Daylily by Rudy Koshar
Off his meds for three months, and Daniel was in a twisted, giddy, mad orbit. Buildings sang to him—fast, gibbering songs with high-pitched keening and clashing cymbals and raucous, swelling guitar riffs that drowned out the world. The songs often scared him, but cacophony was better than the hollowed-out, woozy sensation the drugs gave him.
Franklin, the old man whose home was a cardboard box under the steel train trestle near Law Park, told Daniel he would crash if he didn’t take his pills. “You’ll be sizzlin’ like a strip of bacon, and then all of a sudden go cold, like the power went out.” Franklin shifted a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. “Young man with a future needs his meds, else you’ll end up like me.”
“You’re nuts, old man,” said Daniel, flashing a punkish smile and worrying the misshapen brim of his scuffed green fedora.
But he didn’t mind old Franklin’s warnings.
He had Sloppy Joes and chips and slaw and a peanut butter cookie with milk at the Presbyterian Church shelter on Capital Square. Afterwards Daniel planned to sleep on one of the benches in Law Park, where, as the day died, he would see houselights twinkle from the other side of Lake Monona. It was unseasonably warm for May, and he couldn’t bear the idea of sleeping in the stuffy, low-ceilinged dormer in the church basement along with twenty or thirty other guys who’d fart and snore and talk in their sleep.
He’d been looking for Franklin. He liked getting grief from the old man or hearing one of his crazy stories. Who knew where the old guy came up with his stuff? One day he’d explain how the Aztecs offered live human sacrifices. Another night he’d gesture wildly and talk about the Egyptian goddess Isis, who searched for her murdered brother and husband and restored them to life. He’d recite something from The Iliad, or recall snippets of text from Sumerian legends. When Daniel asked what the point of it all was, Franklin’s eyes twinkled and he said, “It’s the wisdom and lore of the ancients, my boy. Always trust the ancients.” But on this night the white-haired codger with the faded White Sox cap was nowhere to be seen.
Daniel sat on the bench with his backpack and a red wool blanket he’d scored from a pile of junk in front of a fraternity house on Linden Avenue. Amazing what people threw out. There were still a few boats on the darkening lake; their running lights reminded him of fireflies skimming the water.
Normally he got two or three hours of sleep, and then he had to move. If Franklin wasn’t available, he’d cadge a bottle or two of cheap wine from someone and drink until he found blessed oblivion. Often he didn’t sleep at all but roved downtown dodging patrol cars and avoiding drunken fraternity boys who stole his fedora or messed with his backpack. Meanwhile, pharmacies and record shops and clothing stories sang dislocated, barbed songs that left Daniel huddled in some corner clutching his ears. Or, if the internal symphony sounded less threatening, he’d find himself in the middle of the sidewalk swaying like a tall blade of prairie grass in the wind.
Just as he rested his head on the folded blanket, he heard Franklin’s unmistakable barking cough. The old man had to traverse Law Park to get to his cardboard box.
“Daaaan….yoool,” Franklin called when he saw the younger man. “Just the guy I’m lookin’ for.”
Daniel sat up. “Jesus Christ. I was just about asleep. You go barging through someone’s bedroom like that all the time?”
“Ha! You know you ain’t gonna sleep, kid. ‘Specially after I give you your gift.”
“You’re talking crazy again, old man.”
Franklin put two fingers to his mouth and whistled sharply. From behind some bushes at the edge of the park by the water came a medium-size dog. “His name’s Daylily.”
Daniel snorted. “What are you doing with a dog, old man?”
“I’m not doin’ with a dog, Danny boy. You are! You’re doin’ with a dog.”
Still sitting on the bench, Daniel’s knees bounced wildly. “I can’t take care of no dog. The only pet I ever had was a hamster and I drowned him a couple weeks after I got him when I was twelve years old.”
“You’ll find a way. And a dog’s good for you. Slow you down a little, man. You know, in mythologies around the world, dogs are associated with invisible powers that rule Earth and Moon.”
The dog came up to Daniel and sat. It looked like a mix of shepherd and Labrador. One ear perked higher than the other.
“What kind of name is Daylily? That’s about the stupidest name for a dog I can think of. Especially for a male dog.”
“Ain’t stupid at all, Danny boy. Male, female—it don’t matter. What matters is his coloring. Between burnt orange and yellow, like some of the daylilies you see. You know what daylilies are, I assume.”
“Course I know what daylilies are. There used to be some out back of the house of one of the foster families I lived with.”
Daniel studied the dog in the waning light and saw the dog’s coat was a faded orange-yellow hue.
“His coat’s too dull for a daylily.”
“Ah, but you see,” said Franklin, raising a finger to make his point. “His personality makes her coat shine, so dull orange becomes vivid and bright.”
“He’s a stray, but he came along with me as friendly as ever,” said Franklin.
Daniel reached down to scratch the dog, and the animal tilted its head appreciatively.
Franklin looked at the dog like a proud parent. “Did you know that some ancient Mexicans were buried with a dog about this color? They believed in the dog-god Xolotl, who was the color of a lion or thereabouts, and who accompanied the Sun during its journey under Earth. That should give a man pause, to think of a dog that way.”
Daniel shook his head. “You come up with the wildest stuff. That dog’s no god and no symbol or nothing. He’s just a mongrel with a stupid name.”
Franklin sniffed. “There’s no such thing as ‘just.’ There’s never just ‘just’.”
Daniel and Daylily, Daylily and Daniel. They were never seen without one another through the summer months. Daniel slept a little and walked a lot, and the dog followed him wherever he went.
“Told ya you’d like the dog,” said Franklin several weeks after he’d handed over Daylily.
Daniel pulled his fedora down tight on his forehead. “For once you were right, old man. Just this once.”
“How bout me takin’ the mutt back,” said Franklin with a mischievous smile. “Feelin’ a bit lonely, I am.”
“Back off, old man. He belongs to me now.”
In addition to offering companionship, Daylily made it possible to get more food and booze because people would stop and pat the sociable dog and drop a dollar or two into Daniel’s fedora. At night he liked to snuggle up against Daniel if he slept. Daniel worried about what would happen when winter came and ice-fishing shanties appeared like so many multicolored mushrooms on Madison’s frozen lakes. The dog would make it impossible for him to sleep in the shelters, but he was determined not to leave him alone outside on a blistering January night. He’d sleep outdoors all winter if he had to.
He liked to watch Daylily dream. Daniel would sit in Law Park or huddle by a Dumpster behind one of the restaurants on State Street. The dog sprawled beside him and fell into deep slumber as his legs quivered and he emitted short yelps. Daniel marveled at how long his dreams were and wondered if they were good or bad. “Only smart dogs dream long dreams,” said Franklin, and Daniel didn’t know whether to believe him.
Whenever he scratched the dog’s lopsided ears, Daniel’s knees stopped bouncing and the songs in his head became softer and more melodic. “Maybe you’re not the color of a daylily, but you're a good dog,” he said once as they sat under a burr oak in Law Park just before sunrise. Daylily’s crooked tail thumped the hard ground.
Daniel found Franklin’s body one chilly afternoon in late September, a day after a violent super-storm had swept through town dropping five inches of rain in a matter of hours. It was not far from the railroad trestle where Franklin had his cardboard home. His right arm was folded under his back and his legs were splayed at grotesque angles. His face was twisted with bruises and bloody cuts. Whoever had beaten him had done a thorough job. The old man’s White Sox cap lay a few feet from the corpse. Franklin had always kept the old cap’s visor ramrod straight but now it was bent and soiled.
Daniel’s first instinct was to run. When bodies of the homeless were found, the unwritten rule of the street was to “play them where they lay,” which meant don’t mess with them after going through their pockets, say a prayer or a few decent words, and let the authorities deal with it. Any contact with police was a moment of danger, and reporting a body was asking for trouble.
Daniel walked, and Daylily, after having sniffed the old man’s body and testing one of his wounds with a hesitant lick, followed behind. He walked and walked, and even when he sat and scratched Daylily behind the ears, the buildings sang chaotic, fierce songs.
Several hours after finding the body, Daniel was once again by the old man’s side. The body had not been touched. Daniel for the first time noticed that Franklin’s home had been ransacked. His carefully stacked newspapers, his black garbage bags full of old clothes and odds and ends, his sleeping bag—all slashed and strewn about. Who would want to do this to the old man? He had no enemies, none Daniel knew of, and no one had ever said anything negative or cross about him. Maybe it was nothing more than a search for booze or dope—or a general, violent madness, now as frequent as the super-storms that had become a fact of life.
Daniel sat cross-legged. His upper body swayed, as if he were performing a fervent religious ritual. Every few minutes he rose and paced, always glancing at Franklin’s distended face and twisted corpse. Then he walked under the trestle behind Franklin’s cardboard home. Franklin had once shown him a prized possession, something, Franklin said, no one should know was there except for Daniel. To get to it he moved several boards the old man had put over a shallow hole at the base of a retaining wall.
Daniel tried the hunting dagger on a piece of fabric from what had been Franklin’s sleeping bag. It was razor-sharp, over twenty inches long and modeled on a classic German hunting dagger once used by nobility to kill game. Who knows where Franklin came by the weapon?
Daniel walked to a muddy spot just beyond the trestle and slashed at the ground with the weapon. Alternating between spooning mud up out of the ground with his hands and madly digging with the huge blade, he cried and swore and stopped only to catch his breath. Soon Daylily joined him and started heaving paw-sized scoops of mud into the air. After more than an hour of frenetic work, Daniel was filthy and his clothes were soaked with perspiration. Daylily’s underside and legs were caked with mud. Daniel looked at the result of their labors: a jagged, waist-deep hole some six feet long and about two feet wide.
The trestle sang an odd, confused song, now a dirge, now heavy metal cataclysm. With the din in his ears, Daniel dragged his friend’s body into the grave. Franklin was surprisingly heavy, and it took some time before he had the body arranged, hands crossed over chest. He sat on the edge of the grave, exhausted from his efforts.
Then the trestle stopped singing and the distant sound of traffic faded. Daniel had stepped into a silent, white room where his mind was at rest and his thought focused. A Psalm he had learned in bible study at his foster parents’ home came to him. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” He thought about all the crazy things Franklin had told him, all the stories and jokes and historical facts and legends. He thought about Xolotl and dog-gods and journeys.
Daylily sat next to him and watched. When Daniel’s eyes met Daylily’s, the dog cocked his head to the side. Daniel stood, picked up the dagger, muddy to its hilt, and gently grasped the orange scruff of Daylily’s neck so that his head was raised and his throat exposed. Daniel placed the dagger just so.
© Rudy Koshar, 2018
Rudy Koshar has published short fiction and nonfiction in numerous magazines, including Guernica, Stockholm Review of Literature, Corium, Black Heart Magazine, Riptide, and Eclectica. He is a former Pushcart Prize nominee and Guggenheim Fellow. He is the author of three novels, all still seeking literary homes. Before becoming a fiction writer, he taught modern European history for 38 years at the University of Southern California and University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives in Madison.
Daylily was read by Ari Brand on 3rd October 2018 for Courage & Cowardice