Storms in the Desert
"What you are thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary."
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
"In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time."
— Leonardo da Vinci
"The trouble with older men is they don't never treat a girl like her own self."
Kaylee was drunk, but only a little. River smiled. The trouble with older siblings — by blood or otherwise — was that they always thought the younger ones needed their advice.
Kaylee was still talking, her eyes bright with cider and lanternlight. "Either they think you're a little girl and they're your daddy, or they make believe you're all fancy and si hai wei jia di ren when really they know you ain't."
Out in front of them on the dance floor, which wasn't really a dance floor because there wasn't a floor, only a square of hard-packed earth under the canopy of stars and the big harvest moons, the mismatched couple who had sparked Kaylee's pronouncement twirled happily to the sound of pipes and fiddles. River watched them in fascination. The girl was about her age and looked like a bunch of dried leaves in her voluminous dress of oranges and browns. The man had kind sparkling eyes and a greying beard and did not think of the girl in either of the ways Kaylee had described. He was younger inside than he looked, and he laughed as they danced.
River's feet wanted to dance. She swung them restlessly back and forth under the wooden bench that she and Kaylee were sharing. River's feet wanted to dance, but this was a dance for partners, and she didn't have one. Jayne was around somewhere, probably stuffing himself with moon cakes, and it would be funny to ask him to dance with her, but he'd only say no, and he couldn't keep up with her anyway. Simon would be better, and he would say yes if she asked, but he would really want to dance with Kaylee instead.
"What are you two conspiring about?" It was Simon coming up behind them as though her thought had summoned him, except it couldn't do that. Well, maybe it could. She'd only really tried the one time, and that had worked, hadn't it? One trial provided insufficient data from which to draw a conclusion. Further experimentation was indicated.
Kaylee turned to him with a sunny smile. "Just a little dating advice."
"Kaylee likes boys," River informed her brother. She began playing with the fringe on the edge of her black crocheted shawl.
"Well, that's good to know," said Simon with a grin. He bent to drop a kiss on Kaylee's mouth and handed her a fresh mug of cider.
"Xièxie." Kaylee scooted closer to River to make room for him on the bench, but he stayed standing behind them with one hand resting on Kaylee's shoulder and his own drink in the other.
"So, which of the moons do you think they're celebrating?"
Kaylee leaned back into his touch and tilted her face to the sky. "I dunno. The big orange one is prettier, I think, but the blue one's nice, too. Maybe they're celebrating both of 'em. Y'know, 'cause they aren't alone."
River shivered in her seat, even though it wasn't cold outside. Her booted feet stopped their swinging. Everything became quiet. She tilted her head like a listening bird. Overhead, closer than the moons, a string of paper lanterns bobbed gently in the breeze, red and yellow and green. She sniffed the air, and the hair on her arms prickled. A storm was coming.
She stood up. Her shawl fell from her shoulders and turned into a woolen puddle on the bench. Simon and Kaylee made sounds that she didn't bother to decipher. She walked out into the midst of the dancers.
Everyone in the tiny village seemed to be on the dance floor. Farmers and tradesmen and shop girls swung in great sweeping patterns to the merry rhythms of the local band. Dust flew up from men's heavy boots and the hems of ladies' dresses. She moved through them like a ghost, drawn by the distant rumble of summer thunder, and the dance made a space for her to pass. The revelers parted before her like tall grass blown by the wind, only to close in behind her again in a flurry of Sunday dresses. Finally the last fringes fell away, leaving her on the edge of the celebration.
The perimeter of the dancing area was marked by a long trestle table laden with food and drink, with lanterns swaying overhead. River focused immediately on a tall, dark-haired man who stood with his back to her, drawing cider from a cask. As her gaze tickled his neck, he suddenly turned, his sharp eyes fixing on her instantly.
"You're the town doctor," she realized, and blurted out because there was no reason not to.
He relaxed fractionally. "Yes. Are you in need of a doctor?"
"One is enough." She drifted closer, looking him up and down. He had hands like a doctor, with long graceful fingers wrapped around his cider mug. She bit Simon's finger once when she was very little and he screamed like a baby, already careful of his hands. Mommy sent her to her room for that. This man wore clothes like Simon's, too, but not as nice, and a long red-brown coat made of cracked old leather. He had an interesting narrow face and hazel eyes that she couldn't quite see through. Hmmm.
"Can I help you, miss?"
She cocked her head sideways, the better to look at him. A lot of her hair fell down in front of her face, and she peered out through the waves at his planes and angles, his clever little mouth and his glittery eyes. He was all shimmery like a mirage in the desert, giving off wave after wave of illusion like the reflected heat of relentless sunlight bouncing off of unchanging stone. Was there really any water there, or was it all just a thirsty traveler's fever dream?
There it was again. The sound of thunder.
River turned her head the other way, and her eyes widened in sudden delight.
There was always water in the desert, if one knew where to look.
"I hope you're planning to share your amusing discovery with the rest of the class. Is it my nose?"
River giggled. "Titan!"
"Well, it's not as big as all that—"
"The wretched gift Eternity was thine." He fell into stunned silence as she talked over him. "And it wasn't even Christmas yet."
Shock registered on his face so briefly that no one else would even have noticed, but it made River laugh. In the next moment his expression had smoothed out into studied blandness.
"Actually, I think I'm due for a lump of coal this year. Useful stuff, really. Electricity around here's a bit unreliable."
"Hua ji di ren," she laughed. "I like you."
"You've a certain je ne sais quoi yourself." He transferred the cider to his left hand and extended his right to her. "I don't believe we've had the pleasure. I'm Doctor Matthews. But please, call me Jacob."
River gave him her hand and he turned it over, palm up, before turning it back over and kissing it.
She grinned mischievously at him when he looked up. "I know a secret."
"Oh, really?" The voice was teasing, but his narrowed eyes were very serious. "Care to fill me in?"
She didn't answer right away. She took a step closer, so close she could smell the battered leather of his overcoat, and laid her ear against his chest.
"Hey!" He tried to back away, but the trestle table barred his escape. "I believe the expression is 'personal space.'"
He promptly shut up.
"That's better." It was all loud and rumbly when he talked, but now she could hear his heartbeat. One-two, one-two, one-two, soft and steady, pulsing in the dark like a signal from a long-abandoned world still traveling through space after those who had sent it were long gone. A sound-that-was. Except it was also a sound-that-is, because he was standing there warm against her in this place full of lights and drink and music, and it sounded just the same as hers did when she played with Simon's stethoscope.
River listened, her face alight with wonder.
The doctor looked down at her with a bemused expression. "Hear anything interesting in there?"
She straightened up slowly, wide-eyed and curious, and fixed him with a smile of pure delight. "Midsummer storm. Forty days and nights full of rusted joys and shiny regrets, turning and turning… Four thousand holes in the ozone and no room in the ark. Would you like to dance?"
He gave her an intrigued reappraisal, a look a cat would give to a mouse if the mouse had suddenly recited three hundred digits of pi. A slow smile broke across his face.
"You know, I do believe I would." He set his forgotten mug on the table behind him and offered her his arm. "You never did tell me your name."
River laid her arm on his and took his other hand, completing a circle. She smiled impishly. "Neither did you."
He raised an eyebrow. "Well, then."
And they danced.
One step and they were swept away, caught up in the fiddle and drumbeat as though the dance had been rushing over and around them all along and they only had to step into its current. River's feet moved of their own accord, neither leading nor being led, but perfectly matched with her partner. Moving to her right, his left, they traversed the length of the makeshift floor, then reversed direction and came back again, kicking up little flurries of dust as they went. Back where they had started, he twirled her in place, making her hair and her sheer purple dress whirl out around her, and then they were off once again.
Oh! He was quick, and sure, and lightfooted as a cat, and he never had to think about what his feet were doing, he just kept his bright eyes on her and moved. They were in among the other dancers now, but outshining them all as they pranced across the floor and back with steps too fast and intricate for anyone else to follow. They were like the lilting music itself, like water flashing over rocks, like lightning in the clouds. Other couples were slowing down to watch them, and before long they found themselves in the very center of the floor, encircled by grinning villagers who clapped and whistled and called encouragements to their "Doc."
With the floor to themselves, they gripped each other's hands tightly and spun around and around at arms' length, moving their feet nearly in a blur and leaning back hard against the forces that threatened to sprawl them in a giddy heap. Their eyes, locked on one another, were the only still point amid the whirling. They held each other's gaze, and she could see straight through him now, but now was all there was to see. There was no time but the present moment, and they its vessels.
The high sweet sound of a tin whistle took center stage, and with surprising strength he pulled her back toward him, breaking their spin. She put her hands on his shoulders and in one swift motion he had picked her up and was spinning again.
River tossed back her head with abandon as the wind and the music whistled through her hair. Her mind was crystal clear as no drugs could ever make it, and she laughed out loud at the marvelous freedom. He laughed with her, a deep rich laugh that crinkled up his entire face.
She released her grip on his shoulders and flung back her arms, holding on with nothing but her legs around his waist and his strong hands on her back as she leaned back as far as she could and let her fingers trail through empty space. The music raced to a climax, fiddle and whistle and drums all in a dizzying spiral, and the blue moon shone down on her face like a brightly polished mirror while she whirled around and around in breathless exhilaration.
Then all at once she was upright again, and her hands were back on his shoulders, and her toes were touching the ground, and the music stopped. She was standing on her feet, encircled by her partner's arms and looking up into his eyes.
The crowd burst into ecstatic applause.
River and the doctor stared at one another, neither one able to speak. They were both flushed and breathless, their eyes very bright.
"Well," he finally managed. "That was something, wasn't it?"
Suddenly the circle of onlookers parted as Simon pushed his way through to her, closely followed by Kaylee. River nearly laughed at the looks on their faces.
"River! That was… um…"
"It was great," Kaylee interrupted, elbowing Simon in the ribs.
"Yes! It was… um… it was very, very good. Ah, who's your friend?"
River grinned mischievously and opened her mouth to answer, but the doctor caught her expression and very quickly offered his hand to Simon. "Jacob Matthews, local physician. A pleasure."
"Simon Tam… extralocal physician. Likewise." Simon had relaxed a little, and sounded almost apologetic. "It's getting late, River. I think we should be heading back to the ship."
"Of course." The doctor nodded solemnly, although his eyes twinkled with mischief. "Wouldn't want to keep you past your bedtime… River."
She smiled sweetly. "That's all right. I shouldn't keep you, either. Older people need their rest, you know."
He smirked at her. "Indeed." He stepped back and made a formal little bow. "Wan an, baobèi. Until we meet again."
She playfully imitated his gesture. Already the world was settling back in to its normal flow, full of noise and motion and insistent, swirling eddies of feeling, but for the moment, looking into his eyes, she could still hold it at bay. "Thanks for the dance."
Before he could say anything in reply, she turned and followed Simon and Kaylee. The crowd of townspeople stood aside to let them pass.
As they reached the line of lanterns marking the edge of the festival, she turned with a wicked grin and called back to him over her shoulder.
"Zhù shì tóu, lao hàn!"
His startled laughter rang out behind her, a last rumble of fading thunder, as she followed the others toward home.
si hai wei jia di ren = "cosmopolitan"
xièxie= "thank you"
hua ji di ren = "funnyman"
Wan an, baobèi = "Good night, sweetheart"
Zhù shì tóu, lao hàn = "Watch your head, old man!"
Author's Notes: The Chinese words used in this story came from On-Line Chinese Tools, Pristine Lexicon, and the Firefly-Serenity Chinese Pinyinary. Any errors in translation may be chalked up entirely to my own ineptitude.
A number of Celtic dance tunes helped move this story along, especially "Cat's Meow/Partners In Crime" by Joanie Madden, "Joe Ryan's Barn Dance Set" by Cherish The Ladies, and "The Rap" by Secret Garden. The former two are available on a compilation album called Her Infinite Variety: Celtic Women in Music and Song. "The Rap" can be found on Songs from a Secret Garden.
Although we don't know each other, I'd like to extend my thanks to Amand-r, whose delightful story "Oh, To Be Like A God!" forever turned my Methos into a dancer.
Finally, thanks to Megan for enabling and enthusiasm. If she hadn't gotten so excited when I mentioned the idea, this probably would never have been written, and then I'd have two very dangerous enigmas all impatient with me. :)
This story was completed on January 2, 2006.