In Which Certain Things Are Explained
We lay there, looking up at the spreading canopy of the tree. My back felt like it had been attacked with a cheese grater, and I was pretty sure my t-shirt was torn, but I knew I wasn’t actually injured… I was hurt, but not harmed.
Anyway, it had been a good feeling at the time, and now, as that slowly faded, the pain was almost a pleasant reminder. I didn’t understand why it had felt so good when Amaranth pushed me against the tree, but not when Puddy had hit me.
Amaranth seemed to have been right when she’d called me a masochist the day before, but that should mean that I enjoyed pain, right? I hadn’t enjoyed being slapped. Wasn’t pain… pain? I didn’t understand it, and wasn’t ready to ask Amaranth… wasn’t ready to say out loud I’d actually liked being hurt, or to revisit the topic of other people hitting me.
The morning was wearing on, and the campus was starting to wake up. Even though there was no classes, people were still coming and going through the world around us. Tomorrow was “the big day”, so I guess it made sense that there was a certain amount of bustle going on.
We heard it, but we didn’t see anybody. It was like they were in another world from us.
People at school kept to the paths, even during the day. I never really understood why. They were laid out in such a haphazard fashion, and most of the time you could get where you were going faster just by cutting across some open grass. If there had been even a single “Keep Off The Grass” sign anywhere on campus, I probably would’ve been afraid to test the limits of where it did and did not cover, but the only rule about the paths was a general admonition to stay on them after dark.
“You know I’m still a nymph, right?” Amaranth asked.
It surprised me, and not just because it was the first thing either of us had said. It just seemed like the most random thing to point out.
“What do you mean?” I asked, figuring there had to be more significance to the statement than I was getting. Of course I understood that she was a nymph. It was hard to miss.
There was all the nakedness, for one thing.
“I mean, there’s going to be men,” she said. “And probably other women, to be perfectly honest… but mostly, lots and lots of men. That’s not going to change just because we had–or because we keep having–sex.”
“Wait, what?” I said, shocked.
We’d kissed, yeah. We’d fooled around, maybe. We’d made out, definitely, though I felt awfully phony saying the phrase “made out”, even in my own head. I’d had my hand… places. That was it, though. What was she talking about, “we had sex?”
“I just mean, I don’t want things to be weird for you now that we’ve had sex…”
She’d said it again.
“Hold on. We kissed,” I said. “I… touched you, but we never… we didn’t… I mean, what we did… that wasn’t sex!“
I turned onto my side to face her. She had an incredibly bemused look on her face, but she said nothing.
“It wasn’t!” I insisted.
“Oh, okay, Mack, if you say so,” she said, rolling onto her back and laughing. Yes, we had officially upgraded her status from b-mused to a-mused. “You’re the expert.”
“It wasn’t!” I said again, rolling back onto my back. It felt like a huffy gesture, but what was she laughing for?
How could it have been sex? I was still fully dressed. She’d ground herself against me for a little while… or a long while, I wasn’t really sure… but we hadn’t, you know, rubbed our stuff together… or eaten each other’s pussies… which was what I was pretty sure sex usually meant, between two women.
To be honest, before Puddy’s visual aid with the doughnut, I hadn’t really been able to work out what exactly “eating pussy” even entailed. I’d heard the phrase plenty of times, but it had never clicked. I’d figured it involved the mouth, and (obviously) the pussy, and I’d figured that there was no actual eating involved (obviously)… but it still wasn’t quite as self-explanatory as “cocksucking.”
For that matter, I can still remember the day I first realized that was what a “blowjob” was.
I am lame.
“Well, Puddy talks about… clanging things… and using fists,” I said. I was really pretty fairly sure that my fingers had not just been touching Amaranth, but actually penetrated her… and honestly, I was now having an even harder time working out the image of somebody being “fisted”… it just didn’t seem possible. “We didn’t do anything like that.”
“Yeah, well, Puddy’s enthusiasm is kind of nice, in a way, but I get the feeling she didn’t have all that much experience before she came here,” Amaranth said. “Anyway, ‘sex’ is a pretty wide-open concept. It all comes down to intimate contact… preferably enjoyed by all parties… and generally culminating in an intense pleasure for one or more.” She took my hand in hers, and then looked down at herself. “And I definitely… culminated.”
“Oh, shit… I didn’t mean to… I mean, I didn’t know you…” I felt a sudden urge to wipe my hand off on the grass… again… or even run and find a bathroom to wash it off in. I’d tried thinking of the stuff on it as sweat. Considering where it had come form, that still made me a little bit uncomfortable, but the idea that it had anything to do with Amaranth’s… uh, culminating… was worse.
“Why did you think I was making so much noise?” she asked. She was laughing again. Or laughing still. That kind of ticked me off, but it let me forget about my hand, at least.
“I thought you were just enjoying yourself!”
“Oh, yes… quite immensely,” she said. “Sweet Mother Khaele, if I live a thousand years I will never, ever think to impugn your masturbation technique,” she said, giving a satisfied-sounding moan. “You clearly have a handle on things, in that department.”
“What do you mean, masturbation?” I asked. Yes, my hand had been on her… in her… but… I needed a sink.
“Well, what did you think you were doing down there?” she asked me. “Tapping out a secret prison code? Hmm… message received!” She giggled.
I blushed. I wasn’t sure what I had been doing, exactly. I’d put my hand… and she’d pushed herself onto it… and my fingers had seemed to know what to do all on their own… but that was… it wasn’t…
I looked at her, hard.
“You’re laughing at me,” I said.
“No! No, no,” she said, sounding shocked and hurt… and then she burst out in another fit of laughter. “I’m sorry, Mack… you’re just so… so… adorable right now. It’s like… like… baby’s first finger-bang.”
“I don’t need this,” I said, and started to get up.
“Oh, come here,” she said, lunging and wrapping her arms around me. She pulled me back down to the ground, embracing me from behind. “You’re freaking out. I don’t want you to freak out.”
“I’m not!” I said. “Well… maybe I am… a little, but you don’t have to laugh.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Really good sex always makes me giggly.”
She pulled me in closer. I would have thought that would make me freak even more, but it felt good to be lying in the grass in her arms, her bare breasts pushing against my back. It felt safe. She stroked my hair. Time passed. I calmed down. I forced my thoughts into patterns that didn’t include the word “lesbian”. It wasn’t easy.
“So… you’re saying that was sex,” I said, once I had a slightly better handle on things.
“Mmm, you catch on quick,” Amaranth said.
“Please don’t tease me,” I said. “It’s just that… I just had sex… with you.”
“Yeah. You should probably let me tell Barley… she kind of saw you first, you know?” Amaranth said. “And it’s not like she’ll get jealous, exactly… well, it’d be one thing if I felt you were the kind of person who’d probably end up doing her, too, but I think this probably takes you off the table for her.”
“I didn’t think I was on the table,” I said. “For either of you. And didn’t you say something about ‘too much masochism’, when we first met?”
“That’s what I thought, but you bring something out in me, Mack” she said. “I’m forward, but I’m never this dominant with anybody… but something about you makes me want to hold you down and… do things.”
She whispered the last two words breathily in my ears. I felt something stir inside me… like one snake uncoiling itself, while another one tightened around it. Things were moving. There was heat.
I gave a little gasping, moaning… kind of a… gaspy moan. That was no fucking flower opening, no matter what the romance writers said.
“But… what if I’m not supposed to be a lesbian?” I asked, trying to catch my breath. Maybe it seemed ridiculous, but I felt I had to take at least one more stab at saving my perceived heterosexual nature. “What if I’m supposed to be with men?”
“Well, I do think everybody should probably try sex with a man at least once,” she said. “If you can get into it, I mean. If you can’t, you shouldn’t force it. I just think people should try a variety of things before they settle into one.” I felt her shrug her shoulders. “Anyway, when you walk into a room full of people, who do you notice first… the boys, or the girls?”
“Girls,” I said immediately, and quite naturally. Then it hit me why she was asking. “But… that’s normal, right? I mean, I am a girl. I have more in common with other girls than with guys. It’s really natural I’d notice them first.”
“We’ll leave the question of how much you do or don’t have in common with the girls you’re noticing for another time,” Amaranth said. “Who do you have more problems talking to… guys or girls?”
That was an easy question, of course, but it smelled like a trap.
“Hold on, hold on,” I said. “Why would me finding it easier to talk to guys mean I’m less attracted to them?”
“I didn’t say anything meant anything,” Amaranth said gently. “I just asked the question.”
“Okay, well, yes… I have no problem talking to guys,” I said. “And maybe I sometimes get… flustered… when talking to like, really fashionable, really poised, really pre… really confident girls. But if I’m supposed to be attracted to girls, wouldn’t it make more sense to be the other way around?”
“Well, it would be more convenient,” Amaranth said. “If I know anything about human romance… and I pride myself in thinking that I know a little… it’s that it’s rarely tidy or convenient. Don’t you think your reaction to ‘really pretty girls’…”
“I didn’t say ‘pretty girls’,” I protested, though of course, I almost had.
“…is pretty much the same as an adolescent boy, noticing women for the first time?”
“I’m not an adolescent,” I said.
“Physically, no,” Amaranth said. “But emotionally… well, I have the feeling you’ve been repressed for a very long time. Now, you’re on your own for the first time in an adult environment, with nobody looking over your shoulder. If you didn’t get to go through your emotional adolescence before, you’re going to now.”
“How can you be a year younger than me and know so much more?” I asked. “Haven’t you basically lived in the middle of a field your whole life?”
“Well, yes,” she said. “But, firstly… I may have been on this world for less time than you, but I started my life by walking fully grown out of the field, so I’ve had a full seventeen years to get a handle on things. Secondly, living in the middle of a field gets awfully lonely when there’s not work to be done. The first time I saw a book, it was a paperback book in somebody’s back pocket. When I learned what it was, I started asking people to bring me them. I read anytime I wasn’t working, and sometimes when I was.” She laughed. “Some men actually prefer it if you ignore them completely.”
“When you say work…?”
“Oh, I mean sex,” she said. “From the day that I was new, that’s what I’ve done.”
“Do you ever… I mean, would you ever give that up, and just have sex with one person?” I asked. “Could you?”
“Oh, you’re sweet, Mack, but I love my job,” she said. “I’d give it up for you if I’d give it up for anybody, but it’s not going to happen.
“I didn’t mean me,” I said, blushing bright red. “I just wondered if it was possible.”
“Some nymphs married mortals, and became mortal themselves, more or less… it doesn’t happen very often, but that’s where you get part-nymphs from,” she said. “But, it wouldn’t be for me. I love what I do… and I love…”
“Everybody,” I finished.
“And you,” she added. She kissed the back of my ear. “How long do you want to keep lying here?”
“Until the semester’s over and it’s time to go home,” I said. Even that wasn’t true, though. Why would I ever want to go home?
“We can’t do that,” she said. “Can’t hide from the world.”
“Don’t I even get seventeen years to lie in a wheat field, reading books?” I teased.
“Amaranth,” she said.
“It’s actually a field of amaranth,” she said.
“Amaranth is a grain?” I asked. I guess I should have figured that one out, from “Barley”, but I knew what barley was before meeting Barley. “Amaranth” was just too beautiful a name to belong to a food crop.
“Yes,” she said. “It flowers beautifully. It was Barley’s idea for us to use our crops’ names when we registered, since we’d need names among the humans.” She giggled. “I don’t think she realized how much more of a name ‘Amaranth’ is than ‘Barley’ when she did it.”
“What’s your name as a nymph?” I asked.
“I don’t have one,” she said. “Not one you can say in words. What I have is a feeling, like sunlight on your brow and a light breeze dancing across your skin. That’s how nymphs identify each other… feelings. We didn’t always belong to men, you know… once we were wild, but the rivers were dammed, and the forests cut down, and the wide open spaces fenced in. We learned to get along in the new world better than our sisters, the hamadryads and the naiads, did.”
She sounded sad, for once. Really, truly sad. I didn’t like the sound of Amaranth sad.
“I saw a dryad once,” I told her. “When I was in the first grade, on a school trip to the Oak Tribe Preserve. It was for naturalism class… we were looking for leaves and nuts and things. We had a check list… it was alphabetical, and I was going from the top down instead of, you know, just picking up whatever I came across. So, I was looking for an acorn, and I couldn’t find any, until I accidentally kicked one and sent it rolling down the path. It stopped at the foot of a beautiful woman… naked, with green hair. She handed it to me, and I got this feeling… I thought I’d imagined it, but I’ll never forget it. It was like looking at cool, green-tinged sunlight and hearing the wind rustling the leaves. There wasn’t any wind, though.”
“She was telling you her name,” Amaranth said. “She was introducing herself… saying hello.”
“She handed me the acorn, and then walked off into the forest,” I said. “I kept wandering around trying to see her again. We were told to stay on the paths, so I did, but I followed it everywhere, looking through the trees. I came back to the clearing an hour late, with nothing but that one acorn.”
“I didn’t tell anybody at school what I’d seen. It seemed… private,” I said. “I told my mother. She’s the one who told me that it had been a dryad, and that there weren’t very many of them left because we’d cut down most of their trees and made the rest live on preserves. That’s how she put it: ‘we cut down their trees.’ I cried, because I thought she meant that how it sounded, to a six-year-old.”
“Even as a child, you were determined to take guilt to yourself,” Amaranth said.
“She reminded me of my mother,” I said. “The dryad. They didn’t look anything like each other, actually, but there was something… motherly about her. And also, maybe it was because the only woman I’d ever seen undressed before that was my own mother, changing or getting out of the bath. Maybe I couldn’t help thinking ‘mother’ when I saw another nude woman. Sometimes, when I try to picture my mother, I don’t know which I’m seeing more of… her, or the dryad. It’s all tangled up in my head.”
“Well, then,” Amaranth said mischievously. “I guess now we know why you’re so fixated on my tits.”
She just laughed.
“Tell me about your home,” I said. “I mean, I know it’s a field… but… what kind of a place is it in?
“It’s a wonderful place,” she said. “The farmers there follow a lot of the older ways. They’ve cultivated as many different nymph-fields as they could, and trade with anybody else to get more. Some of the grains we grow would normally be wrong for that climate, or in the local soil, but as long as we do our jobs, the fields flourish.”
“How do you… cultivate a nymph-field?” I asked.
“You need to transplant living plants and a bit of soil from an existing field,” she said. “It’s tricky, because you have to take enough, but not too much… or else the nymph who’s donating will weaken too much. Once the plants have taken root, the men folk have to sprinkle the ground around it with their seed, and if everything goes according to plan, then after several days of this, a nymph will walk out of the center of the plants.”
“And if everything doesn’t go according to plan?”
“Then it’s just a bunch of guys jerking off in a field,” she said. “Which is good, too, I suppose. I mean, fresh air and exercise… right?”
It was my turn to laugh.
“And so, the ‘work’ you do… it improves the crop yield?” I asked. “What about the food you eat? Where does that go?”
“It nourishes the soil,” she said. “This body of mine is smaller than the field, and therefore, quite a bit easier to feed.”
I tried to wrap my head around that.
“So, the food that you eat… it’s somehow transported back to your home, and converted into a form the soil can use?” I asked. It seemed incredible… most forms of long-distance sending that involved more than thoughts, words, or pictures involved huge amounts of energy.
“You’re used to thinking about practical magic,” she said. “This is divine, natural magic. I don’t need to transport or convert what I eat, because I am the field, and it is me.”
“And when you have sex, you, what… feed off the emotions it creates?” I asked.
“Mmm… nope,” Amaranth said. “The emotions we generate are ours to keep. I’d never think of taking them away from anybody. The sex is a powerfully symbolic act of fertility… it makes the soil and the crops more fertile by the simple fact of its being.”
“But, either way, the reason you have so much sex is because it makes your field grow better,” I reasoned.
“I have sex because it brings people joy,” she said. “And… it brings me joy, which is definitely worth mentioning. The fact that it serves a greater purpose is good, but it would be wrong to act as though the pleasure it brings is a mistake, or an afterthought… or a deliberate attempt to pervert its holy purpose. It is a privilege, what we do… not a duty, and never a burden.”
“They say that only the intelligent races have sex for pleasure,” I pointed out. I meant to sound conversational, but my voice made it a slight accusation. I’d been instilled with a very different viewpoint on sex, and though I didn’t quite believe in that viewpoint, I was still finding my thinking somewhat bound up in it. “In nature, it’s only for procreation.”
“I’ve heard that,” Amaranth said. “But I doubt it’s true. I don’t think, when a dog couples with a footstool, that he is seeking to further his lineage in the form of some dog/furniture hybrid. I think he’s simply doing what feels good. If you put a bitch in front of him instead of the footstool, it doesn’t really change anything.”
“But that’s just instinct,” I said.
“Instinct isn’t an enchantment that binds creatures like a golem,” Amaranth said. “It’s a good feeling about some things, and a bad feeling about others. The lower animals have sex for the pure joy of it, and are rewarded… assuming they found a mate instead of furniture… with offspring. It requires intelligence to have sex for any reason other than joy… or even worse, without joy.”
“Do you really love me?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what I wanted her to say. I still didn’t want for me to be a lesbian, but I didn’t want for Amaranth not to love me.
“I really love everybody,” she said. “And I really love you.”
“How can you possibly love everybody?”
“With all my heart,” Amaranth said. “That’s the only way to do it.” She moved her arm, clapping her hand on my left breast. My breath caught in my throat, though the gesture was only incidentally sexual. “Your heart is exactly as big as the world, so you can’t love the entire world with anything less than all of it.”
“Do you love Sooni, even after what I told you?”
“I love her, and I feel very badly for her if her closest friends had to be purchased by her parents,” Amaranth said. “Whom I also love very dearly… and feel badly for if they don’t know any better.”
“How do you love somebody you’ve never even met?” I asked.
“It’s very easy,” she said. “The real trick with some people is to keep loving them, once you get to know them.”
I snorted. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but when I looked back on it later, it was actually kind of remarkable that I was able to laugh at this as a joke and not just automatically assume she meant me.
“How long do you want to keep lying here?” she asked me again.
“Just a little while longer.”
End Of Book One: Welcome Weekend