Gold – A Solstice Short Story by Rijn Collins
Our lives and loves are an act of magic. Gold threads weave them together. Immerse yourself in Rijn Collins’ 100th published short story, ‘Gold’.
For Christmas I buy you a book on the plague. You buy me a taxidermy workshop.
You show me woodcuts of the sinister hooked beaks doctors used to wear, their points stuffed with vinegar soaked sponges to ward off the disease. I tell you of a tiny mouse heart, no bigger than a thumb nail. The fragility of the body is hypnotic to us, so easily bruised and broken. The fragility of the heart goes unspoken, but is in the room with us also.
We’ve been together for a year and a day.
On our first date, you told me of your fascination with the plague. You tried to save it for a third date, not wanting to peak in the gruesome stakes too early, but over the clatter of a Melbourne pub you couldn’t help yourself. I didn’t flinch. I lived in Brussels, I answered, where they used to hang witches by their necks above the cobblestones of the town square. Medieval darkness holds wonder for me too, I remember saying. You didn’t flinch either. You just leant forward, and placed your hand on the green velvet sleeve of my dress.
A year and a day later, and the ribbon stitching our lives together feels like a thread of gold running through our new house. Your map of Norway above my bell jar of snake skins; a housewarming gift from our friends on the towering bookcase, a vintage typewriter that weighs so much I fear it will crash through the top shelf. I take a small corner of our bedroom for my altar. Each morning I curl up there, breathing in the solace, reaching for my silver bell to ring in the new day. You never interrupt, but just watch with a gentle smile and a stretch from the sheets.
I spend afternoons in my studio, coaxing out chapters of my novel. I write about the light in Iceland as it slides into winter, up in the village near the Arctic Circle where I did my first writing residency. You bring me whiskey and encouragement. When my words stumble, you tell me stories of your time in Sweden, and the bonfires and spiced wine of the Summer Solstice. We both know the beauty of flames throwing shadows onto snow, and ushering in new beginnings.
Our first season in our house is seen through the haze of a sweltering Australian summer. Bushfires scorch the forest outside Melbourne where I grew up, and I watch the sky warily for flecks of ash. You grew up on the streets of East London, watching for other threats.
I’ve never heard a lexicon like yours. Sometimes it’s delivered with the stutter that made you solitary as a teenager, delving into written words instead of spoken ones. You teach me jewels such as trebuchet, chock and bindle, and we turn them into private jokes told just before sleep. When your words catch on your stammer, I know the gold that follows will be worth waiting for. Your voice is pure comfort to me.
You ask about Sabbats and spells, solstices and seasons. For once, I answer. My altar has always been viewed with suspicion by men who knew, deep down, that their behaviour was worth punishing. Your questions are thoughtful; I answer them all. On Mabon I bake us plump cakes spiced with cloves and cinnamon. We break them open in our hands and feed each other, washing them down with mead. I’m shy in my sharing, but there is a joy there that feels like a cleansing.
We have friends around for the first time, and I embrace the hostess role with a fervour that surprises us all. I make salads with dates and fresh mint, goat’s cheese tarts and coconut pies. I search in the drawers for an apron, until it dawns on me that I’ve never been the kind of woman to own one. We drink gin and tonics on the patio with our friends as a neighbour mows a nearby lawn. The tree next to the patio is ripe with plump trumpet lilies that mirror the flowers tattooed down my right arm, a spiral of scarlet with green sepals.
The good omens are there. Finally, I’m beginning to know where to look.
The taxidermy workshop you buy me is mesmerizing. My twenty years of vegetarianism come into play and only when I’m assuaged by the knowledge my teacher uses ethically sourced animals, and that part of my fee goes towards wildlife conservation, do I jump in. The fascination is immense. My mouse, a piebald creature sourced from a reptile warehouse, is still thawing. It takes eight hours from the first cut to the last stitch. My scalpel shakes as I peel the skin away from the ribcage in minute, meticulous strokes. The protagonist in my novel is an amateur taxidermist; I have always been hands-on in the research stage. A novelist yourself, you throw me right in the deep end with your present.
I am both enthralled and exhausted when I finish. I send you a photo while you’re driving and you almost have to pull the car over, you laugh so hard. I look at my mouse, legs akimbo, more than a little hunchbacked, clutching a tiny triangle of plastic cheese. I still don’t see the humour. This makes you laugh even harder.
When I get home you inspect him in the palm of your hand. I point out the paper thin ears that I moistened with a paintbrush, and where I messed up his foot. You nod solemnly, or at least try to. We name him Cedric, and place him ceremoniously under a bell jar next to my snake skins. He watches over us as we sip wine, my feet in your lap.
I’ve never been a stellar seamstress. I think of the poppets I used to sew, back in my teens at my altar. They never held their shape. I look at Cedric under his bell jar with my stitches zig-zagging across his belly. I’m rarely patient; I am not orderly. My stitches stray. I am an acquired taste, and I know it. But the ribbon of gold weaving our lives together is unlike any I’ve ever known. I turn to you, and for once, I trust that this thread will hold.