The fog that lingered on the highlands lifted the next afternoon, revealing the mountain tops in their full glory. I refrained from voicing their beauty to Dash, opting to drink in their sight silently.
“I wonder if those mountains are actually volcanoes,” I said.
“We could find out. Maybe God will finish the job and burn the rest of me.”
The hint of a smirk brought his stone face to life for a second. Shaking my head, I refused to acknowledge the dire statement.
“You’re not one for sarcasm, are you?” he asked.
“I don’t see the point. Well, it will be quite a hike to the top of that mountain,” I said, changing the subject in annoyance.”
“You don’t have anywhere else that you need to be, do you?” he asked dryly.
I stared at the summit of the tallest rise.
“Do you think we’d be the first people to climb it?” I asked.
“I doubt the whalers and pirates who used this island for supplies ever bothered to dabble in mountaineering.”
I laughed, but he remained serious. “We’ll take a bunch of coconuts to stay hydrated for the trip. Maybe we will find a hidden freshwater lake up there.”
“One can dream.”
We gathered our supplies in the sack that we crafted from dried vines. I went to take it from him, but he pulled it away.
“I’m stronger than you, sea rat. I felt how spindly you are when I nearly killed you.”
“How thoughtful,” I muttered.
He chuckled. He only found humour when it was at my expense.
As we started up the rise, I felt a new wave of invigoration. We walked for nearly two hours before coming to a steady incline. The world appeared smaller as we continued to climb. I cast a gaze upon the shining sea, admiring how the light blue shoreline blended gradually into the deeper waters of the ocean.
“Is the view beautiful?” he asked behind me. “It must be. You’ve stopped for a good twenty seconds now.”
“Yes,” I breathed. “The sea looks majestic from up here. There are also other smaller islands close by. I’m looking at them now. A painter ought to capture this.”
“I am trying to picture it.”
“I really wish you could see it, Dash.”
He cleared his throat. “Well now, aren’t we regular mountain explorers?”
The solemn tone of his voice crushed my momentary euphoria. I looked back to the path ahead.
“Let’s keep going,” I muttered.
As we rose in altitude, the air grew hotter. My heart pounded against my ribcage as sweat drenched my clothes.
“This must be a volcano!” I exclaimed.
I looked back at Dash. He took off his shirt and wrapped it around his head. His lean, tanned torso glistened with sweat.
“What are you looking at?” he asked.
“I just had to stop to catch my breath. We’re nearly at the top.”
Rolling my eyes, I turned my back on him and kept going until we reached the summit. I made my way up to the volcano’s edge and gaped at the wide crater. It was a magnificent view, yet my enjoyment of it was hindered.
“Well, do you see lava?” asked Dash. “It’s hot as hell up here. Do you think it might erupt on us?”
“You need to drink more coconut milk. You’re sweating buckets.”
He brushed me away. “In a moment. Tell me what you see!”
“It’s a huge crater. The lava must be flowing underground somewhere. It is shaped like a huge shield. I can’t imagine that there’s anything else like this in the world.”
“Lucky you to see such a sight.”
“Could you try to imagine it?”
“I see things, but I can’t imagine them on my own. Not since the blindness.”
I frowned. “What do you mean? What do you see?”
“I see things every day, sea rat. They come to me without notice to interrupt the darkness. They prevent me from imagining things on my own.”
“Do you see good things?”
“Are you seeing these images now?”
Despite the hot air, a chill rushed down my spine.
“You ought to focus on the view. You are luckier now than many men ever will be.”
We stood in silence at the volcano’s edge. I stared out at the large crater, while he stared at his illusions. I would have given anything for him to see what the inside of the volcano looked like. I longed to know what it was he could see, but I dared not ask him again.
It was then that I saw it – the tall ship gliding on the swift currents. A waving blue, white, and red flag announced its nationality.
“Oh my God.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a French ship.”
“God help me,” said Dash.
“You can go home once they land. You are free.”
He shook his head, pulling me away from the edge.
“Get down. Don’t let them see you,” he hissed.
“I don’t understand!”
He gripped the collar of my shirt, pulling me close to him. “I’m a criminal, Max.”
He let go of me and turned away. Angry scars marred the olive skin on his back.
He hung his head.
“I stole food from the ship’s storage when our rations were reduced. They caught me in the act. Even my good name couldn’t save me from the lashings.”
He faced me again. “It doesn’t hurt. Not anymore.”
I threw my arms in the air. “How did you survive that storm?”
“They locked me up after giving me twelve lashes. One of the sailors was kind enough to let me out before the ship sank in the storm.”
He laughed hollowly. “The devil must be on my side.”
He shook his head and started back the way we came. I followed him, watching as his feet neared the edge of the crater, but he maintained both his balance and his determined pace. Once we were at sea level, we made our way into a forest of short, gnarly trees. We stopped once we were in the thick of the forest.
We faced one another, panting.
“Being blinded is punishment enough. There is no going back now. I will die here.”
“No, Dash. Let’s think this through.”
I had no words of comfort to give him, but there had to be a solution.
“Let’s just focus on dodging them for now,” I said. “They shouldn’t be here for long. I doubt they saw us, and if they did, it’s unlikely they’d search for us out here.”
“You’re probably right.”
We both leaned against a tree as hunger ate away at my stomach.
“I hear your stomach growling, but we won’t starve overnight.”
“Maybe not, but we will if they stay here too long and take all of our food.”
“We’ll find another food source. Get some sleep.”
He nodded off, leaving me alone with my hunger and maddening thoughts. With the French occupying the shoreline, we would not have access to fish, crabs, or coconuts for several days. I was sure that we would find food in the forest, but God only knew how long it might take.
The next morning, I awoke before Dash. I rose and searched for fruit bearing plants. My dry throat reminded me that time was not on my side. We slept in so late that the dew already evaporated. I longed for rain to arrive and bring life to the arid air. A flash of orange teased my peripheral vision. I ventured closer, realizing in amazement that they were tomatoes. I leaped in the air with an uncontrollable cry of joy, startling several birds into flight. I gathered as many of the small fruits as I could and carried them back to Dash.
As I approached him, he awoke with a moan and stretched.
“Where were you?” he asked groggily.
“I found breakfast.”
He sat up straight.
“Tomatoes, of all things.”
“Wonders never cease.”
We bit into the fruit and sucked the juice out. Then we fell back asleep, waking late in the afternoon with parched throats.
“It’s just as well we do nothing until they’re gone,” said Dash.
“What about when a British ship arrives?”
“I don’t know.”
“What if there is no record of your crime now that your ship has sunk? Your reputation and rank would guarantee your safe transport to France.”
He shrugged. “I already told you that I cannot go home like this.”
I sat up. “You are a brave officer who risked life and limb for your country. Anyone worth their salt would see that you are a war hero.”
“My resolve broke the moment that I felt a pang of hunger. I’m no hero.”
“I wish you could see who I see when I look at you.”
He leaned forward. “And who do you see?”
I stuttered. I had so many feelings on the matter, but I could not piece them into words for the life of me. I felt my face become beat red. He leaned back against his post with a smirk.
“So, you have nothing to say.”
He stood and walked away.
“Where are you going?” I called.
I followed him at a distance. I felt ridiculous thinking that our plight was some sort of an adventure. I could hear it in his voice. He wanted to die. I found him leaning against another oddly shaped tree, breathing rapidly.
“I want to help you,” I said.
He cursed under his breath. “We will be enemies once we leave this island and your childish optimism only makes me want to die more!”
His biting words made me take a step backward.
“At least you’ve finally told me how you really feel.”
“Was it not already obvious?”
I balled my fists to quench my rising anger. “I still don’t want you to give up on your life.”
He turned his back on me. “You sentimental fool.”
“Maybe I am, but you ought to be grateful for the privilege that was denied to so many who served with you!”
“Do you want me to gouge your eyes out?” he snarled.
He quickly turned around, grabbing at the air, reaching for me. I turned to retreat, but he caught hold of my shirt and pulled me backward.
“No!” I cried.
He grasped me by the arms and tossed me into a tree like I was nothing more than a potato sack. The hard impact knocked the wind out of my lungs. I cowered on the ground as he stood over me. I tried to breathe while bracing myself against another attack.
“Get away from me before I kill you.”
“Wh-why?” I wheezed.
I crawled away, groaning as my lungs burned. I took in a full gasp of air; he kicked me hard in the ribs. My face hit the dirt hard. I pushed myself off the ground with a groan and ran.
“Run!” he shouted. “I’ll kill you!”
I sprinted through the maze of trees with a murderous blind man on my heels. I only stopped when I stumbled over rocks in the darkness. I barely noticed the lighting and my surroundings change, literally running blind. Soaked in sweat, I bent over and caught my breath. My muscles protested from overexertion.
I collapsed, submitting to the comfort of sleep. I awoke to terrible thirst and pounding temples. I forced myself to get up, and shielded the sun from my eyes with my hands. I scanned the bleak landscape. There was no sign of trees in the near distance. All I could see around me was rock. In my haste to get away from him, I had gone in the most idiotic direction. I closed my eyes and shook my head. I might as well have allowed him to kill me. Panic flooded through my veins as reality set in. I was going to die on the island. Alone.
I stepped frantically for the coast, pumping my weakened legs and arms. Conserving my energy was no longer a concern. All I needed to do was get to the edge of the island and use what remained of my will to jump into the refreshing waves. To drown in the sea’s cool waters seemed like a wonderful dream as the hot sun burned my skin and drew all the sweat out of my body. As I fought to keep going, my mind raced at a frantic pace. I entertained every idea that I was too afraid to think about before. It no longer mattered, for I would soon join the dead.
The ache in my chest as I pressed on was agonizing, but I was too weak to cry. My vision blurred as my thoughts suddenly slowed down. Soon, they escaped me entirely, retreating into the darkest corners of my mind. My only want was the sea. When my weakening eyes gazed upon the bright blue water at last, a wail escaped from the pit of my stomach. My stiff steps brought me closer to the water’s edge.
My bare feet burned as I stepped onto the hot sand. I fell into the gentle waves, sighing at the irony of being surrounded by an ocean of water that I could never drink. I closed my eyes as the cool water soothed my overheated skin. I took a final breath of hot air and sank below the surface. My body went limp as I drifted away from land. I thought of Mama and my heart lurched. I would never get to say good-bye to her.
My lungs burned as I reached out to touch the colourful fish that swam all around me. My lungs begged for a gasp of air, threatening to burst. I could no longer hold my breath. Weak, I breathed in the cold water and surrendered to the ocean. My salty tears mingled with the sea as I drowned. I screamed and kicked in pain, begging God for a quick death’s mercy. Tiny, white lights interrupted the darkness. Something firm grasped me by the ankle and pulled me backward.