They were counting wildflowers when the curtain opened and a snow breeze rolled in. The reception tent was at the base of the woods, a shore-stone’s throw from the chapel. Yesterday, guests had processed from ceremony to night ritual—vows, crying, wine, crying, dancing—and marched back into their lives.
She would bring every vase, no matter what he said. The ones holding the Queen Anne’s lace, the marigolds, the lupine, the grasses, the hay, and the hydrangeas—they would all be souvenirs.
How cozy it was, inside the canvas doors with his arm around her waist. Neither sleep nor anticipation between them. He fingered the baby’s breath her mother had woven into her hair. It was nearly morning. Every aunt, brother, cousin, and plus-one had driven away. Candle wax clung to the knotted, wooden tables. The saltiness from boiled dinners nipped their noses. He knew they would wrap each vase in tissue, or the leftover lace tablecloths, before the shore.
“Twenty-nine,” she said. He had lost count. He nuzzled his chin in the hollowness between her ear and shoulder.
“Your mother bought twenty-nine vases?”
“She looked at yard sales here and there—for weeks, she did. Twenty-nine tables needed twenty-nine vases,” and he listened to the tone of her voice and began searching for tissue or tablecloths before her lips stopped moving. He nearly stumbled over a guitar abandoned in the middle of the dance floor.
“Do you have the car keys? And did you want this?” he asked, looking down at the instrument, his eye lingering on the darkness at its center.
“No and yes, of course I do. I didn’t tell you about this?” she answered, though she knew he would dread something else to look after.
He rummaged in his now empty suit pocket. She fidgeted with the new weight of sterling silver on her left hand. One of the guitar strings snapped.
“The musician left it for us. He said it was our gift.” She went over. “He said, ‘Live a fulfilled life.’”
She started unlacing the strings.
“It’s so deep. Let’s fill it. We can layer the vases until we run out of room, and then some of the flowers in the last ones can spill out.”
He crouched down and helped her. She kept hearing her mother’s toast from the night before. The morning ebbed toward them. When the strings were gone, they did their best to pack the guitar efficiently. Little girl clinked in her mind, and failed to decrescendo. As they worked, violet light leaked in.
“We can’t be late. It’s a 7:30 a.m. boat once we get there,” he reminded her.
“I know. I know. We’re almost done.”
“Don’t you want some time to change?”
She was busy searching for the right configuration. Her arm shifted the vases back and forth with the force of a windshield wiper. In the time it had taken them to waltz for their guests, she stowed them all. When she placed the last bunch of lupine it reached out of the guitar’s insides. He couldn’t lift the makeshift vessel by himself, so they each took an end and braced for the winter morning. The breeze brandished her veil in his face and his coattails in hers. Together they lifted the guitar into the trunk. The invisible glass touched as the couple hoisted. Clink. Little girl. Little girl. Clink.
She settled in the passenger’s seat, he in the driver’s. Frost had given the engine arthritis, so they idled, and listened to the humming motor for a while. A caterer still in his white event pants plunged down the hill from the hotel waving his hands like flippers.
“Stop, stop, he wants to tell us something,” she said and lowered the window. The caterer’s face was flushed and jolly.
“It was beautiful, all of it,” he told them. The couple looked at each other and smiled. They agreed. “You all set from here? You know where to go?”
“We’ll be fine,” he said.
“We’ve got an idea,” she said.
“Where are you going?”
“The Yorks,” she said. “Then a hotel a ways off the beach.”
“Oh sure, sure, okay. You’re seeing the real Maine,” he said. “You don’t have too far.” He gave them detailed directions, for which they were both thankful, and then shook their icy hands before disappearing into the tent. She waved at him anyway, though his back was turned and his thoughts were surely crystallizing on the next ritual. Her husband prepared to back out.
“You’re happy? We’re all set now?” he suddenly asked, foot on the brake.
“For sure. Yes. We have the vases,” and she caught the tip of a lupine in the rear-view mirror, “Let’s hurry. I want to see the water,” but he kept them paused for a moment longer.
“You have rice in your bangs,” he said, dragging his hand back and forth in her hair. The grain fell between the seats and they clasped hands as their carnival receded.
She didn’t want to take the highway, not after the cloth napkins and fine-thread bedsheets. Inhaling exhaust would be sickening. Dirtying her grandmother’s dress would be, too. These roads were familiar territories once upon a time, when she’d snowmobiled in Decembers. Trekking across the ice had been a risk, especially with her brother’s arms wrapped around her ribs. But she’d always pushed down on the pedal when her grandfather nodded to go ahead, move forward. These roads were veins to those moments, to crossing frozen lakes that might have cracked.
“Are we getting close?” her husband asked.
“We must be by now.”
They passed Mo’s Clam Shack. Why didn’t they just eat there then drive back the way they had come? At a red light, he took his hand off the wheel and slid it between the seat and her head. He pulled at her Queen Anne’s lace again. She heard a clip when he broke the stem and watched him put the pieces on the dashboard.
“It was falling out anyway,” he said. She wouldn’t let him take another flower.
“Where are we?” she asked but he didn’t want to stop for directions, now that the light had turned green and they were moving again. At the next intersection, there was a woman with a seagull on her shoulder standing in the median.
“Shouldn’t this look familiar to you? We’re in your backyard,” he said.
“Ask her,” she said, prodding him with the stem.
“Fine, fine,” and he put down the window. Cold came in. “Excuse me, ma’am? Any chance you or your friend”—motioning to the bird—“could tell us the way to the shore?”
Before the woman could respond, the seagull flew from her shoulder to the roof of the car. The couple laughed.
“That’s a good sign! Maybe he’ll guide us?” but the woman didn’t smile. She stared at the guitar in the backseat.
“A man directed us before, but—” he started to say.
“He couldn’t have,” the woman said almost to the flowers.
“What do you mean? He served us at an—event—we had. He told us to—”
“Lupine used to just drip from my window-boxes. They were so tall they just—but—oh, excuse me—I’m sorry—this man, he couldn’t have—well, he couldn’t have explained very much at all. Nobody knows your way to the shore.”
“But we’re lost—that’s why we’re—”
“You’re on your way. That’s all I can say. I only know my way. Nobody knows your way to the shore.”
“Sweets, let’s go,” she prodded him again.
“Thank goodness,” he said and they drove away.
“You’re welcome,” the woman in the median said as her seagull flew back to her.
The couple looked at each other. He noticed another piece of rice wedged into a cave of her ear, but he let it be.
“So we’re headed toward the ocean?” Neither of them knew.
“What time is it?”
“Seven o’clock—” and she told him to start making tracks.
Near-silent minutes followed, save the Springsteen seeping in after he turned on the radio. The car heat pelted them so she peeled off his tuxedo jacket. Dead trees flicked by. Ice melted in the sunshine patches but mostly, she saw dark between the trunks. Nature was paused. She took off her veil, pleated it gently, and gave it to the backseat.
“I think the dancing was my favorite part,” she said.
“As they stepped into that long black limousine for that mystery ride…”
“More than the band?” he asked.
“Well, them together…”
After “MOOSE CROSSING,” a “BEAR LEFT FOR SHORE” sign with a blue arrow cut into their route. It whizzed by so she swiveled her head around to keep it in view but there was another on the opposite side of the road: “YORK: 15.” Their path was forking and “left” could have been left or more left or so far left they would be starting a circle.
He made the sharpest turn and her hand flew to the backseat to steady the cargo. They rounded a corner and the sky-horizon faced them. Light broke through the crack between the door of clouds and the floor of ocean. They could not really see. He kept driving.
When the shore reached them, they got out of the car and stood near the rocks leading down to the water. He had left the engine running, just while they took a first look. A family appeared on the right, bundled for the beach, and she went back for the guitar. It was so heavy, but the veil would fit, too. She guided the instrument onto the ground, and, knees bent, spine straight and strong, pushed it toward his dress shoes. They waited. There was no sign of the ferry, only a canoe bobbing at the edge. White steam melted upwards, off the water. Miles away, sky sunk into the foam caps of weak waves. Seaweed clustered in the shallows and she noticed the black lid of an oyster.
“Uncle Rick made me try one of those last night. I swallowed the whole thing,” she said.
“What are you doing?” he asked. He was still in the white shirt, black pants, and bowtie. “And nobody made you do anything.” The blazer she’d removed lay crumpled in the driver’s seat. He would leave it there in the car for the weekend. She took the veil from the backseat.
“I can’t cross the ocean with this, can I?” she said, holding the tulle in front of her eyes. She looked at him. Yesterday, she had loved seeing his face this way, through miniature pairs of lace spectacles.
“What are you up to? You’re such a loon. Why not? Where else were you planning to put it?”
Before his lips had stopped moving she’d already knelt down. The edge of a brown stone, still black from high tide, dug into the side of her knee. She shifted, without changing her gaze, onto a nook of moss instead.
“I never learned to skip stones,” she said, as she stuffed the veil in the sound hole of the guitar. Little girl. Clink. Little girl. The vases came out, one at a time, and the small rocks in the sand scratched the bottles. When they were all free, lined up against the distance, the blank background popped the colors again. Fuschia. Indigo. Blackberry. Cardinal red.
“Where are you going to put those? They can’t stay on the shore. And I don’t want them in the trunk again. They’ll die,” he said. “Why didn’t we think of that?”
“We’ve got to take care of them,” she told him. The sun claimed a higher spot in the sky as he watched her nudge each vase into the water. He saw through to her knuckle bones. The lupine, the Queen Anne’s lace, the marigolds, the grasses, the hay, and the hydrangeas. One by one they processed into the channel.
“We’ll always have pictures,” he said, imagining the images she’d want to tape down in photo albums and store in the bottom of a bookshelf somewhere. The waves withered at their feet.
“Let’s keep going. You’re cold, and we can navigate. We found the shore, didn’t we?”
She burrowed her palm into his. “Let’s go.” Springsteen drifted over from the car speakers.
“Our troubadour,” he said.
There were two paddles in the canoe, plenty for one couple in one lane of ocean. The destination, an island with a lighthouse and an almost-empty summer hotel, stood somewhere on the other side of the misty horizon door. As they drove the wooden feet into the waves, she heard a loon cry and saw the Christmas lights on the buildings’ silhouettes.
Sometimes they went diagonally then bore left, right, left again, as the wind blew. Most of the time they weren’t sure which way to go, but they tried. All of the rice drifted out of her. He always felt the emptiness in his pocket. She always felt the new weight on her finger.
They were nearing the island when the water got shallow and the canoe grazed the tips of the lupine. She was seeing deeper and deeper past the surface and then there were the flowers passing by her. Clink clink.
“Hey, sweets, the flowers—they’re back—they made…”
She let him talk, so he wouldn’t snap the moment in half.
“You’re happy?” he asked. “We’re going to be all set?”
She tangled her fingers in his, then untangled, to drag her right hand in the water as they arrived.
Though Washington, DC, may be her hometown, Madeline Duff has spent parts of summer and winter vacations visiting family in Maine. She loves wild blueberries. Reach her at email@example.com.