Among the tall rustling reeds, we were headed for a dead end. The milky moon watched. Beneath your dark coat, the lace hem of your dress went on ahead of me, never wavering, as if you knew exactly how to avoid the nests and the shrill water birds waiting to defend them. Nothing lashed out, and you floated further in among the waving stalks as if you knew exactly where to step. Flouncing like the ghost you claimed to be when you were low.
It was a game of chase me until you’re too cowardly to follow. If I fell back too far I would earn your scorn and spend the night worrying where you were. You would come in towards dawn with early spring flowers woven in your hair and unfamiliar drink on your breath. They would have welcomed you at the barn, Salter and those like him, living on nothing and painting in half-gloves even when the air was misty with their breath and their nails turned blue.
They built a fire to paint you by. You would stand half-naked, your nipples on stilts, letting them do in brushstrokes what you never let fingers do, trace all of you. Your patience was endless, a glow on your features, your eyes half-shut as if you were dreaming. Alone with me, you would hurry things along, pushing, pulling, never undressing, saying, ‘just here, quick. Now, now. Come on.’ I did everything you asked, and I committed everything you liked to memory.
You parted the reeds and stood still. I was right behind you, looking over your shoulder. On a flattened patch of tall grass, a small fire hissing at their feet, there they were: Salter and that red-haired friend of his they called Owl. There was a third, with narrow wrists, face shadowed by a hat, playing with a pocket watch. You sank down to complete the circle. I stood looming like the shadow I was afraid of becoming. I didn’t know if this was the next part of the dare, or if my role was over.
They passed the bottle to you and you swallowed deep and passed the bottle to me. I drank and spluttered. The contents were bitter and sweet at once. Herbs and sugar and rye, distilled in one of the copper vats they kept at the barn. It burned but I daren’t cough for long. Salter took your hand in his, and pulled, and you eased onto him as if he was a hammock strung among tall blades. ‘Will you sit down,’ you said to me, and I handed the bottle down and sat on prickly stalks.
The one without a name, next to me, checked the pocket watch. Nothing could be seen on the watch face in the gloom but reflections of fire. Then, as if the hour was right, the hat was lifted, and long hair tumbled down. I just gazed, first at the dangling pocket watch, then at the masses of hair, and then at you. You winked and kissed Salter, fitting your mouth to his with practiced ease. With a bitter taste at the back of my tongue, I watched red-haired Owl kick dirt into the flames.
There was frost in the air as we made our way to the barn, along the thin path their footsteps had carved out in the grass. I had half expected to find myself in the thawing stream by morning, but I was invited into a large bed of straw and stolen blankets, and I stayed. At first, I ignored the others as much as I ignored your cries. But come morning, I woke with my bare arm over a warm hip, a fire roared, the shutters were closed to the sleet, and no one was in a hurry.
- Quaint Ink