Canary Blues: A Short Story

1700s

The Blossom of a Flower

She looked like a rose; cheeks flushed red, the glow of sun an aura around her. Vivid red hair piled on her head, and a row of pearls resting against her pale skin. Florence—the one who watched her from afar—knew that she had not found her soulmate, but the other half of her own soul.

*

One-hundred, and thirty-four years. That was how long Florence had existed. Living was something she still searched for.

*

Once, Florence aged like everyone else. Until she reached twenty-one years. There was no explanation, and no urge to find out why. That way, life went by faster than she imagined. Loved ones died of natural causes of disease, but she felt no need to fill those empty spaces, even if it felt like she was withering away. Until she saw the woman—the one like a flower.

Florence returned at nine o’clock in the morning, outside the local bookshop. The woman stood by a table of books, a small parasol shielding her from the warm rays of summer light. Florence went to her side, looking at the way the woman’s fingers stroked over each of the books spines.

“You like to read?” Florence asked.

“Oh,” the woman said, flustered, as though she did not expect to be spoken to. “Very much so.”

“Anything in particular?”

“Anything I can find,” came her soft reply. “Do you read?”

“Not as much as I would like to,” Florence said.

The woman nodded, then picked up one of the books, leather-bound and thick. She offered it to Florence. The gentle smile on her lips was what made Florence take it, even though reading was not something she did a lot. “I’ve read this one over and over, even since I was a child. You should try it.”

Florence stared at her with a sense of longing. “What is your name?”

“Elizabeth.”

“Don’t you want to know mine?”

Elizabeth smiled. “I do – only I’d much rather learn it tomorrow.”

Florence remained smiling even as the day darkened to night.

*

“You must handle a book with care,” Elizabeth said the next morning. “Without grace, comes the risk of damaging such fine work.”

“Do you not simply see it as a book?” Florence asked.

“Oh, more so.”

“How?”

“Stories take you elsewhere – somewhere that isn’t here,” she said. “That, I find, is an incredible power to wield. I respect it.”

She was an unbelievable woman, with the mind of elegance, and fascination by the words on a page. In the days of Florence’s life, she came across people who were too smug to give a damn about anything that wasn’t bottles of wine, or too shy to approach anything more. She forgot about meeting people she could fall in love with. It seemed fate was kind and cruel enough to find her someone. That someone was a beauty with red freckles and shining eyes, refusing to let Florence walk away.

“Where are you from?” Florence asked, out of disbelief that Elizabeth couldn’t possibly be from this world.

“London.”

“Are you certain?”

Elizabeth gave an odd look, but laughed. “Of course I’m certain.”

“I only ask because—”

“You needn’t explain why. What about you? Where are you from?”

“Nowhere.”

Her smile is wry. “You were born nowhere?”

Florence had been born somewhere, but it was so long ago the image of her origin became blurry. She couldn’t remember the faces of her mother and father. Her life was nowhere, no traces leading her back to the person she once was, but her existence trailed after her wherever she went.

“Yes,” she said. “I was born nowhere.”

Elizabeth said, “You’re somewhere now, aren’t you?”

She took Elizabeth in, and smiled. “Can I paint you?”

“You can paint?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” Elizabeth said, mildly confused. “Yes – but why?”

“So I can remember you.”

“Remember—?”

“Please.”

*

Florence could remember one thing about her true life: painting. She did it everywhere, as soon as she could lift a paintbrush. That was years ago. She had not tried it for decades, but when she gazed at Elizabeth, the urge to capture the moment overwhelmed her.

The paintbrush was unfamiliar in her hand, but once she found her balance, Elizabeth waited. She sat on a chair, red-velvet, painted gold, and one of the expensive furnishings passed down from her parents. It never had meaning, not until Elizabeth sat in it. She folded her hands in her lap, and her hair cascaded down her shoulders in fiery waves of red.

Once Florence was ready, she asked Elizabeth if she was.

Elizabeth nodded.

And so Florence painted. It felt unnatural, the mesh of colours too dark or too light, and shapes contorted. By the time she finished, hours had passed, and Elizabeth came to stand by Florence’s side. Florence hated the sight she created, neglecting Elizabeth’s true beauty. When Elizabeth saw it, her face broke out in a smile, leaning over Florence to get a better look.

“This is wonderful, Florence – where did you learn to paint so beautifully?”

“I had time on my hands as a child.”

“You taught yourself?”

Florence nodded.

“You never fail to surprise me,” Elizabeth said, smiling.

“Is that a good thing?”

“Most definitely.”

Florence was surprised when Elizabeth inched close, until they were a breath away. It was Elizabeth who reached up and curled a strand of Florence’s hair behind her ear. It was Elizabeth who closed the distance, pressing their lips together. An explosion of feeling erupted within Florence, feeling like a warm summers day. When they broke apart, Elizabeth’s cheeks were tinged red, again like the petals of a rose. It took Florence’s breath away even more.

“You’re truly unbelievable,” Florence said.

The smile returned. “Is that a good thing?”

“Most definitely.”

A pause. “We should go away.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere – or nowhere – as long as you’re there.”

Florence smiled back. “Here sounds fine.”

*

They lie in bed when Florence felt the sweat on Elizabeth’s forehead. She was red-faced, not the slight tinge of rosy cheeks, but a colour feverish to touch. She shook under the covers, hair splayed out across the pillows, unlike anything Florence had seen in her.

“You need a doctor.”

Elizabeth sputtered a cough. “I’m fine.”

Florence handed her a handkerchief, which she took, coughing into it. It was stained red, but Elizabeth flashed a smile—always smiling, even in the worst times.

“You’re not fine,” Florence said, gesturing to the blood. “This is not fine.”

“Florence.”

“You’re seeing a doctor—”

Elizabeth’s hand shot out and grabbed Florence’s wrist. Her eyes showed a glimpse of fear. “Don’t,” she said. “I do not need to be told what I already know.”

“And what do you know?”

“You already know too.”

It was harsh to face the reality of what could have been a fantasy lived. Although Elizabeth would have died of old age, Florence would have memories, able to move on. This was the kind of death that took someone away before their time. It was the ruthless kind that destroyed not only the person who had fallen into that darkness, but those who were willing to take their place.

Elizabeth sensed her distress, cupping her cheek. “You needn’t be so upset. We have time before the inevitable comes. We can spend it together, better than to dwell on what we cannot control.”

“How can you be this way?”

“I must.”

“Why?”

“Because to not is no way to live.”

Florence was yet to understand the meaning of living. She had felt it when she met Elizabeth, spent the few precious weeks with her, kissed her. Now it was to be taken away. She bowed her head, holding Elizabeth’s hand tight, trying to hold back the tears.

“It is okay to cry,” Elizabeth murmured, running a hand through Florence’s hair. “You mustn’t close yourself off from the world. Be open. Be kind. Live.”

“How can I when the closest thing I had to living is dying?”

A sad smile. “You never know – we may live in another life.”

This was the only life Florence had.

*

1800s

Petals That Fall

“I’ve heard this play is divine,” one person said, fanning herself with one of the pamphlets.

“Are you sure?” said another, a wry smile on her face. “I heard it was nothing but abysmal.”

“Clearly what you’ve heard is not reliable,” the first said, looking around, anxious to have the double-doors open. She stood on her tiptoes, looking over the crowds of people. “When did Eliza say should would be meeting us?”

It was the name that grabbed Florence’s attention.

Eliza.

“There she is.”

Florence followed the woman’s line of sight, and—

It was as though someone had squeezed the air from her lungs. Eliza. Elizabeth. It was her; the same woman, standing in front of her with a long, red dress, hair curling around her face and plaited into a bun. She walked with elegance, a fan held in one of her hands, moving past the crowd. She caught eyes with Florence, only to look away seconds later. And Florence knew why. Because she was a different person. She was Elizabeth, but she was Eliza.

“Eliza, dear – what took you so long?”

“It’s a lovely evening, so I wanted to walk.”

The woman tutted. “You shouldn’t. You know how dangerous the streets can be.”

Eliza fanned herself, and they dissolved into different conversation altogether, one that Florence couldn’t eavesdrop on. The doors then opened, and they filed into the theatre. Florence followed them in, losing sight of them, but went to her seat anyway. As the curtains opened, and the play begun, Florence didn’t focus on any of it. She searched for Eliza instead. The person she should have ignored—or have never set eyes on at all—and moved on with her life. Because she had not believed what her precious life had said: You never know – we may live in another life. And yet this Eliza was Elizabeth.

It was after the curtains closed that Florence saw her.

Her dress flowed around her as she left, fanning herself again. The two women that had been with her vanished, but Eliza waited by the door. She stopped Florence with a gentle hand on her arm.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Eliza said. “I can’t help but recognise you. Do we know each other?”

Yes.

“I don’t think so,” was Florence’s real reply. “I suppose I have that kind of face.”

Eliza eyed her. “Yes, that must be it.”

They stood there for a while, and Florence said, “Did you enjoy the play?”

“I would have if my two friends hadn’t spoke of how handsome the leading man was.”

“I hadn’t noticed he was.”

“Nor did I,” Eliza said. “Have you travelled far?”

“Not very.”

“I only ask because we could walk together. Safety, is all.”

Although her mind screamed for her to decline, Florence smiled back despite herself. Eliza returned it, and they left the theatre, out into the black of night. Florence found that Eliza followed her back home, no sign of going elsewhere. When she reached home—the same one she had painted Elizabeth in—still she did not leave. She stepped close, until they were inches apart. Memories of their other life flashed in Florence’s mind.

“Perhaps I’m wrong to think this, but,” Elizabeth said, sighing, “I feel like I should come in.”

And like that, Florence did not need to pursue her, because Eliza did it herself. They were drawn together from the start. Florence liked to use the as hope that perhaps this time would be different.

*

“You have curious eyes,” Florence once said to Eliza in bed.

Sunlight poured through the huge, bay windows, shining down on Eliza’s red hair. She bit down on her lip as she smiled, linking their hands together. “What do you mean by that?”

“Exactly as it sounds.”

“Yes, but—”

Florence quieted her with another kiss. Red tinged Eliza’s cheeks. Florence ran her fingers over the colour, feeling the warmth of her skin. It was the same tinge to her cheeks that was there when they had a photograph taken of them hours later. It couldn’t be seen in the black-and-white shades, but Florence knew.

*

However, it all came to an end as soon as it begun.

And in the worst way imaginable.

They had started the day by looking through what was left of Florence’s memories, scattered in the attic; chairs, throws, paintings. It had been that one portrait, hidden away for over a century, that Eliza came across first. Dust had settled on the canvas, the colours almost faded, but the image was still there. Eliza pulled it out before Florence could stop her, and she stared at it with a mixture of confusion and recognition.

“Who is this?”

Florence plastered on her most convincing smile. “A friend.”

“You painted it, didn’t you? Somehow I know it.”

Reluctantly, Florence nodded.

“It’s extraordinary,” Eliza went on, studying the piece. “But—” She paused to sigh. “I can’t help but feel I know her myself. That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?”

Despite herself, bombarded with the memory of Elizabeth’s face, she said, “No, not at all.” She took a deep breath. “Because it’s you.”

Eliza looked up.

“I’m sorry?”

“The painting is of you.”

As expected, she reached over and placed a hand on Florence’s forehead, a timid yet uneasy smile on her lips. “Are you feeling all right? Because I could have sworn you said this woman is me. Impossible, since we only met—”

“We met in 1750,” Florence interrupted. “You were known as Elizabeth then.”

“How could you be alive?” Eliza coughed a laugh, but it had not humour attached to it.

Shame burned her face. “I do not age.”

“And I? I am sure I do.”

“You do – did – because you – Elizabeth – died.”

It finally caused Eliza to frown. It made her think this was Elizabeth after all, since she had been the one to suggest new lives before she died. It made her think she believed in hope too much. That was until Eliza looked at the painting with those curious eyes of hers.

Her fingers ran over the painting. “Could it truly be me?”

“I would know you anywhere.”

A pause. “I believe you.”

“You would without explanation?”

“Yes,” she said. “Because I trust you.”

Perhaps she did believe in the impossible, or she liked play into the fantasy like Florence did.

Florence took Eliza’s face in her hands, and brought them together in a sweet, sweet kiss. They went back to bed, releasing breathy sighs and whispered sentiments, until Eliza forced herself to pull her clothes back on. Florence slept on as Eliza leant down and pressed a kiss to her forehead, and closed the door with a gentle click.

*

She slept through the horrors. She slept through the footsteps as Eliza walked down the street. The scream as someone dragged her into an alleyway. The deathly silence that followed. She woke to a normal day, expecting to find Eliza at home. Two days later she found the newspaper, explaining how a man had found a body—a woman’s, mid-twenties, red-haired—lying in the alleyway, naked and beaten, dead for forty-eight hours.

Only when she saw the blood-stained path for herself, did Florence fall to her knees.

*

1900s

Give Me Strength

It was a smouldering day in California, with sundresses and milkshakes, and songs playing from the local diners. Laughter and joy—that was how Florence would describe the atmosphere. It was unlike how she felt, tired and old, even though she hadn’t changed. A century had gone by, now in time for dancing and sitting in outside film theatres, different from the starkness of England. The place that held awful memories.

Memories she waited to arise when she saw Elizabeth, and Eliza, again.

She had moved to America a decade before, as World War II ended, wanting a fresh start like many others did. Although it was loud, full of people who celebrated with extravagance, it drowned out her troubles for a while. Soon, they came back in the end as they always did. It was only a matter of time before the life she knew came rushing towards her.

“Excuse me,” a voice said beside Florence.

And—

She knew.

Her heart fluttered and sank at the same time.

“Excuse—”

“Yes?”

“Can I sit here?”

Florence ignored the romance film that played in the background. She risked it, as she was urged to, and looked up. It was her. Different, but her. Her red hair was pinned neat, a white and red sundress flowing around her knees. Her lips stretched around a smile. Of all places, she ended up in California too, following Florence wherever she went. It was a miracle and a nightmare, to live through it all again, but it pulled her in.

She smiled back even though it hurt. “Please do.”

“You’re British?”

Florence nodded.

“How strange. I arrived her only yesterday, and already I’ve found someone like me.”

“That is odd.”

The girl smiled again, sticking her hand out. “I’m Lizzie.”

Florence took it. “Florence.”

“That’s a lovely name.” She paused in thought. “Although I suppose Elizabeth is too, but I find it too formal. Eliza too. So I went with Lizzie. It seems more appropriate—” Again, she paused, but a flush crept into her face. “Here I am rambling whilst you’re trying to watch the film. Pardon me.”

Florence’s chest felt tight. “It’s fine.”

“Speaking of fine,” she said. “You don’t look it.”

“I imagine it’s because I don’t feel it, either.”

“Why’s that?”

She sounded different too, adjusting to the decade. Florence sighed, feeling her throat constrict.

“I’m tried of life,” she said.

“What made you come to that conclusion?”

“Someone. . .”

“Oh – forget them.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I just—”

Lizzie dropped her hand onto Florence’s. “Nobody is the worth the pain.”

She then took Florence by the hand, and dragged her to where photos were being taken. Florence tried to move away, but Lizzie was insistent, so they stood, smiling or a photo. It flashed bright, smoke wafting up, but Lizzie gave it to Florence.

“Here,” she said. “You should have it.”

Florence shook her head. “I couldn’t.”

“Yes, you should,” she said around a smile. “Think of it as a reminder of a good day.”

Lizzie left after the film, as did Florence, parting ways in different directions. Florence willed herself to follow, but the hollow ache in her heart told her to power on. She could find other things in life other than love. So went down the street, the polaroid clutched in her hand, never finding Lizzie again, thinking how it had not been a good day, and no day ever would.

*

2000s

A Damaged Little While

The fourth time had been fleeting; the longer she lived, the less she saw of the love of her life. She walked down the street, and they brushed shoulders. Red, flowing hair rippled behind her. This time Florence did not learn her name, but it was Elizabeth, Eliza, and Lizzie all in one. She smiled, gentle and timid, gone within a second.

Florence was a second to late to smile back—shaky and broken.

Because she had lived for four-hundred and thirty-four years, and lived for a few bittersweet moments.

And she could nor exist, nor live, anymore.

It took one last glimpse of the love of her life for her to know. It was the last realisation to know she could not longer take the memories of her dead body in their bed, or in an alleyway, or not seeing but knowing. It was the last piece of brokenness she needed to return home, and lay in bed, with the painting hung on the wall, and photos clutched in her hand. It was the last thing she felt, the deep ache in her chest—an old, broken heart—grow weaker, until she felt nothing at all. It took a moment to fall away like the petals of a rose.

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