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From the author: A small town, a wedding. A young woman grieving a tragic accident. A man who might not be one of the groomsmen. A glass of rare wine.
I wore my funeral dress to Crystal's wedding. It was the only dress that felt right any more, even though the black cotton strained at the buttons across my chest and around my hips. Mom had draped her cream-and-blue scarf around my neck, but it was still the same dress everyone in Van Eyck had seen me wear at six visitations, six services, six interments.
The church in Davisville was much bigger than ours, with a view right across the lake to the distant towers of Toronto. Mom parked in the middle of the lot and we walked past a whole fleet of the wedding party's vehicles, all studded with pink tissue carnations.
On the church steps, a half-dozen groomsmen stood in a ragged line. One of them had already lost his corsage, his lapel adorned only with a scrap of greenery and a pearl-headed pin. "More for the bride's side?" he said, extending an arm to me. "Beautiful day for a wedding, isn't it?"
Over his shoulder I saw Mom, winking madly and shooing her hands at me.
"I guess," I said to the groomsman, smiling as much as I ever did these days, but I watched his face go cool with disappointment.
The groomsman led me up and handed me into a pew decked with white ribbon. Mom slid in beside me. I shut my eyes and listened. In the high-ceilinged sanctuary, I could hear the square heels of children's shoes and the sharper heels of ladies', and a buzz of excited whispering quite different from the hush preceding a funeral service.
"Crystal lost people that day, too," Mom whispered to me, "and look at her now."
I opened my eyes to look, and there she was: Crystal Romijn, soon to be Crystal Smits, glowing and poised at the bottom of the aisle, as the organist began the wedding march.
Her father held her arm. Led her forward. Step and pause, step and pause, looking around the church like royalty.
Crystal might have lost people that day, the day of the accident, but she hadn't lost her father. She hadn't lost her fiance, who waited for her at the head of the aisle, with his open hands reaching out.
I was happy for her. As happy as I could be, with my own father in the ground, and so many others.
Dinner was served in the church hall. I sat with Mom at a ladies' table, along with some other unmarried daughters. Every ten minutes someone began the relentless din of forks against glasses again, and Crystal had to get up and haul her train out from under her new husband's feet and present her lips to him. She didn't look as if she minded. By the time the main course was served--pork chops with almond green beans and roasted potatoes--the newlyweds were pink with wine and laughter, and the kisses began to lengthen.
I was old enough for wine now, just, but the smell of it reminded me of the compost heap in Mom's garden, or the grapes left crushed and rotting on the roads behind the harvest trucks in autumn. I drank water, and left a portion of my pork chop on my plate.
Mom nodded her approval: she used to scold me for overeating, but these days she did not have to mention it. I could tell it tasted good, the sweet-savoury stickiness of the maple glaze, but it was as if the goodness was happening to someone else, someone in the next chair over. Mom and I placed our cutlery at the same neat angle on our plates, sat back, and pretended to turn our attention to the maid of honour's toast.
And finally the toasts ended, and everyone rose in a clatter of chairs and shoes, and the MC announced, "Ladies and gents, the bar is open!"
I rose in as much of a hurry as everyone else, but I went the opposite way from the crowd, back into the church.
The sanctuary smelled of lemon oil and old wood. I rounded the foremost pews where the two families had been seated; they were still decorated with bunches of white peonies. The white carpet rolled out in the aisle for Crystal's promenade felt spongy under the heels of my shoes.
I pushed through the double doors at the bottom of the aisle, to the vestibule. I sat on the small table where the programs were stacked on Sunday mornings, and I leaned down to unbuckle my ankle-straps and let my shoes slip off my feet. Then I unwound Mom's scarf and dropped it, too, and unbuttoned the collar of my funeral dress.
In the dim hush, between two sets of doors, I tilted my head back to keep the tears from welling.
I did not want to weep again. I felt as if I'd done nothing else since the accident. But my father should have been there. We should have been seated at a table with another family, not at the widows' table. My friends should have been there: Katie and Marieke and even Angela, who I'd bickered with all the time but now missed every bit as much as the others.
Jason and Piet should have been there, too, swapping jokes and hockey stories. Maybe Piet would have asked Angela to marry him by now. Maybe Jason would have made up his mind to move to Toronto. Maybe Marieke would have been in Crystal's wedding party, instead of one of the Davisville girls.
One accident, two cars, six funerals. A hundred and fifty days of mourning, so far. And I could not begin to count all the ways things had changed.
Just as I was about to put my shoes back on and go hunt down a Kleenex to blow my nose, the outer door swung open and one of the groomsmen slipped in.
He held one of the paper candle-lanterns that had been hung in the lilac trees around the church grounds. It swung from a negligent hand as he turned and pulled the door shut behind him, almost soundless.
My nose was going to run if I didn't do something. I sniffled.
He spun, brows high. He wasn't one of the groom's family, not with those dark eyes and hair. His coat was different from the others', too, longer, and it fit him like it was his and not a rental. His corsage--tattered, petal-bruised--drooped from a collar of black silk.
"You must be on the Davisville team," I said. "Congratulations on the cup."
He chuckled. "Thank you. Though I can't claim much of the glory. I'm new here."
"Still, you must be pretty good, or you guys wouldn't have unseated the three-year reigning champs."
That was a bad thing for me to say, because it reminded me why we weren't winning any more: Jason had been top scorer last year and Piet had been goalie, until they were taken from us.
I looked up at the ceiling again. The groomsman's shadow stretched crazily across it as he swung the lantern in his hand.
I heard rustling, and felt something soft pressed into my hand. A handkerchief.
I dried my cheeks with it. "I didn't think people had these any more," I said thickly.
"I'm old-fashioned," said the groomsman, serenely, settling his weight against the table beside me. He twisted to set the lantern behind us, and faced forward again, his features in shadow.
He did not ask me why I was weeping at a wedding. He said instead, "I knew the riesling in these parts had an excellent reputation, but I had never tasted it until today."
I shrugged. "I don't drink."
He half-turned toward me, that brow going up again. "No?"
I shook my head. "I don't like the taste."
"You will," he said. "Find me later. When you're ready."
He settled a warm palm on my shoulder.
I flinched away, annoyed. "No, thanks."
He only looked amused, withdrew his hand slowly, and shifted to his feet. Took up the lantern and let himself into the sanctuary, leaving me alone in the dark.
I gave myself a few minutes to regain my composure. When I thought I was ready to return, I strapped my shoes on again, and picked up the scarf, and only then realized the groomsman must have seen me barefoot, with my dress opened to show my collarbone and the lacy top edge of my camisole and the full upper curves of my breasts.
Blushing, I gave myself another few minutes.
The first dance was past already; I saw Crystal seated and fanning herself, with her cousin offering her a glass of sparkling wine. I saw a cluster of black suits at the bar, and tried not to look that way.
I nearly fled back to the vestibule, but Mom was at the coffee station, beckoning me over.
"Mrs Van Houten, this is my daughter, Sofie," she said. "Sofie, I'd like you to meet Mrs Van Houten. She's one of Crystal's new aunts."
I shook hands, and said enough of the right things to make Mom happy.
"I have a young man who'd love to make your acquaintance," Mrs Van Houten said. "He's visiting. Friend of my nephew Wilfred's."
With Mom right there, I couldn't say anything other than yes.
Mrs Van Houten looked over at the bar, and beckoned.
The man who approached wasn't one of the blue-eyed Smits boys, though. He was the groomsman who had given me his handkerchief.
He smiled enchantingly at Mrs Van Houten, and then at me, raising his brow just slightly when I narrowed my eyes at him.
"Zeljko, this is Sofie Lowsley," Mrs Van Houten said, "from over in Van Eyck. Sofie, Zeljko Ilic." She sounded out his name carefully, as if she'd just had a lesson.
Zeljko shook my hand. He said, "You look ready for something to drink. Can I get you a glass of wine?"
"No, thanks," I said.
Mom said, "Now, Sofie, be polite."
If she didn't care, I guessed I didn't have grounds to object. I didn't resist when Zeljko led me away.
We did not go to the bar, as I'd expected. Zeljko led me straight past it and out the side door of the church, into fresh evening, lilac-scented. A few fireflies floated along the hedge that separated the church from the manse garden. Mourning doves called in the dusk.
We did not stay outside, though; we went back in through the front doors, and up the steps toward the choir-loft.
On the landing where the steps turned, Zeljko had set two folding chairs, the paper lantern, a bottle of wine and two glasses.
I stopped when I saw it, tugging my hand from his--when had I begun holding it in the first place?
"Ah, ah," he said. "Taste it before you run away. This is not the wine served downstairs by our hosts. This is just for you."
"It'd be wasted on me. Seriously, just pour me the cheap stuff."
He caught my hand in both of his. "It is mine to give, and I choose to share it with you. I do not care if you know about wine. I only want to watch you enjoy it."
It struck, then, like sparks from flint: a feeling I could not even name. It was in my body, deep in the core of me, and also in my heart. I had felt it before, but not since the accident, and I had almost forgotten it existed.
I could not name it, but I knew one thing: I wanted more of it.
I sat down on one of the chairs. Zeljko leaned past me to open the window; old paint and caulk crackled and broke as he raised it up. I smelled lilac from outside, and the warm wool of his jacket.
He settled himself, and applied a corkscrew to the wine-bottle. I watched his hands, because I was too shy to look at his face. His hands didn't look like a hockey player's hands: all the fingers were slim and straight, unbroken, the knuckles unscarred. He wasn't particularly tall or broad, either, though his shoulders looked wonderful in his trim coat.
I watched the pale wine as he poured it into each of the glasses. It looked almost like water in the candlelight.
"Close your eyes," said Zeljko.
"Then do not. But focus on your other senses."
I heard his chair scrape. Felt a very faint warming of the air around me as his arm extended, holding out the glass to me.
Smelled something wonderful, like sun on a peach orchard, like moss on limestone, like dew on apple-blossoms just about to fall.
Felt the cool touch of glass on my lips, and tasted my first sip, which was everything the scent had promised, and more.
I swallowed, and sputtered. Zeljko lowered the glass. In the twilight his eyes looked black. He smiled suddenly, turned the glass, placed his lips where mine had just been, and sipped. "Delicious," he said, and there was that feeling again.
I might have expected wine to become cloying, like juice, if I had thought about it. But it was not. Every sip was wonderful. I said so to Zeljko, and he laughed, a low private laugh. He leaned in close to pour for me again, and when my glass was full, he caught a stray drop from the bottle's mouth on his fingertip, and licked it away.
I held very still. I knew what the feeling was.
"I think I'd like to sleep with you," I said.
"You think so?" he said, still laughing a little. "I would like that very much, only I do not want you to be uncertain."
I thought about it for a moment. "I'm not uncertain," I said. "Not about sleeping with you. Only I don't know what I want to do with you after."
He shrugged one shoulder. "Nothing you don't wish. But you must understand, I am not for this." His gesture seemed to take in and dismiss the wedding ongoing in the other part of the church.
I lifted my glass and touched it to his, and we both drank.
And I took off my scarf again, and opened the collar of my dress, deliberately before his eyes.
The thing about grieving is that it leaches away so much else from the world: not only the lost loved ones, but things the loved ones did not even touch. Grapefruit lost its tartness. The smell of stew cooking in the Crock-Pot lost its homeliness. The music on the radio sounded tinny and rhythmless. The snow even lost its chill.
My town was studded with places I could not visit. The waterfall where I'd last gone hiking with Piet and Angela. The restaurant where Daddy had taken me for my graduation dinner. The bakery where Marieke and I had met for coffee and muffins most mornings before school. The bleachers behind the school, where Jason and I had kissed in ninth grade, and where, in tenth, he'd confessed to me that he was falling in love with another boy. The road between Van Eyck and Comberton, where, just off the shoulder, there still stood six white wooden crosses and a wreath of yellow artificial roses.
In the face of grieving like that, I would have sold my soul for a slice of toast with real crispness and melted butter, or a cup of coffee with real richness, or a sun that rose with real light, or a bird singing a real song. But for as long as it lasted, all things were meaningless, cardboard mockeries of themselves. And no one wanted my soul.
Zeljko slipped out of his jacket, and tossed it over the windowsill, heedless of the bruised corsage. He loosened his tie, a black one, different somehow from the ones the other groomsmen wore.
He pointed to my foot, and gestured for me to lift it. He unbuckled the strap at my ankle and eased the shoe off, stroking gentle fingers over the skin where it had chafed.
"You don't actually need to seduce me," I said. "I already said yes."
"Seduction is pleasant," he said, unperturbed. I thought he had a faint accent, one I couldn't place; I hadn't noticed it before, but now I thought of it, the way he spoke was more deliberate than the other guys around here.
"Teach me how to say your name," I said.
"Zeljko," he said, enunciating, eyes on mine. He reached out for my other foot.
"Zeljko," I said, a bit breathlessly.
"Very good. Drink your wine," he said.
I did, and felt the delicious burst of flavour in my mouth, the freshness of the air against my bared throat, the heat of Zeljko's palm covering the arch of my foot.
Heard, below, my mother's voice in the vestibule.
I scrambled to pull my foot away and grab for my shoe.
Zeljko's mouth pouted. "We have just begun."
"My Mom might be strangely okay with me having a glass of wine with you, but she'll definitely flip out if she sees anything else," I hissed. "Come on, help me out!"
He didn't. He crossed his arms and sat there silently laughing while I fumbled with my shoe-buckles and my dress-buttons and my scarf. I tossed his jacket at him and glared until he put it on. By the time my mother mounted the stairs, we were sitting properly, across the table from each other, and I was trying not to laugh at the dusting of paint flakes across Zeljko's shoulder and chest.
"There you are," Mom said. "It's nearly midnight, Sofie. We've got church in the morning."
"Of course, Mom," I said. Church was her solace since the accident: every week she wept through the hymns while I held her hand, but she said it brought her peace.
Zeljko gave her the same charming smile he'd given downstairs. This time Mom looked as if she could see through it, and I was the one who could not help but find it beautiful.
"Good night, Sofie," he said to me. "It's been lovely chatting with you."
"Yes, indeed. I hope to see you again. Zeljko."
"You will," he said, without the smile this time.
As I turned away to follow Mom down the stairs, I saw him raise my glass, and tilt what was left of my wine into his mouth, as if he was very thirsty.
Mom drove home. I was sleepy, all of a sudden, as if I was a kid again, head against the window. I wrapped the scarf around my neck against the cool of the night, and blinked slowly at the dark outside, trees and silos and fields and occasionally a house with a single light.
And fireflies, now and then, flicking in and out along the wind-rows. It seemed like a cloud of them, following us. But maybe that was a dream I was having, as I flicked in and out of sleep.
I set my shoes side by side on the closet floor. I folded Mom's scarf and hung it; took off my dress and tossed it in the hamper. I unhooked my bra, and ran my palms over my breasts, which ached, and over the reddened ridges on my shoulders where the bra-straps had cut in. I had come late to my full size, and now I did not know what to do with myself.
I lay naked on my back, sheets pushed aside, my nightshirt left on the hook inside the closet door, for once. Spring hadn't quite turned to summer, so maybe it was the wine, but my skin felt warm and welcomed the breeze from the barely-open window by the bed.
As I slid into sleep, dreaming open-eyed, I saw fireflies outside again, or maybe stars, swirling slowly. They streamed down, flattened, swarmed through the screenless open inch of my window, fanned out again into a cloud. A cloud man-height, shaped out of bright sparks and the darkness between them.
I woke fully then, on a gasp.
"You asked me to come," he whispered, the sparks dimming until he was only pale skin and dark eyes flashing back starlight. "You wanted this."
"I thought you were one of the groomsmen," I said. "Not some kind of... whatever you are."
"Shall I leave?" he said. "I will, if you ask. What I want from you must come with your full consent."
He was very still while I thought about it. Finally I shook my head. "Stay. Just for tonight."
"There is a cost," he said.
"There's a cost to everything," I said, and I slid my hands into his hair and tugged his mouth to mine.
The kiss was like a sudden change in the weather, like a drenching summer storm, making all the hairs along my spine stand up and my eyes water. Zeljko murmured something against my lips, and I hummed back.
Part of me--a small part, receding rapidly--was crying out that I should just say no, that this was probably one of the stages of grief, that I had no business sleeping with a guy I'd just met, even if he'd been a regular guy and not something made up of fireflies... and that was all absolutely true and I was still absolutely doing this.
Then Zeljko ran his hand from the flat of my shoulder around my arm, over my collarbone, down the weight of my breast. I held my breath at the wonder of it.
"You are not afraid?" he said.
I shook my head. "This isn't my first time. Just my first in a while."
I felt his mouth smile against my throat, and then he moved lower.
It wasn't my first time, but it made the other times fade like the moon at sunrise. Zeljko's fingers parted the curls of hair at my entrance and two of them slipped inside, and at the same time, his teeth pressed very gently at the mound of my breast, so that I tipped my head back and gasped.
His free hand pressed over my mouth to remind me where we were. I smiled against his fingers, and let my tongue curl around them, and I felt the silent intake of his breath against my flesh.
He did not rush me. He took me from ready to readier to--oh, I was going to cry if I didn't--and then he added his mouth, suckling at the most delicious spot, working his fingers within, and I flared up like phosphorus, sudden and bright.
Even before I put myself back together, Zeljko was looming over me, skin pale against the darkness, a faint black trail of hair leading down from his chest to his belly to the root of him, and he was going to enter me, and I wanted him so much I had to bite my tongue on a plea.
I came again around him, with his fingers spearing through my hair, with his mouth on mine.
He followed me a moment later, and I thought I saw a brightness pass between us, like lightning within clouds.
I would have asked him about it, but sleep washed up over me while I was still kissing the taste of myself from his lips.
The morning light looked very golden, and Mom was tapping on my door.
"Aren't you up yet?" she said. "Sofie? We don't want to be late for church."
I yawned mightily and sat up on my elbows and realized I really, really needed a shower.
"Just a few minutes, Mom," I called back. "Sorry! I guess I slept in."
I tossed back the rumpled sheets and heard a tiny patter on the floor. A single firefly. It flicked its wings and righted itself; it looked day-drunk and weak. I laid my hand flat on the floorboards and the firefly crawled up onto my skin. Its light flickered on, tiny against the rising day.
I held it up close to my face. "Thanks," I breathed, and the light brightened a little, and the firefly took wing and zipped out through the window into the clear air.
When I came downstairs, as clean as a sponge-bath in the sink could make me, hair pinned up, dressed in a sober skirt and blouse, I found a slice of buttered toast and a cup of coffee waiting for me. The toast was crisp and hot and dripping with butter. The coffee was cream-rich and honey-sweet. Outside the window, the birds in the lilac trees sang gorgeous songs.
So this was the world, mine again.
"You look cheery," Mom said, a bit sourly, as she came in from watering the garden. She washed and lotioned her hands, and settled her church hat on her head.
I turned away to hide the private smile on my face, and followed her out to the car.
I lost the smile a few minutes later. Mom turned onto the main road and the sun came through the window in the weirdly bright way that meant I was on the edge of a migraine.
I shut my eyes against it. Felt around for the bottle of ibuprofen in my purse and swallowed one. It was coming on fast, though. The faint smell of exhaust nauseated me.
"Can you please... pull over?"
"Here?" Mom said, sounding dubious.
I felt the tires crunch on the gravel shoulder. I shouldered my door open and leaned out, retching.
When I finally lifted my head and blinked open my streaming eyes, I saw why Mom had not wanted to stop: we were on the Comberton road, right where the accident had happened.
Twenty feet ahead, I saw the cluster of crosses wreathed in yellow roses. And then I understood what Zeljko had meant about the cost.
I tried anyway. Not that day; Mom drove me home and I slept off the headache for a few hours. But the next day, and the next, I drove out on the Comberton road, and had to turn back. I took a roundabout route to the church, and discovered the churchyard was forbidden to me, too. I could not even get close enough to see between the young birches to the six newest gravestones.
Katie, Marieke, Angela, Piet, Jason. My father. Lost to me all over again.
I slumped down behind the wheel of Mom's car and cried harder than I had since the accident.
On my return, I saw Mom out back, hanging laundry. I filled a basket with wet things from the machine and went to join her.
"Mom," I said, setting down the basket and scooping a handful of clothes-pins, "I don't think I can stay here."
She looked at my face, sighed, and took one of the damp sheets from the basket, shaking it out briskly and flipping it over the line. "If you go, I'll be all alone."
"You'll have your friends, and euchre, and church."
"I was hoping you'd meet someone, and settle near me."
I shook my head. I did not tell her that would never happen. She could learn it later, by degrees, and maybe it would not cut her so deep.
The thought made my eyes well again. But at the same time I could feel the breeze lifting, carrying bewitching pollens over the fields and drying the tears before they fell.
From our house, the land sloped down toward the lake: fresh spring leaves brightened the treetops, and the fields were greening over, and beyond them, the water was delft-blue, all the ice long since melted.
Across the lake, I could just see the towers of Toronto. I knew there were foods there I had never tasted, musics I had never heard, vivid paintings on the walls of alleys. I might not know happiness yet, I might be grieving my losses for a few years to come, but now I knew pleasure again, and pleasure would carry me through until the return of joy.
This story originally appeared in Handsome Devil (Lethe Press).