Authors: The Outer Banks House (v5)
So I retreated back behind the skinny cedar tree. I changed out of the bathing costume and put on the chemise and pantalettes again. Then I loosened my hair and tucked the pins into the basket.
When he turned to me and saw my bare arms and calves and hair hanging down my back, he breathed in audibly and looked away.
He said, “Much better.”
Then he unbuttoned his shirt and removed it, and I could see his muscular brown chest and thick shoulders and arms, so real in these quiet woods. He started walking to the edge of the pond in his frayed trousers. He held out a hand for me, and I took it with tension stiffening my fingers.
“Don’t be afraid, Abby. I’m not going to let anything happen to you,” he said. He looked into my eyes, steadily, without blinking, and I knew it was true.
We waded into the cool water, so that the surface skimmed the skin around my knees, and then he stopped me. “All right. Now I have to put my arms around you. We’ll go where it’s just a little deeper.”
I nodded, and he came close to me and put his hands around my middle. His flexing hands almost spanned the entire girth of my body. His arms moved with assurance, with knowledge of water.
He drew me out into the pond a few more yards, where my feet couldn’t touch the leafy bottom. My legs dangled in the open water. I kicked them a little, enjoying the way the water reached all the way up my flanks.
My chest was now submerged up to my neck. My chemise floated around my breasts, and my pantalettes twisted around my thighs.
Ben’s arms pulled me out lengthwise, so that I was floating on my back, arms and legs stretched out in the water. I felt my hair sway heavily next to my face, weighing my head down. His forearms held me under my back.
“You can open your eyes, you know,” Ben said.
I unscrewed my eyes and saw his face. He was gazing at me with such love, I felt my throat squeeze.
I said softly, “You’re a good person, Ben.”
His face hardened. “There are things about me that you wouldn’t care to know.”
I laughed. I just knew that Ben didn’t have a bad bone in his body. I said, “I wouldn’t want you to be
I closed my eyes again, listening to the sounds of the woods with under-water ears. I felt Ben’s hand move to hold my thigh, his other hand still holding my back. His palm wound up through the leg of the pantalette, so that his hand rested on my bare skin. He rubbed the wet flesh with his thumb.
I breathed in deeply of the woody air, a smell of life. I just floated with a mix of dark and light playing over my lids.
Then I felt his mouth on the nipple of my breast, through the cloth of the chemise. He sucked it gently, while his hand moved even farther up my leg. My breath quickened as if I were hurrying somewhere, but all was fluid and stillness. He took his mouth away and the air cooled my nipple into a pebbly peak. He rubbed it softly with a thumb.
Ben took his other hand from beneath my back, and just like that I was floating on my own. I smiled, my eyes still closed.
He whispered, “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you, Abby.”
I felt a little drop of water fall on my face then, and I looked up half expecting to see Ben crying. But the clouds through the arch of trees were gray with rain. The drops fell on my face and chest and pattered about us on the water. With the sun gone, the water began to cool.
He took my hands again and pulled me up. “Hold your breath, now. We’re going under.”
We both took deep breaths and went under the gray water. I could now feel the leaves and twigs on the bottom of the pond. I could taste their little souls in the freshwater.
I forced myself to open my eyes. I saw Ben’s face through the murkiness, and he was smiling at me, little bubbles traveling from his
nose to the surface. The raindrops speckled the water above us, and I felt so safe, under the world above. I never would have thought it possible, before Ben. He held my hands tightly.
We came up for air, and my head dripped water down my back and chest. Ben’s clean face was chiseled stone. And still the rain came down, a gentle shower.
He let my hands go then and said, “Just be still. Feel your body in the water. Move your arms and legs around just a little, and keep your head up.”
He demonstrated treading water, and he made it look so easy. I kept my eyes on his face as I fought down the fear. But the feeling of being alone in the water was too tempting.
It was just me, moving alone. Only me, keeping myself afloat. I managed to tread water for a few seconds before I started sinking a bit. He grabbed me, laughing. “Don’t drown on me, now.”
“I wasn’t going to drown,” I said, slightly offended.
“Now, kick your legs.” He held me at arm’s length and I started kicking my legs, making big splashes in the rainy water. Then he let me go and I put my face in and swam with my arms up and out of the water while kicking my legs, as I’d seen the men doing in the ocean surf. And I was swimming. Not very prettily, but I was swimming!
He hollered out, “Now you got it!”
He swam over to me with four easy strokes and kissed me with wet lips. And I felt a part of this woods, like I was meant to be here and no place else.
I thought briefly of Uncle Jack, when he was saddling up Ace of Spades for one last ride over the plantation before he left for the war. He had breathed in deeply, filling his lungs with breaths of barn air, and said, “I sure will miss this smell when I’m gone.”
I had joked, “What, essence of manure?”
With his face more serious than I had ever seen it, he had answered, “Yes, indeed. Smells like home to me.”
I had laughed sarcastically, and he had abruptly left me then, riding off on Ace with a stony look on his face.
Now I knew what he had meant. Nags Head, with all of its different textures and layers, had become a home to me, and it felt as serious and as important as a dirty barn did to Uncle Jack. I somehow knew that Uncle Jack would have been proud of me for saying so. He would have been proud of this new Little Red Reb.
“I better put my dress in a dry spot,” I said, looking over at the pile of fine pink cloth fallen onto a duff of leaves.
“Too late for that,” Ben teased. But he sighed and made to help me out of the water, gazing unabashedly at my body in the wet underclothes.
We sat down beneath a live oak tree with a thick, gnarled trunk, and he wrapped his moist arms around me. We were silent, listening to the sound of the rain pelting on the leaves of the wax myrtle trees beside us.
He said, “The only thing left for you to do is climb Jockey’s Ridge. Then you’ve officially lived in Nags Head. It’s the tallest sand dune on the East Coast.”
All summer the dunes had gazed down their sloped noses at me like elderly relatives. I had taken them for granted. I suddenly was filled with a feeling of urgency. “Let’s do it today.”
“You sure you can stay away that long? It might take a while. Won’t your mama miss you?”
I snorted, then took the corn bread, water jug, and fruit from the basket. We ate and drank for a while under the live oak, and soon the rain stopped and sunlight shone through the trees once again, shards of jade shimmering in the rain’s remains.
But I found myself missing the rain when it was gone.
Nags Head Woods stretched north to south along the sound side of the dunes, with Run Hill perched to the north of the woods and Jockey’s Ridge anchored on the southern end. It would be a short walk to the dunes through the dense maritime thicket.
We navigated a sandy trail, used mostly by locals, that wound its way beneath a curly arch of tree limbs. Ben made no attempt for my elbow, as Hector would have done. I knew that he’d offer his assistance if I really needed it, but for the most part he just let me walk.
The farther east we went, the more sandy the terrain became. Scrubby live oaks, loblolly pines, and clumps of cottonbush and beach heather were scattered over the gentle hills. I knew that this was where the gray foxes and possums and raccoons lived, out of the sea spray and northeast winds. This was where the mainland men liked to hunt, guiding their sweating horses over the sand hills. Every few seconds, lizards darted across our path, leaving thin snaky trails in the sand with their tails.
Here the trees were forbidden to grow tall. The land quickly began to resemble a desert, where nothing but sand existed. The farther east we went, the more I saw that only sporadic clumps of beach grass had managed to anchor themselves into the shifting sand.
We soon reached the base of one of the three tallest peaks of sand and looked up. It would be a hard climb, even for someone like Ben. I hadn’t fully realized how high the piles of sand were. It must have taken thousands upon thousands of years to create them, and here I was, about to try to climb one.
“Believe it or not, this here slope is the best place to start,” he said, looking up. We began to climb, Ben staying to the back of me. My feet immediately sunk into the yielding sand, so I hardly seemed to
move in my damp skirts. The ridge was steep, much steeper than Run Hill.
I got surprisingly winded after a few minutes of climbing, and abruptly sat down, my legs pointing straight down the slope of the dune. Ben, hardly breathing at all, sat down with me and said with a grin, “You’ve got me worried, gal! Too much activity for one day, I reckon.”
I could hardly speak. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Whatever you say, schoolmarm,” he joked, grabbing my hand and kissing the sandy palm.
I huffed, “Tell me this, you braggart. Why doesn’t this sand ever blow away?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, since you asked so nice. In the winter, the winds usually blow out of the northeast, and in the summer, they blow out of the southwest. So the sand is constantly blown to and fro, never disappearing,” he said. “Plus, just below this dry stuff here, the sand’s wet. Helps the dune stay put.”
The top layer had dried quickly in the afternoon sun. The sand was as fine as powdered sugar, quite different from the pebbled, clumpy beach sand, which scrubbed my feet raw. This sand made me want to lie down and sleep on it, bury myself in it for a hundred years. I scooped up great innocent handfuls and watched it pour like honeyed dust between my fingers.
After a while, I caught my breath and stood to continue. Ben stood, too, and said, “Follow me, now.” He started to climb.
I said, offended, “Why is that? Am I too slow for a Banker?”
He laughed. “It’ll be easier for you, following in my footsteps.”
And he was right. The sand was more forgiving once it was broken up a bit by his hardy feet. Inside the skirts of my dress, sweat trickled down my burning thighs. My legs hurt so badly that I started
to use my arms to propel myself upward. I grabbed at the sand in front of me, as if it could offer me any sort of leverage.
But soon I could see the crest of the ridge in front of me. With a few more lunges, I was at the top.
And there was nothing between me and the sky, which had been painted with the golden oranges and pinks of a stained-glass sunset, as reverent as a view from a church pew. With the light of the sun to the west, the ocean was bluer than I ever recall seeing it from the beach. The brownish-blue sound rocked contentedly on the other side of the dunes. And the wind whipped freely up here, with no obstructions.
From this vantage point, everything looked temporary. The Banks looked so skinny, as if the webbed water could just cover them up forever and no one would know they were ever here.
From far away, everything fell into its correct place with such clarity that I was sure this was the view that God must have. There was the sand, there the ocean, and there the sky. It all fit like a perfect puzzle. The only thing out of place were the cottages. I could see our house, tiny and burdensome.
I covered my face with my hands as sobs lodged in my throat. Ben quickly drew me to him, and I buried my face in his tattered shirt. I inhaled his scent of sweat and sand and pond water. I felt his hard chest beneath my cheek.
With closed eyes, I imagined the house, down below, waiting for me. The cottage porch was probably empty right now. The table was missing the weight of books. The chairs lacked their occupants.
I ran my hands through Ben’s stiff hair, rubbed his strong neck and shoulders and back with creaking fingers. He placed both hands on my neck, thumbs resting on my jawbone, as he kissed me. My mind emptied of all thoughts. I was a substance of air, of ocean, of sand. Not even human.
But Ben suddenly pulled away from me. Some climbers had just bumbled onto our dune. With goose pimples of irritation popping on my neck, I turned around and saw a handful of young children, exploring after their supper. They all gazed about as if they had suddenly found themselves on the moon. I breathed with relief, seeing that Charlie and Martha weren’t with them.
Biding our time, we sat down on the sand. The wind eased giant locks of my hair from the pins. I took off my shoes and banged the sand out of them.
Ben watched me with liquid eyes the color of the ocean. He said, “Has anyone ever told you that these sand dunes reminded a man of a place in England called Nags Head? The name caught on with folks, and has stuck ever since.”