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First Ladyby Michael Malone
I go riding in the mornings on a horse named Manassas. I ride the old bridle path that runs behind the summerhouses at Pine Hills Lake. The lake is just outside Hillston, North Carolina, where my family has always lived. A hundred years ago, they drove their pony carts along North Cove Road and tipped their straw hats to one another. My family's circle is wide. My circle is this narrow red clay track around the lake.
At dawn the past is still peaceful at Pine Hills Lake, so I begin my ride just as the sky brightens to pink, while a mist still floats above the cove, curling in slow drifts toward shore, as if restless beneath the dark water the Lady of the Lake were waiting to rise through the mists with her sword. This early in the day, before the Southern sun makes everything too clear, even the Piedmont can be Camelot and that's how I prefer it.
It's rare on my rides to come across anyone out on the old bridle path. Certainly I never expected someone like her.
She was standing, motionless, mist swirling around her, at the far end of the gray wooden dock. In the fog the dock looked like a road floating out into the water that she could walk on to the other side of the lake. I saw her without warning, when Manassas cantered past a clearing in the pines that opened onto a small pebbled beach. It was owned by a luxury resort called The Fifth Season, built a year ago to look like one built in the twenties. The sight of the woman stopped me as if I were racing toward a wall I couldn't clear and I twisted Manassas sideways, his long black neck wrenching at the reins, his wild eye surprised.
Slender, luminous, with hair the color of lions, she was so perfectly beautifulthat her appearance startled me the way a great bright tropical bird would have shocked me, flying all of a sudden out of the pines. Maybe it was because of the intense way she was staring across the lake that I thought of the heroine of The French Lieutenant's Woman, but the two were nothing alike. This young woman wore a thin short red silk robe instead of a hooded black cloak. No whitecaps beat against a causeway and I didn't call out to her to take care and she didn't turn around to stare at me. She did something more unanticipated.
Just at the moment when the first gold of the sun rose above the trees behind her, she shrugged the red robe off her shoulders and let it fall to the worn wood of the dock. She stood there for a moment entirely naked. Then she raised her white arms, arched her back and sang out a long lovely phrase of notes that came toward me through the woods like a magic message in a fairy tale. As the phrase ended, in a sparkle of slanted sunlight, she dived far out into the misty water and disappeared.
The bright red silk lay like a pool of blood on the gray dock, and fearful that her leap was an act of despair, I kicked Manassas into a gallop. A homicide detective, I am trained after all to respond to matters of life and death and I worried that even if the woman weren't suicidal, she might not have anticipated the hidden rocks into which she'd dived, or how cold the deep North Cove water could be even in late June.
But as I reached the edge of the beach, she burst flying up out of the lake in a spray of shaken gold hair. She looked around, saw me on Manassas, and laughed with pleasure. Then she raised an arm, waved, and as I waved back, she blew me a kiss with her arm extravagantly outflung. As long as I could see her, I watched her swim strongly away, her feet kicking a path of diamonds behind her.
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