Sleepless In Mephisto
Mephisto’s empty mug hit the counter with a hollow thud, the universal signal for ‘more mead’ - especially so in a fine establishment like the Rotting Stump, where everyday exchanges such as eye contact or a loud fart could spark a fight the likes of which put poets to shame. The little town of Urgh had entirely too much testosterone to spare and precious few ways to spend it; if Mephisto were to count all the women within a hundred miles he’d need only the one hand, and it would be conveniently shaped to relieve him of that sad fact by the time he was done.
The only person seemingly exempt from this suffocating machismo was the owner-slash-Bartender of the Rotting Stump, who approached now with a full mug and a discerning eye. Despite never leaving his bar he was built like any two men in it, if they were to be glued together and fed nothing but whole goat every day for a year. If a fight were a chicken he looked perfectly able to pluck it and stuff it and serve it cold to the undertaker before happy hour was through.
There was a reason that not one chair or table was ever harmed in the making of a Rotting Stump fight, and if a bottle was broken then the breaker and breakee both returned the next day with welts on their heads and brooms in their hands. No-one dared upset the Bartender.
Yet Mephisto knew better than most that looks could be deceiving.
The Bartender stopped across from him and swapped the mug. The man wasn’t much for words, so he took his cleaning cloth and buffed the spotless counter to a shine. Any slab of muscle with two eyes could tell that something troubled Mephisto, but it took a kind man to lend a burly ear. And the Bartender never missed an opportunity to do drop sets with his heart.
Mephisto gave a slight nod - the masculine equivalent of bawling out a thank you - and said, “Have you ever loved someone so much that the rest of the world just ceased to exist? That you’d give anything, change everything, just to be with them?”
It was the Bartender’s turn to nod manfully, the masculingual meaning of which was a warm hug with a pat on the back. Memories of a life before the Rotting Stump returned unbidden. A single tear would have escaped down his cheek if not for the taut sinuous muscle of his eyelid.
“Did she betray you, too,” Mephisto asked, hiding a breaking of his voice with a macho cough and a brave pull on his beer. The Bartender responded by refilling the original mug and slid it back across the counter. With a stoic tucking of his cloth into his apron he urged Mephisto to continue.
“I must have been two or three hundred years old when I met her, I wouldn’t know without checking my own rings. Still a child really, among the ents. She was a sleek willow tree, with a lanky black trunk and long ungainly hair that billowed in the mountain breeze. She was an awkward thing, but then so was I - a young pine that hadn’t yet shed his needles. Our parents would have none of it of course; who’d ever heard of a willow and a pine falling in love?
“But that’s exactly what happened. Her parents soon cut her off and my own grew distant, I would visit just once a year to hold vigil on the holocaust that is Christmas. Eventually we began to bicker even then and so the last I saw my family was when my nephew was newly sprouted. He’d be a sapling now. I’ve never met him.
“None of that mattered though, because we had each other. On cold nights up in the hills we would huddle around a campfire, usually a lumberjack we’d caught and dunked in a tar pit. Her branches would rustle through my leaves and I would take her in whichever hollow wasn’t being nested at that very moment. She was neither quiet nor bashful and she would leave deep gouges in my bark when she was through. Half the forest would watch on, and we wouldn’t care.
“Until one day I returned early from my part time job holding a tireswing and heard the same needful moans I thought were my province alone. I saw it all, him above and her writhing in pleasure in the dirt. Like a common spruce. He had his… pecker… in her. The remnants of last nights fire still smouldered - they’d been at it since dawn.
“His long tongue jackhammered into her in time with his wingbeats, in and out and in and out. Lapping at that sweet, sweet nectar. I wish I could say I got angry, that I hurt them for what they did to me. But I didn’t. I just felt empty, like I had termites in my stomach. After that it went pretty by-the-books. She loved him, he could satisfy her in ways that I never could, she missed her family, he had pleasing tailfeathers. You know, the usual.
“And that was that. I wandered the dive ponds for a few years, drinking to forget. But I could never truly let her go. I hated her, but mostly I hated myself for still loving her. So I threw myself off a cliff and now I’m a lumberjack.”
The Bartender listened without interruption, as was his way, though he eyed the fresh mug of beer with a measure of regret. He had never seen an ent before, but he was fairly certain they should have leaves. And creak when they moved. And not be stark raving mad.
The man seemed harmless enough however, and a good barkeep doesn’t judge, so he threw a nod that said if you never open yourself to being hurt you can never truly love, I’ll keep the beer coming and you can sleep out in the stables with my tall-dog Jessup. Mannish didn’t yet have a word for ‘horse’.
The Bartender listened without interruption, as was his way, though he eyed the fresh mug of beer with a measure of regret. He had never seen an ent before, but he was fairly certain they should be covered in bark. And creak when they moved. And not be stark raving mad.