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Nate and Estella MAG
Nate was to be married.
She was a blandly pretty girl of 24 named Joan. She had darting brown eyes and short black hair, with a face so mild that it withered from memory after a good night’s sleep. Her voice was prickly and clipped. She never spoke more than she needed to, and having a conversation with her was about as productive as trying to spark a fire in the middle of a snowstorm using two splinters of plastic.
His parents were ecstatic. She was studying to be an anesthesiologist at a prestigious college in the West, and her parents were famous musicians. As far as Nate’s parents were concerned, she held the highest pedigree, especially considering Nate was “Mediocre with a capital M.”
Nate wasn’t exactly sure what had driven him to propose. In fact, he didn’t remember much about their relationship, which was odd, for they had been together for two years. They had gone to dinners and plays and the occasional movie, but Nate found the memories decidedly fuzzy, as if someone had swept across the drying ink with a steady hand. Perhaps it was because she was so quiet, so expressionless. She didn’t project the profound, delicate silence that suggested great depth; rather, hers was a dreary quiet that one would expect from a contemplative sloth digesting a bulky meal.
He supposed he had proposed because he knew that he had netted a rather formidable catch. Nate wasn’t exactly handsome, nor was he especially intelligent. He was a “straddler” – clever enough to be dissatisfied but not talented enough to jump the fence – while Joan had made it in one clean leap.
Estella was a horse of a different color: an exceedingly independent girl with a fiery temper and a personality so vivid that the best word to describe her would be uncontainable. She had literally crashed into his life; her bicycle had landed Nate in the hospital for a week. She visited him every day, and he was utterly fascinated by her fearlessness: she walked with such command, and spoke with such unabashed gusto.
He was also struck by the prominence of her features. She was not a typically pretty girl: her hair was rambunctiously curly, her skin peppered with rusty freckles, and she was in a perpetual slouch. Yet there was something magnetic about that jutting jaw and those questioning dark eyes, something that suggested that within the modest frame existed a great, flaming entity awaiting release. They had remained close during high school, and their friendship grew when they landed at the same college.
It was on a cold February morning, a week before Nate’s wedding, when he and Estella met for their customary picnic in Bannister Woods.
“Take a walk with me.”
“It’s all of two degrees, Stella.”
“You have your coat.”
“It’s a pullover, and a rather measly one at that.”
“If you don’t, I’m just leaving it here.”
“You’re such a bother.”
“And you’re such a little girl. Here, we’ll share it.”
Nate flinched as she entwined her arms around his waist; such a sudden, intimate gesture. The two were always playful, but it was a platonic, comfortable sort of warmth. He hadn’t ever had the nerve to go further, but if there was one thing Estella Golightly had in abundance, it was nerve. As such, she would often ignite those tantalizing little sparks and Nate would be completely frazzled, as if a blind mechanic had just re-assembled his innards. He found it even stranger that she seemed oblivious to what she was doing. It was impossible to believe that she didn’t realize that he felt on the verge of liquefaction.
The forest was perfectly silent. The trees were stripped bare, and the ground was covered in a layer of pale white.
“You’d like her,” he said. The words darted out of his mouth like fish in a pond. He could picture her eyebrow rising in mild amusement.
“I suppose. You never say much about her.”
The snowflakes ghosted overhead like wisps of smoke.
“You can come to the wedding?”
“Of course,” she replied in a hollow voice. She sounded terribly bored, and tugged at a stray strand of hair with unusual force. Nate felt a strange sensation like a rash creeping up his ankles. He opened his mouth, when he felt Estella shudder and gasp.
“Look!” She pointed to a small, quivering creature under a maple tree. She threw off the coat in one motion and scooped up the little ball with shaking hands. It was a cardinal. Something had sliced its underside, and its delicate wings were twisted. Its plumage was no longer a bright scarlet like its contemporaries but a deep maroon, making it resemble a pulsing internal organ.
It gave a final shudder before falling limp, and the difference was extraordinary. It was so utterly unalive, a crumpled ball of nothingness, and Nate was stunned at how the bird seemed to have become smaller, as the space around it seemed to shrink. Its eyes, drops of perfect black, were dull and listless. Nate was reminded of his TV set, a cheap little thing he had found in the parking lot, and how the crackling image would swirl into the center of the screen when he turned it off. It seemed impossible that this thing, this cold imitation, had once been part of the world, with its bustling people and noisy machines.
Estella sighed. She took off her hat, revealing tightly coiled brown hair. With impossible delicacy, she wrapped the animal in it and placed the bundle in a knothole.
They continued to walk. The air was colder and as sharp as a whetted knitting needle but an element of clarity accompanied the frost. Perhaps it was the change of scenery: the fact that the lights of the city and the honking of cars had faded into a hazy echo, coupled with the growing denseness of the trees and the narrowing path. The snow continued to fall lazily. The flakes were as delicate as powdered sugar and white to the point of transparency.
“What a glorious place. It’s strange, isn’t it? The idea of something so … so transcendent existing in an infested city, I mean. I doubt you could ever find anything half as beautiful anywhere in the world.”
Nate opened his mouth. He was hoping to say something profound that would sum up the wistful elegance of the forest in one sweeping statement; indeed, the words were simmering in his throat, waiting to be freed. Yet they were hopelessly tangled, woefully unpolished. The usual frustration spread through his limbs. The chances of him achieving anything close to his desired response were negligible, so he settled for a nod.
“When I die, I want to be buried right there, next to that maple. I’d melt away into the soil and always be a part of this hidden sanctuary, away from all that noisy nonsense. And the trees would grow so large and dense that even those filthy whirring saws would be unable to penetrate their bark, and it’ll remain just as it is, even when the rest of the world falls to shambles.”
Nate nodded. They were by the lake now, a sheet of frosty glass.
“She’s a nice, smart girl,” said Nate. He regretted this the moment he heard himself speak. The words sounded clumsy, almost apologetic.
“I’d think so. She couldn’t have gotten into such a great university by sitting on her derrière and eating cheese puffs.”
“She’s also got several noteworthy qualities: she’s honest, always asks what I would prefer and … she’s very nice,” he said.
They had passed the lake now. Somewhere far away they heard bells ringing.
“There it is!” Estella said, pointing a fuzzy finger toward the east. “The witch’s cottage!”
Nate smiled, and gave Estella a little knock on the head. “You’re so full of it.”
“No, really.” She grabbed Nate’s arm and pulled him toward the dilapidated hut. There was a bronze plaque on the door, but the words were impossible to read. The harsh wind had ground the letters down into indecipherable stubs. Estella frowned. “Ah, well, you’ll have to take my word for it.”
“Why’d you bring me here?” he asked.
Estella nodded toward what looked like an oddly shaped boulder. Upon closer examination, however, Nate saw it was a well. Like the plaque, it had been sanded down. Yet there was something imposing about the heap of stone and mortar. It exuded self-satisfaction: it had weathered the storm and achieved a degree of petulant majesty.
Nate gave Estella a withering look. “Breathtaking. Now can we go?”
“Ho, ho. I suppose I can’t tell you the secret now.”
“I’m not sure if it’s interesting enough to receive the attention of the fabulous Nate Vaughan.”
“I give you my sincere apologies, madam. Now, what about that secret?”
“Well, I’ve read that whispering into a witch’s well is supposed to grant you a wish.”
“Fine. You stay here.” She ran to the well and placed her hands firmly on the stone before tilting her head down. Nate was reminded of an ostrich. A minute later, she popped back up.
“Done. Come on, Nate. We’ll probably never have a chance to do this again.”
Nate was struck by an unexpected pang of sadness. He felt numb, and his vision turned cloudy for a flickering moment. While he could move his limbs with ease, there was something oddly disconnected about them, something foreign, as if he were being controlled by a joystick.
“Come on!” Her voice sounded strangely distant.
Nate staggered toward the well, and Estella gave him a light pat on the back before walking toward the cottage.
He clasped the edge of the well, closed his eyes, and whispered.