IT was like two worlds. Overhead, the
sun beat down from a clear blue sky. A hundred yards ahead, the dunes had
He could feel ribs of sand pressing into the arches of his feet. The warm water lapping round his ankles. The air was still, but the mist needed no wind for movement. Dragon’s breath, boiling up out of the sea. That was how Fin had always thought of it. The sigh of ancient, leathery lungs in some vast dark cavern, fifty fathoms below.
Now the mist brushed up against him, rolled around him, as if deciding whether to smother him or sweep him away.
There was a strident call, somewhere between a long honk and a grunt. The ferry, making her way out to the islands, the sound of the siren distorted by the fog.
The islands. We were one of them till they built the bridge, he thought. He had liked to think of himself as an islander when he was a kid. A Whale Islander. Different. That’s how he’d felt as he’d watched the occasional visitors step down onto the jetty. Proud and independent, piratical even. But now, all he could think of was starting university and getting away onto the mainland. And just ahead of him, invisible in the mist, the bridge hung like a thread of hope across the narrows. He could hear a muted rumble as a vehicle crossed it
The morning’s inactivity on the beach had left him feeling sluggish. He wished he had brought a fleece. Still, the twenty-minute walk back to the village would warm him up. He stepped from the water onto firm wet sand and set off homewards. Not even the thickest sea-mist – and this one seemed to be thickening by the minute – could disorientate him on this stretch of shore. He had walked it hundreds, no – more like thousands, of times in his eighteen years. He knew every sweep and promontory, every dune, almost every rock pool, between here and home.
Any minute now he would come to the first pier of the bridge, rising up through the fog like a great steel-and-concrete giant’s leg. He could hear another vehicle approaching now. Closer. Slowing and stopping. Directly ahead of him. The sound of a door opening. Someone getting out. A voice.
Fin walked forward. The pier materialised beside him, towering into the murk. He looked up but could see nothing.
He paused as a second door opened. There were footsteps, no more than thirty feet above his head, on the far side of the bridge. The vehicle had been heading towards the mainland. Now there was a scuffling sound, raised voices, then a cry. Scarcely human, more like the shriek of a sea-bird. Followed by a fleeting glimpse of movement in the mist. And then a dull, wet thud.
Fin stood where he was, rooted to the sand. There was a long moment of silence. Then a short burst of frenzied splashing. Then silence again.
He began to run.
He was almost on her before he saw her. The splashing started again as one leg drummed the shallows where she lay, half in, half out of the water. Fin could see the sleek black curve of rock on which she had landed, a porpoise arcing out of the sand. A couple of feet in either direction and she would have missed it, for what difference that might have made. The way she lay, sprawled across the rock on her back, she looked like something discarded. But her eyes were open and they widened as she focused on Fin. She was in her early twenties, he guessed. She had high cheekbones, dark hair falling across a chalk pale face. She was slim in jeans and sweatshirt, now soaked. But for the colour of her skin she could have been Maia, he thought, his heart thundering in his chest as he knelt down beside her in the water.
The fog swirled around them now, so thick he could see no more than a couple of yards beyond her.
She opened her mouth but no sound came out.
He leaned forward, put his head close to her face.
Her whisper was almost inaudible. ‘Help…me…’
‘I’ll help you,’ he said.
She groaned and her eyes clouded in pain as he lifted his head away from her.
Her mouth was still moving.
He leaned forward again.
She looked up at him.
He didn’t have his phone on him. What the hell should he do? Leave her to get help? Stay with her and hope someone came along? Shout out at the top of his lungs?
‘Please…hold…m – ’
Her body shuddered and little flecks of foam appeared at her lips.
Her eyes flickered.
Fin reached down and took it. Despite the chill damp air, her hand was warm and the skin felt very smooth. The fingernails were bitten low.
‘It’s okay,’ he said, feeling hopeless. ‘You’ll be all right. There’ll be help along soon.’
She had begun to pant. More foam bubbled at her mouth, pinkish now.
He longed to run away. But he also wanted to comfort her, take her in his arms if need be. He was terrified of hurting her. Her head lolled back over the rock, though she had moved it to look at him, so her neck couldn’t be broken. Perhaps supporting it would help.
‘I’m going to get you more comfortable,’ he said.
He let go of her hand and it fell at her side. He shuffled round in the water to kneel behind her on the edge of the rock. Then lifted her head and took it on his lap. He laid one palm against the side of her face and felt the tiniest pressure from her cheek. With the other hand he stroked her head. Through the sea-water tang came the scent of shampoo.
‘Is that all right?’ he asked.
She gave a little grunt.
‘You’re okay,’ he said, ‘I’m here. With you.
There’ll be help soon.’
‘It’s all right.’ He could feel his voice rising in his throat.
Her eyes were starting to lose focus. She was slipping away from him.
‘Stay with me,’ he whispered. ‘Please. Please. Don’t go.’
He was rubbing her cheek now with one hand and stroking her hair with the other.
‘It’s okay, it’s okay…’ he was repeating it like a mantra, over and over again. ‘Stay with me, stay with me…’
And then suddenly she was gone. He didn’t even know how he knew. But he did.
For a moment the mist eddied above his head and thinned. A wafer of sunlight fell on her face, and Fin caught a swift movement aloft, the flash of a gull’s wing against the blue.
Then the mist closed around them once more. The shocked young man kneeling in the water with the stranger’s head cradled in his lap.
From The Reckoning © James Jauncey 2008