The man held out his hand. The fingers were dirty, the nails encrusted. Zach had never held hands with a man before. He had hugged his mates, you could do that now, and patted them on the back with genuine affection. But, he’d never held another man’s hand before, except in a handshake.
Where he had come from, where he had been, why he was here, was uncertain.
Zach couldn’t remember why he was here himself. It too had something to do with uncertainty, he was certain of that. He hadn’t noticed when the other man sat beside him, he was just, noticeably, there.
He could feel the dirt on the man’s fingers and visualize the encrustations under his nails. It was something they had never done before and might never do again.
Somehow, through the dirt, the eyes that didn’t necessarily look at his, and his eyes that didn’t necessarily look at the other’s, as they sat there holding hands, beneath the trees on the fringe of the beach, the world had taken on a suspect tranquility.
The younger one- or was he? They had not really looked at each other, the dirt and the beard could have been a mask, so that he was, in fact, older.
They knew that they shared more than either could tell the other. The soft breeze touched their skins at the same time and they could both see the orange-pink light of the slowly sinking sun. They could feel each other’s hair on an ear as their heads closed the gap and rested against each other. Those same ears heard the same bird, then birds, talk, or sing, communicate.
They shared many other things, too, not just the senses. The water, as it lapped, and lapped, and lapped, the pages of a book turning, a history book. They shared an album, photographs, or snapshots, there were children, mothers and fathers, and others, there were steaks, and carrots, there were days, and more days.
As the water lapped, the pages turned, there was more that they shared, had in common. Zach’s clean fingers touched the dirty, the lines in their hands cut to a groove. Their ears still touched, the hair tickled, which was communication. As the water lapped, the pages turned, so did their blood pump.
They sat, silently, holding each other’s hand. Twenty minutes passed before either of them dared to really look.
The dirty one tensed.
“Come on, the water is there, we might as well.”
The dirty one withdrew his hand.
“I’ll look after you. I promise.” The one with clean hands pulled him up.
The dirty one sat down again. He looked at the water with doubt.
They could both hear the returning water. One was curious, the other had experience.
Zach, who thought he was a leader but was not yet experienced, gently lifted the other and guided him.
“No.” The dirty one wanted the trees.
“Come on, mate. Follow me.”
The man with dirty fingers wavered with indecision. He had trusted before. Zach pointed to the sea with an outstretched hand. They looked at themselves again.
“Come with me. I promise.”
He stretched out his other arm as if to embrace the world so that he appeared as either Christ or the Vitruvian Man. They had been taught about both at school and until today Zach thought he was both. He knew what he was capable of but without experience, he had never learned he had limitations. The dirty-fingered one had learned, and lived, so could not believe.
“The octopus,” the words came unexpected out of the dirty beard. He pointed to the rock pools with his free hand. They may as well have been engaging in their own private semaphore.
Zach followed the pointed finger. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Then the bearded one was guided, his will having given in, by the other, down to the water. They arrived at the lapping pages. Gazing at the waves, whose pages were illuminated with the images projected from their own head, and the words without which you can’t have books, they forgot each other for a time, then remembered and looked back at themselves.
The dirty one lifted the bottom of his singlet and took it off, it was both an invitation and a challenge. It fell on the sand, where in that light, it blended into a similar color. He turned the button of his shorts, which fell too, and extracted his feet. The shorts lay touching the singlet in a way that made the clothes appear as if the body that was in them had suddenly dematerialized.
Zach lifted his T-shirt over his ears and slowly let it drop. Perhaps a first indicator that he was not truly a leader. The color was different but it fell beside the dirty one. He unzipped his shorts. They fell, too. On the sand, the clothes hugged each other. The two men’s hands reached out, groove into groove, and they stepped into it.
They were both naked and there was no shame. They moved in over their feet. The water touched their ankles. It chilled their thighs. Once they had relaxed, they looked, again, at each other, and Zach knew they were the same.
Hand in hand they floated in a bit more until the water was level with what they had most in common, which they shared, and was most fragile of all.
The water could not make cold, which in both had already been made cold, by arrogance in one and experience in the other. So it moved up to their necks. They bobbed and danced in the water, of which they were the same substance. Only the bearded one recognized the water had been here before them and would be after.
Their thighs touched. The dirty one who had always been frightened by the substance of which he was made, and Zach, the clean one who had once been frightened of nothing, held his thigh against the thigh of the other’s, both knowing they might never do this again.
“I’m not sure why I’m here. My name is Zach.”
But the dirty one had gone under. Their thighs no longer touched. The lack of something substantial, even if only a thigh, sent shivers of panic through Zach’s body till it reached his head. His brain was electric.
The other felt the dirt dissolving from his head, his beard. His hair floated out like the tendrils of some strange sea creature. His toes opened and the water passed through them. The hair on his chest waved like kelp in the rhythm of the sea. His nails were free. The water, the salt, made him feel buoyant, but he wasn’t really, it was only the dirt that had lifted. They had heard, at school, that water was meant to cleanse, but it only did the skin, nothing else. They had learned at school that water was a purifier, but it wasn’t, not really, He knew it could both refresh and kill. As he came to the surface, his skin clean, he released bubbles of oxygen.
As the bubbles of oxygen exploded on the surface so did Zach’s breath. Relieved, he took the hand again. There was silence for a time.
A plane was descending overhead and they both looked up. The orange color had slid away from the sky and it was now a dirty pink.
“The octopus.” With his other hand, the one who was now also clean pointed again to the rock pools. He stepped forward and Zach followed.
At the rock pools, they remained naked and there was still no shame. Attached randomly to the rocks with a chaos that in nature seemed orderly, a scattering of cunjevoi sat waiting for darkness and the tide to come.
He took Zach’s finger and pressed it against the side of the cunjevoi. It squirted a stream of water from its tiny hole. Zach jumped back with alarm, then laughed because it reminded him of something.
In the pools, there were limpets, and mollusks, oysters here and there. There was kelp and seaweed, waving fingers of grey-green beads. Tiny crabs scuttled in a flurry of sand and miniscule fish shot in all directions.
Zach was guided to the next pool. The clean bearded one took the same finger, bent him over, brought it down and inserted it in an anemone. The fronds wrapped around his finger, his finger engulfed by velvet. When Zach stood back up he had wonder etched on his face.
The sun had not yet completely set.
The one who assumed he was a leader had once again been led. The suspect tranquility might now be an inevitability. He couldn’t remember why he was there. But he did remember the other one saying ‘He would look after me. He promised.’ Perhaps he had by showing things Zach had never seen before.
“The octopus.” The clean bearded one pointed, and there it sat, in the rock pool, in the water, white arms outstretched.
Zach looked at the octopus and wondered. Where he had come from, where he had been, why he was here. He tightened his grip on the hand.
Zach had seen gold and silver rings before, on hands, and around necks, but he had never seen rings this blue. He had never seen a sky this blue. The bluest blue rings were set out along the creature’s arms and body on poisonous display. There was still wonder on his face, a wonder he had never felt before and would never feel again.
He felt the other’s man’s hand in his and realized that now it was clean and with that the doubt had gone. There seemed now a power in it, a power imbibed, absorbed, from the sea and the rock pools.
The bearded one once again guided Zach’s finger downwards. On his way down Zach remembered that what had brought him here was uncertainty, he remembered that he had promised the other man that he would protect him.
Zach knew he had to make a decision. But because he knew he was no longer a leader, he couldn’t decide. The bearded one, now the leader, scared him. He looked him in the eyes searching for a decision.
“What is the octopus?” Zach asked.
The octopus was them both, arms outstretched, offering. Zach and the bearded one both had something to offer. They had continuously offered up what they had, but it had never been enough.
He knew, now, his older self, aged with experience. A grain of sand on the beach, over which others trampled and the water, repeatedly, lapped. Where once it had cleansed, but the skin only, now it would kill.
What they had in common, what they shared, the photographs now faded, what they had been taught proved false. Their history book scuffed and indecipherable.
The bearded one, who was Zach himself, but with experience and wisdom, made a decision for them both. Their finger descended, trembled, hovered above the glowing blue rings of the octopus.
And as their finger slipped into the electric blue ring they were certain now. As it touched and was inserted deep into the seemingly impenetrable blue, the sun went down, and all was, inevitably, black.
Zach’s eyelids flicked open. Above him were the trees and beneath the sand grated on his back.
He could hear birds, and water lapping on the beach. A plane passed overhead and he wondered where it was going.
He had fallen asleep but wasn’t sure for how long. It had been an intense sleep, he knew that.
The sun was setting, the vibrant blue replaced with an indeterminate color, somewhere between orange and pink.
He blinked and stood up. He stretched and wandered over to the rock pools. There was nothing much there except a few small fish and tiny crabs. He wandered and looked around. At one rockpool, he saw a blue-ringed octopus. He thought he’d never seen one before, then a faint memory hovered and he thought, yes, he might have once. He knew they were poisonous and can kill. So he stared at its mesmerizing form.
He had had one of those days, where everything had gone wrong. It had made him think about what was going to happen. Unhappiness always makes us wonder about the future, what it will be, what will it bring for us.
Still a bit sleepy, it was time to go. There was work again tomorrow, perhaps it would be better, but it would be Friday, and he had a party he was looking forward to.