“Her eyes were the color of faraway love.”
Pablo Neruda, “The Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks”
“What’s taking you so long?”
She had asked, leading the way to the swimming hole. Her dark eyes tossed him an impatient look over her shoulder. She was clutching a beach towel, and wearing a two-piece bathing suit under an oversized white and blue pinstriped blouse. Her legs were lean and tan, stretching lengthily out from beneath the hem of the windswept blouse, and her long, dark hair trailed wildly in the wake of her step.
He, on the other hand, was simply distracted.
He padded inattentively along behind her, kicking at the sun-baked trail, and raising clouds of red dust. The wagon wheels of his imagination spun with the westerns of Saturday afternoon matinees. He could hear the whoops of Apaches in the distance as they quickly bore down upon them. His passenger, a young, raven-haired beauty, leaned anxiously out the stagecoach window and implored him to make haste.
“Don’t you be worryin’ none now missy,” he hollered back over the thunder of the horses. “These ‘ere animals can run to hell and back without scorchin’ a hoof.”
He whipped the reins, snapping them smartly against the horses’ backsides, and the carriage lunged forward. Suddenly, a war party sprung from the row of trees alongside the river. Single-handedly cocking the Winchester, he prepared for the worst, but the team fearlessly bolted forward, leaving the troop of savages far behind.
A wide grin spread across his face.
“Why are you always walking behind me anyway?” She sighed after him. “You know, it’s really a little late to go swimming. Mother was starting dinner.”
The mention of food snapped him out of one daydream and into another.
He loved her mother’s home-cooked meals, something he rarely had at his own home. His parents were always preoccupied with the family business and evening meals were usually found drying out a crock pot. Nevertheless, their families were close, and in an effort to instill some sort of work ethic in the boy, it was suggested by her father that he spend the summers at their farm. Consequently, his family heartily agreed.
The fact that he and his daughter were the same age may have been more than coincidence, but it was no less an incentive. He enjoyed going out in the field with her older brother and riding high on the terraces in the big Massey Ferguson. In fact, her father had even let him drive the tractor home one evening, much to her mother’s disapproval.
“What in God’s name were you thinking, Dee Brown? Are you out of your mind!” She had exclaimed. “He might have driven right off that rickety, old bridge and into the river!”
“The river isn’t that deep,” her father replied stiffly.
He gave the boy a wink and smiling, continued, “besides, I was right behind him in the pick-up. I could have fished him out in no time.”
The two of them shared a chuckle.
“Fine,” her mother respondedd hopelessly, and went back to peeling potatoes in cold silence.
Of course her father was right; the river wasn’t that deep. It was mostly sandbar and river grass. Cottonwoods grew tall along its banks, fed by the springs which ran deep beneath the rich, sandy loam. It ran just south of the tall, white farmhouse, well within walking distance, and on previous summers they had ventured there regularly, cooling their feet in the shallows, or exploring the shade beneath the old bridge where swallows built nests high up in the weathered supports. That was before her father had a small pond dug in the back quarter to use as a swimming hole; it too was fed by the springs.
“GOD DAMN IT!” She snapped, stopping abruptly in the middle of the trail, and spinning on her heel shot him an evil eye and snarled. “What in the hell. Is taking you. So long?”
This time her voice commanded attention, and looking up, he recognized her mother’s stance of disapproval. Leaving his head in the clouds, he quickly trotted up alongside her and smiled innocently. However, his attempt at charm had little effect. She stood there, her hands on her hips, and with one eye winced, looked at him bitterly.
“You walk behind me all day long and yet you never pay any attention to me.” She stamped. “Are you ever going to grow up?”
He opened his mouth to respond, but nothing came out.
“One of these days, damn you, I’m just going to leave you behind!”
Then, leaving him behind, she disappeared over the top of the hill.
He was staggered by the gravity of her words; she had never spoken to him in that tone before. They had always been the best of friends and there were very few secrets they didn’t share. With summer coming to an end, their days were numbered.
He hurried up the hill after her, but it was too late, she had reached the swimming hole without him. All he could do was stand and watch as she dropped her blouse at the water’s edge, and dove soundlessly beneath the placid surface of the pond. He could see her moving silently beneath the reflection of tree tops and late-afternoon sky, her long, slender body undulating as it shimmered in the refracted sunlight—like a mermaid.
It startled him as she emerged unexpectedly alongside the small, floating dock that had been anchored in the center of the pond. Pulling herself sinuously up onto the platform, her long, dark hair clinging to her sunkissed shoulders, she rolled up on her side and looked directly at him. He thought he heard her speak softly—
“Come on, it will be dark soon. The boys will be in from the field, and they will be wondering where we are.”
This wasn’t the tomboy he knew.
He was stunned, and yet all at once he became aware of the sweet scent of alfalfa blooming. He heard a car recklessly crossing the old, wooden bridge in the distance, its planks jumping and rattling in their pilings. A rush of wind gave him a shiver as he imagined the barn swallows bursting out from beneath the supports and sweeping him up into the bright, blue sky.
Without thinking, he had wandered down to the water’s edge, and wading out into the cold of the spring, he felt a pang of desire climb up the inside of his thigh.
Suddenly—all his days were strung together like pearls.