Lost Island, part 9

Chapter IX (pp. 113-126) of Lost Island, which began here.

They might almost have spent their lives in that one corner of the long beach, exchanging low-voiced conversation, moving only in order to shake low-drooping branches of an orange tree, or pull down another banana. But on the afternoon of the fourth day, black clouds began to pile up over the sea. Leaves rustled and shivered, turning up their pale lower sides. Jane and Davidson had moved slowly along the beach, with the vague idea of finding shelter from the threatening rain somewhere in the woods or cliffs.

Davidson pointed. “Maybe we can crawl in under that big rock that leans outward. Up there near the top of the cliff.”

“If we can get up to it,” Jane said.

Getting up was not so hard as it looked. They had edged around tidal pools fringed with seaweed, climbed giant steps, crept along narrow ledges, peered into dim crevices. Almost straight below, the sea rose and fell with lazy, swaying rhythm. It seemed blue beyond anything that blue could be. Farther back, along by the beach, it changed abruptly to clear blue-green; and sea urchins could be distinctly seen, very black and bristly against the magic of flickering lights on the sand. Higher and higher they climbed, among sharp black pinnacles, up-thrust turrets of rock, easily three hundred feet above the sea; and, always exploring, searching for shelter, they had come on to a broad level shelf just below the forest. Here, almost entirely concealed by giant ferns and flowering vines which drooped down fringily from above and nearly met the ferns, they found the entrance to a cave.

They pushed flowers aside, and stepped in cautiously. Davidson himself could easily stand erect under the arched ceiling. The cave was cool and green and soft with moss. When their eyes were used to the gloominess, they could see, in the rock walls, gleams and sparkles of mica. A little lizard, of a non-committal color, with bright alert eyes and a long tail, ran up one wall, paused to look at his visitors, and ran on to the ceiling, where he clung and continued to eye them upside-down. With a keen cry, a white-winged bird flashed by outside, and carried away the last of the sunlight; for a moment later black clouds were upon the island, and the cliffs were lost in rain.

“I’m tired — tired beyond words,” Jane said suddenly, in a faint voice.

“Well, no wonder; that was quite a climb for two ancient mariners.”

“I thought I was all right again, and strong, almost.”

“You’re doing grand — just grand, Jane.”

Some parts of the floor were damp, but for the most part it was fairly dry. They lay down in the moss; and quite simply he put his arms around her and held her close to him. She lay still, and thought about him, who had protected her so valiantly through storm and shipwreck, hunger and despair, fear and sickness. She was content. That she should be lying in his arms was too natural even to wonder about. In some far-away corner of her consciousness, the fleeting thought occurred to her that some day they would be lovers. But even that was nothing to wonder very much about. It, also, would be natural as the sunrise….

“Well,” she said, “it’s beginning to look as if we were marooned, Daveson. We’ve been here four days, and not a trace of anybody.”

“We’ve got to depend on ourselves, I guess,” he said.

“What would you think of making this cave permanent headquarters — home, sort of? Be nice to have a home, wouldn’t it?” She chuckled. “We might lose this castaway feeling — this dreamy feeling of belonging nowhere and nothing being real.”

“It’s a good cave, as caves go,” Davidson admitted. “Sure, I’d just as soon be a caveman. Time’s going backwards: we’ll be our own Neolithic ancestors.”

“That’s just what some scientific expedition will think, when it discovers your bones,” Jane put in. “You’ll get stuck in a museum, Daveson — Exhibit Y. Rather interesting thought, the vulgar mob gawping at your large bones — you who like to be the most inconspicuous person in the world!”

“How about you?” he retorted. “Remember, I’ll have company in that glass case. You’ll be right alongside. ‘Caveman’s Girl Friend’; or, maybe, ‘Male and Female of Missing Link.'”

“Sure, I’ll stick by you,” she promised solemnly. “But in the mean time, I don’t see how our Neolithic ancestors could ask for a better cave. Cool. High up with the wind and birds. A little damp in spots, I admit. We can lug the sail up from the boat, and sleep on that, and my overcoat. A little darksome and gloomy, of course….”

“We’ll shove some of those vines back out of the way,” he suggested. “Be a heap lighter, then.”

Jane was awed into momentary silence at the almost dizzying realization of how this rock-bound “home” of theirs was suspended far above a rumbling sea, while the eternal forest grew on its very roof.

“It doesn’t look as if life was going to be so difficult and dangerous,” she said presently. “We’ve already found food and water and shelter, and we haven’t been devoured by lions, that I know of…. I’m looking forward to exploring, when I’m strong enough.”

“And I’ve a couple of ideas I want to chew over some more,” Davidson said. “When I was a kid, I read Candide, and was specially tickled by the very end of it. ‘Cultivate your garden.’ It rang true. It still does. That philosophy covers just about everything. If we’re really stuck here, we could do worse than have a try at a garden.”

“Waste of time round here,” Jane objected. “The whole island’s one immense garden already.”

“But we could collect things together a bit. Go hunting yams, for instance, and okra, and such truck — transplant ’em — get a lot of ’em together in one convenient place.”

“Bet you wouldn’t know a yam if you saw one.”

“Well, that remains to be seen. Read up a bit about that sort of thing, once. And there’s always the good old method of trial and error.”

“You’ll need a couple of tools,” she reminded him. “A shovel, and a hoe, and…”

“I’ll make ’em,” he said. “What are my hands for, anyway? I kind of want to use my hands again. You see, being stranded here is — well, sort of a challenge. Hard to explain… a challenge to one’s ingenuity and sense of humor, and everything else. And I want to see what I can make of it. I guess it’s just an ordinary male reaction — I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you turn hydraulic engineer?” she suggested. “Find out where the water drips in from — dry out the cave a bit.”

“That’s one thing,” he agreed, “and another is fishing. Without any equipment. How to go about it kind of baffles me. It eggs me on. I keep wondering about it. Nets? How to make nets? Coconut fiber? Spears? Could I learn to spear fish the way the South Sea islanders do? You see, it’s all pretty difficult and interesting to think about.”

“You’re dreadfully ambitious for a person so recently shipwrecked,” Jane told him, with faint protest in her voice. “I admire you, but you make me feel tireder than ever.”

He chuckled. “Oh, I’m not going to begin tomorrow,” he assured her. “I’m just thinking ahead, that’s all. Fun to lie here thinking of all the things you’re not going to do tomorrow. We can afford to lazy round and think…. You know, I’ve a hunch we’ll be here quite a long time.”

“I don’t mind confessing I’m glad,” said Jane.

“Not frightened?”

“Not very. I don’t believe I care a bit whether we’re rescued or not.”

He drew a sigh, as if of relief. “Neither do I,” he agreed. “If it doesn’t take too much effort to keep alive, I think there may be some peace here — and I’ve tried to find peace all my life. And she thought his arms tightened a little, just as she fell asleep.

In the morning, the cave was filled with shimmering, elusive light. It silvered the tips of tall ferns that stood sentinel at the opening; it was reflected in blue and green and gold sparkles from the scales of the little lizard, who had shifted his position until he clung at the very rim of daylight, half outside the cave. Jane and Davidson got up lazily from the moss, and went to the threshold of their front door. They were in a high world, from where they could look straight out into the wonder of a new morning. The towers and pinnacles of rock, yesterday so desolate in the impending rain, were touched with magic, and at their feet the sea glistened with a new and younger blue.

“Let’s explore today — I think I really feel like it, at last,” Jane said.

Davidson was leaning against the front of the cave, looking at her. The sun glinted on her long tangled brown hair, made it shine with little twists of gold; and her face was young and eager. The pale, pinched look was fading slowly away. She turned, and their eyes met. Both smiled.

“Yes,” he said at last. “We’ll explore. But first — breakfast.”

They pushed between the ferns on one side of the cave mouth; and by climbing a steep ledge, clutching the thick vines that fell across it, digging their toes into small crannies, they were able to get up to the level of the forest, and stood triumphantly on the roof of their dwelling-place. Then they went into the woods in different directions, to hunt breakfast.

Leaves sprinkled wet pearls as Jane brushed through them. They were a great diverse population. There were soft lacy ones that drooped graciously, little lithe aspiring ones that grew tensely upward, long slender grayish ones, big triangular glossy ones — every shade of green and gray-green and yellow-green, blended together subtly in a chorus of colors. They were conversing, too, these leaves, in a language of almost imperceptible nods and stirrings and secret smiles, and slight flickerings where golden ethereal beads of light broke into green mercury over edges and tips and stems.

Jane found her heart hammering so hard that it shook her, and she did not feel the twigs and branches of undergrowth against her face. “What is it?” she asked tensely; and answered herself: “I guess I’m getting well; I’m in love!” And she began to run, back toward the deeper woods — running away from the intensity of her own feelings, running to find a quiet corner where she could rest and think, all alone. She leaned against a tree, to catch her breath. This quiet soothed her. A green smell came from the moss and ferns. Earth. Flowers starred the little glade here, and every petal of every flower was an entire world. A solitary cricket cheeped nearby — a small golden cry of life.

She felt wild and ethereal, part of the woods. She stretched out her hands, and leaves met them caressingly. They rustled a little as a fragrant breath of wind strayed through. The woods were singing now. There were a thousand small glimmering things stirring in her heart — and a deep, persistent calling, like waves.

Slowly, out of a mist of confused happiness, she became aware of another calling, of Davidson’s voice: “Janie! Where are you?”

They perched on the edge of the cliff, and nibbled their fruit. It was gay, spitting an occasional orange-seed far out into blue mid-space.

“Davidson!”

“What, Janie?”

“Got your knife?”

“Sure.”

“Well, cut off my hair, will you?”

“No, I like your hair.”

“Well, cut off some of it, then. It’s hot and heavy and tangled. I haven’t anything to comb it with, and it gets in my eyes, and it’s thoroughly messy and uncomfortable.”

“I see your point, but I hate to.”

“Go ahead! Courage! I want to swim today.”

“Swim? Are you up to that?”

“Of course I’m up to it. In fact, I’m crazy for it. So be a good shipmate, and cut it off. I want to feel the wind on the back of my neck.”

He opened the jackknife that had stood by him through the thick and thin of several years, and took hold of a bunch of Jane’s long hair.

“Does this mean — ” he stopped to ask — “that I’m going to have to try and shave, or anything like that?”

“Of course not. I think your tawny beard is getting exceedingly picturesque.”

“It must be.”

“What do we care how we look?” she demanded. “For the first time in our lives, it doesn’t make any difference.” She looked at him, and the sweeping realization came over her of the full import of this. “Do you realize how grand it is?” she questioned. Her eyes gleamed with eagerness. “There are no mirrors, Davidson! We’re free of them. Oh, mirrors are one of the worst things about a hateful civilization. No mirrors! Do you realize the glory of that? Do you realize what it means?… It means I can be beautiful, for the first time in my life!” she burst out triumphantly.

Davidson smiled. “I’ve always thought you were beautiful,” he said simply.

She laughed at him, secretly afire with inexpressible joy. Then she shook her head, serious again. “No,” she said. “Always, before, I’ve been plain — plain old plain-Jane. I’ve had friends, and they liked me, but nobody ever thought I was anything but plain. I couldn’t get away from that, and accepted it, all my life. I never cared or worried very much. But now, all of a sudden — I don’t know why — I want to be beautiful. And I am — because — well, because I feel that way. That’s enough — here, where there are no mirrors. I feel like the island itself — shining and iridescent.… Come on, get busy on my hair!”

Reluctantly he plunged into it, holding small bunches of it firmly in one hand, and slashing with the knife. It was a slow and difficult job, but before it was finished quite a lot of Jane’s hair managed to get free and blow merrily out to sea. What was left looked pretty ragged, but he saw that she was right about it, and not only from the practical point of view. Short in front so that it could not get in her eyes, it allowed new lines of neck and forehead and cheeks to be revealed; it made her look younger, more carefree, like a gipsy princess behaving rather naughtily and happy about it. The last traces of the old Jane were gone.

She shook her head, feeling it, ruffling up her hair, letting the wind stir it. “Wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Thanks, shipmate. And now let’s go.”

The coral sand on the beach below was shiny and hard, in some places snow-white, in others shading to pink and purplish. The sea was a thousand colors, changing and shifting subtly. Waves rushed at the beach, blue, shading to green, glinting with red, and — for a magic second at the break — pure gold.

“I’m going to strip,” she said. “Don’t know why I haven’t before. Modesty in mixed company, I s’pose. But I don’t want to be modest any more.”

“Better be careful!” he warned. “I’ve never seen a naked woman. There’s no telling what it may do to me.”

“You’re a sailor, and you tell me that!”

“It’s the truth,” he said.

“But it’s amazing. How did it happen?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled. “Always been shy, I guess. Sort of steered clear.”

“No amorous escapades in your whole career?” she asked, still incredulous.

“Sure; when I was in grammar school I carried a little girl’s books for her; and when I told her I was going to run away to sea, she cried.”

“And afterwards? At sea?”

“Well, the other chaps had plenty of stories to tell, but they didn’t sound like anything I wanted. They got their money stolen and acquired diseases.”

“And so,” Jane repeated slowly, “you’ve never seen a naked woman. S’pose you can stand the shock?”

“Well, I don’t guarantee the results.”

“I won’t hold you responsible, then,” she said. “But I’m a confirmed nudist and sun-worshipper.”

“I think I’m going to be, too.”

“That’s another thing I missed in New York.”

“There are roofs,” he said.

“There are also airplanes,” she reminded him. “Well, let’s have a ceremony. Strip together, and bury the remnants in some special place, as an offering to the sun.”

But the wiser Davidson objected. “It can be cold in the tropics,” he warned her. “We’d better save ’em. Stick ’em back in the cave; out of sight, if you like.”

Jane unlaced her shoes, and kicked them far and wide.

“Probably a good idea to retrieve them, too,” he said. “Though I hate to spoil the fun.”

“You know, you’ve made me almost self-conscious,” she protested. “What if I don’t come up to long-cherished expectations?”

“That’s the least of my worries,” he said; “and anyway, I won’t hold you responsible.”

“Well, then, off with them! Here’s to the sun!”

She was lithe and well-muscled, with strong shoulders, deep chest, and a straight back like a young boy’s. There were still a good many bruises on her body, and she was too thin from days of starvation: there were shadows between her ribs.

She flung up her arms, in the rapture of feeling wind and sun against her skin; and, tossing back her short hair with a new careless gesture, she ran down the beach a little way before dashing into the sea that waited for her — hungrily, Davidson thought, tense with desire.

Her swimming was easy and agile, with leisurely grace: face in the sea, hair floating loose like seaweed, elbows arched one after another, arms and shoulders gleaming silver for an instant at each stroke, body rolling a little from side to side — a finished “crawl.” The water was warm silk.

But she was soon tired. She lay floating on her back, gazing at the domed roof of the blue world in which she was imprisoned. The sea’s almost imperceptible long swells cradled her. Then, with a slower stroke, she swam out two or three hundred feet more. Looking straight down through the wavering blue crystal atmosphere, she could see a garden of ivory castles, purple fans, chiseled coral boulders, and companies of bright little fish, sometimes holding still as though preserved in blue glass, sometimes darting with a suddenness that was like a conjurer’s trick: they were there, poising on their jeweled fins; and then there was space where they had been — that was all she saw.

She swam back slowly to shore. By now the sand was almost too hot to walk on. She walked on the edges of her tender bare feet, curling up her toes a little. But except for that, and a sense of unusual well-being, she was not in the least self-conscious, which only added to her happiness…. “Davidson! There are corals deep down — wonderful caves and towers and palaces; and little fish that make you think a rainbow somewhere has burst into millions of pieces, and the pieces have come alive.”

“What a mermaid you are!” he observed.

“Why don’t you come out and see?”

“Don’t you know that sailors can’t swim?” he asked. “It’s one of the incongruities they all have in common.”

“That’s ridiculous,” was her verdict.

“It may be ridiculous, but it’s true.”

“Well, then, I’ll teach you. It’s the grandest feeling I know.”

“You rest a while first,” he warned her. “And don’t get too much sun at first. You’ll turn into a red ember.”

“Grandpa!” she mocked.

“Maybe so, but I’m going to watch out for you, shipmate. You aren’t any ox yet, you know. I could play a tune on those ribs of yours.”

“I s’pose you’re right.” She threw herself down, still glistening, on the sand beside him, and lay breathing deeply, arms above her head. “I’ve never in my life swum in water that was so — beautiful,” she told him. “Beautiful — beautiful — I use that trite old word again and again. But it means something, here. You understand me when I say it, don’t you, Daveson? We’ll give back to that beaten and trampled-on poor old word all the meaning it ought to have, and more. More, Daveson, because beauty will be our religion, our new god — this island’s god.”

“Thought it was the sun we were worshipping.”

“Oh, there are quantities of gods,” Jane informed him. “The sun is one of the biggest and best. But to me they’re all subordinates — essential fragments of the one supreme one, which is Beauty. It’s beauty we live on, after all. Without it we’d starve and die a horrible death, spiritually. The hunger for it is the one thing all life has in common. It may not be recognized as that, and it may have very different forms. I think that’s the answer to those indefinable yearnings we all have sometimes, that we can’t quite understand or put into thoughts….”

He wanted to say that to him she symbolized all earthly and heavenly beauty. He wanted to fling a swift arm across her breast, and never let her go again. But already she had escaped fleet-footed down the beach, leaving him only her laugh, and the print of her gold-white body in the sand. She was collecting shells now, and exploring the tide pools at the foot of the cliffs — those warm pools that fairly seethed with quaint small life: crabs, anemones, starfish (one brilliant red one looked unreal, as though it had fallen in a pot of paint), and strange unidentifiable shelly or wormy creatures. Davidson joined her. They stepped cautiously, to avoid the barnacles with which some of the ledges were carpeted. Sometimes they held hands companionably, as they crouched down to peer into a pool and laugh together at some small oddity.

They climbed down closer to the sea, and stood on rocks that were covered with slippery wrack. Fringes of kelp lifted and fell, swirling.

“Look!” Jane said. “Those shellfish — musselly-looking things. Wonder if they’re edible.”

“Too bad they aren’t oysters,” Davidson said.

“We can’t be choosy. Anyway, I’m going to try one. Where’s your knife?” She had pried loose one of the bivalves from a cluster of its companions, and was trying to pull its shells apart.

“In my pants pocket, of course, halfway down the beach. That’s the trouble with your sun-worship; how does a chap carry his knife?… Here, let me open him.”

“Pretty slimy,” she observed. “But I’m no sissy. Here goes!” And she swallowed hard.

Davidson laughed at her expression. “Better stick to oranges,” he advised. “If you don’t enjoy these critters, what’s the use of forcing yourself to eat ’em?”

“But they’re quite good,” she said. “A little peppery, as if they’d been seasoned.”

“Somebody was mighty thoughtful,” Davidson mocked. But then he tried one himself, and admitted that its sliminess was the worst thing about it, and that it really was a relief from a diet of little beside fruit.

Jane wanted to swim again. She lured Davidson into the water, and set him to thrashing his big arms and legs, while she rollicked around him. “There’s hope for you,” she told him, “even if you are a sailor.” So, swimming and learning to swim, chasing up and down the beach, eating fruit and shellfish, they spent the whole day; and not until dark was beginning to fall could Davidson get Jane to leave the sea.

When at last she came ashore, she realized again with desperate suddenness how tired she really was. All at once she was clumsy and heavy as lead, missing the buoyant support of the water, feeling that gravity had mysteriously and ruthlessly doubled its power. She thought it odd that the water should seem a more natural element — fish out of water was no word for the way she felt now! “Damn! My strength goes, just like that,” she protested, snapping her fingers. “I wish I’d get over it, Daveson.”

“You silly child, you’ve been banged up, and shipwrecked, and starved, and sick, and nearly dead in a dozen ways,” he reminded her. “What d’you expect so soon? I shouldn’t have let you swim so much.”

She sighed. The cave at the top of the cliff looked incredibly high and far away. She eyed it doubtfully. “Let’s stay on the beach tonight,” she suggested.

For answer, he picked her up gently, and carried her toward the cliff. Her wet hair brushed his shoulder. Up the giant steps and the winding ledges he walked cautiously, breathing hard from the weight of his burden, feeling at the same time stirred and triumphant, as on the night he had carried her half-dead body out of a tangle of wreckage on the Annie Marlow. Only now she was very much alive, and warm, and naked.

“I love you,” he said. But — irritatingly if it had not been so absurd — she was sound asleep.

She did not wake up when he put her down in the moss. She did not wake at all till long after the big green-lighted fireflies in the vines at the cave mouth had folded themselves away under the leaves. She was dimly conscious first of the fragrance of those flowers outside, then of the softness of moss against her unaccustomed nakedness — soothing to sunburned shoulders — and then that Davidson’s chest was against her own, his arms around her once more, and that she was happy to be so intimately close to him. She lifted her hand, and cautiously caressed one big solid shoulder. At her touch he started as though from an electric shock.

“Sorry! Didn’t mean to wake you,” she whispered. “Glad you’re here, that’s all.”

And the next thing she knew he had hunted and found her lips in the enchanted dark, and was kissing them hungrily, though reverently, and caressing her with hardened hands that were surprisingly tender.

“Janie! My little Janie!”

“Yes,” she said.

There was nothing in life, except to be his, part of him.

Chapter X

Comments

  1. Rich Harrison says:

    Enjoying the story and the Farksoo material. Take your time posting it, don’t get burned out.

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