She had last seen him thirty years before in an abrupt end to a whirlwind romance. She remembered the glance over her shoulder as she walked away from the grove where they picnicked nude. She had not set foot in that grove since; he had disappeared from her life.
Until the moment she opened the letter that had been slipped into her mailbox. Expensive cream-colored stationery, the briefest of messages, a summons: “I must meet with you. The grove, midnight tonight.” And his signature, Alberich, not so much a name but a title as rarefied as the message she held in her hand.
Thirty years, she reminded herself, thirty years in which she had almost forgotten the wild magic he had brought into her life. Years in which she had taken his rejection and used the pain to build herself a life surrounded by gardens and travel and quiet evenings with a book.
Reckless like him, she thought, to have written her only three hours before the rendezvous. She should refuse, she thought, even as she brushed her fingers through her short-cropped, greying hair to tidy it.
She studied her face in a mirror; she never was a beauty even in her younger days, but she suspected she had an appeal to a certain type of male who liked his women round and bubbly. Less bubbly now, she considered, and maybe a little rounder. She wondered what Alberich would make of her.
She couldn’t send him a response; she didn’t know where he stayed. She considered throwing away the letter, going to bed at nine, letting him stew (but he would never stew; she knew him too well) but her hand snatched at the letter before it tumbled into the trash. Perhaps for memory, or for a desire to show him that she had lived a full life without him.
To the wind she whispered, See you tonight.
Midnight in the local park -- moonlight shone on a grove of trees, without the mercurial glare of street lights, just as it had been that night. The trees stood taller and one had been cut down, but the grove held years and years in its bated breath, just as it had that night. The night when she asked to run away with him and he refused.
Something shivered and Alberich stood as if he’d always been there, with his mane of hair that shone silver and his pale, fine features. Almost as if he never left –
“Where have you been?” she asked, hating the strain in her voice.
“I have been back with my people,” he said lightly.
Everything about Alberich was light, she realized. She did not feel light -- “You broke my heart when you said I couldn’t go with you.”
“But you couldn’t. Literally. Did you not listen when I told you humans couldn’t cross the border between the worlds?”
“Yes. But you didn’t even come back.” She nursed her grudge, used it to jab at him, as if that would affect him deeply. “You broke my heart.”
“You don’t understand. In Faerie, it was only three days. Three days for me to assuage my pride. Nobody had walked away from me before.”
“It was thirty years here,” she said quietly. “That’s a long time. Why have you come back?”
“Because I didn’t tell you the whole truth.” He smiled, charming and seductive and earnest all at once. All of these, she thought, and none. “If one has lived a full life and has no desire to hide in the Realms, one can find the thinning of the borders.” He paused, thinking for a fraction of a moment, “And I am taking you home. You are my consort.”
“Were,” she corrected. “Until that night.”
“You are still beautiful,” Alberich stepped closer to her.
“You are right about one thing,” she said as she took his hand. “I have no desire to hide in the Realms. You’ve told me it is of unspeakable beauty, changing like the colors of a peacock’s tail. It’s been thirty years; I have loved and lost, and I have come to love my solitude. Can you give me the drama of a good novel? Something grander than the sound of the crickets whose presence you’ve drowned out? The buzz of bees in the summer heat? Are you capable of the unconditional love that a beagle can give? You cannot lie; tell me the truth.”
“A beagle?” Alberich laughed, a sound merry and brittle. “You would settle for the love of a beagle?”
“There are far more trivial things than the love of a beagle. Or another human, and I have loved and lost and learned.”
“I could be your lover,” he said, “and you would never miss me.” He took her hand and kissed it. “You know I’m skillful.”
“You’re perfect. But I no longer crave perfection.” She took a deep breath. “You are a master of illusion and illusion no longer suits me. How could I bear your world?Losing myself would not suit me, because finding myself has been the journey of my life. Have you felt the loss of a friend as if it would kill you? Have you created a lasting thing with your own hands and released it into the world? Have you planted a garden where butterflies gather? Have you wept bitterly at the loss of a lover —"
“I am your consort. You will not lose me.”
“I am not your consort. I am Brigitte, and I have chosen. I will always love you, but I cannot be yours.”
They embraced for a long time; the leaves on the trees chimed like bells and a swarm of lights like fireflies surrounded them. Then Alberich was gone.
And, whispering on the wind, Brigitte forgave him.
Lauren Leach-Steffens has returned to an early love of fiction, gravitating toward contemporary fantasy. When she is not writing, she is an associate professor of human services at a regional Midwestern university. Her short story Flourish received runner-up in Cook Publishing’s Spring 2019 short story contest, and her flash essay Becky Home-Ecky was published in the A3 Review’s October 2019 issue. She has also been published by Riza Press, The Daily Drunk, and soon by Flying Ketchup Press. She has a husband and four cats.