OF NARCISSUS by Clare London
You may call my time at the river like this an indulgence. I call it an escape. I sit silently on the grassy bank, staring into the water, my skin as cool or warm as the weather allows me, but uncaring of any discomfort. It’s my time to be thoughtful.
My brothers scoff. “What’s wrong with you, Cecco? We don’t skulk around in our precious hours off, when there’s wine and women to be found in town. You waste time like a child. Like a girl.” For them, it’s the ultimate insult.
Papa laughs at me–I always hoped I was a favourite of his, being a late and unexpected addition to the family–yet there’s a harsh edge to it. “There’s no time for idleness, Cecco. There’s work to be done to help Mama.”
“Tired of being a housewife?” my brothers sneer. “We have your place ready at the forge any time you want!”
They see I haven’t grown into a lusty country man like them: that I don’t drink, that I’m nervous of women and show no appetite for them. But they think I’m slow, and it’s just a matter of time before I become like them. In the meantime, they tease my shyness mercilessly.
But the young man Papa hires to help clear the forge on busy weekdays sees me in a different way. His dark, sweaty curls fall over his forehead as he looks up at me through thick lashes. His gaze often follows me as I carry things about the yard for Papa. Sometimes his flush is not just from the heat of the fire.
Seated here today on the river bank, I think of him: his smooth-skinned jaw, striped with soot; his callused hands; his nervous, pretty smile. There’s a sudden splash as a fish breaks the surface, and I hear the plop as it dives again. I put aside my bread and cheese and scramble to my knees. If I perch at the edge of the bank and lean forward, I can see into the river. I see fish weaving between the fronds of sea ferns, and the rough and tumble of the depths ebbing around the uneven stones of the river bed.
And then I see the boy. I’m not startled–I’ve seen him before. He stares back up at me from under the surface, a smile on his face. He looks my age, with the same big eyes and unruly hair. But he never has the sad expression that Mama says she sees on my face. He looks cheerful and confident and … mischievous.
I’ve never heard his voice aloud, but I always know what he’s saying. “Has he spoken to you yet? Cecco, tell me at once!”
I smile back, ruefully. “No,” I whisper. “I think he’s afraid of Papa’s anger. He works hard in the forge, he has no time to stop and talk.”
“He wants to, though. I know!” The boy chuckles. “He likes you. You need time together.” A gust of wind blows suddenly over the river and the surface ripples. His face blurs briefly. It’s a beautiful face, though my brothers would snort to hear me describe a male that way.
“I cannot talk to him for you,” my friend says, suddenly sober. “You’d welcome that, wouldn’t you?”
I can’t help blushing. It’s as if he reads my mind. “I don’t have your courage.” The tree branches creak in the wind: the leaves rustle behind me. “I’m not handsome like you. I don’t have your words. I am afraid …”
“Of being yourself?” he whispers back.
I nod. Tears settle as a lump in my throat. My belly aches all the way to my groin. I know what I want–but I never dare seek it out.
“You deserve happiness, Cecco. You’re beautiful, just like me, though you never believe me.” His expression is sympathetic now, his eyes full of love that seems to be for me. “It’s not easy, and you must be careful of yourself. But you cannot deny your needs forever. Your dream of being an artist, your sensitive love of beauty, your need for a man to make you sob with pleasure and cry out in the night…”
“Hush!” My whole body feels hot now. “Someone’s coming!”
The water ripples again and I draw back. Behind me, someone pushes through the bushes, their boots crunching through the fallen leaves. It’s a heavy but hesitant step. I wonder if Papa has sent someone to fetch me back.
To my astonishment, it’s the boy from the forge. I just stare at him. I imagine I can hear the boy in the water laughing fondly at me. I almost feel him nudge me to speak. Go on!
“I like to come here,” I say. “It’s a quiet place.”
My voice sounds too high, but he smiles at me and nods. “A quiet place is good. The forge is hot and busy. And here … perhaps I can speak with you. Alone.”
We’re both blushing by now.
He likes you, Cecco!
Perhaps the courage and mischief of my friend in the river is contagious. I pat the grass beside me. “Will you sit for a while? I’d like to talk to you, too.”
He laughs, a burst of relief from his mouth, the tone high and excited and almost musical. That’s how I know this boy has dreams, too, that extend beyond a few hours’ manual labour in a forge. He drops to the ground beside me, wriggling to get comfortable, and it brings him closer. His thigh brushes mine. His body is warm with sweat and eagerness, but the cool wind blows the fragrance of the riverbank through his curls. I want to touch him. I know I will touch him.
We sit there for a moment, then laugh with ease. I slide a hand over his and he grasps mine in return.
I know the words will come, when I need them.