Man on the Rocks - A Short Story
He wakes to the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks. As he opens his eyes the dawn cracks open a new day and the cloudless sky comes into soft focus. Somewhere in the distance he hears the spit and crackle of a fire.
The sound of the sea tells him he is on a beach and he realises he must have been washed ashore and is now splayed on a rock, like prey dropped from the beak of a passing bird. He blinks against the brightening sky and wonders if he is shipwrecked.
He doesn’t hear her approach; her bare feet sifting silently through the sand, her sure toes gripping the rocks for purchase. She kneels and slowly her face appears before him. Two blue eyes, bolder than the sea. Two red lips, almost bloody set in tender, powder-white skin.
She is young and beautiful, an innocent in a long white dress. She presses her finger on his salt cracked lips as he tries to speak. Silk strands of hair brush his shoulder and he wonders how far his nakedness stretches.
He tries to lift his head but she places a cool hand on his chest and he sinks back, feeling the pleasure of giving in to the will of a beautiful woman, and thinking he has died and gone to heaven. Her eyes are intent. She doesn’t speak but slowly her silence builds into soft unspoken sounds, little more than breathing and not whispering but somehow familiar and musical, luring him back to sleep.
The fire has long burned itself out when he finally wakes. The sun has gone down and the sea is calmer. She is watching him, a still white figure against the blue sky, she could be alabaster. He wonders if she’s real and if she’s been at his side all this time.
She takes food from a basket and feeds him grapes until his mouth becomes supple enough for the bread which he chews slowly, gratefully. The wine that follows is potent; sweeter than the fruit and more satisfying.
He asks her name but she doesn’t answer. She stands up and holds out her hand, inviting him to his feet. Mindful of any pain, he lifts himself up but he feels only the cold of his nakedness and the late breeze leaden with the scent of a distant fire.
Beyond the rocks, there is a garden where the undergrowth is soft and forgiving beneath his feet. The sea crashes in the distance, the waves whispering to themselves back and forth but here the air is different, damp and heady with the nectar of exotic flowers and there is honey in the breeze.
They wander through this Eden, losing track of time. Her fingers grip his wrist as she leads him on, but he doesn’t question it. He simply follows and wonders if he is under her spell but doesn’t think to fight it.
They arrive at a shelter where two low-lying trees are canopied with overgrown vines to create a natural roof. She beckons him inside and feeds him more fruit, this time dipped in honey but he knows the real pleasure is still to come.
She lays out bread and milk and places his clothes beside him, then pushes her hand into the pocket of her dress, pulls out her mobile phone and answers it. The man at the other end is impatient and reminds her they are leaving soon. The director says he would like to film one last close up in the early morning light, so she must hurry back to the set. Everyone is waiting and they don’t have much time.
Turning, she takes one last look before she lifts the hem of her dress and dashes through the garden. She has grown to love this place during these past weeks and can’t bear to think of leaving it. Breathless and dishevelled in her crumpled white dress, she is soon back on the film set.
The director scowls and tells her she’s made his job of filming on location impossible. Powder restores her complexion as she tilts her face to the make-up lady’s brush. A comb will smooth her hair, the dress can be pressed but her heart is not such a simple matter to contain. The cameraman swerves into position and she holds her breath and hopes the fine lines around her eyes don’t give too much away. She’ll be glad to return to Paris, says the director, as the camera pulls back. You must be missing your husband. You need his fatherly guidance. The continuity boy jokes her husband is old enough to be her grandfather and the film crew laugh. The sound is raucous and unpleasant at her expense and she pretends not to have heard. She doesn’t need to be reminded of the life that awaits her in the city.
Already, she longs to return to the loving depths of the garden, to feel the pounding of the sea against the rocks and taste the salt on her skin. By lunchtime, she’ll be in Paris. She’ll have to wrap herself in warmer clothes and wear city shoes to negotiate the crowded streets. The light will be different. The wind will chill her sun-baked skin and her blue eyes will dim to grey. She will die a little inside, silently and nobody will notice.
She’s the last to leave the film set. Her driver revs the engine. He knows it doesn’t do to upset the lady but there’s a plane to catch and it won’t wait, not even for her. The sun is high in the sky as she climbs into the car and switches off her mobile phone and says goodbye to the landscape that has become her sanctuary from a world she no longer understands.
He wakes to a bright morning, alone and shielded by the trees. She has left fresh bread and milk and his clothes are neatly folded beside him and he knows it’s time to leave. He has no stomach for the food. He pulls on his jeans, and at once, they’re familiar and the spell is broken. As he rubs the sleep from his eyes, he remembers how he came to be here and knows if he climbs beyond the rocks and takes the cliff-top path, he’ll find his way back.
He has no sense of time as he enters the village. He recognises the harbour, the neat line of boats and the row of fisherman’s cottages sitting as close to the water’s edge as you can get and he knows where to find his friends.
They wave their bottles in the air and jeer, swearing and cursing, drowning out the sound of the television as he walks into the bar. Their relief at his return soon turns to anger. Their boat is waiting in the harbour and they should have left days ago. He shouldn’t have disappeared without warning in the middle of the night. They thought he’d fallen overboard and alerted the coastguard. His absence had created a drama which they’d come to accept as a tragedy.
He explains how he woke that night with a thirst and climbed onto the deck. The sky was clear and the moon a sickle and the heat of the day was a distant memory, pushing against the cool relief of the darkness. As he turned towards land he saw the fire burning and heard the sound. Not human, not singing, but sighing carried on the waves. It seemed so close, so beckoning. He slipped into the water, knowing it would be an easy swim. He would be there and back before the rest of the crew woke and breakfast would taste all the sweeter for his adventure. He told them how he’d been washed up on the rocks and had slept until woken by the dawn. Afterwards, he’d wandered into a garden and he’d slept there too, made drowsy by the sweetness of the breeze and the scent of honey from the plants.
The barman rests his elbow on the bar. He pushes his hand against his doughy cheek and sighs. You know the story, he says, of the woman. Many years ago, she made a garden at the tip of the peninsular where the land scatters into rocks. They say she was beautiful. Many men fell in love with her but she loved only one. A sailor. One day he sailed away as sailors do. He promised to come back but never did. Every night she stood on the edge of peninsula waiting for him, crying out to sea for his return. Some say she was too fragile for this earth. She lived on fruit from her garden and honey, offered freely by the wild bees. She exchanged exotic herbs for local bread and wine. Each night at dusk, she is said to have lit a fire on the edge of the peninsula. Some say it was a message to sailors to steer away from the rocks. Others say it was to lure them.
The man listens and a memory flutters inside him. His friends raise their beers and ask if he happened to meet a beautiful woman who had an eye for a sailor. Is that what kept him away for so many nights?
He shrugs and looks out onto the street and suddenly there she is, sitting in the back seat of a passing car. She turns her head and sees him. He knows her smile. Her eyes are bluer than the sea. He dashes to the door and steps out onto the pavement but the car has already gone. He starts to run, following the flow of the traffic but he is too slow. He’ll never catch the car as it gathers speed and cruises the broad sweep of the coastal road and so he goes back to the bar. It’s time to apologise to his friends and return to the boat. The holiday is almost over.
She waits at the airport. They have put her in the VIP lounge but it’s just another prison. She watches the planes take off and cannot believe they inhabit the same sky that gives the sea its china blue. Already, it appears grey. Already, she could be in Paris. They call her flight but she doesn’t move.
He stands alone on deck. Tonight the moon has thickened and the stars have put themselves to bed behind the clouds. The boat rocks to the rhythm of a wind that will eventually carry him home. He imagines the sweetness of the wine and breathes deeply to catch the taste of honey on the breeze but they are far from land and all he captures is a memory.
In the distance and through the blackness, he glimpses the sparks as they dance on the breeze far off at the tip of the peninsula. And if he closes his eyes he can still see her face lit by the flames, her dress flapping in answer to the breeze as she stands looking out to sea and beckons.