My cousins' farm stretched out behind us, my grandmother's summer cottage was tucked under a stand of trees that erupted beside a tidal drainage ditch, a ditch that emptied into our broad Creek, then into the Choptank River and the Chesapeake Bay. A cicada year they said, but it was too early for the bugs to come out and everyone was furious for the flood of noise and glint lace wings. We were at a remote corner in the fields, an angle of split-rail fence separating pasture from turned earth where an old apple tree stretched in the sunshine and dropped lazy shade over the cooler parts. A place where horses and dusty boys were blown by invisible wisps of idle thought, urging them to straddle the light and the dark. We were out on the edge, Danny and me.
I sat on the wooden rail fence, a ridge pressed across my butt, a little uncomfortable there. My older cousin Danny sat that way next to me as if it was nothing, so I squirmed some but stayed on. Blacky, one of the horses, was chomping down the lawn under the apple tree and this thing extended down from its belly, getting longer and longer, then it pissed a great stream that splashed a yellow crown on the ground.
"Look at that," I said pointing.
"Look at what?"
"The horse, I didn't know they could do that."
"Yeah, through the hose that gets it close to the ground so they don't splash all over themselves," I said, fully conscious of the filth of piss and poop and amazed at nature's solutions.
"It's a guy horse, you turd," he said and pushed me off the rail into the hot sun. "Of course it's got one."
"Uh, yeah," I said. There was something in that, but I didn't want to appear stupid this early in the summer so I just crawled back on the fence. Danny looked at the horse, then back at me.
"Don't you got horses and stuff back in Detroit?" He was squinting.
"They're out off the highways, on farms."
"Like this one?"
"I guess, except there's no water like here."
"You don't have them close at hand?" he said.
"Nope." I curled my fingers around the weathered gray rail that could shed splinters as easy as a porcupine, so mind yourself, my grandma said. Danny snorted so I went on, uneasy. "My house is maybe four of these away from the neighbors," I said tapping the fence. Danny nodded four times as he counted down the rails.
"The house across the street is farther away on account of the street, but yeah."
"You got dogs?"
"Sure, we have Macaroon," I said.
"So what is it?"
"A basset hound."
"No, no. What sex, stupid?" He was squinting again.
"She's a she, female," I said. "Why?"
"How do you know?"
"My dad showed me how to tell dogs. We have goldfish at home but you can't tell goldfish. At least, no one showed me yet."
"You can tell crabs, right?"
"Grandma Joy showed me about the aprons underneath," I said. "You know that, don't you?" Of course I could tell instantly, males had a long skinny apron and females had a large round one. My cousin was grinning.
"What are you laughing at?" I said.
"What's between your legs, city boy?" he said. I looked down at the fence underneath me.
"The rail," I whispered, realizing my error too late.
Danny howled and grabbed my crotch.
"No this, stupid," he said and squeezed hard.
"Ow!" I jumped off and glared at him, with the imprint of his fingers tingling around me like an amputee feeling a missing limb.
"Can you tell people?" he said.
"Sure." I cleared my throat and noticed tall grass tufting around the fence posts where Danny missed mowing.
"How?" he said bending down, his arms across his lap and all his concentration focused on my discomfort.
It hadn't been like this before. I'd spent all the summers I could remember at my grandmother's place, but Danny had never been around much. Grandma Joy's was a bright summer cottage on the corner of a family farm bordered by cornfields, marsh, and a broad and sheltered creek. My father would kiss my sister and me goodbye, sometimes Mom would stay, sometimes she would come back weeks later. He would leave and I'd watch the station wagon ride away down the narrow dirt ruts until he was just a dust cloud blowing down the grassy lane.
Mamma Joy mowed the road every week down to the crossroads at the barn. Most of it was crab grass, it had a wiry look not even cars could trample away. Down close it had leaves with soft silver hairs on their stems, like the hairs on Danny's jaw and neck, just under his ear. The hairs swirled together from opposite directions, the ones from his cheek pointing back and the ones from his neck pointing forward. They collided like opposing waves, smashing into each other and throwing up a fine white ridge into the air around his jaw. As if somebody combed it that way. Peach fuzz they called it. He hated that.
I loved that hair, the way it ran silky down the back of his neck brilliant in the sun, like the wake of a boat trailing behind his wiry, blond presence. There was always a wake behind my cousin, left by his movement from one place or thing to another. I was the eager skier, learning to stand, slalom, to jump, all the while holding tight to the tether. He was that different species, older, whose tolerant presence was a rare thing in my experience, a species I too could become someday when reincarnated. And here he was this summer, alone for me to study, and not off where he and his brothers usually went. I was getting to know him as family, not just a distant cousin or mystery that you peeked at for maybe a few days a year. This year he had time for me, and I didn't care if he had nothing else to do.
Uncounted jellyfish cut wide swatches along the currents that we called "sea nettle soup." Certain death to anyone falling in there. I knew this with all my heart, all my soul. Danny said he fell in and lived, barely escaping with his life. He was a tough farm-boy all right, and three years older than me.
He told me the story as we sat on a narrow sandy beach scattered with driftwood and bleached crab sloughs. We had been walking at low tide, looking for things to shoot with his BB gun and had spent the morning and a whole cylinder of BBs knocking oyster shells off an old duck blind.
He had fallen into this white, slippery death while water skiing, an accidental crossing of a stray wave perhaps, landing in the heart of a nettle cluster that was thick as Jell-O. At first he just felt slime on his fingers, around his arms and legs, in his hair, his eyes, his mouth. Then the burning started, all over everywhere and he screamed so loudly his older brothers heard him over the whine of the engine. But they had to turn the boat around and come back, and by the time they had him hauled out, he was covered with tangled ropes of tentacles that clung to the red, screaming welt he had become.
His eyes had swollen shut and his skin had puffed out so much they had to cut his shorts off. He said it had permanently changed him so that he was red all over but impervious to the nettles.
"You wanna see?" he said getting up skinny against the blue sky and undoing his shorts. The beach was surrounded by tall marsh grass and empty water.
"Someone will see," I said looking around, digging channels in the sand with my fingers.
"Here?" he said. "You kidding? We're nowhere, no one cares."
He stepped out of his pants and his hip was in my face and all I saw was what looked like sunburn and a light dusting of blond fuzz. I asked if it hurt and he said it didn't any more, that you could feel the difference between the red and white skin, and if I wanted to I could touch it, and I really could feel the embossed line as I stroked his naked hip. He was soft and warm where it was red, cooler and harder where it was white. I squinted for still-embedded stingers, trying to understand how he had lived through it all, following traces of fuzz from the lobster red to the alabaster white, and he got quiet and I heard him swallow. His hand was on my head and I smelled sweat and salt water. I inhaled the scents, a long draft, sensing not to move. Then he suddenly turned and raced naked across the shallows to submerge under sparkling water, leaving me stranded on the hot beach. He swam out, his white butt flashing sun like a deer flag each time he dove. I watched him from shore, the water sliding down him as he moved through it.
Then I chased out into the splash after him, leaping over eelgrass shallows to where the bottom dropped off, deep water behind a long sandbar that arched out like a beckoning finger from the end of the sandy beach. We chased each other out to the edge of the bar. I dove for him. Under green water I reached for a pale leg that slipped through my hand to catch on the bulb of his ankle, and pulled for an instant. Then he slid free and turned on me.
I leapt away and he was there, his fingers sliding down my back to catch my shorts. He pulled me toward him as I tried to swim away, then pulled them down my kicking legs and off over my feet.
"Hey! Give 'em back!"
"Come get 'em," he said, and dove, his white ass winking out of sight. I followed the blur, felt the water slip over naked hips, cool and slick around my crotch, in the crack of my butt, up under there. It felt free, wild, and I knew he had probably done this most of his life. I wanted to chase him, didn't care about the shorts. We were silver mirrored fishes flashing, awash and twisting in submerged sunlight. We slipped over each other like eels in the shallows, scattering gulls and scaring a great blue heron that pumped its wings in powerful, slow strokes, propelling it into the sky.
Walking back, we shot jellyfish along the water's edge. The BBs pierced the transparent, pulsing bodies with no effect at all. I was able to sink one by shooting it sideways so the BB stuck in the jelly head and didn't go all the way through. I think it took three, maybe four of those round copper balls before the thing turned ass-end-up and went down in slippery water, trailing tentacles like the frilly skirts some girls used to wear. The jellyfish lay there, pinned to the bottom by the weight of those balls, still pulsing, trying to swim as if nothing had happened at all.