CAMPING CHRISTOPHER CREEK While our husbands fished, Ellie lead me down the river to a crossing of slick, black rocks. I left them, Jeffrey and his brother Lyle who’d fled Arizona to find himself and had returned now, two years later, with Ellie and their matching gold bands. The men picked through the tacklebox and over my shoulder I glimpsed Jeffrey’s broad back, hard as an anvil and proper as if it had never born any even, red dents from my teeth.
“Is it always this hot, Pammy?” Ellie asked, stepping on the closest rock. She was short, sun-toasted, Lyle’s young wife from up north. A syrupy cadence to her speech.
“It’s hotter in Phoenix,” I said. A breeze through the evergreens thrilled over us. It was 114 when we left yesterday, winding up the Beeline Highway to meet the newlyweds wending south.
Ellie teetered halfway across the river, laughing loud enough for the men look up. Lyle trilled a catcall. He had a dead tooth, a front one. I wondered if it felt different to Ellie’s tongue than the others.
My Jeffrey stared through the tunnel of his cap. A grin traveled his face like an egg across a pan and whatever he said next made Lyle duck his head and laugh. In the car, Jeff had said: “Be nice, but don’t get chummy. She sounds like a slut.”
“Let’s go in,” Ellie said after I made the last leap. Hanks of fair hair waved free of her bun. “Dare you.”
From the men’s bank, Jeffrey cast a shining thread across the water and jogged the hook back while the current cut its constant swath between us. “You first,” I said.
She stepped out of her shorts, thighs flecked with peach fuzz. Then she peeled off her top; the whole of her browned like she wasn’t usually covered up.
“Now you,” she said, stepping backwards to the rocky edge toward the dark patch that meant deep water.
“Jeff wouldn’t like it,” I said, fingering the button to my shorts. The men cast and cast.
“So what?” Ellie walked until one foot failed to find footing and she slipped into the pool with a whoosh and a squeal of pleasure. The water turned her skin night-vision green. The men conferred over something silver on a hook. Deciding whether or not to throw it back.
I birthed myself through my black, sun-soaked t-shirt. Then, shorts in a heap, I crept to the furthest outcropping. Ellie offered her dripping hands and before reason could creep back in, I took them, leaping, glacial mountain water stealing my breath.
“God I love it,” Ellie said. “Don’t you?”
Something slick dragged against my churning legs. I wanted to tell the men they’d chosen the wrong shore. The fish were here, sheltering. If he looked up, I would call him to our side. But even with our phosphorescent skin, our looping, chattering laughs, Jeff just kept casting. Your loss, I thought, running hard underwater to keep myself afloat.
A GEOLOGIC SURVEY OF LOVE
A light drizzle explodes my hair into a false brown halo while our professor hands out the assignment and I try to match my lab partner’s longlegged stride. Next to me, Graham produces a plastic bag jampacked with our tools.
“Rock hammer,” I say, ticking it off on my finger.
“Check,” he says. He is a music major satisfying his science credit and cannot fathom what I love about the turgid origins of volcanoes and salt-glittering caves, the calamitous shifting of tectonic plates moving secretly, eternally, beneath our feet.
“Tweezers,” I say.
Our college lies south, all of Canada north. The sedimentary rock wall we are here to study borders 87 southbound where a string of speeding semis raises my parka’s green hood. I gasp and turn my back against a spray of road grit.
“Woah,” Graham says, stepping between me and the road, heat from his hand blooming bright at my elbow. Though the warmth dissipates when he lets go, I am jolted back into last night’s dream in which I hiked with him some dense forest, stood hand-in-hand above a green valley from which steam rose as from a bowl of soup.
“Thanks,” I say, dizzy from his smell of Zest and bitter coffee.
The other students gingerly approach the wall, raising their faces to take its measure. We are ants at its massive foot. When its first glacier-born layer formed, our species was still a quiet harbinger of the earth’s demise. Behind brittle ghosts of Queen Anne’s Lace, the wall rainbows into red, white, beige, auburn. I fit my fingers to its sodden grooves.
“You find a pulse, doctor?” he says, laughing, but I nod because I do, even if it’s my own blood beating in my own fingers. A chinking of tiny hammers sounds, and we kneel in the spiky road-weeds. He opens a sample bag with fingertips callused and red.
“Let ‘er rip,” he says, and I strike the fragile rock lightly, leaving shallow scars. These flakes, corrupted by road dirt, will make for a flawed study, but no hammer in the world would get me to the heart of this hillside, a story told in flecks of dirt and water, unimaginable pressure, time. With our pitiful tools, we are resigned to always scrape the surface.
Later, defrosting on the bus ride home, my dream is close around me, our slow, labored breath in climbing, the flexing of his calves as he worked to break a path.
“Are you a hiker,” I ask. “Do you camp, I mean?”
His hand had cupped my elbow, had seemed to linger there.
“Nah,” he says, beautiful in a yawn. “More of an indoor guy.”
He blows on wind-chapped fingers made for easing harmonies out of any object that will hold a tune. In the Ziploc bag on my lap, I see some of our samples have already begun to crumble; red grains collect in the corners, just so much powder, so much dust.
MEAD OR, MULBERRY WINE?
There’s the version from the scrolls, of course; me and Prince C all happy-ever-after the second that glass slipper swallowed my disadvantaged foot. But I wouldn’t be here slinging grog if that was all there was to the story.
I need to set some stuff straight. Firstly, my stepsisters are decent maidens. If the shoe had fit one of them, things might have worked out for everyone. And the rumor they made me a servant? I’m a neat freak by nature, which is why they love me here at the pub. Finally, back at my stepmom’s, I wasn’t exiled to the attic. That room had a killer view.
Thing is, I don’t really go in for true love, but I’m willing to be convinced. After the banquet on the day he claimed me, Prince C barged into my room around midnight. You’d be hard-pressed to find a virgin in any of this kingdom’s sculleries, so I wasn’t afraid for my virtue. Honestly, I was flattered he couldn’t wait to ravish me eight hours after learning my name.
I heard his steps before I saw him and started tingling head to toe. He’s a looker, that part’s true. While my handmaids scrambled up from their sleeping rugs to give us some privacy, he sidled up to my bed wearing a short, white nightshirt and a wolfish grin.
“Where are they?” he asked, his voice trembling.
Nothing gets me going like a little dirty talk. “Right here, baby,” I said.
He tunneled under the covers head first. I felt him fishing around and started moaning to encourage him, but stopped when his hand closed tight around my ankle.
“No,” he said, voice cottony under the blanket, then clearer as he emerged with my foot still in his fist. “Your shoes, your marvelous shoes. Where do you keep them?”
“Um, the wardrobe?” I said, because duh, and no sooner had I spoken than he’d torn that cupboard wide, pulling the glass ones from their velvet-lined box, then leaning back in.
“Rabbits?” he said, holding one bunny slipper by its fuzzy ear. His face was a mask of disgust. “Where are the Manolos? The Jimmy Choos? Where are the Steve Madden’s, for Sovereign’s sake?”
“I don’t exactly have a trust fund,” I said, speaking slowly in case he was dim like so many of the royals. “The glass ones are the nicest I ever owned.” The room seemed cold now.
He stood slowly, cradling the glass pumps to his chest, and left my room for the last time. Oh, we still got married, but the only company I had in bed were a few of the beefier stable grooms. Eventually, I got tired of pretending to be His Highness’s happy little wifey. Plus, the castle was overrun with servants. They left me nothing to clean. Someday, I hope Prince C finds the pumps he’s looking for, and maybe I’ll find the right prince, but until then, what’ll it be, mead or mulberry wine?
About the Author: Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared in Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Word Riot, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Visit her at www.katiecortese.com or follow @KatieCortese.