Palm Sands

Edited. Original image by Shannon Rankin

On the sixth dawn on the open sea, the survivor awoke to the soft crunch of his small boat running aground onto wet sand. He forced himself onto his knees; his balance followed long dead waves, and he looked eastward across the bow. He saw more water and the sun just atop the horizon, fat and red. To his north, a stretch of sand poking from the ocean, as wide as he was tall. To the south, the same. They both curved around in a giant atoll of rocky sand. The occasional high wave ran across the entire expanse.

He spoke to himself, the language was not English, but the sentiment was something universal. "God damn it," he might have said. "Of course I find land and it's this."

He got out of the boat, walking slowly at first, then re-adjusting to the land beneath him. The waterproof watch he wore told him the time, and the little digital display showed low tide. Given certain geographical variations, that wouldn't be accurate. But he hadn't been able to adjust for that lately, had he? He didn't even remember how. The instruction book was in his bunk, which was on a ship, which was on the bottom of the Indian ocean. It sat with the assorted trailer containers stuffed with electronics and clothing and canned food and furniture and books and pencils and stuffed animals and glasses and stacks upon stacks--at least 4 of the containers full of them for some reason--of giant white-boards. Not that he knew. Not that he cared.

And then there was him, the last of the crew. At the bottom of the little boat laid an empty bottle that used to have water and a bag from an MRE package that had been licked clean some time yesterday. He looked at the atoll. He swore again. Twice. He kicked the boat. It rocked gently.

He paced back and forth, thinking, looking at the ground. He found debris of various sorts that had floated out to sea, long ago disposed of by someone that would never even see the ocean. The only thing that might have been useful was a sheet of plastic about the size of a piece of paper. He could use it to capture rainwater, he thought, if it ever rained. But this was a ocean-bound desert and he knew it. Better to have it and not need it, he thought, and so he pocketed it.

He looked again at his watch and he thought about the tide. The tide would come in and take him and his boat away.

A starfish, blue and bright, appeared, carried onto the shore by a wave.

"Can I eat it?"

He thought about it; probably not. Who knows what it ate? Who knows if it was poisonous? He picked it up and looked at the bottom of the thing. It was orange on the bottom, covered in what looked like fat hairs; it writhed in an odd coordinated motion. He looked closer and then the starfish spit out its stomach. He dropped the alien thing, more startled than scared. He looked around--as if he were being watched--and then kicked the thing into the water. It was a good kick; he played football all his life.

He swore again.

The sun rose about two hand widths over the horizon.

This was the first land he had seen since the ship left harbor some months ago. Then the pirates boarded. A few minutes later, there was an explosion. Then another. Some white man he had never seen before appeared and killed the rest of the crew and the pirates. That man wore a uniform with an American flag; the flag of convenience that flew over the ship was Panamanian. The survivor was stuck away in the head, hiding, and so the American had missed him. That was unimportant to the survivor now. He didn't know how far he had drifted, but he was sure the soldier was already back home or wherever he came from.

The survivor's forehead was a bright red; even his dark complexion didn't protect him from the constant sun. He thought about turning the boat over and dozing in the shade. The survivor walked up and down the beach near his boat. He thought about the tide. It would wash him away before he even woke up.

How high was the tide? Could he use the sand to raise his ship up? Could he stay here on the stretch of land at least for a little while? It was his first taste of being safe in days, even with the occasional wave pushing across the entire atoll.

He looked through the boat for a container and found nothing but the water bottle, which is what he knew he'd find. He'd been in the boat long enough to been familiar with each of the boards. The lighter shaded one. The one with a pain smudge the shape of a duck. There was the one with the two knots that, when next to the other boards, it looked like a pretty woman's face, the knots being the eyes and the grains of another like brown hair, long and flowing.

Sitting in the sand, leaning on the boat, he surveyed his sole tool, his hands. They were red with sunburn, backs and palms, the nails cracked. The nail on the ring finger on his left hand was cracked all the way down to the quick. He didn't remember when that happened, but it only hurt if he put pressure on it which he did sometimes, just because.

There was nothing on the arc of sand. There was nothing and he knew it. He could walk around the atoll to be sure, but if a wave came while he was distant and swept his boat to sea then he wouldn't even have that.

The boat had no anchor. He had no anchor. He was unmoored from the world. Maybe a satellite could see him? If his suspicion was right, the ones that would see wanted the ship destroyed would look and so he was alone. They pledged their allegiance to something other than other men.

He sat and waited.

Out of boredom, he scooped some sand around his boat, but he knew some of the ocean. When the tide came, it would be inevitable. It wouldn't laugh at his efforts but sweep them away without noticing, like how he walked through the air.

His stomach gurgled. He wasn't so much hungry as empty.

He idly continued putting sand around the boat, to entrench it. In his mind he had an image of his small boat atop a mound of sand, withstanding the tides and letting him see at least this small piece of land again.

The sun was up more than four widths of his hand. He didn't know why he checked it that way, he had the watch. The tide had already started returning. It was different than he thought when he first saw tides. The first time he saw the ocean was three years ago, leaving home, leaving like all the others had before him, even though his mother (was it his mother, or just another old woman?) begged him to stay. He imagined them coming in like a wave, but it was more like a swell coming up from below.

The man continued to put sand in place, even though he knew the inevitable was coming. He looked at the shade of his boat's side, but the thin sliver of shade was eroding away as the sun climbed toward noon. The moon also climbed into the sky.

He still pushed more sand toward his boat; there was no reason. In hours there would be no evidence of his presence here. His work would be erased. That was how everything was. He remembered reading a story in high school about the sea and an old man who caught a fish and the fish fought and fought and then was caught. Then the sharks (was it sharks? He couldn't recall) ate the fish as the old man tried to bring it back home. Of course that was decades ago. The point was lost on the survivor until much later; he thought that sometimes literature like that was wasted on the young. Older men, even those without salt and pepper hair and 32 years old, needed such things sometimes. Even the most stoic might be comforted by the stories of good men.

The survivor thought about anchors. And fish. His stomach growled

His grandfather had been in the Navy. He had been one of the millions of men that fought in what most people said was a good war. He had gotten a crude tattoo of an anchor with his friends when he was in the navy; the survivor remembered when he had first seen it, touched it, traced the lines of it. It was already not as clear as it had been the day after the ink found its home under the then-young man's skin. The text on the ribbon that surrounded it was illegible and the grandfather had to read it to the young survivor, more from memory than literacy. He remembered burying the veteran, the tattoo a vague blob on his forearm, while a few of his old and disabled comrades watched the coffin get lowered into the ground.

He thought about the anchor. A long lost cousin named Jesus had said Christ should be his anchor. Another long dead cousin named Muhammad had said the same about Allah and his prophet. The more he thought, the more he knew there was no anchor. His friends dispersed like ocean-bound cremation ashes; his immediate family all died in a bizarre environmental disaster (so that wasn't his mother, just some crazy woman). There was no-one. That was part of why he took the job on the freighter: to be gone. Everyone leaves, his parents, friends, everyone. But sometimes that everyone is you.

Without thinking, he punched the boat, splitting open a knuckle. He punched it again and again and again, each time splitting the skin a little more, leaving small blood marks on the wood.

He swore again.

Knuckles bleeding, he bent his fingers; he fancied that he could see the bone, but he was wrong, of course. He wouldn't be able to bend them if he had broken anything. While the blood dripped onto the sand, waves started lapping at the survivor's legs. They were higher now. His blood dripped into the ocean and the waves pulled it out. The rising water startled him and he stood too fast, making himself light-headed, he stumbled back and fell into the shallow surf. Crawling, then, hand before hand, knee before knee, he dragged himself next to the boat. Sand worked into the new wound. A few grains of the stuff wriggled into the gap of his broken nail.

The palms of his hands were the color of the sand on the beach. When he was young, the kids would make fun of him at school, calling him weak skinned, his pale hands unmarked by work that the kids avoided at all costs. That stopped after he punched one of the bullies in the nose, breaking it. His knuckle split that time, too. There was a scar, if he looked close enough.

He started putting sand around his tiny boat without thinking. The sand didn't do much; it fell back into the holes he had taken it from. The waves washed all the way across the little atoll, wiping his work from existence. He ignored it and kept digging.

The tide came slowly; the mass of the event escaped him. It would be like watching the moon crash into the earth from space. The water simply came up from underneath until the waves started moving his boat. He kept digging. The pile of sand grew, but not much. A strong wave pushed the boat the length of his forearm and swept over his work making it into smoothness. He half-climbed/half-fell into the boat, laid down, and wept.

A few minutes later, he was floating in the ocean again, the high yellow sun passing within a few degrees of the sliver of a moon in the architecture of the sky. As the small boat floated in what seemed a vast ocean, the sun powered everything in the world, and the full body of the moon hung aloft, faintly aglow with earthshine.