The granite stelai were eight feet tall, with mottled gray surfaces and jagged edges. But Craig was less interested in their geometry than in their metaphysical location, their agency as delimiters between this world and some mystical other. His heart raced and he took a step back.
He half-turned towards Hailey, who was laying out a picnic lunch on the blanket that had been purpose-bought for this outing. The shop had wares in a hundred different tartans, or so it seemed, so Craig had chosen one affiliated with the clan of his distant ancestors. It looked cozy in this sunlit glade.
“It could be, you know,” he said diffidently.
His wife said nothing, though the look she gave him spoke plenty.
“I don’t think… all those stories…” He stopped, and tried again. “I think there’s some kernel of truth in those legends we’ve been hearing. The details might have gotten muddled over the centuries but something happened here – don’t you feel it?”
Hailey pursed her lips and wished she were back in New York. The center of fashion, the center of literature, the center of theater. The center of her world.
Craig reached out his right hand and touched the rough grain of the nearest standing stone. It was warm and, he had to admit, felt just like any other unpolished rock. The surrounding woods felt ordinary, too; some birds chirped, a squirrel dashed up a nearby oak, and the stream on the far side of the glade burbled. It was serene. He took a deep breath. No truck fumes. So different from the cacophony of their neighborhood back in the city!
Hailey had not been enthusiastic when he had proposed a fifth-anniversary trip to Scotland, but she’d gone along with the idea. He suspected she would have preferred Nantucket or Cozumel. Besides complaining about the mostly-rainy weather, she’d been uncharacteristically quiet these last four days.
“In Iceland they believe in gnomes or elves or something.”
“We’re here, Craig. What you wanted. I’m here. Let’s have lunch.” She handed him a roast beef sandwich on thick, crusty bread, and then poured each of them some wine, half-filling the plastic goblets the innkeeper had packed along with a hearty picnic meal.
They ate in silence. Every time Craig tried to catch Hailey’s eye, he found her staring at the enveloping old-growth forest.
“If we walk between the stones, maybe we’ll go back in time, like that Englishwoman on TV.”
She rolled her eyes, and he tried again. “Ancient people put up these stones for a reason. I think they’re markers of some kind. I feel like this is a sacred place, a portal.”
Hailey sipped her wine. She’d been looking forward to lazing away on a tropical beach. Dancing. Mojitos. Getting a tan. “Give it up, Craig.”
She missed her friends. Anya and Katya, twins who were elite dancers with the New York City Ballet. Suzanne, who was a bookstore manager. Rae, who earned a respectable income as an artisan. And Bronwyn, the perpetual philosophy student. They had all known each other since high school, been each other’s supports, bridesmaids, confessors.
She lay back on the blanket, her petite form wiggling a bit to find a comfortable position on the uneven ground.
She thought about Craig. He was getting on her nerves. Elves, Spock-ears, crystal healing…. She had thought he was a sober and practical lawyer when they started dating. She’d just failed out of college and had been looking for a stable, responsible guy. One swipe right and the next thing she knew he was proposing. She was happy to accept. He provided certain things, respectable things, which her life was missing. But her closest relationships were still with the members of her female cohort. For secret-sharing she still went to Anya or Suzanne. For a taste of the divine, she went to Rae. For laughter she had all five.
It had been a shock when Craig admitted to an obsession with all things geeky. Suzanne said Craig reminded her of her cousin Eiji, back in Japan, who was similarly obsessed. The Japanese labeled people like them “otaku.” What silliness.
Craig finished his meal and pulled his jacket a bit closer around him. The clouds had drifted in and the glade wasn’t nearly the sunny oasis they had arrived at an hour earlier. He noticed that Hailey looked tense. The air wasn’t the only thing that was chilly.
He sighed. Being a corporate lawyer paid well, but after a handful of years, all he could feel was the drudgery. He wanted, more than anything, to experience a scintilla of enchantment.
“Don’t you feel it?” he pleaded.
She was tired of his childish fixations. Attorney mid-week, Trekkie on the weekends.
“Craig, they’re just rocks.” She closed her eyes briefly, gathering strength. “We should be heading back soon.”
He wasn’t ready to leave. There was something irresistible about those standing stones. His eyes kept being pulled back to them, or, more precisely, to the void between them. His viscera told him there was a portal there, or there would be under the right conditions. Maybe they needed a full moon. Or the right alignment of the planets. And on the other side? Maybe another century. Or an alternate Earth…
The two of them, wife and husband, experienced the moment in disparate ways. She saw the oak and alder foliage that hemmed them in, and the rockiness of their marriage. He saw the shades of the fairies he had hoped to encounter, and a rocky gateway to glamour. Elves, maybe. Or shape-shifters. Magic-wielders, for sure. He gave his full attention to the potent space between the stones.
“I think I see something!” he exclaimed, liminally aware of some presence.
He peered between the rocks.
“What do you think?”
“I think you should shut up!” She pressed her lips together. Shouldn’t have said that…
Surprised at her vehemence, but distracted, Craig listened for the slightest out-of-the ordinary sound. Nothing.
Hailey started packing the picnic things. “Time travel is a cute science fiction trope. Elves were invented by Tolkien. Shape-shifting is ridiculous. Let’s go.”
He reluctantly tore his eyes from the stelai. He picked up the blanket and shook it to dislodge the forest detritus. Then he carefully folded it and placed it in the wicker basket.
Hailey thought, Not much of an anniversary trip, but at least I have a tale to tell the coven.
This story previously appeared in Stories From Shelf 804, an anthology.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Melody Friedenthal is a librarian at a public library and a copyeditor for MetaStellar. In her spare time she's the chief bottle-washer for To Tell A Tale Writers' Group and is an affiliate member of the SFWA. Her work has been published in Tales From Shelf 804: an anthology, N3F, Bardsy, MetaStellar, and New Myths. She believes writing is a gateway drug, alpacas are cute, and dark chocolate is heaven.