Man - A Short Story

 

“Do you know who you are?”

A man sits on his rump, scratching at the grit in his fingernails, bent over and wearing only a pair of pants. His belly is round. The rest of him is stiffened, even if he is at ease, his arms and chest and legs all glassblown and shaped as any wild ape, long muscles, tight bearing. The man is naked, even though his thighs are wrapped in old pants, the man sits as if naked. He crouches as if naked. He looks up as if naked. His skin has been refined by the sun. Years in the sun, and he a bulk of meat set on a rock to dry. The man’s beard is deep. It is a winding, fervent beard. His mouth and neck and clavicles all are absent in the place of the beard.

“Do you know where you are?”

“Look at him, gone feral and he’s still preening over his nails.” This is said in a whisper.

The man scratches the dirt in his fingernails with a twig. He sits on a rock. His guests are well-dressed. They are well-meaning. They are very curious men. Very. They sit outside of his home. This man has worn the same pair of pants for years. He sleeps inside a cave. Outside the cave, he has welcomed the visitors. There is an order to his yard. He has a collection, or rather a pile, of sharpened rocks just outside his door, off to the side so that he does not step in them. Surely there are more inside, but the guests are not allowed in there at this time. An outrageous set of knives, all ready for the taking, all outside the door. The door, the door being the mouth of a cave.

On the man’s head, there is a scar. A brutal scar, the kind that is noticed before anything else on the person can be. A scar on his brow.

In his yard, he has arranged the stones. He sits on the smoothest, the most comfortable. His guests sit on stones. Between the tips of their boots and the claws on his feet is a pit. A pit of ash, for there is no need for fire now. And yet, how many fires had he burned there? The round hole, round as man ever would dig it, educated or primitive: round. Two inches deep of ash, he has not cleaned it recently. How many thousands of fire have burned in this pit?

There are animal skins laid on the rocks where they all sit. Brown cushions as thin as parchment. There is a wooden cross facing the west. One staff of lumber planted in the ground; a crossbar of driftwood lashed to it. Is that where he prays?

“Is that where you pray?”

He picks at his nails, he looks down at his steel fingertips with a slanting mouth. The first look of dignity and scrutiny on his divoted mouth. His beard rises as he moves to his other hand.

“Is—have you buried a loved one there?”

The man looks at his guests. His eyes are unlike eyes. The pupils had overtaken the irises. In doing so they had shrunk, swallowing and waning, so that his eyes were full of white and only faintly had black blots in each center. “No.”

He had spoken. One word, but it was the first—the first the guests had heard. They knew he was capable of speech, they had been guided to him with the understanding that he would give an interview. Those who had made first contact led them to his home and left. It was a strange circumstance, they’d said. Strange? Try fascinating, the interviewers replied.

So they sit on the skins on the rocks. He sits on the best rock, near the cave, near the pile of savage knives. His belly is fat but his arms and legs and neck are battle-ready.

There is sand and soil all around. Some bones; ribs stacked neatly against one of the rocks.
“If you like, we’ll come back some other time. Our boat will be offshore for a week. And there’s more to the island to look at.”

The man finishes his second hand. His nails are clean and he looks up.

“I will talk today. Tomorrow I must gather roots.”

“What have you lived on? Here on the island? We’ve seen some fruit, nuts, some roots.”

The man nods. “Fruit. Nuts.”

“And the roots?”

The man smiles and grunts, looking at the ashpile. It was a stupid question.

“There are sheep and goats on the island,” says one of the guests. “You don’t eat the animals?”

The man shakes his head. “I’m not able.”

“What do you mean?”

But the man will not answer.

“The party that first found you said you refused to go with them. You’ve refused new clothing, fresh water, to take shelter with them, or to return with them to the mainland. Why is this?”

The man holds up his arms, spreading them. “This is home.”

“Surely it is now. But you were not born here, correct? You told the first people who found you you came here years ago. True?”

“Maybe seven.”

“Do you know where you came from before? Do you remember who you are?”

The man leans forward. His wrists slide up his thighs, perching on his kneecaps. He withdraws and stretches backward, throwing his arms in the air again. “In seven years, I have become a little crazy. A little.” He nods for himself. “I am, I know. I have friends you can’t see. I talk to them, they tell me what they know.”

“That’s all right, no one here is judging you.”

“That’s right. We’ve all had imaginary friends when we were kids. It’s all right to want some company.”

“Mhm, mhmm.” He seems warmer now. His limbs relax. He fidgets less and seems to smile. “There is—my friend Evelyn, a giraffe. But, small as a goat. A little giraffe.”

“Evelyn? How nice.” Pencils are scribbling.

“A little giraffe.” One of the guests laughs. “Who else? Who else are your friends here on the island?”

“Adam. He is another man. But he isn’t real. He tells me each day what the weather will be.”

“Good, good. Who else?”

“Lucy, who is a dinosaur.”

“A dinosaur? Really? How colorful. This is the place for a dinosaur, isn’t it? What does Lucy do?”

“Lucy bites.”

“Yes? Does Lucy bite you?”

“Lucy bites everyone, Evelyn, me, Adam.”

“Is that where got your scar?”

One of the guests frowns at the one who asked the question. He says in a quiet voice, “Are you stupid? Why would you ask that? The dinosaur isn’t real.”

“Real to him,” says the other.

“And that—”

But the man interrupts. “My head was hurt. Yes.”

“How—I’m sorry my partner asked you so suddenly, but how did you hurt your head? If we may ask?”

“Fight.”

“Who were you fighting?”

The man devolves before their eyes. He becomes a single-cell organism. His head and beard sink into his chest, his hands are clasped together. His feet meet and bury into the sand.

“Was—you put that cross there, right?”

“Mhm,” the man nods. Nod. Nod. “Yes, I did. Adam said I should. Evelyn helped me make it.”

“And what did Lucy do?”

“Lucy cried. Yelled. Lucy bit all of us, but that’s what Lucy does.”

“So, what is the cross for?”

He puts his hands together, clapping lightly. He looks down at his hands, clapping them. He touches the scar on his head and shivers. Then his hands meet again, and he hunches over. He is clapping softly. He is nervous.

One of the guests asks him, “I know I’ve asked before. But I want you to know we aren’t here to judge you for anything that happened, or that you did to survive. Truth be told, there’s no record of any ships or planes or anything passing this way seven years ago, or even seventy-seven. But, I’ll ask again, is a loved one buried under that cross? Rather, anyone at all buried under there?”

The clapping stops. The man looks up. His hands find their way into his beard, hiding in a nest. He removes them and touches his scar, touches his eyes. His eyes, white and small, are wet.

“Okay, okay,” he says. He is nodding. “Okay.” Nod. “There are bones in the ground.”

The guests all lean forward from their seats. They lean forward on the skins on the stones, pencils ready.

 

 

“Sir, do you know who you are?”

The man smiles. He is afraid. His mouth opens, “There were two of us here. Me. Him. I killed my brother.”

But they are not there. They are not really there. His guests sit on the rocks, but aren’t there. And Lucy stands between. And Adam and Evelyn aren’t there. The bones are in the ground.