“The poet Theocritus wrote about the love between Heracles and Hylas: ‘We are not the first mortals to see beauty in what is beautiful. No, even Amphitryon’s bronze-hearted son, who defeated the savage Nemean lion, loved a boy—charming Hylas, whose hair hung down in curls. And like a father with a dear son he taught him all the things which had made him a mighty man, and famous'”
“He called again: the valleys and farthest hills resounded as when the sailors invoked the lost Hylas on the Mysian shore; but no sheep.”
“Or that same daintie lad, which was so deare
To great Alcides, that when as he dyde
He wailed womanlike with many a teare,
And every wood, and every valley wyde
He fild with Hylas name; the Nymphes eke “Hylas” cryde.“
All the way up the mouth of the river, Harry and Jason staged the usual competition: who could go farthest fastest. It was a hot day; their shirts came off, as they always did. Two giant men with massive muscles, only slightly softening now that they were in their fifties, only halfway hidden by a layer of fat, a barely perceptible paunch. They sweated beer, and the smell of them mingled with the smoked mildewed canvas in the bottom of the boat. Bob, in Jason’s canoe, had seen it all before, so he just laughed and lay back with his feet up. Miles was new to all this. He sighed, and staggered his stroke so that he came out of step with Harry, so that he slowed him down. Harry frowned. They’d done so well together up till then, stroking in unison.
Nobody talked about Harry’s boy. The kid showed up one day out of nowhere as if he’d been with Harry forever. And now they were together night and day. Nobody asked where Harry had found him. He could almost have been Harry’s son. He looked like Harry, like Harry had looked when he was young. This kid was maybe sixteen, seventeen. And maybe he was one of those foster kids. They almost asked, but something stopped them. And maybe when Harry gazed at the boy with a face so full of love his eyes watered, maybe that was fatherly affection.
All the other guys couldn’t look at the boy. They were confused by him, bewildered by his beauty. If he’d been pretty, if he’d been beautiful like a girl, they would have been all right, they could have mocked him. But he was a beautiful man, or becoming one, and they’d never seen anything like it. They didn’t know what to do with it. Bronze curls, golden green eyes as cloudy and deep as sunlight in river water. Full as tall as Harry and nearly as strong, but lighter and easier in his movements. Easier in all things. So ripe, so glowing with good health that it seemed like a self-imposed curse. He would anger some jealous god and be cut down before too long, you could feel it. And it was such a drag, frankly, to be around so much robust youth. Where was the fun in sitting around the fire with some beers, talking about your sour stomach, your irritable bowel, your aggravated joints, your fatigued muscles? Where was the fun in laughing at each other for growing old? Gone, the fun was gone, absorbed in this boy’s eerie quiet, his silence that never seemed awkward or stupid, it only seemed sad.
Some things, when you didn’t understand them, you didn’t try to figure them out. Sometimes you just didn’t want to know.
And Miles didn’t have much interest in these guys either, in Harry’s gang of friends. Eight middle-aged men making the same trip every year, drinking beers around the camp fire and killing everything in sight. They caught fish, they trapped rabbits, they shot deer. They shot crows and doves and sparrows. Some they ate, but mostly they left them lying in the mud, they left the entrails rotting in the sun.
On the canoe it wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t bad to move in steady rhythm, without thinking, to feel the strain of your muscles, the breeze in your curls. To feel the sunshine dappling through leaves overhead, the light warm on your face, so that you could tell if you were in sunshine or in shade, even with your eyes closed.
In the canoe it wasn’t so bad until now, now that Miles had wrecked their rhythm, and he could feel Harry glaring at him without even looking, he could feel anger boring into the back of his head. Harry tugged at his oar so powerfully that the sides of the boat shuddered with each pull. Harry’s oar was made of hard wood, and as thick as his massive forearm. In his frustration he knocked it against the boat, close by Miles, waking him from a sort of slumber, and the oar snapped in two. Half of the oar fell into the river to disappear into the waving weeds, and Harry held the other half in his great hands, working it as though he would crush it. And you almost believed that he could as he sat in silence glaring at Miles, who shrugged and passed his own oar back.
At twilight they stopped rowing and pulled onto a sandy bank beneath a steep grassy slope. The men, weary and hungry, pulled the boats out of the water and hoisted them, dripping, onto the grass. Some stretched and bemoaned their creaking backs, some stamped their feet to get the feeling back. Miles lay on his back and stared into the vivid shifting sky, until the motions of the men played out as silhouettes on the edge of his vision. He thought about falling off the earth, he thought about flying. He could almost feel the great powerful wings on his back, with feathers as soft and white as the clouds. Harry’s peevish voice brought him back to earth, and he leapt lightly to his feet. He took his end of the canoe, and followed Harry into the woods, tethered by this heavy thing they carried together. They passed through a stubbly meadow, burnished by the late summer sun and prickling with thorny plants and rattling insects. The earth was hard and uneven, stones made of dust and dirt crumbled beneath their feet, and the smell of baking weeds surrounded them in a cloud with the gnats.
Evening fell suddenly in the trees, in the shadow of dark branches. It felt hours later here in the woods, and the earth was soft and wet with the sharp sweet pungency of osage oranges and green walnuts, almost as if in walking into the trees they’d entered autumn. Miles saw a rabbit crouching in the bushes, soft peppered fir quivering at their passing. He didn’t say a word, but he didn’t suppose she had much of a chance, now that these men had arrived. He felt a shock of loneliness at the sight of the rabbit hopping scared and quiet into the dusky bushes. Night was falling all around him, and he felt an unaccustomed shock of loneliness and cold.
They made camp in a clearing, in the dust and rocks and brambles. The light and warmth returned, fadingly. Harry wouldn’t look at Miles, except to find fault with his work. When Miles picked up a tent pole or a tarpaulin, Harry snatched it away petulantly, blowing out a stream of muttered curses. Miles bent to hammer a stake into the ground, and when he stood Harry wrenched the hammer from his hand. It slid through calloused flesh, but left a barbed splinter in the soft center of his palm. He stretched his hand out to Harry as if in supplication, and Harry saw the hurt in the boy’s eyes and he felt sorry. He saw something of the sadness there, shifting in Miles’ deep-water eyes, and he wished he’d caused it, he’d like to be that important to the boy, but he knew he wasn’t and he would never be. Still, he was kinder from that moment. He held the boy’s hand cupped in his own giant mitt, and squinted at the splinter with failing eyes. He tried to pinch it out with his strong fingers, but only pushed it further in, deep under the flesh, where it remained as the skin grew over it year after year.
The men started a fire, they opened the beer and whisky, they set out some traps, they cleaned their guns and hooked their poles. They cooked up pots of beans and ate dried smoked meat. They settled into their camp chairs with a whine and a groan.
Miles sat apart staring into the darkening woods. The trees were pitched into blackness, and all around him was still; dusk and dust and warm firelight on the cool pale ground. Far above, the leaves formed stark lace against a still-bright sky of warm and glowing blue. The clouds rushed by in an unearthly light. Miles didn’t feel lonely or not lonely, it no longer mattered, and he thought again that he might fall off the earth.
Harry brought Miles a plate of beans and a can of beer, along with a boozy smile and a chuck on the shoulder that nearly knocked him to the ground. He shuffled awkwardly and then shambled back to his friends, words unsaid. Miles ate the food, but he poured the beer into the dirt, watching it form into dust-coated puddles before it seeped into the dry ground.
When the night grew so dark that Miles could see nothing beyond the circle of firelight, nothing but black emptiness, the chill returned. In their tent he zipped his sleeping bag up to his chin. He liked the shiver of warmth he got when his sleeping bag heated up all around his body. He liked the smell of fire and dirt and damp canvas. He liked to hear the men outside the tent talking and laughing. He knew that once he’d gone to bed they would get louder and louder. They would tell their stories with raucous abandon and their voices would become muddier and lustier with every swig of liquor. Miles felt like a child again, lying in bed, listening to the rise and fall of adult voices saying words he didn’t need to hear or understand. There was comfort even in the happy sloppy roar of these men he barely knew, and he turned to the dusty space where the tent met the ground and looked for shapes in the shadows.
When Harry came to bed, fumbling with the tent closure, burping beer and beef jerky, Miles pretended to be asleep. Harry said his name once, twice, in a voice he meant to be a whisper, but Miles didn’t turn to him, he did not move. Harry landed beside him with a bellow, like the great beast he was, and was soon snoring. His warmth was not unwelcome, and the sound of his breathing entered Miles’ dreams when finally he fell to sleep.
In the morning Jason woke with a splitting head and a full bladder. Some small distance from camp he found a clearing and took a piss. Looking up he saw a bird watching him, a grey bird with bright black eyes, who said “Eh,” in an emphatic voice. He sat on a log and rubbed his temples and thought about his wife. He wondered what she did all day, while he was away on his trips. He’d never asked her, he never had. He pictured her sleeping late, walking around the house in her grey nightgown, frying up liverwurst and eating it on toast (he hated the smell of liverwurst, couldn’t stand it in his house). He imagined her playing solitaire in her nightgown ignoring the dirty dishes in the sink. Or maybe she went out. Maybe she went to the pictures with her girlfriends. Or with a boyfriend! Maybe she had a boy like Harry’s boy! Some gin-soaked boy he didn’t know. Jason laughed, and then he frowned, and both things hurt his head. She’d helped him to pack, and it suddenly seemed as though she’d been in a big hurry to see him go. He tried to remember what she’d said about Harry’s boy after she met him. Sad and far away, she’d said, and what the hell did that mean? What did she mean by that? He was trying to remember the way she looked at Harry’s boy when the boy himself walked into the clearing. He was dressed and he looked awake and clear-headed (of course, the bastard). He carried a rabbit, and he was near tears.
Miles startled when he saw Jason, the way a rabbit might, but he didn’t bolt. He sat beside the older man and tried to keep from crying. The rabbit lay in the boy’s large, fine hands, panting with fear and pain, her scrawny ribs heaving under hoary fur. Her paw was a bloody mess of snapping-thin bones and gleaming guts, and Jason knew that Miles had taken her from a trap.
“Will she be okay?”
“Okay for dinner!” Jason laughed, but stopped when he saw the boy’s pale face. He wished the boy would sniffle or turn red when he cried, like everyone else on the planet, but of course he didn’t. He looked sad but frighteningly close. So Jason sighed and pursed his lips and said, “Let’s see what we can do here.”
He took a flask of vodka from his pocket and took a swig himself and poured some over the wound. The rabbit shrieked, once, in an otherworldly voice, and then lay rigid, almost without breathing. Jason found his handkerchief, which was large and nearly clean, and his penknife. He cut strips of fabric and used one to clean the rabbit’s wound.
“It’s not so bad,” he said, “Just the one big puncture.” He wound strips of fabric around the rabbit’s paw, making them as tight as he could.
“Do you mean that?” Miles searched Jason’s face, and seemed to accept what he found there. He looked back down at the rabbit and stroked her furrowed soft head, between the ears, with devastating tenderness. “Will she live?”
“If everybody will leave her alone and give her a chance to heal. She might.”
“Don’t tell Harry.”
“No. Of course. Of course I won’t.” Jason had a secret with Harry’s boy. It felt okay. He put a hand on Miles’ shoulder. He was surprised by the feel of it, and tried not to let himself leave his hand too long. “You best let her go. You can’t bring her to camp. She’ll find a place. She knows best.”
Miles looked up at Jason, and Jason knew he should leave. But he turned when he was a small distance away, to look back. The boy stroked the rabbit until she was quiet and calm. He picked her up and kissed her on the head. He set her on the ground and watched her go. She gave her bad paw two big shakes, and then she hopped off, and never looked back.
Miles walked down to the river. A thick white mist curled off the water like smoke. All around him the trees were vivid and hung with raggedy dew-jeweled spider webs. But beyond the trees the world was completely white, like a blank sheet of paper, like somebody had forgotten to draw the background. Miles wanted to walk into the blankness of that page. He tried not to think about the rabbit. He’d always been good at not thinking of things he didn’t want to think about, but this power failed him now. He heard a clanking sound from across the river; low, cool, irregular but insistent. As he got nearer to the water, past the trees and onto the bank, it seemed that his eyes became used to peering through the mist and he could make out shapes on the other side. He could see a house, a white house, large and sprawling but silent and still. He smiled to himself to think how angry the guys would be to know that they weren’t lost in the wilderness at all. They weren’t in the middle of nowhere; they were almost in somebody’s yard.
Miles spent the morning walking in the woods, getting farther and farther from camp, getting himself lost. Even in the shadow of the trees the day grew hot, and near midday Miles walked back to the river. He stripped down to his underwear without a second’s thought, before he’d even cleared the trees. The water looked deep and cool and green and Miles longed to be swimming with the silvery fishes. Underwater you could lose yourself completely in the moving murky silence.
He saw the face before he’d even gotten his feet wet, and he stood frozen on the sharp wet rocks. A pretty face, smiling, disembodied, seemingly floating on the water, a face out of a dream. But when she bobbed in the water he understood that she was real, that she was a young woman not much older than him, and she was swimming. She had a body under the water, and the thought of this made his cheeks burn.
“Come in,” she said.
And he did.
He dropped in the water in a moment, to hide himself from her watching eyes. He’d never felt so bare, so aware of his body, as he did now with her eyes on him. The shock of the water was great. His feet touched the bottom of the river, and tangled in soft clinging weeds and slick mud. He slipped towards her, but turned himself away
She’d never seen anything like him. She was undone. Not by the sight of a boy walking in the woods or stripped to his underwear, although these were both unusual. Not by the boy’s size or his great beauty, although these were remarkable. Somehow he was so vivid, and so solid, and yet so quiet in his movements, so far away in his expression, that she felt confused, even in only minutes of watching him. If she’d had more time to think about it she would have been nervous, she would have even been scared. But she wasn’t. He came into the water in a fluid movement but stayed at some distance from her, not meeting her eyes. In her confusion she could scarcely gather her wits, and this made her heart faint. He moved away, but she moved toward him. She laid her left arm upon his neck yearning to kiss his mouth; and with her right hand she drew down his elbow, and plunged him into the midst of the eddy. She had never behaved this way, she would never behave this way, but summer was very long around here, the time passed very slowly. And she had never seen anything like him.
He fell into her, into her soft surprising warmth, and he felt he was drowning, but he couldn’t stop himself, and he did not want to stop himself. He went under completely, he was gone. He couldn’t breathe or see or think or hear, he was sunk into her depths, and powerless. Finally, finally, he was lost.
They lay in the ferns and brambles, drinking in their green savory sweet scents. He felt nearly drunk. He felt nearly happy.
She’d had more time to think, and now she was nervous, now she was even almost afraid. She tried to turn herself away, but he held onto her arm and he was stronger than he knew. So she lay and watched this strange boy, who held her as if for dear life after knowing her so short a time. She knew his name now, Miles, and she liked the sighing sound of it, but she didn’t know anything else about him. He stared into the sky, smiling or nearly smiling, and she couldn’t know how rare it was for this boy to smile. She thought about their bodies, tangled together, warm where they touched, cool where they were apart. She thought about how she didn’t know what he was thinking, what would make him half-smile like that. She could never know, even if she asked, she could never fully know what he was thinking or where he’d been and all that he’d seen or done. She imagined being together 40 years, being married, maybe, and being grey, entwined on a big spare bed in a cool grey room, and still not knowing what he was thinking, because nobody could ever know that.
“I’m hurting you?”
When he let her go she felt that she was falling, like she did sometimes in her dreams, sudden and waking. She wanted to touch him but she couldn’t have said why. He pushed her wet hair behind her ears and looked into her face and she felt completely bewildered but not scared anymore and certainly not ashamed. They lay like this for a while, and she thought there was a lot to say, so much to ask and to explain. She was always talking, she loved to talk, but it didn’t seem possible on this rare, slack, under-water day.
She carried him back across the river in her rowboat. With him watching she was clumsy on the oars, but they were in no hurry. He didn’t want to go back. He couldn’t go back for anything he’d come here with, and he didn’t know how to explain that so he didn’t try, and he left with nothing. He didn’t think too much about what would come next, he just watched this girl dropping her oars and laughing. She had a ridiculous laugh, large and ringing, but not loud. He didn’t think he could like anyone any more, not any person. But he liked her whether he wanted to or not. He wondered if she’d bring him home, he wondered where her home was. He wondered if there was a train station nearby, or if he even wanted there to be.
She gave up on rowing and they sat and let the water take them wherever it would, for a while. He thought there was something she wanted to say, something she wanted to ask him and he wouldn’t mind, but he didn’t know how to help her ask. So they sat in silence listening to the river and the wind.
From deep in the thick wood, a thunderous bellow raged fiercely through the quiet, like the cry of a beast in pain. “Miles,” howled with hurt and loss, moaned with love and longing.
“My god, he loves you!”
“Yes,” said Miles, “he does.” And he took the oars from her and rowed away, down the river.