“Hey, Earp.” I could tell from the way Buddy said these two words that we were about to have a talk. We’d been friends and neighbors for about 30 years now and you don’t spend that much time around another man without getting to know him a little. “Hey, Earp,” was Buddy’s universal language for everything. It could mean “Good morning”, “How are you?”, “Something’s wrong”, “We have to talk”, “I’m great”, “I’m not doing so good” or a million other things, depending on how he said it.
“Yep?” I answered.
“You believe in fairies?” That question startled me a little.
“You mean like… homosexuals?”
“Nah, the supernatural kind. You know, magical creatures of the seas and forests.”
I took a second to mull that over. Buddy and me were drifting down the Sascatchano river in Buddy’s canoe, sitting back to back with our fishing rods, a bucket with the catch of the day, and a cooler with a few cans of beer for me and cola for Buddy between us. The river had a mild current and if you steered into it just right and didn’t wiggle around too much, you could follow it around its bends for days, without having to do much steering at all. The river and Buddy were both patient beings and knew better than to interrupt a man when he was pondering, so I took my time, thinking up an answer.
“Doesn’t matter what I believe.” I finally said. “If they exist, they’ll continue doing so, regardless of where I stand. If they don’t, no amount of wishful thinking could change anything about it.” The words hung in the air for a few seconds, before Buddy answered.
“Why would you wish for fairies to exist?”
“I’d hardly be the first to.” I shrugged. “Suppose it would make the world more wonderful.”
We took a break from talking for a few minutes after that and just sat still, with the sun burning down and the cicadas chirping around us. A single mosquito had found its way into the middle of the river and was angrily buzzing around me. I patiently waited for it to land, pretending I hadn’t noticed it and when it finally picked a spot on my forearm, I swatted it, reducing it to a speck of black and red mush.
“I think I met one, a long time ago,” said Buddy.
I reached behind me, grabbed a fresh beer, cracked it open, and took a nice long sip.
“Well go on then”, I said, with a little smirk that Buddy couldn’t see. “Tell me the story and consider me hooked.”
“As I said, happened a long time ago when I was still a young buck.” Buddy started “I was spending the night at the outback lake, behind the Penbrokes Farm, you know which one I mean. The one that doesn’t show on any of the tourist maps. I was in the doghouse with the missus, over coming home drunk one time too often, and figured I’d camp out there until she cooled off a little. I’d been having a few beers, sitting in my folding chair, and must have dozed off. It was the middle of the night when I woke up, to the sound of splashing and a girl’s laughter. I was bleary-eyed and the beer hadn’t done me too many favors, so I took my time coming back to my senses. It seemed like I was still dreaming at first. There was a girl, beyond the weeping willows, splashing about in the water, wearing nothing but her birthday suit, young and skinny and the prettiest little thing I had ever laid my eyes on. Like a movie star or something, too good to be true. You know, I still dream about her sometimes, the way she moved, her wet skin glistening in the moonlight. Just talking about her now makes me…”
Buddy trailed off for a second and I gave him a minute to collect himself. This didn’t sound anything like any other story I had heard from him. Now that I thought of it, I couldn’t remember ever hearing Buddy tell a story. Even when he had been a local hero for one summer, for rescuing the Jackson boy from a couple of out-of-town hooligans, I would have been none the wiser if the boy hadn’t spread the word. It was one of the things I liked about Buddy, he wasn’t a big talker. You didn’t have to go on about how lovely the day was with him when we could both see that the sun was shining. I also hadn’t known that Buddy had been a drinker. Till now I had just figured that he preferred the taste of coca-cola over beer.
“So, I hollered at her, couldn’t help myself, and she hollered back. I can’t remember our exact words, she was teasing me, toying with me, taunting me, trying to get me to join her in the water, but I wouldn’t. I wanted to, but I didn’t just want to give her the first thing that she asked. It was my way of playing, to tease her back, show her that I wasn’t like all the other boys and that I wasn’t just hers for the taking. So, me at the edge of the water and her in the lake, we made a deal. I didn’t realize it at the time, I thought we were just flirting, didn’t think much of it, but she chose some very peculiar words. She said with a giggle ‘Well then, handsome boy, I propose to you a deal. I join you at your fire, for as long as it will burn, and once it goes out, you will join me in my waters, for as long as they will flow.’ and I agreed to it, foolish and drunk and already half-blind with lust as I was. As soon as I did, she came for me. It didn’t even look like she was walking or swimming as she moved. She was just slowly gliding through the water towards me, in a manner so effortlessly graceful no human could have compared to it. Every single inch of her pale white body was perfection as it emerged from the surface, nothing timid or shy about her. I thought I could see in her eyes a passion you could not fake like she had taken my full measure and liked what she found. I’ll spare you details, but she was… We made love by the campfire and I mean that in every sense of the word, 'love'.” Buddy stopped, at a loss of words. “Her skin, her lips, her thighs, the warmth of her… The way she threw her head back and buried her hands in my hair. She consumed me in those few hours, she was my whole world. I couldn’t even begin describing what it was like. Nothing I could say could do it justice.”
My mouth had gone dry, and my palms were sweaty. My fishing rod lay across my lap, unused. I had forgotten about my beer, the half-drunk can stood next to my feet, hot to the touch from the sun. I didn’t want Buddy to stop talking and at the same time, I didn’t want the story to go on. “What happened when the fire went out?” I croaked.
“She had been dozing in my embrace, my arm wrapped around her, her head laying on my chest, our legs intertwined, when the fire went out. And just like that, the world changed. Just like the warmth that had gone out the fire, it left her. When she looked at me then, there was cruelty in her eyes. She didn’t look at me as a lover anymore, she looked at me like a spoiled brat would look at a new toy, knowing she could ruin it in whatever way she saw fit because it was hers. At first, I just told her I wasn’t in the mood for a swim, then I asked if she was messing with me, tried cracking a joke, but she had become just like the cold dark surface of the water behind her, indifferent and menacing. When I refused to go with her she just grabbed my ankle and began dragging me down to the edge of the water. I must have been at least twice her size, but it felt the other way around. I struggled best as I could, but she had about as much trouble handling me as I would have had, handling a small child. I kicked and fought, dug my hands into the dirt, trying to find something to hold on to, all to no effect.”
“So, how did you get away?” I asked.
“I don’t know. One second she was pulling me, my free foot was already kicking water instead of dirt when her grip suddenly gave way. I scrambled up and away as fast as I could, my ankle was broken but I just ran for it anyways, my survival instinct bigger than the pain. The keys were in the truck, I climbed into the seat, turned the ignition and my headlights bathed my camping spot and the lake in bright light. She stood a few feet away from my hood, looking straight at me, unflinching. Some leaves were stuck in her hair and she had a fresh welt across her hand as if something had whipped her, but even in this horrible moment, she was as beautiful as she ever had been. I slammed into reverse, put my pedal to the metal, and backed away from this place as fast as I could. She didn’t run after me, she just watched me leave, a cold, patient look on her face. Like she knew she was going to get me sooner or later anyway.”
Buddy stopped for a second. The sun was setting and he took a second to appreciate the view before we went around the next bend and would only be able to see it through the trees for a while. He took a breath, then continued.
“My Maude was an angel about it. I came home with a broken ankle, stinking of booze without clothes or any of my gear, sobbing like a child and she took me in. She could have argued some more or just kicked me out like any reasonable woman ought to, but she didn’t. She took me in her arms, let me cry my eyes out until there were no more tears, and never asked me a single question. You can guess the rest. I stopped drinking, I cleaned up my act. Partly because Maude deserved better and mostly because I knew that the girl from the lake would get me if I stayed the path I was on. I met you for the first time a few years later, when you had just moved in and needed help with your fence posts. And you know, that’s it. I steered clear of the lake, never cared to recover my wallet, clothes, or camping gear. It didn't seem worth the risk.”
We sat silently for a while. Buddy took a rest from talking more than he had all year while I just sat there, dumbstruck.
“So, she just let go of your foot? That’s it?”
“I don’t know. When I was scrambling away I saw her hair and arm tangled in the weeping willow branches from the corner of my eye. Maybe I just got lucky, or maybe the tree saw what was happening and decided to take mercy on me and give me a fighting chance to get away. In any other story and at any other lake, a tree coming to life would seem like a crazy thing, but I don’t know.”
We kept drifting along the river, while the sun set and the nightingales came alive on the shore. I was mulling over Buddy’s story, trying to make sense of it. It didn’t help that he’d been drinking but I couldn’t see a man hallucinating a story like that just from the effects of alcohol. But then again, maybe Buddy hadn’t been all too honest about the things he had put into his system that evening. Either fairy were real, or some random girl had spotted a good-looking young man high on magic mushrooms and decided to play a prank. Hell of a prank though, sleeping with somebody and then dragging them into a lake. That still didn’t explain how she had managed to drag him away though. Even as he was pushing towards 60, Buddy still had the heavy build of someone used to being strong. I couldn’t imagine a young girl getting anywhere, trying to drag his body across the ground, back when he was in his twenties.
Then another thought came to my mind. As far as I knew the Penbroke’s had been hit pretty hard by last month’s monsoon and for at least a few days, the lake behind their farm and the Sascatchano river we were riding on now had been a single body of water. Regardless of whether or not I believed in fairies, I thought it’d be best to tell Buddy. Better safe than sorry. I only noticed then that the boat was sagging on my side, the cooler behind me pressing into my back a little. I was alone on the river. Buddy, my counterweight on the other side of the canoe, was gone. I had no idea when he had disappeared, I hadn’t heard a splash and the boat hadn’t been rocked in the slightest. For a second I even wondered if Buddy had been on the boat to begin with, but the old worn-out cap he had had on his head for the last dozen years still lay next to the bucket filled with fish, right where he had sat.
That’s where my story ends. I turned on the motor, yelled Buddy’s name as I drove up and down the bends, back the way we had drifted a little while ago. About half an hour later I finally got a signal on my iPhone and called the Sheriff. By midnight, there were dozens of us skimming the river. We never found any trace of Buddy, other than the hat he had left me. The neighbors and the sheriff were suspicious of me for a while, a lot of them still are. A man doesn’t just disappear while he sits in the same boat with you, but there was no better explanation. I had no motive, no weapon, no history of violence, and Buddy was built like an Ox, well able to defend himself, if need be. I sat front row at his funeral, between his Maude and my own wife as they lowered the empty casket into the ground. I’m hoping that Buddy’s memory was funny about that night and that he just fell and drowned, but in my heart, I don’t believe he did. I sometimes wake up at night, thinking of the girl in the river and shuddering at the thought. Whatever fate had finally caught up with Buddy, I hope she would get bored with him at some point and let him go or at least let him die. But I doubt it. I remember the stories my grandma told me, back when I was a little runt, about creatures that live in the lakes and forests, that like to collect. My guess is that there’s nothing on this earth that would make this girl give up or forget about one of her prizes.
My grandma had always pretended like her fairy tales were cautionary, that she told them not to scare me but to teach me not to fall for their tricks. When I grew up and learned that Santa Claus and the Easter bunny were not real, I figured my grandma’s tales had been little more than scary stories and had almost forgotten about them. Guess I figured wrong, or maybe not. Who knows.