It was the mid morning sun that finally woke him, needling through the lone rip in the tent canvas he had meant to repair for weeks. Wandering in the dark for hours, soaked to the bone by the torrent sweeping off the bay and inland, he searched for a place to finally rest for the day, a small hillock or cairn. When the weak light of his headlamp touched the façade of an old shore home, he collapsed, hurriedly constructing a shelter as close to the wall as he could get.
The distant sound of waves was all he could hear as he moved across the great, flat peninsula yesterday, between bay and ocean, but as long as daylight lasted, he only glimpsed water from a distant middle point, trying to keep his movement mostly north to hit the mainland again. This morning he stirred and listened closely. The waves were close; the sound of their advance and retreat was crisp.
The traveler zipped open his bag and unfolded a blue plastic bundle, pulling the dry clothes on and stretching his sore muscles. They felt cool and clean with morning already heating the dark canvas and laying the groundwork for another hot, humid day.
Stepping out of the tent, bare-footed, he placed a hand on the wooden wall – his overnight protector – following the weather stripped siding until it stopped at a large hole toward its opposite side where only the framing remained, meeting bare framing on the north side. It was a house at one point in time, a small fishing cottage perhaps. The only wall that remained largely intact was the back one; the rest of the house was frames and patches of dry, rotted siding, gray and sun-bleached.
Fine grasses were growing through the remaining floorboards, assimilating the old settlement into the surrounding fields. The soil was loose and soft under his feet as he paced through the house, but the grasses were rigid, spongy networks of roots stopped his toes from digging too deep. The grasses gave way to a small, rain-pounded beach, the barest part of land meeting water as far north and south as he could see, missing the seemingly ubiquitous patches of shoulder-high reeds lining the rest of the coast, until the land bent to the east far north, low cliffs jutting out into the ocean. To the south the reeds continued, following another bend east, lining the remarkably flat lowland.
Large gray tree trunks were strewn across the little beach, one draped over the rusted remains of a fishing boat, gutted by a hundred years of corrosion. Black strips of weeds outlined the progression of waves over the past few days, forming layered boundaries where the waves dropped them, gentle curves along the gentle slant of beach.
The traveler hadn’t smelled the sea since he left his home, mingling with the pungency of decaying organics trapped among the forest of reeds north and south, absorbing the periodic gusts from the ocean. The sun was warm and the air infused; in comfort, he sat down slowly, leaning back against one of the great dried logs, salt caked and stripped of bark. There were no sounds beyond the plodding of unending water and the occasional cry from gull or heron, soft but guttural.
He picked himself up and brushed off the seat of his pants, lazily walking back up the beach and through the spiny grasses to scrounge something up to eat. As he passed the south side of the house, he glimpsed a color alien to this peninsula, which displayed little outside of mauves and tinted grays, a bright, even red, glinting beneath a section of heaved floorboard. Curious, he stepped over the remaining slats between the frame and starting digging. The earth was loose and sandy, and the large, red suitcase, though heavy, came out easily.
It was unlocked. Simply enough, he removed the moist, sandy soil from around the latch and flipped it, setting the suitcase down carefully. It took a little prying, carefully sliding the blunt side of his knife through the crack and rocking it until there was a pop and the lid came loose. Inside the suitcase, neatly stacked and in wonderful condition where about three dozen paperback books, edges worn and rounded, spines broken and in some cases completely split in half. He gingerly pulled the first book from the first row and leaned back against the remnant of the wooden wall behind, paging past the copyright and the dedication, to a page with “Chapter One” printed at the very top.
There he sat until the daylight waned, unmoving except to scratch or to shift or to page. Through the book he held, he left the desolate beauty of the lonely shore and entered a bustling human world of a time long past, where conversation was not a fleeting, functional experience, but a necessary and sometimes pleasurable exercise of thought and prowess. The language that filled his head was rich, full of words that he had forgotten through pure disuse - no referent, no need. There was warmth in the words that he could not find from the sun or the land or even in the more endearing communities of animals he’d encountered; what nature had reclaimed was no place for man, and walking the expanse was a daily reminder.
That night he lit a fire on the beach and continued to read until the skies lightened from black to purple. The traveler pulled his sleeping bag around him and curled up close to the dying embers of the fire. In this place he would stay until the last word of the last book was read.