Fox IslandChapter 17
He woke facedown in a puddle of dirty water. It rained while he slept, but it delighted him to have fresh water again. He drank with disregard, before placing the lids of rubber on top of his bowls to protect them from the sun. He sat and chewed a piece of seaweed like bubblegum and wondered how long he would be at sea before he either died or found land.
The sun was excruciating. It beat him like a mallet, pounding him into the hull of the boat. He tried resting, but it was no use, so he waited for the day to pass, cowering under his supplies until night fell.
In midday, the acrobats of a kite mesmerized him. She was miles from land, fluttering and banking on heavy winds, searching for fish, and captivating him. He had a headache that forced his eyes shut, but he kept peeking them open to watch the beauty of the bird. At one point, she landed on the bow of his canoe. He didn’t move to scare her, but watched in silence. She rested for half an hour and took to the skies again. He didn’t remember exactly when she was in sight or gone, but after opening his eyes from his migraine, he saw that she had disappeared.
As the sun went down, he reacquired his heading and paddled onward. His second night was far less eventful than his first and it made for a drudging miserable time. He hadn’t the same confidence and desire to continue and would often rest and think about the island.
He remembered the first time the jungle attacked him, prior to discovering the Liberi village. Venturing far south of his beach, he found a cave at the base of a Spanish lime covered in grapevine. Partaking in the vine, he pondered the idea of the cave becoming a suitable place for him to live. It surely made a decent shelter. It wasn’t until he crept on his hands and knees into the darkness, that he smelled the stench of rotten flesh and heard a shrill whisper.
He wasn’t sure if the smell belonged to the prey or the resident itself. When he backed out, he heard a growl from the canopy. Frozen in fear, he jumped into the cave for cover. The animal was on him, scratching and biting. He fought back, and it threw itself away just as suddenly as it had at him.
Next moment, he saw it; an ocelot, stricken in colors of gold, bronze and emerald eyes. He picked up a stick to protect himself, but just as soon as he did, the thing retreated into its den. It was happy to leave him and satisfied that he was out of its home. It wasn’t until much later that he suspected the animal to be a mother and attacked him whilst protecting her children in the cave.
He left the southern beach to the family of cats, not to worry the mother in the future. The grapevine and cave weren’t worth the effort of torturing an animal that didn’t understand his presence as anything but hostile. Besides, there were far more fruit trees and places to rest.
He paddled into the darkness under the stars watching overhead. A meteor darted across the sky and chased the horizon into the abyss. He recalled a game the Liberi children played. One child was anonymously selected as “the rabbit” and another played as “the ocelot”; the rest were “the mandrills”. As the ocelot tried to discover who and where the rabbit was, the others defended the rabbit by mimicking it—throwing the ocelot off in his or her discovery.
The children ofttimes played in the fields outside the village and their joy always made him feel untroubled. It was an innocent gladness, born from the soul and not emotional. The laughter was the sort that intoxicates and makes one feel at home. One feels the difference in laughter that does not care of the opinion or worry of others; it is unreserved and abandoned. While most, if not all, hold mature laughter close to the chest and do not give in to its full potential; they restrain in fear and knowledge. He pondered if only children ever experienced true reckless laughter and its healing power.
Now alone, lost at sea, he gave himself over to it. He mustered up a hysterical laugh and surprised himself when he fell back into the boat with his joyful nonsense. His laughter became a fragmented stutter, and the stutter gave way to weeping. He sat on his knees, and tears fell into his palms. His shoulders convulsed, and his heart shook inside his chest. He fell forward and his head rested on the back of his hands. His breathing slowed; each exhale was like a long trumpet played through baleen.
Eventually he sat up, rested his head on the back of his neck and gazed at the moon. He was calm, and he felt like the entire episode refreshed him more than any sleep he had yet.
Night was at its darkest. The stars were deep and shimmering. He thought of Arvor. The stoic, strange man that guarded and watched him. He knew he was one of Watano’s police; their relationship began only as a duty and resentment. Arvor fed him the knowledge that they allowed him and gave back the report of his habits and inquiries. But it evolved, as these things do—a relationship built on mistrust and ignorance can only go about being malicious until one is shown the heart of a person. It’s much easier to hate a person one does not know and understand.
Their friendship was the blossom of a bitter root, and that root was in ugly soil; nevertheless, it bloomed, and through it, was made stronger than any relationship he had ever known. He looked behind him. He missed his friend.
He reached for a piece of seaweed to chew, but to his dismay, discovered that he ate the last of his food. In the icy darkness, he didn’t understand his blunder and improperly rationed it. Worry rushed over his face.
How long had it been since he saw any hint of a mantle of seaweed? Was it even worth the hope that a leaping fish or resting bird found its way into his boat? Would another kite come near him—but that thought disgusted him. How long could he go without food once the sun was out and upon him?
He subdued the worry, while he questioned if it were worth changing direction and following the waves. Perhaps chance could bring him to a weed cropping rather than his blind devotion to the east. But in his heart he knew it didn’t matter what direction he headed. He was just as likely going toward something as he was going away from it, and only madness lay on the other side of doubting his direction thus far. He had but one option—to only rest and trust that provision came along.
He opened his eyes at noontime. Nothing was in him but to lie in pain and drudgery. The pain came from beneath the blistering sun as he was an insect under a magnifying glass, burning no matter where he lay and altogether helpless to its power. The monotony brought with it a persistent suffering and insatiable hunger.
In the daytime, he often retched. His stomach would convulse and throw itself over the side, but nothing would come out. He was too dehydrated and starved to vomit anything but small bits of saliva and energy. He reached for his water-bowls and his heart sank when he discovered all of them dried up.
The sky was a blanket of sordid blue while he prayed for a rain flurry. Part of his soul previously believed he had a chance at sea. None of him conceived it would be a slow, gradual, crawling death; rather he imagined his end to be quick, painless, sudden and his spirit dancing to whatever place it decided to venture for eternity. Now, at the face of it, he abhorred what the process of death really felt like.
The morning and afternoon slipped by at the pace a flower blooms. He wondered—not for the last time—if it were possible to drink saltwater without going mad. Insanity was often on his mind. What did it feel like, anyway? Madness.
He often conversed with people in his canoe and fell dismayed when they vanished moments later. The dread didn’t come from the awareness of his mind being lost, but, in fact, came from the painful and recurring revelation that he was still alone.
In the evening, he hated his devotion to the east. It infuriated him. He discerned that east was leading him to the end of the earth, but north, south, and west led to land and civilization. And that, he knew, was the very instrument of insanity itself. His devotion to something indifferent when there was zero reason to believe it could still save him.
He was trusting a former version of himself that decided this was the correct path to salvation; now nothing in him believed it except the belief in his former self. He couldn’t trust anyone anymore. Therefore, no matter how angry and forlorn he became, he kept his heading in the night and never strayed from the path. His faith was no longer in his heading or rescue; he only believed that he used to believe.
The sky was on fire when he woke at the end of morning. His stomach growled, and salt sealed his swollen lips. A crusty tongue scraped across them.
Hours turned into hot knives and minutes scorched his body, head-to-toe. In what felt like an eternity, the sun cocked west of its peak. His head throbbed, and chest burned. He slouched against the seat in the stern and dug his thumbs into his eye-sockets to relieve the pressure. He pulled at the hair alongside his ears, ripped a tuft of the stuff from his beard, and scratched at his face and chest wildly. Sweat beaded on his burnt and bloody back.
The next thing he looked up and in front of the boat was the island. It was a vivid painting of exuberance and life, yet horror and fear, on the other side of the east.
“My God—” he thought, “I have been sailing in circles.”
He looked away in panic and reached for his oar. It was in the water. Spray and salt splashed into the sky as he frantically turned north, then it was gone—
“Where has the bloody thing gone?” he thought.
He turned round in his seat, searching in tousled confusion. It was just there, on the horizon—exactly how he remembered it. And now it was—wait!—now it was at his breast—no, starboard—now port—right, left, front, rear—Oh God, it surrounded him! The thing was everywhere and was growing larger every moment. He turned the boat round and struck the water with the oar wildly.
He shut his eyes for he hated seeing it looming over him. If only he could keep paddling and keep stroking and keep paddling and keep stroking—he could escape it. The idea of rest and sleep—under his ceiba one last time—strung through his mind like flickering lights. But he knew the rest would never last. They would be there waiting for him, and this time his death was certain.
But what was death, if anything, but certain? Of course, he would die at sea if not by the hands of the Liberi. What was one death compared to another, if not at least one death could involve a little bit of rest?
No, it wouldn’t be rest though. It would be torture. It would be brain-washing. And cannibalism. And all the things he knew to be true of the island when he first fell asleep. He knew the only actual death he wanted lay in the ocean.
He stopped paddling, exhausted, and opened his eyes. His heart caved in. Fear and fever clung to his breast. He collapsed forward. In the west, horrified, he saw the island was following him now. He wondered if it would always be with him. Just on the other side of the horizon, burning like a star—and now, yes!—it was on fire, burning before his eyes like the sun itself came down to the edge of the earth and lit it ablaze.
He threw the oar into the hull, grabbed his head and fell to the side, nearly into the water. He reached his hands out in desperation, splashing his face and drinking the ocean. The salt stung his brain, and he fell backward again, clenching his eyes shut, tears dripping down. And then he passed out.
“Reynard,” the old woman called. “What do you want to get for Grandpa?”
A little boy scampered his way through the feet of grown-ups and round the table-tops of knickknacks. It was his first time at a flea market and Grandma and he were shopping for Christmastime in a place called Hackney. His fingers draped across a typewriter, pots of copper, gems and stones, fine jewelry and East India Company trappings. The bustle of the bazaar was numbing his senses, but his purpose remained before him. His attention fell upon a little clear package of purple plastic worms crammed between lures, hooks, and fishing-lines.
“Grandma, this!” the young boy said. “I want to get Grandpa these to fish with. He will like that.” The boy looked fondly on the long glittery worms. “He will like these.”
The boy carried the precious worms to the register with a few coins in his hand.
“Two-sixty-four,” the man behind the table told the boy.
The boy turned to Grandma disquieted. She smiled and dug a large coin out of her purse. She handed it to the boy, and he turned back to the cashier with pride. The exchange was made, and he proudly walked out of the market with a brown paper bag in one hand and Grandma’s hand in the other. The purple worms were safe in his possession.
Family met at the dinner table; laughter and joy abounded. There was such a commotion of voice and volume that the boy didn’t even remember when dinner ended and he was now playing with his cousin a game of Battleship in the corner of the living room. At one point, a dessert was brought out, and the adults made a great deal out of its presentation. Later, another of his older cousins—one that was crooked in his face and always looked to be planning on torturing someone—was chasing his sister with a spider he caught in a corner of the house. A distant grown-up relative, whom he never met before, said something that he didn’t understand, but knew to be inappropriate on account of everyone’s hushed and awkward silence. A large group of the children gathered and watched a movie in the living room. The adults escaped into the dining area to be boring and have grown-up conversations while sipping tea.
Finally, Grandma called everyone’s attention and announced it was the time to unwrap presents. The kids cheered, and the adults wandered in and found a place to sit. Pandemonium sprung forward as Grandma tried to keep order, selecting people to open their gifts and trying her best to enjoy each moment and reaction.
The little boy heard a phrase cut through the bedlam. “This next gift is for Grandpa,” Grandma informed, with a sweetness on her face. “Reynard picked it out himself.”
Grandpa was in his recliner and didn’t move to receive the small gift. The little boy sat on his knees, pregnant with joy. He’d forgotten about his present he selected at the flea market, but now all of his attention was on the thing he knew Grandpa would love.
Grandpa opened it. He pursed his lips and nodded his head slowly. The boy’s father gave a slight noise of approval from somewhere behind him.
“Thank you,” Grandpa said, glancing at the boy. He half-smiled and put the gift down on the floor next to his recliner and leaned back again.
The boy knew that he was grateful. That was Grandpa’s way about him. His mind was always on something else distant in the future, or forgotten in the past. But the little boy knew he would love and use his gift.
His eyes opened. He was still in the boat. The waves rocked him like he were a toddler in a crib. The stars were out, and the sun left for the evening. The island left for now.
“Maybe I’ve already died,” he mused. “Maybe I’ll sail forever in an eternal ocean.”
A wave pushed him up and rolled him back down.
“Or maybe this has all before been the dream and now I’m awake.”
The stars twinkled.
“Maybe I was never really awake on the beach and now I see.”
He closed his eyes and slipped into another dream.