Shirtless, Rainer Slate stumbled through the open front door of Batter’s Apothecary in Shoal Lake, fell face down onto the oiled wooden floor and passed out. Borden Batter paused at his mortar and pestle, peered over his round glasses and surveyed the prone lout.
“Glynnis!” he shouted. “Someone’s here to see you!”
Glynnis knew exactly who her visitor was by the tone in Batter’s voice. With sweat trickling into her eyes from a mid August heatwave and a swollen lip she’d bit minutes earlier throbbing angrily, Glynnis paused, listened and slumped her shoulders in resignation.
“Idiot,” she groaned to herself.
She felt only slight relief at getting away from the stubborn nut press that was supposed to extract oil from almonds for salves and unguents but fought her every turn. Glynnis split the heavy brocade curtain, peered into the store and saw her half-naked unconscious husband.
“Idiot,” she said stepping around him. She bent and turned him over; a small trickle of blood ran from his lip.
“Rainer. Rainer!” She shook the unconscious man, his big head lolled back and forth on his broad shoulders, tongue slavering his chin.
“Rainer!” she shouted. There was a flicker on Rainer’s face, a sliver of consciousness passed through him. She shook him again. Blood from his lip spattered on his bare chest.
Borden Batter stood over the sorry pair, pudgy hands on his hips protecting his kidneys from the sad tableau he saw below him.
“Rather like a large drunk puppy, wun’tcha say, Glynnis? I can smell the hooch from here. The Portuguese have a saying…”
She cut him off. “No more sayings Borden! You’re not helping. Rainer! Rainer!” Her voice become more frantic, her cut lip turned purple.
Rainer’s eyes flickered open ever so briefly then their brown richness disappeared again into stupor.
She let his head drop heavily on the floor. It landed hard with a loud thud.
The knock seemed to bring Rainer around.
“What’s burning?” he asked, sniffing the air, becoming more alert with each whiff. “Smells like wood smoke. You smell it too?” He was trying to get to his feet.
Glynnis and Borden both sniffed but smelled nothing, no smoke.
Rainer slumped back down onto his side. “The fire is making me warm and sleepy,” he said. He started to curl into a fetal position but Borden interceded.
“Oh no, you’re not passing out here again, ever!” Borden gave a quick boot to Rainer’s shoulder. This caused his body to unfurl enough that Glynnis could get him to his feet.
“Out the door. Come on, Glynnis. Let’s move him outside.”
“Yes, yes.” The disgust in her voice was undisguised.
Between the two of them, they managed to deposit unconscious Rainer with his back against the alley side of the livery stable two doors down. Before he turned back to his store, Borden Batter peered over his spectacles at Glynnis.
“You’ll never get out of here if you stay with him and he keeps up like this. As sure as there are pork chop bones at an Anglican picnic, you’ll be stuck in a shack with him and his gruesome family all your life. With how many babies? Oh, right, none. Because this one,” he pointed a haughty thumb at Rainer Slate, “can’t plant a seed.” Borden pursed his thin lips into a smile, which evolved into a leer as he walked past her.
“Don’t malinger. Store’s open,” he spat.
At that moment Glynnis couldn’t decide which of these two men she despised more.
“Ouch.” Coming to, Rainer suddenly grabbed the back of his head.
“That was five minutes ago. You’re just feeling it now? That’s how drunk you are? Idiot. Where’s your shirt?” Glynnis could barely look at her husband.
“Don’t get going on about that again. Nothing is…”
“If it’s not burning now, it will be.”
“You are just trying to spook me, Rainer Slate, you devil. You always have been good at that.” She ran her hand over his chest.
“I smell smoke. There is something else mixed with the smoky aroma, something subterranean, mysterious, even sinister. Something that tastes like it came out of a thousand-year-old bottle. Elegant mischief. I can’t actually name it. I am not able to name it.” He gently rubbed the back of his head. A small lump was forming. “Ouch.”
Glynnis was more than a little spooked now. Subterranean? Sinister? Elegant mischief? She had heard her husband speak mainly in monosyllables in the four years she had been married to him and the year she knew him before that. He was an uneducated lout, a description Borden Batter had applied, accurately, pathetically, to her hapless husband on every appropriate occasion.
“Why can’t you name it,” she asked, curious where this would go.
“Smelling the smoke is a memory. A memory from the future. A burning bush with berries hanging red and delicious, temptation’s fruit luring us back and forth, swinging like a pendulum.”
Slate suddenly stopped talking, his mouth agape. He looked at his wife. She saw a little fear in his eyes.
“Somebody is going to burn down Shoal Lake.”
He said it without thought or inflection, a voice from a subtle wise place within him.
“Somebody is going to burn down Shoal Lake.” His words echoed in the narrow alley.
“Damn that hurts.” He rubbed the growing lump on the back of his head and pulled his hand back to see if he was bleeding. There was a small red smear on his fingertips. “I’m bleeding. How did I get this?” he asked Glynnis.
“I don’t know,” hoping her disgusted tone would hide the lie. It didn’t.
“You must have gotten it when you fell in the store. Luck had it, there were no customers when you came in. Or dropped in.”
He knew she was still lying but chose to let it go. He laughed instead.
“I did drop in, didn’t I?” He smiled his unabashedly cute smile at her, which always melted Glynnis’ heart in an involuntary way she’d come to recognize as love.
Glynnis stared at her handsome half-naked man.
“I have such a headache,” Slate said wrapping his hands around his head as if it was a delicate glass bowl.
“Who’s going to burn down Shoal Lake?” she asked.
“I don’t know who but it’s because of politics, land, jealousy, greed, the usual reasons. I must lie down.”
Slate rolled onto his side and stretched out on the rutted dirt in the alley. He carefully placed his head to avoid contact with the swelling and closed his eyes.
Glynnis made no effort to keep her husband conscious. She let him go, let him sink to wherever he needed to be at that moment. She was spooked, truly, abundantly spooked. Who was this unconscious man at her feet who looked like her husband but talked like a professor? How can a fool be cured? What change had occurred in the past few minutes? What will happen next? These questions all suddenly, overwhelmingly, flooded into Glynnis’ mind.
She had to sit on her folded legs to accommodate the dizziness. She touched her husband’s trousers. They were damp and crumbly. She tasted the contents of a thousand-year-old bottle. Her vision became hazy, details dissolved in a fog of unrecognizable shapes. She heard a fond humming that made her feel nostalgic and happy. Some old songs all in a jumble, tumbling, crumbling then…she passed out.
It was the shrill voice of Borden Batter at his most furious. His hands gripped his sides so tightly his knuckles turned white.
“GLYNNIS! WAKE UP!”
Three weeks later, on September 10 1889, a stiff northwest wind propelled a fire from one end of North Railway Avenue to the other, wiping out eight businesses including two hotels, livery stable, general store and Batter’s Apothecary. The fire changed the shape and destiny of Shoal Lake, provoking businesses to open along Station Road, south of the tracks.