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THE SKIN OF WATER

At the height of the Hungarian summer of 1943, Zeno Czibula saw a woman in the forest.

She strode along a trail edging the sheltered verge of Lake Balaton. Even at this distance, her white diaphanous dress stood out against the deep forest. Diamond light bounced from the silver lake, picked out the dress flowing behind her slight frame, a dress not built for walking in forests. Zeno guessed she was staying at The Hotel Hungary.

She stopped. He held his breath. She looked right, left, over her shoulder. She may have seen him, sensed a set of eyes piercing her solitude. He moved behind a tree. He felt a small stick beneath his left foot and feared it would snap, echoing in the forest’s damp quiet. So he stood, one foot raised, peering out from behind the tree. Then he did what he always did: lifted his Cine Kodak Eight Model 20 to his eye, released the wound mechanism, and began to film.

A nervous gazelle, she tilted her head this way and that. She looked down at her shoes and scuffed them off, kicking them clear. She stood facing the path towards the hotel. Her brown hair, straight and strong, bounced about her shoulders. She’d return to the hotel. He moved his lens in that direction and she slipped from his view. She’d hesitated.

The camera’s mechanism clanged in the quiet forest. He should reveal his vantage. If she caught him spying he’d be fired and despite being only seventeen he needed this job. As he stepped from the tree’s cover, the camera still to his eye, the stick snapped under his left foot. Nearby turtle doves took fright and flight, fluttering across the camera’s field of vision. Through the lens, he saw her begin to run—away from the hotel, a sprinter from the blocks, barefoot now.

He switched off his camera and left it at the base of the tree. Once his legs began to race, following the narrow trail, the heat and humidity took hold. Sweat gathered on his upper lip and under his arm pits. He picked up pace anyway, his foot sure but silent. He found her abandoned shoes at the side of the path and scooped them up. The leather was soft, the slender heels not made for running.

The path led to a small bluff at the lake’s edge. If he left the path and cut through the forest, he’d beat her there but alert her to his presence. He decided to follow her unnoticed, staying on the path. Her bare feet made no sound. He followed blind.

As the path rose, he stopped. He could hear nothing save the lake’s low lapping and the drone of a distant powered boat. His senses sharpened. Was she now in hiding, watching him? He scanned the dappled forest but saw no trace of her. Perhaps he’d lost her. Or she him. No birds called. He breathed deeply, as if the air were robbed of oxygen. He shouldn’t have followed a guest this deep into the forest.

He heard a sound, thin at first, then stronger, insistent with a timpani finish. A body hit water. He scampered up the remains of the path. Her dress lay discarded on the earth. On the western side of the lake, the afternoon sun glistened back at him, scorching his sight. No ripple, nothing broke the surface. He counted. One. Two. Three. Four. His heart pumped harder. Why had she not surfaced? His eyes darted about. She wasn’t there.

He dropped her shoes, threw off his own along with his shirt and shorts, leaving only his underwear. He scanned the surface. Nothing. He dived, a grace-filled arc. As he descended those five metres, arms outstretched for balance, he glimpsed something breaking the surface. He hit the water, blessedly cool. His downward momentum dissipated and he pushed his arms up towards the light.

Once at the surface, he ran his hands over his face to clear the water and that flop of dark golden hair that hung down over his forehead. She was swimming, freestyle, away from him, her stroke firm and regular.

“Hey! Are you all right?”

She stroked on. He started strong freestyle strokes, his body a plane on the water. He could hear her limbs beat ahead of him, see her ruffle the water. He swam alongside her, slowed to her rhythm. And then she stopped, abruptly, as if she refused competition. He stopped, his legs caving in below him.

She brushed her hair from her face. Her pink nipples and small breasts blinked in the water. He couldn’t look lower. Aware of his gaze, she glared at him, her hyacinth-blue eyes cold and penetrating.

“What do you want?” she said.

She was older than he expected, perhaps even in her mid 30s. Like her shoes, her accent was foreign and soft and expensive. Working at the hotel, he’d taught himself to mimic these accents of wealth.

“I was worried about you.”

“There’s no need.”

“But you were swimming out into the lake.”

“I didn’t know this too was forbidden.”

She was French, her accent light but noticeable.

“Well…” He was out of his depth. “I’ll leave you, then.”

He lingered a moment but she said nothing. He turned towards the shore, poised to swim.

“Young man, are you a guest at the hotel?”

Shit! A bellboy on his day off was forbidden in this part of the forest, reserved for paying guest. She could report him.

“Yes,” he said.

“Then I’d appreciate you don’t mention any of this.” He nodded. “To anyone.”

“Of course.” He trod water. He should be away from her. “Enjoy your swim.”

“And you yours.”

He reached his arm again towards the shore.

“Your shoes…” he said, immediately regretting it.

“What of them?”

“I left them by your dress.”

She raised her right eyebrow and nodded.

Slowly he turned away. He dug his hands hard into the water but as he began to plane, the turbulence caused his underwear, tied to his hips by string, to slip, then slide into the dark, dark water. He panicked, caught between escape and exposure. He couldn’t stop. He continued his strokes towards the shore, slipping easier, his round buttocks white and glistening in the late afternoon sun.

With no difficulty at all, he hauled himself up on to the rocks and looked back at her over his shoulder. He hoped she’d resumed her swim but she was stationary, about seventy-five metres from the shore, treading water and staring in his direction. For a moment, neither of them could turn away. He was sure she continued looking as he climbed back up the side of the bluff to his clothes, abandoned near hers, but he couldn’t look while she was looking at his bare ass.