Willow Prentiss

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Me and Jim Easley rode a ribbon of blacktop that snaked out past the last cloister of clapboard houses, then over tracks coal trains lumbered over after midnight. I wondered whether the lights of those trains ever shined down on the makeshift memorial still there in thick brush — a cross hewn from birch; a flower wreath that used to bear the name ‘Willow’ in white petals; long-extinguished votive candles — all of it well-weathered, the object of its commemoration still strong. Jim Easley could tell it affected me.

Jim gunned the motor. “It was an accident, Beau.”

That was what everybody said. Their consolation was well-meaning but it couldn’t turn the clock back to that night almost one year ago, when the road was rain-slicked and a trick of lights and shadows made me jerk the wheel too hard, too soon.

(Image by Marie Ginga via Adobe Firefly)

Where Jim and everybody else saw a fading memorial, I felt memories of that night return with a vengeance for me to relive. I felt the tortuous way my car spun around and around until it smashed into a telephone pole, knocking the wind from my chest. I endured the horrible silence that came next as the stink of antifreeze and hot motor oil fumed the air. Willow was beside me, as still as a china doll in satin and beautiful, but for droplets of lifeblood that wept from her ear.

When I saw that memorial I felt as helpless as I did that night; there was no amount of consolation that could soothe autumn’s wounds and Jim knew it in the way only a best friend can know what you’re feeling deep down. Jim decided it best for the two of us to ride out to Weiland’s. Late summer visits to see the sage were waystations in those parts as your life’s journey carried you away from youth into unknowns that came next.

Weiland smiled broad in headlights as Jim jostled his truck over rutted ground that led up a rise to the old man’s shack. In one hand, Weiland carried a mason jar full of shimmering gold.

He used his other to invite us up to his porch and sit a spell, knowing better than we did ourselves the things we needed to hear. It was time to listen. That’s what we aimed to do.


The moon was carved from birch, our sage said, cut straight out of a tree stump with a pocket knife, whittled, then smoothed down by burlap until it eked out a lazy shine. Old Ed Weiland was wont to talk that way when homemade apple wine he sipped from his mason jar rose up into his eyes, drawing the onset of dreams into the fabric of tales he weaved for us.

Cicadas choired their assent into warm, sticky air, from perches out past mullein and pye weed. Sonorous but not overbearing, their song was loud enough that we knew it was time to keep our thoughts to ourselves while the sage spoke.

Ed Weiland heeled his rocking chair back on his wood plank front porch and declared, “Now look at the sky. The stars. Differn’t sort entirely.”

Me and Jim Easley craned our necks back and looked up past the eaves, studying the black, studded as it was in twinkling silver-white and a hand-carved moon shining down.

“Where do they come from? Stars I mean.” Jim Easley let his wonderment slip out past his lips and linger in sacrosanct night air.

I nudged Jim for his trespass.

Ed Weiland didn’t seem to mind the interruption. Instead, he let momentum carry his rocker forward then back again before he replied, “Souls. Each star is a lost soul wandering, trying to find its way.”

“What kind of souls?” It was my turn to trespass.

Ed took a deep swallow of apple wine, wiped his lips on his flannel sleeve and said, “Differn’t sorts. Some of ‘em lived out their lives well before your or my kind ever come around these parts.”

Our sage didn’t need to say the rest — that other souls had lived out their lives among us, then continued on in our memories and our melancholy. Like last fall’s homecoming queen, Willow Prentiss.

The hand-carved moon up above was lighting the way for souls lost but searching, as the cicada choir sang louder, a reminder that me and Jim needed to stop intruding, quiet down, and listen.

Old Ed belted out a laugh. It was easy to take that laugh and reimagine it more robust, crisp, less whittled down by time, running wild and free as apple wine just like a young Ed Weiland did himself a long time ago down in Norfolk.

Ed leaned down close, “Now I’ll be damned if I don’t speak about them fireflies. Watch’em when they come close. Each one’s a love that’s lost its soulmate.”

The revelation left a certain wistfulness in the old man’s rheumy eyes. I wondered, if there was a way to sink down behind those eyes and the deep lines that scored Ed Weiland’s face, what I would find in his reservoirs of melancholy.

Ed jabbed a finger out at the darkness toward blinking yellow-green dots touring vastness between his front porch and the woods. “Won’t you look at that! See ‘em? Each one’s all that’s left of a love that ain’t no more. They’ll drift on mind you, shining their lights the way Diogenes did his lantern. But they ain’t looking for truth, no, just a love they once knew. I reckon love and truth ain’t that far apart when you get down to it.”

I wasn’t sure who Diogenes was, but I wasn’t about to ask and break our sage’s spell.

Instead, I imagined each pinprick of yellow-green Willow’s mother in miniature. I watched Miss Prentiss make late-night rounds out to Willow’s old treehouse. She was so hopeful when her lantern’s light cast its arc high up where she thought Willow might be hiding in the oak’s boughs, then despondent as she shuttered the lantern’s louvres, knowing deep down the bough had been broken and the girl she’d wanted to cradle in her arms was really gone. Miss Prentiss made the same rounds every night, alone in this world. For a moment it wasn’t hard to slip down into your own reservoirs of melancholy and feel as lonesome as the stars above and fireflies in darkness.

No one said anything for a long while after that. Instead, me and Jim Easley let the night, and the import of what the old man told us, sink down deep inside so it could rise up later and color our dreams. Ed fished a cigar out from the front pocket of his flannel and asked our permission to smoke — as if either of us would have denied him that pleasure.

The old man scraped a match against a worn out sole. It flashed bright yellow before he brought it in close to the end of his cigar and held it there until the tobacco smouldered. Ed breathed in deep, the cigar’s end glowing orange, and then he blew out a ring of smoke that drifted out from under the eaves, filling the night air with a bittersweet flavor.

His smoke circle danced like a ghost wild and free, under the hand-carved moon and a night full of searching souls and lost loves. I reached out and took that ghost’s hand, gowned as she was in homecoming queen’s satin, crowned in the things our sage told us, and danced with Willow once more as the night merged into our dreams. The choir out past mullein and pye weed crescendoed in tender refrain.

Old Ed Weiland spoke barely above a whisper, “Ain’t that just how it all is.”

He was right. When you really thought about it, the world and life in it was all bittersweet.


Author’s note: This story, which shortlisted in a writing contest a few years ago, was inspired by Richard Hague’s classic “Moose Ridge Apple Wine.” 


This story previously appeared in Antipodean SF, Mar. ’24.
Edited by Marie Ginga


Andrew writes science-fiction and fantasy from the state of Maryland, often drawing ideas from jogs through forest trails at sunrise. His work has previously appeared in AntipodeanSF, 365 Tomorrows, Daily Science Fiction, Penumbric Speculative Fiction, and in MetaStellar as reprints and MetaStellar Anthhology – his work has also short-listed in several writing contests. Andrew welcomes reader feedback at [email protected].