Mariano moved his hand around the inside of the bowl. Chary of the freshwater in his runoff barrel he was washing up in the same briney stuff which moved all around the little beach hut; the sound of surf swishing through the two rooms in time to his movement. Inverting the bowl he leaned it against the wall next to the mug, balanced on a mat of rough wearing linen. White tide lines rimmed both, as ragged as the un-hemmed cuffs of his khaki beachcombers. Invisible on the bowl, still glistening from the tub, Mariano knew that the marks were still there, the rings, one for every cleansing.
Leaving the vessel to drip he crossed the central room of the hut and stood for a moment in the doorway, its basket thatched cover propped to one side. The loosened banana leaf thongs at the corners moved slightly in a wind which would never stop. Mariano loved that little breath from the sky, almost as much as he loved the Atlantic ocean which it stirred, creating the currents which brought him driftwood for his fires, the warm waters curving around from the Gulf. Sometimes, he imagined that he could taste things on that wind, other than the heavy salt and calcium and trace metals which encrusted his world. Things like gunpowder and cerveza and a different kind of salt, the oily sort which runs free and hot along the curves of a beautiful senoritas body. But those were a man's evening tide thoughts, and the day, though blighted, was only half over.
Glancing down, Mariano saw that his hands were still wiping each other. One would have thought that an infinitely futile thing to do, but the rasp of arid skin said that there were other things in this world, other factors, and that what one thought instinctively was not always best, or wisest.
He had spent too long in the bright out of doors the day before, even sun licked as he was, and could feel the heavenly orbs admonishment in the tightness of the skin across his shoulders. The afternoon's light cut cleanly around the outline of his hut, forming an exact delineation of his realm, and Mariano extended a hand, feeling for the power of the sun as another man, in another place, might gauge the rain. In Mariano’s world it never rained lightly, and during the downpours he was never wholly dry. The positioning of his hut had been well thought through, established with the wisdom of a dozen castrametations, the roof as sound as uncountable bivouacs could make it, but when the rains came in bullets it did not so much fall through the air as pervade it, working its chill bayonets into every nook and cranny. So, Mariano did not feel for the rain.
Mariano had not heard a human voice in 723 days.
He did not know if that number were right, were accurate, but suspected that it probably was. Numbers had used to mean so much that now, though he resisted with every fiber of his being, his mind would not let them go. It would tally up the days without rain, the days of low surf, or high, the number of starfish found on the beach on a summers morning, perhaps, or the times in a month that the sound of thunder woke him, cold and terrified, to leap from his cot and crouch shivering by the screened door, a stick of wood rough and ready in his hand.
The sun was full, but it was nearly March and the humidity low, so that at least the air itself did not act as a magnifying glass.
Stepping carefully around the side of his hut, keeping just in the shade, Mariano turned aside the top of the runoff barrel and scooped water into his mouth, swishing away the bad taste. He swallowed because he could not afford to waste, but as he leaned in again a dark reflection swarmed up at him from inside the reservoir and he quickly replaced the lid, making a bang which set his nerves jangling.
‘Hola, Senor,’ breathed that solemn voice, but it wasn’t a voice and Mariano knew that it wasn’t, only the wind moving through the palm fronds. He pressed a hand to his thin chest. His nipples were cold, his flesh puckering in that way that it did, sometimes, when the old spasms began to trigger. His breath began to come short, as it had used to do, in the beginning, the early days, and he slung round, staggering out into the sun regardless, and… the surf thundered down into the sand.
It was not high tide, or a low, or anything in particular, but it was… the sea, the great forgetful sea, its each and every crest unique, and gone, never to return. Mariano staggered to his knees, the bright sun casting a tombstone shaped shadow onto the shingle. The waves rumbled up into the sand, over and over. ‘Thump, crush, sizzle… thump, sizzle… sigh, sizzle, sigh… slipping along the beach in a slantwise motion, like a giant paper cutter slicing off eternally curling ribbons of blue and a still greater blue, a deeper and altogether more magnificent color, the heart of the ocean until.
The sameness entered into Mariano’s chest, conquering the madness, beating back the terror, aligning his heartbeat unto itself.
Thump, sizzle, thump, sizzle...
Tiny ghost crabs darted tentatively out from their little holes to dash away from him, sewing the world together with their sliding stitch tracks.
He could breathe again, until he could…
Thump and… sizzle...
Think, again… until… a very long time later…
Black Skimmers moved down the shore, never seeming to circle round, forever on and on they flew, only a flash of red as their wide beaks slipped beneath the undulating surface in a powerful motion of divine ease, reaping their daily bread.
There was peace again, something like.
Mariano could swallow down the blood.
The sun burnt his shoulders.
Mariano rocked back onto his knees, his hands wet, clean and salty, the tide lines invisible again.
The man had not heard a human voice in nearly 724 days.