Authors: John Boyd
Tags: #Science Fiction
The Girl With the Jade Green Eyes
When that encounter looked forward to since the beginning of human speculation—the meeting of mankind with intelligent beings from outer space—occurred two years ago in a remote area of the Idaho Panhandle, the event was not marked in the heavens with strange lights or on earth with newspaper headlines. It began prosaically one Thursday morning in late May when Chief Ranger Peterson entered his office at the Selkirk Ranger Station to find Tom Breedlove, the station’s junior ranger, already at his desk and writing a letter to his sister.
“What’s on your work schedule today?” Peterson asked Breedlove.
“I’ll be checking out the snow reports after I’ve finished this letter to Matty. She’s graduating next month and wrote to ask me if she should go to college or go to work. I’m advising her to do what she thinks best.”
“Delay the letter. I got a call from Jack Haney last night. He was measuring the snowpack on Hallman’s Peak yesterday, and he swears he spotted campers below in Jones Meadow.”
Breedlove swiveled his chair and looked toward Peterson in mild surprise. The Selkirk Wilderness Area, patrolled from the station, was almost three hundred square miles of granite crags jutting above heavily forested slopes. Bears, deer, and even a few mountain lions still roamed an area so rugged that lumbermen had never touched it. It was kept as a primitive area with few trails and those only for hikers. Jones Meadow was in the heart of the wilderness. Camping in the area was by permit only, and no permits would be issued until June.
“They didn’t come through Porthill or Kootenai,” Breedlove said. “Someone would have spotted them. If they came down from Canada, how did they get over the snow on Sawyer’s Summit?”
“It’s a mystery,” Peterson admitted, “but we’re not finding out sitting here, and I can’t fly the copter up because I’ve used up May’s allotment of gasoline. You’d better backpack to the meadow. If you start before lunch you’ll get there before sundown. Take along extra rations. If they biked in, give me a call, and I’ll fly in and confiscate the bikes, using June’s gas ration. Take along a camping permit and issue it on the spot if they’re afoot. And you might take along a special activities permit.”
“If they’re already there, why worry about permits?”
“I do things by the book.”
“But why the special activities permit?”
“Haney got a look at them through his glasses. It was twilight and he couldn’t see very well, but he swears the campers didn’t have a stitch of clothes on.”
Breedlove whistled. “They must be polar bears.”
“Haney could be wrong, but I thought I’d tell you. With a nudist colony to look forward to, you might make it to the meadow by four o’clock.”
He would not make it by four o’clock, although he left before lunch. At a flat-out walk, his long legs could carry his six-foot frame five miles an hour, but this was not a flat-out walk. It was climbing up and climbing down, and he had a winter’s inactivity behind him.
Yet he enjoyed the exertions because he loved the forest. In his high-school and early-college years he had spent his summers camping on the Quinault Indian Reservation, where he had learned the Indians’ lore and language and adopted some of their attitudes. The woods had lured him early and with such attraction he had not seriously dated a girl until he reached college, and she had been a botanist who shared his enthusiasm for growing things. Even then, the girl’s tendency to classify and categorize had finally left him feeling ambivalent toward her. Breedlove was more than a nature lover,—he was nature’s lover.
Not that he didn’t groan, sweat, and curse under the loads nature placed on his too-willing shoulders. The profanity found expression several times in the rough going over Barton’s Pass on the trail to the meadow. Snowshoe trekking over the snowfield left him chilled and sweating in the rarefied air. He felt vastly relieved when he cleared the pass, stowed the snowshoes under an outcropping, and continued on down the needle-carpeted path.
Breedlove’s concern over the park’s intruders lay mostly in the possibility that they had biked into the area, portaging their vehicles over the snow on Sawyer’s Summit. Trail bikes on the thin topsoil of the forest wore erosion patterns that could lead to ravines, dirtied streams, and toppled timber. He wasn’t concerned about nudity among the unauthorized campers unless it indicated that they were freaked out. Then they would be in danger of freezing or starving.
The latter possibility generated a mild anxiety in Breedlove which spurred him northwestward along the shoulder of a descending ridge. Shortly after five o’clock he climbed the ridge and followed a stream a mile or so onward to where it broke from the forest into a meadow flanked by mountain walls. Three streams joined here to form Jones Creek, which would eventually flow into the Priest River. In this season of melting snow the meadow was almost a morass, and the grass he stood on was wet.
Jones Meadow lay deserted in the slanting light, its thirty or so open acres bisected by its wide, shallow creek looping toward a shimmering green stand of aspen at the north end of the meadow. For a moment he stood admiring the scene, glad that he had been spared a possibly abrasive encounter with other human beings, yet regretting he had no one with whom to share the view, one of the few open vistas in the wilderness and a favorite of summer landscape painters.
Two weeks before, he had come here with a fish and game man, and as he surveyed the scene now, he got a vague feeling that something was askew, that there had been some minute alteration in the scenery that two weeks’ growth of foliage could not account for. Shaking off the feeling, he splashed across a tributary stream and squashed over the grass toward a well-drained hummock which swelled from the meadow sixty yards east of the creek. After climbing onto the knoll, he slid the pack from his back, letting it drop to the dry turf, and saw at a glance that Haney’s report had been accurate. Someone had been in the meadow.
Atop the mound the grass had been mowed in a circle ten yards in diameter, as if someone had tethered a sheep here and let it graze within the length of its tether. No ashes from a campfire were in the circle. Evidently the campers had been extremely neat. No litter or cycle tracks marred the grass. He saw no indications of a latrine until, scuffling the grass outside the circle, he came across a sheep’s pellet. He stopped to investigate, doubting the evidence.
Someone had brought a sheep to browse in the meadow, and it had cleared the top of the mound. Apparently the animal had been released to defecate outside the cropped circle, but it had been a very fastidious animal. It had dropped only a single pellet, and then moved a respectable distance away before dropping another.
Shaking his head in wonderment, he went back to his pack and took out the walkie-talkie. He called the base and Peterson acknowledged.
“Jones Meadow is all clear,” he reported. “The campers were here, but they have gone. There’s no litter or bike marks. There’s evidence that the grass has been eaten, not smoked, and there’s sheep droppings here almost as large as golf balls. I’ll catch a fish and camp here tonight. I should be in around noon tomorrow. Ten-four and out.”
He caught a trout, built a fire, and cooked supper. Afterward he unrolled his sleeping bag atop the mound and sat watching the sunset as he played his harmonica. The last notes he sent quavering through the gathering darkness were from “Love’s Old Sweet Song.” The stars were coming out. Beneath the spangled sky he crawled into his sleeping bag, and as usual when he slept in the open, he went immediately to sleep.
He awoke prematurely. The sun, still well below the eastern ridge, was striking the snows of Hallman’s Peak, but he had not been awakened by the diffused light. Ground fog coiled around him. Across the meadow a bird trilled, its notes hanging in the air. Drowsily he closed his eyes, chiding himself for letting a natural sound awaken him, and he dozed again. From the edge of sleep he heard once more the bird’s song, and this time it brought him starkly awake.
Out of the lilting, dipping harmonies of a mocking bird emerged the refrain from “Love’s Old Sweet Song.”
He sat up and looked around. Coiling and swirling around the hillock where he sat, the ground fog turned the mound into an island in a pond of mist. It was an unreal world, and the song bending around him was unreal to the point of enchantment. The song ceased, but the enchantment deepened. Dimly he discerned a movement in the fog down toward the creek. Wisps coiled and coalesced into an apparition moving toward him. The wraith materialized as a girl, gray emerging from grayness, moving toward him.
As she drew nearer he could distinguish her form clearly above the knee-deep fog. At first he thought she was naked and trailing the mists around her. He saw the inward curve of her hips and her wide-spaced, high-borne breasts. She moved with buoyant grace on lissome legs, her flesh gray with the silvery hue of birchbark. From her ease of movement, high breasts, and square shoulders he placed her age as approximately that of his sister—seventeen.
He remembered that Haney had reported several campers on the meadow, and he reached over and drew his walkie-talkie closer. If the lone, naked girl was a lure in a badger game, wariness was advisable, and the walkie-talkie would bring help. He did not like to think ill of a girl who moved so gracefully, but this one was an oddball. She had dyed her hair green.
On closer view he could see she wore a dress of sorts, a veil that covered but hardly concealed her, but despite the attractions revealed through her gown, his attention was drawn to her eyes. He could forgive her for dyeing her hair to match her eyes,—they were a deep jade green, luminous and friendly and questioning, and they seemed to gather the light from the pale dawn. His grip on the portable radio relaxed. He could not think ill of a girl with such eyes.
Suddenly he wanted to believe in her hair too. Thick, luxuriant, and wavy, it looked as natural on her as clover in a meadow, and it too, flowing almost to her shoulders, seemed to draw light from the dawn. Though the proof was not definitive, the green swash of her pubic hair beneath the transparent gown supported his sudden theory that the hair was genuine. He wanted to believe in her hair, to believe in her, although caution warned him she might belong to some cult whose leader had decreed that all hair must be dyed green.
Yet the girl approaching him followed no leader, he sensed. Her poised elegance, her grace, the warm but regal smile beneath her finely arched eyebrows bespoke the inner assurance of one born to command. In fact her regality denied her semi-nudity. Given dignity by her bearing, her rather absurd dress became an imperial robe.
In curiously unaccented words her voice fluted toward him. “Good-morning-sir. Did-you-enjoy-a-refreshing-and-wholesome-night’s-rest?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, reaching for his coat and donning it as he scrambled to his feet.
The title of respect came involuntarily to his lips despite her youth, and he scrambled to his feet because he felt it improper to address her from a sitting position. Despite its lack of intonation, her speech carried a sense of noblesse oblige that made her seem actually concerned over the quality of his night’s rest. Hers was the manner of a queen inquiring into the welfare of a beloved subject.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but when I’m out like this I usually sleep with my trousers on.”
He was mildly astonished to hear himself apologizing for his lack of nudity. Standing near her, he towered a foot above her, and she asked, “How tall are you?”
“How tall am I?”
His coat caught her eye. She reached over and fingered the fabric of his cuff, looking up at him to say, “This is superb material. Was it a once-in-a-lifetime buy?”
“No, ma’am. It’s government issue.”
“What color is it?”
The sun had topped the rim of the ridge, so there could be no question about the color of his coat.
“Green,” he answered. “The same as your hair and eyes.”
“You have a superb head of hair,” she said. “May I inspect its marvelous quality?”
He bent his head. She ran her fingers through his hair, fingering the strands, feeling their texture. “And what color is this?”
She cupped his chin to straighten his head and stroked her fingers over his cheeks. “It’s growing out of your face.”
Her speech rhythm was growing so natural he caught the astonishment in her voice.
“I haven’t shaved yet, ma’am.”
“May I watch you shave?”
“What’s the color of your eyes?”
She questioned him with a child’s artlessness, but her green eyes, open, friendly, and curious, seemed to be listening too. It was as if she were looking into his eyes to watch the words form in his mind and eliciting from them all their shades of meaning. She was investigating him, and he was supposed to be investigating her. It was well that she was charming and regal and very different, but he had official responsibilities.