He asks, “What brings you to the estate?” and you know that you and your boyfriend are going to say different things.
“Fresh air, close sunlight,” Gregory says at the same time you say, “Relaxation, and the fountains,” and then Gregory laughs, and you smile, and the desk man smiles, and everybody is playful and winking.
But Gregory’s wrong, and you’re right. The fountains are the reason for the trip. Even now, he won’t speak it out loud to a stranger. Too ashamed, or fearful. He is always this way.
The desk man, whose name is Crow, leads you and Gregory to the cottage where you’ll be staying. The sunshine does feel close, and wonderful. There are hedges everywhere, and wild bent trees, and everything smells like a clearer, cleaner version of your mother’s perfume. Men are scattered around, some wearing white robes, most wearing nothing at all. They’re resting in the shade, hands on each other’s thighs, loitering by the flower beds and rain-sloughed statues, or cutting majestic swaths through the big blue swimming pool. Most of them are older than you.
There are braying sounds deeper in the groves at the edge of the lawn, and every so often a bush will shake and a high whistle of a laugh will float through the air.
“There are always fresh towels in the lobby and outside the bathhouse,” Crow says as he opens the door to your cottage. Huge masses of green vines cover the walls, spitting out pink and red flowers. Gregory looks behind him, two fingers nudging his glasses, and you realize that the cottage has a perfect view of the pool and the naked men swimming in it.
“There is someone at the desk at all hours except between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m., so please plan your lock-outs accordingly,” Crows says and hands Gregory the door keys. “We advise against the use of psychedelics at this elevation and encourage an open mind and healthy diet. If either of you have any questions—”
“Where exactly are the fountains?” you say, before Gregory can find a way to put it off. Crow looks to you, then Gregory, and you feel a lick of fear because it is clear that Crow, who has surely seen man after man, couple after couple, brave the altitudes and pay the steep prices to gain entry, knows exactly the weak kind of person you are with Gregory.
“The trail is at the end of East Garden. Up through the mountains, three miles past the temple ruins. The owner of the estate has made it very accessible.”
“Does it get confusing,” Gregory says as he tries to fit the enormous keys into his pockets, “or ineffective, or, whatever, if there’s other people with you?”
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Crow says. “Not many people in the summer season are looking to fall back in love.”
A crystalline splash makes you and Crow and Gregory look out the cottage window. A tall, dark-haired man emerges from the pool, naked and freshly shaved. Gregory nudges his glasses again before he turns to look at you. The look seems apologetic.
Or maybe the elevation has already thinned your blood, and you’re only imagining things.
The fountains are really basins, or pools, or something. You think “fountains” isn’t really the right word. The water burbles up from within the ground and has been doing so since the beginning, the Beginning-beginning, Crow says, geysering into the broken-tiled, scooped-out divots of earth where you and Gregory are soaking now. Early gloaming light is all around. From where you sit in the water, jagged rock driving up against your ass, you can see down into a deep valley. Dots of deer, pin-pricks of trees. The water is warm, steaming, and there is sweat dripping into your eyes.
You suggested holding hands, but Gregory said that didn’t feel sacred or meaningful enough. He thought the best way to do it was to sit at opposite ends of this fountain, or basin, or pool, backs turned away from each other. Some kind of ritual separation before the vapors wormed their ways into the nasal cavity to fix everything up.
Like Crow predicted, there is no one else around. “Is it working for you?” Gregory says.
When you close your eyes, the water feels less like water, and more like hot moss growing inside you. But you hold, waiting, because you’re not sure if you’re in love yet.
“I don’t know,” you say. “I feel warm.”
There is also the problem: will you be able to recognize the feeling of being back in love? Or are you only aware of what it’s like to be in love-love, the fresh kind of love that’s as obvious and immediate as a brick to the nose? Back in love seems more complicated. It could feel like anything. It could feel like hot moss growing inside you.
“How long do we give it?” Gregory says. He always loses patience first. But you need to stop thinking like that, like every situation is a test, or competition.
“Look at me,” you say. Gregory does. His wet hair is stuck to his forehead. You swim over and sieve your fingers through it. Gregory laughs. He moves close and places a hand against the back of your neck. His brine-y, sticky kiss stirs a little kick inside you.
Gregory pulls away and nods, like everything has been confirmed. “Yes,” he says. “I’m in love with you.”
The peace that empties through you is breathtaking. The rocks around you are humming. The light is fading in the softest way it knows how. Gregory’s hands are the same but new, wrinkled and soft from the water. You’re shedding old skins. The fountains did as promised. You’re both ready to be back in love.
There are a group of men in the cottage next to yours. They are screaming with laughter when you and Gregory return still wet from the fountains. The nights in this place seem not so much black, but more like that peeled blue darkness that’s as transparent as onion skin, and there are lights everywhere: in the trees and on the lawn, by hedges and groves. Little fires and hanging lanterns and fireflies sizzling against the forever sky.
The men are drinking heavy, honeyed wine outside. There are many of them. Their voices sound like music. They are beginning to take off their clothes and throw them into piles on the cool grass. A redhead with a beard tries to look at Gregory as he passes by, and two long-haired men holler at you, promising good drink and company. Gregory gives a small wave and you shake your head with a smile, following him inside the cottage.
He is the one to initiate the sex, which feels like a small, important miracle. His hands move over you in the ways you first told him you liked. Everything is opening up. The jangling voices of the naked neighbors press against the walls. There are lucid, bell-like splashes. It is midnight, and people are diving into the pool. You can see them through the window for a moment, before a group of men block your view. They watch and touch themselves, palms held against the glass. You’re reminded that the mouth is a warm thing. You always forget how lovely it is. You always forget there are some parts of yourself that are only and undeniably made for pleasure. As Gregory moves over you and takes you, everybody’s breath gets short: yours, firstly, then the breath of the voyeurs, then the neighbors next door, their sparkling musical voices turning into heavy pants, and then the men in the pool, who are lying on their backs now, moaning into the sky, and finally the rest of the scattered people wandering the grounds, who yelp like coyotes and fall into synchronization with your own ragged gasps.
You orgasm. It feels like love. You roll over and Gregory grabs onto you.
The people outside the window begin to drift away. There is stillness in this small, wooded world for a moment, and then the neighbors clink their flutes of wine and laugh again, but it is of no worry. The world can move on because you are asleep.
But you keep hearing those notes, those bits of indistinguishable, pleasurable conversation, even in your sleep. It’s not exactly dreaming. You know that it is 2:34, or maybe 2:35, because there is a goat outside the window. Its hooves clop against the side of the cottage. Its horns are large, lancing at the night sky. The goat is white and strong, sloping tendons in the neck connecting to a body that moves like something wild. The goat bucks, its black horns catch the light of the hanging lanterns, and it is 3:00 in the morning and somehow you’ve orgasmed for a second time.
When you wake, the edges of your eyes are hazed with morning fog. It is a pleasant thing. Like looking through smoky glass.
The sharp ends of Gregory seem to have curved and become soft to the touch. You suppose that your own coarseness, your razor pieces of ugliness, have dulled, or lessened, with this strange lover’s breath. You are happier knowing that Gregory is no longer seeing those dark parts of you.
He hands you bread and olive oil under the close sun. You sit in the South Garden, which is somehow lovelier than the East Garden. There are hyacinths of powder blue and hollyhocks that unfurl under the light like small, red dancers. There are thick beds of irises, replete with the sweet sneeze-y smell of nectar, and boughs of lilac that drip into your arms.
“We should bottle that water,” Gregory says with cheese in his mouth. “Take a shot of it anytime we’re feeling mad.”
“Has it already worked through you?”
Gregory grabs your hands and kisses you. “Of course not,” he says. “This time it’s forever.”
Through the haziness, you remember it was supposed to be forever the first time. But there’s something beautiful in second chances, too. Why else would you be here if you didn’t believe in that?
“Everyone keeps looking at you,” Gregory says. A couple of men are prowling by the bushes, walking past again and again, trying to make eye contact.
Gregory smiles, then grabs at his shirt and takes it off. He looks over at you, nodding. “I didn’t think that’s what we came here for,” you say.
“What do you mean? We’re here. We’re in love.”
He pulls at your shirt, but you bend away, hesitate, before finally doing it yourself. The sun is on your skin.
Gregory wobbles over on his knees, fumbling with his zipper. You help him, even though you aren’t sure what he wants, or what you want. But his pants are coming off, and then yours are too, and now you and Gregory are naked, like everybody else.
“Should we go to the bathhouse?” Gregory says. His cock is pale. You wonder if it will freckle in the sun.
“As long as we’re here,” you say, which does make a certain kind of sense. This is a good test. A way to be sure that the love will last through everything.
Gregory grabs onto your hand as everybody watches.
The bathhouse is a wooden lodge in the shady part of the estate. A few men are following you by the time Gregory opens the bathhouse door, his face scrunching in the blast of milky warmth released from within. He goes in, and you follow, and the others follow you.
It’s dim inside. At least the fountains had open sky. The whole time that Gregory kisses you, you are only aware of the heat around your body, like molten armor. A headache is growing, everything becoming a little blurry and lost. The other men grab your ass and someone is licking at your toes, which makes you giggle. You look at Gregory, woozy, and see a man suckering at his neck. Gregory meets your eyes as someone grabs your penis.
It should send you into a spiral, but they are anonymous men, and the guy jerking your dick doesn’t know how to do it in the way you like, like Gregory does, and it feels nice to know that he is not replaceable. You laugh even though nothing feels particularly good. That’s why it’s so wonderful, because no one knows what do with their hands or their mouths and in what places to put them. It is a whirlpool of fingers and teeth now, Charybdis’ maw, everything sucked into a fleshy vortex of sweat and skin.
Something throbs against your arm. Your hand goes to meet it, only to recoil. It is a goose-egg of a bump, beating like it’s coming alive. You turn and see a fleshy polyp bubbling on a man’s forehead. He puts his hand against it, as if to stop it from growing.
You’re not sure if you should say something, but a hand grabs your jaw so you are physically incapable anyway, and then a tongue lowers itself into your throat. Your eyes are open and a tall man, the tall, dark-haired man from the pool, is pulling at Gregory’s hand. They’re standing up together, intertwined, and the tall man is moving Gregory toward the door.
Gregory catches your eye and smiles to signal it’s okay—it’s okay that he’s leaving. The tall man leads him out, and you can’t say anything because another man is using your lips. Hot bursts of pleasure flare all over your body, at the points where the mouths of the remaining men attend to: ass and leg and groin and the ticklish part of your thigh. There are fearful, tangled brambles in your stomach, wondering where Gregory could be going, and why he wants to be with the tall man and not you. The fear is only matched by the rapture building inside of you, something it is difficult to detach yourself from. But there are visions running in your head, of Gregory drawn to the fountains with another, of Gregory’s eyes becoming less cloudy and able to see the ugly parts of you again, of Gregory leaving like he used to threaten to do, of you alone and in love with a phantom ache.
You stand up and stagger to the door, the men falling back into each other, filling the void you’ve left behind. It is bright daylight outside.
Gregory and the tall man are gone. There are only the woods and the path you first came here on.
Hooves clamor toward you. The sound is a wicked, metallic snap, like bars of iron cleaved in half. The tips of the goat’s black horns emerge from the shade and the animal begins to buck. For a second, it looks like it’s standing on its hind legs, height nearly equal to yours. It opens its black mouth and bleats, and the pitch rumbles through the bones of your shoulders, then down the rest of your body.
The goat lowers its knobby head, its hooves kick at the dirt, and it rushes off, back into the wilds of the woods, screaming like an out-of-tune flute.
It was a mistake to come here. This seems like a place where things are forgotten easily. You have to find Gregory, before you are forgotten, too.
You hope the blood will stop rushing to your penis, which is too erect for this search.
You are wheeling down the trail, knowing how ridiculous it is to be nude and looking this crazed, but the path veers off into a bower of hanging vines and it isn’t the way you came. There is a pond in front of you. No one is there, until a body falls into the water. A jowly man breaches with wild eyes as a big, black goose flies towards him, and then the two are enmeshed in some strange dance as the man screams and the goose honks. The man moves as if there is some greater force acting upon him, greater than the goose, which is pecking now, and then its spindly neck twists to stare into you, and there is a feverish chill of knowing in its eyes, because they are human and not those of a bird. You stumble backwards, tree branches cutting precise little marks into your skin, and run to the trail.
When you emerge from the trees, the neighbors are all there. They look at you and your dirty cuts with revulsion, or desire. It is hard to tell the two apart, harder than you would think.
“I’m looking for my boyfriend,” you say finally, breathlessly. “We’re in the cottage next
“Where’d he go?” one of them says.
“He left the bathhouse with a tall man,” you say, and the neighbors are already conferring with each other. They whisper and mutter before finally turning back to address you.
“It was a mistake to go to the fountains,” says the redhead.
“It wasn’t a mistake. We’re in love again.” Your neck is sunburnt and getting redder every moment.
“Why?” another says. “No good to be in love here. Why do you want that? Why do you want that?”
“Because I love him,” you say.
The neighbors laugh. “No,” the redhead says, “or yes, who knows, who cares. Why does it matter?”
You almost laugh yourself, because it is so obvious, why it all matters. You open your mouth to explain, and then realize that you don’t know what to say.
“Why does it matter?” he says again. Pond water is splashing behind you. There is yelling and geese-ly honking in the woods.
“It matters because I love him.”
Gales of laughter.
“You’re a weak little thing!” they yell. “Is that all you can say? Are those the only words you know? ‘I love him, I love him, I love him!’”
You take off running as they continue laughing, try to think of something else, but now you aren’t sure that you do know anything else, if any other phrase has burned itself into your tongue the way those words have, like forked lightning. I love him, I love him, I love him.
There is madness on the lawn. You hear the screaming first, and then see the circle of men on their knees, surrounding somebody. It is one of the men from the bathhouse, the one with the bulging forehead. It’s growing, the bump is moving, bursting out from behind its owner’s eyes, and there are other spots on his body that are budding too. Pink, wrinkly mounds of skin pop off of him, like his body is boiling, and though there is no blood, there is pain and horror in his sounds, which are too animal and too close. The other men can do nothing to help, so they throw their hands up to the skies and wail, or spit on the lumps in hopes of stopping the redness, or the pain.
You are about to scream too because everyone is here except for Gregory, and the sun is poisoning your skin, and you cannot watch the man on the ground birth these hunks of meat any longer. You race past the men and throw your body into the pool, and it is a shock of cold. You break the surface and keep swimming, away from the men on the lawn and toward the South Garden, but the day is not day anymore. You can see Crow with a stick of fire as he goes to light all the lanterns, whistling as he does it, but he won’t look when you yell his name, and then he is gone, far out into the darkness, lighting fires as he goes.
Your clothes should be at the garden, at the garden, but they are not there. The scent of flowers is stronger in the night air, distilled into a fragrance deep and intoxicating, but there are no pants to be found. Naked you go. You’ve given it all up, so you start yelling out loud “Gregory! Gregory!” and hope that he will hear you, and that if he hears you, he will answer. The other visitors, the other men, aren’t on the lawn any more. It’s only you out here, trying to come up with new things to think about besides the torn-up feelings of love for Gregory that are cutting at your ribs like old, bent scissors. But what else can you think about? Isn’t love fighting against everything? But isn’t it supposed to be easy? If you had clothes on, you would have a calm and sound mind. You could tell the neighbors exactly why it matters that you love him. You could explain that he is all you have, or want, you could tell them that if his love is gone then everything beautiful about you is gone, too. Your mind is on fire. He never loved you, or he did and then didn’t, he faked it in the fountains because that’s what he thought you wanted, or maybe he loves you still, maybe it doesn’t matter and never did, maybe you shouldn’t love him, maybe you should stop fighting for it.
The lights are on in your cottage. You are breathless and bloody and about to pass out, it feels like, and you dart up to the window to look inside, and of course Gregory is there and fucking the goat.
Its white beard is in his mouth, and Gregory’s spit wets it, flattens it. He pulls away and moves his hands through the prickly hair of the animal before grabbing onto its haunches with his big hands, pulling it closer towards him. The goat bleats, calls for Gregory, and he moves his mouth to the bristly snout. He kisses the goat’s black gums, licks its crested teeth. He moans as he does it, his penis rubbing up against the animal.
The door is locked. You bang and bang and bang, not knowing what you’re screaming, only knowing that Gregory needs to open up. He won’t, even though through the window you can see him and the goat scramble underneath the bedcovers. The goat’s hooves leave dirty black marks on the sheets.
You press up against the glass and yell, “I’m fucking coming in, there’s nothing you can do!” and take off running towards the lobby as the screams of the goat follow you. There is no solid thought in your head, only blood-hot steam that has yet to condense into anything comprehensible. It’s altitude sickness, maybe, this raging feeling of disease in your gut, or else some bathhouse malady that refuses to expel itself.
No one is in the lobby, because it is 2:34 in the morning. You shout out “Keys! I need my room keys!” anyway. Who will answer you? Not Crow, not any of the other men, who are still vanished, maybe having some orgy together, hidden off in the brush. You look around, desperate for some action you can take, but the only thing available to you is a twisted glass vase, so you throw it against the floor. Still no one answers you, and there is nothing else to break in the lobby.
There are voices outside. The men are there, in the brush. Bits of white flesh, pieces of arm and torso and ass, rise from behind the hedges. Fragments of bodies.
Exhaustion seeps through your limbs. You dream of collapsing onto the lawn. The men would retrieve you. They would carry you into the hedges and touch and lick you as you slept. It would be a dark and delicious thing to forget about Gregory, to let him fuck the goat and leave you behind.
But you can’t. That’s why the fountains were your idea. You could never let him go.
The men peek out from behind the foliage, from deep within the darkness, as you pass by. Everything smells desperately sweet and wonderful, like mock orange. You turn to the men and they stare back, solemn in a way you haven’t seen before.
The door to the cottage is open and Gregory is waiting, wearing the sweater you got for him. It’s too big. Did Gregory stop loving you because you didn’t know his shirt size?
“Please come in, babe,” Gregory says. “I want to talk.”
Any other desire to stay behind, languish away in sweet grass, dissolves like sugar. You go inside, and an ugly darkness flashes through you.
The goat is there, resting on the bed. It looks weak and rheumy. Now, you can see that all its wildness was only a glamour, a trick of the sunlight. There is nothing powerful in this bent and wrinkled animal.
“Why is he still here?” you say.
“That’s what I want to talk to you about.” Gregory moves next to the goat, and the two exchange a look. There’s the yap-yap-yapping of the neighbors again, and ugly laughter and noisy cheers. You wish it felt like a dream, but you can smell the goat, its rank earthiness, like chewed-up clover, and you can never smell anything in your dreams.
“Okay,” you say, folding your arms, even as you try to understand why you always give up the fight so quickly.
“I love you,” Gregory says, “I do, I do, I love you—”
His words sound true, you believe them, they move you to tears. “—but I love Victor too.”
It takes only a breath to realize that the goat’s name is Victor. It, he, Victor—the goat looks at you with wet eyes.
“We’re in love,” Gregory says. The goat’s hoof moves to your boyfriend’s hand, a gesture that communicates a kind of intimacy you didn’t think could happen so quickly.
“I don’t want this to change everything. Really.”
“Oh,” you say again.
“Please,” Gregory says. “I still need you.”
You look at Gregory, who nudges his glasses with worry. You look at Victor, who lets out a little pant, licks his teeth. You wish you could get just one moment of silence to make a decision.
And then, like in a blackout, the humming of the world stops. There are no grassy whispers of footsteps. The pool is calm and still. Next door, the neighbors have finally shut up.
You think high elevations just don’t suit you.
Now, back home, closer to sea level, your head feels clearer, despite some morning headaches. You wear lots of sunscreen. When men make eye contact at the store, all they want is the can of beans you’re blocking. There is sun, but there is also gray. There are blocks upon blocks of ugliness. It soothes your eyes.
And Victor isn’t bad.
Gregory loves you greatly, and he loves Victor greatly, too. You think you could fall in love with Victor, even if he hobbles on the sidewalk, no longer steady-footed like he was in the wild grasses of the estate. It’s what Gregory would want. Sometimes, when they’re out in the park together, you masturbate alone in the bed, and when you near orgasm, you take out your phone and look at pictures of Victor’s horns and his long snout and his plump, prickly body.
Soon, you’ll get as hard around the goat as Gregory does. You will.
It took a while for Victor to warm up to his new way of life. He’d buck around the kitchen, breaking plates. His horns rent through half your wardrobe. He would only go to the bathroom in the dark, shadowy corners of the house.
It was a terrible time. But it passed, and it became better. You stayed through it all. Aren’t you glad you stayed?
Now, the goat feels comfortable enough to shit in the living room. To show your love, you’re the one who cleans it all up.
WILHELM SITZ is a writer from rural Oregon. Now, he lives in Los Angeles with his taxidermied animals. You can read more stories in Sundog Lit, Rejection Letters, and Sycamore Review.