Between the Forest and the Water’s Edge
(‘My Name is…’ part 2, by Elk Vilianni)
It was in the late spring of 1789, the second year of my sojourn in the woods, that the event occurred that was to change me for ever. By then, to any outside observer, I knew that I had grown savage and strange. But there had been no one to observe the change in my appearance since the fur-traders had passed through two winters back. Besides, the real change in me was not one that the eye would behold; only I knew that I was no longer the same foolish young man who had sought sanctuary here from his sins. I was still only four and twenty years in age but this harsh life and solitude had aged me in spirit – for the better – more so than it had even in my face and body. For two years, I had communed only with the land and its creatures, with my conscience and with my God.
Rising with the sun, as was my habit, I had already checked all my traps and collected from the woods a harvest that would feed me that day and the next, and set out to the lake with my spear, to bathe and hoping to add a good fish, or even a duck, to my bounty.
The day was already warm and, by the time I caught the first glimmer of sunlight on the lake showing through the trees, I was longing to immerse myself in those cold waters. As I reached the green sward, between the forest and the water’s edge, I observed a pale shape that, from a distance, defied identification. I hastened my step and, as I neared, I realised that it was the body of woman, dead I feared.
But, as I stood in a state of dread, not knowing what to do, I heard her speak.
‘I’m… I’m lying beside a lake… Behind me, there is a forest… I can hear birds and the movement of the trees in the breeze… it is warm…’
Her eyes were still closed and she spoke as though dreaming, yet her expression indicated no distress.
Until she spoke that word, my thoughts had been too concerned with her mortality, and my own predicament, to register her state of undress. Now I was consumed by discomforting feelings of an altogether different kind. I observed, by the softness of her breasts and belly, and the small lines around her eyes and mouth, that she was not a young woman. I confess that, even in the midst of my confusion and alarm, I discerned that her womanly body was not unbeautiful. Again, she murmured, as though responding to my questing mind.
‘I can feel… the earth is warm and dry against my back, the backs of my legs… my breasts are loose and free… I can feel the soft breeze moving across my skin… I can feel the dark hair between my legs being warmed by the sun…’
My embarrassment was great but, despite it, I could not help but let my gaze linger upon that part of her of which she spoke. An involuntary sound escaped my lips, causing her eyes to open. I anticipated her fear, or her wrath, but, on seeing me looking upon her nakedness, a soft smile came upon her mouth.
‘Why are you naked?’, I stuttered, not knowing what else to say.
She seemed initially to be confused by this question, before answering.
‘I’ve been swimming… I’ve been in the lake…’
I looked to the lake, as though its depths might contain the secret of this mystery. I cast around, looking for her clothes but saw no sign of any.
‘Tell me, what is your name?’, I asked.
‘My name? My name is…’
Again, she appeared to be searching her mind for the answer to my simple question, until a bright smile returned to her face.
‘My name is Elk Vilianni.’
To my ears, this name bore the sound of those of the Salish people but, with her fair complexion and blue eyes, she did not resemble the physical characteristics of that tribe in any respect. Her language, though odd, was evidently that a native speaker of English.
I could make no sense of what was happening and despaired in that moment of further questioning. Could it be that I was the one who was dreaming? No. The ground was firm beneath my feet, the sun on my face was real, and I had no reason to doubt that the woman before me was living, breathing flesh.
Swiftly, I pulled my shirt off over my head.
‘Here, put this on.’
‘I have no need’, she laughed.
‘It is for my benefit rather than yours that I ask you to, Elk Vilianni, though I fear too that your fair skin will burn in this sun. Please.’
‘Well, if it pleases you…’ She sat up and let my shirt fall over her body. I was relieved to note that its length was sufficient to restore her modesty.
It was now my own body that became the object of attention. She gazed without shame at my lean, browned torso. This made me aware again of my urgent need to bathe – I was sweating and coated with dust, my long hair and beard ornamented with bits of leaf and twig.
‘Would it please you to wait for me here while I bathe?’, I requested.
She looked around her as though she were observing anew an unfamiliar world.
‘Well, I don’t think I have anywhere else to be.’
As I turned towards the lake, she called after me.
‘Wait! Aren’t you going to tell me your name?’
‘Forgive me, Elk Vilianni,’ I replied. ‘My name is Jacques. Jacques Leratier.’
[to be further continued…] [Image by StockSnap from Pixabay]