I’ve fallen in love with all of them. How could I not? With their skin so soft I can watch it give way beneath my fingerprints like silt at the edge of the pond; with their glinting eyes like damp river stones in the moonlight.
Perhaps it would be easier for me if I could build a dam between my heart and theirs. Something mountain-solid, something un-erodible by time or water or whispered promises of catching fireflies by the stream on the last evening of August.
The first man I met had my heart before he even saw me. He was young, just barely old enough to be called a man in the eyes of other men. He had curls the color of birch bark and they hung down and swayed like Spanish moss while he tended to his hunter’s knots. When he saw me, finally saw me, he grinned and it made him look so much like a boy I wondered if I should find his mother to walk him back to the village.
He kissed me up against the damp lichen of an old cypress tree. When I kissed him back, I knew I would love him wildfire-fierce until the earth lay claim to his bones.
I loved him and every other man with a heat that blurred my vision like the haze of pollen that floats off the cedar trees in winter.
There was The Baker, whose lips tasted like yeast rolls and laughed with every part of his body. The Scholar, who told me stories about the ancient heroes and the monsters they slew as he pointed their shapes out in the night skies. He smiled when I told him the stars didn’t like the names he’d given them and asked if I could give them new names for him. The Mute, who followed me into the creek and tossed his clothes into a blackberry bush without a second thought.
I loved them for more than the way they loved me. And they did, all of them: they promised me silk gowns or emerald earrings or a new quilt so that we could make love under the sycamore tree. When they had nothing left to offer, they offered me themselves: their hearts, their bodies, their souls. They offered me every day of the rest of their lives. I would kiss them to stop their words and the kiss was only broken when I couldn’t stop my laugh. Their love felt like the spring current after the mountain ice had melted its way through the valley. It tickled like the fuzz of cattails. It was the scent of magnolia just before the sun rose, the bubbling promise of an unseen river when the summer heat had just gotten to be too much, the springboard bounce of the forest floor under bare feet.
More than anything else, I loved them for the way they saw my world. I loved them because I could watch them watch the fireflies write their way across the evening. I loved the way surprise would make their caterpillar-eyebrows arch when I would untuck a sleeping fawn from the ferns, or when I showed them a porcupine who was hiding much higher up than they thought. I loved the bloodred stain across their lips and chin from the mayhaw berries.
One of my men was an Artist. He came to me with a mouth full of bitterness. He told me of the men in the city who couldn’t be paid to even glance at his sketchbooks. He told me of the way the concrete closed in on him and how the bars of his cage scraped the skies. He’d been born in the city and he told me that he’d wanted to know how the air tasted when it hadn’t been spat out of the lungs of a hundred thousand people.
I took The Artist by the hand and led him deeper into the woods. The evening light faded and the stars and the moon wrapped the clouds around themselves to stay warm. The spaces between the trees became too dark for a man to see, but he never questioned me. He kept that pace, as sure-footed as a city man can be over the roots and rocks. His breaths filled his chest to the brim. I watched the bullfrog rise-and-fall of his ribs and wondered if he meant to gulp the night air the way he did or if his tenderfoot flesh was struggling to keep up with his wild heart. Did his lungs ache when they filled the way they were meant to? Did the chill of the breeze, so unexpected after the heat of those summer days, feel alien? Did the sounds of my forest frighten him?
He walked with me, a blind man in the woods, and he grinned a child’s grin because he felt sure that the darkness had hidden his face. That grin, that grin he was so convinced was a secret, still makes want to dance like the dandelions dance.
I brought The Artist to a hilltop, the kind that slopes up so gently you don’t even realize you’ve reached the summit until you can see the expanse of everything below you. I asked the sky to drop its thick grey robes and it has always been too fond of me to deny a request. I let him see every light, the yellows and reds and winking whites. He told me the stars looked like someone had flipped the city upside down and pasted it on a ceiling high above. I told him I had never seen a ceiling.
I kissed him and he didn’t taste like bitterness and urbanization and humans. No, he tasted like hickory air and when I licked at his lips, it felt like dew on an orchid. He loved my forest, just as he loved me. The Artist, The Mute, The Scholar, The Baker, and the thousands of other men over the years, have loved the forest’s hills and curves. They’ve begged for the softness of the riverbank’s sands.
How could I love these men so much and let them return to their cages and concrete and ceilings? How could I let them taste air for the first time and then send them back to a chemical fog? I loved them all far too dearly for that.
So, I brought them to my river, just as my mother and her mother before her had done. My river twists and turns, finding new curves and flows with every new snowmelt. It changes its clothes to match the sky’s. It wears necklaces of crystal when the noontime sun is high. It pulls a grey wool scarf around itself when the November clouds call down a chill. It wears chestnut corduroys when the sky fills it past its brim and the silk-silts of the riverbanks run down with the fast-moving waters.
Even when the river billowed fog in the early mornings of late fall and mountain slush raced swiftly on the river’s current, they never hesitated when I asked them to swim with me. They stripped with the eagerness of a teenager and would stand shivering and shriveled on the riverbank until I took them by the hand.
I never saw fear in their eyes when they stepped into the shallows for the first time. I saw shock, of course. They’re only human and my waters run cold, but they would let out a laugh, a high-pitched kind of giggle they would be embarrassed by on any other day.
After my first love, I always made sure to kiss them before I pulled them under the water. The first man had his eyes open when I threaded my fingers through his hair. When I pulled him under, he kept them open, pupils darting this way and that like a school of minnows cornered by a wading bird. His lips contorted and twitched as bubbles floated upwards, his breath getting caught under the leaves of the lily pads.
If I wanted to keep them forever, this whole ordeal would be over so much more quickly. Instead, I have to yank them back up to the surface for a half a gasp and back down again. With The Baker, his splashing and writhing made enough noise that a juvenile brown bear wandered up, thinking he’d stumbled across an out-of-season salmon run. I hope that in some part of their mind, burrowed hibernation-den deep, they understand I’m being kind.
I’ll hold them down until their look of betrayal is replaced with a deer’s non-comprehension. I lay them down in the grass beneath the palmettos and pet their hair until they wake. As fond as I am of my men and their honeysuckle-sweet words, I think this is how I like them best. When they wake up, they’re children again. I can see it in the way they hold their shoulders. Once, they held them taut with taught intensity, a stress between their shoulder blades from the forced posture they were told men are meant to bear. After my river, their shoulders slouch and shuffle and bob up and down like duckweed on a windy day. Without the pollution of cities and crowds and memories, my men were as free as I could make them.
They sing wordlessly back at birdsong. They leap at black cherries a dozen feet overhead and do not complain when they fall short. They stroke lightly at leaves because of the way their shine caught the light. They barely cry when it turns out to be poison oak.
They touch fearlessly at my world and at my body, but it lacks their earlier finesse of experience. They grope too limply too or forcefully. After, they have no interest in lying by me in the jessamines. The Baker was the only one who would hold my hand, but he only seemed to enjoy it to rub his knuckles against my fingers. I have yet to find a way to strip the burdens of men from them that does not take their affections with it.
I still love my men when they become my boys. A tremendously selfish part of me wants to hoard them like a blackbird’s treasure. I could let them chew sweetgrass and chase fireflies until the seasons stopped turning. Without their minds, my forest becomes theirs as much as mine. They can love it unconditionally and unabashedly. They holler with the whooping crane. They chase pollen dots through the air. They treat me with love, but it is the same love they hold for every other thing they see. I am a friend and so is the toad and the toadstool. My boys are free and they do not know how to love me beyond any other thing.
I lead them to the edge of the forest as the sun sinks and wait for them to see the glow of lantern light. They walk back into their concrete shelters with the same lack of hesitation they followed me into the water with. They do not look back.
Hannah Melin is a writer working out of Dallas, Texas. She studied Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida where she worked as the Fiction Editor for “The Cypress Dome” literary magazine. After undergrad, she worked as a literacy teacher for the Peace Corps on islands throughout the Eastern Caribbean.