When she was finished, she set the pencil aside and rolled over on the grass to gaze up at him. He seemed almost asleep to her eyes: dense breath rushing in and out of his chest, a hand resting carefully on each of his thick knees, eyes concealed and unmoving behind a round pair of dark glasses. Yet as she stretched out her hand, mutely proffering the stack of papers, his fingers opened. His left hand accepted the offering, while his right produced a slender brown pen from one of his pockets. Both figures reclined back in their positions, their transaction concluded. He in his vaguely academic lawn chair—one that sagged handsomely in places—regarding her work with the slow sort of crushing curiosity that she had come to appreciate. And she in her bed of tangled foliage, dry shoots and long stems caressing her body, watching the wrinkles in his brow crease and the lines around his mouth tauten and tighten.
So they rested, shaded in comfortable silence, while the swamp lived and died around them.
She decided that it bothered her. Not knowing what he was thinking, that is. Oh, she could read his appearance well enough. The weathered collared shirt, tanned azure by the sun and unbuttoned down to his chest hair. When he’d rolled his sleeves up she’d known he was enjoying the heat. His not-quite-white khakis, sturdy and stiff and studiously belted. Only the observant would notice the slight hint of purplish-blue sock that suggested a different persona. His grey beard, rough and scraggly and combed to ware off intruders; his feet, encased in dark leather shoes and planted firmly in the soil, undoubtedly sensing a myriad of miniature creatures; his wide flared nostrils, the only part of his body that never ceased moving.
But his expression remained as unreadable and indecipherable as the sun hanging heavy above them. How many countless peoples had looked up at that searing yellow sphere, the only thing on the horizon, and wondered what mysteries it held? Tried to interpret meaning for themselves? Unfortunate that none of them realized how uncaring and distant and utterly alien that ball of superheated gases really was.
“You’re doing it wrong,” he said.
She blinked suddenly, thrown out of her daydream. “What?”
“You’re doing it wrong. You’re not thinking about all of that,” he said, motioning to the terrain before them, “you’re thinking about this.” He gestured dismissively at their tiny corner of the bog. One of his eyebrows was raised in a stalwart expression of try and surprise me. Perhaps it was a permanent position.
She crooked her mouth into half a frown, trying not to grin. “I wrote about the swamp.” Her toes wiggled against the bare air.
“You did,” he acknowledged. “But you were thinking about yourself. Listen.” He rapped the papers with his pen. “‘The gnarled tree dapples the clearing in veils of sunlight, doing little to dispel the humidity that hangs over me.’ ‘The water beckons the weary onward, hoping to ensnare them within its reflecting depths. But I am one of the wary.’ ‘A beetle crawls along my palm, drinking in my presence. I am a stranger here, it seems to chitter.’” He shook his head and she smiled sheepishly.
“You can’t be a stranger in this place. To write credibly, compellingly, you need to be a part of whatever you create. If that means inhabiting the mind of your character, losing yourself in the words, or speaking directly to the environment, then that’s what you do. And you commit to it.” He rolled the words around in his mouth before continuing.
“The swamp knows when you’re not committing. It knows when you’re being facetious. Be comfortable with your subject, be decent and true to it, and it will tell you truth in return.” He handed her the papers and settled back in his chair, and she knew the lesson was over.
They sat without speaking again, for a little while. Only this time, she realized, there was no silence. The murky ponds were flush with fish and tadpoles and ripples upon ripples of movement. The foliage shuddered and quaked under the weight of countless tiny padding footprints. The long grass stems whistled to themselves, echoing the pitch of the wind as they rocked back and forth. Shrill birdcalls sounded over the clearing, stirring insects that buzzed fearfully and ferociously at one another as they traversed their territory. As she listened, she supposed that perhaps all the noises blended together into a single solitary thrum, a thrum that resonated in the bowels of the land and radiated through the aura of the air and captured the eye of the sun. She wondered whether her own heartbeat could match that sound.
She picked up the pencil and began to write.