The Uninvited Guest
The corners of my mouth twitched as Josh leaned into the trunk of the thick oak and blew a smoke ring at the moon. Becky stretched out on his lap and drew her finger across it to form an arrow piercing a heart. They were both wearing uniforms from their high school glory days.
I watched the two of them act like teenagers, and it made me throw my head back and laugh uproariously. Stray bits of straw bounced off my shoulders and joined the bright red leaves underneath me. We’d always been best friends. I was less surprised to see her pull the gear from a plastic tote stacked in a corner of the garage, or stand behind her to help with the zipper of her cheerleader uniform that slid perfectly into place a decade later. Although Josh found he no longer needed his linebacker’s pads than I was, she could find yellow bloomers.
I took another hit.
Becky furrowed her eyebrows at me and shrugged to ask why; it was her turn. “Puff, puff, give.”
“What? You completed the illusion for a moment, and I thought I fell through time,” I told her. “Right now, your pigtails don’t look ridiculous and the layers of irony are slapping me in the face.” They joined me in the appreciation.
Next door, their giant inflatable dragons bellowed, silk flames roaring.
“Well, I will have you know I gave away every piece of candy tonight like an adult. I’m going to buy all the junk to eat myself tomorrow when it goes on sale,” Josh swore, exciting another round of giggles.
“Bullshit!” Becky called. “You ate half the Snickers!” The intensity of our laughter grew.
Along our cul-de-sac, the homes had long since shut off their porch lights, signaling the end of Trick-or-Treat, but the remaining oversized ghouls and goblins lit the neighborhood in a cacophony of colors favoring orange and purple. Pumpkins glowed with candles protecting those who dwelled within from the wandering spirits who still roamed. Faux spider webs of different varieties pranked trees and bushes.
The roach was out. Becky was the first to get to her feet, skirt swishing about her legs as she flexed them to her own silent, nervous rhythm. Josh took his cue and stood to leave. I leaned forward to join them, but I was stuck by more remnants of straw, despite discarding my scarecrow hat on the porch an hour ago. Instead, I unwound my braids and shook them out. “You guys go ahead. I’m not sure I’ve had enough yet. I think I might take a walk.” From the side of my yard ran a trail the three of us had taken many times, inebriated and otherwise, through my small plot of woods and into the nature reserve beyond.
“You’ll be OK?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah. Halloween is the night for adventures,” I promised her.
Once they were in the house, the street was empty and quiet, notwithstanding the roar of the dragons. As I turned to the darkened forest, everyone else was inside, most likely inspecting their treats, except maybe one guy up in the branches. But that could have been a squirrel’s nest.
The gibbous moon transformed the world into a silvered mirror of itself. I ambled along the path, enjoying the peaceful, crisp, cool air, the wealth of stars peaking from behind the remaining crimson leaves, and the thickening of the woods surrounding me as the charcoal and taupe tree trunks receded into distances that were difficult to gage in the altered light. Even the stones on the path soaked up the moon’s energy in a new way, with little bits of white limestone and dolomite changed into tiny moons in all her phases, fallen to the ground and scattered among the small, pale mushrooms suddenly everywhere to catch their reflected light.
As I rounded a bend at the bottom of the hill where the route wound through a cut in the rock, I heard strange music cutting the quiet. Heavy on drums and odd-sounding string instruments. Ahead of me, the forest diffused with a golden glow. With all the hikes I’d taken in these woods, I had never seen anyone, but on Halloween, I stumbled across a party. Here, the trees gave way to a wide clearing, and at its center, a bonfire blazed, set with a black cauldron. At least a dozen people whirled around it, spinning in and out of the shadows. More milled about the edges of the circle, joking and talking in clusters of twos and threes. It seemed like a great party to crash if I could ever be so bold. My body continued on for a few steps without knowing what else to do. Then I stood inert and exposed, devoid of cover. It was not long before I was discovered.
The nearest cluster of invited guests noticed me standing conspicuously in the middle of the trail with all the awareness of a deer frozen in headlights. They laughed at my predicament and waved me over. I just shrugged and snickered at myself as an apology. Their beautiful, medieval costumes matched, in sharp contrast to my flannel. The blonde man who smiled at me wore a gray doublet while the others were brown. The woman with them had heavier skirts that mimicked the layers of spring leaves turning over for the rain. Closer to the fire, more diaphanous dresses that twirled and floated to the melody swirled around the dancers’ legs. And yet all the clothes here seemed to be made by the same tailor as if everyone had wandered off the set of the same play.
She said something to the one in brown and jabbed him with her elbow to insist, strands of copper-red hair streaming as her head bobbed merrily with her movements. He winked at me before heading the opposite way, toward the fire.
As soon as I was within reasonable earshot, she called out, her voice teasing, “Did you think you’d gone invisible or were you planning to go to ground under cover of the hills?”
“There was no plan,” I admitted.
“At least you’re here now,” the man in red gestured for me to join them.
“This does seem like the place to be,” I agreed as I watched everyone moving through the firelight. When I looked back, his ice-blue eyes hadn’t left my face.
“My name is Midir, and this is Ros,” he motioned to the woman in green, who dipped playfully.
Chuckling, I echoed the greeting and started to introduce myself.
“And I’m Sin. Here you are, Etain.” Their companion returned and thrust a mug into my hands. The warm contents smelled of apples and cinnamon and maybe something a little stronger. How sweet of Ros to send him after a treat for me.
“Thank you,” I said, swirling the liquid, weighing the options, “but that’s not my name.”
A mischievous smirk played across Midir’s whole countenance. “Drink with us a while and it won’t matter anymore,” he promised, draining his own glass.
It was hard to resist a toast like that. The cider was sweet and had a more complex array of spices than I’d expected, and whatever the alcohol, hit the back of my throat delightfully. I could see why they made it by the cauldron-full.
I opened my mouth to tell them my actual name, but Sin and Ros were turned toward each other, locked in their own private conference, and neither could have cared at all at that moment. Midir was staring over his shoulder at the fire.
“It’s empty,” he explained, upending his cup. He nodded to the cauldron. “You want to come with me? Meet the clan? You’ll be out by the time we get there, too.”
“That’s logic I can see no flaws in.” It would be no hardship to find the bottom of my bowl, as he suggested. He grinned and swept his arm to the side grandly, beckoning me along. The formality of the gesture made me giggle and think about curtsying again.
We worked our way to the fire. Along the periphery, a few other clusters of people stood still, but at the center of the gathering, the dancers flowed in a continuous rhythm to the beat of the drums, which had picked up tempo. Their limbs mimicked the movement of the flames as they wove through the patterns of light and smoke.
“Here’s Una,” Midir pointed out someone whose pale blonde hair was longer and curlier than I would have thought possible. Her dress was so silver it reflected the glows and shadows from her surroundings. She smiled as she noticed us heading over and I took another sip of liquid courage without realizing it; she was beautiful beyond words and beamed with the calm radiance of a woman immersed in her element. “Una, this is Etain,” he teased. “We’ve drained our draughts and need more.”
“That’s not my name!” I protested, bemused. Another swell in the song cut me off.
“Of course not,” laughed Una. Her hips were already swaying to the beat of the drums. “Do you want to dance, anyway?” She took my free hand in hers and jauntily led the way. “You can’t get to the cauldron without taking three trips around the circle.” She stepped in rhythm and her arms swayed as her movements became more gamboling the closer she moved toward the revolving group.
I had no preconceived notion of how to move to this music, but then, any confidence I’d ever found in any of the performing arts could probably be attributed to drunken delusions. Following Una’s lead felt as natural as floating downstream, however, and Midir’s amicable looks encouraged me to find my feet. The dancers flitted gracefully around us, blending the cadence of the drums with the movements of the fire. One moment, they were embers, stomping their way through the logs being consumed, and the next, they were phantoms of smoke, swirling in a capricious breeze. When Una dropped my hand, Midir was there to spin me to the edges of the firelight. My overalls would never match the twirling of the flowing skirts, but I flung my hips wide, anyway. I didn’t count the turns we made, but by the time we arrived in the center, I was dizzy and my cup was empty.
The crisp twinkling of the stars overhead helped me catch my breath, but the moon had moved much farther in the sky than I’d expected. We stood in the nexus, the innermost calm with everything radiating out from us. Instead of taking my glass, Midir laid his hand across my shoulders to steady the vessel by holding my arm. Without moving away, he tapped his cider to mine, a generalized toast I could comply with. When we found the bottoms once more, he refilled them.
“What do you think, Etain? The only way to get out is to go back the way we came.”
I grinned and tried to tell him my name again, but as soon as he put the ladle down and our contact was broken, he spun away and was off, eager to return to the circle. At the edge, he twirled around to face me and held out his arms, beckoning me to join him.
It really doesn’t matter anymore. I guess I am Etain now. I take another sip, ready to continue my adventure.