Alchemist's Gift

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Stories Twice Told

On that same morning, not too far away, Roland and Sofia sat at the dining table and lingered over their still warm cider. Roland had no memories. He had to have a mother and father, maybe brothers and sisters. He had someone important to him named Liz. “I do wish I could remember who I am or knew why I am here.” He looked at Sofia and attempted to smile. “Maybe it’s better that I can’t remember my past. Less to miss. I would like to know why I’m here.”

Sofia leaned in a little closer and patted the back of his hand. “Perhaps God sent you to us, to me, when we needed someone. If it was not for you, I do not know what would have happened yesterday when the soldiers came. Is not that reason enough?”

“That was quite a morning yesterday.” He sipped at his cider.

Roland did not quite know how to answer. “Are we still going to market?”

“Oh yes, definitely.”

Roland saw the sparkle of anticipation in her eyes as she tidied up. “It must be difficult not to know who you are. I know that feeling too. I am not Pater’s natural daughter. I am a foundling.”

“A foundling? What do you mean?”

“I never knew my mother or my father. I was left here for Pater to find. He took me in and raised me as his own.”

“We were lucky to be taken in.” Roland reflected on his good fortune.

“Oh yes, I am thankful.” There was longing in her voice. “But I wish I knew my mother and my real father, who they were and what they were like. I sometimes wonder if they gave me away because they did not want me.”

“It is hard to know why people do what they do.”

Sofia continued, “I wonder why they left me here, in this place. When I go to mass or to market I see the families, the mothers and fathers, and their laughing children. I wonder what it would be like to have that. But then, Pater needs me. He is not well.” Sofia sighed. Roland looked up at her. “I am sorry. I must sound silly and selfish.”

“No, no, you don’t. Everyone needs to find themselves in that other person. If I had to wake up in anyone’s barn, I’m glad it was yours.”

Sofia smiled. “Let us away to market.”

They went to the barn. She led the gray, Zeus, out of his stall and outside. Roland watched Sofia ease Zeus to the cart and back him in between the shafts. “Do you want to hitch him?”

Roland shook his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how.”

“No?” Sofia smiled and happily took on the role as teacher.

“Go to the back of the cart and bring me the bridle.”

Roland looked at the jumble of leather straps. He knew what a bridle looked like, and brought it to Sofia. Roland watched as she gently slipped it over Zeus’ head and put the bit into his mouth. Sofia spoke in a kind and reassuring tone to the animal. Roland brought her the reins, the trace, and the girth straps. Sofia finished the harnessing. She rechecked the straps and climbed onto the seat. Roland joined her.

“Now, do not tell me you do not know how to drive a cart.”

He smiled at her. “It would be a lie if I said that I did.”

Sofia reached over Roland’s arms with hers and placed the reins in his hands. She kept his hands in hers. “If you want the horse to go, you slap the reins on his rear and say ‘gittup.’ If you want to go left, you tug gently with your left hand.” Sofia pulled on Roland’s left hand. If you want to go right, tug gently with your right hand. If you want to stop, you pull back on the reins with both hands together and say ‘whoa.’” Sofia let go of Roland’s hands. Their faces were almost touching. “Are you ready?”

Roland felt her breath against his cheek. Roland could only smile. He snapped the reins, and the cart lurched forward. They looked at each and laughed. Roland got the feel of driving the cart quickly, and Zeus was very forgiving. They bounced and squeaked down the road that passed through green meadows under a bright cloudless sky.

“So, there is no Signora Hermes?”

“There was. She passed away a long time ago, since before I was taken in. It has been only me and Pater for so long now.”

The cart took a bounce and Roland guided Zeus back to the center of the road. “He never remarried?”

“Oh no, she was the love of his life. Out of respect, Pater will not.”

Roland shook his head in mild disbelief. “People actually do that?”

“Of course they do. If the love is true, it is eternal.”

There was a lull in the conversation. Roland became introspective. “Have you found the love of your life?”

Sofia looked down at her hands and spoke just above a whisper, “Maybe.”

“How will you know?” Roland asked.

“I will know. I just hope he will know too,” said Sofia giving Roland a coy side glance.

The cart hit a rut, and the two were jostled together. Roland let go of the reins. He turned toward her, and she turned toward him and they found themselves in an embrace, which led to a kiss. The first kiss was the sweetest, and the ones that followed were eager and careless.

Unattended, Zeus left the road and headed across a meadow when he spied an apple tree. When Zeus was close enough to reach the apples on the lower branches, he stopped and bit into one. Roland and Sofia were still in a closed-eye embrace when they realized they were no longer moving.

Roland stood and jumped down from the cart. He held up his arms and Sofia let herself fall into them. In a second, they were on their knees in another embrace, lying on the grass next to each other. Roland stroked her hair softly and slowly kissed her on that little place just below her earlobe, down across her neck back up under her chin and finally on her lips.

Sofia had never been kissed by a man. Her entire body was alive. Every movement, every caress, every kiss stirred her blood and put fire in every cell of her body. Roland’s hand found its way down her side; he let it dally on her hip. He ran his fingers up and down her thigh, lower each time until he reached the hem of her skirt, and then up underneath and spread his palm open on the soft warm skin of her inner thigh. He slowly pulled her skirt up, exposing more and more of her beautifully pale legs to the welcoming sun.

Sofia felt a warm breeze on her skin. It was more than she could take.

She pushed herself away from Roland’s embrace. She was out of breath. She took his hand away a second before his fingers could touch her sex. “No, please do not.” She tugged at Roland’s arm until he let it hang at his side.

Roland slowly caught his breath.

Sofia was already standing. She adjusted her skirt and blouse.

Roland lay on his side with his head propped on his hand looking up at Sophia. Her cheeks were flushed as she was obviously doing battle with herself.

“You didn’t like that?” Roland was at a loss.

She relaxed and tried to regain her composure. “Oh, very much.”

“Well, what’s the matter? We’re two adults. We can do whatever we like.”

Sofia leaned against the cart and crossed one leg over the other. “I made an oath to Pater not to until I wed.”

“Pater? What does he have to do with it? I won’t tell if you don’t,” Roland said with a hopeful smile.

Sofia crossed her arms and bowed her head. She could not hide the disappointment on her face. After a moment’s reflection, she looked down at Roland and sighed. Sophia slowly climbed back on the cart and sat. She crossed her arms and looked out at the horizon.

Roland stood and dusted off his clothes. He tucked his shirt into his pants and patted his hair into place. “Sofia, what’s the matter?” He stepped up on the spoke and clumsily took his seat.

Sofia was subdued. She made herself smile and acted as if nothing had happened. Her attention was drawn to pearlescent feathers that fell in a steady rain from high in the apple tree. A raven called out. It sat on an upper branch, deliberately plucking the feathers from the breast of an unfortunate dove. Sofia frowned, tugged Zeus’s head to the left, and headed him back to the road. When the front wheels of the cart touched the dirt road, she slapped the reins against Zeus. “Gittup!” The horse picked up speed until they were down the road, and then slowed to a lackadaisical pace.

Roland made an attempt to put his arm around Sofia, but she nudged him away. He was puzzled. “Did I do something wrong?”

Sofia pretended not to hear. “Do you remember the things we need at the market?”

“That’s not an answer. What did I do that was so wrong? Kiss you? Hug you? Want to make love? I know we both wanted to.”

“None of those things are wrong…” She looked directly at Roland and waited until he looked at her before she continued. “… If those things are done with love.”

“Come on now, that’s not fair. Ever since we met, I know as well as you there is something between us. You can’t deny it. We kiss, we hug, and get each other all excited and ready, and then you say, ‘Pater would not approve.’”

Roland’s words pricked Sofia enough that she lost her temper. “You do not talk of Pater like that. You must respect his wishes. He is a very wise man, and if he asks something of you, you do not question because everything he does and what he might ask of you is out of love. And if you say there is something between us, you must respect my wishes. If I say ‘not now,’ please do not force the question.”

Roland felt like a scolded child. After a moment’s reflection his peevishness left, and he spoke in a conciliatory tone. “You’re right. I’m sure Pater has his reasons, although those were some wonderful kisses and hugs.” He playfully bumped his shoulder against hers until he saw the stern look leave her eyes and a wisp of a smile come to her lips.

“Roland, we know so little of each other. Let our feelings flower and not be rooted in baseness.”

Roland nodded. “Fair enough, but we are only human.” Roland hopefully put his arm around Sofia’s shoulder, and again she nudged it away.

“That is true, we are only human, and with the hungry hearts of children, and for that very reason we must be guided by that part of us that is divine. Let us first become friends and finish our errand as brother and sister.” She slapped the reins on Zeus’s rump; the horse gave a surprised neigh and quickened his pace.

“As friends? As brother and sister…?” Roland was subdued and put off by Sofia’s suggestion. He looked out at the brooding horizon.

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