“Lullaby,” by Jennifer Diemer
Buried far beneath the earth, a mechanical girl struggles to hold onto the memories of her years in the sun–and of the young woman she loved more than words, Milla.
(photo by ImNotQuiteJack)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
by Jennifer Diemer
Some of the words have gone, slipped away:
the word for the short, dead-leaf season—not fall, no, the other word, the lovely
the word for the thing that blooms like a flower and keeps one dry when the sky breaks open and weeps;
the word—a small word, a hard word—for that weeping;
and the word for the shallow ponds the weeping leaves behind, like baths, Milla
used to say, drawn for squirrels.
I remember squirrels. They made Milla clap and laugh as they raced up and down the trees, and then leapt, without fear, between wide-spaced branches. “They’re like me,” she said once, as we stood together arm in arm, watching the animals’ scurrying in the park.
“But you haven’t a tail,” I teased her, tilting back and staring hard, as if to make sure.
And she laughed and smiled her miles-long smile. “No. But I’m careless like them. Or…wait. Is the proper word carefree?”
I shook my head. “I imagine the squirrels have many cares—tree cares and acorn cares, at the very least.”
“Well.” Milla’s red mouth found my cheek, claimed it with a girlish giggle. Then she whispered in my ear, “I’ve only one care, my love.” She laughed softly. “My acorn. My tree. You.”
I almost lost acorn—it was a terrible fright—but I sucked it back when I felt it drifting, and I held it in my mouth, tasting its nuttiness and its sleeping tree, before I swallowed it with a sigh and forced it back down.
I have to do that with the words now, suck and chew and swallow, because I never hear them, never speak them, and if I don’t hold them, taste them, love them enough, they fade—just as any unloved thing, over time, fades away.
But Milla won’t fade; I won’t let her fade. It was an error, our parting, a fatal one, a cruel one. I shelter her word—Milla—and she, alone, will never fade. In time, I’ll forget mountain and newspaper and moon. Even acorn. But I will never forget Milla.
It was she who noticed me in the department store window.
“Oh, Papa!” she exclaimed, with brightness in her eyes, “Isn’t she beautiful? May we take her home? Oh, please say yes, Papa! I would so love a friend!”
Papa said yes, always said yes to his beloved daughter, though I came to learn that he had no love to spare for me—or for anyone else. Milla was his sun and moon; for her alone he found the will to wake and work. He would have faded like an underused word had he not had Milla to bask in and gaze upon.
While her father paid, Milla drew me out of the shop, through the doorway and onto the sidewalk outdoors. I had never walked before, so my feet were clumsy, heavy like bricks, but she showed me, patient, how to bend my knees and lock my ankles. And the dress I came in was a silly, too-short thing—better suited to a child than a half-grown girl—so she led me into the tailor’s and ordered me some proper clothes, and bloomers, too, with bows at the waist, and a lovely pair of shiny black shoes.
The tailor looked at me oddly as he took my measurements. Everyone looked at me oddly, though I suppose I looked at everyone oddly, too. It was all new, all exciting, and, I must admit, frightening, but Milla soothed me with smiles and lilting words. And she sang a song, like the songs sung to babies in their cradles. I can’t remember the name for songs like that— rocking songs, quiet songs.
For two years, we slept beneath the canopy over Milla’s bed, and we whispered together; we dreamed and laughed and grew.
When Milla was seventeen, boys came to the house. She sulked at her father for inviting them in, but he was worried, he said, that she spent too much time with me. She needed real companions, he told her. Real friends. Someone real to love.
Real. There are some words you wish to forget, and those, I have found, are the stickiest, most stubborn words of all. Like glue, they cling to your teeth, and no matter how you dig at them and try to pry them off, bits always remain—and come to mind when you least wish to think of them.
I knew I was not real. I always knew. It was part of my programming to know this, and to accept it. When I gazed at my reflection in the mirror, I looked as real as Milla—my eyes blinked, and my chest rose and fell, and my body even changed, like Milla’s, from that of girl to a young woman as the slow months passed by. But those things were all illusions, proof of ingenious design and artistry—not proof of life. Not proof of a soul.
She kissed me for the first time when we were out in the garden, gathering lavender for garnishing the cook’s lemon cake. There were no words in that moment, only lips and breath (hers warm and sweet, mine pumped from a fan in my breast), but I remember thinking of a word, and it was the only word, suddenly, that I knew, had ever known: Love, I thought.
“Love,” Milla said, and kissed me again.
It was a secret; no one could know. Milla made me swear not to tell, and I swore, hand pressed over my mechanical heart.
By day, she flirted with the boys her father invited to dinner, and she suffered through long games of charades and cards.
By night, we held one another so closely, tangled together, that not even my maker could have guessed where I, the doll, ended and Milla, the real girl, began. I imagined we were a tree, with our branches bound to a deep-rooted trunk.
Sometimes Milla took me dancing in dim, clanging halls full of grey smoke, where no one ever bothered us or even glanced our way. Sometimes we went for long walks by the ocean and kissed in a salt-slick cave that had been carved out by the sea.
I am not real, but it seemed, in those days, as if love had made me real: my eyes held the light and my laughter won smiles from passersby. I had sloughed off my strangeness and become my own creature—no, not my own. I was Milla’s, and she was—she told me again and again, as we lay in the dark together—mine.
When the news was first announced, we did not heed it. The world—outside of Milla’s arms—held no interest for me. Like the squirrels, we went on with our joyous bounding—branch to branch to branch, kiss to kiss to kiss, knowing, for certain, that we would never fall.
But Papa called us into his study one day when the sky was weeping—weeping so hard that he had to raise his voice to a shout to be heard—and he told us that the end was near: the end of the world, and the end of us. The end of everything.
Milla leapt up and laughed, wrapping her arm around his shoulder. “What a joke!” she praised him. “You’re quite the actor, Papa. How funny!”
“It’s not a joke, Milla. It’s certain. Here, read the paper. We’ve only one day more. One day.”
It’s a slippery word, day. Without light, its meaning falters. Here, in the dark, day tastes a little like bright with a hint of time, but the day the world ended tasted wet, like water, and heavy, like sodden earth.
We lay beneath Milla’s canopy and waited for the great wave. It came quickly, crashing and eager—with its scents of salt and skin.
Defiant, careless, we remained still, even as the walls fell around us, until, finally, the deluge crept between the floorboards and soaked the bedspread and our clothes through.
Then, unspeaking, we sat up for one last kiss.
I kept my eyes open as our mouths pressed together, desperate not to waste a moment of the time remaining, not to sacrifice sight of the dearest face I had ever seen.
When we parted, Milla tucked a smile inside of me—her last smile, full of love—and sang for the final time her sweet cradle song.
And she slept.
I held her long after the water stole her breath away. We floated, a tangle, until the earth broke apart and swallowed the water, the world, Milla and me.
Days have passed. Days and months and years. I gave up numbers long ago.
Buried with the rocks, with the roots, in the dirt, I chew on the syllables that taste the most sweet—her and we and our and kiss—and I spit out the ones that are bitter on my tongue—end and drown and doll and real.
I was built to last.
I am the last.
But Milla is here with me, will always be with me. And I don’t need a world to situate my love for her. All I need is inside—nestled amongst the rods and cogs: a small thing, like an acorn, but more real than newspapers, more lovely than that word for fall.
I still have—will always have—the memory of her smile.
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