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The Boy in the Waves

The naked child splashed in the surf and giggled, smashing at the waves with a curiously shaped piece of driftwood. His pale skin was flushed red from the cold, brocaded with glittering beads of sand and salt water sequins; his equally glittery hair hung to his shoulder like waterlogged seaweed. He jumped from crest to crest in the shallows, bringing his stick down to challenge the waves as they broke, laughing as they splashed across his body. He couldn’t remember where he’d found the stick – but it felt right in his hand, as if he’d owned it forever.

He turned to meet a wave that came sloping in, slashing with his stick to meet the challenge too late. Off-balance, the wave knocked him into the frigid water, tumbled him briefly, tenderly, in a sandy embrace of foam and kelp and pushed him onto the sand where he sat, breathing hard and laughing.

A raucous gathering of crows up the beach caught his attention. They were wheeling and swooping around a small sea-stack a medium distance away, squabbling over some prize or other. They had driven away a couple of equally noisy but less determined gulls who were at that moment flying away into the slowly lifting fog, bewailing their loss. He stood up, made a cursory attempt at brushing some of the sand off, and headed up the beach.

The sun was finally burning through the fog, revealing a narrow rocky beach with the merest trim of sand. Sandstone cliffs, carved by wind and wave, stretched far above the boy’s head; a black band edged in bright green several meters up the wall marked the tide’s customary height. Topping the cliffs were further walls of black-green firs, buttressed by twisted trees with glossy green leaves and peeling cinnamon-colored bark. As the boy drew nearer to the stack, he could see one of these cinnamon trees growing atop the stack, dominating a tiny scrub of improbable bushes that defied the waves. The boy saluted the tree with his stick, admiring its bravery. Off in the fog and mist, an osprey shrieked. The boy shrugged, and walked on.

The stones of the beach were smooth beneath him, with occasional barnacles that his calloused feet ignored. Scattered driftwood logs and branches he stepped or skipped over, whacking away with his stick. As he approached the stack, though, his way appeared barred by an enormous pile of driftwood, tangled and spiky like a wall of thorns from a fairy tale. He squeezed through the pile of massive conifer trunks and stumps bleached grey like bones of fantastic monsters, slashing with his stick at the snarl of ancient roots and branches, meeting their attempts to scrape him directly. As he emerged he shook his head, tossing his matted hair out of his eyes, and brandishing his stick with a victorious shout.

The crows perched atop the stack’s lone tree scattered, calling for their companions to follow. Most heeded their warning, flapping off to their sanctuary amid the firs. A few stragglers decided to hop off to closer perches where they could wait and see what the boy would do. The boy glared at them as they cawed their defiance at him. Still, they presented no challenge, and he walked onward.

The final obstacle was almost anti-climactic: a pile of rubble that had once been an arch joining the sea stack with the cliff above. The stones here formed tide pools, studded with barnacles and snails and carpeted with sea anemones. The boy stopped to crouch by one of the pools and poke at the anemones with his stick. Their ghostly pale tentacles pulled away, folding in on themselves as they retracted into their bodies. He put his stick down and crouched even closer, touching one with his finger. He smiled as he felt it momentarily catch and drag on his skin with its ineffective sting, then recoil as it sensed the potential threat. Picking his stick up, the boy stood up and continued into the rocky gap between the stack and the cliff.

The air grew thick as he rounded the stack. The ammonia smell of rotting fish and sickly sweetness of rancid fat filled the boy’s nostrils and briefly made his eyes water. A greyish-brownish mass longer than he was tall stretched along the base of the stack, pinned between several rocks, but he could make out no details.

The stench worsened as he got closer. Closer still, and he could make out flippers, and the partially exposed skull of the seal grinning at him. Ignoring the stink, the boy walked up to the corpse and sat down cross-legged beside it. Brushing the hair out of his eyes, he solemnly examined the seal. He held out his hand, angling it to mirror the flipper, and compared his fingers to those of the seal. Then he folded his hands in his lap, and sat quietly.

As he sat, the remaining crows grew bolder. They circled in, hopping, murmuring to each other and rustling their feathers. When the boy stood, they flew off in a panic. Their alarm was misplaced, though; the boy walked back up to the cobbled beach, and started looking through the stones. He picked up the smaller stones and examined them intently, rejecting them all until he settled on a perfect sphere of agate. He returned to the seal and knelt beside it. Gently, he smoothed clotted fur and flesh away from the seal’s eye, and carefully placed the stone in the empty socket. He stood, saluted the seal with his stick, and started walking back down the beach.

It wasn’t long after emerging from the driftwood barrier that the boy became aware that someone was shouting. A fat man was jogging towards him, waving and yelling, his words swallowed by the wind and the waves. Trying to keep up with him was an equally fat little dog. The boy walked towards them.

The man was out of breath when the boy arrived. His old, pudgy face was red and blotchy, and he struggled to form words. The little dog sniffed curiously at the boy and skittered away shyly. Slowly, words returned to the man.

“Are your parents around?”

The boy just looked at him quietly.

“Are you lost? Are you cold? Are you hungry? You look like you’ve been out here forever.” As he was saying this, the old man was taking off his coat, avoiding looking directly at the boy’s nakedness.

The boy nodded and the old man slipped the coat around the boy’s shoulders. It draped comically, sleeves nearly touching the ground. The boy felt the old man’s warmth on the coat, and breathed deeply. Echoes of aftershave, pipe smoke. Something chemical and modern, possibly the coat itself. The old man’s anxiety sharp in his sweat.

“It isn’t safe out here, the tide’s coming in. This stretch fills up quicker than people realize, especially tourists.” The old man’s breath was returning, and he finally looked directly at the boy. The boy’s eyes were the color of the sea or the sky or something in-between, and the old man looked away under their gaze. “You got a name?”

The boy nodded. The man paused, waiting for more, but nothing was forthcoming.

“Huhn. Well, no one lives out here, and I didn’t see any cars parked at the overlook. Guess we’re heading to the Sheriff.”

The boy nodded again, and took the old man’s hand. The old man kept talking, more to himself than anything, about his wife, and his heart, and his daily walks, and the pipe he isn’t supposed to smoke but he does out here and his wife pretends she doesn’t know. About the beach and the tides and the people swept out to sea and never found again. About how lucky the boy was that the old man had found him because the tide was about to come in.

The boy closed his eyes and inhaled deeply again. The old man’s smell was comforting but foreign. He could feel the old man’s rough hand against his, could feel his sick old-man heart racing. The boy thought of the stick, how perfect it felt in his hand, and suddenly realized how hungry he was. The old man continued talking. The boy opened his eyes, observing.

“Say, what’s that you’ve got there? Some kind of driftwood?”

The boy held the stick up so the man could see it.

“Looks more like a bone than a stick to me. Can I see it?”

The boy nodded and let the man take it. He would find another.

“Yeah, that’s a bone alright. Some kind of rib, looks like. Old. Been in the water a long time. Where’d you find this?”

The boy turned and pointed back up the beach. He was very hungry, and tired of the old man talking.

“Can’t you say anything?”

The boy let go of the man’s hand and stopped walking. He let the old man’s jacket slip off his shoulders, flopping to the stones, and stood naked in front of the man. The man knelt down to pick the jacket up, determinedly not looking at the boy’s sea-foam white body.

“Can’t have that, gotta keep you covered before you freez…”

The boy touched the old man on the lips, stopping him mid-word. The old man looked into the boy’s eyes and saw the waves. “We can’t let you…” The boy touched the old man again and leaned in close, their faces nearly touching. Aftershave and pipe smoke. Off in the distance, the fat little dog was barking urgently. “But you’ll…”

The boy kissed the old man on the lips, smelling the man’s fear and confusion as seawater poured from the boy’s mouth into his old-man lungs, feeling his old-man heart pound as the tide surged up around them. The boy was hungry, and remembered where he’d found the stick. Soon enough, the boy would hunger no more, and the old man would provide plenty of new sticks.