Island of the Innocent
He had been on his way to somewhere to do something. He had been traveling on a plane - or was it a ship? Now he couldn't remember. He only knew that he had been in continuous motion until everthing suddenly stopped. He opened his eyes and beheld a wavering blue seascape that was rocking him gently. He was lying on his stomach on what was the wreckage of something that had now become his life raft. He was drifting. He could feel no pain, only the deep, and for him, terrifying feeling that he was no longer the one who was in control. He was totally at the mercy of the elements that held him; water, wind and sky.
He did not know how long he had remained motionless in that condition, for sleep continued to interrupt his struggling thoughts. When he was once again conscious of his surroundings, he was aware that the gentle, rocking motion beneath him had finally ceased. His bleary eyes began to focus on what appeared to be a beach; a long expanse of sand that had caught him there on its edge.
He began to lift his body away from the raft. He started to feel some pain in his arms, legs and torso, almost as if he had been beaten. At first it was difficult for him to move. He staggered to his feet, then fell, face down onto the beach. When he was finally able to lift up his head again, he realized he was viewing a lush, tropical forest. There was a small structure at the rim of the trees, a lean-to that was covered with palm leaves. It offered a welcome respite from the sun that was continually blazing down upon his burning skin. He was determined to try and move. Slowly, and painfully he pulled himself to his feet, then staggered to the shelter.
He finally reached the entrance and stared inside. There was a grassy mat to rest upon, bowls of fruit and water. He plunged inside and the water quickly filled his mouth. He ravenously devoured the fruit. He didn’t know what kind it was, he had never seen anything like it before, but it tasted good and sweet. When he had eaten his fill, he slumped down onto the mat and in seconds he was asleep.
When he awakened he didn’t know that he had slept for a long time, through the afternoon and into the following day. He lay there for quite awhile with his eyes open, looking out across the beach wondering where he was and trying to remember what had happened to bring him to this place. After awhile, he sat up and suddenly realized that the empty bowls that he had left scattered at his feet were now bountifully replenished. He stared at the vessels filled with fruit and water. He had an eerie sensation of helplessness and almost terror, that feeling of being out of control. Someone else he didn’t even know suddenly had charge of him.
He quickly pulled himself to his feet and stumbled out of the lean-to. He went to the edge of the forest and found a large stick that would serve as his weapon. He walked back to the shelter to search for footprints or some clue as to who had become his midnight visitor.
The sand was loose and soft. It was hard to distinguish any footprints other than his own. Then he looked again and it seemed to him that there were several much smaller indentations in the sand. They were human footprints, he could tell. But who made them? Pygmies? Cannibals? He trembled. What were they doing? Trying to fatten him up for the slaughter later? He decided for his own safety, to launch out on his own. He drank the water and scooped the fruit into the bowl to take with him. Then he left with his weapon clutched in his free hand to follow the shoreline.
He walked toward the sunrise until it turned into a sunset. He rudely discovered that his efforts had led him back to where he had started and he found himself peering across the beach at the hut, which had become an unwanted, ominous marker on his journey.
The day had spent itself and he was no wiser. He had apparently circled what was a small island somewhere in the middle of nothing. He had not seen one telephone pole, or a road, nothing that would suggest any form of civilization. There was just the unbroken ring of forest, sand and ocean with no hotel in sight. The only point of interest in his day was a section of cliffs that rose up out of the land then dwindled down again as if they had tired of the effort.
He cautiously walked over to the lean-to, his stick in hand. He reached the entrance and looked inside. The bowls had all been refilled. He was suddenly possessed by terror, and as it usually did when he felt out-of-control, his fear swiftly dissolved into rage and he began to roar. He cursed the day, the forest and whatever it was lurking in those trees that tormented him. He swung his arms wildly in the air and challenged his enemies to make themselves known. He was making so much noise he couldn’t possibly hear the tiny forest voices whisper.
“Can’t I go to him now?”
“No. He’s too upset. He could be dangerous.”
“He’s just scared. Why can’t I talk to him?”
“He couldn’t even hear you. Wait for now. Wait.”
When he had finished his tirade, he turned his back to the forest and headed for the openness of the beach where he felt safer. He tensed himself, wondering if he was going to feel a spear in his back. The foreign presence that he had sensed hiding in the shadows behind him allowed him to leave.
He returned to the base of the cliffs. There were fresh water streams tumbling over the rocks where he could drink and some small fruit trees that would feed him until he could figure out what to do next. At that point it was his rage that was sustaining him and his determination to remain in control no matter what happened.
That evening he was able to build a fire with the driftwood he found on the beach, and a book of matches that had somehow survived in his pocket.
As he stared at the flames eating all that dead wood, it felt as if the fire was feeding on him. “How did I end up this way?” he wondered. He had always been in control of his own destiny, or so he thought. Now he was as helpless as that old pile of wood. He was a victim, something he had made sure always happened to someone else.
A dark form suddenly emerged from under the woodpile and he watched a tarantula scurry to safety. He quickly impaled it with his stick and gained some satisfaction as he watched it writhe in the firelight until his eyes folded shut in sleep.
He heard something heavy thump behind him. His eyes flew open, and he whirled around. At first his mind did not comprehend what he was seeing. A hulking black shadow was looming above him. Then he saw the tarantula’s enormous fangs as it opened its mouth preparing to strike. He leaped up and his panic propelled him into a gray fog. He saw a staircase, a flight of narrow stone steps carved into a ledge. He dived for it and ran toward the summit as fast as he could. Before he realized he had come to the edge of nothing, he pitched out into midair. He fell a long way before he slammed into the sand. When he looked up to see from where he had fallen, he found himself staring back at an enormous decaying corpse. Then he realized to his horror, that the decomposing form was him. He woke up screaming.
He lived for several days at the base of the cliff. Each night he would build a new fire and hoped that it would become a signal for his rescue. Each day he waited for the passing ship or airplane that would end his nightmare. But there was always nothing.
He stared at the empty horizon and shouted “Where am I?” until the wind took his words away.
Despair began to tell him that there would never be an answer,then one day the breeze brought a signal. There was always perfume from the flowers, but this time the fragrance carried with it a sound, a multitude of children’s voices giggling in the wind. The sound penetrated the black cloud the man was living in long enough to hear it and believe that what he was hearing was real.
For the first time since his imprisonment on the island, he did not feel threatened. He was almost pacified. It was like a call. He would try to follow it to find some clue to where he was.
He gathered up his stick and a sharp rock. He was quite formidable. Then he began to follow the cascading voices. The sound led him up the side of a ridge and into the jungle. He proceeded cautiously, for he had always been terrified of snakes. He stepped on something soft and round. He recoiled in terror until he realized that his foot had merely landed on a vine. He felt stupid and ripped it up into the air with his stick and a curse.
He continued on with the sound of children’s laughter gradually increasing in volume. He walked out to the rim of a sunny meadow, then stopped, astounded by the view. The field was alive with laughing, running children and multitudes of jewel-like butterflies. The butterflies seemed to be dancing with them, unafraid and jubilant.
The man was totally taken by surprise. This was not the scene he had expected. These were not dark skinned natives, though some of them were blacks. It was instead a multiracial collection of white, red, olive and tan. There were blonde heads and red, black and tawny brown. The children were all wearing tunics of brilliant white cloth. There were many little ones running with the older children, but none appeared to be older than twelve. They all looked happy and well cared for.
The man heaved a sigh of relief. The island was inhabited by normal people, people who cared for their children. He could find some help for himself.
He stepped out into the field. “Hey!” he called, “Take me to your parents!”
Then it was as if his shout had burst a bubble in a dream. The children began to scatter and in what seemed to be an instant, every last one of them had disappeared into the jungle. Only a few butterflies remained hovering curiously above his head.
In a flash, the man’s rage returned. Like a charging bull, he barreled across the meadow waving his stick and shouting for the children to come back. It was a command that was going to be ignored.
He searched the jungle for hours trying to find them. He started to get an eerie feeling. It was a small island, and there were a lot of children, so many he couldn’t count them. Where could they be hiding?
It was late afternoon and he decided to return to the beach and find his way back to his camp before nightfall. He was angry and frustrated. He didn’t like anyone trying to play games with him. He smashed his way back through the forest, then to complete the joke, a vine reached out to trip him. He fell hard and the jolt knocked the stick out of his hand. Humiliated, he started to lift himself up, then he froze when he realized that he was staring almost eye level at a large cobra that was poised to strike. The thing was positioned only a few feet from where he had landed. He stopped breathing. His mind pleaded, “Don’t move. Don’t let a drop of sweat roll off of your brow.”
Then he heard footsteps, very small footsteps padding across the forest floor. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of a little flaxen haired girl, no more than five, trot out from beneath the trees.
“Go away, you’re scaring him!” the child called.
Then as if the serpent was a trained pet, the monster obediently slithered away into the bushes.
The man still could not move.
“It’s okay,” the little voice said. “He won’t hurt you. What’s your name?”
He almost couldn’t comprehend what she was saying. It was awhile before he could stammer an answer.
She grinned at him. “My name is Melody.”
He looked at her wide, blue eyes. “Melody, can you take me to your parents?”
She looked at him almost as if she was a bit puzzled. Then she answered, “I can take you to where I live.”
He nodded. “I’d like that.” He was beginning to learn that he must be careful around these children, like the snake. Don’t make any sudden movements and he might get them to do what he wanted.
He slowly rose to his feet. The little girl smiled at him and held out her hand. He took it, trying to be as gentle as he could.
“C’mon,” she said as if she was delighted to be his escort.
So he let a small child lead him to places on the island he had never been before. She took him down a winding, narrow passageway that circled a hill he hadn’t discovered on his own. That eerie feeling was creeping back. He’d been over the entire island, searching for the children. How come he never saw that hill? They came to the other side and descended again. There was a surging brook at the base of the path where the child stopped and looked up at him expectantly. Then she raised her arms. He looked at her dumbly for a few moments before he realized she wanted him to carry her across. He was starting to feel irritated, but he tried not to let it show. He reached down and scooped her into his arms. She was as light as a feather.
He forged the stream with his tiny passenger clinging tightly to his neck. She giggled and kissed him on the cheek before he put her down. He was her hero. He wasn’t in the mood to pretend he was one.
“How much farther is it?” He mumbled grumpily.
She giggled again, turned away and broke into a run.
“Wait a minute!” he roared as he pitched after her. He couldn’t believe how fast that kid could run. She darted in and around the trees like a hummingbird. He could barely keep up with her. He was furious.
“Don’t play games with me!” he shouted. “Slow down!”
He lost sight of her. Then he broke out of the forest and saw her standing on a grassy ridge overlooking a vast valley. She turned to look at him and grinned. Then she pointed to the view below.
“This is where I live, William.”
He came up beside her and looked where she was pointing. A golden fog was slowly dissipating over the village revealing the houses and the streets. William remained motionless as he stared in awe at the spectacle that was slowly unfolding before him. He had never seen anything like it. The houses seemed to be made out of living vines, all dotted with flowers and fruit. The moisture from the evaporating fog left diamond like droplets that glistened on the petals and leaves making the entire scene before him sparkle with life. Some of the dwellings were layered in stories connected to each other by flower covered vine bridges. The whole little town seemed to be rising up out of the jungle floor like an exuberantly blooming garden.
He saw the children, this multi-racial collage of miniature humanity, occupying themselves with games in the streets. He didn’t see any adults with them anywhere. And as he watched them and stared at that unique, unearthly village, he was once again gripped with that strange, uncomfortable feeling. He was torn about going down there. Something in him wanted to turn around and run back to the beach, and yet, at that point he wasn’t sure he’d be able to find it again.
“C’mon, William,” Melody said. Then she held out her hand to him.
He was a grown man. He’d been in many situations that had brought stark terror to his heart, but nothing compared to the paralyzing fear he experienced when that child held out her hand to take him down into that place.
“Why do I feel this way?” he thought. He felt he was being given a choice. If he took her hand and went with her into that womb of living green, there was something in him that knew he was going to die.
“No,” he said. “No, I can’t go down there, Melody. You’ll have to go get your parents and bring them to me. I’ll wait here.”
She looked at him with a puzzled expression. Then she turned without a word, trotted down the hill and disappeared into the village.
She didn’t come back. Night fell. He spent it under a tree afraid that if he allowed himself to go to sleep, he wouldn’t wake up. He was petrified that the snake would come and find him. And he was angry. What was the deal here? He wasn’t going to capitulate to a child. If anyone was going to manipulate anything around here it was going to be him.
When morning arrived he was the first to watch the light illuminate the valley and the sparkling garden village. Somehow its beauty still could not touch him. As he looked over the ethereal landscape, he felt that he would be safe as long as he could remain where he was, above it, looking down at it at a safe distance from whatever it was that wanted to swallow him up. He was too far away to hear the small voiced conversations.
“He’s not coming down.”
“He’s not ready yet.”
“When will he be ready?”
“Sometimes it takes awhile for some of them. He has to want to.”
“What if he never wants to?”
“Then he has no hope.”
By mid-morning he was pacing along the ridge, scowling and muttering curses like a wild man.
“Will somebody come up here and talk to me?” he hollered. “I want to know where I am. I’m not going down there, you’re gonna have to come to me!”
By noon he could hear the insidious sound of the children enjoying themselves as they splashed in the lagoon. He was hot and he needed to cool off, but he wasn’t about to go down there. He still had not seen one adult.
He ate some fruit. He stared at the village. He felt like he wanted to kill somebody. He heard the bushes rustling and looked around. Melody was watching him, her big, round eyes were full of questions.
“Why don’t you come down and live with us?” she asked him.
“I don’t want to live with you,” he growled angrily. “I just want to find some way off this forsaken place and get back to my old life. This isn’t where I’m supposed to be. I live in a city, a big one. I like to make money. It’s what I do. I don’t climb trees and play games all day. I want out of here. Go get one of the adults. I need some grown-up answers to all of this, okay?”
Instead of answering him, or doing what she had been commanded, the child merely looked at him and sat down on the ground.
“What’s the matter, kid? I thought you understood English.”
“I still don’t understand everything,” Melody answered. “If I don’t understand something I ask one of the older boys. They’ve been here longer than me. They don’t know I’m up here talking to you. I thought it was important that I come.”
/ Then she said something that really stunned him.
“It’s hard being who you are.”
It was as if her eyes had penetrated his soul. She could see everything that was in him, had analyzed it and verbalized her judgment. He had been analyzed by a child. It was humiliating to him, and even more so because he knew she was right.
Her soft simplicity impaled him at that moment, and the first shaft of dreaded death tried to stab at his heart. He dodged it. Then he got up and stormed back into the forest.
He eventually found his way to the beach and built another signal fire. He vainly scanned the horizon for some help, anyway to escape from that place. He sat pondering the words of a child. He kept seeing the mirror of her face as she said, “It’s hard being you,” and he wanted to smash it into a million pieces.
Several days passed before he saw her again. He had been walking on the beach and he had the distinct impression that someone was following him. He turned around and there she was, her little blonde head glowing in the sun.
“What do you want?” he growled.
She smiled at him and came closer. “Hi, William,” she said. “Are you okay?”
What is it now? he thought. This little thing is pretending that she cares about me?
“No, I’m not okay,” he told her. “I’m not going to be okay until I figure out a way to get off this crappy island. Stop following me.”
He turned and walked away.
She followed him.
I’ve gained a pet child, he thought. He kept walking. He had his stick in his hand. He thought he could beat her to death, bury her there in the sand and no one would know. Then she’d stop following him and asking him questions and seeing into his soul.
He turned around and looked at her again. She looked back up at him with those wide, innocent eyes. He gripped the stick in his hand. His eyes filled with tears as her gaze ripped at him again. In self-defense he turned away from her and ran.
She left him alone for a long time. When he finally saw her again, she had found him sulking before the smoldering remains of one of his signal fires. He looked up and realized she was standing there. She was holding an orchid.
She held it out to him and said, “Here, William, I picked this just for you.”
He wanted to yank it out of her hands and throw those white petals into the fire, but instead, and he really didn’t know why he did it, he reached out and took it from her. She began to chatter on as children do about the things they know. He kept looking at her as she spoke.
She is so small, this child, he thought. So fragile. Her skin has the appearance of glass. She has been talking to me now for hours, and I cannot understand what she is saying because she is a child and I am not. I am so black compared to her, and yet, she doesn’t seem to care about the scars, the roughness about me. There is something in me that would like to pick her up and hold her. She could lay her head upon my chest and we could watch the ocean together. But instead I just sit here with a frozen scowl upon my face, and she sits before me waiting for some response from a creature made of stone. I cannot comprehend the depth of her, but I know she sees me. And still she persists wading in these shallow waters...
After she left he was going to throw the flower she had given him into the fire. Instead, he tucked it into a cleft in the ledge and fell asleep under its shadow.
She would visit him often and each time she would kill him a little more with her sweetness aimed at him like arrows. He was the creature writhing in the sand under her blows, though she did not see him make a move. He just sat there sullen and cold.
Then his little sun dappled evangelist stopped coming. She finally did what he wanted her to do. She disappeared, leaving him on his own with who he was, what he was.
He missed her. That was something he never thought would happen.
He left his signal fire smoldering on the beach one day and went to look for her. He searched for her in the jungle. He tried to find the village again. He couldn’t. Somehow he knew he wouldn’t be able to find it unless she led him there. He experienced a sense of loss that he could not explain.
“Melody!” he called through the forest. “Melody, where are you?”
She never answered.
There was a light she had brought to him that he finally realized he needed. Now the light was gone and he didn’t know where to find it.
He sullenly returned to the beach. Then he was surprised to hear a horn in the distance, a low bellow, the kind that belonged to a ship. Someone had seen his signal fire and now the vessel was signaling him. He could escape this place and return to his old life and who he had been before.
The ship was coming closer. They were preparing to lower a boat from the side. Then he heard her call his name.
He looked back at the little golden will o’ the wisp. She was standing on the beach holding out her hand to him. She could lead him back into the forest, to the bright, beautiful place that he had been so afraid of before. All he had to do was take her hand and let a little child lead him.
He could hear the water lapping as the boat that was sent to rescue him drew closer to the shore. He turned to look at the boat, then he looked back at the child he wanted to be.
“Melody!” he called, and his voice sounded strange to him. He started to run to her – he was surprised how fast and how free. He grabbed her hand. She giggled. So did he. He stood to face her. They were almost eye-to-eye. He looked down at the white tunic he was wearing, then he turned to see that his old clothes were draped on the decaying corpse of the old man he used to be. Then they turned, two children hand in hand, and ran laughing into paradise.
...except you be converted, and become as little children,
you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
copyright 1998 by H.D.Shively
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