The man with the sun-upholstered feet gazed out toward the sea’s lazy marine warmth as it presented a constellation of fruiting blue paddocks to the fascinated, haunted human eye and he was again overwhelmed by the sensation that exile was desperately similar to abandonment.
He couldn’t discern or quantify exactly how long he’d been hunching, with heat-parched mouth and burn-mottled forehead, on the strand while a pleiades of terns converged and dissolved above the waterline or a skulk of crabs veered into the shallow assault of the ocean whenever he snapped an eye open to observe their orderly coastal reconnaissance. He may have been here for months.
Time was a privilege here, an unnecessary luxury, because the ocean’s implacable modulation and randomised locomotion would not allow for a clock’s chronology in the same way you could not chalk numbers on its inconstant surface. It was like applying the laws of gravity to interstellar flight. He’d once tried to exchange handshakes with the rippling element but it had warped beneath his touch, adhering to subterfuge lest the man know its static identity and so proceed to tame, to master it.
The man did not expect intimacy or companionship or disclosure from the sea.
It existed to thwart proximity, it prevailed to perpetuate distance: it was definitionally opposed to being possessed, being owned, it disavowed transparent interaction as a human imperfection. So the man came to know things about the sea which betrayed its transformative character, anyway: it would not tolerate friendship, it continuously changed its parameters for play, it resented the man’s arrogance and fragility, it was frivolous and forever consummating bursts of passion with itself, it was furtive and lacking in imagination, it was crippled by a boisterous and basic sense of humour which failed to apprehend the intricacies of a nimble wit. But it was troublingly alike, also: like man, the sea was given to funks of introspective brooding, it was frequently violent or vituperative, it strived in vain to exercise control over free and untamed agents, it was incapable of fraternity and therefore forever lonely.
So the man with the yielding pink palms was consoling himself with deep, demotic ruminations on the plight of his extraordinary exile, one whose existence was enriched by the spectre of misery, when he saw a human figure about twenty yards distant emerge from the suck of the sea, before the apparition set himself upon the descending bank of the fourth island, his arms spreadeagled and his tongue grappling for air.
There were about five islands in the man’s beleaguered domain, and they described a hemispherical cluster which resembled a haphazard frown or an inelegant smile depending on the direction you viewed the arrangement.
Each island was separated from the last by a channel of water which extended to twenty yards, but there were occasions in which the moon dangled, fat with superluminal fire, just low enough for the ocean to retreat and the man might, after three weeks of nautical enclosure, relish the opportunity to navigate a landbridge brokered from salt deposits to the next island and make occupation there. Each island was different (the second island, clockwise from the man’s current post, was abundant with bananas and plantains that littered its shore, whilst the fourth island, on which the stranger now sprawled, benefited from the shade of a pandanus canopy), but each island shared identical dimensions.
They were six feet wide and eight feet long, just snugly configured to suffice in accommodating a man’s sleeping body if he were to splay himself lengthways. But it was an ideologically threatening development for the man with the sun-mutated complexion to welcome the new arrival. He was an intruder, after all, encroaching on a marooned individual’s pleasant, if abandoned, island monopoly.
There was little that the man with the rash-harassed shoulderblades could do to assume an immediate authority of this uninhabited cove of tiny assorted sandbars, particularly since all the conch-shell trumpets and cuttlefish blades remained scattered over the surface of the third island, so he resolved this dilemma of dominion by whistling on his fingers, and waving aggressively, with a pump of the forearm, just militantly enough to display his meaning. Parrots cavorted in the foliage of the pandanus behind the stranger, so all noise tripped across the trough of the tropics in a distorted incarnation, too muddled by the undercurrents and assailed by the winds for the man with the summer-boiled face to interpret what the rasping newcomer had howled in response.
The words came again – "Why are you waving to me? I don’t know you" – but at this point the gulls were performing synchronised plunges into the water dividing the two men, to skiff the current with their sun-glanced bills, and there was far too much screaming for the man with the island-charted smile to make much sense out of the stranger’s repeated dismissals.
The man kept waving and the stranger continued snarling, and between them the sea tried its damndest to maintain the heaving distance separating the islands, to ensure the new friendship didn’t result in blood being purged in ugly cyrillic across its smug and pretty face. There was something about the social appurtenances of company that a lonely thing like the sea would never understand.
¶ This short-story was previously published in Kizuna: Fiction for Japan (Niigata, 2011), a mixed-genre charity anthology edited by Brent Millis, which collected original micro-fictions of 1,000 words in length as a curated response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. All proceeds made from both print & e-book purchases were donated to the not-for-profit youth organisation, Smile Kids Japan.