Late on certain afternoons I often liked to climb into my small boat and row out into the pond near my cabin. Sometimes I played a flute I had carved from a hickory branch and watched the perch dart about my boat through the clarity of the water. I liked to think my music charmed them.
One evening a woman walked through the trees at the edge of the pond. She was a delicate thing, her blonde hair almost glowing by the light of the dusk-time moon. She knelt at the water’s edge, cupped her hands, and drank from the pond.
My flute was still to my lips. I stopped playing.
The woman looked up. She seemed confused and disoriented. She wore a tattered white dress of dingy cotton. A woodsman’s wife or daughter, I surmised, or perhaps one of the traveling folk–dirt poor, shady and rarely welcome in town.
“Hello there,” I called. She looked at me and I could see some fear in her eyes, which were reddened as if from tears. “It’s okay. I’m just a fisherman out tooting my flute.” I played a few measures and she seemed to relax.
“I’ll row in.” I grasped the oars and propelled myself back to the water’s edge, where I had a small fire burning.
My little boat skidded up on the shore. I grabbed the brace of perch I had caught earlier and carried them over by my fire, placing them on a stump. The woman still squatted by the water’s edge some twenty yards away.
“I’ve plenty of fish I plan to fry up.” I pulled my iron skillet from my pack and set it on the fire. “You’re welcome to some, if you like.” She simply stared at me.
I set about cleaning the fish and cutting them into filets. Next I flipped a dollop of lard into the skillet, then tossed in the fish. I then took a bottle of whiskey from my pack and took a sip.
“Care for a drink?” I asked.
“Is that whiskey?”
“My man drinks whiskey. Then he becomes angry and mean. Are you gonna be angry and mean, mister?”
“I generally stay on the congenial side of things, ma’am.”
“That’s good to know. I like your music. My folks say music’s a sin, but…I’d like to hear more.”
I took the flute out and played. The woman stood and danced about. Her bare feet gently kicked at the hem of her dress, which flew up as she pirouetted, revealing her trim ankles and calves. I finished the song and as she stopped dancing, the sad countenance returned to her face. I flipped the fish with a pair of iron tongs.
She came and sat beside me. “Your fish smell good.”
“They are. You should have some.”
When we finished eating, I again took a slug of my whiskey, and again I offered it to the woman. “They say whiskey’s a sin too,” she said, but this time she took it and put it to her lips, taking a tentative drink.
“I’ve never drank it before,” she said, a slight cough following her statement.
“It takes a little gettin’ used to, but I think you’ll find it takes the edge off the day.”
“I hope it doesn’t make me angry and mean.”
“Ma’am, I’d wager that you don’t have an angry or mean bone in your body.”
We drank more of the whiskey, passing it back and forth between ourselves long into the night. I more than once replenished the fire with small logs, and it burned bright in the darkness by the pond. At her request I brought out the flute and taught her how to blow it.
Much later, she began to grow drowsy. “Is that your cabin up there?” she asked.
“May I stay there with you tonight, or are you a hermit?”
“I come out here so I can work these woods. Trapping. Fishing. Whatnot. But I don’t guess I’d object to any human companionship.”
“I mustn’t go home tonight.”
“May we go there now?”
“I reckon. Let me get some water from the pond to put out this fire.”
“Why don’t we put it out like this?” She stood, grabbed a burning brand with my iron tongs and tossed it high into the air over the pond. Orange sparks trailed behind it like a sky rocket, then it fell and hissed as it smacked the water.
“Careful,” I said.
“Tonight I don’t want to be careful.”
“I don’t know,” I said, but I also tossed a burning log just the same. She laughed, as happy perhaps as she had ever been or would be. We kicked dirt until the last of the fire was gone, and as the moon had set, we were left in utter darkness. I could hear her breathing soft yet wild gasps of air.
We started for the cabin. I felt her groping at me until she found my hand. She clasped it in her own and a shiver passed through me. Her skin was smooth and warm and ‘I found I liked it more than I could have ever known.
“Ain’t nobody ever been nice to me like you been, mister.”
“It ain’t hard to be nice.”
“It is for some people.”
The next morning when I awoke she was gone. For the best, I reckoned — there might be trouble otherwise, but I did feel some unexpected loneliness as I lay once again by myself in my bed. Later I found she’d taken my flute, but I didn’t care. There was plenty more deadwood strewn about the forest, awaiting my carving blade. No, I was glad she had it. It was hers now; a token that at least brief happiness could be found in the world. I hoped it might continue to give her some small measure of joy, or at least serve as a balm against whatever meanness awaited her.
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Mirror Dance, New Myths and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the Yale Summer Writers’ Conference.