Weekdays between nine and five, Jason M. Jones edits academic journals in the Philadelphia area. He spends the
rest of his time writing stories, some of which have appeared in Potomac Review 47, Wrong Tree Review 2, LIT 19,
The MacGuffin and Gulf Stream. For more, please visit: jasonmjones.net.
He dreams of water, vast bodies without borders, icebergs outcropping from blue infinity, the dream filled with fear, not of an end but of this all-consuming immensity. His body bobs up and down, stranded, without recourse, and he imagines the creatures that surround him. It’s not just great predators that frighten him, but the sheer size and foreign nature of other organisms: blue whales and giant squid, the gelatinous form and wiry sinuous stingers of jellyfish. Floating there, he’s vulnerable, not simply to shark’s teeth, but the odd eye of an eel, the cold shower from an orca’s spout, not to mention the tide’s malevolent motion, calmer here than near shore but ever-present, pulling him under. Even benevolent beasts like dolphins take on a menacing aspect, their slick polyurethane skin brushing beneath his rough salt-slaked soles. No boats, no rescue, yet his legs don’t freeze as they kick and circulate his blood. He expected the heat to fade more quickly, his temperature to dissipate, but he maintains the stroke, calm against desperation, a silent steady tread.
At the end of the first day, he’s settled into the setting and he’s taken to traveling. The ocean becomes sky, his body in flight. Arms spread, on his back facing up, he feels as weightless as the wisp of smoke called cloud that covers the moon. “Cloud,” he says. The word sounds foreign and new, yet it glides from his tongue, and lacking a solid object to bounce off, sails unbridled into the ether. How far does it travel, he wonders, until it dissolves? “Stars,” he says, and pictures the sound waves caressing the buoyant air, washing over it, and the stars themselves then appear at his command. Having lost all other identifying marks to the dream itself, he identifies himself as a man who can cull the stars, and they, in turn, reflect so fervently from the glistening surface, he has to roll, wide-eyed to the saline sting, to reaffirm he remains at sea.
If he sleeps, drifting to further levels of subconscious, he’s unaware, but morning comes along, and alert, he meets the sunrise. He’s never been scared of the empty space above him, even though it’s more vast and ominous than anything else in existence, and he welcomes its change from navy to azure with a nod and satisfied smile, as one would compliment a friend’s fetching new shirt. The riptide must have carried him to warmer waters since icebergs no longer slink along the horizon, but without them, he feels alone, as if all the teeming life surrounding him has vanished down to the smallest crustacean or bacteria or protozoa. Only simple combinations of molecules remain: hydrogen and oxygen coupling, an erotic elemental threesome; thick traces of chloride and sodium that lift him, buoy him, send him along like a schooner crossing a channel, cutting across crests and troughs. He used to notice an acrid smell before it became too familiar; now his nose no longer functions as an olfactory organ. His ears, submerged this long, hear solely the swish and suction of torrents, so that eyes and skin are all he is, a thin membrane that separates one surging fluid from another.
How did he get here? His wonder forgoes the logic of a dream, and he questions if indeed he’s still asleep. Did he fall from a plane? Slip from a sinking ship? He longs for an origin story, an explanation to his predicament. The most mundane of yearnings: a reason—unsure both where he’s headed and where he came from. Without signpost for contrast or mirror to reflect, he’s concerned he’ll forget what he is. He’s fortunate to remember the names of things, but not himself. “Gull,” he says, as overhead a bird soars past, and this reassures him in the absence of his icebergs that he’s not entirely isolated. To be alone—not merely by himself but in complete solitude without any sign of life outside the blood pulsing through his veins—would be insufferable, perhaps the worst state he can envision, and here in the realm of utmost imagination this solitude becomes amplified, breeds on his nerve endings, multiples in an exponential meiosis, and he deliberates in hindsight, if that was actually a gull or his guardian angel, reminding him to hold on a bit longer, signifying that land isn’t far off.
Heading into shore, he grows increasingly aware of the waves within his veins—his heart, an anchored ship amidst these swelling fluids, static harbor channeling the liquid through itself, sustaining its position at the core. He’s tossed to and fro, but the beach remains fixed, a glimpse of salvation, of temptation. Dare he long for it? His arms have lost the memory of coordination, of how to swim against the current and he’s subject to its will, its mercy or punishment. He thrashes instead from the torso, as a human mimics a porpoise, only to stop when his head sinks below the waterline. In turn, his heart rate accelerates, as if to match the incessant exterior beat. As a child—if in fact it’s his own childhood he’s remembering—he wouldn’t venture too far out. His weakness, set against the undertow’s intensity, had developed to phobic levels and anything above the knee would send him rushing toward his mother. But as an adult, he’d test himself against its lethal grip, pushing as far as he could, treading with the last of his strength, then straining ashore to collapse in a heap, his adversary teasing the tips of his toes as he lay exhausted on the sand, defeated, yet somehow, simultaneously triumphant.
When he wakes—if he wakes, that is—he wakes to reprieve. Sand sticks to his chest and his senses are restored, but as with any waking, it takes some time to return to himself. He doesn’t recognize the beach, but there’s a vague familiarity. In the distance, the dunes; beyond that the pale trees. He stands on shaking legs, a chill from wind lifting the beads off his body. He’s not wearing any clothing, but this doesn’t embarrass him. He’s almost unaware of it, excepting the cold, the shiver. The landscape is untrammeled, but it’s nearing nightfall and the tide’s in, so there could have been others here earlier, the surf erasing their footprints. He listens and sniffs, the passages clear, but the air’s clean, no evidence of civilization. He should panic perhaps. It seems the most natural inclination, but after days or weeks or even years in the ocean, he refuses to yield to the impulse and heads toward the brush. There, he figures, maybe he’ll gain some insight, climb a tree and watch the sky turn from its yellow haze into the celestial hues of purple and orange and pink. He hears something call out in the distance and understands: If he can survive the sunset with all its beauty and subterfuge, he can withstand whatever this fleeting world has to render, whatever else might pull him astray.