I realize (though there's no standards-violation) that this chapter is going to be against some of the members' morals -- yet I still feel like it's an important scene, because it engages the complexity of having a very close male-female friendship like the one this memoir celebrates. And it relates to a very profound "reason" for the friendship, which will be revealed at the end. So I didn't censor it out. Thanks for reading! Love, Sarah
Yes, we did. Over a year ago in Ireland. Daniel had been visiting me for a few days, in my thousand-year old cottage.
A fire was hissing, like static, in the wood stove. We had found a plastic bag, filled with dresses -- debutantes' and bridesmaids'. And we had drank a whole bottle of wine. We had never drank together before. It was a Chardonnay: the bottle was blue and the neck was long and dewy. I was feeling soft and aerated. We put on two dresses. By the fire, Daniel sat dripping in magenta silk. I was wearing turquoise chiffon. Through the window, the nearby castle tower stood against the sky. The Celtic Moon of Winds crowned it. I suggested that we go outside, so we pulled off our dresses and put on our coats.
We ran up the lane, and left our empty glasses in the grass by a fence. We climbed through the slats into the potato field. The potato plants were calf-high.
"Now," I said, straightening and opening my arms wide. "Quote me something."
Orion mimicked me in the sky. The field was rolling before us, almost translucid in the moonlight. Daniel leaned his head back; a breeze combed the hair off his forehead.
"A harvest mouse goes scampering by, / with silver claws and a silver eye; / And moveless fish in the water gleam, / by silver reeds in a silver stream."
"I love that one," I purred.
"The elegance of it wounds me."
"That's because you're a moonboy," I laughed, "pulled by lunar tides."
Then I told him we needed to take advantage of this moment, and shenanigan until the dawn.
"Maybe we can dig up this field. And look for gold!" I skipped around the rows, trying not to trample any plants. "Like the folk tale you told me about the leprechaun."
"To inform you," Daniel said, "when I am sloshed, I sometimes end up shifting someone."
"Ah. And have ye ever shifted any females, my pheasant prince?"
"Eh. A couple of my girl friends."
"What --" I stopped, lifting my boot. The heel was mucked with red mud. "Why have we never, then?"
"Because we've never gone gatting together."
"Oh. True," I said.
There was a pause. I tried to scrape my boot off on a stone.
"Very true," I repeated. "I guess that smooths my feathers," -- but suddenly I felt shy.
"Wouldn't it be so funny," said Daniel, "-- if we did shift."
"It would be very funny. Yes, it would." Then I dropped my hands into my coat pockets, and started kicking the leafy plants. They made a thrushy sound. "Well . . . So maybe we should," trying not to hear my own voice.
"Yes," said Daniel.
"Did you just say yes?"
"I think we should."
"Really? -- I agree."
"Wait, are we actually doing this. Are we actually going to shift, Sarah!"
"I think we might."
"I think we're going to."
"I think we should," I said. "At least once in our lives, you know."
"Because have you thought of it before?"
"I have. -- Have you?"
"It has flashed through my mind," I admitted.
"It has more than flashed through mine. There have been moments --" his voice vibrated slightly -- "moments of closeness where I thought we actually would."
"Me, too." I clapped. "I've thought that, too."
"Sarah, are we really going to do this? Let's do this. Right now." There was a row of leafy plants between us. He stepped over them.
"Right this second?" I stepped back a bit. "Do you think there's anything we need to talk about?"
"No, I think we should just do it."
"Yes, that's right. Just go for it," and I stepped in.
"Wait, no." He held up his hands. "I do have a couple things."
"What are they?"
"First of all, I need you to know something," Daniel said. "We can't be together romantically."
"What?" My boots squelched to a stop, lifting a wave of mud over the toes. "Wait, why can't we?"
His eyes jumped back from me: like drops of ink in a saucer of milk. His fright broke my teasing.
"I'm kidding," I exclaimed. "I'm kidding, laddie." I moved closer and ran my hands down his face.
"Oh," he half-laughed.
A patch of unshaven hair pricked my fingers. "I understood that as soon as we became friends."
"I still felt like I had to say it," as my hands landed on his collar.
"It's understood," I repeated. His jacket was fire-engine red. I folded the collar up, then down again, and then left it alone. "Anything else?"
"I can't remember anything else."
I rested my hands on his shoulders. I could feel his collarbone under my thumbs. "I have a second thing. We can only do this if we talk about it tomorrow."
"Yes. We are going to talk about it. First thing in the morning." He gently slipped his arm around my waist.
But I jerked back, almost slipping on the clay. "Wait, no, wait. I also have to say that --"
"I don't know," I said, suddenly confused. "Just slowly, I guess."
"Very slowly," he said, and leaned in.
Our breath mingled. I could smell the sweet tang of wine. The iron from the ground. I could almost feel the dry mist of the moon on our bodies.
But I bypassed his mouth and caressed his cheek with my cheek instead.
I broke down laughing into his neck -- "Wait. No, no, no, no, no. Okay, I'm sorry, Danny. We need to ease into it. . . Kiss me on the cheek first," lifting my face and offering it at a tilt.
So Daniel stooped down and pressed his lips into my cheek.
When his mouth touched my skin, images flashed through my head -- random, and disconnected.
I remembered being nuzzled by a horse that past year. It was eating an apple and had fat, velvety lips. Warm and so soft. It had left apple dribble on my chin. The horseish kiss was musky-smelling. A whiskered cherishing.
Then I saw myself in elementary school, sitting on the gymnasium floor. Bored and feeling separate from everyone else, I was looking down at my blonde hair, pinching strands between my fingers. The floor was gritty; I could hear the squeaks of sneakers, and the air was acrid. But soon I discovered that my hair was made of translucent tubes. I moved those pieces in sunlight, slanting down from a high window. The tubes turned suddenly into rainbow colors: my hair was neon green and glitzy purple and rose. I felt beautiful.
And then when I was older, running around in the yard, a dragonfly landed on my hair. It bit down on a strand and I stopped short in my tracks. I didn't panic, but watched the dragonfly, as it held on with its mouth and swung like a child on a swing. Then both my hair and the dragonfly landed against my cheek. I flinched but let it touch me. I stayed very still and its toes on my skin were little scythes. It gave me an electric jump in my soul.
Daniel drew his lips away and I could still feeling the twinkling on my cheek. Perfect.
I felt perfect and loved. Without verbalizing anything, I moved my mouth towards his.
He took my lips and kissed me several times over, and I felt the wind around us, the stars above. The red ground, the leafy plants.
The sky was royal blue.
When we pulled apart, neither of us laughed. We were looking at each other.
"How was that?" I fingered the cuff on his sleeve.
"It was good."
"You are very good," I said. "Very. Was I?"
I was keeping my breathing brief and shallow. To my vision, Daniel's mouth had turned purple. His eyes were fireflies. His jaw was straight as a gourd's stem, meeting the pumpkin's hide. And he had kissed me like I was a honey comb.
I shook myself and looked past his head. In the distance, I could see the castle shouldering itself against the sky.
I said suddenly, "Let's go inside the tower."
"What, in the dark?"
"Well, I don't back down from a dare," he retorted.
We ran through the potato field, back to the fence. We climbed between the slats.
As we cantered down the lane, the castle appeared to be growing larger. It loomed three stories high, and was built in the fifteenth century. It used to be the home of the Keatings, an Irish aristocratic family, and in the early days, fires must have roared in the fireplace of the banquet hall. But now the tower's teeth were tearing a hole in the stars. It was infested with rats.
We stopped by the entrance. The door had long since turned to ash and the archway was fire-marked. Hundreds of snowdrops were bobbing around the tower's base, their filigree necks shivering.
"Now, the thing to do," I whispered, "is not disturb the ghost."
The alleged ghost's name was Rebecca Swan. The villagers suggested that she haunted the place from a tormented conscience.
Her guilt was related to the crevice running up the center of the castle. In 1649, when Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland, he nailed the Keating lord to the door -- in front of his seven sons -- and set fire to the castle, which caused the structural crack. Though the lord survived, Cromwell gifted the castle to one of his own soldiers, Sergeant Swan, and his wife Rebecca. The Irish peasants were subsequently oppressed by the Cromwellian regime. Three hundred and fifty years later, the locals frequently reported spotting Mistress Swan sitting on a bridge when they drove by at night, in a diaphanous dress. Staring into the waters that ran through my garden.
"But I've lived here alone for eight months, and I've never seen her," I said. "I'm more scared of the pigeons, to be truthful."
He swept a bow. "Après vous, fille du château."
"Because they explode at you when you walk in."
"And they flippin' shriek and squawk and flap. Loud."
"Aie courage, my lady."
"I can't believe how dark it is," I said. "What if Mistress Swan doesn't want us in there?"
"Ah g'wan," and he pushed me.
I tripped ahead, crushing through the snowdrops. In the stumbling, I grabbed his hand, and we plunged into the darkness together.
We stopped just inside the threshold. We held our breath, as our pupils telescoped.
No birds flew at us. The castle was eerily still. The air smelled dank from the dampness of the walls. When our eyesight adjusted again, we squeezed each other's hands tightly and walked forward.
We stopped in the middle of the tower. The floor was dirt -- six inches deep of rubble and dust. The castle had no roof, and the three ceilings had fallen through in so many places that we could see straight up -- even through the trees growing on the ledges -- to the sky.
The sky was berried with stars. The silver pricks lent just enough light, so that, when we looked down again, we could make out the outline of what used to be the fireplace in the banquet hall. Now a yawning hole.
Then Daniel and I turned into each other.
Before the hearth, we kissed and kissed, and my zingy fear innervated me. I knew his caresses were characteristically lunar. It was as if the moon itself had melted, ethereal and amorous, and was tucking wafers inside me, something even holier than Communion. His kisses were limber and cool, but sure with artistry: when his hand moved to my lower back, it surprised me. It was harder than I expected. I could still sense the spaces of darkness around me, the spine-tingling shadows. But he pulled me closer and my awareness became awash only in his body heat. His mouth was my axis around which my spirit carouseled. I gave myself over to his breath, to the supple moon, to his fingers pressing into my jaw. I let myself go inside him, inside the blackness, falling deeper and deeper in the darkness of the castle, losing myself to the white kisses and to Daniel -- Daniel -- completely. I didn't care anymore about the pigeons, rats, and necromancy. I drowned.
Just then, a hand whacked my jacket. Hard. Right on my upper arm. I surfaced with a gasp and froze.
"Daniel," I said tightly into his teeth, "-- did you just slap my arm?"
I could feel his hand on my back, and the other resting on my face. Both went rigid.
Fear is communicated even in the dark. It smells sour between people, and fires like electrons through a copper wire. In a split second, he dropped his hands and we both ran.
We didn't stop running until we reached the potato field, climbed under the fence, and were in the clear open air again.
"I was slapped by a ghost. Daniel, I was just slapped by a ghost! Wait, I don't think you're appreciating the gravity of this situation right now. I had a brush with the supernatural. I mean, I've heard of this happening before but I never thought it would happen to me. Daniel, help me! I don't even believe in ghosts. I'm shaking. I need soul doctoring. Quick."
"Okay, okay. Let me think." He bent over, pressing his hands into his knees. Then he straightened. "Okay, listen to me, Sarah. That was a warning. It was a sign from the universe that we needed to leave the castle. Because you know what would have happened? I do stupid things when ossified, and I would have tried to climb that staircase."
"I would have stopped you!"
"No, you wouldn't have stopped me. Don't you know me, when I get an idea in my head? And I would've been gammy and tripped. And then I would have cracked my back and died. I wouldn't have survived it, Sarah. Do you hear me? I wouldn't have survived it."
"So it was a benevolent ghost."
"That's it." He took my face in his hands. "That's it, my dear. I really do feel that's what happened. It saved me."
"Oh." I felt suddenly warm inside towards Rebecca Swan.
We somehow stumbled into the cottage, tracking red mud all over the carpet and not noticing. He collapsed in a chair and I sat in front of him.
"Let's put our dresses back on," I said. "Oh, no -- let's not," swinging forward, catching the back of his neck.
The whole room felt like an airy ship, his mouth a sweet anchor. And I gave into it, dipping again and again until all I saw was the yellow light of surrender. Or maybe it was the yellow light of my writing lamp on the table.
Before we fell asleep that night, I wrote only one loopy line in my diary:
"Daniel and I shifted," it ran -- very slantwise.
* * *
The squawk of a pheasant woke me up. It sounded like the scrape of a key in a lock. I turned over and said aloud,
"Maybe the thing that hit me was a bat."
My castle bedroom had a sloping ceiling, and the walls were paneled with cabinets. There was no heat in the room.
Daniel responded, "Mm," and shoved his head under the pillow.
Then I whispered to him what we had done, in case he had forgotten.
"Oh, yes," he remembered, under his pillow. "We are perfect."
I fished up my hot water bottle from under the covers. I asked, "What percentage can we not romantically be together, Dan?"
"98.5 percent," he exhaled. He did not sound fully awake.
I hugged my hot water bottle tightly to my chest. "I was thinking 70 percent. Or maybe 62."
Daniel yawned. "You need a different type of man for yourself, Sarah. You just haven't realized it yet." He pulled his head out from under his pillow. "And won't that be a relief when you do."
"I don't! Well, maybe I do."
"You do." Then he eased my hot water bottle out of my hands.
"What?" He folded my hot water bottle between his arms.
"You just took my hot water bottle."
He cuddled it against his chest. "I did not." He opened his eyes. "Oh, yes, here it is."
"Did you see how you took it out of my arms!" I guffawed. "You just slipped it out so gently and silently."
He snickered. "I must have been cold."
I laughed, too, and rolled into him, sandwiching the warmth between both our bellies. "So your subconsciousness is willing to steal from me."
"Says the bully who takes all the blankets, every single night."
Then he snuggled closer, and his breathing was slow and crystal, meditative almost. It landed in puffs on my chin. His shoulders were thin, and his skin as soft as a rose petal.
Ivy tapped against the window. A mourning dove cooed in the lane. Neither of us moved, under a quilt that was too thin. When he visited, he brought me an extra wool blanket from his house.
Daniel whispered suddenly, "This is better than romance."
"Is it?" I said. "I wouldn't know."
"You're right; it probably is."
"It's soul-romance. Sarah, forget what I said." His breath warmed my cheek. "I don't need anything more than you."
"Me, too." I breathed in his scent: bracken and wool and sour gummies. "I really don't. Ignore what I said, too."
"How could we ever think we need more than this?"
We heard another dove coo in the lane outside.
"Oh," Daniel said presently, "I meant to tell you I saw a pheasant the other day."
"Where? Your totem bird!"
"In the potato field. Strutting like a queen between two rows. She stopped and looked at me, and it was a sacred moment. She looked so breakable and fragile -- but regal. Her eyes were like a human woman. And I was seeing her core, vulnerable spots." He hesitated. "Not that I'm saying you're weak."
"Sarah," and his eyes locked with mine, "you are as strong as a mountain."
"Thank you. But you know," I said, "maybe there is something profound in that. Our sensitivity is our strength. Not just for women -- for anyone." Daniel agreed, and I added, "It's maybe cliche, but I think your and my vulnerability is our courage."
"Oh, love, yes. Yes, my love." He threw an arm tightly over me. "This is why we are twin flames. You're my brave bonny girl."
"You're my valiant --" I thought, "moon warrior."
"My hen of valor." Then he laughed.
I snorted. "This is too early in the morning for this."
"With silken feathers and claws of steel." He reached over and stroked a finger down the bridge of my nose. "You're my stunning chicky."
* * *
But the pheasant population in Maine is scarce to none. Still, Daniel did become enamored with a beaver, on the last day at my relative's house.
"It's a beaver, Sarah," he exclaimed, shaking his finger at the water. "It's a beaver!"
We were standing at the end of the pier, at sunset. The animal had submerged.
"Are you sure it was a beaver? Maybe it was an otter. I don't know if there --"
A paddle suddenly upended out of the water, and slapped hard.
"Oh." I squinted. "Yeah, that was a beaver. It's warning us away."
"I don't think you understand this," Daniel said. "I've never seen a beaver. Do you realize how magical this is?"
Daniel was wearing his sweater that I love -- midnight blue, with ceramic orange and red knitted across the top. I laid my head down on his shoulder and he wrapped his arm securely around me.
The pier rocked under our feet, and we watched the sky turn a faint pink. The world smelled reedy. There was a feeling of silent togetherness, of watching the end of a day, that made me think: this.
This is why I came to earth.
"You know what's funny," I said, my cheek against the wool, "we haven't had any artistic revelations on this trip. At least not a lot. Usually we're bursting with them."
"You're right," he mused. "I wonder why that is."
I heard the sloshes of water against the wooden pier. I gazed at the lake, black and matted. Ensorcelling. The ripples reflected a vision of the pink sky, briefly. Then swollen again to black.
"I think it's because we're at another peak," I decided. "We're being given the chance to stand on a mountaintop, and look back to see how far we've come. Daniel!" I said, in a sudden inhale, taking in the vista of our lives -- "we've come so far."
"So far," Daniel exhaled with me. "I feel like I've come to the end of some stage, and am getting ready for the next one."
"I think this is a harvest moment for us," I said. "A pause to stop and enjoy."
"Oh, Sarah." He rubbed his cheek against my hair. "Look at all we've been the past five years. What we've done and how we've grown. The books you've written, the concerts I've given."
I said, "I am so proud to stand up here with you and look back."
Then a deep peace engulfed me, and I surrendered to it. The sun was floating over the mountains, scarfing the spine with sweet peach, dribbling purple down its face. Daniel's arm was snug across my back and hooking over my hip. I thought how his arm was like the branch of a pine tree -- thin, knobby, and strong. And I was pillowed on pure softness, against the wool of his sweater. The water knocked against the wooden pier.
* * *
That night at dinner, eating leftovers, my uncle walked past Daniel and rubbed his hand across his upper back.
Afterwards, as we packed our clothes, Daniel said to me, "Do you know something that really touched my heart today?"
"When my uncle patted your shoulder?" I folded a shirt.
"It was -- just so beautiful. So unexpected. Did you see him do it?"
"He likes you. Everyone loves you, Dan." I dropped my shirt into the bag. "That's what happens. You bring love to the world and the world loves you back."
We scribbled thank you notes, to leave on the bed in the morning -- on the quilt that was golden and rumpled with roses -- and walked downstairs.
* * *
We all gathered in the parlor, where the baby grand piano sat gleaming in an alcove. It was glossy maple wood, and surrounded by windows that overlooked the fields, now melted from sight in the darkling blue of night. My aunt opened all the windows.
Despite his tendonitis, he played his repertoire for my relatives. They arranged themselves on the plump, plum-colored armchair -- Kelsey on the ottoman, my aunt and uncle squishing together with their arms around each other.
Whenever I was by myself, I always watched his pink fingers, or his face. But on the rare occasions when we were not alone, I secretly watched his audience.
I wanted to see Daniel and his music reflected in his listeners' eyes. I wanted to see the responding love, to confirm their awareness that he was bleeding-out for them in that moment. That they guessed the infinite hours behind the notes, the guts that he had hooked from himself, the way he was privately speaking to them from both the cellar and ceiling of his soul. I wanted to see a gratifying gloss in their gaze, a creamy adoring look, any kind of giving-way to the dream. And I was always annoyed if someone fidgeted, glanced away, or talked. But my relatives were thoroughly musical, and obviously basting themselves -- though not in a showy manner, because they were not sentimental people -- as Daniel swung himself up and down the board.
He flashed his hands up the rippling final notes; finished, and in the silence, put his hands in his lap. "Well," he said, in his flippant, overly-light way, "it's not perfect yet."
I glanced at my family and craved a dramatic reaction. They finally stirred themselves a bit, almost casually.
"Isn't he spectacular?" I said, to start juicing the compliments.
"Well, I just hope the neighbors heard that," said my aunt. "So they'll think it was me."
* * *
Afterwards, as a final farewell, Kelsey proposed that she make us tea -- with milk, in honor of Irish custom. But she apologized for our American brand. We only had Lipton.
"Oh, don't worry," I assured her, "he brought his own, of course."
"I don't go leaving my tea up to chance," said Daniel tartly.
So he made it for us: exquisitely. Very black, then washing out to sienna when the milk was added.
We put on sweatshirts, and Kelsey threw flannel blankets over her arm and led us all outside to the back deck.
The deck stretched across the length of the house, and overlooked the fields and mountains. Everything was shrouded in darkness. We set ourselves up at the glass table. I cuddled under my blanket, utterly in love with my friend and my cousin.
"Wait till the deck light turns off," said Kelsey. "It's motion-sensor activated."
We stayed still -- very still -- for maybe twenty minutes. Finally, finally, the flood light died. Then a symphony of gasps circled around the table. The sky had burst into flickering flames, millions of points, like a meadow had sprayed silver seeds into the wind. Layers upon layers.
"Oh." I leaned my head on the sharp chair-back.
Kelsey started playing on a Joni Mitchell song on her phone. The lyrics were the only sound in the night, and Daniel proclaimed my cousin a kindred spirit.
Joni's voice was floss. Spindling up to the sky, dissolving in the upper troposphere, in a cold glass of oxygen.
I met a woman
She had a mouth like yours
She knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds
And she said,
"Go to him, stay with him if you can,
But be prepared to bleed."
"Yes, only a kindred spirit would know instinctively to play Joni right now," I mused, wrapping my blanket tighter around my legs. "I don't know the words for her voice. It's a piercing and pure vibration. She keens."
Oh, but you are in my blood
You're my holy wine
You're so bitter, bitter and so sweet
I remember that time you told me, you said,
"Love is touching souls";
Surely you touched mine,
'Cause part of you pours out of me.
"I'm going to lie in the hammock!" I announced, standing up, swaying with my blanket. I put down my tea, sloshing it. I almost tripped over my blanket.
"Sarah, wai --"
As soon as I stepped forward, the motion-sensor light flooded across the porch -- and drowned out the stars.
Oh I could drink a case of you darling
And I would still be on my feet
I would still be on my feet
* * *
Sorry it's taken me so long to post this! Been applying to graduate schools the past two months. I feel like this chapter may be a bit sloppy -- but I've been intensely focused on other writing. And just for fun, here's the castle: http://irishantiquities.bravehost.com/wexford/baldwinstown/baldwinstown… It looks so much nicer in the daylight.