Art Pact 170 - The Waterfall
The waterfall drowned out the sound of the conversation. Richard, sitting in the hidden cave, watched the couple as if through a melting window. Their outlines twisted and warped in the constant tumble of lensing water, and it seemed as though they were fading in and out of existence. He ran his finger over the cover of the book, then dragged one stridulating fingernail across the closed pages. There was no sign from them that they were aware of his presence, but there remained a sort of furtiveness around them, an aura of paranoia, perhaps. As though they feared that someone were watching them, and that to be observed would have dire consequences.
Richard's mother had warned him repeatedly about eavesdropping, and he heard her voice in his head now: Richard Prescott Maitland, how many times have I told you about respecting other people's privacy? Sometimes that memory was enough to keep his curiosity under control, but what, he reasoned, was he to do now? If he emerged from the waterfall and alerted the couple to his presence they might be embarrassed - or worse, they might be the sort of people the school board were always warning them to keep away from. He wasn't afraid, of course, but his mother would certainly have worried. Would she really prefer him a corpse to an eavesdropper? No, there was no way out of here without trouble for someone - either the couple or him - so he crept nearer to the water.
It was easier to see them the closer he got to the front of the cave, but for some reason harder to hear. The noise of the waterfall was that much louder close up, and although the couple were nearer too the cataract rumble of water hitting the surface of the pond below was too distracting to allow him to focus on what they were saying.
They were a man and a woman, as he'd first thought. Both escaped slaves, to judge by their tatterdemalion dress. The man was wearing ragged trousers that came down just past his knees, his top bared. His hair had been cropped recently and was growing out unevenly, strange bristle lines crisscrossing his brown scalp. He had an iron band around his right angle. The woman wore a burlap dress that looked as though it had been passed down from at least three previous owners, and wrapped around her feet two strips of heavy canvas secured with twine served as brevet shoes. Her own hair was long, but tied up in a tangled bun that sprouted strands of curling black hair so that it looked like a topiary bush that had been left to run to seed for a few years.
They stood close together, and touched each other occasionally at points in their conversation that Richard could tell from the tones of their voices were significant, even if their words were unintelligible. The woman would reach out to touch the man's arm briefly, or to take his hand for just a second, and in return he often lifted a quick finger to her cheek, or the curve where her jaw became her chin.
Richard, near the edge of the little cave, was now so close to the waterfall that both he and the book were getting splashed by droplets hitting the lip of the opening. He tucked the book under his shirt - then, realising that the sheen of sweat on his stomach might be just as dangerous to the paper, he shucked off his top and wrapped the book in it, placing it a few feet back where it might be spared the worst of the sparse deluge. He crept closer to the edge, bracing himself against the wall every few footsteps. The rock this close was covered in a slippery carpets of moss and algae, and his legs threatened to slide out from under him.
He was just about to get close enough that he could almost reach out and touch the water when it finally happened - his right leg, taking too much of his weight, shot backwards and sent him tumbling precipitously forwards and sideways at the same time. His legs and body below the waist hit the sharp rocky floor, his upper torso falling out of the cave so that the water washed over the very top of his head. The whole thing happened so fast that the wind was knocked out of him. Unable to cry out, he desperately grabbed at anything he could - his right hand finding one of the roots of the trees above that had allowed him to climb in in the first place. He tensed all of his muscles, trying to hold himself in place.
"What was that?" The man's voice, loud enough to be clear now. Richard could only stare in horror as the two of them looked around. He willed himself to be still. The agony of exertion in his shoulder was like a red hot poker, but he managed to hold himself steady. There was no way he would be able to get back up again, though - there simply wasn't enough leverage, and his strength was slowly draining away.
Richard missed the third figure until it was too late - distracted by the effort of keeping still and of working out how he would let himself down into the pool with the least trouble. He wondered whether the couple would be able to see him if he just let his body topple out and hang from the root, and lifting his head to see if they were still looking he spotted the other man just as he was raising his arm. The couple, perhaps looking for the source of the sound they'd heard, were still looking towards the waterfall and the other had managed to creep up behind them unseen. His hand fell. An awful crunching noise. The first man toppled forward. Before the woman had time to react, the hand swung sideways. A brief screaming yelp, cut off in an instant, and she was down too.
The pain in Richard's shoulder vanished in a flash, replaced by ice. He stared out through the waterfall, unable to take his eyes off the scene.
Don't see me, don't see me, don't see me, he mouthed silently.