The graveyard appeared empty. I went inside the gates and wandered through the tumbled headstones until I found one large enough to sit on. I took out the brown bag I’d packed for my lunch. There were worse places to think about the end of the world, I thought. I laughed and let the sound die a second later. My world, anyway. Ten years of sixty-hour weeks had meant nothing to the ones setting up the company merger and implementing the “necessary” downsizing. My manager, safe in his job, this time, at least, didn’t even bother to say goodbye. No matter. Soon enough the man’s toadying would backfire.
It was a peaceful place to be in late summer. I’d never come there before, since lunch was always eaten at my desk as I concentrated on the next project coming my way. Yet I wasn’t a workaholic. I’d never wanted that way of life. The joke was on me. You get what you focus on, I’d read once. In hindsight, I’d been using tunnel vision, maybe. And now? Plenty of time to think, but no time for feeling sorry for myself. I wouldn’t be self-indulgent that way. Show no emotion, that had been my mother’s mantra. Strange, I thought, how a parent’s flaws can become the child’s way, by agreement or rebellion, and lie hidden in the days that come after.
The singing came on the wind, high-pitched and sweet, like faint chimes, and then it stopped. I almost got up to see where it had come from, but I didn’t care enough. My sandwich was finished, my coffee gone. The afternoon stretched before me as empty as the graveyard. Job-hunting could start tomorrow. Today, I would forget everything. Otherwise, I might scream.
I jumped in surprise. A young woman stood several yards away, near an ash tree. She had flowers in her hands, pink and white blossoms that released their petals in the wind so that they flew over and around me.
“I didn’t mean to startle you. It’s just that no one comes here. I usually have the place to myself.”
“I’m leaving,” I said, stuffing the brown bag and crushed coffee cup into my jacket pocket and standing up. The sun was high and burnished her hair to gold.
“Oh, don’t, please, not on my account, unless you have to hurry somewhere.”
Nowhere at all, I thought, but said aloud, “I do have an appointment.”
“I see. What is your name?”
“Goodbye,” I said, not answering, and turned away, but not before I saw disappointment in her dark eyes. For some reason it stopped me.
“All right. Culwich. That’s my name, and don’t laugh at it.”
“Of course not. I’m Olwen. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
Before I could say anything more she had turned and run back toward the other side of the graveyard, out of sight between the trees and the stones.
I laughed again, but this time for real. A modern meeting of ancient names, what were the odds? Bizarre as it was, it pleased me. I had cursed my name from the outset, changing its spelling against my father’s wishes so my friends could pronounce it and wouldn’t make fun of me as much. But I’d grown to like it. I’d been told the story a hundred times and more, the legend that claimed King Arthur himself helped the hero Culhwch meet the demands of the giant Ysbadadden so as to win the hand of his beloved Olwen. And Culhwch had succeeded in the hunt for an enchanted boar, in rescuing someone from a watery prison, and in finding a magic cauldron, which might also have been the Holy Grail.
“None of which are on my agenda,” I said out loud into the stillness.
But it begged the question. What was I going to do? I’d spent my life racing through one product launch after another. I’d given hundreds of boring but suitable presentations. My success rate had been eighty-five percent. That meant almost everything I touched had meant more gold for the company coffers. They’d paid me well enough in return, and I’d been a successful investor in my own fortune. Why did I suddenly feel as if I had wasted the years, that I had nothing to show for all that time, all that work? Maybe it would have been better if I had been the true Culhwch calling on Arthur in his court at Celliwig, among his warriors. The lines came to me suddenly across the years, memorized by force and now welcomed, “From here, one of my Warband, Drem, could see a gnat as far away as Scotland; while another, Medyr, could shoot an arrow through the legs of a wren in Ireland!”
But the thoughts were make-believe, and I recognized the onset of a maudlin mood. Not my style, remember? I agreed and walked out of the graveyard and home to my loft, my incredibly expensive domicile, the place I had set up like a museum of art. How much of my collection would I have to sell? It occurred to me that I had spent an average of one waking hour a day in the place, except for Sundays, which were spent worrying about the project for the upcoming week. It was easy to keep it in order, though I’d insisted on a daily cleaning service. Now that was out of the question, too. I saw the airplane ticket as I dropped my keys on the front hall table. The first vacation in five years to an island in the Caribbean, highly recommended. Already paid for. Maybe I’d go there and stay and become a busboy at some tourist restaurant, and spend my free time lying on the sand. The idea was appealing for about a minute.
Tall, narrow windows fronted the street four floors below. When they were closed, the loft was as quiet as the graveyard had been until Olwen started singing. I hadn’t asked, but I was sure it had been her voice. I lay down on the sofa, intending to take a short rest before thinking any more about my future.
A piercing ring pulled me out of a deep sleep. It was a few moments before I realized it was my cell phone and not the wailing sound from part of a dream that I forgot as soon as I opened my eyes.
“Cully, what the hell’s going on, man? No so long, nice to know you? This place is a freaking zoo right now. I could get axed tomorrow. There’s something you need to know. Meet me at Buzzy’s at six.” The call was disconnected. Jack Pencar, who’d won more deals than I could claim and had the personality of a used-car salesman. But he was right, I should have let him know. There’d just been no time. No time I could spare. I’d wanted to get away, sort it out. Even as I had the thought, I knew reaction was setting in. There was a sense of more than displacement. I felt a sadness growing that I hadn’t felt before. At least, I didn’t think I had, though something about it was familiar. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about that, or the job, or the future. Still, Jack was a known element, at least from work, and a drink or two, or more, wouldn’t hurt right then.
The place was crowded but Jack was there ahead of me and had managed to grab a small table over in a corner. That wasn’t like him. He liked to work the bar the same way he worked a room at a conference, the one who was the star player, front and center. He waved me over.
“Guinness for you, a double scotch for me,” he said, pointing to the drinks in front of him. It was obvious he’d already had a round or two on his own.
“What’s up, Jack? What am I doing here?” The Guinness was almost draft quality, which was why Buzzy’s was a draw for me. I looked around and saw some of the marketing group were there in their usual noisy way. One by one they’d glance over at me, their faces showing pity. I didn’t care. For all they knew, they could be looking in a mirror when they saw me, come week’s end. The layoffs weren’t finished yet.
“Listen,” Jack said. He downed his drink and gestured to the waiter for another. “You got stock options, severance, right?”
“I’ll cash in the shares. The severance package is just three months’ salary, a joke.”
“No, it isn’t. Or all of it is. I mean, none of it exists — except on paper. You try to sell, you’ll come up empty.”
“That makes no sense. The merger is a fact.”
“But it isn’t, you see. It’s a fake. Beringer has done a bunk. The company was in debt. He fooled his buyers, took what they gave him, and by now I’ll bet he’s disappeared. Everything the company had on the books was fake, too.”
“We were getting paid,” I said.
“Loans, credit, whatever it took until Beringer found someone who wanted to acquire his precious firm. I would say the guy who set up the deal for the other side is going to find himself out of a job.”
“Not everyone’s been laid off. You, for instance.”
Jack went slower on the next drink when it arrived. “What I’ve just said, well, I learned this all because I was in Beringer’s private bathroom four hours ago. I always wanted to see the gold fixings for myself and his secretary was away from her desk. So sue me,” he said, seeing the look on my face. “Then he came in, talked to someone on the phone. His words were ‘By the time they figure it out, I’ll be in Mexico. Let Harris explain the books. I’m done with the whole mess.’ He hung up and good old Harris came in. Beringer told him an audit was pending. I could hear Harris pulling his hair out. I mean what did he think, no one would bother to check? Anyway, he pointed out that they’d both be in prison before the week was out. Beringer said ‘Not me, you’ and left. I heard Harris moaning and getting a drink from the minibar. I was afraid he’d find me there, but he just made a kind of wailing sound and went out, slamming the door. I left right after, and Sandra was back and didn’t blink an eye as I walked past her desk.”
“What did Beringer get out of it, besides escaping?”
“The company acquiring us has already laid out seven million up front, the other two hundred mil pending that audit.”
“And Beringer’s taken the seven million and left what he calls the ‘whole mess’ for the rest of us? That’s what you’re saying? So you’re telling me I have nothing?”
“You don’t, I don’t, and none of the happy hour people over there do, only they don’t know it yet.”
“They gave me a check.”
“Try and cash it.”
I felt numb. It was one thing to lose a job, another to realize I had no money. I’d never been a saver. What was the point? I’d spent everything on buying art, originals. My loft was my only insurance policy now, if what Jack was saying was true.
“How sure are you? You could have misunderstood that call. One call. That isn’t proof!”
A commotion had begun over in the marketing group. They were all staring at the television. The newscaster had just displayed a photo of Craig Beringer, CEO of Brumell Industries. I couldn’t hear a word, but the screen ran a scroll of the dialogue. Beringer had vanished and seven million with him from a pending merger payout, plus twenty-five million for stock he’d sold the week before. That same stock was worthless now, for us. The company was bankrupt. I could see the shock on the faces watching the report. I felt the same way.
“So this is what you wanted to see me about? You could have told me on the phone. Then I could have thrown something while I watched the news.”
“You? Mr. Calm? Besides, all of us here are in the same boat, right? I didn’t expect it to be on the news so fast, though, and you know more than they do, anyway. But that isn’t the only reason I called you down here.”
I waited while he finished his scotch and ordered a third, or maybe it was his fourth. Jack held his drink well, though I’ve never understood why that’s considered a virtue. Sitting there, an image flashed through my mind, a sudden view of a waterfall in a green meadow and small lights that danced over it, and in the distance the sound of wind chimes. It was gone as soon as it came, but I knew with certainty it had come from the dream that Jack’s phone call had interrupted.
“Here’s the thing,” he was saying. “A deal’s come up, and I want to close it, but I need someone who knows art, paintings and all that stuff, to help me carry it out. You’re the right fit.”
I finished my Guinness and another one arrived before I’d asked for it.
“One more won’t send you over the edge,” Jack said, smiling at me.
“Just make me more gullible, is that what you’re thinking?”
“Not likely. You’re a hard sell, Cully, always have been, and that’s exactly what I need.”
If I’d had anywhere else to go, or any project to work on, I’d have left him to his shady prospects. Like I said, he was a used-car salesman at heart. But I didn’t. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do.
“So what are you into? Something from the dark side, no doubt.”
“I didn’t take you for a cynic, Cully. Never mind. I think you’ll be more interested after I tell you what it’s about.” He leaned across the table. “Only, it doesn’t go past here, okay?”
I crossed my heart and drank some more Guinness. The second one was always the best, and I never had a third, but I was open to anything that night. I couldn’t shake the sadness I felt rolling around inside like one of those silver balls in a pinball machine, only going really slow. Listening to Jack’s story kept it on a back burner.
“It has to do with Dirwick Productions — they’re filming right here in the city and I met the producer. The movie’s about some search for hidden treasure, but who cares. What’s interesting is he’s got an itch to be respected among what he calls the gentry, wants to get more familiar with the kind of people who go to the galas at the Met. Right now his work gets the respect of home movies. He thinks this treasure hunt is the ticket, but he needs backers — not real ones, just some for show. Who better, I thought, than you? You know people at the museums, they keep wanting you to donate some of your stuff, right? You could introduce him around.”
“Fascinating. Let me ask the obvious. Why would I want to do that, for a stranger, for a bomb of a movie, or for you?” Maybe the second Guinness was working on me after all. I usually aimed for more civility.
“That’s the good part. The guy wants to be noticed. He wants an invitation to the event coming up on the 4th and if he gets it, he’s willing to make us silent partners in his company. And before you say anything — he doesn’t need money. He’s got a ton of it. It just isn’t opening the doors of the higher-ups in the northeast. He’s a boy from Texas with connections in Tinseltown.”
“Yes, the blessed higher-ups. I don’t go to those things. I never have time.”
“You have time now, if I’m not mistaken. And you get invitations, right? Like to this thing on the 4th?”
“This ‘thing’ is to honor the work of J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Moran, and Jacob Fremor. No small talent. What could your Mr. Dirwick possibly say to anyone there? I’m going to guess he doesn’t know squat about painting.”
“So that’s where you come in. You coach him, you take him to the ball, so to speak, and tell him what he needs to know without anyone noticing he’s a newbie. In return, you become a silent partner with a six-figure salary. We both do.”
“And then what?”
“He’ll keep you on as a coach, and I’ll be involved in the marketing end of the movies.”
“I have the feeling that being a part-time tutor to a blowhard Hollywood producer isn’t the card I was dealt to play, no matter how it looks to you.”
“You own one of Jacob Fremor’s artworks, don’t you?”
“A mixed media. How do you know that?”
“I looked it up. Some collections are anonymous. Not yours. It’s free to the public to know. What I’m thinking is, what if he buys it from you, and then donates it to the museum — he’ll be given the status he wants with that gift. So long as he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.”
Jack was right. I’d purchased the Fremor five years before when the artist was a cliché of artists, living in a cold walk-up and selling his work on the street. I’d bought it for five hundred, and apparently I was his first sale in a year because he gave me another one in gratitude. But no one knew about that one. Three years later the poor man died of pneumonia, making the cliché a certainty. One of his paintings sold for three thousand, and from then on a Fremor was another word for gold. The one I had listed was worth at least a half million. The thing is, I never thought of my paintings, my collection, as available cash. They were like children. I would rather be homeless than part with them. That was how I thought before I got laid off.
“So you’re telling me Dirwick is willing to give me what the Fremor is worth and then give it away?”
“He’ll shell it out in a heartbeat. I’ve already checked.”
“You’ve made this deal before talking to me?”
“No. Give me some credit. Your name hasn’t even been mentioned. So what do you think?”
What I thought was worse than what I said, because either from the drink or from fear or from that elusive sadness, I said yes.
It was a week before I heard from Jack again. I’d begun to think the deal was off. The news about Beringer was old, except for the fact that five hundred plus white-collar men and women from his company were looking for work. I had spent the time doing nothing at all, or almost. I went to the graveyard again, more than once. I ate my lunch and waited for the sound of chimes and someone singing, but no dice. Maybe I imagined Olwen in the shock of losing my job, I thought.
It was Friday when the ringing of the phone woke me out of a sound, but this time dreamless, sleep
“It’s six in the morning!” I spit out on hearing Jack’s voice.
“That it is. Movies start early. I’m on the set. It’s great! Getting to know how things work. Listen, Dirwick says he’ll meet you at Buzzy’s around nine tonight — I’ll be there, of course. He’s all set to go, so bring some info about art in general and Fremor in particular. You got a copy of the painting? Never mind — I’ll bring that catalog I borrowed from the library on Fifth.”
He hung up before I’d said another word. I lay back and pulled the covers around me. I didn’t want to leave the bed. What was wrong with me? Plenty of people lost their jobs. I was good at what I did. I could find another one, though it might mean leaving the city. I had to shape up. Even if Jack’s plan was a wild goose chase, at least I’d keep myself occupied. A thought chased me enough that I got up and made coffee and sat on the sofa near the window looking out and wondering about it. What if it wasn’t losing the job that was making feel down, but knowing it hadn’t been the right job to start with, that I’d wasted the years doing something that didn’t matter to the world, to my bosses. Or to me. I’d hit on it, I could tell. Why all the persistence, all the effort, all the energy? To what end?
Figuring out why I was sad didn’t change anything, but at least I resigned myself to the realization it was the truth. A shame, but there you are. I’d wanted to make a contribution when I started out. I hadn’t done that. End of story. Live with it, I told myself, in a fine example of my mother’s generous teaching of showing no sympathy for human failings, though she had her share.
Buzzy’s was packed, and I saw a lot of the same crowd, whose willingness to drown their sorrows in drink appeared to have intensified. It was so noisy I expected we’d have to go somewhere else, but no, there was Jack waving me over again, this time to a bench set against the back wall. He had my Guinness in his right hand and a scotch at his feet.
I saw his companion standing beside him. He was a large man, and tall, with black hair and a fierce-looking expression, one I soon discovered was present by genetics, not attitude. Even when he smiled at me the dark look didn’t improve. Pity that, I thought. He’d definitely be a tough sell at the museum. But the Fremor wouldn’t be.
We exchanged greetings and sat down. I forced myself to go slow with the drink. I wanted to be alert to everything they said. Thus, being suspicious, I was surprised when Dirwick thrust an envelope at me. He smiled.
“It’s great, ya’ll helping me like this. Jack here said that’s what this painting you got is worth.”
I opened up the envelope and pulled out a cashier’s check for $650,000. I stared at it. In one fell swoop I had all the money I needed and only had to sell one painting out of the forty I owned. My whole collection had been acquired over time and with luck as much as skill. I’d probably spent a total of two hundred grand on it. I knew its face value now was much higher, but seeing the check brought that home in a way I hadn’t understood before. Damn right, I thought, I’m going to the gala at the Met. It was about time I did, and after all, I was entitled. In that moment, as far as I was concerned, so was Dirwick.
“We have a deal,” I said. Dirwick smiled again and Jack looked ecstatic. For a brief moment I wondered what his take had been. I didn’t really care. This check, unlike the one from Beringer, was real. I tucked it in my jacket pocket and thought about what my bank account would suddenly look like in the morning. I still needed work, because I can’t live an idle life. It’s not in me to do that, but maybe I had a little time to figure out what it was I wanted to do in my heart. What a novel idea.
We made arrangements to meet and have the coaching sessions. It was ten days to the museum festivities. The first thing I did the next morning was to deposit the check, which as expected was authentic and made the teller smile at me and suggest an investment counselor. Then I gave Dirwick the Fremor, wrapped and crated with more care than I’d given anything in my life. For all the money, it still felt as if I were giving up a child.
We met in the museum itself for the sessions. Best classroom there was, I told him.
He spent a lot of time with Turner, saying he liked what he saw. “The Lake of Zug” seemed to draw him in, and he wanted to know what it meant to create a watercolor over graphite. He liked the hazy mist and glittering reflections the master artist had given to the work. I waxed on about it but probably lost him when I started in on layers being applied this way and that. He was also taken by “The Whalers” and “Saltash with the Water Ferry, Cornwall.” Turner’s mythological paintings didn’t interest him, though when we moved on to the Hudson River School he was mesmerized by Thomas Cole’s “The Titan’s Goblet.” His interests were hit or miss, but genuine enough. He absorbed what I told him about Fremor’s obsession with desert landscapes well enough.
Still, I had no idea how I’d be able to convince his potential listeners for three hours that he had a solid grounding in art. His Texas accent was strong but his vocabulary muted. No southern expressions. He said his daughter had coached him on that just for the occasion. She knew the nature of the crowd, since he’d sent her north for her schooling. He could tolerate not speaking naturally for a little while, if it would help the cause.
It was when we were looking at Turner’s sketches and engravings from his Liber Studiorum — Part XIV that Dirwick showed special interest. As it happened, he could speak about “The Interior of a Church.” For some unknown reason, his father had a copy of it he’d cut out of a magazine, so Dirwick had become familiar with it during his childhood. He was quite excited and happy to stand in front of the original.
All in all, I didn’t mind the journey with him. What the man didn’t know was more than made up for by the reverence he showed each work. I’d have wasted my time trying to get Jack interested in anything beyond their auction value.
The day before the celebratory affair, I took my lunch once more to the graveyard. I had no expectations of what I would find there. They say that’s the best state to be in. Not easy when you’re planning things, but very easy when you have no idea what your life’s about, even your new relatively rich life. So it was, of course, then that Olwen appeared.
It was an overcast day, warm for the season. I had heard chimes again in the distance but no singing, so I almost dropped my sandwich when she spoke. I hadn’t heard her approaching.
Her golden hair surrounded her pale face in waves. She’d wrapped a blue scarf around her neck and had on a teal jacket, the blue-green of it threaded by something that flickered, like strands of silver. Her jeans looked worn but expensive.
“So, Culwich, you’ve come back.” She gave a light laugh and spun in a circle. An image of Puck came to mind from an old Shakespearean film, but Olwen was definitely not the mischievous sprite in appearance. I stuffed my lunch away and stood up from the gravestone I was sitting on, a memorial to one Robin Goodfellow, Puck’s original name, or so I read it at first. A second look assured me the deceased was in fact Roberta Goodson.
“I’d begun to think I imagined you,” I said before I could stop myself.
“What’s to convince you you’re not imagining me now?”
“You like games, I see.” I didn’t enjoy parrying wits, and it occurred to me she was making fun of me, as well.
“No, I’m not mocking you. Far from it, dear Culwich. Remember me. We will meet again and in better circumstances than a weedy old graveyard.”
“I like it here,” I said. “It’s peaceful. Or was.”
She gave that light laugh again and I heard the chimes, too. “I would say you do play games, just a little. Goodbye!”
The next moment she was gone. I had watched her walk away and yet it seemed to me she had melted into the trees and stones and the feeling came that I had spoken the truth, that I had imagined her after all. Sadness can play tricks on us. It has a yearning in it that we have to figure out or we get trapped. Like having lunch in a graveyard where there is nothing but the chatter I hear in my mind, a sound too loud for comfort.
I left, glancing back once as I went out the gate. All I saw were the gravestones, some so old they were nearly flat on the ground, the names long since worn off. For the first time I noticed a small hill, hillock, really, rising behind, that made me think of the barrows I’d seen in Britain, old burial grounds, most of them, millennia-old. Why hadn’t I seen it before? The trees were almost bare of leaves now, the autumn fully present. The leaves must have shrouded the view, before.
I went home and took a nap, something I’d never done until I was laid off. I woke at three and drank coffee and watched an old movie set in the southwest of England. Or rather, not set there but filmed there. I recognized the scenery. I’d seen it on a business trip when I’d been taken in a Jag by my marketing equivalent through Salisbury Plain on the A303 from London. We never stopped to visit anything, but that great, isolated plain was a lasting image. I take that back. We had to stop near the cathedral first, and my driver left me to my own devices while he “sorted something.” For an hour I wandered through a museum of artifacts on the cathedral close, and to my astonishment they had an exhibit of Constable. So I got to see firsthand his original of Stonehenge, the thickness of the strokes he’d made, the light different from the reproductions I’d seen. It was the only perk of a boring trip as a gofer for my boss, who hated flying.
It was seven o’clock when I arrived at the gala, a full hour early. Dirwick was waiting for me on the steps outside, dressed in a tuxedo that only accentuated his grim expression. I almost felt sorry for him, burdened by something he couldn’t control. But his kindness was apparent as soon as he spoke, so I hoped that would carry the night and conversation forward enough. It was cold and we went into the Great Hall where the event was being held. Quite a few early arrivals were there and greeted me and shook Dirwick’s hand, but it wasn’t time yet to mention his donation of the Fremor. That would come after the guests had time to drink their chardonnays and single malts, ensuring an even greater receptivity.
I watched the milling about that was going on as the evening progressed. I could hear some of the exchanges, a few words here and there. Most of that was about the speaker’s accomplishments and connections. It was why I usually stayed away. Not only didn’t I have the connections, I had no skill set that would be well-received, no credentials that made me a viable member of the elite, not even an education worthy of notice. I had my collection, and buyers get invitations, that was all. I had grown used to, and tired of, the sudden look of awareness I would see when whoever was talking to me realized I was unimportant in the scheme of things. It didn’t trouble me. I don’t know why not. I have an ego like everyone else. I just didn’t care. I didn’t share their values. That night, however, I couldn’t help wondering what values I did have, much less had to share, with anyone.
Certainly not with Dirwick. But I had made a promise and he had done his part and I was impressed at how well he was able to present his new knowledge. He seemed to be in his element as people gathered around him with interest. Once it was announced that he had just donated a previously unknown Fremor, his acceptance was assured.
The party was almost over when he took me aside. We stood near one of the columns. The candles set all around still gave out a muted ambience to the place.
“I’m taking off. Flying back home on the red-eye. Can’t say I won’t be glad to hear some Texans talking! I have to say thanks,” he said. “Ya’ll gave me this chance, made it happen. I won’t forget it.”
“You did the hard work, Dirwick.”
“Burned the midnight oil, you mean. That I did. Scared to death I wouldn’t be able to pass muster. Could’ve worried the warts off a frog. I think I could sleep for a week now. The presentation — it was okay, right?”
Yes, I assured him, and it had been. He’d been completely honest, describing his new-found love for art and to my surprise giving an unexpected description of Turner’s “The Interior of a Church,” as his inspiration. He didn’t ramble on about the page cut out of a magazine, but instead gave an accurate summary of the etching and mezzotint process it used and his fascination with the weight of it, which he said gave him a feeling of reverence for the small crowd of people gathered together. It was actually very good. He’d done his own research. He got a genuine round of applause. He didn’t have to say much about the Fremor, which was to his advantage. He just handed it over in a ceremonial way, to another round of applause.
“So now what?” I asked him. “You’re part of the arts scene, as they say. Is your plan to set up a gallery in Texas?”
“No. I’m done with this. The only art I care about is that church, and only because it mattered to my father. He was a good man. I just had to — I wanted to see firsthand what it felt like to be this way, I mean, here, with all them.” He waved a hand in the direction of the crowd that still filled the Great Hall. “Can ya’ll get that?”
“Over half a million reasons why I should, but to tell the truth, no, I don’t. It seems like a lot of work to me for just one night.”
“I had this thing I couldn’t let go of, wanted to know how these people up here think. My daughter says it was an obsession and I had to get rid of it. So I have. She said I wouldn’t find it as illuminating — that’s her word — as I thought. I guess she knows. She could hear a whisper in a whirlwind, as we say down home. I wanted the best for her, wanted her to be proud of me.”
“I always am, dear Daddy.” A young woman came up beside him and gave him a kiss on the cheek and sudden dizziness grabbed at me.
“Well now, here she is! She said I did fine, bless her. Cully, this is my sweet girl, Olwen.”
She was breathtaking. I felt disoriented. How had I missed her in the crowd? She wore a flame-red silk dress woven through with gold threads, elegant in style, and a necklace around her throat made of red-gold strands and pearls. Her hair was swept up and small diamond clips tucked into it here and there. The dress fell in soft folds to the gold sandals she had on. Her eyes flashed with amusement.
“So you knew, today, in the graveyard! You didn’t say a word about this!” I felt the anger surge through me. I didn’t like being made a fool, not ever, not by anyone.
“I only learned about you last night. That was the first time Daddy said your name. Until then I just knew he had a high-priced tutor who seemed to be doing a good job of it with him. I told you I’d see you again. You will indulge me my little game?”
“You know each other?” Dirwick was perplexed. “And what were you doing in a graveyard, dad gummit!” he said to her, the vernacular slipping out.
“I went there to have some peace and quiet. The city’s so noisy. Not like home. It was peaceful there beside the church. There’s a little hill behind it, too, that I could climb and all I saw beyond it was a meadow. And Culwich was there, too.”
“By coincidence,” I said. I felt this sense of loss I couldn’t explain. It wasn’t just because the two of them were going back to Texas that night. Whatever it was, it eluded me.
Dirwick smiled at his daughter. “Can’t keep ya’ll from explorin’. Never could. Always fixin’ to find your own way.” He turned to me. “So long. Thanks again.” He shook my hand.
Olwen rested her hand on my arm a moment. “I’ll be right with you, Daddy,” she said.
“Do you have to go?” I heard myself saying.
“I’m finding it difficult to leave you, too. Isn’t that odd? We seem to have a bond of some kind, don’t you think?”
“Just visits to the graveyard,” I said, and wondered how much more stupid I could sound after that.
“You’ve certainly won the heart of a giant, giving him what he wants! Although strictly speaking, in the legend he’s the giant of the Holy Grail, not the giant of Pencawr. Daddy isn’t aware of that story, by the way. He just gave me a Welsh name in honor of my mother. She died when I was born. Who knows, maybe we’re destined to be together,” Olwen said, giving her light laugh.
“You’re mocking me again. The original Culhwch was a hero who had King Arthur and his men to help him. I have Jack.”
She laughed again, this time a peeling sound like the chimes I had listened to when we met. I found it beautiful and knew I would mourn its absence. Her absence.
Dirwick was waving at us.
“I’m only going to Texas, not into some mysterious forest grove. We’ll meet again, I feel sure of it.” She touched my face with her hand, and I felt a sudden happiness that left me breathless. Then she was gone.
I watched them walk out of the building together. A waiter was passing by with wine. I took two glasses and drank them like water. I was going to look for more, but changed my mind. If I wanted to get drunk, I could do it at home, and so I did. I didn’t wake up until almost noon the next day, with a headache I assumed would take my life or return it to me at its leisure. Either way, I wasn’t focused enough to choose.
It was a blustery day in the city, and once again warm for the season. Late in the afternoon, only a little recovered, when the pale, watery sun was close to setting, I couldn’t help myself and went to the graveyard. I walked back behind it to the mound and climbed up with effort to the meadow. There was nothing to see but the flattened winter grass and leaves falling to the ground in the wind. I called out her name and imagined I heard the chimes. I’d met her what — three times? It wasn’t enough to make me act like an idiot. I left, swearing at my own gullibility and at the pain in my head.
Just as I turned onto the avenue my cell phone rang.
“Hey, Cully, pal, sorry to hear about what happened. Bummer.” It was Jack and as usual he started conversations in the middle.
“What are you talking about?”
“Hey, you kidding me?”
“I’m busy, Jack. Spit it out.”
“That Dirwick guy — the plane he was on hit by lightning they’re saying, and something to do with losing an engine. I thought they could fly those things no matter what, short of a missile getting them.”
I couldn’t say anything.
“Not to be callous, but at least it was after the deal. His money was good. You and I both got our share. He was okay to know. Sad stuff.”
I hung up without saying anymore and shut the phone off. At home I turned on the news and listened to the flimsy details they had to tell me. The red-eye had almost reached its stopover where they’d switch planes to get a local flight to Austin when what was believed to be a freak storm cell had come up suddenly, with massive lightning strikes. Totally unexpected. The plane was too damaged to make it. There were no survivors. The reporter made a point of saying that most of the passengers would have been aware of what was happening until the flight crashed into the ground. If I’d been near him I’d have hit him in the face. As it was, I almost kicked in the television. But I wanted to know more, so I listened to the endless loop of reports that added nothing to the story, but acted like some kind of hypnotic drug, keeping me from the silence I didn’t want to face, where I’d have to absorb the truth. Finally even that didn’t work.
I turned on my phone again. Jack had left one message. Not a guy to persist with TLC, if he even understood what that was. When I finally got through to the airlines, they informed me only next of kin could be given any information. I knew that, but I didn’t know any next of kin. I couldn’t find out anything at all. I looked up Dirwick’s film company in Austin and called them, but got the same answer. They were devastated, but no way could they release any information to me. In frustration I threw the phone across the room, where it broke into two pieces. I was pretty sure it would still work. They made them that way now. Maybe I could destroy something else, but all I had around me were my paintings, and they weren’t the enemy.
“What has come over you, my son. What ails you?” I heard my own father recite the words of Culhwch’s father, reading to me yet again the ancient legend. I was twelve and envisioned, as a child will, that I owned a great gray steed with a gold bridle and could find the fair maiden and win her heart, like the real Culhwch. I wondered what irony of fate had given me the chance to know part of the legend in true life, or was it some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy? Only I’d just done it halfway. I’d brought her into my life, but I hadn’t worked very hard to keep her there. Now I never would have the chance. More lines came to me, so that I began to think of it as a curse and yet couldn’t keep from remembering. The daring Culhwch went in search of his cousin Arthur, who would help him in his quest. “And his courser cast up four sods with his four hoofs, like four swallows in the air, about his head, now above, now below. About him was a four-cornered cloth of purple, and an apple of gold was at each corner, and every one of the apples was of the value of an hundred kine. And there was precious gold of the value of three hundred kine upon his shoes, and upon his stirrups, from his knee to the tip of his toe. And the blade of grass bent not beneath him, so light was his courser’s tread as he journeyed towards the gate of Arthur’s Palace.”
As far from my reality as anything could be. Nor did I own and carry what I remembered best from the story, the hero’s “gold-hilted sword,” its handle “bearing a cross of inlaid gold of the hue of the lightning of heaven.”
But there had been lightning.
It was three months before I saw Jack again. The New Year had come and gone.
“You look like hell,” he said. He stood outside my apartment door, stomping snow from his feet. “I get you don’t want to see me, and I don’t care why not. We’re going to Buzzy’s. You’ll see why. Grab your coat and a scarf — it’s twenty degrees outside.”
I did what he said, not because I wanted to but because it didn’t matter. I felt dissociated from his obvious good health and well-being, but not enough to say no to him. The thing was, I didn’t care what I did. I knew I was grieving and couldn’t shake it. I had no idea what to do about it.
It was strange to be in a place where people were having a good time. I felt as if I were entering an unfamiliar world, as if I’d been away a long time.
“I don’t get you,” Jack said after we had found seats and the drinks had arrived. “I mean, sure, it’s a bad deal our benefactor got shot out of the sky, but come on, we hardly knew him! You act like it’s a crime. Keeping shut up in that apartment isn’t the way to spend your new fortune.”
“She died, too.” The words came out and I wished them back but it was too late. “His daughter. She was on the plane. Olwen. She’s dead.” Saying her name out loud hurt like hell, and Jack wouldn’t have been my listener of choice, but I felt something shift, some weight become less. I sat up. “I knew his daughter.”
“Yeah, I know that. What was it, love at first sight?” Jack laughed but stopped when he saw my face. “I’ll be damned. My old pal Cully hooked at last.” He seemed to grasp how inane his words were. “Sorry. I really am. Bummer.”
We finished our drinks in silence, which I knew had to be stressful for him. He’d done his good deed, and time was up. He’d spent most of the time watching the door, anyway. Always looking for a new opportunity, that was Jack. He had a salesman’s focus when it served him. As I got up to leave he grabbed my arm.
“Wait. Look, someone I want you to meet’s just arrived.”
“You have to be kidding. Not again. No thanks.”
“Come on. Give me a break. Don’t be a martyr to this. It won’t change the fact your Olwen’s gone, and besides, it’s not like that, anyway. Maybe it’ll help.”
“I’m leaving, Jack.”
“Please don’t, not yet.”
I turned to see the woman behind me and grabbed the back of my chair for support.
“I thought you were going to prepare him,” she said to Jack, her eyes flashing in anger.
“I thought he’d leave before I could convince him,” Jack said in his own defense.
“I’m so sorry! I’m Ellen, Olwen’s sister,” she said to me, but it was unnecessary. Her hair was black but the resemblance was striking. She’d received a text message from Olwen, she said, just after the plane had been struck by lightning. She had no idea who I was, but finally tracked down my former company from her father’s papers and found Jack, of all people. She’d flown up from Texas to meet me. I was pretty sure why good old Jack hadn’t bothered to give me all the details. He liked surprising people.
“Message?” I didn’t want to think about the image that went through my mind, of a plane’s gliding descent that had given Olwen time to think of words to say, all the while knowing what was going to happen to her.
“I didn’t get it until the next day. Stupid, you see. I hadn’t charged my phone. They’d called from the airlines on my landline. It was a shock, as you can imagine, to see it. She told me she and Daddy were calm, and I shouldn’t mourn them, and I had to find Culwich and tell him she remembered the meadow and so should he, and that you’d meet again. I didn’t know who you were, but I had to find you and come here, you see, and grant her wish. It’s all I have left.”
Jack ordered more drinks and the three of us spent the next hour together, though Jack and Ellen did most of the talking. I got up to leave for a second time, thanking her for coming in person to tell me. She smiled and I saw then that the sisters were alike but not as much as I’d felt at first. We said goodbye. I turned around when I reached the entrance and could see them engaged in an animated discussion. Good for them, was my thought. Something better should come of this.
It had started snowing again when I reached the street. We’d had storms off and on for a week. Seven inches already on the ground and the plows were having another go-round. Buzzy’s was in the center of town, and people rushed past, so intent on having somewhere to go. I realized in that moment I had no idea what to do. Ellen’s message had released a weight, but frozen something, too, left me aware of the finality of Olwen’s death. I hadn’t accepted that until Ellen showed up. Had she done me a favor? The pain was still there, lighter and heavier at the same time.
I wandered aimlessly, warmed by the three single malts I’d downed, but more alert than I’d felt in months, as if I were watching for something. All that showed up was the emptying of the streets as the storm grew stronger, but I still didn’t want to go home. Some while later, I was surprised to find myself standing in front of the graveyard. The doors to the church were shut tight, but the rusted gate was open, as usual. I walked in and headed for the hill that rose thirty yards back, though I couldn’t see it until I reached the base. It’d be a fool’s errand to climb up the twenty-foot slope, given the weather, but I thought maybe if I stood on the meadow it would help. Maybe that was what Olwen understood and why she’d given me the message.
So I scrambled up. I was dressed for the restaurant, not for climbing through snow-covered bracken and hauling myself across patches of ice. In the months of early fall it had been a five-minute walk. Getting to the top in the storm took me almost a half hour. But I did it. Walking into the meadow I vaguely made out the half-circle of trees that lay beyond it, shadow figures in the night, filtered by the heavy curtain of falling snow. Glancing back I couldn’t make out the edge of the hill I had just climbed. Everything was shrouded in white. A strong wind came up. It was only then I noticed the cold. My foot slipped and I fell, twisting my ankle on a hidden branch. The pain was excruciating. For a moment I panicked. I couldn’t move. No one would find me. No one knew where I was.
It was then I felt the warmth of the snow, like a cocoon. I was tired and still half drunk, and my body ached, and not just from the fall. It was insane to mourn someone I hardly knew. I lay back and a strange feeling of comfort and safety enveloped me. I’d heard how lost skiers survived by digging holes in the snow and sleeping in them. Snow graves. I could see what they meant.
The sound of her voice came from a distance. I pushed myself up with great effort. If anything, the storm was more intense, and I wanted to rest some more, but I couldn’t until I’d seen her. It had to be Olwen. Only, it couldn’t be.
“Culwich, it’s me.” I felt a hand against my cheek and arms pulling at me to get up. The searing pain in my ankle sent me down to the ground again.
“You’re a figment of my imagination,” I said.
“You mourn without reason. Here I am.”
I couldn’t remember feeling so peaceful.
“You have to get up. It’s dangerous out here. You could die.”
“I don’t see that as a problem.” When I said the words I realized they were true. I wasn’t even sure what I was grieving for, anymore, but I knew I couldn’t shake it or stop it, the feeling that had consumed me for months. Not unless I let go of everything.
“Did you hear me? You have nothing to regret, dear Culwich. You won my heart and satisfied the giant’s wish, remember?” She laughed and I heard again the chimes below in the graveyard.
“A fairy tale,” I said.
“Perhaps not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is to get you home and warm and tomorrow it will all be different. I can promise you, dear one. Listen, my love. You aren’t here to experience grief this way, but you are meant to see what comes out of that grief, do you see?”
Her voice seemed to be further away. I sat up. The snow had stopped and the moon was full. There was no one there. A faint golden light glimmered on the edge of the meadow.
“Olwen,” I whispered, “where are you?”
I pushed myself up, feeling the cold grip me, and half-crawled forward until I reached the edge. I saw that the light came from the lampposts that lined the street fifty yards beyond. The gravestones were only just visible above the layer of snow, backlit by the moon. How long had I been there?
The sound of a car horn and the dull thud of a low-speed crash broke into the night and startled me so that I raised my hands, losing my balance. The next moment I was falling down the side of the hill. When I reached the bottom I managed to stand up and shake off some of the snow that covered me, leaning against a stone for support. I made my way out into the street by launching myself between the gravestones and using them as a brace. It seemed to take forever. I no longer felt my hands or feet.
I staggered out of the graveyard and fell in the street just as a police car was driving up. I must have made little sense. Everyone thought I had been hit, including the drivers. In minutes I was in an ambulance and I felt the touch of too many hands as I was tested and undressed and covered with blankets. The faint scent of vanilla was around me, though I couldn’t tell why, until I heard another voice.
“Cully, it’s me, Jack. Ellen’s here with me. You’re in the hospital. You look worse than you did before. Running around in a cemetery in a blizzard. You’re nuts.”
I opened my eyes. My hands were bandaged.
“Nothing to worry about. A little frostbite, but they got you in time, the nurse said.” Ellen leaned over me. It was her perfume, the vanilla. Comforting.
“About what? Scaring me to death? Gotta say, that takes some doing. They found my card in your wallet. Lucky you.”
“I wanted to follow her. Into her world.”
They both stood near, one on each side of the bed. “Thanks, for coming,” I said.
“Like we wouldn’t? Anyhow, they gave us five minutes, said you have to sleep. You’ll be out of here tomorrow. We’ll come get you, okay? Don’t leave till we do.” Jack laughed and they were gone. I closed my eyes until I smelled the vanilla again.
“Cully — I can call you that, right? One thing before I go. I didn’t say it before. It seemed sad, given the rest. Part of Olwen’s message. It’s bothered me I didn’t tell you, though.”
“What?” I asked, feeling anticipation and fear at the same time.
“It’s her way. It was her way. To say things like this.”
“So?” I asked, when she didn’t go on.
She took a deep breath. “Olwen said to tell you that the only thing for you to mourn is if you stop before you find out.”
“Find out what?”
“That it was all about joy. Those were her words. She said I had to give them to you.”
“I don’t — ”
Ellen leaned close and her eyes were so like Olwen’s I stopped breathing a moment.
“As I said, it’s her way. My sister loved life, no matter what. I’ve never known a more vibrant soul. Maybe that’s what she meant. She wanted you to feel that, too. I’d better go before they come after me. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
I sat up in the bed. The room was quiet. I could hardly hear the sounds of the hospital with the door closed. The window overlooked a roof that was shimmering white in the moonlight.
In the silence I wondered what had really taken over me, for I had the sense, hearing Ellen’s words, hearing the rest of the message, that it wasn’t only Olwen I had been grieving for. I had wanted something else. Something that would erase the world I knew. A way out of a pain that had nothing to do with anyone but me. The sadness welled up then and I was afraid I’d cry, something I never allowed. Against my will the tears came anyway, until I found myself sobbing into the pillow, holding it tight against my face to muffle the sounds. Something seemed to be wrenched out of me and the noise I was making was frightening to me but I couldn’t stop for a long time.
When it finally let up, I rested my arms on the pillow. Out the window I could see a thin white line below the night sky. It was nearly dawn.
It amazed me, the feeling I had, as if I had lost a great burden. But of what? I considered it as I would a puzzle or a project for a while, and suddenly I knew, and laughed. It had nothing to do with why or what. That was her message. I had known the sadness long before I met her. Now it was gone.
“So what were you, Olwen…my guardian angel?” I said out loud. Why not? As easily that as the incarnation of an ancient legend.
What would have happened to us if Olwen had lived? A different probability. I experienced a peace that filled me so completely I was unable to consider past or future, only the moment I was in. And that moment held only one emotion for me. I’d never felt it before, but I knew it anyway, somehow. Just as she had said. I was alive, and that had meaning. I was a part of things. That’s all I had to know.
I felt joy.