by Mason Powell
he had to pick a partner, someone with whom he would canoe down the Moselle River. Eyeing his options, none compelled him. A stout girl with blonde hair waved and flashed her eyelashes at him. He looked onto the next. One by one, the boys quickly chose their matches from the assembly of girls: Carrigan went with Thomas, Juliet with Seth, Frances took Bernard’s hand, and Dawn and Brandy delightedly slipped from tree to tree until the two misses were over a hill and out of sight. But towards the back, among the quiet and nameless, she stood. When he held her in his vision, she looked down at the ground and her hair fanned out. It was the color of the mud at the riverbank. She had pale skin—made rosy on the edges by the sun—that tightly wrapped her thin stature, topped with a unique face, which donned a small nose and exaggerated front teeth.
“You,” he said, extending his left arm and pointing with an upturned palm that shone skyward. The few remaining girls stepped aside. She looked up at him. Her eyes were chartreuse and both specked with red. He confidently beckoned her and he burned feverishly inside. But he was truly afraid and wrapped in a frigid zephyr. She drew forward, brushing shoulders with the silent others. Without thinking, the two climbed into a wooden canoe marked: Lavendula-004 and floated away.
“What’s your name?” he eventually said, in between the soft stroke of his oars.
“Lepus,” was her delayed reply.
“Oh.” He stopped rowing. “What does it mean?”
“My parents named me after the constellation that Orion and his dogs chase across the dark winter sky.” The truth as it was, her usual manner of speaking, she continued. “What’s your name?”
“That’s a terrible name.”
A red wave washed across his face, hiding the lighter freckles on his cheeks. As it faded away he laughed at her honesty and curious manners.
“I know. I’ve never liked it.”
“I think it suits you.”
“Truly? You just said that it was a terrible name.”
“It is. But from now on and until forever I won’t be able to see you as anything different. I will think of the boy with the red hair and freckles who chose me from the crowd and I will remember that he was the one with the terrible name. Jonald.”
They were floating downstream in reverie, using the paddles simply to stay on course. The sets of youth in the vessels ahead and behind slipped further apart until the two were alone. Soon they saw soldiers drearily marching down the road alongside the river. The green-clad men were covered in dirt and flew a faded foreign flag. Jonald and Lepus both felt troubled at their sight. When spotted by the troops the men solemnly waved riverwards and their worries dissolved. The two children shouted imperceptible phrases at them and the soldiers called back with absent kindnesses. The infantry straightened their backs and marched northward with courage as they drifted past them in their golden canoe.
Neither of those floating souls knew what their union meant, so each withheld their privacies and retained their mysterious nature. They talked of many common things and even the sensitive subjects of nature and God. Areas they seemed expert in, when it fell within their tailored beliefs. They both wanted to delve deeply into these topics but shied away. Passion lingered just beneath their skin and both felt hopeful in this acquaintance. Paddling down the Moselle, fear and shyness left the pair.
The sun slipped behind the low curtain of clouds to the west. A shadow fell over them as the sky collapsed with darkness, quickly growing from the east.
“It looks like a cauldron,” said Lepus, staring at the cascading sky.
Jonald looked up at the looming clouds.
“The clouds look like a giant cauldron and the sun is fire. You can tell that the brew is boiling. Look at all the steam and rising colors.”
As she spoke, the cauldron took form. Then the world steeped to silence. Jonald was overtaken by the serene dying of the day. Watching the red and blue hues transform, until the sun escaped and the clouds glowed at their fairest. He shuddered at the thought of a giant cauldron.
“We’ve been on this river for too long. Weren’t we supposed to turn right at some creek?” He shivered again.
“We were, but I don’t know when and where.”
“So, we abandoned that plan long ago?”
“I thought you knew where we were going. You were sitting tall at the stern and paddling away.”
“No, you forgot Miss Delaunay’s directions. I did too, don’t worry,” she said, smirking.
At Lavendula, Margot Delaunay sat in her tent, undressing. Peeling off sticking socks and combing dirty hair. She hadn’t forgot about the children, but she didn’t worry. She figured that they would either find their way back or take shelter that night. Margot had taught Lepus basic survival skills and could see her hardiness. She looked at her browned skin in a mirror and then suspiciously over her shoulder. After finding her flask hidden in the sheets, she blew out a candle and reclined in her cot.
“It’s getting dark out and faintly cold,” Jonald said. “Earlier I felt a gust of wind from the west. See those clouds?” He drew near her and pointed at the dimming horizon. “Well, it made me think that a storm might be blowing in. Or that a gloom-cast sky would cover us.”
“Are you tired?”
“No,” Jonald said, appearing anxious.
“Then why should we go back now? Aren’t you ready for an adventure?”
“I…I’m…” his nervousness made Lepus want to ride even further downstream. “I don’t know.”
“Why did you pick me? Are you glad that we’re here together?”
“Why are you asking all these questions?” he said bluntly. She seemed playful to him but he was nervous. Feelings of both love and fear were rapping at his heart. She smiled gently at him, sure of herself.
Lepus looked down at the water and dipped her fingertips in. There she saw the silver reflection of moonlight that pushed its way through the clouds. She pulled her hand out, now cold, and ripples made the light dance on the water. She knew what came next and didn’t fear it. Never before had she felt so at ease in these hours. A girl who always desired the dawn now floated into the night willingly. Whatever was to follow, those moments drawing near excited her.
“I have to tell you something. I don’t want to, but I should,” Jonald said. Lepus was still smiling but her countenance grew sober, as he continued. “You’re going to think I’m strange and ridiculous.”
“It’s okay Jonald. Tell me.”
“When I was…I…” he could hardly find the courage to speak, yet in his dire need he let it out. “My mother died giving birth to me. I lived with my father when I was very young and only have faint memories of him, glimpses, almost like shadows. He was no good. I think that’s why my mother died. He wasn’t to help her. The last time I saw him was when my aunt Lauren took me away. I wish she never had. Even my dad was better than her.”
He briefly paused, thinking about what to say next and how he could explain himself. Her smile was completely gone now and she had moved closer, placing her hands on his. The moon was climbing out from behind the clouds and their faces were framed in a translucent blue. Letting out a sigh and a breath of vapor, he resumed.
“She took me to her cottage, deep in the woods, far from everyone I knew. The only people that ever visited us were her strange friends, four ugly and horrid women. Some nights they left me alone and walked out into the forest. I could hear them singing and chanting madly. Our small house was full of bones, parts of broken animals, vials of disgusting smelling liquids, and thorn-hemmed plants. It made me sick and I could hardly fall asleep because of the odors. She never spoke to me and spent all of her time reading books, or tucked away somewhere out of touch. Staying here at Lavendula with the other boys, seeing the girls and caring adults is a blessing to me. I never want to leave.”
Her gaze left him. She looked out across the water and at the frost coated riverbank. It shimmered as the moon crested the storm clouds. All was still except for the wind lapping the water and the gentle sound of thunder in the distance.
“You can’t go back there with her!” she said abruptly.
“I don’t live with her anymore. Apart from her, there’s no one else and nowhere for me to go.”
“Right now you have me.”
“I still haven’t told you everything,” he smiled. “It’s very overwhelming, but I’ll try to explain.”
“Tell me whatever you want.” She squeezed his hands tightly.
“Lauren is truly wicked. I’ve seen things that I won’t ever forget, things too awful to speak of. One morning I was left alone. After waking I ate some bread and salted fish, then I went for a walk. The woods around us stood thick with thorns and rocks. After wandering through them for several years I had created paths and found hidden places I could visit. That morning, I was heading to a giant oak tree that I would climb on days that were clear, when I heard something startling. It was the sound of a girl crying. I was very nervous and didn’t want to find her at first. I don’t know how long it had been since I last spoke to anyone but those five repulsive women. Swiftly, the sound of her weeping changed something inside me that I can’t explain; I knew I had go into the thicket and help her.
“When she heard that something was approaching I think she felt afraid, because she quit crying. I began to call out, saying that I could help her. A trail of bent brush and blood led me to her. It looked like she had been running and got caught in the thorns. She was exhausted and wrapped in vines. I untangled her and led her back onto the path. My seclusion shaped me into someone entirely inexperienced with girls. I was unaware of how they spoke and acted. I was even ignorant about the looks of a growing girl. Her name was Selma and she was the closest thing to an angel that I could dream of. I tried to comfort her the best I could and eventually the tears in her eyes dried away. I helped her to a stream where she could wash out the cuts in her legs and arms. She took off her gown and went down into the stream as I sat on the rocks. I curiously watched her bathe and then wash the blood from her dress. All the while, my head felt light and my stomach was filled with emotions I had never felt.
“We walked back towards the cottage holding hands. Selma sang songs I had never heard and told me all about her home. When we came to where I lived, a rush of fear fell over me. I had realized that what Lauren did in our home might shock or frighten Selma. I told her that we should leave, but she insisted we go inside. We drew near the door and I burst out foolishly, yelling at her, saying that we should go back. The way that she pulled herself away wounded me. In an instant the joy that we shared that day vanished. She turned away and then let out a scream. There in the shadows, stood Lauren. Her locks of wiry hair were tangled, her black dress flowing to the ground. In her eyes there was a look of lunacy. Selma jumped towards me and I held her close. My aunt charged at us. She pried her from my arms. The surprise of it all—Selma screaming and crying, my aunt yelling madly—stunned me motionless. Lauren dragged Selma into the woods by her hair and I never saw her again.”
The moon was now high and the clouds closing in from all directions. Lepus’ hair stood on end in the night air and a breath of steam accompanied each word spoken by Jonald.
“I’m sorry that you have to hear this, but I’m close to the end. Then you will know my secret. That night, Lauren came back home covered in blood, raving like never before. Over and over she screamed at me. Saying that I was a ‘wicked boy’ and calling me unworthy. She went on and on about how I was guilty. Eventually, I stood up to her and asked where she had taken Selma. She only grinned with her yellow teeth showing and continued on and on about how I was guilty and a heartbreaker. My aunt cursed me, Lepus, a true curse. She threw herself into a fit of rage and I felt a hot sensation all over my body. She said, ‘you will only feel love for one day at a time and may your nights be hopelessly dark.’ When it was over, I fell to the ground paralyzed and I woke up the next morning alone.”
Nearing its apex, the moon now shone on the earth in full. Its beams hit the bottom of the river and boldly illuminated the couple in that little boat. The storms were closing in on them. Smaller and smaller was the sphere of stars that could be viewed overhead. Lepus was captivated by his tale. He had never told anyone before. She was the first to help carry his burden. He stopped and sighed, short of breath. Flashes of lightning increased in number and sometimes startled them.
“I don’t understand what happens to me. Late at night, I fade away. My skin darkens until the night swallows me. Then all I can see is black and I blindly feel my way through a dark world. In that nether, I hear terrible screams and as the night drags on more and more hands begin to grab at me. I try to pull away but they eventually drag me down and smother me. That’s how I wake each morning.”
Slowly Jonald’s voice was rising in pitch. At the end of each sentence, he sounded shriller than before.
“There is only one way to break the curse, if I fall in love.”
“Have you been in love before?” she asked suddenly.
“After she damned me and I lost Selma I wandered the countryside. Living as an orphan…”
His face slowly shrunk, skin clinging tightly to his skull.
“…I fell in love with a girl named Audrey.”
The color of his skin faded to match Lepus’ tone.
“…And for one night, I didn’t disappear. Instead, I was transfigured. I took on Audrey’s form. She ran away from me in fear and I hid all night long. Looking at myself in wonder. At the body of the girl I loved.”
Brunette strands quickly pushed out, replacing his red hair.
“When I fall in love, during the night I turn into whomever it is that I adore. The darkness is replaced with something even stranger. I’ve told you this because I—”
He fell to the floor of the canoe as he felt his bones realigning. Jonald’s shoulders shrunk in size and he stretched to match her height. His chest expanded slowly and his skin softened. When he picked himself up and turned to face her, she gasped. He looked over the edge of the canoe and saw Lepus’ face staring up at him from the dark water.
Lepus’ mind raced. She was awestruck at the sudden transformation. Slowly reaching out she touched his cheek. She held his face in her hands and aligned their eyes. Every detail of his body perfectly mirrored hers, down to the striking pattern of her irises, but his mannerisms remained intact; he still breathed heavily, he didn’t bat his eyelashes like she did, and he still sat with a slouch. She pulled him close to her and wrapped her arms around him. With their chests forced together she could feel both of their hearts throbbing. Lepus eased back to look at him again as a flash of lightning struck nearby. Blinded by the white flash, she pressed her lips against his. The two fell onto the floor of the boat and her hands found their way into his baggy shirt. Familiarly, she touched him and felt a confused passion. She stopped and spoke.
“Out of all those other girls, you had to pick me.”
He turned his head away and let go of her.
“I’m glad you did,” she said. “Of all the others I should believe you the most.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have a secret too. Call it a curse if you want, but I don’t know why it happens to me.”
“What is it?”
It sounded like Lepus was talking to herself.
“When the moon is at its highest point in the sky I turn into a rabbit.”
“You’re making fun of me,” he said, climbing back into his seat.
“No, I’m serious. It’s happened ever since I was born.”
The duo sat quietly as raindrops began to fall. She looked away from her likeness and up at the sky. Only a small patch of black was exposed where the moon neared its peak. She could feel that it was growing close and knew that she would soon change.
“This is incredible,” she said. “I thought I liked you before. Now, I’m sure that I love you.”
“I am you. I mean. I look just like you. Does any of this bother you?” he said, matching her shrill voice.
“No, but you’re about to witness something awful.”
Her aching grew stronger. A strong pressure weighed on Lepus from all sides.
At Camp Lavendula the other girls would hold her, stroking her white fur. They all knew her darkest secret but would carry it to the grave. Lepus let them gently play with her—a large white rabbit with red eyes and floppy ears.
“It’s about to happen. I can feel it.”
He grabbed her wrists and kissed her again. They pressed their cheeks together and looked up in unison. The moon disappeared, swallowed by the ominous rainclouds. Wet droplets pattered all around them and fell coldly onto their faces. He felt her fading away. Looking down, just as she had told him, he saw a white animal looking into his eyes. He thought that they both might turn into rabbits, but he remained a young girl.
He clumsily grabbed a paddle—not used to her strength or size, and steered them towards the shore. Rain now filled the air. Jonald dragged the canoe ashore with her inside. Beneath a tree he flipped it upside down and crawled under, she hopped in behind him. With her clothes he sheltered them from the wind as best he could. He talked to her as if she was there, and she truly was. Listening to every word he said. He stopped talking and thought about their condition, he a boy inside the body of a girl he loved and Lepus, now a large rabbit. Both far from where their beds were laid, nestled together they eventually fell asleep as the storm raged on around them.
The next morning came quickly and the night before faded like a dream. After they awoke under their canoe tightly holding one another, neither spoke about what had happened. Lepus dressed, while he pushed the canoe to the side of a road nearby and waited. In the ditch, Lepus found a postcard that was burnt on its edges. It was a drawing of a soldier arm in arm with a girl wearing a white sunhat, a red and blue patriotic dress, and standing on thick legs. They were caricaturized and done in a soft watercolor style. On the soldier’s helmet it said MP and the girl had an umbrella tucked under her arm. They were mid-stride and looking into each other’s light green eyes. At the top was a phrase in cursive that neither could read.
An old man in a hay wagon slowly approached. Jonald stepped into the horses’ path and they came to a halt. He asked where the man was going and if they could accompany him. The old man chuckled and then agreed. This man was certainly near death. He had a sagging face with a jowl that shook when he talked and his body was thin and frail. All of his hair seemed to have fallen out and he moved terribly slowly.
They loaded their canoe in back. Lepus sat down in the hay and Jonald climbed upfront. They all resumed the slow slog down the muddy road. Far off in the distance they heard the soft boom of fired mortars and the tapping of gunfire.
“Damned war! Damn them all to hell” the old man said. Those were the only words spoken the whole ride back, aside from the old man sometimes chattering to himself.
Occasionally, Jonald would glance back at Lepus. She was occupied, marveling at the beauty of the countryside. Midday, they arrived at Lavendula. They thanked that skeleton of a man and he continued northward. Carrying the canoe they walked straight to the shore they had launched from and tied it secure. Jonald embraced her and whispered something into her ear. Behind them they heard kids talking. A group approached, led by Margot. Their leader said nothing about their absence and only smiled at the two who had disappeared.
She addressed all of them and Jonald lost Lepus in the crowd. The kids were arranging into pairs and casting off from the shore.
He felt lightheaded.
Lepus timidly approached the assembling girls.
Then Jonald realized what was happening and followed Margot’s orders.
Shaking and nervous he looked all around at their strange faces knowing that,