THE leaves were just beginning to burst, yellow-green and tender, and, as he walked, the long thin branches which had been bare all winter waved and tossed lightly over his head in the breeze. He walked slowly, looking at everything, taking it all in, breathing deep. She would not be there yet; he had plenty of time. The air was warm and sweet. There was an excitement as of flowers and leaves and birds in the air. And the ground was soft —good to feel under your feet again after ice and snow. This short yielding grass . . .
A man at the side of the path was raking last year’s dead leaves from the foundations of his cottage. Already there was a banking pile of brown leaves over in a corner of the yard near a lilac bush. He watched the man’s arms swing in long steady strokes; he could hear the rake crisply sweeping the leaves along, baring the young shoots of grass beneath, uncovering the white and green roots. Raking — it was like combing the hair of the earth, scratching the back of the earth. In the morning you woke itchy and wanting to stretch and roll. This was the way with the earth in spring. A man with a rake scratched its back.
‘Looks like she’s comin’ early this year,’ called the man. He leaned on his rake, grinning, wiping sweat from his forehead.
‘Yes.’ . . .
A robin hopped across the grass; it cocked its beady-eyed head proudly and pecked at its breast. She was coming early this year—the spring; coming in April with robins.
Fresh, clear fragrance hung all about the lilac bush. Bees were on the blossoms, crawling stickily over the tiny flower cups, boring in deep. The lilac leaves fluttered in the wind and showed their under sides silver, and the heavy lavender blossoms nodded restlessly, continuously, the bees clinging tight all over them.
The setting sun lay strong on his back, warm through his coat on his shoulders. Grass bent pliantly under his feet as he walked on. The grass and this brown earth beneath, giving with each step — it made you feel grateful and good. There was nothing ahead but sky and grass. The meadowland sloped upward. A dark blue cloud blew along from north to south over the straight, clean horizon line. Grasshoppers jumped around him high as his waist; they hit his hands as he walked. You could feel free and welcome here — it was all like a greeting. Presently the ground turned sandy, the grass yellow and hard. The wind sounded soft like a continuous puff, and over it the tinny chirping of the grasshoppers shrilled loud.
Then suddenly thunder rumbled — low and very far away. It was only a murmur, a whisper rolling in that dark blue cloud. The sound was gone in an instant. But it left the whole open world hushed and waiting and filled with a strange expectant uneasiness.
Thunder stirs memories in you, deep and lurking; it quickens dim restless desires. After it thundered he felt unsatisfied and troubled, and he began to hurry. Maybe she would be there before him.
He could smell the lake now, fresh and fishy. His feet sank ankle-deep in yellow sand. Ahead lay a long low dune overgrown with willow bushes. He hurried, and when he got to the dune he was breathing hard and running sweat all over.
That quickening threat of thunder hung in the air. He watched the blue cloud; it lay low and heavy, its outlines massing in and out as he looked. Across the sky from the north other smaller clouds were coasting swiftly. Sometimes the sight of clouds can scare you. The vast sky and the awe of thunder . . .
He scrambled up the path through the willow bushes. Furry gray buds were shooting out tender green leaves, and the willow bark looked slippery. On the top of the dune the lake breeze caught him full and cool. He ran down the slanting sand cliff on the other side and stood on the pebbly beach looking up and down the shore. She was not there.
The blue lake lapped along the curving beach lovingly, with a little hissing sound. Far out against the hardedged sky line a white sail cleft the water. The round dark clouds were piling up rapidly out over the lake. He stared at them fascinated; then turned. In the west the sky was still clear, but the sun was strange and white, like a dazzling splotch behind milky drapes, dead-looking. Out over the lake it was all movement and wind and the sound of water.
A stone suddenly flipped at his feet, puffing up sand in a little spurt. He turned quickly. There she stood, leaning against the sand cliff. Ah, the flow of that coarse green dress round her body . . .
‘When did you come?’ he cried happily. ‘I did n’t see you!’ He started toward her.
He could see she was pleased at surprising him; she had a small wise smile. As he came toward her the corners of her mouth drooped mockingly. Then quickly she spun and doubled down the beach away from him. A game! He was only a few steps behind her, sprinting at once; but she was swift. They ran in the wet sand close to the water—the firm sand where the waves curled. With her dress flying he could see the deep hollows behind her knees: legs stretching—the fine hollows and the two lean strong tendons. He felt proud of her legs. He could hear her laughing in low delighted pants, like a child. A wave splashed his foot; his ankle was wet and cold.
She stopped, flung up her arms, and he caught her — swung her roughly around. This was a game! But at once she seemed stern and calm; she firmly pushed him away. He knew he should stop — she had not meant this; but he tried to pull her down on the soft dry sand. She twisted; she was strong. ‘No,’ she was saying. ‘No!’ He knew he should stop; but she was warm from running and still breathing fast — she was fragrant and sweet. She twisted away from him angrily, stood defensive. He glared at the sand resentfully, ashamed, his arms limp and hanging. At that moment out over the lake thunder suddenly rumbled again — short, abrupt, and very close.
Like passion, that thunder; it sunk into him heavily, stirring up surges of dim, wild desire. The trembling, uneasy roll and then the pregnant hush; you could feel thunder in your head now, thunder in your blood, restless muttering surging thunder all through you deep inside. He reached out a hand toward her fiercely.
She touched his hand, patted it. In her deliberate coolness he felt a wish to ignore his mood. Then she drooped her thin blue-veined eyelids and picked up a stone from the beach. Thunder could be like an echo inside you, reverberating tensely. She could n’t understand this. Everything was easy for her. She could run and never let him catch her.
She threw the stone underhand out into the lake. It skipped three times and went under. Something in that action calmed him. He became aware for the first time of the rising waves — whitecaps; they rolled and hissed with a deep windy undertone. Everything had a noise to-day. There was in everything a whisper — a sound of motion; you overheard it rushing, a sort of secret universal undertone. And over it all was the hush of thunder.
‘We always wait!‘ he cried bitterly. Why had she run if she would not be caught? In everything else there was a drive and a conquest, the huge quick earth with its plan. He faced her full and she turned away.
‘You know I can’t,’ she said sullenly.
He plumped down wearily on the sand. The boat with the white sail was gone.
Then she began walking up and down on the sand in front of him, slowly, solemnly. Head down, he watched the smooth little ball of her ankle, watched her shoes press into the sand and push forward, rocking a little, leaving a round dry hollow into which more sand quickly slid, filling up her footprints. There was a long free swing of legs beneath the heavy green dress — a break and flow of folds — the rhythm and brush of her body going back and forth and back and forth on the sand. Suddenly she reminded him of the lilac bush swaying in the wind, leaves, flowers, and branches covered with greedy bees. It was a likeness of rhythm, of spirit. He thought of the man raking dead leaves, the wave of the grass in the field, the tinny chirping of grasshoppers — the urgent sound and movement and color rushing together in everything; this warmth of sand now and the continuous sweep of the waves; all this urge and order and plan; this whole huge quick earth, with everything full of a throbbing beauty, with everything stirring and living: the strain and sadness, the beauty and life overwhelming, until remembering the sweet tender color of grass was enough, and you closed your eyes. . . .
She had stopped pacing and he looked up. Her face had a timid, excited look. She came close and sat beside him; he could feel her shoulder rub against his, and he tried to forget the contact, disregard it. He said to himself that every third wave is supposed to be bigger and the ninth wave biggest of all, and he determined to keep count, but forgot in an instant. Her shoulder rubbed against his.
‘I know how it is for you,’ she whispered. ‘Sometimes it’s that way for me — too.’ Her eyes were all glistening and pitiful. A low roll of thunder began, stopped short, and left the air breathless, waiting. ‘Sometimes,’ she repeated in the sudden hush, her voice very low. ‘Only most of the time it’s like this — I’m cold. Cold!’ He knew he was staring at her. ‘I can’t help it!’ she cried fiercely, as if he had accused her.
Her face seemed to him thin and starved. It was as if he were staring straight into her, inside her, deep and clear. The thunder muttered again in the background. She meant that this was n’t her fault; this was the way she was made. It was like seeing a thing stripped naked. Louder now, and closer, the heavy rumbling began to fill the low sky out over the lake. He thought of iron cannon balls rolling in mysterious metallic spaces, waiting to crash. This thunder could crush you.
‘I don’t want to be this way!’ she sobbed. Now her cheeks were shiny and wet. The thunder rolled like a weight on the air. Against the horizon line there was a tiny gray smudge of smoke — a steamer far out in the thunder.
He did n’t mean to, but his legs jerked suddenly and he was close beside her in the sand, his arm around her; she was sobbing hysterically in big gulps. He felt brittle and keen from strain, and she kept crying. ‘One time I thought we could — live out here — have a house out here — by the lake.’ All the time the thunder chanted deeply behind her. But you had to wait to have a house by the lake; be stern and hard; be cold — you had to wait. Stern and hard, he kept his arm very steady, and with the other hand he was smoothing her hair down, petting her soothingly; and in a little while she grew calmer. But the thunder was like a deliberate burden, an intentional weight put upon him. He did n’t mean to, but he began to kiss her hungrily all over the cheeks and eyes, tasting the saltiness of tears. Some times you know you will never forget; that was the way it was now; this instant would be with him forever, this salty wet smoothness of cheeks and about him the rush of water and over all this suspense of thunder in ominous air.
A white sheet of lightning glowed dully in the sky toward the south. Now let it come; he set himself ready, dreading it. Then at last the great thunder came in a wrecking boom — it always follows the flash. It rocketed heavy over the dunes, spilling low echoes: vibrant thunder charging the atmosphere. He felt it enter him and settle there tremblingly. The clouds glowed white when the lightning flashed, and she stirred within his arm.
It seemed that time stopped and the moment was suspended. He could feel her close and soft and warm beside him. Along the beach in front of them bluegray waves were lying in and slipping back, hissing, making little smooth grooves in the wet sand. A couple of gulls wheeled out over the lake; they rode the white-edged waves. This was far out in the country for gulls; they usually stay close to the harbor, where bits of food float and the water is dirty. He wondered how long this moment could last. Forever and ever it seemed. Then she murmured rather timidly: ‘I think I ought to go. . . . There’ll be a storm.’ And that was final. Time started.
There was nothing he could say. The thunder was muttering constantly as if in practice, preparing for another crash. Her thin fingers had clutched his wrist, wrapping it tight. She had hands like a child, brown and long, a little dirty now. The clouds were navy blue down there between the irregular flashes. The air was getting thick and hard to breathe. But after the storm it would clear. For everything you had to wait. Now she would go. That would be better for both of them. Tomorrow they could meet again. Then it would be different; there would be no thunder to-morrow. Passionately he pressed his hand full against her hair; this rounding smoothness, this fine hard grain. But you had to wait. She stirred gently and broke away from him, stood up. Empty and alone he stared hard at the shifting blue thunderclouds. Then he too stood up.
The sun was gone now and the whole western sky was eerie-gray and mottled like the under side of birds’ wings. She looked a little embarrassed and did not face him fully — an awkward moment. Then he reached for her hand and clasped it loosely in both of his. She turned her face. Very carefully he kissed her on the mouth, straining back the pressure, holding in; her lips were wet and warm. He could hear the screaming mews of the gulls out over the sound of the lake. It was like twilight around them and the thunder was low and fervently deep. Then he let go of her hand; and without looking at him again, head bent, she turned and started off down the beach, the green dress heavily swinging.
He looked after her with a dull, unsatisfied fixity. A little way down she turned. He waved his arm in a weak half circle and could see her head bend in reply. Then a curve in the dunes cut her from sight.
He stood alone on the beach for a moment, feeling the full surge of the elements about him, the lash of waves hissing and pounding, the tremulous, thunder-charged air. Now that she was gone he felt terrified by this bursting oppression of the sky. A glow of lightning broke in the clouds — first a faint wan sheet, then a dazzling fork; and immediately thunder shook deep and booming along the dunes. A horrible urgency possessed him; shocks of thunder throbbed into him, and he ran wildly up the sloping sand cliff—ran through the willows — ran across sand and hard grass. He could feel his leg muscles stretching and giving; his breath came hot and raw; he ran and ran. Then at last the thunder fell distantly to echoes, but he could not trust it to stop and he kept running until his legs were numb and his lungs empty. Then a few drops of rain splashed down cool and calm on his hair.
There was grass under his feet again, dark green in the gloom, and he slacked up and let himself walk. The grass was soft to press down upon, yielding. But low, interpenetrant thunder rumbled still in the air above, preparing rain, rolling, filling him with vague nameless dreads and desires, making him try to remember. He thought of the beach, the shore line stretching away, curving, as far as you could see; the panic of thunder; white restless stripes of waves coming in; gulls; and her long humble stride as she walked away.
It did no good to think. Soon it would rain hard; the big drops would sink deep into the soft, yielding earth. In the gloom beneath his feet he could see star-shaped ferns spraying out fragile and green; and close ahead lay a thick field of wild snapdragons, swaying pallid in the wind, all with their tongues out, eager for the rain.