Eat of This Tree
She rose and with a long swaying motion began to dress. An ordinary time she might have stretched, arched her back, stood on tiptoe as if to fly down the hillside. But this was not an ordinary time. Her movements, as he watched her, were slow, deliberate, full of dignity, detached from her pale, drained face and a slight trembling in her hands. If his hands shook doing his own clothes he didn't know it. He felt nearly numb. He registered the afternoon sun's shadows under her breasts, two little dark curving wings, the dark down of her crotch, but he thought, oddly, Like she is going to church. There was something sacramental in her unreal calm at this moment. No, not church, like a queen preparing for her execution. You put the red dress on under the outer one so that when you removed the latter and stood before the crowd . . . and then that red will. . . .
She finished with the buckles, buttons, and laces and stood before him, white and still, arms straight by her sides. Her lips moved with the words without sound. "Yes," he could barely say because his own mouth was so dry. "I know." Then, as if a grim strong hand had gripped her shoulder and forced her, she turned to look across the valley, with its little stream at the bottom, to the opposite hillside.
It had been different in the beginning. He had spent two days trying to get her apart, away from the others who were visiting also, days of awkward, furtive touching, of looks that gave him the answer he wanted. He sensed a snap in the air so strong he would glance quickly around to see if their friends felt the current, too. In the months of longing before this visit, he had imagined, hoped, the others would melt away, go off somewhere—to tour the caverns, to watch the hang-gliders come off the mountain, anything—and leave him alone with her in the big bare house. Then they could hang blankets over the windows, drink half a bottle of wine, fall on the mattress on the floor. He got only frustration. They had done everything as a group. At the beginning of the third day he watched her bare feet as she came down the stairs, and his want made him desperate. As soon as he could, he suggested she go riding with him on the motorcycle.
She might have refused. She hated the bike and had asked him not to bring it this time. It made trails in the woods, eroded the land, and scared the animals. He called her a pseudo-conservationist, told her if she really cared about the wilderness she wouldn't live up here, building ponds, cutting firewood, and making a garden. If she would ever get on the bike and ride, he told her, she'd understand what it meant, the exhilaration, danger, freedom, flying.
"You make it sound like the ultimate substitute," she had laughed. "The male flirtation with disaster is some sort of natural instinct. It's meant to weed out the wild and reckless so that the survivors can settle down with nice stable harems."
But she had come with him.
The afternoon was hot. The rough dirt and gravel road went up for several miles. It was wild enough that he didn't have to hit any extra holes to make her cling to him tighter. "I am not really here," she said in his ear. "This is not happening to me."
The road gave out some distance from the top. They got off to undo the barred gate. Beyond it was a faint trace of an old logging road through thin, light-dappled woods and then the broad natural meadow. The meadow ran the length of the ridge, bright and open, hurting the eyes after the shade of the woods. They stopped to climb one of the granite outcroppings, studded with a few small gray twisted thorn trees.
"Watch out for rattlers," he only half-joked.
"I've never seen a poisonous snake up here." She stood looking down on him from the highest point. "What you'd better be afraid of is driving over a hornets' nest in all that grass. We'd be stung to death. It's the little things that get you."
Where they were, all was huge. The wide meadow was nearly circled with heavy masses of trees. Beyond the green the far mountains rolled on like blue water, and beyond them, in the west, thickening clouds were threatening another summer afternoon storm. Innocent white now, they could turn heavy and gray in a hurry. He was seized by urgency.
Her feeling seemed different. She still stood on the topmost rock, the never-dying wind blowing back her long brown hair, a touch of gray showing in front. She flung out her arms to the breeze and the sun.
"This puts me in my Emily Brontë mood—when the love of mortal man is not enough."
He almost winced. "Oh, Lord," he threw back his head. "But we
try, we try."
He reached out for her, shining shape above him, twirling, her yellow shirt bright in the sun. She teased him, dodged him. "Do you see what I see?" she caroled gaily, and pointed.
Two ridges away under a browed overhang still in shadow even this late in the day was a building, the only sign around, except for a few cleared fields, of anything human. It was a low house, set into the bank of a small clearing, unpainted except for black shutters covering every window.
"Who would live in a place like that, a house facing that direction? North-looking, dull, and cold in winter. Someday I'm going to hike over there and. . . . It looks so damn sinister."
The house suddenly and profoundly irritated him. It reminded him of other intrusions, something about to come between them. He wanted to yell at her, Think about me, who and where I am. What I feel for you. He grabbed and pulled her off the rock.
To the other side of the meadow was a narrow cleared valley, a small round hollow at one end, green steep sides and a boulder-strewn stream at the bottom. Part of the way down to the stream was a thick copse of young locust beside a small shelf of soft bright grass. He had already seen it before he started the bike. "Come," he said.
The sharp scent of wild mint came up in waves around them as they went down.
The grasses separated sections of her spread-out hair, dusting it with pollen. They were both covered in sweat, the sun on his back scalding now. He thought to himself that he might have a telltale sunburn tonight if he wasn't careful, but then probably he hadn't been stripped that long. As soon as they could, they always came at each other swiftly and it was quickly over. Actually having her passed in a wild blur. She was quiet now, lying with her chin up and her eyes closed. This he liked best, when he was covering her. There were faint lines marking her face now, visible in the bright sun. Time, his enemy. What he could not protect her from made him want to protect her the more. He held on to her as if to pull her back from the edge of something. Her eyes opened. She turned her head to the opposite side of the valley. "Look." Her voice was strange, odd, far off even, as she whispered against his shoulder.
"He has been there all the time."
The man was sitting across from them on the other slope, astride a blown-down tree as if it were a horse. He looked small and thin, wearing dark faded clothes and a wide-brimmed felt hat. He sat very still, holding a branch of the tree coming up between his legs as if it were reins or a mane. It was too far to see his face, just the shadow cast by his hat, but he was turned in their direction. He had seen them. The air was thin and clear as glass.
How long he lay there before moving he did not know. Nor did he remember getting to his feet. He saw her get up, a slithering glide away from him. He watched her and out of the corner of his eye saw their observer move too. The man on the opposite bank leaned over to one side of his mount and picked up something.
That is a gun, he told himself when he saw it. It was not as big as he expected, some sort of short-barreled rifle, solid black. Nylon, so there won't even be a gleam of metal when the hunter slips through the forest. "You could shoot someone out here and no one would ever know who did it. Of course."
She dressed herself, both men watching, her slow care as seductive as undressing. When the execution thought came to him it did not alarm him as it should have. The rocks and the trees were in their places, aligned. It should be. He felt a place inside himself prepare itself to receive. "Ah, ah, ah," said his soul. He stepped beside her and took her hand.
The earth would turn no more. A bird high in the air stopped on a current, its wings out. The trees were still. He didn't breathe. He heard nothing. The hand in his shuddered and the woman beside him screamed.
He didn't hear the first of what she said, but suddenly she clutched the front of his shirt and the last words of what she shouted in his face were, "Go right into its jaws, would you?" She almost shook him. Her face was red and her teeth bared and clenched. "Run for it. Now."
He righted the bike from where he had dropped it on its side in a sort of trancelike struggle. When he had it started she leaped behind him with something more like flight than a jump. The bike took the climb with a roar. In the mirror he had a glimpse of a tiny figure that took off its hat and waved it over its head like a salute.
Halfway down the road she began to laugh. "Marvelous," she cried, "you have saved me. Carried me off on your mighty charger." What he heard was, "You were scared to death. He had you by the balls, didn't he, ha, ha!" She gripped him tightly around the ribs where he hurt from holding his breath. The mighty charger gave a lurch. He would have liked to throw her off and leave her in the deep briar-strewn ditch on the side. Being watched. And being terrified to the bone. It had spoiled things forever.
"I can't wait to tell them, can you? Not all of it, of course."
By the time they got to the house she was singing, fullthroatedly, without words, a tune he recognized as a rousing old hymn.
Neither one of them told.