Coming off the ice at the lonely end of the Rapid Tucker’s Pond, his feet starting to numb in earnest, the new snow like razor blades on his face, Bannock “Brace” Bannon was compelled to look behind him, across the pond closing down fast in white fury. Earlier he had seen the girl in the comely figure swing around the edge of the pond, admiring her ease, her grace on the blades, her hair at times flying out as straight as a windy pennant.
One impulse hit him that she was a stranger, not because he hadn’t seen her before, but because she was perilously close to the channel between the two islands of Rapid Tucker’s Pond. In the ten years he had been here at the far end of the pond, a loner in an old cabin that took an endless amount of maintenance, the channel had been frozen only once, and that back in his first year, the worst year of all. Was all that decision time and tempest here again, coming down on top of him anew? The raw intelligence of his place in life was coming with its onerous beat. Was this girl sent to test him again, give him another chance? Make amends?
Was it worth it? He had, with all his conviction, tried to help that other girl. Blew it all to Hell he did. To Hell and back!
Now that knowledge jumped at him, and it had a fire to it. A buzz. A bell ringer. All this time, away from the harsh reality of the world, he had been reclusive and somewhat happy; free of much of the duress and torment he had gone through after the other incident. God, he marveled, how could he reduce it after all this time to an incident? He had made up a whole history, had invented Brace Bannon to take the place in this world of Halvor Gustafson, M.D., stripped of his rights because of that one abortion mishap. On many occasions he had called himself a “runaway,” so often that the tag no longer hurt. It went along with “incident,” it seemed. He could ignore all its attachments most of the time. It was only in darkness that it kept the pain alive, below the surface, in the stream of his life.
But now he could not ignore this girl, test or no test, chance or no chance. Better go back out there and at least advise her of the dangers, he said to himself, even as the numbness came into his toes dull as forgotten chilblains. Slight of build, little body fat because of his routine and regimen, but a skater for ten years, he started out across the pond, staring feebly through the blinding snow. The responsibility fell to him and only him, the nearest house at least five hundred yards away down the far shore, all obliterated by the squall. If he did nothing, his conscience, in the dark hours, would haunt him.
Leaning into the storm, he raked his eyes against the low clouds of snow, swirling, the barriers shifting. Nothing formulated or contoured came to his eyes. No edges. No shadow line. No being. Perhaps, he thought, that was a single sound he had just heard, but one he could not identify. Heading to the point where he had last seen the girl, he guessed her to be about twenty-four or -five. When the wind died momentarily, the ice looking like a linen sheet on a huge bed, he saw nothing. Thinking she had obeyed the threat of the elements, he turned to go home. Again he thought about the channel, about his dark and lonely hours, the girl from long ago still making an impact deep inside. Sometimes the worst terror was not remembering her name. I’m it, he said, thinking again of this new girl skating alone. One look won’t hurt.
An acute awareness hit him that he was being commandeered, impelled, magnetized; it was a scrutable sensation gnawing within him. It was assuming shape.
The ice was broken and it was getting dark. A darker shadow floated in the dread water of the channel. She had been wearing dark blue. This was a deeper blue. Getting closer, hearing the ice crack underneath him and the thunder of its plate-shifting danger, he stumbled on a discarded hockey stick and instinctively grabbed it. Another look and he was positive the girl was in the water, face down and motionless.
My god, he thought, it’s only been a few minutes. The ice roared again, the platelets shifted again, the rolling crack near thunder ran under his feet one more time. Not being the best swimmer, the skates would certainly drag him down. He was mouthing words to himself: Do not rush this. We both must stay alive. Be careful. Lie down. Inch your way out. Get hold of her. There’s only you. Nobody knows we are here. We are alone. We are all alone. The words were ratcheted in his head, coming back, coming back.
The pain in his feet had disappeared, but he could feel the weight of each skate. Suddenly he was cold. Was it fear? Was he wet? Could he get them both back to his cabin? Would the fire be warm enough? Was she still alive? It had been mere minutes.
The ice held up. His hand, icy and freezing, a numbness beginning to be a pain in its own right, caught at her hood. Lying across the broken hockey stick (bless the boy who had left it) he pulled her onto the ice with considerable difficulty. She had to be maneuvered onto a safer, thicker surface. She was heavy, wet, probably not breathing well, if at all. Into her mouth he breathed, into that cold but luscious mouth, upon that beautiful face now creased and plagued by the freezing water, her eye sockets like pearls of ice. Again and again he breathed and pushed into her stomach and breathed and jostled the soggy and inert body, until the sudden flush of water gushed from her mouth and a breath of shattering cold air was called down into her lungs.
Oh, he was thankful for his long hours of skating, the hours he chopped wood and stacked it and carried it into the cabin and was warmed by it half a dozen times, and the long and demanding walks he took into the deeper part of the forest, away from the prying eyes. His body, with the girl now an adjunct to it, now an extension, made serious demands on his energy and determination. Somehow, he must get her to the cabin, get her warm, minister to her. The idea of ministering to a needy soul overwhelmed him; he had been there before, and it had all been too clumsy.
It took him nearly twenty minutes to get her to the small porch of the cabin, newly formed thin ice coming on her like lace. Walking the last thirty feet on his blades, hitting rocks along the way, he knew they’d be no good for skating for a while. The picture of hidden sparks came to him, flint being struck by the good steel down in the snow. Near exhaustion, feet loaded with chilblains, hands so fiery yet numb, he finally got her inside the rude and clumsy cabin, and onto the bed.
First he stripped off his parka, then worked on her clothing, cutting her out of her jacket and pants, getting the skates off her feet, using a razor blade to cut her laces. It was the blade edge that triggered him, invasive and yet so superficial. That other and older terror came back again; that young girl, also lovely, so young, who had come to him for help, cut off from her family, alone, at the edge of hysterics he had not known, only to be buried under them in one quick pass over his soul.
He pulled her sweater over her head, ripped off the wet blouse, unsnapped her bra, and pulled her underpants off. In her near deadly state he was suddenly aware of how lovely she was. Before he tucked a woolen blanket about her he took one look along the length of her body. She was a most marvelous young woman; her breasts were lovely and full and the aureoles, surely and naturally almost a burnt orange, closed now on a purple flush. He thought he should rub them, but he refrained. Not in ten years had he seen a woman nude, or touched one. No patients. No lovers. No nightly visitor from the nearby town. There was a moment of exhilaration when he swore a perfume was loose in the cabin. The shock of hair at her midsection grasped at his eyes. In spite of the cold and the snow and the sweat now rising about him, his mouth had gone dry. His throat was dry with a sudden need, a strange and forgotten yielding coming at him out of his past.
There it was, the saline lovely aroma of the Rumney Marsh where the tide moved its moon madness. That’s what came to him now, in the middle of a winter storm. Saline, salty marsh, old territories. Musk of ever. The girl exuding self, the essence of such being long unknown to him.
The folds of the blanket went around her almost sensually. If he wanted to he knew he could assess her curves, her loveliness, and the soft and disparate masses of her graces. A beautiful range to her hips showed itself. It made the back of his throat hurt. Chilblains at last had left his hands. Moments later the single bulb overhead went out and he knew the electric line had gone down again and might be hours before it was restored. He had no phone. They would be alone for the duration of the storm at least.
The fire in the old wood stove was small but alive and he added two logs after a quick feed of kindling. The flames leaped in moments, and she breathed slowly but evenly. He stripped his own wet clothes off. The kettle of water on the back of the wood stove began to simmer when he moved it to the middle of the stovetop.
From one shelf of the cabinet he took a can of soup, opened it and placed it on the stove, adding a can of water. Only later did he know it was celery soup, the room filling with the odor, sharing it with the smell of the young woman collapsed under his blanket, her breathing even at last, as if she were asleep. Celery and the odor of the young woman came on him, the rich saline spread of the Rumneys, full and pungent, making him take a deep breath so that he could recognize all the ingredients; all his hungers came on him; all his past came on him. He remembered the girl who had died from the perilous abortion. Whole scenes, ten years in the past, came looping out of dark corners, bringing his life back into the room.
For three hours he watched her, leaving once to get wood off the porch pile, going once to the makeshift john off the end of the porch, the snow still coming down, somewhere along the edge of the pond the power lines down under a fallen limb or a blow-down too tired to hang on through another storm. In the midst of the whiteness the darkness of the storm threatened its severity, and made for a long promise.
When she woke, stirred uneasily, realizing she was naked beneath the blanket, looking about for her clothes, seeing a strange man across a strange room, it appeared her mishap came back to her in a rush. She began to tremble, inhaled excitedly, almost hyperventilated. The blanket was pulled tightly around her throat. Her eyes scanned the rudeness of the room, saw the flicker of the fire through an open grating of the stove, seemed to assess her whole situation, and then nodded at Brace Bannon. “You pulled me out?” she said, her voice soft, firm, not filled with anxiety, fear, or too much surprise. “I could hear the ice creaking underneath me. I tried to get away, but I broke through. My clothes and skates pulled at me. I remember seeing you, how smoothly you skated. I wondered if you were alone.” A shiver ran through her. “I don’t know what happened next.”
“I’m a doctor, young lady, so don’t worry. I had to get you out of the water and off the ice and out of those clothes.” The flush was on his face. He could feel it; and knew she could see it, even with the lights out and a single candle burning on a shelf. “Are you hungry? I have some hot soup. There’s coffee on the stove. I can make something heavier for you, decent, more nourishing.” He managed to keep up a pattern of chatter, his face still flushed, her eyes still on him. “But I’m afraid we’re here for a spell. The power lines are obviously down again. Happens all the time. I’m the only one at this end of the pond. Almost half a mile out in the lonely.” His head shook as if punctuating the last sentence. “Not worth a whole lot to the power company.” He stood up and put his hand out. “My name is Brace Bannon. I used to be a doctor. I messed up once and I’ve been here, out of action, out of the limelight, for about ten years now. It suits me, here. I have been fairly comfortable. It’s pleasant most of the time in spite of all this.” He fanned his hand out as if to introduce her to crudeness, bare necessities, solitude, and the storm beating at the small cabin. His nod said he believed she understood his feelings. No assurance came to him that she could possibly understand the pain and suffering that had overpowered him. He had long believed few people could ever know; his whole belief system had been corrupted. This day, even minimally, had brought some kind of amends. There was, however, a great lingering fear that he would screw it up before the day was over.
The girl sat up on the bed, the soft blanket at her throat, under her chin. Part of one leg, one thigh, showed its whiteness in elegance, a graceful curve to the width of it, a most lovely thickness. Brace Bannon’s eyes caught the flash of white, the full curve, the inveterate promise. She caught his eyes and it was as if she was saying, “Did you look at me when you took my clothes off?” No other message on her face or in her voice. “My name is Devahn Nesting. I think my mother was trying to play some kind of game between me and my father. I don’t like him very much. My mother doesn’t either. I think he had several girlfriends, probably right in his office. I’m their only common ground. He’s filthy rich; she’s a lonely middle-age witch bent on some kind of retribution, hassling, or evil. I’m not sure which, but I got tired of it, the whole mess. I was running away from it all.”
“Are you warm enough?” Brace Bannon said. The top of the stove had passed from dull red back to a cooler black. The wind humped at the door. Her legs hung below the bottom of the blanket. A light redness touched at her toenails, as pink as it was red, and he wondered if it might have matched the lipstick she must have been wearing earlier.
“Would you have any pajamas? I can’t sleep without pajamas.” She looked down on the bed, as if the dye was already cast. The toes on one foot wiggled slightly, as if it were an expression of something she had forgotten.
Once, long ago, he recalled, there had been body music and body language. “I have extra long johns, tops and bottoms, plenty of sweaters, a couple of sweat shirts I’ve never worn.” A shrug crossed his shoulders. “I don’t have any pajamas.”
“I’ll take long john bottoms, a pair of socks and a sweat shirt, if you can spare them. If I’m to be here for a while I might as well be warmer than I am right now.” She looked at the pan of soup on the stove.
Brace poured a small bowl for her and pulled a box of saltines out of a breadbox hung on the wall. “I think it’s celery soup. I’m not sure. I lost the label. It’s hot.” The soup and crackers were set on a small end table. “I’ll get you the clothes.”
He could hear her at the soup and the crackers, eating as if she relished every swallow. “God, this is good. I don’t know if I ever had celery soup.” He blushed again, knowing instantly that she was not naïve or innocent. He turned around, away from her, so she could dress, and he heard the rustle of clothes.
At the closure of sound, Brace Bannon turned to see the naked loveliness of Devahn Nesting. The bubble of breath caught itself in his throat. She was about the loveliest thing he had ever seen. It had been lifetime-long since he had seen such a vision. The legs were fantastic, the full and shapely breasts were eyefuls, the span of hips demanded attention, her eyes wide and strangely warm had separate speech in them.
“You might as well look again. I want to see what’s on your face when you look at me. I’m not a virgin; I’ve done it with boys I liked, who knew what they were up to. I don’t like malingerers or pawers who don’t know what they’re supposed to do for a woman. I don’t want to get pregnant right now. Not for a couple of years.”
She sat down and slipped the elegant legs into the long john bottoms and pulled them up when she stood. The sweatshirt, with a bit of hassle, fell over her gorgeous breasts. The socks she put on last. The vision of her remained in place. Above the celery soup aroma, something from her rode the air, came across the small room in an absolute hurry to get to him. Earlier, on a summer eve he had slipped into Rumney marsh and went looking for Little Sandy, a swimming hole he had heard about. There’d been talk of horseshoe crabs with spiked horns, but what still lingered was the smell of the marsh, the saline-rich warmth as the tide eased out through the many small canals that laced the grid-work of a marsh. It was warmly potent even now.
“Oh,” she added, “I’m in no rush to get home. They don’t know where I am anyway.” Back to the soup she went, and the last of the saltines. Her eyes were wide and warmer yet, her voice almost a riddle in itself, when she said, “Would you have a beer?”
The suggested idea of a full-fledged cheeseburger brought her back to other needs. Brace put a couple of them together, as the stove kept the room warm, as the storm continued to beat on outside, and her heady aromas were at last suffused by cheese overlapping the hamburger patties, getting cooked in a bit of fat. They finished off the three beers he had been saving.
Later, after hours of talking, a new candle lit, the stove fed a few times and set up for the night, Devahn Nesting said, “I am getting tired now. I know we have to share the bed. Don’t worry, it’s okay by me. You did me a great service today. I am very grateful, but I am very tired. You are a marvelous skater. I was watching you, in case you didn’t know, that long easy stride you have.” She slipped under the blanket and rolled over. She went to sleep quickly.
The candle flickered a kind of angelic light across her face. Lashes, about as long as they can get, flared from her lids. Her lips, he thought, were perfect. Even in sleep, they were perfect; slight pout, curved miraculously, yet ready for speech. He was not sure if they were red or redder, but they were perfect, and he thought of old signs of red lips, how they advertised status and condition, sent off signals. The thought told him he was still able to measure impact, that he was still a man, that his genes were still in place, that capability was still here. Then, as the candle itself began to show signs of failing, he slipped in beside her, inhaled the same aroma that had crossed the room to him all night, thought of lost successes, remembered a girl once in a car outside a package store on the way to the outdoor theater, who had taken off her girdle while he was in the store. He remembered the light in her eyes, the sound of her voice when she said, “You would have gotten it off soon enough.” When he last closed his eyes he remembered how her skirt rode up on the glory of her thighs as he purchased their tickets at the ticket booth, the ticket seller looking down into the car, wide-eyed, nodding.
Some hours later he woke. Devahn Nesting was stroking him lightly, her head resting on his chest. “Has it really been ten years?” He could not see her eyes. Her hand was full of fire, yet was almost a phantom touch. From under the blanket she assailed him again, the essence of her being wafting up under his chin, finding knowledge in him, bringing knowledge. In his chest his breath caught at itself, and old knowledge, old territories, came back in a rush. At first the girl at the outdoor theater flooded him with memories and odors and a touch he suddenly realized had not ever gone away. Then this nearly drowned girl, this girl who drank his beer, this girl who suffused this old cabin as it had never been suffused, said, “It’s going to be my treat.”
Those magnificent and lovely lips encircled him. He began to cry softly. She said, “Cry all you want. I’m here all night. And I’ll stay as long as you want me to.”
The girl in the car at the outdoor theater finally drove away in the storm, down the shore of the pond, out of sight forever. The frightened girl of the abortion fled with her. Once more he heard the sound of the ice cracking under his feet out on the pond, out where the channel always made noises. Part of his life seemed to move the way the pond ice moved, immense, lethargic but so powerful, like glaciers, like ice sleds out of the millennium. Where he had been summoned again to do good, he knew with certainty that he was now being awakened from a long sense of pretense.
Then there was silence and darkness and a sweet aroma hanging folds about his head, the warmth of Rumney Marsh thick with life and growth and an essence of life where it all began, at the edge of the immutable and eternal sea.