I would never admit it, but I hate being left alone, especially in the forest. My brother, Jake, went to take a piss, but either it’s a very long piss or he has other business to do. Either way, I’ve been left propped up against a very wide tree, which dips at the bottom, cupping my back. The midmorning sun winks from between branches, and the forest sighs with a swish of leaves. The scenery should calm me, but instead I’m holding my breath at every chirp, every crack of the branches.
A minute of nervous overreacting later, I hear Jake’s footsteps. Pastel blue fabric appears from between gnarly trees, then dips out of view. That’s… not my brother. My heartbeat accelerates, and my body, splayed out uselessly, does nothing but give a big shiver. I hope the stomps will fade, but they get louder. A pair of cracked leather boots appear, and when I lift my head I see the entire length of a woman, very tall, frazzled red hair, dirty trousers and shirt. She’s clutching a lumpy bag made from a red kerchief, and she’s only a few feet away.
I see a lot of the whites of her eyes as she stares at me. If only she knew what she could do to me, how she could grab the picnic basket or even my shiny black boots and I wouldn’t be able to stop her.
“What are you doing here?” I thunder. My voice is scratchy, but I can sound terrifying if I want. She stares at me for another second before her lips turn up into a smile. Is she insane?
My heart jumps as she steps over a log, coming closer. “Retreat,” I tell her. “Retreat or I shall draw my sword.”
She folds her arms.
“I warn you,” I say. “I can behead you in seconds.”
She smooths down her hair, which is unravelling from a long braid down her back. “So do it. I’ll wait.”
Well… Now what do I do?
Any new strategies die from my thoughts as she crouches down, and leans in close to my face, still with that stupid grin. I feel a lump in my throat.
Finally, she leans back and chuckles. “Good lord, you look like you might piss yourself. Calm down. I won’t hurt you.”
My eyes dart around. “Do you… do you know who I am?”
She sets her handkerchief bag down near my arm. “Well, we’ve heard about you in my village. The man who cannot move. Now I see it’s true.”
I watch her movements carefully as she settles herself on the ground. “How did you know?”
“Most men wouldn’t just lie there if they had sighted a lone woman in the forest. Although there’s a slim chance that this is a trick and you may just grab me. I’m terrified.”
“You don’t look it.”
“I am. See?” She takes my hand and holds it to her breast, where her heart is beating rapidly.
I snort. “That’s nothing. Feel mine.”
She drops my hand and it lands on her lap. We both look at it, until she lifts it again, gently curling my fingers and placing it on the ground, at my side. Then she feels my heart, pressing against the tough fabric of my shirt.
“What’s your name?” I ask, as the sun peaks overhead and she blinks it away.
“Cleo.” She looks away. “Do you have any food? I haven’t eaten in a day.”
The forest rustles, and my brother emerges, whistling and stuffing his penis back into his trousers. Cleo notices him first, and when he sees her, he stumbles.
“God’s ears,” he curses. He rubs his eyes. “God’s ears, Elijah, I leave for two minutes and you lure a woman to the picnic?”
“A little longer and there would have been a party,” I shoot back. “What took you so- you know what, I don’t care to know. This is Cleo.”
Cleo’s head swivels from me to Jake. She seems to be deciding if she should trust us.
“You can dine with us,” I tell her. “Even if Jake wanted to harm you, he’d trip over his own feet trying to approach you.”
Cleo smiles at me. “It’s you I’m worried about. I hear you’re quite the swordsman.”
Jake squints. “Uh…”
I chuckle. “Please… don’t bring that up again. We have plenty to eat, so we can share. Jake?”
With an exaggerated sigh, Jake leans over and drags the woven basket into the loose circle we’ve formed. “I’m glad you’re so eager to give away our food.”
Cleo eyes the basket hungrily. I wish Jake would hurry up as he unclasps the top, pulling out paper-wrapped chicken patties, two apples, a few small barley rolls, some raw potatoes, a flask, three hard-boiled eggs, and a long piece of cinnamon cake. The two of us eat a lot, so we bring a lot, lucky for Cleo.
“Let’s eat before we cook the potatoes,” I say. I hate having to articulate everything I do, especially since Jake looks at me weirdly, since we always cook the raw food first. I raise my eyebrows at him and he sighs, handing Cleo a patty and an apple. She eats the first item in six seconds and takes a crunchy bite out of the fruit.
“A woman with an appetite,” Jake remarks, unbuttoning his vest.
She glares at him. “What about that?”
“Nothing.” He shrugs out of his vest and takes the empty water canteen from the basket. “I’ll be back.”
He heads for the nearby stream, which is a few minutes away, leaving me alone again with her. She chews loudly, quickly, like this opportunity for food might disappear at any second. I notice the dirt streaked down her cheeks, like she tried to rub herself clean but didn’t entirely succeed.
“So what are you two doing here?” She asks.
“We came to see the waterfall,” I say. I have to crane my head to see her because she’s sitting to my side. “It’s not hard to get there since there’s a sort-of path from the road-”
“The road?” She almost drops her apple. “There’s a road nearby?”
“Yes, there’s a pathway that leads there. This is a well-travelled waterfall.”
She closes her eyes. “I’ve been trying to find the road for many days.”
I look at her for explanation, but none comes. She asks if I’m hungry, and holds her apple to my mouth. I take a deep bite. The juices run down my chin, but she’s already looking away, distracted.
“Which way is the road?” She asks.
My tongue strains over my chin as I try in vain to clean myself. “To the west,” I say. “Perhaps a few hours. I doubt you can reach it by dark.”
“And the waterfall?”
“Also a few hours. We are at the halfway point.”
Cleo sighs deeply. She unearths a roll from the basket and we share it. My brother returns as she is swiping the crumbs from my chest. Jake eyes her suspiciously as he uncaps the filled canteen and takes a swig. We’ve already got kindling prepared, so he lights it with a match, and soon the undersides of our faces are bathed in the fire’s warmth. Jake tosses in the potatoes and passes Cleo the canteen. We talk amicably as the fire replaces the sun as our light, Jake and I revisiting tales from our work as merchants.
“One time,” Jake says, tossing a potato peel into the flames, “Elijah convinced the mayor of Dagshire- that’s a fishing town- to buy 40 sets of tap-dancing shoes. He said it was for the survival of the next generation.”
Cleo raises an eyebrow at me, folding her arms.
“Well, they had a problem,” I say. “The women there are usually healers, and they found the local men to be below them. Fishing was a brainless job, they said. Many were finding husbands elsewhere.”
“Let me guess,” Cleo says, a smile leaking onto her face. “You told the mayor to teach them dancing?”
I grin. “I hear that Dagshire now has three tap-dancing events in the year. I guess women like a man who can dance.”
Jake rolls his eyes. “You think you’re such a salesman. You’ve just got a pretty face. Opinion, Cleo?”
I lick my lips. “Jake-”
Cleo holds up a hand, and proceeds to scrutinize me. Her eyes rove from my unkempt hair, to the sparse beard framing my chin, down to the front of my white tunic, unlaced to my mid-chest. I feel my neck heating up.
She cocks her head. “He’s not… terrible to look at.”
I snort. “I’m pretty sure people notice the chair my brother hauls me around in before they notice my face.”
“Oh hush,” Jake says. He starts to pack up what’s left of the food. “You wouldn’t believe how many prostitution offers this man has received. We could have been rich.”
Cleo tosses a branch into the dying fire. My stomach is sated, and the urge to empty my bladder presses heavily on me. I watch her closely through flickering, smoky air. I have the feeling she’ll be staying with us for a while, judging by her half-closed eyes.
Jake is sitting with his chin in his fist, tracing slow, contemplative circles on the forest floor.
“Jake,” I say.
He snaps up. “Yes?”
I bite my lip. “I… Um. I…”
“God’s ears. Spit it out.”
I close my eyes. I don’t think I can wait much longer. Jake tosses a twig at me. “What?”
Cleo watches us intently. I don’t know why my heart is pounding, or why I feel such crushing shame. It’s a simple thing.
Jake groans. “Elijah, what?”
“I have to relieve myself,” I say quietly.
He sits up straight. “Oh. Oh, of course. I’m so sorry.” He scrambles to his feet. “Right. Let’s…”
“It’s alright,” I say, as a shiver runs through my body. “Just… quickly.”
He nods fervently. I feel Cleo’s eyes on me as my brother scoops me up from under my knees and behind my back. My legs swing as he carries me out of the clearing. My bladders feels like it might burst.
When we are a few trees deep, Jake sets me down quickly, all crooked over the damp grass, and unbuckles my belt. He tugs down my trousers and drawers, pulling them free over my shoes. This is all in minutes- he’s gotten accustomed to this routine. Then he hooks me under the arms and hauls me onto a rock, sitting me up and holding me like that.
The stone is cold beneath my bare skin, but I haven’t begun to urinate. My penis rests on the edge of the rock, between my naked legs. My chest heaves, in and out.
“I think you need to calm down,” Jake says, his voice emanating from right behind my ear.
“I think you need to hush,” I say sharply.
His fingers tighten around my torso. “Sorry.”
I look up at the sky, the color of cold, dark water. “No, it’s fine. Really. It’s-”
We both look down as a stream snakes down the side of the stone, pooling in the soft earth and then dissipating. My body can finally melt into sweet relief. When the stream turns to a drip and then dries up, Jake drags me back onto the ground to dress me.
“You have to stop with Cleo,” I say. My face is inches from a sharply scented plant.
“Stop what?” Jake pushes my head from the plant.
“You understand my meaning. You… you asked her if she found me attractive. It’s such a tease.”
Jake sighs, my drawers bunched in his hand. “I don’t know why you think so.”
I hate when he gets like this. I look away as he pulls my undergarments over my crotch, and then gets to work with my trousers.
We’re silent until he’s finished. He lifts me with a groan. “I’m getting too old for this.”
“Oh, hush. You’re not even thirty.”
When we get back to our campground, Cleo’s got her handkerchief all tied up. She averts her eyes, and I don’t blame her. Jake hefts me in his arms. I’m aware of how I must seem to her, helpless, like a baby. A man who needs his brother to feed him, clothe him, help him urinate. Nothing attractive in that.
“Can you do me a favor?” he asks her. “Do you mind spreading out that blanket? Near the fire would be excellent.”
“Of course.” Cleo scrambles to arrange the blanket, and Jake lays me down on the left side of it, closest to the fire. She hovers behind us, as if scared he’ll drop me. I yawn, and Jake yawns, too.
“I guess I’ll be going,” Cleo says. In the faint light she’s a dark statue, towering above me. “Thank you both for the food.”
Jake claps her back. “You are quite welcome.”
She recedes into the dark instantly, like a cat. I turn my head, but she’s already gone. Something chirps, another thing rustles. The music of the night has already begun.
I lift my head. “Are we crazy?”
Jake squats down next to me. “What?”
“Cleo just went off into the forest. By herself. At night.”
“So? She’s an adult. We don’t have to watch her.”
“Jake! Would you want to be in the forest alone? Go call her back.”
He pouts. “What if I get lost?”
“She didn’t get far. Just try.” God’s ears, my brother can be such a child sometimes. He stomps off into the brush, and after two seconds I realize that they’ll probably both get shot down by bandits and I’ll die here, alone. A piece of ash flies into my eye.
Fortunately, I hear my brother’s nasally voice almost immediately. I can’t see anything though, with my eye clouding up.
“Elijah said you should come back,” he says. Stupid, talking so loudly in a place like this. I can’t hear Cleo, but soon two shadowed figures emerge from the trees, twigs cracking beneath them.
“You sent for me?” a dismembered voice says. It’s really quite black. She sounds annoyed.
“Yes,” I shoot back, blinking uncontrollably. “Where were you planning on going?”
Her face is lit in orange as Jake revives the fire. “To sleep. What do you want me here for?”
I stare up. What am I supposed to say? Cleo squints at me. “Have you got something in your eye?”
She kneels down. My blinking has quickened, and I believe I’ve begun tearing up. With her thumb, Cleo catches the drop before it can roll down to my ear. I tilt my head in protest, but she holds my chin steady. “Here, don’t move.” With her pinky, she dabs at my eye. “Better?”
Her slender fingers press into my cheek. I swallow a lump. “No, it’s still there.”
She tries again, and after a few seconds my eye stops stinging. She wipes the tears with her fingers, which are dirty, but I don’t mind.
“I asked you to come back,” I say with a sigh, “Because I don’t want you to be cold.”
“Well. It was really because I don’t want you to be alone.”
She hesitates. Even at this angle, where all I can see are sharp shadows, up her nose and all the dirt caked at the roots of her hair, she’s beautiful, with her stubbornly knotted eyebrows and hollow cheeks. Behind us, Jake busies himself setting out his own blanket.
Cleo leans down a little closer. “The truth is… I know there’s water nearby, right? I want to wash up. I haven’t bathed in long time.”
“You want to bathe at night? You can do that tomorrow.”
“Have you never visited a forest before?”
Her silence indicates I’ve found my answer. “Please,” I say. “You smell wonderful. Wait until tomorrow.”
Jake coughs. He must have heard that. He yawns again, plopping down onto his blanket. He puts the basket near his feet, close enough to the fire that bears won’t approach it.
Cleo tosses down her handkerchief. “Would you like me to stay?”
I roll my eyes. “Would you like me to like you to stay?”
“Oh, hush!” Jake calls. “Cleo, lie down and hush. Oh, and cover Elijah, please.”
The fire bends as a wind sweeps through the trees. To my exhausted bones, the cold is painful, and I see Cleo wince too. I instruct her to tug the blanket from under me. She holds it like she’s never seen a blanket before. “Now should I…”
“It’s a present. Enjoy.” I turn my head to the fire.
“I’m not taking your blanket.”
When I don’t answer, she sits down beside my ramrod-straight body. She spreads the blanket over me and then slips in beside me, not a hair touching my skin.
“Elijah?” she whispers.
“When you sold the tap shoes to that fishing town, who taught them how to dance?”
I turn my head. She’s staring at the stars, eyes glassy with the reflected fire.
“My twin and I. I read the book, he showcased the dance moves.”
She raises herself to her elbows. “You’re twins?”
“Yes. But I am older than Jake.”
“Goodness gracious. So you’re a twin, and you know how to dance?”
“Yes. And yes, theoretically speaking.”
“I must say, this is not how I imagined my night to be.” She settles down close to me. The side of her hand brushes mine, and I wish I could take hold of her, firmly, the way she held my jaw today. I would roll over and stroke her cheek.
“Sleep well,” she says.
“Anyone want vodka?” Jake asks, and I hear him rummaging in the basket.
I laugh. “No, thank you.”
Cleo’s already motionless.
I fall asleep like that, inches from Cleo, her body stiffer than mine from the cold. When I wake a few hours later, as often happens during the night, her arm is splayed across my chest, face burrowed in my arm, perhaps in hope of some warmth. No smell comes from her, but I can feel her cold fingers and warm breath. I do not sleep again for some time.
The front wheel of my chair drops suddenly, and I lurch forward, head almost hitting my knees. Actually, it’s not a chair. More like a wheelbarrow, in which I’ve been folded up and tied down. Jake uses it on bumpy terrain, such as now. But I can never accustom myself to sharply angled ground. I hate it. The only thing that stops me from smashing forward is the bag of provisions on my lap, but I still end up with my back curled forward, chin scratching my trousers.
The wheelbarrow continues to bump along as we descend past a row of gnarly trees. I use this proximity to my thighs to wipe the perspiration from my forehead on my trousers.
“Jake, stop,” Cleo says.
“That is difficult on an incline,” Jake says, but he pulls me to a halt. Cleo lifts the hem of her shirt and dabs the underside of my face and my forehead, ignoring my protests.
“Don’t do that,” I growl, trying to duck.
“No one offers to wipe my sweat,” Jake says.
Cleo shrugs, tucking in her shirt. “You didn’t teach me how to catch a fish with my bare hands.”
He resumes pushing, and the jostling begins again. “Oh. And you’re telling me that my crippled brother taught you that.”
“I told her about it,” I say. “She went and did it. While she was bathing.”
“God’s ears,” Jake says, and I can hear him beginning to lose his breath. “Thinks he knows bloody everything.”
“I do,” I say, and Cleo chuckles. I’m glad she decided to join us. I guess our company isn’t too terrible. Alternatively, the terror of being alone for so many days has gotten to her, and she craves the companionship of whichever humans she can find. Jake is surely grateful, too, because at midmorning, during a water break, Cleo offers to take the handles of the wheelbarrow.
“You think I’d let a woman push my brother around,” Jake scoffs, swiping at his forehead with his sleeve.
“You look like you might pass out,” Cleo says. “Anyway, feel my arm.”
“I love squeezing things,” Jake says, and I shoot him a dirty look. He grips Cleo’s flexed upper arm. I can’t see anything under her ballooning sleeves, but he looks impressed.
“I think Elijah wants a feel too,” Jake says, taking another drink of water. He hasn’t relinquished control of my chair yet.
“I never said that,” I say.
Cleo smiles and gets down on one knee. She takes my limp hand and cups it over her forearm, putting her hand on top. Then she squeezes. Her arm is firm, like squeezing a rock. I meet her eyes. She folds my hand back in my lap.
“Are you some sort of strongman?” Jake grumbles, as he steps aside.
“I’m a water-carrier by day,” Cleo says, pushing me forward at a brisk pace. Jake skips a step ahead of us, having been demoted to branch-sweeping duty.
“And by night?” I ask.
“I write stories,” she says.
We reach the waterfall at around noon. Jake switched back to the wheelbarrow a while ago, even though Cleo complains about pushing significantly less than he does. The forest changes as we approach the water: sounds get softer, with only the occasional chirp piercing the air. The trees are knotted thickly around each other, and Jake has to resort to walking backwards, dragging me down the overgrown path. I hear the distant crash of the fall, and I see Cleo’s brow creasing.
“What’s the matter?” I ask, my shoulders swaying from side to side.
“Is that… the waterfall?” she says.
I exchange a glance with my brother.
“Never seen one?” Jake says, pausing to mop his brow.
“I grew up in the city,” she says, pushing aside a low-hanging branch. “The only falling water was acidic rain. I know what it looks like, though, I’ve seen paintings.”
Her smugness fades away when we step out of the muggy shadows, into a day so bright that there are orange spots in my eyes. Beside me, Cleo gasps, but since I am facing my brother, all I can see is the mossy path we took to get here. Jake lowers the handles of the wheelbarrow, and I tip forward again.
“It’s… enormous,” she says, her normally robust voice hushed. I wait for Jake to make some comment about what’s in his drawers, like ‘yes, that is what she said,’ but he just pants, tired but in awe.
“Turn me around,” I say.
“You think Elijah’s too bossy, Cleo?” Jake says.
Cleo rolls her eyes, nudging Jake to the side with her elbow. In one heavy motion she swivels me around.
The waterfall is taller than any building I’ve seen, cascading down the side of a scraggly mountain. It never fails to knock the wind out of me, each time I see it. On the rock face there are inlaid pockets with bushes growing, and little falls, spurting out and getting lost in the thundering stream. The smell of leaves and dampness is so strong I can almost taste them, or perhaps that’s the spray, carried to us in the moist air. We’re at the foot of a wide pool framed by boulders. It leads away to a runny creek, probably the same water source as we used yesterday.
“That’s our rock,” Jake says, pointing to a broad-faced boulder that flirts with the edge of the water. It’s inclined slightly, at a right angle from the view. By ‘our rock,’ he means that’s where he drags me every year when we visit this place.
He cracks his knuckles. My body can breathe, finally, as he lifts me from the metal embrace of the wheelbarrow. I feel damp and rusty from the lack of circulation. He’s done this a million times- carried me in his arms from place to place- but with Cleo watching, I feel stiff and awkward. We circle to the edge of our rock and he sets me down a bit wobbly, and I feel Cleo’s hand on my back, guiding me down onto the boulder. After throwing off the picnic basket and his shirt, Jake gets a knee up and hops onto the rock beside me. His springiness is in such contrast to my lack of movement. On my other side, Cleo clambers up, her dirty red satchel in hand, a bit unsteady.
“Can I give you a hand?” I say, bending my neck at an awkward angle to see her.
She smiles. “How chivalrous.”
To my left, Jake looks like he’s asleep, but I know he’s not. His body makes all sorts of micromovements- twitches, blinks, that only cease when he’s sleeping. When we were children, he was never able to opt out of his housework by feigning sleep. I always did. Yes, I helped with housework. I was always in charge of keeping an eye on the children. If anyone broke anything or tried to start a fire, I would holler. I did this until all my younger siblings were grown, and I realized I was the eternal child, always needing to be fed supper and put to bed. My mother was relieved when Jake and I left home to start our own business, thus transferring all care to him.
I realize my eyes have been closed when they fly open, at the sound of a splash. I look to my left, and see that all of Jake’s clothing are in a heap where he was lying seconds ago. I lift my head to see him emerge, spluttering, right at the base of the waterfall. The water’s deep there. I watch bemusedly as he splashes, chasing a dragonfly.
To my right, Cleo’s up on her elbows, staring straight ahead, still as startled as if she’d found a path to heaven.
“Have you really never seen a waterfall?” I ask.
At first it doesn’t look like she’s heard me. Then she rolls to the side to face me. “I’ve never even left my town before,” she says. Her mouth stays open, like she’s searching for words. I notice the faint scars on the side of her cheek and neck. Then, I see more- creeping out of the hem of her shirt, disappearing into her breasts, white trails that look years old, but haven’t been erased.
“Has someone hurt you?” I blurt out, then regret it immediately. Her gaze flickers down, and she folds into herself, pulling her hands into her sleeves to hide more marks, round ones, ones I hadn’t noticed.
“Cleo, I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s alright.” She stays as she is, staring at me unabashedly with her gray-green eyes. “Did your father ever hit you?”
“My mother did, once when I was fifteen,” I say slowly. “She was frustrated and tired. She slapped me.”
“What did you do?”
“I wet the bed.”
This makes her laugh, but she sobers up quickly. Her fingers wander to the cuff of my sleeve, where there’s a little brown button. She unclasps it and fits it in the loop again.
“My father was a blacksmith,” Cleo says, and my heart sinks. She fingers the button. “My mother was the town laundress, so I had to stay in my father’s workshop. He was frustrated, too. But not tired. He would burn me. It was always for little things- the big things, like if I broke something, he’d just yell. But when I handed him the wrong tool or dropped something, he’d just grab my arm calmly, press things onto me, things that hadn’t cooled yet.”
She laces the button in and out, concentrating hard. Then she drops it and looks up. “And you know the worst part?”
I tilt my head up.
“He wasn’t even drunk. Never, only at night. His hands were so steady. All my friends who got hit, their fathers were alcoholics, out of control, not themselves. But not mine.”
She exhales shakily. Some part of me sensed this, the pain hiding behind her taut jaw. We lie in silence for a while, watching the falls, and the bugs jumping on wet and dry land. “Come here,” I say softly.
Her eyebrows knot. “Why?”
“So I can pretend to hug you.”
She hesitates. “Alright,” she says, and arranges herself so she’s in the crook of my arm. I nuzzle the top of head, breathing in the gentle scent in her hair. the only real physical comfort I can give. She sighs into me and puts a hand over my chest, anchoring herself there. “I’m sorry for all the chattering,” she says, muffled into my shirt.
In this moment, Cleo seems frail, the first bit of weakness I’ve seen since I’ve met her. I’m scared if I breathe she’ll float away. I want to hold her forever.
“Don’t ever apologize,” I say. “Speak as long as you like.”
After a few moments, she does.
“It all fits together, see?” she says. “All those burns- they’re the reason I left. All the stories I write are about pain, about a squashed existence. Even though I left my childhood home years ago, I could never escape from that identity. That’s why I needed to get out.”
“So you just… walked into a forest?”
“Yes. I travelled for a few days on the road, stopping in inns, but then I decided I wanted to be in the quiet, among trees. But I got lost.”
“Then you found us.”
“Yes.” She sits up suddenly, leaving my arm cold. “And you have so many stories, Elijah. You’ve lived, even though you... can’t move.”
“I have,” I say quietly. “I’m a lucky man.”
Another loud splash breaks the stillness. Jake sloshes towards us, the water knee deep. Cleo averts her eyes.
“Had a nice swim?” I ask.
“Oh, excellent,” Jake says with gusto. He shakes his head like a puppy, spraying us both. It both irks and amazes me how comfortable he is in his naked body. Of course, he hasn’t got anything to hide.
He clambers up next to me, holding his shirt and the picnic basket, leaving dark drops on the dusty grey rockface. Cleo’s scooted back to her former position, a few inches from me. Jake drapes his shirt over his midsection and rummages through the basket, pulling out a dented pear. He takes a sloppy bite.
“Elijah, can I sit you up?” Cleo asks chirpily.
I glance over at my brother. When I don’t respond, she coughs, her cheeks reddening. “I just thought-”
“Alright,” I sigh. “Why not.”
Jake eyes me bemusedly, remaining quiet. The fact that he is enjoying this so much makes it so that I must protest. I keep my face neutral as Cleo slides behind me, then grabs me from beneath my arms, hauling me up against her chest. I can feel her breasts press into my back, as she hoists me further, until I’m in a somewhat upright position, my head on her shoulder.
With whatever dignity I have left, I mutter, “Would you like to split a pear?”
My brother tosses the fruit our way. Cleo catches it with her free hand and offers me a bite. We eat in silence, the three of us, basking in sunshine, in the buzzing, roaring secret oasis that is ours for now. When Jake is done, he twists and tosses the core into the forest. Cleo and I take longer, her hand fluttering over my chest absentmindedly as she chews.
She eventually sets me back down on the rock. While the height of the day is making me drowsy, Jake grows restless. His hair is mostly dry. He scoots toward me, and unties the string on my tunic in one pull.
My head shoots up. “What are you doing?”
He pulls back, stung. “Don’t you want to go for a swim?”
“Not now,” I say. I make the decision, in this moment, not even sure why I feel this way. “I’m… tired. And I don’t feel like getting wet.”
“Really. We came all this way.”
“Ah. That’s fine.” He sounds hurt. This trip is one of the highlights of his year, and it’s not easy bringing me into the heart of the forest. Neither of us is looking at Cleo, but I’m sure he thinks this has to do with her, and he’s right.
For her part, she’s a silent presence at my side. I know she won’t go in if I don’t. The air is charged now, the heat oppressive. Jake slings his shirt from his privates, and slides back into the water, alone.
We spend the rest of the afternoon watching the water draw up against the boulders, and recede, creating foamy little rapids. Jake doesn’t say much to me when he gets out. We find a spot right beside the falls to camp, somewhere shady and hidden. This will be our last night sleeping here, under the dark sway of rustling branches. Jake helps Cleo catch another few fish for us to cook, using the method I taught her.
When darkness falls, she settles in under my blanket, her leg curling over mine. I’ve come to crave her touch, and the more she gives, the more I want. The crackling fire and scuttle of nocturnal animals fills me with unease, a restlessness mirrored in Cleo, who squirms against me, eyes fluttering open every once in a while.
We reach a point where the two of us are staring up, eyes half-lidded. She’s a silhouette beside me.
“Cleo?” I say, my breath in her hair.
“Yes?” she asks, unmoving.
My heart hammering, I plant a kiss on her forehead. “Can I do that?”
Her breathing is loud. “Yes.”
I peck her gently again, but her forehead is as far as I can reach. She rolls over, hair falling over her shoulders, and kisses me without restraint, our tongues wrapping each other, her fingers raking again and again through my hair. The sound of our breathing fills the air, heavy and searching.
She pries open her shirt and through the faint light I can see her breast hang out, and she moves up so my lips can touch the hot skin there, feel out the curve, and her erect nipple. She shoves my shirt up over my nipples, and her hand moves down into my drawers to clutch my hardened penis, freeing it from constraint. She rubs the skin vigorously and I bite down so as not to scream, driving my head into her shoulder, trying to muffle my grunts as I finally ejaculate onto my chest. I lick my lips to find them ringed with sweat.
Cleo collapses down next to me, and she makes a little joyful sound, almost a laugh.
“Now I’ve got to clean you up, don’t I?” she whispers.
“If you don’t mind,” I say. My chest rises and falls as she wipes me down with a cloth, and a bit of water.
“Now you,” I say breathlessly, when she’s pulled my tunic back down and retied the strings. Her dark figure sits over me, her body language unmoving.
“Elijah, I don’t… I can’t risk a child.”
For a second, confusion swirls between us, until I finally understand. “No,” I say softly. “Come to my mouth.”
She glances over at Jake, who’s snoring softly. I turn my head and kiss the only thing I can reach, her knee, imploring her to come closer. “I know what I’m doing,” I say. “You’ll like it.”
Slowly, slowly, she raises herself to her knees, dropping her drawers, the only thing she’s got on. She crawls up and swings a leg over me, engulfing me in the sharp smell of her vagina. Suddenly my vision is engulfed by her lean thighs and the bush between, and I flick my tongue up.
“Elijah,” she gasps, and I almost smile because I think she likes it, a lot. I probe further, and she keeps saying my name, between breaths for air, “Elijah, God’s ear, Elijah.”
Later, when she’s once again cradled in my arm, we both fall asleep almost instantly. Nestled under this scratchy blanket, Cleo breathing into my neck, I feel warmer than the midday sun.
The next morning, I wake with a crick in my neck to the chatter of birds, to patches of light dancing across the faded blanket. I strain my head to the side, stretching, and Cleo stirs. I notice the crown of freckles that glide over her nose, and I wonder if she has them in the winter as well. I try to imagine her bundled in an overcoat, fat boots pushing through the snow, the heavy saddle of her water pails pressing into her back. But my mind’s eye wanders stubbornly back to the falls yesterday, where her bright hair is tied back messily, her shirtsleeves fluttering in the breeze, and she’s laughing, her teeth glinting with daylight.
Now, she fidgets, first pushing herself deeper into sleep, tugging the blanket about her. She gives up and finally comes to a stop, her eyes cracking open, a wide yawn escaping her lips.
“Why are you staring at me?” she asks in a cracked, sleepy voice.
“Because you’re beautiful,” I whisper, surprised at the gruffness of my own unoiled voice. She traces a finger down the side of my jaw, which is prickly, and moves down to my Adam’s apple. She leans forward and kisses my cheek, pushing at the hair crowding my forehead, and then settles back, content.
I turn my head to see Jake watching us, his blanket still framing his chin. He rolls over quickly.
“Come into the waterfall with me,” Cleo murmurs, not having noticed my brother.
I turn my head to her. Our faces are both on their sides, our noses almost touching. “Now?” I say.
“Why not? It’s your last chance. I can carry you, I’m sure I can.”
“I… I don’t know,” I say lamely.
She sits up, yawning again. “Well, think about it. I’m going to take care of business.”
She moves from underneath the blanket, and I shiver. As soon I can no longer hear the crack of twigs, Jake sits up, stretching. He then gets to his feet, draping his blanket like a cape over his shoulders. Rubbing his eyes, he takes a swig from the bottle that we left lying near the now-dead fire.
“Did I-” I swallow. “Did I ruin the trip for you?”
He looks up. “What? God’s ears, no. I’m happy for you.”
I snort. “Really?”
He shrugs, then comes to sit cross-legged beside me. He hauls me up, like Cleo did yesterday, against his chest, and give me the bottle. The vodka tears at my throat as it goes down.
“Thank you,” I say, grimacing.
“No- see, no, Elijah. Don’t do that. Don’t thank me.”
I tilt my head back.
He stares at the bits of sky above. “I always thought- God’s ears, this isn’t easy to say. I always thought it wasn’t fair that you’re the cripple. You and I- we’re the same. Almost. So why wasn’t it me?”
“That doesn’t matter,” I say irritably. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be in bed at home, being fed porridge by Mama. You got me out of there.”
“What I’m saying is, I’m not upset about Cleo. I’m glad we found her. That you found her.”
“Because you pity me.”
“No… It’s because of her. Who she is.” Jake takes another swig, and I can feel the liquid go down his throat. “Let’s be honest, Elijah, some of the women who bed you, they think you’re a freak.”
“You know it’s true. But Cleo… I think she’s real. I think you can trust her.”
I wonder how much he saw, or heard, from last night. “She wants to take me into the waterfall.” I crane my head up so I can see his face. I’m usually the expert on everything, the one with all the facts, but this is something that’s more Jake’s area.
“I heard,” he says. “It’s not conventional. But then, you’re not conventional.”
“Well… I think I’d better pee before I go.”
His laugh thunders through me. “Good thinking.”
A few minutes later, when he carries me back to the sleeping ground, Cleo’s already back. She’s standing in the spot where we slept, glancing around as if she lost something. She steps over to us hesitantly, her eyes trained on me.
“Can I steal you for a bit?” she asks.
“Finally, yes,” Jake says in my stead. “Take him, please.”
“You won’t drop me?” I say.
She shakes her head solemnly. “I promise.”
Still, as Jake helps her position her arms beneath me, the two of them tangling in the exchange of me, I get a dropping sensation in my stomach, as if I might tumble to the ground at any moment. I feel her long fingers gripping me, and then after a split-second where I feel like I’ve been dropped, she’s got me. Jake steps back, hands on his hips. I’ve never seen him from this perspective.
We trudge towards the waterfall, a thirty second walk. While I am probably the same height as Cleo, I am awfully skinny, and she is awfully strong. She sets me down on the boulder and there’s a terrifying moment where I think she might drop me, but then my back is on hard ground.
“You did great,” I say, and she beams, standing at the base of the boulder in front of me. Behind her, the majestic fall rises, cascading angrily into the pool, thundering like always.
“Shall I undress first?” she says coyly.
I put on a fake air of nonchalance. “I wouldn’t mind.”
She folds her arms. “Are you sure? I have a lot of scars.”
I wish I could just lift her clothing off myself. Like always, I have to vocalize anything. I raise my head and clear my throat. “Cleo? Please undress for me. I know your body is exceedingly beautiful and I’d like to see it in the light.”
She rolls her eyes, but a blush creeps onto her face, and she pulls her shirt over her head, then drops her trousers, and steps out of her boots, then her drawers.
“I was right,” I say.
“Hush,” she says, “Because it’s your turn now.”
She climbs up onto the rockface and slides my tunic up. I lift my head to help her pull it over. She finally pulls it free, and now my flat chest is on display. I’m the color of faded wood, the lightest shade of brown, much darker than Cleo. I find myself searching her for a reaction, as she unclasps my trousers and tugs them down slowly. My legs bend awkwardly, thin from disuse, and my feet flop to the side. Finally, she pulls down my drawers, finding a surprise inside, though it deflates quickly.
“Wow,” she says. I notice there are also freckles on her breasts and collarbone.
“Yes,” I say, blood creeping to my cheeks. “It does that… Well, you have an effect.”
She laughs. “Are you ready?”
“I’m very ready.”
Actually, I’m very nervous. Cleo gathers me into her arms again, this time skin on skin, dark on light. She wades into the water, which is only calf-deep at the outset.
“Is it cold?” I ask, peering down over her shoulder.
She stops, hoisting me in her arms. “Are you worried?”
“I don’t know.” My voice comes out gruff again. I clear my throat. “A little.”
“It’s alright,” she says softly. “I’ve got you.”
The water gets deeper as she sloshes forward, towards the fall. The spray starts to prick us, until we are both covering in mist. I blink it away. The ground must be slippery, and this is her first time. Then, I feel cool water slap up against me.
My body tenses. “God’s ears, Cleo-”
Her lips brush my ear. “It’s alright, Elijah. I’m not going to drop you.” She takes another step, and then we’re submerged to our shoulders, the water shocking us both. She laughs, and lets down my feet so that now her arms are both wrapped around my chest, me facing her. My breaths are shallow.
“Close your eyes and breathe,” she says, and I do, and soon I realize that she’s gripping me firmly and she won’t let go. The waterfalls crashes down behind us, and when I open my eyes, she’s right there in front of me. I lean in and tug on her soft lips, and she tugs back, and we kiss beneath the roar of the falls.