[Sorry for posting the next chapter so rapidly! I'm not sure what is the posting limit per week, but I had to finish it early and ask your indulgence -- I have to spend the rest of the week working on (another) application for a writer's residency. :D Hope you're all having a good midweek! <3 Sarah]
[And as Homey pointed out in the last post -- yes, that's Jed in my profile picture! :D ]
"So, what is it you have to tell me?"
"You said yesterday you had something to tell me,” Aggie said.
She was on her back in the grass. Clover, like green sprites, tickled her cheeks. The cows wound their cuds around their mouths. Some lay and swished their tails about their bodies. Jed had brought a paper bag: he had made a ham and cheese sandwich for Aggie.
"Oh, that. That was just reading from the journal I had brought. I don't know what else to tell you."
"Come now. You're not empty of stories. You're bursting at the seams with stories: I can see the fluff coming out of your elbows and from behind your knees right now."
He tucked his hands under his knees. He pulled them back into his chest. "I just can't think of anything."
"Then I'll give you a topic."
"That sounds like essay-writing."
"Then I'll regale you."
"What do you want to know about me?" asked Aggie. "Scholarly pursuits, deviltry, experimentations, heartbreaks, loves, conquests, losses?"
"What were your grades in school?"
"No, but you're so smart."
"School bored me, so I didn't focus or do any work. I never studied. I graduated by the skin of my teeth."
"That actually shocks me. I would have imagined you an easy straight-A student."
"Mostly C's and D's."
"Something else, then," said Jed. His voice was courtly as he went back on his elbows in the grass. "Ballads of love."
"Love. Oh, now that's giving skin. For which it must be returned, pound for pound."
"You can’t ask and not share. Now don’t tell me you have no stories. An intrepid lad like you."
“What is your hesitation?"
"In general, I just don't like sharing knowledge." Jed looked off at a pileated woodpecker, flashing between chestnuts. “Do you want to eat your sandwich?”
"No, I’m not hungry yet. Though thank you. Don't like sharing knowledge?" Aggie rolled herself over and over until she was closer. "But that's the sweetest thing we can experience. Baring our souls to each other. Lonely lives stay lived so long as lovers lie. Share your secrets, spill your souls -- surrender being sly."
He looked down at her, and laughed. "Did you just come up with that this instant?"
"I may have fiddled around with it before. But come on now, man." She poked his shoe and he stiffened. "What's made you so reserved all of a sudden? You didn't seem that way when you opened up your journal for my yesterday afternoon. You were glowing."
"Because I was fourteen when I wrote that. That information is almost obsolete. Every recent story could be used against me."
"So you fear something being used against you."
"Knowledge means power," said Jed. "Giving knowledge means putting the other person in a place of advantage. Don’t you agree?”
“No, I don’t. Not at all.”
“Well, I believe sharing stories about myself gives the person power over me."
"But, Jed. Look." She opened her hands below him like mourning doves. They were the color of coffee, with too much milk. Each fingertip was capped with a short nail. The crosses on her palms were dirty. "I'm your friend."
"I’ve had friends in the past who were like sharks. Who got excited at any sign of blood."
"But it's me. I'm not them. I'm your new friend, Aggie.” She sat up. “Okay, alright, yes. You don't know me well enough yet. Enough to trust me. But if I could swear an oath -- if I could find a sword to lay before your feet like knights of old --"
"Am I the fair maiden in this picture?"
"-- if I could assure you in some way of my innocence, my harmlessness, I would. Tell me a story, Jed," said Aggie, softer, almost lisping through her half-closed mouth, "and I swear to you I will listen. I will laugh, if appropriate to laugh. I will cling like a sailor drowning to every last word as if it's a barnacled rock. I will love your stories because you are human, because you deserve your stories to be loved. And I will cover your vulnerable spots as if they are my own, because you are my friend. I know you would do the same for me; I myself have that trust. That is, I am going to dare to have that trust. Because that is how you build a relationship. You meet on that exposed plain, and you give each other -- weapons, if you'd like to call them that – in good faith that they will never use them against you. And then you build a fire for comfort. And eat bread for the journey."
"I just don't know."
Now Jed was stroking his fingers against his other fingers. His shoulders were glazed and taut like laundry pinned in winter. He could only look at his hands, and he rubbed at his thumbnail. He felt Aggie watching him for a moment.
"I don't know," he repeated.
So she climbed up onto a granite rock, and her hair started tugging in a breeze. "Then I'm going to go first," she said, "and by first, I mean I'm just going to speak right now -- not that there has to be a rejoinder," and she glanced off into the woods as if looking back into another lifetime. "When I was younger, I fell in love."
"You don't have to."
“We were both sixteen. In high school. The first time we saw each other, it was almost at the same time. He had golden hair, close to the color of yours, but more wheaten.”
“Yeah, mine is reddish.”
“I think it’s gold.”
“It’s more red,” muttered Jed.
“And then he had a mole in the middle of his left cheek. You know how little things like that become beautiful when you love someone?”
“So was it love at first sight.”
“No, I don’t believe in love at first sight. Attraction at first sight, yes. I think we all have some encoded requirements in our DNA that leads us be magnetized to particular traits, and to recognize those features when we see them, or feel them, in people.”
“I could agree with that.”
“He saw me first and he said he knew I would be in his life. He said he knew just by the back of my head.”
“The back of your head," said Jed. "Where were you?”
“I was rowing in a dory. He was on the bank, with some of his friends. When I came ashore, I fell so hard it was like plummeting into a black hole.”
A picture opened up before his imagination. He saw Aggie on a lake, the silver of her boat-side turning to mercury in the sun. The marbles of her triceps, pulling. Jed saw the back of her head, frizzed at the ends, like mosquito legs. Tan sleeves rolled up to her bitten elbows. Then he saw the boy on the bank: a young boy drowning in dry golden grass, with downy cheeks. His own hair lit up like lightning bugs. The sun burning his knuckles and ankles. “What happened? Were you friends first?”
“Friends. Lovers. I don’t know what we were. We were children. It was something indefinable, and yet I knew we would always be together. I saw myself together with him, in my future, so clearly. For eternity.”
“Did you – what’s a word -- did you go steady?”
“We never kissed.” Aggie’s voice was soft, and Jed did not like how she looked now. She became private; she was momentarily not a storyteller, but a human girl orbiting in the realm of never-happenings, wherein lies the potency of some of the strongest human bonds. And yet something in him loved it, like she was a book that had opened itself with a satisfying crack, and was sending out its battered sweetness, its most precious and real musk. Jed said,
“That’s the Grecian Urn.”
“Yes! The – wait, what?”
“The poem, 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. Ever read it?”
“No. Wait, what is it?”
“It is about youth in love, without final unity. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter,” said Jed. “For ever panting, for ever young. -- What happened?”
“It was me. After two years, I turned into something – I don’t know. Bad. Ugly. Monstrous. Wretched transformation, through false friends and bad influences. My family was in an upheaval, but I can’t blame that. The blame is entirely on me. I did some terrible things to him. Really terrible. And twice. But I didn’t think it mattered, because I still believed in destiny then. I thought we were bound by something indissoluble. I could ignore him and do what I liked, because fate would bring us together in the end. I even made fun of him for being so straight-laced. I called him goody two-shoes. With affection, of course. But I was a fool. He never joined me in what I was doing. He drew away from me instead. Not from me, per say, but from what I was becoming. Then one day I guess I said some things to him. I never knew what I said. And I’ll always be haunted by it. He wouldn’t tell me the next day, either. He just looked at me really sad, and almost scared-like, and that was the worst.” She pressed her hand into her chest as if to force a handprint there. “My heart still burns at that image. We stopped seeing each other frequently. And then one day I saw him at the pond again, and he said, so gently – even just thinking about his voice right now makes me cringe – that he knew the road I was going down, and he couldn’t go down it with me. And he said it broke his heart. Can you believe that? There was so much sadness and love in his eyes. And even then, I did it one more time. I called him on his family’s phone. I said things, and I don’t know what I said. And then,” Aggie stopped, and shrugged. “And then he never spoke to me again after that.”
Jed watched her. Aggie’s skin glistened along her jaw bone. It was a fine jaw, like an egret’s wing. Her body was taffy-colored, and it made him think of buckwheat and berries.
“I did it. It was all me. I wrecked the most beautiful thing in my life. You know when people ask you if you know the worst thing you did? Can you answer it?”
“I don’t know,” said Jed. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life.”
“I can answer it easily, because I always try to keep it fresh in my mind. So that I never do it again.”
“You won’t do it again. You’re different. We’ve grown. And we all have things like that, that we deeply regret. We’ve all done things like that.”
“Not everyone does things like this. At least not to a good person -- a genuinely good person. And all because I believed in love at first sight. In destiny. I could spit on that concept. I thought everything would work out in the end and I didn’t have to work at. I destroyed the one pure thing I ever had – the heart and love of a good boy. I broke him.” She reached down and picked grass and rolled it between her palms. “And since then I have cared for others, but received increasingly diminished returns. I have often felt like the lowest fruit on the tree for people to pick.”
“Not -- no.”
“And they reach for me because I’m easy. Too loving; easy to fool; maybe too needy. They take bites of me, and then they throw me away.”
“You’re not the lowest fruit. You shouldn’t be looked at that way. You shouldn’t be treated like that. How dare people? Look, I feel hot just thinking about it,” and he snapped his hands at the wrists, as if to flick off little flames of fire. His fingernails were singed. “You deserve more than that.”
“But do I? I hurt him so much, so long ago. Maybe I don’t deserve better. So, there. There you go.” Aggie leaned over with her blade of grass and put it between his fingers. His hands stilled. “There is a weapon. My most exposed soft spots. There is my foolishness and vulnerability. Do you worst. Use them against me. I’m wide open.”
“I wouldn’t. I won’t.”
“But now you’re not,” looking down at the blade of grass and rolling it between his fingers, “expecting a return of equal amount on my part right now, are you?”
“I told you I wouldn’t do that,” said Aggie. “I said it was a gift. From me, and your listening was the return present. Don’t lessen it now, or blaspheme it.”
“A gift. A gift,” Jed repeated. “I won’t.”
She ground her palm into the granite of the rock. “See, my curse is that I know I’m always going to love him.”
“Of course,” he said, taking out his notebook from his pocket.
“Though I can never have him. Not in the way I first imagined.”
Jed was softly sketching words on a page. “Here,” he said, ripping off the paper. “Keats.”
“Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Blankety blank blank blank; yet, do not grieve;
He cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and he be fair!”
“See: they are lovers that are reaching towards each other, etched on an urn. They can never touch and be together, because they are frozen artistically in time.”
“No, it means that the past experience remains. You will always love him. And that potential will always exist. Wait, here are two more lines --”
“Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare.”
Said Aggie, “That is beautiful, I guess.”
“I think so,” said Jed.
And when he walked home that day, Jed felt the presence of the more-flaxen-haired boy, glazed on Aggie’s heart in a town that was not Moguncoy. Aggie had never possessed him fully, so Jed felt that the unopened kiss had turned the regular clay of her memory into hot porcelain, preserved and ever-green: making the young boy perfectly ideal, injured eternally. And immemorially sixteen.
“What are you doing? You’re crazy!”
“I am crazy. And so are you!”
“You are, and I love it!”
“Ack! You’re going too fast. Laws, that girl can run!”
The lake was extending clearly and imperfectly, rudely blue. Reflecting a wild creampuff sky. The only echoes in the woods that bordered the lake were their voices and their hooves battering the path-ruts.
They ran like little children, furless beings. Her face was a warm hot strawberry. She dropped her sweater on the path and Jed threw his jacket over a pine bough. The lake was fringed with trees, bronzed and braided with red.
Then Jed and Aggie stopped, panting. He put his hand against the smooth bole of an aspen, shivering and yellow. Aggie tore a golden leaf between her hands.
"We're here," he said.
The woods opened and the loamy path was spread with gravel.
“Is that a railing over there? That’s a railing. What’s a balustrade doing on Lake Maspenock!”
In front of them, a curving balustrade brimmed the lake: an ornamental railing of granite. The granite was gray and pockmarked with lime.
Jed said, “Welcome to what I wanted to show you.”
Aggie cackled. “What in the world is this,” she hacked and coughed. “We’re not in Moguncoy anymore.”
They walked up to the railing, the gravel squishing underfoot. Only the smallest shivers rippled through the air, stirring the aspens and the blue water, almost imperceptibly. “This is the select, wealthiest part of Moguncoy,” he said. “There are only a few houses here on this side of the lake. You can’t see it, but there’s a mansion up there through the woods.”
“We’re trespassing, then.”
“I love trespassing!” said Jed. “-- But we’re actually not.”
“We are metaphysically. Because we’re bandits in every aspect of our lives. Mutineers. Squatters who will never fully conform.”
“Except I actually know these people,” Jed said. “They go abroad every October and ask me to check the grounds every once in a while. Their house is up the hill, behind the pines.”
“Do you have a key inside?”
“No, I just look for window breaks. I’m friends with the eldest son, but he’s at college now. At Princeton.”
“So you’re the stable hand.”
“That’s exactly what I am. And you’re not much higher, Miss Scullery Maid.”
“Nay.” Aggie jumped up and sat on the railing, inserting her hands under her thighs. “I am the lady of the house. Diffusing diamonds. Breathing beryl out of my pores.”
“Oh, fair Rosabold. Run away with me! Away from the confines of this estate and all of society, and into the wilderlands.”
“Alas, good stable boy, do not ask for my hand,” she said, “for my father has already promised it to the Duke of Chatterbunkety.”
“Then I shall pitch thee into the lake, fair maid.”
“But thou carest for me,” she squawked. “Thou wouldn’st!”
“I wouldst, in good truth.” He took a step towards her.
“There! a hand for a life: I give it to thee!” She flung out her hand. “But ’twas perjury.”
Jed jumped onto the balustrade next to her, astride as if on a horse. “’Twas indeed perjury. Yet we met in the forest. And thither we must run.” He pressed his hands into the granite. “Thou knowest it, dearest Rosabud.”
“Forsooth,” said Aggie, “’tis truth. We folded our lives together outsideth everything else.”
“And therefore we must always live in the wild.”
“Yea. Come on. Let’s run up the stairs,” said Jed, swinging his leg over. “I’ll show you the walled garden.”
“That is a giant’s stairway!”
The stairway was cut into the hill that rose from the lake, and was regally wide. The steps were hewn of granite, flecked with black, and blooming with fingers of lichen -- milky blue, and misty mint. Jed and Aggie began climbing the stones, their footsteps clopping with hollow echoes. Bushes of cedar and hemlock and rhododendron played up the hillside, clipped into gnomish shapes and fruit slices and globes.
At the top of the staircase, the land was flatter and grassy, punctured with bony cherry trees, and the lawn lead to the back of a Victorian manor home, with a high walled garden. There was a hushed and uninhabited feel to the air.
“The gate is locked.”
“That’s what hands and legs are for,” said Aggie.
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
They walked around the garden corner. The wall of mortar and stone dipped lower facing west. A cherry tree sagged against the wall. There was a wheel barrow next to the tree, painted green with cranberry handles. Jed laced his fingers to give Aggie a boost up the tree, but she stepped up on the wheelbarrow’s handles and found the limb herself, and with a scratch and a tumble was suddenly over the wall. Then Jed mounted after her, and nimbly dropped with a crunch next to her, crouching on the gravel path. Then they both straightened.
The inside of the walled garden was not large, and it was a circular maze of low boxwood bushes, the color of limes. The pathways were made of crushed shells, and littered with twigs and snails and pine needles.
“Do you ever get a wild feel when you’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be,” said Jed, brushing his hands across a bush, “like all tingly, sort of. I don’t feel it now -- because I’m with you -- but usually when I’m alone; it’s almost euphoric. Almost -- I don’t know.” He felt something shudder in him, deep and low. He reached down and picked up a pinecone. “It’s exciting and strange and pleasant and scary.”
“Like you’re going to get caught.” Aggie darted behind a bush and growled. “Come and get me, Theseus.” Jed skated around towards her, and she jumped out and ran – pumping dark thighs – to the fountain.
“Don’t climb the fountain.”
“I’m going to climb the fountain.” Aggie hopped, and sat up on the scalloped shell. It was in the center of the garden. “I want to see into the windows. Does the family eat crumpets crusted with sugar?”
“Yes.” Jed went in front of her, and tried to sit a boxwood shrub. He immediately stood back up.
“And drink tea made from rosebuds harvested with silver-lined gloves? Whilst sitting in golden chaise lounges?”
“I haven’t been over much, because Peter was overseas the past four years. He left his freshman year of college for it.”
“More fool him.”
“I don’t know,” said Jed. “You can’t see anything. The curtains are drawn.”
“Flibbety foo. I wanted to see Rosabold’s powder room, and her agate tub.”
“There’s only Peter Marlin, and Peter’s old parents. And sometimes Peter’s fiancé, Susan, who served in the air force.”
“Then Susan’s agate tub. Where she soaks in a thousand orchids.”
“She’s kind of rough.” Jed put his hands in his pants pockets and stared at Aggie. “Actually.”
Sitting in the scalloped shell. Her legs encased in stiff cargo pants, eking up to her knees. Skin showing above her wool socks, shocked with fine brown hairs. And the scrunch of hair on her head like the silk of a collie, like his dearest dog. All curled and swiveled as a wentletrap. She was swinging her legs, her hands gripping the fountain’s edge until her knuckles were periwinkles. Her teeth were buttoning over her lower lip, maybe imagining whatever life was out of her reach. A child at a fair. He wanted to put a web of cotton candy in her hand, with her soft flannel of red and gold.
“I do have a story,” he said.
“You have a million stories, Jed.”
“But this one is about a girl. – Pound of flesh, you said.”
“Then the mystery comes out.”
“Not really. It’s a bad one. It wrecked me.” He scuffed his foot into the gravel.
“Then I hope I’m a soft pillow to land a tale on.” She jumped off the fountain and landed with a squelch. “How much did you love her?” She studied her hands over the head of a bush.
“I didn’t at all.”
“That was the problem.”
Aggie pressed her hands deeply into the lime leaves.
"Well." Jed picked a leaf. He broke it and brought it to his nose. “You know how you said you lost someone? I did, too, though the way was different than yours. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced, outside my family.”
“This is about Susan, isn’t it?”
“No. No, no, no. It’s a girl I haven’t mentioned yet.” The boxwood leaf smelled of opulence. Of mythology and melting granite. “Her name was Mary Anne, and she moved to Moguncoy in my senior year of highschool. We became best friends. She fell in love with me, and I had to tell her last Christmas that I didn’t care for her that way. It broke her heart. It broke mine, too. And I never want to go through something like that again. I am going to prevent it in any way that I can.”
“How will you prevent it?”
“By making sure no one falls in love with me.”
Aggie laughed. “You can’t do that.”
“I can be open and honest. I can tell how I feel, before it goes too far.”
“Alright. You can do that. I suppose.” Something stitched across Aggie's eyebrow in a way he had not seen since that day they were in the pine tree.
“I will do that," said Jed. "I want to protect people’s hearts. And not let anyone experience that ever again because of me.”
“No. No, you’re a bit off the mark. You can’t control how others feel.”
“I can protect other people from myself,” he said.
“But, what – are you some irresistible, destructive force to females? Do I need to put up a shield when you look at me?”
“No. No, no, no. I’m not trying to say that. But I wish I could have stopped – it.”
“You sound like the heartbroken one,” said Aggie.
“-- Not more than she, but it tore me up. See, I lost her.” He yanked a laurelette off the bush. “That’s what.”
“I’m sorry, Jed. That’s tragic.”
“But those things happen. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I don’t want anyone to fall in love with me ever again.” He pushed the leaves back, hard, into the boxwood. “People just get hurt. That’s all that happens.”
“Love can be beautiful, too,” suggested Aggie.
“It never is.”
“Jaded at twenty-one.”
“Jaded at twenty-one,” said Jed. He traced a cross in the gravel with his toe. “When one person loves another, the other often doesn’t love her back. Or the other way around. That’s what I’ve observed. It’s never the same thing at the same time. So I think I just want friendships in my life. Platonic intimacy with people. That way there is equality.”
“Equality is good.”
“And true love,” said Jed.
“True love in friendship. Equal standing, both caring the same amount of affection for each other. That’s the only way people are really safe and cared for. You never lose each other, either. When you drag romance in, somehow things get off-kilter. The other person gets too close. Then they ask for too much.”
“Then you really don’t want romance at all,” said Aggie.
“I’m not built for it.”
“Oh, come on, now.”
“No, no, it’s true. You want to see me get crazy -- watch me think a girl loves me. I start getting crowded and scared and I feel blocked and intense, and I just buck. I want to buck her hard and fast and away.”
“You are like a deer.”
“Like a wild deer in the forest. But I do love people. I love friendship and intimacy so much,” said Jed. “I just don’t want that type of closeness. You know?”
“Thanks for telling me this,” said Aggie.
“But, no, see -- friends,” pleaded Jed, “can love each other just as much – if not with more tenacity. Ferocity and loyalty.”
“I can agree with that.” Aggie looked over the garden wall: maybe at an errant seagull.
“And then it’s equal, and no one crowds the other. When someone crowds me, or wants me romantically, I just feel angry. Like my head is going to explode. Or I have to run or push hard.”
“Buck!” Aggie brushed her hands across the bush, and then suddenly jumped into it. “Oh! Ouch! I thought that would hold me more.”
“Aggie, what are you doing!” He laughed and grabbed her by chunks of her sweater sleeves and pulled her up.
“That was a miscalculation. Occasionally I make miscalculations.”
“We all do.”
“But it’s a very good thing I don’t love you,” said Aggie.
Aggie rumpled her fingers into Jed’s arm. “I’m just teasing you! Gee, look at your face. I really got you. You’re so tense. Fiddle-di-dee. Chase me around the maze, Theseus. I’m the minotaur. Or wait, isn’t it the other way around?” She shrieked and dodged.
“It’s the other way around,” yelled Jed, darting after her.
“Does she live here now!” asked Aggie, wagging behind a bush.
“No, she’s in Argentina!”
“What?” with a gasp, twist, and a half- turn.
“She’s going to become a nun.” He splatted himself into a bush, too. “Ack! -- that hurt more than I thought it would. Yikes.” He lifted himself. “But, yeah. A nun.”
“Get thee to a nunnery! Oh, Theseus, you run so slow.”
“I’ve never seen anyone run as fast as you.”
“Years of escaping.”
“Years of trespassing.”
“Can she never marry, then?”
“She’s a postulant. Once she enters, then, yes. No, never marry.”
“And how long before that happens?”
“Two or three years. She’s going into an order of Carmelites.”
“Do they make sweet caramels?”
Jed untied his boots on the back steps. Through the screen door, he saw his father standing in front of the kitchen table. Beyond the kitchen, in the living room, Jed could see his mother lying on the sofa. Her house dress was mushroom colored. On the braided rug in front of her, Sunny was wiggling her belly around and dancing in a costume. She had Scotch-taped pipe cleaners to her cheeks. She was yattering like a feline.
Mrs. Spearman said, “You’re excited about your Halloween costume, so you’re making noise with your mouth,” laconically. “Stop it.”
“You’re making noises just to hear yourself.”
“That’s normal for a Halloween costume,” countered Mr. Spearman, “to be excited.” One hand was cradling his chin; the other was on his hip. He was looking down at the kitchen table. He had on an apron, tied around his waist: the color of canned peaches. The ribbon was pink.
“It’s not for three more weeks,” said Mrs. Spearman, her arm dropping like molasses, stubbing out her cigarette in an olive bowl. “You’re all over the place. Get control of yourself.”
Jed kicked off his boots and walked into the kitchen.
“Hullo, Jed,” said Mr. Spearman.
"What were you up to today?" He was examining a ball of dough, light yellow.
“I was out. With Aggie Cooney.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Spearman. “You see a lot of her, don’t you?”
“Not too much.”
“It seems like a lot.”
“No, not too much.”
“You’ve been with her every day for the past month.”
“Well, almost every day. But not always for long. Sometimes we just say hi.”
“Do your ‘hi’s always last six hours?” He started pinching the dough and raking it.
Jed edged to the bottom of the stairs. “Maybe,” he said, and disappeared.