The stone skipped four times before it sank. Four heartbeats across a flat expanse of water, the ripples like tiny sonar, echoing into silence.
Four times. He couldn't believe it. The best he'd ever managed before was two, and that was pretty much the minimum you had to get for it to count. But four!
He wondered if he could do it again. Maybe he'd finally mastered the knack. He tried to remember what the magic pebble had looked like, scavenged about for stones that looked the same. Not a single one of them skipped.
It was the wind that was the problem. It put too much spin on the stones he threw. He could see them turning, like keys in some invisible lock, meeting the water not flat as he had thrown them, but vertical, thin edge knifing into the lake. That was no good. He tried throwing heavier stones but the lake swallowed them up with a lugubrious gulp.
He might as well face it. That stone was a fluke, a one-off. He could spend every vacation from now on throwing stones at a lake and he might never again achieve that precise trajectory, that perfect stone.
He wished someone had been there to see.
Now that he'd decided he'd never get four skips again, skipping hardly seemed worthwhile. Still, there was something about the contiguity of pebbles and water that made defiance necessary, an atavistic urge that demanded his participation in nature, his attempt to master it.
Perhaps he would try and see how far he could throw. The wind was against him though - gusting off the high mountains, screaming at him across the lake. He picked up a handful of stones, trying to recall what he knew about projectiles - the arcana of high school physics, flightpaths and parabolas, ubiquitous angles of 30, 45 or 60 degrees, the questions lobbed at him like missiles, their formulae forgotten now, but the clean arcs of their flight still fresh in his mind.
He remembers asking whether it mattered whether the ball was thrown in the direction of the earth's rotation or against it, suddenly appalled by the idea that while you were up in the air the earth could move away from under you.
He couldn't remember what the answer to that one had been.
At any rate, there was no risk of that here - not with only his thirty-two year old desk jockey's arm behind the throw. He watched the pebbles leaving his hand fight their valiant way into the sky, and then, overcome by wind and gravity, fall to the earth in an almost vertical sluggishness.
The real problem, he realised, was not how to throw further, but how to judge how far you'd thrown. How to mark distance on the memory less surface of the lake.
To hell with it, he thought, having tried unsuccessfully to make the comparison, with only a withered tree for a guide. Why compare? Who was he competing with anyway? He threw stones at random now, trying out variations, letting himself go. He laughed, his laughter a small stone flung into the wind.
He was stooping to pick up another handful of pebbles when he heard the voices. They were coming up the trail behind him. He wasn't alone up here after all.
Staring at the stones in his hand he suddenly felt awkward, childish. What would they think of it, he wondered, a grown man throwing stones at a lake like a five year old child? It wasn't even like he could make the stones skip. If they'd seen that one throw, the one that skipped four times they might understand, but now...
He dropped the stones he was holding, dusted his hand on his jeans. He pulled out a book from his jacket, propped his backpack on the shore, settled down to read. Sat staring at the page, hearing their voices draw closer.
A group of women. Girls really. Probably still in high school. Unscuffed hiking boots and pink backpacks. About a dozen of them altogether. A collection of I-pod minis with their owners strapped to them. He glanced across at them briefly, smiled a polite, ambiguous welcome, went back to his book. He could feel them looking at him, their eyes lingering, intrigued for a moment, then moving on. The way you look at something in a curiousity shop.
They settled down a little further along the shore. Only a stone's throw away from him really. They were planning a picnic by the lake it seemed. He considered moving on, but decided it was silly to let yourself be stampeded by a bunch of 16 year olds. He would just go on sitting there, basking in the sunlight, reading his book.
When the first splash of a stone hitting the water reached him, the first cries of "Look, it skipped, it skipped" "No it didn't, you idiot! that was just the splash of the stone sinking", he didn't look up. He was reading. And besides, he refused to be drawn into such silliness.