“You hate someone whom you really wish to love, but whom you cannot love.”
“It’s a mistake to go with her, my friend. She just doesn’t dislike you—she abhors you.”
Raff’s eyes were filled with pain. He wanted to spare me, but couldn’t. He knew I was stubborn.
“I hear you, Raff, but if I don’t go, I may not get another chance.”
He shrugged and fell silent.
We both knew it’d be years before the National Geographic Society would again sponsor another expedition into Portugal to study the ancient rock carvings.
So it was a choice—go or stay.
For me, the choice consisted of Jessica Saunders, or the missed opportunity of a lifetime.
But really, it was both—I was in love with her.
I was doomed to lose regardless and my heart would break either way.
Jessica was expressionless when she heard the news.
“So, you and Mark will form the team,” Raff said matter-of-factly.
She didn’t flinch—remained completely composed.
“Do you have any concerns?” he asked pointedly.
“No, when do we leave?”
“Tomorrow morning at eight—if that’s okay with you.”
“That’ll be fine,” she said coolly.
Raff arched an eyebrow as he turned to face me, but the die was cast, as far as I was concerned. I was eager to go.
He sensed my reaction and just shrugged. “Have a good trip,” he sighed, “and try not to get on each others’ nerves.”
And that was that.
Two days later we were in a prehistoric rock art site in the Côa Valley, Portugal, observing and documenting continuous human occupation from the end of the Paleolithic Age.
Our tents were pitched near the Côa River and to all appearances we were functioning as a team, but the reality was quite different.
In day-to-day work, we were more like toddlers engaged in parallel play—each completely ignoring the other.
The first night, we ate supper before the fire—the flames bronzing Jessica’s lovely profile.
She had honey-colored hair and huge brown eyes. When she looked at me, I turned to stone.
We were terse, trying not to step on the other’s toes and yet, at the same time, being excessively polite—possibly for the same reason.
“Do you want more coffee,” she said softly, “before I throw this out?”
Her voice was a whisper and it drove me mad with longing. Just asking a mere question was a lovely poetry that stirred my soul.
“No, thank you,” I said, staring into the depths of her brown eyes. They seemed limitless as the night sky.
I watched as she emptied the coffee pot and washed the tin cups. I was in torment. She was so lovely. I hated my fate.
One drunken remark shortly after we met doomed our budding relationship. I made the mistake of joking coarsely with her—treating her like every other woman, when clearly she was not.
I’ve played and replayed that moment—her terse questions, her flashing eyes and simmering anger.
I was a total fool and my apology the next day didn’t mend matters and may have made them worse.
Now, there was this awkward gulf between us and there was nothing I could do.
She finished her task, said good night and retired for the night—leaving me beneath a river of stars, bereft and abandoned.
I deserved my fate, but hated it.
It was past three when I awoke—something disturbed me.
I looked over to Jessica’s tent and saw the lantern lit—but inside, I saw two figures. I rubbed my eyes, and looked back, but the second person had disappeared.
My breathing stopped.
At that moment, Jessica emerged from the tent and wandered down to stare at the river.
The Moon had risen and now turned the flowing water into a glitter of diamonds.
I saw Jessica’s body shudder and her shoulders heave in unmistakable sobs.
I wanted to console her. My arms trembled, torn between the desire to comfort and fear of offending.
After a while, she stopped heaving, and sat down staring into the depths of the river.
I lay on my pillow watching her until I fell asleep.
In the morning, she was aloof as usual.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask, or even engage in polite conversation.
The gulf between us widened again.
That night, we sat again in a sea of uncertainty and polite distance. Everything between us was formal and functional.
Finally, I could take it no longer—I’d risk making a fool of myself, but had to ask.
“Did you sleep well last night?”
She looked at me suspiciously as if I invaded her privacy.
“I slept well—why do you ask?”
“I saw you sitting by the river—it must have been past three.”
She bristled. I could feel a terse reply welling up—maybe she’d parry with a blunt question. Are you stalking me now, Mark?
But she didn’t ask. She looked away, as if measuring a response.
“You’re right,” she whispered, “I did spend some time by the river.”
“I do that some times,” I reassured her.
“I doubt you do—at least, for the same reason.”
“I don’t mean to pry, Jessica—you seemed so sad.”
“Did I?” Again, the look of defiance in her eyes.
I wanted to back down, but didn’t. “You were crying,” I said.
She clasped her hands together around her ankles as in a fetal position and began rocking.
My heart melted for her.
“I know we’re not close,” I told her, “but sometimes, it helps to talk.”
She looked at me as if she’d burst out laughing—but then, the mood passed and her eyes softened.
“Do you know what a moledro is?”
“Yes,” I said, “a pile of stones—a cairn.”
She laughed harshly. “Not just a pile of stones—a sacred sculpture meant to represent a human figure.”
“Okay,” I conceded.
“Do you know the legend?”
I shook my head.
“The stones are said to be enchanted soldiers. If one is taken from the pile and placed beneath a pillow, a soldier will appear just before dawn. He’s only there for a moment—then, he turns to stone and magically returns to the pile.”
A silence like a shadow fell between us. I was afraid to speak.
“I saw him, Mark—I saw a soldier.”
“You mean, you took a rock from the cairn and put it under your pillow?”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly in a huge sigh.
“I doubt you’d understand.”
“No? Try me.”
“It happens with every little girl, I suppose. You play games and imagine your future—who you’ll marry—and what he’ll be like.”
“It might not just be a girl thing—I’ve done that myself.”
“But for me, it was more—that’s who I wanted—and I was determined not to settle for anyone else.”
“You mean your image of this man of your dreams was so clear in your head, you could actually see him?”
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“I came here several years ago. It was so lovely here—romantic and mysterious. I heard the legend and tried it—and that’s exactly what happened.”
“And the soldier who appeared to you looked the same as the man of your dreams?”
“Yes. But instead of consoling me, it made me pine for what I didn’t have and couldn’t seem to find.”
I softened toward her. “I’m sorry, Jessica—I can imagine how that must have felt.”
“Can you? It gets worse.”
“I finally met him.”
“You met your dream man?”
“Well, go on—what happened?”
“He turned out to be a disappointment—a fool.”
I began to see why she had a harsh attitude toward men.
“You have no idea what suffering I went through—having my hopes up only to see them crushed.”
“I’m so sorry, Jessica—men are such fools.”
“You are,” she said simply.
“What happened to this man you met—is there any chance you can get together?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Do you ever see him?”
“Almost every day.”
I sighed—at her futility—at my loss. It was a mess.
“Well, at least you got a break from him here,” I said impulsively—then, I remembered the figure in the tent.
“No, actually, he’s here too.”
I nodded. “I saw him as well—I saw two shadows in your tent the other night.”
“Then you understand,” she whispered.
“It seems impossible—but I can’t deny the evidence of my own eyes.”
“No, I suppose you can’t.”
Curiosity about the man impelled me. “What did he do or say to turn you off?”
“He didn’t treat me as special—he didn’t treasure me.”
I wanted to kill him—but I felt guilty for the way I treated her as well.
“He’s the loser,” I blurted out. “You are special—he must have been a fool.”
“You were,” she whispered and looked deeply into my eyes.
© 2015, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.