Volume 3 Number 1
"Eat this button."
The thin old fisherman they called Zeus held out the large brown button, like one from his ragged coat. Parker remembered backing away. He had no intention of eating a goddamned button.
A sea bird made a long, warbling cry, bringing Parker out of his daze. He was surrounded by bright mist. The water around the overturned boat was calm, like glass. His head throbbed, and one of his numb legs dangled in the water.
Parker wondered just how far out to sea he was. Before dark -- before the boat tipped over -- he could see land to either side of him. It was more like being in a river than a sea. To the east had been mainland Mexico, to the west, Tiburon Island. Funneled between these two shores, the tide moved with amazing speed. People told him that in this fast tide, strange things happened.
Just before sunset, Parker had seen two of them. A whirlpool fifty feet across that spun the little boat in such a horrible, dizzying circle that all he could do was hold on and wretch. Then, just as the last light of sunset faded, he ran into an upwelling. A wall of water. It tossed the boat several feet into the air and turned it over right on top of him, slamming down on his head.
Sticky red blood was still in his hair, and he worried about concussion. Feeling around, he couldn't find a cut, so he suspected it came from his ears. Parker cupped his hand and scooped up some seawater, splashing it onto his head and watching it run red back into the water. His blood billowed like thin pink clouds, dissipating, dissolving into the great expanse.
We came from the sea, he thought. Seawater is in our blood, in every cell in our bodies. My body. He scooped more into his hair, watched more diluted blood trickle down. I am returning to the sea, he thought. There I go.
The haze cleared and the sun beat down. Water from horizon to horizon and no land in sight. As the sun climbed higher, he began to get hot, and the water started looking good. Parker let himself slide into it, feeling the immediate cool relief, and he was surprised as some of his strength returned. He floated next to the boat, one hand holding on.
Part of him feared sharks, but as the hours slipped away and nothing happened, he settled into the notion that he was the only living creature within ten miles. It was both eerie and comforting to look down and see his legs dangling over endless space.
After a while, he leaned back and tried floating on his back, staring up at the unbroken expanse of blue above him. The most minimalist landscape he'd ever seen. The world divided in two by a straight line.
A memory like a phantom voice whispered at him. Zeus's old, rasping breath saying, "Eat this button." Parker couldn't for the life of him figure it out. Had he eaten it? He didn't know, though he did remember not wanting to. There had been needles sticking out of it.
Parker lifted his head, looked around, and realized how wrinkled and waterlogged his skin had become. As tranquil as it seemed, eventually a shark would smell his blood. He took a deep breath and clambered halfway up onto the overturned boat, then began rocking it back and forth, back and forth, putting more effort into it each time. Finally it tipped all the way over, and he pushed himself off as it came down. A solid splash, and the boat was right side up again. It floated low in the water, the inside swamped, but that made it easier to climb in.
Parker arranged himself lengthwise across the middle bench seat, a few inches above the water, and basked in the sunlight. He could feel the light and heat pouring onto him, drying him, purifying him. It sank toward the horizon, and the sky above was so huge and empty, he felt like he would fall up into it, like Icarus in reverse.
Time slipped in between -- every time he opened his eyes the sun had moved. Then he opened his eyes and the sky was on fire, great swaths of red and yellow, pink and violet. Parker concentrated on breathing, telling himself he was still alive, still aware enough to see something so awesome and beautiful. The world, he guessed, had ended. Atomic fire cleansing the globe, or maybe a monstrous solar flare. Armageddon in full Technicolor. He'd never seen anything like it, ever, and it felt like his whole wasted life led up to this, lying half-dead in a swamped boat while the air burned and the Earth perished. We all go down together, he thought.
The fire faded and so did he. Next time he made it back to consciousness, there were ten billion stars in front of him, stars of all sizes and colors, some as far away as the edge of the universe, and some so close he could swear he could reach out and touch them. There was something else, though. A sound.
This sound brought him back, caused him to sit up and look. There were stars everywhere, above and reflected from below, except for one big black patch -- a void, a presence that made itself known by its absence, and the sound of water lapping against rock.
The oars were long lost, so Parker splashed to the front and paddled with his hands. The boat was heavy with water, but he got a rhythm going and it seemed to be making progress. Either that or the current pushed him toward it anyway. The stars slowly dimmed above him, and features starting showing up. He could see the water, and the wood of the boat, and the rocks ahead. Behind him a gibbous moon had appeared, misshapen and bloated, rising out of the water. Its reflection was nearly perfect so that it looked like there were two moons, one right above the other. Parker tore his gaze away from the odd sight and looked ahead at the island.
What he saw in the pale two-moon light looked like the top half of a massive stone fist. It wasn't a very big island, maybe a couple of football fields long, but it was tall. As the boat came closer, he could swear he saw shadows moving on the beach at the base of the cliffs. People, hopefully, though he couldn't be sure. He couldn't even tell if they were real, or if he were seeing illusions of moonlight.
The current abruptly shifted, and the boat began moving parallel to the shore. Parker's arms were exhausted from paddling, but he continued. Just as it seemed he would drift away, the boat suddenly banged against something and the bow swung around. Then another thud and a grinding sound. Looking down into the water, Parker saw the tide passing by. He'd run aground on barely-submerged rocks.
Distances were hard to judge, but Parker figured he was perhaps thirty yards from the beach. From this angle, most of it was in shadow. He slipped carefully over the side to swim in. He was startled to feel the bottom, and he stood up. The water came up to just over his navel. Grabbing hold of the boat, he gave it a yank, which pulled it free, and he towed it along behind him toward shore.
The bottom receded and then dropped away altogether, so he kicked his stiff, aching legs, paddling with his free hand, until he could touch the bottom again. By the time he made it to the shore he was doubly exhausted, and was just barely able to pull the boat up a bit onto the wet, round pebbles before he started feeling faint. His head pounded in time with his heart, just a split second behind in beat, and bright dots swarmed across his vision. Feeling for a flat, dry place, Parker collapsed and waited for the spell to pass.
Parker felt like he was lying on a spinning platform in a children's playground, and there were kids all around him, laughing and shouting, holding on to the rails as they ran, spinning him faster and faster. The whole world spun with him at the center, and the forces were pulling him in all directions. The moonlight and stars faded, replaced by black.
Then there was a campfire. The world still spun, but not so violently. He sat up to see chairs around the fire, and half-familiar faces smiling at him in amusement. He was on a double-folded pad of burlap and newspaper, and he smelled marijuana smoke and roasting seafood.
"What the hell?" he said.
Mark Voortman, the boozer from the office who'd convinced him to come on the fishing trip with him, leaned far over and slapped him a couple of times on the shoulder.
"You back from your trip yet, buddy?"
"No way," he said. Somehow he'd gone back in time two days. Sitting up, he faced the others from the fishing party and their guide, an old guy they called Zeus. ("Hey Zeus," they always said. "Hey Zeus, what bait should I use?" "Hey Zeus, how far out are we going to go?" "Hey Zeus, do you know where we can score some weed?") It only occurred to Parker, just then, that the old guy's name was actually Jesus, but pronounced the Hispanic way.
"You ate the button, man," Mark told him. "And you left a lot of the needles in it."
"What button?" Parker said.
"The button, man!" They were laughing at him. "You ate the button."
"No," he mumbled. "I didn't eat the goddamned button."
"You did," the old man told him. He laughed. "What did you expect?"
The edges between what was light, and what was dark, had a cellophane shimmer to them. Nothing looked quite real. He knew, then, he was dreaming. Some sort of bad, brain-damaged dream, like Alice walking through Wonderland, none of it making any kind of sense. He eased himself back down onto the dusty burlap, wondering if he was in a coma. For all he knew his entire life was all one big coma-dream. It would explain his aimless drifting, his plans that went nowhere. Dropping out of junior college, wading from one dead-end job to the next. Waking up each morning and wondering when his life would actually start. Maybe today? Maybe ... but if not, there was always tomorrow. That's what he kept telling himself.
But that wasn't true, not really. Someday he would reach a point where there would be no tomorrow. He would eventually run out of them. The universe might be infinite, but life was not. That's why he threw caution to the wind and spent money he didn't have, traveling with someone he really didn't know and definitely didn't like, down on some not-completely-thought-out fishing trip to God-knew-where.
Maybe, he hoped, it would be the start of his life.
"This is a dream," he told Zeus. "This is just a big, strange dream."
"It always is," the old man told him. He had the face of Methuselah, his hair white but peppered with stubborn tufts of thick black. The night air kept blowing it into his face.
The fire slowly died down, and it got cold. Parker endured the cold, too tired to move, but at one point decided he should at least get under the burlap. He rolled to the side, groping for it, but it was gone. His hand grasped damp pebbles. He opened his eyes, looking around. He saw the beach with the little wooden boat, and it looked like low tide. The boat was a good eight feet from the shore, leaning to one side, still full of seawater. It was daylight but overcast and there was a gusty wind. It looked like it would rain. Now that he thought about it, he felt a drop, then another.
Parker tilted his head back and opened his mouth, shouting to the sky, "Rain, baby, rain!" It did just that, a wall of water sweeping across him and pelting him so hard it stung. He had to cover his eyes and nose, but left his mouth open. It was cold, almost icy. A flash and peal of thunder let him know it meant business.
Still shielding his eyes, he looked at the boat and thought about turning it over for shelter. But then he had another idea: he made his way to one side and, grunting with the effort, tipped it up to dump the seawater, then let it settle back down again to fill with rain. While he was at it, he pulled it further up the beach. If he didn't, the tide would come in and carry it away, sure as hell.
Picking a direction at random, Parker began to walk along the rocky shore, looking for some sort of shelter. The rain eased gradually from a torrent to a gentle patter, but lightning flashed regularly, the thunder immediate and frightening. For all he could tell each strike hit the top of the island. Like God was angry.
He found no sand on this beach, only rock and pebbles. Some of the pebbles looked like dice, so much so that he bent down and picked a few of them up. White quartz with veins of black, and many of them were vague, haphazard cubes. No sharp edges or corners, everything smooth from being rolled around for millennia by the water. There were different colors too, some tinged pink, some green.
He made it around to the lee side of the island, but the beach disappeared into the water leaving only cliff and ocean. He was just about to turn back when something high on the cliff wall above caught his attention. Someone had taken the colored beach pebbles and embedded them into the face of the cliff to form intricate patterns. He backed off several feet to get a better view, and though it was difficult to see through the rain he could make out a picture: two lizards clinging to each others' bellies, each facing the other's spiral-curled tail. Like Yin and Yang, Aztec style. It gave him a creepy feeling, and the next time lightning struck, he jumped, startled, and hurried back the way he'd come. Now as he walked, he paid attention to the cliff face above him.
There were dozens of patterns along the cliff wall. Spirals, butterflies, lizards and snakes, birds, and a fanciful image of the sun, complete with an eerie face. It looked angry. That's bad, he thought. The sun is not something you want pissed off at you.
He passed the boat, finding it filling nicely with rainwater. He paused and drank handfuls of it before another peal of thunder prompted him to continue. Making his way around the corner of the island, he came across a section of the cliff that had succumbed to erosion and a large chunk of it had tumbled in pieces down across the shore and into the water. Parker made his way carefully through the jumble of boulders and beyond. Just as he'd hoped, he found a large section of rock cliff that leaned far over the water, almost enough to be considered a long shallow cave.
Bright little comets swarmed around in his vision, and he felt dizzy and sick. His trek around the island had sapped what strength he had, so he walked up to a fairly dry area, found a comfortable spot next to a big rock, and sat down. He hugged his knees and put his face against them, trying to think.
"I know why you come here," a woman's voice said. "You are on a pilgrimage."
Parker raised his head slowly. The voice came from right beside him. What he'd taken for a large rock was actually a brown-skinned woman in a heavily-woven robe. She'd pulled her hood back to reveal thick brown-black hair, and her eyes were large and black within dark brown.
Parker blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision. She looked at him with an intense expression that he couldn't read. It was either anger or fear, or maybe something else, something like the expression a cat has when it's about to pounce on a sparrow. On the other side of her was a young cross-eyed boy, maybe nine or ten years old, dressed also in thickly woven brown cloth. His crossed eyes were black within black, looking like his pupils were fully dilated, and he had wild black hair like a thatch of dark weeds.
The woman, he thought dizzily, must be scared out of her wits. Here he was, a stranger from nowhere, coming and sitting down right next to her.
"Hey," he said to her, "I not... I'm..." Words weren't coming easy. He could tell he would pass out at any moment.
"I'm harmless," he finally said.
"You are bleeding," the woman told him.
"I know." Parker saw nothing but comets now, swarms of them. He put his face back against his knees and waited for them to go away.
"Pato said you made it rain."
"Did you make it rain?" he heard the woman ask. But as the comets winked out and the darkness took over, Parker wasn't sure if it was her voice or a voice in his head. He felt himself falling over but didn't feel the ground.
The invisible river of time flowed along, carrying him in its iron current, and bumped him up against consciousness once again. He opened his eyes, only dimly aware, and saw brightly-colored pebbles right in front of his face. He closed his eyes and let the current carry him along again, trusting it as much as fearing it, knowing that this is what he'd been doing his entire life. Just floating along.
He opened his eyes again and saw the same pebbles. This time he had more strength, and his vision seemed clear. He clumsily pushed himself to a sitting position, and turned to see large rocks where the woman and boy had been sitting. Oh, man, he thought, another dream. But as he brushed at the pebbles stuck to his face, he felt a cloth at his forehead. Exploring with trembling hands, he found cloth wrapped around as a bandage, and he brought his hands away to see traces of blood on his fingers.
It had stopped raining but was still overcast, and the tide had come in. From behind and to the left of him, he heard pebbles rattling against each other; something small hit him on the shoulder. Turning his stiff neck, he saw the cross-eyed boy standing about thirty feet away, pebbles in his hands. Seeing Parker awake, the kid turned and walked away. Parker took a deep breath and then struggled to his feet to follow.
Halfway around the island, at the point where the cliff had fallen, there was a steep rocky path leading up. The boy had no problem with it, leaping nimbly from rock to rock like taking a stroll up a short flight of stairs. Parker had to stop and rest three times before making it to the top, fearing for his life the whole way.
The top of the island wasn't as flat as he'd thought. There were three little hills, and the boy was already walking over the top of the first one. There was a well-worn path and to each side it was thick with brown grass, gnarled brush, and cactus. As he trudged over the rise of the first hill, he saw a small adobe building ornately decorated with more of the colored pebbles. Next to it sat a stone well and an outside fireplace. As Parker approached, he saw the woman direct the boy to chop wood while she fussed with something in a large black pot steaming over the fire. The breeze carried the scent of food, awakening his stomach.
Inside him swelled an animal hunger. It gave him a surge of strength, probably tapping the very last he had.
Parker walked straight up to the woman, eyeing her in earnest.
"Hi," he said. "Did you bandage my head?"
"Yes." She hardly looked at him.
"Thank you," he said to her. When she didn't respond, he asked, "Do you have any food to spare? I haven't eaten in days."
"Of course," she said. Glancing at him, she gave him a pained smile.
"I guess that's obvious, isn't it?"
"You look cold." Turning to the boy, she said, "Pato, bring out something for to keep him warm."
The cross-eyed boy dropped the axe and walked quickly into the adobe hut. "You called him Pato?" Parker asked.
The woman nodded, not looking at him.
"Doesn't that mean, 'duck?'"
"Yes. His real name is Creación but he won't answer to it."
"My name is Brian Parker."
"I am Mary." She stirred the pot. "You like crab, I hope. There's not much else."
"I love crab."
"Pato and I gathered a sack of them this morning."
"Do you get many visitors here?"
"What is this place?"
She didn't answer, and Parker thought that she didn't understand the question.
"Is this a monastery or something? I mean this must be in the middle of nowhere."
"On a clear day you can see mainland to the east."
"Does this island have a name?"
"Isle de Cruce."
Parker didn't remember seeing that name on the Gulf of California map, but then again he hadn't studied it that closely. This island must have been the size of a pinpoint.
"So what brought you here?" he asked her. "The solitude?"
The woman didn't answer. She stirred the pot with an air of concentration. The cross-eyed boy came out of the adobe hut carrying a thick, dirty, old poncho. Parker didn't hesitate to heave it over his head and adjust it to himself.
The woman finished stirring, and turned to Parker. "This is not a place you can go to," she said. "This is a place where you arrive."
"That's true enough," Parker said. "Here I am." He tried to get a better look into the pot, wondering when the crabs would be finished cooking.
"Are you able to chop wood for the fire?" Mary asked. "Pato does well enough, but he is small and the axe is large."
"I'll give it a shot." He looked at Pato, who grinned at him -- happy someone else would be doing the chore. The grin combined with the crossed eyes looked both disturbing and funny. Parker took the axe from the boy and, taking a deep breath, prepared himself. With luck he wouldn't chop off his own foot.
Slowly, methodically, Parker whacked at the large pieces of driftwood and thorny, brown mesquite until he'd reduced it to pieces small enough to fit into Mary's adobe fireplace. When the crabs were done, Parker barely had the strength to eat. Pato helped by cracking the shells with a rock, and Parker sat there, eating out of an old Ford hubcap, his back to the warm wall of the fireplace, pulling the tender crabmeat out of its shell with shaking fingers. He barely even tasted it.
Mary and Pato fed him until he couldn't eat any more. Pato brought him dirty water in an old Coke can. Finally sated, feeling for the first time in days like he would actually survive, Parker began losing consciousness and tried to thank them before he blacked out. He was never sure if he was able to say anything.
He awoke to bright sunlight and the sound of gulls. His back was still against the fireplace, but he'd slid over to one side and his face rested on his tingling arm. Parker struggled to sit up, and then felt suddenly disoriented. What he'd thought was an adobe hut was actually a large lichen-covered boulder. He stared at it with bleary-eyes. The adobe hut, he thought, must be behind him. So he pushed himself forward and got to his feet, and turned around to see more boulders.
The well, the fireplace, and the adobe hut ... they were gone. It was all just boulders, brush, and cactus. Parker groaned and put his face into his hands. More dreams, he thought; more faulty brain-damaged memories. Feeling his head, he found the bandage still there, and realized he still wore the heavy, dirty poncho. At his feet was the beat-up hubcap with remnants of crab shells strewn all around.
The sun was bright, the sky a pale blue, and there were big billowing white clouds drifting slowly along. Parker walked a well-worn series of trails all up and down the top of the plateau, but found no trace of the adobe building, or of Mary and Pato. However, to the east he did see the mainland out on the horizon, as well as a couple of other small islands.
Making his way down the perilous path to the beach, he walked around to the cave and found it underwater. The tide had come in and it was higher than he'd expected. Abruptly he turned and hurried to the other side of the island, dreading that he would find the boat long gone. It wasn't, but the water had reached it. One good wave would have pulled it out to sea. Parker heaved it higher up the beach, right to the base of the cliff, and used the frayed bow rope to tie it to an outcrop of rock. There was still rainwater in the boat, but it was evaporating quickly. He drank what he could, despite it tasting brackish and awful. What he really wanted was a beer. The thought made him smile, and he sat beside the boat, staring out at the water. The way he felt right then, he'd pay $100 for one. He'd just slap the money down and take the beer. No hesitation at all.
Parker rested there for a while. He felt good, actually, though still tired. Tired from his ordeal, tired from trying to figure out what was going on. Tired of his endless moronic daydream memories of years of wasted days. All of them led here, to this lost beach with a boat and some stale rainwater, and a thirst for some good, full-bodied, ice-cold beer.
Do I really want that beer? he asked himself. Or have I been programmed to want that beer? Was the need genuine, or was it implanted by an endless stream of television commercials? The more he thought about it, the more he felt he didn't really need the beer. He was just glad he didn't have a headache, that he was warm, and that the ground felt good under him. The ocean breeze was pleasant, and he didn't feel particularly hungry or thirsty. For a flash, just a mere instant, he felt in touch with something, some inner truth or higher reality, but then it slipped away. It felt like reaching out to catch something only to have it slide though his fingers, leaving him frustrated, confused, and a bit angry. He sat thinking furiously about it, trying to grasp what had briefly come to him, but it was no use.
A flash of color out in the water caught his attention. He saw something bright and big moving under the waves -- a slow patch of yellow just under the choppy surface. It moved along parallel with the beach, and Parker jumped up and wandered along, following it, and when he came to a large series of boulders, he climbed the tallest one for a better angle. From there he could see a huge, bright, orange-yellow fish. It must have seen him, as it turned abruptly away from the beach and sank down into the depths, out of sight. A cloud passed in front of the sun and his surroundings were suddenly dim. The breeze went from warm to chilly like someone had flipped a switch.
"That was Ángel del Océano," said Mary's voice. "It is very rare for anyone to see her."
Parker's breath caught in his throat. Mary stood below him on the beach, looking out at the water.
"How long have you been standing there?" he asked.
"Did I startle you?"
"Yes, you did."
"I didn't intend to." She pointed. "Beautiful, wasn't she?"
"What was it?"
"A golden grouper."
Parker climbed down from the boulder, remembering that Zeus had said something to him and the others about a golden grouper. He spoke about it as if it were a mystical creature, like a mermaid. That was about an hour or so before Zeus gave him the button.
As his feet touched the pebbles, he had a sudden rush of clear memory. The button had not been a button off the old man's coat. It had been a small dark-brown blob, and it was so bitter that Parker had a hard time swallowing it. Others had been eating them too, at some sort of drunken aboriginal ceremony. It was peyote.
He looked up at Mary, focusing deep into her brown-on-brown eyes. Had she been there? She could have been.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked her.
"You told me your name is Brian Parker."
"You've never seen me before?"
"No." She shook her head.
"Do you know how I got here?"
"In your little boat. You came drifting with the tide." She appeared calm, unafraid; her eyes gazed coolly back into his. Either it was his imagination or one corner of her mouth was pulled up, just so, in an ironic smile.
"How did you get here?" he asked her.
"Same way you did," she told him. Abruptly she turned and walked away. Several paces down the beach she turned, flipping her hair, and glanced at him. Then she turned away again and resumed walking.
Parker's body gave a slight shudder and began following her, despite trying to resist. Her signal had been so clear that his ancient animal instincts had kicked in. Follow me, her body said. You are a man, and I am a woman. Follow me.
Parker followed, wondering how long she'd been on the island with only a little boy as a companion. She must have had this in mind all along, he thought, from the moment she found me. Watching her hips moving under the layers of cloth, he followed her up the treacherous rocky path to the top. She wasn't quite as agile as the boy, but still had no problem with the climb. She turned and waited wordlessly for him, but didn't help him over the edge. She just led him over the hill.
Parker wasn't surprised that the adobe hut, stone well, and outdoor fireplace were waiting for them. The boy was busy with a short stick, rolling it quickly between his palms with one end against the adobe of the fireplace, using it like a drill. As they approached, he inserted one of the colored pebbles into the hole. His face was a mask of total concentration, his mouth set in a firm grimace, and his crossed eyes seemed perfectly focused on the job. Without looking up, he began drilling another hole to continue the pattern.
"So you're the artist," Parker said to him. "You decorated all those cliffs?"
The boy barely glanced up. Mary said, "He does this for hours. He won't stop until he's satisfied."
"How does he scale those rock walls? Do you hang him from a rope?"
"Right down the side of the cliff?"
"He makes holes," Mary said. "Puts sticks in them, uses them to climb down. When he's finished, he pulls the sticks out and puts rocks in them."
"You let him do that?"
"Is he your son?"
Mary laughed, but didn't explain. She took his arm and led him into the adobe hut. Parker immediately bumped his head on a piece of wood. It was too dim at first for him to see, and he stood there awkwardly bent over until Mary urged him to sit. Groping and blinking his eyes, he eased himself to the ground, which was covered in layers of coarse blankets. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the shadows, he saw small earthen bowls, tin cans, and old soda bottles lining the walls on shelves. Mary hefted a large earthen jug and pouring its contents into an empty, battered SPAM tin. Setting the jug aside, she picked up the tin and sipped from it, and then held it out for Parker.
"What is it?" he asked.
Parker lifted it and took a small, cautious sip. It was strong. It tasted like Windex. He took a bigger sip and immediately started coughing. Mary grabbed the tin from him so he wouldn't spill it. As his coughing subsided she was downing the tin, and then she poured more. "Where did you get this stuff?" he asked.
"It was brought here," she told him.
"I thought you don't get visitors."
"I don't get many." She handed him the tin.
Parker looked at the tequila. It was clear and there was nothing floating in it. When he sipped, he found it easier to swallow this time. It still tasted like Windex.
"How long have you been on this island?"
She shrugged. "It has been a while."
"The boy's been with you all this time?"
"He was here when I arrived." She took the tequila from him and drained it, then immediately poured more. She took another sip then handed the tin back. As he sipped, she pulled her clothes off.
Parker took a large gulp from the tin, and fought the urge to cough by taking short, quick breaths. His chest felt like fire bloomed from the center outward. It suddenly felt hot inside the little hut. He handed the tin back to Mary and then pulled the poncho over his head.
"Oh, man," he exclaimed.
Mary, now topless, wordlessly poured herself more of the tequila. Parker didn't know if he should openly stare at her breasts or not. They jiggled nicely as she moved, raising the tin to her mouth and drinking. Her nipples were dark and pointed, reminding him of large chocolate kisses.
She poured more tequila and handed it to him. "Here."
"I think I've had enough," he said.
Mary shook her head. "No, you must have more." She held it out insistently until he took it.
Even though it felt like his bones were starting to dissolve, Parker took another swallow of the potent liquor. It was easier each time, which worried him. The fire that had blossomed in his chest now spread across his arms and down his belly. He seemed to be lighter, and the ground beneath him felt softer. When he exhaled, Parker was sure his breath was flammable. He took another drink, emptying the tin, and handed it back to the bare-chested woman.
She sat the tin down and, getting to her knees, moved toward him. Mary climbed onto his lap, facing him, and slid her arms across his shoulders. Leaning forward, her head to one side, her lips brushed his lightly, then she pulled back and looked him in the eyes.
"What is this place?" he whispered to her. "What is happening?"
She put a slender brown finger against his lips and said, "Don't talk now." Leaning forward again, she put her lips against his, not quite a kiss. He closed his eyes, feeling the touch, feeling her arms around him, and smelling her warm musky scent. A hint of wood smoke was in her hair, and a hint of sea spray. Something hot and wet was running along his lips: her tongue, licking his lips as if they were her own, tasting him cautiously. He leaned forward but she pulled back instantly, flashing her dark eyes at him. Then, slowly, her face eased forward once more, and her lips teased his again, never quite kissing, never letting him kiss back.
After several minutes he couldn't stand it any more, and wrapped his arms around her tight and leaned into her, but she silently struggled free and sprung backwards away from him. He was halfway to his feet, about to come after her, when she said -- calmly but firmly -- "No."
Her eyes were bright, and there was a mocking smile on her face. "I need you to start a fire for me," she said.
"A fire. Out there, if we're going to eat."
He rocked back on his haunches, puzzled. "You want me to start a fire?"
"Yes." She nodded and pointed out the doorway.
"Ooookay," he said, getting carefully to his feet. The mention of food was the magic word; he felt hungry again. Once he was standing, he realized exactly how powerful the tequila had been. The world wobbled under his feet as if it sat on a foundation of Jell-O.
Out of a small can, Mary produced an old, corroded silver cigarette lighter. She handed it to him as he stepped past, and didn't stop him from leaning over to give her a light kiss on her lips. He knew vaguely it had something to do with the tequila, but she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen in his life. He lingered too long, so she gave him a shove.
"Go!" she said.
Outside, there was no sign of Pato. Apparently growing bored with his pattern, he went off somewhere to work on another one. Either that, or the boy was gathering more crabs on the beach. Parker looked to the west to see the sun sinking toward the horizon. It looked only half as big as it should have and the sky was an amazing, lurid purple-violet. He'd never seen a sky quite like it before -- it was almost as if it had been tie-dyed. Fuzzy streaks of colors that didn't seem to be clouds streaked from horizon to horizon.
A voice somewhere was singing ... it sounded like a distant, tinny recording of an opera and the speed was wrong, the tape playing a bit slow. He glanced back at Mary, who posed in the doorway, still wonderfully topless; she smiled at him in such a way that he knew he was doomed.
Parker looked down at the lighter in his hand. It was small, silver, and heavy, with rust and corrosion around the edges. It looked like the type of lighter his father used to have, something made in the 1940s. Engraved on the side was a stylized eagle with jagged feathers and a sharp predatory beak. He doubted if the thing would work, but when he opened it and spun the wheel a few times, a flame flickered to life.
Staggering around in the dirt, Parker assembled dry brush and wood, stacked them in the fireplace, and managed to get a fire going. It smoked for several minutes and he thought it would go out, but the smoke finally thinned and healthy flames developed around the larger chunks of wood.
Mary went inside the hut, reappearing a minute later fully dressed and carrying her large black kettle. She filled it with water from the well and put it over the fire. The boy returned with a burlap sack from the beach.
This time, dinner consisted of crabs, mussels, and chewy abalone. The sun seemed to melt into the horizon, setting a fire across the whole side of the sky. Mary brought out more tequila, and Pato went into the hut.
"It must be his bedtime," Parker muttered.
Mary poured tequila into the same SPAM tin. She drank it down and poured more for Parker. Parker took a small sip and handed it back. She wouldn't take it.
"Drink more," she said.
"I don't think it's a good idea."
"You don't like it?"
"This ... this feels wrong."
Mary got on her hands and knees and crawled slowly and sinuously over to him. He saw her face in close, fire shadows flickering across her cheeks and in her eyes. She pressed her lips against his, giving him a long, tender kiss. When she pulled back she breathed, "This feels wrong?"
"I don't know where I am," he whispered to her. "I don't understand any of this." He stared hard into her eyes, his expression desperate. "I don't."
"No one really understands anything," she whispered back. "Those who think they do are fooling themselves."
"Especially me." She kissed again, positioning herself to sit astride him. This time she wasn't teasing, her kisses were passionate and she began rocking herself against him, building a rhythm. He could feel desperation in her, and sadness, and he wondered how often this happened. Not enough? Not with the right person? Too many times with the wrong person? Something must have driven her to this place, just as something sent him here. Drifting at random, but in randomness there is deliberation, a pattern. Chaos conforming spontaneously to order. Seemingly impossible but yet built into the basic fabric of reality itself.
Parker let himself get lost in her raw scent, her strong arms, her earnestness. Off again came her robe, and his hands found what they were seeking. She enjoyed his discoveries, his exploration, and piece-by-piece they removed clothing, found new skin, and explored new zones. It led up to the natural point of entry, and then she pushed him away and leapt to the side, her eyes flashing madly.
"No," she said. "You can't have it."
On her face was a wicked, daring smile.
"What?" He gaped at her.
She turned, pointing her behind at him, moving it to and fro in hypnotic gyrations. "You can't have it."
Parker's heart pounded right up against his ribs. "Oh yes I can," he said, moving toward her.
With a squeal of delight, she jumped to her feet and ran. He chased her around the hut, around the well, and around the fire. Sharp rocks and sticks bit into his feet, and he didn't care. He fell and skinned his leg, and he didn't care. The pain was transformed, adding power to his lust. Next to the hut, he caught her arm and gave it a yank, and she swung and slapped his face, hard, and pulled away. He held his face, shocked, and watched her slowly backing off. She watched him with wild eyes filtered through strands of her black hair. Then abruptly she stopped, and rocked her shoulders, shaking her breasts at him. He dove for her and missed, skinning another leg. She laughed maniacally and danced around to the other side of the fire.
"Come here," he said.
She shook her head. "Come get me."
"If you want it, you're going to have to come to me."
She turned around, bending over, and mooned him again.
Parker scrambled around the fire and she ran, keeping it in-between them. Then she tripped over the tequila jug and fell on her stomach; he leaped on top of her. She struggled but he held her tight and planted himself; she screamed out glories to God, only the whites of her eyes showing. Some animal part of him took over, and all the years of sensitive, tender techniques, studies in the Kama Sutra, articles in Cosmo read to him by former lovers -- they were all forgotten. They both yelled out and the fire beside them roared.
When they were spent, and his humanity came back to him, he relaxed his hold on her and worried that he'd hurt her.
"Are you okay?" he whispered. "Are you? Mary?"
She said nothing, but gave out a long, breathy sigh. Then she reached toward the fireplace and grabbed a burning stick, pulling it out and holding it as a torch. With a heave she flung it into the air above them. It spun slowly, blazing in a high twirling arc, then came down into a thicket of dry brush thirty feet away. The brush sparked up immediately and the fire began doubling itself every few seconds.
Parker stared at it, unable to move. "What the...?" he began. "Why did...?" He scrambled to his feet, approaching the fire but unable to do anything about it. "Are you insane?" he finally shouted.
Mary stood, brushing herself off. She was dirty and the dirt matted the blood from her cuts and scrapes. When she looked at him, her expression was serene, or perhaps a bit dazed.
"Mary!" he yelled, exasperated. "You just set your island on fire!"
"Fire purifies," she said. "It is the light of creation."
Parker snapped out of his dumb shock and scrambled over to the well. Pulling frantically on the rope, he raised a bucket half-filled with murky water. Even as he carried it to the fire, he knew it was useless. It was already too big. The pitiful splash of water hardly caused a puff of steam. Still, he tried it several more times before giving up -- it was now a wall of flame and the heat of it singed his skin.
"Get the kid," Parker told her. "We've got to get down to the shore."
Mary said nothing. She stared at him, and all he could see was the reflection of the fire in her eyes. Then she raised her arms toward the sky, palms up and fingers out, and walked right into the wall of fire. She only made it a few steps in before she screamed. It looked like she froze, a blazing statue, standing like a tree on fire.
Backing away in horror, Parker stumbled and fell backwards, landing on one of his shoes. He pulled it out from under him and looked at it, and then frantically snatched up the rest of his clothes and struggled into them. Then he raced into the hut and woke the boy, picking him up and carrying him outside. The wind had changed direction, and the flame and smoke suddenly came at them.
Still carrying the boy, Parker backed away from the advancing wall and, as he passed the fireplace, he noticed for the first time the new pattern that Pato had made with the colored rocks. They were words, and the words read:
to kiLL fiRE
mAkE it RAiN
Parker and the boy were coughing violently, and he stumbled through the brush, hoping he could beat the flames to the edge of the island. They had to get around the fire, because the only way down to the beach was on the other side of the flames. He wasn't quick enough, though -- they were at the cliff's edge before he realized it, and he almost sent the both of them tumbling off.
"Maybe the other side is clear," he said to Pato, who was taking all of this stoically. "Come on." They rushed across the island, just far enough from the flames so that they weren't being singed, but it was useless. The fire already engulfed the middle of the island, from side to side. The clearing with the adobe hut was right in the center of it, looking like a scene from Hell. He led the boy away from the advancing flames, knowing they only had a few minutes left.
"Do you know another way down?" he asked Pato.
Pato shook his head. Then he pointed at the sky.
Parker looked up, and saw nothing. "What?"
Again the boy pointed up. Then he wiggled all his fingers, slowly dropping his hands. He repeated this, until Parker got the idea.
"Make it rain?" Parker said, coughing. "I wish I could, kid."
They reached the far edge of the island. While he could see the ground by the firelight, he couldn't see anything beyond. He knew it was about a 40-foot drop, but as far as he could tell by looking it was a mile. A pitch-black void, and he could hear water crashing on rocks.
The wind shifted, then shifted again, but it wasn't helping them any -- it still blew in their general direction. Pato tapped on his leg insistently, and then repeating his rain pantomime.
"Kid, I can't make it rain," Parker told him. "Can you drill your holes and climb down using sticks?"
Pato rubbed his hands together then held them out, palms up. Empty. He didn't have his tool.
"Can you use another stick?"
The boy did the rain pantomime again. When Parker shook his head, Pato looked exasperated and began rummaging around the ground looking for a stick that might work. The fire was approaching -- through teary eyes, Parker watched it advance. It was down to jump and die, or burn to death. He knew he'd end up jumping, but he didn't want the boy to die -- there had to be a way to save him.
The boy came up empty. There were no suitable sticks, and even if there were, he didn't have time. Once again, Pato pleaded with him with his wiggling fingers to make it rain. The kid's eyes were so big and desperate, it broke Parker's heart.
Spreading his arms out, Parker looked into the black sky and said, "Rain."
Smoke swirled around them, and he closed his eyes because they stung.
"Come on," he said to the sky, "rain!"
He could feel the heat of the fire, and it was bright through his closed eyelids.
"Rain!" he yelled again. "Rain, baby, rain!"
Pato was coughing hard. Parker squinted at him through the smoke, seeing him down on his hands and knees. Parker lowered himself down, getting on his own hands and knees.
"Maybe there's a ledge or something," he told the boy. "Let's try lowering ourselves over."
Pato shook his head, still coughing. Parker inched over to the ledge of the cliff. He still could see nothing, and the thought of going into that unknown void was almost as terrifying as the thought of burning in the fire. He got one leg down, and it was dangling in space, touching nothing.
"Maybe we can try over there?" he said to Pato, pointing to a lower spot twenty feet away. Keeping low, coughing constantly, they crawled through brush and thorns toward the lower point on the cliff. Halfway there Parker felt something hit his hand. At first he thought it was a scorpion, but it didn't hurt -- it just startled him. He kept crawling, and as they neared their goal he felt it again, this time on his other hand. Then, he felt it on his head -- something hard and cold. Parker swore to himself, unbelieving, and turned to look at Pato.
Pato grinned. They were raindrops.
The wind shifted suddenly, followed seconds later by a wall of rain. It came down so heavy and fast that it took Parker's breath away, and he grabbed Pato and pulled him away from the edge of the cliff. The wind was now blowing the smoke away from them, and they sat there, huddled together, and watched the flames die. As the flames died, so did the light. Within minutes they were in total darkness, and Parker dared not move.
It rained for hours, and as he sat there holding the boy, Parker began to cry. With the rain so cold, it made his tears feel hot, and his eyes still stung from the smoke. It felt like poison leaking from his face. It was like the pure cold water from the sky soaked in, overflowed, and pushed the hot stinging poison out. Parker endured it, simply waiting. Waiting for the poison to drain, to be diluted and washed out. It went on so long that he dozed sitting up, nodding, and after hours of that he realized his eyes no longer hurt.
The rain stopped and the moon broke through, and Parker was able to see the island around him. He carried Pato through the charred landscape back to the adobe hut, took him inside and laid him on the blanket, which was dry but smelled of smoke. Parker sat for a while with his back to the wall, trying to make sense of his life, of this trip, of what he'd just gone through. It was impossible. Finally he gave up and stretched out beside the boy, closing his eyes and feeling consciousness dropping away, leaving him in freefall.
Images of fire surrounded him, but they were bonfires, and it was the people from the fishing trip that surrounded him. They talked loud, laughed, and guzzled Corona and Dos Equis. Mark Voortman, the boozer from the office, had an arm around Mary and was telling lies about how rich he was. Zeus stood with his arms crossed, staring at Parker and smiling.
Parker still tasted the horrible bitterness of the button he'd eaten.
Someone tugged at his arm. He looked down to see Pato, but without crossed eyes.
"What did he tell you?" the boy asked him. "When he gave you the button?"
Parker stared at the boy, incredulous. He'd never heard the kid talk before. His voice was high and soft, and very sweet.
"Hey Zeus," Pato said, "what did he say?"
"He said ... he said that ... intentions mean nothing. And..." Parker struggled, because his thoughts were spinning and swerving like leaves in a stream. "And memories don't matter."
"And then you ate the button?" Pato asked.
He nodded. "And then I ate the button."
Parker woke up. Bright sunlight glared from outside the adobe hut.
He was alone -- Pato was gone. Groaning with the effort, Parker crawled out of the hut and into the sunlight, squinting hard. He had a lead feeling in his heart -- he didn't want to see Mary's body. He didn't want Pato to see it, either, but it was too late. Steeling himself, he looked through the bright sunlight toward where she'd stepped into the fire, and saw she was still standing there, arms raised, burnt and blackened to a crisp.
He gasped and turned away, the afterimage stuck inside his eyes. But it looked strange, spiky, and too thin, so he had to look again. Then he had to step closer, staring at it, making sure it wasn't a trick of the light. It was not Mary. No, it was a weird burnt cactus, possibly a Joshua tree. The bottom blackened but the top was still alive. It sprouted thorny pink flowers.
Two-thirds of the island was a blackened ruin, but the last third had been spared. There wasn't a sign of Mary's body anywhere. He found Pato out among the part that was still green and brown, dragging sticks up from the beach. The storm had brought in a lot of driftwood. Parker checked to make sure the boat was still there. It sat high on the beach, full of new rainwater. Also on the beach he found the broken remains of some structure that had washed ashore during the storm. Parker managed to pull off a few solid, wide boards, and threw them into the boat. They would make good paddles.
Climbing back up to the top of the island, Parker was dismayed to see that the adobe hut, the fireplace, and the well had once again devolved back into boulders. To one side still stood the singed Joshua tree.
"Pato!" he shouted, stomping angrily around the perimeter. "Pato!"
The boy didn't answer, and Parker couldn't find any trace of him. It was a clear day, and to the east he could see the mainland. Kicking around the ashes, he searched for something that would hold water. The jugs, the bottles, even the Ford hubcap were all gone.
"To hell with it," he said finally, and made his way with determination back down to the beach. The tide was low but starting to come in, which meant it was as good a time as any. He untied the frayed bowline, and tipped the boat to empty it. Then, with a great deal of effort, Parker began dragging the boat down toward the water. Something made him pause, and he heard little footsteps in the pebbles behind him. Turning, he saw Pato walking toward him, looking hopeful.
"Hey," Parker said. "You want to come with me?"
The boy shrugged, but looked happy. His crooked eyes made rolling motions. Parker pulled the boat the rest of the way down into the water, and Pato jumped in. Parker laughed, and climbed in after him.
"Sit in back," he told Pato.
Parker took a position on his knees just behind the bow, and using one of the flat boards as a paddle, turned the boat around and started the slow, lumbering trip toward the mainland. He paddled for hours, rested, then paddled more. The tide carried them slowly north as he paddled them east. The island shrank behind them until finally Parker could barely see it. The mainland grew visibly closer.
At one point Parker noticed the boy staring intently down into the water. He wondered if it was a shark or something, so he stopped paddling and eased over beside Pato, careful not to tip the boat, and looked over the edge. Directly under the boat, staying in the boat's shadow, was a huge golden fish. It was easily as big as the boat.
"Ángel del Océano," Parker whispered, entranced.
Because Parker had stopped paddling, the boat lost its momentum and the fish slowly passed out from under and drifted in front of them. It angled off a bit to the right; so Parker assumed his position and started paddling again, using careful, quiet strokes so as not to startle the fish. They followed the fish for miles, as the sun arced further across the sky and the mainland grew closer still.
Finally, the huge golden fish faded and disappeared, having dropped down into deeper waters. Parker kept staring down into the depths, hoping for a glimpse of it, but a noise startled him. Looking up, he saw a fishing boat motoring toward them.
"Hey!" he shouted, waving. "Hey! Hey there!"
He stood suddenly, almost losing his balance, and waved with both arms. The boat, he thought, looked familiar. It was Zeus's boat, the old guy who'd brought them out there. He could see Mark Voortman and the others on deck, staring at him and waving back.
Smiling and laughing, Parker turned to look at Pato, meaning to tell him they were going to be okay, but Pato was gone. Parker rushed back and looked around in the water, but he wasn't there. Part of him was frantic, but the other part wasn't surprised. Scattered around the back of the boat were thousands of brightly colored pebbles.
Parker stared down at the pebbles for several minutes while he listened to the sound of the fishing boat growing closer. Finally, smiling, he gathered up a handful of them, shoved them deep into a pocket, and then turned to greet the jeering, taunting people on the boat.