I followed my doubled shadow back to the chalet; Talens and Calia, bright in the sky behind me, lit my path. I wasn’t so much reluctant to return to my friends as I was embarrassed to walk in and have missed out. A foolish set of feelings to have, contradictory and unhelpful. I consoled myself a little by punting a few stones into the water on my way. Trivial exercises of power are ever the way to a happier heart… I could see I wasn’t going to be able to just sneak in. A silhouette waited outside, lounging against one of the wooden posts that separated the veranda from the inclined roof above. Aware that I was being watched, I gave up on my reluctance and doubled my stride.
As my feet crunched and squelched through the gravel leading up to our family home, the figure turned, to be caught by the moonlight, and revealed itself to be Miqual. Beautiful Miqual. Eyes like fire, and now outlined in gold. He smoothly pushed himself to standing with a simple flex of his shoulder, bouncing off the post. The light treated him well. It always had. It’s not always a compliment to say you like how someone looks by night, but for Miqual it really worked. I drew nearer and he stepped down off the porch, bare foot as usual, and simply grabbed me into a hug. It had been a long time since we’d been more than just friends, but the casual strength and warmth of the man still made me catch my breath, before relaxing into him.
“Still out walking, then,” he offered, barely a murmur in my ear.
I hadn’t yet gotten over Maina pointing out that they all knew I’d gone a wandering nightly, and his remark bounced off me at the wrong angle. I stiffened, stretching out of his embrace. A childish reaction, but it seemed I wasn’t yet done with petulance for the evening. I had nothing to offer in return, other than a half-grunted confirmation, whose words even I couldn’t have spelled out. Miqual let me go, allowed me to retract myself to arms’ length, though his hands remained on my shoulders; a comforting weight I didn’t want to accept.
“Maina’s not happy with you,” he began, “want to talk about it?”
When we’d been together, I’d adored Miqual’s directness. His frank statements of feeling, of desire, demands, and forthright expressions of affection had an honesty I’d both admired and responded to in kind. I’d found it hard to replicate with anyone else, but he consistently brought out the best in me. I grumbled some further nonsense, and turned away to gaze at Talens sliding out past Calia, vaster and brighter than his sister moon, sharpening the yellow into a white glow that burned when it reflected off the water. Miqual caught me by the shoulder and drew me back in, his left arm across my chest, my back pressed to him.
I was doing a spectacularly poor job of preparing for shettling. I knew that, but I was struggling to give myself back over to the circle. What else would Miqual want than for me to speak my mind.
“Well no, not really. But I should. I’m – I’m not ready for this Miq. And I know that’s not fair on everyone else.”
“It’s Maina, isn’t it? You always had a thing for her.”
“It just, it never worked out.”
“It doesn’t have to.”
“I know that, I just thought, it would, you know. Like Tesh and Tereis. I thought we’d have our time.”
“You did. Several times, as I recall,” I could feel Miqual smiling as he spoke, “as did we, several times.”
I jabbed him with my elbow, got rewarded with a mock ‘oof’.
“So what’s wrong with me then Miq? What’s your diagnosis?”
“Hmm. It’s complicated, but right now you’re stuck with some idea of what’s supposed to happen. Calia’s tears – we all think it’s going to turn out some special way, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to. Maybe I thought it would be you and me, that we’d end up like those two, joined at the hip. Didn’t work out that way. Doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, but I’m not sad about it. It was always fun when we were together, but I love Eleran too, and Maina. And the others come to that. I can’t regret what never happened, I can’t do that to myself. And nor should you. Come inside, remember what did happen, don’t spend tonight inventing a past that should have happened, or a future that won’t happen. Seriously, Tesh brought some amazing wine.”
While I could grumble, it was always hard to resist Miqual, and Tesh had indeed long developed a taste for the finest wines.
“All right. Fine. Lead the way.”
Miqual enclosed me in a huge hug, until I pushed him away and shoved him back up the step and through the front door.
Inside the chalet, the wooden floors spread out before me, each one leading to some memory of growing up here. Slipping and sliding in our socks in daft races down the hall, the stairs that Rumala fell down so dramatically, saying goodbye to our mother and father when they judged us secure enough to be left alone; that first night without them, all of us huddled in our own beds, no longer quite sure of the rules any more. Only to realise later, that there weren’t really any rules. All that mattered was the little circle of us – one that would shrink and grow depending on what we chose to do, the paths we followed, but was ultimately unbreakable, and would always draw us back in. As it had now. Miqual led me by the hand into the main living room.
“Look who I found outside,” he declared.
The others cheered. Even Maina, who briefly vanquished the scowl she had bestowed on me. Miqual pushed me into a chair next to Eleran, and sat on its arm, leaning over me to seize the bottle of wine Eleran was holding.
“How’s Calia tonight,” asked Eleran, reaching out to tuck a hair back behind my ear, “bright?”
“Never so radiant as you,” I replied, drawing the light mocking laughter from her that I so enjoyed. We smiled at each other, and I began to relax into the mood.
The room was entirely panelled in wood, the chairs and settees a mismatched sprawl of worn old furnishings of different heights, widths and depths. They contained us perfectly. Calia and Talens were bright through the windows, but muted by their panes, not so bright as to dazzle. Instead, the low tables which filled the space between the seats were set out with dozens of candles, many of which I’d set out earlier in jars and holders dug out from the numerous cupboards and chests of drawers scattered throughout the house. For all my reluctance, I’d played my part in preparing our old home for us. All the beds had been made, though there was a reasonable chance we’d barely use half of them – Eleran had arrived early that morning with Rumala and done much to make the place ready for us. I liked to think I added the glow.
Tesh and Tereis were, inevitably, piled on top of each other in a single broad armchair, though their frequent wriggling made it hard to tell who sat on whose lap. Their grins were infectious, laughing at each other’s jokes and teasing jibes. By contrast, Aer and Rumala were separated by Eleran, myself and Miqual. That still didn’t seem right, and of course was very much the reason we were all back here. It was fine for Miqual, Maina, Eleran and I to drift in our romantic rhombus, but their break up was deeply troubling. I suppose I hadn’t wanted to admit it before, but my brief absence and return made it all the plainer: the circle was broken.
Miqual handed me an overflowing glass of wine. I downed most of it in one, to mild applause.
“Catching up,” I managed, as the wine took effect, sending pulses of warmth through me like waves on the lake.
“We were just talking about you,” said Aer.
I grimaced, “something good I hope.”
“Actually yes,” he took a deeper swallow of his own wine, “do you remember when mother and father left – that first night, when I was still in that little room at the end of the hall, on my own at night – and you heard me crying?”
“I do. And I came and climbed into bed with you till you went back to sleep.”
“Except you fell asleep too, and when we woke up your arms and my legs had gone to sleep–“
“–no, it was your arms that had gone to sleep–“
“–someone’s arms had gone to sleep, and we tried to get up and just fell on the floor and couldn’t get up until we’d got feeling back.”
“I do. I’m pretty sure I’ve still got a scar on my knee from smacking into the shelves next to your bed.”
“Well, I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for that night, if not the morning afterwards.”
We all raised our glasses, to the memory, to being friends, brothers and sisters – to our circle.
The night was full of such memories. The trivial things that any family shares: how Tereis constantly lost his glasses, just could not either wear the damn things or put them down somewhere sensible; all of us waiting outside the stage door for Maina to come out after her operatic performance so we could shower her with flowers and congratulations; Aleran’s recovery from her car accident, eagerly pulling her out of the soft soil, healed but too long asleep to walk, so Miqual and I carried her while she drowsily muttered of her dreams with the trees; the first nights we’d spent with each other. It’s amazing what you can remember as a group, that you thought had been forgotten or never remembered happening until it’s laid out for you again. Inevitably, there were tears as well as laughter. Sorrow is ever mixed with joy, makes the two sweeter and sharper for their contrast. Each rich, each part of the lives we shared, both reasons for living.
We came at last to Aer and Rumala’s break up, Talens knows how many bottles of wine we’d drunk, how many tears we’d shed. By that point, Eleran was sprawled sideways across my lap and Miqual’s arm held the back of my chair, else he’d have slid to the floor. Maina propped up Rumala and somehow Tesh and Tereis had made enough space to support Aer as he sat on the floor at their feet. As a family we managed our wine well. Can you explain what causes people to fall out of love? We didn’t know, we only knew that it had torn a hole in our circle, never to be mended. Listening to them talk, as they exchanged their fond recollections, they were unable to quantify the change in their feelings, only the emotions themselves. All they could say was couched in metaphor and simile, the yawning void, the spreading gulf between them.
It was contagious, that hole. We’d been apart for just slightly too long, split off on our own pursuits, chasing work and art, that we’d grown unable to see the separation coming. But now we were all together again, it was clear to me. The shettling was the right thing for us. How could we function as a circle any longer, when two of our number had suffered, had lost the thing that held us all together. I caught, and held Maina’s eye, as Rumala wordlessly expressed her sense of loss. We too had lost something, and perhaps we all felt something similar, that we were all diminished. Our time had come, and though we could celebrate what we’d had together, it was time for something new and different. In the morning we would join in the shettling and be reborn.
I stumbled off to bed alone. The candles had burned down, and guttered in their molten remains. We had definitively, and loudly finished Tesh’s wine. He himself had had the last glass, and promptly fallen asleep in the armchair, trapping Tereis in place beneath him. He accepted his lot and waved us off to bed, shuffling his lover into a more comfortable position. Miqual had disappeared with Rumala, Aer with Maina. I’d thought, perhaps, that she and I would have spent this last night together, but as Miqual had said, there was no use in striving for a story that didn’t exist. Even though I had grasped this, my stomach still lurched with the possibility. Or maybe that was the wine. My head was spinning as I lay down in the bed that I’d had since I was young. It still fit me perfectly, the blankets smelled the same, had the same reassuring weight, gently pinning me to the mattress. I’d drunk too much to feel the cold, but not so much that I couldn’t feel it when Eleran climbed under the blanket, and opened my eyes to see her long hair shattered into a luminous rainbow by Talens’ light. She was warm, and naked.
Morning came too soon. The yellow moons had been replaced by the cool blue sky of day, and the sun’s pale light flooded my bedroom. Eleran had disappeared some time around dawn, leaving us both with too little time for sleep. Not that it really mattered. Shettling came twice a year, on the two nights of the year when Talens’ orbit coincided perfectly with Calia’s. They would rise as one, with Talens’ light filtered and enhanced through Calia. We had most of the day to travel north, past Brisingam and out into the allforest, where Aer had been working these past ten years. It was a long trip, but the train ran there directly. How many circles would be seeking to shettle I had no idea, but there would also be mothers and fathers travelling to collect the shettled and take them to their new homes. I finally felt ready to take the plunge, and to deliver myself into the earth, with my family and embrace what would come next.