THE SKY OBSCURED

It was in her eighteenth year that Patsey Barsham, of Little Traverse Bay, was sent away to attend Winfield Women’s College – part of the famous ‘sisterhood’. The wrench she felt at leaving behind all she had ever known was rendered all the more piquant by an intuition, at least, of the sacrifices her parents had made to place her at such an august institution. William Barsham had made a deal of money from logging and, less directly, from the burgeoning business of ‘tourism’; but he was not, in the grand scheme of things, a spectacularly wealthy man, and Patsey felt the added burden of being not just an only child, but of also being an investment – one expected to pay off, in the long run.

Her first few days at Winfield were sufficient to establish a distinct, carefully stratified pecking order among her peers, and her precise place within it. Though by the standards of her own small town academically gifted, and beautiful almost beyond compare, within Winfield’s walls she was at best of average intelligence, at worst verging on ignorant. Moreover, among a pageant of exotic, striking beauties from all across these United States, she failed to stand out. Quickly dubbed a ‘hick’ for her naivety, lack of graces and anachronistic fashion sense, she found herself consigned to the lower strata, where dwelt the plump, the dullards, and the poor of skin.

But, as is the way of such things, Patsey found herself a friend. Petra Davidson came from another world – a big city out east. She was brilliant, modern, charming and astonishingly beautiful; Patsey had no idea why such a creature should have even noticed her, far less singled her out for companionship. And yet, for reasons Patsey could never fathom, Petra was likewise shunned by Winfield’s elite; thus by a combination of happenstance and machination, the two of them were bound together. Petra took an active hand in reshaping Patsey’s look and bearing, even as she was being thoroughly beguiled by the very rusticity so disdained by the others. For Petra, who had known nothing save the densest of conurbations, and who considered Winfield’s modest gardens a veritable wilderness, Patsey’s tales of the Great Lakes that could easily pass for oceans, of the tree-cloaked hills, of giant flocks of birds so dense they were like living clouds – these were the stuff of legend, glimpses of an America she had only dreamt of.

It would have been somewhere amid the telling of such tales that the idea was hatched. In a moment of blushing rashness Patsey invited Petra to come home with her for spring vacation; and to her gratified consternation, Petra accepted. A flurry of letters ensued, seeking parental permission on both sides. With this forthcoming, a great adventure was suddenly in prospect: so it was that Patsey found herself on board a steamer chugging gently along Lake Michigan, escorting her best friend to the little resort town that meant everything to her heart.

Petoskey, Michigan 1878

The steamer’s decks were swollen by the first influx of tourists, drawn by the promise of warmer weather and the sheer beauty of the land in spring. People came and went like a tide through Petoskey, some staying the entire duration of a holiday, others spending but a night before pressing on to further resort destinations. They came by boat and by railroad; they left by carriage, on horseback, or merrily hiking on foot: days, weeks later, they would retrace their path, returning to their real lives; though a special few so fell in love with the wild, the water and the clean air that they never returned – setting down roots in Michigan’s verdant soil.

The Bay hung back discreetly off the mighty lake, the town fringing it neatly like an edging of lace upon a swathe of blue velvet. Seeing it hove into view, Patsey could barely contain her excitement: Petra, meanwhile, politely feigned eagerness – after her home city, Petoskey seemed to her like some quaint model of a town; a miniature novelty somehow mistaken for a real place. It was not that she wasn’t pleased to be there – she truly did wish to see this place about which Patsey waxed so lyrically. But she had a further motivation: for Petra, the holidays, whatever time of year they occurred, were a trial. With her father invariably engaged on business, they left mother to pursue her personal mission to track down and introduce to Petra every sallow, wheezing, mummy’s boy of a potential husband on the Eastern Seaboard. Compared to such excruciation, Patsey and Petoskey offered several weeks of unalloyed Paradise.

Ma and Pa Barsham awaited them in the buggy, dockside. Patsey felt the first little surge of pride as she led Petra breezily through the throng of tourists, dazedly looking about for accommodation, onward transport, or their luggage. Once again, she was back in a place where she mattered: from the nothingness of Winfield, she was restored to her rightful position, as a Lady of the House. There were hugs with her parents; more formal, yet warm, introductions to Petra: and then the four of them were on their way, climbing above the bulk of the town, into the greener, rustic heights, where sat the mansion in serene repose.

En route, Pa Barsham could not help glancing with unalloyed delight at his newly-minted daughter. Winfield, it seemed, had done wonders for her – transforming her look and bearing, adding a sheen of sophistication to the natural beauty that was her birthright, and his greatest pride. Her wide, round, baby face, heavy of cheek and chin, almost cherubic; her palely glowing complexion, like milk poured over strawberries; the taut, defined lushness of her narrow mouth; the pixie-ish dignity of her dainty nose; the searing directness of her ice-blue eyes, fringed with vibrant lashes, under lush, feathery brows that glinted old gold. And to crown it all, the hair: even precisely curled and pinned, sheltering beneath a fetching feathered hat, it was still a riot of glittering sunflower, swirled and seething like gilded smoke in a bottle. In her pale-blue gown (was it new?) she looked like a princess riding to her palace, and the elder Barsham felt that curious blend of thrill and loss that afflicts all fathers, realising their little girls are become young women, nurturing secrets and wills of their own.

Ma, meanwhile, opted to study The Other One. So this was Petra – the sophisticate, the putative genius, the girl from the city about whom Patsey waxed so poetic. In her virginal cream she was a sturdy-looking thing, curvy, a touch big-boned, where Patsey was long and lithe. Her long, ovoid, rather swarthy face was high-browed, definitely intelligent, although the heaviness of her chin and jaw suggested an attendant lack of grace. Her cheekbones were soft, her nose concave if a trifle too prominent, her mouth slender but a trifle downcast. Her eyes, deep set, questioning, were a rather haunting shade of bottle green; brows and lashes delicate, watercolour brushstrokes in umber. Her hair, what protruded from beneath a rather extreme bonnet, was a rich, deep chestnut. All in all quite fetching, but hardly the otherworldly beauty that her daughter’s letters had sketched – it was to be hoped Patsey was not forming attachments, from sympathy, that might arrest her social progress.

When Petra first caught of the house, she wondered if there had not been some sort of navigational error. Patsey had so long extolled the simple country virtues of her home that this huge, sprawling white structure seemed a complete denial. Her parent’s own townhouse was considered massively opulent by urban standards, but it was as nothing to this vast pile. After a brief period of shock, she came to the conclusion that here in the country, wealth might be measured in terms of spread, rather than in number of storeys or location. It was inconceivable Mr Barsham could be wealthier than her own father, but even so here was a dwelling the city-bred could scarce imagine, and all around nothing but green trees and rolling hills.

Upon arrival, following brief introductions (for Petra) and reunion (for Patsey) with the staff, there was a grand tour of the house. Actually, it was more of a mad half-hour: the two of them running about like children, darting along corridors and into semi-forbidden rooms, giggling with the euphoria of realising they were actually here, escaped from Winfield’s rigid confines; free to do more or less as they pleased. Next came the inevitable ‘freshening up’ and, as the afternoon surrendered blushingly to the entreaties of evening, the bell rang discreetly for dinner.

Their faithful cook had indeed prepared a feast fit for a Homecoming Queen: at its centre, the most enormous ham Patsey had ever seen. As Pa rose to carve, it was all she could so to stop herself dribbling into her napkin. It was, however, at this point things began to go a trifle awry: she glanced over at Petra, who was watching the process with a strange expression of curiosity mixed with foreboding – unfortunately, Ma caught it too.

“Something wrong, my dear?” she asked pleasantly enough, though with a slightly hawkish tone Patsey knew only too well. “Is the meat perhaps not to your taste?”

“Surely not, Petty,” Patsey chimed in recklessly. “You love your food – you’re always telling me about the marvellous meals you get at home…” she trailed off, aware that Pa had ceased carving.

For the most fleeting of instants there was a look bordering panic upon Petra’s normally serene face – then it was gone, and she was sitting back in her chair, smiling warmly.

“No - it’s fine, Mrs Barsham. Really, absolutely fine.”

All at once the moment had passed, a puzzling anomaly. From then on the meal was absolutely normal, and wine and conversation flowed.

“So, Petra,” began Pa, his face ruddy, jovially relaxed, “what does your dad do in the Great Metropolis?”

“He is a banker,” replied Petra gaily. “I am afraid that, as a female member of the Davidson clan, I am not privy to any more detailed information than that – Father shares his business dealings with my brothers, but not the rest of us.”

“Banker, eh?” Pa reflected. “Yes, that sounds about right…”

Petra raised a discreet eyebrow at Patsey, who shrugged – evidently there was some conversational thread she had failed to cotton on to. Then it was Ma’s turn again.

“Have you given any thought as to what you might like to do while you are with us, dear?”

Patsey could barely suppress a snicker as Petra pretended to give the question great thought, her brow crinkling impressively.

“I think,” she said at last, “I’d like to prove to myself whether some of the tales Patsey tells about this place are really true or not.”

“Oh?” said Pa, flicking his head up like a bloodhound catching a scent. “Which tales?”

“Well…” Petra leaned forward, and plunged in. “The story about a flock of birds that took days to pass over; that was so vast and dense you couldn’t see the sun - I know Patsey isn’t given to exaggeration, but can it really be true?”

“The Passenger Pigeon,” Pa enunciated slowly, “Ectopistes migratorius, if you want the fancy name. And yes, it’s true, though flocks quite that big haven’t been seen for a while. Still, you’d soon know if there was one about here – it’d draw shooters from all over the Lakes, and elsewhere.”

“Are there that many sportsmen hereabouts?” Petra still seemed sceptical, but Patsey knew it was just her way, to quiz politely but relentlessly, until an answer was clear in her mind.

“It’s not just sport, my dear,” harrumphed Pa, “There’s money to be made – money that’d make even your father sit up and take notice. Pigeon meat sells big in the major cities…”

“But Pa, who on earth eats pigeon meat?” Patsey felt she had been excluded from the conversation long enough – she didn’t want to look backward in front of her friend.

“People who can’t afford ham, darling,” said Ma, a touch witheringly. “The poor people.”

“Oh.” Once again Patsey found herself chastened, without really knowing why. In desperation, she popped out a question that was, in fact, highly pertinent. “D’you think we’ll get a flock out here, Pa, like we used to?”

“Who knows? There’ve been a few rumours of flocks spotted to the south, but there’s no way of telling where they’re going.” He added, for Petra’s benefit, “Pigeons never use the same nesting site twice, you see. They could choose to roost anywhere within a hundred miles of here – some people keep watch all season, ‘cause the hunters pay handsomely for tip-offs. Find the roost, that’s tons of pigeon meat in the bag.”

From there, as the meal wound down, conversation drifted to idle chit-chat surrounding life at Winfield (heavily edited for parental consumption) and goings-on in Petoskey (a crashing bore for Petra, and only fitfully of interest even to Patsey). Afterward the girls were all but exhausted, and Petra was permitted to retire. Patsey was on her way to check in on her friend, but was unexpectedly intercepted by her parents.

“Patsey, m’dear, a brief word, if you will,” and then Pa was ushering her into the library, where sat Ma with a face like thunder.

“Well, child,” she seethed, “I trust you’re pleased with yourself, embarrassing us like that…”

Patsey felt a familiar, yet nonetheless dreaded, sensation steal upon her. She had known it many times at Winfield – the certainty of being in trouble but having no clue as to how or why. The floor seemed be twisting slightly beneath her feet. She kept silent, desperately replaying her memory of the past few hours, looking for the catastrophic error.

“I should’ve guessed right away,” Ma was continuing bitterly. “I just knew there was something not quite right about that girl – something in her complexion. And to think, I was going to invite her to a meeting of the Christian Women’s Fellowship. For God’s sake, I was going to take her to Church.”

Patsey was now close to tears, her mouth hanging open in utter bewilderment. Pa stepped forward, gently putting his hands on her shoulders, bracing her for a shock.

“Patsey, darling, your friend is Jewish.”

She had heard the word before, obviously she had, but to be frank it had never really meant anything. In her mind she connected it with religion (but didn’t everyone, even Catholics, worship the same God?) and in a much vaguer sense, with nationality (Petra was American, she had been absolutely certain, at least until this moment).

“Is… is that bad?” she managed to stammer.

Pa gave a curious sigh that at once implied satisfaction his little girl had not been corrupted by higher education, and annoyance she had failed to learn a crucial social lesson.

“It means she thinks herself inherently superior,” Ma snapped. “It means she doesn’t like our food, won’t respect our Sabbath, and will not worship in our chapel. It’s just an altogether dreadful situation.”

“We’ll take care of her, of course,” said Pa softly. “But there’s no question of introducing her to anyone we know in town. I think it best if you keep her within these walls, or at least on our land, and make sure she doesn’t mix with anybody else.”

Patsey climbed the stairs with this admonition ringing in her ears. If she was sure of only one thing, it was that she was not going to cry: not in front of Ma and Pa, certainly not in front of Petra. She knocked on the door of her friend’s room, and entered.

Petra lay in the big spare bed like a faerie princess, all buttoned up in her frilly nightdress; her unpinned hair splashed across the pillow like a spill of finest cognac. Patsey felt her heart give a little bump – she had known for some time she was a bit sweet on Petra: it was the sort of thing they briefed you extensively about at Winfield; mock attachments, romantic yet meaningless, easily dispelled when one was introduced to a prospective husband. Petra smiled warmly up at her as she sat on the edge of the bed.

“I think I’m really going to like it here, Pats,” she said. “Your folks seem really nice, and this house is amazing.” Then she noticed the troubled way Patsey bit her lip. “Hey, are you all right?”

“Petra, are you… are you Jewish?”

“Of course I am, silly - I thought you knew. I thought everyone knew.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” inquired Patsey earnestly. Petra’s eyes narrowed, checking she wasn’t joking.

“Well, it’s complicated, but in essence I go to a synagogue instead of church; I celebrate different festivals from you; and there are some foods I’m not supposed to eat.”

Patsey’s eyes widened in horror: “You mean like – ham?”

“Well, yes,” Petra shrugged.

“And we made you… Oh God, Petty, why didn’t you say something?”

“I almost did, but it would have been terribly rude to your parents, especially on my first day. Don’t look so worried – my family is not really what you’d call orthodox. Besides, I’m no expert, but that was really good ham.”

She smacked her lips, and Patsey giggled. Petra regarded her with that familiar crinkle of the brow.

“I can’t believe you didn’t know. I mean, why did you think I’m so unpopular at Winfield?”

“I had no idea. Why should just being Jewish make you unpopular?”

“Oh, lots of reasons, but mainly the idea that we are The Chosen.”

“Chosen?”

“Of God. We are God’s people – the only ones he truly cares about.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“No, I don’t,” replied Petra, gazing meaningfully towards the ceiling. “I think God is too big and too generous to have favourites. Still, that’s our creed, even though it gets us into lots of trouble.”

There was a silence. Patsey hung her head.

“It’s true what they say about me, isn’t it?”

“Who?”

“Winfield - the popular girls. They call me an ignorant hick; say I don’t know anything about anything. And they’re right, aren’t they?”

“Oh, Pats,” Petra reached out, gave her hand a tiny squeeze. “I don’t think you’re ignorant – I think you’re innocent. It’s one of the reasons I like you so much.”

Patsey’s face lit up like a full moon, and for a moment they just stared at each other.

“Well, goodnight Petty,” she said at last. She leaned forward to peck Petra’s cheek, but as she did so Petra turned her face unexpectedly, and their lips actually touched. Patsey imagined a fleeting taste of sugared almonds, gone in an instant.

“Goodnight, Pats – pleasant dreams.” Then, as Patsey moved towards the door, Petra added, “I really am going to love it here, you know.”

*

True, the house was vast, but even the biggest cage is still a cage after all. Petra was too polite to say anything, but Patsey knew the vacation’s first full day did not conform to her expectations. It was beautiful: lambent sunshine; the scented warmth of spring, fresh as newly-laundered linen. A day for drifting into town: watching the passage of the boats and the soft, lulling lapping of the lake. Not a day for sitting around reading while birds shrieked their joy and flowers blazed like silent firecrackers outside. By mid-afternoon Petra’s discomfiture was palpable, and Patsey herself could no longer stand confinement. In her sternest manner she sought out Ma and informed her they wished to go out: permission was granted, with the provisos that they neither went to town nor onto neighbouring properties, and that they returned sharp for dinner. That left but one option – over the hills, towards the forests. So they pulled on their walking boots, their outdoor hats and capes, and armed with a bag of crackers (Patsey was of the opinion that an expedition should never be without provision) they sallied forth.

The sun was just beginning its slow, elegant tumble towards the trees, and a hint of cool breeze riffled the grass about them, the fresh air like wine to their tastebuds and similarly intoxicating. They laughed, talked inconsequential nonsense, ran and danced in ways they really should have grown out of. When at last they stopped, it was at a spot that practically demanded one lingered: high up, the Lake behind them, already turning purple in the slanted rays; ahead of them the thickly forested hills, the precise curved edge of lumber marking the limits of Pa Barsham’s logging empire. Something like the force of nature itself pushed them down, bade them sit in reverence. They nibbled crackers, and talked serious talk.

“So what did your mother say?” asked Petra, with forced casualness.

“About what?”

“About me, Silly – I bet she was livid to realise you’d brought a Jewess to the house.”

“No, she seemed… I don’t know, more disappointed, somehow.”

“No doubt she forbade you from showing me off to anyone you know.”

“Yes, how’d you…?”

“Old news, Pats – you’re not the first Gentile I’ve tried to mix with.”

“Gentile? What does that mean? It sounds a bit rude.”

“It means non-Jew,” Petra chortled. “You really need to bone up on your religious studies, dear.”

“Who makes up all these names, anyhow? What are they all for?”

“Far as I can tell, they’re to put up barriers that don’t need to be there. It seems to me…”

She broke off, for Patsey had jumped up suddenly – she was turning her head in a way that suggested to Petra a colt scenting the wind.

“Listen – d’you hear that?”

Petra listened, hard. At the very edge of her perception there was a strange tinkling sound – it was like an army of blacksmiths all hammering at once, or an orchestra composed entirely of triangles.

“Yes, now that you mention it – a sort of ringing. What can it be?”

“I know that sound,” Patsey gushed, suddenly very animated. “It’s them, Petty – you wanted them, and by golly, you’re going to get them.”

Petra, befuddled, was about to inquire just who she was going to get, but the sound was growing, building exponentially, sweetly percussive yet with a slightly disturbing undercurrent, like the rush of an oncoming tidal wave. Something resembling a column of dark smoke was drifting across the distant hills: before Petra’s eyes it expanded, became more solid, so that now it was like a thunderhead; but its motion was all wrong. The undercurrent increased, becoming a tympanic roar that was also close to thunder, but with a strangely muted, subsonic quality that was more akin to the humming of bees – it seemed to reverberate within your skull and chest, unsettlingly.

She watched transfixed as the darkness continued to expand, creeping across the sky like a vast shadow, an aerial mudslide glutinous and implacable. It became noticeably darker as this cloud which wasn’t a cloud began to smother the ebbing sun, and the very ground began to seethe with the roar coming from above: Patsey was dancing with joy, laughing and shouting; Petra could barely hear her. And it was only at that moment she realised just what she was witnessing: this roaring was the massed beating of uncountable wings, and the encroaching darkness was a flock – no, not a flock, more an aggregation – of birds. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of birds: Passenger Pigeons. Petra stared in guppy-like stupefaction while Patsey giggled beside her – it was true, all of it.

Like a vast bolt of black crepe flung carelessly across the evening, the flock rippled and curled, slowly twisting back upon itself even as it continued to swell with wave upon wave of incomers. It seemed to be describing a huge, laborious circle before them, as if chasing its own tale. Patsey had her arm around Petra now, their cheeks all but touching. Still she laughed, and infected by the insane grandeur of it all, Petra laughed too.

“What do you think?” Patsey shouted in her ear, only just audible even then. In response Petra turned her head quickly, and kissed her friend. It was intended as a fleeting gesture of appreciation, and affection, but it got somehow stuck. The surreal sweetness of the moment seemed to overwhelm them, and serenaded by the all-pervading flutter of feathers they kissed softly, chastely, but lingeringly. And then Patsey cocked an eye back to the sky, pulling away in suddenly anxiety. Her lips formed a stark, easily deciphered phrase.

“Oh, no.”

Petra followed her eyes to the stained heavens. The flock had ceased its milling, and now had direction, and definite purpose. It was coming directly over their heads.

“Run!” Patsey shrieked, setting off at right angles to the oncoming mass. Confused, Petra hesitated, still a trifle rooted by the spectacle above. She lingered just long enough for little splashes of snow to pepper the grass around her, and to manifest suddenly upon her sleeve. Except it wasn’t snow: it was a little too wet, and a touch glutinous. With a sudden surge of horror she realised she was stood out in a rain of pigeon dung. She screamed, setting off wildly, blindly in the direction Patsey had taken.

It was hopeless, like trying to outrun the wind itself. As they tried to flee, with hats held to their heads and skirts lifted, they were progressively covered in off-white, glutinous gunge. With the drumming rattle of wingbeats it was easy to imagine they were caught in some bizarre, otherworldly storm; except beyond the flock’s extremities all was calm, a pretty purple sunset. At last the noise faded, and the sky lightened again – glancing behind, they could see the flock descending like a dense, living mist upon the forest a mile or so away. They stopped to regain their breath, observing each other as they did so: both looked as if they had been pelted with an entire barn’s worth of eggs. They started to giggle helplessly with the sheer ludicrousness if their ruination; and they were still giggling when they presented their caked and bedraggled selves to the maid, and Ma, in quick succession.

A bath, hot and immediate, was the parentally deemed solution, and while this was put in progress they peeled off their spattered outfits, which were allocated immediate laundering, to be followed by burning if they proved unresponsive. All these measures taxed the resources of the staff, and of Ma (Pa remaining regally reclusive throughout the whole crisis), and so it was Patsey and Petra found their selves alone and unattended by the enormous bathtub, trying not to stare at the curious novelty of each other’s nakedness.

There were communal washing facilities at Winfield, of course, but it was one of that establishment’s most strictly enforced rules that nightshirts were to be worn during ablutions, including bathing. As they climbed into the steaming water (in haste the chambermaid had added too many soapflakes: the bath frothed like oceanic spume, a mad witches’ cauldron), Patsey observed – how could she not – the lush fullness of Petra’s breasts and hips, the generous flesh of her belly and thighs. By comparison she seemed deathly pale, so thin she was almost scrawny: she felt a rush of envy mixed in with something else, something less clearly definable.

The enforced intimacy of being in the water together was both thrilling and slightly unnerving. They responded to this tension as the young often do – they messed about, splashing each other, coating their puckering skins all over again, this time with dribbling floes of ivory froth. When at length their giggling subsided, Petra reached out, took up a washcloth and without preamble, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, pressed it to Patsey’s chest, just beneath her throat. Patsey felt her heartrate abruptly triple; foaming rivulets ran over and between her breasts; it was all she could do not to shiver with the sensation. Petra dabbed gently, tenderly across her throat and shoulders, lightly squeezing the cloth so that little streams continued to flow down Patsey’s body. She seemed utterly focussed on what she was doing; leaning close, brow furrowed in concentration. Her lips were mere inches from Patsey’s, could so easily be kissed: to her surprise, Patsey found she ached to do just that.

“Petty?” she inquired tremulously.

“H’m?”

“Earlier on, when we saw the pigeons – you kissed me. Why did you do that?”

Petra smiled. “I just wanted to thank you, for the birds, for being here. It seemed like the right thing to do…”

“Would you mind if… if I kissed you?”

“Of course not – I think that would be very nice.”

Strangely enough their lips were dry as they brushed together, adhering ever so slightly as they touched and receded, like the stray droplets running down their backs; now merging, now flowing apart. They pecked delicately, heads in constant motion like cooing doves, sometimes, missing each other, bumping noses and rubbing chins. Patsey had no idea why she found such a simple act so alluring, but it seemed part of an inevitable progression: she was sweet on Petra, she was in the tub with Petra; she was kissing Petra. It felt slightly deviant and utterly delicious.

In due course Petra rose, drawing Patsey up with her. As they stood the cooling water surged off them in a torrent, determined wisps of foam clinging about their forearms and knees, their nipples and pudenda. They smiled shyly for a moment, then eased into another kiss, this one silken, relaxed lingering. And in its throes Petra gently inserted the cloth between Patsey’s thighs, rubbing delicately and tenderly. As if it was the most natural thing in the world.

Patsey gave a little involuntary cry, sagging slightly, for her knees had turned to jelly. The warm rush of sensation, like melted caramel, was stronger than anything she’d ever known. She found she was clinging to Petra’s shoulders for support, her head hanging forward, dizzily swamped in her own matted hair. She seemed suddenly breathless.

“Petty,” she panted, “I don’t think you should be doing that…”

“Why not? Don’t you like it?”

Patsey couldn’t summon an answer: the cloth remained where it was, diligently cleansing, and she shuddered with bewildered delight. Though her skin was steadily chilling, between her legs and somewhere deep within her there was heat: a melting glow of joyful incandescence. It seemed to render her light, floating, insubstantial as a soap bubble; she thought of the pigeons spiralling above, and she too seemed to rise, a fluttering climb. She was making sounds, mewling and sighing; she couldn’t help herself.

The tension within her built so imperceptibly she was barely aware, and when it broke it was shock: a shuddering, snapping release at once blissful and unnerving. It was like waking from a doze one hadn’t realised you had fallen into. She was curiously, absolutely aware of everything; especially that fact that Petra was holding her, supporting her, smiling with kindly concern.

“Was that nice?” she whispered.

Patsey couldn’t at first reply – her breath seemed utterly stolen away – but the blush that flamed her cheeks said it all. Gently she took the cloth from Petra’s hand.

“Do you want me to do it to you?”

“That would be lovely,” Petra’s green eyes fluoresced with anticipation. Unfortunately, at that precise moment there was a determined pounding on the bathroom door.

“What are you two doing in there?” Ma barked. “Hurry it up, if you want to eat…”

The spell broken, they dried themselves quickly, slipping into nightdresses and robes, suddenly ravenous with the promise of supper.

*

Sleep was impossible. Patsey lay, listening to the house settle in the darkness that surrounded her candle’s island of light. She felt excited, energised, sick with anxiety: it was like the night before she had departed for Winfield all over again, yet thrillingly, terrifyingly different. She kept very still, trying not to tremble, trying not to let her breathing run away, listening hard for the hall clock as it carved the night into thick, indigestible slices, fifteen minutes each. Witching hour came and went, a sonorous, unending string of toneless chimes; and afterwards Patsey could bear it no longer. She slipped from her bed, took up her candle, and went barefoot abroad.

Through the silent upstairs she padded, her nerve almost failing at every step, familiar objects rendered huge and shimmering by the candle’s timid glow. By the time she reached Petra’s door her heart was thudding in her breast – she contemplated knocking, decided it would be suicide, and instead eased back the handle as slowly and delicately as if she were performing surgery.

By Petra’s bed a second candle flickered to match her own. Petra herself was sat upright, pillow at her back as if reading, though no book could be seen. Her smile was all the communication needed while Patsey laboriously closed the door behind her.

“I hoped you’d come,” she murmured. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Patsey blew out her redundant candle, and set it down. She sat on the edge of Petra’s bed, suddenly very uncertain why she’d come in the first place. She watched mutely as Petra reached out, taking her cold hand and cupping it between her own.

“Petty,” she said, in tones hushed and confessional, “I think I might be sweet on you.”

Petra grinned, the way she did when Patsey stated something self-evident.

“Well, Patsey Barsham,” she whispered, “I am far more than sweet on you. Plain fact is, I love you, Pats – I have loved you from the moment I first set eyes on you.”

Patsey felt her heart give a lurch – all her Winfield-inspired poise evaporated, leaving her feeling utterly, insanely girlish. But it took mere moments for convention to reassert itself.

“This - this is what they warned us about, isn’t it?” she gasped. “Confusing our feelings; forming attachments that aren’t natural…”

“It feels perfectly natural to me,” said Petra earnestly.

“Yes but, it’s because we don’t get to meet men,” Patsey protested, almost tearful with shame. “When we do, we’ll realise these feelings aren’t real…”

Petra gripped her hand, hard. Her green eyes blazed intently into Patsey’s tender blue.

“I do meet men,” she hissed. “Sometimes it feels I have met dozens, and not a one of them compares to you, my darling Patsey. I have never felt this way about anyone, male or female – I adore you, and I will go on adoring you all of my days.”

Patsey’s hand trembled in her grip like some pale, wounded bird: she lifted it to her mouth, and lightly kissed her knuckles. Patsey’s heart seemed to burst into flame: her head reeled, and the blood that throbbed in her veins seemed at once speeded up and massively slowed, as if time itself had come to a stand around them. There was a palpable ache in her breast – ‘twas love, could be nothing else. But there was another sensation too, as yet distant and undefined; something that brought pink blush creeping into her cheeks, and the hollow of her throat.

Petra turned her hand gently over, gazing upon it as though reading the palm. Then her lips brushed softly, a little wetly, across the yielding pillows of white skin. Patsey quivered, with a long, sighing exhalation; she was genuinely concerned by her heart’s rampant oscillations. Petra placed a finger at her lips, then very slowly drew it into her mouth – Patsey felt the suction, tender yet implacable; the warm, slightly sticky moistness beyond. As each of her fingers was suckled she gave little gasps of appreciation: her heartache abated, but the undercurrent - that ticklish, slightly clammy undertone of sensation – it went on building, filling her with warmth and strange, sweet anxiety.

“Petra,” she croaked, for her throat had gone paper dry, “how can we be lovers? I mean, what can we do?”

Petra gave a smile that was all-knowing and frankly rather wicked.

“Oh, I think there’s plenty we can do. You already know some of it.”

At last all of Patsey’s puzzling perceptions came together. She remembered the feel of damp cloth between her legs, and knew where this other ache, this shadow sensation, was coming from. Once acknowledged, the feeling seemed to surge into prominence: down there, in her secret place, she hummed and throbbed with a longing at once intensely physical and almost mystically spiritual; its heat flared the colour in her face, made her slightly feverish. She had an acute sensation of beginning to perspire. Petra released her hand, and she pressed her fingertips to her friend’s sallow cheek – it too glowed with latent heat. Was this some contagion that had passed between them? And then she was falling forward – swooning, almost – and their mouths crushed together. The kiss was ravenous, uncontrollable, an almost bestial act – their noses were squashed, their lips smeared, their unpinned hair abruptly disordered. When the madness passed they were left gasping, giggling, sobbing in its wake. Patsey was half laying across Petra, the girl’s arms enfolded about her, and it was exactly where she had always wanted to be. She lay there a moment, savouring this newfound intimacy, feeling through soft muslin the thumping of Petra’s heart, mirroring her own in slightly syncopated rhythm. But the longing was intensifying now, becoming acutely physical: a painless cramp infiltrating her chest, her stomach, inside of her thighs.

“Patsey?” Petra’s whisper was urgent, tinged with unfamiliar hunger.

“Yes?”

“Will you do something for me?”

“Anything for you, Petty.”

“I want you to take off your nightdress, and then come into bed with me…”

Excitement flared within Patsey, a white-hot firefall streaking down her spine, spreading to ignite her entire nervous system. But the thrill was innately forbidden, and with it came profound girlish anxiety, and deep blushing shame. Nonetheless she stood up, drew a breath, and hauled the nightgown over her head. Giddily she stood a moment, slender and pale by candlelight, all thin arms and legs and wide-spaced, slightly pendulous breasts; her blonde curls hanging wild and radiant. She caught sight of the longing, the affection in Petra’s eyes, was humbled by their intensity. She took a step towards the bed – it felt strange, her thighs rubbing stickily, the motion ringing with attendant sensuality. Unthinkingly she slipped a hand down there, gasping at what she found, both from surprise and sensation: her labia, distended and dilated, like wet silken ridges beneath her fingers; moisture was bubbling and dripping from her, trickling down her legs.

“Petty,” she breathed, “what’s happening to me?”

“I think,” observed Petra, with a smile that was like witchcraft, “you’re ready to make love.”

Invitingly she eased back the coverlet, and at the same time she shuffled into a sitting position, precisely bunching her own nightdress about her waist before rolling it up and off, shaking her brown hair free. As she slithered – that was how it felt – into bed beside her, Patsey glimpsed a flash of searing cerise among dense black curls, and heavy breasts seemingly fuller and riper than they had appeared at bathtime. Then suddenly they were together, under soft down, face to face, skin to skin: naked, like lovers.

“What do I do?” Patsey pleaded.

“Just kiss me, Pats. Kiss me, and let yourself go…”

So they kissed, and their kisses became wet, writhing things, bruising of lips and twisting of tongues. Arms entwined, legs tangled, breasts and hips and bellies rubbing: everywhere they touched there was soft friction, and clammy heat – it seemed to Patsey that every inch of her was glistening, sweaty and moist. She was suffocating under the covers, drowning in Petra’s kisses – she didn’t care.

With softly insistent propulsion Petra guided her onto her back, then rolled laboriously atop her. Patsey felt the weight of her friend’s flesh press her down, soft and massive. Instinctively she had opened her legs, exposing her throbbing passion. Petra pushed and flexed and rubbed, while Patsey strained upwards until it seemed their bodies were merging, breast into breast, midriff into midriff, wet sex upon wet sex. They sweated and strained and kissed and oh-so softly moaned, and Patsey clung to her lover and knew something was not right. She was excited: thrilled with the illicitness of it all, with the strength of her own ardour, with Petra’s adoring mouth and insistent body. But…

Petra paused, her hair lank and her cheeks salted with perspiration. She was beginning to cramp from the effort, and was acutely aware she was crushing Patsey. She felt suddenly, monstrously helpless and frustrated – a failure.

“I’m sorry,” she panted, between snatched breaths.

“For what?” Patsey was genuinely confused, flushed and gasping up at her.

“I don’t really know what I’m doing. This is – I thought if I pretended I was the man, that, well… things would happen.”

“What things?”

“Exciting things – things that happen when people are lovers.”

“I’m pretty excited already,” Patsey blurted, with complete honesty. “It’s all exciting to me.”

“No, there should be – there’s more, but I don’t know how to do it.”

Her head dropped, crestfallen. Patsey bit her lip, and thought. She thought about the ache within, how it built and built, and wondered what it was building towards – surely it wouldn’t just fade away? She thought about was Petra was doing, and why it didn’t work: and then an idea struck her, blinding in its impact and utter decadence. She knew how to fix it, to make it work. She smiled up as coyly as she possibly could.

“Maybe,” she whispered, “you should stop pretending to be the man…”

And she twisted, rising, her mouth clamped ferociously to Petra’s. Their tongues and bodies swirled in unison, a rolling breaker; and now Petra was plaint, womanly soft; allowing herself to be turned, to be dominated. Patsey had never felt so powerful, so athletic – as she flexed every inch of her lithe form she had only the vaguest clue what she was about. She was seeking something, some magic, not knowing what it was, but determined not to stop until she found it. Again their bodies tangled, limbs and torsos twisting and reconfiguring until, more by luck than judgement, magic happened. Their sexes met, touched, seemed to fuse in searing union. They both gasped with the revelation of it, the sense of shared inevitability – each focussed upon an individual goal, a deep intimacy sprang from the knowledge they could, indeed would, arrive together. As they ground into each other their spines flexed apart like a willow splitting: Patsey rising, a blonde angel, Petra driving deep into the bed. They fought not to cry out, not to betray the happening, though their bodies yearned for free, unfettered expression.

“Petty,” Patsey half-whispered, half-moaned, closing her eyes as molten honey seemed to fill her, oozing and quivering. “Petty, I… oh God, oh God…”

Below, Petra’s face was turned away, swathed in damp strands of dark hair. She shuddered as she continued to strain up against her lover, emitting low sounds, almost growling a word Patsey strained to decipher amid the turbulence: “Yes”. It was permission, it was affirmation, it was release. In the end, climax for both of them was an easy, delicate thing, more transition than conclusion: a passing on to another state - a freer, clearer sense of being. Patsey slumped breathless into Petra’s welcoming embrace, at once energised and enervated, her skin hypersensitive to the point it felt like every inch of her was being tickled. The thought made her giggle, though quietly, and Petra too snickered as they shuffled deep into each other’s arms; kissing, stroking, just enjoying the fact of what had happened, and what it represented. There were no words, for words were not needed: their bodies had spoken, and they had said it all.

Drifting, dreamy hours later, Patsey reluctantly prised herself from the warm bed, reclaimed nightdress and candle, and delicately retraced her steps. As she re-entered her suddenly alien and unwelcoming room, she heard the clock striking five – she had beaten the servants, but not by much.

*