Ronnie loved to admire the paintings, images and stained-glass windows that decorated the nave, the altar, and the aisles at church. His grandmother would take him every Sunday and instead of paying attention to the priest or the liturgy, Ronnie’s eyes would wander over every saint and every niche. The homily often went over his head, and as long as Ronnie sat still and quiet, Grandma didn’t much care if he listened. His appreciation of art pleased her.
Ronnie’s favorite stained-glass window depicted Saint George and the Dragon and Grandma always sat across it so that Ronnie could enjoy it. They had once sat beneath it, but Ronnie later told her it was too difficult to look at from that spot. On sunny days, the light shone through that window in a burst of color: green dragon, gray armor, white horse, red blood, blue sky; the colors tickled Ronnie’s eyes and drew his mind to them. On those Sundays Ronnie would daydream, imagining he was the great knight fighting the dragon.
“You know the dragon represents The Devil, right?” Grandma said when Mass concluded.
“Have you ever heard someone say ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing’?”
Ronnie shook his head.
“Well, I can’t remember who said it, and I think people have misquoted it many times anyway, but when I see that window of Saint George, I remember that quote. I think it’s what the story means. It was only necessary was for one good man to slay the evil dragon. Don’t forget that Ronnie, I’ve always thought there’s a Saint George in all of us, and we all have the strength and the will to fight evil, we just need to look inside ourselves.”
Ronnie let the words sink in and nodded.
The next day, during recess, Ronnie heard a commotion coming from the swings. Freddy Kruger, the school bully was holding Marty Martens by the shirt collar. Marty was meek, chubby and wore thick glasses that made him look bug-eyed. Freddy raised his fist and Marty fell down with a thud.
Ronnie remembered Grandma’s words and the image of the stained-glass window flashed in his mind. Freddy’s green shirt reminded him of dragon scales and his own dark gray Batman sweatshirt felt like armor. He pulled on the hood with the bat ears; it sat low on his forehead, like a cowl.
Ronnie ran to the swings and pushed Freddy catching him by surprise so he didn’t have time to put his hands out. Freddy looked up from the ground with a bleeding lip.
“Leave him alone!” Ronnie yelled. The sun was behind him and all Freddy Kruger could see was the Batman silhouette.
Freddy hated Batman and thought DC Comics were dumb.
“Make me!” Freddy stood up in a flash and hit Ronnie.
Ronnie, dazed and scared, he would not stand down. Freddy sometimes bullied him too. If he wasn’t going after Marty, he bullied Sarah or Mike or Ronnie, and Ronnie was fed up.
“Good people only have to do something,” he thought. He stood up and wiped the blood from his nose.
“You wanna hit me again, you go ahead!” He stared Freddy down, “I’m not scared of you!”
A crowd of kids had gathered.
“Yeah, and if you hit him again, you’ll deal with me!” Mike stepped next to Ronnie.
“And me!” Marty’s timid voice rang out loud and clear over the schoolyard for the first time. He too stood by Ronnie, defiant.
“Me too!” Sarah shouted.
One by one kids huddled around Ronnie, Mike, Marty, and Sarah. They faced Freddy Kruger, the school bully. Freddy looked from one scowl to another, turned on his heel and ran towards the building.
At the door he paused, turned to the crowd and yelled, “I’ll get you for this! You’ll see!”
Ronnie snickered, “That’s what they all say!”
Everyone laughed and resumed their recess play until the bell rang.
Miss Georgios, the third grade teacher and recess monitor, stood cross-armed watching over the schoolyard and smiled to herself. She too was sick of Freddy Kruger’s bullying — every day she reprimanded and scolded him — but there was only so much she could do. Freddy’s parents weren’t affable and they’d make a big stink once they found out Ronnie pushed their “precious angel”, but Miss Georgios would defend Ronnie.
Natalie looked out from the small and rectangular window that sat just below the ceiling and only afforded her a view of the sky. Across there was a bigger window with three bars running down it, which she detested because, despite the bars, she could behold life outside while she remained imprisoned. Squirrels often peeked in the big window as did foxes and raccoons. It afforded her an almost unobstructed view of the world and reminded her she no longer played a part in it.
Through the small window she watched the birds fly and the clouds drift. The sun shone through in the mornings and it warmed her face. The moon’s silver rays glimmered at night and lit the darkened room. Prison to her right, freedom to her left and Natalie in the middle.
The wind rustled the leaves outside the big window that evoked her prison and Natalie did her best not look through it, but her neck turned and she looked at the green fields and the trees that surrounded her house. Tears rolled down her cheek. How long had it been since she’d climbed those trees? Sat on the grass?
“Forever,” she whispered and shut her eyes.
She dreamt of Aramis, her big beautiful horse, running through the fields, her hair trailing behind her, not a sound in the world but his hoofbeats and the howls of the wind as they sped through it. Now, Aramis was gone, as shattered as her life.
When Natalie woke up twilight surrounded her and the first stars peeked in through the small window, her freedom window. She was hungry and thirsty and hoped her father would not be long.
“Today is market day,” she said to the walls, “I hope all went well. Today we’ll have bread and beer for dinner.”
She heard noises and Natalie expected her bedroom door to open at any moment. Footsteps on the wooden floor approached. The click of the latch and the door swung open. Between her blanketed feet Natalie discerned her father’s figure appear through the threshold.
He smiled, illuminated by twilight. It was a sad smile. Natalie remembered happy days when things had been better, Aramis had been with them, and she could still ride him.
Father gazed into Natalie’s eyes and his face fell; through one eye she glimpsed the past, with the other the present, and resentment shown through both. Perhaps it would have been better if he hadn’t found her in time; better if she’d gone with her beloved Aramis.
“How was your day, Father,” Natalie smiled at him, following as he sat beside her and lit the oil lamp on the bedside table, “are there any news?”
He was old now, working beyond his years. That stormy day had intertwined their fates far more than she could have imagined, it had joined them so she would live only as long as he did. He took her hand and held it in his for a moment, then bent and kissed her forehead. She watched him pat her hand and set it beside her. He covered her with Mother’s quilt and adjusted her pillows while Natalie followed every movement with her wistful eyes.
“Mrs. Winston has a new baby, and Gerald lost a lamb when it wandered into the river and the current took it.”
“Yes,” he unwrapped a loaf of bread, “John baked this for you. Said he and Emily might drop in tomorrow if the weather allows.”
He broke off a piece and held it up to Natalie’s lips. He contemplated in silence while she chewed.
Natalie was not the only one stagnate in nostalgia. Five years ago he’d found her at the bottom of that ravine. Aramis’s frightened eyes as he breathed his last burned forever in his memory. For five years they’d lived a life in suspended animation, Natalie imprisoned in this room, held captive in a body that would never move again.
It was Sandra’s first time at a Renaissance Faire and she was both amazed and aghast at her surroundings. Amazed at the setting, the costumes, the activities, the food. It seemed she’d stepped through time. There were ax-throwing booths, archery contests and many medieval sports and activities. People in Renaissance garb sold their wares from booths made of cloth tents. It’s all so Arthurian, she thought. But she was aghast at the time and money people spent on their costumes, not just the vendors—after all, it was their job—but the guests too. There were princesses, minstrels, bards, jesters, and yeomen; fantasy themes were also abundant and people dressed as fawns, wizards and even elves—the Tolkien kind. The costumes fascinated her; they were top-notch and made of the best materials, not the homemade sheet-with-eyeholes type she’d worn on Halloween.
“Gosh,” Sandra turned to Kate, “did you ever imagine this?”
“No, I feel like I’ve stepped into Geekdom, but this is awesome!”
“I don’t know whether I should be amused or appalled. It’s supposed to be a Renaissance Faire, and everything’s like from the Middle Ages!”
Kate threw her head back and laughed. They’d been best friends since Kindergarten and had always wondered what these Faires were like. For the first time they’d attended one, and it didn’t disappoint.
They browsed from tent to tent and admired the fantasy-themed jewelry and the medieval-style pottery and crafts. The weapons vendor’s wares were plastic, but some weapons locked in a glass curio cabinet looked real.
The food dismayed though, the vendors sold pretzels, fries, corn dogs and all matter of American fast food. Sandra had expected something more old world and had been rather excited at the prospect of tasting Renaissance-style fare.
“Maybe Shakespeare ate burgers and fries,” joked Kate, taking a bite out of a salted pretzel.
“Well, you can have a turkey leg,” Sandra giggled, “they look right out of Ye Olde England.”
“I don’t think it would fit in my mouth!” Kate laughed as a large blacksmith passed by eating a turkey leg so big the man’s face looked small.
They sat down at one of the large wooden picnic benches and enjoyed their snacks. Sandra observed the people around them and Kate made witty comments.
* * *
Rob straightened his belt and remembered Julia. He had gotten into this mess because of her. He’d never considered himself a geek, but after meeting Julia… She had slowly changed him into a person he hardly recognized, not that he hated it, in many ways, he liked himself better. She had pushed him to try out new things, visit museums, go to concerts, poetry readings and whatnot, but when they’d sampled medieval sports, Rob, always the jock, had found his talent and passion. Julia had bolted soon after even though it had been her idea. It was ironic that she’d left him for a gym trainer, someone who wasn’t such a geek, she’d said.
Rob shook himself from his reverie and got ready. This was his first Faire appearance and he trusted he would impress everyone. It had surprised him that these sports came natural to him, no one could ride like him, handle the lance like him or wield the sword like him. In the short time he’d taken up the pastime people in the circuit had even called him Lancelot.
“It’s just a game,” he muttered to himself, though he knew this was his chance to prove himself. But to whom? The absent Julia who preferred to look at that pea-brained muscle-man do squats?
Rob flexed his own muscles. He’d always been an athlete, and at least through Julia he’d learned he wasn’t pea-brained. Now it was time to prove that brains and brawn aren’t incompatible.
Rob took a deep breath and stepped out into the sunlight.
* * *
Trumpets sounded all over the campground-turned-Faire.
“Hear ye, hear ye!” A skinny youth dressed in puffy knee-length pants and tights addressed the crowd, “The tourney shall begin!”
Sandra and Kate rushed to a fenced-in field where the players were getting ready. There were horses and knights and banners! It was to be a joust! They laughed and giggled at the sight.
Kate snickered, “Can you believe this?”
“This is so awesome!” Sandra replied.
Just then, one knight caught her eye. He dressed in medieval armor, but had not put on his helmet. He was tall and muscular, with black hair and neat, trimmed beard. His posture showed confidence. He was talking to a man dressed like a squire. Sandra saw he was quite handsome and elbowed Kate.
“Oh hello,” Kate murmured when she followed Sandra’s gaze.
The knight turned in their direction and their eyes met. Sandra liked his bright blue eyes and fine nose, her knees weakened and her stomach fluttered; bashful, she smiled and the knight turned bright red.
“Ooh-la-la,” Kate teased and they giggled like little girls.
* * *
Rob and Jerry, his squire, readied the horse; good ole Gawain (yes, like the Knight of the Round Table) was strong and reliable. They could count on him not to spook and to stay the course; he was the perfect jousting horse.
Rob’s mind was all on the tourney. He’d learned long ago not to heed the crowd before a competition. His mind must be clear and his eyes on the prize, but the wind carried the sound of women’s laughter and he turned. Watching him were the most beautiful green eyes he’d ever seen. Julia’s light brown did not compare. These eyes were piercing emerald and, despite himself, Rob blushed right up to the tip of his ears. His heart skipped in a way it hadn’t since his adolescence; not even Julia’s classical beauty had provoked such a reaction. The face that framed those eyes was exotic, open and friendly. And the smile! Oh that smile promised a thousand nights of… well, everything. Love, companionship, sensuality, comfort, everything irradiated from that smile. Rob didn’t want to turn away.
The tourney began. A lot of fanfare, the crier gave his spiel and the audience oohed and aahed when the horses cantered. Sandra noted the handsome knight carried the blue and white banner.
The archery contest came first, then the buffoons and jugglers.
Rob kept his composure through the opening activities, but he found it hard not to glance in the woman’s direction. For the first time he understood what it meant for the knights of old to vie for the damsel’s heart. He wanted to win this so much more now that those eyes had captivated him. He knew this was his chance to elevate himself to her and be more than just the nerd in the cheesy armor. He wanted to be Lancelot.
It was time for the joust.
Sandra watched the handsome knight mount his horse; the squire handed him the lance. Rob couldn’t help sneaking a peek at the beautiful woman following him intently from the crowd. The opposing knight with the red banner made himself ready at the other end of the list.
Off they went! They galloped towards each other and as Rob passed by, Sandra yelled, “Go, blue and white!”
The handsome knight heard her and did a double-take (Kate later called it rubbernecking). He was looking in Sandra’s direction as the red knight’s masterful blow struck Rob’s shield and threw him off his mount. Sandra gasped and covered her mouth while the handsome knight remained motionless on the ground. That was the end of that. He’d been the knight favored to win but one flash of emerald had turned the tables.
Winded and embarrassed, Rob’s his pride shattered into a million pieces. How would he ever look into those eyes again?
Squire Jerry helped Rob to his feet. Abashed and eyes fixed on the ground, Rob limped to his tent; Gawain snorted and, head held high, trotted beside him.
Rob plunked himself down on the wooden chair in the safety of his tent. Jerry mumbled words of encouragement; this was his first tourney, and Sir James was an excellent opponent, he shouldn’t be so downtrodden. Rob sneered and said nothing. Those bright green eyes had a name, and after this spectacle, he was certain he’d never know it. He covered his face with his hands.
Rob was unaware that Sandra and Kate huddled and giggled by the tent with the blue and white banner, waiting for the handsome knight to emerge.
La Pietà is a powerful image, thought Maria. She gazed at the sculpture and a knot formed in her throat. It occurred to her that the woman in marble who held her dead son was her namesake.
She wiped a small tear from her eye and turned away. She could not behold such an image for long.
Maria walked out of St. Peter’s Basilica and leaned against the pillar, her face in her hand. All around her was a hustle and a bustle of tourists, cameras, and languages, so many languages. She thought this might be the Tower of Babel, in reverse. Perhaps something would happen, a lightning strike, a meteor, a deep sleep, who knows, and all present would awake to find they could only speak one language, and all humanity would understand oneself and all troubles would be over. Like a gift from above instead of a punishment.
Maria sighed. She looked up and caught the Swiss Guard’s eye. He was a beautiful youth, lean and graceful, and he smiled, coy, since he wasn’t supposed to smile, when their eyes met. She grinned back and nodded. A grin, a weak smile was all she could muster.
“What a beautiful sculpture,” a woman talking to her husband paused beside Maria, “did you see her face? You can feel the pain and anguish in her expression!”
“Yes,” said the man, “Michelangelo was a great artist to have depicted Mary’s feelings so well, having never felt the loss of a child himself.”
Maria scoffed. She hadn’t meant it to be so loud, but it was, and the couple noticed.
“Do you disagree?” The man asked with a polite smile, but eyes that pierced.
“No, I do not. I agree with you about everything,” Maria’s lips quivered, “and I didn’t mean to sound dismissive, but I know her pain.”
She patted her chest and her voice broke.
“Oh,” the man gasped, taken aback and left speechless.
“I’m so sorry, dear,” the woman came to his aid, her eyes fixed on Maria’s and oozing sympathy, “what happened?”
“He was a soldier,” was all Maria could answer.
“Ah, yes, war is often the cause. So many people have died in war. My father died in Korea, and his uncle in World War Two—here in Italy.”
She put her arms around Maria whose sighs had turned into quiet sobs.
“My brother died in Vietnam,” the man added, his gaze and voice now soft, “what was your son’s name?”
“Michael.” The name soothed the sorrow that pierced her tongue.
“Ah, the leader of Heaven’s armies. Do you know the name means the rhetorical question: who is like God?”
Maria gulped and nodded.
“You know,” the lady interjected, “I believe that for every child He takes, He gives another. No death is in vain.”
“True,” Maria sniffed, “and She in there cries for all of us.”
The woman nodded and, after determining that Maria was all right, the couple bid her goodbye and walked on.
Maria glanced at the Swiss guardsman again. He was still looking in her direction and had seen her momentary breakdown. Maria adjusted her backpack, it weighed on her like Michael’s death, and stepped out into St. Peter’s Square. The Roman mid-morning sun shone bright on the statues that lined the hemicycles. The light in Paris shimmers with an enchanting pink glow, but Rome is alight with crisp brilliance!
Maria crossed the square and wandered away from the Vatican. She pondered the couple and wished she’d composed herself enough to ask their names. She wondered if the woman’s grandmother had ever stopped grieving her son, indeed, if any woman ever stops grieving her son.
Maria strolled aimless and found herself lost. She stopped to consult her map; a car sped by. It reminded her of the opening scenes of her favorite movie Il Sorpasso where Vittorio Gassman races around Rome looking for a telephone; the streets are empty and all the shops are closed for a holiday.
“Roberto spent his life on the outside looking in. To really live, if only for a weekend, that’s what it’s all about,” Michael had said when they’d watched it.
Maria’s throat knotted again; that eternal lump that waxed and waned like the moonwhich she could never cough out and tangled her words.
“Il Sorpasso means ‘the overtaking’,” she’d said, “I think it’s more meaningful than the English title The Easy Life. Bruno overtakes anything, even Roberto, and his ambush ends in tragedy. Never let yourself be ambushed like that.”
If only she’d eaten those words. Soon after he was gone under a blood sky and a blood earth.
Maria ambled on in a reverie, her mind full of memories of Michael. In Rome, there is always something to see, whether it’s the decorated parapet of a building, or the sculpture on a street corner, but Maria only half saw these wonders because everywhere she saw Michael, in all the stages of his life. A smiling cherub would morph into Michael’s baby face, or the curlicues that decorated a doorway would remind her of his elfin curly hair. At each pause she adjusted her backpack; slung on one shoulder it evoked Michael’s baby weight and when strapped on her back a thousand piggy-back rides galloped through her mind.
Bilbo Baggins told Frodo to be careful of stepping out onto the street since he’d never know where his feet might take him. Maria understood now what he meant. Her feet took her to the Piazza Navona, where she sat down at a café for a rest, and set the heavy backpack on the chair next to her. She fancied she saw Michael playing among the fountains and statues.
The ping of her phone brought her to the present. She answered her sister Rosa’s text and moved on, the backpack slung onto her back once more.
She ambled though the city and came to the Colosseum. Michael had wanted to see it so much. One Halloween he’d dressed up as a gladiator, she and Rosa had made the costume themselves—they’d made all his costumes—complete with a cardboard sword. The next year he’d been a medieval knight, and the year after that a dragoon in Washington’s continental army. War had always fascinated Michael.
Maria met Rosa for a late lunch of Fettuccine Alfredo on the Piazza Augusto Imperatore. They spoke little, Rosa glanced now and then at the backpack Maria set on the adjacent chair. Maria enjoyed the meal, despite the nagging notion that Michael should have been there with them, Fettuccine Alfredo being his favorite dish.
Afterwards, they took a cab that neared them to the Fontana di Trevi and slowly made their way to the Piazza di Trevi on foot, arm in arm with Rosa’s oxygen mask trailing behind them. They marveled at the majestic fountain and sat for a while, admiring every detail of the great statues. Michael would have loved this, he always dreamed of wading in the Trevi fountain like in La Dolce Vita. Rosa was tired and took a cab back to the hotel (she took a sip of the fountain water first, hoping she might return to Rome one day per the superstition).
Maria wandered about by herself and, lost in reflection, strolled on looking but not seeing, her direction as random as her musings, until a child’s delighted laugh, that sounded much like Michael’s pre-school giggle, brought her back to the present. She was at the Tiber, Tevere in Italian, the river that flowed through Rome. How many wars had it seen? How many sorrows? How many lay at its bottom?
There was a story of a famed film director who had swum in its waters, brimming with thousands of years of humanity, and had later died from an infection, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember who. Was it Pier Paolo Pasolini? “No, Mom,” Michael had said when he’d googled it, “someone murdered him, but not there and there’s no mention of him swimming in the Tiber.”
Maria sighed and leaned against the stone guardrail of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, her cheek resting on her hand. She reminisced about all the Italian movies she and Michael had watched together. She loved classic Italian cinema and Michael had inherited that love, or perhaps she’d taught it.
This would have been their first trip to Rome together, he would have been on furlough and they would have met here. The Roman Catacombs had excited Michael but she couldn’t bring herself to visit them yet, maybe tomorrow. He always had a taste for the weird and macabre, and warcraft had always fascinated him. He hadn’t played with Hot Wheels, he’d preferred G.I. Joe. Neither of them had realized that if you live by the sword, you die by it. Maria, at least, had never believed it would be Michael’s destiny. It was wishful thinking on my part. She wondered, not for the first time, if Michael had known what he’d gotten into. Did he die in fear? Pain? The image of her beautiful boy torn to pieces rattled her and that knot in her throat expanded until she could barely breathe. The hot afternoon surrounded her and she covered her mouth with her hands, tears rolling down her cheeks. Her gasps turned into sobs and soon she was wailing, gripping the stone to pull herself together.
Perhaps she should have canceled this trip, Rosa had certainly considered it. But no, Maria wouldn’t have it, and Rosa, pulmonary disease and all, came along. Maria wiped her face with her sleeve and turned to go, not noticing which direction.
“Mom,” Michael’s voice rang out in the Roman afternoon, clear as a bell and stopped her in her tracks; she’d crossed the bridge and was at the Castel Sant’Angelo, and Michael Archangel watched her from above, bronze and triumphant, the sun setting all around, “remember, for every death there is life anew. I lived and died by my choices. Let me go.”
Maria broke into tears again and swung the backpack forward so that she now hugged it. She stood like that for a moment, then composed herself and took out her phone. Heavy tears fell on the screen as she texted Rosa her location. Michael had taught the sisters how to track and find each other with the phone. Newfangled technology baffled both, but Michael insisted on this one thing before he deployed; “so I know you’ll never be lost,” he’d said.
Rosa arrived by taxicab in the Roman twilight, minutes before the sunset. Maria helped her climb out with difficulty and, arm in arm, they made their way to the stone guardrail of the bridge and stood beside an angel that lined the bridge.
The last rays of the sun splayed out on the water with blinding intensity as if setting the city ablaze.
Maria leaned on the stone and took the urn from her backpack which had laden her all day. Together the sisters opened it and spread Michael’s ashes over the water. They glimmered in the twilight as the wind blew them skyward.
“Oh my, stars!” Sheila gasped, face skyward, “So many of them. How to describe them?”
“Big balls of gas,” Jason, ever the realist, answered annoyed. Sheila got on his nerves.
Sheila sighed. She felt Jason’s annoyance, and it broke her heart. She wiped a tear from her eye, but Jason did not notice. His attention was on the little screen in his hand.
Sheila observed him for a moment, then turned her gaze back to the stars. Tell me what I should do, guide me, she prayed.
Orion twinkled above and seemed to wink.
Is it over? But I still love him. In her mind she heard her sister’s voice: “Jason is your Achilles heel, the chink in your armor.”
Sheila’s lips quivered with sadness because her love for Jason was as grand as the stars of Orion, but she feared he didn’t reciprocate.
Sheila contemplated Jason, Orion and Achilles; the great Greek heroes. Orion, the hunter of the skies, could walk on water, and, wading through the sea of Sheila’s emotions, turned ripples into waves. Jason of the Argonauts, searched for the Golden Fleece. Jason is always on a quest, he’s always moving ahead and I fear I can’t keep up.Sheila was Achilles, the invincible warrior, and her one weakness was Jason.
The night was crisp and a faint aroma of burning wood lingered in the air; firewood and ice, the scents of winter. She glanced up at Orion as she got in the car. Jason turned the ignition. Metallica’s “Orion” blasted from the speakers.
“Huh,” Jason pointed to the stereo, smiling, “I wonder if it’s a sign? We were just looking at Orion, the constellation, and now we’re listening to Metallica’s song.”
Sheila considered telling him the story of Orion and the Scorpion, but refrained; she irritated Jason with silly facts and details.
“You know,” Jason went on, “my grandmother used to say that Orion’s belt were the Three Wise Men. The three kings who traveled from faraway lands to visit the newborn Christ. Every year, on Epiphany, we put a letter in our shoe and left it by the nativity scene so they could give us gifts. We always got pajamas.”
He smiled at Sheila as the song faded out.
“That’s something we could do, right? When we have kids? It’s a great tradition, I wouldn’t want to lose that.”
Sheila turned to him, bewildered. He never spoke about kids. She was cautious of broaching the subject lest he rejected it; she wanted children more than anything. Sheila met his gaze and nodded. They drove on in silence.
“You don’t annoy me,” Jason said as he pulled into their driveway, “I know you think you do, but you don’t. And tonight, I would have enjoyed the stars with you till Kingdom come, but my asshole boss wouldn’t stop texting. He’s a workaholic and assumes everyone else is too.”
His words lightened her heart. Silly girl, always letting your emotions blind you.
“Do you want to sit out in the yard with a glass of wine?” Sheila asked, a smile on her lips and tears in her eyes.
“Are you having fun?” Karen smiled, drink in hand. I nodded noncommittal.
“You don’t look like you are.” She said, a slight slur in her words.
“No, I am,” I forced a smile, “truly, I am.”
The atmosphere at Lizzie’s party was one of joy and congeniality. The music was perfect, not too loud, not too repetitive. One moment Frank Sinatra bellowed New York, New York and the whole room sang along, arms interlocked and doing the can-can. The next, the Fleetwoods crooned Mr. Blue and couples held each other while swaying to the soft beat. Rihanna sang, The Rolling Stones rocked.
I watched the guests. Karen followed my gaze.
“Oh no, Maddie, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know he was here.”
“That’s okay,” I forced another smile, “I’m fine.”
“Don’t tell me he brought her?”
“Gosh, what an ass!” She finished her drink and grabbed my hand, “C’mon, let’s dance! Don’t let him see it gets to you. There’s always at least one sad drunk at a party, and you’re not it.”
She flung me onto the dance floor, took both my hands and spun us around. Round and round we went. When we let go I let myself twirl and twirl and twirl. Years of ballet welled inside me and I let the music guide my body. Doesn’t matter what was playing, I danced and twirled and spun.
Oh, what sublime bliss!
Lizzie showed us a video of the party the next day. I’m dancing in it.
“Damn, girl,” she said, “Margot Fonteyn would eat her heart out. If you hadn’t met him, you’d be a prima ballerina now.”
“It’s not too late,” Karen squeezed my shoulders, “right, Lizzie? It’s never too late.”
They both beamed at me, radiating encouragement.
“You’re right,” I smiled back, “it’s not too late to pick up where I left off.”
“If you could be a mythological creature, what would you be?” Lisa asked Desmond. They looked at him, expectant. It was a game they played often, Lisa, Desmond, Cora and Jackson.
“A dragon,” replied Desmond, “I’d be a dragon.”
“You don’t act like a dragon,” said Cora, “I think you’d be a Centaur.”
Desmond shrugged; the recess bell rang. They gathered their things and went to class.
High school, college, work. Life flew by in a daze of ever mutating variables; Lisa, Desmond, Cora and Jackson the only constants.
“I knew you were a Centaur,” Cora whispered as Desmond pulled her out of the wrecked car.
Desmond should know what to do. He was the first responder, he had trained for this, but realizing this was Jackson’s car, with Cora and Lisa inside too, he doubted. This accident was different, the stakes higher than ever. Mistakes would cost Desmond, but his mind was addled, stymied by the fear of losing the people he loved most.
Cora’s words brought back a thousand school days, a thousand games, a thousand conversations. He had never understood what Cora had meant that day. A dragon would pull the shattered roof apart, and his friends would be free. What is being a centaur?
“You know what to do,” Cora squeezed his hand, “centaurs are brains and brawn. You know what to do.”
He looked into her eyes. She smiled. That faint smile brought back the years of training and experience. The knowledge flowed through him, like light floods an empty room and fills it.
I write to you from the old tavern on the edge of town. There is a hustle and a bustle around me, but all I see through the window is the old medieval castle, its ruins calling as the wind blows down the long unpaved path. It rests upon a small hill, and an old, forgotten vineyard stretches out beneath its fairy-tale turrets.
All around me the sound of cars, people, dogs, and the endless hum of generators fill my ears to the point of explosion. I close my eyes and hear only the soft breeze as it winds through the overgrown grapevines, and rustles through the trees that line the path towards the ruins. I hear the soft clop of hooves and I feel as on the threshold of time.
People here say no one goes up that way anymore. Strange things happen to all those who venture up there. Some say evil lives there, others say it’s an Angel that haunts that place.
The barman claims his neighbor’s father walked up that path at midnight, in search of the Devil. A short time later, the man and his family bought properties in and around the town. He became the wealthiest man about.
“But what good was all his money,” the barman said, “when all his children died one after another, like dominoes. Only my neighbor, the youngest, survives, and he is ill and childless. The Devil always gets his due.”
He wipes down the bar as if wiping away the whole affair.
“My grandfather went up that way,” a lady chimes in. She sits at the end of the bar, beer before her, listening.
“He and my grandmother were poor as church mice. They would traipse through the woods in rags and bare feet collecting firewood to sell. One winter night, they found themselves at the edge of the path and saw a light in the tower. The place was deserted since time began. Grandfather said the light flickered, and a voice whispered in their ear, and such images of warmth and comfort filled their minds they longed for the light. So, without thinking, he said, they trudged the frozen path. At the gate they met an angel, so bright and kind. He smiled at them and said they would never be cold again. He carried a staff, and with it, struck the ground. The Angel vanished. Where he stood, my grandfather said, there remained a spark. It looked like something shining, he said, and he dug it up. They found a small hoard of gold that night, right at the gates. They were never cold again.”
The lady smiles as she sips her beer.
“I think,” she continued, “whether you meet Devil or Angel, depends on your intentions. So if you go up there, please thank the Angel for the wonderful life he gave me and my family.”
The sun set while I listened in the tavern. I step out onto the darkened street and look at the castle. There is a light in the tower.
“Oh, you need it. Can’t imagine why? You didn’t want to come with us. You said you were tired, it was too hot out, blah blah blah. And now you need the car?”
“We never see you, and when you come visit, you sit around all day on your video game. Nothing satisfies you. Nothing’s good enough for you. You don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. But the minute we’re out the door, you have places to go, and people to see. The world is suddenly your oyster.”
“What the hell, mom! It’s not like that!”
“No? Why do you need the car? Where will you go? You know no one here, you have no commitments here, you said so yourself. This place is boring, isn’t it? We’re boring people, aren’t we? So why do you need the car?”
“Jeez, I can’t believe you’re doing this! What’s your problem?”
“I have no problem. But I believe you do. You want nothing to do with your family, but still expect us to be at your beck and call. We almost have to beg you to phone. We paid your plane ticket, so you’d visit, but you come here, and you want nothing, only to play your video games. Well, pal, you got your wish.”
“Ugh! C’mon, can’t you return and give me the keys?”
“Sorry, buddy, no can do. We’re too far away now. We’ve wanted this day trip for a while, and we won’t change our plans for you, just like you don’t change your plans for us. Tomorrow, you’ll have two choices: you come on our outing with us, or you stay in the house. But no car for you. Enjoy your video games.”
Laura hung up while Ricky was still fuming on the line. Her husband, one hand on the wheel, gave her the thumbs up. She smirked and laid back to enjoy the countryside from the passenger window. What a beautiful, sunny day!