The jaw is missing altogether, along with one of the eyes. The face is blistered black and torn. A flap of skin on the cheekbone is pulled back and pasted with wet sand, revealing the yellow white of bone and cartilage underneath. The place where the eye was is now a mushy soup of thick clear fluid mixed with blood, like ketchup eggs. There’s a string of kelp sticking out of the nose that makes him look almost comical—as though someone has played a practical joke on him.
But the rightness of his face is distorted by the missing mandible. Even revolting things can be made to look whole if there is a symmetry to them—but with the jaw gone, the face looks squat and the neck looks absurdly equine.
She moves her fingers back and forth before his one good eye, and the eye rolls around in its socket trying to follow the movement but stuttering in its focus. Then she puts her fingers down where the mouth would be. He has a set of upper teeth, cracked and brittle, but nothing beneath to bite down against. When she puts her fingers there, she can see the tendons tucked in behind his teeth clicking away in a radial pattern. There are milky white bones jutting out where the mandible would be attached and yellow ligaments like rubber bands stretching and relaxing, stretching and relaxing, with the ghost motion of chewing.
What you gonna do? she says. Bite me? I think your biting days are gone away, mister.
She takes her hand from his face and sits back, looking at him.
He gets his head shifted in her direction and keeps squirming.
Stop fightin against yourself, she says. Your back’s broke. You ain’t going nowhere. This is just about the end of your days.
She sighs and casts a gaze over the rocky shoal in the distance, the wide flat mainland beyond.
What’d you come here for anyway, meatskin? she says. Did you smell some girlblood carried on the wind? Did you just have to have some? I know you didn’t swim here. Too slow and stupid for that.
There is a gurgle in his throat and a blue crab bursts out from the sandy exposed end of the windpipe and scurries away.
You know what I think? she says. I think you tried to climb across those rocks. And I think you got picked up by those waves and got bust apart pretty good. That’s what I think. What do you say about that?
He has worked the arm free from underneath him and reaches toward her. But the fingers fall short by inches and dig furrows in the sand.
Well, she says, you shoulda been here last night. There was a moon so big you could just about reach up and pluck it out of the sky. And these fish, all electriclike, buzzing in circles round my ankles. It was something else, mister. I’m telling you, a miracle if ever there was one.
She looks at the rolling eye and the shuddering torso.
Maybe you ain’t so interested in miracles. But still and all, you can cherish a miracle without deserving one. We’re all of us beholden to the beauty of the world, even the bad ones of us. Maybe the bad ones most of all.
She sighs, deep and long.
Anyway, she says, I guess you heard enough of my palaver. Listen to me, I’m doin enough jawing for the both of us. Enough jawing for the both of us—get it?
She laughs at her joke, and her laughter trails off as she stands and brushes the sand off her palms and looks out over the water to the mainland. Then she walks up to a stand of palm trees above the beach and looks in the grassy undergrowth, stomping around with her feet until she finds what she’s looking for. It’s a big rock, bigger than a football. It takes her half an hour to dig around it with a stick and extract it from the earth. Nature doesn’t like to be tinkered with.
Then she carries the rock back down to the beach where the man is lying mostly still.
When he sees her, he comes to life again and begins squirming and shuddering and guggling his throat.
Anyway, she says to him, you’re the first one that got here. That counts, I guess. It makes you like Christopher Columbus or something. But this tide and all—you wanna bet there’s more of you coming? You wanna bet there’s all your slug friends on their way? That’s a pretty safe bet, I’d say.
She nods and looks out over the shoal again.
Okay then, she says, lifting the rock up over her head and bringing it down on his face with a thick wet crunch.
The arms are still moving, but she knows that happens for a while afterward sometimes. She lifts the rock again and brings it down twice more just to make sure.
Then she leaves the rock where it is, like a headstone, and goes down to her fishing net and finds a medium-sized fish in it and takes the fish back up to the lighthouse, where she cooks it over a fire and eats it with salt and pepper.
Then she climbs the steps to the top of the tower and goes out on the catwalk and looks far off toward the mainland.
She kneels down and puts her chin against the cold metal railing and says:
I reckon it’s time to move along again.
That night, by firelight, she removes from the hatch in the floor the things she stowed there when she first arrived. The cooler, the canteen, the pistol with two good rounds left in it. Later, she takes the gurkha knife and the pocket stone down to the beach and sits on the sand whetting the edge of it in long smooth strokes. She takes her time with this, sitting there under the moon for the better part of an hour, until she can taste the sharpness of the blade with her tongue. It’s a good blade, a foot long with an inward curve to it. It whistles when she swings it through the air.
She sleeps soundly that night but wakes herself up just before dawn and gathers her things.
She puts the knife and the pistol and the canteen and her panama hat into the cooler and drags it down to the beach. Then she walks back up to the lighthouse to say goodbye.
It’s a sorry thing to leave your home, and this one’s been good to her. She feels like a pea at the base of that tallboy tower. She climbs the steps one last time to the catwalk and looks at herself in the thousand tiny mirrors of the dead light. Her hair is long and stringy, and she takes a band and ties it up in back.
Then she reaches in and uses her fingers to pry loose one of the little mirrors and puts it in her pocket as a souvenir of her time here.
Truth be told, the inward gaze is something she’s not too fond of. But there are secrets that lurk in the mind, and she doesn’t want any of them sneaking up on her. Sometimes it pays to take a deep look inside even if you get queasy gazing into those dark corners.
Back at the bottom, she goes out and shuts the door, pulling it closed tight behind her so the wind won’t blow it open and stir things around in there. It’s a warming thought to picture it staying the same after she’s gone away from it.