[Image Credit: “The Song of Orpheus,” Barnett Newman]
A. and B. met at a young professionals networking event. They discussed social media strategy, and each found the other attractive. She was a woman, and he was a man.
They exchanged phone numbers, became friends and followers and connections on various social media sites, and traded comments and texts. After an appropriate amount of time, B. asked A. to have dinner at a Moroccan restaurant. They ate chicken tagine and discussed their jobs, goals, families, and favorite movies and shows. The next weekend, after going to see improv comedy together, they spent the night at A.’s apartment, and in the morning, neither A. or B. was particularly awkward. Accordingly, they continued going to restaurants and events together, and soon they were spending most of their weeknights at A.’s apartment, eating food from Grubhub in bed and watching movies or shows on one of their Macbooks.
Months passed, and they reached the stage of their relationship in which they admitted to each other their fears and anxieties. They expressed these fears and anxieties in different ways, inflected by their different experiences and genders, but as they talked, they realized that they shared the same central anxiety: both A. and B. felt that in some crucial but inexplicable way, they were not adults.
They knew that they were, by most indicators, adults: they were in their late twenties, had graduate degrees, held jobs in their respective fields, and had accrued substantial educational and consumer debt. But they did not feel like adults. They could not believe that this—the thing that they were—was adulthood.
A.and B. had had these thoughts independently of each other for several years. At one time, they had even enjoyed having them: when they were twenty-three or twenty-four, they could still believe that prolonged adolescence was a sign of integrity or uniqueness. But they were older now, and they had reached the age when failure was no longer endearing or interesting.
But what could they do? Both A. and B. wanted to take some decisive step into adulthood, but they did not know what that step would be. They stopped using their parents’ Netflix passwords and signed up for their own accounts, which added to their substantial consumer debts, but did not make them feel any more adult. They rescued a small dog—a pug, which turned out to have a serious breathing problem. A. and B. fed it, and listened to it wheeze, and felt a vague constant pity for it. But this did not make them feel like adults either. Even responsible children had pets.
There was, of course, one decisive step that they could take—the obvious step that for thousands of years had turned children into adults. A. and B. discussed it sometimes, but it made both of them uncomfortable. It seemed towering, inaccessible. It was something that happened to other people, but not to them.
But why not them? They had many common interests and mutual friends. Her parents liked him, and his parents liked her. They were both spiritual but not religious, and they watched most of the same shows. They were, in short, in love.
It was decided—A. and B. were going to be married.
Neither of them could remember when they had decided to do it; they only knew that they had talked about it and talked about it, night after night, their wheezing pug sitting between them on the bed, and at some point they understood that marriage was a thing that was going to happen to them. He had not gone down on one knee and presented her with a ring and asked her to spend the rest of her life with him; she had not covered her mouth with her hands and cried and whispered yes.
But those things needed to happen. Those were the things that happened when people got engaged. That was how two people signaled to other adults that they had passed from the juvenile categories of “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” into the very adult category of “fiancés.”
A. and B. wanted to do it right. So they planned. They read articles called “The 58 Most Romantic Proposals” and “The Ten Commandments of Popping the Question,” and they scrolled through Pinterest and the Knot. They saw thousands of proposal pictures—men kneeling, women covering their mouths with their hands.
They chose the ring together, and worked through drafts of what they would say during the proposal itself—how he would confess his love, when she would begin to cry, how she would accept him.
But where to do it? This was the biggest problem. They needed the right place, and they had the whole world to choose from.
A. and B. considered the usual places—Paris, a Venetian gondola, Central Park—but found them insufficient. These places lacked something, although A. and B. could not say what that something was—not, at least, until they found Werdenburg.
Werdenburg was east of Vienna and west of Prague. It had once been a great city of the Hapsburg empire. A few miles outside the city, the emperor Maximilian V had built his summer palace, Schloss Springbrunnen. The palace was, according to the Wikipedia, a masterpiece of late baroque architecture: one hundred and forty-four windows stared out of its façade, and its long gilded galleries were framed by painted cherubs and marble clusters of grapes. Behind the palace were miles of gardens, which included the world’s largest hedge maze and the Great Fountain.
It was the fountain that convinced A. and B. It was made of bright bronze, and its jet rose high in the air and then fell into a series of seven bowls, each larger than the last. The seventh bowl rested on the back of a bronze dolphin riding on the crest of a great bronze wave. Silver mermaids played at the edges of the fountain, and a muscular golden god held a shell to his lips and blew.
A. and B. had never heard of Werdenburg or Maximilian or Springbrunnen, and they knew very little about the Hapsburgs or the late baroque, but as they scrolled through pictures and read Wikipedia articles on their phones, they began to understand what was missing from Paris and the Venetian gondola and Central Park. Everything in Werdenburg was heavy and elaborate. The bronze and the gold, the marble and the stone—it all seemed so substantial, so ordered and definite. Even the words themselves had a kind of solidity to them. Hapsburg. Springbrunnen. The late baroque.
Through the fall and the winter and the spring, A. and B. planned, and at the end of May, they flew to Werdenburg.
They spent two days in the city itself, in the cathedrals and cafes, and on Friday, when the forecast promised no clouds, they put on the clothes that they had chosen months before and stood together in front of the mirror at their Airbnb, trying to get their hair and clothes to match the hair and clothes that they had imagined all fall and winter and spring. This was extremely difficult. Both had strands of hair that did not respond to any amount of gel or spray. When they smoothed one wrinkle out of a dress or shirt, another wrinkle appeared. But A. and B. were, if nothing else, persistent. He tied his tie, stared at it in the mirror, convinced himself that the knot could be neater and tighter, retied it, and stared at it again. She applied more and more hairspray, pausing briefly when the haze became thick enough to obscure her reflection.
They continued to arrange themselves until A. noticed that the train to Springbrunnen left in seven minutes. They ran downstairs, through St. Joseph’s Square, and into the station, and slid sideways through the closing doors of the train. They were glowing with sweat, and their hearts beating were very fast. He had the ring in the pocket of his blazer. She carried the camera and the tripod.
The train passed out of the city and into the fields. A. and B. looked out at the cows and the purple flowers. Soon, a bright blur appeared on the horizon. Springbrunnen faced east, and the morning sun was reflected in each of the hundred and forty-four windows of its long façade. A. and B. squinted at it.
They went quickly through the palace gardens, scattering the tame peacocks as they passed, and came to the entrance of the hedge maze. At the end of the maze was the Great Fountain, and with it, their adult selves. That was where he was going to propose—that was where she was going to accept. It would appear behind them in the proposal pictures, and everything would be heavy and solid and perfect.
But first, the maze.
There was a little booth at the entrance, and A. and B. bought their tickets—two adults. A sign next to the booth warned them, in several languages, that the maze was extremely challenging, and that they entered it at their own risk. A. and B. smiled at each other. The hedge maze was the largest in the world, but it was still just a maze.
A. and B. had five post-secondary degrees and certificates between them, and they had developed that impenetrable confidence particular to educated people. He took her hand, and they walked together through the opening in the hedge.
They went slowly, at first. They wanted to act with all the deliberateness and care that ceremony required. They ran their fingers along the high green hedges, and stopped to admire the statues that dotted the path, which depicted various mythological and pastoral scenes. A marble shepherd held a crown of flowers over the head of his naked love, and a bronze faun or satyr (A. and B. could not recall the difference) chased a grinning bronze nymph. A. and B. pitied the poor faun or satyr—frozen in bronze, forever chasing, never catching.
After fifteen minutes, they came to the center of the maze—an enormous sundial made of living vines and flowers. A rose bush stood at each hour on the dial—red roses at twelve, yellow roses at three, white roses at six, pink roses at nine. The air was full of bees and the smell of the flowers.
From the center of the maze, there were three paths forward. A. and B. chose the center path, followed it, and came to a fork. They turned right, followed the path, came to another fork, turned left, passed a statue of Orpheus and Eurydice, and found themselves standing in front of the sundial.
They tried a different path. They turned left and then left again, debated whether they had come this way before, and realized that they were in front of the faun or satyr. The maze had doubled back on itself.
They tried various paths and turns, and found themselves again and again at the sundial. They retraced their steps, made different choices, and still came to the same place. The faun or satyr kept appearing in their path, never any closer to his nymph.
A. and B. began to feel that they were in trouble, so they took out their phones. A. searched for the maze on Google Maps. B. looked for a maze-solving app. But the internet failed them: the images on Google Maps were too grainy to see, and there was no maze-solving app.
They considered their options. A. thought that they could find their way back to the entrance, and from there, they could walk around the maze and take the long way to the Great Fountain. But no—they had to solve the maze. They had passed other people on its paths—families with children, a large group of Asian men, a few old couples—and if those people could do it, then so could A. and B. They had come here to become adults, and when something became difficult, adults did not quit.
They walked quicker now. They were glad that the maze was difficult: it was worthy of them and what they wanted to become.
The sun was falling toward the horizon, the shadows of the hedges were long, and A. and B. were tired. He had removed his blazer and his tie, and dark circular sweat-stains had spread outward from his lower back and navel. Her feet had started to blister, so she carried her heels by their straps, and walked barefoot over the stones and the dirt.
They were still in the maze.
They passed the statue of Orpheus and Eurydice, stopped at the fork, debated which direction that had taken the last time they had come to this fork, turned right, followed the path, and came to the center of the maze. The sundial no longer showed the time—the shadows had become too thick. A. and B. sat at the edge of the dial and stared at the purple sky. They discussed whether to shout for help, but decided not to. Adults did not shout for help.
A little speaker hidden in the hedge announced that the palace grounds would close in fifteen minutes. A. and B. wondered whether anyone from the palace knew they were still in the maze. They had, after all, bought tickets. Perhaps there was someone at the end of the maze, waiting to make sure everyone got out. A kind old woman in an official red vest, watching over the whole thing. And maybe the kind old woman would come into the maze, find them, and help them out. Or at least give them a hint. A. and B. talked it over, and concluded that adults could not shout for help, but they could accept hints from other adults.
They waited for fifteen minutes, and then for another fifteen minutes. The moon rose, and in the gardens, the peacocks called to each other. A. and B. picked up their things and returned to the path.
It was night now, and the hedges and statues were lit by the moon, but everything else was the same—the same paths, the same turns, the same choices (left or right?), the same stupid return to the same stupid sundial, the same satyr or faun, the same nymph, the same A., the same B. Something needed to change, but they did not know what it was, or how to change it, so it did not change.
Until it did.
They passed the statue of Orpheus and Eurydice, turned right, followed the path, and came to a fork. They debated which path they had taken the last time they had been here, and decided they had already gone both ways. The best they could do was to get back to the sundial and try again. They turned left, followed the path, and left the maze.
They were out of it before they understood what had happened. But there it was, in front of them—the Great Fountain. Behind it was a long lawn, where the peacocks pecked at the grass, and beyond that, the empress’s orange groves.
The fountain’s jet had been shut off for the night, and everything else was there—the seven bowls, the great wave, the muscular god. A. and B. were late, but they were here.
They leaned over the fountain, looked at their moonlit reflections in the still water, and arranged their hair and clothes as well as they could. She washed her feet and strapped on her heels—he set up the camera and the tripod. He shooed away a peacock that had climbed onto the head of the bronze god, she set the flash and the timer, and they did what they had practiced so many times before. He kneeled and held out the ring and said the prepared words, she covered her mouth with her hands and called tears to her eyes, and the camera flashed and clicked.
He stood. She wiped her eyes. It had happened. They had entered a new stage. The words they used for each other had changed: they were fiancés now. He looked at her, she looked at him, and then they looked together at the picture and waited to feel the change. But they did not. Something had gone wrong.
The picture was supposed to show two adults, but the people that A. and B. saw there were tired and dirty and dull and discouraged. These were not at all the people they had meant to be.
But what could they do? Return to the palace tomorrow, go back through the maze, re-propose, and hope that those pictures might show the right people? No—they had no confidence that this would produce a different result, in part because they were not sure they could solve the maze again.
They shut off the camera, and were quiet for several minutes. Both found themselves staring back at the maze, and realized that they were already nostalgic for the time when they had been lost. Things had been so much easier then, when they had been bounded by the high hedges, when their only worry had been finding a way out.
Maybe the problem was with them. They had overinvested in the proposal: the real thing was the wedding. When they were husband and wife, then they would feel like adults.
They said this to each other, but they did not believe it.
Was that it then? Would they spend the rest of their lives wanting things and then being unsatisfied when they had them? Was everything going to be a disappointment?
They did not know, but these terminal questions prompted something strange in them. Their eyes met, and they understood each other without speaking. It was extremely stupid, and it would solve none of their problems, but it was exactly what they wanted to do.
They had been wrong to pity the faun or satyr—they understood that now.
She kicked off her heels and started across the lawn. The peacocks hopped out of her way and squawked. He followed, as fast as he could, and for the rest of the night chased her through the large orderly orange groves of the Hapsburg dynasty.
Ryan Napier is a graduate of Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. His stories have appeared in Noble / Gas Qtrly, Queen Mob’s Tea House, minor literature[s], and others. He lives in Massachusetts. More information at ryannapier.tumblr.com.