The soft light of candles flickered across her shadowed neck. The forgiving darkness of night enclosed the swirls of her skirt. The filmy swirls of hair adorned her bowed head.
She was too innocent to be sensual and too sensual to be innocent. Just old enough to know the ways of the world, and just young enough to not have experienced them.
I watched the way her dew-drop earring dangled against her flushed cheek, the way her painted nail ran along the paper on the desk, the way her mouth pouted prettily as she read the printed words.
I came up beside her. “What are you reading?”
She glanced quickly over her shoulder at the parents sitting near the fire. I was a good four years her senior and she felt the difference. I was old enough to have experienced the ways of the world, but not old enough to regret them.
“It’s an old bible of Mr. Derry’s,” she explained. It was his house we were at. His living room in which we stood. His book we were reading. But it was her hand that glanced across the pages.
“It’s the story of Ruth and Naomi.”
“Oh? Not the story of Ruth and Boaz?”
She looked up at me where I towered close, half a head above. Her face, at this angle, did not catch the lamplight. I was standing closer than she thought was proper, but though she wrapped herself in caution, she did not pull away.
“Ruth loved Naomi first, above herself,” she explained, “and that was how Boaz learned to love her so much. Above himself, above anything. It is first a story about Ruth’s love for Naomi.”
She was firm, and I was surprised by the layers of her speech. Though she was young, she was not naive. She knew what I wanted, and I knew she would not give it to me. But still I did not move.
In my turn, I glanced back at the adults. The same fair hair that piled richly on the head of the girl beside me gleamed brightly on the head of her mother, who laughed lively among the others.
“She must be my love, you know,” she whispered while I looked. “For now. It will keep me modest, and teach a man how to love me.”
“Tied to her, are you?” I jabbed.
Now she stepped away, more in contempt than discomfort. She walked into the hallway and meekly, I followed; the long panels of oak gleamed darkly out here away from the lamps, reflecting only the moonlight streaming through the wall length windows. She turned suddenly back to me.
“Haven’t you ever loved anyone?” she pleaded, her voice deeply trembling. “Haven’t you ever loved me – for who I am?”
She wanted the truth, not pleasant niceties. Had she wanted me to lie, she would have remained in the civilized parlor; but no, she had led me to the natural light of the honest moon, and I could not lie here in this shrine. I did not respect man, I did not know God, but I loved natural beauty, and she knew I could not lie here – not when she pleaded with me.
So I simply sighed and looked at the floor. I was fourteen again. Confused, honest, yearning. “You know I haven’t,” I whispered. “You know I’ve only ever loved myself. You’ve known that for forever.”
“I know. But I thought you were only immature. I thought, when you grew up, I thought you would change. I came back with that hope – I came back to meet you again for the first time, but you were only a dandified version of who you’d always been.”
“Well that’s your fault you know. I never pretended to be anything else.”
“Oh, I know! I know! That’s what’s so pitiful about it. Did I fail you?” she asked after a painful pause.
“You could never!” Without noticing, I had darted forward and grasped her hands. I was closer now than before, yet she was not uncomfortable. But I was. I suddenly backed away, looking anywhere but at her, mumbling an apology.
“Why? Why make excuses? Why pull away?” Her voice shone with hope for me. Hope I could not answer or fulfill. “Don’t you realize – oh, don’t you know that this is your real self? The self you hide so well, no one but me has ever seen it. This is the man you were born to be!”
Without another word, I turned about, took my coat from the rack by the door, and let myself out into the dark night.