A Bitter Draught
(Excerpted from Tales from a Spacious Place)
By Elizabeth Frerichs © 2012
Available Now on Amazon.com
(You can read the rest of this story on Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature)
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. ~ Ephesians 4:30–32
I tapped my foot, waiting for the elevator. It’s just a day. Get through it and tomorrow will be better.
The doors opened—thank God the elevator was empty! I sagged into a corner, then risked a glance at my reflection in the mirrored walls. I grimaced. Even with every hair in place and one of my favorite outfits, something about me still screamed my distress. The elevator dinged and stopped at the 10th floor.
Mrs. Dodd stepped in. She was a kind, motherly neighbor. I knew her in passing and couldn’t just ignore her. I forced my pale features into a semblance of a smile.
“Morning,” I said. One could hardly call it a good morning.
She smiled, her laugh lines creasing. “Good morning. How are you today?”
“Oh, fine. How about you?” I glanced back at the floor indicator, willing it to hurry.
“Good! I’m so glad the weather is supposed to be nice this weekend.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?” she asked, her brow furrowed.
I opened my eyes wider and turned to face her. “Why yes, thank you for asking. What are your plans for the weekend?”
“We’re not sure. My son will be in town visiting. Perhaps we’ll go sailing if the weather holds.”
“That’ll be nice.”
I turned back to study the indicator. How much longer could this elevator take?
She took a half-step towards me, then put a hand on my arm. “I hear you’re still alone these days. Would you like to join us if we go sailing?”
I stiffened. Still alone? I hate living in such a small building! I glared at her. “No, thank you.”
Mrs. Dodd retired to her side of the elevator. “Is something wrong? You don’t seem yourself at all today.”
“I’m fine,” I snapped.
Her eyes widened, and the elevator doors opened. I smiled a sickly sweet smile and made my voice as light as possible. “Thank you ever so much for your kind invitation. Perhaps another time. I must be going now or I’ll be late for work. Have a perfectly wonderful day!”
Without waiting for an answer, I slammed out the front door and barreled towards the train station.
Stupid woman for messing about in my personal business! Stupid neighbors for gossiping! So what if I chose to live alone?
“De-struc-tion,” “de-struc-tion,” my footsteps pounded out on the pavement. I had once termed this day “The Anniversary of Destruction”; the name had stuck, even though I longed to forget.
I slowed, trying to change the pattern of my steps. Mrs. Dodd was right: the weather was lovely. The early spring sun shone in a gleaming sky. Blooming flowers had been set out along the sidewalk, and the air felt deliciously clean after last night’s rainstorm. It would normally be the sort of day that made me love living in the city.
But not today. If I couldn’t spend today in bed, the weather should at least be miserable. But no, it had to be a lift-your-spirits kind of day. Mrs. Dodd wouldn’t be the only cheery soul out and about.
Her look of hurt flashed through my mind. Why hadn’t I just held my tongue? Stupid day!
I sighed. Would I ever be happy again on this infamous date? Every year it came along and ripped the veil off my hurt and anger. The twin prongs of my own pain and his lack of punishment held me captive.
I hope he’s having a horrible day. He needs something to give him a good kick in the pants. That man refuses to change, despite his desperate need to do so.
I pictured giving him said kick if I saw him today, then shuddered. I didn’t think I could bear to see him today of all days. All these years and he hadn’t even apologized. It certainly wasn’t for lack of opportunity. The big lout hadn’t had the decency to go back to where he’d come from—never mind he’d moved here for me.
I started down the stairs to the subway, praying I’d be able to find a seat. Then I could feign sleep or absorption in a book. It never failed: on the one day of the year I most wanted to avoid conversation, random strangers hounded me. If I saw someone looking like a ticking time bomb, I would have the decency to leave them alone.
All at once I realized not a soul was in sight. I checked the clock, worried I was late. 7:16 a.m. Right on time. Strange for this time of day, but definitely welcome. “They really need to check the lamps down here,” I muttered. The one in front of me was putting out a heat haze. I wheeled ’round the corner, then stopped abruptly.
The concrete steps had been replaced by a steep, wooden staircase. Narrow and uneven, it was not the sort of route to take at breakneck speed. However, the lanterns that hung at regular intervals revealed it was in good repair. The walls, too, had changed. I now stood in some sort of sloping, stone tunnel. It didn’t look like the subway at all.
I looked back up the way I had come. A wrought iron door barred my way. It was secured with a padlock, which seemed silly; I couldn’t see anything except blackness on the other side.
I gritted my teeth. Why, of all days, does this have to happen today?I picked my way down, one hand on the rough stone wall. Icy fingers crept down my spine as I noticed that the worn places in the steps fit my own petite feet. What is this place? It seemed so familiar, but like something from a recurrent dream.
The stairs ended in a narrow, stone passageway. I grabbed one of the lanterns at the bottom and proceeded cautiously into the dark space. At least thereweren’t any giant cobwebs festooned about. Still, it was like being transported back into medieval times.A path had been worn into the large, rough stones that formed the floor, and the stone walls seemed almost unworked. The air was humid and still.
Before long the passageway widened and I stepped forward into a large cave. Rows of glowing bottles lined the walls, and a wine rack stretched down the middle of the cellar. The strange greenish light filled the cavern.
I set the lantern down, then pulled out one of the closer vintages and examined the label: Hurt and anger from the driver who almost hit me—I hope you get pulled over soon. It had been bottled only yesterday and barely even glowed. Looking at it, I remembered the event and even recognized my handwriting on the label.
As I inspected the bottles, I noted the severity of the offense grew with the age of the vintage. I doubted the one from yesterday would receive the necessary care to preserve it for long. It wasn’t worth my time and energy.
I walked to the end of the rack and removed the oldest vintage. This one was labeled with only the date—today’s date, years ago. The pain had been too sharp for me to even put the incident on paper, as though, by leaving the label blank, I could make the ache disappear.
I sighed, wishing for the thousandth time that things could be different. If only it hadn’t happened. If only someone would do something to fix it. Despite the empty label, my pain remained as deep as the day it had occurred. If anything, it was worse, sharpened by the intervening years barren of judgment and recompense.
I’d lost count of the times I’d been told to forgive and forget. But how could I forgive if he refused to admit he was wrong? One would think God Himself would be offended by his continued lack of punishment, but evidently not. He was yet another person who hadn’t lifted a finger.
I examined the vintage again. My hurt and anger had fermented into a well-aged bitterness. It had become a thing of beauty, a silver lining in the midst of my cloudy existence.
Suddenly I realized why I was here. I lifted a thin chain over my head. It had a small, recently-emptied vial hanging from it. Both the chain and the vial were silver, dull and tarnished. I uncorked the bottle and unstoppered the vial. Just as I was about to fill it, I heard a man’s voice say, “I wouldn’t do that.”
I started and narrowly avoided dropping both the bottle and vial. I whirled about, trying to spot the intruder while juggling the vessels and their respective stoppers.
No one was there. Just my imagination. It’s the day. I’m extra jumpy today.
I resumed the exacting process of pouring my precious bitterness. This time I put the stoppers on the wine rack. Then, as I was about to tip my well-aged hurt and anger into the vial, the voice again warned, “I wouldn’t do that.”
“Who are you? And why are you in my cellar?” I called back, trying to sound stern and brave, but only managing to sound upset.
A tall man materialized out of the wall, like a whale breeching the ocean. I thrust my bottle behind me and backed into the wine rack.
“Someone who would help you. Why do you keep coming here?” he asked, as though I were a poor lost child.
I stiffened. “To fill my vial.”
“Why? Why keep it at all?”
“How else am I supposed to remember?”
He eyed my chain and grimaced. “Why do you need to remember?”
How honest did I want to be? I decided to focus on the righteousness of my anger, rather than plumb the depths of my pain—much easier to talk about. “Somebody has to! He ought to get what he deserves.”
He raised an eyebrow. “So you feel malice towards him? And you want to hang onto that?”
“No! I just want him to get what he deserves.”
“And drinking poison will accomplish that how?”
“It’s not poison! Do you have any idea how much work it takes to ferment such a fine bitterness? Just smell the bouquet.”
I handed him the cork, but it fell right through his palm onto the floor. A luminescent stain spread from where it landed. The stone floor began to hiss and smoke.
I stood aghast. “Look what you’ve done now! That’s going to be impossible to fix!”
“You seem very concerned about your cellar. What do you think that liquid is doing to you?”
I stammered incoherently, more enraged by his invasion of my privacy than anything else.
“Let’s look at your bitterness in a different light.” He held out his hand, then smiled, and his eyes sparkled with laughter. “This is your opportunity to prove me wrong.”
He really knew which buttons to push. I decided if nothing else, it was my duty to educate him on the importance of justice.I exhaled gustily. “All right, fine.” I refastened my chain around my neck, restoppered my bottle, then wiped my sweaty palms on the front of my pants and took his hand.