Gerti the Original was a pleasant and attractive young woman, despite her mother's, the tavern keeper, character. Her unmistakable and usual way of dressing, with her bodice, matched the chestnut color of her slightly wavy hair and the brown of her eyes. She exuded a certain aura of optimism and was undoubtedly a daring young lady; although those of us who knew her knew that beneath that tough exterior of a girl who could endure anything, there was a fragile child seeking the shelter of a protective figure.
Gerti and I were childhood friends. We used to play pirates when we were kids and sometimes got into some mischief on my father's ship. As for her mother, Gerti the Tavernkeeper became cantankerous when I decided to dedicate myself to the ancient arts; until then, she had treated me as if I were her son. She was a woman in her forties, with a pleasant appearance and delicate features that barely did justice to her true nature. The imprisonment of her husband had taken a toll on that well-known family; so both Gerti were forced to take the reins of the family business, the Clena tavern, the place where I found myself today to celebrate her twenty-first birthday.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” I exclaimed to the crowd while bowing. “I am pleased to be here, with all of you, and especially,” I pointed to my friend, “with our dear hostess.”
I didn't expect applause, but some people were whistling and shouting my name: Farg. My friend's expression remained stiff and expressionless.
“I know many of you did not expect my presence, or even that I could surprise you.” I looked around to see if they were still watching me.
Would I be able to surprise Gerti? My absence in Clena over the past few years deserved an explanation. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but she and I knew that at this point, neither pictures nor thousands of words would be enough. I had to console myself with being invited to the party.
I had recently returned from Cénit, after five intense years studying ancient arts. There, I had been instilled with a series of commandments, the most basic of which said: “Each person is attuned to a unique element, it's natural, so never try to master them all.”
“You, come here,” I pointed with my finger to a boy of my same age.
The others looked at each other, giggling, somewhat shy. As he stood by my side, I extended both hands and brought them close to his face.
“Don't be scared, don't move and…” I whispered.
A blue glow emerged from my fingers as a dense beard made of ice grew on his face. With his hands, my subject touched his new appearance and laughed.
“It's not noticeable at all! How is that possible?” he exclaimed.
People started clapping as the guest returned to the crowd. Some touched his beard with curiosity and surprise, but my friend, Gerti, just made a discreet grimace. She was never a fan of magic, quite the opposite.
“Who's next?” I extended my hands, pointing at the group of people in front of me.
“Me! Me!” The mix of excited voices fought to stand out among the crowd.
After pointing at a trembling girl, she approached me cautiously.
“An angel like you shouldn't be afraid of me,” I whispered in her ear.
The young girl laughed discreetly, and before she could react, I prepared my hands again. This time, they lit up in orange. Two magnificent wings of fire appeared on her shoulders, illuminating the entire tavern and the surprised faces of the guests.
“Don't be scared, it doesn't burn.” I passed my hand through one of the wings and invited the girl to return to the crowd.
As she walked back, slowly and confidently, people tried to touch the wings. After a moment, applause and whistles filled the famous tavern in Clena. This time, Gerti smiled and even dared to give me a round of applause. A tingling sensation ran through my whole body as I recognized that sparkle in her eyes. I think it was time to try the final trick.
I could generate a small tremor; freeze or make water flow; light a wooden stick on fire; create a breeze or even provoke a tornado. Indeed, my element was air. I could dedicate myself to fishing and sail without wind, the dream that my friend and I shared, but years and distance came between us. I had only one chance to win her back and regain her faith in me, but for that, I had to gather all my confidence.
“Well, the moment we've all been waiting for has arrived,” I said as I approached the audience.
The crowd parted as I approached, as if they were forming a corridor that led me to her, Gerti, who stood up with a mug of beer.
“I told you I would keep my promise.” I grabbed her hand when I reached her.
Our gazes connected for the first time in a long time. My heart was beating so intensely that I could feel my throat vibrating. As if the tension weren't enough, I had to add to my nerves the arrival of a group of men, among whom was Trevor the Lumberjack.
“Her first year,” I pronounced slowly, “after turning twenty.”
Gerti was the protagonist of this scene, the perfect moment to create an unforgettable memory.
“Let's toast to Gerti!” I directed her other hand to raise the mug.
The crowd joined in and everyone raised their beers. At that moment, the glass of my friend's mug lit up in a beautiful turquoise hue. Her drink froze as it rose and took the shape of a huge and lush bouquet of flowers. The magic of the show echoed in the form of applause. Gerti's face lit up like the sun as the applause enveloped us. I had rehearsed that trick many times, but the way she dazzled me was completely unexpected.
“What a cheap trick!” I received a blow on my shoulder.
Trevor had deliberately bumped into me, causing me to lose my concentration. This caused the bouquet to melt, resulting in a shower of hot beer over my friend and the guests.
Her wavy hair clung to her shoulders, partially obscuring her horrified face. With her mouth agape and her shoulders slumped, my friend lowered the hand that still held the pitcher. She did it carefully, even though there was nothing left to spill. Her gaze of hatred shattered my heart, if there was anything left of it after ruining her birthday party.
“For… the gods, Farg,” she muttered timidly, but with a tone of contempt.
“Gerti, forgive me, it was an accident.”
My hands lit up, pretending to evaporate the mess as soon as possible.
“Enough, Farg! Enough!” She stepped back, extending her arms towards me.
Much of the audience had been splattered by the disaster, and what was once applause turned into boos and insults.
“I don't want you to use magic in front of me ever again, is that clear?” my friend declared.
“Please,” I pleaded before being interrupted.
“You heard her, get out of here.” One of the guests intervened.
“Move aside, I need to talk to her.” I tried to make my way through. “Gerti! Wait!”
My embarrassed friend disappeared into the crowd to avoid me following her. I realized it was time to accept my failure and go home with my tail between my legs. I made no further attempt to undo the mess. My friend hated magic, and once again, she was right. The ancient arts had driven us apart five years ago. Just when I thought we could finally be together again, magic had come between us once more. Working on my father's fishing boat while she took care of the tavern had become a teenage fantasy, a plan on which we could never seem to agree on how to execute.
“You're not man enough for her,” Trevor jeered as I passed by.
I returned his gaze with absolute indifference. Blaming him wouldn't get me anywhere; I had chosen this path myself, away from my friend. I had condemned myself to wander in solitude, driven by my obsession with legends and Zodiacs.
The time passed, and nothing less than two years were enough to remember that birthday party as the straw that broke the camel's back. A turning point in my absurd existence.
When I decided to study at Cénit, I invested all of my father's inheritance, before he disappeared who knows where. My return to Clena was supposed to be the catapult to a new life, one with my friend, our dream future.
My social exile arrived, my dignity was so violated that I was terrified to look anyone in the face again. Every day I cursed all my bad decisions: the surprise for my friend, my absence, distancing myself from her side, my father, the ancient arts, and even the fact of being born. Frustration took hold of me. Once I had exhausted my last coin, I sealed my fate; I ceased to be Farg the Fisherman's son and became Farg the Beggar. The one who used to live in Loin the Fisherman's old house was now a beggar wandering through the town seeking charity, a charity that no one pitied. Did I ever share my wealth when I had the chance? Besides being indigent, I was also a fool. No one spoke to me.
Little by little, my house turned into a ruinous hut. My appearance, let's say, matched my new name. The lack of cleanliness and repairs gave me the appearance of an elderly destitute person, covered in grime, with my face buried in a dirty beard and disheveled mane. It was my punishment, my penance.
The hope of having a normal life vanished with my father's last lie, written in his hand, claiming he would come back home to share with me a discovery that would change the world. My second chance, Gerti, was nothing more than an unattainable dream. If there was one thing I was good at, it was distancing myself from the people I loved.
“Not a single crumb of bread,” I said to myself as I rummaged through the pantry.
What was I doing in this world? I was nothing but a caricature of someone I once was, someone I no longer tried to become.
Several years later…
It felt like a parallel reality, a cruel joke. I was heading to the tavern to break my childhood friend's heart again. Today I looked renewed, cleaned up, and once again resembled the old Farg, though still as poor as ever. Enough years had passed for me to muster the courage to bury my past once and for all.
I had met an incredible woman, and ever since, I have been preaching eternal gratitude for second chances. Over a woman? Never! But what happened with this girl made my heart beat with excitement again. Although I had died inside more times than I would have liked when I became the beggar of the town; the friendship and camaraderie that bonded me to Iris, my companion in this capricious and ruthless world, was a feeling hard to compare; impossible to explain. I was poisoned by her presence, an addictive toxin that kept me from stopping thinking about her.
I had regained my friendship with Gerti, but Iris's arrival in our lives awakened dormant emotions in her, an appreciation that would never compensate for my past suffering, a sudden love that would never make the reunion that should have taken place long ago come true. However, my affection for my friend prevented me from hurting her feelings, and that's why Iris gave me an ultimatum: “either you tell her, or I will.” That's what brought me here, to the doors of the tavern.
“Why have you come? My daughter has nothing to talk to you about, you filthy wretch,” greeted Gerti the Tavernkeeper from inside. “Go rot in your house, or whatever is left of it!”
The window on the upper floor opened, revealing the serious face of my friend, who leaned out because of the commotion caused by her mother.
“Come up,” Gerti ordered me abruptly.
I entered the tavern, harassed by the piercing and cutting gaze of the Tavernkeeper. Once I reached the stairs behind the bar, I swallowed hard. There was no turning back.
The sound of my footsteps on each step was deafening, as if counting down the remaining seconds of hope in Gerti's heart. Do I look like an executioner? It hurt me as much, if not more, than her. Countless memories flooded my mind, fighting to make me doubt and cling to a new opportunity with her. Happy moments from our childhood, playing pirates, Fargo and Gértula, on my father's boat; the night of the promise, watching the sunset; the time we both engraved her initial on our shoulders… I hope she forgives me for this.
When I entered her room, Gerti was sitting on her bed, wearing a pristine nightgown. On the bedside table next to her, there was a cup of water and a lit candle. With her head bowed, she kept her gaze fixed on the outside, through the window. It would be dark soon, and I guessed she was about to go to bed. I knew it had been a complicated and confusing day for my friend, so sleeping early and avoiding thinking was her best way to prolong ignorance.
“Gerti…” I choked up when I saw her empty face.
I closed the door and went to hug her, and she returned the embrace with strength.
“Farg, I know what's between you two, I've always known, and I've never done anything to stop it!” she said between sobs.
It hurt to see Gerti like that, she was deeply distressed about what had happened at the lagoon. She clung to me as if we would never see each other again, and I felt my shirt shoulder dampen with her tears. In a way, she had saved me a lot of trouble, but I couldn't do the same to her as she had done to me.
—Gerti, I'm sorry you have to live through all of this, but it's been too long for you to come at me with reproaches now.
—I've always wanted to be by your side, but I never had the courage to put my pride aside and come to your house to show you that —she said as she caressed the “G” marked on my shoulder—. You looked different than I remembered, and I was afraid that you wouldn't be the same Farg I was hoping to find.
—I stopped being the same because I felt lonely and abandoned. You should have come when I needed you and kept your part of the promise!
Gerti started to cry, and I realized that she had loved me at the same time she decided to avoid me; I had to acknowledge that for that reason she would only have me in her distant memories.
—I'm not concerned with all that anymore. Now that I've seen you with Iris, I felt like I was losing you forever, something I will never forgive myself for, for all the times I've despised you.
—Despite what you may think about Iris, she was the one who reached out to me when I required it.
—I know I have no right to say this, Farg, but I required all this time to realize that I truly love you. No one has made me feel the same way you do, and no matter how much I try to forget you, every waking moment, your presence will always make me live in this illusion.
Gerti moved away from me, got up, and brought me the cup that was on the table.
—Show me that trick, please —she pleaded as she sat back down next to me, looking into my eyes.
I grabbed the cup and stopped to reflect as I looked at the water it contained. How beautiful was that memory when I ran happily to the tavern to surprise her with a magic trick, and not just once, I also ran to her tavern two years later for a second chance: both times I was rejected. I couldn't help but shed some tears as I remembered those frustrating and painful events.
—Gerti, I've been struggling a lot. I wanted you to come to my house, I wanted to see your face when you saw my magic trick, but you've stabbed my heart so many times that it would take a thousand years to overcome this agony.
I felt sorrowful, as it was the first time I was forced to confess everything to her, and it hurt so much to do so that it felt like I was bleeding after tearing out those thorns. My distress was reflected in the bottom of that cup as a tear slipped and fell into it, reminding me of the same ripples I used to love watching when I threw stones in the pond in the grove. I wished I wasn't there, by her side, living the reality that we should have faced so many years ago; I just wanted to escape from there and find some peace to rest from the events that had taken place in the last few days. When the water settled, I saw my reflection on the surface again. What once existed between Gerti and me had dissipated, just like those small ripples in the cup.
“You're not the only one crying for losing me,” I said in a mournful tone, “I'm also crying because I've lost you.”
Gerti was frozen, her heart must have shrunk because she seemed unable to utter a word.
“You're right,” I continued without giving her a chance to recover, “I am not the same anymore, now I am Farg the Beggar. Fargo and Gértula never came to be because you let them die in your memories, so don't dare to think that Iris is to blame for your misery.”
“Seeing you two together is very painful,” she said in a weak voice.
“I hope you never feel true pain because I wouldn't want to see you suffer like I have. But it wasn't you who came to heal my wounds, it was her.”
I stood up from her bed and placed the cup back on the table.
“I'm sorry, but for the trick to work, it needed more than just magic,” I said as a farewell. “I've been waiting for you for too long, now it's my turn to be waited for.”
Gerti still had a vacant gaze, fixed on the ground, as I opened the door to leave her room. I didn't say anything else, assuming that there had been enough reality for both of us, and I wanted to avoid trampling on her feelings, just prevent her from having false hope by remaining obsessed with a ghost. I closed the door slowly, not wanting to seem harsh, when suddenly I heard Gerti's heartbroken voice from the other side.
“I've lost him forever.”
I waited a few seconds, in case she said anything else, but she must have realized that I was still nearby. She would never achieve anything by loving me in secret, as Trevor said the other day.
I descended the stairs and saw Gerti the Tavernkeeper cleaning the tables. It must have been some absurd habit to keep herself busy because soon enough the tables would be “clean” again, just like the day before.
“Leave my tavern already,” she grumbled, “you're contaminating it with your foul smell that not even the passage of time can get rid of.”
And that's what I did, I left the tavern where I was no longer welcome at certain hours. I left my childhood friend with a broken heart, crying in her bed as if she had lost a loved one forever. This must have been the last straw for her. I cursed myself as I made my way to the inn.
I had just gone through one of the most uncomfortable and difficult situations of my stupid existence, ridiculous as it may seem, and I didn't know how Gerti would face me tomorrow if she even showed up. If I hadn't met Iris, maybe I would have spent all this time alone, I'll never know, but that's how fate had wanted it, and I had to accept it to live in eternal peace in the present.
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