Sixty-eight: Encounter with a Nymph
Christine had not heard me approach, my footsteps erased by the sound of the little waterfall over the rocks. After a quick pang that made me want to turn and run, and then a sudden urge to leap down and scare her witless, I felt my face redden as the strongest desire emerged: to be silent and watch her for a while, to see what she was like without an audience.
Michel and Kelsa were about the same when they were alone, busy and muttering to themselves while they read, or worked, or painted, thoroughly engrossed in their activities. Oesha, on the other hand, was silent, but drawn to mirrors to look at herself, turning her head from side to side as though searching for something. She practiced facial expressions the way a ballerina practices postures. Marca, when alone, was either asleep watching TV, or nearly asleep watching TV. Aunt Sully ... well, that would have been interesting, except that she was always aware of our presence, and so I had no idea what she was like all on her own. Some day I'd have to ask her about that.
Christine watched the water as it flowed over the rocks at the far end of the pool. Her expression seemed a little sad, and she tilted her head from side to side occasionally, as though to rest from one position to another. She splashed some water onto her arms, then put her forehead on her knees, letting her wrists trail in the water. Tired? Sad? Lonely? Wanting to be alone?
A woodpecker trilled overhead, and Christine looked up in the direction of the call, saw me, and exploded out of the water and back towards her horse. Then she put a hand on her chest, gasping. "How the hell long have you been standing there?"
I pretended to look at a watch. "About three hours, all told."
"You were not. Did you come here to swim?"
"No. Just to putter around the creek. It's hot, in case you hadn't noticed. Your horse looks like he noticed, though. He looks tired."
"Should be. We were cutting calves this morning. Time to get them away from their mamas. Charley works hard."
"What's your horse's name?"
"Mackerel ... because of the dapples."
"He's beautiful. Looks like a show horse."
Stepping down to the side of the creek, I told her that Mackerel was a working horse, too, and recounted the log dragging the previous fall.
"What about the white pony?"
I almost asked her "Which one?" but I knew which one she meant.
"Berg. He's Berg, my brother's mount."
"That wasn't your brother. She your girlfriend?"
Was she? Was she really?
If I said she was, I would be stating something that Rachel and I had not formally agreed upon. If I said she wasn't, that she was just a friend -- that wouldn't really be true, either. And I, on this occasion, had no interest in pretending to be engaged. Instead, I redirected the conversation. "Elise was cute. Is she your daughter?"
"No!" Christine said emphatically. "I just watch her while my sister's at work. Her daddy's in the military, so they're staying with us until he's back from over seas. Hey, can you swim?"
I nodded, hoping that she was not going to suggest skinny-dipping. There was no doubt such a thing would be ... thought-provoking, but getting caught frolicking naked with a girl would earn me a one-way ticket to a boarding school far, far away.
"Good," she said, wading into the creek. "I can, too, but not very well, and Mom told me never to swim in this hole alone. She said you folks at the mansion made it, is that true?"
"Not us personally, exactly, but some clever ancestor, yes. Back in the early years of the last century, they used to bring their elephants down to wade after working on the railroad lines in Port Laughton."
Covered in water up to her shoulders, she turned back to stare at me with a puzzled expression. It was an expression I had seen many times on many faces, and I could not resist the siren call to deepen it.
"No, really, they did. It was an experiment, before the influenza epidemic." Always use a real historical event to anchor the story. "My great-great-great grandfather, Hermann Reich, (and a plausible name) spent a lot of time in Asia in the spice trade, and saw elephants being used for heavy labor. He brought fourteen (best to use a non-standard number, makes people think you know what you're talking about) of them back -- thought he'd get them to breed and make a killing on selling them to the Southern Pacific Railroad." I paused, leaned back against the stones at the side of the falls, crossed my arms, and raised a finger as if lecturing. "What Hermann knew about supply and demand in economics, however, was undermined completely by his ignorance of biology. Winter set in, and by February, every single elephant had died of pneumonia. Not too long after that, that deadly flu hit, and a lot of local people thought that Hermann's elephants were the source of the illness."
Christine continued to stare at me, listening intently. "And then ... "
"Hermann himself died of the flu, along with a number of his family members. Otherwise they probably would have marched up here and hanged him for bringing the disease into this area. They did torch the huge elephant barn he'd built, and burn it to the ground." Leave no room for evidence.
She floated in the deep water, drifting slowly along the pool. Frowning, she asked, "But how would they have hauled the elephants in to town?"
"They only rode them home here on the weekends." I pointed up towards the fire road on the ridge. "That road goes all the way into down town Port Laughton. If you check the historical records at the library, you'll find that they cut it out of the forest just to get livestock -- and elephants -- into town." Never hesitate in telling a story, just forge on and let confidence carry the tale.
"God, this water's cold," she said, wading back out of the stream, revealing disturbingly interesting topographical maps of her upper body. She stretched herself out on the bank in the sunlight broken by the leaves above.
My throat swallowed almost convulsively. Was she totally innocent and unaware of her posture and appearance? ... I remembered her looking over Rachel. No, she wasn't. She was inviting an encounter, and her mind was on that, not on my story. I'd failed to capture her imagination. I tossed a couple small pebbles into the middle of the pool, listening for the deep plunk sound.
Abruptly, she rolled onto her side, facing me. "How old are you?"
"Fifteen in August," I answered. "And you?"
"Jeeeeze, I thought you were older than that." She sat up. "You're practically jail bait. I'm seventeen."
"I've never seen you at school."
She shook her head. "I went to Grace Christian High School for the last year. Graduated a year early, because I was home-schooled before that, and got ahead of everybody." She stood and dusted a few leaves off the back of her wet shorts. Untying Charley from the trees, she slid a bridle into his mouth. "Looks like I took a long ride for nothing," she said in an off-hand manner.
She swung into the saddle easily. "See you in a few years, Owen." Christine turned the horse and rode calmly up the hill through the woods, not bothering to follow the stream or head for a trail.
In my own turn, I was confused by her abrupt exit, and a little irritated. Plainly I had not done something she'd wanted me to do, or been something she'd wanted me to be. I mean, she could have just stopped me in my elephant narrative and said, "You're full of shit, Owen," and I would have been happy with that. Instead, I had the feeling she'd called me a kid and expunged me from her thoughts. I took off my sneakers and socks, rolled up my shorts a bit, and waded into the creek to sit on a boulder and sulk.
I wanted clarity on the situation, but I didn't feel comfortable telling Aunt Sully, who probably would have had Sheila on the phone in seconds, telling her to get her daughter in line. Maybe John, but he'd listen and advise and then blab to Aunt Sully, with the same result. Also, he'd likely start to shadow me if I went out for a walk in the woods alone again. Rachel would be hurt if she knew I was chatting up Christine in the woods, so I couldn't email her and talk to her about it.
Odd as it seemed as an idea, I thought that the person I could actually talk to about it was -- of all people -- my sister Marca.
After lunch, Marca and I walked back to the creek. Not to the Deep Hole, but to the curving area by a shallow series of ripples where we Five had built our sunning beach. I told her about the encounter with Christine as we walked along.
"Wow, she's a slut," Marca observed immediately after my narrative was done.
"How can you just say that she's a slut?" I asked in exasperation. "You weren't there, you've never met her!"
"God, I can't believe I'm actually smarter than you for once. You must be thinking with your nuts." Before I could do more than gasp and turn red, she went on. "Look. She lives all the hell way over on the farm. She might have just accidentally run into you and Rachel when you were out riding, but if it was just an accident, she wouldn't have been such a rude ass, now would she? You don't treat strangers like shit. She wanted you to know, and Rachel to know, that she was a player."
Marca ignored my question. "Then she shows up all the way down at the Deep Hole, which I would call our territory rather than hers, for what, a ten minute swim? No, little brother, if you are hot and sweaty and tired after work, you don't jump on a hot horse and ride through a hot morning to sit in some steamy hot woods to find a place to cool off, you head for the nearest shower and take a cold one, and if you're still hot, you go down to the municipal pier and stand under the marine layer and freeze. Let me ask you this: was she wearing a bra?"
I shook my head, because it had been engrossingly obvious that she had not been wearing anything under her white tank top.
My sister slapped my chest briskly with the back of her fingers. "That's the clincher, you idiot. A girl doesn't go for the wet t-shirt look so she can discuss current events with a guy all alone in the woods. She was there on the chance that you would be, and was going to get into your pants if she could."
My brains were so addled by the encounter I actually wondered if that would have been such a bad thing.
"You not listening to me, Owen? She's not interested in your brain, dumb ass, she never really met you. She's interested in Young Mr. Estate."
Wading in the creek, I didn't want to look at her.
"If all she wanted was to be friends, and make your acquaintance, she'd have stayed and talked, now wouldn't she?"
I know that I wasn't very conversational, but Marca didn't care. She'd made her point. I didn't want to call Christine a 'slut,' but I was embarrassed that I hadn't had the wit to note that she didn't actually want to talk with me after she found out I was two years younger than she was. I'd been thinking that I had said something dumb, that if I had been more clever in speech, she might have stayed longer.
Frowning, I realized that had Christine truly been at the creek to cool off, she could have wallowed in a more shallow part of the cold stream a lot closer to home without having to worry about having someone to save her in deep water. But she hadn't. She'd waited for a spectator.
Ruefully, I went over the encounter a dozen times before I went to sleep that night. Both she and I had been on stage, but both of us had completely misjudged our audience.
That my new understanding was facilitated by Marca's observations was additionally embarrassing. While we were still at the creek, Marca had turned to me, and just before she kicked water, soaking me from eyebrows to knees, said, "Brother, it's like chicks going on dates at dinner theatres: sometimes they're there for the play, but sometimes they're just there for the meat."