Upon entering the dance, Marcus was struck. Both by how fancy they’d made everything and how plain the buildings were back in Saint Cloud. He remembered some of the dance halls he’d seen in some of the smaller towns they’d occupied and how much grander they seemed, with no ornamentation added on. Like a girl who was still pretty with no makeup and after a swim. He smiled to himself and decided that wasn’t a bad criteria for determining if a girl was pretty.
Mid-way through the band’s second set, Schmitty saw Marcus’s tactical error and decided to gently correct his friend.
“I believe what we have here is what you Army boys call a strategic error.”
Marcus raised an eyebrow.
“Marcus, you’re back home in uniform there’s all these ace cuties and you’re sitting in the corner like a jerk. You should be thrilled to get on to ‘active duty’ now that your tour is over.”
Marcus shrugged. “Yeah, I get it. It’s just taking awhile to get used to being back home.”
“Dig man. That’s why we’re going to get you over to this group of girls and we’re gonna find one so you can remember what you’re fighting for.”
“Alright,” he said. “Let’s go.”
They walked over to the group of girls who were feigning entertainment in one of his friends attempts to entertain them with bad celebrity impersonations. Marcus found himself standing near a girl in a blue dress. She had dark brown hair done in the fashion of the popular movie stars of the day. After a few minutes trapped in the uncomfortable display, she leaned over to him.
“His Bogart is a really good impresson… of Cagney.” She returned.
Marcus smiled. “That’s nothing his Peter Lorre isn’t a half-bad James Stewart ‘You despise me, don’t you?’”
“‘Well, if I gave you any thought I probably would, see copper’” She returned. They broke out into really appreciative laughter at the back of the small crowd and like bad comedians everywhere Marcus’s friend redoubled his efforts thinking he’d been the cause of their outburst.
One of the girls, what Marcus remembers as likely being an ‘elective blonde’ turned and shot them a dirty look that seemed to say “great, now we’re never getting out of here.” Before putting her hand in Schmitty’s arm and whispering something to them. Schmitty nodded without ever turning back.
Marcus and the girl laughed even harder at how serious that reaction had been. He leaned to whisper in her ear, noting that she didn’t pull away as he did so. “You wanna dance?”
“I’d love to, she said.” They broke off from the crowd and made their way to the dance floor.
The dance floor at the Fairgrounds was abutted on the west end with a 200-foot circular bar, rumored to be the longest in the world. Marcus wasn’t sure about that, but he liked the sound of it. The floor was packed, the bands were some of the areas best and Marcus remembered having become friendly with the bouncers so he could get into the Tuesday shows, and how he’d snuck in to various clubs in the area, by dressing in his Sunday-best and carrying equipment for whatever Musicians were playing that week.
As they walked to the floor, Marcus found out the name of his new partner-in-crime. Rosemary. He liked the sound of that.
As a dancer, Marcus had been no slouch. Years of sneaking into clubs and avoiding the bouncer so he could hear the music had kept him on the floor dancing with older girls, many of whom had taught him a thing or two. Now, he was returning to his old haunt a man-grown and had a big head-start on the other guys.
Rosemary has a decent enough dancer. She didn’t have his experience, but she was one of the better dancers he’d run into in a long time. He put her through her paces, starting simply enough with some easier moves. She felt the space he was leaving her in the dance and she started to put more of herself into it. After a while, he put some more complex figures into the dance and she kept right up. By the end of the third or the fourth song, they had transcended moves entirely and were dancing as auxilliary members of the band. Expressing the music rather than just the beat and playing off each other like the Drummer and Bassist in a set of trade-8s.
It wasn’t until the end of the fifth song after some of the band members came down and played on the edge of the Jam circle that had formed around them that they noticed they had become the center of attention. Both Marcus and Rosemary had noticed the extra space they’d found, but were too focused on each other and playing in the dance with their newfound friend to give any sort of care to what was going on around them.
The crowd erupted in applause.
Marcus turned to the people around him, people he’d known his whole live and then turned to Rosemary, “What do we do?” he asked.
“Take a bow and scram.” Said the bandleader out of the side of his mouth. They did and did. Marcus took her by the hand and lead her through the crowd toward the bar.
“Can I buy you a glass of water?” he asked her.
“Such a gentleman!” she said. They laughed again.
The rest of the evening was spent talking in various dark corners of the bar, dancing on the edge of the floor and generally avoiding the rest of their friends.
“Now look here soldier, I don’t need to corner the market on you. You’re just returned from a tour of duty. I can let you get back to your friends.”
“Don’t you dare,” he said. Marcus was having more fun than he remembered having in a long time. “Them, I know already, you I’d like to know.”
“Yes sir!” She mocked a salute.
“It’s Sergeant.” He said. With a smile, remembering his old drill instructor Sgt. Wurm. “I work for a living.”
“Yes Sergeant.” She mocked a salute. He saluted back and passed her her drink. They had since moved from waters, to Coca Cola and made their way to the door with each other, straw sticking out of the bottle.
Marcus nodded to the bouncer. “Nick.”
They walked outside into the crisp autumn air.
“Winter is coming,” she said.
“It always is.” He said.
After awhile, they found themselves seated on a bench and he’d given her his jacket. They talked long into the evening and at one point Rosemary pointed with her bottle at the moon.
“If the world had any sense of romance or poetry, that thing would be full right now.” She said.
Marcus raised an eyebrow. “You think so?” he asked.
“Yeah, stupid ol’ sliver of a moon. No sense of style.” She said.
“Oh, I don’t know. Stars’re a lot brighter when the moon is out. The shadows darker.” She snuggled in closer. “Besides, anyone can find romance under the full moon, it takes real talent to find it when there’s no moon.”
“Or at midday,” she said.
“Exactly.” He said.
“Marcus?” she said.
“Hmm?” he replied.
“Tell me a story.”
“What?” he asked.
“Tell me a story. I feel so cozy and you’ve got such a good voice for it. Besides, I’ll bet you tell wonderful stories.” She said.
“Okay. Should I do the voices?”
She started and looked at him earnestly in the starlight. At least, he assumed that’s how she looked at him. It was really dark outside. “No. Voices.” She said. Before breaking into a grin. Even with no light, he could see she was smiling.
“Okay, which story should I tell you?” he asked. “The story of the Moon and the Sea, The Djinn’s heart, or The Bear Who Wouldn’t Sleep?”
“Ooh, I don’t know any of these stories.” She said, “You choose.”
“Oh no,” Marcus said, “I tell it, you choose it. That’s fair.”
“Hmm… Okay. How do I choose?” She asked. “I only get one?”
Marcus nodded. “Yep, if you want to hear the others, I’ll have to see you again sometime.”
“Ooh, tricky… … I guess in that case, I’d like to hear the story of the Djinn’s heart. Does it start with once upon a time?” She asked.
“Actually no,” he said and began to tell the story.
“Way back when, in the time of the first beginnings, the Djinn of all deserts was a proud being. The his spirit burned bright like the fire he was made of everywhere he looked, he saw Fire and Air and Air and Fire and little rock scorpions and great jackals and the insubordinate camel whose doleful eyes always made them seem put upon. He was proud of his land. Proud that his stern mastery made anyone who lived in his deserts grow strong. Each day, he would wrap himself in a whirlwind so he could go out and survey his domain.
“One day he dispersed the storm as he came upon an Oasis, and around the oasis, flowers… bloomed? In his desert? This was strange. The Djinn walked through this garden of delights and saw water running above the ground! Not carefully stored at the base of sand dunes as it was in his desert. But just running, anywhere it pleased and bubbling out from the earth.
“Shocked, and enraged, his flames burst from him, scorching the sand beneath him to glass. He was about to go forth and complain that this was no proper behavior in a desert, but something stayed him. It was music. Not the mournful aeolean whistle of the desert wind under the moonlight, no, nor the tempestuous crash of the thunder in his storms. This. Was. Different.
“This, was, singing? Someone was singing. It seemed to come from the center of the Garden and so, curious, the Djinn crept up until he could get a better look at who was singing in his desert.
“She was beautiful. You may think you have seen beauty, as did the Djinn, but there is a beauty that can only be understood by one who has lived his whole life in the desert and is seeing water for the first time. The Djinn was such a one. Her eyes were an almond shape and her scent was of nutmeg and cinnamon and cedar, her thick brown hair that framed her heart-shaped face.
“Suddenly his harsh mastery and dry wit crumbled in the face of the beauty of the water sprite. His works and his domain looked poor and hollow to him now- when not one hour before, he had been sure that they were the grandest edifice the world had ever seen.
“The Djinn grew warm as he leaned on the rock to hear better, and as he heated the rock it started to melt and pool at his feet. Embarassed and wishing desperately not to be found by the young maiden, he made his way out of the garden and departed for his home in the high up mountains to the east.
“Feverishly, the Djinn tried to get the thoughts of the girl at the fountain out of his mind and the harder he tried, the more clearly he remembered her eyes, or her hair or her scent. The sent of cloves and nutmeg and exotic spices seemed fit to drive him mad as he thought of her and wished he could have her for his own.
“For seven days and seven nights, the Djinn burned feverishly for his love. On the seventh day, something inside him broke. The Djinn felt around and he seemed alright. Then he reached inside himself and pulled out a small flame that had broken from the main body of his soul. Seeing it was a seedling of a fire, he breathed on it once, twice and three times before speaking to it in the language of Djinns and Djini and bidding it join the spirit of the Oasis with the beautiful voice.
“The little flame flickered its assent and it ran across the desert to find the Oasis of the singing waters. While on the way, it stopped in a small nest of a bird with two eggs. It warmed the one until it hatched and burst into the Phoenix, but the other did not hatch and indeed turned black as onyx and when it hatches no one knows what will come out.
“For three days and three nights it sped across the desert, leaving bits of glass like a breadcrumb trail whenever it touched down on the sands. At last it came to the garden and presented itself to then singing water sprite at the oasis and told her that he was the heart of the Djinn of all Deserts and the rest of him would soon come by to collect his heart, but since he could not bear to be away from her, would she keep him close to her so she could be warmed by him and he could be comforted by her song.
“The water sprite was overjoyed at this, she knew who the Djinn was of course and she was amazed that someone so important liked her song. She hadn’t known that anyone had heard her. Wishing this flame to be near her, she sculpted a fountain at the center of the garden and placed a small seat at the top of the spray of the fountain with room for the flame to rest. Then, she invited the little flame to sit upon the seat.
Pleased with her handiwork, she sat back to admire her creation. It now appeared as though a rose of flame and water had grown in the middle of the oasis. Her heart grew light as she went about the garden, nourishing the trees and plants as she prepared for the arrival of the Djinn.
“I’m sure you know that the Djinn, being bound never to lie was true to his word and on the seventh day he wrapped himself in his whirlwind and made to seek out the Oasis where his heart burned bright. He arrived just before midnight, and though he’d come when he could, his strength started to fail him. He’d been too long without his heart and a mile away from the Oasis, his whirlwind dispersed. He fell to the ground and his fire was snuffed out.”
Rosemary gave a little gasp at just the right spot, so Marcus couldn’t tell if she was being theatrical, or if she really was taken with the story.
“Minutes passed that seemed like days to our poor stricken Djinn. He was shaky on his feet. How could this be? He was the Djinn of all deserts, they were his to command. He reached for his strength but found his magicks were depleted. There was a light in the distance, the light, he knew, was showing him where he needed to go. Where he would find his love.
“While this was happening outside the desert, the Water Sprite saw the heart flicker and start to waver. This made her worried, so she collected dried leaves and twigs from around the garden, as well as a branch from a cedar tree. Then, hoping to help her little flame she fed it with the fuels she brought. Then she used oil from a lamp that had been left to her by a thankful merchant’s caravan and some linen- with them, she fashioned a torch.
“When she was done making the torch she noticed the flame was healthier, but it would not last long. So, she lowered the torch to the flame and decided to head out to the desert in search of the Djinn.
“The Djinn was not having an easy time of it at all. It is never easy to give your heart to one who is far away and he had done so foolishly! She was days travel away and ever since his heart departed, he’d had difficulties eating, sleeping and focusing on the work that sustained him. What had seemed a beautiful gesture to him only days ago, was now putting him through agony unimaginable. Every step burned, he was parched and dry- which he shouldn’t have noticed! He was the Djinn of all deserts, other people got thirsty, but he had never noticed before. He was strong both in body and will, and even a weakened Djinn is something to be reckoned with. Halfway to the oasis, however, the cold of the desert night (for it does get quite cold at night in the desert! Overcame him and he passed out from exhaustion).
“Out past her oasis, the sprite traveled. Risking the ire of many creatures of the desert who wait until nightfall to become active (to avoid overheating of course…) she ran out, letting the flame and the torch gently guide her- this practice worked for the torch, because of the sympathetic connection between the Djinn and the flame of his heart. Others who have heard this tale thought it was the stick that was special and tried to put this in practice. They are called dowsers, but if anyone has made it work without trickery- well, I have never heart of it.
“Just before the dawn of the 8th day broke, she crested a dune and saw the Djinn lying below the rise of the dune. Overjoyed, she ran to him and threw her arms around him (If you think this sounds strange, remember that in those days, people knew of the Djinns and other minor powers and showed them respect when they met them.) She bent down to lift him and found him light enough to carry. By mid-day they were back at the oasis, though he was not what you would call conscious. She lay him in the cool refreshing waters and placed the little flame on the rose sculpture in the center of the pool.
“While the Djinn was sick, she did her best to nurse him back to health, with poultices and herbs and nourishing soup broth and most importantly, making sure he was drinking plenty of fluids. After some days, he came out of the fog and realized where he was. In a cave, being kept warm by the flame that was once in his heart.
“When he was able to speak, the Djinn called to the flame. The flame did not come. Again, the Djinn called to the flame. The Flame did not come. A third time, the Djinn called to the flame. The flame did not come. His heart would not come. He grabbed the heart and tried to force the flame back, but despite all his power and struggle, the flame could not come. But why should it? His heart no longer belonged to him. As so many do, he had given his heart to the water sprite and the moment he sent it running across the desert to her, it was no longer his own.”
“Oh no,” Said Rosemary, “That’s so sad. What happened to the Djinn?”
“History does not relate what happened to the Djinn and the Water Sprite.” Said Marcus.
“What do you mean?” She asked.
“In some stories she was untrue to him and the resulting break in his heart left him as a shade, doomed to live a half-life wandering around in her garden, hoping for life but unable to find himself again after she locked away his heart as her personal play thing.
“In other stories, he found that while he could not replace the bit he’d given to her, but the longer time went one, the less he missed the part until one day, a new flame burst forth from his chest and he was able to leave the garden and go back to his home, until he found another oasis, where he was more wise about the business of giving away his heart.
“In still others, the water sprite found a way to give him her heart and went off together as a being of fire with a heart of water and a being of water with a heart of fire. Each providing for the other, what they could not provide to themselves and each growing more in strength and character because they found someone who balanced them. Each becoming better than they could be without the other, because of the other.
“Which of these endings is true, you ask? I don’t know, but I think that every possible version of this story happens again and again, until the Djinn and the Sprite find a way to share their hearts as well as a way to take care of each other.
“I did not expect a story like that Sergeant.”
“No, where did you hear it?”
“Made it up.” Said Marcus.
“It’s beautiful.” She said. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”
They would have sat longer, but someone was leaving the party early and turned on their headlights, blinding them temporarily. The spell was broken. They both realized they were cold and went back to the dance a little dazed, but feeling good.
Rosemary was met at the door by her friend Agnes.
“Oh thank goodness you’re alright Rose!”
“I’m fine, what’s the matter?”
“What? We thought the worst! You disappeared over an hour ago. We’ve been looking everywhere. Last anyone saw of you, you were heading off for a drink with a soldier!” She whispered both drink and soldier in a way that managed to convey the disreputable reputation of both.
“Ahem” said Marcus.
Agnes froze looked up from the conspiratorial crouch used by busybodies everywhere. Marcus smiled.
“No, do tell me,” he said gravely, “I’d love to know what they say about soldiers,” He winked surreptitiously at Rosemary, “I’d like to know.”
Agnes flushed a bit.
“I’m not trying to be pushy, after all, other people’s business certainly isn’t my business, but you see… no one ever tells people what ‘everybody knows’ so I’m asking.” He smiled again.
Agnes’s flush crept downward toward her neckline and clashed terribly with her peach dress. Just then, Rosemary broke the tension.
“Marcus, I’d like you to meet my oldest friend, Agnes. Agnes, I’d like you to meet my newest friend, Marcus.” She said.
Marcus extended his hand warmly. She took it.
“Please to meet you Agnes.” He said, “I hope there are no hard feelings.”
She nodded, still too embarrassed to speak.
“Maybe save me a dance later?”
“Agnes, I’ll come join you guys in a bit. Marcus and I were just going to finish up our conversation.”
“I will. Join. You. In. A minute.” She said with some authority. Marcus liked her more, he decided and something inside him cracked. He patted his uniform absently wondering what he’d imagined.
“Bye Agnes,” said Marcus, as Agnes left. Once she had gone, Rosemary turned back to Marcus.
“That was mean.” She said. Marcus noticed however, she was smiling.
Marcus smiled back.
“She’s your oldest friend?” He asked
Rosemary looked uncomfortable.
“Yes, but… well… I”
“Don’t like her much?” he asked helpfully.
“Can’t stand her.” Said Rosemary, “She’s so rude, always sticking her big nose in other people’s business and claiming it’s for their own good.”
“I think we’ve all got friends who think they mean well, but end up being kind of annoying,” he said.
“You still shouldn’t have embarrassed her like that. It wasn’t very nice.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” he said with a smile, “I probably shouldn’t have done that. I just couldn’t resist.”
She smiled back. “Just because it was funny, doesn’t mean you should’ve done it.”
“Well, not yet. But I will be. Right now I’m in medical school and everyone thinks I’m going for my MRS, when I’m really going for my PHD.”
“Wow, good for you! What are you studying?”
“Chemistry. Why, You don’t think it makes me unfeminine do you?”
“Nah, but then I’m a bit weird. My mom was a suffragette. Growing up on the farm, all the girls had to do the same work as the boys. Why shoudn’t it be the same as in town?”
“You’re on the level? You’re not just pitching woo?”
“Why would I? If you’re studying, you’d be smart enough to see through that foolishness. Besides, if you finish medical school, you should be too busy for some guy to snap you up before the war is over. Believe you me, I am in favor of anything that keeps you from getting hitched before I get back.”
“Oh I see, well… I should have expected strategic thinking like that from a brilliant commander like yourself.”
“Thank you doctor.” He clicked his heels together and make a stiff mock bow.
She made a slight curtsey in return.
They exchanged addresses and made their way back to their friends. Despite her initial suggestion that he wait by the mailbox for her letter, he insisted that any trade should be an even trade and that neither one should have the advantage of the other. For the rest of the night, they didn’t dance with each other, both aware they’d created enough rumor-fuel for one evening.
Marcus was elated. He felt so good in fact, that it wasn’t until he got home that he realized Rosemary had walked off with his heart.