A midnight stroll, paddling. The water is strange here, but I am stranger. It hisses from me as I wet my ankles, as it rises past my calves, vapour twisting into odd shapes that silently howl and disappear. I am almost up to my waist, but I am yet alight, flames submerged in elemental paradox. Small wisp-like things pretending to be fish play about down there, darting from the heat.
It is dark, but I don’t fear it. I provide my own light. This little bay all to myself, illuminated. I drag fingers through the shallows, little more than bone already, creepers of muscle. I look up at the moon with sockets almost vacant. My companion. My challenger. Does it seem different, here? Or have I merely spent so long inspecting its surface that I have begun to create the things I see?
And now, that familiar prickling on the vertebrae. I turn back towards the cliff-face.
Again, there is someone watching.
I washed up on this shore. I awoke to something slithering across my hand. It had burrowed away before I saw it.
I was cold. Naked. The clothes had burned from my back like they always did. I turned over and shivered on the sand, remembering the night. Hoping they had survived, the stupid mischievous lot of them.
The mast had been burning. The crew were running about. Someone screaming. And I was overboard.
I scrunched sand in my fist.
They tried to turf me out, once. The inhabitants here. I hesitate to say native, as I’m not sure anyone is. Gathered on the shore, tools and shovels, pointless anger. Or fear. Who knows the difference? They had their reasons.
Some of the mob waved at me with their implements and said “Begone or we’ll force you!”
I turned, opened my lipless mouth, and flame-tongued said, “Try.”
They haven’t come back.
It’s fortunate they don’t know where I sleep, during the day.
I took to swimming quite quickly.
By night, for one such as I, the perils of this island’s waters bear little danger. Things like eyes watched me pass in the dark. Some tried to do more than that. Tentacles and other, more indistinguishable appendages coiled around me, not quite touching because of the warmth, even down here, but probing nonetheless.
To their surprise, I had moved closer, right up to those maws, between the grasp of those mighty claws, looking into pupils the size of my torso. They had considered me, found me unappetising, and I turned away with a skull’s grin, feeling disappointment.
I became bored of those depths with similar swiftness.
“What are you doing?”
The words startle me. An answering flare of firelight. I turn towards the beach, and she is standing there. She blinks a little at my appearance, the light, but doesn’t move otherwise. This is rare.
I ask, “What do you mean?”
“It’s a pretty clear question.”
I hesitate, clearing a throat which isn’t really there. “Nothing.”
She tilts her head, frowns a little. “Sounds boring.”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
She frowns. “Why not? My beach too. Besides, you’re one to talk, standing there like yourself.”
She vexes me. I turn away, sighing out my frustration. It makes a little puff of embers that float into the night. “Are you just here to torment me, then?”
“Sorry. I’ve seen you here before is all. Just standing.”
“So you’re the one who’s been watching me.”
“Sometimes,” she says. “Hard to say whether it’s always been me of course, round here. Lots of beasties to do the watching, and some of them aren’t as polite as me.”
I turn back to her. “And you came down here anyway?”
“What if I was one of the ‘impolite’ ones. What if I ate you, or something?”
She shakes her head, “Nah, could see you weren’t like that.”
“How could you tell?”
“You looked too lonely.”
Weeks on that vessel. Walking the same deck during the day, hiding myself away at night. Through sufficient palm-greasing and careful negotiations, I had secured my rather unorthodox arrangement. I was sure the sailors thought me eccentric. This suited me. They left me alone.
It was still dangerous, the safety of the crew and any fellow passengers a constant worry while I had the planned the venture. That was why I chose a smaller vessel, not a liner. I would not be culpable for disaster. In the end it was a necessary risk. I needed space to lose myself, somewhere where I could endure the burn without endangering a soul. I had a fantasy of losing myself in those great American plains.
Every dusk my cabin would glow with flickering light, lowering myself into the bathtub that had been installed within, a tried and tested method back in Islington. I endured the sniggering and raising of eyebrows with ease.
If only they had known how important it was.
I found only one marker of civilisation after I awoke. One small derelict house overlooking the bay, at the cliff-top. Things skittered from my shambling, much of what I found already damp and useless. But there had been clothing, at least.
Sure that this meant others existed here, I set out in search of sustenance. I found both. When I asked where I was, the people gave me knowing looks and grim smiles. “You’ll be from the sea then. Welcome to Hopeless.”
Somewhat fed, and no wiser about this place that had saved my life without asking, I saw the sun sinking, noticed my flesh begin to steam. I hurried away to the bay.
She comes again, often. Jessenia. Sometimes I am sat, hip-bones grating uncomfortably on rock. Sometimes I wander, footsteps searing the sand and the flotsam. Sometimes, like that night before, I wade out into the waves.
Talking is not always what we do. Just to exist with another while in my state is a painful luxury, a previously impossible thing. But this place is full of them.
She asks me. “Do you never talk to anyone?”
“You can’t be,” she gestures, “like this all the time though.”
“No, I’m not. It’s just easier that way. People have become confusing things, best avoided.”
She snorts, “You don’t have to be on fire for that to be true.”
I smile at that, in my fashion. And somehow, she knows, and returns the favour.
The truth is, I don’t know how I feel. My intentions of isolation have borne unexpected fruit. Rather than bring me peace, it has given me time to stir things within myself. Fear of harm, the shame of being the other, and perhaps a little resentful bitterness, that they do not also burn. I could walk through their houses at night, leave them as charcoal.
I say as much.
“But you don’t,” is all she replies.
They decided to play a trick.
Returning to my cabin one night, already feeling the heat beneath my skin, I found my bathtub vanished away somewhere. I remember letting out an involuntary guttural sound, like a lost animal. And then I heard the laughter. Heads around the door, looking in.
I railed at them, but this only heightened their amusement. I felt myself grow hot, with embarrassment but also the promise of my curse. I grew desperate, pleading with them. They laughed in my face, a pampered baby.
Their expressions changed when the steam rose from my skin, when patches of it began to fry, then fall away as the flames built.
I have thought about them many times. I have changed my opinion just as many, but I still come back to the same thought.
I wish them to have lived.
“Why do you come here?” I ask of her one night. The critters wicker and rattle around us, kept away, I presume, by my light. “You must sleep, surely?”
She shrugs, “It’s not of much use to me if I’m honest.”
“Don’t you have things to do in the day? In town?”
“Nah. Never been there.”
She grins, but it’s lopsided.
I found a cave. I wished not to exist somewhere obvious, or somewhere vulnerable to my nightly form. I would hide myself away. This choice proved to be shrewd, considering the locals’ views on me. I managed to fit a cot into the dankness, a small stove and some lamps, purchased from the town. I acquired some money, doing small jobs where I could, to keep my cupboards stocked.
I had no need of a clock or watch. After sleeping away most days, I would always be woken with enough time to vacate my new home. Thus I existed for weeks, only attracting unwanted attention with my strolls.
Talking with her makes me feel human. I had convinced myself long ago that the word no longer applied. So I decided, a wavering hermit, to take another step.
“You know…” I begin, and falter. A man wreathed in his own fire. It is somewhere between senseless and farcical. “We could talk sometime… when I’m not…like this.”
She smiles gently. “That wouldn’t be very easy for me.” Even in the midst of the burn I must look downhearted. “It doesn’t bother me.”
I reach up, trace the line of my jaw, bone rasping on bone, tap fingers over my teeth in tuneless rhythm. “You’d be the first.”
“There’s always a first. If there wasn’t, there’d never be a second. That’s maths that is.” She cocks a brow.
“Bang on lad.”
I am walking, waiting for her to appear. For once I see her first. She is standing up on the cliff, watching something. I dim myself, bringing my flames to a lull. It is a skill I learnt quickly but never usually exploit. Around the rocks of the cliff’s base I skulk.
She stands, the moon shining full on her, still watching, perhaps waiting. I’ve never noticed before, but up there on the headland she almost seems to be pierced by that lunar light. Shot through by moons-shine.
A time passes, and then she abruptly turns and disappears, obviously descending some unseen slope hidden from me. As her face turns my way, for that moment, I think I see the light reflect off her cheeks.
I return to sea and hide beneath, feeling strangely ashamed.
“That’s where you’ve been.”
I am emerging from the water, feeling like enough time had passed, that she may have gone away. I dip my skull, thankful at least for the lack of expression.
“What is it?” She asks, like some parent or teacher. She’s learned my pauses by now, the slight movements of bone and muscle remnants among the inferno. It is both strange and wonderful to be read when one is like this.
“I saw you earlier.”
She blinks, looks down. Where my stomach would be lurches. She sighs. “I was hoping to see him.”
Her smile is broken.
Above all, I deserve this.
People do things in a crack of time. They peel away part of themselves with an action, a dire flaw in their judgement. They clutch a certain logic which they revere as the only possible key. They destroy all else.
I have done such things. I have persecuted what I did not understand.
I hung a boy who didn’t deserve it. I was young and callous and filled with self-importance, a lack of understanding, no desire for it. I had found him poaching.
While he kicked and struggled for breath I locked eyes with someone in the crowd. A woman, staring at me with such hatred that it seemed like her eyes would boil me where I stood.
That night my home burnt as I slept.
I watch another boy now, younger than the one I put to death. He walks in file with a dozen others, all clad in the same drab colours, body and soul.
I catch the attention of a man who follows the procession. “That boy there,” I point, “What’s his history?”
The man frowns over spectacles. “A very fine way of asking such a gloomy question.”
He sighs, glances away to make sure someone else is still leading the children. “About, hmm, twelve years ago now, there was a shipwreck. Another shipwreck. We found a woman, washed up. Pregnant. She was barely alive when we found her, but she clung on until we were able to deliver her child, right there on the beach. And now there he walks.”
I stare at the retreating back. “Which beach?”
I am selfish, another truth. Here I stand, lamenting my grotesque and awkward existence, while others more deserving are robbed of the time they could have spent with those dearest. The reflection of my crime is not unnoticed.
Jessenia is waiting as I emerge from my cave that night. I feel myself studied. “You know, don’t you?”
I nod. “Yes.”
She nods too, says nothing more.
I say, “I’m sorry.”
She smiles weakly, turns away. “Don’t be. I’ve had twelve years to feel sorry, for myself. I don’t need anyone else’s apologies.”
There is a silence.
“I will try my best, to see he is cared for.”
She looks back at me. “You would?”
“Maybe, circumstances allowing,” I raise an en-flamed hand, “I could do it myself, one day.” Her eyes are beginning to shine in the moonlight. “Or, I can stay away-”
“No,” she shakes her head, bites her lip as one tear falls. “Thank you.”
“You should know,” I begin, unsure of myself, “I have done… terrible things. There is a reason for my curse. You may want me apart from him.”
She comes closer. “I know the person I’ve been speaking to. Whoever this man was, he must have been burnt away.”
I let out a breath I didn’t realise I had been holding. It gusts out as heat and fireflies. I start for a moment in shock, realising Jessenia is close enough to be set alight, but she is not.
She is moving towards me, fearless. I have not had someone so close to me in the night for many years. The flames move around her, through her. She does not heed them, has no need to. For the briefest moments they brush away silvery skin to show bone.
Jessenia puts her arms around my waist, her head to my chest, and again I find myself holding my breath. Carefully, as if she may break, I encircle her with my own.
Maybe, just maybe, I can find a way.
This lovely haunting tale was written by Tam Caddick, a new writer you should be keeping an eye on. In fact, you can, right here.
Art by Tom Brown