3.23.2004

Tymotchee Creek - Chapter 1: Skipping Stones

Peter York stood barefoot on the sloping bank of the creek that flowed through the woods behind his house. He liked to be barefoot in the summer and he could feel the soft, cool mud oozing up between his toes. It was a still day, the wind only jumping up occasionally to rouse the trees from their quiet slumber before dying away again just as quickly. He held a small, flat rock in his dirty hand. It was ugly brown and nearly circular, with a nick along one edge. He gripped it in the curve of his hooked second finger and slung it across the water. It skipped twice on the shallow pool just beyond the bank and then jumped into the giant maple tree that hovered over the bend of the creek majestically. A dull thud resounded through the quiet woods. Peter pushed a strand of blond hair out of his face and smiled triumphantly before looking over at his friend. She was squatting in the rocky river bed, looking for a flat stone but had looked up at the sound. She was barefoot as well.
Her name was Christen Kingsley. She, like Peter, was ten; they had been friends for some time, their families having grown up only a few miles apart. They also attended the same nearby church. Peter’s sister Anna, who was a year younger than him, and Christen’s brother Justin, who was a year older, were usually with them, but Anna had gone to visit another friend, and Justin was sick. The four of them did most everything together, and they often came down to the creek to skip stones. This occupation had recently, as they grew to an age of competitiveness, become more a contest than a pastime. A week before, Justin, the most artistic of the four, had drawn a crude circle on the giant maple with some white paint they found in the York’s garage that Mr. York let them have. Since then, they had spent their time trying to skip rocks off the water into the circle, but no one had gotten it yet. None of them were, in fact, very good at skipping stones. Most often, they simply sank them into the shallow pool without a skip at all, and hardly ever got them off the water, let alone into the small circle.
“Did you get it?” Christen asked in something like mock awe, hardly hiding the fact that she would rather have been the first to hit the mark.
Peter, not really sure if he had actually hit the circle or if he had just hit the tree, and not wanting to lie but, at the same time, wanting to be the victor, hesitated, then said, “Yeah,” then hesitated again before adding hastily, and in a hushed voice, “I think so.”
Christen looked at him for a second, weighing his honesty against his competitiveness, then waded down to the tree to examine it. It wasn’t that she thought him a liar, or even that she realized that he didn’t really know. It was simply an issue of competitiveness in her mind, one in which lying wasn’t lying at all but was, rather, a tactic that anyone might employ in the heat of battle. It was one that she herself might employ in his situation. After bending close to the tree and observing it for a short time she straightened and, turning to face Peter again, exclaimed, “I don’t think you did.” She sounded very relieved, in the way she might if she had found her cat dead, but then discovered it wasn’t her cat at all. “There’s a chip in the bark here below the circle,” she added, pointing behind her at no particular part of the tree.
“That could’ve been there already.”
“No,” she returned, shaking her head. She made no attempt to define why it couldn’t have been there already or to defend her belief that it wasn’t, but seemed satisfied that her answer solved the problem and walked back up to rejoin Peter.
He felt a sudden need to justify himself, having accepted Christen’s answer as readily as she herself, and said, “You haven’t hit it yet either.” It was not a good argument, because it didn’t change the fact that he had missed, but it made him feel better. It made him feel that they were, once again, on a level playing field, and besides this, any argument seems like a good one when it’s the only one, especially to a ten year-old.
“As soon I find a rock I will,” Christen commented casually, with an uncommon confidence, as she returned to searching for a stone, now wet up to the waste. The water split into shallow ripples where her ankles interrupted the creek. “I’ve been closer more often. I’m obviously better.” She said it with an air, not of arrogance nor of a need to validate herself, but of sincere belief. It didn’t sound prideful to Peter either, although he somewhat wished it did, for it negated the stride he had just made to be equal with her, and he would very much liked to have passed it off as arrogance. Unable, however, to deny that she was right but not wanting to let her prove herself, he slipped the extra stone he had been holding back into his pocket. He had thought for a moment of letting her use it, but was afraid, then, that she would hit the target. Her confidence had swayed his somewhat and he didn’t want to be aiding and abetting her victory. In the end, he decided it was far more important to keep the rock for himself. They hadn’t, to this point, taken turns, but Peter, not so much deciding as simply knowing, without thinking, that it was her turn, that coming so close somehow entitled her to the next chance, sat down on a thick root protruding from the bank where it dropped off into the mud and then the creek, his feet dangling just off the ground, and waited, kicking his feet in circles as one is wont to do when one’s feet are dangling.
Christen was not long in looking, before she straightened up with a thin rock in her small hand. Peter stood too, feeling that everything rested on her throw. But she didn’t throw. She stood for several moments in a contemplative stance, turning the rock over in her small hand. Peter assumed she was sizing up the throw but she was actually gathering up the nerve to venture in another direction, and was searching for the best way to do it. She turned to face him with something like sympathy on her face. “So what if I hit it?” she asked, to Peter’s utter surprise. He thought maybe she was trying to make him feel better about missing.
“What do you mean? If you hit it, you win.”
“But what does that mean? We’ll still keep throwing either way, and it’s really more like luck if any of us do hit it anyway. None of us are really that good. This is just a contest to see who’s luckiest really.”
Peter stared at her for some time in silence, save for the breeze rattling the trees. Usually, he understood Christen better than anyone, better than Anna even, and had come to accept a certain range of responses from her, but this did not fall in that range. Children his age do not often think of the grand meaning of life, or if they do, they do it unintentional, without realizing it, and attach it to something both worthless and fleeting. Accomplishing that thing suddenly seems of the utmost value, indeed, the only value, and this is where Peter was. Over the last week, that small white circle had grown, without his recognizing it, to represent in his mind, not just the target of a stupid children’s game, but the target of all living, the very aim of life. Inner peace and happiness, though he didn’t think of it in such terms, could only be achieved by systematically placing a rock in that circle by skipping it off the water, and the greatest success, therefore constituting the greatest peace and happiness, would come from doing it first. In addition, he felt he could never be happy if he did not hit it. Christen seemed suddenly to oppose this, though he had thought before that she felt as he did about the game. He tried hard not to think about being unsatisfied after hitting the circle. He couldn’t imagine that it would be so and yet, something inside him continued to ask, “What happens when you do hit it? Will it make you happy? For how long? And what then?”
Peter did not know how to argue her and tried several times, with no success, to begin a sentence, then, realizing he could never put into words the importance of hitting that circle and hitting it first, even to himself when he was thinking clearly, much less to someone else now, when he felt so suddenly confused, closed his mouth and sat again on the root, looking at Christen with amazement and despair. She seemed suddenly to him like a stranger, and not just an innocent stranger, but the kind of stranger you think you know who is only getting to know you so they can rob you. He pulled the rock out of his pocket and rubbed it between his thumb and fingers. It was rough and grey. She was trying to rob him or she was trying to trick him. Either way, hitting the target would save him. He stood and took aim, then threw the stone with an abnormal force, rising out of his growing anger. This same anger, however, caused him to throw the rock more vertically than horizontally and it sliced neatly into the shallow pool sending disturbing ripples out toward the muddy bank where they stood.
“See? And what if you had hit it?” Christen asked. “Would the game be over? No. We’d continue to throw at it and continue to miss and, after a while, maybe we’d get better and start to hit it, or we’d give up, and either way the first one would still be luck, and what would we do then? It just doesn’t matter I don’t think.” She threw her stone. It made several small skips and sunk as well.
Peter felt confused but really things were beginning to sort themselves out in his head. He wasn’t ready to admit it, but he was on the brink of a different sort of thinking, one that took into account things much more distant than the present, much more abstract than a tree with paint on it, and much more elusive than happiness. Happiness was a life long pursuit, if it could be called a pursuit at all, and anything that was not life long could never constitute happiness. That included the game. He knew, without knowing, that it was true and turned to face her again. He felt bewildered and wanted to change the subject.
Christen on the other hand was still as confident as she had been when looking for a stone. She had not seen the debate that had taken place in Peter’s mind, nor had she intended to arouse such a debate. She had intended to take the conversation to what she considered risky ground, being a girl on the brink of her femininity, but she wanted to take it there without the distraction of the game. She was simply trying to eliminate the game, in order to get on to more important things. What she didn’t realize about Peter was that, in his mind, “more important things” consisted only of good food, particularly his mother’s, and that debasing the game was like destroying a man’s god.
Peter finally found some words and sputtered half-heartedly, “Well, what do you want to do then?”
“Do? I don’t know. Don’t you ever want to just not do anything?”
“Well you can’t do nothing. I mean, everything is something.” He wanted to continue with “and skipping stones is a better something than most things,” but he was still unsure of himself and did not want to reapproach that topic until he felt safe.
She ignored his question and asked, “Do you ever think about love?”
He hadn’t really too much but without thinking said, “I guess. Mrs. Brennamin says we ought to love God.” Mrs. Brennamin was their Sunday school teacher. She was a large bossy woman with, in their opinion, a mannish haircut, and they often took her word as law out of fear, without really considering it.
“No, I don’t mean that. Well, I mean, that’s good, but there’s other love too.” She paused for what seemed a very long time to Peter. He was just thinking that he ought to say something, or suggest something to do, though he couldn’t think of anything for either, when she continued with modest trepidation, “Let’s get married.”
“What?” He paused. It wasn’t that he thought it a bad idea, he had just never thought it an idea at all. He had never considered it. Marriage was what “old” people did, people his parent’s age. Oddly enough, his concept of marriage excluded everyone in-between, even though he had cousins less than ten years his senior that were already married. “Get married? You and me?”
“I don’t know. Do you love me?”
“Well . . . yeah.”
Christen seemed to relax some when he said this. It was what she had been waiting to hear. “Good. I love you too. Let’s get married. That’s what people do when they’re in love.” Christen did not fully understand what she was saying, but she had been to a wedding with her parents earlier that month and had been unable to think of anything else since then. She had decided that she loved Peter, that he probably loved her, and that they should, therefore, get married, and she had been looking for a time to bring it up ever since then.
“You mean now?” Peter asked.
“Well, it can’t be now, stupid. There’s only you and me. We need a minister and a witness. And rings too.”
“We need what?”
“A minister and a witness and rings.” As if restating it made it clear, she paused to see if he understood, but seeing that he didn’t, she went on. “We need someone to perform the wedding and we need someone to watch it to prove that it happened and we need rings, as signs of our love.” She only knew this because she had asked her father at the wedding what was necessary to get married. “Ok. Could we use your brother and my sister?” Peter asked her, unconsciously submitting to her, as he saw it, greater knowledge.
“Well, your sister couldn’t marry us because she’s a girl, and it’s supposed to be a man. My brother couldn’t do it, at least not now, because he’s sick, and I don’t want to wait ‘til he’s well. That could be a week.”
“What about Michael?” Michael Trump was another friend from church, also ten, who lived just a few miles away and often spent time with them. He was energetic and easily distracted, talkative and sometimes, even, overwhelming, but he was one of the nicest people they knew, and if they were going to be married, they would want him to be there anyway, so Peter thought they might as well make him the minister.
“Yeah, he’d work. And your sister could be the witness. So that’s settled. Now, what about rings? We could buy rings,” she suggested.
“I don’t have any money.”
“What about your allowance?”
“I’ve been saving up for a Gameboy.”
“You could dip into it for this.”
“But I already bought the Gameboy. Last weekend. I’m broke now.”
“Fine.” They both stood in silence thinking, Peter with his hand on his chin as he often did when he was lost in thought. “My mom might have a couple old rings lying around that she doesn’t need. Or your sister might even have some.”
“Well, we can ask I guess. Do you think they’d fit me?”
“I don’t know. You do have fat fingers. If you wouldn’t crack them all time . . .” She trailed off, unsure of how to finish the sentence. “Well, we’ll check anyway. If that doesn’t work, we could make some with Playdough.”
“Playdough? Playdough rings?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s silly. And won’t they break?”
“Do you have another idea?” she asked, with her hands on her hips and her bare foot tapping on the mud, in a tone that suggested he had better not have another idea. Peter noticed that her eyes seemed narrower than usual. “When should we do it?” she went on.
Despite his early uncertainty (he had never much enjoyed weddings; he thought them utterly boring, and consequently, didn’t understand what they were about), he was growing more and more excited. He had forgotten all about skipping stones, by this time, which is what Christen had been hoping for, though she had not anticipated success with such ease and to this degree. For Peter, in fact, as is often the case with children, the marriage had taken the place of skipping stones altogether, and he now saw it as the white circle he was trying to reach. All happiness lie in achieving it as soon as possible, so he said, “Tomorrow?”
“The sooner the better. Tomorrow would be great. At least, we’ll plan on that. I’ll have to ask mom and Anna about rings and we’ll have to see if Michael can come tomorrow, so it might have to wait a day or two. But we’ll see. Anyway, I need to go home now.” It was just beginning to get dark by this time, and Christen’s parents liked her to be inside by dark. She climbed up the steep part of the bank, using the large root Peter had sat on as well as other smaller roots to get out, and stood looking back at him from the top. “Are you coming now?”
Peter usually stayed later than she did to skip rocks, but usually Justin was there with him. He didn’t particularly want to stay there alone, and he no longer had any desire to skip rocks, so he scrambled out of the sunken creek bed to stand beside her, his feet sinking comfortably into the soft, grassy turf. “I’ll see you tomorrow then?” he asked. It was a question he had never asked before, since they came down to the creek most days, and his coming had never been dependent on hers, but he felt inclined to ask it now, as a reassurance of everything that had just taken place, afraid it was all a dream, as those who finally get the nerve to tell someone they love them, and are surprised to receive the same in return.
Christen did not answer, but looked at him, right into his eyes, and Peter was suddenly aware that he had never paid any attention to her eyes before, or to anyone’s eyes for that matter, but that he should have because he found them terribly beautiful. While he was still contemplating this, he could see Christen leaning towards him, and then he felt her lips press against his, only for a moment in reality, but the sensation, for him, lasted longer, like cold fingers that continue to be cold even after being inside for some time. When he finally came to realize what had happened, she was already walking off toward home. He smiled and turned toward his own home.