by Michael Kingswood
The beach stretched forth as far as the eye could see, a blazing strip of white sand that returned the sun’s touch with a fire of its own as though daring the sun to burn hotter. Small crabs, barely larger than a thumbnail, dug their way up from beneath the scorching sand and poked their claws out, tentatively testing the air before scurrying down to the water’s edge. Many never made it there, instead getting snatched up by seagulls that winged overhead, watching the sand and waves for prey with sharp eyes and making their calls to each other in an avian symphony.
A strong offshore breeze made the palm trees lining the beach sway, their long green leaves rubbing against each other like lovers caught in a passionate embrace. The same breeze drove rolling waves that collapsed over hidden breakers well over a hundred paces from the beach, leaving only small ripples to lap ashore and cool the few grains of sand lucky enough to be within their reach.
In the nearly still water, colorful fish danced around coral beds and through forests of swaying seaweed, content and sheltered from harm in their gentle lagoon. Or so the fish thought, but the breakers that created such peaceful conditions for them also allowed the gulls easy view of their prey in the water. On occasion, one of them would plunge toward the water instead of the sand and emerge with a fish that happened to swim too near the surface held in its talons. Crying out in triumph, it would bring its meal to the sand and consume it there for all to see.
Yili liked it when they did that because gulls were easier to take on the ground than in the air. He would crouch under the palm trees at beach’s end and watch with a stone loaded into the cup of his sling, and when a gull landed unawares within his range he would whip the sling around his head, casting the stone at the bird and taking it before it knew danger was lurking nearby. Then he would dart onto the sand, his bare feet long since calloused against the sand’s fire, grab the bird, and retreat back to the cover of the vegetation.
He often felt the call of the sun in those brief excursions onto the strip of fire, and felt the desire deep in his bones to stay and lay himself down, nude save for his loincloth made from the hide of a boar, on the burning sand and wait for the Sun God to take him away to paradise. But he dared not remain on that beach too long; that way lay danger, a danger that threatened to take him away from the Sun God’s protection and drag him screaming into the darkness, where torments beyond imagination waited for those unwary or unlucky enough to be caught.
He had never seen it happen, but the elders assured him it was so. And Yili had learned long ago the elders were wise, far wiser than he. They knew these things.
Sitting beneath the palms that day, Yili watched the gulls and thought of Jola, dead two years now. He had scoffed at the elders’ teachings, proclaimed that it was the people’s birthright to dance under the sun. Worse, to ride upon the waves, to see what lay beyond the breakers.
Madness. Nothing lay past the breakers. Nothing that could serve the people, in any account. And if it could not be of use, what good was it, even if it was there? No, better to not think about such things. So the elders said. And after what happened to Jola, Yili knew it for truth.
The memory of his brother’s corpse, burnt, twisted, and broken, what was left of his mouth locked open into a soundless howl of agony and his eyes wide from the horror of his final moments, still haunted Yili. Jola had been a good man. A kind brother, a dutiful son to their mother, a loving husband. It grieved Yili that his brother had not lived to see his twin sons born.
That was what came of defying the Gods’ decrees. Men were meant to remain within the trees, away from the sand of fire. And certainly man was forbidden the sea.
A gull’s cry pulled Yili from his reverie. He lifted his eyes in time to see as it dove earthward, its eyes fixed on a small crab that was meandering its way toward the surf. It would be just close enough to snatch. Yili set his sling to spinning and loosed the moment the gull’s talons latched onto the crab. It had hardly began to launch itself back skyward when the rock struck it on the side of its head. The dull squish of the impact was punctuated by the soft crack of breaking bone, and the gull fell to the sand, dead.
Yili smiled in satisfaction. Two queries with one stone. Once there had been a time when he could not have dreamed to take such a prize so easily. He laughed inwardly at himself and his early, clumsy ventures with the sling. But Jola helped him learn; it fell to him since their father died when Yili was still little. Jola would have been proud to see Yili make this shot.
Yili felt a momentary pang of loss, but shoved it aside. It had been long enough; to dwell on a matter so far in the past was counterproductive and did Jola’s soul no honor. He would prefer Yili to be strong and provide for his—for their—family without letting himself be laid up by regrets.
When he stepped onto the sand and felt the burning sun overheard, Yili felt no such thing, only a surge of ecstasy as he felt the Sun God’s touch upon him. As always, the temptation to stop fell heavily upon him, but he did not give in. In mere moments, he crossed the short expanse of sand, snatched up the gull and crab corpses, and darted back beneath the palm trees. There he stopped for a moment, to gather his breath and his wits.
He could have sworn he saw something out of the corner of his eye as he darted back. Something long and dark, nearly black in the blazing sunlight and the glare of the sand. But when he looked around from his position of safety, he saw nothing.
A shiver of fright surged down his spine and Yili had to stop himself from turning away and fleeing back to the village as fast as his feet could carry him. It was the Beast. It had to be. And yet, when he looked around he could see no sign of the thing. The only tracks on the sand were his, and where the dark body lay on the beach there was not the slightest disturbance.
It was nothing, just his mind running ahead of him.
Yili felt another impulse to flee to the village, but he forced himself to remain. He always took the time to pluck feathers from his kill and people would remark upon it if he did not do so this time. No sense in opening himself up to awkward questions. And even more, it was far better not to worry Caeli excessively. She was due for her third child—his this time—any day now. So Yili sat down and began pulling feathers from the gull’s corpse.
He spent some minutes – some hours? – there, preparing the evening meal for roasting, before he noticed it.
At first he thought he was imagining things again. There had never before been anything to see on the sea other than waves, with their gentle lapping and their occasional whitecaps. But sure enough, after Yili blinked his eyes and looked away for a half-minute, the thing remained there, bobbing along the waves as it made its way toward the island.
What was it?
It was white, like bleached driftwood, and had a tree growing out of it. Except the tree did not have palm fronds like trees normally do. This tree was bare except for a loose white thing that flapped around in the breeze. It reminded Yili of the time Samo had stolen Gil’s favorite loincloth and tied it to the end of a palm. It had flapped around just as that loose white thing did. But Yili had never heard of a tree growing a leaf like that.
His kill forgotten, Yili watched, heedless of the lengthening shadows, as the strange object drew ever closer. Only when it reached the breakers did he actually come to believe it was real. And then only the sound of it impacting the reef, the twangs and crunches—and the shout of dismay—convinced him.
It was the shout that really did it. Yili had heard all manner of wildlife before. But man…
Man made distinctive sounds. And the sound emanating from that thing as it broke apart on the breakers was definitely made by a man. A man in fear.
But men are forbidden the sea. It had always been thus, and always would be thus. So how had a man managed to get on that…whatever it was…and become endangered on the breakers?
He watched as the strange object split in two, and then split apart further under the force of the waves against the reef. From the distance, he saw two man-like shapes struggle to remain onboard even as the thing broke apart. Finally, they fell into the crashing waves, and Yili thought for sure that was the last he would see of them. Nothing got through the breakers; the Gods had placed them there to protect the island and its people, and they did a fine job of it.
Yili felt a flash of sympathy for the two men. Drowning did not seem a pleasant way to die, though in reality he could not think of any way that was. Except perhaps how old Beru had passed: in his sleep, peacefully. And yet Yili could not also help feeling a certain relief, almost satisfaction. The Gods protected his people well. Surely those two only looked like men. Man was not for the sea, therefore those two were more likely demons, servants of the Beast, and come to the island for no good.
He smiled slightly and turned to finish plucking the gull; only a few feathers remained. But more movement in the water, within the lagoon, grabbed his attention once again.
A single dark shape – it was difficult to make out any details from the glare of the lowering sun against the water – bobbed there, moving closer to shore. Wait. It was not a single shape; it was two, but so close together they just seemed as one. Curious, he squinted his eyes, trying to see better. The objects drew nearer, and it became clear one of them was moving, swirling the water ahead of itself in a way that appeared random at first. But quickly, Yili realized there was a purpose to that swirling as the objects continued moving in toward shore, against the retreating tide.
All at once, Yili realized what he was seeing. The two men were moving through the water, propelling themselves somehow with their limbs. Another thing that was unimaginable, perhaps even heretical. They drew closer, and it became obvious that only one of them was actually doing the swirling. The other bobbed limply, only accompanying the first because he had his right arm wrapped around the limp man’s body, pulling him along.
They should have sunk there beneath the relatively calm surface of the lagoon, but after just a few moments the pair reached the shallows near shore. The injured one continued to lie limply while the other pulled them both up onto the sand. But he only managed to get them a few feet above the small surf’s lapping waves before collapsing in a heap next to his injured companion.
Closer now, Yili could see more details about them. The one who had pulled them ashore was tall, probably head and shoulders taller than Yili, and pale. He was colorful, much more colorful than anyone Yili had ever seen. His torso was a swirl of bright colors and flowers, except for his arms from just above his elbows. His legs were white above the knee and almost as pale below. It made no sense. How…
It took a moment for Yili to realize that the colors were clothing of some sort. But it was like nothing he had ever seen before; it certainly was not fur or tanned hide.
More amazing still, the man’s hair was golden! Yili had never seen anything but black hair on a person before; what sort of being was this?
All at once, he felt a rush of excitement, and more than a little fear, beneath his growing curiosity. Perhaps this man and his companion were Gods themselves. It would explain a great many things. But if so, why would they have crashed, had such a hard time of it?
Yili sat still for a long several moments, thinking. Then, setting his kill down again, he maneuvered slowly toward the edge of the tree line. He glanced back and forth down the beach; no sign of the Beast. Perhaps the golden man’s presence frightened it off. Yili shook his head quickly. Small chance of that. The Beast did not fear the Sun God; small chance it would fear these men, even if they were Gods themselves.
They needed to get off the beach before it was too late.
Drawing a deep breath, he stepped from beneath the palms’ protective canopy and hurried over to the two prostrate forms. As he drew near, though, he realized he had made a mistake. These were not two men. The smaller of the two, the one who had bobbed limply along behind the man, was a woman.
It was obvious from up close. She was curved in the hips like the other women Yili had known. But she was lush and toned in a way that other women were not. There was something intensely alluring about her: the strength of her cheek bones, the magical golden locks that so resembled the man’s, the muscles of her arms and legs, the way her rounded breasts moved with each shallow breath she took. The fact that her breasts were so nearly revealed; she wore only thin scraps of some strange material over them, with thin straps that rose above her shoulders to keep the scraps in place. Quite a bit different from the tunics the women of the island wore.
Unbidden, he felt himself reacting physically to her, and he forced himself to look away. It was not proper to think of a God so, and now that he had seen them up close, what else could these two creatures be? Surely no man and woman had ever appeared as they did.
Just then, the man made a surprised sound, and Yili jumped. His heart pounded in his ears as he lost his balance and fell onto his bottom. He winced at the feel of the hot sand on his skin, more tender there than on the soles of his feet, and looked over at the man.
He had awoken, and pushed himself up onto his elbows, looking quizzically at Yili with deep blue eyes. He was clearly exhausted, but determination shone from his features as he took Yili’s measure.
The man spoke in a deep voice, saying something that Yili could not understand. But he could understand the question in the man’s eyes. Who was he?
Yili swallowed, then tapped his chest and said his name slowly.
The man stared at him, then slowly sounded out the word as though tasting it. Then he nodded and pushed himself up to a sitting position and began to speak again. But again it was unintelligible except that the man sounded weary, frightened, angry, ashamed – all at once.
Yili shrugged slightly and opened his mouth to say how pleased the others in the village would be to meet two Gods travelled from so far to visit. But something stirred at the edge of his vision and his breath caught in his throat.
All at once he became fully aware of the Sun God’s heat beating down, diminished as He approached the horizon but intense all the same. Of the movement of the crabs and gulls. And of the sudden silence. The gulls were not calling as they normally did, and even the lapping waves seemed muffled.
Again there was movement at the corner of his eye and he whipped his head around to see. But there was nothing there except a vague impression of darkness fleeing from the range of his vision.
Yili’s blood ran cold and he sprang to his feet. After a moment, he realized he was babbling, words spilling from his lips in a rush that left the man’s eyes wide in confusion.
They had to move. Get off the beach.
Yili pointed at the man, then the woman, then the palm trees. More like stabbed with his fingers toward the trees as emphatically as he knew how. The man just looked at him in the way the people had looked at poor Seera when her mind left her.
This time the movement was not just at the edge of his vision. Something dark flashed across the beach on the other side of the strange man, distant but obviously moving closer.
There was no time. They had to get off the beach immediately.
Yili bent down, took hold of one of the woman’s wrists, and began pulling her toward the tree line.
A flash of bright light overwhelmed his vision as something struck the side of his head, hard, sending him sprawling to the sand. Nausea surged upwards, and he almost vomited. His ears rang and his vision swirled haphazardly for several seconds. When he finally righted himself and managed to prop himself up, the man was standing over him, his great hands clenched in fists and a fierce light in his eyes.
Gods, he thought Yili was trying to make off with his woman!
Slowly pushing himself to his feet, Yili shook his head emphatically and tried to explain. He gestured from the woman to the trees, then from the man to the trees, all the while saying how important it was that they leave, and leave now. He could hardly believe they had lasted so long, now that he thought on it.
The man’s scowl only grew more deep as Yili spoke and gestured. He almost thought the man was going to attack him again.
Then, suddenly, the man’s face went slack, his eyes wide as his gaze moved from Yili’s face to something over his shoulder. Then the slack expression turned to one of fright.
The man let out a little whimper, bent over, and scooped his woman up into his arms. Either she was lighter than she looked—she was slightly taller than Yili and though without excess fat her toned muscles would add to her weight—or he was very strong. Not sparing Yili a glance, he began hustling toward the tree line.
Not a moment too soon. Yili turned to follow him, trying to hold down the growing terror that clamored at his mind and thanking the Sun God that they were finally moving.
Then something black as night whipped past between Yili and the man. It moved too quickly for Yili to see anything except for the darkness of its presence. But whatever it really was, it struck the man at the ankles. He screamed in sudden pain, lurching forward and falling to the sand. His woman tumbled from his arms as he fell, landing in a heap next to him.
The man screamed again, louder.
Stunned, Yili saw that the man’s feet were simply gone below the ankle. Only stumps remained at the bottom of his legs. Stumps that did not bleed; they were charred like overcooked meat. But unlike cooked meat the odor they gave off choked the breath out of Yili’s lungs and threatened, for the second time in as many minutes, to send him stumbling away to find a place to vomit.
But he did not; somehow he knew that if he gave in to that impulse it would be the end for him and the woman, as well as the man.
Yili stumbled over next to the man and squatted down.
He was all but mad with pain and terror, but he grasped at Yili’s arm and gestured toward the woman. Then to the tree line. Just as Yili had. Satisfaction threatened to overwhelm compassion for the man as part of Yili’s mind scoffed at the man’s desperate request. Had he but listened when Yili tried to help, they would all be safe now, not –
Movement off to the left, and a flash of blackness, helped Yili get control of himself. Forcing the shamefully scornful thoughts down, he nodded to the man and clasped arms with him. Then he turned and, grabbing the woman by her wrists, began dragging her away.
The man tried to follow, dragging himself across the sand with his arms. But the end was never in doubt.
Yili wished he could not see. But he was dragging the woman and had his back to the trees to get the most leverage. He could not help but see as a wave of black rose out of the sand and engulfed the man. His scrabbling fingers were not able to prevent himself from being dragged away. Down he went, into the darkness. His final scream was blood-curdling, horrid.
And then there was nothing but the sand and the lapping of the waves. Even the man’s tracks had been wiped clean by the passing of the Beast.
Yili stumbled into the village, his burden grown so great that he could barely place one foot in front of the other.
The shadows had long since grown into giants that quickly fled before the onset of twilight. The fires were lit in the pits, the torches placed in their holders around the village’s perimeter, beating back the growing darkness. Everyone would be gathering for the evening meal, followed by games and songs, or perhaps stories from one of the elders.
The thought of that pleasant company, the joy of family and friends, was all that had kept him going these last hours.
He halfway expected to be devoured as the man had been, but somehow he made it to the tree line, where the Beast could not touch them. It did not take long to decide that he could not simply drag the woman all the way back to the village. It was too far, and she would likely be injured in the process. So he had, mustering all his strength, scooped her up.
She was not as heavy as he had feared, but nor was she light. But he quickly found that he was able to travel more readily with her draped over his shoulders.
That was, until he reached the path up the island’s central mountain.
The people had good reasons for locating their village up on the mountain’s flank, not the least of which was it placed them far enough from the beach, and the Beast, that there was no worry of accidentally wandering too close. But the path was steep, difficult enough while not carrying a burden. Several times, Yili thought he would fall, sending he and the woman both tumbling down the path and probably causing grave injury to both of them.
But he made it. As he stepped into the circle of firelight that marked the village’s boundary, his spirits lifted. For a moment, he almost forgot what had happened down on the beach.
That did not last.
Yili’s return sparked an outburst of interest. At first because he had returned, and so much later than normal. Caeli led the crowd of villagers rushing toward him, relief and joy on her face. But she stopped before reaching him, almost skidding to a halt as she beheld his burden. The others did as well; no one came within a half dozen paces of him. They all just stood there in a loose half-circle, staring in surprise, curiosity, and fear at him, and what he carried.
Finally the elders came forth. The crowd parted before their withered, powerful forms, younger men and women making respectful half-bows as they allowed the village’s leaders passage. The wise ones looked at him severely, their eyes narrowed such that he could not read their expressions, but said nothing.
Yili swallowed. It was always thus when something was done that needed explaining. The elders never questioned. They simply watched with their eyes that missed nothing and waited for an explanation. Some of the youngest men among the people played a game: who could hold out the longest beneath their gaze before confessing the truth. When he was younger, Yili had played that game too, fool that he was. To his knowledge, no one had ever lasted beyond a slow count to thirty.
After reaching forty-five—part of his mind screamed to Yili that he was perhaps even more foolish than he had been those years ago—Yili told the tale of his encounter on the beach.
The people were taken aback, as he would have expected them to be. Had he not been there himself, he would not have believed such a turn of events possible, either. And yet they happened; he was living proof of it, and so was his burden.
The elders frowned, all of them, their expressions troubled. Then they retreated to confer amongst themselves, pausing only to tell him to place the strange woman down on a pallet in the hut nearest the central bonfire. The hut belonged to Pao, Neela, and their small daughter Teya, but they did not complain. If anything, they seemed honored that the elders had deemed their home worthy of such an honor.
Yili did as instructed and then finally embraced his wife. Caeli was trembling, the anxiety of her evening finally letting loose now that he was there. It did not help to hear of the terror he had endured, Yili was sure.
As he drew her close, he felt a deep shame. She had been through so much, losing her first husband the way she had. As Jola’s younger brother, it was his duty to look after her after he passed, but nothing forced him to take her as his wife. It would have been completely within his rights to take another, so long as he provided for Caeli and his brother’s children. But he had always felt affection, more than affection, for her. It had not taken long before, in his brother’s absence, that affection had grown into much more. He could no more have taken another than he could have cut off his own arm.
When she accepted his offer, he felt a relief and a joy that he never thought to experience. The imminent arrival of their first child together was the only thing in his life that surpassed that feeling.
And yet as he held her, felt her arms clutch him tightly, he found himself looking back at the God-woman who lay within Pao and Neela’s hut. The magical gold of her hair, the curve of her legs, her hips, her breasts. And he felt a longing that he had not felt with Caeli before.
The elders liked to tell the tale of Armsrung, who dared fly from the world’s embrace, far away until he touched the moon itself, and returned to Earth a God in his own right. Yili had never understood such an impulse before, but now… What would it be like to touch a God, and be touched in return? Would that not import Godhood onto the man who dared such a thing?
Yili shook himself, willing his thoughts back to the present. The now. Caeli was his woman, his beloved. The mother of his children, who had only ever treated him with warmth and deepest respect. He owed her better than that.
And then the elders returned, their faces, if possible, even more troubled than when they left to confer. In hushed tones, they decreed that no one was to interact with the God-woman except themselves. To even approach her hut was to invite the Sun God’s kiss.
Yili shuddered at the thought, but voiced no protest. Their decree made sense.
The elders then gestured for the crowd to disperse, to go back to their homes. There would be no stories this night; the evening had brought enough ancient legends to life as it was.
Yili could not fault them for that decree, either. Suddenly weary, and no wonder considering all he had witnessed and done that day, he walked with Caeli back to their hut, where the twins were already fast asleep. He wasted only the half-moment it took to strip off his loincloth before flinging himself down into his and Caeli’s furs. He barely felt her snuggle in next to him before he drifted off into a deep sleep.
To Be Continued…
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: