Though I’ve been absent for quite some time I haven’t been idle. I have been busy researching and, recently, plotting a novel. The following is a scene I sketched the other day about one of the principal characters. Enjoy.
Savoring the heat from the stove behind him, the freshness off the window before him, and the warmth of the mellow whiskey in his belly, Taylor inhaled slowly, then exhaled from the depths of his being. A misty patch of his breath bloomed on the window pane. Absently he traced a pattern in that fading patch of moisture and swirled the dram of whiskey he’d poured into one of his great-grandfather’s Waterford tumblers. He pressed the pad of his thumb into the fan-shaped design etched into the crystal, that beauty pulled from fire. “‘Ashling,'” Great-grandfather Stratford had told him in a voice as nuanced as the whiskey he loved, “means ‘Dream of Beauty’ in Old Irish. It is the only appropriate vessel for such an elixir.”
“Dream of Beauty, Great-grandfather? Tonight it’s filled with Writer’s Tears, and they are not tears of beauty or joy, just emptiness, only emptiness.” He raised the glass in a feeble salute to the firelight reflected in the window. “Some joy would be welcome, that I know. But still, Great-grandfather, still that dream whispers insistently to me.”
He studied the landscape out the window and frowned. “It used to be as simple as sledding down Heartbreak Hill out there. I remember how you laughed as you watched us, Barb and me. Now, I guess I’m going to have to fake it until I make it, and I’ve always hated the thought of that.”
“I heard a woman today, Great-grandfather, a poetess – you would like her, I think – in an interview, talking about the joy she gets from writing. She said the joy she feels firms her resolve to write consciously, to write as if she were writing before computers, before paper even, when words were chiseled into stone or incised into clay. She said she felt such writing showed deep conscious intent and considered effort. She sounded – she sounded grounded, and all I ever feel anymore when I try to write is like a flea being whipped through a hurricane.”
“Well, wherever you are, if you hear me, just know I harbor those whispers of that dream.” He raised his glass this time in a silent toast to his long dead ancestor. “That’s all I know to say.”
Outside in the gathering darkness, off to the right beyond the drive and near the property line a blur of shadows flickered. He stilled, squinted, not sure what he was sensing. He focused on the line of trees and realized that he could hear what sounded like animals passing, or people, rather than a lone traveler. He waited. The sounds of passage continued. Then he heard the faintest whispers of flight through those trees. Never in all the years his family had come to this cabin had he heard such a parade.
Moving quickly, lithely, he set his empty glass on the table in front of the window and reached for the jacket he’d draped over the chair. He stepped into his boots and, stealthy as those shadows, left the cabin to follow the path they made.
His only guide once he crossed the perimeter of the forest was the sound of movement, the scratching of barren branch against barren branch, the rustle of dry leaves blown across packed snow. He turned as he felt a disturbance in the air – a bird too swift to identify in the gloaming. Though the moon was nearly full these nights it was not yet the dominant light in the sky; still he could tell that there were no tracks laid among the crisscrossing shadows on the virgin snow. He focused on the sounds drawing him further into the forest, soon losing a sense of either time or direction. The snow had stopped hours earlier, the clouds parting to reveal snatches of a sky of deepest blue. Stars winked overhead as well.
Stepping toward a line of winter white birches Taylor slowed. The sounds had fallen to barely a hush. Beyond the birch trees he saw a clearing with silent shadowy figures standing in a ring, watchful, each holding a lighted lantern. The fretwork of these lanterns cast intricate patterns of wavering light and shadow on the snow. Before he could decide either to fade back into the forest or step forward into the ring of watchers, those watchers turned toward a figure advancing across the circle.
“Oh, now, the boy I know – the boy who sips whiskey and dreams of beauty – would never consider fading away from magic like this. Would you, Taylor?”
That voice, that beloved voice, was his ancestor’s, but this figure in a cowled robe of creamy white wool was a figure of such foolishness that he could not imagine his solidly pragmatic great-grandfather ever choosing such a demeanor.
“Foolishness is it, now? That’s a fine word from someone who’s displayed such questionable wisdom this day.”
“You look like an actor in a B-movie about druids, with that bodhran and baton. I think the full crown of stag antlers on your head may be overkill, pardon the pun,” Taylor responded before his mind could warn him against it. He squared his shoulders and studied the circle of watchers before him. “Where did you come from? Who are you? Why are you here? Explain yourselves.”
“Forgive me, boy, for thinking a playwright would appreciate a bit of theater.”
“Theater, is it? Are you playing at Prospero?”
“Good heavens, no, young man. But our Will Shakespeare is a grand guide in this: ‘There are more things in heaven and on earth-‘”
“Spare me the Horatio speech, Old Man.”
“‘-than is dreamt of in your philosophy.’ I’ll not chastise your rudeness, Taylor.”
“I’ve heard those lines so many times they mean less and less to me.”
“That, dear boy, is a great sadness to me.” Great-grandfather moved closer, rested a hand on his shoulder. “You mutter of emptiness there in the darkness. We come to give you a glimpse, a merciful glimpse, of the marvelous. You have not been seeing things rightly. You-” he brushed fingertips across Taylor’s brow, “you forget that the virtue of a cup is its emptiness.”
“I know more than you think. I’ve been in that hurricane, dear boy. But I did not turn from the one who could light my way, as you have today. That is all I may say.” He stepped back from Taylor, gathered the skirt of his robe in a fist and crouched to sketch some figures in the snow. He stood, winked, then turned and strode back across the circle.
The lantern-bearers all turned to follow him. They faded into the forest and that sense of mystery and majesty he’d only begun to register faded with them. Too soon the only light was that of the moon and stars.
He stood alone there just inside the circle, acutely aware that he had, in effect, been dismissed. He looked to the ground at his feet. His great-grandfather had inscribed two ‘Xs’ in the snow, side by side.
“Dos Equis,” he gasped, looking quickly up and across the circle at the place where all had merged into the trees. “How does he know that?”
Barbara Butler McCoy, 2019