The Waters of Nyr
By Terrie Leigh Relf
We tell bedtime stories to children so that they may learn the truth of who they are.
–A Mahrainian Saying
Cassandra dipped her paint brush into the murky water, swathed it around in the crimson paint. Yes, paint the sun just so behind the moons, illuminating them against this strange indigo night.
“Cassie—that’s quite the painting. One of a series it seems.” Ms. Brunhof tapped a finger alongside her chin, studying her young student’s painting. Moons and stars and strange planetary configurations. This one should be an astronomer instead of an artist.
There was something familiar, though, about these configurations. This wasn’t the first time an image revealed by Cassie’s pencil or brush had quickened something stored within Ms. Brunhof’s mind. She studied Cassie for a moment, noted how her pale skin looked even paler with those thick locks of honey-brown hair. And those odd violet eyes. . .where had she seen eyes like that before? The memory eluded Ms. Brunhof, who realized her mind was wandering much too often lately.
Cassie sighed, swizzled her brush in the water again before drying it off on a clean rag. She twisted the rag between small, but elegant, hands, then tossed it on her work table.
“I just can’t seem to get the lighting right. There’s this burst of color in my mind but it’s subtle too, and it comes from behind the two moons illuminating the third and—“
“Cassie, slow down, “Ms. Brunhof chuckled, smoothing unruly red hair away from her eyes when she leaned over to peer a bit closer. “It’s a work-in-process. Take your time. Why not work on the still life I set up like the rest of the class?” She tilted her head toward the room’s center, where there was a table draped with a piece of burlap and several avocados. The other students, whose easels formed a semi-circle around the table, were intently studying the objects, some painting furiously. Cassie cringed as one student drug his easel toward her, the sound of the metal-tipped wood legs against the old linoleum more than a bit unnerving.
“Ok. But I keep seeing this image. It pops into my mind all the time. I just have to make it right.”
“I understand, Cassie. But perhaps you need to take a break from it. I think you’re trying too hard.”
“Avocados?” she grimaced.
“Yes, and make them green, ok?” Ms. Brunhof smiled consolingly. She really didn’t mind teaching art, as it took her mind off other matters—especially how bored she had become of late. While art hadn’t been her first choice of subjects to teach, for the most part, she found observing their process to be intriguing. It provided her with insights into how they thought, how they interpreted their collective environment—and their mental landscapes—on the page.
“Ok, all right. Green avocados,” Cassie paused to look at them for a moment, grimaced. “I can’t stand them, though. They make me want to vomit.”
One of the other students started laughing. Ms. Brunhof turned to look at him. What was his name again? Oh yes, Baron. Now there’s another promising student, Ms. Brunhof thought, but he tended to be a low-achiever. She really had no patience for people who didn’t give their all, and yet, she couldn’t help but be amused by him at times. Even though she wasn’t an adept artist herself, she could definitely see that he was gifted. Probably why he didn’t work that hard at it. It was too easy for him. He needed a challenge. Constant challenges was probably more like it, she mused. She could relate to that, too. . .more so than her students could possibly imagine.
Ms. Brunhof sighed louder than she intended. One of her headaches was coming on. Another student, Meagan, turned around to glare at Cassie and Baron who were chattering back-and-forth.
“Shhhh—some of us are trying to work here,” Meagan called out, the irritation clear in her voice. Ms. Brunhof nodded in approval. Meagan smiled, resumed painting. Ms. Brunhof respected discipline—and order. She much preferred it when students monitored each other. It left her free to focus on more important matters.
“They make me hurl, too.” He thrust out his hand. “Name’s Baron, but people call me Bare.”
“Cassandra,” she said, wondering why she hadn’t noticed him before, as he was nearly six-feet tall, and even though she wouldn’t call him buffed-out, he barely fit in the studio chair. He had blue-black hair with a bit of a wave in it that hung just above his shoulders. Such friendly eyes, too, with several shades of green all vying for attention.
“But people always seem to call me Cassie. Aren’t avocados disgusting?”
Baron kept smiling at Cassie, and she noticed that he had dimples. She loved his dimples and that lop-sided grin.
“That’s enough from you two. Paint!” Ms. Brunhof readjusted her thick metal-rimmed glasses. She made a mental note to order a stronger pair. The light in this studio was just too bright, and she was tired of the headaches. Her three back-to-back “Introduction to Studio Arts” classes seemed to drag on today. She’d been here in San Diego much too long, she thought, feeling the irritation, and a touch of anger, mounting. Much too long. And for what?
“Yes, Ms. Brunhof,” Baron and Cassie chanted in unison.
Ms. Brunhof tried to look stern—even placed both hands on her somewhat ample hips–but failed miserably. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of pairing you two up before. Two pearls in a shell.”
Cassie and Baron studied each other for a moment, then laughed. Yes, there was something to what Ms. Brunhof said, they both thought. Almost as if they recognized each other.
But from where?
Baron and Cassie both shrugged, returned to painting.
Back at her desk, Ms. Brunhof watched Cassie and Baron. Yes, there was something about those two. They even resembled each other in a vague way. Something around the eyes, the jaw lines. Their coloring was quite different, though. While Baron’s hair was midnight black, Cassie’s was honey-brown. Where Cassie had pale luminescent skin, Baron’s had dark undertones. While Baron’s eyes were green, Cassie’s were an unusual shade of purple. Who had purple eyes? They were probably contacts, Ms. Brunhof realized. No one on this planet had that shade naturally, did they?
The resemblance, she noted, was in the shape of their eyes. Slavic? Asian? Something in-between, she mused, like that recent photo exhibit she’d seen of Laplanders, or Saami, as they preferred to be called.
One of the few pleasures Ms. Brunhof allowed herself were trips to the local museums and galleries. Even though she knew better, being stuck in this dismal town still felt like a demotion. She sighed as another wave of pain, the second this morning, threatened to undo her good mood. Ten minutes between classes wasn’t enough time to deal with her throbbing head, so she grabbed her satchel and ran out of the classroom.
Thirty minutes later, when Ms. Brunhof still hadn’t returned to class, most of the students cleaned up their stuff and left. Cassie and Baron lingered a bit.
“I hope she’s okay,” Cassie said, glancing around the quad for a sign of her return.
Baron shrugged, said, “Wanna go for coffee?”
“Sorry, Bare. Maybe another time. I need to help my grandmother sort through more boxes. We just moved here before the semester started, and there are ten-thousand things to do still.”
“I’ve got a Grams that eats up all my time, too. We moved here a few months ago, and we still haven’t unpacked everything. Maybe this weekend then? Here’s my e-mail, my cell, and my home phone—or you could beep me!”
He handed her a card. She turned it back and forth a few times. “Funny. Invisible ink or something?”
“Or something. I’m loads of fun. Give me a chance and I’ll prove it to you.” He grabbed the card from her, then wrote down his digits, handed it back to her.
Cassie tore the corner off one of her wadded-up drawings, scribbled her phone and e-mail, then shoved it in his hand.
“See ya later then—oh, Cassie.”
Cassie turned around, looked at him expectantly.
“Why don’t you bring your drawing pad. We could sketch together or something. You know, for the portfolio?”
“Sure—see you later!” Cassie sang, rushing a bit now so she didn’t miss her bus. Otherwise, she’d have to wait for thirty or more minutes, and she always got fidgety waiting. She’d rather walk, but she had all her art supplies and book bag.
“Oh, and Cassie. . .I see those three moons sometimes. I have these ah–dreams.”
She whirled around to face him, her full lips forming a little “o”. “Really? That is too weird—but cool at the same time.” She cocked her head to study him.
Baron grinned. He hadn’t been sure whether he should say anything or not. It was nice to meet someone he connected with, and most people his age usually thought he was some kind of nerd, which he supposed he was, but still. . .it wasn’t like dreaming about three moons was all that bizarre. Didn’t Jupiter have five or something? It kept changing, though, so he made a mental note to look it up later, then realized he still hadn’t set up his computer. He and his Grams had moving down to a science, but that didn’t mean he liked to unpack and put things away. He’d rather just spend time drawing or hanging out at The Star Gazer café.
The bus—and Cassie—were in sync, which heightened her good spirits. She was still humming a quirky little tune that seemed to be set on “repeat” in her mind as she opened the screen door, let it bounce until it closed behind her.
“My, you’re in a good mood this afternoon. I told you San Diego would agree with you.” Grandmother Iliana gave Cassie her usual welcome-home hug, held her a bit longer than usual.
“I met someone in art class today. His name is Baron.”
Gramma Iliana let her go. “Did you say ‘Baron’?”
“Gramma, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Not a ghost, sweetie. I just think I know his grandmother. Describe him.”
“There you go again, Gramma. He lives with his grand-mother—what are the odds?”
“Ok, he’s about six feet, blue-black hair, green eyes—and oh, he hates avocados, too, and—“
“Is that so?” Illiana tucked a stray red hair behind her ear. She fixed her dark brown almond-shaped eyes on Cassie.
“Well, I do believe you’ve met my friend, Selene’s, grandson.” Her eyes misted over.
“Is something wrong, Gramma?” Cassie had forgotten to mention that Baron had dreams with three moons, too, but now probably wasn’t the time.
“No honey, it’s just this heat.” She closed her eyes, tried to still the rapid beating of her heart. “I’ll be right back. I need to get a glass of water, then make a phone call.”
Cassie watched as her grandmother walked into the bedroom, closed and locked the door. She never used to lock the door. But hey, her Gramma gave her privacy, why shouldn’t she do the same? Still, it was the timing. It wasn’t that her Gramma didn’t seem pleased that she’d met her friend’s grandson, so there was probably another reason. It was hot, after all. Cassie sort of liked it, though, but in small doses. It reminded her of when they lived in Arizona. She loved how bright the stars were at night—almost as if you could reach out and pluck them from the sky. When she was little, she thought they were flowers, and her Gramma would hold her up so she could extend her chubby little hands into the sky to reach for them.
Baron’s face popped into Cassie’s mind, and she thought about calling him. What were the odds that she’d been drawn to him of all people—and their grandmothers were friends! Her Gramma would call it synchronicity, and never seemed to tire of pointing out the connections between people and places—even objects–whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Cassie couldn’t deny she felt a little spark of recognition with Baron—or Bare, as he preferred to be called. A genuine connection. She had learned to trust those feelings over the years, albeit with considerable promptings from her Gramma Iliana. It was a gift, according to her Gramma, and her birthright—whatever that meant.
But still. . .Cassie wasn’t a stranger to common sense, and it was telling her to hold off. Regardless, she sensed—no, she knew—that they would become friends.
Or something more. Something much, much more.
If Ms. Brunhof hadn’t made her draw those yucky avocados today, would she have met Baron? Even though they were in the same class, she hadn’t noticed him before. She’d been so tired since they moved, and hadn’t felt like socializing. She’d usually sit off to the corner, or in the back of class. Come to think of it, she was a bit of a loner anyway. Even though Bare had been warm and friendly, she had the feeling—no, she knew—that they were kindred spirits. While he may be the proverbial class clown, it was probably to keep people at bay rather than to draw them toward him.
But maybe she had noticed him before–out of the corner of her eye or something. Was he always late? Did he leave after break? Seriously, how could she recognize someone she’d never met? It just didn’t add up. Could she have dreamed him along with those moons and other stuff? Gramma Iliana would probably say it was that birthright thing again. One of these days, she wished her grandmother would give her more than a brief explanation about that, rather than going on and on and on about the herbs in the noxious teas she made—as if she’d ever be brewing those for herself!
Then again, maybe she’d noticed Baron around campus. Yes, that must be it. It was like she’d been reunited with an old friend. It felt natural to want to hang out with him. There wasn’t anything romantic about it, not like she had those kinds of feelings. Cassie hoped they had even more in common, as it was about time she met someone she could connect to. What with all their moving, leaving before one semester ended, arriving late for the next one, she was almost always the odd girl out. Even though her grandmother occasionally seemed to feel bad about her not making any real friends, she had seemed almost relieved when Cassie stopped bothering to make any friends at all. They had each other, after all, and when Cassie was honest with herself, she realized that she preferred living a simple life so she could focus on her art work.
Cassie paused to consider whether Ms. Brunhof was playing matchmaker. No, she was just noticing the connection, and since she was an artist, she probably had the same gifts that Cassie did. Artists saw the world in a different way. She did so adore Ms. Brunhof with her quirky outfits like the one she wore today with red-and-black polka dot pants with a black-and-red-striped tank top. She definitely had her own style. . .
Yes, Ms. Brunhof was one of her favorite teachers of all time. The woman had only known her for a few weeks, and she already seemed to understand Cassie’s quirks in a way no other teacher had—and there had been way too many teachers who hadn’t been so patient. But college, she reminded herself, was definitely different. It was easier to disappear in a college classroom.
Cassie counted to seven on her fingers. Seven high schools in four years before they moved to San Diego. Sometimes, it felt like an adventure, but truth be told, she wondered what it would be like to stay in one area for longer then five or six months. She’d never really questioned why they had to move all the time. She’d asked once—just once—and her Gramma’s eyes had looked so sad that she didn’t have the heart to ask her again. It was just part of their life. A major part.
At one point, when she was in elementary school, she’d fantasized that they were gypsies. When she was in junior high, the thought that they might be in the Witness Protection Program seemed more likely. Eventually, she just started to accept moving as a fact of life. She still managed to graduate from high school with good grades, and here she was a freshman at Eucalyptus Grove Community College! Would she finish out the semester here? It was unlikely. . .That birthright thing again, she mused, and wondered what else it entailed.
Still. Yes, there was something about Baron. But why had Gramma Iliana gotten all weird on her? Maybe it was menopause or something. Yes, that was it.
But if their grandmothers were friends, why hadn’t they met before?
That was the strangest thing of all.
Baron opened the front door. He was just about to announce his arrival, when he heard his Grams, Selene, talking to someone on the phone–but in a language he’d never heard her speak before.
He had no idea his Grams could speak another language, and whatever it was, she spoke it like a native. What nationality were they anyway? He’d always thought his grandmother looked Norwegian or Slavic, what with her high cheekbones, silvery blond hair and those intense blue eyes. But he looked nothing like her—and that didn’t sound like Norwegian, or any language he’d ever heard before. Maybe it was Finnish or something. He thought that pop star, Björk, or was it Björn, spoke Finnish.
It dawned on him that there was so much he didn’t know about his Grams—or about his family. Where were they from again? There had only been the two of them for as long as he could remember. No aunts, uncles, parents. She said they’d all died around the time he was born. A horrible accident. So all he knew was his Grams, who had cared for him from birth. Even though she said he was her grandson, and not his mother, it was always her face in his mind when he thought of mother.
“Grams, I’m home!”
Silence. She continued to babble on in that foreign language. Deciding it must be private—and important—he shrugged off his backpack, set it down in the entryway, went to his room.
A few minutes later, she knocked on his bedroom door.
When Baron opened the door, his Grams reached for her hug. He never got tired of hugging his Grams. There was something about her hugs that seemed to suffuse him with warmth. But when she pulled away, he noticed there were tears threatening to spill from her eyes.
“Grams, what’s up?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she dabbed at them with a tissue. “I’m just feeling like time passes much too quickly these days. Like we’ve been catapulted into the future and can’t return. Just look at you—a grown man now.”
“Oh, Grams!” He gave her another hug, patted her back. “I’m only eighteen—and you know I love you. I won’t run off or anything.”
“I know, sweetie. I know. Still. . .life has a way of changing when you least expect it.”
“There you go getting all cryptic on me again, Grams.”
“It’s just the nature of life. Hungry? How was school? Make any new friends today?”
“How’d you know that? I didn’t have a chance to tell you. Are you in my head again, Grams? I’d prefer it if you’d knock before you opened the door.”
Selene chuckled at their little joke. “Come into the kitchen while I make dinner.”
“Yeah, I met this girl named Cassie in Ms. Brunhof’s class. We’re going to have coffee or something this weekend.”
“How nice you two finally met,” Selene said, opening the fridge. She pulled out the vegetable drawer, slammed it shut, scanned the contents of the meat and cheese drawer, scooted that closed, then spent an inordinate amount of time just staring into the fridge at nothing in particular. She reached for last night’s leftover casserole, realizing she didn’t have the energy to make anything from scratch tonight.
“Yes, Cassie is the granddaughter of a dear friend of mine. That was her grandmother, Iliana, on the phone. You remember my talking about her, don’t you?
“Yeah. She’s from your hometown or something. How cool is that? It looks like Cassie and I are destined to be friends.”
Selene reached out to give Baron another hug, took his hand instead, held it for a time. “Yes, this is way cool, as you say. Way cool. We’ll have to have them over for dinner soon. I’ll make something special.”
Baron squeezed his grandmother’s hand. “Need any help with dinner?”
“Just leftovers, honey. Why don’t you get started on your homework, and then we’ll eat.”
Baron nodded, kissed her on the cheek, and went into his bedroom. It was just off the kitchen, and had probably been an add-on from the original house. He liked how it was connected, but somewhat separated, from the main house. There was a large wood deck, or platform, that opened into the back yard, which was a jungle of exotic plants, undulating vines, and his favorite, an old peppercorn tree. He was sure that his Grams had chosen this place because of the garden. Another added plus was that he could cut through the back yard to go to his favorite café, The Star Gazer, just a few blocks away.
Baron unlatched the French doors, pushed them open, then plopped down on his unmade bed covered in sketch pads and pencils of one kind or another. He flipped through one of the medium-sized pads, found a blank page, stared into the yard for a few moments, then began drawing.
Baron couldn’t help but think about Professor Brunhof. She was okay, but he wasn’t as into her as Cassie seemed to be. True, she seemed to be a serious art teacher, but she’d never shared any of her own work, which he found odd. Most of the other art teachers he’d studied with had always been eager to share their work, or if not eager, then it didn’t take much prompting. Maybe she was working on a new series of pieces, and was one of those people who didn’t like to talk about their process—or show their work—until it was ready for display.
Baron figured she was a sculptor, though. Her hands looked sort of misshapen, as if they’d been reconstructed after having one-too-many accidents with a chisel or something. Maybe she’d even smashed them working on stone or metal sculptures.
Ms. Brunhof wanted them to have a sizable portfolio by the end of the semester, and that meant he’d need to make at least two-to-three sketches a day in order to have one good one for the week. Maybe he was his own worse critic, but he liked to think he had a good eye.
One of the things he liked about Ms. Brunhof was that she was totally fixated on plants. Maybe it was because she’d grown up in the desert or something. New Mexico or Arizona. He couldn’t remember where she’d told the class she was from. He and his Grams had stayed in Idyllwild briefly before they moved to San Diego. Even though it was an arty town, there were huge pine trees all around. He loved the scent of them. Most of the surrounding area was dry, dusty, and so hot that it had made his flesh crawl. It was bright, too, which really bothered his eyes; they itched when he was out in the sun too long, as if he had insects crawling around behind his sockets.
If Ms. Brunhof wanted lush vibrant plants, he’d draw and then paint them for her. Not that he didn’t like foliage, but he wasn’t much different than other students who wanted “A’s”. It was a good thing he could pretty much draw whatever he saw—even from memory. He barely had to look at the page to do it, would just look at the object and start transferring the image. He was ambidextrous, too, so he could, and did, go on for hours. His Grams usually had to knock several times when he was working on a project in his room. He called it “being in the zone”, because he couldn’t think of any other way to explain what would come over him.
Baron flipped the cover of one of his large pads of paper, reached for his favorite drawing pencil, began to sketch the morning glory vine that covered one side of the fence. He loved the way the light seemed to pool on the uplifted leaves, how the purple flowers reached for the late afternoon sun.
He sketched for over an hour before his Grams called him for dinner. Baron looked down at the piece he was working on before closing the book and was surprised to see that he had added a figure into the scene. He peered closer to the drawing, studied the person’s features, realized that it was Cassie.
End of Excerpt
If you like the first three chapters of The Waters of Nyr, then you can purchase either an eBook or a print copy here.