The Mystery of Choice


by Robert W. Chambers

ON the silver shoal the waves washed and washed, breaking Ii BREAKPOINT crushed opals where the sands sang with the humming froth.

Troops of little shore birds, wading on the shoal, tossed their sun tipped wings and scuttled inland, where, dappled with shadow fro the fringing forest, the white beach of the island stretched.

The water all around was shallow, limpid as crystal, and he st BREAKPOINT the ribbed sand shining on the bottom, where purple seaweed floats and delicate sea creatures darted and swarmed and scattered aga at the dip of his paddle.

Like velvet rubbed on velvet the canoe brushed across the sun He staggered to his feet, stumbled out, dragged the canoe high under the trees, turned it bottom upward, and sank beside it, fa BREAKPOINT downward in the sand. Sleep came to drive away the fear of fé BREAKPOINT but hunger, thirst, and fever fought with sleep, and he dreamed of a rope that sawed his neck, of the fight in the woods, a the shots. He dreamed, too, of the camp, of his forty pounds spruce gum, of Tully, and of Bates. He dreamed of the fire and t smoke-scorched kettle, of the foul odour of musty bedding, of t greasy cards, and of his own new pack, hoarded for weeks to ple~ BREAKPOINT the others. All this he dreamed, lying there face downward in t sand; but he did not dream of the face of the dead.

The shadows of the leaves moved on his blond head, crisp with clipped curls. A butterfly flitted around him, alighting now on his legs, now on the back of his bronzed hands. All the afternoon the bees hung droning among the wildwood blossoms; the leaves above scarcely rustled; the shore birds brooded along the water's edge; the thin tide, sleeping on the sand, mirrored the sky.

Twilight paled the zenith; a breeze moved in the deeper woods; a star glimmered, went out, glimmered again, faded, and glimmered.

Night came. A moth darted to and fro under the trees; a beetle hummed around a heap of seaweed and fell scrambling in the sand. Somewhere among the trees a sound had become distinct, the song of a little brook, melodious, interminable. He heard it in his dream it threaded all his dreams like a needle of silver, and like a needle it pricked him pricked his dry throat and cracked lips. It could not awake him; the cool night swathed him head and foot.

Toward dawn a bird woke up and piped. Other birds stirred, restless, half awakened; a gull spread a cramped wing on the shore, preened its feathers, scratched its tufted neck, and took two drowsy steps toward the sea.

The sea breeze stirred out behind the mist bank; it raised the feathers on the sleeping gulls; it set the leaves whispering. A twig snapped, broke off~ BREAKPOINT
and fell. Kent stirred, sighed, trembled, and awoke.

The first thing he heard was the song of the brook, and he stumbled straight into the woods. There it lay, a thin, deep stream in the gray morning light, and he stretched himself beside it and laid his cheek in it. A bird drank in the pool, too---a little fluffy bird, bright-eyed and fearless.

His knees were firmer when at last he rose, heedless of the drops that beaded lips and chin. With his knife he dug and scraped at some white roots that hung half
meshed in the bank of the brook, and when he had cleaned them in the pool he ate them.

The sun stained the sky when he went down to the canoe, but the eternal curtain of fog, far out at sea, hid it as yet from sight.

He lifted the canoe, bottom upwards, to his head, and, paddle and pole in either hand, carried it into the forest.

After he had set it down he stood a moment, opening and shutting his knife. Then he looked up into the trees. There were birds there, if he could get at them. He looked at the brook. There were prints of his fingers in the sand; there, too, was the print of something else-a deer's pointed hoof.

He had nothing but his knife. He opened it again and looked at it.

That day he dug for clams and ate them raw. He waded out into the shallows, too, and jabbed at fish with his setting pole, but hit nothing except a yellow crab.

Fire was what he wanted. He hacked and chipped at flinty-looking pebbles, and scraped tinder from a stick of sun-dried driftwood. His knuckles bled, but no fire came.

That night he heard deer in the woods, and could not sleep for thinking, until the dawn came up behind the wall of mist, and he rose with it to drink his fill at the brook and tear raw clams with his white teeth. Again he fought for fire, craving it as he had never craved water, but his knuckles bled, and the knife scraped on the flint in vain.

His mind, perhaps, had suffered somewhat. The white beach seemed to rise and fall like a white carpet on a gusty hearth. The birds, too, that ran along the sand, seemed big and juicy, like partridges; and he chased them, hurling shells and bits of driftwood at them till he could scarcely keep his feet for the rising, plunging beach or carpet, whichever it was. That night the deer aroused him at intervals. He heard them splashing and grunting and crackling along the brook. Once he arose and stole after them, knife in hand, till a false step into the brook awoke him to his folly, and he felt his way back to the canoe, trembling.

Morning came, and again he drank at the brook, lying on the sand where countless heart-shaped hoofs had passed leaving clean imprints; and again he ripped the raw clams from their shells and swallowed them, whimpering.

All day long the white beach rose and fell and heaved and flattened under his bright dry eyes. He chased the shore birds at times, till the unsteady beach tripped him up and he fell full length in the sand. Then he would rise moaning, and creep into the shadow of the wood, and watch the little song-birds in the branches, moaning, always moaning.

His hands, sticky with blood, hacked steel and flint together, but so feebly that now even the cold sparks no longer came.

He began to fear the advancing night; he dreaded to hear the big warm deer among the thickets. Fear clutched him suddenly, and he lowered his head and set his teeth and shook fear from his throat again.

Then he started aimlessly into the woods, crowding past bushes, scraping trees, treading on moss and twig and mouldy stump, his bruised hands swinging, always swinging.

The sun set in the mist as he came out of the woods on to another beach--- a warm, soft beach, crimsoned by the glow in the evening clouds.

And on the sand at his feet lay a young girl asleep, swathed in the silken garment of her own black hair, round limbed, brown, smooth as the bloom on the tawny beach.

A gull flapped overhead, screaming. Her eyes, deeper than night, unclosed. Then her lips parted in a cry, soft with sleep, "1hó!"

She rose, rubbing her velvet eyes. "Ihó!" she cried in wonder; "Inab!"

The gilded sand settled around her little feet. Her cheeks crimsoned. "E-hó! E-hó!" she whispered, and hid her face in her hair.

End of PART THREE..... GO TO PART FOUR..... 

Copyright © 1998, 2002 Miskatonic University Press / yankeeclassic.com, all rights reserved