You Have All Drunk From Circe's Cup
In Celtic Mythology, the wives of the underworld were lake-sirens in Wales. These lovely creatures are known to choose mortal men as their husbands. One legend has it that they live in a sunken city in one of the many lakes in Wales. People claim to have seen towers under water and heard the chiming of bells. In earlier times, there used to be a door in a rock and those who dared enter through it came into a beautiful garden situated on an island in the middle of a lake. In this garden there were luscious fruits, beautiful flowers and the loveliest music, besides many other wonders. Those brave enough to enter were welcomed by the Gwragedd Annwn and were invited to stay as long as they wanted, on the condition that they never took anything back from the garden. One visitor ignored the rule and took a flower home with him. As soon as he left the island, the flower disappeared and he fell unconscious to the ground. From that day on, the door has been firmly closed and none has ever passed through it again. - Hugh R. Akehunt.
There is a tree on the shore of Llyn y Van Ffach with a face carved into it. The face is laughing and crying at the same time. Its low branches look like arms, like hands, like fingers. Its low branches say come here and do not be afraid and take only what is given.
She loved him; she lost him. It is as simple as that.
(Only: of course it is never as simple as that.)
There is a tree on the shore of Llyn y Van Ffach with a face carved into it. The face looks south, toward the Black Mountains. At the base is the village of Blaensawde and at the edge is a house with twelve bedrooms. Only three of them are filled. The rest rustle with ghosts.
A hundred years and two days from now: there is a wilting flower. It is a daffodil. Yellow. A man threads its stem through his jacket, weeping.
She sings of how to hold mountains in your palm. She sings of how to thread the wind around your neck like jewelry. She sings of planting your feet into the dirt and growing roots. She sings of breathing underwater.
Tesni sings a map and waits for someone to follow it.
“Bring the cattle to the lake,” their mother says, and the boys look at one another with glory in their eyes.
She packs a basket with two loaves of bread in it. One of them is fresh and warm; one of them is yesterday’s, and hard. There is a ghost of the man they think might have been their father in the third bedroom to the left; he calls Rhodri his Little Wheel King and tells him to always go with the road.
Today their mother says, “bring the cattle to the lake,” and the ghost who may have been their father tells them, “take the bread that is hard.”
Ivor rolls his eyes and opens the curtains—you can’t see ghosts in sunlight. “Roll along, Little Wheel King,” he teases, for he has a name to be proud of.
Ivor chases the cattle and Rhodri carries the bread. He feels the fresh loaf in his palm: its warmth is like his mother, is like blankets on cold mornings, is like Ivor singing in the bath.
“Roll along!” Ivor shouts from up ahead, and laughs, and doubles back with a flush to his cheeks.
When they get to the lake, the cattle hunch together and munch grass in easy silence. Ivor takes the fresh loaf. Rhodri opens his mouth to protest, hesitates, doesn’t.
A hundred and two years from now: there is a loaf of bread, just out of the oven, on a rock that faces the mountains. The sun rises and the bread stays hot; the sun sets and the bread stays hot. In two days, the bread will still be fresh, but it will not be eaten.
* Delwyn braids seaweed into her hair and plays the bells so perfectly that the whole city weeps. Ceinwen drapes seashells from her ears and dances so fluidly that even the lake mistakes her bones for water.
Tesni wears shells that catch the sunlight and laughs until the world laughs with her. She sings her sisters to sleep.
Rhodri makes it a quarter of the way through the loaf of bread before giving up. He throws it into the water and drops his chin onto his knees. He’ll be hungry at dinner. He’s hungry already.
He is closing his eyes beneath the sedative of sunlight and hushed cattle when the bread comes flying back at him, dripping and hard, knocking him backwards.
He looks for Ivor, but his brother is asleep on the grass.
“That’s your offer?” asks a voice that sounds like the rustling of leaves.
The girl is small, her green dress gathered in golden seashells and fanning out in the lake water. She has dark eyes. He does not yet know what the feeling in his stomach is that boils when she looks at him.
“I,” he begins, but doesn’t know how to finish.
She laughs, pressing her pale hands to her red mouth, her red red mouth. He does not yet know what the tingling in his teeth is that pinches when she touches the redness of her lips
“Try again,” she advises. “Bring something better.”
Ivor stirs. Rhodri doesn’t know how he knows this.
“What should I bring?” he asks, desperately.
She reaches out, as if to touch him. Her fingers are long. He does not yet know what the itch in his fingers is that tugs when she dips her hand into the water.
“Bring the mountains,” she tells him, and is gone.
* “Come on, Little Wheel King,” says Ivor, kicking out at the cattle when they try to stray. “It’s a long walk home.”
Delwyn laughs and Ceinwen claps her hands. Delwyn plays Song of the Lovers on her bells and Ceinwen says, “Tesni, Tesni, your first human!”
“My only human,” Tesni tells them, and they look at one another knowingly.
Only: she’s right, but not in the way she thinks.
Sixty years from now: a man and a ghost sit in a sunless room. The man holds a miniature figurine of a cart in his hand. He plucks a wheel off the front and brings it to his withered lips.
Their mother does not say “take the cattle to the lake,” again that summer. Rhodri asks her three times. She tells him no, tells him no, tells him maybe—then, later, remembering the laundry, changes the maybe into no.
Rhodri draws pictures of cupped hands holding mountains. Ivor asks, but doesn’t stay to hear the answer. The ghost in the third bedroom, the ghost that might be his father, says, “You have to bring real mountains.
“How?” asks Rhodri, miserable. He is fifteen. He thinks he may have an idea of the boiling in his stomach, the tingle in his teeth, the itch in his fingers. Ivor is nineteen: Ivor knows for certain.
The ghost shrugs. Not even death knows everything.
Tesni swims faster than her sisters. She does not have their grace, but she has the sun in her smile. She weeps at weddings; she sings at funerals; she bruises when poked too hard. She is loved. She is not understood.
“He’ll bring the mountains,” she tells herself, drawing a finger down the long side of her mirror and twirling so fast that the water lifts her up off the floor. She is certain. She tastes of raspberries when she bleeds.
“Is it the boy or the mountains that you want?” Delwyn asks her, frowning, and Tesni says, “It is a test.” Tesni says, “Both.”
* In July, his mother says, “bring the cattle to the lake.” Rhodri carries the bread. He walks slowly. He is holding a pebble in his hand. When they get to the grass, Ivor takes the day-old bread. He is selfish, but not unfair.
Rhodri sits on the rock and waits for his brother to sleep. He throws his loaf into the water and holds out the hand with the pebble clutched in it.
When the girl comes, she is bright yellow and sea green. She teases, “Kind of a small mountain, don’t you think?”
Rhodri shrugs. “How big is a mountain?” he asks. “How small is a hill?”
Her laughter is like all the nights when the wind came in through the window and kissed him. She holds out a hand. “All right,” she says. “Just for today.”
Rhodri steps into the water. Rhodri takes her hand.
Seventy-five years from now: the man, now old, dies. There is no one in the house to mourn him but the ghosts.
There are towers under the water, and the ringing of bells. There are fruits and daffodils, yellow. There is music everywhere. On a leaf on a tree on a rock there are the lyrics to a song he’s never heard. The tree has a face carved on it. The face looks toward the mountains.
“The branches look like hands,” Rhodri murmurs, and Tesni says, “The branches are hands.”
The sun sets differently under water. He watches it ripple through the waves and under the sand, slow, cold. Tesni is flushed and warm beside him. She smells like wine. The weight of her shoulder against his is like—is like—he doesn’t have a word for it yet.
At light the stars are look like dobbs of paint through the lake’s surface, and Rhodri wants to stay forever
“All right,” agrees Tesni, “but not yet.”
He frowns. “Why not?”
He feels the warmth of her as she presses against him. “You haven’t yet worn the wind,” she tells him, and he says, “You know, most girls would be happy with just the bread.”
Tesni kisses his cheek. “You’re not most girls,” he agrees, and his whole face is hot.
He wants to bring an apple back from his brother, but Tesni stills his hands.
“You can’t,” she tells him seriously, gripping his wrist. “You can’t, not anything, not ever, do you understand?”
“It’s just an apple,” he protests. “I won’t tell anyone where I got it.”
“No,” Tesni commands, and tears the fruit from his grasp. “Not anything. Never."
She makes him promise three times before he goes.
“I must have fallen asleep,” says Ivor. The sun is shining. The cattle are grazing. There is a fresh loaf of bread on Rhodri’s rock. “You haven’t eaten yet? What have you been getting up to, Little Wheel King?”
Rhodri shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says, honestly.
Tesni goes to the top of the tower. It is almost at the surface of the water, but not quite. She holds the pebble in her palm and presses her mouth to it.
“He will be my only human,” she promises, and oh. She is not wrong.
A hundred and eighty years from now: nothing is made clearer. Not even death knows everything.
This time when his mother says, “take the cattle to the lake,” Rhodri knows for certain what the boiling is, what the tingle is, what the itching is. Rhodri knows for certain that in the waters of Llyn y Van Ffach there is a girl that wears a pebble on a string. Rhodri knows the exact shade of her lips.
He carries the bread, and the freshest loaf is perfect, is still hot. He lets Ivor have it, but not before he presses his mouth to the crust and breathes in, long and slow and deep, until the steam coats his tongue and throat and gums.
He doesn’t exhale. He waits until Ivor is far enough away and buried in cattle before throwing his stale bread into the water and blowing out slowly, letting the hot air wrap around him like a necklace.
“Not this again,” says Tesni, and he was right, his pebble is on her neck. She touches it. They both smile.
“I brought the wind,” he promises, “but you won’t smell it until you’re closer.”
She holds out a hand. “So come closer,” she says.
* When he kisses her, his whole body lights up like algae on the beach. He is yellow, he is orange, he is red. Tesni laughs, and tangles her fingers in his long hair. Tesni laughs, and he feels it in his bones.
She wraps her body around his and is perfect, lies in a watery bed and is perfect, sings songs with lyrics he doesn’t understand and is perfect. She is not understood. She is loved.
“You look like—you are so—”
But he can’t, he can’t, he still doesn’t know the words. Tesni laughs, and hooks her ankle around his. She tastes of raspberries. “Next time,” she murmurs, her mouth brushing his ear, “next time I will let you grow roots.”
“There’s something about this lake,” Ivor says dreamily as he shakes himself awake. “I fall asleep every time.” *
Tesni holds an apple in her palm. It is small, and green. Rhodri has held in his palm, too, but he’s already forgotten.
She frowns. She can’t eat it, her body won’t let her. Tesni shoves the apple into the bottom of her dresser.
“Never leave strange fruit in hidden places,” Delwyn warns her, but Tesni sews another shell onto her dress and replies, “I haven’t anywhere else to put it.”
A hundred and ten years from now: a young boy runs down to Llyn y Van Ffach. He is holding a loaf of bread and a pebble. He throws both into the water and waits, but there are no beautiful women to throw them back.
“Liar,” he whispers to himself.
He does not wait for his mother to say, “take the cattle to the water.” He sneaks out through the kitchen window in the same minute that he turns seventeen and runs with bread under his arm until the water greets him.
“So soon,” Tesni greets, and gets close enough that he can see her feet on the sand. “I hadn’t expected you.”
“I couldn’t wait,” he tells her, and fits her hips into his hands.
She lets him kiss her, and lets him kiss her, and lets him kiss her until he isn’t sure if they are underwater or on land. She kisses back. She isn’t sure, either.
“You will be my only human,” she tells him, and he says, “For a hundred years.”
They’re not wrong.
A hundred years and two days from now:
“I brought you this,” says Rhodri. He lays the object at his brother’s grave. “I thought . . . you always loved fruit.”
The apple is small and green. He had found it, fifty years ago, in the bottom of a dresser. If he told his neighbors this story, they would not believe him. Fifty years? They would ask, incredulous. Look at you. You can’t be older than seventeen.
“I didn’t know,” Rhodri tells the stone. His brother’s ghost sits on the curve of its top and doesn’t say anything. “Nothing makes sense. It’s just an apple.”
Nobody answers. Nothing is made clearer. Not even death knows everything.
There is a flower blooming at the base of the headstone. It is a daffodil. Yellow. Rhodri threads it through his jacket and weeps.