What I did not tell them would have shocked them all. It was the accumulation of many bits and pieces gathered over the forty years I worked for Aster, and it began like this: First she jumped from the train, then Lily. The others followed, for the escape had long been planned, but Aster and Lily jumped so far ahead of schedule they had time to not only assess their own bruises but also to kiss each other’s away—like sisters playing Mommy in the shadows of leafy branches. No longer running after the train, toward the others, they realized they were hidden in darkness and when one slipped out of her Leg o’ Mutton-sleeved dress the other did the same. Off with their petticoat bodices and S-bend corsets, away with their feather-trimmed, ruched-silk toque hats! They unwound their buns and tossed away the filler pads that made their bouffants as large as throw pillows.
Once naked, Lily laughed and covered herself with her hands. Aster wrote their names in the black earth with her toes. She wrote the date beneath and repeated it out loud. “We made it, Lily,” she said. “Happy Independence Day.”
When Lily touched her, it was not as Aster expected. Lily pointed toward the far-off whistle and distant wisp of smoke. Then they were screaming, using their open hands to slap at the bees that descended on Aster as if she had been doused with a bathtub filled with them. “Come on!” Lily yelled, pulling Aster along, and they ran back to their busted trunks. Lily fell to her knees and rummaged through their belongings while Aster smashed bees against her body, her hands smeared with their dark blood. Lily tucked a wedding dress under her armpit and thrust a crown of orange blossoms onto Aster’s head. The metal combs scraped Aster’s scalp, glinted in the moonlight, but Lily pulled the front of the veil over Aster’s face and wrapped the twenty-foot train around her body.
The remaining bees gave up and flew away. Watching them, Aster said, “I swore I’d kill myself before I ever wore this.”
“A lady never swears.” Lily laughed. “Damn, but you look silly.”
Aster raised the hem of the veil and shooed a few trapped bees into the open air. She curtseyed, from the waist. “Lily Sylvia Hart, do you take me to be your bride?”
Lily smiled and said, “I do.”
They were never truly married, of course. It was a silly game between friends; they were barely seventeen, just girls, really.
It was not until many years later, when in their sixties Lily ran from her Big River Indian husband and came to Aster for the first time, spent the night with her, which was something they had never done. In the morning Aster woke Lily and said, “Go home. Tell him you spent the night at Helen’s.”
Lily smiled and shook her curls. “I’m staying here, with you.”
“No,” Aster replied. “It’s too late for that now. You have to go home.”
That afternoon, tourists came across Lily’s body and informed the authorities that it appeared as if she had hurled a cement block into Mirror Lake without letting go. Some thought this would be bad for tourism but the numbers only grew, for the scattering of Lily’s ashes was a herstoric event. She was, after all, the first of “the thirteen original colonizers” to die. Word then spread that ours was the only civilized matriarchal society in existence. Go to see it when fog rises in the hills, travelers told friends and neighbors, and on the same day ski down Twohearted Mountain or hike up Mount Elderworthy (due to erupt any day, though this has been the story since Lily’s time), and watch the otters and manatees in the southeast everglades, and go horseback riding on the softest sand you’ve ever felt. And watch the ladies closely, they never failed to add, the ladies run the show. They were right: We do, and it’s the most spectacular show on Mother Earth.
“What I will tell you, however,” I said to the crowd, my lips brushing the microphone, “is that Aster Grande, first and foremost, was a naturalist. A feat all the more astonishing due to the fact that for the forty years I lived with her she never left her home, never ventured into the public. If you want to see her notebooks, the culmination of her life’s experiences with Grande’s Groves, they are available for public viewing at the Natural Herstory Museum in Old Downtown. Thank you all for being here.”