The Last Petal
by Anna Madden
Miss Lily Dale preferred hands to faces. Hands told a story that faces could hide.
Her father’s hands had become so gaunt, so fidgety. A shipping merchant without ships was a man without a livelihood. He spent his days inside their new home writing letters to the port master. The ink looked like dried blood under his fingers.
A good daughter wore a smile, but Lily’s lips faltered, betraying her. “I’m headed to market, Papa. I’m going to—”
“Go along then, child. I must finish this.” His attention barely wavered from his parchment.
Lily drew back. Better she had been born a son, destined to build rather than hinder. As matters stood, her father had sold off their valuables to pay off the debt collectors, and there was little she could do to help.
The floorboards shifted beneath her feet. She skirted the warped planks lest she fall through them and into the empty larder below. At the counter, she scraped three pennies from the bottom of a jar, planting them in her apron pocket. Lily stared at the two coppers left. She bit into her inner cheeks, then counted again.
Her father’s quill stopped scratching. “There, there,” he said, his eyes on the table. “Things will be as they were again. You’ll see.” His words were as empty as the jar.
“Of course, Papa.”
Lily tied her bonnet. She would find work in town and earn her worth in copper, she promised herself, closing the front door quietly behind her.
She set out on the lane beside their cottage with an empty basket clasped between her gloved fingers. Her knuckles were swollen beneath the cloth, the skin sore and dry and itchy. Her hands had once been as white and fresh as her namesake. Whose hands were these?
Switchgrass and lemon-colored buttercups surrounded the path she walked, the tall growth rippling back and forth. Ahead, a rose-gray roan stood tied by the manor house near the village’s entrance.
At the market square, the villagers eagerly peered into her white bonnet, their eyes thirsty.
“A sweet flower,” she overheard. “A shame, that.”
Lily gritted her teeth and bought small items at a stall: some thread, more lye soap. “Do you know of any work?” she asked, handing over a penny. The woman who palmed it had hands more worn and gnarled than her own. Seeing this, Lily blushed.
The woman shook her head, her cheeks a pair of withered petals.
Two pennies bought stale loaves from the baker’s tray. “Can I work here, Mr. Hemlock? I could learn how to bake.”
The baker snorted. He leered over his table and pinned her with soot-black eyes. “You know, you’d be prettier if you smiled,” he said. “My son still talks of you. He could make you smile, I reckon.” He rubbed his hands together. “It’s time Ashton settled down now he’s bought the manor house.”
Picturing the estate brought back memories from when Lily hadn’t needed gloves. A brief season of ease and brashness and unappreciated sunshine. Many of the young men had tried to court her then, the baker’s son among them. She swallowed once, then twice.
The baker touched her arm. His dough-covered palm clung to her sleeve. “You aren’t sick are you, girl?” he asked. “It’s been awhile since you returned to town.”
Lily shrugged out of his hold and looked down, rearranging the items in her basket. “I’m fine,” she said, steadier than she expected. “It’s a little warm out today, is all.”
She fixated on the eggshell fabric of her gloves, blinking fast, her stomach twisting in her gut. If she walked home now, almost empty handed, she might as well accept her worthlessness.
Lily raised her chin. “Where’s Ashton?”
“Look at the stable,” the baker said, smirking wide. “He’s got business with that centaur.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “It’s up that way. Keep clear of the creature. He’s not tame.”
Her feet carried her to the far side of town where a stone stable stood. A pile of earthenware decorated its bordering grass, looking old and misshapen. The pots belonged among the first attempts of an apprentice whose hands had been too eager, too young.
Finer wares held places of honor on shelves covered by an awning that spanned one side of the barn. All were dainty housewares ringed with painted flowers. They didn’t match her memories. The old potter’s work had never been so ornate. These crocks must be local favorites, she thought, noting the precise lines and delicate finishes. Lily kept back and browsed the older wares first.
In secret, she darted glances at the potter, who stood four-legged with a tangled mane. For clothes, he wore nothing save his own dark hide, which was dirty, smudged by clay, and his tail all snarled and feral. A multitude of raised scars twined around the hairless skin along his torso. Some had faded, but many were edged in crimson.
Two village girls sat on the abandoned pots, watching him. They stared at the centaur’s bare chest and corded muscles as he labored over his potter’s wheel. He worked and paid his visitors no mind, his strong hands ever slick and stained by the moss-brown hues of his trade.
Lily walked nearer to the barn and the finer crockery on display. There were matching sets and lone pieces. Vases, pitchers, bowls, washbasins, and more. There were buttercups, forget-me-nots, lavender, and deep-throated tulips. Her fingertips traced their cupped petals, green-dabbed stems, and sweetly painted wreaths.
Hooves struck the ground like a frightened heartbeat. Looking up, Lily watched the centaur approach, staring without meaning to stare. He towered over her, at least seventeen hands, close enough to smell the earth on him. He stopped beside her, his shadow touching hers, and pawed the ground with one foreleg.
She stepped back. “I’m looking for Ashton.”
“You won’t find him among the pots,” he said.
Lily blushed. “Do you know if he’s hiring help?”
“Look,” he said, “I have work to do.”
“Well, then . . . ” Lily picked out a pitcher with a stem of dusty pink roses and raised a shaky hand to it. She licked her lips, but the right words eluded her. “How much for one like this?” she asked. She pressed her elbows into her sides and reminded herself to breathe.
“I don’t get to decide,” he said, his ragged forelock hiding his eyes. “Go sit with the others if you must. Just leave me be.”
A laugh like a bell rung behind them. “You’re the shipper’s daughter, aren’t you?” one of the village girls asked Lily. “Be careful. He bites.”
She moved toward them. “When did the centaur arrive?” Lily asked.
“Old Potter took him in before he died,” the second girl said. “Looked the worse of it then, like he’d been starving.” The girl leaned closer. “Ignore my sister. She’s just peeved the Beast never talks to her. He doesn’t bite. Some folks blamed him for the old man’s death, though. Said he’s cursed, that this town’s cursed as long as he stays here.”
Lily studied the centaur, wondering who to believe, but he didn’t seem to notice or care.
A sharp crack slapped the air. The centaur flinched, side-stepping away from her. Spinning fast, Lily spotted a familiar rose-gray gelding pulling a cart into the yard.
“Whoa,” the driver called. A young man with the same wide chin as the baker sat at the reins. Ashton halted the rig next to Lily and chomped into a half-eaten apple. “Get the new merchandise loaded, Beast,” he said. “Step to it.”
The four-legged potter circled around behind the cart with his eyes cutting toward the driving whip. At the back, he shouldered bags of oats and carried them to the barn. He returned with an assortment of pots, packing them into the horse-drawn cart.
As the centaur worked, Ashton leaned down from his seat, eyeing Lily like an item for sale.
“Lily, that is you! Well, it’s been a time and a half since . . . ”
“I was looking for you, sir,” Lily said. “I heard you bought the manor house. I could work in the kitchen. I do all the washing and sorting at home. All the cooking.”
“Is that what you think?” Ashton took another bite from the apple, juice spattering his cheek. “I’ve already hired a maid. Anyway, a girl like you shouldn’t be working, much less walking alone. Let me give you a ride home.”
“No,” Lily said, stepping backward. “That won’t be necessary.”
Ashton chewed and raised his eyebrows at her.
Lily glanced at the pots being loaded. “You’re responsible for trading the crocks, then?” she asked.
“That’s right, but not here,” he said, tossing his apple core down. “No one can afford my prices, so I export them.”
“The potter does all the work,” Lily said, clenching her basket’s handle until the straw poked through her gloves. “He should sell his own wares.”
Ashton laughed, though the centaur moved about his task slower with his tail swishing back and forth.
“Who would barter with the Beast?” Ashton said, his voice brash, stinging her ears. “He wouldn’t be allowed to set a hoof into town after the old potter died. I set up the deals and made it so he could stay.”
Lily snuck a glance at the centaur. The tendons in his neck flexed, their lines raised into sharp ridges. She gathered her skirt to leave but stopped mid-stride, realizing Ashton’s trade wasn’t so different from her father’s, buying merchandise at a lower cost and then reselling it for profit. Lily needed to think on similar lines—nothing was free.
There was no denying Ashton had done well for himself. He wouldn’t remain single for long. Looking down, she imagined a ring glinting on her left hand. There wasn’t time to keep asking for a position, and Lily had few skills to recommend her. Wedlock meant selling herself, but it offered a quicker solution.
Was it prideful to think Ashton might still want her?
Her stomach tensed, but she turned back and forced a smile. “Actually, I’ll take that ride. I live back that way,” she said, pointing homeward.
He offered his hand, the skin much paler than her cream-colored gloves. Lily accepted it, and he lifted her to the seat beside him. His palm felt soft and unused to labor, even through the cloth.
“The cottage your father took is on my land,” Ashton said. He snapped his whip against the roan gelding’s back.
The cart’s wheels rolled through the market square, then onto the lane bordered by the feather-tipped switchgrass. He stopped the roan at the manor house. Clean white columns framed a massive door, and thorn-covered bushes guarded the porch.
“I’d ask, but of course you like it. It’s the finest house in town,” he said. “I wouldn’t settle for anything less.” He shifted until his thigh pressed against hers, his breath warm against her neck.
Lily kept still, focusing on the manor house. It reminded her of her childhood home, of salt-filled air, of when father’s hands had been so steady and capable. Lily pointed at the bushes. “I’d plant daisies in that border instead. They’re such happy flowers. Maybe some poppies as well.”
“Maybe I’ll buy the seeds for you,” Ashton said with a wink.
Sweat watered her gloves. Lily nodded, her lips pursed, trusting her bonnet to shade most of her expression.
Her father was sitting at the kitchen table when she unlatched the front door. About to tell him of Ashton, she noticed he clutched an open letter. “What news, Papa?”
Lily moved about the kitchen with her basket, putting away her purchases. With the lye soap in hand, she looked for the bucket. The floor needed a good scrubbing.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “One of my ships has returned.”
Lily almost dropped her soap.
“I’ll have to see about this,” her father said. “I must speak with the captain directly. It will mean a day at the old port.”
“Of course,” she said. “I . . . ” She thought of Ashton again, cringed, and closed her mouth. Maybe their fortunes were mended.
“Can I get you anything there?” he asked. “It saddens me that all of your fine things were sold off.”
“Just come home safely, Papa,” Lily said. “That is gift enough.”
“Surely there’s something you want.”
Lily looked at her father’s thin hands. “Bring me a flower, then.”
Her father kissed her forehead, packed a bag, and departed.
When the next market day dawned, the sky wore a cloak of flint-gray clouds. Lily dug out the last two pennies, grabbed the empty jar, and set off. She passed the manor house and shivered. If only there had been work in town—anything. No matter how she framed it, marrying remained the best option. Her father’s health suffered daily. She exhaled. Everything would calm down if she could secure Ashton, but could she?
In town, the clang of horseshoes echoed across the brick pavement. Looking up, an unexpected sight greeted her. The potter pulled a makeshift cart built from ash-colored barnwood filled with his painted earthenware. Seeing the pots made her smile. He deserved every coin they earned him. His presence distracted many of the villagers meant to be shopping or running their own stands. He set down his cart in an open spot.
Lily went to a stand selling fresh milk, handing over her two pennies even as the commotion stirred the square.
“Wait till my boy hears of this,” the baker said, ripping off his apron and stomping away from his table.
The woman who filled Lily’s jar muttered under her breath.
Lily tilted her head and frowned. “What did you say?”
“There’ll be trouble,” she said. “Best hurry home now.”
Thick clouds loomed overhead, and a rough wind tugged at Lily’s skirt.
“What’s it to them?” Lily asked, a hand on her hip. “The potter doesn’t need Ashton to sell his work. It wouldn’t hurt if he were more approachable, perhaps . . . ” All the centaur needed was someone with a gentler touch to make the right impression on buyers.
A loud whooping heralded the arrival of the baker, his son, and a couple of other men with puffed-out chests. The baker strode back to his stand with a gleam in his eyes. The others herded the four-legged potter from his patchwork stall, and Lily’s heart rooted deep into her chest when she saw a rope pulled tight around the creature’s neck. Ashton clenched his driving whip, using it to direct the others when he couldn’t get a clear aim.
Lily watched those too white hands and held her breath.
Blood highlighted fresh cuts across the centaur’s withers. He put up a fight, rearing, striking out with his hooves.
The men laughed and cat-called, careful to keep a wide berth as they hauled hard on the lead rope.
The centaur landed, legs splayed, with white foam dripping off his flanks.
The blackening sky flashed white, and a light rain drizzled.
“Don’t you know your master, Beast?” Ashton said. “I’ll show you . . . ” He turned to the man beside him. “Get him pinned against the tables. Let’s show him he’s no better than my horse.”
Ashton winked in her direction.
Nearby, the baker laughed—an ugly bleat. He wasn’t alone. Other villagers called out, cheering, offering tips on how best to tame the creature. Bets were placed on who would be the first rider.
“My son will break him,” the baker boasted. “Watch and see.”
Lily stood meekly among the villagers, all but forgotten. The centaur noticed her, glancing at her with a flick of his wild brown eyes, the white showing around the edges. Lily drooped at the sight. He didn’t have claws, fangs, or even horns.
Lily studied her gloves’ worn fabric and realized she had been covering up the truth. Ashton treated those he thought beneath him like common animals, preying on them. How long before he turned his whip against her? Worse, Lily pictured the rope around her father’s neck. She shuddered. No, she could never marry such a man.
Setting her jaw, Lily opened her jar and hurled the milk at the baker’s son. His cheeks dripped white, and his lips hardened into a thin, pinched line.
“You’ll be no care-woman to my garden!” he shouted.
Lily threw the empty jar, and it smacked into Ashton’s kneecap. He winced and dropped his whip.
The centaur landed a kick on his handler and jerked free. The villager staggered, then fell, grasping his thigh.
Trailing the rope, the centaur galloped off.
The sky broke into a torrent. Lily slipped away under the heavy downpour. She parted her lips to let raindrops collect on her tongue. They tasted sweet, almost nectar-like.
Her father returned home as the sky cleared. His ship had been claimed by his creditors, and the captain had no news of the others. Still, a small triumph warmed his face when he handed Lily a finely wrought vase. It had an elegant border of delicate white-belled flowers. She recognized the piece as one of the centaur’s crocks.
“All the wildflowers got flattened in the rain,” her father said, his voice cracking. “I hope this will do.”
Lily cradled the earthenware in her gloved hands, admiring the fine-detailed flowers, knowing already that she wouldn’t keep it.
“It’s lovely, Papa,” she said, her fingers tapping the vase’s surface even as she clasped it closer. “I’m afraid I know who made it, and who set its price.”
His shoulders dipped. “I should have taken better care of you,” her father said. “I had hoped . . . Well.” He handed Lily three coppers. “It’s all that’s left.”
There wasn’t enough to last the week. Had he bought the vase despite that? Lily bit her tongue and helped her father settle, wishing she had something more wholesome to feed him than crusty bread, and led him to his room to rest. Lily grabbed the vase and didn’t bother to latch the front door before quick-stepping down the lane.
She trekked to the barn with determined strides. Mud clung to her petticoat, but she barely noticed it.
Her face wilted outside the barn. The kiln stood alone, unmanned—empty and cold. Worse, almost all the crocks once on display were shattered. The shards stuck to the grass and the mud, trampled by prints of horse hooves and boots.
Lily forced her shoulders back, planted one foot in front of the other, and knocked on the barn door.
Lily jumped. She pushed the door. It creaked open.
Inside, a long aisle led down a line of stalls. She breathed in dust and oats and hay. The centaur lay inside the largest, which was bedded with dry straw. Open cuts wept down his dark hide where the whip had cracked against him. Clay stuck to his palms, hardened to his skin even as clay in the kiln.
“I came to return this,” Lily said, holding up the vase.
His forelock covered his eyes. “I said go away.”
“I heard you,” Lily said. She set the crock on the stall’s ledge.
The centaur stood, flicking his hair from his face. His eyes were bright and intelligent. She saw pain within them, too.
“So, you’re the same as the rest,” he said. “I should have known better. Come to throw things at my door and call me Beast.”
“Never,” Lily said. “Your hands give you away. They molded this clay, sculpted it. A beast destroys, he rages. The name does not suit you.”
The centaur’s eyes softened. “Why are you returning it, then?”
Lily felt her cheeks flame. “It’s my father—he gifted it to me. He shouldn’t have. He meant well, but we need the money. I hoped to sell it back to you.”
“I have nothing left,” he said. “The baker’s son took all he wanted.”
“Not all he wanted,” Lily answered softly.
She could hardly make out his expression with his hair in such knots, veiling it. “I don’t know what to call you,” she said. “What about Florian? Or maybe William or Yarrow . . . ”
The centaur shook his head. “No,” he said. “None of those. My name is Hawthorne.”
Lily stepped closer. “Well, do you think you can find me a brush, Hawthorne?”
The centaur walked off. She fiddled with her apron, twisting the tie around her fingers. He returned, having fetched some grooming supplies that had long been left to collect dust. He set the open box at her feet and stood beside her. His nostrils flared, blowing air, and he pawed the dirt floor.
Lily took off her gloves, tucking them into her apron’s tie before selecting a soft brush. She pulled the bristles through his hide and his mane, clearing the dirt, careful to avoid his wounds. She watched her hands between strokes, studying them—the redness, calluses, and other imperfections. These were her hands and no other’s. They spoke of washing, of scrubbing, of caring for others.
These were the hands of a giver.
She didn’t put her gloves back on once she had finished, leaving them tucked at her waist. She looked over her handiwork and smiled. His mane reached far, parting across his broad shoulders and spilling down to where his belly met his glossy hide. He carried his tail high.
“My father used to transport for craftsmen,” Lily said before she lost her nerve.
“I know what you’ll say,” Hawthorne said. “I’ve heard this before.”
Lily held her hands out, letting him see the broken skin, the empty palms. “It’s not the same. I can’t force you,” Lily said, talking too fast. “Just listen. If we ask my father, he can help you set up your own shop, calculate the prices, figure out the cost of expenses.”
Hawthorne crossed his arms over his chest. “Let me guess. You’ll expect a share of the profits, too.”
“Your earnings should be your own,” Lily said, dropping her arms to her sides. “It would be enough if I could work the stall for a small allowance or help keep things tidy around here.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I fear they will hate you for it.”
“I was a fool not to see the true beast,” Lily said. “I convinced myself Ashton could help us. That any of them could. It’s not their charity and well wishes I need, Hawthorne. I need a partner.”
His face whitened, but his eyes glowed. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted,” he said, holding out his hand.
Lily touched his palm, and Hawthorne closed his callused fingers around hers, his grip strong, yet gentle.
There was an old wooden mounting block in the barn. Hawthorne let go of her hand and positioned himself on its right side, then looked back at her.
“Come over here,” he said, standing quietly.
Lily hesitated. “Everyone will stare.”
“Good,” Hawthorne said. “I want them to see us.”
She collected her vase off the stall ledge and went back to him. She cradled the crock in one arm, gathering a bit of his mane in the other as she swung a leg over his back. Her dress billowed around her, leaving her calves exposed where they touched his sides.
The centaur carried her out of the barn and into the sunlight. They trotted through the mud, down the lane, across the market square, toward the worn-down cottage that wasn’t perfect, but still, a home—her home. Lily longed to be there, to go faster and faster, to feel the wind kiss her cheeks. Hawthorne obliged her, breaking into a gallop, her skirt flapping wildly, making cloth wings. Her discarded gloves fluttered at her waist before slipping free. She let them fly behind her.
About the Author
Anna Madden lives in Fort Worth, Texas. Her fiction has appeared in Zooscape, Apparition Lit, Hexagon, and elsewhere. She has an English degree from the University of Missouri—Kansas City. In free time she gardens, mountain bikes, and makes stained glass. Follow her on Twitter @anna_madden_ or visit her website at annamadden.com.
About the Narrator
Eliza Chan is a writer and occasional narrator of speculative fiction. She has narrated for Pseudopod, PodCastle and Cast of Wonders. It amuses her endlessly that people find her Scottish accent soothing. Eliza has had her own work featured in The Dark, PodCastle, Fantasy Magazine and The Best of British Fantasy 2019.
When not working on her current novel or reading, Eliza can be found boardgaming, watching anime, baby wrangling and dabbling in crafts. You can find out more at her website elizachan.co.uk or on twitter @elizawchan.