They found each other on the second day. She thought she remembered him from the deck. He knew her at once, even in the waterlogged rags of her dress: the painter's girlfriend.
"Ronald," he said about himself.
"Where are we?" she said back, falling into him.
The horizon in every direction was featureless, the sea green and swollen. Around them the beach looked spent. The storm had dredged up muck from the bottom and left it well above the tide line. Drifting back and forth at the water's edge was the flotsam of the ship they'd been on—clothes, linen napkins, plastic jugs. A man, facedown and pale, draped in seaweed.
Ronald held her tighter, then remembered he was naked.
He tried to push her away, to go collect some pants from the surf, but she wouldn't let him go.
"Last night," she said into his chest, her voice dropping to a whisper. "Last night there was . . . I saw it. Running on the beach. A wolf."
Ronald stroked her hair down along her back and studied the trees.
The night after that she was sick, from eating the fruit. At first she'd said it was from the water in the pool, but Ronald had drunk there as well.
The next morning—she'd asked to be alone for the night, embarrassed, but then called for him between bouts—Ronald was sitting alone on the beach. The dead man in the surf had drifted farther out to sea, so Ronald could no longer make out the crabs picking at the bloated face. Soon enough a fin cut the water beside the dead man.
Ronald stood, suddenly alert.
The painter's girlfriend padded up beside him. Her name was Emma, but he was trying not to think of her like that.
"Are those—?" she said, then clapped her hands over mouth when the fin breached the water, became a spinning dolphin, the water spiraling off it.
It was followed by another, and another.
"A pod," Ronald said, lacing his fingers into hers.
"Aren't you hungry?" she said to him, then doubled over, her right fist to the sand, and started heaving again.
Ronald stepped forward to give her her privacy.
The dolphins were cavorting around the dead man.
"They're trying to wake him," Ronald said, in wonder.
After a while the pod ducked under, didn't come back up.
By the time Emma came back from the woods, pale and hugging herself, nodding that it was over, Ronald had a large bird, its underside torn open, the sand soaking the blood.
"How did you?" she said.
He held up the driftwood, cracked sharp at one end.
"It wasn't scared," he told her. "I don't think it's ever been hunted."
This made Emma cry. Ronald looked from the bird to her and drew her closer to him, held him to her until she was still again.
The bird was like an oversized gull. A tern, maybe. Definitely not a pelican.
After pulling all the feathers out there was hardly any meat.
Emma shook her head no about it anyway.
Ronald nodded that he understood, and peeled the stringy meat from the bone, had his eyes closed to eat it when Emma stopped him.
"What?" he said.
She took the meat, touching it with as little of her fingertips as possible, and walked to the water line, laid the meat in the wet sand.
Within thirty seconds, two large crabs and one smaller one were snipping at the meat.
"Now," she said to Ronald, and he stepped forward, brought his foot down on one of the large crabs.
Its claws sliced the air uselessly, and then Ronald drove his bare foot deeper and the crab cracked, died.
Emma laughed nervously.
Ronald studied her, no real expression on his face.
Two nights later they found tracks in the sand. Dog, wolf, something. Running.
"What would they—what would they eat out here?" Emma said.
"Birds," Ronald said. "Bird eggs."
But then, searching for safe fruit, Emma came screaming out of the tree line, led Ronald back to see.
Another of the crew, dead. Except he hadn't drowned. This one's throat had been ripped out, its thighs and side eaten upon.
"Check his pockets," Ronald said out loud, and knelt, rummaged, came up with a handful of folded paper that crumbled at his touch.
The dead man's belt he gave to Emma, after washing it in the surf.
"We should bury him," she said.
"Tomorrow," he said back.
Because there was no fire, they were having to eat the crab meat raw. It had yet to make them sick, but it wasn't filling, either. Just sufficient.
Do you remember the moon that first night?" Emma was saying.
Ronald looked over at her, studied her.
"On the ship, you mean?" he said.
"I told this girl at dinner . . . I told her that the reason it was so big was that we were getting closer to it."
"That was before—" she started.
Ronald let his eyes move from her to the water, though with the sun setting the surface was almost too bright, like poured gold.
"The storm," he finished for her.
Emma shook her head no, no, said, "Before the . . . you know."
The disappearances. Everybody locked in their cabins for two nights, their meals brought to them, every room searched by stern men who traveled in packs of four.
The dolphins were still there, sewing themselves up and down through the water, the young one always beside instead of in the line.
"Do you think anyone's coming?" she said then.
Ronald chuckled again.
The next morning she caught him getting bait. Another gull, tern, whatever.
He had left his pants in the trees—they were the only pants on the whole island—then bent over to all fours, allowed his back to bow with the change.
Slathered over his muzzle was the yolk of the bird's clutch of eggs.
What he was doing, what he had found he could do, was stake out the nest and wait for the bird to return, then leap into the air, slash the bird open.
It was more than was necessary, but it felt good to move, to bound, to pounce.
Emma leaned forward and screamed.
Ronald slung his face back towards her and started to give chase, then caught himself, raced around instead to meet her.
He was himself again by the time she found him.
"It was, it was—" she struggled to say.
"Where?" he said.
He was naked again, though, his pants all the way down the beach.
This time Emma noticed, pushed away from him.
"I'm sorry," he told her.
She started to run, fell down, climbed back up, and he followed at a leisurely, regretful pace, his tracks going from man to wolf, from a jog to a lope, and when he finally took her down, it was mercy, it was tender. He sat on his haunches with his mouth and paws bloody with her and stared out across the flat water.
The moon was large again, perfect.
He was alone now.
For a week then, or two, he stayed on all fours as much as he could. The fur kept the sun off his skin, and he could soak his paws in the water to stay cool.
The meat from her lasted two days, the bones another day, and then he was back to the fatless birds, and her trick with the crabs, and slapping oily fish up out of the surf, a maddening process that made him tear at the water with his claws and roar so that the fish wouldn't return for hours, sometimes all day.
He should have controlled himself better, he knew. Not with Emma, that was her fault, but on the ship, before the storm.
There was nothing to do about it, though.
Twice he swam out into the sea as far as he could and changed back, to see if he would sink, but each time he did he would change back again, like a response, and paddle to the shallows, collapse in the surf, wake as a man, like when he first washed up.
He howled, and hated himself for it, but it made him feel less alone, just to be reaching out.
Running three times around the island in boredom, timing himself against a stick marking the tide, he cut a hind paw on a broken shell and then scented the blood in his tracks the next time around, and was able to pretend for one more lap that he was hunting, that he was on the trail, gaining ground.
But dusk found him again at the water's edge, applying his black tongue to his paw.
He knew from past injuries that now he would have to stay on all fours until the cut had healed to a certain point. Which meant staying awake, not escaping into sleep. Because if he did, the cut might be life threatening to a man's foot, and he might bleed out.
He occupied himself with another bird's nest.
Instead of slopping the eggs down, however, he watched them, tuned into them so that he could hear the stirrings under the shell, and time and again he held his breath, hearing a white wall about to crumble, a wet beak scratching it from the inside, but each time, nothing.
Finally he lowered his mouth to the clutch, ate them one by one.
Because it might help, he packed his hind paw with the yolky sand and then three-legged it up and down the beach, keeping guard. Somewhere out there a whale called, a whistle so deep he thought at first it was an attack.
No other whale called back.
Without meaning to, he changed back, was standing ankle deep in the water, the salt licking at his cut, tiny silver fish darting in to nip at the yolk.
He had no idea how long he might live here.
He had something of a beard by the time the dolphins returned, frolicking out where he knew the island's shelf dropped off into colder water.
He called out to them but they were oblivious.
He dropped down to all fours, changed even though it burned calories he was only going to be able to replace with the birds he now hated, and backed up to the tree line.
He knew from other bored days that if he ran fast enough, and light enough, he could run across the sand and skate on the water for four long steps. Once five. It wasn't really running on the surface, but it was more than a man could do anyway. In the absence of radio, it had become entertainment.
This time he made it the average four steps, then paddled in place, his tail wagging in the water.
The dolphins were gone again, though.
He paddled out farther, to where the sand rose again and he could stand as a man.
Though he waited for hours, the dolphins didn't surface where he could see them, even when he felt he had become part of the ocean.
Giving up, he reached down to scratch the hardened scab on his foot and fumbled a smooth rock up from the sand. He scratched his long fingernails on it for no real reason then turned to float and kick his way back to shore, to the birds he had no taste for.
But then, between him and the island, an adult dolphin surfaced, regarded him.
They stared at each other for long moments, then the dolphin nodded twice, flicked its tail and disappeared.
Hours later, sitting on the beach, he figured it out: the dolphin had heard his fingernails on the rock. It was how they talked to each other.
He splashed into the dark water, excited, and scrounged up another rock, worked his fingernails over it again.
Twenty seconds later, two dolphins silhouetted themselves on the water.
Their smiles almost made him cry.
After bird the next morning, he spoke his rock gibberish to the dolphins again, and tried to swim out to them. If he could just touch one, he told himself. Just feel flesh again.
The dolphins came, curious, and flashed around him, only to jump twenty and thirty yards away, as if showing off. For him.
He laughed and splashed the water and clicked his fingernails on the rock, and this went on for four full days before he was finally able to touch one.
The sensation was exquisite.
He named her Emma.
From the shore later he collected all the fruit he could and slung it out to the dolphins in thanks.
They just nosed it, played with it. But then it brought other fish, which the dolphins seemed to feed on, judging by the racket of birds they collected.
Ronald waved to them then held the rock underwater, clicked and scratched his gratefulness into the sea.
Later that night, stalking a nested bird, he happened to catch a scent from one of his front paws.
It was the lingering remnant of the dolphin.
He smelled it thoroughly, so that he knew its dimensions, its essence, and then applied his tongue, and when that was done he looked out over the water.
Behind him and to the left, the bird squawked, as if impatient to die.
Ronald didn't look back to it.
Though he continued to play with the dolphins for three more days, it was different now. He was gauging them, learning them.
Emma was the one with the calf, and calves, of course, well. They were calves.
She was careful to always keep herself between Ronald and the calf.
He nodded to her that he understood, and took her defensiveness as a sort of permission, almost an invitation.
It took him two days after that to devise his plan.
What he did, finally, was unbury the man he'd eaten from his first night here, for his shirt, and then find the pants he had forsaken after Emma.
Into each of these he stuffed dried seaweed and other flotsam, and fixed the pants to the shirt with the belt, until the clothes were in the shape of a man. As seen from under the water, anyway. As silhouetted against the daytime sky.
Next, with a loop of green seaweed he had to dive for, he tied the ankle of the clothes man to the shore, so that he couldn't drift too far.
After that he only had to wait until nightfall to push the dummy out.
He was careful too, in case dolphins can see onto land somehow, to allow himself to be seen just sitting there at the tree line, a man.
After dark, however, he chose another, faster shape. One that could see better, and hear the deeper lap of water, perhaps, as it was displaced by a moving body.
On cue, unable to help themselves perhaps, the dolphins came to investigate. First the one Ronald called Jare Bear, then Rudolph, then Emma, as if only there to instruct her calf in some arcane dolphin matter. How these pink land dolphins would never revive, perhaps, no matter how much they were nudged.
Ronald smiled with his black lips, drew the necessary air into his lungs, and began timing the sleek noses rising from the water, the toothed mouth yawning to test this strange thing.
The second time the calf's nose broke the surface, he exploded silently from the tree line, floated across the wet sand, which never had a chance to suck at his paws, and then was running across the water, his knees only breaking through on the fourth step, which was exactly how long the vine of seaweed was.
He sunk his teeth into the dorsal fin of the retreating calf and felt himself surge out into the water, the calf racing for the deep, but Ronald was able to get his feet planted at the last hump of sand.
Emma and the other dolphins flashed by him angrily, even butted him down, but he struggled back to shore, gasping, already changing, the calf writhing in his arms.
As the bite on his dorsal was only superficial, the calf lived until the next morning, with Ronald cupping water up onto it, and stroking its forehead, talking to it. Emma and the pod surfacing again and again, calling out with their shrill whistles and clicks.
The calf lasted nearly eight days.
Forever, Ronald thought to himself.
He might could just live out here forever.
He had been eating birds and the hateful crabs for a week, it felt like, when the dolphins finally came back again.
"Where did you go?" he called out to them, knee deep, laughing to be unalone again.
He drifted out, collected a rock, called them to him, and they played and swam and he even touched one of them again. Jare Bear, he was pretty sure, as Rudolph seemed to be either missing or unaccountably shy.
From the last hump of sand he said to Emma that dolphins were supposed to be smart, right?
It was a joke.
She smiled her stupid smile.
Ronald laughed, splashed water at her, and then, just because he was happy, he fished the rest of the afternoon, finally collected two of the big silver ones with the blue fins, each as long as his arm.
He waded out, slung them to the pod then had to throw rocks to keep the birds away.
The dolphins never came for the fish, though, and finally it was night and he was sitting.
Would they eat eggs? he wondered, and then smiled: he'd forgotten to call them, with the rock and fingernail thing. Either that or dolphins don't eat dead things.
But isn't that what they got at the water parks?
Ronald shrugged, stood, and brushed the sand from his backside.
The next morning, crabs were picking over the two fish that had washed up.
Ronald chased them off, arranged the fish on a high black rock, for the birds. Just because.
The following day the dolphins were back.
Ronald lowered his hands under the water, scratched the rock, and Emma rose up, nodded. Behind her, playful, Jare Bear came up out of the water onto his tail then skated backwards, undulating his whole body to stay up.
Ronald stood, clapped, and Rudolph exploded from the water, hung there in the crystal droplets.
Ronald stepped in, went out to them, and this time they were all around him, nudging him, rubbing him with their rough, pungent skin, each of them close enough that, on instinct, Ronald covered his privates, just to be safe. Not that they would hurt him on purpose, but they were curious, dumb.
Again, then, Jare Bear rose up out of the water, danced backwards on his tail—evidently he was the only one of the three who'd learned that trick—and fell in, kicked once and disappeared into the deep, over the underwater cliff's edge.
While he was gone, Emma and Rudolph kept Ronald occupied, showing off their few tricks, bobbing and nodding their heads, smiling until Ronald was smiling with them, clapping the palms of his hand on the surface of the water in joy.
"You don't even remember, do you?" he said to Emma, patting her. "You don't even understand me, right?"
She kept smiling, nodding.
Something electric. No, not electric, just . . . Emma and Rudolph, they'd each tensed in the water, Ronald could tell. As if on accident. And now they were embarrassed by it, showing off even more desperately.
"What?" Ronald said, turning to look behind him.
And he saw it: Jare Bear was racing towards him, making a straight line. No fancy swimming like usual, but moving through the water like a bullet this time.
He's going to jump over me, Ronald knew.
It was another trick, another show of trust.
Except then, yards behind Jare Bear, another, more patient fin rose, this one as long at the base as Jare Bear himself, easily, and black. And gaining.
Ronald opened his mouth in wonder.
This is where the pod had been the last few days.
Swimming across the ocean to collect this.
He felt himself start to change, out of fear, and was halfway there when Jare Bear flashed by impossibly fast.
An instant later, the water swelled and surged.
The orca was passing, its left pectoral fin taking out Ronald's legs. The pain made him howl. Between states like he was, he was vulnerable, had twice as many nerves in his skin.
He was left roiling, trying to breathe.
But he could make it.
Once he was changed, there was nothing that could—
When he surfaced, though, he could see that Jare Bear had escaped, by skidding up onto the beach.
The great whale had too, but, heavier, and with more surface, not as far.
Now it was twisting and flopping back.
Now, Ronald told himself, and shot off the hump of sand with his new, powerful hind legs, to dart the twenty yards to shore and run deep into the trees, only . . . what?
She had him by the hind paw.
He came around with his other, clawed at her face so that ribbons of blood swirled up, and something softer, like an eye, but then Rudolph hit him in the back with his blunt nose, and then Emma was dragging him out past the hump, over the bottomless cold water, and then, just as fast, she was gone.
Ronald slapped the water where he thought she was and then felt the water surge around him again.
He only had time to get all four paws in front of him before the orca hit, driving him up in a spray of water then catching him just as he came down again, taking him deeper, and faster, so that the sun on the dark surface was the moon to him, just a pale spill on the water, already breaking up into pieces, not perfect at all. The drifting shadows around it shaped like dolphins.
Above them the birds wheeled and called, hungry.
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