Wakulla Springs, in the Florida panhandle, is the deepest submerged freshwater cave system in the world. “Wakulla Springs” is a novella by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages, which we hope will surprise and delight you as much as it surprised and delighted us.
This novella was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Wakulla Springs. A strange and unknown world, this secret treasure lies hidden in the jungle of northern Florida. In its unfathomable depths, a variety of curious creatures have left a record of their coming, of their struggle to survive, and of their eventual end. Twenty-five thousand years after they disappeared from the face of the Earth, the bones of prehistoric mastodons, giant armadillos, and other primeval monsters have been found beneath the seemingly placid surface of the lagoon. The visitor to this magical place enters a timeless world of mystery.
“Well, there you is, Mayola.” Vergie Jackson looked up from the porch of the shotgun cabin on the edge of the piney woods, waving a paper fan with a faded picture of Jesus. “I like to die in this heat, a-waiting.”
“I told you,” Mayola Williams said. “I was helping Miz Green close up the school for the summer.”
“You said you’d be home ’bout noon. It’s near two o’clock.”
Mayola shrugged. “We got to talking, and I lost track of the time.” She shifted a stack of books from one hip to the other. “Lemme set these in the house and we can go someplace cooler. I won’t be a minute.”
“What for she give you homework in the summer?”
“Ain’t homework. Just some books she loaned me to read.”
“The kind they teach up at the A&M.”
Vergie rolled her eyes. “I want to be quit of school, and you always asking for more. I don’t see the point of it.”
“Well. How ’bout this?” Mayola took the top book off the stack and held it up, just out of Vergie’s reach.
“They Eyes Was Watching God,” Vergie sounded out slowly. “That’s just Bible study.”
“Nope. It’s a story novel.”
Vergie fanned herself again. “Make believe.” She shook her head.
“But look here.” Mayola showed the back cover. “Wrote by a real-life colored woman. She from Florida, too.” She laid the book on top of the others with gentle care, then went into the house, the rickety screen door slapping shut behind her.
She reappeared a few minutes later. “Let’s go over to Cherokee Sink. I’m all over sweaty, and a swim would sure feel good.” Mayola liked to swim about as much as anything, except to read, and it’d been nearly a week since she’d been able to kick loose all the kinks and sitting aches.
“Uh-uh. My brothers gone over there, and Luke Callen’s with ’em. That boy’s mean as a sack a’snakes.”
“True enough. How ’bout the river then? Lower Bridge only ten minutes more.”
“I can’t swim nowheres this week. I got my monthlies.”
“Oh.” There was no arguing with that. Mayola thought for a minute. “Tell you what. Miz Green give me twelve cents for helping her clean. I put it all in my piggy bank, ’cept for one Indian head penny—that’s good luck, and I put it right into my shoe, so it’ll watch out for me. But I reckon I could spare a nickel to walk over to Gavin’s store and get us an RC Cola from the ice chest. That’s almost as cool as swimming.”
“Let’s get us some goobers, too.” Vergie pulled on a pair of laceless, formerly white Keds.
“I don’t know. That’s another nickel.”
“And you saving up for college. I know. I know. I been hearing ’bout your biggity dream ever since Miz Green put that bug in your ear. But this’s my treat.” Vergie paused, to make sure Mayola was paying her proper attention. “I got me a whole quarter.”
“How?” Vergie never did a lick of work if there was some way round it.
“Odell Watkins. He kinda sweet on me, and he got hisself a job up at the springs, rowing white folks out on the river. He shows ’em a sleeping gator and some old bones way deep under the water, and they tip.” She held up the coin with a satisfied smile.
Mayola didn’t think much of Odell, but a cold soda was nothing to fuss about, so she just nodded, and they headed down the sandy track out to the Shadeville Road. She was a tall, slender girl with long, muscular legs. Vergie was a head shorter and sashayed as she walked, all hips and curves. The soles of her Keds were coming unglued, and made a flap-scritch-flap sound when they hit the gravel.
“I need to get me a pair of shoes somebody else ain’t worn out first.”
“You could save up Odell’s quarter.”
“What for? We thirsty today,” Vergie said.
The sides of the road were shallow, weed-filled ditches, jumping with grasshoppers and chigger bugs, and there was nary a car, so they walked down the center. By the time they’d gone a few hundred yards in the fierce June sun, Mayola could feel the thin cotton of her dress sticking to her back, damp as if she was laundering it from the inside out.
The one-room white-washed store sat at the crossroads, its tin roof and bright red Coca-Cola sign glinting in the sun. Inside it was dark and cool and smelled of briny pickles and sweet Moon Pies. A man in bib overalls stood by the counter, talking louder than polite conversation called for.
“You think just ’cause Roosevelt’s in for the third time, we gonna get the electric down here? May as well wish in one hand and spit in the other.” He threw a sack of potatoes over his shoulder with a grunt. “Sometime I think you tetched in the head, Frank Gavin.”
The storekeeper watched him go, then turned to Vergie. “What can I do you for, young lady?”
“Two RCs and a pack of salt peanuts,” she said, laying her quarter down on the rough counter. She got a mercury dime in change, Mayola noticed. That was lucky, too.
Mayola set the peanuts on the windowsill, cellophane crinkling and sticking to her sweaty palm, before she plunged her whole arm into the galvanized ice chest by the door. Her hand closed around the soda bottle right away, but she held it there long enough for her skin to remember what cold was. When Vergie made a my-turn sound, she pulled it out and popped the bottle cap with the church key that hung on twine by the door.
Outside, they sat in the shade of the roof overhang, on a crate stenciled MOBILGAS. Mayola wrapped her hand around the top of her bottle, making a funnel, and Vergie poured in half the bag of peanuts. One by one they fizzed bubbles as they sank, then the bottle was all a-foam, peanuts floating back up in a sweet, salty slurry. That first sip was just about close to heaven.
“Odell’s taking me to a dance next Friday night,” Vergie said when her soda was most gone.
Mayola was finishing off her peanuts, tilting the bottle and tapping on the bottom to get the very last one, so it was a minute before she could reply. “Where ’bouts?” News of a dance went around pretty quickly in their small town, but she hadn’t heard a peep.
“Cooper’s.” Vergie let the word hang out in the air.
“Vergie Jackson!” Mayola dropped her bottle right onto the ground. “Cooper’s nothing but a jook joint.”
“I know.” Now she was smiling like the cat that ate the canary.
“But you took the pledge in Sunday school, same as me,” Mayola said, and heard the prissy in her own voice.
“Just ’cause I’m gonna dance, don’t mean I got to drink.”
But she would, Mayola thought. Vergie’d been edging toward wildness and forbidden fruit ever since she started her turn from child to woman. “Your daddy’s gonna have a conniption, he hears you was anywhere near that place.” She shivered, even in the heat. Reverend Jackson was hellfire on sinners.
“He ain’t gonna hear nothing. I’ll tell him I’se staying over at your place. And I will. But not till pretty late. If I leave my church dress with you, come Sunday morning, I can walk in shiny bright and full’a the spirit, a-men.”
“You asking me or telling me?” Mayola crossed her arms over her chest and tried to look fearsome.
“You my friend?”
“Yeah. But, Vergie. A jook joint’s mighty—”
“I’m going.” Vergie held up her hand. She stood up, and did look fearsome. Then she smiled, sweet as spun sugar, and just as full of air. “C’mon. Do me this itty bitty favor, and I reckon I can do you a big one right back.”
“I don’t need no favor.” Mayola picked up her soda bottle and put it in the crate for the RC man to take back.
“Oh yeah? How’d you like to add to that piggy bank? Three dollars a week.”
“Three dollars?” That was near as much as her brother Charles was making, cutting pulpwood for St. Joe. Hard work. She narrowed her eyes and stared at Vergie. “You got yourself into some mischief?”
Vergie shook her head. “Ain’t got nothing to do with me. Odell say they looking for girls to work in the Lodge up at the springs.”
“Kitchen work. Cleaning rooms. Maybe some waitressing too. I don’t know ’bout that, though. White folks don’t care much who make their food, but seems they real particular ’bout who puts it on the table.”
“Three dollars a week? You sure?” Mayola was quick-like doing the numbers in her head. School didn’t start up again until mid-September. Three months was twelve weeks was—thirty-six dollars! That would more than triple up her piggy bank, and she’d been saving on that for a better than a year.
“We can find out easy enough.” Vergie pointed to the woods that ran behind the store. “We take the logging road, it’s only a couple three miles to the springs, and it’s most all shade.”
Mayola sat still for a tiny little moment. She liked to think on a thing, make a plan, before she set off to do it. Not like Vergie. But if they were hiring up at the springs, and word got round, those jobs would be gone fast as cornbread off a hungry man’s plate. It couldn’t hurt to ask. She nodded once, and they headed east, toward the trees.
Most girls who grew up in Shadeville knew the piney woods as well as they knew their own kitchens—the snakey places to watch out for, the shortcuts, the swimming holes and sinks, the back ways into everywhere. So it was a only matter of minutes before Vergie stopped at a narrow break in the dense green wall, and they stepped off the wiry grass and disappeared from view.
The path was so narrow they had to go single file, brushing away the creeper vines and scrub branches that threatened to choke off what trail there was. Insects droned and buzzed and clicked all around them, like a thousand tiny New Year’s noisemakers. The sun was only a memory above the impenetrable canopy, but the air felt thick and close, like it was considering changing its name to steam.
Vergie slapped at her arm, then her leg, and after the third slap, untied the kerchief from her neck and wrapped it around her head.
“That gonna help?” Mayola asked.
“Maybe. Mama used some new kind of hair oil when she ironed me out this week, and I think the skeeters like it.” She knotted the kerchief at the back. “Got perfume smells like flowers, I guess.”
The path ended at a long, wide slash running north through the tangle, broad enough for a wagon. Down the middle, a dusty-green brush of grass and weeds divided the sand as far ahead as they could see, flanked by traces of wheel ruts.
Now the going was easier, and they walked side-by-side, pine needles and a scatter of dry leaves underfoot, birds calling unseen from the trees. Chee-chee-chee. Yip-yip-yip-yip-yip. Heee-ee. Heee-ee. Twisted scrub oaks and longleaf pines lined the road, the pine trunks as straight and bare as pencils, the wide leaves of the oaks not quite meshing overhead, so the ground was dappled with a calico of sun and shade. Once or twice Mayola felt a breeze run down the corridor, whispering leaves against each other and cooling her almost to the edge of comfort.
“Hold up,” she said after they’d been walking in silent company for fifteen minutes. “I’m gonna get some gum. Want a piece?”
“That’d be fine.”
Mayola stepped over roots and low brush, avoiding the bright green trios of poison ivy, and entered a clearing a few yards in. The bark of the pines had been slashed, revealing raw yellow wood, glistening with beads of resin. Narrow strips of tin formed shallow V-shaped troughs stacked one on top of the other, a few inches apart, like an angular column of Cheshire cats. Nothing but smiles.
It was an old gum patch, where woodriders like her father used to bleed the pines for the turpentine stills. Mayola stopped at a tree as big around as her waist. A clay pot, its edges glittering with dried sap, hung at eye level. She pinched a wad of sticky amber resin from the cut above the pot and rolled it across her palm until it was the size of a store-bought gumball. She popped it in her mouth, savoring the clean pine taste between her teeth, then made a second one for Vergie.
The back of her neck prickled, and she felt something that was not Vergie watching her. She looked around. Up there in the shady darkness among the tree branches, a thing with small black eyes looked down on her. Probably just a possum. But it didn’t look quite like a possum’s face, and didn’t that paw look more like a hand? Mayola felt with her toes to make sure her penny was still where it ought to be, and walked fast out of the gum patch.
They stayed on the path another twenty minutes, the whole world as narrow as a tunnel, with green straight up and down on the sides and white sand straight ahead. Then a dark and horizontal line appeared, a quarter mile in front of them. The county road. An old black truck rumbled into view and was gone again two seconds later.
“Almost there,” Vergie said. She took off her kerchief and stuffed it into her pocket.
“Pretty near.” Mayola felt her stomach tumble over inside. Not scared, really. Just wondering what was going to happen. By the time they reached the road, she’d made sure all her buttons were done up and her collar was straight, and tugged at her dress, pulling it so the fabric unwrinkled a bit and a puff of air cooled the damp at the small of her back.
The road was two lanes, paved flat. The trees fell back behind ditches, and she could see the sky again, a pale, cloudless blue. She looked both ways then crossed over, the tar hot even through the soles of her shoes. Ten yards to the left was the back road into Wakulla Springs.
The springs had been there for years—millions, according to Mr. Monroe, the science teacher. He said that hairy elephants and camels and armadillos the size of Chevys had once lived around here. Mayola thought those animals being real was about as likely as the tales her brothers told about ghosts and swamp varmints that ate up people who wandered where they shouldn’t. But her grandaddy said he’d swum in the springs when he was a boy, so they were for sure old.
The buildings weren’t. She’d been in the fifth grade when her uncles got work digging up land and nailing boards and pouring cement for Mr. Ball’s hotel. Most everybody in the county worked for Mr. Ball, one way or another. He ran the paper company and the mill and—
Vergie let out a long, low whistle. “Holy Joe!” She pointed to a line of black cars—new cars—polished like mirrors so the shine like to blind a person in the hot sun.
“Rich people,” Mayola said in a whisper. No wonder the pay was three dollars a week.
“Ain’t that many rich people in the whole county.”
“Maybe Mr. Ball got visitors from Tallahassee. He know a lot of business folk, even senators, I suppose. They all rich.”
The road led to a courtyard at the front of the Lodge, with its gleaming white walls and red tile roof. The parking area was full of more cars than Mayola had ever seen in one place before. At the far end, nosed every which way, were a dozen or more trucks—pickups and flatbeds for hauling, and one closed off all the way around, with bars on the sides like a box of animal cookies.
Both girls stopped, out of sight behind a massive oak tree, and stared, their mouths open. “Something big is going on here,” Vergie said, and the excitement in her voice matched what Mayola was feeling at the same exact moment.
Nothing big ever happened in Wakulla County.
She was just catching her breath again and readying herself to go find out about what they’d come for, when they heard a screech of grinding metal that like to cut the air in two. She watched as a white man in a strap undershirt pushed up the back of the cage truck, pulled down a ramp, and poked inside with a long hooked stick.
Mayola almost swallowed her gum when, slow as a Sunday stroll, a for-real elephant walked out into the Florida sun.
A long, ululating cry pierced the quiet of the jungle.
“That’s Tarzan!” Boy said. “He’s going for a swim!” Boy grabbed Cheeta’s paw and they raced through the wiry grass until they came to the bank of the mighty river. A fallen tree lay across a branch of a taller tree, overhanging the water. As nimbly as any young ape, Boy scampered up the steep angle to stand beside his father, leaving Cheeta below to watch.
Tarzan stood high above the slow-moving river, naked except for a triangular loincloth low on his hips, his knife sheathed at his side. He was a magnificent man, his thick hair long and dark, his skin the color of honey. He was poised and ready to dive, every inch of his smoothly muscled body as sleek and lithe as an animal’s, showing at a glance his wondrous combination of enormous strength, suppleness, and speed. His deep, brooding eyes scanned his realm.
The ape-man might be ignorant of the ways of civilization, uneducated, childlike in his puzzlement about the tools of the white man. But this was his world, and in it, he was the most cunning, the most intelligent, the most respected—and most feared—of all the creatures. King of the Jungle.
“Umgawa!” he said to Boy. And without another word—for he was a man of few words—Tarzan took another step out onto the limb, flexed his powerful legs and—
“Cut!” yelled the director.
Johnny Weissmuller relaxed. He looked down into the crystal clear waters of Wakulla Springs for a moment, then cuffed little Johnny Sheffield on the shoulder, and the two actors climbed down the ladder hidden from the cameras on the far side of the tree. On the ground, his assistant helped him into his white terrycloth robe, its edges stained brown from his full-body makeup. Weissmuller was as tan as any man in Hollywood, but Tarzan had to be flawless.
“Boy go for swim?” he asked.
Sheffield shook his head. “I’ve got to do my schoolwork. Union rules.”
“Swim tomorrow,” Weissmuller said, and ruffled his blond curls.
A colored boy rowed them across the water to the movie encampment with its folding canvas chairs, tents, and trunks of equipment. Weissmuller slouched into the chair stenciled BIG JOHN, and watched as Little John ran across the manicured lawn and into the Lodge for his lessons.
Cameras were mounted on a floating barge in the middle of the river. Beyond them, two stunt doubles now stood on the tree branch, and at a signal from Thorpe, the director, they dived head-first into the deep, clear water. One of them faltered and made a huge splash.
“Crap!” said Thorpe. He turned to the swimming coordinator. “We have to shoot that again, Newt. Tarzan doesn’t splash, for crissakes.”
“Can do.” Newt Perry waited for the two Tallahassee lifeguards to swim over to the platform. “He wants it again. Make it a clean entry, this time.”
The smaller of the two boys grinned. “At fifty bucks a dive, I’ll go in any way he wants.”
“Just dry off and get back up there. The sun’s almost below the trees.”
Johnny watched from his chair. Even with the canvas umbrella, he could feel the heat of the sun on his back. Time for a cold one. He waited for the cameras to roll again and watched as two men carried a big wooden crate around the side of the hotel, struggling to keep it upright.
With a grunt, they lowered it to the ground next to a big wire cage outside the prop tent. Weissmuller could hear angry screeches from inside the box.
“What’s in there?”
“Monkeys.” The man opened the cage door and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Two more crates up there. Turtles and some kinda birds. Parrots, I think.”
He pulled on a pair of heavy gloves while his partner used a crowbar to open the lid, splintering it. The gloved man grabbed the nimble little animals by the scruffs of their necks as they clambered out, and tossed them into the cage.
“How’re you going to ship them back?” Weissmuller pointed to the ruined crate.
“Don’t have to. One jungle’s the same as another. We’ll just let ’em go when the shoot’s over.” He closed the cage, rattled the handle to make sure it was latched, and headed back toward the hotel.
“Quiet on the set!” the assistant director yelled through his megaphone.
Johnny turned back to the action above the river.
The next dive was as slick as a whistle, almost as good as he could have done himself. He flexed his shoulders. He hated the idea of a stunt double, but the studio demanded it. At two grand a week, he was too valuable to risk. He glanced at the thirty-foot diving platform over the deepest part of the springs. Thorpe had been away yesterday afternoon for a meeting, and Johnny had spent an hour diving off again and again, happy as a kid. The other guests at the Lodge had gathered around, applauding.
That was okay, too.
“We almost done?” he called to the assistant director after he’d yelled Cut!
“Yeah. Losing the light.” The man walked over, looking at his watch. “I should remind Thorpe he’s got dinner with Mr. Ball in an hour. Coat and tie for the dining room.”
And a direct line of sight across the lawn to the platform. No diving tonight. “Okay.” Weissmuller stood up, towering over the other man. “I’m going to change, drive into town.”
“Thorpe says—” He paused. “—He says to keep it in your pants and go easy on the booze. You’ve got close-ups tomorrow. Ten o’clock call.”
Johnny shrugged. “Tarzan have fun.” It wasn’t his idea to film in a dry county. He stepped over the tangle of cables and headed for his room in the Lodge. His robe open, his feet bare, he padded quietly across the terrazzo floor of the lobby, almost as silently as if he were the king of this jungle.
Twenty minutes later, showered and shaved, his long hair slicked back and tamed with Brylcreem, he stepped out of the elevator and looked around the ornately tiled lobby. He’d been told the hand-painted designs on the cypress beams of the ceiling were Moorish, with a little art-deco Mayan, like Grauman’s, but they reminded him of the barns in the Pennsylvania Dutch country where he grew up.
He smiled and strode down the hallway to the front door. It would have seemed unlikely to any observer that the man in the crisp, short-sleeved tropical weight shirt and knife-creased linen slacks had been swinging half-naked through the primeval forest an hour before.
“Black Packard,” he said, tossing the keys to a colored boy.
“Yessuh.” He brought the convertible around, chrome winking golden in the last of the afternoon sun, and held the door open.
Johnny Weissmuller nodded his thanks, flipped the boy a coin, and got behind the wheel. He slid his sunglasses from under the visor, put them on, and angled the sleek car out onto the highway that led north to Tallahassee. Twenty miles between him and the admiring young co-eds of the Florida State College for Women. A good night to be a movie star.
The Wakulla Springs Lodge was a palace, out in the middle of nowhere, a private country club surrounded on all sides by gator-filled swamps and piney woods. It was only a few years old, and had been built to impress. White stucco and terra-cotta outside, with a tiled lobby, hand-loomed area rugs, and a wrought iron staircase with herons and ibis on the balusters. In the gift shop, the counter of the soda fountain was a single piece of marble, seventy feet long, chosen by Mr. Ball himself for its fine-grained pattern.
It was the fanciest place Mayola had ever seen.
She had been turned away at the front door, then at a side door, and though she saw none of the usual WHITES ONLY signs, she had figured it out by the time one of the dishwashers let her into the kitchen. He told her to talk to a Mrs. Yancey, pointed through the grease and smoke and clatter of pots a-stirring, through the god-awful heat, to stairs leading to a lower level, where at least it was cooler.
Mrs. Yancey looked tired. She said that the hotel was full up with movie people, so she was hiring, and how old are you, child?
“Sixteen,” Mayola said, and stood up straight to show her tallness. She knew she looked even older, but she kept her hands clasped together serious-like, so they wouldn’t shake with the lie. Just a bitty lie, ’cause she would be sixteen, after school started up again.
Mrs. Yancey nodded and had her sign some papers with her true full name, then gave her a fast tour of all the fancy and told her where to come tomorrow to change into her uniform, eight o’clock in the morning, sharp. “Bennie Mae will show you what to do.”
Vergie was standing in the shade of an oak across the parking lot when Mayola came out the kitchen door. “You get it?”
“I did. Cleaning and folding laundry, just like home.”
“’Cept you getting paid?”
Mayola smiled. “Three dollars a week, like you said.”
“I told you they was—Shooo-eee!” Vergie stopped talking all of a sudden, her eyes big in her head, and pointed to the front walk. A tall man in creased white pants stood under the awning. “It’s Tarzan!” Vergie said, excited. “The real life Tarzan.”
“Tarzan ain’t real,” Mayola said. “He’s made-up, from a book.” She bit her lip. “Edgar Rice Burroughs,” she said, and thought in her head that Miz Green would be pleased she remembered that whole name.
“Ain’t neither. I seen his picture in a movie magazine at my auntie’s house, over to Jacksonville. That’s Tarzan hisself, standing right over there.”
Mayola watched the man get into a long, shiny car and drive away, fast. Whoever he was, he was about the handsomest white fella she’d ever seen. When the dust had settled back down, she said, “I’m gonna go home. You coming with me?”
“Maybe. Odell don’t get off work till six, but it must be close that. Let’s go see if he’s done, then he can go a piece of the way with us.”
Mayola made a face, but since Odell working here was the only reason she had a job, and Vergie had come all this way, it would be rude not to return the favor.
He was down on the dock, leaning casual against a post, wearing his brown uniform shirt with a wide, short tie. His boat-captain hat sat on top of the post. There was a little breeze coming off the water, and the air smelled green with moss and reeds and fish.
“Well, now,” Odell said when he saw Vergie. “Hey there.” He was most twenty, with a slow, soft way of talking and conked hair that had started to kink up again after the heat of the day. A trickle of oil shone on his neck.
Vergie walked so that her front self stuck out at him, and he was noticing every bit of it. “Hey, O-dell.” She tiptoed over, baby steps like her shoes pinched, and he was just about to put his arm around her waist in a way he hadn’t ought to when he saw Mayola and put his hands in his pockets instead.
No one said a word then, until a frog jumped off the weedy bank with a splash and made enough noise to shoo away the silence.
“You done here?” Vergie asked. “If you is, you can walk me home.”
“Not tonight, darlin’.” Odell tossed a flat coil of rope into the boat. “I got to take movie folks out for a sunset cruise, every night this week.” He pulled a rag out of his pocket and polished an invisible speck of dust from the shiny brim of his cap.
“When you gonna take me out for a boat ride?” Vergie pushed out her lip in a little-girl pout.
“Next week, sometime. I promise. Purty as any picture out there in the moonlight.” He smiled, showing all his teeth, and started to give her part of the speech he made for visitors. “WAH-kulla springs. One’a nature’s paradise . . .”
Mayola let him go on for a minute, then said, “I got chores at home, Vergie.”
“I reckon it’s ’bout time.” She flounced her skirt a little, so Odell could see her bare knees, then turned and walked off the dock, the soles of her Keds flap-flapping on the damp wood. She hooked her elbow through Mayola’s. “Nothing more to do here.”
Mayola left her house at seven every morning, walking from the Shadeville Road through the cut to Wakulla Springs. The air was warm, but the sun was barely over the trees, so it was mostly shade, and she listened to birds waking up and starting their day. Sometimes she even whistled back. She liked the Lodge all right. The other girls in the kitchen and the laundry were nice and showed her what to do. They sang songs from the radio when no one was around to hear and told stories about the movie people in giggled whispers.
“I was toting lunch down to them crew folk,” Annie said, “and one of the men was taping big crepe paper ears onto that elephant. I give Steve—he’s the prop boy—I give him the picnic box, and asked him, what for he doing that? You know what he said?”
Mayola shook her head.
“He said that was a Injun elephant, and they got itty bitty ears. But Tarzan, he live in Africa, and elephants there have big ol’ floppy ears. So they making it a costume. A costume for a elephant!”
Mayola like to bust up laughing. “Movie folk are plumb nuts.”
But the work wasn’t too hard. No more than she was used to, with four brothers and sisters. It was just chores, for more people. Bennie Mae said she picked up the routine quicker any girl she’d had before, which made Mayola feel good inside. By her second week, she was cleaning rooms by herself, unfolding the crisp white sheets that smelled like flower soap, wiping off all the nice smooth sinks and commodes, and dusting the tops of the walnut chiffoniers, careful not to move any of the hairbrushes or wristwatches, not even an inch.
The hotel maids got twenty minutes off for lunch. Most of the girls sat outside the kitchen door to smoke and flirt with boys. But Mayola had discovered a hedge on the other side of the building, where she could sit in the shade and read her book for a bit without anyone bothering her. She looked up, now and then, and watched the movie people playing make-believe.
They had lots of fancy equipment—cameras and lights, and machines she could not imagine the names of. Some were stuck into the ground, and some were on a big raft right out in the river. The boss man sat in a folding chair under a striped umbrella and gave orders to a second boss man, who shouted through a big red cone. “Quiet on the set!”
They had a bunch of animals she’d only seen pictures of before. The elephant, of course, and a cooter turtle the size of a truck tire, and a whole lot of bright-color birds and little brown monkeys. Her favorite was a big monkey they called Cheeta that must have been real smart. It walked upside-down on its hands, and did somersaults, making faces, screeching and hooting like it was trying out people-talk. It liked to jump up onto Mr. Tarzan, and Mr. Tarzan would laugh and take it for a ride. One day she saw Mr. Tarzan give it a cigar to smoke, like it was one of the boys.
Seemed like every day, Mr. Tarzan was up to some kind of prank, hiding one lady’s clothes, or putting a piece of wet moss on the second boss man’s chair, then laughing his head off. He was a grown man—a big grown man—but he acted just like a little kid, sometimes.
Maybe it was because he was a movie star. They had different ideas about manners, Mayola decided. Except for a handful of pretty white ladies in robes and swimming suits, the cast and crew were all men. Some of them were all dressed up like Florida was for-real Africa, in round white helmets and khaki shirts with lots of pockets. But the rest walked around in undershirts, or no shirts at all, and didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed to be out in public like that, even in front of the ladies.
On the Wednesday of her second week at the Lodge, Mayola sat under her shrubbery, nibbling on the cornbread and syrup her mama had wrapped up in wax paper for her lunch. She heard a big splash and a lot of shouting, and looked up from her book to see three colored boys swimming just off the dock. Fools, she thought. The whole hotel was Jim Crow, and they were going to be in a world of trouble, jumping in that water in broad daylight.
Then she saw Mr. Tarzan swimming with them, ducking them under water, diving down after them. She guessed it must be okay, if he wanted them there. Maybe they were playing at being Africans, like the elephant. That made sense, Mayola thought. Africa was where most colored people come from, to begin with.
The boss man yelled “Cut!” and a minute later, Mr. Tarzan and the boys climbed up onto the dock. Two of them flopped down like they was bone-tired, but the third came up onto the lawn and headed for the drinking fountain next to the changing room, not fifteen feet from where Mayola sat.
She skooched back farther under the leaves, making herself invisible, because that was asking for real trouble.
And sure enough, he was just bending over the fountain when one of the gardeners, a Shadeville man named Daniel, looked up from weeding a flowerbed and saw him.
“You, boy! You get away from there!” Daniel jumped up, real fast for a big man, and in two shakes he had grabbed the boy by the scruff of his neck. “What you think you’re doing, taking a drink from there?”
The boy looked up, and Mayola sucked in her breath when she saw that he wasn’t colored at all. He was one of the lifeguards from Tallahassee who liked to tease the kitchen girls, all done up in greasepaint like a minstrel show.
He pushed Daniel’s hands away. “Get your dirty paws off me, boy,” the lifeguard said, louder than he needed to.
Daniel backed up a step and, after a moment, took his felt hat off. His bald head was dark and shiny with sweat. “Sorry, suh. I didn’ mean nothin’ by it.” Daniel had gone to the A&M for two years, studying to be a teacher until his daddy lost their farm, but he could sure talk field-hand mushmouth when he had to, Mayola thought. The big man continued. “I thought you was, well, suh, I—” He faltered, and wrung his hat in his hands.
The manager of the hotel, Mr. Perry, walked up just then. “Is there a problem?”
The boy’s mouth was tight and angry, but before he could say anything, Daniel did.
“My mistake, Mist’ Perry. I didn’ recognize the young gen’l’man in that makeup.”
“Thought he was one of your boys, drinking where he shouldn’t?”
“Yessuh. ’Zactly that. I’se just about to give him what-for when I seen he was in the right place after all.”
“Hmm.” Mayola watched Mr. Perry think on that a bit, then turn to the boy. “Get back to the set, Joe. They’re ready for the next shot. I’ll have someone bring you a Coke.”
The boy hesitated, giving Daniel the hairy eyeball, then shrugged and walked off with a swagger, like he had more important things to do.
Daniel worried his hat between his hands, sweat beaded on his forehead.
“There’s four young men in costume today,” Mr. Perry said. “You’d best be careful.” He turned to go back to the dock, but stopped in mid-turn and pointed a finger at the drinking fountain. The faucet was smeared with what looked like shoe polish, one side of the porcelain bowl blotched with an inky handprint.
“And clean that mess up, Danny, before one of the guests sees it.”
Daniel replaced his hat and, after a pause, pulled a red rag from the pocket of his bib overalls. “Yes, sir,” he told Mr. Perry’s retreating back, saying it clearly as two words. A bit more clearly than strictly needed, Mayola noticed.
She waited until the boss was back on the dock before she stood up from behind the bush.
“You been there the whole time, Miss Mayola?”
She nodded. “Eating my lunch.” She looked down at the water. They were all swimming again. “I don’t get it. They want colored people, why they have to go and paint up white boys? Ain’t like we short on colored folk round here. And most looking for work, too.”
“I don’t know for certain,” he said, scrubbing away, “but what I hear is Mr. Ball won’t let them.”
“How come? It ain’t his movie.”
“Nope. But it’s his water, and, movie or not—” He gave the porcelain fountain one last flick of his rag. “—he doesn’t want folks like us swimming in it.” He touched the brim of his hat to Mayola, and returned to his flowers.
“Shit, Newt. I don’t want to go on any boat tour. I spent all day in that goddamn river.” Johnny Weissmuller said. He’d worked with Perry on three pictures, and knew he didn’t have to put on his company manners.
“I know. But it’s the Tallahassee Ladies Club, and they are the lovely wives of the Pork Chop Gang.”
“Mr. Ball’s friends?”
“Indeed. The stalwart men of commerce and politics who are bringing purity and prosperity to the great state of Florida.”
“I get it.” Weissmuller sighed. “Smile and look manly.” He struck a Tarzan pose.
“That’s the ticket.” Perry slapped him on the shoulder. “Oh, and by the way, Mr. Ball said I should tell you that he recognizes how valuable your time is, so once the tour is over, you’ll find a bottle of Jim Beam waiting in your room.”
Weissmuller smiled. “For that, first crocodile we see, I’ll even give them the Tarzan yell.”
“The nearest croc is almost five hundred miles away, down in the Everglades. They’re all alligators, here.”
“Same thing.” Weissmuller looked down at his slacks. “I don’t have to jump in and wrassle one, do I?”
“No, Johnny. These animals aren’t rubber.”
The Jungle Cruise boat was a long, shallow box, open to the air, with five rows of wooden benches. That afternoon it was full of tittering ladies, all hats and gloves and floral cologne. A few of them weren’t bad looking. Johnny sat at the back with the boatman, a genial, fixed grin on his face.
The outboard motor started up with a roar and a belch of blue smoke, which dissipated, along with the reek of gasoline, when they were away from the dock. The roar settled into a purr, and Johnny felt the breeze ruffle the ends of his hair. He’d left it loose, Tarzan-style, for the occasion.
“Good after-noon, ladies,” boomed the boatman. “My name is Odell Watkins, and I will be your chauffeur on this fine, fine Florida day.”
He had a big voice, and Weissmuller could tell he was starting a speech he’d practiced many times.
“WAH-kulla Springs. One’a nature’s paradise. Now the crystal clear waters’a this springs flow out of the grawn at more’n a million gallons ever single day, a-formin the Wah-kulla River you now a-floating on. Look there! Over on the right, you see a bird with spread-out wings. That there’s the anhinga, also known as the snake bird, or water turkey. An-hinga!”
The ladies turned, but were watching Tarzan as much as the wildlife, so Weissmuller kept the smile on his face and let his gaze wander. It really was a stunning bit of landscape. He could see why Thorpe wanted to film the location shots here. No sign of modern civilization. The sky was a deep clear blue, and the vegetation was wild, even primitive. It would look African enough on film, even in black-and-white. He wondered if they’d shoot the next picture in color. After The Wizard of Oz came out, two years ago, it was all anyone talked about. Would they have to remix his makeup? He’d ask one of the—
“Now there’s a sight!” Odell said, pulling Johnny back from his reverie. “Four cooter turtles, all a-sitting on the same log like they was waiting for a bus. They got no idea Wah-kulla means waters’a mystery in the language’a the Injuns used to live here. They was here when Mr. Poncey de Leon come up this river four hunnert years ago, a-lookin for the fountain’a youth. He kept a-going, but they’s some folks think he done found it right here in these pure waters, and died ’fore he could come back to claim it. Now ever’one, keep you hands in-side the boat, cause over there is a big old gator. American alligator, born and raised right here in Florida.”
He turned the boat toward the shore, and Johnny saw the dark, ridged back moving slowly through the weeds. That was his cue. He stood up and put one foot on the stern of the boat.
“Aaahhh-eeeeeeee-aaahhhh-eeeee-aaaahhhh-eeeeee-aaaahhhhh!” he yodeled. He saw a few women jump in their seats. Then there were oohs and aahs and giggles and a polite spatter of applause. He gave a small bow, more of a nod, and sat down again. There. That’d give ’em a story for their next meeting.
“If you look to your left,” Odell continued, “you’ll see the anhinga, also known as the snake bird, or water turkey. An-hinga!”
The boat cruised down the river about a mile, then turned and came back up on the other side of an enormous stand of towering bald cypress festooned with pale gray moss. Pointing out several more anhingas—snake birds—water turkeys—the increasingly repetitious boatman took them through a back channel, a dark and decidedly swamp-like section, then returned to the open water, directly over the springs.
“Wah-kulla Springs. One’a the biggest and deepest springs in the en-tire world. So clear that when I drop this here penny in—watch now—you can see it shining all the way to the bottom, one hunnert eight-y feet below. Under that platform over there is the spot where some diver-mens discovered the drownded skeleton of a woolly mammoth elephant, a pre-storic animal that walked the earth more’n ten thou-sand years ago.
“Now, look down to the right. See them stone ledges, all pretty and green and blue? If it was dark, you would see some itty bitty lights a-glowin down there, too. Ain’t no paint or magic, no siree. It just nature’s natural beauty.” He lowered his voice to a spooky timbre. “There’s also an Injun legend says them lights is fairy critters, playing in the deeps. I guess y’all never know what might be a-lurking in them limestone caves.”
As if on cue, he was interrupted by a loud wailing sound that raised the hair on the back of Johnny’s neck.
“Gracious!” A woman fluttered a handkerchief to her mouth. “What was that?”
“That there is the limpkin bird, one’a the rarest birds there is in this state.” The boatman lowered his voice again. “There’s folks say it sound just like the cry of a woman, lost forever in the swamps.”
It was a good line, and Johnny saw that it had its intended effect on the twittering audience. Including him. As they pulled into the dock, he was more than usually comforted by the thought of the bottle waiting in his room.
When Mayola came to work on Thursday morning, a big color poster was propped on an easel in the lobby. Tarzan and His Mate. Across one corner, a hand-lettered sign said:
ON THE PORCH
FRIDAY NIGHT — 9:00 PM
The changing room downstairs was all abuzz. A Hollywood movie right in the Lodge! Bennie Mae went to ask Mrs. Yancey if they could see it too, or if it was just for guests. She came back and said since there wasn’t a separate balcony, it being a porch, Mrs. Yancey didn’t think so. But later that afternoon, when they were polishing the marble tables in the lobby, Mr. Perry walked in, and Bennie Mae walked right over to him, bold as brass, and asked.
He looked a little surprised, but he rubbed his chin, and said that since it was a fine summer evening, he supposed the colored help might enjoy the show too. “I’ll have the boatmen bring up some benches, set you up right out on the lawn,” he said.
Mayola had never seen a real movie. There wasn’t a picture show in Wakulla County, and she had only been to Tallahassee once, for Easter. A traveling preacher had brought The Life of Jesus and showed it to the Sunday School, a few years back, but she reckoned that didn’t exactly count.
Friday afternoon, a couple of the men from the movie crew set up a big projector machine on the glassed-in porch of the hotel, and hung a white sheet at one end for a screen. Mayola and the other girls stayed in their uniforms after their shift was over and ate sandwiches in the kitchen, then moved all the wicker porch chairs into nice neat rows while the guests had a barbecue supper under the magnolias and the live oaks.
By the time everything was set up, Mayola was tired on her feet and sweaty inside her uniform. The thermometer had inched close to one hundred that day, and the air was just about soup.
She sat down at the end of one of the benches, a few feet from the shrubbery where she ate her lunch, and watched the light change around her. The lawn was still and quiet, no people bustling around. The water looked just like a sheet of glass, with shifting colors beneath it—deep, dark greens and blues dappling the white sand bottom. It made the painted tiles of the lobby seem shabby. The clouds had gone all pink, and they reflected in the water as perfect as any mirror. She felt like she was in some place out of a storybook, not part of the ordinary world, so pretty it like to take her breath away.
The last of the sun touched the very tops of the trees; everything else was shadows. Then even that light faded, the blue of the sky deepened, and stars began to wink on. The moon rose over a bend in the river, and a trickle of white light made a river of its own, sparkling down the middle of the dark water.
All around her the grass and the trees were a-hum with the soft shirring of unseen creatures. Mayola remembered what Odell had said in his tourist voice, about the fairies that lived deep below in the springs. In the daylight, she had known it for a tale, but now it seemed like it might really be true.
The benches began to fill up with the hotel staff. Maids and gardeners and cooks chattered with each other, waiting for the show to begin. Through the arched windows of the lighted porch, Mayola watched the guests come in from the lobby—men in suits and ties, ladies in dresses with flowers and sparkles, all talking and smoking cigarettes. She didn’t see Mr. Tarzan, but the little fella they called Boy came in holding the hand of the big monkey that did so many tricks, and they sat right in the front row.
When it was so dark that Mayola couldn’t tell where the land ended and the water began, a man turned out the lights on the porch and started up the projector. It whickered so loud it drowned out even the cicadas, and then the sheet was full of a map that said “Darkest Africa.” All of a sudden, there was Mr. Tarzan, swinging from tree to tree, yelling his special yell, like he did every morning, out his window, wanting his breakfast.
Too bad Vergie was off dancing with that Odell. She’d be sorry when she heard about all this.
Mayola could hear Mr. Tarzan’s yell through the glass, but not much of the talking parts, so she just watched the pictures. Mr. Tarzan was in the jungle, with that same funny monkey, and he had visitors—white men in those round hats, with colored boys to carry their bags, just like the hotel. The white men had guns, and got into a big fight with some other colored boys who had spears and not much clothes and mostly got killed. These ones weren’t white boys in minstrel paint, neither. Mayola leaned forward and looked close, to make sure.
Then Mr. Tarzan was back, with a lady friend. He treated her real nice. Woke her up in the morning by puffing his breath in her hair, gentle-like, and she smiled and they kissed, and she ate striped fruit like little watermelons that grew right on the jungle trees. Then he must have said, “Swim,” ’cause the lady smiled again and next thing you know they dived off a tree into water so clear you could watch them underwater.
They swam together like they were playing, like swimming was their most favorite thing in the wide world. She held onto his shoulders, and they dived deep down, and then she took hold of his feet, and they turned slow circles in the water, looking at each other and laughing to make bubbles. Mayola hugged her arms to herself to stop them aching for the want of being able to swim like that.
When the round-hatted men came back, she got up and walked away a piece in the darkness, wanting to keep the swimming part in her head long enough that she’d never forget the picture of it. She walked across the lawn, careful, looking over her shoulder to make sure no one saw. But everyone was too busy watching the make-believe paradise on the screen. Mayola tucked herself deep under the shadow of the diving platform and leaned against a wooden post, a foot from the water.
Out there was the deepest, coolest part, where the spring welled up from underground. She edged a toe close enough to feel the different surface on the sole of her shoe, and half-whispered, “Oh, Lord, I wish I could jump in, just once, and swim like there’s no tomorrow.”
Johnny Weissmuller smiled and posed for pictures with Mr. Ball’s friends, shook hands, and signed autographs all through the picnic supper. But when everyone trooped out to the porch for the screening, he made his excuses: dinnertime out in California, want to call my wife before she puts the baby to bed. They were family men and said they understood and patted him on the back as he headed toward the elevator.
Up in his room, he didn’t touch the phone. He’d talked to Beryl two days ago and doubted she had anything new to say. It had only been a way to escape having to watch the movie.
Johnny didn’t mind seeing himself on screen—since the Olympics there had been so many newsreels and premieres and Hollywood must-shows that he was used to it. It was this movie. He’d seen it so many times. And the print they were showing tonight was the one the Hays Office had censored.
They’d made the studio butcher the best scene. Him and Josie, Maureen’s stand-in. O’Sullivan couldn’t swim a lick. Josie was a beautiful girl who had swum in the ‘28 games. He’d had his loincloth, of course, but she’d worn nothing at all when they shot it at Silver Springs. Tarzan and Jane, skinny-dipping at dawn. Innocent fun. Art, even.
A week later, the word had come down to reshoot, with “Jane” fully-suited, for theaters in less-sophisticated markets. That was bad enough, but seven years later, it seemed the whole country had gone puritan. The Legion of Decency had made sure that scene was chopped and chopped until it was almost unrecognizable. He couldn’t stand to look at it.
Weissmuller paced the length of the little provincial hotel room. Fidgety energy. He looked at the bottle of bourbon on the nightstand, but shook his head. What he needed was to get in the water, really kick it loose. He stripped, put on his trunks, and slipped into khakis and a loose shirt, grabbed his wallet and keys. He went down the side stairs, skirting the lobby for the parking lot door and walked around the building, making a wide swing to avoid the flickering porch. He whistled under his breath when he was clear, like he was playing hooky.
Even with the moonlight, he might not have noticed the tall colored girl, deep in the shadows of the diving platform, if he hadn’t heard her whispered prayer. He smiled. Didn’t matter if she was just one of the maids. Tonight, she was someone else who wanted to swim.
Bare feet padding over the soft grass, quiet as a jungle hunter, he stepped over to a canvas tent a dozen yards away. He helped himself to Newt’s sister’s costume, hanging on the line to dry, and returned to the platform.
Johnny Weissmuller held out his hand. “So, you want to swim?”
Mayola nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard the man’s voice a few feet away. She was caught, and nowhere to run. Taking a deep breath, she stood straight up and stepped out to take her medicine. “Sorry, suh. I was lookin’ at the water, tha’s all. I didn—”
Then she stopped, because it wasn’t Mr. Perry or one of his men. It was Mr. Tarzan. Mr.—Mr. Weissmuller.
“Come. Swim with me,” he said. He held out a piece of cloth.
She stared at him for long enough to feel the rudeness of it before she spoke. “S’cuse me?”
“Swim with me. I brought you a suit.” He took a step forward and draped it over her arm.
Mayola recognized it as the jungle suit one of the pretty women wore. She smoothed her hand over it, soft as a baby’s blanket on her arm, and thought how it would feel on the rest of her skin, to wear something that fine. Then she came to her senses, and handed it back. “I can’t.”
“I’ll teach you. I taught Boy to swim. Little John.”
“No sir, it ain’t that.” Mayola shook her head. “I been swimming since I was knee-high. Just like a fish, my daddy says. I can—” She stopped before pride got her tongue wagging too much.
“Good. Then come swim.”
“Not in Mr. Ball’s springs, sir.” Mayola watched his face twitch in puzzlement, then remembered he wasn’t from around here. “Colored people ain’t allowed.”
He stared at her for a long minute, with an odd expression, like that was a brand-new idea coming into his brain. Then he looked away, out over the water, and when he looked back, he held the suit out again, his face all a-grin.
“Tarzan not care for white man’s law.”
Mayola sighed. If only it was that easy. Because she wanted to, as much as anything she’d ever pined over in the Sears Christmas wishbook. Wanted to dive into that clear water and swim just like the lady in the movie.
But this wasn’t pretend.
“Thank you, sir, but no,” she said out loud with her mouth while the rest of her was busy imagining how it would be. “If anyone was to see, I’d lose my job.” She stroked the suit again, then sighed deep into her true self, and said, softer, “It’s a good job, and I’m saving the money. I’m gonna go up to the Florida A&M some day.”
She waited for him to laugh like everyone else, chuckle at her biggity dreams. But he didn’t. He just looked at her with those big, dark eyes.
“I never went to college,” he said after a moment. “I had to work, and then I was swimming.” He sounded sad about it, and put his hands in his pockets. He took a step away, then a step right back, and next thing she knew, he was nodding, like someone had asked him a question.
“Here,” he said, pulling out a leather wallet. He counted out some bills, tucking them into the pocket of her uniform, and grinned again, like a little boy about to do mischief. “Insurance. In case we get caught.”
“Oh, no, sir! I can’t—”
“Call it a scholarship.” He put his hand on the small of her back and gave her a gentle little push toward the tent. “Umgawa! Girl change now. Swim with Tarzan.”
Mayola walked over to the movie tent, as slow as if her feet were thinking. She liked to set with an idea a bit before she started off to do it, but there wasn’t much time for that. She glanced up at the porch. No one was looking. No one was paying any attention to her at all, except Mr. Tarzan.
How many times a movie star gonna ask you to dance? she asked herself. That was what it felt like. Not some jook joint, as loud and hot and sweaty as working. Another kind of dancing, one she knew didn’t come round every day.
Mayola wanted this dance.
It was against the rules. Mr. Ball’s rules. She felt a little bundle of angry grow hot inside her. Mr. Ball didn’t make that beautiful water. He just bought the land. Under the law, that was all it took. But it didn’t feel right, under the moonlight.
Ain’t nobody own the moon.
She unbuttoned her gray uniform, stiff with sweat, and started to fold it up neat, then let it slide down to the ground. Mr. Ball’s uniform, too. She heard the pocket crinkle, and took out the money. A hundred dollars! More than eight months’ pay. She stood with it in her hand, letting the night air blow warm on all of her skin, then rolled the bills tight and tucked them into the toe of her shoe next to her lucky penny. Just in case.
Mayola pulled on the baby-soft swimsuit and felt like a movie star herself. She looked down at her long legs and smiled, then stepped barefoot out into the summer night, to dance in the water with Tarzan.
He was waiting by the platform in a pair of trunks. He whistled. “Girl pretty. Swim now.” He dived in with barely a splash.
Mayola hesitated with one more moment of last-second thoughts, then took a deep breath and followed.
After the heat of the day and the sweat and the closeness of the swamp air, the water was everywhere cool silk on Mayola’s skin. She swam hard, feeling the bubbles tickle back along her body, and when she came up for air a minute later, she was out in the middle of the deepest water.
She could make out the twisted shapes of the cypress on the far bank, hung ghostly with Spanish moss, could separate out trees and ground and gently moving water. On the other side, across the dark grass, the flicker of the projector made the porch look like a glass cage.
Mayola felt the water swirl around her before she saw him surface and ask in a quiet voice, “Can you open your eyes, under?”
She nodded, before she remembered it was dark. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Tarzan took her hand. “Dive now.”
They went deep into the springs. The surface above her became a flat ceiling, backlit by the moon. The water was like crystal. She could see all around her, watch her hands move in front of her face, see the paler sleekness of the man swimming beside her.
He tugged and pointed and she looked down. Her mouth opened in a surprised O that let out a stream of fat bubbles, but she didn’t let herself gasp water. Below her, the rocks of Wakulla Springs glittered with tiny lights. Almost green, almost—no color she could put a name to—they sparkled like underwater stars as she moved.
The two swimmers came up to the surface like turtles, nibbling at the air, then sinking back down. He took hold of her feet, his hands big enough to close all around, and they turned circles under the water, just like in the movie. With every turn, every cascade of bubbles, Mayola felt a little bit of bed-making and laundry and sticky hot Florida leave her body and float up and away.
Out here, the water that had looked so still from the shore was always moving, a slow current that eddied around her, over her, bobbing her from side to side. When she surfaced, treading water for a minute, she cupped her hands around the reflection of a tiny round moon; it skittered across her palm like a droplet on a hot stove.
She didn’t know how long they’d been swimming, had lost count of how many times they’d come up for air and dived down again. They had swum and floated downstream from the deep springs to a stretch of pure white sand only six feet below the surface. Tarzan swam into a hollow log, came out the other side, and touched her arm. Tag, you’re it.
In and out, out and in, up for air. Mayola felt like she was in a dream. She rose into the stripe of moonlight in the center of the river, and a moment later, he popped up beside her, his long dark hair fanning out with the current.
“Race?” he said. He pointed to a fallen tree that angled into the water beyond the bulk of the boat dock. She nodded, and set off with a long stroke and a strong kick.
She had raced the boys before, at the Sink and in the river—and won—but she had never in her whole life swum as hard as this. Nothing existed but the joy of her body in the water, legs and arms pulling all of a piece.
She knew he must have held back some; he was the best swimmer in the world. But he didn’t let her win, either. They pulled up on the bank at the same time, panting and grinning to beat the band. He climbed up onto a little sandy ledge above the weeds and reached out for her waist, pulling her up next to him.
Mayola lay on the sand, breathing ragged for a minute, feeling that good tired that comes from pushing against all the edges. The air moving across her wet skin was cool and warm at the same time, and she stretched into the comfort of it, one hand floating on the surface of the water, heels furrowing the sand.
“Girl swim good,” Tarzan said. He lay inches away, propped up on one muscular arm. Rivulets of water dripped from his hair; in the moonlight, they made glistening silver trails across his smooth skin.
She looked over at his face. He was smiling, his eyes crinkled at the corners. She smiled back, a feeling of dreamy peacefulness stealing over her. They were the only people in the world, and they had shared something beyond the telling of it.
He lowered his head to the sand, facing her. “Girl happy?”
“Good.” He stroked her hair, pulling him toward her. “Tarzan happy, too.”
Mayola Williams lay her head on Tarzan’s chest, his arms strong around her. He pressed his lips lightly to her forehead, and she didn’t move, but closed her eyes and sighed deep into herself, listening to his heartbeat and the calm lapping of the water, the tranquil stillness broken only once by the wailing cry of a limpkin.