by James Callan
The warm, sapphire water is inviting. The white sand leading into it, unblemished and hot. Upon the sanctuary of my towel, my exposed legs and bare feet remain safe. But beyond its threadbare, rectangular edge, its curled, frayed corners, is sun-baked feldspar, scorched silica -- here it comes, a sermon on sand -- worn down rocks, miniaturized by passing millennia and the slow pulverization inflicted by the elements. My own molecules, by comparison, are perhaps not so robust. Hence, the towel, my protective layer, the cheap cotton between my ass and the fine, white sand that molds to its juicy dimensions. But this is a day trip to an idyllic beach, not a science lesson. So I stow away the geologist that is me when I am not on vacation. With effort, I unpack the relaxed version of a man on holiday, recumbent on the sand, an uncluttered mind, the beachgoer that is me when I enjoy time away from work, unfettered by concern beyond the trivial threat of mild sunburn.
I sip my drink and read a book. The drink is fruity, over sweet, and alcoholic -- I hate drinking in the daytime, but I am on vacation and play the part. The book, it’s okay. If nothing else, it shades the irksome sun from my face. It does a better job than my sunglasses, which dull the brilliant colors but do not alleviate the glare.
I finish a chapter in my book and am grateful to fold over the corner of the page, set it aside, abandon its narrative I am hardly following, too busy daydreaming about sedimentary rocks, eyeing the lime pulp settled at the base of my tropical cocktail, citrus sediment fogging the vodka and ice melt; lime, like limestone, and here I am on a mile-long belt of hot sand, like sandstone. There he is again, Mr. Geologist, showing up, uninvited and sudden, like a pyroclastic surge, here he comes, a turbulent confetti of volcanic ejaculation. Why can’t I ever just relax, unwind?
I prop myself up on my elbows which dimple the fine particles of sand. I stretch and rise up, stand, scan the long stretch of empty beach, the white, hot ribbon of trillions of minute mineral fragments. The SPF-whatever better be good enough on my pale flesh, my softer, more vulnerable composition, the molecular recipe that is me, the human cocktail of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, calcium and phosphorous, a few other trace elements that amount to something less robust than granite or marble, metamorphic stones, like David or the Venus de Milo. Those two are paler even than me, yet they would not burn even if the sun went static, stalled at its zenith. They’d cast downward shadows that cool their feet, enduring totems. Of course, even they’d become sand at some far off, later stage.
I abandon my towel, the dregs of my drink. I dance across the inferno that lies between me and the saline, tropic soup, the inviting, aquamarine sea. Like a fire-walker, a Brahmin priest or maybe just a brazen, drunk tourist, I tread on hot coals, or allow myself to pretend that I do, feeling that I could be, what with this sand perhaps as hot as the skillet that back at the resort will later tonight heat my Mahi Mahi, the artful work of well-reputed chefs who know damn well the flesh must reach 137 Fahrenheit to be fully cooked. I will zest the mild, lean cut, the pale pink ocean meat, with a squirt of lime -- and now, again, I can’t help but compare the flaky crust of cooked whitefish with the flaking layers of spalling limestone.
My tortured feet hit the warm, shallow water, cool by comparison to the avenue of fire I have just tread across to achieve my aquatic submersion. I ease into the crystal, lapping water. First my knees, then my thighs, next, I gasp against the unexpected cold as my navel fills with a tiny cup of the Pacific, and finally, beneath the waves, my nipples go hard, like metamorphic rock, like chiseled marble, but looking down at them, magnified by the water, they’re not what I’d deem a work of art, certainly no masterpiece. As I adjust to Neptune’s soothing realm, the shallow foyer of his aquatic mansion, I find the courage to make myself at home. I test the waters of his hospitality. I wade a bit deeper, then I plunge beneath the waves.
I splash and play and disturb the neon reflections that dance across the water, bright white on deep blue, the searing assault of Helios above. I deflect his effort to tan me, to impart his offerings of melanoma. Like a white knight, clad in well-oiled chain mail, I glisten in SPF-whatever. I dive deep and touch the sandy bottom. Swimming outward, I abandon one god for another.
100 yards out, or what looks like, in any case, to be the approximate length of a football field, the white sand carpeting the oceanic base becomes peppered with reef, and soon after, is entirely covered in coral. Out here, the waves are larger, more insistent, first pushing me back towards the shore then pulling me outward, deeper, away. I doggy-paddle and feel the burn in my arms, my legs which kick ungracefully like an injured frog. It’s not pretty, but I stay afloat easy enough. Bobbing on the surface, I see the daytime moon anemic in the blue sky above me, knowing that 384,000 kilometers away it revolves around the earth like a child orbiting the elliptical hem of its mother’s dress, a crater-faced teenager giving her a wide birth yet staying close enough to mooch off of her generosity, a great, approximate sphere with a surface dominantly comprised of igneous rock, once magma, now cooled and crystallized, luminous not of its own nature but by reflecting the sun’s light, a gorgeous pearl to illuminate the night sky, outshine the stars, and throughout its phases, have sway over the ocean tides, the push and pull of earth’s great bodies of water.
I am pushed and pulled myself. A man in the water, I am manhandled by the sea. I paddle for shore but find it becomes smaller, further away, with each graceless stroke, every clumsy kick. Blue waves carry me, lift me, deposit me, hard, into coral, not rock, but a living animal, marine invertebrates, a colony of polyps encased in the calcium carbonate skeleton they have secreted over the years. Above the knee, my flesh is lacerated and my muscles beneath the skin are torn open and exposed. The saltwater blooms crimson in my frantic wake, my blood clouding the tropic waters, mingling, dispersing, carrying on a current that transports hundreds of thousands, maybe a million of my blood cells along with my body fluids, rich plasma that will activate the interest of sharp-nosed sharks, huge, monstrous fish that will make a meal of me, enjoy me raw, relatively cold, just as I had intended to enjoy that Mahi Mahi heated and fully cooked.
I do not have a fear of sharks, not even a slight one -- you know, one of those irrational phobias that cripple a man for no logical reason -- but I do have my fair share of common sense, which sways me in this instant to feel a great deal of fear as I thrash against the now raging surf, the water, no longer blue, but reddish-purple, like liters and liters of dark pomegranate juice, oh, and that shark fin -- make that two -- cutting the ruby surface of saltwater stained by my lifeblood, fast approaching, already beside me, and now the pain of their razor teeth, white as lunar rock, shaped like arrowheads, like dental Doritos, as they snack -- no, feast -- upon a great ape that fancies himself more than animal, a man, a paragon of evolutionary excellence. Yes, I can feel the fear, my brain sending messages, pumping chemicals, my blood-flow redirecting away from my heart, ushering to my limbs so I might use them, defend myself, run away, well, swim away anyhow, if only I had all my limbs left. If only I had one limb left. Okay, so much for limbs. This is the lowlight of what was meant to be a needed vacation.
If only I had decided to stay ashore among the sand-baked feldspar, the scorched silica, the hot ribbon of trillions of minute mineral fragments. If only I had stayed sitting on my safe square of cotton protecting me from the hot sand. If only then, the worst of my problems would be the minor threat of a mild sunburn, the minimal concern that my Mahi Mahi may later be served slightly under cooked. As it is, here, out at sea, having gone out on a limb to enjoy myself, now limbless, shark food, I bleed out to warm a small pocket of the Pacific, to dye the saltwater around me in brilliant shades of scarlet.
James Callan grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He lives on the Kāpiti Coast, New Zealand on a small farm with his wife, Rachel, and his little boy, Finn. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bridge Eight, White Wall Review, Beyond Queer Words, Millennial Pulp Magazine and elsewhere. His novel, A Transcendental Habit, is due for publication in 2023 with Queer Space, an imprint of Rebel Satori Press.