Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

The Wine on Your Lips Is Ash on Your Tongue
    by M. Bennardo

The Wine on Your Lips Is Ash on Your Tongue
Artwork by Andres Mossa

It was seven years until I saw her again. And then suddenly, without warning or notice, after she had long since slipped out of my consciousness and even my memory, there she was.

I had driven down to the dock to meet the morning ferry from the Ohio mainland and sat waiting with my taxi light on. I usually didn't bother doing that any more. The vast majority of visitors to the island came only for the day, and most of them wouldn't make it past the row of bayside bars that sat a short walk from the ferry dock, or at furthest the winery that lay a half-mile further up the coast.

It was usually a better use of my time to stay parked in front of my laptop in my home office, with the Uber app open on my phone. But I was expecting a package from my editor that day, and I was feeling jumpy enough about it to drive down to the dock to meet the mail. So as long as I was there, I figured I'd put the taxi light on.

That would have been my explanation in any rational place. But the island was not a rational place. It was a charmed place, as I had come to learn during seven years of living on Lake Erie. More specifically, the island was liminal. Two-sided. Most of the time, things on the island proceeded in a perfectly ordinary fashion.

Most of the time.

It was hard to be more specific about it. Perhaps because I was not a native of the place, I had only ever glimpsed the "charm" obliquely, as if seeing its glow from behind an obstruction or through a screen.

But as I sat in my taxi at the dock, a slow awareness crept upon me. I was not there just to pick up the package from my editor. Somehow, I knew there was another reason I was waiting at the dock that morning, and another reason why my eyes and attention kept wandering away from the dog-eared copy of Spenser I had propped against the steering wheel.

The ferry spun clumsily in the harbor, turning around to point her ramp toward the dock. I saw her standing on the upper deck, leaning casually over the railing under a cloud of trailing seagulls.

I recognized her at once, and though I had scarcely thought of her in seven years it somehow seemed natural that I should see her again--and somehow equally natural that he was not with her. She stood alone at the railing.

No, not alone: the child was with her too this time. The child I had never met, except in the womb. Presumably seven years old now--a tall, coltish girl with long straight auburn hair and a serious expression on her face. She wore them both better than her father had.

As the ferry docked, I put my book away and watched for the two of them to emerge from the ferry with their bags. They had clearly packed for a stay of at least a few days, and I did not doubt for one instant that they would come to me. Why else would I have been there? And I was not wrong.

"The same place?" I asked foolishly after I had helped them into the car. I was talking as if she would somehow remember me from seven years ago.

"Rockside House," she said distractedly. I was glad to think she hadn't heard my question. She didn't seem to recognize me at all.

But I remembered.

They were Maureen and Lloyd Diverney, and they had been spending a week's vacation on the island. That fact of itself was enough to mark them as unusual, for hardly anybody who didn't own or rent a cottage stayed longer than a few days at a time.

Even more unusual was that Maureen had been seven months pregnant, which rendered her ill-suited to take part in the island's main pastime: drinking alcohol. Crawling through the bayside bars was usually the first and last priority for most visitors. Otherwise the island was not very large--only a few miles end-to-end in any direction, and most of it not much different from any secluded rural township on the mainland.

The only other real point of interest was the state park that crowned the north end of the island. It had the best beach, a heron rookery, and a set of interesting (though not very dramatic or picturesque) glacial grooves that provided a strikingly physical reminder of the Wisconsin glaciation ten thousand years earlier.

Rockside House stood about halfway up the left coast of the island. It wasn't exactly conveniently located, almost two full miles from either the village or the state park, but it occupied one of the prettiest spots on the island. True, the place showed its best face in the spring, when the lawns that stretched on three sides of the house burst with wildflowers, and the apple trees blew blossoms liberally in the lake winds. But even in late fall, after the oaks and beeches had shed their leaves, there was still a kind of rugged charm in the seclusion and quiet of the place, where a visitor was likely to see more sailboats than people in a day.

The isolation seemed to strike Lloyd as less than desirable as I pulled the taxi up outside the house. "We could stay in the village instead," he said in a half-whisper behind me. "Here, we'll need to take the cab everywhere . . ."

I pretended that I hadn't heard anything, but my eyes flicked to Lloyd's face in the rearview mirror. He was leaning earnestly across the backseat toward Maureen. He looked nervous, almost embarrassed. I imagined that the inconvenience of their lodgings, especially with Maureen so far along in her pregnancy, must have dawned on him by then.

But he was right. It was autumn--and a cold one at that. Whatever lodgings were not already closed up for the winter would be practically empty. Even at that late hour, they could have had their pick of rooms in the village.

Still Maureen resisted. I couldn't see her face in the mirror--just the swaying of a fringe of her hair as she shook her head. She sounded cheerful, excited. "No, of course not. The old cabins are all gone now. This is the closest place to the lighthouse."

Lloyd darted a glance toward the front seat and I looked away from the rearview mirror quickly. "Still two miles at least. You could never walk there, not safely."

"But you could!" answered Maureen brightly. "As soon as you like. Now, even!"

"It wasn't I who wanted to come," answered Lloyd irritably. Embarrassed, I left the car idling and opened the door to get out. But they were beyond noticing my presence now, and I had no trouble hearing the rest of their conversation.

"I don't see why we have to stay on the island at all," continued Lloyd from the back seat. "There's no hospital, you know. If anything should happen--"

"Nothing will happen, darling."


"Nothing will happen." There was a pause and I tried to shift my angle. Tried to catch sight of Maureen's face through the car's window, but still she was just out of sight. "Try to relax and enjoy yourself. I should think you'd be excited! For as often as you talk about this place--"

At that, Lloyd only looked away and stared out the car window across the wet lawn toward the towering oaks that screened off the rest of the island.

"Well," I said, after the silence threatened to grow uncomfortable. "Shall I get your bags?"

Each day I arrived by arrangement at Rockside House and was let into the morning room. Maureen and Lloyd took their breakfast there, and were usually lingering over coffee when I entered, ready to ask them where they would like me to take them that day.

Sometimes they needed a ride into the village, to visit the post office or take care of other necessities. Other days, they dismissed me until lunch or dinner, when they would usually go to the winery--the home of the only really good restaurant on the island that was still open so late in the season.

They could have called me when they needed me, of course, but I enjoyed the morning rides out to Rockside House. It gave structure to days that were fast losing their shape as winter approached and fares grew less common for me.

By October, there were hardly any tourists anymore and therefore hardly any need for a taxi on the island. The ferries that ran every hour in the summer had slowed by then to a single trip a day. By November, that would be cut back further to three times a week, then after the first week of December, ferry service would stop altogether. Winter would set in, and the lake would become more and more dangerous to navigate as ice started to pile up on the beaches, eventually clogging the strait that separated the island from the mainland.

I had over-wintered the year before, and had never known any place so lonely and isolated as the island. The airstrip stayed open as much as the weather allowed for mail and emergencies and to take the resident children to school on the mainland, but the light planes that could land on the short runway didn't bring tourists and weren't big enough to carry much cargo.

That meant that most dinners were eaten out of a can or a deep freeze. Neither was there any TV signal strong enough to reliably reach the island. A couple of the bars had satellite TV (usually tuned to soap operas, game shows, or Browns games), but otherwise all the entertainment that was available was enclosed within the mobile home that served as the island's tiny library.

Few people chose to overwinter, for obvious reasons. I had thought that the lack of distractions would be the perfect way to force me to make time for writing. Instead, the first winter I had simply checked out every single video in the library three times over, and had emerged in the spring with my sanity barely intact.

I certainly didn't plan to repeat the experience. Sometime before the last ferry landed at the island, I'd be safely back on the mainland. It would still be dark and cold in Toledo or Cleveland or wherever else I ended up, but at least I wouldn't spend every day alone with nothing to do.

Or so I hoped, anyway.

On their first or second day on the island, Maureen suggested running up to the state park right after breakfast. The idea surprised me. It was a cold and rainy day, and the trees had already shed most of their leaves. Neither the beach nor the woods would seem to offer much attraction.

Lloyd seemed to feel the same way. He merely shook his head and said, "I'm not feeling very well. You go ahead."

Maureen sighed and looked annoyed, but neither one seemed willing to change their mind.

"I want to see this famous lighthouse," said Maureen. "Even if you say you don't."

"I don't say that I don't," said Lloyd in return. "I don't don't."

Then he looked to where I was sitting in the back of the morning room near the kitchen door, and started to turn pink. He seemed to be embarrassed that I had seen him disagreeing with his wife. Maureen pressed him again, trying to get him to change his mind, but Lloyd would only say that he didn't want to talk about it anymore.

So I took Maureen alone. She eased herself down into the front passenger seat and carefully strapped the seatbelt around her bowed belly.

We didn't talk much--certainly not about Lloyd. It wasn't a long drive anyway, just about two miles up the coast road to the north end of the island, where we entered the darker, thicker woods of the state park.

Ancient oaks and maples towered on either side, with occasional weedy clearings showing here and there through the thickets. From what I had gathered from the locals, the place hadn't always been a park. Years earlier, it had been privately owned and there had been summer cabins for families who wanted access to the beach and kayak rentals.

But business had not gone well, and then many of the cabins had been damaged or destroyed in an ice storm. Eventually, the land had been donated to the state as a tax write-off, with the object of turning it into a park to protect a nearby heron rookery.

To break the silence on the drive, I started telling the story to Maureen, but she cut me off.

"I know," she said quietly as she peered intently out the windows at each of the overgrown clearings as we passed. I remembered then that she had mentioned something about cabins earlier. "My husband used to come here with his family. When he was a boy."

After hearing that, I looked around with fresh eyes. The locals treated the state park with a strange mix of reverence and indifference. Most of the time, they acted as if it didn't even exist. But every now and then, as I was carting a load of tourists around, I would encounter one or two of them haunting the abandoned cabin sites with sad, serious looks on their faces.

A few times, I had even found gifts of sweets and toys left in various places. I had wondered if they were memorials to lost relatives--children who had drowned on the beach, perhaps--or if it was simply a local superstition.

Either way, even without receiving any explanation, I had come to understand the local aversion to the park. Over time, its sad atmosphere had infected me, too. Driving through it again with Maureen, I wondered if it had been less creepy twenty years ago, with cabins in the clearings and kayaks stacked out by the beach. Maybe in the summer, I decided, when teenagers staffed the concession stands and families in bathing suits thronged the sleepy roads.

But not in October. Not when it was closed up for the season, with boards on the cabin windows and snow fences stretched along the sand.

"Did you want to see anything in particular?" I asked. We had been driving slowly around the old loop that the cabins had lined, but the park roads became more tangled the closer we got to the beach.

"The old lighthouse."

A charge ran through me as Maureen said it. The lighthouse was the most common place to find the mouldering remains of the memorials that the locals left. I recalled that Maureen had called it "the famous lighthouse" earlier. I wondered if she--or Lloyd--knew something about the history of the place that I didn't.

"This way," said Maureen, pointing to a brown state park sign. The arrow for the lighthouse pointed down a dark avenue overhung by interlaced tree branches.

I released the brake and hauled the steering wheel around, making a sharp turn onto the road she had indicated. We crept along slowly, gravel popping occasionally under the tires and reflections of the branches sliding across the windshield. I started to feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck. "Not the sunniest spot on the island, that's for sure. "

I was wondering if I could coax any of the history of the place out of her. Not being a local, she might not share their reticence to talking about it.

But Maureen just laughed. "I love it!"

I shot a glance at her, but she didn't look like she was kidding. "Really?"

"You don't like it?" she asked "It's just so . . . primordial."

I had to chuckle at that. Then I pointed out the window through a break in the trees. "If you want primordial . . ."

I watched her turn, eager and curious. Her earrings swung back and forth as her breath fogged the window momentarily. Then she wiped it clear again with the sleeve of her sweatshirt, the glass squeaking as she looked past the nearest trees. When I heard her draw in her breath, I knew she had seen it.

A little way in the distance, in the tops of the tallest oak trees, rested a collection of huge heron nests. I eased the car to a stop at a good viewing spot and I counted along with her. There were twelve or fifteen of them suspended in the branches of half a dozen trees. As the wind blew, they shifted against the grey-white sky, the clouds roiling behind them as the weather blew down from Canada.

Maureen turned to look back at me, her earrings jumping with the movement and her eyes flashing. "They're so big!"

I smiled and wondered if I were staring at her too much. I hoped she hadn't noticed.

"You'll have to see the grooves, too." I said lamely.

"The grooves?"

I took my foot off the brake again and started back down the road toward the lighthouse. "From the glaciers, during the last ice age. Deep scars in the bones of the island where they dragged boulders across the bare bedrock. Hundreds of yards long in places."


I only nodded in reply because we had made it to the lighthouse parking area. I pulled up as close to the edge as I could, and then helped her out of the car.

Over the edge of the parking area, the lake frothed at the bottom of a steep drop-off, slick grey rocks jumbled at the bottom. A wooden walkway with railings led out along an old path toward the lighthouse on the prominence overlooking the lake.

It was just a weather-beaten relic now, no longer functioning and no longer maintained. Paint peeled and rust stains ran down from rivets in thin red-brown lines. The whole thing looked more squat than the word "lighthouse" implied--not lean and gracile like the ones in paintings. But I supposed that the cliffs were high enough already to hoist the beacon above the lake fog at night. There was no reason to make it much taller.

Maureen wobbled out alone along the wooden walkway, clinging tight to the railing to keep her boots from slipping out from under her. "It's like ice . . ." she said.

I resisted the urge to follow her for a few seconds, but then gave in. If Lloyd had been there, I would have hung back and let the two of them explore together. But he wasn't. It was just the two of us, and I didn't like the idea of leaving her alone on a slippery boardwalk so close to the edge of a cliff.

For a brief moment, thinking about Lloyd made me wonder why he had stayed at Rockside House that morning. Had something happened to him at the park? Something he didn't want to remember? Had he ever left memorials at the base of the lighthouse?

"Your husband didn't want to come back here?" The question sounded clumsy even as I spoke.

But Maureen only shrugged. As she did, she looked at me uncertainly, as if sizing up my potential as a confidant. But then she just shook her head. "Oh, you never can keep a sailor from the sea . . ."

I didn't really understand her, but I supposed Lloyd must be down at the private dock at Rockside House. I hadn't seen any boats moored down there, but I hadn't really looked, either. It seemed far too late in the season to be sailing, and that day in particular would have been a wretched one--with heavy sky glowering overhead and choppy whitecapped waves running before the wind.

So I didn't say anything in reply, and before long Maureen was tired of the place. She signaled me at last to turn around and we headed back toward the car.

"I had better go back and check on my husband," she said with a sigh as I took her hand to help along an especially slippery section. An electric thrill ran through me as I touched her fingers--cool and thin--but I was sure that she didn't share the feeling. I could tell she wasn't thinking about me at all from the way her brow contracted in worry as she glanced up at me. "You know, just to make sure he hasn't . . . disappeared."

Somehow, I didn't think she was entirely joking.

Over the next few days, I drove Maureen and Lloyd to every corner of the island--except back to the state park. Then there was a sunny day that almost qualified as warm that they spent down at the private beach at Rockside House, which kept me at loose ends until the dinnertime drive to the winery.

I was more restless than usual that day, and I realized how much I had come to crave being with Maureen. And, in tandem, how much I had come to resent Lloyd's presence. He always seemed morose and irritable, and he visibly dampened Maureen's mood whenever they were together. Really, I longed for another excursion alone with her, like the one we had taken out to the lighthouse.

Nothing had happened, of course, and she had given me no encouragement except common friendliness. And yet, there I was--brooding over her all morning and afternoon in one of the bayside bars, checking my phone constantly for missed calls as she spent the day with her husband at the beach at Rockside House.

I realized how stupid I was being--and how obviously I was starting to crack up from loneliness and boredom. I would never make it through another winter, and I swore to myself that I would figure out a plan for the winter on the mainland before the end of the month. Driving to the winery that night, I remained cool and polite and impersonal. I don't think either of them even noticed.

The next day was Maureen and Lloyd's last day on the island. Waking that morning, I felt better than I had in weeks, just knowing that I had an end date for my time on the island. As I let myself into the morning room to greet Maureen and Lloyd, I forced myself to see them as they really were: a husband and wife--and an expecting wife, at that.

And then I forced myself to see myself as I really was: a cab driver that they had hired to drive them around. And that was it.

"It's our last day," Maureen was saying to Lloyd as I came in. "We can't put it off any longer."

I sat down unobtrusively in a chair by the kitchen door, picking up a magazine to leaf through. I pretended I wasn't listening--but I was always listening. I couldn't help it.

"I don't know why you think we have to go at all," said Lloyd. He seemed less embarrassed by my presence this time. I supposed that he had grown so used to seeing me by that point as to be able to ignore me. "You don't see anyone else going there, do you?"

"It's the whole reason that we came--"

Lloyd snorted and shook his head. "I didn't want to come at all. I told you that it was better not to. To leave things be and forget the past--"

Maureen looked hurt and exasperated. She reached out and tried to take Lloyd's hand, but he pulled away. "I thought you'd be excited. I thought that you'd just need to see the place again--." She half-glanced in my direction, but I kept my eyes in my magazine. I began to wonder if I should get up and leave, but it seemed less intrusive to stay and pretend I hadn't heard anything. "Or that you'd at least be interested. And besides, I haven't seen the glacial grooves yet--"

"Well, I have," said Lloyd. "Why don't we just leave?"

Maureen glanced at me again, and I felt a bit of color rise to my cheeks. I wondered if she wanted me to help convince Lloyd to go up to the park with her. But instead, I kept looking at my magazine, giving no sign that I've heard anything. As much as I wanted to come to Maureen's aid, it also occurred to me that this would be the last chance we would have to be alone.

Then, suddenly ashamed at myself, I threw down the magazine and stood up. "I'll be outside if you folks need me." And then without waiting or looking for any response, I walked quickly out and stood by my car.

It was frigid. A front had moved in overnight and the temperature had plummeted. Already, a few snowflakes were spiraling out of the grey sky, but I hadn't dressed warmly enough for the change. My spirits were hurtling downward as I contemplated waking up tomorrow without anything to do. It had been a mistake to ever come to the island at all. Just as it had been a mistake to think I could ever make it as a writer. I didn't have the discipline or the hunger or the inspiration or whatever was needed. I just didn't have it.

I realized that my only choice then was to go back home. Not for the winter, but for good. Back to marketing. Back to job fairs and interviews with human resources recruiters. I didn't look forward to explaining the year-long gap in my résumé as corporate managers smiled patronizingly at me . . . But it was the only realistic choice I had anymore.

Maureen and Lloyd appeared on the other side of the car. Maureen smiled at me cautiously, but Lloyd neither looked at me nor said anything. "We're going to the park this morning."

I nodded and checked my watch. I was thinking about the ferry.

"Don't worry," said Maureen, as if she knew better than I did. But her confidence was always winning. "We'll make it. We have time."

I drove up the coast toward the state park. As we entered the darker woods of the park, Lloyd finally spoke from the backseat. His voice sounded sullen and quiet. "It looks different."

"It's been twenty years," said Maureen from the front passenger seat. Then she turned to the window and murmured, as if to herself, "I think it's beautiful."

"No," said Lloyd. "I mean it's not the same at all. It's smaller. Dirtier. It's a completely different place."

Maureen rolled her eyes at me and suddenly I was tingling again. "We're in the woods, darling," she said. "It's supposed to be dirty."

Lloyd didn't say anything in return. After a moment, I asked, "Shall we go to the lighthouse?"

"No," said Lloyd in a flat voice.

"Yes," said Maureen at the same time. Without hesitating or even thinking, I followed her instructions. I couldn't even guess why the place was a point of contention between them, but I was willing to trust Maureen about almost anything.

As I drove on, the snow fell thicker and thicker, and by the time we reached the lighthouse, it was blowing hard and heavy.

I pulled the car to a stop, the wipers now dragging streaks across the windshield as thick wet snow splatted over and over again against the car. Already, I could see bits of white clinging to tree branches and the railings of the boardwalk.

"Well," I said. "Here we are."

Maureen turned and looked at Lloyd. I could see her eyes imploring him, and I felt a pang as I realized that was a look that I would never see directed my way. I bit my lip and fiddled with the controls on the heater as Maureen repeated my words. "Well, darling. Here we are."

A few moments later, we sat in the front seats of the car and watched Lloyd make his way tentatively across the boardwalk toward the lighthouse. He clung angrily to the wooden railing, his feet skidding across the wet planks as he moved slowly forward. Suddenly, I had a deep urge to know what it was all about.

"Did you say your husband is a sailor?"

"What?" asked Maureen. Then she seemed to remember her comment from earlier in the week, about keeping sailors from the sea and she shook her head. "No. He's not. I just meant that he's always somewhere else. Not present, you know?"

I nodded. "Like a sailor on shore. Always thinking of the sea."

She smiled. "It was a stupid metaphor. And it's not right, anyway. At least, I'm not sure about it anymore. Otherwise, I wouldn't have had to twist his arm to drag him here."


"To this island. This lighthouse." She looked up at me, her eyes suddenly uncertain, as if she was no longer sure of what she was doing. "Here."

The snow was falling so hard we could barely make out Lloyd's form. But he still pulled himself along the railing toward the lighthouse, hand over hand. I wondered if the wind was really that strong out on the prominence, or if he was dragging his feet on purpose to put off whatever Maureen had sent him out to do.

"Did something happen to him--here?"

Maureen nodded. "I think so. When he was seven years old. It's hard to say exactly what it was . . ." She blushed. "You'll think I'm crazy . . ."

I tried to smile. Then I lied. "I'm a writer," I said, even though I hadn't written anything in a year. "I have a liberal imagination."

Maureen was quiet a little longer, and then she exhaled. She stuck her hands up in her armpits and stared out the window away from me. Then she started to talk.

"He dreams about it at least once a week. Sometimes every night for a whole week." There was a pause, and the wipers swept the snow off the windshield again. "Sometimes during the day too." Maureen shrugged. "He never could describe it fully--just that it was the most perfect moment. His most perfect desire--somehow--offered to him--"


Maureen looked at me. She bit her lip. "There were beings, too. You know . . ." Her voice trailed off.

"Beings? Like what?"

She stared back at me. Probably looking for any sign that I was mocking or disbelieving her. But I was ready to believe. Ready to take any confidence from her, no matter how far out it was. "It sounds crazy, right?"

"It sounds like fairyland." Somehow, I made myself sound serious.

Maureen's eyes grew big. "How did you know? But yes, that's what he calls it--fairyland."

"They offered him something," I said. Suddenly, against all reason, everything was making sense to me. The closed cabins. The memorials to missing children. Or, not memorials, not really. Enticements, rather. Enticements of sweets and toys to bring back the ones who had disappeared, who had been taken away--"The beings offered him something to eat or drink, to seal the compact."

"Wine," said Maureen, nodding her head. She didn't seem willing to say anything more, but seemed entranced by my words. As if I had taken over telling the story for her. She seemed to need to hear me say it. Seemed to need me to give a name to what had happened to Lloyd, to prove that he wasn't crazy and she wasn't crazy for believing him.

"And he refused, of course," I said. I was just telling every fairy story I had ever heard now. "Being an obedient, well-read boy."

Every one of those stories always contained warnings about taking what is offered to you in fairyland. Every one of those stories always said not to eat or drink, lest you lose yourself forever. I knew what kind of child Lloyd must have been. I had been the same sort. I had never understood why anybody would risk breaking the rules--

Maureen's face darkened. "Yes, he refused. The fool."

"But ever since, he has been--"

The next word on my lips would have been "haunted", but I never had the opportunity to utter it. For there was a light shining now from ahead of us. It poured down from behind and around the lighthouse, illuminating the boardwalk, half-obscured from us by the whirling snowflakes.

My voice froze in my mouth as I tried to make out what it was, but nothing was clear. There was no visible source that I could make out--as if we were not looking directly at it, but merely seeing it in a reflection. As if the light was not for us, but was rather for somebody else.

"Lloyd!" called Maureen, a note of distress in her voice. Her hand went to the car door and started to push it open.

"I can see him," I said. "Just barely."

Maureen paused and looked. I could tell that she saw him too. Slowly, she closed the car door again. Up ahead, Lloyd flickered and wavered in the light behind the screen of snow. Whatever was happening out there, this was why they had come. Somehow, he was back in fairyland now--

"I tried to interest him in the real world. Work, home life, family, friends . . ." Maureen had tears in her eyes now. Her voice broke as she said the last word. "He agreed to it all . . . Abstractly . . ."

I knew the sort. Dreamers who would try to commit to the present needs of real life and other people, but who were always drawn away in the end by the call of whatever else it was that had a deeper hold on their hearts. Sailors and the sea again, I supposed. My own father had been like that, to our mutual bitter regret.

Then suddenly, the light was changing. It seemed to be forming a shape. Before our eyes, it consolidated into something like an hourglass...

"Is that from the lighthouse?" I asked. But Maureen shook her head.

"The cup of wine!" whispered Maureen. "Can you see him anymore?"

I couldn't. The snow and the surf were too closely intermingled. Too relentless. I turned on the headlight high-beams, but they barely pierced more than a few feet in front of us. All that was visible was the shining cup somewhere in the middle distance, between us and the lighthouse.

"Are they with him?"

"They must be. They're offering him the cup again."

I turned to her in alarm, my eyes large. Suddenly, I was frightened for her. This was why she had brought him here, of course. To give him the chance to turn down the offer again--to give him the chance to return to his real life, fully present, fully committed.

But all I could think about was the torment he must have experienced his whole life--having known that he had been offered his heart's desire at the age of seven, and that he had given it up. Could anyone who had been brooding on that loss for twenty years be strong enough to resist again? Now, as a man, who had already tasted enough of the reality of life. Of failure and disappointment and pointless struggle . . .

Surely he would give in. Surely Maureen had misjudged her own ability to hold Lloyd.

And what then? Once he had given in? The wine of the fairies may be sweet on the lips, but it would dissolve into ash on the tongue. The promises of fairies are not to be trusted--

But suddenly Maureen was talking.

"Drink it!" she whispered. "Drink it, you fool!"

I looked at her in horror. Had she known all along that he would give in? Had she known that when faced with the temptation, he must now drink in the empty promises he had once before turned down?

I grew cold as I looked at her, feeling as if I had not known her at all.

Could Maureen really have been so calculating--to have brought Lloyd to that place to break him of his illusions once and for all? If he drank, of course, there was the barest chance that he might be whisked bodily away and spend eternity in fairyland. All that we would find of him would be his body frozen on the walkway. Or what would appear to be his body, but which would really be a painted shell left behind by the fairies who had stolen him.

Or, much more likely, the fairies might not take him at all. In that case, he would return to Maureen a broken and chastened man. Disabused of his illusions and robbed of his dreams. No longer yearning for what he had thought had been a vision of perfection, and easy enough to break now to the yoke of domestic life.

"You'd make him drink ash!" I rasped at Maureen. But she shot back a look of such pure scorn that I didn't have the voice to say anything else more than that.

Instead, I opened the car door and stepped out into the whirling blizzard, intent on reaching Lloyd myself, no matter what the cost or danger. I stumbled a step or two toward the light, my hand thrown up before my face, calling to him with useless words that were whipped away by the wind as soon as I spoke them.

But before I had made it out of the range of the car's headlights, the illuminated cup disappeared. With its afterimage still glowing in my eyes, I looked around wildly, trying to get my bearings.

Suddenly, Lloyd's hand was on my arm.

"I came back," he said to me. For what seemed to be ages but which was really only a few paces, we walked together. Lloyd helped me back to the car and we both somehow managed to get inside. Once there, Lloyd turned to his wife, smiling placidly at her. "I came back, Maureen. For you and the baby. I didn't drink the wine."

But Maureen only looked away from him and pressed her hand against her forehead. "You fool," she said. "You stupid fool."

I saw nothing of either them for the next seven years, not until Maureen appeared suddenly with her daughter in tow. As I dropped the two of them at Rockside House, she finally turned and looked at me tentatively.

"You're the same driver as before, aren't you?" she asked.

I nodded. "Yes, I am." It was on the tip of my tongue to ask what had happened to Lloyd, but I held back. But Maureen didn't wait for the question.

"Lloyd left us."

I started in surprise. He had seemed more determined than ever to stay with his family the last time I had seen him. That had been the whole reason he had come back from the boardwalk, that he had refused the cup--

"He left me and our daughter," continued Maureen. She shook her head. "Years ago. It was months later. Not even a year. She was still an infant."

But didn't I know that story too? Hadn't my father sworn to commit himself to his family more than once--each time lasting only months before finding another excuse to drift away.

"I'm sorry," I said.

She shook her head. "I tried everything I could. Everything to make him happy. Satisfied. But he wouldn't let me help him."

"It isn't your fault," I said. I wondered now if she had not been as canny as I thought. If she had not understood that the fairies had offered him only a cheat. "What he wanted was just an illusion, you know. It's never real. If ever you do take the cup, it all turns to ashes once you get it. Ashes on your tongue--"

My voice trailed off as I became aware that she was looking at me again with that same look of scorn I had seen on her face seven years ago. The same--but softened now by the intervening time.

"In stories, you mean," she said.

"Yes." I blushed suddenly, though I didn't know why. "In fairy tales."

Maureen looked over at her daughter, who was skipping on the walk outside of Rockside House. "Stories," she said again. "written by the ones who don't drink the cup. That's how they make themselves feel better."

My eyes grew wide.

"You write books now?" Maureen asked. The wind had blown her hair into her face, but she brushed it back behind her ear. She was looking at me now with real curiosity.

I nodded. I had published three so far, with a fourth on the way.

"And it's not ashes on your tongue, is it?" Her voice was half-mocking. "It's work, no doubt. It's not as easy as the fantasy may have made you believe. But it's not ashes, is it?"

I thought about my life. In the end, I had stayed that winter after all. It was hard to explain why. It wasn't because of what had happened with Lloyd at the park. Not directly, anyway. But when the weather had cleared the next day, I had gone back to the spot to try to understand where the light had come from.

What I had found had been a real fairyland. Blankets of untrodden snow, sparkling in the sunlight. White filaments coating every twig in the forest. And beyond the seawall, out past the boardwalk, the entire lighthouse coated in ice. The spray from the lake had blown over it during the day and night preceding, and had coated every surface with a thick glaze that the wind had twisted into fantastic spikes and ridges, all of it sparkling brightly under the warming sun.

If ever there had been a fairy palace, it was that lighthouse.

And in that moment, I had decided to stay one more winter. And during that winter, I had written the first draft of my first novel. It had taken two more years of grueling work, first with an agent and then with an editor, before it had been published--

But no, it hadn't been ashes, and it still wasn't.

"It's wine," I admitted. And as I spoke, I savored the word on my lips.

"Yes," said Maureen, her eye falling again on her daughter. "It is."

And it was then that I finally understood, seven years later, what Maureen had tried to do for Lloyd. She had tried to show him that she valued his happiness as much as her own--as much as anything else in her life. That he need not consider his ambitions in opposition to his life with her. That they could exist together. With work, yes. With effort and difficulty, perhaps. But he could, if he was willing, have them both.

"And you?" I asked.

Maureen smiled and nodded, seemingly shy again. Seemingly a stranger once more now that she had said what she had to say about Lloyd.

"I'm good," she said. "We're very good."

Without jealousy, I saw there was another wedding band on her left hand. There was more that I could just barely glimpse too--more behind her, in the darkness that hid the rest of her life. I trusted that was all good for her as well, just as my life had been good to me.

"We're here to see the glacial grooves at last," she said.

I smiled. "I don't suppose you'll need a taxi this time?"

Maureen laughed and shook her head. She hoisted her bag and held out her hand to her daughter. "No," she said slowly. "I think we'll walk instead."

"It's a beautiful walk this time of year," I said. "And you already know the way."

Then I watched them walk up the lawn, hand in hand, toward the wide front door of Rockside House.

  Copyright © 2024 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by