The cabin was rundown, dusty, and cold from the wind whistling through the cracks and gaps in its walls, and Alice winced while setting her luggage on the bed. The bags bulged with more than enough clothes for the month-long trip. A trip that would likely prove as miserable as every other they had tried in the last five years.
Magdalene already smoked, running a hand through her thick brown hair while staring out the window at the bristling spruce and redwood. “Jesus, what a place. This is supposed to be a retreat?”
“We could try Tahoe instead. It’s not that late; we’d get there before sunset.”
“Fuck that, it’ll be seething with tourists. I need quiet.”
The light from the winter sun, dim and sickly as it was, transformed the features of Magdalene’s face into the transcendent purity that had first drawn Alice to her. Alice fell still, watching. Moments like these were precious, burned into her brain to be later pulled out and treasured like a string of pearls released from a locked jewelry box.
Then Magdalene shifted, and the play of light across her face changed, revealing the flatness in her dark eyes and the sullen set to her mouth.
Alice swallowed a sigh and slipped over to hug her from behind, fingers sinking into the thick sweater the other woman wore. When Magdalene didn’t react, she said, “We both agreed it’d be good to get away and recharge without anything to distract us. Somewhere rustic and peaceful.”
“It won’t work.”
Alice hesitated. A familiar tightness appeared in her belly at the knowledge that nothing she said could hold the right words. “Maybe it’ll help. The last short story you started before we came here was very — ”
“It was shit.” With a rough shrug of her shoulders, Magdalene knocked her hands away. Then she brushed by with an exhalation of smoke. “You better get some wood for a fire. This place is freezing.”
Tears prickled at Alice’s eyes while she nodded.
The warmth and brightness of flames did nothing to lighten the mood that had already settled in the cabin. Clouds swelled in the sky, bringing about an early evening and a steady rain. After unpacking, Alice began cooking dinner with the groceries brought with them and the battered pot and frying pan she found in the kitchen cabinet. Coq au vin, the original recipe halved since Magdalene only picked at food. When Alice tried to open a bottle of pinot noir, the cork broke. She swore.
She hadn’t even heard Magdalene approach, but there she was, taking the corkscrew and putting it to work on a second bottle of wine. When the cork pulled out with a neat pop, Alice smiled at her.
Magdalene didn’t smile back. Instead, she took the first bottle back over by the fireplace, corkscrew still in hand.
Alice felt her expression freeze. “Magdalene…”
“I’m not getting shitfaced. Just need something against the cold.”
And from there, Magdalene remained in front of the fireplace, feeding it the occasional log while she stared at the flames and drank straight from the bottle. Unflinching even when sparks snapped. She was still dressed for the city, in a sleek sweater dress and sleeker boots, but from the hollow grief on her face one would think she’d come straight from a funeral.
The knife sounded overloud while Alice chopped up carrots; she wished she could put the blade to that certain medal in its understated case back home. Its arrival was when Magdalene’s life had gone sour, and therefore when hers had, as well. In the first year after Magdalene tried to follow up The Chrysalis, she had been wry about her struggles. But things weren’t as simple as the pressure of a prestigious debut novel crushing the delicate bones of whatever story followed it. Magdalene wasn’t that simple. More waited beneath the surface and Alice had caught only glimpses of it.
When half of the bottle was gone, Magdalene spoke. “I can’t finish anything, that’s the problem. There’s something broken in my head and the story doesn’t stand a chance.”
Alice had to close her eyes at the sound of her voice. It was easy to remember how Magdalene would whisper words in her ear, once upon a time during the early days of their relationship, transforming the interior of Alice’s plain little mind into landscapes of sound and imagery. She’d felt overwhelmed by Magdalene’s bright, strange presence. In awe, even. She’d also been nineteen and very, very silly.
“I turned into the great literary cliche. A has been. If I were a character in one of my stories, I’d call bullshit on the predictable arc. But I better follow through at this point and commit suicide at forty.”
Then Magdalene turned from the fire and smiled at Alice. It was a quick twitch of her lips, erratic and dangerous as an exposed live wire. “You’re stuck with me eleven more years. Poor Alice.”
Alice couldn’t bring herself to respond.
“Maybe I’ll drown myself. Nothing so dramatic as a bridge jump or an overturned boat. No, I’d put stones in my pockets until the fabric threatens to rip. Until I can barely walk to the water’s edge. I’d like it to be a pond or a lake. Calm waters that will play at my hair, not currents that will batter me featureless on river rocks. I can’t decide on a suicide note, though. A good one will only further tantalize the sense of mystery. But since I can’t write for shit, anymore...”
“I hate it when you’re like this.” Then Alice winced, biting her tongue much too late. It was never wise to give a writer more ammunition. Especially a drunk one.
“I know.” The flickering light changed the color of Magdalene’s eyes. They looked a vivid honey one moment and black as pitch the next.
When she took another drink from the bottle, Alice tensed. Such a pause meant words were being honed, fine-tuned down to the syllables for maximum effect. Regardless of what had broken in Magdalene’s mind following the success of her first novel, the remnants remained razor sharp.
“You want to be someone’s wife. We could have done anything when we first arrived. Take a walk in the woods. Explore the cabin to see the podunk decor left by your grandma. Fuck in front of the fire to get warm. But no. You put away clothes and go into the kitchen to make dinner. Is there apple pie for afterward?”
Alice kept her voice calm. “There wasn’t enough time.”
“Maybe tomorrow.” Magdalene faced the fire again.
“Maybe.” Then Alice sighed, quietly so that only she would hear it.
Later that night, Magdalene tried to write. She didn’t say so, but Alice heard her in the attic, the ceiling creaking and shifting with footsteps while Alice ate alone.
She went to bed alone, too, wrapped up in thermal pajamas and still needing to pull a musty handstitched quilt up to her chin to feel any sort of warmth. The moon was a small, cold jewel in the sky. Alice stared at it while Magdalene’s muttering drifted down to her.
Some might say that creatives, the true ones, concern themselves with life in the way of taking coarse clay and fashioning it into art. The base urges of food and shelter are the same as for a beast. Too low, these goals, for hierophants preoccupied with the mysteries of humanity. And to reach arcane heights only to fall again to the level of apes picking themselves — unthinkable.
There in bed, Alice thought of occasional snide references tossed her way about being a trust fund baby, and wondered if financial stability played a larger part in why Magdalene stayed than she’d ever admit. A prestigious novelist didn’t become a warehouse worker or salon stylist afterward. It wasn’t part of the character arc.
As for why she stayed with Magdalene… Alice couldn’t answer that. Any response she scraped up was an excuse, not a reason.
It’s not right to leave just because her shining career burned down to embers…
Someone has to look after her…
She loves me...
Old thoughts rolling like marbles through well-worn tracks in her mind, clacking against each other during sleepless nights.
A few minutes past one, Magdalene’s footsteps stopped. Alice didn’t expect her to appear; more likely, she had passed out from exhaustion or drink. And Alice would lie there alone until the sky grew grey enough to be called morning.
Restless, skin prickling at the thought of so many dark hours to wait through, she threw aside the covers and shuffled to the window. Her reflection waited in the glass but Alice ignored it; she already knew what it would show. A girl of twenty-four, wholesome in the face, sturdy in the body, and dead in the heart. Fingers gripping the cold sill, she looked out at a landscape still dripping from the day’s rain. The moon hung between lingering clouds, full enough to cast the ground and trees in stark contrast.
Alice wasn’t sure how long she stood there, steaming the windowpane with her breath to draw patterns with a finger, before a flicker outside caught her eye. Something moved between shaggy trunks and low-hanging branches, careful on its rangy limbs.
Alice had seen coyotes nosing about the rolling oak savannah where she’d grown up. And if they weren’t seen, they were heard, their piercing yelps and screams turning the night into an otherland. This creature wasn’t a coyote. It was larger, blunter, more powerful. Alone and silent. A wolf.
The wolf slipped onto a gravel pathway that ran near the cabin and trailed off into the gloom of the forest. Alice watched it nose around the sword ferns and crawling groundcover. It looked like a shadow, dark fur tipped with silver whenever it moved in reach of the moonlight.
Suddenly, the wolf fell still and turned to her, the direction of its muzzle clear. Alice froze. She was seeing things, surely. Canids noticed with their noses first. Locked away in the cabin, she should have been invisible to it. A shiver went over her skin when the wolf took a hesitant step closer and continued to watch her, ears pricked in her direction.
A cold touch at the back of Alice’s neck sent her spinning away from the window, breath reduced to a choked gasp.
Magdalene made an apologetic noise, weaving slightly with one hand still outstretched toward Alice. “You all right?”
Alice’s heart pounded against her ribs while she glanced down and saw Magdalene had taken off her shoes. One of those ritualistic quirks that writers held in their tool bag. Once, she’d thought it endearing, a glimpse of childlike superstition in an otherwise humorless line of work. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“You startled me, that’s all.”
“I’m still sorry. About everything.” Magdalene reached out and traced the shape of Alice’s lips. “You could say so many terrible things about me, and each one would be true. But you’re silent as a saint. Always.”
The words no longer soothed the hurt like they used to, and Alice gave them nothing more than a nod. “You better come to bed; that wine was potent. I felt buzzed just from eating dinner.”
Even drunk, Magdalene moved with grace, her fingers finding the buttons on Alice’s pajama top and undoing them with the reverent motion of candles being lit for prayer. “You’re my second heart, as fucking cliche as it sounds.”
Weariness settled deep in Alice’s bones while the fabric slid away and bared her full, heavy breasts. Even so, Magdalene’s lips coaxed her to arch into that clever tongue, usually so poisonous but now sweet and devoted.
When Magdalene’s cheek rested against the sensitive skin over Alice’s sternum, Alice felt the wetness of tears. “I need you.”
Alice herself remained dry-eyed, hand slow as she stroked Magdalene’s hair. “I’m here.”