The Rugby Witch  

Yuri stood on the porch and listened to the women chant. It was rush week, and the sororities on either side of his fraternity were performing induction rites on freshman girls. The words must have been about sisterhood, but he couldn't make them out. The sound of women's voices, rising from locked houses—it filled him with shame, because he was 20 years old and still a virgin. But he liked to listen. Despite his shame and his rage, there was a vision that came to him when the chants were at their loudest: the white underside of a feminine arm, reaching out of the darkness to pull him in.

Yuri's problem, he knew, was cowardice. He had been on the verge last year, with a Phi Omega girl—she had been naked, holding him. But he had been too frightened to do it. There was a pulsing fear inside him, a second, artificial heart; he didn't know how to make it stop. It wasn't just girls, either. He was the worst player on the Rugby team, because he was a coward. His passing skills were acceptable, but when a halfback from the other side tore through a ruck with his elbows out and the ball tucked into his belly, Yuri could only throw himself at his knees, skimming off of him. He would fall to the side and turn to watch his man soldier down the field. Got to make that tackle, his teammates would say, gently, patting Yuri on the back. Then they would kick the dirt out of their cleats, sniffing in disgust.

Cowardice with women and cowardice with the enemy—these were his two ongoing failures, and they fed off of each other. They made him repulsive to himself, made him small and self-protective in the crucial moments, made heroism impossible. Now he wedged his half-finished beer between the cushions of the couch on the porch, because somebody would discover and appreciate it. He went inside, to look for Aaron Zarwan. He had decided to seek Zarwan's advice.

Zarwan, or Z-Man, was in the kitchen, heating kale. He was both a Rugby player and a rower, six-foot-two. He was the best front on the Rugby team, capable of flying great distances and landing on another man's thighs, making him collapse like a marionette.

"Dude," said Yuri, quietly, so that no one could hear, "I need your help. I'm just sucking at Rugby so hard. I don't know what to do but keep working on my tackles, and no matter how much I practice, I still fall on my ass when it comes to the actual game."

Zarwan stroked a cheekbone. "I don't share what I'm going to share with just anyone," he said, finally, "but I can feel a desperation vibe, and no brother of mine should give off a desperation vibe, because it'll make us all look bad. Girls can sniff that shit out."

Yuri apologized.

"No worries," said Zarwan. He turned off the stove and put the lid over his pot of kale. "Let's go for a ride."

It was a crisp fall afternoon. They drove in Zarwan's blue Saab through the valley, into the hills where the trees had started to turn red. They climbed a dirt road that showed them views of all Amherst, and up another, and up a long, gravel driveway. The sound of wind in dry leaves eclipsed the sound of wheels on dry road.

They went around a bend, and Yuri saw an old brick house, with a balcony made of white wood, and white trim around the windows. The lawn was the lush full green of high summer. The trees that surrounded the lawn were also green, a ring of summer in the fall woods.

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