Kissing Cousins
by Nicole Clevenger

Their first kiss was the purest, sweetest thing he would ever know.

He didn't foresee then that every kiss following would contain within it a desperate attempt to eradicate the recollection of that first. That every woman who came after would be another mask to fit upon the memory of her face. He didn't know then that he would spend his entire life caught between wishing he could forget and fearing that he might.

But he understood even then that it was special, a moment to be savored. He'd imagined it for so long that he'd begun to dream about her, waking with a whispered remembrance of her taste on his lips. She even inspired him to flights of poetic fancy - not something a boy of seventeen had much experience with - embarrassed scribbles on easily hidden scraps of stolen paper. Clumsy rhymes and awkward metaphor, hastily scratched out by the light of a flickering candle stub before his head could think the better of what his hand was doing.

And the moment, when it finally came, was worth all of it. Worthy of any dream. Her breath smelled like peaches, pink lips slightly sticky when he pressed his own against them. The sunlight glinted in sparkling strands of golden highlights amongst the stray wisps of her hair; it brushed a warm caress across the back of his hand when he reached for her pale fingers lying on the blanket between them. Her eyes were laughing above the flushed swell of her cheeks - a woman's understanding peeking out from the face of a child.

There were bees that day, filling the air with a background murmur of busy noise. They fascinated her, those little furry black and yellow bodies. She said she admired them for their sense of purpose; she said she had been told that it was they who helped the flowers bloom. He nodded and tried to look knowledgeable - though truth be told, flowers weren't a subject much discussed in the course of a young man's lessons - because he wanted her to be fascinated with him.

She was watching the bees; he was watching the pattern the leafy shadows made against the smooth porcelain of her face. Her hat lay discarded on the blanket beside the picnic basket, two long pink ribbons dangling useless with the loss of their bow. Her hair was kept back from her face by a ribbon of its own, and his fingertips tingled with the thought of pulling that strand of cloth and setting it free. He'd seen her hair down only once, in a sneaking glance through an unguarded keyhole on one of her family's visits to his home. The memory of yellow curls spilling over tiny shoulders, just before her maid swept it back into a tight bundle at the nape of her neck.

He told her she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and her laughter was like the sun breaking the horizon at dawn. Lingering dream fragments of nighttime clouds burning with orange fire, signaling the awakening of a new day with a peaceful yet passionate joy; the white of her neck as she tipped her head back to giggle at the sky. It was the honest delight of a child rather than the cultured affectation of a lady, and when her hands fluttered up to her face to hide her grinning mouth, he was charmed all over again.

The kiss itself was a brief thing, a chaste thing. A moment both infinite and instantaneous, secretly shared beneath the trees deep in a sun-brightened meadow. Lips together and eyes closed, an innocent flirtation with the unknown adult realms of desire and fantasy. Not his first, but the first that gave him pause. The first that made him think of poetry.

When he leaned away her eyes were still closed, lashes resting featherweight on her skin. They fluttered once, twice; her eyes went first to their interwoven fingers on the coarse white blanket. He waited - throat dry, heart beating a wild rhythhm - gripped by a sudden desperate fear of her reaction. She was the only thing he could ever imagine wanting; if she rejected him there in that spring grass it might just be more than he could bear.

But she lifted her clear blue gaze to meet his, and his breath hitched in his chest at the sight of her smile. The laughter bubbled up clean and unstoppable, their contagious grins in playful rivalry with one another and the flawless beauty of the unexpected day. He ducked in again, a quick stolen replay in the borrowed time of that precious moment.

Hours later, as her family was preparing to return home, she pressed the white square of a monogrammed handkerchief into his hand when none of the others were watching. It had been folded and refolded against the straight lines of its intended creases, and he fondled the edges deep in his pocket as he watched them ride away. Later, in the privacy of his room, it would be folded and refolded again, the delicate cloth smelling faintly of powder and clean soapy girl sweat. He imagined he could smell peaches in its threads as well.

They wrote infrequently - conscious of the need to not arouse suspicion - but during her family's visits they would sneak away whenever they could. It was difficult to invent excuses to be alone together, but his father's diverse involvement in town business insured that the house was often filled with the endless traffic of society and politics. Sometimes their breathless interactions were nothing more than the illicit whisper of a graze of fingers passing on the staircase, a covert meeting of darting eyes. Sometimes it was the hot press of bodies in a narrow hallway briefly moving closer than necessity dictated, the brush of soft lips across an earlobe in a secret told with the language of trembling skin.

It wasn't long before the daring of their youth and emotion made them careless. And, in allowing themselves to become careless, it wasn't long before they were caught.

It was her father who finally found them, her in his arms where they stood on the bank of the stream. Had it been a servant who'd stumbled across the scene, perhaps the secret could've remained as such; perhaps they could've bullied or bought, using the near miss as a lesson in clandestine association. A frightening, dangerous lesson to be sure, but one that could be put to good use. Something to be laughed over, even, once the heart-skipping terror of the experience had passed.

Her height then had barely cleared his shoulders; his chin rested lightly on the top of her head, her hair tickling his dry summer skin. The warmth of her body was hardly noticeable through all the layers of clothing she wore; he held her there with her back pressed close to his chest, his arms snug around the artificial shape of her tiny waist. They watched the water drift lazily along, caught by its hypnotizing flow.

The hand that landed on his shoulder spun him around without warning or ceremony; the fist that followed landed on his jaw before his eyes even thought to focus on his attacker. He was on the ground by the time his brain chimed in with its first peals of warning, one arm angled painfully beneath him and her shouts echoing in his head. A crumpled handful of shirtfront hauled him to his feet again, the dizzying rush of sky and pain resolving itself into the snarling face of a bigger man. He couldn't make out the words with the ringing in ears and the ugly sounds of sobbing coming from somewhere he couldn't see, but he understood well enough their message. Just as he understood the second punch to his bruised and aching jaw.

The events that came after were segregated moments of frozen time, still-life flashes in dull shades like those daguerreotype wonders about which people had begun to talk. The puffy eyes and tear- streaked face of his beautiful cousin, the harsh indentations in the skin of her arm made by the crush of her father's unrelenting grip. The fury in his own father's eyes as he was thrown at the older man's feet, the taste of blood brassy in his mouth and fire dancing along the nerves of his broken wrist. Gossiping clutches of servants and strangers, dissipating slowly for weeks and months later as he walked by with his head forced high and a hollow keening smothered in his soul.

The sparse, cold words bleeding black on the parchment, informing him callously of her fate.

A convent, all talk of potential suitors having been instantly abandoned in the wake of the devastating scandal. Her parents refused to even consider allowing him to see her; in his own home he was forbidden to even mention her name. He was only told of the plan as a curt response to end his deluge of intercepted communications - otherwise, he might never have known. They were locking her away without giving him a chance to say goodbye. To beg her forgiveness. To memorize the gentle lines of her face and the precise hue of her eyes.

The handkerchief he kept, a secret treasure he carried with him for years and years. Edges frayed by his questing fingers, ornate lettered stitching unraveling with his constant touch. It was eventually taken off him in a foolish gunpoint robbery; by the time he'd caught up with and killed the man who'd stolen it, the folded square of cloth was nowhere to be found.


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