief bursts of static. “One more before…, children. I … the Chooser and you will be the Guessers….name starts with an ‘n’,” she said to them.
“Can I….first?” asked the young boy. He moved from his stool to stand behind the young girl perched on the other stool. She was holding something in her lap beneath her tiny, pale hands. The boy touched her shoulder lightly and she passed him the object she was holding—an ivory comb. His focus never left the old woman as he ran the comb in even strokes through the girl’s long silver hair.
“You may, Martin, since you…so polite to your sister,” the old woman said, her voice broken and choppy in the electronic ear.
“Are you a knight?” he asked.
The old woman grinned, toothless. “I am not Lord Norbert,” she answered then said something more, but I heard only static, which quickly dissipated as I tapped the receiver.
Apparently she had addressed the young girl, who sat, eyes closed, while her brother continued to comb her hair.
“Did you discover gravity?” The young girl asked.
The old woman grinned again.
Abruptly, from the darkness of the ruined street beneath me, came a great bellowing cough. Something moved in the shadows and rubble, and roared again. In the room beyond the filthy glass they had heard it, too. Their eyes were bright with fear; their faces were tiger lilies in the undulating orange glow of the fire. I pried the Listening Device from the window and placed it back in my belt pouch. Flipping my goggles down, I drew my flintlock and longsword, and dropped silently into the shadowed street.
Bob and Ted, two security guards at Winterthur Museum, well trimmed and dressed in snappy, crisp uniforms, walked through the vast, lush gardens on their way around the grounds.
Bob mused, “I’m thinking of a familiar person, and the name begins with W”.
Ted glanced at Bob with a knowing smile. “Hmmmm, does this person have long, unkempt hair down to his waist?”
Bob, “Yes. That’s an A.”
Ted sucked his teeth and made an exaggerated groan, “Does this person wear brightly colored psychedelic, baggy, free-flowing shirts and old tattered blue jeans which haven’t ever been washed?”
Bob, “Yes! That’s a Y.”
Ted put a finger to his lips, then with an air of revelation asked, “Does this person wear goofy-looking goggles that make him look like he’s on some other planet and smell like a stagnant cesspool?”
Bob, “Yes. You earn an N.”
Ted continued, with a tone of finality, “Are we looking at and smelling this familiar person right this very second?”
Bob, “Why yes, we are, and you get an E for that.”
Then both officers spoke the man’s name in unison, “WAYNE!”
The man on the ground in front of them, lanky frame perched on his hands and knees, bottom up in the air, was bent over a large, beautiful flowering specimen of Lilium superbum. With his steampunk goggles and the 25x-magnifier engaged, his face was stuck right down into the plant as he scrutinized every fleck and spot intently.
Speaking over his shoulder, “She’s got six stamens and one pistil, and her stigma have three lobes, but she’s also got lily beetles, gentlemen. They can be hand picked. See, I’ve got a whole jar collected already.”
The two guards grimaced at the sight of the wriggling masses inside the jar.
“Wayne,” Bob pleaded, “You smell bad! We are getting complaints from the visitors all the time about you.”
Wayne turned a bit and glanced at Bob.
“You pathetic conformists look like you’ve had your ritualistic cleansing today.”
Ted, “Yeah, Wayne, we’ve each had a bath or shower in the last 24 hours.”
Wayne continued, “Yes, but why? Is it so you can fit yourselves into some arbitrary constraints imposed by a fickle and superfluous system of stifling conformity?”
Bob and Ted each rolled their eyes and muttered, “What?”
Wayne proceeded, “You guys need to relax, slow down, get outside the box, and run naked through the sunshine of free love and natural beauty. I mean, look at the tight, constricting uniforms you wear. What a bummer, Man. Look at this flower. She’s just hangin’ out, free flowing, no worries, no cares.”
Bob was getting impatient, “Yeah? She’s also got beetles eating her. It’s not all free and easy, Wayne. That’s why we have rules and conventions.”
At that, Bob and Ted escorted Wayne out the front gate.
“Wayne, you can come back after you take a shower and put on some clean clothes,” Bob offered.
As Wayne skulked away he thought, “Y’know, power and authority are way over-rated.”
I let the mud envelop my feet. Just one degree shy of scalding, it felt like heaven, mixed with the cleansing fires of Hell on my toes. In the air hung the stinging aroma of sulfur, it tickled mine and companions’ nostrils but not unpleasantly. Like a pungent wine’s aroma wafting from a glass, it demanded my attention, and would have had it, had Tigerlily – you know, the Indian Princess from Peter Pan – weren’t also in the hot spring with me.
“Say you ‘M’?”
Everything about Tigerlily screamed sexuality so loud I was surprised my ears weren’t bleeding. Her hair framed her copper-skinned face in such a way as I couldn’t imagine she were looking anywhere but into my very soul, her hair went then south to a throat I could only imagine nibbling on, then biting into, both for the joy of it and to prevent myself from screaming out with pleasure… Her long, luxurious hair framed perfect breasts, all the way down to the water, before fanning out around her. I nodded to her, having only half-heard her question.
“Is he famous?”
Tiberius had returned from the depths of the hot spring. I hadn’t noticed until a moment after he had spoken, but he was there and, in his own way, drew the eye every bit as much as Tigerlily. He’d shaved recently. At one point – and I have no idea why he would do this – he told me that he never liked the way hair felt growing out of him, so every morning, and every night after dinner, he shaved his entire body. Tattooed across his whipcord muscled chest was the jagged A symbol for Anarchy, colored in with an intricate red-and-black design. The water had burned his skin, giving him the same sunburned color of a cooked crab’s shell. The steamed punk adjusted his goggles from his eyes to rest on his forehead.
“Not in the slightest.”
I looked back to Tigerlily, or perhaps I should say her body allowed my eyes to look upon her. Her lips curved upward, summoning in me the transcendence I expect would feel similar to the approving smile of God. Her eyes slid from me to rest on Tiberius. In that moment I understood the wrath Kain felt when God accepted his brother’s sacrifice, but not his own. In that moment, I could have drowned Tiberius in the hot spring and felt nothing about it. The two shared a conversation of sorts, in which no words were spoken, but both understood the message clearly. Breath lifted their bosoms as one, their eyes held the same zenlike understanding.
“We give up. Who is it?”
The answer was “Me.” Ah, what a wonderful dream that was.
“So? What happened?”
Hm? Oh, right, the three of us had sex.