This is part 3 of a 6-part short story I wrote a while back. It’s written from the perspective of Bala Davies, a fictional woman living in the Welsh town of Y Gelli. Please read part 1 and part 2 first.
There wasn’t always a River Wye in Hay. The story, as told to me by the drunkest of Y Gelli townies, goes something like this:
In the days when the eyes of men had only seen little slices of Wales, a group of hunters came upon a thicket of snow lilies the color of blue fire. The day was coming to an end, and with little to show from their hunt, the men decided to cut bouquets of the flowers for their wives and admirers back home. However, when the first man knelt to break the stem of a lily, the soft petals curved into razor-sharp scales and a great blue dragon rose from the earth.
The men, who were no strangers to the beasts of old, turned their swords to the dragon before it could spread its wings. Scales fell around them like blue snowflakes (hence the name of the area, Snowdonia), but the creature lived long enough to thrash its way into the sky. Southward it turned, barely skirting over the treeline as it searched for a place to die in peace. With its last breath, it crashed onto a patch of land just west of the Black Mountains, shattering into a million drops of icy-cold water. Thus the serpentine path of the River Wye came to be.
Maybe the founders of Y Gelli knew they started their town on the banks of a dragon, maybe not. Either way, the river, softening the land with minerals and nutrients, provided the perfect place to settle.
I told this story to Nate over tea the third day he came to the shop. I’m sure I didn’t recount the tale as well as the glassy-eyed men in the pubs, but I enjoyed adding embellishments here and there. Telling the story stirred something deep inside of me, a long-dormant desire to read bedtime stories to children of my own. Too bad the old man didn’t have it in him to fertilize my garden.
Nate smiled and nodded throughout the tale. At the end, there was a long pause before he said, “This is why I came here.”
“To the Reed?”
“To the Reed. To Hay. To Wales. But specifically to Hay.”
“I don’t catch your meaning.”
He paused again to gather his thoughts. “I was a bond trader in New York for two years after college. Made boatloads of money, for me and for our clients. But something about it just didn’t feel right. I’d work all day, four computer screens in front of me, coffee cups cluttering my desk. Then I’d go out drinking. Wasn’t out of the ordinary to drop $100 on a bar tab in the middle of the week.”
I realized that I couldn’t quite comprehend the level of wealth he was talking about, the kind of wealth where you never had to think about the cost of anything. I admired and envied him for it.
“That life…it had no….”
“Yeah. It had no substance to it. Was empty. It wasn’t even that long ago, but I can’t distinguish any one day or night from the next.”
I took a sip of my tea. “So what happened?”
“One night I turned on the TV and saw a report on a little town in Wales that was just finishing its yearly literary festival. The largest of its kind in the world. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, off the thousands of people who converged onto this little patch of land to read.”
“That’s my town.”
He nodded. “Exactly. I knew then that I had to come here. After all the people left, though—I get enough of crowds in New York. So I put in my two weeks notice, subletted my apartment, and came here.” He looked at me, almost sheepishly. “I just wanted to be surrounded by books for a while.”
I paused, letting his story sink in. Finally I grinned at him. “Didn’t know you had that many words in you.”
Nate smiled back. “Oh, I was quite the talker back in the city. It’s the stillness of this place that quiets me, I think.”
I squeezed his knee and stood up. “Well, don’t let me get in the way of those books any longer. We’ll chat more at lunch.”
I hadn’t asked him why he chose my little shop, but a part of me didn’t want to know. I liked to think that people were drawn to my store by some intangible aura, some sort of literary pollen sprung from the spines of my books. I didn’t want him to know why he came here.
I was watering the plants just after noon when Kyffin thumped down the stairs.
“Looks like rain,” he grumbled.
I rolled my eyes.
Instead of marching out of the store, Kyffin surprised me by walking over to my desk. “That boy’s still here.”
“He’s still buying books.”
Kyffin looked over his shoulder. “Rubs me the wrong way, he does.”
This pleased me to no end. “Oh really?”
“What’s he after?”
“Books, I think.” I leaned forward and looked him in the eye. I could smell the musty odor of the attic on his clothes. “What’s this all about?”
Kyffin snorted. “I don’t really care. Just that Elsi was asking about him yesterday. Made me realize that it’s a bit suspicious that one customer keeps coming back day after day.” He tapped on the cash register. “Keep an eye on things.”
With that, he turned and left the store. He needn’t have said more; his intentions were obvious. Elsi had inquired about Nate, and Kyffin wanted the young man gone so he’d be the sole focus of Elsi’s attention. I shook my head at his transparency.
I had stood by and watched while Elsi wrapped Kyffin around her finger the last two years. Are all married woman as complacent as me? Is part of our biology to look the other way when our husbands’ eyes wander, to let ourselves be replaced by younger women when our time is up? I never used to hesitate to throw a punch or two back in primary school when a boy called me a sissy. Now I didn’t even bat an eye when Kyffin followed Elsi up the stairs. Maybe I didn’t have any fight left in me.
I sighed and saved the page in my book, not a word of which I had read. I rang the bell. “Lunch?”
I’ll post part 4 next week!