At twenty-five Kent was alone and unmarried, so when his mother died he faced the task of disposing of her things alone; alone, except for her cat, Mack, who he had reluctantly inherited along with everything else. He worked methodically and soon came upon her photograph albums. Although he had seen them before, he couldn’t resist looking through them again. He made a space on the dining table and arranged them in chronological piles. Mack jumped up on the table as though anxious to assist. He settled himself into a neat curl and sent cat hair wafting over the books. Kent sneezed twice and began to thumb through beginning with his baby pictures. He flipped the familiar pages quickly but, when he came to a faded photograph of two children in a bath full of bubbles, he paused. The pallid little boy was himself at six and the smiling little girl was Helen, his four-year-old niece. Even now, almost two decades later, he recollected his embarrassment. He recalled her laughter and his sullen pout as he tried to hide himself in the bubbles. He vaguely remembered her game in which she offered him a mug full of suds telling him, with a straight face, that it was hot cocoa. In the game he was supposed to take the mug and pretend to drink registering surprise when it turned out to be foam. He had been unable to comply and her father, his older step-brother, Kevin, had stepped in to make the appropriate moves. Then she had laughed her tinkling happy laughter which echoed off the bathroom walls. He had attempted to join in but his ongoing angst prevented him from any semblance of joy.
He found later photographs from 1995, the year that his father died. The family group pictures showed a somber gathering with full representation from his father’s two marriages and families. His mother, his younger second wife, wore an ugly black hat and his twelve year-old self stood stiff and erect next to her. He remembered the sadness of the day and how uncomfortable it was to wear long pants and jacket in Austin in August. Now, fifteen years later, with the pain of that day dulled, he looked intently at each photograph, but he didn’t look for his mother or himself he looked for Helen. She wore a pretty summer dress and smiled her radiant smile into the camera. Already you could tell that this ten-year-old girl was destined to the looks which turn heads. She had poise and vivacity. After the funeral Kent, Helen and two other children had played Monopoly together. Helen had won finishing the game with a ballerina’s spin and peals of sweet laughter. Her pleasure was so intense that Kent remembered how glad he had been that she had won.
The third album contained photographs from his mother’s 2005, fiftieth birthday celebration. She had invited the whole family, even her dead husband’s children from his first marriage. Her step-children, who were children to her in name only, stood in the photographs showing their age as all were already over fifty. Her step-son Kevin had come bringing his wife and daughter who, now a twenty-year-old college student was on Spring Break. During this visit the twenty-two-year-old Kent had realized the extent of Helen’s beauty. Her skin was perfect, her eyes deep dark pools, her eyelashes long and full, and her dark hair lustrous. She moved with grace and uninhibited spontaneity. Kent enjoyed watching her as he admired her flat belly, slender legs and nicely shaped breasts. What made her additionally attractive was her fun loving gaiety. Kent found her unlike any of the girls whom he had dated. She talked to him as an equal discussing literature and movies with intensity. He relaxed in her presence merely because she was so vibrant and seemingly carefree. How he wished that she were not related, that she was someone other than his niece. But then he would have been embarrassed and inhibited by his attraction to her. Might not the constant worrying about how he could invite her out, date her, become her boyfriend and even her lover, have detracted from his enjoyment of their time together?
All these memories went through Kent’s mind as he scoured the pages for images of her. He was not disappointed and found several taken the day after the big birthday party. It was the day that they had gone to Pedernales Falls State Park. The photograph which he liked best was the one of him and Helen standing beside the Park notice about swimming. The Park had several such notices posted; each admonished the public that bathing was strictly prohibited and would be prosecuted with fines. In the photograph the two stood with wet hair and damp clothing smiling sheepishly at the notice. As Kent looked at the photograph he closed his eyes and relived the afternoon preceding the photograph.
Every precious moment came back to him vividly. It began when they ate a picnic on a bluff overlooking the falls. After they had eaten they spilled out onto the rocks leaping, gazelle-like, from boulder to boulder. Kent followed Helen as she moved quickly exploring the many crevices and sparkling water. Eventually they came to a secluded pool snugly surrounded by smooth rocks. The water was deep, clear and inviting. Quickly Helen took her shoes off and dangled her painted toes in the water. Kent sat beside her and did likewise.
She turned to face him, her eyes as deep as the waters and asked, “Do you think that they are serious about bathing? The water invites us in. I am not sure that I can resist.”
“The signs are unavoidable so I have to believe that they are very serious.”
“Yes, but they have to catch you to prosecute. I don’t see any park rangers, do you?”
“I see none, unless there is one behind that rock over there.” Kent held his hand up over his eyes as through searching diligently and smiled as he pointed to a rock upstream.
She looked him in the face and joined in his mirth. “You are a big tease. No, I can’t see any rangers. I can’t even see my parents or your mum. So, – do you think that we should?”
“But we don’t have towels or swimming things.”
“You don’t have to have towels and swimming suits to swim you know. Swimming in the buff is much better. It’s exhilarating.”
Kent looked at the wonderful girl beside him. Was she going to strip off in front of him without inhibition? Would he have to reciprocate and undress also? “Aren’t you embarrassed to undress in front of me?” he whispered in a voice husky with emotion.
“Nope, I have the right. Remember that when I was four and you six we bathed together, your mother has the photograph in an album. We are family. It has to be OK.”
“Well, I am not sure.”
“But I am. My mind is made up. I’m going to go behind that rock over there and undress and get into the water. If you want to join me you can make that rock over there your dressing room.” She pointed to a rock in the opposite direction.
Kent was not about to be upstaged by a girl and especially not Helen and so he nodded and walked to his designated rock. He undressed.
She slipped soundlessly into the pool and he followed her. It was crisp and fresh and for a moment his whole body tingled from the cold. The pure waters of the Pedernales caressed and stimulated all his secret extremities and he liked it. Immediately he knew that this precious moment, the startling sensation of the cold water and vision of the nymph before him would stay with him always. She was already swimming toward the opposite side. He followed her lead, glad that he swam well and pleased that he looked as at home in the water as she did. They swam quietly parting the water with gentle strokes letting it ripple without splashing. It glided over their naked bodies shining and glistening in the afternoon sun. When they reached the far side they trod water facing each other.
“You are right, it is wonderful,” he whispered. He was almost afraid of speaking and hoped that the sound of his words would not break the magic of the place.
She murmured back, “It is idyllic. It is so cool, so clear, and so peaceful.”
He looked down through the crystal deeps to the scoured rocky bottom and nodded. “I can see to the bottom.”
“This is the best that it gets. This is Eden.”
The chased each other across the pool several times before each discretely swam to their designated rock and climbed out. They came back together when they were dressed their hair still wet and clothes damp. They didn’t allude to their dip but silently took hands and walked back across the rocks. Her hand was almost as cold as the water. By the time that they were under the steep bank on the far side it had begun to warm up. He wanted to prolong the entrancement but she suddenly let go and began to race. “Last one up is a rotten egg!” He followed her up the steep cliff happy to let her win so that he could watch her climb from behind.
Mack got up and unexpectedly rubbed his body against Kent’s hand. The surprise of the warm fur roused Kent from his reverie. He sighed. All that had happened five years ago. That evening Helen and her parents had flown home and Kent had spent hours on the Internet trying to unravel the legalities of uncle and niece marriages. He read blogs written by people who were disgusted by the idea and eventually tunneled down to find that in Texas, along with Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Rhode Island such marriages are legal. He thought it strange to find that Leviticus 18 bans nephews and aunts but not uncles and nieces. He deduced that the Leviticus admonition has something about the probable age differential and an ancient culture in which the bride is always required to be the groom’s junior. He obtrusively discussed his longing with his mother. She encouraged him to forget Helen and he had tried. For the last five years he had tied. Every day he had tried but the trying had only served to intensify his longing for her.
Now, as he gathered up the albums he noticed a small snippet of paper torn from a newspaper lurking under Mack’s paw. On it he read the word Helen accompanied by an e-mail address. It was written in his mother’s unmistakable hand. The newspaper date was a few days before her death. Kent wondered, if this was a subliminal message from his mother that a liaison with Helen was acceptable. The more he thought the more he knew that she was encouraging him from the grave. He decided that he should waste no time and put his computer on the table and began to type.