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The International Writers Magazine
:Dreamscapes Fiction

Islander
Clare
Sager

I stood alone upon the shore.
Wind whipped my hair, lifted it away from my reddened face. Foam rose against the pale sand, pushing and pulling it into unknowable shapes.

The mouldering fresh scent of the sea reached me: a strangely ambivalent smell. Above, the glowering clouds were drawing back, retreating across the horizon to trouble others, leaving a blue-grey spring sky as my companion.
I stood with my dress fluttering as a flag, claiming this place as my own, in the name of I. I was the first one here, the only one here.
Now, it is mine.

Objects came up on shore, but no people. No other people: there was no sign of you back then. I was alone, so I don’t know where the others came from, but I busied myself with surviving.

I slept in a tree – strangely comforting – and explored. But that wasn’t all in the first day. No, first I searched around me on that lonely sand. Beachcombing, I found blankets (one of which I remember clutching to myself as the ship sank), a round of waxed cheese, an empty water canteen, and a sealed, tarred box. The sand was strewn with tatters of the sails that had charged me across the sea before the rolling waves broke our course.
That first day, I explored my lands. I could not stay on the beach, exposed and alone. What if another storm came? No, better to find shelter, head inland.

Beyond the wide beach that swept in a long crescent, I came to dunes with sharp-whipping grasses. My feet sank into the soft, powdery sand, making each step a battle. Pulling myself up steep hillocks with the greyish grass, left my hands raw and my legs burning. The blanket made me too hot and awkward. Green marshes followed the sands, willow trees loomed as mourning hags, gnarled by the sea winds. The fenland grew firmer rising gently up to a crest where trees stood tall, sheltered by the dunes, the hunch-backed willows and rocky headlands on either side. The forest would give me asylum, let me rest out of the breeze in relative dryness.
This place was a mystery then, not yet my domain as it is now. Or should I say our domain, for now you are here, too.

When I reached the woods, it felt darker than any I had walked in before. Here, there were no amiable pathways, well-trodden by hunters, groups of ladies, picnic parties. The trees seemed to rise in a sudden wall. Leaves spreading from buds dappled the sunlight; trunks loomed slate grey in the gloom.
I dared not venture deeply into this unknown territory: at least on the borderlands I could still see the marsh and dunes and daylight crept through the whispering leaves. As the afternoon wore on, I felt hunger gnaw at my belly, but had nothing to sate it. So, as darkness spread its hand over my lands, I hunkered down with my slightly damp blanket and an empty stomach.

Fearful sounds kept me restless, hissing at me how exposed and vulnerable I was, how very unsafe. They prodded me with small fingers and watched with bright eyes. Their wrinkled ears waggled in time with their mocking dance. I fled upwards, pulling myself up, hand over raw hand and foot over weary foot. I found myself in a central bole of five branches and it was into this oak hollow, surprisingly dry and stable, that I curled. Above the night time rustling and dark cries, I let weariness conquer me and draw me down into the deepest of dreamless sleeps. The next day a chunk of mast washed up on shore, from a distance looking like one of those beached sea-serpents they say they find in exotic lands. A sack was caught on a large splintered break where once a sail had been fixed, and within that I found a traveller’s kit with cooking implements, two long knives wrapped in leather, cutlery and an enamel mug and bowl. The knives helped me open the sealed box I had found the previous day. The waterproof container held a fire-lighting kit – flint, steel and char-cloth.

Long before you came, I explored and foraged. I found a clear stream running out of the woods and drank deeply and thankfully out of my cupped hands, ignoring the ragged reflection that copied me. On warm days I bathed and washed away forest dirt and a crust of salt. I learned what was good to eat and what was not. In a wrecked box, I uncovered wire and formed a rude snare, for, up on the headlands, I saw the round pellets of rabbit droppings and I knew the forest must be home to some creature I could eat.
Over time, I learned my land. I found that walking in the depressions between the dunes made the going easier, if slowed by the indirect route, and stepping through the grass was also firmer, though each stride lashed my shins even through thick socks. Once I understood how to move silently through the trees, I discovered deer in the forest, their eyes bright and legs slender.

Wandering further, I claimed my island, piece by piece. The lengths of the beach opened up a supply of driftwood and more wreckage. Beyond the headlands, I found a rocky landscape the same colour and desolation as the moon above.
Here I found rock pools of tasty crab, tough limpets and slate-blue mussels. The ground was uneven, rough and slippery in places where seaweed lay.
"Eliza," came his voice.
I span around with a gasp. "Father?" There he stood, right before me, his arms open. He looked ragged, but then, so did I. Who would not look tattered after being shipwrecked? I fell into his arms, crying as he held me. "I thought I was alone!"
"You are never alone, child." He stroked my hair. "You must remember that this place will never let you be alone."
I laughed and kissed him on the cheek, his bristles felt rough on my face. There was still a tie around his neck – perhaps he was not so ragged after all.
My father gently untangled himself from my arms, and looked down at me. "I must go now," he said in his usual firm voice.
"But why? Where?" He couldn’t leave me: he just said I would never be alone. "Please, father, do not forsake me!"
A smile broke upon his usually stern features. "I must go to work, you know that Eliza." With a pat on my head, he turned away. "I will return later."
To his receding figure, I called, "Remember dinner at eight o’clock. Please, don’t be late again!"

Before he disappeared into the distance, he waved. He never did come back from work. Just like mother never came back from her visit to Bath. The horses. The carriage. No one saw the ditch and they say the horses spooked, bolted. Everything twisted, flew out of control and into the stream. It all broke up into so many pieces that they say she died in an instant.
But I know you won’t leave me.
No one will leave me now.
This is my place and they cannot change that. From the mulch of the forest in its homely gloom to the pale sands of the shore when the sea is low, it is mine. All through the rising spring and this dying summer, I have lived here, sometimes alone, sometimes not, but always here.

One long day, I was trekking the edge of the forest. The winds were weak, I remember, because it was warm and I took my long socks off, washed them and left them drying on a smooth rock. The green smell of the trees mingled with the tangy salt coming in off the sea and the damp earth of the marshes. I breathed deeply, imagining myself a part of the place, all of it at once and not quite any of those things that made it up. As I walked, something broke me from my reverie. Something too shiny to be natural, too regular in shape to be here, registered in my mind.

I blinked my eyes into focus. Something mostly black against the deep sap of the forest swam into clarity. Brass and ivory accompanied the jet veneer. Straight lines and graceful curves made up the thing in a sensuous object that begged to be touched. The glossy finish was flawless, unscratched, mirror-like and glinting in the leafy gloom. Brass pedals sat on the ground, almost rounded pebbles, but just a little too even, too ordered. The lid sat open, waiting patiently for me to play upon the exposed black and white keys.

I took my place, so familiar and yet in a different space, trees before me, marshes behind, shifting dunes beyond and finally the unceasing sea. The sea, bright as my baby grand, shimmering in this summer light like notes hanging, ready to fall as I push them, the depths resonant and heavy, primal as a major chord.
I need to get away from this place. The mackerel sky was flooded with clear jewel colours. Topaz and amethyst blended above pale ruby and a swell of sapphire slowly drew overhead – the incoming tide of day.

I sat, a speck upon the shore, sand between my toes and my fingers buried in striped shells. The spirals that curved out like ears and the rounded loaves that beneath revealed a chamber. Some had broken apart, already on their way to becoming grit and sand; others were separated from their partners – a single shell where two should be.

My gaze was torn between twin spectacles of sky and shore when I noticed a disturbance in the pattern of the waves. Several yards away from the beach, the swell seemed to be catching on something underwater. Moments later, something broke the surface, something dark. The thing seemed to be rising fairly rapidly: now a rounded shape could be seen. Now it curved out to the sides – a brim – a hat?
Beneath the tricorne hat – for that’s what I realised it was – emerged something else: a face, as one might expect to find beneath a hat. In fact, a face I recognised as it came closer. The unkempt figure of a sailor: the first mate of a ship I felt I should remember.

Now, he stepped out of the water and before me stood a hollow-cheeked man, sallow and wind-carved. His clothes were jagged, a hotchpotch of styles and fabrics, all dark. His steel-coloured eyes fixed mine as not a single drop of water trickled from his garments. His skin was dry as the ancient papery flesh of an embalmed corpse of the Egyptians.

I sat, caught in an eternity of amber. Staring, rigid, frozen in the morning light. A late summer’s afternoon, I sat in a tree, eating its apples on my island, my Avalon, experimenting with different ways of looping a snare. The sky was that intense blue of the clearest of days and the air felt lazy and full: a satiated cat flicking its ear. Back on the beach I had left fish smoking over a low fire, and the scent wafted even here with a soft aftertaste of earth. The apples were green and crisp, the sharp juice dribbling down my chin. I relished the flesh cracking as I bit into it.
Even as I savoured the fruit, I noticed the forest felt peculiarly quiet. A hush descended, as if every pair of eyes were watching something with great curiosity.

With a cracking sound of wings flapping against leaves, two wood pigeons shot out of the canopy with cries of alarm. Their erstwhile roost was not far from my own perch, and I darted to my feet, crouching on a sturdy branch. Once the irritated calls faded into the distance, I could trace another sound: a moving in the woods. Something unfamiliar. Ground-travelling. Walking. There was no attempt at stealth, no sneaking. Something large. It did not know the paths that are there in any forest if you look carefully enough. Clumsy.
Two legs.
Into the shade to my right stepped a man. He stood tall and broad-shouldered, with a graceful, agile build. His hair was the colour of walnut shells, curled around angular features and a mouth a little on the large side. Eyes the colour of amber searched from side to side as he spoke softly to himself.
"The smoke was this way… Must have been…" He strode onward, those clear eyes peering ahead.
I watched him almost disappear, his back ebbing away, then dropped from my tree.
In silence, I followed.
His course was true – straight toward the column of smoke rising from my beach fire – and his movement swift. I hid in the undergrowth, my land swallowing any sign of my pursuit. This one had my curiosity, I confess. He was not like the others.
"… someone here … " occasional words drifted to me as I maintained a parallel path to his, "… sure they all died… rescue…"

There was an eagerness to him. His eyes lit with hope, such positivity. Keeping pace, I watched him, the exhilaration in his expression bright within the dappled shade – infectious. From his words, he seemed excited. He had come for them, for the survivors.
Come to take them away from me. From my island.
But something drew me to him. As he reached rough terrain, I overtook and intercepted his course, then stopped, waiting for him in my pallor.
I saw the momentary widening of his eyes as he rounded the corner and spotted me. He paused, mid-stride, one foot hanging in mid air. With a deep breath he took a step closer.
"Good – good afternoon, Miss." He looked hesitant, as if he found the concept of him saying "Good afternoon" as bizarre and amusing as I did. "Is that your fire?" He gestured behind me to the smoke spiralling upwards into nothing.
I nodded slowly, thinking it a mundane question given the circumstances and how I probably appeared to him in a jumble of found clothes united only by the theme of rags.
"Were you – how did you get here?" His voice, like his eyes, was gentle as he took hesitant steps toward me. "Are you injured?"
I swallowed: in my exile, I had forgotten kind words existed. Vague memories stirred, pulling at salt water, drawing it down my cheeks.
"What’s wrong?" He rushed forward, an arm out, "You’re shaking!"
I fell against him. I could not let him go. Unfamiliar warmth surrounded me, a softness of flesh – another person. He started as I embraced him, arms around his neck.
"Please, don’t leave me," I whispered into his ear. He smelled reassuringly of cheap soap: fresh, clean, human.
"N - no, of course not."
My eyes closed, a smile softening my lips. At first, he did not realise what was happening. Perhaps he did not believe it with the serene expression upon my face. Slowly, I pushed, my hands pressing wire against fleshy resistance.

A small frown came to his features, lethargic realisation seeping into his mind. His struggle was almost careful, as if he did not wish to strike a lady. Already weakness weighed upon his limbs: his arms were ineffectual against me, his legs began to collapse even as he gurgled, fighting for breath. In one swift movement, I was behind him, pulling the snare taught, cradling him to me.
"Do not fear, my love." I put my weight into my work. "Sssh. There, it will not be much longer." My lips brushed his temple in a soothing kiss. "Soon, my love. Soon."
We two knelt suspended in an eternity’s thread, our moment, wedded in your gasps.
Now I feel your last trembling seconds. It’s not so long, is it? I roll you over, careful not to be as rough as my lands have taught me and brush your white-rolled eyes closed.
There, my love, my all. All done. I laugh at the silly nothings you whisper in my ear and the way you say my name over and over. You see why I cradle you, still warm, against my breast?
I know you won’t leave me.
No one will leave me now.

© Clare Sager March 2006
suburbanfox at hotmail.com

A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd
A Clare Sager review

Clare is a Creative Writing major at the University of Portsmouth

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