Among the Lonely Rocks
It's midnight and she's wading into the surf, carrying splinters in her hands. The tide foams and pounds, spitting up dirty mouthfuls of sand on the rocks around her, grinding them from jagged to smooth. In the surf floats broken bits of wood and cloth and...oh, yes, bone.
Her feet are pale and thin, covered in tiny cuts, and they pick their way effortlessly through the salt. Although it's covered over in driving waves, rising as high as her hips now, she knows this path by heart.
Out on the edge of the shelf, where the sunken rock drops away in a precipitous slant, she finds the mast. It's wooden. Oak. Not her first choice in ship-building timbers, but then no one consults her anyway. Clinging to the mast is a man.
He's white. Not in the classic sense. His skin is burnished and smooth, a testament to time spent in the sun. But beneath that he is blanched, looking for all the world like some scuttling denizen from the depths washed up on shore. Perhaps this has something to do with how freely he's been bleeding.
Little trails of copper—crimson threads—mix with the abuse of the waves. The man has a long, lateral gash across his chest. A piece of broken spar protruding from the meat of one leg. Two purpling welts on the side of his head, visible only when the waters pull back and his matted hair slips away from his brow. And then there are the scrapes and abrasions. They describe his body in a tapestry of disorganized hurt.
She comes closer, feeling with her toes for the seaweed slicked edge of the slope. It falls away abruptly, and the ocean nearly sucks her in. Floundering back into chest-deep waters, she grabs a for hold on the mast and hangs there, breathing slowly.
The man is almost certainly unconscious, but she imagines him making noises. Whimpers, insensate groans, all but drowned out by the fury of the sea. His arms are clamped like vices around the wrong end of the mast. The one that isn't resting on stone. The one that's dangling out over the deep. She imagines something long and finned coming up to snatch him, but the biggest of fish don't seem to like these storms.
Holding her breath now, she swims out. Dainty feet kick a thunderous wake, and she rockets through empty space. Her hands slip between his, forcefully de-interlacing them. She nearly has to break his fingers in the process. His shoulders keep bumping up against hers, cold and clammy but no less frustrating, until she manages to hook an arm under his and pull him to the shallow side of the slope.
After that, dragging him ashore is easy. She's halfway back up the beach by the time the ocean gives a juddering roar and the mast is gone, slurped away by the storm.
Truth be told, she enjoys shipwrecks. She always has. They give her something to do.
She's sitting on her cot, picking splinters out of her hands, when the man awakes. He does this in stages: first flicking too-long lashes, then rubbing his eyes in confusion, and finally rolling over into his pillow with an aggrieved sniff. The world is not to his liking.
She tugs the last of the splinters out of her palm—lets it drop into the little bloody pile the others have made on the floor. "It's all quite real, you know."
The man groans and buries himself deeper. His pillow is linen, salvage from another wreck, and it brushes rough on his face. "Not if I go back to sleep."
She studies his back. There are scars there. Complex traceries of tissue that has never quite remembered the way it was. They lie smooth over skin and muscle. "I saved your life last night. Thought you should know."
"Did you?" He rolls sideways, turning his face to her. "I can't remember a thing."
If there was a single word to describe his features, it would be this: Homeric. The two fading lumps on his brow barely detract from it. "You'll have to take my word for it, then."
He chuckles. "Blindly trust a beautiful lady? That seems like sage advice."
"I wouldn't tell you otherwise."
"How did it happen, then?" He pauses for a moment, "and why do I smell like high tide?"
She sniffs. It's true. He does. "You hit a reef off the coast. There was a storm. That might have caused it. You were half drowned when I pulled you in."
"Maybe three quarters." A smile creeps across her face, like some kind of exotic animal. The man grins. It startles and bolts.
"It's funny, you know? I should be heart-broken. There must have been other people on board. Friends of mine. But I can't remember them. They might as well be ghosts for as much as it bothers me." He levers himself up, rusty springs creaking beneath his weight. "So, where am I?"
"I can see that. But where's home? Corfu? Crete?"
She shrugs. "It's the only home I've ever known."
He flops back down in exasperation. The bed squeals alarmingly. "Is it near any towns?"
"Plenty." She waves a hand out an empty window. "Water. Gulls. Rocks. You've heard that every man is an island, yes? Right now, you're standing on mine."
Outside, water laps lonely on the shore.
She goes fishing. It helps to settle her mind a little, and besides, she has a special gift for it.
She hunkers down in the packed sand, foam itching between her toes, and watches a fat bream wriggle its way onto the beach. It lies there, gasping, until she walks over and brains it with a rock.
Her feet are bleeding again, and standing in the surf should sting. It doesn't. She's had practice, and pain sloughs off her like water off the hide of a seal.
Minutes pass. She shifts from foot to foot, letting the ocean continuously rebury her toes. Finally, an octopus drags its body out of the breakers, fighting inch by agonizing inch to drape its coils on the dry sand. It's an adult, wearing mottled beige on its skin, and there's plenty of meat on it for two.
She kills it efficiently, slings it over one shoulder, and starts up the beach. Two more fish writhe their way out of the surf and gasp to death at her retreating back.
When she returns, the castaway is standing by her window and eying the coast. He's tall. So tall that his head nearly scrapes the roof of the cottage and he has to bend slightly to peer out.
"Welcome back." He's heard the door swing open, probably. He doesn't turn.
If she were feeling particularly matronly, the logical thing to do would be to chastise him for getting up so soon. The color hasn't quite returned to his face, and the poultice on his left leg is peeling off, listing drunkenly into the air. But instead she sets the octopus on a table and starts chopping. "I brought food."
She makes short work of her catch, scooping the offal into a hasty double-handful and shouldering past the man to throw it out the window. The cottage sits on the edge of a cliff. She hears hollow plunking sounds from the water below. Shadowy shapes rise to the distant surface, feasting on the discarded flesh.
The rest of the mollusk goes into a little iron pot, and she begins work on the fish. It mechanically separates into strips.
The man keeps his back to her. "What's your name?"
"Lorelei." It's untrue, but it's as good a fiction as any. "Move please." He steps out of the way while she disposes of the fish guts. There's a little bowl of water in one corner, and she plunges her hands in it to rinse off the slime. "Do you cook?"
"That's a good question. I suppose there's only one way to find out."
It turns out he doesn't. He burns the stew. Bits of caked grit find new places to adhere to the inside of the pot, and to his spoon when he tries to scoop them out. Lorelei eats with a folded leaf, lifting from the broth chunks of char-touched fish. He gets the spoon, and looks slightly guilty using it.
"I'm guessing you don't get visitors much."
Lorelei seems to consider this before she responds "hardly not never."
"And that means?"
"No, I don't get visitors much." Foundering galleons flash before her eyes. Little dinghys shredded by reefs. Rowboats mashed on walls of stone, and men flailing in the storm.
"Were you born here?"
"So there used to be a town, or a port, or something?"
"Your parents were stranded?" She doesn't respond. Eventually he gets the picture. "Let's talk about me, then. Ask me something, I'll see if I can answer."
That smile comes back, for the breadth of a second, before it retreats into the corners of her mouth. "Okay. Where do you think you're from?"
"That was fast."
"It's got nice mountains. Everyone who's anyone wants to be from Thessaly."
Lorelei's lips purse. "And where were you going?"
"How about Colchis?" Setting aside his spoon on the table, he props his head on his hands. "But why was I going there, do you think?"
"I can't possibly imagine."
She remembers armored bodies thrashing in the waves, bobbing up and down in the swells like corks. "You were a merchant, with a cargo of olives."
He raises his head again, looks down at his fingers. They are thick with callouses at the tips. "Could well be."
After eating, he asks to see the rest of the island. She tells him no, not a chance, and besides: it isn't much. You can circle it in half a day. But for the one beach, its edges are all cliffs, and the center is a barren tropical grove. There used to be foundering, stupid tumbly birds in it, but she's long since eaten them all.
Still, he insists. He wants to see it. She tells him there will be plenty of time for that later.
It takes coaxing, cajoling, and threats to light the cottage on fire to get him back onto the bed. Lorelei wonders who he used to be. His wounds are closing fast, and he pays them little mind.
"I think I need a name," he tells her, horizontally. "It's surprising how hard it is to even picture yourself without one."
"Medea," she answers on automatic.
"That's a girl's name."
"Is it? I didn't know."
He folds his arms across his chest. "I suppose it's better than nothing, but we're changing it before I get back to civilization.
She shakes, as if a knife's been drawn through her.
"Did I say something wrong"
"No. Nothing at all."
She sings him to sleep that night. It's a service she's performed before, and her clients have been diverse. Kings and scholars, sailors and thieves. After a while, the lines between them start to blur together, and soon enough they're just another body in a bed. Like this one. Like her Medea.
He tosses fitfully, struggling with his sheets. They're sweat-soaked and clinging. She sighs. Trauma is all too often her house-guest.
Able hands peel the covers off him, fold them over the back of a chair, and leave them to dry in the night. After this, he quiets and she hums her way through another lullaby, just to be safe. His gyrations subside. He stops tearing at the pillow. She places a hand on his neck, takes his pulse, then walks outside into the moonlight. It gleams faintly on the shuffling shells of lobsters and crabs.
There are hundreds of them gathered on the walkway outside her cottage. They look confused, lost, swiveling to face her with their stalks.
"Now, that's just a waste. Come with me." She leads them back to the ocean. They march down the beach in rows, merging seamlessly with the tide.
When she returns, her feet are bleeding.