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Chapter Thirteen

John Shoney 

or The Tale of Thorny Rose {part one}

     Rose Allan was a gangly girl with legs so long she often didn’t know what to do with them. Her coltish limbs confounded her, seldom carrying her from here to there without some mishap or another. Awkward and accident prone, she soon acquired a thorny and solitary nature, quite content to keep her own company: head in the clouds, nose in a book, and dreaming of a bold hero who might one day come, waken her with a kiss—or some such nonsense—and rescue her from a shrinking life trapped in a shrunken town. Although, as she crouched behind the arrowwood hedge bordering the driveway of the Allan house, she was dreaming of no such thing and only wishing she might stay hidden away until her grandparents drove off and her parents went back inside the house.

     Not that she didn’t want to say good-bye. She did, especially to her grandfather. She adored her grandfather and he adored her. But the family luncheon had left piles of dishes in the kitchen to be washed, as she knew it would the moment her grandmother blew into the kitchen like a battleship in full sail to help with the cooking. Her grandfather had given Rose a wink and said “Look out, Frannie never uses two bowls when five will do.”

     Once, Rose and her older sister Kate would be sent to clean up after Nana Frannie, but no more. No, now the minute dessert was over, Kate pled the fatigue of pregnancy and Will, a new and nervous father, and Old Albert, already a doting Great-Grandpop, jumped—all too ready to guide her home straightaway. So Rose, hoping to escape before her mother could say, “Oh Rose, help me in the kitchen?” in that way which was both a question and a command—but mostly a command—went into hiding, poised to bolt at the very first opportunity. For Rose had much more interesting things on her mind than scouring pots and drying plates.

     She stiffened when her mother’s voice drifted over the hedge, bidding Rose’s Nana and Grandpa good-bye. Eavesdropping from behind the hedge, Rose listened as the noise of their car retreated down the street and Victoria Allan turned to her husband, Gregory. “Dad looks good don’t you think? I worried when old Doc Stroud retired, I thought the workload would be too much for him, but he doesn’t look tired at all.” She didn’t wait for him to answer before changing the subject. “And where has Rose got to?”

     “I think I saw her with her sketchbook and binoculars a few minutes ago,” Rose’s father answered. “Your father’s happy. Appendicitis, strep throat, and pixie pox: pays the bills but doesn’t keep him awake at night.” The abrupt switching of topics—back and forth, then back again—without either of them becoming confused was typical of Rose’s parents. They finished each other’s sentences and thoughts, speaking in spirals but never losing the convoluted thread of their conversation. Most often those within earshot could only shake their heads, bewildered and—if they were truthful with themselves—a little envious of the couple who completed each other so well.

     “Again? It isn’t normal. Do you think it’s normal?” Victoria could not help but fret over her thorny and accident-prone younger daughter. At seventeen, Rose had yet to go to a dance or be asked on a date; she didn’t go to slumber parties or movies with friends, and Victoria worried that the thorny teenage girl would soon become a barbed and lonely young woman. “What seventeen year-old girl spends all her spare time bird watching?

     Gregory Allan drew his wife closer and squeezed her shoulders. “Well,” he said, “it’s normal for Rose. I think she’d be happier if she could manage to be a bit more sociable but that’s not her way: she’s not Kate and she’s not you. At least she isn’t some vain and empty-headed thing either, only interested in herself, clothes, and boys. We should be grateful. Remember what happened to Margo Swann.”

      Victoria shuddered. “I know, but-”

      “No, no buts. What’s normal for Rose is normal for Rose. If you think she’s worrisome now, just wait. With any luck at all, in a couple of years we’ll be worrying about how we’re going to pay for an exclusive art school in Europe.” Rose’s father guided his wife toward the front door. “If Rose has already gotten away from you, I’ll help with the dishes.”

     “Dad told me the strangest thing,” Victoria returned again to the subject of her father. “He treated a woman for an odd case of hysterical deafness a few months ago. It seems the only thing she couldn’t hear was the beating of her own heart. Can you imagine?” The rest of the conversation was lost as the door shut behind them.                                                         

     Rose jumped up, brushed the leaves from the back of her jeans and turned the hems up just past her ankles. She rolled her bike quietly to the drive then swung one long leg over the seat while pushing off with the other and glided down the drive into the street. She turned right and pedaled north. Bird watching, Rose thought. Ha! She had her sketchbook in her basket and carried a selection of charcoal pencils, pastel chalks, and watercolors. If anyone asked where she was going, she could say she was on her way to the marsh to sketch herons and try her hand at a watercolor sunset. But in fact, there were much more intriguing things afoot in the marshy estuary than nesting bitterns these days. Still, it wasn’t so very far from the truth as to be an outright lie.

     Rose possessed a good eye and a skilled hand but, unlike her father, she knew there would be no exclusive European art school in her future. She could produce a detailed and exact likeness of anything set before her yet lacked what she thought of as The Artist’s Vision. While she could sketch in the minutiae of an underwing feather with ease: the translucent rachis tapering to the finest point possible, branching vanes and interleaved barbs, and downy afterfeathers, she could not imagine a bird in flight nor convey emotion with a drawn line or splash of paint.

     Two months before school let out for the summer, in an uncharacteristic fit of sentiment, she’d tearfully confessed her lack of imagination to her science teacher, Mr. Browdy. He’d made Rose stay after school to help clean up a small explosion—an explosion that occurred when she failed to introduce the provided assortment of liquids and powders to her heating crucible in just the precise order called for during chemistry class. Fortunately, the damage from the explosion had been limited to a stain on her pride and a single singed textbook, though it had been terrifically loud and messy.

     After her outburst concluded, with a sniffle and a hiccup, an uncomfortable Mr. Browdy had gingerly offered her a tissue at arm’s length, as if the tears of a teenage girl might cause something else in the laboratory to explode and he’d prefer to remain out of blast range. He’d suggested her skills might be put to perfectly good use illustrating biology and botany texts: “Your technical accuracy would be perfect for that. You can major in art and minor in a science,” he’d said, sweeping chalky bits of powdered crucible into a dustpan before quickly adding, “Not chemistry. A less…volatile science might be best.”

     Rose had gone home to begin sketching oleander whorls, seedpods, evergreen needles, and arrowwood trumpets. She drew the brown sparrows and yellow finches in the trees outside her bedroom window. She even made studies of dissected caterpillars, grasshoppers, and moths until her mother put a stop to it. That was when Rose began pedaling out to the marsh to lay among the tall grasses with her sketchbook and binoculars, busily drawing cattails, flowering rushes, and pickerelweed; purple swamphens and rails, tall herons and their smaller cousins, the bitterns; sandpipers with their curved beaks digging in the mudflats; and, if and when she could catch them, croaking frogs and wriggling salamanders.

     Once beyond the tidy streets tucked among the neighborhoods surrounding the center of Folly’s Landing, the salty wind that played with the ends of Rose’s tangled blond hair took on that scent particular to marsh and mudflats—a rich and gritty smell of busy life and muddy decay. She topped the last rise on Old Marsh Road, legs aching from the effort, waved to Young Sally Hedgespeth deadheading her dahlia’s, propped her sneakered feet on the bicycle’s crossbar, and coasted down the long slope that would land her right at the edge of the marshland.

     Her sketchbook and pencils bounced dangerously in the basket and she reached out to steady them, upsetting her balance. Her bicycle listed to the left then wobbled to the right before skidding out from beneath her, dumping Rose onto the dirt road in a fumbling heap of scraped-up elbows and too-long legs. She landed face down with a thud and a curse she would never dare utter if there were anyone to hear her. Rose rolled onto her back with a wince. Her cheek stung, her left hand was scraped and throbbing where she’d used it to break her fall, and the right knee of her jeans had suffered a fresh tear. When she carefully brushed the grit and dirt from her face, a small smear of blood came away on her fingers.

     Stinging and bruised, Rose got to her feet and collected the art supplies spilled across the dirt track. Other than a few new scrapes, her bike wasn’t damaged. She shoved her sketchbook, pencils, and paints into the bottom of the basket, climbed back on and rode the rest of the way at a much more sedate pace, both feet on the pedals and hands securely on the handlebars just as they belonged. Where the track narrowed, dipping among rushes and cattails, Rose dismounted. She walked her bike to an embankment that offered the best vantage point in the marsh. Shading her eyes against the sun she looked to the west, where the estuary waters emptied into a broad semi-circular bay.

     To her surprise and delight the island was still there, at the mouth of the bay, floating in waters that had been empty just two days past. So long as she lived Rose would never forget how the island had appeared out of the mist, right before her astonished eyes. She would have missed the spectacle entirely had she not crawled from her bed well before the rest of Folly’s Landing was stirring—she’d wanted to see the first rays of light skim the water and watch flocks of birds take wing in the first glow of a new day. Determined to be at the marsh before sunrise, Rose had ridden her bike through the darkness and followed her own well-worn footpath to the dry embankment. Blanketed in comfortable tufts of soft grass, the hillock commanded a view encompassing the wooded mountains to the east, the whole of the estuary and marsh, and the tidal flats where the sea flowed in at high tide. She’d settled into her customary place, crunching on a tart apple, pastels and sketchbook to hand. She’d expected a different and interesting light, certainly. And quite possibly something rare and beautiful beyond imagining. But she hadn’t expected to witness magic.

     The moment that first line of violet had appeared, hugging the contours of the mountainous peaks to the east, Rose discarded her apple and picked up her chalks. Drawing and blending, licking a finger to create wet streaks of more vibrant colors while the violet sky changed to a mélange of pink and gold, Rose transformed the blank tedium of bare pages to marvels of line, light, shade, and color. The blazing disc of the sun climbed above the mountain tops and fingers of light stretched down the slopes, glancing upon blue-gray water riffling among the rushes and turning the pools a softly mirrored silver. Clouds of white egrets left their roosts, flying low over the marsh and out to sea on the forward edge of daybreak. Rose had never imagined such a sight. Her eyes followed their path of flight, fingers busy all the while. A flowing bluish haze gathered in the mouth of the bay and when the light touched the mist an island emerged where before there’d been nothing but waves. Insubstantial at first, shimmering and rippling like a disturbed reflection on the surface of a pool.

     Rose had gasped and grabbed her binoculars, fumbling to focus the lenses. The first light of morning moved over a strip of white beach and a wooded rise just beyond the island’s shore. Beyond that, stone towers and thatched roofs peeked between the treetops. The growing brightness of full daylight lent the isle greater substance, the ripples playing over the startling landmass from beach to soaring treetops stayed their motion and the island grew solid, settling into the space with a thunderous sigh and sudden jolt akin to an earthquake, rumbling along the seafloor and right up the estuary. Rose felt the tremor in her very bones. She forgot about the sunrise and the mirrored pools. She forgot about snowy egrets and the frogs singing nearby. Turning to a fresh page, she began sketching. For the first time she could remember, her lines were neither precise nor an exact replication of the image before her eyes. Her hands trembled too much from the wonder and excitement of it all, and when she returned home and opened her sketchbook she found the resulting sketch of the magical isle blurred and lacking detail.

     Today Rose hoped for better. She threw herself down on the ridge of earth and grass and opened her sketchbook. Sharpening her pencils, she set to work; there were perhaps three hours of light left. Yesterday, despite the buildings, the island had seemed deserted and had been surrounded on all sides by an unbroken expanse of water. Today the tide was out, revealing an arched causeway of cobbled stone linking the island to the mainland. Fitful streams of pale smoke rose from chimneys beyond the trees and she could hear, faint but clear, an occasional shout and clatter. “I can’t believe nobody knows this is out here!” Rose muttered, sketching in the rough outlines of the bay and causeway.

     Lost in her work, Rose sketched on for a solid hour, bold lines capturing the mysterious island and the quaint roofline behind the trees—or so she thought. She didn’t stop until a shadow fell over her and a deep mellifluous voice above her shoulder said, “You render quite a good likeness.” Rose turned and gazed into the deep blue eyes of a young man she could not remember ever having seen before—a sure reason for caution in Folly’s Landing. He was tall and fair-skinned with a shock of wild golden hair. When he smiled dimples appeared at the corners of his mouth, and Rose’s heart tripped and stumbled as clumsily as her coltish legs were wont to do.

     Brushing charcoal dust from her fingers, Rose sat up. “Thanks,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone else ever came out here.”

     The young man frowned, and to Rose it felt as though the sun had gone out. “You’re hurt,” he said, and touched the cut on her cheek. His fingers brushing her skin made Rose shiver in a pleasant way and she thought of her sister, wondering if this was how Kate had felt the first time Will Hanover had smiled at her or touched her. The young man surveyed the grasses and the marsh. “What did this? Were you attacked by some beast out here?”

     “Only Rose’s clumsiness,” she said.

     “What is a rosesclumsiness?” He balled up his fists. “Is its lair nearby? Take me there and I’ll slay this monster for you.”

     Rose laughed aloud. “No, what I meant is I fell, that’s all. I’m Rose, so…Rose’s clumsiness, get it? I was clumsy. I fell off my bike and hurt myself.” 

     “Oh…” still he frowned, brows knit together, disappointed there were no monsters roaming about and in need of slaying.

     “I’m Rose,” Rose said again, thinking he might not have caught the introduction in her awkward explanation. “Rose Allan.” She put out her hand to shake his because it seemed like the thing to do and was taken by complete surprise when he turned it over and pressed the back to his cheek, the golden stubble there rough against her skin and causing a strange disquiet within Rose’s young breast. She snatched her hand away, leaving him with a bemused smile. “Do you have a name?” she asked.

     “Everyone has a name,” he said. “Don’t they?”

     Rose had a thorny nature, it woke easily and bristled indignantly. Her eyes narrowed and she pressed her mouth into a thin line. “Yes, everyone has one, but I guess not everyone likes to share theirs.”

     The young man smiled again. “You can call me John Shoney,” he said.

     “I don’t know any Shoneys,” Rose said doubtfully, for Folly’s Landing was a small town and nearly everyone knew almost everyone else.

     “Well, you know at least one now, don’t you?” John said with another of his brilliant smiles, and though prone to a pricklish temperament Rose found herself warming to him. Her frown faltered and she could not help but smile back. He looked past Rose and his mouth dropped open. “What is that?” he pointed to her bicycle.

     Rose tossed a look over her shoulder. “That? It’s a bike, what do you think it is?’

     “I’ve no idea at all.” John pushed at one tire with a foot and set it spinning. His eyes lit up. “What does it do?”

     “What does it-” Rose spluttered. “It’s a bike, what do you think it does?”

     John cocked his head at Rose. “Why do you answer all my questions with questions of your own?”

     Rose opened her mouth then shut it again. She had answered his questions with questions of her own, so that was fair—but she had just one more. “Where did you come from?” she asked, and was not at all surprised when John raised his arm and pointed back west, at the island shimmering in the mouth of the bay. “I come from Tarneyknock,” he said.

     A clamoring, clanging warning rang in the sensible part of Rose’s mind, for she was born and bred in Folly’s Landing and knew very well the barriers separating Us from Them were far more frail in this little town than elsewhere in the world. But John Shoney’s smile was warm and his blue eyes winsome and full of mirth, and Rose—though blond with wide blue eyes herself—was not as pretty as Kate, tall for a girl and often gawky, thorny and obstinate, and unused to the attention of handsome young men. She dismissed the call for caution sounding in her head and laughed, blushing beneath John Shoney’s blue-blue eyes. He couldn’t mean her any harm. When he thought rosesclumsiness a slavering beast that had mauled her, he’d been ready to march off and contend with the brute. “Tarneyknock? That’s a funny name,” she said.

     “Do you think so?” he asked. “I could change the name if it would please you, but new names can be such a bother. They take a lot of getting used to and most of the time everyone ends up using the old name just the same as always.”

     Rose laughed again—this time at his seriousness—hauled her bicycle up and began walking back to the flat dead-end of Old Marsh Road. “Don’t change your island’s name on my account. And come with me, I’ll show you what a bike does.” She slowed her pace to allow him to catch up; for, stranger or not, John Shoney could charm the wickedest of barbs off any thorn. Once clear of the marsh grasses, Rose climbed onto her bicycle and pedaled around in circles beneath John Shoney’s bright gaze. “You have to be sure and stay balanced,” she told him as she turned into wide figure-eights.

     “You’re a very skillful rider, Rose.” John said, full of breathless admiration.

     “This is nothing,” said Rose and began the climb to the top of the hill. Reaching the crest, she turned and called out “Watch this!” before flying down the hill with a loud whoop, feet up on the crossbar again. She even took her hands off the handlebars for a moment, balancing delicately on two spinning wheels and praying she wouldn’t fall while John Shoney was watching. Rose braked hard when she hit the flat end of the road, coming to a stop inches from John. “That’s how I fell before,” she said, touching her cheek. “I let go of the handlebars for too long and lost my balance.”

     John shook his head, amazement and admiration making his eyes dance. “And you’re not afraid to try again so soon?” Rose shrugged, basking in his attention, a bit of heat rising in her cheeks. John leaned forward and for a moment Rose could have sworn he meant to kiss her. She held her breath, knowing she shouldn’t let him but hoping he might try anyway. His lips were so close to hers she could feel his breath in her own mouth when he said, “Can I try riding the bike?”

     The blush on Rose’s cheeks flared a brighter red and she let go of her held breath, mumbling “Sure” as she climbed off. She stood by as John made his first cautious circuit around the flat dead-end. Rose was tall but John was taller and his knees stuck out at ungainly angles. He fell twice, cursed the bicycle for a beast then immediately climbed on again, becoming a passable rider by the time Rose noticed the lowering sun. She flung her things back into the basket. “I have to go. My mom will be worried.”

     “It’s getting late,” said John. “Too late for you to ride home alone, surely. Come back to Tarneyknock with me. I can walk you home in the morning.”

     “Are you kidding? My mom and dad will kill me if I stay out all night.”

     John’s eyebrows drew together. “Would they? They sound dreadful. You would be much safer with me.”

     Rose shook her head. “I don’t think I would be very safe with you at all, John Shoney. And I don’t mean they would literally kill me, it’s just an expression. They’d be really, really mad, and who knows how long I’d be grounded.” She pushed off, pedaling hard to get up the hill.

     “Will you come back soon, Rose of Allan?” John called after her. “Come back tomorrow, I’ll be waiting.”

     Rose did not go back the next day, nor the day after that. Indeed, she barely left her room at all. She read her books, paced and argued with herself, and thumbed through her sketchbook. The second sketch of the island she’d thought so much better at the time was still unsatisfactory. The more she tried to fix it, the worse it became. She slammed the sketchbook shut only to open it a few minutes later, turn to a clean sheet of paper, and begin small but perfect likenesses of the leaves on the tree outside her bedroom window.

     Drawing furiously, Rose’s thoughts returned to the island—and to John Shoney. Remembering the feel of his breath brushing her lips, her hand slowed, moving in delicate and fluid strokes. When Rose focused on the sheet of paper, an impression of John Shoney’s face stared up at her—drawn not in the near photographic perfection typical of Rose’s work, but in lines full of longing, lines that captured the suggestion of sparkling eyes and the promise of mischief in a dimpled smile close enough to kiss.

     Her mind awhirl, Rose laid her pencil aside and studied the sketch of John. A sketch she’d made imagining him. What could it hurt, she reasoned, as long as I keep my feet on the mainland and don’t stray onto Tarneyknock? Rose collected her supplies and skipped down the stairs.

     “Are you going out to the marsh?” Her mother called at her back as she flew through the door.

     “I’ll be back before dinner!” said Rose.

     “Well, be more careful this time. You’re lucky you didn’t crack your skull open the other day!”

     “Okay.” Rose promised, rolling her eyes. If her mother could be believed the world was full of opportunities to crack your skull open. Yet somehow, despite even her own spectacular clumsiness, Rose had never known this to actually happen.

     If Rose didn’t know better, she would swear the bicycle ride to the marsh took twice as long as it did any other day. Arriving at the marsh and seeing no John Shoney brightening the day with the sun of his smile, she could only sigh and say to herself: Well, what did you expect Rose? It’s been three days. She walked her bike to the embankment, pulled out her sketchbook and began a third attempt at capturing the elusive lines of Tarneyknock. While she drew, she thought of John and wondered if he would hear her if she walked to the near end of the causeway and shouted his name. She pictured him striding down the stone walkway with the sun in his golden hair, and when she next glanced at the island there was John Shoney, doing just that, long legs carrying him quickly to her.

     Rose jumped to her feet and waved cheerfully. John returned her hail and rushed to meet her. “Ah, the lovely marsh Rose has returned at last,” his smile was bright and beguiling as ever. “Why did you take so long?”

     “I have other things to do besides hang around here every day,” Rose lied.

     John’s eyes sparkled just the way she remembered when he took her hand. “You’re here now and that’s enough. What shall we do today?”

     “You could practice bike riding some more,” Rose suggested, withdrawing her hand. She liked the way her hand fit in his, and how warm his touch was. But it also made her heart flutter uncomfortably. “Or-or help me with the sketch of the island? Do you draw at all?”

     John shook his head. “No, I don’t. And I’m not sure you’ll ever get a better likeness of Tarneyknock than you already have, it’s a tricky island. I might be able to help you with something else if you’d like. Or you could come to Tarneyknock while the tide’s still out. If you do, there will be a feast today.”

     “No,” said Rose, and John’s hopeful face fell. “I’m not going onto the island.” She thought for a minute. “Are you any good at catching frogs? I need to study one up close, but they’re so slippery.”

     John graced her with one of his dazzling smiles. “Catch one? I can do better than that.” He sat down cross-legged among the cattails, pulled a small reed whistle out of his pocket and began a leaping tune that sounded remarkably like a chorus of frogs. Not more than half a minute passed before the first frog hopped out of the surrounding reeds and mud. He was followed in a moment by three more, then seven, and then at least a dozen. They came in leaps and bounds, croaking in harmony to the tune of his whistle, and stayed so long as he played.

     Rose put her sketchbook to good use, filling three pages with detailed frogs from every angle. When she was done with frogs, John leaned over a shallow pool, the song of his whistle changing to the pitch and tempo of a rippling and darting falsetto. In a trice, the pool filled with tadpoles.

     “Can you teach me to do that?” asked an astonished Rose, but John Shoney only smiled and pocketed his whistle, “If I do that, what will you need me for?”

     When Rose returned to the marsh the following day, John whistled up a flight of dragonflies, a school of small silver-scaled fish, and a rout of snails. And so it went: birds and muskrats and fat bumblebees, salamanders, crabs, and turtles—there was no creature that could resist John Shoney when he put that whistle in his mouth and played, whether it be a rollicking reel or lilting lullaby. Rose bought several new sketchbooks, for she filled one full in the space of a week and summer had only just begun.

      Rose spent most every day in John Shoney’s company. Hidden from curious eyes among the reeds and cattails, John courted Rose relentlessly. He would sit as near to her as he possibly could while she sketched or lay dreaming in the sun. When he wasn’t whistling up creatures to pose for her sketches or wading through shallow pools steadying her with a hand on her waist, he was riding up and down Old Marsh Road on her bicycle: Rose perched on the seat in front of him, her long tanned legs draped over the handlebars, his cheek pressed so close to hers their lips almost—but not quite—touched.

     John Shoney brought her posies from Tarneyknock: vivid flowers in hues Rose had never seen and lush fragrances that put her in mind of exotic gardens beneath a foreign sun far from Folly’s Landing. She put them in her pockets to carry home, hoping to keep them in water or press them in a heavy book, but by the time she retrieved them in the quiet of her room, they were shriveled and dry, already turning to pale dust in her hand. Each day, as the sun began to yearn for the western horizon, John would hold out his hand and say “Will you come back to Tarneyknock with me?” And every day Rose replied, “No, I won’t.”

     Her refusal never discouraged John Shoney. The next morning he’d be back, full of smiles and posies. He held her hand whenever she let him, and found every opportunity to touch whatever bit of her skin might be bare. Turning on the sun of his smile, John would bend close to her—so close she could feel his breath on her skin and smell the clean male scent coming off him—and touch her knee or tuck a strand of hair behind her ear and call her my lovely marsh Rose. Rose would hold her breath, heart hammering, and a soft flutter would begin in her belly and slide like warm honey down to the space between her hips and legs, and she would think he’s going to kiss me, only to find him moving away, putting distance between them yet again. 

     In her new-found imagination John had already kissed her hundreds of times. Perhaps, if he had kissed her, her resolve would not have worn quite so thin, quite so soon. Rose had never been kissed before, a fact which had not bothered her until now; for there wasn’t a boy in all of Folly’s Landing she wanted to kiss. In truth, there still weren't any boys of Rose's acquaintance she wanted to kiss. Despite his winsomeness and occasional air of naiveté, John Shoney was no boy. He was a man; tall and broad-shouldered, with a hint of golden stubble on his cheeks, experienced hands, and the faintest of crinkles around his eyes when he smiled—and she very much wanted to kiss John Shoney. 

     Though younger than Kate by six years, Rose—being quite thorny and very obstinate—seldom sought the advice of her elder sister, but she did now. One afternoon, rather than head directly home after a day at the marsh, Rose made her way across town to the Hanover house where her sister lived with her new husband and his grandfather. Kate was so pregnant she needed help just putting up her swollen feet. Rose brought her a glass of ice-cold tea, sat down on the footstool in front of Kate’s chair, and lifted her sister’s round pink feet into her lap. She rubbed Kate’s feet until her sister smiled contentedly and said, “Thank you, Rose. That feels good. I swear if this baby doesn’t come soon I’m going to pop like a water balloon.”

     An awkward and self-conscious Rose wasn’t sure how to begin a casual inquiry into the delicate business of kissing. She stuttered and stumbled over small talk until Kate, regarding her little sister with shrewd eyes, said, “Alright Rose, what is it you want to know but don’t want to talk to Mom about?”

     Rose chewed at a fingernail for a minute. “I was just wondering,” she said, “when Will…when you…how can you tell if someone wants to kiss you? I mean, what if it seems like they do one minute and then the next you’re not sure?”

     “Do you have a boyfriend, Rose?” said Kate.

     “No!...Maybe.” Rose exhaled loudly and threw up her hands. “I don’t know.”

     Kate grinned at her sister. “Who is he?” When Rose clamped her mouth shut it was Kate’s turn to throw up her hands. “Fine, have it your way, don’t tell me.”

     Rose scooted the footstool closer and laid her head gently on Kate’s stomach, she could feel the baby—her little niece or nephew—rolling around inside. “He’s so sweet, and gorgeous, and he says I’m lovely. His lovely marsh Rose, he calls me. But every time I think he’s about to kiss me, he stops. I don’t know what to do.”

     Kate ran her fingers through Rose’s hair. “I knew Will was in love with me before he did and when I got tired of waiting for him to figure it out I took him to the jewelry store that Nana Frannie likes, the one on Bolger Street, right off Main. I showed him the ring I wanted and told him he knew where to find me when it was time. Then I stopped taking his calls, walked right past him on the street and didn’t even look at him. Three days, Rose, that’s all it took. Three days and he came to the door in his best suit with that ring in his pocket and asked me to marry him. You understand what I’m saying?”

     “Kate, I don’t know if I want to marry him,” Rose said. “And at this rate I’ll never know!”

     “What I’m saying is: sometimes they need a nudge,” said Kate. “Or a shove, if they’re particularly dense. Maybe you need to kiss him. If you do, and he’s wanted to kiss you all this time, you’ll know.”

     Rose took special care the next day when she dressed, choosing a sweet gingham frock John had already complimented more than once. She rode her bike out to the marsh, bringing a picnic of sandwiches and fresh strawberries. John Shoney came to meet her as he always did, beaming with pleasure. He whistled up a rabble of beetles with wings the color of carnival glass, a pair of otters with three nuzzling pups, and a prickle of porcupines to laze in the sun, tame as pets, while she drew their portraits.

     The day was one of the hottest of the season. Hand in hand, Rose and John made the short hike to a rocky outlet where many streams and creeks from the mountains met and emptied in small falls and rushing freshets into the estuary. It was cooler there beneath the trees and the water was clear, not muddy. They sat together on a stone ledge, trailing bare feet in the water.

     “You look very pretty today,” John said and played a lilting aire on his whistle until a cloud of butterflies came to rest on Rose’s brow like a living crown, fluttering there until he waved them away with his hands, tracing the curve of her cheek with warm fingers. A solitary butterfly remained, hovering on the breath between them for a moment before drifting down to alight on Rose’s knee. John slipped an arm about Rose’s waist and plucked the butterfly off, resting his hand in the place where the insect had perched, thumb stroking the tender skin of her inner thigh just above the knee. The sensation made Rose forget all about her too-long legs and graceless tendencies, his touch made her think instead of the taste of sunlit skin and the weight of warm breath in her mouth.

     Sometimes they need a nudge, thought Rose as she curved her body against his, arms slipping around his neck and her mouth reaching for his. “No, Rose.” John said and disentangled himself from her embrace before their lips met. Humiliation scalded Rose’s cheeks and the threat of tears burned her eyes. Too angry for words, she thought and sometimes they need a shove, and pushed John Shoney off the rock into the water below.

     Scooping up her shoes, she left him splashing and sputtering, offended as a doused cat, and hurried back the way they’d come—her bicycle could have her home in minutes and she need never return to the marsh. John caught up to her among the cattails and the remains of their picnic, his mouth turned down. “Why did you do that?” he puzzled, still squeezing water from his hair. “Where are you going?”

     Rose put her hands on her hips, anger making her tears flash.    “John Shoney, you are either the stupidest man in the world or the biggest ass alive.”

     “I don’t understand,” he said. “Why are you mad at me?”

     “Why won’t you kiss me?” demanded a thorny Rose. “You act like you want to but then always, always, pull away! Is it because I’m not pretty enough?”

     “Oh, no, Rose.” John said.

     “Then what is it?”

     “I can’t kiss you,” he said.

     “Why? Is it-is it because you think I’m too young for you?" Rose asked. "Because I don’t care how old you are or how young I am.”

     “Rose,” John began and reached for her hand, but she snatched it away, crying in earnest now. Between her sobs she choked out: “No, if you don’t want me, then don’t touch me.”

     John moved faster than Rose would have thought possible. He gathered her into his arms, crushing her against him so tightly even an inexperienced girl like Rose could not miss the certain sign of his arousal and know beyond any doubt that he did want her, and badly. He bent his mouth to her ear and whispered hoarsely, “Do not underestimate my desire for you. Yes, you are young and I have walked your world and mine for long ages. Still, if I could, I would spend a thousand summer days teaching you the ways of love, but I can’t, not here. Should I so much as kiss you—or any woman—here on the mainland, I can never return to the island. And when Tarneyknock disappears again, as it most certainly will, I will wither and die in the space of a few hours.”

     Fresh tears stung Rose’s eyes as she recalled how John’s flowers always died, crumbling away to nearly nothing, by the time she reached home. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know.”

     “You need not be sorry. ’Tis my curse, not yours.” John released Rose from his crushing embrace. A silence fell and lengthened until, lacking anything else to say, Rose said, “Summer doesn’t have a thousand days, you know.”

     John smiled again, melting Rose with his warmth, and the humor returned to his eyes. “It’s always summer on Tarneyknock.”

     “And you can kiss me on Tarneyknock?”

     “Yes, I can.”

     Rose slipped her shoes back on, wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hands, and waited. “Well,” said Rose after several minutes, “aren’t you going to ask me again?”

     John sighed, a little sadly and without hope. He held out his hand, “Will you come to Tarneyknock with me today?” Flushing at her own boldness, Rose put her hand in his. “Yes, John Shoney. I will.”


~to be continued~

Copyright © 2013 D. Rae Vanlandingham

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