Galapagos Islands, 1814
Warm water rushed over me. I screamed, pushing myself off the ocean floor as I fought to breathe. I stood up in knee deep water before another wave washed over me. I pushed toward the shore, frantic to escape the water and lie on solid ground. The sand ahead was so white that I wondered if I was dreaming. I reached for the make-believe land, yelling as the swells belted me around and smacked onto the nearby rocks. I moved clumsily until my feet hit the hot sand.
I collapsed. The warm gale hit my wet clothes as I grasped handfuls of sand. I rolled around in it, laughing, crying, and basking in the heat. I stared up at the blue sky. The raging storm of last night seemed a lifetime away as I lay there in the calm warmth. My mind went blank as I rolled onto my side.
I awoke again several hours later with the sun still beating down on me. Groaning, I watched the gentle waves sweep along the shoreline. I gazed out further to the teal waters, in awe of such a surreal shade. I was stranded in a wonderland, while the war still raged on somewhere on the other side of the world.
I sat up as my mind sharpened. I needed to find something to drink before I died from the heat. Stars flecked my vision as a terrible thirst made my throat ache. There had to be water somewhere after the previous night’s heavy rainfall, yet the sand and nearby shrubs were dry as bones. I wandered the shoreline and stopped at the sight of a murky puddle. I dropped to my hands and knees and drank the water. It was warm, but my insides thanked me as I drank it. I stood again on shaking legs and wandered along the shore in hopes of catching a glimpse of Smyth. I hoped with all my being that my visions of him sinking to the bottom of the ocean were false.
As I stepped along the rocky terrain, there was no man or vessel in sight. I wondered if the storm also claimed the French’s frigate. I searched further along the shoreline, still hoping despite my fatigue. Even seeing a dead body floating ashore would have been some strange form of comfort. I needed reassurance that it was real, that I really was surrounded by good men willing to die for King and country. It all felt like a dream somehow as I wandered alone at the end of the world.
I threw my head back and stared up at the fluffy white clouds. Nature was giving peace in the wake of her violent storm. I wondered if God was on our side at all. Memories of the captain, the officers, and the sailors tainted my vision of the sky. I looked away, sat on a large rock, and watched the waves roll in.
“You did find your phantom ship, Captain,” I said softly.
The setting sun cast a beautiful orange glow on the horizon. I hugged my knees and stared out at the natural display from my perch. The rhythmic rise and fall of the sea reminded me of a sad lullaby as I sat there in the darkness. The air cooled as the moon took her place as queen of the sky. Smyth would have enjoyed such a view, but he would never see the sky again. Grief settled into my bones as I wandered inland in search of a place to sleep for the night. I did not want to think about the days ahead. It could be weeks or months before a frigate landed at the island, and there was no guarantee that it would be English.
I groaned in misery. Life could end so quickly with no regard for human dreams. I dawdled along the beach until I took notice of the palm trees. They swayed in the gentle breeze, appearing strange in the darkness. I missed the tall trees back home as I leaned against one. All the plants within view were stunted in some way. I sunk down to the sand, hugged my knees, and gave in to sleep.
My growling stomach awakened me the next day. I stretched with a groan and stared up at the coconuts in the tree above me. Phil told me how to eat a coconut once, when he was telling a story about his time in the Caribbean. They were round and brown, just as he described, but they were up so high. With a determined sigh, I wrapped my limbs around the trunk and pulled myself upward. I cringed as the rough bark scratched my skin, but as I reached up and grasped one, I moaned in relief. I wouldn’t starve to death, after all. Not yet.
I dropped it to the ground and grabbed another until I had a small collection on the ground below. I climbed back down then broke the coconuts on the rocks. The juice inside spilled out and I made a mental note to break them more carefully the next time, so I could drink it. I used a blunt-edged stone to carve out the coconut meat. It was delicious in just the way that Phil described. I saluted the sky.
“Thank you for the tip off, Phil.”
I scraped the coconuts clean with my makeshift knife and ate every morsel. I stared at the wall of bushes in the distance. The arid island was home to the strangest looking vegetation. I strode over to the dry forest of shrubs and gathered branches thick enough to be a spear. I was startled by a devious squawk that came from behind me. I spun around and stared down at what I thought was a seagull, but its webbed feet were the brightest shade of blue. I had to blink to make sure that I was seeing right. Its beak was blue, too.
It hollered at me again and flew away. Holding my sticks tightly, I ran after it. I hadn’t seen any living thing since arriving at the strange island; seeing it gave me an ounce of hope. I ached to see more signs of life, even if all that lived there was a flock of silly birds. The gull flew to another section of the shoreline. I wondered if other animals were catching fish along that shore. Dead bodies might have floated there as well. My stomach churned at the thought.
My legs picked up speed until I reached the other beach. Sure enough, there were more exotic gulls. I stopped to catch my breath and scanned the rocky beach. I wandered closer to a group of seals and found myself smiling. Their barks filled the air, mingling with the birds’ calls. I stopped when one of the smooth-headed animals waddled toward me. Its warm brown eyes did not seem dangerous, but I stepped back as it moved closer. Its demeanor reminded me very much of a street dog I used to feed scraps to back home.
A few others followed the approaching seal, barking along with it as they hobbled along. I ventured closer, cooing nonsense words to them. They seemed to like it. The closest one to me rolled over onto her back, showing me that she meant no harm. I crouched down to be on her level. She flipped back onto her belly and stuck her neck out. I laughed as the sea creature examined me.
“You’re adorable, you know that?”
The others approached and playfully nosed my legs, knocking me over in the process. I lay at their mercy, laughing hysterically as they tickled me with their wet snouts. I quickly rose to my feet and jogged away from them before they nuzzled me to death. They took pursuit, but when they realized that they wouldn’t be able to catch up to me, they returned to their original place on the shore. I climbed onto the rocks and watched them swim in the water below. While they moved awkwardly on land, they appeared quite lithe and elegant as they swam in their aquamarine medium. Bright orange and yellow fish darted about in the waters. It was a marvel to me. I seemed to be in some sort of waking dream.
“Well, Smyth, it looks like the sea creatures at the end of the world aren’t hungry for sailor meat, after all,” I said with a bittersweet smile.
Quick movement to my left made me jump. Small, red crabs scurried about on the rocks close by. I had found another food source. I leaned forward to get a closer look at them, but they hurried away. They would be a challenge to catch, but with some practice, I’d soon be eating fresh crabmeat. My stomach grumbled at the thought. Just beyond, a cluster of large lizards sunned on the rocks. A few of them casually turned their heads in my direction before diving into the sea along with the seals. I watched them in wonder as they, too, transformed into ethereal beings once they entered the water. They swam among the swaying plants and flamboyant fish below. An oddly-shaped speckled creature with light markings glided past a school of fish.
I ran a hand through my tousled hair, watching the striking creatures swim among each other. I then remembered that all I ate was coconut meat that day. I got to work making more spears, using a blunt-edged rock to sharpen the wood. I whittled the ends of the sticks to create a makeshift spear and journeyed away from the native predators so that I could fish without any competition. A soft groan sounded close by, startling me. I held my breath, scanning the area around me. It must have been my stomach. The groan sounded again. My pulse raced as I searched the rocks. I nearly fell over at what I saw lying on the shore.
“Smyth?” I cried.
A boy lay on his belly on the rocky shore below me. I took in his distinct blue, gold, and red jacket. Disappointment pierced my heart with an invisible knife. It wasn’t Smyth. It was a French man. He tried in vain to lift himself off the rocks. I imagined my hand encircling the hilt of a sword, but every weapon aboard the HMS Wind rested in some unknown place at the bottom of the ocean. I held my breath, unsure of what to do. We were a world away from the war; it made no sense to kill him. As he tried to lift himself off the rocks again, his movements mirrored those of a beggar.
He gave up on trying to stand and crawled toward the ocean. I followed him in a trance. His sobs sounded above the waves as he let them wash over him. He splashed water on his face. A larger wave smacked into him, knocking him down. He rolled onto his stomach, looking in my direction, but then I realized that he wasn’t looking at all. My heart nearly stopped as I took in the full sight of his injury. The top half of his face was so badly burned that his eyes were gone. I clutched my stomach. This was cruelty in full form.
“Qui est la?” he cried.
I considered killing him not for King and country, but for his own mercy. I blinked rapidly as I thought of the quickest ways that I could end his misery. He cried louder. All thoughts of killing him left me when I focused on his defeated posture. His head moved from side to side in desperation. He had survived war and a sea storm only to be greeted by pain and darkness.
I stepped closer to him.
“Hello?” he cried.
His panicked breathing sent a sharp pain through my chest. He knew that someone was there, wordlessly staring at him. He collapsed onto the wet sand and wept.
I stooped next to him.
“It’s all right,” I said gently.
He drew back at the sound of my English accent.
“I will not harm you. I promise.”
I rested a hand on his shoulder then wrapped an arm around his shaking body.
“I can’t see …” he said.
He buried his face in my chest and wept.
(Photo by stein egil liland from Pexels)
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