The man lived on a small island. The memories of yesterdays receded from him, each more hazy than their tomorrows. As he watched the sunrise, he thought back to his first day here. It had been about six months since his arrival, and he never tired of the view. There was nothing else worth looking at right then but the golden disc and the waves it sent forth to him.
As the sun climbed higher, he got up and started his rounds. A wide strait separated his island from the distant mainland. Palm trees covered much of his home, and there were no signs anyone else had ever lived here.
Some mornings he waded into the shallows and caught shellfish. Later on he would pick fruit or gather coconuts for lunch. He would go for a walk and later take a long nap in a shady spot. He would fish every day and always caught something. He cooked his dinner over a fire, and wrapped any left overs in leaves for his breakfast. If he wore clothes, he did not need them, as it was always warm.
At night he would lie back on the sand watch the stars for a while. Across the strait he could sometimes see a tiny glow from what he thought to be a fishing village. Later he would retire to the hut, and drift off to sleep in his hammock.
His castle was small but had all he needed. A leather bound journal sat on one shelf, and his collection of sea shells were on the other. His fishing gear and a few tools were stowed away in a sea chest. He spent a few hours each day writing in his journal. He might pore over a single page for a long time before editing a word or two. Sometimes he might erase long passages.
He had carved a dugout canoe early in his stay, and on some days took it out. The water was calm, and the island was buffeted by only the gentlest of waves. There were strong currents that pulled the canoe toward the mainland, but he always managed to resist them. He was far from home, but his enemy had a long reach.
It was on one of these trips that he made an acquaintance, the first since his arrival. He had paddled unusually far from shore, and had paused to catch his breath. A mist had formed with little warning, and he stopped to check his bearings. He rested the paddle across his knees, and looked back to where he thought the island was. With no warning, two hands appeared at the side of the canoe. The hands were followed by arms, and then a face, that of a woman.
“Hello,” she said, her head resting on her arms, which she had pulled up to set on the lip of the canoe. It rocked slightly, and the man leaned back a bit for fear it would tip over. He knew how to swim, but never cared for being out in the deep waters. Swimming in the deep ocean was like flying through the sky. Rock and mud were far below, obscured by a soup that seemed to near to air. It was a long way to fall.
The man stared at her. “What are you doing?” She had long black hair, bronze skin, and green eyes.
She skipped over this, “You’re from the island, aren’t you?”
“Yes. And you? The mainland?”
“Yes. Would you like to go there?” It was his turn to ignore her question. Instead, thinking of a childhood tale, he leaned forward, and willed his sight to pierce the water.
“Are you looking for something?” she laughed.
“I’ve caught quite a few fish in these waters, but none like you.”
“You’ve caught me, have you? Well, you’ll have to jump in to haul this catch aboard. The water is warm, fisherman.”
“I don’t fish out this far. But I’m heading in, if you care to follow.” A stream of water hit him in the face in response, and when he had wiped it away, she was gone in the mist. He found his way back to shore, and the mist drifted off as the sun rose, a pillar of cloud that vanished towards the horizon. That night he wrote a few lines about the woman. It was one of the few new things he had added since he arrived.
The next morning, he took a long walk, trying to find the woman or her boat. If she was from the mainland, he would have to be careful. Discovery was inevitable, but he must not do anything to arouse suspicion. A word can travel far. He found nothing until he returned to his hut, and found her there, taking his journal off the shelf.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“You asked me that yesterday. Isn’t it obvious?” She picked it up, and made as if to open it.
“That’s private,” he said.
She arched an eyebrow, “So, you have secrets?”
He was not so easy to provoke and, somewhat out of character, decided to be honest. “No. But I am here for a reason. I have enemies, and I was dropped off here in order to get away from them. I am trying to forget them.”
“You want to forget, and you write all this?” she said.
“It’s a memoir of sorts.”
“How long will you stay?” she asked.
“Until I am done with it, maybe even forever. It’s not such a bad place. How did you get out here?
“Oh, I was dropped off too. And I plan to stay.”
After they argued, he did not see her for several days. She had at least agreed to live on the “other” half of the island. He marked the halfway point with three rocks arranged in a triangle. He thought that if he ignored her, she might give up. She did not seem handy, and he would not offer to share his catch. She would come to him weary, hungry and bedraggled, and he would grudgingly agree to set her down on the other side of the strait. He would risk the long voyage to salvage his solitude.
After a few days, he grew impatient and went to check on her. He expected her to help paddle, and it would not do if she was half-starved. He found her outside her own hut, smaller and simpler than his, but well made. She was cooking fish over a fire.
She looked at him with mock outrage. “What, you broke our agreement!” They argued some more about her presence, and he tramped back to his hut.
That evening he considered his options. He could burn down her hut while she was out. That might scare her off … she must have a boat hidden somewhere. He was so preoccupied that he did not notice the vanishing stars, and the approaching storm front that obscured them. That night the strongest storm in his memory swept over the island. The wind howled, but he felt safe inside his castle. Until the tree fell.
He woke to water being poured over his head. He was on his back, and the woman was sitting next to him, looking down into his face. “That’s a bad bump on your head, but not near as bad as your arm and leg.”
One of each was broken, and had been crudely splinted. The hut was wrecked, and his things scattered about.
“Come along, you have stood me up for long enough.” She helped him up. She had found a good stick for him, and leaning on her, that made their way to her hut, him groaning all the way.
“My things …,” he gasped when they arrived.
“I’ll get them,” and she did. She came back with his journal and few shells that had not been crushed by the storm. She dropped it at his feet. “Is it any good?”
“Everyone’s a critic,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Not me. I’m your biggest fan, you just don’t know it yet.”
“I’m in no mood for banter.”
“If you had been in the mood for banter with your so called enemies, you probably wouldn’t be here.”
He turned his head to the wall.
He slept for a bit, and woke at dusk. Through the door he saw the red disc descending into the waters. He was afire, and sweat poured from his body. Water was put to his lips, and he drank, and slept again.
When he woke, it was dark, and he was being set into a travois. He winced as he was moved.
“Sorry, but you require special attention, more than I can provide. Its time for a trip.” She dragged him down to the beach, and eased him into the canoe, ignoring his protests all the while. She pushed it into the water and climbed in.
He lay in the boat with his head propped up facing where she sat in the stern. He could see the starry sky, and her, and that was it. After some time she had stopped working and set the paddle aside. The canoe continued on toward the mainland, pulled by a strong current. She stared at him in the silence. The moon had risen, and its silver light was at rest in her face.
She held up the journal. “You’ve put this off too long, and my patience is at an end.” With that she opened to page one, and began to read aloud. He tried to rise, but fever left him as weak as a baby. She read each page out loud to him, and then ripped it out and cast it upon the waters, leaving a trail of white flakes behind them. It seemed to take an age, but it was still dark when she had done, and dropped the binding overboard. The current grew stronger, as it seemed they were traveling faster now.
“There, no more secrets. That wasn’t so bad, was it?” She smiled at him, a smile of friendship but also one of victory.
He could not look at her then, as he had passed through embarrassment, sorrow, anger, and astonishment as the story was read. He had been too weak and too mortified to protest, till now.
“You changed a lot. That’s not what I wrote!” he croaked.
“But its the truth, and you know it. You’ve concocted quite a fairy tale out here, and managed to talk yourself into believing it. When were you ever the outdoorsman?” she chuckled. “And enemies? You never had one your whole life.” He did not respond, too empty to argue. “But even so, you’re not as bad as you make yourself out to be.”
She looked at him for a heartbeat or two. “You’re still hiding something,” she said with a sigh.
“No I’m not,” he whispered.
She glanced at his hand, and pried it open. He had hidden his favorite white shell inside. It was beautifully intricate, and he had never found another quite like it. They struggled for a moment, but she prevailed.
“Sorry, everything must go.” And she pitched it over the side. “You’ll get a much better one when you meet him. I think you are finally ready. He already knows all your dirty little secrets, and lucky you, he doesn’t hold them against you.”
After that, she arched her back and spread her arms, and the canoe began to speed over the sea, caught by a silent wind. Spray flew up and wet his face, and mingled with the tears now flowing there.
She leaned over him and kissed him once on the mouth. The fever died away, and his blood was turned to mist. Her green eyes, now flecked with gold, held his gaze. “I told you I was your biggest fan. You never wrote anything as good as this, but you will, soon. Listen, this is my favorite part:
My work is done,
My task is o’er, And so I come,
Taking it home,
For the crown is won,
My Father gave in charge to me
This child of earth
E’en from its birth,
To serve and save,
And saved is he.
This child of clay
To me was given,
To rear and train
By sorrow and pain
In the narrow way,
From earth to heaven.”*
*From The Dream of Gerontius, Cardinal John Henry Newman.