Pivotal Moments in Life Series, first story
When I walked in the bar I could see him over in a corner table. There were several saltshakers in front of him and he was trying to balance one. When I called his name, he glanced up at me with squinty eyes, his head turned one way. He was a stocky fellow. His beard was scraggly, and his skin was an odd reddish gray color.
I told him who had directed me to him and he let out a sigh.
“Get me a bottle of whiskey, and I’ll tell you a story.”
Relieved, I went to the bar, procured the bottle and two glasses and set them in front of him. He poured and took a big swig before beginning. His voice was higher and more precise than I had expected.
“It had been a rough couple of weeks at sea. We hit a bad storm that lasted three days. When it finally let up the ship was pretty beat up. We took our bearings and set off for the closest port where we could get decent repairs. We were at it a couple of days when another storm hit and this one was much worse. We were lucky to get through it alive and when we took our bearings, we spotted land. The island was uncharted, but we decided to check it out, as our fresh water reserves were low.
“I took three of my crew in the boat and we headed for shore. When we got close we spotted what looked like a person sitting on the sand. As we got closer, I could see it was a child. When we landed, I went right for the child. It was a lad. He was looking right at me but made no sign of seeing me. He was the skinniest boy I had ever set eyes on. I could count all his ribs. He was wearing a tattered pair of shorts but no shirt. His skin was caked with layers of sand. I could see patches of red and black where the sand was wearing off, and I realized he had been sunburned repeatedly. I noticed some large shells by him with water in them. Realizing he must have found fresh water, I barked an order to my crew to go find the inland stream.
“It was as if my words brought him around. He looked right into my eyes with an intensity I had never before experienced. I quickly looked away so he wouldn’t see the pity in my eyes.
“That’s a lie. It wasn’t pity I felt but fear. Believe me when I tell you that in my many adventures I have seen things that a man shouldn’t have to see, and remained fearless. But that day I was scared, and to this day I can’t tell you why.
“The boy caught my eye again and spoke. There was the slightest of smiles on his face. These were his exact words. I will never forget them because they were emblazoned into my heart and remain there today:
Captain, left to my own devices I would act girlie, be cheered by the sun, and build sand castles.
“I thought the boy must be delirious, but he spoke with such precision as if he had been practicing the lines for months, and perhaps he had. I glanced up and down the tide line and saw the remains of countless sand castles, as far as I could see.
“You’ll be asking me what became of the kid, so I’ll tell you what I know. He had been the only survivor of a shipwreck three months before we arrived at that island, and his parents and three aunties were killed. A nice family adopted him and his new dad was a fisherman. I stopped in to see him a couple times, but he didn’t have much to say to me, and I could tell that his new family didn’t want me around, as I reminded them of things they wanted to forget. You can’t blame them for that. I heard a story that he ran off to go to sea at sixteen, but I don’t believe it. I suspect he went inland and got away from all that salt and sea. That’s what I would have done, had I been him.
“So you want to know how this has changed my life? In lots of strange ways. I look at things different. I may be seeing a sunset or an ocean liner, and the colors are wrong, or the size. I can’t rightly explain it. But mostly it’s people. When they talk I listen carefully, as if what they say must have some hidden meaning. Usually when people talk they have nothing to say. I know that. But I find myself listening all the same. Has it helped me? A few times it has. I found that women like a man to listen, and I have got close to some lovers I’ve had. But mostly, I end up avoiding people. Once in a while I think I see that kid when I know it’s someone else. I dream about the boy a lot still. I see him wake to the rising sun and turn his face to it, smiling. The sun that almost killed him! And I see him building those cursed sand castles, designing new ones every day, knowing they will be destroyed when the tide comes in. And I see him smiling when it does. And I see him at night, when the stars come out. He dances around the beach, cavorting around like a girl.
“The thing is, I haven’t been able to get the boy out of my head. He was a survivor. He found water and a way to carry it. He found food, at least enough to stay alive. He caked his body in sand to protect it from the blazing sun. The boy was barely eight years old. How did he do it? What was his secret? I ask the question, but I know he already told me. I just can’t understand it. Was he telling me he was happy? He was all alone on that God-forsaken island. How could he be happy? How could he smile at the sun that burned him? How could he keep building those blasted sand castles day after day and watch them wash away? And what in the hell was that girlie thing all about?
“Can you give me any answers?”
I took a drink of the Scotch whiskey and sighed. He had drunk most of the bottle and I had only a short glass. I had no answers for Captain Billy, so I thanked him, stood up and walked out of that bar.