Escorting me by arm, Leon takes us out into a wild field west of the corn. The plants are dry, and the ground is hard this early in spring; my ankles itch, and my shoes pinch my toes. I stop him once or twice to rest, splay my feet to relieve the ache. “It’s not much farther,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
But it is; it is always farther, each time he says it. I feel blisters start to form.
He is practically carrying me by the time we come to the little marsh lake infiltrated by cattails and wild wheat. He stops, frees himself from me with an entreating glance, and walks out on a short, rickety dock that sits right over the surface of the water. “Give me a second,” he says, squatting down. “I want to check something.”
He stays there a full minute. I stand watching, expecting him to skip a stone, throw in a wish penny, something a little boyish, a little romantic; anything to justify the trip. He just squats there in the dirt, his tails folded over his heels, looking intently at the muck.
I get tired of waiting. I step up behind him, hobbling on my sore feet.
I see myself on the surface of the water.
Not a reflection. Not a mirage. A little color movie of me flickers dimly upon the water, a small, square projection, like one of my grandfather’s movies put up on the wall—but there’s no projector. The movie simply glows on the surface, rippling just slightly in the murk.
In it, I am standing on the dance floor of the Legion Hall. The dress is my dress. The hair my hair, up. On its apex sits the crown. Behind me the background sweeps with the shadows of others. But I am alone. In profile, my face angles down. My lashes fan mournfully, touch my cheeks. And then—I see you. The light grows bright behind me, like you are staring into the lights of an oncoming train. It washes over us, leaves me black, silhouetted, and when it passes, your hand is folded over mine. My hand is on the ghost of your shoulder. You are winding me close.
“Don’t be scared,” Leon says, hushed, to the movie it seems more than me.
What then plays out on the brackish surface, framed by rocky riverbed and creeping molds, is the dance Leon and I did tonight: step by step, echoing the real thing second to second, perfectly choreographed, a perfect replica. My extension, my spin. My arc of arm, my dip. My side of the promenade. The image of me trips across the surface, the eyes intent, locked on yours. On his. On mine. On the eyes of whoever’s looking.
But I don’t remember looking at anyone that way.
“It’s magic,” Leon says. “I haven’t figured out all about how it works. But if you look long enough, I think it shows the person you like most. And so—” he says, and turns himself on his heels to look at me, the real me. “I think you know more or less that I like you. But, this is proof. It’s you, since the first time I found this. You’re the one it’s always shown.”
My fingers are trembling. “Where are we,” is all I can think to say, all I want to know.
“It’s a farm my uncle owned. He sold it last year. No one lives here anymore. We used to come here in the summers. And I found this. And from the beginning, it’s been you I saw. This night, this dress, this you.” He is watching the movie of me in the water. It’s a long time before he looks up at the real me, sees something on my face that makes his go soft. “I’m sorry I made it a mystery,” he says. “I didn’t want you to think I was crazy. Or maybe you’d be disappointed if I told you I’ve known for years how beautiful you would look tonight. You shouldn’t be disappointed. It’s better in person.” He reaches up and puts one hand at the base of my spine to guide me down into his position. “Come see.”
“I don’t want to,” I say. “I don’t believe in this sort of thing.”
Leon laughs. A joyful laugh; his eyeteeth show. “No one does,” he says. “But you can see it for yourself.”
I have closed my eyes. Something about it, something about the slowly fading image of me, the way it collapses, wavering, smaller and smaller, now that Leon’s not looking at it—it makes me dizzy.
Leon paws at my lower back. “Here,” he says, offering his lap. “I’m sorry, it’s dirty out here, and I know you don’t want to ruin your dress.”
I do it; I take my seat. His legs shift a little beneath me to better catch my weight. He is not the soft seat I expected—his body is hard, solid through the layers of tulle and satin, wool and lining. His arm drapes loose around my waist to help hold me up.
“Look,” he says. “It’s starting again. You’ll miss it if you don’t.”
I open my eyes.
Again I stand on the dance floor. Again beautiful. The dress reaches to the floor, curling prettily upon itself like the petals of bluebell. Again I am alone in this room ringed with shadows. Again that charming, longing face.
“We forgot your crown,” Leon says, his head inclined against my upper arm.
And in a slow, searing gleam, like passing headlights in fog, it materializes upon my head.
The ground is cold through my soles. The cold travels up into the rest of me. Leon, beneath me, stays cold, giving no heat. I wrap my arms over my chest and wish finally for gloves, though this muck would have ruined them. I can hear the bullfrogs, their hiccupping song. On the water’s surface, the image of me is waiting, paused, shimmering as if covered with dew. I bend forward, looking at myself.
Myself looks back at me.
“Is this right,” I say, half-believing, trying to match my copy’s gaze. But her eyes glint strangely, and I cover up my face.
Leon tugs my hands down, holds them fast. “You’re lovely. Look. I just think you’re the most beautiful a person can be.”
Myself on the water seems to assent. She dips her head, and in doing so she shows off her slender jaw, her pale neck, her soft curve of collarbone. She looks as if she wants to smile. She is stopped, I suppose, by the reality of tonight: When we danced, I didn’t smile. I close my eyes to her.
“Give it a try. Don’t be scared,” Leon says.
“How do you change it,” I murmur. “I don’t know.” I shift my weight on Leon’s thigh.
“You can’t change it,” he says. “You just watch.”
When I open my eyes, the girl on the water is gone. In her place a mass of shadowy bodies shuffles back and forth in semi-regular rhythm. Their heads are bulbous, round, undifferentiated; their limbs are wiry. As the bodies overlap in their shuffling, they seem to form new limbs, longer limbs, triple-jointed limbs, slithering over each other in impossible sequence, making endless contact, strange handshakes.
“I’ve always wondered what it would show when you were looking,” he says. His cheek settles against my arm.
The crowd, the shadow beast, begins slowly to unfurl, begins to let light through; it is sparkling, diamond light. The limbs uncouple and drift back like a black curtain. At the center, the light condenses, narrows its halo—revealing the dazzling Queen’s crown, and beneath it, a stranger. Dark hair down past their waist. They approach us beautifully, like you’d expect of the coronated: straight shoulders, lifted chin, commanding eyes.
Strange eyes like no one has.
“Oh,” says Leon, not bothering to hide his disappointment.
The gestures soften. The features bloom. The lips grow full and dark; the eyelashes lengthen. The shoulders round; suit tails flare out, ribbon down into a becoming black skirt; a white dress shirt wraps round the waist, binding them in an hourglass bodice. The ribcage narrows. The collarbone flares. The vision swerves and sways.
“I think she looks like you,” says Leon.
But I am frightened to think such a thought.
“Is it someone you know?” Leon asks.
“No,” I murmur. But the eyes entreat me, say I ought to.
On the surface of the water, the movie of her cuts off, goes black.
“Bring it back,” I instruct Leon loudly, startling myself.
“If you keep watching, it’ll repeat,” he says.
A flicker again of light on the water, and we’re back to the beginning. I watch the woman in the water, trying to figure out what I know her from. How she knows me. What she knows that I don’t. I watch her again.
“It’s getting late,” says Leon. “I don’t want to worry your parents.”
“They’re not my parents,” I say, and now I’ve basically given up both my secrets, but Leon doesn’t notice or doesn’t respond, and I can’t find it in me to care.
The movie begins to transform as it loops and loops. This time the woman is painted over, makeup red and pink and blue and black spilling outside her lines, the eyes burning deep in a circle of powder. This time she is just eyes and a thin line of smile, shapely arms. She dances, dances, and her body begins to ripple at the edges; she grows fuzzy, blurs; her colors drain; they are waxy and thin. Her face is two masks not quite matched together, is a kaleidoscope of eyes and the place where eyes go.
I don’t know whose will it is that does it—mine, Leon’s. Maybe it’s just some exhaustion of the movie in the water, the magic overtaxed, the image overplayed. But the rip starts at the center of her smile. A tiny hole, a dot, a pinprick; it might be the start of a word, might be the beginning of a smirk. But it doesn’t stop. It swells black between her lips, the edges smooth and perfect like a bubble being blown; it eclipses the mouth, wipes north to envelop the nose, the cheeks; it sweeps up to the bridge of the nose, drawing a valley between the hungry, warning eyes, separating them, eating them from the center edge outward. Leon leans forward, so we both lean forward; I am on hands and knees before the image and he is on hands and knees over me.
Because on the surface of the water, something dreadful is happening. Slowly, bubbles rise, dotting the water like little spoonfuls of jam: a bubble of hemline and one of sleeve, one of open palm and one of comely neckline, one of knowing lips and one of terrible, beautiful iris, black pupil, fatal glint.
Leon gasps as the first one pops. I hear it through my fingers. The sound is toxic, oily, sick. “No,” he says. “No no no.” He rubs at his eyes furiously. He falls back on his heels and offers his whole face to the sky.
I stay quiet behind him, watching as the bubbles pop, as the light and color they contained spread, creeping outward until they cover the entire marsh. They swirl but do not mix, quickly painting the water to each shore, streaking the surface with a bright sunrise palette, though there is no sun above, though around us it remains dead, dark night.
It’s become really rather pretty, I think, though it would be a mistake to say so.
Leon picks himself up from the ground. Dirt streaks his dress shirt; his rosebud boutonniere is crushed, dripping petals, the baby’s breath weeping over his breast pocket. His hair is limp now too, falling into his face like mine. He doesn’t bother to fix it. Just turns his back to the water, dips down, helps me up, arms steadying me like I am a war-wounded.
We head back to the car. Over his shoulder, I look back at the water, wishing now that it’s over that I could stay. Trying to think if I’ve ever seen anything so arresting as the image in the water winding apart.