Stranded

The buzzing sound wakes him, but only slightly. He is curled up on his left side, lying on the sandy floor in the furthest recess of a cave. It is not so deep, less than twenty feet overall. The inside of the cave is cool and dark nonetheless, despite the hot tropical sun outside. His face is pressed against the coarse sand on the cave floor. Sand is in his matted, singed hair. He is exhausted and the cave is cool and dark and he just wants to sleep.

Still, the buzzing persists. It gradually becomes louder. He groans and rolls onto his back. He coughs a rough, hacking cough. Grains of sand stay embedded in his cheek. His eyes remain closed. The buzz fades until it is faint, barely audible above the crunching of the sand as he rolls over some more onto his right side. He wonders what had happened overnight to put him in this deplorable mess.

The buzz fades but not completely before it starts to grow louder again. The sound of the buzzing becomes strangely soothing to him.

He falls back asleep.

But only for a moment.

When he awakes, the buzzing has already faded again. He hears it grow louder, close to the cave. Then it grows quieter.

He is exhausted and his body is aching all over from the night before. His mind is in a fog. The buzzing once again grows louder. He puzzles over it, eyes closed, dreamlike. It sounds vaguely mechanical to him. Mechanical and high above outside the cave. Again, it fades away from the cave. He puzzles some more.

Then his eyes pop open. He pushes himself up onto his knees and scrambles to his bare feet. A stabbing pain shoots through his back and he staggers for a moment. His head spins. He takes in a deep breath. His head stops spinning and starts to throb. The air is cool. It tastes of smoke. The sand still clings to his cheek.

He takes an uncertain step toward the opening of the cave. A hand against the cave wall helps to steady him. He takes another step, then another. Step by step he staggers to the opening.

Swirling smoke greets him at the mouth of the cave. The smoke burns his already painful eyes.

He steps out of the cave and looks about. After a pause, he tries to step around the smoke to survey the landscape and to scan the sky for the source of the buzzing. With his back against the rocks of the hill the cave is sunk into, he feels his way down the slope a distance. Hiding under an outcropping of rock, he closes his eyes. He remembers the night before and how this all happened.

What had happened was that he had made the decision that he had to get off the island. The island was too small. It was too small and he was not going to spend the rest of his life there and die there, alone. So he had to get off the island. He had to be rescued. It was his attempt to get off the island the past few days which had led him to this deplorable mess.

He winces as he thinks about it. About how lonely he was. How lonely and scared.

He had determined to get off the island somehow, some way, any way he could.

He remembered that much. The rest started to come to him.

Under the outcropping of rock, with his burning, teared eyes closed, he recounted how he formulated the plan to get off the island and how he planned and hoped and how he started to put the plan into effect.

First, he knew that making a raft and putting out to sea was not an option.

Not after what happened to Janet. He couldn’t make himself do it; he just couldn’t.

He could not get to safety. He would have to beckon his rescue to come to him.

So, desperately, he devised a plan. How to get someone’s attention so that they could come to the island and rescue him, that was the question.

Early on, the shape of the island had reminded him of a foot, a left foot with a shallow bay near the instep of the foot and a few caves just above the ankle, near the top of the island. One cave, the one he slept in, was tall enough to stand in and deep enough to escape rain or wind.

Or smoke.

Up from the cave, the highest point of the island rose a few hundred feet above the waves that lapped the shoreline. The highest point wasn’t really much of a point, more of a flat area at the top of the hill.

The slope down from there was steep at the ankle. Lower the slope was more gradual as the island flattened out near the shoreline.

The plan had not come to him all at once, complete. He had formulated it only after the failed attempt to raft away. However, once it started to form it grew quickly until he was satisfied it would work.

The plan would work. He just knew it would. It had to.

He intended to create a light, a beacon that would lead someone or something, a plane most likely, but also maybe a ship, whichever, to him and he would be rescued. He knew in his head that his chances were slim, but in his heart he felt it would all work out.

He decided that the highest point on the island would get him and his light, his beacon, seen for miles.

So he searched the island for dried, dead wood, which turned out to be not all that difficult. Although quite small, the island was hilly and had plenty of dead trees and shrubs. So many small trees had been levelled by the infrequent storms over the years, including the one that had brought him to the island. Broken, downed trees littered the island, just waiting to be burned.

So he started dragging logs and sticks and shrubs. He started with the driest he could find. Fat logs, skinny logs, whatever he could find, so long as they were the driest.

He was confident that if he made a big enough, bright enough light then some passing airliner or ship would see it and report it and rescue would be on its way.

So he started to build his pile. He was determined to make it big enough, to pile not just barely enough, but rather to pile way more than enough.

He set out to find the driest.

He found a small tree, dead and brittle. It had been growing a short way down the slope from the spot he had chosen for the fire. He grabbed the tree with both hands and leaned hard into it and it snapped just above the ground, causing him to lose his footing and almost fall on the jagged stump that was sticking out from the ground. He recovered his balance and grabbed the narrow trunk by the base and tugged it as he walked backward up the hill. When he made it to the crest of the hill he dropped the end of the trunk and brushed off his hands. A smile crept onto his face. The first log was done.

With that he felt a surge of energy within himself and quickly found another small trunk and then some brush and then more small trees.

The pile grew throughout the morning. Starting close to the top of the hill, he slowly worked his way down the slope, retrieving trunks and branches and brush from a bit further away on each trip. A path was being forged out of this work. After each trip down the hill he would pretty much retrace his steps back to the top.

With each trip, the slope to the top seemed to grow steeper and steeper. His early burst of energy started to wane and he felt the need to pace himself as the day went on.

He took a few breaks to rest or to search for fruit on one of the pandanus trees near the bottom of the hill for energy to keep going.

Late in the day he was hauling a stump he had worked loose. Exhausted, he stumbled several times up the slope to the fire spot. On one of these stumbles, he looked to the west and saw the sun about to sink below the horizon. He managed to get back on his feet and plod onward, dragging the stump behind him. Darkness was beginning to descend as he finished the journey up the hill. He was grateful for nightfall. It was obvious he needed rest.

After heaving the stump onto the pile, he turned from the pile and gathered some palm fronds and used them to make a bed. It would be a clear night. There was no reason to sleep in the cave he had found where he sought shelter from the storm that brought him to the island. Instead he would sleep by his pile and begin again in the morning.

A gentle breeze caressed him as he lay down on the leaves. His wavy brown hair, which had grown long, fluttered in the soothing wind. The unending sound of the waves on the shore eased him into a deep slumber.

Morning arrived. He awoke, hungry and thirsty. The sun was already fully risen and urged him to resume his work. Yet he knew that further wood-gathering would have to wait until he ate and drank.

Slowly, he eased himself to his feet. His body ached from all the dragging and pulling and lifting and carrying he had done the day before. His hands were rubbed raw. His muscles ached and his stomach rumbled.

The path he had worn through the dense growth the day before led him downward toward the water in a circuitous route that wove its way through the dense growth and eventually brought him out between the heel and the instep of the foot that was the island, ushering him onto the end of a beach near a reef. Shellfish made their home in the shallows of a protected pool close to shore.

The water was cool and inviting and made the harvesting of his breakfast a welcome relief from the hard work that occupied him the day before and which awaited him again. It did not take long to gather enough shellfish for a quick breakfast. When he was finished gathering, the shade of a large palm tree waited for him next to the flat rock he used as a table. Broken, empty shells littered the area, remnants of the meager meals he had eaten since being stranded. He used rocks on the shore to break open the shells. The meat inside was salty, sweet, and delicious.

As he worked at the shells he tried not to notice his own emaciated body. Finding shellfish and small bits of fruit was a daily struggle. It seemed to take almost as much energy to find food as the food gave him and that struggle showed itself in his protruding ribs.

When he finished the last of the shellfish he scrambled back to his feet and headed for the pandanus and the small pools of water near the base of the hill. Then he selected the next bit of tree and brush to haul up the slope to his wood pile.

This went on for three days, at the end of which he looked at his ragged heap of logs and sticks and brush and decided that he had enough wood. It was time.

Sunset was almost at hand, it would arrive in less than half an hour.
The canister with the matches was far too precious for him to carry about with him throughout the day. The canister was watertight, so there was no real danger of the matches being soaked. The real danger was losing the canister or having it fall out of his pants, which had become flimsy and tattered since he arrived on the island. The match canister had its own special niche inside the cave.

It was incredibly good fortune that even had the matches. When the boat went down, the matches were in his pocket, protected in their canister. He had forgotten to put them away the last time he used them and it was not until after he was on the island that he even realized he had them.

As the sun dropped down to the horizon, he shuffled down the hill to the mouth of the cave and then quickly retrieved the canister from its spot. Quickly but carefully, he returned to his wood pile.

He scanned the horizon, not really expecting to see a plane or hear one either. Oftentimes he had searched for a plane or a ship off on the horizon and once or twice he thought he had seen a plane or the lights of a plane at night, far off in the darkness, but he had not been sure. It might have been a plane. Or it might have been a star obscured by clouds or a meteor or just his imagination.

He felt the pocket of his tattered pants for the reassurance of the match canister.

Then he sat on one of the larger logs he had brought up to the site.

Trying to be patient, he waited for the sun to dip into the ocean. It paused before making its final plunge into the horizon and this tested his patience. It touched the line at the end of the earth and then seemed to pause again. Finally it was halfway submerged, the visible half and its reflection on the surface of the water forming a perfect circle. He pulled out the match canister and carefully unscrewed the top. There were only two matches left. He had been careful not to use these last two. They were precious and he knew it.

He also knew that he could not wait until the sun was completely set. The moon would not be up for hours, just before dawn, and he needed to see what he was doing in order to strike the match. He could not afford to mishandle the match or lose it or break it while striking it. So, before it turned completely dark he crouched down beside the mound he had made from the driest of the leaves and twigs. He unscrewed the cap from the canister, took out one of the matches, held it in his teeth, carefully screwed the cap back on the canister, and placed the canister deep within the pocket in his pants.

He took a deep breath, surveyed his pile of logs one more time and then struck the match. It did not start. He slowly twirled it in his fingers and examined it. He struck it again.

Nothing.

He closed his eyes, whimpered slightly, took a breath to calm down, and struck the match again.

It started.

His head swam for a moment. He briefly felt elated. Then he regained his composure.

Shaking, he slowly moved the match toward the pile of dry leaves.

He hesitated. From his low crouch he looked over the pile of wood. His heart sank. The wood he had gathered was mostly very dead and very dry. The fire might need to burn all night long but when he looked at the pile of wood he had it suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea how long it would last. He tried to calculate how fast what he had gathered would burn. As he was calculating, or trying to, the flame on the match burned down to his fingertips. The burning sensation startled him and he instinctively shook the match and dropped it. It lie on the ground between his feet, finished.

He gasped and cried out.

His heart raced and his breaths quickened.

The last match sat lonely in the canister.

He looked again at the pile of wood and tried to imagine how long one of the logs or branches would burn. He had no idea. He whimpered and started to breathe faster.

Then he closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. He pressed his open palms against his temples.

When he opened his eyes it was already beginning to get dark.
He thought and thought.

Finally, he said aloud to himself, “If you don’t know how much is enough, then you’ll just have to have too much.”

It sounded so right to him and he nodded.

Somehow, agreeing with himself was reassuring. His breathing slowed back to normal.

The thought of more gathering, however, made him feel tired. He crawled over to the bed of palm leaves that had served as his bed these past few nights. He slowly lay down on it and rolled onto his back and stared at the stars for a minute and then he was asleep.

A sharp pain in his ribs awoke him the next morning just before dawn. Still drowsy, he groped beneath his side and found the object that was sticking into him. He pulled it out from beneath him and instinctively started to toss it away. Something made him stop himself. He looked in his hand and recognized the canister with the last match. It must have slipped out of what was left of his pocket as he tossed fitfully while he slept and then he woke when he rolled over onto it.

A whimper came out of him when he realized what he had almost done.
Struggling to his feet, he made his way in the pre-dawn moonlight back down to the cave, where, trembling, he put the canister back in its niche in the wall.

A couple of deep breaths steadied him.

After another meagre breakfast he was back at another day of wood gathering.

This went on for three more days, at the end of which the area at the top of the hill was so full of trees and brush that he felt he could fit no more. The time had come.

As he brought the last armful of branches to the pile, he took a moment to survey the island from his vantage point. He had hauled so much dead vegetation. His hands and arms were raw. Scratches and gouges covered his feet and ran the length of his legs.

Despite how much he had carried and dragged to the hilltop, the island still seemed to him to be covered with growth and he could have brought so much more but there was no room for it.

The time had come.

Just a couple of hours remained until nightfall. He had time to catch his breath and reflect. As he scanned the island, the waves that encircled it, and the ocean beyond, the memory of the events that brought him to the island started to seep into his mind. He had been so busy these past days that he had managed not to think about it but with sunset not yet upon him, he sat and remembered.

He remembered how the trip had started so uneventfully. The plan was to sail from Honolulu down to Tahiti, then west across to the Cook Islands, then head northward, stopping at several places along the way up to the Marshall Islands before returning to Hawaii. The first leg, to Tahiti, would be by far the longest stretch at sea. Janet and he had stocked the boat well, with more than twice enough food and water for the sprint down to Tahiti. This would be the first such voyage for him, as for her. Nonetheless, he felt quite sure of what he was doing and though she had been nervous, she found his confidence reassuring.

As he sat watching the sun continue to drop in the sky he thought some more about the journey. He could barely remember the first few days on the open sea, which had passed so quietly, with blue skies and steady, forceful winds. The pair had quickly left their home port far behind. As they crossed the equator, they had noticed the winds picking up and Dave was encouraged. They were ahead of schedule by his reckoning.

He vividly remembered what followed. The winds had continued to increase the next day and dark clouds had appeared on the windward horizon overnight, giving the couple a blazing red sunrise. The strong winds had driven them off course, far to the west. Dave had responded by heading back to the east in order to get back on course.

As he sat atop the hill and watched the setting sun, his pulse quickened and his head started to pound as he remembered the next day of the voyage.

The couple had awoken to huge swells and fierce winds. They were quickly losing control of the boat.

He winced as he remembered how Janet had started to panic and he had screamed at her, “Now’s no time to panic!” and how Janet had looked at him as if he were crazy and screamed right back, “Now would be the PERFECT time to panic!” She had had enough of his overconfidence.

The next few hours seemed like an eternity, he thought. The boat tossed about until it struck a rock just below the crest of a wave. A horrific groaning, crushing sound came from the bottom of the boat and the jolt of the impact sent him crashing into Janet, nearly knocking her overboard. Water started rushing into the boat and immediately they both knew it was going down. It was Janet who spotted the island not far away, dimly visible through the storm. They jumped in the water together and swam as best they could through the wind and the waves.

Somehow they made it.

The storm, meanwhile, carried the boat off a distance before it sank to the bottom of the sea.

The clearing of the storm and the appearance of the sun brought out his optimism. “Look, we’ve survived the storm of the century, didn’t we? We can handle anything!”

For Janet, a sick feeling wrung her insides. She didn’t share his rosy outlook. The two of them had quickly determined that they were on a small, uninhabited island. They had been blown tremendously off course. The realization that they had no idea where they were was soon followed by the notion that, in all likelihood, nobody else knew where they were, which made the island seem even smaller, to the point of being cramped. Janet became claustrophobic.

She was in a panic to leave.

He came up with the plan for the raft. Janet, despite her urgent desire to leave, took considerable convincing. How could they possibly build a raft? They had no materials, no tools, no real know-how. And where would they go, how would they navigate? Eventually, though, he persuaded her that they could overcome all those obstacles and, besides, they had no real choice. They had been stuck on the island for days with no sign that a rescue was on its way or that anyone even knew they were there. Janet finally agreed to his plan.

They dragged logs to a point on the island where they could build the raft and push it out through the breaking surf and, hopefully, the prevailing winds and current would carry the craft along the length of the island and on to civilization. Vines held the logs together. Two short stumps, carved hollow and fastened to the two front corners of the raft, held drinking water for the journey. A section of bark and leaves plugged the top of each container to keep the fresh water from splashing out in the rolling waves. By carefully rationing the water, they figured they could last a couple of weeks. Flat, small lengths of wood served as oars. They would be of little use, but they were better than nothing.

A calm day with surf small enough for them to break through was what they needed and they had to wait several days for that. When it arrived, the two checked their water supply, filled makeshift woven baskets with fruit from the pandanus trees that littered the island, and pushed their raft from the shore.

They rowed as best as they could out to the breaking surf. Though they were small, the breaking waves were too much for the couple and their makeshift oars. So they paddled harder. Each time they made some progress a wave would come along which was just too big.

He jumped off the raft.

“Where are you going?” Janet screamed.

“Jump in and help me!” he hollered back.

The two grabbed the edge of the raft and kicked as hard as they could. Two tiny tugboats pushing their rickety craft to the open water. Finally, with one all-out struggle, they managed to break through the surf. They kicked until they could kick no more. Safely beyond the breaking waves, they paused.

Too tired to even celebrate, he pushed himself onto the deck of the raft and slowly dragged one knee up. Pausing for a moment to catch his breath, he heaved himself onto the craft and turned around, kneeled, and reached for Janet’s wet hand to pull her aboard.

Then it all happened so fast.

The huge, dark shadow shot from under the raft and, without even breaking the surface, grabbed Janet by the leg and pulled her under so quickly that she didn’t even have time to scream. The shark quickly disappeared to the depths with Janet. Only a small, dissipating cloud of blood marked what happened.

Soon other fins broke the surface around the raft.

Shaking and sobbing, Dave sat in the middle of the raft, pulling his knees up to his chin. Eventually, as evening settled in, waves and a gentle breeze pushed the raft in past the breaking surf to the shore. It gently settled on a small cluster of rocks near the beach.

A wave lifted the raft slightly and it appeared to be about to slip back into the water. He jumped off the raft onto the rocks. Soon, the waves reclaimed the raft and almost immediately dashed it upon the rocks, breaking it apart. Some of the logs remained on the rocks, a few drifted away.

It would be days before he could force himself even into the shallow water near the beach to search for shellfish to eat. When he did finally venture in, he kept looking for approaching fins.

The realization soon set in that he would never be able to bring himself to sail away on a raft. The thought of Janet disappearing below the waves sent a shudder through him each time it crept into his mind. He just couldn’t do it.

That’s when he formed the plan for the fire.

Once he had the plan then there was the work of gathering the firewood. Three days of hard work, then almost lighting the fire, the reconsidering, followed by three more days of gathering.

As he sat on the hill, looking out over the water, waiting for nightfall and reflecting on those past days, he pushed out any doubts or worries. It was too late for that.

Finally, the sun began to set on his last day of captivity.

This time the match, the last match, started on the first strike and the fire blazed almost immediately. More than a week of no rain made certain of that. A gust of wind acted as bellows and the pile responded. This brought a smile to Dave’s face and soon, as the fire grew, the smile turned to a laugh.

Another gust of wind fanned the flames even more and soon much of the pile was catching, more than he expected. He started to worry that the fire would burn itself out too quickly, but he convinced himself that this could not be so. The sun was now completely set and the top of the hill glowed in the moonless darkness that surrounded the island.

Another wind gust scattered hot embers. They fell a short distance from the pile and he quickly scooped some sand to throw on the smoldering grass.

Another, stronger gust blew and was quickly followed by another. Embers blew into the air and were carried out of reach down the hill.

Soon the fire spread. It seemed like no time before the whole island was on fire.

As the lower logs of the pile burned smaller, the logs and sticks and brush on top of them tumbled down the flaming pile and scattered toward him. He moved away but the brush and grass that ringed the top of the hill was soon blazing and he was nearly surrounded by fire. It closed in on him and a terror started to seize him. He felt he would roast alive.

He moved toward the path that led to his cave but a burning tree fell across the path and blocked his way. He frantically searched for another way down the hill to safety but the only alley not engulfed by flames led to the steep, rocky side of the hill.

Soon the grass beneath his feet started to catch and he had no choice. He scampered to the top of the steep face of the hill and started to scramble down. Burning brush cascaded down the rocks after him and his hair briefly caught fire. He slid down the large, flat face of the hill and then some more on the scree at the bottom.

Eventually, he made it to a place not much lower than the cave, part of the way around the hill from the opening. He had to fight through some thick brush which had not yet caught fire and soon he was trapped in the briars. The barbs sliced at his arms and legs and he slowly tried to make it through despite the excruciatingly painful cuts, all the while mindful of not falling down the steepest part of the hill to the rocky surf far below.

As he was almost through the briars and onto a safe path to the cave, a burning bush rolled off the top of the hill above and soon the briar patch was ablaze. Panting, he made it through the last of the briars and tore off some of the shreds of his shirt which had caught fire.

From there, he stumbled to the entrance of the cave. Soon the gathering smoke forced him to the farthest recess, where he cried himself to sleep.

And now, awakened by the buzzing of the plane, he stumbles outside and struggles to find a place away from the cave, away from the smoke where he can be seen.

The drone of the reconnaissance plane fades and the plane itself becomes a speck before disappearing altogether.

By the time he makes it to the water’s edge, away from the smoke, visible at last, the plane is gone.

He listens for the sound of the engine returning but all he can hear is the crackling of the last of the fire and the rush of the wind as it blows smoke through the charred remains. That, and the sound of his own raspy breathing and the surf beside him.

He stares at the empty sky, his arms hanging at his side.

After what seems an eternity, he surveys the black, smoke-covered island. He looks out at the waves coming in from the open sea. In the distance he sees two fins circling.

He looks back at the hill he had just descended. The opening of the cave is barely visible through the smoke.

He turns, wades into the surf, and starts to swim out to the fins.

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