LAKE OF LIFE LOST

That night, Janette woke from real life, and found herself by the side of the same lake as the night before.  Though the bank on which she lay was hard clay, cool and damp as the night around her, a mat of sewn magnolia leaves had been laid out beneath her, filled with moss.  Under her head was a celadon-green pillow made of cloth softer than any lamb suede she had ever felt.  A single magnolia blossom drifted down from the branches over her head and brushed her throat, as it tumbled noiselessly onto the mat.  She sat up.

She was alert now.  Waiting.

She stood.  The lake’s incandescent surface was the tranquil dark silver of a black pearl.  It reflected the reeds and rushes surrounding it.  For a moment she worried about her appearance and considered walking down to the shore to check herself in the water.  Just as she had the night before, however, she knew without a doubt that there was no need to be afraid.  She was beautiful.  She looked better, much, much, better than she did in real life.

Her hair would be long, fine, and straight, but fluid.  A russet-gold.  Her face would be long, the bones underneath strong and curved as if made by someone who carved violins from expensive wood.  Every line would be softened by the quietest of shadows and her skin would match the color found on the palest Siamese cat, creamy with a faint tan.  The complexion would be unmarred.

She was dressed in a fine mail,  the chinks made from rose alabaster carved into the shapes of leaves and fitted one over another.  It did not feel heavy.  She was strong.  In her grasp was a book of poems and stories written in another place, by a no longer childish but not yet fully adult hand.  Her hand.

Her wait was short.  Out of the cloudless sky flew a magnificent black swan, circling over the water.  Its wingspan was more than twenty feet across, its eyes and legs the same silver black as the lake.  So dark were the bird’s feathers they were barely distinguishable from the night until it dipped below the level of the reeds and landed with a graceful splash.  Its breastbone as it cut the water left behind gentle ripples, like the raised ornamentation on the back of a woman’s hand mirror.

The swan drifted back and forth on the lake, eyeing her warily but with interest.  Whether it was shyness or reluctance or fear she couldn’t say, but it had done this last night for what she figured to be nearly an hour.  Then it had taken off again and stroked towards the horizon long before dawn was due.

Tonight, however, she grew impatient.  Instead of holding still she moved quietly to the water’s edge.  The swan noticed at once and stopped in the center of the lake.

She didn’t understand.  Every time so far, every detail had been under her control, everything ordered and predictable and eerily peaceful, just the way she wanted it.  Why wouldn’t the swan come near?

Though she wore short gray boots more exquisite than any she could ever hope to own for real, she didn’t care.  She stepped into the water and began to wade toward the swan.  It surprised her then.  Suddenly swimming toward her.

Janette backed out of the lake and up the bank, almost returning to the magnolia tree.

Gliding, the swan reached the shore.  Sweeping itself onto dry land with a single beat of his wings, he was bird no more.  Rather, he was a young man, as she’d known he must be; a year or two older at the most than she was.  He was built sparely, with refined, supple arms and chest and neck.  His black hair ruffled in the breeze like feathers blown against their grain.

He bowed his head slightly as he walked up the bank, lowered gaze watching algae give way to bare clay and then low moss.  Shame seemed an indelible part of his expression.  She didn’t understand it.  It wasn’t what she had expected.

She went to her mat and sat down on it, thinking he would follow.

He shook his head.  “You don’t want me to,” she felt, not heard him tell her.

“Yes, I do,” she said aloud and stood up again to fetch him.

But when she tried to embrace him, he no longer had arms.  They had become wings again.  Her encounter with his human form was so brief, she had time to touch his hair only once, running fingers along soft locks as razor-edged as feathers, before her arms encircled a swan’s neck, and the bird nipped her on the shoulder to make her stop.

 

Janette opened her eyes and stared at the tray positioned over her hospital bed, vials of drugs lined up against its near edge, waiting for injection into her IV.  She still clutched her journal, but its cover was grimy and discolored from holding it with feverish hands.  She could feel that her panties were wet.  The nurses would know she’d had a wet dream, but say nothing.  The nurses knew everything about her.

Janette fell into a fitful lethargy after writing only a few lines of her dream into her book, woke to write a few more, than became only semiconscious once again.  The third time she dredged herself out of the fever, her parents were perched on the edges of their chairs at her bedside, her father looking angry as he usually did, not angry at her, just angry, and her mother surreptitiously inventorying the increasing sarcomas covering her daughter’s hands and arms, using their size and number as an indicator of the amount of time left.

“Those hard-hearted legislative bastards may  not have any feelings,”  her  father started, “. . . or guts . . .” he digressed, “Don’t any of them have daughters?  Doesn’t one damn politician in this country have children anymore?”  Though he didn’t notice it, he punctuated almost every word by stabbing himself in the back of the hand with his pen.  The short blue marks made an inappropriate counterpoint to his expensive manicure.

Janette looked from her father’s to her mother’s hands.  The more widespread the sarcomas on Janette’s hands became, the more obsessively her father had begun caring for his own hands.  Her mother, however, no longer painted her nails or cared for her cuticles, or even put lotion on her hands.  Her mother’s were penance and a statement of self-consciousness and the desperate state she had been put in by her daughter’s illness.  They were also meant to ease the horrible contrast between the diseased and the healthy.

Janette hated how much their hands told her, but she knew both her parents loved her.  She smiled at them.

“I swear,” her father said, “if I could just get my hands on a few of those condescending idiots and–.”

“How are you today, honey?” her mother interrupted.  “Are you still recovering from your trip?”  Her mother’s voice caught after ‘recovering”, as the censor in her head must have told her what an awful choice of phrasing that had been.  “Do you need me to talk to the doctor?”

About morphine, was what she meant.

“ . . . but the rest of the state is behind you, Janie sweetie.  Look what started pouring in today.”  Her father hefted two huge canvas sacks, with scuff marks all over them, from the post office, and stuffed with letters, padded envelopes, and boxes.

She thought of the stories regularly carried in the tabloids, about sick people whose lives were spared by letter-writing campaigns from concerned readers,  as if the human body was a television show you could save from cancellation.

The pressure in her head was so severe it was frustrating trying to listen to him.  She felt like part of her brain was being forced against the inside of her forehead, which was what her rapidly growing lymphomas were doing.  Just enduring the pain made her want to hyperventilate, as if she were putting forth some great physical effort, running the hundred-yard hurdles over and over again, endlessly without a break.  Under such a regimen even the best athlete would break down, cramping and moaning.  But she couldn’t breathe deeply or quickly at all.  The tumor had already damaged her lungs, she needed to take oxygen periodically.

Even lifting her gaze to meet her parent’s depleted her as well.  She kept trying to do it, kept trying and trying.  She couldn’t believe something so simple as moving her eyes was such a big deal.

So she continued to stare at their hands.  After awhile it became impossible to concentrate on her father’s voice anyway, and she closed her eyes.

“Do you want me to talk to the doctor?” her mother asked again, sounding very close to Janette’s right ear.

“No, Mom,” she said.  She didn’t like to talk anymore.  Her words were slurred because of the tumors.  It scared her mother so much.

Hoping her smile followed her into unconsciousness, she let herself drift away.

 

The swan circled and circled overhead.  Monotonously.  Calmly.  Conserving energy.  Gliding.  Beating his wings only when it was necessary to stay aloft.

He was stalling.  He was afraid to come down.

But she had called him here so eventually he had to come down.

When he did, he landed at the end of the lake farthest from her, so far away she didn’t even hear his wings ruffling the surface.  He swam aimlessly about a tiny inlet, acting as if she wasn’t there.  Every once in awhile, however, the swan’s head and neck would loop gracefully around, on the pretense that the bird wanted to preen his feathers.  But she knew he watched her.

Janette decided to walk around to his shore.  For some reason her mail felt heavier that night, the air lukewarm instead of cool.  Her surroundings weren’t as invigorating as they had been during her previous visits.  Her stride grew short, then shorter, until finally, no matter how much she pushed,  she couldn’t prod her legs beyond a listless walk.  It took her most of the night to round the lake.

He never left, though.  He never moved to an inlet farther on.  It was almost dawn when she crouched by the water’s edge on a beach made of taupe-colored pebbles the size of peas, and watched him swimming idly twenty feet away.  For several minutes she studied him, while scooping up water and listening to it sift through her fingers, dribbling back into the lake.

“Why are you ashamed to come to me?” she asked finally.

He didn’t answer, but flew toward her onto the shore, transforming into the same young man as before.  He walked past her, up a low hill covered knee-deep in poppies.

Turning, he beckoned to her, then disappeared over the crest of the hill.

She followed and came soon to a peach tree, alone on the landscape.  Its long, narrow leaves were so dark a green that the logic of this world suggested they used the darkness the way other trees used sunlight.  The tree was filled with ripe fruit.  He plucked one and gave it to her.  Its skin was velvety black.  She cupped a hand over it, then hesitated and let go.

Sensing her fear, he urged it on her again.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, “but . . . “

Reaching for it, he stared at her with a serious expression and then took the first bite himself.  His throat quivered slightly as he swallowed, reminding her of the swan.  The fruit inside the black skin was a rich rose-orange.

He offered the peach to her again, holding it with the tips of his fingers so that when she took it, there would be little chance of physical contact between them.  Once more she wrapped her hand around it.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.  Then she darted around his out-stretched arm and kissed the juice left on his lips.  “But it’s not what I want.”

Startled, he shied back, dropping the peach.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“You can’t let me touch you,” a soft, clear voice circled her thoughts.  “I’ll kill you.”

“Why would I be afraid of that now?  Do you think I’m afraid?”

“I’m not talking about fear.  You’ve called Death’s child,” the tones grew shaky.  “I’m the son of the first death.”

His transformation into bird did not go smoothly.  His face was still human as he lifted above the trees, his breast more skin than feather.

She couldn’t tell if he had made himself completely over before he disappeared.  She picked up the peach.  The exposed flesh was covered in hard, little nodules of dried mud, which she carefully brushed away.  Raising the fruit to her lips, she tasted his taste again, hot and sweet, juice too startling and potent to drink, like tea made from mead instead of water.

 

Coming to, she saw a nurse by her bedside with a needle stuck into her IV.  They’d begun morphine.  Her body and mind relaxed into a deeper useless.  The new drug wouldn’t get rid of the pain, so much as deny her access to it.  To her, the drug was making her smaller in a sense, making her . . . less, so she was able to feel less’

“Have you been practicing your lucid dreaming?” a male voice asked.

“I’m sorry, what?”  It was her therapist sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the bed.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi.”

“Have you tried it yet?” he asked with sincere interest.  For the first time she noticed that his hair was black.  Was he the source of the dream swan?  She wasn’t sure, she didn’t want to discount it, but he seemed too old at twenty-eight and, she thought ruefully, definitely too heavy to fly.

“The dreaming?” she asked.

“Yeah.  I was wondering if you’d tried it and if it was helping.”

“No,” she told him.

She couldn’t say if he believed that.  He sat patiently waiting for her to begin, for her to give him a topic to latch on to.  She couldn’t start and right then that determined the subject for this session.  They were going to talk about anger, about her getting the disease, and about living out the rage it had engendered no matter the amount of time she had left to do it.

 

Her mother was back next morning, babbling under pressure.  No doubt she’d received a bad report from the doctor before she’d stepped in.

“Daddy and I were thinking,” she said, “about your journal.  You write so well, and I can tell from looking at the book that you’ve just about used all the pages.  Would you like us to do something special with it, um, when you’re done with it?”

Though Janette hated to show how possessive she felt about it, she clutched the book closer to her under the sheets.

“Perhaps take it to a publisher?” her mother asked.

Thankfully, their conversation was interrupted.  Out in the hallway, they heard a fight going on with someone in a wheelchair.  Janette figured it to be around six-thirty in the morning, the time they got the more ambulatory up and moving toward their various therapeutic destinations.

“Let me walk, damn it!” shouted a male voice emptied of most emotions other than resentment

Rubber soles and rubber wheels squeaked sharply, sounding like a tussle on a basketball court.

“Why can’t you just let me push you?” another man’s voice.  “Survivors know better than to waste their strength on the trivial stuff.  They save it up, to use for what’s important.”

“I’ve been putting my strength in a goddamn Keogh account for the last two days.  I’m tired of being in beds and wheelchairs and loungers.  Now, please!  Let me walk!”

Several seconds of nothing but background hospital noise.  Janette’s nurse moved on the next bed.  A horrendous sigh came from outside.

“Okay, Bruce, that’s what you want, that’s what we’ll do.  Come on, get up.”  Stifled grunting.  A wheelchair sent banging into the wall just to the left of Janette’s open door.  Uncoordinated feet shuffling forward in vinyl-soled slippers.  “But if you get sick and puke up your entire intestinal tract like the last time, I’m not taking the heat.”

“That’s what I love about you, Harold.  You’re just a demon for responsibility.”  This said by the tall male patient finally being helped past her door on foot by an orderly.  Bruce, the hospital worker had called him.  He looked both younger and older than Janette estimated him to be, about twenty-four.  Younger because he was big-boned and meant to carry a lot of weight, which he wasn’t now.  And older because the pain lines and the uneven complexion of disease were already settling into his face, the skin graying around his lips and eyes.

Bruce must have begun exhibiting his full symptoms only recently.  He still looked pretty much okay.  His hair, cut in big blunt shocks, flopped down over his face, but it was still shiny and thick.  It wasn’t drained of life yet, being a healthy dark brown.  While he’d clearly lost weight, he still had an athlete’s shoulders, and his calves, visible below the hospital gown, made her think of a pole-vaulter she’d had a crush on in her sophomore year.

Just then, Bruce turned his attention away from the orderly, a gesture of defiance, and glanced into Janette’s room.  Since she was closest to the door, she was the first person he saw.  Only his eyes registered his sudden discomfort at the sight she presented.  Then he recognized her.  The intensity in her eyes said he was adamant about that recognition, though he couldn’t place it.

Ten feet from now, he’d figure out who she was.  He’d remember her face from the news.  The young woman who’d testified before state and federal health agencies for more money to educate teens on the dangers of careless sex.  The girl who wanted politicians to spend more money for shelters and hospices.  The girl who some critics said used her condition’s gruesome appearance as a terrorist tactic.

His last impression as he passed the door was fright, very personal and deep.  He’d seen times to come in her.  She turned her face sharply away.

Don’t look at me, she thought.  Please.

 

Janette’s mat was turning brown and brittle.  Before, the magnolias’ foliage had always stayed green, eternally new, but now the leaves were dying.  They took on scalpel edges and sharp points like the disposable lancets used to draw drops of blood for testing.  Dozens of them stuck her in the arms when she rolled over and sat up.  From inside the mat, the moss padding wheezed dust with each movement.

The dampness was gone, the night’s cool, too.  Heat had shrunken the lake and evaporated the midnight-blue clouds that often lingered near the sunset horizon.  The reeds and rushes smelled brackish.  The air was fever dry.

For hours she sat motionless on the mat, wishing she could wake up.  What good was this place now, when the swan wouldn’t come to her, and the disease was taking it over?  She’d never known that dying magnolia blossoms felt exactly like pieces of old, popped balloons, rubbery and tired.

Every once in a while, she thought she detected movement far away in the sky, a familiar silhouette.  But each time it was only her imagination, or a shimmer in the rapidly heating atmosphere.

 

She woke to hear someone bawling and choking and coughing up.  

It was her.

I’m suffocating.

She could feel them; her lungs heavy and sodden as steaming cardboard inside her chest.  Ever since the doctor had listed the side effects she could expect from the tumors, Janette had lived with a constant, justified panic of not getting enough air.  The struggle between what her involuntary reflexes wanted and what her body could still deliver was a losing one.

Crying hoarsely for the nurse, she raked at her chest and fumbled for the call button.  A hand she couldn’t see pulled hers away from the controls.  She scratched and wrestled for them.  Desperation gave her the edge to wrest the call switch back, then press the button again and again.

Until she felt the oxygen tube being shoved up her nostril.  The chill rush of oxygen streamed through her nasal passages and down her windpipe.

“Shh, Janette,” said the graveyard duty nurse.  “We’ve got the oxygen going.  The doctor will be here in a minute, sweetie.  So you try not to fight so much, okay?”

She tried to quiet herself, to be good and please the nurse, but the panic wouldn’t go away, and she realized she no longer had control of her emotions.  They weren’t even valid emotions anymore, it seemed, but noises her messed-up brain was using to save her.

When the doctor came in, he pronounced her to have pneumocytosis, “which we were prepared for, Janette.”  Trying to reassure.  “We haven’t been caught off guard.  We know how to deal with it.”

Stupid things, she thought.  They all say such stupid things.

She spent a restless, terrified day, trying to breathe better and clear her badly blurred vision by blinking again and again.

She did survive this first battle with pneumonia.  Antibiotics worked for the time being.  Her vision improved a little, but it was closing down, the epripheral portion gone and the bouts of bleariness becoming longer.  Her headaches reached a point where she’d black out periodically from the pain.

During the sleepless times, she missed her world by the lake, but even when she could sleep, she didn’t go there.  Every time she felt herself lapsing she told herself she’d wake up there, but it never happened.  It wasn’t that she didn’t dream any longer.  She dreamed.  Of all the things she should be doing but was too lazy to work on anymore.  She began to wonder if the part of her mind that would normally allow her access to the lake was already destroyed, dead before her.

For hours she stared at her TV.  This thing will never leave my arm, for as long as I live, she thought.  It drove her crazy, kind of.  Made her want to rip at the needle.  In fact, she dared herself to, worked herself up to the idea during the most delirious moments, and would have done it a couple of times if she hadn’t felt so drained, so beyond will.

During her next visit from the staff psychotherapist, she told him about her urge to do it.  She tuned out his response though, and put herself on automatic for his questions.

What must it be like for the therapist to be here? she wondered instead.  What a weird concept, therapy for the dying.  Social services version of last rites, she thought, a fundamental anathema, and sort of a an extravaganza of resources, too.

She may not have listened, but the therapist must have spoken to someone.  When she was feeling only a little bit better, they made a special exception and wheeled her out to the atrium one morning.  A registered nurse had to sit nearby to monitor her alone.

Janette had been trying to catch up on her stories about the dreams ever since the pneumonia.  She’d put off chronicling that last dream by the dying lake for days.  Always, she’d been an overachiever.  Her parents had been proud of that fact, and she’d been proud of it.  There had never been a time when she didn’t have about ten projects going at once.

“You feel anger, don’t you?” the therapist had asked her once or twice.  “Towards the disease.  Anger about what it’s doing to you.”  He never asked if Janette had anger toward herself.  Or what she really had.  Guilt.

Guilt because she no longer worked at anything really.  She had allowed college and her parents to fall away.  She felt like a loser.

Today, though, she determined to accomplish something, even if all that meant was a couple of paragraphs about the last dream.  If all she did was explain why she’d needed to make up the world by the lake.

She tried convincing herself that sitting out among the greenery, basking in the sunlight coming through the greenhouse windows gave her the energy she needed to work.  She took up her mechanical pencil and arduously aligned its tip with the first blank line of a page she could barely make out.

Seconds later her fingers cramped and she lost her grip on the pencil.  Two sentences were evidently beyond her.  The pencil rolled and dropped to the floor.

“Here, let me,” said a male voice she knew.  The pencil was picked up and laid next to her hand splayed on the wheelchair’s tray.

Bruce.

“Doesn’t look broken, “ he said, picked it up again, clicked some fresh lead into the tip, then laid it down.

Janette didn’t move to retrieve it.  All her concentration was placed in keeping her hand from jerking spastically in front of him.

He still looked good.  Relatively.  Of course, it had only been about two and a half weeks since she’d seen him outside her door, but she suspected he’d be the type to stay almost handsome until close to the end.

“You know, if you want, you could dictate to me,” he said.  She could him discreetly reading over her shoulder.

“No.”  With her good hand, she softly closed the book.  She was terrified of what he might have read.  “Thank you, though.”

“What is it?” he asked.  “What you’re writing, I mean.”

“Personal.”

He nodded.  He’d been standing when he retrieved the pencil for her, crouching beside her chair while he talked, with his hair smelling incongruently of Physoderm, instead of shampoo or, worse, sweat from too many days of restless sleep.  Now he sagged to the white-tiled floor and sat cross-legged next to her.

“What do you write about?” he said, persisting.  “Do you write about being afraid?  Maybe letters to people that’ll, you know, live on?  Apologizing?  Wishing them well?  Or just what you’re feeling from day to day?”

“Dreams,” she said.

He glanced up very intent.  His eyes suddenly had too much concern in them, even for someone sensitized to this issue.

“What type of dreams?”

Her response was bitter, but she was proud of the honesty.  She’d never been so forthright.  She wasn’t ashamed of the bitterness.

“Things I don’t ever get to have,” she told him.

Bruce flinched.  He looked down at his knees.  In a few minutes he got up and moved to another part of the atrium without having said another word.

She was puzzled and hurt by the reaction.  It destroyed her confidence in publicly admitting her bitterness, just as swiftly as she’d mustered it up.

 

The sky was purple-white with lightning, striking again and again, split seconds apart.  It was coming her way.  Thunder cracked so loudly, it felt as if she were shut up in a room with it, as if it bounced off the ceiling of her world by the lake.  Rain refused to fall, though, and the clouds looked thin and empty.  Not even a breeze came up to brush the final leaves off the magnolia or spread the piles of them beneath it tumbling along the shore.

Janette sat against the tree’s trunk, idly tearing the mat apart tiny piece by tiny piece.  The mat had represented so much to her when this place had been alive.  Now it only made her angry.  Each leaf was surprisingly tough, stiff like water-ruined leather after it’s dried.  Almost impossible to rip.

She knew she should get away from the tree.  Besides herself it was the only object of any height for the lightning to strike.  But this was her world and she understood the lightning intimately.  She couldn’t escape it.  The disease had finally broken into her night kingdom.  This was a dream, after all.  Not reality, but an analog of it.  The lightning was going to hit her no matter where she went.  She knew exactly what it would feel like.

Like sharpened thorns in her blood, the pain pricking new wounds deep inside her where neither she nor doctors could get to them; excruciating tears in muscles and artery and bone.  Such agony could drive her mind into that surreal place where mad people lived, never precisely awake, nor living the temporary terrors the healthy dreamed while asleep.

So while she pictured herself running over the sullen landscape, the barren hills, hunting for shelter, crouching uselessly in shallow ravines, it seemed more reasonable to simply sit and wait.

The swan dove at her from behind, surprising her from a direction he’d never chosen before.  His wings raked her face as he flew around the tree, one claw ripping out a strand of her hair.  Had it been intentional?  His feathers smelled of ozone.

He stalled out his flight prior to reaching the shore, and landed as a man with his back facing her.  He was furious.  He was frustrated.

Knocked flat by his pass, Janette hadn’t gotten to her feet when he spun about.

“Who do you think you are to keep calling me here?  You know I don’t want you to.”  his words burned in her mind’s ear.

“This is my world.  I’m in control here.  And I want you to give me what no one else will or can,” she said.

“Release from your pain,” he said accusingly.  “You want me to take it away by taking your life.”

“I want you to touch me.”

“And kill you.”  Nearly hissing.

“I’m already about to die.  Why do  I have to keep saying it?  I’m about to die.  I’m ready to die!”

“But if I touch you here, you die that much quicker.”

“So?”

“It’s a choice.”

“And I’m making it.”

Suddenly her cheek stung.  It had taken this long for the slap from his feathers to register.  “. . . I wasn’t asking you to kill me.

I can’t say it.  She couldn’t.  but she wanted to.

She had to.

“I was asking you to make love to me.”

He looked at her in silent incredulity.

“So I wouldn’t have died without knowing what real love felt like,” she explained.

“When I was a little girl I’d go to church,” she went on, “waiting to hear God’s voice, looking at the stained glass and expecting to hear God whisper in my ear, desperately wishing he would speak up.  He wouldn’t have had to say much, just call my name.  But you know I don’t think he  speaks to people anymore.  Not really.  You know it in your heart, but don’t want to admit it to yourself.  You think, how powerful is this God anyway?  How real is he if he can’t even whisper, I love you, Janette, in the golden voice you imagine him having.

“That’s the way it was with the man who gave me this.  I kept thinking the act would make us lovers,  that this special intimacy was waiting for me, because that’s what the movies say happens.  But I knew it wasn’t really special, not with him or anyone else before.  I kept telling myself over and over that it could be that way if I only believed.  But I never heard the words, I love you, Janette.  I never even felt them, I love you, Janette.  Never.

That’s why I called you here.  I thought you could show me how love was supposed to feel.  Even if there’s nothing after I die.  I wanted to know there was something real about love when I was alive.”

He didn’t move.  Not a muscle in his face moved.

She felt horrible.  Rejected.  She didn’t bother to apologize as she turned away.  He could probably tell from the stunned regret she showed that she was sorry.  She walked toward the tree, to sit on the other side and forget the lake until she finally woke up.

Three steps later, a ticklish breeze lifted the hair behind her ear.  Turning for a last look, she was startled when her face met his hand, which he cupped gently about her cheek.

His eyes meowed with mistrust, not of her, she thought, but of what he did as he took her down roughly to the bank’s powdery dust, dust so fine it puffed and rippled out around her head like silk.

There was a great deal of sorrow in his passion, a great deal of love in his anger.  He made love as if this were the only pleasure he would ever be allowed, and she realized that in that way they were too alike.

Afterward Janette lay very still next to him in their world, one hand resting on her breast, feeling her speeding pulse tapping against her fingers at a dozen places just below her skin.  It felt like rain pattering inside herself.  As it slowed, the storm finally broke.  Droplets stippled the dust on their faces, and cooled their feverish bodies.

 

She woke weeping silently.  Of all the ways she had expected to fell, she never thought she would cry.  But she was awake for only the briefest of moments, just enough to taste a tear on her lips.

 

“Your hair is russet-gold,” he murmured.  “The bones beneath your face are curved and strong, as if sculpted by one who makes the finest violins . . . each line softened by the quietest of shadows.”

 

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