Lilacs, a vignette by L.S. Engler at



written by: L.S. Engler


Margaret was five years old, and the only people who called her Margaret were her mother and her doctors. Everyone else called her Meg, and she called herself Lilac, after her favorite flower. She thought Meg was mostly a stupid name, unless it was her grandfather saying it, and then it became the best name. Lilac was preferred, though, without a doubt, even if she was the only one who called her that; maybe that was what made it so special. Her favorite game involved pretending to be a lilac, so it just made sense that she should be one, too. There was a thick, unruly patch of lilac bushes growing all around the big back porch of her grandparents’ house, threatening to swallow it right up. Margaret would stand in the middle of all those chaotic, twisting branches for hours at a time, perfectly still, until a rogue breeze swept in, and she would sway with the other flowers. She closed her eyes and pictured herself all bristling with small buds, light purple petals, and a thick, heady scent.

She preferred to play this game for long periods of time because the lilacs were only around for about two weeks, then they started to become brown and unimpressive. No one would really notice that she was gone, either; not until a long time had passed, and her grandfather started calling for her, his voice carrying on the wind. She would come running, all the way around the other side of the house so they could never find her secret spot.

But on one particularly sunny, sticky-hot day, her grandmother discovered Margaret there, unexpectedly, while out on her afternoon walk. Margaret’s grandmother was a very prim woman, compact and never wasting a single movement if she could help it. So when she stopped her morning stroll to sniff at one of the blooming clusters of lilac, she meant it. She had not meant to discover a round face peering out of the flowers, leaving her startled and surprised. Even her reaction managed to be as quick, small, and efficient as everything else in her life. It went directly to her brain and decided that there would be no more surprises like that on daily strolls, thank you very much. There would be no more daily strolls at all, in fact. The doctors had called it a stroke and Margaret’s mother explained to her that it was nothing at all like what you did in a canoe and that it meant that her grandmother could no longer walk as she used to.

Margaret felt bad about her grandmother, but not so bad that she’d stop playing her favorite game.

It wasn’t long after the stroke that Margaret’s mother began to take her to see a new doctor. This one called her Margaret like the other doctors, but, unlike those other doctors, this one had a big, wiry moustache like the brush that her grandfather used to polish his shoes. His belly was large and round, like Santa Claus, and his name was utterly unpronounceable. Margaret decided to just call him Doctor Sauerkraut, because that was close enough, and that was what he smelled like, anyway. Every week, she took a trip with her mother and went into a room with a lot of big, intimidating books. She would sit on a large brown couch that smelled old like under the porch. Doctor Sauerkraut would ask her odd questions, boring questions, confusing questions. She didn’t understand why anyone would want to know the things he asked about. Like how she felt when the maid served her breakfast or why she liked lilacs so much or if her mother hugged her often. She began to suspect that Doctor Sauerkraut was not really a doctor at all. He didn’t have nice nurse ladies that gave her lollipops, and he never made her stick out her tongue to say “ah” or put cold things in her ear.

Margaret’s grandmother was not at all pleased about Doctor Sauerkraut, and she mentioned this to Margaret’s mother as much as possible. She called him a head doctor, which didn’t seem right to Margaret. After all, he didn’t even shine that light through her ears and pretend it went through to the other side. Even the dentist, with all his awful tools on that glistening tray, was more of a head doctor than Doctor Sauerkraut. It was good to know, though, that she wasn’t the only one who felt that this new doctor might not really be a doctor at all.

“It’s not right,” her grandmother would say, shaking her head and stroking the fluffball of a dog sitting on her lap. “Girl that age, seeing a head doctor.” It was followed by a lot of things directed at Margaret’s mother. Disappointment. Lazy. Negligent. Then she called Margaret a poor girl, which didn’t make sense, because they had plenty of money to buy things. Her mother didn’t even have to work. She could, as her grandmother put it, just live off the fat of pigs and stay out of trouble, for Chrissakes.

Margaret’s grandmother died not long after that, and Margaret had always wondered if it was the head doctor that did it, or if it was something else. Her mother muttered her theories under her breath, which meant that Margaret wasn’t supposed to hear them, but she did, anyway. Things about just desserts, but Margaret’s grandmother didn’t bake. Whatever the reason, Margaret started to miss the sound of the wheelchair on the hardwood floors, and she was crying a lot more than usual, too. She just couldn’t seem to turn the tears off, like that time she couldn’t figure out how to shut off the bathtub faucet. Or like those pretty waterfalls in the Upper Peninsula, just gushing and gushing and never stopping. Her mother had yelled at her and slapped her once, but that didn’t make her stop crying, either. It only seemed to make it worse.

It seemed to rain a lot more, as well, making it difficult for Margaret to simply hide under the porch when she started to cry. She began sneaking into her grandfather’s library instead, where there were large ladders that rolled along the tall bookshelves and the big, immovable desk that she could crawl under. It was like a small, safe cave. But when she tried it the second time, someone was already there, and Margaret stood still, caught stiff in the act. She wasn’t supposed to play in here, and she hadn’t realized that her grandfather was sitting in the armchair in front of the black, gaping mouth of the fireplace. The place where her mother had slapped her started to burn with embarrassment and fear, but she just couldn’t move her feet.

Her grandfather didn’t get upset, though. He patted his knee with a big, slow hand and, dutifully, Margaret climbed up as if he were a jungle gym. He didn’t look angry, just very sad, with heavy, drooping shoulders and an odd color to his eyes. None of them spoke, at first, but the tears had stopped. She sniffled quietly as he wrapped his arms around her.

Finally, the time to talk arrived. “Your grandmother,” he said, though it seemed more to himself than to Margaret. His voice was deep and crackled around the edges, like a plastic wrapper thrown into a campfire. “Your mother’s mother, my wife, is dead, Meg. Do you know what dead means?”

Margaret had to think about it for a long time before she was satisfied with an answer. Her voice was tiny and uncertain when she spoke.

“Dead is when the lilacs turn brown.”

“Almost,” her grandfather said. “Except for one thing.”

“What thing?”

“The lilacs always come back.”

She paused, considering. “And Grandmother isn’t?”

Her grandfather pulled her closer, lowering his head. “You always were clever, Meg,” he muttered into her hair, “in your own way.”

Another silence overtook the library, like the shadow of a cloud over the sun.

Margaret gingerly rubbed her nose and started to squirm a little, glowing restless. Her nose glowed slightly, a dull pink, a faint reflection of her grandfather’s dusted red.
That redness became brighter as the funeral neared. The wake was held at the house, which was a little strange, but Margaret’s grandfather had a bad knee and complained about the effort involved in going to the funeral home. He held a stubborn devotion to that large estate on the hill, and so had his wife. The backdrop of large windows overlooking the deep blue bay was an effective distraction from the stiff, ashen body covered in black. When Margaret saw the corpse in the open casket and really, really looked at it, she could only stare for a very long time. She clutched at the hem of her dress, wishing that her mother would hold her hand. But she didn’t, and they turned around to walk back to the folding chairs in the front row.

“You were very brave not to cry,” her mother whispered.

But it wasn’t bravery; it was just that she was all dried up by now. There weren’t any tears left.

When they reached the chairs, Margaret didn’t sit down; she sniffled, ran the back of her hand under her nose, and kept walking forward, gliding fluidly down the aisle between the chairs. Through the entry hall with its dark shrouds over the windows and furniture. Through the door so heavy that she strained to open them. Down the curved stone steps of the porch.

Right into the lilac bushes.

Their short season had already passed. Their purple-blue hue had faded; their sweet fragrance took on a strong note of decay. She fit easily into her small nook, crouching down in her black taffeta dress, staring out at the world. She was a lilac. It was past her seasons. She was the color of sandy dirt, and she smelled of death.
But she, and all the other lilacs, would get to come back, with time. That made her feel much, much better.

She stayed out in the bushes until it started to rain again.

Latest posts by L.S. Engler (see all)