ONE. Saltwater Mouth
I spit — salt on my lips, thick on my tongue, and sand, and something worse, half rotten. Water in my throat.
My body twists, and I heave. I lie on my stomach and watch with light-blind eyes as bile merges into pitted white rock. I reach for support, but my fingers grasp only tangles of some fleshy, waterlogged plant.
Thirst. The only feeling my body registers. And water. The only word my mind can form. I am dying. I cannot rise, only lie, half in oblivion. Now and then a gull’s cry breaks the surface of my awareness, a shrill yet shallow sound. But there is always a softness. Faint, but constant, the only thing that tethers me to life. A voice, a soft sigh, a whisper that beckons, teases, suggests, soothes.
I sleep. And wake again. Time is paralyzed, the sun an endless hammer on my skin. Sleep offers no shelter, no relief. Only one part of me is free of agony, the place where my head has come to rest, somehow, on soaked leather, the binding of a book that has washed ashore before me.
TWO. The Years Have Taken Atoll
When I finally rise — a day after waking, maybe, I do not know — I walk the empty shoreline, filled with despair. My feet are unsteady, my legs weak with thirst. I think I will die soon, here in this place that isn’t a place.
Sand and rock. A long, narrow arc of it as far as I can see. The island is an atoll, a narrow ring of beach around a wide lagoon, nothing more. Enough room to stretch out, to let the waves on either side caress my feet and hands. That is all. A ribbon of land, alone in a world of blue. A blazing, impossible blue that shames the sky.
I cannot walk the full ring of it. It is wide, so that I cannot see the farther side, but that is not why.
I can see it from far off. A dark mass inside the lagoon. The ocean is shallow here, barely deeper than sea level both inside the atoll and out, and I wonder if it is a cloud’s shadow. No, it is too dark for that. My step hastens, curious now.
No, I am wrong. It is not a mass that lies in the water. It is nothing. A dark pit of nothing. It sinks into the lagoon, deeper than the sea, bottomless maybe. A great blue hole. Empty. Alien.
I turn to leave. I do not run; I could not. My body shakes with hunger. And something else now, something new. No, I will not go back that way. There is nothing good near that hole, nor beyond it.
THREE. Bitter Fruit
It is evening, and I look for food, as I do every day at this time. The setting sun is not so hot now, not so cruel. But there is little time to search before the ocean will swallow it again and spill night like ink over everything. I have been here three days now. There is nowhere to sleep at night but sand. Nowhere at all to hide.
I am starving. I know this. Another day or so without food, and I will die. I do not know how I am still alive at all. No fresh water here, not in a place like this.
But I dream. They are faint, half-remembered dreams. A woman comes to me, a woman with a strange face, and makes me drink.
It is evening, and I walk the beach, and flies sting my burnt skin. Strange pink bodies with purple eyes and zebra-striped wings. Yellow fish swim in the shallows. I try to think of ways to catch them. There are tracks in the sand, too large to be gulls, but I see no bird in the sky, no nest I could raid. Tonight, like most nights so far, I will fall asleep hungry.
In the morning a large plant like a bean-pod washes ashore, tattered and broken. Inside I find round, heart-shaped discs that fit in my palm, a deep chestnut brown. I bite into one. My mouth fills with a soapy taste. I spit, then laugh, and then bite into another. Later in the day, I find oysters not far off the island. But I have no knife to open them. I realize this, and the joy I felt at the sight of them turns to grief so sharp it could cut.
But there are conch. I break one open, pulling out the slick grey meat, still alive. I strike it with a jagged rock. It is sweet, though chewy. No hint of fishiness.
I lie on the beach as the sun sets again, my belly aching, no longer empty. The weight of food feels foreign, exotic. My last thought as sleep takes me is that there was no guilt, no horror at all, in the killing.
There is no reason to, but I carry the book as I walk the strip of beach. It is dry now, but the pages are warped by seawater, the ink blurred and smeared. Not that that matters. It is written in a language I cannot speak, in letters I cannot read.
I think often of throwing it back in the ocean. I never do.
Is it mine? I do not know. I can’t remember — that, or anything else, for that matter. My name. How I came to be at sea. Why I nearly drowned. Whoever I was, whatever my life has been, it is gone now. Where history should be etched in my skin, the soles of my feet, the tip of my tongue, it is all empty. Blank. Nothing.
The ocean is the entire world now. I stare at it and let it work its glamor on me. I see it in my dreams, too, and sleeping or waking I am lost in its many forms. Waxing, ebbing, drenching, foaming, swelling, splashing. Life-cradling. Thirst enthralling.
As expected, I can still find no fresh water.
My third night here — or fourth; it is hard to know for sure — I think of the dream from that first night when I washed ashore. Tonight when I lie on the sand I only pretend to sleep. The pages of my pillow compress beneath my head, accordion-like. I breathe deep. The night is not so dark, for my eyes can see by starlight now.
When she comes, I am not surprised. I wait while she holds water to my lips and tilts my head, then I pretend to wake. She, too, seems to have expected it. Stars dance in her dark eyes. I wonder if I have dreamed her after all.
In the morning, while she eats, I watch her. She bites deep into a mango, the twin of which I have already eaten. It fits so neatly in her hand. Juicy, rich, unbearably sweet. Where did she get them? I do not ask. I am wary of moving things along too quick.
Her face is dark, and lined. Not wrinkled — the skin is smooth, and sags nowhere. The lines run straight down from her forehead to her chin, parallel. I wonder what it means.
Her colors — yellow mango, brown skin, white teeth — make the blue behind her less blinding. I see beauty in this place now. For the first time. The flora (scrub on igneous stone, no more) pulses with fresh, thriving green, and even the sea steals my breath. How its clear shallows sink into brilliant then profoundest blue.
I follow her. The day flexes and I feel its strength on my brow, in my shoulders. We pass relict dunes where grasses still grow, then a weathered tree that shades the sand. I laugh. Not at her, or even at the tree, but at the shadows.
By the time we stop the island has grown no wider, still a sliver of sand above water, bound by the same shallows. But there are more trees here, more shade. We sit under drooping, palmlike leaves and we are silent before the evening. She gives me fresh water in a bowl made of some hollowed fruit. I look out over the lagoon, wondering if the tiny bit of sand I see beyond it is the place where I washed ashore. I cannot tell.
It is almost dark when I see them. They look like owls. Two of them, brown with white breast. But they stand nearly as tall as I would on legs as long as their bodies.
Am I dreaming? If so then she is, too, for she is watching them. The owls wander, searching for food with their small yellow eyes that bore into the ground. When they finally see me they do not fly away, but run in long, loping strides, hunched over, their backs nearly level with the ground.
When they are gone, I sigh. And she speaks for the first time.
“What is this place?” I ask, our third day this side of the atoll. It is evening and we are waiting for the owls, who always come at dusk and wade into the shallows to watch for fish. By now, survival no longer gnaws my nerves so deeply, and my mind finds space to think. The space itself is unnerving, in its own way.
She doesn’t answer. But I can tell she is thinking, intent as she is on the fruit she is peeling with a sharpened oyster shell. She scrapes the rind away and hands me a piece. I take it, consider the immensity in my question, and try again.
“Where is this place?”
“Where?” her voice lilts, as if answering a child. Her hand arcs to trace the island’s edge. “It is here — just as you see it.”
I taste the fruit. It is sweet to my lips, and tart. My eyes widen in surprised. She hands me another. “What are the owls?” I ask.
“They have always been here,” she says. “Before the island wore away, before the reef rose to shelter it, before the first plant took root on its shores, they were here.”
“Is that what this is? A reef?”
“The bones of it. There was a port here once, sheltered inside the lagoon. Men sailed from it and sold slaves in their villages, and beached their ships to scour barnacles from the hulls. And now,” she pauses, breaking off a piece of fruit to taste for herself. She smiles and does not speak, and I wish I had not eaten mine so quickly. She drinks rainwater from her bowl and wipes her lips, looking me straight in the eye. “Now we are all that’s left. People of sand and waves.”
I wonder how long ago all of that was. How long does it take for an entire island to disappear, leaving only a ring of sand-scattered reef to show where it once had been?
“Where are the others?” I ask.
“You said people of sand and waves. Where are the people? You’re the only soul I’ve seen, and I…” my voice breaks. “I don’t even know what to call you.”
She swallows her bite and tilts her chin. “Why do you ask me this?” She looks away, troubled. “If you do not know, then maybe it is not for me to tell.”
My heart drums and the surf lashes at my toes. I don’t know what to say. I do not understand.
SEVEN. The Mouth
While hunting for conch one day I spot a gleam in the shallows. Eyeglasses? I doubt my eyes at first, but when I lift them out of the water there is no mistake. They look old, the frames corroded and twisted, barely thicker than wire.
I do not know why, but they trouble me. They look ancient, buried, lost to time, and now — back again. My stomach churns. My shoulders shake. Something stirs in my mind. A memory?
“I have seen such things,” the woman says when I bring them to her.
“Here and there, every once in a while. When I find them I burn them, or bury them beneath the mango roots.”
Weeks, maybe months, have passed since that first mango. In all this time I have not asked her about it, afraid she would grow jealous and withhold her gifts. But I am nearly sick of their sweetness by now, so I ask her.
“It’s not far. I can take you there, but there is something you need to know. Like all the fruit trees in this place, it is near the Mouth.” She sees his confusion. “The great blue hole,” she explains. “The one you looked into and feared.”
Hair rises on my arm, and I shiver. Something deep inside me clenches. “These things you find,” I ask. “Did any of them wash up with me? On the same day?”
She gives me an odd look, and will not answer.
When I wake the next morning, she is gone. She always is in the mornings, to walk the island and gather food. But today she does not return, not till an hour before night. She lays down a ragged net and from it spreads out fish and fruit and seagull eggs. I build us a fire, and she watches.
“I made a boat,” she breaks the silence at length. “I’ve been making it since you arrived. Out of driftwood.” I look up at her, startled by the news. Firelight writhes in her eyes. “If you want it, it is yours.”
EIGHT. What if the world has cast me out and this place is all I have left?
We stare out at the lagoon together, our backs to the sea. I struggle to think, to explain my reluctance. To sort out the frayed strands of my fear, why the pit in my stomach has opened again. She waits and does not press me.
I am grateful for that. It’s not enough time, a single night’s sleep to decide, no more.
The day is bright and the breeze is cool, the white sand soft to our fingers and toes, soft and salt-sprayed. The world looks newly created today. Perhaps it is. Every texture of rock I can see is still forming, carved by the wind’s restless hands. Every curve of the island’s ring still taking shape. The birds that hide in the wrack still labor, their nests a work in progress.
I do not belong here. I know that. Out there, beyond the lagoon, across the sea — that is where I belong.
“What if I never remember?” I speak at last. “Where I’m from. Where I’ve been. What I’ve done.”
“Returning could help,” she says. She grinds one of the heart-shaped beans in her teeth, hands jittery and folded on her knees. “Seeing the things that you have known.”
“What if there’s no one for me to go back to?”
“There is an island in this sea,” she says, eyes far away, “and on it, where the forest is deepest, there is a great black stone hung with vines and ferns. Sometimes a flower grows there, and if you hold it and speak the name of the one you love, they will come to you, no matter how far away. I was told this,” she fixes me with her gaze now. “But I do not believe it.”
I do not know what to say. Who was it that told her, I wonder? And why does she tell me? Could her story somehow be an answer to my question?
As I think, my fingers trace grooves in the sand: owl tracks, their talon-marks as big as my hand. The tracks taunt me, proof of the owl’s presence and of their absence. I imagine them walking Bahamian shores, Caribbean forests, in days before they’d vanished from all places save here.
Caribbean. Bahamian. The words blaze in my mind as they surface, and with them faces come, too, half-distinct and nameless. And distant, somehow. Dead, maybe, or disloyal. My breath quickens and shallows, and she takes notice.
“What if the world has cast me out,” I plead, “and this place is all I have left?”
To this she gives no answer.
NINE. Colors Like a Hummingbird’s Throat
After nine days I wake with a clearer mind, if not a steadier heart. I leave the place where our forms have left shapes in the sand, wand walk the way she always does in the mornings, sea on my left, lagoon on my right — toward the mangoes. Before an hour passes I find the place, thicker than I would have thought. But the trees are not as tall, and it is cooler here. I feel safe, sheltered. Relieved.
Among the roots, just where she said, I find the things she has gathered from the shallows. A pocketwatch, heavy and ornate. A rusted knife she has cleaned and smoothed, the layers of rust and salt and coral cleared away. Broken chain-links. And then, on the other side of the tree, weighted by three mangoes, I see the book.
I haven’t noticed its absence — not since I met her. It feels strange in my hand now. Its weight is the same, but it seems to pulse with something new, some possibility the sea had once washed away.
I almost open it, wondering if the words will speak to me now, but I wait. There will be time enough for that in days to come. But I must go on. It is more than clear to me now.
I take the three mangoes with me, and drink from the hollowed log where she keeps rainwater. Just beyond the trees I see the boat. I am surprised how well-made it is, and alarmed at how small. I place the book and the mangoes inside it and press on.
Too soon, I see the Mouth. My heart quakes and my arms feel weak, unsteady, filled with the same searing exhaustion as before, a lifetime ago it feels, when I met it from the other side. I have come full circle — to a dark and empty circle.
I step into the water and force myself to wade in. At least here in the lagoon I am safe from waves, from currents. The water is crystal for a while, deepening gradually. I am not even up to my knees yet.
And now, now I am here. I tremble at its edge, looking into its depth. If I drown I will sink into the pits of the earth, the entire water column crushing me. I taste the air, swallow the lead on my tongue, and plunge in.
I am terrified. My eyes close against the sun. Somehow I turn and float on my back, suspended over the very thing I fear most.
Whatever formed the Mouth, it is a part of this place. More a part of its story than I am, or even she is. A story that the Mouth, were it to speak, could not tell for all its long years, eons, all its settings and moods and textures, endless facets like the colors of a hummingbird’s throat.
I force myself to be here, here where I already am. Above the black, above the emptiness. And I let go. Time opens up and stretches forever, or exists in a single instant. I cannot tell. Then somehow the twinging in my chest begins to calm, and a long time after that, it ceases.