dear heavenly father,
we thank thee for this fine day,
for this nourishing food before us
and for the company of new friends…
bless this table and meal and
lead us not into temptation
and may peace be with us all in our travels
skull cracked open
with old loves
the toppling waves
Breakfast was simple and soon finished by all of the guests attending: a polite young couple from Lake Peleton (pop. 17,602), two stout, robust men who, presumably, were attending to business in the prospering rural community, a minister, also, oddly, from Lake Peleton, and, complete with sleep-wrangled locks falling over her brow, Nina, who soon found herself at the weathered back porch at the rear of the house where she peered out through the garden and into the calm bay beyond.
Nina Freeman, a talented student of Biology and noted authority on, of all things, J.J. Audubon, the dauphin who was to become Louis XVII, had glided down the polished maple staircase-her fingers bouncing along the rail like a thin stone thrown across a still lake, her toes teetering over each nosing-and landed in the breakfast area. The room, a once-important smoking parlour had been converted during the restoration of the house, for purely practical reasons, into a meeting place for paying guests. All of which, on this morning, glanced from their places as Nina descended. Smile. Smile. The boardmaster deposited plates before each guest as the minister spoke:
Minister: Good morning.
Boardmaster (exiting into the kitchen): Good morning.
Nina: 'Morning. Sorry if I kept everyone from starting early.
Minister: No trouble. Sleep well?
Nina: Of course.
Which, in truth, was a lie. Nina, as was apparent from her manner, had wrestled with restlessness for most of the night. Perhaps it was the weight of the imposing noon interview that kept her mind reeling like a hyperactive clockwork. Or, maybe, the unsettling meal of oysters and brandy, which, at the time, eased her, yet had somehow, prior to attempting sleep, tormented her conscience. Or, possibly, the undulating wind breathing through the branches outside. The reason escaped her, yet the truth played out: she couldn't keep her eyes shut or her body comforted no matter what position she managed to contort into. In the night her gaping eyes had probed the room, a carefully-crafted replica of Victorian domestication. Accurate crown moulding, escutcheon plates and mock gingerbread carvings gave the room a feeling of eerily-dense urgency.
At approximately two-thirty, Nina discovered that she was still fully lucid and staring with exigent intensity at the wardrobe, which was anachronously decorated with a kind of pseudo-baroque montage painting depicting a park scene. Rendered in dizzying detail (detail which, as is apparent, arrives as a result of too much time meeting with an overzealous artist cursed with the fancy of never deeming a work "complete") were a man and a woman circumscribed by a veritable ark-load of creatures hovering and dancing amongst the verdant foliage. Here a timid grey squirrel (genus Sciurus), there, perhaps, a small tree gecko (family Gekkonidae). Or there a small gathering of kookaburra (Dacelo Novaeguineae), and here a sheepish narwhal (Monodon Monoceros) peeking from under a brushy bush. However, upon closer thought, what was more confusing than this garish fauna was the couple who played the central subject in the decoration. Clad in over-sized knickers and a boyish waistcoat, the man appeared at once peeved and, at the same time, damningly naive as his amorous gaze was focused, it seemed, on the bosom of the woman. She, given the artistic dimension of a frieze, grinned in a manner usually witnessed only by dental surgeons. Her gloved had reached to accept an odd, mammose bag held out to her by the man. What was in this pouch? Brocage, maybe, for a surreptitious tryst? A gift to prove his faithful desires? As Nina Pondered, her eyes sailed to the tin ceiling tiles patched like a quilt overhead.
First Business Man: Are you sure?
Nina: Excuse me?
First Business Man: Are you sure you got plenty of rest last night?
Second Business Man: You look very tired.
Nina: Maybe I am a bit.
Young Woman (sipping a glass of fresh apple juice): Well, Lord knows, the wind outside the window kept me up late, as well.
Boardmaster: The sea was a bit rough all evening.
Young Woman: Of course, I was tempted to take a stroll down to the beach to relax me, but I didn't want to wake Gabriel.
All plates were, at last, covered with an array of steaming breakfast items: free-range chicken eggs fried with onions and potatoes, thin ham with currant sauce, pastries, and buttered bread. Clearing his throat (to hush the chatter) the minister bowed his head to offer graces:
By three fifteen (as well as Nina could guess for there were no clocks in the rooms), Nina found herself still blankly viewing the ceiling with various visions passing through her mind. Each tile glowed with a pattern-swirls and darts and borders-embossed into the metal. One. Two. Three. Four . . . Twenty-two. Twenty-three . . . Forty-Nine. It's come to counting the tiles on the ceiling? she thought. Her mind began to float. Away to her memories. Her favorite times. How proud mother would be. Sisters birthday . . . Swimming . . . Moments . . .
Turning to the nightstand, she fumbled in the dark, finally finding the pull chain. In the lamplight, Nina garnered a pencil and , on a blank page torn from the back of the Gideons, she doodled:
She awoke in the morning to a bright, sunlit room. The lamp was still on.
Minister (raising his fork): Wonderful meal, Mister Libertus.
All present nodded in agreement.
Boardmaster: Thank you very much.
The young woman patted the corners of her mouth with a napkin.
Young Woman: I simply adore this house. We stayed here on our honeymoon.
Nina: How long have you been married?
Young Man: About a year and a half.
Young Woman (with a smirk): Fourteen months.
Minister: It is very comforting house. I travel, oh, about nine months out of the year. I go many places in the nation, but I always find myself, well, sort of longing to stay here for a night or two. The place seems almost, I'd say, out of time. Like it belongs in an era other than the present. The squeaking boards, the feet on the bathtubs. It all becomes a kind of, well, liberating stay. A chance to kind of forget the racing around outside. Forget yourself. For maybe, a day or two.
Young Woman: Yes. I love being here with my husband.
She pecked the palm of the young man.
Young Woman (to Nina): I'm sorry. I didn't get your name.
Nina: I'm Nina. Nina Freeman. I got in too late to eat dinner with all of you. Good thing I had the key.
Young Woman: Is this your first stay here, uh, Nina?
Nina: Yes, ma'am.
Young Woman: You should come back some time. Bring a young gentleman with you. It's very romantic.
Nina: I don't know. Maybe someday. I quite like going it alone at this point.
Business Man: Free as the breeze, huh?
Nina: In a way, I suppose.
Young Woman: Well, you should be careful then. Those fellows out there sneak up on pretty girls like yourself and before you know it, you're caught and walking down the aisle.
The young man curved one brow. His wife nudged his side.
Minister: The knave actually. The knave goes down the middle. Aisles go down the sides of the, uh, church.
The boardmaster motioned at the minister's empty plate.
Minister: I believe I'm satiated. Thank you.
Soon, the plates were collected and the group disseminated to various parts of the house. Both of the stocky business men, after gathering their papers, adjourned to the outside entry stairs to enjoy a smoke before leaving. The minister calmly returned upstairs to his room at the front of the building and the couple, cuddled like young foxes, meandered out the back door. Nina soon found herself at the weathered back porch at the rear of the house where she peered out through the garden and into the calm bay beyond.
A cool, moist breeze that smelled of the ocean came in at her nostrils. Leaning over the porch railing, she observed the young couple sauntering in the plush, vivid garden. Coyly, the young man reached into the branches of a tree by the gate and plucked a thick apple from the greenery. After scrubbing it in the folds of his handkerchief, he presented the bundle, holding the cloth by its four collected corners, to his wife. She accepted it and, though perhaps tempted to sample the fresh fruit, she instead tucked it away in the pocket of her skirt. Stretching to the tips of her toes, the young woman brushed aside the man's hair and pecked his forehead. She turned and gave a smug grin towards Nina across the garden.
By noon, the guests had packed their sundries and scattered from the house like seeds in the breeze. Nina was the last to leave (being overly cautious not to arrive at the interview too soon.)
After a mid-afternoon pruning in the garden, the boardmaster tidied each of the rooms and discarded a variety of items left behind by the guest: tissues, a torn ledger receipt, a powder duster, a wax paper soap wrapper imprinted with Rev 10:10, and a torn page with some interestingly esoteric verses scribbled on its face. Though tempted to place it in the litter bin, he peeked across the quarters, palmed the page and tucked it in his breast pocket.