Illustration by Na Kim.
As I was going to enter college that fall my parents felt that I should build myself up at a summer camp of some sort. They sent me down to a place in the Ozarks on a beautiful lake. It was called a camp but it was not just for boys. It was for both sexes and all ages. It was a rustic, comfortable place. But I was disappointed to find that most of the young people went to another camp several miles down the lake toward the dam. I spent a great deal of time by myself that summer, which is hardly good for a boy of seventeen.
It was a dry summer. There were very few days of rain. But the Ozark country with its gentle green hills and clear lakes and rivers did not turn ugly and brown as most countries do in seasons of drought. The willows along the lake remained translucently green, while the hillside forests, toward the end of July, began to look as though they had been splashed with purple, red, and amber wine. Their deepening colors did not suggest dryness nor stoppage of life. They looked, rather, like a flaming excess, a bursting opulence of life. And the air, when you drove through the country in an open car, was faintly flavored with wine, for the grapes grew plentifully that season. While the cornfields yellowed and languished, the purple grapes fairly swarmed from their vines, as though they had formed some secret treaty with nature or dug into some hidden reservoir of subterranean life, and the lean hill-folk piled them into large white baskets and stood along the sunny roads and highways crying, “Grapes, grapes, grapes,” so that your ears as well as your eyes and nostrils and mouth were filled with them, until it seemed that the whole body and soul of the country was somehow translated into this vast efflorescence of sweet purple fruit.
Perhaps it was the intoxicating effect of the wine-flavored air, perhaps it was only the novelty of being so much by myself, but I fell that summer into a sort of enchantment, a sort of moody drunkenness, that troubled and frightened me more than a little.
I had led an active boy’s life. I had always been the typical young extrovert, delighting in games and the companionship of other boys, having little time for reading and abstract thinking, having little time for looking inward upon the mystery of myself, and so this dry summer on the beautiful lake, as I fell slowly into the habit of deep introspection, brooding and dreaming about myself and life and the meaning of things, I felt as though I were waking up from a long dream or sinking into one. I was lonely and frightened and curiously content.
It became my custom that summer to go down to the lake by myself right after breakfast, unmoor a rowboat or a canoe from the rickety grey wharf, and row or paddle out to the center of the lake and then lie down in the boat’s bottom, take off all clothes but my swimming trunks, and let the slow current carry me along under the golden-burning sun while my consciousness surrendered itself, like the boat, to a leisurely tide of reveries and dreams.
Sometimes I would fall asleep while I drifted. I would awake to find myself in an unfamiliar country. I had drifted several miles from the camp, perhaps, and the sun had climbed to its zenith while I slept. The lake had narrowed or widened, or perhaps I had drifted in close to shore and directly beside me was a wet wall of grey rock from which obtruded strange ferns and flowers, or over my head was a fantastic, green-gold, feathery dome of willow branches, overshadowing myself and my stranded vessel with barely a motion, barely a whisper, in the windless noon.
Always beyond me, further down the lake, were the open fields of grapes, and however still the air was, it always held faintly the flavor of wine.
I would lie there in the bottom of the boat and continue to stare at what my eyes had opened upon, never turning my head or moving my body for fear of breaking the spell. I would imagine that I had actually drifted into some unknown place while I slept, some mythical kingdom, an Avalon or something, in which all kinds of things could happen and usually did.
It was hard to shake myself out of these dreams. It was hard to turn my eyes—staring as though hypnotized at the wet wall of grey rock or the dazzling dome of sunlit willows—back to the olive-green expanse of the lake. I would feel strangely dull inside and fagged out when I finally roused myself. It was not merely the drowsiness that you feel after a long midday sleep. It was more like the aftereffects of a powerful drug. Sometimes I would feel so weak that it would be hard for me to row or paddle back against the current. Still I would never know exactly what had gone on inside me during the dream or how long it had lasted, or why, in heaven’s name, I behaved like this! Was I losing my mind?
As summer slipped by the population of the little camp increased. Each weekend a new crowd or two would drive down from Saint Louis or Kansas City or still further away. When I first arrived, early in June, the place had seemed deserted and I had felt bitterly lonely and wished that some people, any kind of people, would come. But now I had changed. I no longer felt a thrill of anticipation when a new group or family arrived at the camp, wondering each time how this bunch would turn out, observing with pleasure their equipment for sports, but disappointed, usually, because most of them were either too young or too old. Now the sight of a dust-covered car rolling up the camp drive with tennis racquets and fishing rods, and eager faces protruding from the windows, faces smiling and begging to be accepted into this place and its life, gave me no pleasure, but filled me instead with a vague annoyance. I was becoming like a grumpy old man who wanted nothing so much as a quiet place to sleep, only it was not to sleep that I wanted, but to dream.
Then I began to be really frightened of myself. I quit going out alone on the lake. I made friends with a young professor who was spending his vacation at the camp. I played tennis and learned contract bridge with some young married couples. I tried not to think of the sun on the lake and on my naked skin and the faint, delicious fragrance of the purple grapes.
Toward the end of the summer I met a young girl. I did not think her especially attractive. She did not seem either pretty or homely. Perhaps she was really beautiful but I was then too young to find beauty in anything but the outlines of a woman’s face and figure. She was considerably older than I, she was about twenty-five, and I could see that she was lonely, terribly lonely, and was wanting with all her heart to get close to somebody, just as I was wanting to slip away, to float alone on the lake.
The young professor had loaned me some books. He had loaned me a book by Nietzsche which I found especially disturbing.
Was it possible, I asked myself, that all things could be so useless and indefinite as Nietzsche made them look? I shrugged my shoulders, after a while, remembering the sunlight on my body and on the lake, and the mysteriously suggestive fragrance of the grapes. Such colossal doubt, I thought to myself, was more or less irrelevant to life after all!
I was reading this book one evening on the porch of the main cabin, overlooking the lake, and I was feeling particularly rebellious against its doctrines, when the girl came onto the porch and seated herself in the wicker chair next to mine. Without turning my eyes from the book I knew she was looking at me, maybe wondering whether to speak. She had looked at me before. She had been down at the camp for about two weeks. I had only been vaguely aware of her presence, since she was not attractive to my unawakened senses and was easily seven or eight years older than I. But I looked old for my age that summer. I was tall and had acquired a small mustache along with my unusually serious and reflective manner.
When the light became too dim for reading I laid the book across my knees and glanced cautiously at the girl’s profile. I was suddenly stabbed with pity. A look of hopelessness had settled over her face. She was not looking at the sunset or the lake or anything visible from the cabin porch, but her eyes were wide open.
She is a little stenographer from Saint Louis or Kansas City who has come down here to meet some young people and have a good time, maybe fall in love and get married at last, and she has found only two young men, myself and the goggle-eyed professor who hates the sight of a skirt, and here I sit reading Nietzsche and considering the abstract problems of life and wishing only to be left by myself …
It was only a minute or two since I had laid down my book but I had considered the girl since then with such intentness and such a feeling of peculiar clairvoyance that it seemed to me I had known her already for quite a long time. I started talking to her. I was pleased to see the hopeless look drop away from her face. It became quite animated. She started rocking in the chair, then pulled it closer to mine, and soon we were chattering together like intimate friends.
“There’s a dance at Branson tonight,” the girl suddenly remarked, “would you like to take me?”
Surely if I had thought twice I would have refused. Before I went to college my legs behaved like stilts whenever I started to dance and I hadn’t the faintest notion of how to move myself around to music.
But my head was light from reading too much and the girl’s manner was peculiarly importunate. Before I knew it I had accepted the suggestion and we had started to Branson. This little hill town was the location of a popular summer resort; it was a mile or two down the lake from our camp. We walked over, along by the lake and hills, and all the way we talked with a strange excitement. Maybe I had been terribly lonely, too, without knowing it, and had only wanted someone to break the ice. Anyway, in the twilight along by the lake, the girl no longer seemed rather too old for me or too heavy. I noticed something Gypsy-like in her appearance, something wise and significant in her dark eyes and large, aquiline nose, and full, over-red lips. I noticed the deep swell of her breasts, and when she walked a little ahead, the swaying strength of her hips. I had a dizzy feeling of wanting to get close against her and be enveloped in that warmth which she seemed to possess.
“Do you like wine?” she asked me as we started across the bridge.
I admitted that I had never tried it. The summer before, when my grandfather took me to Europe, I had drunk some crème de menthe as soon as the bar opened, a few miles out at sea, and had become violently seasick immediately afterwards. I had disliked the smell of alcohol ever since.
“But this will be different,” she said. “Do you smell those grapes?”
We paused in the middle of the bridge and sure enough the wind from down the lake carried to us the grapes’ elusive fragrances.
“It’s delicious!” I cried.
“I know a place, an old hillbilly’s cabin near the town, where we can stop and get some swell grape wine,” she went on, “and it will make us feel like dancing our feet off!”
Laughing, she caught hold of my arm and we started running along the road. Her black hair blew back from her face and in her running figure, throat arched and deep bosom swaying, there was something excitingly pagan.
“You are beautiful,” I heard myself saying in a husky voice. “You’re like an ancient goddess, or a nymph, or a …”
She squeezed my arm. “You’re funny!” she said.
The hillbilly’s cabin was a little frame house on the road to town. In the yard a white goat was munching the grass. An old woman sat on the wooden steps with her hands folded in her lap. She got up slowly as we approached. Wordlessly she held the door open and we slipped in. These were the days before repeal. I felt quite adventurous, sitting down at the rickety old table with its worn checkered oilcloth and kerosene lamp, while the old man in overalls and the witch-like old woman pulled bottles out of a hidden barrel, opened them with a loud popping sound, and poured the sparkling purple stuff into cold tin cups for us to drink.
At first it seemed rather bitter. But there was not the alcoholic taste that I had feared. So I ordered a second cup and a third. The girl across from me drank slowly. She kept glancing at me in a calculating way, as though she were trying to surmise my age or other potentialities, as she had looked at me on the porch and several times before that, but I found myself no longer annoyed by that look. It pleased me, in fact, more than a little. Here was I, drinking wine with what was obviously a woman of the world, a Gypsy-like girl no longer very young, with a look of strange wisdom in the back of her eyes.
Who knows what may happen tonight? The possibilities began to frighten me a little.
I leaned far back in my chair, tilting against the stovepipe, and returned her smile in a manner that was supposed to be replete with sophisticated suggestion. We looked at each other for some time that way, as though with an understanding too deep for words. Slowly the girl lifted her eyebrows, then narrowed her eyes till they were two slits of luminous black. Her heavy, painted lips fell slightly open, and she, too, relaxed in her chair, as though a question had been asked and a satisfactory answer been given. It almost seemed that I could hear her purring under her breath, contentedly, like a cat.
“I have been so lonely at the camp,” she murmured, “that it hasn’t seemed like a real vacation until tonight.”
She lifted the cup with both hands but instead of drinking she breathed its fragrance deeply. She smiled slightly over the brim of the cup:
“It’s sort of bittersweet, isn’t it?” she said softly. “It always makes me feel like laughing or crying or something.”
When we left the cabin the white goat in the yard looked to me like a fantastic horned monster. The dusty road rocked under my feet. Everything seemed quite unreasonably amusing. Laughing loudly, I caught the girl’s arm, and she, more than returning my pressure, laughed with me, but all the while kept glancing speculatively up at my face.
“Are you sure you aren’t too tight to dance?” she asked. Her voice seemed absurdly serious.
“Too tight!” I screamed. “Why, I’ve never been so loose in all my life!”
I was startled by the hysterical sound of my voice, almost like a girl’s. I staggered against the dark young woman and she put a sustaining arm around my back. It seemed awfully silly. She was nearly a foot shorter than I, and here she was holding me up.
“Leave me alone,” I told her severely. “I can walk all right by myself!”
She laughed a little. “How old are you?” she asked abruptly.
“Nineteen,” I lied.
“Really? I didn’t know you were quite so young as that,” she said. For a while afterwards she seemed quieter and more distant. Then we came into Branson. There were clusters of glazed lamps along the street. There were bright drugstores and restaurants and a picture show with a shiny tin portico and gaudy placards. Everywhere there were gay holiday crowds in white linens and flannels and colorful sweaters. Down by the lake the band was playing noisily and everyone was flocking in that direction.
Then she seemed to come alive again. She caught my arm.
“I’m crazy to dance!” she said. “It seems like my vacation is just beginning!”
The dance hall was a long log building, open except for screens, and lighted by Japanese lanterns that swayed constantly in the wind. My physical drunkenness left as soon as we stepped on the floor. For the first time I found that I could move myself to music. My feet slid effortlessly along the wax floor and the girl’s body was suppliant to mine. It was more than suppliant. I caught her tighter and tighter against me. The warmth of her body surged through my linen suit. Her breath was damp against my throat. Her fingers caught at my shoulder. She seemed to be asking for an even closer embrace than I could give. Then I experienced something that I had never before experienced with a girl. I felt ashamed and tried to loosen my hold. But to my amazement she only clung tighter. She pressed her lips against my throat and clung as though she were drunk, drunker than I had been on the moonlit road. Her feet became tangled with mine, her body drooped, and I seemed to be dragging her along the floor. My warm feeling passed. I looked around at the strange faces surrounding the floor. It seemed that everyone was staring at us. I stopped abruptly at the edge of the floor.
“Let’s go out for a while,” I said, without looking at her.
She must have misunderstood my averted face, the strained quality of my voice. She repeated the words like an echo, “Let’s go out for a while.”
We went down the wooden steps from the dance hall and down the wooden walk to the beach.
Here it was all smooth sand, a pale silver in the moonlight, stretching for a mile or two up and down the lake. The wind was blowing with a new coolness that hinted of rain, although the clouds were still scattered.
The girl caught my arm and stopped for a moment at the end of the wooden walk.
“Do you smell the grapes?” she asked.
I shuddered slightly. I had drunk too much of the wine. The intoxication was passing and the taste in my mouth was cloyingly sweet.
“Where are you going?” I called to the girl.
Laughing wildly, she had started running along the sand.
After a while we both looked around. We discovered that the amusement resort and even the lights of the town had disappeared. There was only the moon and the stars and the wide silence of the lake and the sand crunching under our feet. I felt like an inexperienced swimmer who finds himself suddenly beyond his depth. But the girl’s face was fairly shining with some inner violence. She fell down on the sand and pressed her hands against it and swept them out like a swimmer, again and again. It seemed to me that she was moaning a little, deep in her throat, or purring again like a cat. I was tempted to slip away from her. All my lightness and exuberance were gone. I didn’t feel like awaiting the development of that which seemed to be possessing the girl. I was no longer flattered or stirred. She didn’t seem to be aware of me, for the moment, but only of something inside of herself, a drunken feeling, that made her rub her hands over the sand in a gesture that seemed to me vaguely obscene.
It may have been that I was fascinated, it may have been that I was frightened or repelled. My emotions were cloaked in a dullness that made them for a long time afterwards hard to describe. At any rate, I found it impossible to leave her there. My feet were rooted in the silver sand. I stood above her, breathing the cloying sweetness of grapes on the wind, and waiting for the girl’s private ecstasy to pass.
At length she lifted her head, from where she was stooping low upon the sand, swept her hair back with one hand and extended toward me the other. Dizzily I fell down beside her and somehow or other we were kissing and her tongue had slid between my lips. All the while, though my actions were those of a male possessed by passion, my mind was standing above her with a dull revulsion. Her Gypsy-like darkness, the heaviness of her form, the black wisdom of her eyes were now laid bare of secrets. I knew why she was lonely, why she said she had been so terribly lonely until tonight. For all my manly aspirations, I couldn’t help fearing the girl. Catching at my shoulders, she fell back on the sand. She was breathing heavily and her breath smelled of wine.
“Let’s go back to the dance,” I muttered.
“No, I’m tired of the dance,” she said. “Why do you act so funny? Don’t you like me? Am I ugly or something?”
Good God, what is wrong with you? I said to myself. You know what she wants! You aren’t a kid anymore!
But I couldn’t endure the winey sweetness of her breath. I turned my face away and got up from the sand.
“Let’s go swimming!” I suggested wildly.
“All right!” she agreed.
Too late I realized that we had no suits for swimming. The girl was already tearing the clothes from her body. She plunged quite naked into the lake. I could only do likewise. Numbly I removed my clothes and followed her. The cool of the lake broke through the dream-like numbness of my body and mind. I felt chilled and awakened. For a while my exuberance of the earlier evening returned. We swam and played in the water like children. I didn’t think of her nakedness nor of mine. I swam far out and then swam in again. When I climbed out on the sand I was exhausted and lay down and looked at the starry sky, almost forgetting the girl and what had happened between us a few minutes before.
The wind from the lake turned colder. I began to shake uncontrollably. The girl was still splashing and swimming in the water, crying out as though she had gone quite mad. I rose from the beach and started to get my clothes. But then she dashed out of the water.
“You’re still wet!” she cried. “Why do you act so funny?”
Weakly I sank down again on the sand. The girl was laughing at me. She ran over to the willow where she had hung her clothes. She came back with the little white coat that she had carried to the dance.
“Here!” she said. “This will keep us both warm!”
Staring up at this garment that whipped above me like a white ghost in the wind from the lake, observing its length and its breadth and even its thickness, I slowly understood her words, what they meant, what they could only mean. I saw that she was smiling in the moonlight. Her black hair blew away from her face. She stood between me and the wind and I breathed the warmth of her body mingled with the cloying sweetness of the grapes. With a sudden fury I caught at her white legs. I pulled her down in the sand. The coat was forgotten, and the cold wind and the lake, and I scarcely knew whether I hated or loved.
It rained the next morning, starting quite early, before breakfast, and continuing till noon. I didn’t get up. I lay all morning on my bed in the small log cabin, feeling exhausted and rather ill. I looked out at the grey rain and listened to the grey sound of it on the roof. When I finally came out I found that the Springfield bus had come and gone. The girl’s vacation was over and for several hours she had been on her way back to her job in a Kansas City life insurance office. I was relieved.
By noon the rain had dwindled away. The wind rose up again, the clouds were scattered like foam. The grey lake was turning green beneath a blazing sun. But in the rain-freshened air there was already the tonic coolness of the coming fall.
After dinner I stood facing the lake, breathing deep, and suddenly there rushed in upon me the old longing to escape from the camp and the restless gaiety of its population and to be by myself on the lake. I ran back to the cabin and put on my swimming trunks. I took a pair of oars from the manager’s office and sprinted down to the rickety wharf. I felt the eyes of the porch loungers following me down, the eyes of new young girls and young men who had arrived at the camp that morning, and I felt proud of myself, proud of my deeply bronzed skin and my well-conditioned body, but most of all, proud of my freedom, my loneliness that asked only to be left alone. It seemed to me that only I and the lake belonged here; I and the lake and the sun. The others were presumptuous intruders. These weekenders with their pale skins and slow muscles and feverish friendliness could never belong in this country, could never share in my mystical companionship with the lake and the hills and the sun.
The girl was gone. They would go, too.
Without glancing back I loosened one of the boats from the wharf and rowed out to the center of the lake. I lay down in the bottom of the boat and surrendered myself to the leisurely tide of dreams.
But there was something wrong. Maybe it was the unusual coolness of the wind, the lightness of the rain-freshened air, the barely perceptible decline of summer. But I was restless. I turned from one side to the other. The hard ridges in the bottom of the boat irritated my skin. The sun wasn’t warm enough, the wind was too cool.
Swiftly the boat moved down between the hills. The rain-swell on creeks had made the current strong that morning. The wind was bearing from up the lake. The boat moved swiftly, easily, as if carried by sails. The hills dwindled, the bare cliffs fell away, the lake widened and widened till finally I found myself in an open country. On either side were the vast fields of grapes, grapes, grapes! And though the boat drifted now in the very center of the wide lake, their odor came toward me stronger and sweeter every moment till it seemed that my mouth was filled with their purple wine and my whole body suffused with their warmth.
I lay in the bottom of the boat, twisting and groaning aloud, crying with the terrible loneliness of the flesh, remembering the lips of the girl against my lips, remembering the warmth of her body, remembering the Gypsy-darkness of her face, the wildness of her hair and eyes, and most of all, the passionate sweetness of her embrace, dark and sweet, almost cloyingly sweet, like the rich, purple fragrance of the grapes.
In a sort of terror I grasped the oars and started rowing furiously back to the camp. I no longer wanted to be alone. I had never drifted so far as the grape fields nor breathed their purple haunting sweetness so deeply before. Now I wanted to return to the camp and its people. I wanted to feel them moving closely and warmly around me. I wanted to hear their loud voices and feel the strong pressure of their hands. I wanted to lose myself among them.
The story will be published in Williams’s collection The Caterpillar Dogs and Other Early Stories, forthcoming from New Directions in April.
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