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With brief thanksgiving

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Salmacis

The young man sat by the edge of the spring. The water welled up fresh and cool, running down the rocks to pool below him. It was so clear as to have no colour at all, so clear it was impossible to be sure how deep a pool it made. How far down was the rock-strewn base? He almost fancied he could reach down and touch it, wade safely across without need to swim. Or was it unimaginably deep, far beyond his ability to dive, as out of reach as the clouds in the sky above?

That was what he loved about water. On land, things were always one way or another: settled, discrete. But water, water could be both ever-changing and always the same. It flowed on and away for ever, from spring to pool to brook to distant sea, always leaving, always travelling on, and yet the spring and the pool and the brook remained. What could be softer or more yielding than the cool spring water running over your fingers or gently lapping your feet? And yet nothing could stand against water, not even the bones of the earth itself: great walls of rock eaten away into gullies, worn away to sand and nothing more.

Perhaps, he thought, in the underwater world near and far were the same, and the little coloured stones that littered the pool, glinting in the forest light, were at one and the same time within easy grasp, only half a breath away, and also gone forever out of reach, so you could dive as deep as you pleased, as deep as your breath would hold, while they remained an endless dark distance away, and the kind air as far away above you, lost and unreachable.

The forest clearing was almost quiet: the hum of insects, the soft gurgle of the water. The young man stood and cast off his clothes, diving willingly into the shifting, uncertain depths.

 

Narcissus

The young man sat by the edge of the forest pool. The water lay so calm, so very still it almost seemed a second world was suspended in its depths: the new green leaves of spring hung down to brush their pale reflections; the hyacinth bloomed, purple and white, as thickly in the water's depths as on the bank; the sudden blue-green flash of a passing kingfisher was almost as bright in the pool as in the air. Only the little fishes darting to and fro darted singly and unreflected.

Even the young man on the bank, trailing his fingers in the cool water, disturbing the image with little ripples, was doubled, or almost doubled … was it his reflection he saw, or was his water-self something more than just a copy – something finished, completed in a way the clumsy creatures of the land could never match?

He turned his head this way and that, studying his reflection. The water made it softer, somehow, adding a touch of feminine grace to the hard planes of his jaw and cheek, and the ripples blurred it just enough it was no longer quite his face, distinct and individual, but a general type, the perfect face of a beautiful young man. No, not even that, with its subtle softening – it was the face of beautiful youth, indifferent to gender as to every other particular detail. How would it look, he wondered, from the other side? If he were in the water looking up, what would he make of the face above him? He leant closer still, almost as though he would kiss his enigmatic double.

 

Hylas

The young man stood by the edge of the river, pitcher in hand. The water ran fast and clear and seemed almost to laugh where it danced over the little rocks in its path. The young man could easily have laughed too, full of the sudden joy that comes sometimes to the young and fit. He was alive, with all his life ahead of him, and it was a glorious day for living: the summer sun striking warm between the cool shade of the trees, the scent of the grass underfoot. He was still young enough that happiness seemed eternal, reliable, a state of being that might be disturbed by some sudden suffering, as a thrown rock disturbs the still water, but which would always return, as the ripples die away and leave the surface again serene and unperturbed.

The sunlight caught in the curls of his hair, and he stood unconsciously like the statue of an athlete, or a dancer about to launch into movement: a brief moment of grace, unseen and unadmired, like flowers that bloom and fall on unfrequented ways, or the sudden swoop of an iridescent kingfisher when there is no one to see it. The brook caught up his beauty and reflected it back, refracted into a thousand dancing pieces (a curl of his hair, the curve of his shoulder, the line of his back), and there was none to see that either, for he was watching not his reflection but the play of light on the water, and the swift sureness of the stream as it leapt and rushed between the rocks. There are some moments that should last forever.

On and away, further downstream, the narrow river broadened into a broad expanse, mirror smooth and placid, the last echoes of the rippling, rushing water dying away to a flat calm, to nothing at all. By the river's edge, in the clearing among the trees, a pitcher lay discarded and forgotten, and by the next spring it was grown over completely with yellow flowers.

 

Leander

The young man stood poised by the edge of the sea. The land fell away sharply at his feet, dropping down to the waves breaking below. The water would be cold, he knew, colder even than the autumn wind that tugged his cloak and turned his breath visible in the night air. The tide would be running fast by now, rushing out to sea. Was it worth the risk? But he had come so far already, and she would be waiting for him, young and warm and lovely, her dark hair falling loose over her bare white shoulders, her dark eyes glowing with joy to see him. To see her was to love her, to wish only to remain forever at her side, never to let her go. The moonlight fell across the water, the illusion of a white path on the dark waters, and that was the way he had to go, the only road for him to follow. He was a strong swimmer, he knew, and love for her welled up in his heart, warming and protecting him from the gathering cold. He could swim forever, if he swam towards her. He cast off his cloak with sudden decision, and dived forward as smoothly as the little shining water birds dive for the darting fish, so smoothly the water closed over him with barely a ripple.

 

Arethusa

They say there is a stream that leaves Arcadia, leaves the broad and pleasant meadows where it was born, and that it travels always onwards, fleet and fast, to plunge at last into the ocean depths, only to arise anew, reborn, in Ortygia: a new spring, a new pool, a new brook to run again to the eternal sea, and from there who knows? There are always new springs, and fresh water.

The water reflects back the sky and the trees and the birds, and the little fishes swim between the reeds. Someone throws a stone carelessly into the river, or a kingfisher dives to catch a fish, and the ripples echo its shape for a moment, reforming the blue of the sky and the green of the leaves into new patterns that hold their form for a moment, and then fade away forever.