Bruno awoke on the floor and saw Lula asleep on the couch. He oriented himself to his surroundings and remembered that he hadn’t eaten in more than twenty four hours. He stood up slowly. As he entered the kitchenette, he discovered a ham sandwich with potato chips under a napkin on the table. He poured himself a glass of milk out of her fridge and sat down to crunch and munch.
His eyes roamed the walls of the kitchen and settled on a print hanging by the window, a wooded scene. There was an angry man clutching a swooning young woman, as a bird flew upward from her, into the boughs waiting. He thought about Lula, escaping from her father and living here at Ringston, surrounded by her music and her plants.
The painting kept him so enrapt that he hardly realized Lula was standing next to him. “Bruno.” Even her whisper startled him, and he nearly choked on his potato chips. She laughed. “I’m so sorry to interrupt you.” She filled a kettle with water and sat down with him at the table.
“Thank you for feeding me. I was starving.” He wiped his mouth with the paper napkin.
“What do you think about that painting?” She was wearing her glasses, and her hair was pulled back. Bruno always preferred her dressed down; it was how he thought of her in his mind.
“It’s brutal. The man overpowers the woman, and she changes into a bird? Do I have that right?”
Lula nodded and retrieved her whistling kettle from the stove. “It’s a myth, about a king who rapes a woman and cuts out her tongue so she can’t tell her family. She weaves them a tapestry to tell them, and he’s so enraged that he chases her to the forest to kill her. Before he can, the gods change her into a bird, and she flies to the trees to sing her song to everyone.”
Bruno took a deep breath. “Doesn’t that remind you of…”
Lula nodded. “The painting is encouraging for me. No matter what’s happened to me in the past, I have a story to tell and a song to sing, and not even a king can silence me.”
Bruno put his arm around her shoulder, and she leaned her head against his. He closed his eyes so he wouldn’t cry.
After a few minutes, she stood up. “Zula’s going to be here in a few minutes.”
The doorbell buzzed, and they started descending the stairs. Zula was a tall black woman with dreadlocks and a wide, warm smile. Bruno extended his hand, and she wrapped him in her arms. He resisted at first, then relaxed, and began to quietly sob. She pressed his face into her chest, and Bruno could see Lula with one eye, also crying, her arm on Zula’s shoulder.
Zula gently walked them to her car, an older, very clean sedan. Lula and Bruno sat together in the backseat, and Bruno took a deep breath, pinched the bridge of his nose, and tried to compose himself.
Zula started her car, and said to him, “Bruno, I’m very glad to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you. Thank you for coming with us tonight.”
Lula had given him her bandana, and he was cleaning his face. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened to me. I just lost it. I haven’t been sleeping much.”
“I promise you, Bruno,” Zula intoned, “you have nothing to be sorry about. You’re exactly where you should be. You won’t have to be alone anymore.”
He watched the landscape through the windows. “Where are we going?”
“Some of my colleagues and I have a place outside of town, in the mountains. It’s where we go to retreat, to consider our lives and our mission in the world. When Lula told me what had happened, and that you wanted to talk, I knew it was the best place for us.”
He sat back and listened as Lula and Zula talked, catching up on their weeks, their dreams, what foods they were trying and what they were avoiding. He saw the coast fade as the sedan drove further and further into the mountains. He started to become excited; he loved the mountains. Here were his and Lula’s best memories of childhood.
They parked in a gravel lot, with woods surrounding them. Zula instructed them to stay quiet, to listen, and to follow her. The setting sun cast a pink shade on them as they walked into the tall grass. There was a path, narrow but traveled. They came to a hedge, thick bushes that created a barrier to their path.
“Step behind me,” Zula commanded, and they fell into single file. She began to sing, an unearthly song, none he’d ever heard before. It felt like the air shimmered, and the ground bent, slightly. And where there was only bush, a gate stood before them.
They passed through the hedge, and the bushes closed behind them. A stone building was set low in the ground before them. Zula spoke aloud, sweeping her arms out; “welcome to Arcadia, the gateway to Anwyn. Here we will heal your broken heart, Bruno.”
The air was crisp and clear here, and the smell of freshness and earth invigorated him, somehow more than before they’d crossed the gate. “What do we do?”
“This is the gateway. We shall descend into the inner chamber and purify ourselves. Together we will redeem you and Lula from where you have been split.”
“Lula too?” Bruno gazed at her, his oldest friend. She looked serious, ready for anything.
“Yes, Bruno, the two of you are more alike than you know. Let’s begin.”
They descended the stone steps into the temple. Darkness lay in front of them. Zula found a lantern, and lit it from a book of matches in her bag. She hoisted it aloft and they walked down the hallway. Bruno could see murals on either side, flickering images of beasts and dragon, men and women at war, and three huge faces above it all. He smelled the damp before he heard the water, and they came to the inner chamber, lit by a shaft of life from outside. A slowly bubbling spring sat at the center.
“Now,” Zula commanded, “we strip.”