White feet descended from the branch overhead, their long toes venturing into her tangled hair, and she hunched and grimaced as they found the warm edges of her ears. A bar of Swiss chocolate wrapped in gilded paper fell from the tree and bounced at her feet.
“If this was Gévaudan, that would be a full English, with chorizos and mushrooms and fried tomatoes and basil and relish, and amazing coffee. And croissants.” Susan remarked, turning to see him sitting on a narrow limb with his rifle beside him. "Aren't you going to say anything about sausages? Sausages in the morning?" The black hood of his sweatshirt framed his smile but he demurred. She sat on a thick mat of needles and bit a corner from the chocolate while he slid down to stand with his back to the sky; a pale volley of bleating fowl beat heavily out of the north and passed behind his look of dubious inquiry.
“So... how much do you hate this already?”
“I don’t hate it. It’s nice and quiet.”
“This is peaceful quiet. At Gideon's there were more looks and unexplained black eyes than on the bloody bus at four in the morning." She wrapped up the chocolate and threw it back to him. “Hide that or I'll eat it all. If I didn’t want to be here I wouldn’t have gotten on that vintage death bucket in the first place, but I've found out that I will travel for cock, alright? Now I even sound like you.” Susan walked with him to the tent and watched him let down its spidery framework. “I was wrong about that thing... it’s not like sleeping in a jiffy bag, it’s like sleeping between two picnic plates taped together.”
“Sexy.” he laughed.
“Claustrophobic.” she assured him, stooping to gather her sleeping bag. “And there’d better be water around here somewhere because I feel like... god, like a sweaty bumcrack.”
A careful hour negotiating the side of the scarp brought them to the valley floor, home to the stony course of a quiescent stream, seasonal fluctuations marked in greenish algal dust upon its boulders. The sheltered aspect harboured summer’s moribund remains, holding enough heat to raise a sweat under her fisherman’s hat. Stands of giant, aromatic herbs spread their starry seed heads two feet over Susan’s own on fluted stems streaked with crimson and purple. The oily scent of aniseed arose from the monstrous plants like a spoken protest as she walked through them, the boulders rocking and cracking together under her boots. Dragonflies and ragged-looking moths, their wings like slubbed linen, fled the umbels swaying in her wake. William's shirt hung from her pack, its green cloth trailing him faithfully, collecting burs and thistledown while the polished brightness of his shoulders prompted her to again consider his body in the light that had coloured so much since her arrival. As he walked his fingers wandered through a private scale, the rhythm running from the smallest digit inward and taken up by the opposing thumb. The urge to seize his hands and push them under her clothing threatened to articulate itself, and she blew a hot breath, attempting to dispel the compulsion. He paused, turned back and pushed aside the herbage between them.
“Smell.” he advised suddenly, and she did so, frowning. “Dirt, wet leaves... still water. Don't waste time looking for this if you're thirsty... you want something moving. It smells of stone and air, or ice... like clouds and broken rocks."
Susan took off her hat, pressing it to her shiny forehead.
"Hate to think what I smell like at the moment."
He closed his eyes.
“Girl... summer girl, rosemary leaves, new clothes, tent, salt, lavender... and rahat loukoum.” he decided, frowning slightly. “You’re sweating Turkish delight.”
She bared her small teeth in a grin while a moth circled her face.
“I ate a whole box in Frankfurt. I'm surprised you can smell anything over the five tonnes of garlic I downed in the last three weeks... that must be fantastic.” They began to walk on through the towering weeds.
“I’ll take you however I can get you, avai’sahdi.”
Susan clucked at the endearment, waving the breeze toward herself.
“Think Lilian’s alright?"
“I don't know, and there's nothing we can do if she isn't. I've lost count of the times I’ve tried to kick sense into someone who’s sat down and stuck their fingers in their ears... sai a' sai'inae ith'ya simayun... she is her own creature."
The stream bed led them in a leisurely undulation, past the face of the forest stretching back over the tall ridge to the east, inset at intervals with secreted, umbrageous couloir that opened out like overgrown gates before walled gardens. Where the river had, at its spring peak, bitten a low curve into the hem of the hill, William turned and offered his hand to her, pointing out a rill spilling over the edge of the bank onto the stones. He pulled her up the grade alongside it.
“That's a bit mad.” Susan observed, standing before a row of flat river cobbles that appeared to have been matched and leveled in the ground, their deliberate line washed over by the stream, though still alluding directly to the cleft-like valley from which it issued. He devoted a moment to the strange construct, his gaze rising from the antique path to consider the oaks beyond, before glancing down at the plain silver ring on her hand, unshouldering her pack and carrying it toward the trees.
A flash of white was whispered to her by the chuckling water when she bent low beneath a sweep of fleur-de-lys leaves at the edge of the grove, dumping her tote and sinking to one knee in order to reach the strange foiled shape, the water breaking around her fingers. Their immersion was arrested by her companion's grasp; he lifted her hand slowly and retrieved the shining object himself. It proved a thin strip of beaten silver the size of her finger, pounded flat and still wearing the curving shapes struck by the mallet. He shook his head.
“Don’t pick them up.” he confided to her surprise. “It could be taken the wrong way.”
Her questing gaze followed the shaded stream and picked out more of the eccentric treasure in the water, banked in silver shoals around the stones and half-buried in the doe-brown silt. William ducked under the recumbent boughs that formed the skirts of a giant doyenne oak, its half-barked bole twisted down into a knotted, pachydermic mass under the vast weight of its canopy, roots arching from the mounds of bloomy moss like vast protean arms. It had sprouted immemorially from a fissure in the hillside, sharing this obscure nascence with the stream, the water sliding, glasslike, between its buttresses in making its way from the glade. The silver tokens gleamed untarnished on the lowest branches, some half-eaten by the swelling bark since their dedication, others having fallen, or been thrown, into the spring, where they lay undisturbed as though coalesced from the water’s own silky, argent qualities. Daylight filtered through the weary leaves; she closed her eyes against its random fulmination, too conscious of the volume of her voice beneath the branches to question him. He had sat down in the leaves and pushed an arm into her pack, producing a little bar of hotel soap and flipping it toward her.
“I can’t.” Susan whispered. “I feel... like someone’s watching.”
"We are." he sighed, lying down with an arm beneath his head. When she stood unmoving, he sighed again and rose, kicking off his trousers and walking past her into the waist-deep spring at the foot of the tree. She began to unlace her boots.
“When do you think people stopped coming here?”
“Can't tell... old ways die hard.”
"Trees don’t like gold.”
She pulled her T-shirt over her head and gazed down at the pendant that lay almost forgotten around her neck, holding it up to him with a smile that he returned, laying his head on a stone at the edge of the pool and regarding her from under somnolent lids, eyes borrowing the colours of the fallen leaves beside him.
"What would happen if we didn't have any silver?"
"Something terrible." he replied. His attention slowed her hands on her underwear, the warm thoughts it confided conspiring with those that were already so insistent, the subtle, thaumaturgical persuasion recalling the earth against her back and his tireless flesh inside her own.
"Has no one ever tried to burn you at the stake?” she chuckled, the pool swaying as he made room for her. She dropped into the water like a stone; its cold knocked the breath from her lungs, chasing her out, and she stood, clutching arms to her chest while it ran from her into the moss underfoot. His gaze stroked her like the back of a hand and she looked down over her shoulder at him, hair dripping as she lowered herself onto her hands and knees at the edge of the spring. She found the winter-blue flavour of the water in the cool depths of his mouth, leaning over the pool in an invitation that drew him from it, then throwing him onto the ground, smoothing her face over his skin in an avid and ravenous transport. On her back, the sinuous weight of his body devolved to her own and spread through her bones like sunlight soaking into stone. At first his ardour required nothing more from her than the perfect abandon of receipt, and she lay with her arms thrown to the ground in wordless, irradiant delight, while he spoke in the floating words of his own tongue and sucked pink circles to the damp skin of her neck and breasts. She closed an arm around him and pushed him onto his side, where he drew her thigh over himself, slowing in accordance with the indolent details of her kiss. She spoke in the small, rose-red space between them, her eyes closed.
“Getting off the plane I thought... I’m in this strange place, with no money, nothing... but all I could think about was dragging you into the bushes and fucking you stupidly. I’m turning into a knickerless sex addict.”
"Admitting you have a problem is the first step."
She laughed, her hand sliding over his eyes so that he could not see where she employed the other; he consented in deference to her relict modesty, though all such reticence proved temporary and he moved to satisfy her whispered urging, turning onto his back and exclaiming at the slow roll of her hips. Their soft, cushioned width welcomed his hands and he rose with their slide from her waist to her breasts, their velvet skin scattered with tea-coloured freckles where the sun had strayed through the fabric of her summer dresses. She closed an arm around him, legs shuddering beneath her as she dropped into silent freefall, her breath as warm as afternoon upon his neck as her chin settled on his shoulder.
He lay back with her amid the roots of the oak, her slow return immeasurably sweetened by the hand he stroked over her spine, sensation looping outward through her buried, glowing courses and circling inside her chest. When he moved again in her the pleasure had suffused and shifted deeper, like imbued opiates, his love of her flesh recounted on his face like an offering in kind.
The tiny loaf of honeysuckle soap was such a rude intruder into the harmonies of scent and hue beneath the trees that Susan almost returned it to her pack, reluctant to apply its bland, industrialized smell to her skin. William caught her hand at the edge of the spring and sucked the ring from her finger, flipping it into the water on her behalf before climbing into his trousers.
“Am I the only one who has to tip?” she complained, eyeing him suspiciously. “Because there’s something about this place that makes me feel as though you know the manager.”
"I'm a hillbilly, not a treehumper."
“Well, they’ve gotten their money’s worth.” While she spoke the youngest branches overhead began to move as though with a shift in the breeze, the disturbance expressed in the shimmer of their ornamenting silver. Looking up at them, she shook her head and began a cursory ablution while he backed out of the grove and studied the open sky. “How many girls in three weeks?" she called. "And don't say none.”
“There’s not a Susan Christabel in Baku who can walk straight.”
"Gideon said you were a crap liar."
"Slut kryptonite, poupée. I couldn't pass it around now, even if I wanted to. How many times did you think about Heathrow?”
“Never.” she laughed. "I told you, I've got cock on the brain. Aren't we supposed to be meeting your brother somewhere?"
He grimaced and clapped his teeth together as he stepped back under the tree.
“Alas, the er, booty call of the wild seems to have erm... taken precedence..."
“How far uphill is this place, because at the moment I just want a cup of tea and a lie down.”
“Christabel... you’re practically jailbait. Where’s your l'exubérance de la jeunesse?" She draped the length of her lime-green tramping towel over her head and lit the cigarette dangling from her lip as she scowled at him, squinting with one eye.
“I have an old soul. It's dragging its arse on the ground."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce