Scent came first on awaking -- the fragrance of rain on autumn leaves, though trees no longer grew by her cottage. Is it memory or a dream? she wondered. Or simply regret?
She lay a moment longer, eyes shut and memory barred, but habit would not relinquish its hold. Sounds filtered into her room. Nearby, a floorboard creaked, as though a ghost trod through her empty cottage. Sleep was gone.
Reluctantly, she rose and went to the window. Dawn had turned the sky transparent. A breeze, laden with salt tang, blew in from the south, and from its damp caress she judged the day would turn wet. She smiled. I should have been a sailor, instead of loving one.
As if in response, her hair rustled. Be still, she thought. With a practiced twist, she bound the hair into a loose braid, and wound it once around her head, where it lay silent.
She pulled on a thick sweater and loose pants. Habit carried her from bedroom into kitchen, where she took a coffee tin and glass carafe from the cabinets. Muted sounds intruded through the open window: the surf hissing over sand and rock, a tern's shrill cry.
Coffee measured, water poured, the kettle set onto the gas burner. She moved by habit, her thoughts only half on her task.
So. He was gone -- had been for two weeks -- leaving her with a cottage and the solitary grandeur of this ocean view. Oh yes, and the company of her sisters on the neighboring islands.
She expelled a hard painful breath. No more self-pity, she thought, swiping the tears from her cheeks. The abrupt movement dislodged her braid, and a strand of hair slithered across her breast, the dark copper glinting in the sunrise. So she had loved, risked her heart, and lost. What else?
A sputter, then a pop -- the water was boiling over. She snapped off the burner and poured the water over the coffee in its filter.
My courage, she thought, continuing the daily monologue. My sense of balance. Of self.
Good memories and bad. She remembered him laughing, his ruddy face alight with excitement. She remembered his red-gold hair, thick and springy between her fingers. His moods, those electric and unpredictable moods that left her breathless and off balance.
That was how he had infiltrated all her defenses. She remembered that first wild kiss, his breath on her cheek, and his warm spicy scent. Love me back, he had whispered. And then, I dare you. His favorite challenge.
She had dared, believing herself courageous and generous both. Thinking she saw a need behind that shield of bravado.
The steamy aroma of coffee filled the air. She poured herself a cupful, added a splash of cream, and stirred the bright whorls into smoothness.
Cup in hand, she left the cottage for the rocky cliffs, and settled herself on the highest of the slate rocks. There she could gaze at the unbroken view of land and open sea. Clouds stippled the sky. Ink-blue shadows obscured the coastline, but a blood-red dawn stained the far horizon, and light brushed over the dark swells like an artist sketching in the day.
Trees had once lined the coast -- she remembered them from her childhood. Disease had taken them years ago, leaving only a few husks preserved by salt water. In their most bitter argument, the last one, he had compared her to that blight. Her look, he'd said, could wither men and trees alike.
"How can you say that?" she'd whispered.
His dark brown eyes had turned opaque. "You ask too many questions."
When had questions become threatening? When had freely given trust changed into demands, both his and hers?
She felt a sob tighten her throat. She swallowed hard, and took a deep gulp of her coffee. A perfect cup, she thought with a breathless laugh. A flawless sunrise. Her two standards of perfection, now meaningless.
The last night, he had taken her into his arms. "Beloved," he had murmured, in a tone that reminded her of their early days together.
"What do you want?" she'd asked. "I'll give it."
"Freedom," he'd said, kissing her gently. "For us both."
His words, like an executioner's sword, had severed the last strands of hope. By morning, he had gone, catching the weekly flight bound for the mainland.
A breeze rolled in from the sea; she drew in a deep breath and tossed her head back. Her hair uncoiled from its casual knot and tumbled free. Freedom is a painful gift, she thought.
I dare you, he had whispered.
The snakes stirred. This time, she did not stop them.
Copyright © 2001 Beth Bernobich
Beth Bernobich lives in Connecticut, USA with her husband, son, and one very cranky cat. Her short stories have appeared in Clean Sheets and Electric Wine, and she is currently at work on a multi-volume fantasy series, under the dictation of several demanding characters. For more about her, see her Web site.