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The memory comes at me like a dream. I cannot trust it.
Pictures shift in my mind and slide over each other in a pastiche of light and darkness, like leaves moving in the wind. Smells come to me from nowhere, more distinct than the pictures but shifting just as quickly: the smell of moss, of the loam of needles in the forest, of the sweet decay of wood. The smell of woodsmoke, shifting to the smell of smoky tea, first hot and then cold. The smell of rain in the sky and rain on the grass. The smell of damp wool, the smell of sweat. The smell of musk. Each of these pull at different chords in my mind and my heart, deeper and more powerful than words can follow. The memory comes at me like a dream. I want to write it out, but I am afraid of the limits of words. I am afraid I will get it wrong, that the lie I write will replace the flickering truth I now hold in my head. But I must try.
The pictures slide over each other, but slower now, slow enough that I can write what I see. There is the empty pasture, overgrown with milkweed and lush grass. The wooden fenceposts have a silver sheen from the fog. Now the rush of the swollen river comes into focus, somewhere off to the right. Or is it the left? My focus shifts and now I am looking at the pasture from a different angle. Suddenly, I see the top of a blond head rise over the embankment at the pasture's edge, and my heart quickens. I feel again the giddy drop of my stomach, the strange mixture of dread and love.
Now the head and the body have reached the top of the embankment, and behind them follows another head, brown.
That's my head. I look much as I do today: skinny, nervous, pale, awkwardly dressed. My hair is short, still at the rice-bowl length I kept into puberty.
Another picture slides slowly past. We are at the "bridge," three boards laid across a small stream that marks the edge of the forest. Behind us, the fog moves across the meadow in our direction. The ground is piled deep with layers of slick brown leaves and crumbling needles. The air is dense with moisture.
The smell of the humus comes in sharply, and close after, the sound of voices.
"How old are you?"
That's my voice. Higher and thinner, but recognizable.
She looks back over her shoulder.
"How old do you think I am?" she says.
"I don't know. Fourteen," I say.
"What is it, then?"
"I'm not going to tell you. You have to guess."
We keep walking, marching up a gentle slope. The path has curved up and around back toward the stream. In a few moments, we will have to cross another plank bridge.
"Fifteen," I guess.
"Close." She brushes her long, blond hair back over her right shoulder.
The love/dread grows stronger in me without warning, and as I feel it sink into the pit of my stomach, a picture flashes into my sight: her hand brushing back her hair as she leans forward to kiss me. And another picture, a picture of her breasts bared as she raises her shirt over her head. And the smell of her sweat.
But I shut this out. I am losing continuity. I am in danger of slipping back into an incoherent dream. I must try to remember, not just see. I must try to remember how it really was.
"Just tell me," I say.
She sighs. "I'm sixteen."
"Oh." I'm thirteen.
The fog has risen fast. We are coming out into a clearing, about halfway up the hill, and I can see the forest below. Fog is tangled in the trees, finding its slow way up the hillside toward us.
The pasture is hidden in a white sea. I yawn a little, feeling the tired ache around my eyes. I don't usually get up this early.
"That's so beautiful," she says, stopping to look.
When she says "That's so beautiful," she isn't gushing it like some girls would do. She isn't saying it rhetorically, to fill a gap in conversation. She means it.
"Yeah," I say. "It is."
After going up a bit more, the path turns back down again toward the stream. We cross another set of damp boards. Up ahead, I see a wooden structure in the trees.
"That's not it, is it?" I ask.
"No. You haven't been here before?"
"That's the fort that never got finished. It was supposed to be a couple of stories high, but I guess they got tired of building it or ran out of wood or something."
"Can we stop for a sec?" I say. "I'm tired." I'm not used to walking this much, and I'm out of breath.
"Sure," she says, and smiles at me. It's a nice smile, without condescension. I feel the love/dread again. How long have I felt this way? When did I first meet her? I don't remember. But for weeks now, every time I see her, I've felt that same mix of terror and delight. She is the most beautiful person I've ever seen, I tell myself. My pubescent stirrings are about a year old, still tentative, still mysterious. Still a little frightening.
This unfinished fort, which is built against five redwood trees standing in a rough square, has a floor but no roof, and only two walls. The floor is raised an inch off the ground, but still is damp.
We sit on the edge while I catch my breath. The fog has caught up with us, filling the space between the trees. I can see a patch of the sky, shifting from light to dark gray.
Looking down at my feet, I notice a clump of goldenback ferns growing near the base of one of the redwood supports.
"Oh," I say, bending over to pick some of them. "Have you ever seen these?"
"Ferns?" She looks at me incredulously.
"Goldenback ferns. Here, stretch out your leg."
"Just do it." She shifts, moving a little closer to me. "Here." I take one of the ferns and press it against her blue jeans. I hold it there for a minute, suddenly conscious of *my hand on her knee*, and then take my hand and the fern away. On her knee is an imprint of the fern in gold dust.
"Wow," she says, impressed. "That's beautiful." Again, I know she means it. "Thanks."
"Sure." I turn away, embarrassed, and press another of the ferns against my knee. We are quiet for a while.
"What are you thinking?" she asks me.
I glance over at her. "I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know?" She smiles. "What are you thinking?"
Suddenly I find myself unable to look at her. I take away the fern and stare at the print on the cloth of my pants, trying to think of something to say.
"I was thinking about how I'd like to live in the woods."
"Yeah? Really? Me too."
I glance at her. She's not lying, I can tell. In fact, she has never lied to me, not once in the time we've known each other. We have become friends over the past month, close enough to take a walk at dawn in the woods near where we both live. She wants to show me a house that she found just over the edge of her mother's property, out past the hill in the thick of the forest.
"Have you ever dreamed about living in the woods?" she asks.
"Yeah, lots of times."
"Tell me about it." She draws her feet up onto the platform and hugs her knees to her chest.
I think. "Well, in the dream I'm kind of like a hermit." I take the fern off my knee and fold it in half. "I live in a hollowed-out tree trunk by a river, next to this waterfall. In the summer I sleep under the stars. And I have a garden where I grow my own food so I never have to leave the forest. And I have a rope ladder that goes up to the top of the highest tree, and I go up to the top and sit there every morning to watch the sun rise. None of the animals are afraid of me."
I stop, folding the fern in half again. She doesn't say anything, and I look over at her. Her mouth is a little bit open, and she's staring at me.
"What is it?" I say.
She doesn't answer.
She lowers her eyes for a second, then looks at me again.
Picture slides past, a series of pictures like a slow movie.
Pictures of her mouth moving, saying "I had the same dream."
Smell of woodsmoke coming from somewhere far away. Smell of wet bark, damp wood.
The sudden picture of her mouth kissing mine.
Heavy, damp silence.
I am flipping over and over inside, and I think I'm starting to shake. And I don't think I can stop.
She stands up, steps off the platform, walks out onto the path.
"Come on," she says, looking at me. I am in shock, and cannot respond. She says it again. "Come on. Let's go."
Now I see a picture of the stream. The banks are high and steep, covered with moss and ferns. The stream is flowing toward me, down over boulders and rock ledges. It's small, about the width of my body. It comes out of a dark hole of trees.
The path follows the stream for a long time. It switches now and then from bank to bank, but stays parallel. We walk in silence.
She is about six steps ahead of me. The shaking has taken over my body, and my teeth are chattering. I don't dare to say anything, but I want desperately to act normal.
"I think it might rain," she says, without looking back. I don't know whether I should respond or not, whether it's a piece of conversation or just a statement. I can't think of anything to say.
We walk like this for some time. I almost ask her how much farther it is, but I reconsider. I don't want to sound like a child. But I have to do something! I can't be invisible. I don't want to scare her away.
Suddenly, without thinking about it, I break into a run. I don't slow down as I pass her, but keep running. I don't know what the hell I'm doing; I just know that I have to do something to break the tension. The path comes out into a clearing. I hear her running behind me, laughing, calling out, "Wait! Wait!"
I look back and grin at her, feeling strangely confident, although I'm still shaking terribly. She's gaining on me. I run faster, veering off the path and up the foggy slope of a hill.
"Come back," she calls, still running along the path. "It's this way." I change direction and come flying down the hillside back into the trees, a good ten yards ahead of her now. I'm shivering from the cold and I start to slow down, feeling my ribs knit on the left side. As she comes up behind me, the path turns and I see the house.
Picture: under a dark sky, hardly recognizable as morning, a pane of glass. Through the pane of glass: she is kneeling at a wood stove, putting in a handful of sticks.
The house isn't really a house, just a small room. One large window by the door lets in the cool, gray light. There is a big, broken couch, old brown velvet smelling of mildew, against the wall at the far end of the room. There is the black iron wood stove, with a small pile of wood and a few logs beside it. A chest of drawers stands just past the door, tilted forward on a short leg.
Thumbtacked to the inside of the door is a page torn from a magazine, a photograph of a bottle of vodka surrounded by green leaves and purple berries. An axe-head lies on top of a pile of old newspapers next to the couch. And at the back corner of the room is a wooden ladder that leads up to a loft.
I sit on one of the arms of the couch, my hands clasped, watching her fill the stove. "How are you going to light it without any matches?" I ask.
She smiles. "Just a minute." She stands up and walks over to the chest of drawers. "Why don't you wad up some of that newspaper and throw it in?"
I take a newspaper off the top of the stack. The axe-head slides off and makes a heavy thud as it hits the floor. She pulls out one of the drawers. "I come up here a lot," she says. "I've made a few preparations." She brings out a box of matches. "Would you like some tea?"
"I have a teapot in here, and some tea, and a cup," she says.
"Just one cup. We'll have to share."
The pictures are starting to shift again, moving faster. I can barely track my mouth asking what kind of tea it is. The shaking is turning into a fever. I think even then, before it became a memory, I knew what was happening. And it scared me.
The sound of rain hitting the roof filters in. The room is warm, the tea is warm, but my body still shivers. Less violently now, more of a humming through my blood. We sit beside each other on the couch, taking turns sipping from the cup.
"Aren't you worried someone's going to come up here and find you?" I ask.
She shrugs her shoulders and brushes her hair back. "No, I don't think anyone's been up here but me in a long time. I mean, it's really isolated. Probably the guy who owns the property built it for a getaway cabin or something, but he doesn't use it any more.
Those newspapers are from last year."
"Oh." I take the cup from her. Our fingers touch, slide over each other. Hers are colder than mine, and somehow I find that comforting. "What do you do up here?" I ask.
She pauses before answering. "I write. Poems."
"Really? Can I see them?"
"No," she says, sort of laughing, blushing and looking down.
"You just can't. No one gets to see them." She sees my look of disappointment. "If I showed them to anyone, it would be you."
We're quiet for a while. She finishes the tea. The rain is coming down harder now, splattering against the roof. I am absorbed in my senses, noticing all the subtle things around me.
The sound of the rain. The way her long blond hair captures what little light there is and holds it, like gold. The warm tea in my stomach, the trembling and nausea I feel. The heat of the wood stove. The dank smell of the couch, the mushroom scent of the forest seeping into the room. The image in my mind of the kiss, the ghost of her pressure on my lips. My feverish, unspoken questions: Why? What does this mean? Will you kiss me again?
How can I ask?
"I was right," she says, breaking the silence. "It's raining."
"Raining pretty hard."
I can barely say the word for the spinning in my head: "Yeah."
I look at her.
"Do you want to go back?" she asks.
No. I don't want to go back. I want to stay here, and I want you to kiss me again. Like you did before.
I can't say the words. I can't speak. The pressure in me is almost more than I can bear; I feel like I'm going to cry.
So I do the only thing I can do, the only thing that makes sense, beyond fear or dread: I follow my need. I reach out for her hand and hold it, shaking, pressing lightly. And I lean in, and I kiss her lips.
There is no picture. There are no smells, no sounds, nothing.
My mind is blank. For a time, an undefinable length of time, the only contact to this world is the feeling of our lips touching. We hold the moment, and then move out of it as her mouth moves and I feel the wet underside of her upper lip slide in. Everything so slow...the soft vitality of her tongue entering my mouth, touching my tongue. I don't know how this is done. My tongue ventures forward, sliding along hers. Everything soft, softer than I could have imagined. I feel a tear breaking loose from my eye, rolling swiftly down my cheek to the line of my jawbone. I regain my mind, and the kiss has become definite, deliberate. This is no mistake.
This is what we want. We are making it happen.
Fears still hover around me as we move in closer to each other, deepening the kiss. They are vague fears about the three-
year difference between us, which I never knew until today. I fear that this isn't real, that somewhere I've fooled myself or made a fool of myself, for how could someone so beautiful and confident be attracted to me? But my body does not hesitate. The kiss continues. I explore her mouth, the boundary of teeth, the water under her tongue. The hum in my blood has evened out into a pulse that I can feel.
I am afraid to stop kissing her, because it means I will have to look at her, to acknowledge the truth of what we are doing. But I feel her moving away. I close my eyes on the steady stream of tears. I feel her fingers moving over my face, rubbing the tears into my skin. She places a finger on my lips. I open my eyes.
The rain hurries onto the roof, drumming faster and faster.
The pictures move by in a blur. I don't think I can slow them down;
the memory rushes forward out of control, and the images come out of place, heated, as in a fever dream. The recurring image of her arms pulling her shirt over her head, baring her breasts. The smell of mushrooms and smoke, of the damp wool of her sweater, of the gentle salt of her sweat. The heat in my cheeks as I press my face against her neck. The rigid place between my legs, that place I am afraid to name. Someone's skin is cold. Cold and moist. Hers. I press warmth into it.
We are in the loft. Dark here, only just enough light to see the seashell curves of her backbone. The profile of a breast in shadow. The tendon of her neck, a thick, straight line. The marble-statue contour of her shoulder. Her hair, like a waterfall of sun.
There are no words. We are unable to speak, unwilling to break the spell. I kiss the cup at the base of her throat and feel a shudder run the length of her body. She wants me, and that knowledge pushes away all remaining fears. This is right. This is what is supposed to be; oh God, finally something so pure as this, something so clear. This is what is supposed to be.
Floating in, the musky smell of her juices. I have never smelled it before, but it is instantly familiar. It smells like the secret, dark places in the forest that I never dared to go as a child. It smells like the deepest earth that a gardener kneads with his hands before planting.
I touch her breasts. The motions I make are ones I know instinctively to be right, though I've never made them before. My thumbs slide down over her brown nipples, which start up from the areolae like gooseflesh. I reach forward with my tongue tensed into an arrow, moving like a newt underwater. I suck in the nipple, faintly hearing the intake of her breath. My hand caresses the other breast. It is different from what I expected. The breasts of models I had seen in magazines looked like rock-hard sculptures, and so the softness of her skin surprises me. As my tongue slides over it, I hear her moaning quietly, a low, uncontrolled sound.
My hand slides down between her breasts, down over the arch of her ribcage onto her belly. A finger hooks into the hole of her navel. Her moaning grows deeper and breaks off in a sigh.
Slowly...slowly...my hand slides down and further down, and I feel crinkly hair at the base of my palm. I feel the throb of expectancy in my penis. We are set into the tempo of the pulse of our blood.
With each beat she makes another sound, my hand slips down the smallest bit. And I begin to feel the slick vertical line of her sex at the center of my palm.
That's the word I am thinking of, sex. It is the first time it has occurred to me today. It fits what I feel more than the other dirty words or clinical terms I know. This is sex. We are having sex. I am touching her sex.
And now the tips of my fingers enter as they pass the top of the slit. A strange incoherent sound comes from her throat. I move in. I have never, never in my life, felt anything so soft and yielding.
It feels limitless. My fingers travel farther and farther in. When I am in to my knuckles, I slide them back out. And in again.
There is a pain building between my legs. A dull pain, growing sharper. I am very close to the breaking point. I look at her, about to ask, but her eyes are unfocused, unseeing.
I take my fingers out of her sex and trail them back up her belly. I move up on the bed, holding my penis with one hand as I search for the opening. My hands move under her back and hold her shoulders as I move into her. My focus is narrow and complete. There is nothing in my mind but the feeling of sliding into her. All the way in. All the way in...all the way in...
And it is the fitting of key and lock. It is the drawing of a magnet. It is the completion of a circuit. What I have put into her is no longer mine, and what she has opened up to me is no longer hers. This is the connection of man and woman. I feel my manhood for the first time.
We hold in place for a moment.
Then her hands come up around my back, pressing into my ribs. I slide partially out of her, then back in, a motion like the throb of a heart. We hold each other close. Out, in. Stop. Again: out, in. Out, in. A rhythm. Out, in. Out, in. We are pressed into one body, rocking back and forth. Blind motion. Out, in. And I feel it coming, like the flowing of water, mounting steadily. A pleasure so vital it could almost be pain. My mind has ceased functioning, and my body moves unbidden. There is nothing I could do, even if I wanted to. I am moving toward the inevitable. My body tenses, tightens. Her fingernails dig into my back. Tightening, tightening, drawing closer. Out, in, out, in, rocking faster, climbing like a geometric curve. An arch. I arch my back, drawing her up with me, closing in on the crest of
and!! Oh flood, rain flooding down upon the roof, falling, falling...
The silence that we shudder into lasts for a moment, and then I hear a small sound coming from her. I raise my head and I see that she is crying. I move up to a level with her, kissing away the tears.
She looks as though she wants to say something, but can't find the words. She doesn't have to speak. I know what she's feeling. It's not that this was wrong, far from it. There has never been anything so right. It's just that it was so unexpected, such a quick rise of passion, such an uncontrollable unfolding of our private selves. It is the trust we have found that makes us cry. We cry in relief that the chance we both have taken has come to this.
We hold to each other for a long time. The rain slackens and gradually tapers away altogether. And the pictures turn and flip in the cool wind that comes after rain. My memory begins to fail me now; it was such a long time ago, such a different place in my life.
It falls away so quickly. Heavy drops of rain fall from the trees, and the dark places of the forest become darker.
Where did she go? I have pictures, but some of them contradict each other and I'm no longer certain which ones are real and which are dreams. In many of them, she is dancing away into the forest, or down a sloping meadow. Sometimes she is naked and sometimes not. Sometimes it is raining. One of the clearest of the pictures has her running through the trees in a storm, covered in mud and leaves, but I fear that is only a dream. I do not think she found the hermit's tree we dreamt about. If she had, I think I would be there with her. But it is no longer accessible to me. I don't know the path through the woods that leads to it. I cannot remember how I made the journey from that boy of thirteen to the man I am now. I have lost the way.
All I have left are my memories. Walking has become a habit of mine, and on my walks I sometimes catch the scent of things that bring back the memory sharply. I have, of course, doubted in my mind that any of this was more than a dream, but when I smell the smoke from a chimney or the odor of wild mushrooms in the fields as I walk under an overcast sky, there is no doubt.
There are some places that language cannot go. I know, as I write these words, that when I look back over what I have written I will be disappointed. Something will be missing. There will be a bit of literary gloss here or a rough approximation there, and the flickering truth I hold will waver and go out. So it must be. Such is the fate of all memories, and the more beloved they are, the quicker they die. I am resigned to this.
The pictures slow and begin to fade. Her face looks out at me, smiling softly. The light grows dimmer. She turns away, taking the light with her.