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The Summer Tomb
I stood by the water, watching the thin, radiant surface scatter and twist in the wind. Summertime heat flushed the air, and the sky was boldly azure, like a carpet strung over my head.
“Want to jump in?” said Birch, smiling. His eyes, spaced far apart, gave him a slight resemblance to a frog. Here, consumed with the verdancy of the pond’s landscape, I could feel the earth singing beneath my feet.
“Absolutely,” I told him, the deliciousness of summer’s impulsivity sparkling on my tongue like sweet chocolate. I watched him as he pulled his shirt off, shoulders colored with a fine coat of the sun’s rust. His body was as strong and taut as metal from a summer of running across pastures, leaping over fences, and landing on our leg muscles.
I lifted my white sheath over my head. The dress was too fancy for a day of scrambling in the reeds, but in it I felt like a garden nymph. It blended into the earth, the petals printed in rose pink and blue ink already scattered with spots of dirt.
I watched him watch me, feeling the pollen sift through my nose as I walked along the mossy log out over the water. For a second, I bent my knees and felt the world shiver around me, and then I plunged into the dark and stagnant pond.
A second later, Birch sailed in after me, the whites of his eyes glinting. I saw the shadow of a butterfly skate across his skin. The forest around us was lush, coated in a rich sweet dew, and filled with moss and polliwogs and creatures of the deep temperate marsh. Cattails swayed and shuddered, surrounded by lime and kelly green weeds.
“I love how easily you get me to do this. Only you,” I said to Birch. He laughed, even though it wasn’t funny, his voice mixing with the timbres of the woods, with the tiny rivulets of light that shook through spaces in leaves. He laughed until I said, “This is going to last forever.”
“What, us, or summer?” he replied, swimming over to place his hands on my cheeks while treading water.
“Both, I guess,” I said, my smile infused with the incense of the landscape. As my eyes traced the outline of a bluebell bush, I suddenly felt all the sun rush to my brain, and the world blurred, the watercress twisting into hidden monsters of the deep. “It has to last forever,” I said, my voice coming out softly, like the golden rains that stained my hair yesterday at Birch’s graduation party.
“Woah, are you crying?” he said, as attuned to the tides of my emotion as the tiny water boatmen are to our lumbering movements. “Look, it isn’t going to end. I promise you that, more than anything. We still have time.”
“It’s August,” I told him. “Soon...”
“Don’t talk about it. Look at this. We’re practically in a tomb of summer here. Imagine we’ve died and you can’t escape this place, and that we’ll be here forever.”
Somehow, Birch always knew what to say to me. “I trust you,” I told him, the warmth racing back into my veins. Then I let myself fall backwards into the muddy ebony water, falling slowly through the grey silt. Down at the bottom, when my feet touched wetness, I felt erased from the world. I swore I saw a fish’s silver eyes glint at me.
When Birch pulled he up from the deep, I was met with the shimmering greenness of the glade we were in. If summer was perpetual anywhere, it would be kept here. With its fragile beauty, this place reminded me of the preserved body of a lovely and rare butterfly.
I pulled something out of my hair, feeling it tickle the back of my neck.
Birch swam away, his reflection on the water crystal clear. The actual shape of his body was ghostly in the gleam of the sun.
Droplets clung to my face like teardrops, though my eyes were dry. I held the auburn leaf in my hands, an undeniable harbinger of the encroaching fall. Through the whole summer, the looming idea of autumn itched at us from morning to night, and in my dreams I watched as he left me, escaping off to his distant college and to the arms of a sorority girl. Then there was the idea of school - going into my junior year, the clots of work that awaited.
He turned to me and saw me holding the leaf. It was a perfect maple, bronze and gold and recently turned, but I held it in my hands like an atom bomb. I knew he saw it reflected in my eyes, dancing like a quiet flame.
“Susie,” he told me, leaning from the bank, hands gripping an exposed root. “Fall will come.”
“It can’t,” I managed to whisper to him, feeling myself sinking.
“Fall is going to come,” he said. “It will, and things will happen to us. Things will happen to you at school. Things will happen to you and to me.”
I looked up at him, watching an emerald green fly race past his ear and escalate into the air. “It isn’t the end, though. There is still happiness to be found when it’s cold. No matter what, you’ll always have Halloween. You’ll have the first day of school, and all new books, and the questionnaires that you love. You’ll have the turning of the leaves into all new colors. And then you’re going to have that first snow, and fall sweaters, and pine trees. And summer will come again.”
I looked him in the eyes this time, amazed at how he knew me better than I knew the back of my own hand. He had me memorized, like the map of these trails I’ve hiked since I was a child.
At last, in the sinewy light of evening, we crept out of our summer crypt, down the dirt road. We passed a tree that in the night’s soft breath quivered with starry haziness and shone a deep cinnamon and crimson. Birch put his arm around my shoulders and we walked like that all the way home.