I was ten and she was thirteen when we first met. I was walking down to Coffee Cove by the Sunset and Sunrise beaches of Paint Lake and I saw her, knee-deep in mud and ooze, trying to get what looked like a very expensive hat back. It was just out of her reach and she seemed very upset about losing it.
I remember everything about her at that exact moment. Her deep honey-brown eyes were filled with tears and her auburn hair was slicked with mud from when she’d fallen into the thick sludge on her first attempt to retrieve her prize. She looked like a city girl who had no real idea how to deal with this sort of wilderness, even though she was in a provincial park.
“Here,” I found myself saying. I took her hand and helped her out of the mud. “You can’t just wade in. You need to sort of float on it.”
“Goddess,” the girl sniffled, wiping the tears from her eyes with a grimy hand and spreading mud over her cheeks. “That hat was a gift from my brother. I need to get it back.”
I was already slithering through the mud to the expensive-looking accessory. I snatched it with my clean hand and lifted it free before tossing it backwards at her; I needed to concentrate on being able to turn and slither back without getting sucked in. It took a few minutes of strong wiggling but I eventually pulled myself back onto the pathway where the girl was still waiting.
“Thank you,” she said. “You have no idea how much this means to me. Thank you, a thousand times over, thank you.”
I frowned at her as I stood. “You seem . . . elegant,” I said slowly. She hid a polite giggle behind her hand.
“I suppose that is accurate,” she said, purposely striking a pose from My Fair Lady. I smiled and held out my hand.
“I’m Alexis,” I said, smiling with all the impishness of pre-adolescence. “And please don’t tell me your name is Eliza Doolittle and that you’re a flower girl.”
“Oh, you’ve seen My Fair Lady?” The Elegant Girl seemed surprised.
“Anybody who is anybody has seen that movie,” I replied, trying to sound snobbish and sophisticated, but failing miserably. “Okay. We watched it in class and I couldn’t take my eyes off Audrey Hepburn in the gown she wore to meet the Queen.”
Elegant Girl giggled again and took my still out-stretched hand, shaking it firmly. “I am Bianca Danvers,” she said. Her eyes lit up with a sudden idea. “Hey, my dad gave me the keys to his cottage. Its really nice. Do you think you’d be able to come over for dinner?”
“Sure! I just need to ask my gramma if that’s alright,” I said, smiling.
My gramma, being my gramma of course, instantly agreed and Bianca took me down to Coffee Cove where her kyak was beached. It was a two-seater with a spare lifejacket and it made me wonder if she’d planned on meeting me.
“Why don’t you come for a quick swim with me so that we can wash the mud off?” she suggested. “It will be more comfortable. It is a pretty long trek back to my cottage.”
I looked at the mud drying on my clothes and then at her nearly-coated form. “We’d better soak our clothes, too,” I said matter-of-factly. She smiled at me and I felt my heart leap into my throat at the simple gesture. She walked to the rock-free side of the cove and started walking into the water, clothes and all.
“Come on in!” she called out once she was floating. “The water’s really warm, Alexis!”
I took a few hesitant steps in. Minnows darted around my ankles. Bianca was having a blast, splashing around and rinsing herself off. I made my way in up to my waist and didn’t move another inch. I’d always been terrified of water.
No, not terrified in ‘oh my god we’re watching a scary movie’ scared but terrified as in ‘oh goddess, I think I’m about to die’ terrified.
“Whats wrong?” Bianca asked. She stood on a rock a few – maybe five – feet away. She was soaking wet and her hair, instead of being gnarled and tangles and messy with mud like most girls usually ended up with after swimming, her hair shone and was perfectly straight. She looked like one of those models you see in the shampoo commercials, as weird as that sounds.
She stepped off the rock and swam closer to me. “Alexis?”
“I don’t really like the water,” I admitted. It was my secret shame. Gently, she took my hands and smiled at me; again, my heart threatened to choke me and I was absolutely positive that she could hear its frantic beating.
“Just close your eyes,” she whispered. “I won’t let the water hurt you, okay?”
“Okay . . . ” I did as she asked me.
“Concentrate on fire, Alexis.”
“Yes, fire. The opposite of water, kitten. Surround yourself in the fire and the water won’t be able to hurt you.”
Vaguely, I remembered my nana talking about that kind of thing, speaking of the elements and their parts in our lives. With one hand, I reached up and touched the red amber pendant around my neck. “Fire,” I said slowly and in an uncertain voice. “Just think of the fire.”
“Right,” Bianca praised. She started leading me out into the water. Once I got up to my neck, I stopped and she didn’t try to take me any further. “See? The water isn’t so bad.”
I shuddered as a particularly large wave broke over us both. “Think of the fire,” I kept saying. “The fire is warm. The fire is safe.”
“Okay, kitten,” she said gently. She stepped around me and pulled me over to the warm black rocks. I crawled up and laid down on my back in the hot noon sun. She crawled up beside me and laid down on her stomach, resting her head in her arms.
“Why did you call me kitten?” I asked suddenly. Bianca turned her head and looked at me.
“Because you’re small and cute, like a kitten,” she said. “Is it okay for me to call you that?”
I smiled and nodded. “Yeah, its okay,” I replied. I closed my eyes and turned my face up to the sun.
Suddenly, without any warning, she leaned over and kissed me on the lips. But it happened so quickly and with such . . . Goddess, I still don’t know how to describe it. Passion? Dexterity? I can’t even think of a word for it. It happened however it did that I barely even knew what had happened.
“We should get moving before the sun disappears on us,” she said. She helped me sit up. “Ever gone kyaking before?”
I told her I hadn’t and she spent the next half-hour teaching me what to do while we dried off in the sun. Then she sat me in the first slot of the kyak and positioned herself behind me. “If you don’t feel comfortable, or if you get tired, just stop,” she told me. “Its alright if you do. This is a pretty hard sport and it is your first time doing it.”
“I’ve been in Ballet for seven years,” I snorted. “If I can survive Mademoiselle Roberts and her Variations on an Arabesque, I can survive this.”
Bianca laughed and I felt my worries fading away. I had her spare lifejacket on and a two-ended paddle in my hand. I knew she wouldn’t let anything happen to me. She pushed off the sandy embankment with her paddle and eased us into the open water. She was cool and calm and collected, even when I had to stop paddling and grab at my necklace to reassure myself that I’d stay safe.
We’d been paddling for over four hours. It those four hours, Bianca and I became closer than close; she knew almost everything about me and I believed that I knew more about her than most people did. She had propelled us farther out onto the lake than I’d ever gone before and I was beginning to get a bit frightened. It was getting misty and chilly and my damp clothes were clinging to my skin. I was positive that I was visibly trembling but I secretly hoped that she wouldn’t notice, just to prove that I wasn’t a wussy.
“Remember the fire,” Bianca coaxed when I stopped paddling altogether. “The fire will keep us safe and the fire will lead us home, okay?”
“But there’s no more light!” I protested weakly. “And the fire is beginning to go out.”
I remembered then, with more clarity, my nana’s words.
The world revolves around five elements: Fire, Water, Earth, Wind and Spirit. You were born under the symbol of Fire, Alexis. This gem will help keep your fire burning and give you a never-ending stream of courage. Never forget that you are a child of Fire.
“I am a Child of Fire,” I repeated out loud without even realizing it. “I will never forget that I am a child of fire.”
“Child of fire? Where did you hear that?” Bianca asked curiously. She slowed her paddling to a crawl and we floated in the middle of a mist-soaked lake for a few moments. I was too afraid to turn around but I wanted to.
“My nana told me, when I was little, that I was a part of her Circle,” I said, trying hard to remember what had been said to me when I was four. “And when I slept over at her house, she’d show me all these really neat tools and feathers and grasses and stuff like that. And then, when I turned five, she gave me this necklace and told me to never forget that I was a child of Fire.”
“Your nana was a follower of the Old Ways, then,” Bianca said; I could hear the happiness in her voice. “Like me. I’m a child of Water, according to the Wheel.”
“I never understood a lot of what she was telling me but I’ve always kept it close to my heart,” I admitted. “Nana said she didn’t dare try and tell my mother any of this because Mom was such a fanatic about God, she would have tried to have Nana committed.”
“Your nana wasn’t crazy,” she told me. “Your nana is probably more sane than your mom.”
“I always thought that. I knew that Nana was speaking sense, even when nobody else thought she was.”
“Then already, you’ve surpassed your mother’s intellect.”
“Bianca, why did you kiss me?”
She went silent. I started paddling again to keep us afloat. We glided over the water in silence for what seemed like an eternity and a half. Through the fog ahead of us, I saw a dim shape begin to grow. It was large and very dark and faintly, I heard a dog barking.
“We’re here,” Bianca said finally.
“Are you regretting bringing me here now?” I asked dryly. She grounded the kyak and stepped out. I pulled myself out and shook my head. “Never mind. I’m asking some really stupid questions.”
“No, they’re not stupid.” She took my hand and looked down at me. Suddenly, her eyes filled with concern. “Alexis, your lips are blue! Why didn’t you tell me you were cold?”
I licked my numb lips and shrugged. “It didn’t seem important.”
A huge black dog came bounding out of nowhere. I blinked and frowned. “Hey, girl,” I murmured. I knelt and let the female dog sniff my face and hands. Once given a happy lick, I ran my shivering hands through her soft, coarse, warm fur.
“I’m happy to know that my guard dog is nothing more than a puppy to you, but I need to get you inside before you catch hypothermia,” Bianca chided. She looked at the dog. “Rina, veet.”
The dog resolutely refused to move as I buried my face in her thick muff of fur around her neck. Wait. Did I say dog? I meant wolf-like hybrid that was probably all the way up to Bianca’s chest. But it was soft and warm and I was feeling exhausted.
“Kitten, I’m going to do something,” Bianca said in a soft voice that I only half-heard. I squeaked lightly as I was suddenly lifted from the sandy beach and cradled against Bianca’s chest. Rina growled. “Rina, hush. I’m not hurting her.”
“Rina, ciùin,” I said, reaching a hand down and groping tiredly for the poor dear. Rina nuzzled my hand with her cold wet nose and then trotted off. I slumped against Bianca and slipped into a blissful darkness.
I woke up some time later, bundled into warm clothes and curled into a seat by the fire of an upper-level room. Rina was laying down at my feet, which were propped up on a footstool and covered in black lamb slippers. Bianca appeared from the stairwell with two mugs of something steaming that smelled absolutely heavenly.
“What language was that, when Rina was growling?” she asked softly. I gratefully accepted the mug of steaming coffee and drained it before looking at her.
“I will only answer if you tell me why you kissed me,” I replied. She narrowed her eyes, even as she took my empty mug and gave me her own full one.
“You are a shrewd, shrewd ten year old,” she said. “Fine. I kissed you because I wanted to see if you tasted as sweet as you looked. Now what language were you speaking?”
I smiled down at Rina. “I was speaking Gaelic. Ciùin is gaelic for calm. I read, once, that Irish Wolfhounds are the largest domesticated dogs allowed in Thompson, but I’m pretty sure that it was overturned, so I figured that using Rina’s native tongue would calm her down.”
“Well, it worked,” Bianca said. She smiled at me. “Are you angry that I kissed you?”
“No, not really.”
“If you wanted to, would you kiss me again?”
“Maybe. But isn’t it bad for two girls to kiss? That’s what the bible says.”
“The bible says nothing of the sort.”
“But what about Sodom and Ghomorrah? There was homosexuality there and both cities were destroyed by God!”
“What did your nana say about love, kitten?”
“Nana once showed me a picture of her brother and my uncle Larry. She told me that Larry loved her brother in a way that wasn’t allowed by normal people, but that it was okay to love somebody in that way. But then Mom said that Uncle Larry was a bad man and that he was going to Hell for loving Nana’s brother in that unGodly way.”
I sipped the bitter brown liquid in the winnie-the-pooh mug. “All of my friends think I’m weird because I like going to ballet and dancing while they’re all going around and looking at the cute boys. But those boys aren’t cute! They just look ugly!”
She smiled. “Do you think you’ll ever like boys?” she asked. I wrinkled my nose.
“No.” Even by that age, I was absolutely positive that I could never fall in love with any boys. I’d read Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and I just knew that I’d never feel that deep attraction for a man that Cinderella and Aurora felt for their princes. “Does that mean I’m a bad person and I’ll go to Hell?”
“Absolutely not, Alexis! Its alright not to like boys! There is nothing wrong with that.”
“Do you like boys, Bianca? Or do you like girls?”
“I like girls.”
“How long did it take you to figure out that you like girls?”
“Not very long . . . ”
She got a really sad and faraway look in her eyes, like her body was here but her mind was in a totally different universe. I didn’t dare disturb her, so I sat in silence and sipped my coffee.
The next morning – it turned out that I’d only been unconscious for about an hour – I woke up and noticed that both Bianca and Rina were gone. The fire had burned low in the grate and it was raining outside. I found a pile of clothes with a note on them sitting on a crisply made bed – had she even gone to sleep?
And then I remembered, through a dizzy, fevered haze, the conversation we’d had. No wonder she’d run off. I picked up the note and took a look at it.
- Alexis -
I want you to know that nothing we talked about last night was bad, but I was. I shouldn’t have kissed you. It was wrong of me and I’m really sorry. There isn’t anything wrong with liking other girls, but you are still far too young and innocent for me to be doing that kind of thing to you.
There’s a one-person kyak and paddle down on the beach. The clothes are waterproof. I’ve gone out for a little while. Rina is just in and around the island, being Rina. If you don’t ever want to see me again, take the kyak and the clothes and leave them at coffee cove.
- Bianca -
I wasn’t hesitant to dress but I was definitely hesitant to leave. I didn’t want to leave on such a sour note. But I was also afraid. Really, really, soul-wrenching, gut-twisting scared. A little less than ‘oh lord gonna die any minute’ scared that I felt on the water but a little more than the ‘oh god, lady, don’t open the door’ frightened you get when you watch a movie.
“I don’t want to leave,” I whispered out loud. “I don’t.”
Even as I said it, I was going down into the kitchen below. The clothes she’d left were loose-fitting, waterproof lycra and felt smooth and soft against my skin. I braided my hair and snitched an elastic band to hold it in place. There was fresh coffee on the stove so I poured myself a large mug.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with liking girls. I’m a fire-girl. I shouldn’t be scared of anything,” I said resolutely. I drained the mug and then ate an apple from a bowl on the counter.
The rain let up slightly by around nine in the morning and I was still trying to decide whether I should leave or stay. I decided that . . . if she wanted me gone enough to leave me a note all but screaming at me to get out, then I’d do as she wished. I went down to the beach and looked at the sleek one-person Pelican.
Somewhere behind me as I slipped on the life jacket and pushed the Pelican into the water, I heard Rina howling in sadness.
You know what’s funny? I’d been paddling out into the lake for a full hour before I realized that I had no clue where I was going. Then I noticed a small beeping sound coming from the pocket of the thermal raincoat Bianca had left me. I stopped paddling and pulled out a small black transmitter. On it, there were digital numbers and letters, too: 1.2km fwds. I’d learned in math class that km meant kilometers and it was the Canadian measurement of miles. So I had to go 1.2km forwards.
The transmitter turned out to be a GPS navigator system. Every time I reached a landmark in the kyak, it would beep loudly and tell me where to go next. I made it back to Coffee Cove by 1:00 in the afternoon. I beached the water craft and just sat there on the wet sand.
“I’ll see you again someday.” I looked out on the water and then smiled. “I’ll see you again, water girl.”