Crying for the Moon
"You missed the deadline, Esther. Again. Would you like to tell me why?"
Esther fingered a loose thread in her jeans. "I meant to write the essay, Professor Godwin." Even with her head bent, she was acutely aware of her tutor's gaze, could picture the grey eyes peering through the spectacles at her. "I've done most of the required reading on Alexander Pope," she continued, "but it took longer than I expected ..." Her voice trailed off as she realized how feeble it sounded.
"Would it help if I extended the deadline?" Professor Godwin's voice was full of sympathy.
She shrugged half-heartedly. "I suppose it might."
There was a long silence, and Esther eventually looked up. The Professor was considering her, a deep crease between her brows.
"Freshers often find the first year hard, but there's no shame in asking for help. I wonder ... there's a small group of us, all women, who meet from time to time - perhaps you ...?"
Esther found herself tuning out the voice. She felt guilty - her tutor was offering to help her, after all - but what could this middle-aged academic possibly know about the way she felt, the constant tiredness and struggle to complete even the smallest task? And why on earth should an eighteen-year-old undergraduate want to join what sounded like an offshoot of the Women's Institute?
Surreptitiously she peered at the objects strewn over the leather-topped desk in front of her: three tiny statuettes serving as paperweights - fat, female and stark naked - and a variety of age spotted and dusty old tomes, some containing faded illustrations. She struggled to read the upside-down writing - the books seemed to be mostly about ancient Greece. What strange interests her tutor had! Nothing to do with real life at all ...
Not for the first time, Esther wondered why she had chosen to take an English Literature degree, when she could be out in the real world doing the things Ruth never would. The thought of her twin triggered a dull pain in her chest.
Prof Godwin's voice had stopped, and Esther became aware of the loud ticking of the carriage clock. For a moment, the room was a pool of quiet. Then a loud laugh drifted up from the quadrangle below, followed by the shouts of other students horsing around, and the peaceful moment passed, as though a stone had shattered the smooth surface of the pool.
Esther straightened her shoulders and looked up at her tutor. "If there's nothing else ...?"
Prof Godwin sighed. "Very well, dear. I'll give you another two weeks. If you still haven't produced the essay by then, I'm afraid the university will have to reconsider whether this really is the right place for you."
"So, did she haul you over the coals?" Tim's voice interrupted Esther's thoughts about that soothing moment of calm in Prof Godwin's study. He set his coffee cup beside hers and sat down, brushing his unruly blond hair out of his eyes.
"No. She's given me an extension."
"Told you," he said complacently. "Godwin's bark is much worse than her bite." He took a gulp of milky coffee and a mouthful of doughnut.
Esther stared round the refectory at the other students, envying their surplus energy and light heartedness, then she checked her watch. Ten minutes until the next lecture, plenty of time. But the lecture theatre was on the other side of the campus. It seemed a long way to go, perhaps she wouldn't bother.
"There's more to her than meets the eye, you know," continued Tim, his top lip now frosted with sugar.
Esther had lost the thread of the conversation. "Who?"
"Professor Godwin. She may dress like an old frump, but rumour has she gets up to all sorts of weird things in her spare time, especially when there's a full moon." He rolled his eyes and grimaced, his pleasant face transformed into something grotesque. "Perhaps she's a werewolf!"
For a moment Esther stared numbly at her course-mate, then she elbowed him roughly. "Sometimes you talk utter rubbish, Tim."
"Look who's talking." He grinned and made a show of rubbing his ribs. Then he noticed the wall clock. "Hell. We're late. Better make tracks or we'll miss the Chaucer lecture."
And we can't possibly do that, can we? she thought. But Tim had grabbed her arm, so she collected her books and reluctantly trailed along behind him.
Esther yawned and read the verse again.
'Some thought it mounted to the lunar sphere, Since all things lost on earth are treasured there, There heroes' wits are kept in pond'rous vases, And beaux' in snuff-boxes and tweezer cases. There broken vows and death-bed alms are found And lovers' hearts with ends of riband bound ...'
The knock on the bedsit door was a welcome interruption.
"Who is it?"
A grinning Tim peered round the door. "It's me. Are you busy?"
Esther shook her head and stretched. "Not really. Come in."
He crossed the room, rested a hand casually on her shoulder, and peered at the book lying open on the table in front of her. "'The Rape of the Lock.' Doing that Pope essay at last?"
Just as casually, she shrugged his hand away. "The deadline's tomorrow ... don't think I'm going to make it though."
Tim sat on her unmade bed and tested the springs. Esther watched him, thinking how unsubtle he was. He'd been trying to get off with her since the beginning of term. He probably thought she was playing hard to get; it was just as well he had no knowledge of her past. The period immediately after her twin's death, three years ago, had been traumatic, and she had gone off the rails for a while. But the sex hadn't solved anything - merely gained her a reputation for being the school bicycle; she was lucky she hadn't got pregnant.
Esther sighed. She supposed she was fond of Tim, but did she really fancy him? At least he realized she had a brain as well as a body - which was a refreshing change after the other boys.
He caught her gaze and flushed slightly. "You going to tonight's beach party?"
She shrugged. "If I'm to get this essay finished ..."
"They've been collecting driftwood for days - there'll be a huge bonfire. And Emma says they've ordered plenty of food and drink." His blue eyes sparkled. "It'll be great. Say you'll come, Esther."
Esther stared out of the window, barely aware of the sunsplashed hills and the third years in their red-and-black kit noisily practicing football on the university playing fields. What did the essay matter, after all? "Okay. I'll come," she said.
"Great." Tim bounced a few more times on the bed.
It was a fine evening, so Esther carried her jacket, relishing the warm breeze which feathered her bare arms. She and Tim had walked two miles down the promenade, almost out of town, to where the steep hills overlooking the university joined the sands. Overhead the stars were appearing one by one, and the sea, which had almost reached the seaweed and driftwood boundary that marked high tide, now reflected a newly risen full moon.
Esther breathed deeply, savouring the salty tang.
"Glad you came?" asked Tim. She nodded.
Further down the beach, a haystack made of driftwood was being set alight. A dozen freshers milled round it like garishly coloured ants, whooping with glee as smoke billowed and flames began to flicker. Esther stepped onto the still moist sand, feeling it give beneath her boots. Tim reached for her hand. What the hell, she thought, and let him thread his fingers through hers. As they neared the bonfire, he waved, and shouts of welcome greeted them.
"Hey, Tim. How about giving a hand with the food," yelled a girl with short, dark, spiky hair.
He turned to Esther. "You don't mind, do you?"
She shook her head. He grinned and trotted off to help the girl - his friend Emma, Esther learned - who was frowning in puzzlement at the crabs scrabbling desperately at the bottom of a bucket.
While they argued about methods of cooking, Esther sat crosslegged on the sand and stared at the fire. One of the other students produced a guitar, and began to play a piece by Segovia - it merged pleasantly with the murmur of the distant waves.
Flames licked eagerly at bone dry wood, the intensifying heat forcing Esther after a few minutes to retreat to a safer distance. Boat timbers and spars popped and crackled as ingrained tar caught alight, and creosote fumes drifted towards her then dispersed. The bonfire was an island of light in the encroaching darkness, its flickering orange flames mesmerizing ...
A hand on her shoulder made her jump. "Did you miss me?" asked Tim. She had no idea how much time had passed.
He thrust two bread rolls spread with cheap margarine at her, followed by some splintered pieces of crabshell and a plastic fork.
"Like this," he instructed, forking the crabmeat out of the shell onto the bread, and taking a huge bite. "Mmmmm." He smacked his lips. "Fresh air makes me hungry."
Esther smiled at his simple enthusiasm, feeling a pang of envy.
"Needs something with it, though." And he leaped up and went to fetch them each a can of lager, before flinging himself down on the sand next to her again.
The other students had paired off, and the couples now ate companionably in front of the fire. Gradually the stack of lager cans diminished, and the mood became livelier, the comments louder and bawdier. The anonymous guitarist struck up a flamenco tune, and several of the students began to dance.
Tim leaned across and began rather clumsily to kiss Esther. His lips were sticky with crumbs, and his mouth tasted of salt and sand, crabmeat and lager. For a moment, she let him continue, then she tried to push him away. He resisted, and she thumped him in the chest hard. "Stop it, Tim. You're beginning to get on my tits."
He sat up, frowning. "That's just the trouble," he said, slurring his words and looking hurt. "I'm not getting anywhere near them ... What's wrong with me, Esther ... or are you gay or something?"
She was just going to tell Tim exactly what she thought of his seduction technique, and his idea of suitable places to make love, when a girl in a blue swimming costume interrupted them.
"Chill out, you two ... We're going swimming. Want to come?"
Tim stood up, swaying slightly, and began to fumble with his belt. "Why not? Looks like nothing else is going to happen tonight." He looked meaningfully at Esther and began to strip down to his boxer shorts.
She glanced towards the sea, and with a shock realized that it was closer than she had thought, only a few yards away. The rhythmic crash of the waves seemed to intensify as she listened, and water glistened blackly in the moonlight.
"Coming in, Esther?" Already Tim had recovered his good humour.
But the sound and sight of the inky water had acted like a trigger, and terror gripped her. She could only shake her head dumbly at Tim and the girl and watch them run towards the beckoning waves before her vision dimmed and unwelcome images invaded her mind ...
Once more she saw the pale body in the black swimsuit tumble in the undertow, bruising itself on the pebbles, limbs flailing like a rag doll, watched the long hair stream in the cross currents, and strands of seaweed cover the girl's open mouth and sightless eyes ...
"Ruth," she whimpered. "Oh, God, Ruth!"
Once the memory would have sucked Esther into a black pit of depression until she sought oblivion. But now she used the techniques her counsellor had taught her, and began to control her breathing and invoke the mental catchphrases for restoring calm. Soon to her intense relief the panic subsided, her pulsebeat slowed, and her vision cleared.
Tim and his friends were capering on the edge of the water, before diving in, exclaiming at the cold. For a while she watched them, sporting like porpoises in the dark sea under the moonlight, but their shouts of laughter seemed somehow to exclude her. Feeling alone, she turned away and looked up at the hills.
It was then she noticed something glimmering on the nearest peak. A star twinkling? But its yellow-orange colour was wrong. She stood up and stared at it curiously, shading her eyes from the full moon's brilliance. Someone had lit a fire on the hilltop.
Esther had been climbing for an hour and was regretting the impulse which had driven her to investigate the hilltop flames. Moonlight illuminated the face of her wristwatch - it was nearly midnight. She glanced back at the beach far below, and saw that the bonfire was now merely glowing embers. Most of the students had gone, though a few couples remained entwined on the sand.
Tim had probably searched for her before going home alone, hurt by her desertion. She sighed. She didn't mean to be such a tease, it was just that she had resolved to make a fresh start when she came up to University, to become the girl she had been before her sister drowned. Ruth wouldn't have made such a mess of her life, she thought wistfully.
She had reached the top, and suddenly woodsmoke and something which smelled like meat roasting wafted into her nostrils. In the field directly ahead of her was the fire. It was smaller than the beach bonfire, but burning just as fiercely. Something on a small spit to one side dripped grease into the flames, causing them to crackle and spit.
Then she saw the circle of dancing figures robed in white, and froze. And by the time she could move again, she was surrounded by nine almost naked women, their gauzy apparel leaving little to the imagination against the background of leaping flames.
"Who is she?"
"What's she doing here?"
What on earth had she stumbled upon - devil worshippers, a coven of witches? It was little comfort that the women sounded almost as scared as Esther felt.
One of them laid a gentle hand on her arm. "It's all right. Don't be frightened," she soothed. Something about her voice was familiar. The woman turned to the others. "She's a student at the university."
Esther suddenly placed the voice and gaped at the woman, who was barely recognizable in the strange robes and without her glasses. "Professor Godwin!"
The Professor shepherded her towards the fire, and encouraged her to sit on the hard ground. "Come, Esther. Share the sacred meat with us." Another woman had removed the spit and was sliding its contents onto a platter of woven leaves.
"It's only a hare," continued Prof Godwin, smiling at Esther's fearful glance.
Nonplussed by the way things were going, she watched the Professor divide the hare into ten roughly equal pieces.
"Eat." Prof Godwin handed Esther a dripping hot portion, before passing the rest to the other women.
She took a tentative bite, trying not to burn her mouth. The meat tasted surprisingly good. The other women ate quickly and silently, then threw the bones into the fire and wiped their greasy fingers on the grass. Esther copied them.
"What are you all doing up here?" she asked. "And why are you wearing such weird clothes?" Suddenly, she remembered the women's group she had been invited to join. But surely ...
The Professor pointed at the full moon. "We are here in honour of Selene," she said quietly. "Every full moon we gather to give thanks."
Esther stared, unable to reconcile her dowdy tutor with this half-naked pagan, her eyes rimmed with kohl, face and arms webbed with strange markings. "You're not serious!" And suddenly she was convinced she must have fallen asleep on the beach.
Prof Godwin reached forward and pinched Esther's arm, hard.
"Ouch! Why did you do that?"
"To show you it's not a dream."
The grey eyes were intense, and for a moment Esther was convinced her tutor had read her mind. To cover her confusion, she accepted the small bowl of something the Professor handed her and, since the meat had left her thirsty, drank. Far from quenching her thirst though, the pungent liquid made her throat burn.
"What _is_ this?" She squinted at the contents of the bowl with distaste; the liquid that remained looked oily, and its surface was streaked with what looked suspiciously like crushed leaves and twigs. Belatedly she realized that she alone had drunk the strange concoction.
"Hey! I don't know what you think you're playing at, but, if you've poisoned me, you won't get away with it! University Professor or not, you'll end up in jail, for God's sake!"
"For the goddess's sake," corrected Prof Godwin. "And no, Esther, the potion will not harm you."
Esther considered for a moment. "Not poison, then, but you've drugged me, haven't you?" She took the professor's silence for agreement. "What was it?" She glanced fearfully round the circle of expectant eyes, wondering if there was still time to stick her fingers down her throat and vomit up the brew.
"It's a drink sacred to our goddess," said the Professor calmly. "Don't worry. Its effects are temporary, though its results are permanent."
"I ... I don't understand." Fear - or was it the potion? - was making Esther's head swim. "What was in it? What does it do?"
"Mostly crushed laurel leaves ... some ivy." Prof Godwin shrugged. "The recipe is unimportant. You've been given a second chance, Esther. Not many are so fortunate. Now prepare yourself."
At first, the effects were slight - a touch of giddiness, a ripple of distortion which outlined everything around Esther in a haze of silver. Then, the world seemed to spin out of control ...
Esther found herself peering out of a large cave, at a shore of greenish sand lapped gently by an indigo sea. A full moon reflected off the sand crystals, making them glitter like tiny emeralds. At least it should have been the moon, thought Esther sluggishly, but those shapes on the brilliant sphere above her looked just like the landmasses of Asia and Africa, which meant ...
Deep inside, a tiny voice was yelling that this was impossible, an hallucination, but on the surface she felt strangely detached, even serene. She gazed at her strange surroundings, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the twilight.
Someone was standing on the crystalline shore - a girl with long hair, her back towards the sea. Calmly, Esther watched the silhouetted figure approach, stop a yard from the cave mouth and gaze at her.
"I knew you'd come for me eventually," came Ruth's voice.
Hearing that dear voice so unexpectedly shattered Esther's composure and drove her to her knees. Surely it couldn't be ...? She squinted up at the girl's face, but it was barely visible in the darkness. Then all at once a shaft of starlight illuminated the figure, and Esther stared, hardly daring to breathe.
The face was Ruth's - the same eyes, nose and mouth, the same freckles, the same tiny scar on her forehead. The hair was identical too. And Esther realized, belatedly, that the girl was wearing the black swimsuit in which her sister had drowned.
She stumbled to her feet, lurched forward, and clung sobbing to the apparition, uncertain for a moment if it was real or a ghost. But her hands were wrapped around solid shoulders, and that felt like real flesh beneath her fingers. "Ruth. It is you." The lump in her throat was so large she could hardly speak.
"Things lost on earth are treasured here," said her twin sister gently, her words sounding oddly familiar to Esther's ringing ears. Then Ruth smiled at her. "Are you going to take me back with you?"
"You bet I am," said Esther.
The world began to spin once more ...
Sunlight woke Esther, streaming into her eyes, warm on her face. She stretched and yawned. For a moment, she felt disorientated. There was something about her sister, wasn't there? Something which had made her desperately unhappy. And something about a beach party, moon worshippers, a long journey down a hillside and back to her bedsit ... But the images were hazy, becoming mere wisps which slipped through her fingers even as she struggled to grasp them; then they faded altogether.
She sat up, feeling thoroughly confused. Had it happened, or hadn't it? She gazed at the familiar pop concert posters on the wall of her room, at the pile of dirty washing by the sink, the finished pages of the essay on Alexander Pope stacked neatly on her desk ... A feeling of rightness settled over her. Of course, it must have all been a dream, a horrible nightmare - the essay was proof of a different reality. It was a shame she'd had to miss the beach party - Tim had been annoyed with her - but what a relief the essay was finally complete.
Next to the essay was a letter in Ruth's handwriting on her distinctive green notepaper. Of course. Ruth was coming for the weekend. Arriving today, in fact. Better not hang around if she was to meet the train on time. She flung back the bedclothes and hopped out of bed.
Esther washed and dressed, then shovelled cornflakes into a bowl and drenched them with milk and sugar. As she gulped her breakfast down hungrily, she made a list of the things she must do today. Tonight's meal was sorted - Tim had promised to cook his special chilli for them all tonight - but she must get more food for the rest of the weekend.
Tim. An image of his cheerful, freckled face swam into her mind and made her smile. Would it be so bad if their friendship developed into something more ... intimate?
But first things first - the essay. She grabbed the neatly written pages, marched briskly over to the Literature block, and knocked on Prof Godwin's door.
"Come in," came a distracted voice.
She pushed open the door and went in.
Her tutor looked up from the pile of papers she was marking. "Esther." She put down her biro. "Is that your essay? Thank you, dear. Just leave it there, will you?" She pointed to a chair - the only clear surface in the whole room - then settled her spectacles higher up her nose and gazed keenly at Esther. "Is everything all right now?"
Esther wondered what she meant. "Of course. I'm just off to meet my sister. She's coming for the weekend."
The tutor's mouth curved in a satisfied smile. "That's nice. I hope she enjoys her stay."
"I'm sure she will. Funny, but it seems ages since I've seen her ..." For some reason, Esther felt she could talk about Ruth all day, but Prof Godwin's attention had drifted back to her papers, she had picked up her pen, and her head was bent once more.
Esther gazed at the woman's dowdy appearance and pitied her. She would probably spend the weekend working or reading those strange books of hers. What a waste, when the sun was shining, and the birds singing ...
She came to with a start and glanced at her watch. Better get a move on. If she ran, she thought eagerly, the pity for her strange tutor already forgotten, she could just catch the next bus and be there in time to meet her sister's train.
Ms. Davies' fiction has appeared in MZB's Fantasy Magazine, Vampire Dan's Story Emporium, Peeping Tom, and Kimota, and e-zines Papyrus, The Goblin Market and Spaceways Weekly, among others.
Visit Barbara's web site.
Published by permission of the author.