The Water Lily Room
by Ann K. Schwader
Mona is the one who finds it, of course. Dusty and unimpressive, the carpet lies rolled in a small room at the back of the house—behind a door which opens to the one unlabeled key on the ring from their rental agent. Not something most people would look at twice.
But Mona knows how the carpet feels.
As she unrolls it, she sees that the floor is good hardwood, scuffed and neglected. The delicate wicker furniture needs repair and paint, but looks sound enough. Two filthy, uncurtained windows once flooded this space with morning sun, and could certainly do so again. This is a woman’s room . . . a woman’s retreat.
For the first time since coming to this place Jim has single-handedly chosen for their family’s summer, she smiles. This room needs her.
Back in its place again, the carpet reveals all the colors of water: green and teal, shadow blue, silver gray. Not nearly as faded as she’d feared, aside from several pale splotches at the center. Straightening for a better view, she squints at them, searching for a pattern.
A loose board squeaks out in the hall.
She glances up quickly at her husband’s voice—then back to the carpet, frowning. Not bleach stains, thank God. Not mere splotches, either. Pale leaves, maybe, or even water lilies. It’s an unusual design. Possibly antique?
Before she can examine it more closely, Jim appears in the doorway. Giving the carpet a disinterested glance, he sets down a box labeled KITCHEN and frowns at her.
“Where do you want all this?”
Mona bites her lip. Jim has his problems, but literacy isn’t one of them. She’d better get back to work, before he and the kids fill up the hallway with cartons for her.
Jim looks at the carpet again. “Why’d you bother getting that out?”
“Just curious.” Mona flushes. Eighteen years of marriage still haven’t taught her to handle Jim’s moods—or his lack of them. Jim does nothing on impulse. He doesn’t have hunches or inexplicable feelings, and he never gets distracted when there’s a job to be done.
“Well, now you know,” he says. “It’s junk.”
As her face flares even redder, his expression softens. “Look, I’m not saying you can’t order a new rug if you want one in here. Something cheerful.”
“Water lilies are cheerful.”
“Lilies?” Jim squints at the splotches. “More like water stains—and that color’s boring to start with.” He shrugs. “Doesn’t matter anyhow. We’ve got a truck full of stuff to move in, and that rental place closes at five.”
Thumps behind him tell her the kids have already gotten this lecture. Mona sighs, turning away from her needy little room. From its carpet, which already looks very much like water lilies to her.
“After we’ve moved in,” she says, “I’m going to make this my project. Maybe respray all that wicker glossy white—”
But Jim is already headed for the front door, yelling at the kids to keep those cartons coming.
By mid-June, the morning light streams in through spotless windows, over freshly painted furniture with new throw pillows and seat cushions. Cut glass bowls of potpourri mask how long the room was closed up. There’s a damp smell, too: Mona hasn’t been able to track it down, but surely sunlight and fresh air will do the trick.
Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the carpet, Mona feels the sun on her too, like an affirmation. All it has taken is a little love and a little time. Okay, a lot of time, but what else has she got to do this summer?
The thought makes her pull her knees up to her chest. Wrapping them with both arms, she hugs her own body so tightly it hurts.
Nobody in this house needs her. And she knows it.
Five days a week —sometimes six—Jim drives in to the city, where some pending deal usually keeps him away until well past dinner time. The kids do exactly what they would have done at home: sleep till noon, then emerge long enough for a sandwich or a bowl of cereal. After that, she’s not likely to see them again for hours. Their rooms are electronic cocoons: laptops, cell phones, DVD players, stereos.
Anything to ease the boredom of this country place Jim assured her they’d love. If they’d been four and six rather than fourteen and sixteen, they might have.
Mona shuts her eyes tightly, remembering four and six. Her days had been full then. Skinned knees, lost toys, bath time, bedtime—but it all went so fast. Now she can feel herself fading into the background, and she is too old to have another baby. The friends who once pleaded with her to get back to her work life no longer even call.
Around her, unseen, the colors of the water lily carpet glow.
Mona reaches out a hand, imagining she can feel those slick, luxurious leaves. Smell the perfume of pale blossoms—
Touch the toe of her daughter’s sneaker.
Her eyes fly open. “Sorry,” she says, scrambling to her feet. “I was just—”
“Meditating, right?” Barely-awake fourteen stares back at her. “We learned that in gym last year. What a waste.”
Mona bites her lip. “Actually, I was waiting for you to come help me roll this carpet up, the way I asked you to last night.”
Discipline has never been her strong suit, but the rebuke works: fifteen minutes later, the carpet is outside the hallway. Humming to herself, Mona switches on the floor buffer she rented yesterday and gets to work on that abused hardwood. It’s strenuous, but the sunlight’s encouragement keeps her going.
Surely other women have done this before her…maybe on hands and knees, bringing up the shine with their own sweat. She almost regrets not doing the same. Working through lunch without noticing, Mona has the floor in decent shape by the time Jim returns home—on time for once.
“You did this for a rental?”
He is staring at her efforts with amused disgust. Mona forces herself to shrug.
“It needed doing, and I had the time.” A spark of irritation flares. “I told you this room was my project!”
He shrugs back, eloquently disinterested, and heads for the kitchen. Remembering tonight’s still-frozen hamburgers, Mona hurries after him. Tomorrow, she promises herself, she’ll give the floor another coat of wax. It should dry overnight anyway.
But next morning, the carpet is back in place.
Mona stares at its glowing colors…at the ethereal pale greens of what very definitely are lily pads now, complete with buds…and wonders whether she dares wake up her daughter. If she did put the carpet back, unasked and unprompted, it would be a first—and if she didn’t, who did? Jim has already made it clear that this room bores him. Her son is even less likely than his sister to do anything useful without Mona’s pleading.
Which means that she herself must have carried the carpet back in last night, despite her earlier decision to give the floor two coats.
Despite not remembering doing so.
Taking a long, shaky breath of humid air (where is that damp coming from?) Mona tells herself that the floor looks fine as is. What does it matter how the carpet got back in? Now she can return the floor buffer earlier, save a little money and maybe even make Jim happy with her.
Heaven knows that hasn’t been happening much lately. This summer rental isn’t working out the way he imagined it, though she could have told him that it wouldn’t. Not with adolescent ideas of vacation having nothing to do with being stuck out in the country, away from their friends and the malls and everything else Jim didn’t quite consider. Not with her own lonely uselessness in the air like a poison.
Still, there is the buffer to be returned. And after that, the whole rest of the day to enjoy this room, her room, which is finally just the way she wants it.
Or perhaps the way it wants itself.
One morning early in July—a very sunny morning, too warm by her second cup of coffee—Mona notices something different about the carpet. Padding barefoot to its center, she stares down at the water lilies between her feet.
It’s no trick of the light. They are unmistakably blooming.
Mona gasps softly. Then she sinks to her knees and traces the pinkish-pearl of one flower, wondering how she could have overlooked something so beautiful. Surely the pattern has always been this way. She simply has not been paying proper attention, no matter how often she vacuums in here every week.
That, she knows, is what Jim would say—assuming she had the nerve to tell him the carpet was blooming. But she’d have to be awake for that, and lately he’s been coming home well after midnight.
At least that’s what the kids tell her.
Mona herself has begun taking sleeping pills, though she never did in the city. In the city, she could still talk to her husband, at least on the weekends. Out here, Jim starts getting restless by Sunday afternoon.
His list of chores is usually done by then. He has tried talking to each child at least once, and had at least one argument apiece. She has made something special for Saturday night dinner, just for the two of them, or they have driven to one of the few nearby restaurants. Sometimes—but not recently—they have made love.
She tries to remember when that last time was.
Under her right knee, unnoticed, another water lily bud unfolds.
What she remembers instead is his cell phone’s ring on Sunday afternoons. No doubt it sounds the same no matter where he is, but here in this quiet house its single-note tone is a metallic intruder. Not that Jim ever allows it to intrude for long. He always deals with his calls elsewhere: outside if she is in, inside if she is out.
“The office,” he murmurs. “Got to take this.”
Back in June, he could usually put off whatever the office wanted until Monday. Lately, though, he has been swearing under his breath as he packs an overnight bag. Sometimes Mona tries to help, wishing she knew what to ask. There is always some explanation—a deal-breaking crisis, a foreign client who is only in town tonight—but explanations are not reasons.
Mona could no more ask for reasons than she could tell Jim the carpet is blooming.
Reasons mean risk, because Jim is not a willing liar. Never in their married life has he out-and-out lied to her—only asked gently if she really wants an answer. How much was the garage bill to this time? What was in that thick envelope she had to sign for, the one from some law office?
Are you cheating on me?
Although both windows are latched against the heat, Mona feels the hint of a breeze. Wafting across her forehead…across her sweat which broke just thinking about reasons…it carries the deep green coolness of a pond. She closes her eyes. Now there is a scent as well: exotic as jasmine, comforting as vanilla.
Her fingers curl into the nap of the carpet. She sways on her knees. All around her, thick luxurious petals of cream yellow and pink and purest, pearliest white unfold and sway also.
The breeze which has finally found them finds its voice.
Unfaithful, whispers one cream-pink petal tongue. Unfaithful…
It is not a hateful whisper, only an infinitely sad and knowing one. Soon it is joined by a dozen others—soprano and deep-toned suffering alto, old and young and wearily middle-aged. Richly scented sympathy blows through them all, cooling Mona’s face as the tears she has been holding back for at least a week begin to flow.
It is the voice of every friend she wishes she still had. It is affirmation—not only of her fears, but of her right to them. It is the unmistakable knowledge that other women have suffered here as she is suffering now, pouring out self-doubt and misery like rain into these watercolor depths.
And the carpet remembers. She can sense that, too.
Swaying, weeping, and remembering, Mona kneels in the center of the water lily room for hours. She does not watch her tears as they drop into—not onto—the carpet, nor notice how very bright and lush its blossoms have become. Only the noon sun baking in through the windows finally rouses her. Hissing as she unfolds cramped legs, Mona stands rubbing her eyes for a bit.
Then she retrieves her stone-cold coffee and heads for the door, loneliness settling back across her shoulders.
No, she decides, she will not ask Jim about his reasons. Sunday afternoons must remain as they have been all summer, sacred to the unspoken.
As she walks off down the hallway, one cream-pink petal drops from her heel.
Somewhere between July and the depths of August, the kids quit talking to her. At first, it’s mostly about their dad: when he does or doesn’t come home at night. What her son may have found in one of his pockets while borrowing a twenty last Sunday.
Mona tries to be grateful. She isn’t stupid—fading into the background lets a woman notice things—but perhaps her daughter at least is trying to spare her feelings. Or maybe the kids are just scared, the way she was when her own parents divorced. Either way, their silence is understandable. And the room, her room, is still a sunny haven in the mornings, no matter how the sleeping pills have started letting her down.
Lately, though, she can’t remember the last time either child asked her for anything. Anything at all.
The realization chills her. This is her season. Her last scrap of undeniable value to her children is her willingness to chauffer them on back-to-school errands: sports physicals, locker supplies, just the right skirt or jacket or pricey sneakers to wear that first day.
But last month was her son’s seventeenth birthday. Along with the German chocolate cake and family picnic came the gift he’d been hinting about for almost a year. Not the Corvette he’d dreamed of, of course, but a car nonetheless. One used Toyota’s worth of freedom, parked at the end of the drive with its keys on the driver’s seat, a birthday card tucked under one wiper. “From Mom and Dad,” in Jim’s handwriting.
Since then, shopping bags and fast-food containers pile up in the trash with no assistance from her. Her children communicate mostly through notes on the kitchen table—or in cryptic phone calls which never quite say where they are, or when they might be expected home. Released from their electronic cocoons, they are intoxicated by motion.
Mona, meanwhile, is nearly motionless. Retreating to the water lily room more and more, she sits with her hook and ball of crochet thread, turning out simple white doilies as though she has been doing so since childhood.
The room seems to like them. After she has placed one under each vase and lamp and cachepot of flowers, though, Jim starts to notice. Like small starched spider webs, doilies are turning up everywhere, under the most unlikely objects.
“What is this with you?” he asks one Saturday, frowning at the example under his coffee mug. “Some kind of therapy?”
Mona nods. “All my friends are doing it. They taught me.”
She waits for him to ask which friends, but he doesn’t. This crumb of attention will have to sustain her through another weekend’s routines—farmers’ market shopping, dinner out, abortive arguments about their son’s driving—and the Sunday afternoon phone call. By six o’clock that evening, she is alone again.
By one o’clock next morning, her sleeping pills have failed her completely.
Mona lies adrift in the dark for a long time, uncertain what to do. She cannot stay in this bed any longer. The flat expanse of sheet on her husband’s side mocks her like a scar, and the ceiling fan’s blades whisper terrible things. Struggling into her bathrobe and slippers, she heads for the door, perhaps the kitchen.
Fat women lose their husbands.
Smoothing one hand across her stomach, she walks downstairs without touching a light switch. There is no need to: she knows where she is going now. Where she has longed to go all this long, miserable weekend.
And what will you do come September, when the water lily room is gone?
Desperation clutches her heart. Jim has been talking about their move back to the city for a week or two now, but she has managed to ignore him. She has gotten so very good at ignoring things that a few dozen cardboard boxes sitting around the house are no challenge. Jim can do what he likes, so long as he keeps them out of her room.
But there is no need for boxes in the water lily room. Very little there will be going back with them, aside from a few doilies and pillows and seat cushions. Not the white wicker furniture she spent so many hours repairing and painting. Possibly not the new curtains.
Certainly not the carpet.
Tonight, she can smell the room’s dampness even as she fumbles for the doorknob. It is a subtle, organic scent: not mold or rot, but persistent. Stronger in the dark. The live deep green of it reaches out to her, welcoming her into the only place in this house where she has always felt necessary.
Mona does not remember leaving the curtains open, but she must have. Moonlight spills across the pattern of lily pads and burgeoning flowers…so many blossoms, so many shades of peach and pink and cream and purest white.
Keeping carefully to the hardwood at its border, she works her way around the carpet to her favorite chair. Mona cannot say why she avoids walking across. Surely the rich watercolor tones of the background—gray-blue and aquamarine and rippling shadow violet—are only wool. Still, the moonlight picks out depths she has never noticed before, and she does not remember the carpet being quite so large.
A tall brass lamp stands beside her chair, but Mona does not switch it on. Reaching down for her workbag, she finds her hook and thread purely by touch.
Some faint breeze from the nearest window (but surely she closed them both this afternoon?) drifts over the carpet’s lily pond, raising its scent of sympathy. Tonight it is headier than ever. Jasmine and vanilla and her best friend’s favorite incense—still remembered from heart-to-hearts in college—wrap themselves around her, slowing her fingers.
Unwanted, the breeze whispers through petals. Unnecessary. Left behind.
Somewhere outside, a car door slams. A key scrapes in the front door. Two sets of footsteps detour to the kitchen, then creak upstairs stealthily.
Mona’s grip tightens on her crochet hook as the petals begin quivering again.
Unloved, they sigh. Out of place, outgrown. The breeze hints of lavender, and the musk of old-fashioned perfume. Only we understand. We remember the lonely mornings, the afternoons drifting like dust….
Now the voices have faces at last. Gazing into the water at her feet, Mona recognizes each in turn: maiden aunts of palest primrose, neglected wives in peach. Here and there the despairing pink of a spinster daughter, or the crimson of a prodigal unforgiven. And everywhere…in every faded hue…mothers.
As moisture seeps into the open toes of her slippers, Mona understands that all these women have sat here before her. This room has been their hiding place. Their last chintz-pillowed refuge from an unkind reality.
And something more.
Something the water around her ankles already knows.
Mona stands up slowly, still clutching her unfinished work. The night breeze whips up another chorus as she begins to wade. Unwanted.
Her slippers sink down and down, through layered sediments of regret. The footing is treacherous here. Silt swirls around her thighs as something cold—and hard, and round—rolls under one heel. Outgrown. Overbalancing, she pitches forward into mooncast shadows, breaking through a mat of lilies which fails to hold her up.
Late tomorrow afternoon, her daughter will find that half-completed doily lying at the carpet’s center. Its white is the only brightness left. All the lilies are blighted gray buds, their pads no more than splotches.
She will press the crumpled threads into her father’s hand that night.
He will not understand.
Ann K. Schwader lives and writes in Westminster, Colorado. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Dark Wisdom, Rehearsals For Oblivion, Strange Horizons, Tales of the Unanticipated, and elsewhere. She is an active member of HWA and SFWA, with multiple Honorable Mentions in Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror.