I'd like to say a huge thank you to Linda Pérez for making Encantado (and other amazing free stories) available in Spanish. Please check out the Spanish Language version of Encantado on Linda's site, here.
Encantado originally appeared on Clare London’s Birthday Celebration in January, 2012; it remains a story that is near and dear to my heart.
by H.B. Pattskyn
“You’re not seriously going to stay in on a night like this, are you?” Sylvia’s tone was incredulous, bordering on scathing.
“Hmmm?” the man sitting behind the big, cluttered desk rubbed one hand over the back of his neck. The knots remained, despite his best efforts. He’d heard his housekeeper’s words but didn’t fully process their meaning. Stay in. Nigh like this. Oscar drained his coffee. “Be a love, would you, and get me a fresh cup?” Above his head, the ceiling fan whirred and wobbled, doing little to cool the room.
“What fool drinks hot coffee in this weather?”
He flashed a wan smile. “Me, I suppose.”
“Dr. Tenpenny, my day ends at 6 p.m.,” Sylvia reminded him tartly.
“It’s nearly half seven.”
“Oh.” He looked up, not at the clock, but at the woman standing on the threshold of his office. Instead of the plain white cotton dress she usually wore, Sylvia Barton had on a bright floral skirt and yellow tank top that showed off her midriff. The young woman’s figure wasn’t what most Europeans would consider ideal: she wasn’t thin, though she wasn’t what he would call “overweight” either. Just somewhere in the middle, and clearly not ashamed of her body. He liked that about her. Or maybe he just liked her. Sylvia had been his housekeeper and companion for almost five years.
“I’ll get my own coffee.”
Sylvia rolled her eyes. “Why don’t you come out with me instead?”
“I’m twice your age!” And her employer.
She scoffed. “You’re ten years older than me, thank you very much—and not my type,” she added with a smirk. “Seriously, Oscar, it would do you some good to get away from all that,” she waved a hand at the pile of papers on his desk. “You might even meet a nice man.”
“I doubt there are any men around here who want to meet me.”
She sighed, but didn’t argue. Before she left, Sylvia got him another cup of coffee and opened the shutters, letting in the cool, sweet scented evening breeze coming across the river, clearly hoping to entice him into changing his mind.
Hours later, Oscar Tenpenny was still sorting through paperwork. No matter which way he looked at it, he couldn’t make it work. There was no way to solve one problem without adding to another. The village of Orilla (now more a small town) was growing. People needed housing. They wanted cars. Cars meant roads. That meant construction, which meant more jobs and more money…which meant more people wanting new houses and cars. In theory, it was easy; hire men to cut down trees and clear the way for new roads and use the lumber to build houses. But cutting down meant unbalancing an already tenuous ecosystem and even though the company he worked for was in the business of clearing land and building roads, they also liked to bill themselves as “green”, at least to the shareholders.
Or maybe he was just being cynical. They had a good track record. He wasn’t ashamed of his job or the company who paid his salary. Oscar sat back and rubbed his neck some more; his cup was empty. His shoulders and neck ached. Hell, his whole body ached. His gaze drifted to the framed photograph on his desk. Gavin had been gone just over five years. Sometimes it seemed like a lifetime ago, other times, like now, it felt like only yesterday that Oscar had buried his lover, his partner. His best friend. “God, I miss you. You’d know how to fix this,” he said to the photo. If nothing else, Gavin would have known what to say to him, how to make him laugh. Then maybe he’d be able to think more clearly.
Oscar crossed over to the window, and peered out over the dark river that slowly snaked its way past his house—past the village—and through the surrounding jungle. It was quiet… which was odd. There was almost always a solitary boto, a river dolphin, playing near the dock a few meters from his window. Curious beasty, it had come right up to him, the first time he went swimming—and then darted off again, like a frightened school girl, making him laugh.
Over the past months, they’d each gotten bolder. Oscar still hadn’t worked up the nerve to actually try petting a wild animal, but he did, much to Sylvia’s chagrin, enjoy feeding it. He would sit on the end of the pier and toss hunks of fish out to his favorite boto whenever it came to visit—which lately had been practically every day. He knew it was always the same one, a pale pink dolphin whose head and back were speckled with flecks of gray.
“Guess you’re not hungry, tonight,” he mused aloud. Sylvia was probably right about it only coming ’round for the free meals.
From the other direction Oscar heard… a guitar? The melody was soft, but it sounded like it came from nearby. Curious, he craned his neck the other direction. The road into town was dark; he saw only the distant, twinkling lights of the village beyond the jungle. There was a festival going on, that party Sylvia had attempted to talk him into attending with her. He had no idea what the festival was even for. Gavin had the one interested in local culture. Wherever they went, no matter what part of the world, Gavin soaked it all in; he bought, or was gifted with, handcrafter trinkets from the locals he befriended.
Hundreds of native knickknacks cluttered the shelves of their London home. Oscar hadn’t been back there long enough to bother about what to do with it all.
The music got louder, pulling his thoughts from the past back to the present. Maybe Sylvia was right, maybe he should get out of the house tonight. The world really wouldn’t come grinding to a halt if he went into town—his stomach rumbled, reminding him that his dinner had consisted of three cups of coffee and a piece of toast. “Right, mate. First a shower, then dinner in town.” He almost smiled.
Freshly showered and shaved, wearing a clean light blue cotton shirt and khaki trousers, Oscar walked out of his little house, and considered his options for getting to town. He owned a jeep, but really, the village was only a mile down the road—such as it was—and Sylvia was right about the night being lovely. Inside the house, the air had felt heavy, stagnant. Humid. Outside it was still humid—it was always humid, they called it a rainforest for a reason—but the breeze coming off the river was cool. Fresh. Chirping, warbling, croaking frog songs filled the night—insects buzzed and hummed. A solitary bird cried out. The chorus put the London Symphony to shame.
The first time he’d been confronted with the need to trek down a jungle path after dark, Oscar been terrified. He’d jumped at every sound, every shadow. Back then, he wouldn’t set out, day or night, without a sidearm, and certainly not alone. Now, Oscar trudged off unarmed and with hardly a second thought. There was little likelihood of encountering anything on the road that wouldn’t be more frightened of him than he should be of it.
On his feet he wore sandals, and on his head the straw hat his brother gave him when he departed for Brazil, a few months ago. “Have to make you look a little more ‘native’,” Alfred had said with a mischievous grin. The hat made him look like a ruddy tourist and they both knew it, but it wasn’t like it mattered. Oscar was almost painfully British. Tall, a little chunky—he really needed to spend less time behind his desk—with “classic” English features: a nose that was perhaps a bit too large, a mouth too wide… what had handsome Gavin ever seen in him?
“You are the love of my life…and your nose isn’t too big,” Gavin had chided him often enough.
And… he heard it again, that guitar. It seemed a little louder this time. Nearer. But the road between home and town was so dark, he didn’t see the man sitting by the side of it, playing, until he was almost on top of him. Oscar stopped dead in his tracks.
The man looked up and smiled. The shirt under his white linen jacket was pale pink. Hazel eyes peered out from under the brim of his hat. His skin light for a native, his face dusted with freckles, but his exotic features and the thick black hair falling in loose curls around his shoulders were typical of the local villagers. It was impossible to guess his age, he could have been anywhere between nineteen and thirty five—no, there were subtle lines around his eyes when he smiled. So he was probably at least in his twenties. He turned his attention back to the guitar in his lap while Oscar continued to stare, transfixed by both the music and the musician.
When the melody died away the man looked back up at him.
“I...perdoname...,” Oscar stammered out the first word that came to mind. His Spanish was better than his Portuguese.
“For what?” the stranger answered in English. His accent might have been Spanish or Portuguese, it was hard to tell from only two words.
“Staring?” he replied. It came out sounding more like a question than a statement.
The other merely shrugged. With looks like his, Oscar reckoned the young musician was probably used to being ogled—but perhaps not so much by other men. Still, if he was offended, it didn’t show on his face. He stood and slung his guitar around to his back. “Are you heading into town?”
“Yeah. I… would you like to walk with me?”
The answer was accompanied by a broad grin. “Gladly. My name is Angelino.” He held out his hand.
Since the stranger had offered only a Christian name, Oscar followed in kind, as he accepted Angelino’s outstretched hand.
“Oscar,” Angelino repeated his name slowly, placing the emphasis on the second syllable. “I like that name.”
“I’ve always hated it.” Although he had to admit, he liked the way his name sounded when Angelino said it. Then again, Angelino’s soft, sultry voice would probably make the phonebook sound good.
“I do not believe I have seen you in town before,” said Angelino, as they started toward the Orilla’s twinkling lights.
“I don’t get out much.”
“You live up the road then? In the big house by the river?”
Oscar bit down on a laugh. Five rooms was hardly big, but it was bigger than most of the old housing in the village.
Angelino tilted his head, giving over a curious look. “Have I said something funny?”
“No. No, just… yeah, I live up the road.” God, he sounded like an idiot.
But Angelino just smiled once more, not seeming to mind. They walked on in companionable silence and some of the tension began to drain from Oscar’s neck and shoulders.
“What do you do?” Angelino asked at length. “I mean, what is your work?”
“Nothing I want to talk about.” Oscar regretted his sour tone and his hasty words the moment he saw the affect they had on his companion. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be a boor. I just… some days I hate my job.”
“Today was one of those days?” the question sounded genuine.
“What do you wish to talk about, then?” Angelino asked. His tone was nothing but innocent—curious.
Oscar shrugged. “How about you? What do you do?”
“I play,” he smiled over his shoulder at the guitar.
“You’re very good.”
“I am all right. But thank you,” he added quickly.
“Are you from Orilla?” Oscar asked.
“No. I grew up further down the river. You are from…?”
Angelino’s smile grew wider. “I have always wondered what it would be like to travel abroad. It is exciting, yes?”
“It used to be. I’m sorry. I’m not very good company right now.”
“You are fine company, Oscar,” he said, kindly. “If you do not wish to talk, we can just walk. It is nice to have companionship on a dark night.”
It was, at that. “Where are you headed?” Oscar questioned, trying to keep the conversation going, if nothing else to be polite.
“I said. Into town.”
“I meant where in town?”
“Ah. The festival. You?”
“Just to get something to eat.”
“Have you a particular restaurant in mind?” Angelino asked him.
“Not really. Any suggestions?”
“If I may, yes. Would you like to have dinner with me? If… that is, I do not wish to intrude if I am not
welcome,” he added hesitantly.
“No, you’re welcome. It’s nice to have companionship for dinner, too.”
Angelino looked very pleased by the statement.
“Please, you must allow me, Oscar,” Angelino insisted, when their bill came. “This café was my suggestion. It is only fair that I pay.”
Oscar started to argue—he doubted the young musician had very much money and the meal hadn’t come cheaply, at least not by local standards. But… “Only if you let me pay next time.”
Angelino’s smile was warm. Appreciative. “It is a date.”
The word date made Oscar feel good, even though he doubted the other man actually meant “date”. Still, the company had been nice—perhaps better than nice. Even the moments of silence that had passed between them seemed comfortable, more like sitting with an old friend than with a stranger.
Angelino was shy when it came to talking about himself, but eagerly asked Oscar about his travels. Oscar’s job had sent all over Europe, Europe, America, Australia…
“I would love to see the things you have seen,” Angelino told him wistfully.
“Maybe someday you will.”
“No,” the word was accompanied by a sad smile. “I will never travel.”
“Never say never.”
Angelino shrugged. Changed the subject.
Later, when Oscar found himself talking about Gavin, although surely that was gauche, the other man hadn’t seemed to mind at all. Not that Oscar said he and Gavin were lovers, just that Gav had been his friend, that he’d died in a car crash. The sudden loss had left a huge hole in Oscar’s life. His heart.
Angelino had asked questions, encouraging Oscar to talk as much—or as little—as he wanted.
After Angelino paid for their dinner, the two men strolled to the plaza together. Neither had implicitly asked the other along, they simply fell into step with one another and before Oscar realized it, Angelino was playing for a gathering crowd while he watched.
The young man was truly gifted. Strands of sweet music filled the night air, silencing the onlookers. And then Angelino began to sing. Oscar’s breath caught in his throat and he closed his eyes, allowing the tide of the song to wash over him, not caring that he didn’t understand the words. He spoke fluent Spanish, conversational Portuguese and enough of the local dialect to get by, but there were dozens of native languages—not that it mattered. The melody, Angelino’s tone, conveyed all the meaning he needed: there was romance… heartbreak.
The music grew a little louder, the soft murmurs of the crowd faded—and Oscar looked up to find Angelino standing in front of him, his hazel eyes locked onto Oscar’s brown ones. Angelino smiled and heat rose in Oscar’s cheeks—he glanced nervously around. People noticed them, but no one seemed to care that one man was singing to another. But then Angelino returned to the crowd, leaving Oscar sitting there, his heart pounding in his ears, wondering what had really happened.
After the next song, Angelino announced that he was done performing… and vanished into a sea of admirers.
Perhaps, Oscar reckoned, he’d taken up enough of the talented young man’s time, already. Feeling sadder than he had any right to, he left the plaza and made his way home.
When Sylvia asked him what he’d like for dinner the next night, Oscar surprised her by saying he was going into town to grab a bite. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off,” he added. After all, once his dinner was on the table, something that wouldn’t be happening tonight, her job was done.
Sylvia gave him a little frown, but didn’t argue. She didn’t comment when Oscar shaved and put on a clean shirt, either.
Oscar he wasn’t actually expecting to run into Angelino at the café where they’d eaten the previous evening. Hoped, perhaps, but not expected.
And blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.
He finished his meal and paid his bill.
“Excuse me, Senhor…?” his waiter, an acne-faced young man, approached him, just as he was leaving.
“Yes?” He gave over an inquisitive look and endeavored to remain polite. The man was clearly troubled by something; Oscar was sure he knew what. The village was small, practically everyone knew why he was there. Everybody wanted something, everybody had an opinion. An agenda. He knew that. He appreciated it. He didn’t need to be reminded of it every time he stepped foot outside his door.
“I was just… my sister, Senhor… she… went away… two years ago.”
Oscar’s brows furrowed in confusion.
“To the river, Senhor.”
Clearly, the phrase meant something to the other man that was lost on Oscar. “All right,” he said, hoping to entice a bit more detail.
“Your…companion…from last night… he… he is from the river, no?”
Oscar blinked. “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m not following you at all.”
The enchanted? What the bloody hell was that supposed to mean. If the issue was his sexuality—shite, it wasn’t like he was wearing a rainbow T-shirt or something. “I really don’t see what the problem is.”
“Senhor, those who go to the river never return. Or, if they do, they are not the same.”
Oscar blinked. Frowned.
“Please be careful, Senhor.”
“Certainly.” He said, and extracted himself from the odd conversation with a quick “goodnight”. He had no particular destination in mind, but soon found himself wandering the plaza, mulling over the waiter’s strange comments. No matter which way he turned them, the words failed to make sense.
Unless he thinks whatever backwater village Angelino is from is even more backwater than this. He snorted. He’d been in far less civilized towns that Orilla—not that he was expecting Angelino to invite him ’round for tea. Hell, he didn’t even know if he would ever see the man again. But every time he heard a guitar playing, he stopped. Listened. He could tell without looking it wasn’t Angelino. The man had a skill like no other Oscar had ever heard and while he didn’t count himself an authority on music, he’d certainly been around.
After an hour and a half of aimless wandering, he decided he had been more than foolish enough for one day, and started toward home. Maybe someday he’d hear Angelino playing on the radio and be able to say he’d met the young man when he was still a struggling mariachi. Not quite as good as a second date but—
And that then he heard it: a guitar. He knew it was Angelino. Oscar followed the sound of the music to the riverbank, ending up at the dock right outside his own office window. Angelino was sitting on the end of the little pier, one bare foot dangling into the water, wearing nothing but his hat and a pair of white linen trousers, playing his guitar. His bare chest was lean, but well defined; his nipples were dark against his pale olive skin. His hair hung in damp tendrils around his shoulders. All of the things Oscar had planned to say, if he’d run into Angelino in town, died on his tongue when the half-naked man began to sing. It was the same song from last night, the one with words Oscar didn’t understand. Heat rose in his cheeks once more. Desire pooled in his gut. And Angelino looked up and smiled at him.
Oscar closed the distance between them; he kicked off his sandals and sat down, letting his feet dip into the warm water. Angelino’s toes brushed against his ankle. An accident? It was impossible to tell, so Oscar forced himself not to react, even when Angelino’s foot brushed up against his for a second time.
When he finished the song, Angelino set aside his guitar. “I hope I have not offended you.”
Oscar blinked. “What?”
“Showing up unannounced—uninvited—to your house.”
“No, no not at all. I was just in town, in fact, hoping to run into you,” he admitted, feeling a little embarrassed.
A pleased look spread across Angelino’s face. He rubbed his foot against Oscar’s in the water again. It definitely wasn’t an accident this time. “When you left without saying goodbye last night, I feared I may have upset you by my song,” he explained.
“Don’t be silly. You have an amazing talent.”
“Thank you. It means a great to me that you think so, Oscar.”
“You should really consider trying to get a record deal or something.”
“I only sing for those I care about—or for fun. Last night…last night I wanted to sing for you, Oscar. I wanted you to hear me.”
“I enjoyed listening.” Butterflies danced in his stomach as he reached out with his foot and rubbed it against Angelino’s ankle.
“It is getting late.”
Shite. Had he crossed a line? Or had he simply misread the signals.
“I only mean that I have to be home by sun up,” Angelino told him gently. “My… family… is… they are protective of me and do not like it when I am gone too long.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
“I mean that this is nice,” he slid his toes against Oscar’s foot. His ankle. “But what I would rather do is to kiss you, if you would allow it. Time is too precious to waste it fooling around.”
“I’d like to kiss you, too.” More than he’d wanted to kiss anyone in a very long time.
Angelino’s eyelids lowered, almost bashfully as he reached out, brushed his knuckles gently along Oscar’s jaw. He leaned in; Oscar met the kiss half way. The young musician’s lips were soft. Gentle. Angelino yielded at once when Oscar sought to deepen the kiss. It wasn’t long, however, before Oscar was the one yielding, as the other man’s tongue swept into his mouth, sliding over his tongue, capturing it… surrender had never felt so good.
“Would you like to come up to the house?” Oscar asked softly, when they finally pulled away from one another.
Oscar ran his fingers through the silken black hair of the man curled up in his arms, fast asleep.
Angelino was… beautiful. So very beautiful.
He feathered a soft kiss to the top of his lover’s head, his lips once more finding the bony lump just above Angelino’s hairline. He’d noticed it the first time they made love, some five weeks ago. A birth defect, the other man said of the hard knot. There was an ugly jagged scar down the middle of it, perhaps evidence of a crude attempt at cosmetic surgery—but Oscar hadn’t pressed him about it. Angelino was terribly self-conscious of the defect. No matter how many times Oscar promised him it wasn’t large enough to detract from his looks, Angelino continued to refuse to take off his hat when other people were around. He had only begrudgingly removed it for Sylvia—but not many people refused her when she put her foot down about something.
Oscar pulled the young musician a little tighter against him. Protectively. Possessively. Maybe in London, they could get a proper surgeon to have a look at him… you’re getting ahead of yourself. He couldn’t help it. His job in Orilla wouldn’t last forever, especially if things kept going as well as they had the past month. He almost wanted to throw a wrench in the works himself, just so he could stay on longer.
Angelino wasn’t the first man he’d had in his bed since losing Gavin, but he was the first one that… fit. Just right. It was more than the way Angelino’s body felt against his when they fell asleep together, more than the things Angelino did to him—although bloody hell, Oscar had thought he was long past the stage where he could achieve climax so many times in one night! Thirty five wasn’t old, but he was hardly a teenager any longer.
Except that with Angelino, he felt like one. On their second date, they’d walked along the river bank, held hands… talked… made love for hours under the stars. Angelino was insatiable. Sensual.
He was also kind. Gentle. Generous. Several times, Oscar had witnessed him give everything he made in tips to some poor urchin on the street.
“I have all that I need,” he’d said, when Oscar questioned him. Then he smiled. Met Oscar’s gaze.
Angelino stirred to wakefulness in his arms. He looked up at Oscar and leaned in for a kiss. “I have to go soon,” he said when their lips parted. “The sun is almost up.”
“Why don’t you stay? We could have breakfast together.”
“I have to go home. Besides,” he winked, “you have roads to build. If I stay, I will only be a distraction.”
It was the same excuse he used every time Oscar asked him to stay past sunrise—not that it was untrue, Oscar doubted he’d get anything accomplished if Angelino stayed the day. “How about this weekend then?” he proposed.
Angelino sat up, looking at him curiously. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, how about spending a weekend with me?” It was too soon to discuss going to London, but a holiday together, somewhere where they could be out, open, would be perfect. “I was thinking we could go to Sao Paulo for a few days. It’s not the rest of the world, but… it’s a start,” he added, hopefully. Angelino was always begging to hear of Oscar’s travels; he sat in rapt fascination as Oscar brought up images of other countries, other cultures, on his laptop. He couldn’t get enough of European movies or Youtube videos of the London Symphony. Sometimes Oscar wondered how much of his lover’s yearning to see the rest of the word was earnest desire for travel, and how much of it was simply wanting to get out of Orilla. Brazil as a country may have accepted LBGT equality, but backwater towns were still backwater towns. He didn’t have to ask to know that Angelino was so far in the ruddy wardrobe, he could have visited Narnia.
Only Angelino wasn’t smiling at the prospect of a trip to Sao Paulo. “I could never afford a trip to the city, Oscar. The only money I have is what I earn playing. But… if you must go for work… I will wait for you.”
“I’m not asking you to pay and I don’t have to go for work. I want to take you on holiday with me.”
Angelino blinked, stunned. “You would do that for me? You would… pay my way?”
“Of course I would.” He sat up and pressed a soft kiss to his lover’s mouth. He held him there, gently, so close he could feel Angelino’s warm breath on his skin. The other man smelled of fresh rain and green earth. Oscar closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. When he looked up at Angelino again, he found those hazel eyes on him, staring, intently, as if Angelino was trying to decide… “I’m not as rich as you think I am, Angelino, but I can afford to take you to Sao Paulo for a few days. If you want to go…?”
Sadly, Angelino shook his head. Pulled away. “I cannot go away with you. I have… family.”
“You can’t let your family dictate how you live your life forever. I know it’s hard. I’m from a small town myself, but…,” he hesitated. He didn’t want to ask—he didn’t even want to consider the possibility. But he had to know, “Angelino, when you say ‘family’, you do just mean your parents, don’t you?”
“What?” He looked back at Oscar, his brows furrowed in confusion. “No. I have brothers. A sister.
“What I’m asking is if you have a wife.”
The other man sat in silence for far too long; his expression impossible was to interpret. Hurt. Shock.
Finally, Angelino shook his head; he didn’t meet Oscar’s gaze. “You and you alone occupy my heart,
“That doesn’t actually answer my question.”
“I… I must go. I am sorry.” His tone broke Oscar’s heart.
Angelino slid out from under the covers and began getting dressed, very intentionally not looking at the older man as he prepared to leave. That was it, then. He was married. Oscar pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged them, a million emotions playing tug of war in his heart. It might not be a marriage that Angelino wanted to be in; he might not even like the girl.
But he might be her whole world.
They might have children.
At the bedroom door, Angelino turned. Looked at him. Looked like his heart was breaking, too. “I meant what I said. You occupy my whole heart, meu amor. Only you. For so long… for so long I watched you, afraid to come too near. Afraid of this moment.”
“You… you can’t live a lie, Angelino. Whatever the truth is, whoever you really are, inside, the real you, that’s who you’ve got to be. This is the twenty first century, and you can’t live for other people, you can’t allow yourself to settle for being the man your family wants you to be if that makes you unhappy. There’s a whole world out there. If you want…,” he swallowed hard, but the lump in his throat remained. “I will not be the person you cheat on your wife with, but I could live with being the person you leave her for.” Guilt twisted in his gut. “I’m not wealthy, but… but we can work something out so you don’t leave your…your family… with nothing.” God, he sounded like the worst kind of petty bourgeois imaginable. “You don’t have to stay there if you don’t want to. You have the right to be happy.”
Angelino’s smile was forced. Sad. “Being with you has made me very happy. But the sun is nearly up and I must go.”
“I’m not going to see you again, am I?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.
“Why don’t you go to Sao Paulo anyway?” Sylvia suggested, three days later. “You’ve earned a holiday.”
Oscar shrugged. Shook his head. He wasn’t interested in a holiday.
“You know, it may not be what you think.”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is that… it’s over.” Saying the words aloud was like pouring salt in a fresh wound, but he had never been the sort of man who shied away from the truth, even when it was painful.
“It’s only been a few days,” his housekeeper offered up hopefully.
“I know a goodbye when I hear it, Sylvia.”
“All right,” she relented. “It’s a lovely morning. Why don’t you take your laptop out back and enjoy the sunrise. I’ll bring you some coffee.”
“Sure.” He had work to do. Everything was lining up nicely; in a couple of weeks, he could leave Orilla if he wanted to. Perhaps it was for the best.
Oscar dressed and went outside, but he didn’t take his laptop. Work could wait another hour or two—or at least wait until after he’d had his first cup of coffee. He walked out to the end of the pier, looking for his dolphin. It was nowhere in sight. What he did find waiting for him on the end of his dock was river stone, with a slip of paper folded under it. He sat down, dangling his feet into the warm water, and lifted up the rock, the paper, knowing it was some sort of “dear John” letter. A carved rose quartz pendant fell out of the paper and into his hand. It was a boto, and it hung on a leather strap.
Oscar clutched it tight in his grasp while he read the note:
Mue Amor. My Love. I have no wife. I have no children. I have only a mother and father, brothers. A sister. Aunts and uncles. Cousins.
But you are right, I cannot live a lie. You deserve better than that. It is why I am so very sorry, why I must not come back to you. I am not the same as you, my Oscar. I could invite you into my world, but it would change you and I do not wish that. I love you just as you are.
You will be in my heart, always. You have made it so there is no room for any other, yet I would have it no other way. Please do not forget me.
Oscar looked up to see Sylvia staring down at him. He wiped the tears from his eyes. He hadn’t cried since he buried Gavin; he barely even knew Angelino! He had no right to cry, no right to betray… he shook himself. Gav of all people would tell him he wasn’t betraying shite. “I’m all right,” he lied.
Sylvia set his coffee down—and then sat down on the rough, wooden planks herself. “You know what they say at the market, don’t you? About you and Angelino.”
“What?” Like he cared if the whole damned village knew he was gay. But maybe that’s what he meant, about not being like me. Oscar didn’t have to care. Angelino lived here. He had family nearby. Even if he didn’t have a wife.
Gingerly, his housekeeper picked the rose quartz pendant out of his hand. “They have stories, you know. About the dolphins. The botos. Encantado,” she added softly. “They say you can tell an encantado from a regular person by the bony knot on his head. By the blowhole. It’s why the villagers are suspicious of men who refuse to take off their hats.”
Oscar scoffed, anger and hurt coloring his voice. “I’m hardly in the mood for fairy tales, Sylvia.”
“All legends have a grain of truth in them, somewhere.”
“Yes, and I can imagine what lies at the heart of that rubbish—!” He was cut short by a flicker of pink across the water. Oscar recognized his freckle-faced dolphin, even at a distance—a distance it seemed happy to keep for a change. He turned back to his housekeeper. “I’m sorry, Sylvia. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I know you’re just trying to help.”
With a wan smile, she draped the pendant around his neck and excused herself to go start breakfast. Oscar wasn’t hungry, but he knew that wouldn’t stop her from cooking, so he kept quiet. He turned back to the river. The boto met his gaze. Held it.
Then it dove beneath the surface and was gone.
Oscar didn’t really believe in fairy tales.
The new road into town was a good one, made of mostly recycled materials. Who would ever have thought old tires would someday be made into roads? There was irony in there, somewhere, Oscar was sure of it. He parked his bicycle outside the little café where he and Angelino used to go for dinner and went inside, hoping… but not especially surprised when the other man was nowhere in sight. It was still early in the evening. The day was a warm one and he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and of course that silly hat his brother had given him, the one that made him look like a tourist. Tucked under his shirt, the rose quartz dolphin was warm against his skin. He’d transferred it to a silver chain when he got back to civilization, but otherwise, hadn’t taken it off.
“Senhor Tenpenny?” a waiter greeted him with an odd smile. “You have come back?”
“Si,” he searched his memory for the man’s name, but couldn’t dredge it up for the life of him. “My… friend…?” he queried. “The one with the guitar…”
“No, Senhor. He has not been back. Not even during carnival.”
Oscar asked for a table by himself; he ordered food and a beer, and exchanged small talk with the waiter.
Four months ago, he’d quit his job and done some travelling; he had literally hundreds of hours’ worth of videos on his laptop. Neither friends nor family had been surprised by his decision to “get his head together”—his brother Alfred was the first person to point out that he never gave himself time to properly heal after losing Gavin. Instead of mourning, Oscar had charged right back in, gotten on with his life, buried himself in his work. His family was surprised, however, when he took a teaching position in Orilla; the demand for English speaking teachers was greater than ever in the little town. It didn’t pay particularly well, at least not compared to what he had been making, but that wasn’t the point. It brought him back to where he wanted to be. Never mind that his degree was in engineering.
He ate, paid his bill and cycled up the road toward his old house—half way there, the old dirt road became too difficult for pedaling, and he had to dismount and walk the rest of the way. He was almost glad. He was meeting with the landlord tomorrow, to see about renting the place; he’d hoped it was still the quiet, out of the way retreat it had been a year ago. To all appearances, it was.
He left his bicycle on the front porch and walked around back, to the pier where he kicked off his sandals and sat down. Within minutes, the rest of his clothing was sitting on the roughhewn wood planks of the dock as well and he was up to his chin in warm algae tinted water. The sun dipped below the tree line as he swam. It felt good to be back in the place his mind—or at least his heart—identified as “home”. Exactly when he’d started to think of Orilla as home, Oscar wasn’t sure, but starting the moment he got off the plane in London, he couldn’t wait to get back.
As he swam, he watched the river’s surface hopefully, but saw nothing, even as the sun sank lower in the sky, as the eastern horizon began to darken.
Oscar was about to give up when a sudden flash of pink caught his eye.
The boto breached the surface, spraying water from its blowhole. Then it dove again, but stayed near enough to the surface that Oscar could see it was swimming closer. It surfaced less than an arm’s length from where he was treading water. It had pale pink skin. Gray freckles.
Oscar met the dolphin’s gaze.
Did he believe in fairy tales? He still wasn’t sure. “There… there will always be a place in my heart for Gavin,” he said earnestly. Before leaving London, Oscar had gone through Gavin’s collection of knickknacks. He’d kept a few—one small box full—but the rest he gave away to their friends. To Gav’s family. To the people Gavin had loved, the people who loved him. “But just because… just because I loved him, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another man. Another… another lover. Another best friend.”
The boto plunged into the dark water once more, vanishing into the murky depths. After a moment, Oscar returned to the river bank and waited. Waiting was all he could do.
At last, a new shape broke the river’s glassy surface. Twilight had blanketed the jungle in gray darkness, but the moon rising over the trees afforded just enough light for him to make out a familiar, light skinned, freckle faced man, swimming toward the bank.
Angelino stopped before he got to shore—stopped before he even got to the shallows. “Native legend says it is not safe to swim in the river alone after dark,” he advised. “There are monsters in the water.”
“I don’t believe in monsters.”
“No.” Oscar eased himself back into the warm water and closed the gap between them. Angelino accepted his embrace. His kiss. He returned it. Deepened it with desperate need. Both their bodies responded, pulses quickening.
“I can never be a part of your world, mue amor,” Angelino reminded him softly when lips parted at length. “And I will not bring you into mine.”
“So we build our own world. Here. On the riverbank.”
Angelino regarded him a moment, searching his face. “Do you love me?” he finally asked.
“Yes. Yes, I love you.”
I have always had a deep respect for and insatiable curiosity about the astounding variety of life on our planet. As a child, I spent countless hours in the library exploring books about plants and animals—about human culture and mythology. So I was aware that there such things as river dolphins at a very young age. And I was very deeply saddened when, in 2007 the baiji, the Chinese River Dolphin, was declared “functionally extinct”.
What that means is that no live animals had been spotted in many years. Even if a few baiji happen to have survived the pollution that drove the species to the brink of extinction, the population is now so small that there isn’t enough of a breeding pool left alive to sustain their existence for more than another generation or two. If that.
The fate of the world’s remaining river dolphins, including the boto, doesn’t look any brighter. The reasons are the same: pollution, destruction of habitat, overfishing—plain old human ignorance. I’m not going to get up on my environmental soapbox, except to say that if we’re not more careful—if we simply cease to care about our earth—we will lose more of the incredible creatures with whom we share our planet. I’m not an activist, in any traditional sense of the word. I don’t have a whole lot of money to donate, and sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by the number of things wrong with the world that I wouldn’t even know where to start if I did.
What I can do is use what talents I possess raise a little awareness, because I’m sure that some of you have never even heard of the baiji before, let alone been aware that they’ve been driven to extinction by sheer carelessness.
If you're interested in learning more about the endangered species that don't make the usual television ads, please visit EDGE of Extinction.