A perfect Wedded Bliss
 

The very first Renner & Quist story. Originally printed in Not One Of Us #48, edited by John Benson.

A reluctant confession: I don’t like Dale Quist.  This is problematic, since according to the sixth of my seven professionally and personally held principles, I believe in the worth and dignity of each and every human being.  And I do––theoretically, anyway, as do all other Unitarian Universalists––but Quist is all bluster and attitude.  He baits people, especially me, and if he has a kind word to say, he keeps it to himself.

Nevertheless, when I realized that the number flashing across my cell phone was his, I answered.  Such are the conundrums we ministers face.  Such, perhaps, are the conundrums of humanity at large.

I picked up my iPhone and said, trying to mask a sudden sense of exhaustion, “This is Renner.”

“Reverend!  I assume your gizmo phone already told you who this is?” 

Quist never calls me Renner.  He ought to, since it’s the only name I have, first, last or otherwise, but he prefers to mock my title.  A penchant for casual mockery: one of Quist’s many failings.  Still, I know how to be cordial, even to a bully.  I enquired, ever so politely, after his health.

    “To hell with my health,” he responded.  “We got us one of our situations.”

    “‘ We’ have one of ‘our’ situations?”

    “Reverend, I got a patron here that’d scare Lon Chaney, so how ‘bout you kill off the sarcasm and get your skinny ass over––”

    I hung up, a tactic I had always wanted to employ, especially with some of my more boundary-challenged parishioners, but never had the nerve to enact.  Leave it to Dale Quist to push me over propriety’s edge.

    Pushed or not, annoyed or not, I rose from my chair and grabbed my stole––my best stole, the interdenominational white and gold stole with the symbol of every major religion embroidered, by hand, by me, on the trim.  I shuttered and locked my furiously disorganized office, walked outside to a deceptively cool sunny June evening, and fired up my ‘79 Subaru (a conveyance so frail that whenever I close the doors, flakes of rust invariably flop to the tarmac).  Quist may be a full-bore bastard, but he’s not the sort of man who calls for no reason.  On that level, at least, we have earned each other’s mutual respect.

    Does any other level truly matter?

*

    Shelter From the Storm is Dale Quist’s pretentious name for his motley collection of seedy, weather-smacked vacation cabins.  They used to be called the Caswell Cottages, since they back onto Caswell Lake, and until Quist arrived and purchased the entire nine-acre assemblage, they had that nicely run-down, comfortably shabby feel that you want and expect from a rented cabin in the woods.  But then Quist had to go and rename the place in an attempt to loudly advertise what he sees as his particular brand of compassion: giving shelter to those in need.  I offer the same, of course, through the more traditional sanctity of the church.  In return, I hope for a well-earned, willing tithe, while Dale Quist, with mercenary all-American glee, charges by the night.  I like to think he refrains from charging by the hour, but I could well be wrong.    

    I arrived at Shelter from the Storm in thirty minutes, following a sluggish orange sun west out of Traverse City.  Stubby green corn was pushing up in the fields, and for a moment, I almost started to feel warm.  Then the moment passed.  Up here in this hell of a semi-Arctic environment, I’m really only warm in July and August, and often not even then.

    The access drive leading down to the cabins had just received a fresh layer of gravel, and I arrived at the office swathed in a billow of pale, quarry-fresh limestone dust.  From the office window, a blinking neon sign in the shape of two parted lips greeted me.  The teeth spelled out “O-P-E-N” in bright flashing white.

    Quist sat sprawled on a porch rocker, his booted feet up on the rail, his Stetson pulled low over his eyes, and his prominently knuckled hands folded lightly across the paunch of his sizable stomach.  A man gone to seed, I thought, although I knew that not so very long ago, Dale Quist had cut quite a figure.  He still stood six-foot-five, and with the proper squint, it didn’t take much imagination to spot the ex-linebacker and long-time private eye lurking inside that big, gut-heavy frame.  He would have been the first to admit that if he got some exercise and stopped relying on a diet of bacon and beer, he’d have reclaimed his gridiron body in short order.  But.  Not all miracles are meant to be.

    Without opening his eyes or raising his hat, Quist said, “Evenin’, Reverend.  I see you’re still a man who never met a speed limit he didn’t like.”

    At five foot three, feeling short is a congenital problem of mine, essentially unremarkable, but when confronted by Quist, I tend to feel downright puny.  In response to his greeting, I coughed nervously, pushed my round, rimless glasses back up my admittedly rather effeminate nose, and said something about how it was nice to see him, too.

    Quist barked a laugh.  “Heh!  Reverend, if you and me loved each other any more than we already do, we’d spend half the damn night spooning.”

    I sighed and let the Subaru’s door slam home with a hollow clank; a fresh flake of rust fell, obligingly, to the ground.

    Quist abruptly swung his feet off the rail and stood.  “C’mon.  I got a sweet young thing I want you to meet.”

    Clumping down from the porch, he set off along the sloping gravel drive, a track that led gently downward through the red pine and oak woods, down toward the lake.  Fourteen cabins line that drive, seven on each side.  Or so I thought.

    “You been up here since I put in the Love Shack?” Dale enquired, speaking so suddenly that my gait broke into a hitch-step.

    “I don’t think so, no.  And that’s probably for the best.  It sounds exceptionally unappealing.”

    “Don’t judge a book, Reverend,” said Quist.  “I mean, hell, look at that Bible of yours.  Worst cover in history, and look how it sells.”

    “The Bible,” I said, with what I hoped was offhand nonchalance, “in my faith tradition, is only one of many holy texts.”

    “Ooh, I like that.  ‘Faith tradition.’  That’s education, that is.  World-class open-mindedness.  But,” he went on, “I don’t want to pick a fight.  The Love Shack ain’t what you think.  You’d probably call it a bridal suite.”

    Before we reached the docks at the bottom of the drive, Quist turned left, up a gash of a side road, the shrubs and trees along its borders still looking torn and smashed.  None of this had been there the previous summer, when I’d come down to help with the Schweickarts and what I’d come to think of in retrospect as their “headstone problem.”  That had been an enormously unpleasant experience, though not nearly as terrifying as dealing with the thing in the Benzie County peat bog.  Quist had gotten me into both of those jams, and to this day, it is hard for me to cross the Benzie County line without feeling a primal urge to flee.

    Quist was still talking, talking and spitting in alternate bursts––he’d just bitten off a wintergreen plug––and he was gesturing with his big arms, laying down the law about proper septic tank placement, the best sort of wood screws––square headed, never Phillips––and how he’d just gotten this latest cabin ready only one week ago Thursday.

    “See, I’d picked up an extra four acres,” he said, “and I thought, it’d be kinda nice to have a honeymoon cabin, just for the newlyweds, you know?  A little more outta the way so whoever takes it can make all the noise they want.  So this seemed like a fine spot, up on the slope, view of the lake, all by itself.  Whaddya think?”

    We had arrived at a building that reminded me strongly of a cuckoo clock.  It was dark brown, two-story, a sort of tasteless homage to all things Pennsylvania Dutch.  The newel posts on the upper balcony had been painted in alternating bands of garish red and white, while the walls were covered with bright wooden cut-outs of clogs, windmills and red-and-blue country-craft birds.

    I struggled for a moment to say something coherent and at least vaguely complimentary, but wasn’t quick enough.  Quist’s face fell.

    “Some people,” he muttered, and he tramped away from me, heading for the front door.  “Some frickin’ people.”

    Sighing, I made a focused attempt to clear my head of Quist and his outrageous expectations and bring myself around to a suitably pastoral mindset.  If I had been summoned to counsel a person in need, as it seemed I had, it would not do to let petty animosities and infantile décor interfere with that sacred work.     

    Diverted if not refreshed, I crossed to the door and realized as I did that there wasn’t a vehicle anywhere in sight.

    “Dale,” I said, “I don’t think anyone’s home.”

    He looked at me over his shoulder with a tolerant, amused expression.  “You don’t, huh?”

    “Well.  There’s no car.”

    He leered.  “Reverend, there’s no car ‘cos this little girl walked.  Just her and her suitcase, showin’ up at my office and askin’ for two things: a cabin for the night, and a minister to get her married.”

    “Married?  You just said she came alone.”

    Quist’s grin turned wolfish.  “I did, yeah.  Which got my hopes up for a minute or two, but I don’t think I’m her type.”

    I all but stamped my foot.  “Dale, I did you the favor of driving out here, I didn’t ask a word as to why, but honestly.  Have you ever heard of the word ‘forthcoming’?”

    “Reverend.  You hung up on me.”

    “And now we’ve been walking for how long, and you’ve told me what?”

    “Christ, how ‘bout you pipe down and we’ll let the little lady speak for herself?”

    He rapped on the screen door, and a moment later the inner door swung wide and a young woman looked out, her dishwater-blonde hair disheveled and waist-length.  Her eyes were ringed from lack of sleep.

       “Yes?” she said, keeping well inside.  “Did you find someone?”

       “’Course I did,” said Quist.  “Ain’t much to look at, but.  Reverend Renner, this is Tanja Kulenović.”

    I nodded a greeting, and she smiled––a vanishing smile, forced into being just long enough to satisfy the demands of basic decorum.  “Hello,” she said, her accent thick, Eastern European, possibly Slavic.  “Please come in.”

    Quist held the door and we all trooped inside.  The cabin wasn’t nearly as tasteless as I had feared it would be.  Quist had sensibly relied on the wood-paneled walls, a coordinated set of red leather couches, and a shaggy brown rug to give what life he could to the room.  A welcome-gift wine basket, untouched, anchored the sturdy coffee table.  In the kitchen, the counters were bare, with not even a stray glass littering the sink, although Quist was already rooting through a cabinet, looking for a mug he could use for spitting chaw. 

    “Don’t mind me,” he said.  “You two go on and get started.”

    The place smelled of cedar, which I liked, but not one of the lights was on, not one.  That I didn’t like.  Worse, all the curtains were drawn, except for those that hovered at the edges of the sliding glass doors.  Through these, the placid water of Caswell Lake shimmered in the distance. 

Next to the sliding doors stood an old-fashioned, hard-shell Samsonite suitcase, the color of yellow clay, its edges reinforced with thick brown bands that might have been painted metal.  It was large, the kind that could barely be lifted (at least by me) when fully loaded.  Tanja didn’t look like the suitcase-toting kind, either; if anything, she seemed frail, broken.  I could see every bone in her face, as if her skin were somehow too thin to contain her skull.  How had she managed to lug that suitcase, on foot, all the way to Shelter from the Storm?  Unless she’d loaded it with popcorn and air, it would have been an incredible effort.

“Well,” I said, and I rubbed my hands together.  “Tanja.  It’s very nice to meet you.  And I’m sure you’re very excited, with a marriage in the––should I say near future?”

She nodded with childlike expectancy.  She sat well out of the light, perched on the edge of the loveseat with her knees together and her hands clasped in her lap.  Her long, silvery-white dress might have been elegant when new; it had a satiny sheen and a graceful flow even with its wearer seated and still.  Sadly, the hems were frayed, as if they’d had dragged too long on the ground––as if Tanja had traveled a very long way.

“We would like to marry very soon.  Today, please.”

I smiled, hoping to relax her.  Hoping to relax myself.  “The truth is, Tanja, because marriage is both wonderful and deeply serious, I don’t marry people I don’t know, or at least not people I’ve only just met.  There’s a kind of getting-to-know-you process.  I get to know you and your partner, and you get to know me.  We could call it pre-marital counseling if you like, but the bottom line is that it’s my job, as a minister, to make certain that you’ve thought seriously about what they’re getting in to.”

Her gray eyes tracked from me to the suitcase.  “We do not need this counseling.  We just want to be married.”

“May I ask where you’re from?”

She blinked, brushed a stray hair out of her eye, and met my gaze with a level, unhappy stare.  “We are from Sarajevo.”

A Bosnian, then, but hardly a refugee, not with the war over for fifteen years and more.  Sarajevo was thriving, or so I’d heard; as part of a genealogical project, two of my parishioners had visited only a year before.

In the background, Quist muttered something under his breath and fell silent, although I could hear his jaw working, chewing that plug as if it might kill him to stop.

To Tanja, I said, “Why not get married in Sarajevo?”

“Osman and I, we could not be married there.  Impossible.”

Around and around the mulberry bush, I thought.  Tanja gave information like a maple gave sap.

“All right,” I said, “but I really do need to know.  Why exactly can you and Osman not be married at home in Sarajevo?”

“He is Muslim,” she said, as if I should have already reached this conclusion.  “But,” she went on, suddenly animating, her hands fluttering, “that is only our families.  For us, for ourselves, we are not Muslim and Catholic, we are Tanja and Osman.  We are two people in love, and we want to be married.  Please.  We have waited a very, very long time.”

The way she said that––the way skeins of time twined every syllable––made my skin crawl.

Behind me, Quist cleared his throat.  “You mind tellin’ the Reverend and me just how long exactly you and Osman been wantin’ to get hitched?”

She cocked her head.  “Hitched?”

“Married,” I said, indecently pleased to make sense of the great Dale Quist’s affected common-man speech.

Tanja cocked her head the other way, considering.  Finally, as if the very act of saying so depressed her, she said, “Eighteen years.  We have been engaged for eighteen years.”

Quist spat out his entire wad of chaw in one shot; it hit his mug with a wet, fleshy slap.  “Damn, girl.  You don’t look a day over twenty.”

She smiled, flattered.  “You are very kind.  All you Americans.  Kind and useless.”

Holding up a hand, I said, “Wait.  Tell me about your engagement.”

She nodded, as if she’d expected this.  “Osman and I, we first finished school, and then it was all in secret, because no one would marry us.  All city officials and priests and imams, all refused.  So then the war came, and Osman could not stay in Sarajevo.  Too much anger.  All the Bosniaks left.  Osman, he went to Srebrenica, where there were peacekeepers, Dutch peacekeepers––but the Serbs came and the Dutch, they abandoned the town.”

She paused, collected herself, then rushed on.  “The Serbs had many guns, and the Bosniaks had very few, so there was very little fighting.  They thought they would be prisoners, disarmed, but the Serbs lined them up and stripped their clothes and shot them, one by one.  All the men.  Old men, teenagers, boys.  All of them.  They killed eight thousand.”

“Eight thousand, three hundred and seventy-two,” said Quist, reciting.  Startled, I shot him a “How in God’s Holy name did you know that?” look.  He shrugged as if to say, “How in hell have you never heard of Srebrenica?”

“It took days,” said Tanja.  “Many, many days.”

Outside, the sunshine was blazing off the lake.  I could see it sparkling and flashing like silver fire, but hardly any of that light seemed to reach inside the cabin. Indeed, it seemed as if the room was growing darker as we talked, and I suddenly realized why.  A thick layer of smoky ice had built up on the glass doors, and those Jack Frost crystals were spreading even as I watched, extending frigid fingers not just along the panes but inward, too, reaching into the room like coral, their branches frozen and spiky.

I realized I could see my breath.

Decidedly unnerved, I again held up my hand, intending to stop Tanja’s floodgate of a story, but she abruptly stood, and as she did, the light in the room dimmed still further as the kitchen and bedroom windows went the same way as the glass doors.

“Osman was one of the last,” said Tanja.  “On the first day, he thought the Peacekeepers would come back.  On the second, he thought the same.  On the third, he thought there would be air strikes, planes.  On the fourth, he knew that no one was coming.”

She suddenly hefted the suitcase and dropped it hard on the coffee table, knocking the wine basket to the floor.  The bottle landed with a glassy clunk and the neck cracked; deeply red wine gurgled out, trickling and bleeding its way into the carpet. 

Neither Quist nor I made a move to deal with the broken bottle; we were both mesmerized by the suitcase, its latch flying open beneath Tanja’s pale, spidery fingers. With a loud click, the two sides fell away from each other like a yawning mouth, and from inside that collapsing rictus spilled a forest of yellowed bones, scraps of dried tendons and leathery skin.  When the Samsonite’s twin lids hit the coffee table, the bones bounced and rattled like paper-dry dice, and then they settled and lay still, as still as the grave they’d never found.  The entire room suddenly smelled like someone had just smashed a massive puffball fungus, a musty scent of decay and defeat.

“On the fifth day,” said Tanja, orating like a preacher, “in a gully near a stream, they shot my fiancé in the stomach, but it started to rain and so the soldiers went away and did not finish the job.  They thought he was dead, maybe.  Maybe they did not care.  But my Osman, he lived through the day and then he lived through the night.  He tried to fix his eyes on the stars, but there were clouds, so he said to the clouds, ‘Part, please, so I may see the faces of the stars,’ but the clouds remained, and so he thought of my face, instead, and he built up my image piece by piece until it was me and not the night he saw, and for so long as he could manage that, for so long as he could see me and imagine touching me, the pain could not touch him.

“But the sixth day came, and even from behind clouds, the daylight chased my face away.  It rained again, hard rain, sheets of drifting drops, and my Osman lay there on his back in the mud with a bullet in his gut, and he watched the rain falling from the sky and he listened to the noise of it splashing all the puddles and he said to the rain, ‘Why do you not fall harder?  Why do you not fall so hard that you will wash me away?’  And this time, the Heavens answered.  Before the soldiers could come back to bury my Osman, a logjam broke upstream and water came down everywhere, water from the sky, water from the flood, angry and foaming, and the water carried him out of the hell of Srebrenica, downstream and down, until at last the stream gave him to a river.  The river said ‘Yes, I will carry this man,’ but the river could not carry him to me, in Sarajevo.  We were on the wrong side of the mountains.  So he was carried instead to the Danube, and when he reached those waters, he knew he was in Beograd, the city of the Serbs, and then he knew that he was dead.

“He cried, then, my Osman, but he swore he would come back to me, and so, that night, he walked out of the water.  He walked across the fields.  He walked across the roads.  Always at night, always in darkness, he walked across the hills and ridges, back into Bosnia, all the way to Sarajevo.  Where he found me.”

The wine was gone from the bottle; the sun had given up even trying to shine its way into the cabin.  Quist stood wedged in the corner behind me, shoulders up, arms crossed and hugging himself for warmth.  Tanja had remained standing throughout her story, and she stood there still, her hands out and away from her sides as if she were ready to call down righteous lightning.

When I opened my mouth to speak, Tanja abruptly reached into the suitcase and pulled out a hood of rich red cloth.  She shook it at me as if it were a weapon. 

“This,” she hissed, “is the wedding veil of Osman’s mother, which she gave to me, with her blessing.  And you ask, are we sure we are ready to be married?  I say, my Osman has walked from Beograd to Sarajevo to be with me, and I have traveled from Sarajevo to Michigan, asking for help at every step, and I have carried Osman, by choice, all that way.  So I believe that yes, we are ready now to be married.”

I nodded, shivering.  “All right,” I said, “but––“

“If you will not do it, I will continue walking until I find someone who will.”

“Yes, of course, but Tanja.  Osman is dead.  You know this.  To marry a pile of bones––”

With two quick steps, Tanja closed the gap between us and slapped her hand against my cheek.  She held it there, pressing palm and fingers firmly into my skin.  Startled, I let out a pained cry and jerked my head out of reach.  Where her hand had touched, my skin had all but blistered red with a glacial, lethal cold.

“I am Osman’s bride!” Tanja spat, and she crossed her arms, the very picture of defiance.  “Osman and I will marry!”

“Okay, yes,” I mumbled, one hand working my right cheek, trying to massage it back into some semblance of life, “we should definitely sit down and talk––“

“No talk!”  She stepped forward again, her arm flashed out again, and next thing I knew, she’d knocked me sideways over the end table.  A large lamp and I both crashed in a heap to floor.  I raised my hands to ward her off, but she was on me again in an instant.  “I will not talk!  I will be married!”

She seized both my wrists, and I shrieked.  It was like being branded, seared by frost.

“Dale!” I gasped.  “Quist!”

As Tanja drove me toward the floor, still clutching my wrists in her burning cold hands, Quist leaped over the couch, snatched up the fallen wine bottle, and slugged Tanja in the back of the head.  The impact relaxed her grip just for an instant, and I shoved myself away, scuttling backward like a terrified crab.

Dale Quist’s size and strength notwithstanding, Tanja did not fall.  I’m not sure she even blinked.  What she did do was straighten up and turn her icy stare on Quist, who held the bottle poised for a second strike, for all the world as if it would do him any good.

“I was goin’ easy that first time,” he said––and to his credit, he kept his voice rock-steady.  “Don’t make me go all out.”

“You are just like all the rest,” she snarled, glaring.  “You do not want us married.”

“Open your ears, sweet-cheeks.  He’ll marry you.  He’ll do it today.  But first, you need to relax.”

Tanja hesitated.  She glanced at where I lay half-propped on my back, tangled in the fallen lamp’s electrical cord.

“You,” she said, pointing at me with one chill, pale finger.  “You will marry my Osman and me?”

“Yes!” I squeaked.  “I only wanted to ask what kind of ceremony you wanted!”

She straightened.  She ran her hands up and over her head, then back through the waterfall of her hair.  She managed a gruesome attempt at a smile.  “I am sorry.  I thought you were finding new ways to say no.”

In Quist’s hand, the bottle slowly lowered.  “Not a chance,” he said.  “The Reverend and me, we may not see eye-to-eye on much, but all we want here is to get the job done right.  Ain’t that so, Reverend?”

Still sprawled on the carpet––still surprised to be alive––I nodded and finally found my voice. “That’s right.  That’s absolutely one hundred percent dead-on right.”

*

    Once mollified, Tanja Kulenović turned out to be a surprisingly flexible bride.  She had a few details in mind––“Water,” she said, “I have always wanted to marry by the water”––but by and large, she was willing to leave the proceedings to my design.  She even let me drive back to Traverse City to fetch a prop or two and indulge in a quick bout of last-minute research.  By the time I returned, adorned this time in my most formal ministerial robes, we were ready to begin.

    First, we wrote up the contract.  I started by referring to it as the nikah, but Tanja immediately objected.  “Do I look Arab?” she demanded, shaking her dirty-blonde hair at us.  “Do I speak Arab?”

    The gist of the document was to make plain the couple’s desire to marry, but as Osman, who had been gathered back into his suitcase, could not make his feelings known, the final product was necessarily one-sided.  I am satisfied that it was at least sincere, a clear, direct statement that these two wished to be legally bound in matrimony, and that they would share their lives from this point forward.     

    Under Tanja’s direction, Quist forged Osman’s signature.  “He had bad handwriting,” she said, blushing on her fiancé’s behalf.  “Big loops.  Mess.”

    Quist and I signed at the bottom as witnesses.  “There,” said Tanja, smiling distantly.  “Now for the party.”

    It was not at all what they would have had in Bosnia, with dancing, singing, multiple gatherings and elaborate wedding costumes, but Quist at least provided beer––something I hadn’t even considered––a six-pack of cold longnecks from his office.  He and Tanja each drank one.  I declined, much to Quist’s disgust and Tanja’s surprise. 

“You are allergic?” she asked.

“It’s a matter of personal preference,” I explained, and she wrinkled up her nose as if she’d just smelled something unpleasant.

“Stupid,” she said.  “Beer is good.”

My idea for the rest of the service was to blend as best I could––as elegantly as I could––the couple’s faith traditions.  At first, Tanja balked.  “The contract is all,” she said, her cold eyes flashing.  “Weddings in Bosnia are civil.  No church.  No mosque.  Those are illegal.”

“Yours is no ordinary wedding,” I countered, trying to keep my voice steady.  Impossible, of course.  I’m not Dale Quist, and every time I looked at her, I could feel her handprint on my face; every time she spoke, my wrists returned to ice.

To my surprise, Quist sided with me.  “Tanja, you came a helluva long way to settle for a piece of paper.  How ‘bout you let the Reverend do his work?”

The one remaining question was where the couple would spend their honeymoon––a honeymoon that seemed sure to double as a resting place.  Tanja gave a tiny shrug and pointed down to the shining water.  “At the lake,” she said.  “Honeymoons by the water are always best.”

Just before sunset, we trooped down a winding pine-needled path to the shore of Caswell Lake.  Quist had installed an entirely separate jetty for his “Love Shack,” complete with a brick verandah and a little dinghy, currently on shore and flipped on its back.  Other than a pile of leftover construction debris, the site was idyllic, especially in the fading sunlight.  It was not, however, private.  Shelter from the Storm’s main jetty was only a few hundred feet away, and it was very much in use, with children splashing around and what looked like a poker game taking place on the dock.  Farther out on the water, two fishermen were trolling for bass in a dingy aluminum outboard.  So far, no one was paying any attention to us, and I sincerely hoped that would remain the case.

“Are we ready?” I asked.

Eyes bright, the suitcase clutched in two hands, Tanja nodded.  “How do we start?”

“We let the water bless our work.” 

To prove my point, I sat on the jetty’s edge and removed my shoes and socks.  Quist muttered something hostile, but he sat heavily on the upturned boat and did the same.  Tanja simply kicked off her shoes, not caring where they landed, and paddled into the shallows.

“Now what?” she asked.

I followed Tanja into the water and pinned a sprig of rosemary to her dress just over her heart.  I added a second to Quist’s work shirt, and a third to my stole.  Next, I retrieved Osman’s mother’s veil, and placed it over Tanja’s head.  As it fell over her face, she actually giggled.

“There,” she said.  “Now I am a good Muslim bride.”

I didn’t much like the veil myself; it made it hard to see Tanja’s expression.  Still, as hardly anything about this wedding was ideal, I resolved to focus on the essentials, on setting a correct and reverent tone.

“Tanja and Osman,” I began, “your marriage is already legal.  You have signed the contract, which according to your people is all that you are required to do in the eyes of the law and of God.  But there is more to a marriage than legality.  There is reverence.  There is spirit.  There is love.”

I cleared my throat and continued.  “We have already honored Osman’s traditions.  Now we will honor yours, Tanja––and mine.”  I withdrew a small goblet from my robes and dipped it into the lake water.  With the cup full, I lifted it, still dripping, to Tanja’s lips.

“I offer you water,” I said, as she drank, “that we may be reminded of a life conjoined, of a life blessed as Jesus did bless the newlyweds at Cana.  Let this water symbolize your common cup, for the waters of life are now yours to share and share equally.  Remember always, a sorrow shared between you is a sorrow divided, and a joy shared is a joy doubled.”

She smiled, and a trail of water dribbled out of her mouth and ran sideways down her chin.  “Very good,” she said, “but not very Catholic.”

“Maybe more Orthodox,” I said, and quickly lowered my eyes in a gesture I hoped she’d interpret as modesty.

“Are we done?”

“I pronounce you husband and wife.  Now go in peace, and let your living bless the world.”

Tanja nodded, her expression more sober now.  She looked first at Quist, then at me.

“Good,” she said.  “Ready.”

We set Osman’s suitcase on the jetty and opened it one last time, loading down every cranny with rocks and leftover bricks.  Quist produced a rust-colored backpack, and we filled that with stones, too, then hoisted it onto Tanja’s thin shoulders and cinched down the straps as tightly as possible.  She retrieved the Samsonite, got a firm grip on its worn-slick handle, and shrugged the pack to a more comfortable position. 

“Good-bye,” she said, and gave a little military salute.  “Good-bye and thank you.”

And then, with measured steps, she walked out into the water, deeper and deeper, her feet treading lower in the sand and muck, until both she and Osman, with a ripple of bubbles, disappeared beneath Caswell Lake’s sky-mirrored surface.

If the children gamboling around the main dock took any note, they gave no sign, and the poker game continued as before.  Out on the water, one of the two fishermen was busy with his lure; the second was watching the sky, hands locked behind his head.

Quist and I tracked Tanja’s progress in silence.  It was easy enough to do, as small bubbles kept rising in a line above her path, but after a minute or two, these lessened and ceased.

Quist sighed.  “That was nice, Reverend.  Not that I’m gonna start bawlin’ or nothin’, but I gotta admit, there is somethin’ about weddings––and you handled that one just fine.”

Feeling unreasonably pleased by his approval, I kept my gaze firmly averted and whispered a thank you.

“’Course, given what you married today,” he went on, digging his heavy toes in the sand, “I got a bad feeling I know where you stand on marryin’ certain other kinds.  All them gays and homosexuals.”

I froze.  Was he baiting me, again?

“Not that it’d be legal or nothin’,” he continued, “not in Michigan.  But if it were, I bet you’d be first in line to do the ceremonies.”

My response took a moment to form, and as I thought it over, I stared down at the water, to where minnow-sized sunfish were nipping at my legs, offering little love-taps, fish-kisses of such tiny size I could barely feel them on my skin.  Then I turned and looked my host square in the eye.  “I’ll marry anyone,” I said, “who can show me both love and commitment.  Tell me you wouldn’t do the same.”

Quist stared across the silent, darkening lake, the water streaked black by the fading sky above.

“Hell,” he said, “I’m just a bachelor motel desk jockey livin’ on the back side of nowhere.  What do I know about love?”

    Out on the water, one of the fishermen tossed his buddy a beer, then fetched one for himself.  They raised their cans in a mutual, silent toast, then settled back to watch their lines.

    I put a hand to my face and felt the cold imprint of a slender, angry hand, and for the first time that day, or possibly that year, I allowed myself to cry.  I fully expected Quist to smirk or make some snide remark.  He did no such thing.  Not that he was crying, no.  Not Dale Quist.  But I do believe he was trying to remember how.



The End





Not One Of Us may be found HERE - and my thanks, John, for launching R & Q.