Beyond the Reef

(Published by U.K.-based Simone Press in “Selected Places,” an anthology of new short stories in which “the characters, plot and atmosphere [are] highly influenced by [the] setting, which . . . strongly affects the action, plot and direction of [the] story.” Twenty-nine such stories, including this one, are in paperback and Kindle editions at Amazon.)

It is hotter tonight, sticky even without a top sheet.  He knits his fingers across his chest, suppressing a desperate urge to feel, to caress, to plunge between warm thighs, to seek tactile assurance that there will be nights of conjugal embrace long into a revived future.

Rolling on his side, he props himself on an elbow to regard this wife whom he dares not touch, who is beyond his reach.  Carol fell asleep a few hours ago still protesting even a light sheet on her inflamed skin.  She appears to sleep well; the doctor’s shot must have had an opiate.  His own forehead is beaded with sweat.  The overhead fan would be cooling, but she insisted she could not stand even that feathery touch.

In the thin luminescence of the moonlit window, the stretch marks of two pregnancies are hidden.  The welts from the sea urchins’ assault seem diminished.  She lies on her back, her naked body handsome, voluptuous, inviting.  He wants her.  He hates her.

Perhaps he should have left her after all, last year.  “You wouldn’t divorce me?” she’d said, less question than protestation.  But the chasm between them in their queen-size bed was of her making.  With both the children in college, he’d told her, it was over.  He would no longer pretend to forgive and forget her infidelities, no longer stifle his mortification.  Lying here in the Jamaican night, the memory of that angry confrontation festers.

He had rehearsed in his mind the arguments against a break.  Suburbanite parents would object to their daughters’ being sent for discipline to the office of a divorced vice principal.  Their friends would have to choose between them.  There would be degrading arguments over who would keep what.  The cost of lawyers.  Where Millie and Carl would spend vacations.

Against all that was the humiliation of betrayal, wondering how many friends and acquaintances knew, wondering if she’d fucked some he hadn’t guessed.  He had poured out his bottled-up anger, finally overcoming his inclination to swallow hard instead of spit.

Carol had not defended herself.  She groveled.  She had hurt him.  She was deeply sorry.  She could not imagine why she let these things happen, invited them.  She had never loved anyone but him, not really loved.  He did not say, would not at that moment, that she was good company, a good mother, shared ideas, even shared good sex if he could stifle imagining who she might be comparing him with.

She wanted to spend the rest of her life with him.  She would be a better companion, a true companion.  She made herself so vulnerable that he wanted to believe her.  He would not let her seal her promise with sex that night, but agreed to wait, to sleep on it, and at last did sleep.

She had given him no reason to doubt her conversion in the weeks that followed.  Showed houses only to husbands and wives together, calling that merely sound real estate practice.  Invented no clients who had to inspect houses at odd hours.  Was home for him at the end of the school day.  Waited patiently for him to initiate love-making again, and when he finally did was wonderfully responsive, as passionate as when they’d courted.

By Valentine’s Day he’d been confident enough to plan this getaway.  He found a perfect card, lovebirds on a beach.  “Come away with me to Jamaica,” he wrote inside.  He found this remote inn, far from the tourist bustle, the ideal setting for a second honeymoon.

He suppresses the urge now to ease a hand across the bed, whisper-light on her thigh, a gesture as old as their early years and as new as their reconciliation.  If she is wakeful too she will reach down to pat his hand in reassurance: Glad you’re here, darling.  Usually they just doze back off, comforted by each other’s presence.  Occasionally she brings his hand to her belly, turning to him.

He rolls onto his back and invites sleep; he dares not touch her.  Not after what happened on the reef.  It frightened him too, but that was hardly the physical assault she’d endured, nearly drowning and then being dragged over hundreds of venomous sea urchin needles.  She finds the lightest touch excruciating.

. . . .

They had arrived two nights ago in time for drinks at a beachside table, watching the sun sink into a halcyon sea.  Uniform ranks of gentle, unhurried waves tumbled against the barrier reef thirty yards out, rippling in to the sandy margin.

“A new start,” he said.  “I hope you’re glad we came.”

“I am, too.  I might not have picked so remote a spot, but I’m sure we’ll enjoy it.”

“Sorry.  Wanted to surprise you.”

“You certainly did that.  Even squirreled the money away without my knowing it.”  He had opened a new teacher’s credit union account.  “Thank you.  A nice valentine.”

The money might have helped minimize college loans, but the kids would manage.  This would be an interlude of healing, of recommitment.  He held her chair at a table on the patio, and handed her the short wine list; wine was a taste she had acquired without him.

“Their pinot grigio is from Chile,” she said.  “Might be good.”

That would be Jeffrey, he thought, wishing such thoughts didn’t intrude.  Warren, the one before, favored red wines.  He ordered the pinot grigio.  When the waitress brought it, he pointed to Carol’s glass.  “Anything would suit me.  Yours is the refined palate.”

She tasted.  “Not bad.  Pleasantly dry.”

The waitress filled her glass, then his; he invited a recitation of specials.

“Broiled snapper,” she said.  “Grouper.  Sea puss.

“Sea puss?”

“You call it octopus.”

He liked the innocent double entendre.  “I’ll try the sea puss.”  Carol chose the snapper.

They enjoyed the meal.  Carol took a taste of his, as she often had years ago, and declared she might try sea puss the next night.  She turned down dessert.  “We’ve been up since three-thirty, Henry, to get through security and catch your crack-of-dawn plane.”

A full moon – he had planned this vacation with great care – was up, turning the wet beach beyond the inn into an undulating, incandescent shimmer.  “How about a stroll down the beach before bed?”

“I’m sorry.  Tomorrow.  Jet lag, wine, bed.”  They went to their room.  She declared the king-sized bed comfortable, and was asleep in minutes.  After a time, the sea’s sibilance lulled him to sleep too.

Carol was cheerful at breakfast.  “This mango is marvelous!  And the pineapple is sweeter than what we get at home.”

“Of course,” he told her.  “It’s native to the Caribbean; what we get has travelled all the way from Hawaii.”

“You’re so smart.  Where do you learn all these things?”  He heard loving admiration in her voice.  He caught the waitress’ eye, invited another slice.  “You’re so patient, Henry.  In so many ways.”

A new day, and a fresh start.

After breakfast they waded through the shallows, wearing reef shoes that seemed absurdly thick — until they clambered onto the reef, a narrow flat walkway of razor-sharp coral that made them glad for those heavy soles.  It was low tide, no breeze yet astir, the sea lake-calm.  He explained to his city-bred wife how generations of coral polyps built the reef, contributing their skeletons to communal growth.  A rainbow kaleidoscope of fish shimmered through slanting sunshine in the deeper water just off the reef.  Hundreds of sea urchins clung to the edge, golfball-sized reddish orbs with toxic spines as long as darning needles.  Despite the ominous-looking urchins, it seemed a  friendly reef.

After lunch the sea changed.  The tide was in.  An onshore breeze piled waves shoreward, burying the coral in rivulets of foam, entirely different from the morning’s languid reef.  They would try body-surfing.  Two hundred yards from the inn, a break in the reef shaped a wide sandbar over which waves broke predictably.  They waded out, the water only thigh-deep, caught a wave, rode it almost to the beach, waded back out.  Carol rode the farthest every time.  Then she, much the stronger swimmer, gave up surfing and swam out beyond where the waves broke, floating on her back, waving.

Suddenly everything changed:  She was trying to swim back in.  Making no headway.  Losing, being swept out toward the jagged outer rim of the reef.

The innkeeper – a nice man, of Indian descent – had warned them:  As waves break over a reef, the water must sluice back out.  If you feel yourself sucked into such a surge, let it carry you out.  The undertow will dissipate, and you can swim easily to a better landing spot.  Don’t fight it; don’t wear yourself out.  People drown, doing that.

“Carol, relax!” he shouted.  He edged farther out, the water shoulder-deep now, making it harder to keep her in sight; he could feel the sandbar hollowing beneath him as he neared the sluice.  “Relax!  Don’t fight it!”  She persisted in trying to swim in, fright in her face.

He turned toward the deserted beach.  “Help!” he cried as loud as he could.  “Help!  Someone, help!”  A few steps brought him back to shallower water at the crest of the sandbar, from which he clambered on to the reef, balancing against the waves, the coral lancing his bare feet.  He turned inland again; at the top of his lungs: “Help!  Help!

He turned back toward the sea, toward Carol, forcing himself to walk mincingly over coral whose sharpest edges and urchins were buried in foam, trying to avoid being knocked down.  Painfully, he worked his way in the direction she was being swept.  He wanted to jump in, try to hold her in his arms, calm her.  He didn’t dare:  In her panic she might seize him in a death-grip; he was no match for her in the water.  But if she neared the reef he might haul her up.

Then a miracle:  Someone came running on toughened feet across the coral.  A dark young man with muscled chest and arms, wearing cut-off denims, a coil of fisherman’s rope in his hand.  He thrust one end into Henry’s hand — “Hold dis tight, mon!” — and jumped into the water with the other end in his teeth.

He reached her barely in time.  She had gone under, swallowing seawater.  Her arms flailed.  Catching her with a cross-chest carry, he signaled Henry to pull them in.  Henry hauled.  The man turned as he neared the reef and clambered up, his calloused feet a shield against the urchins, holding Carol’s hand to drag her limp body behind him through a forest of spines.

Bo-Jim – that was his name, they later learned – swept her up in his arms and ran back along the reef on feet impervious to the coral, choosing a shallow place to run in and lay her inert body down on the beach.  By the time Henry caught up, he had her on her side, massaging her back to pump out seawater, rewarded by her gasping and coughing.

“Thank you!” Henry said.  “Carol, are you all right?”  Stupid question; he tried again.  “You’re going to be all right, dear.”  Breathing hard, she blinked up and nodded a faint yes.

“Got to get de spines!” the man muttered.  “Dem pizen!”  Henry could see them in Carol’s flesh, like a pincushion of needles.  The man produced a knife from a pocket of his wet cut-offs, rolled her on her back, bent over and with thumb against blade began prying spines from her arms and shoulders and then her thighs and chest, peeling back the top of her suit where a few spines had penetrated.  Henry watched helplessly as this stranger ministered to his inert wife’s wounded private flesh.

At last the man stopped.  Bo-Jim.  “Can’t do no more wid dis knife!  You down at de hotel?”  Henry nodded, and reached to help Carol up.  But Bo-Jim picked her up, cradling her in his arms, and loped effortlessly down the beach.  Henry had run the 100-yard dash in college, but that was a long time ago; he barely kept up.

“Some ganja, mon!” Bo-Jim shouted to the man at the inn’s desk as he gently laid Carol down on a lounge chair in the shade.  He was a handsome fellow, in dreadlocks but not unkempt.  A smooth face, chocolate-brown; shoulders and chest that could have been a body-builder’s.  There are women who come to the island to find men like that for a week of erotic pleasure, Henry had read, and there are men waiting to accommodate them.  He brushed away the thought.

Carol was still dazed, pain etching her face.  Henry took her hand.  “I’ll get you some help, dear.  There must be a hospital near by.”

Bo-Jim took charge.  “You smoke, dahlin’?”  She shook her head no.  “Well, we gonna try.  Your man gotta get you to bed to rest, but the pain gonna make you thrash around and make it worse.  Nothin’ take the pain away like ganja.”

Henry had taken enough marijuana away from students to recognize the lumpy spliff that the desk man brought, already rolled.  Bo-Jim held it up to the offered match, and turned back to Carol.  “Now, dahlin’, you jes’ take a little puff.  Don’ breathe too deep at first, if you not a smoker a’ready.  Jes’ take an’ hol’ a little in your mouth, an’ then let it go.”

Carol looked up obediently.  Bo-Jim held the joint to her lips.  She put her hand on his, took a light puff, exhaled it, then drew in harder.  She coughed, but drew again.  “Dat’s de way, dahlin’, see if you can hol’ it down in yu’ chest a bit.”  She did.  Henry felt useless while this young hero took charge.  He tried to swallow the irrational resentment that rose in his gorge.

She visibly relaxed.  Bo-Jim let her rest, then put it to her lips again.  And again, almost until it burned his fingers.  “All right, sah, dat’s all Bo-Jim can do for now.  She in shock, you know?  But the ganja gonna help.  Git her up to bed in a dark room an’ she’s gonna sleep.  Kin you tote her up?”

Henry nodded yes.  He didn’t want this man in their bedroom.  Didn’t want his wife in those arms again.  Bo-Jim lifted Carol from the lounge chair and laid her into Henry’s arms.  “Thank you!” Henry said as he started toward the staircase.  “My God!  How can we thank you?”

“Thas’ all right,” Bo-Jim said.  “You get her to res’ now.  I goin’ look in later.”  He was out of sight through the inn’s garden and down the beach before Henry reached the landing of the stairs.

The innkeeper followed them up, tilting the window louvers to darken the room as Henry lowered her to the bed.  He handed Henry a pair of scissors and a tweezers.  “I’d cut that suit off if I were you.”  His clipped British accent made the suggestion seem impersonal.  “You mustn’t pull it off.  Her skin is too raw.  And pull out any remaining spines.”

“Can’t we take her to an emergency room?  Or at least to a doctor?”

“The hospital is fifty miles away, sir.  Over rough roads that would make her pain unbearable.  We have a physician who makes a circuit, comes to our town two days a week.  I’ll get word to him.  But urchin stings are not uncommon.  And not life-threatening.  The usual remedy is bed rest.”

As Henry turned to his wife with the scissors, the innkeeper stopped in the doorway, discreetly looking away.  “You get her to sleep, then come down.  I’ll make you some weak lemonade for when she wakens.  I’ll find a straw.  And some fish tea later on.  Bo-Jim’s right, she needs sleep.  She mustn’t dehydrate, but let her sleep for now.”

He had to turn on a light.  “Carol, can you roll onto your side so I can cut the suit away down the back?”  She tried, but fell back moaning.  Reluctantly, he cut the shoulder straps, then eased a scissors blade between her breasts and started down..  Thank God for thin fabric, he thought.  She cried out when he reached her belly; more spines.  He started to tug the suit down her legs, but she sobbed so grievously that he finished cutting it open, aroused despite himself.

Her body was a dense patchwork of reddened welts.  She moaned as he tweezed last few spines out of inflamed flesh on her chest, her belly, her groin.  He started to pull a sheet over her nude body.  She wouldn’t let him; even that light touch of fabric made her groan.  He sat in a rattan chair beside her, letting her hand rest on his.  After a time, she slept.

She wakened enough to sip some lemonade when he brought it, and slept again.  She cried out when he helped her to the bathroom.  “No, no!  Just let me lean on your shoulder!  Don’t touch me again.  Please!  Don’t touch me!”  Leaning heavily on him, she limped back to the bed, took a few sips of the innkeeper’s cold fish tea, and slept again.

At sunset, he went down to eat something with the other guests.  It was a small inn; everyone had heard.  “Come sit with us,” one of the women said.  “How is your wife?  Has she seen a doctor?”

“The pain is pretty bad,” Henry said.  “The innkeeper hasn’t located a doctor yet.”

“Tell her we’re praying for her,” the woman said.

“Thank you,” Henry said.  He ate a little, but wasn’t hungry.  He excused himself to come back up to lie on the bed beside her naked body, careful not to touch her, and half-dozed.

Bo-Jim arrived.  Henry heard him in the sitting room at the foot of the stairs, talking with the innkeeper.  “How she doin’, sah?”

The voice wakened her.  “I’ve got to see him, Henry.  He saved my life.”

“Of course, dear.  I’ll tell him to come in the morning when you’re feeling better.”

“No, now.  Please tell him I’m coming down.”

Henry went down to send him away instead.  “Oh, no, sah,” Bo-Jim said.  He winked.  “I brought her somethin’ for the pain.”  Henry was sure it was more marijuana.  Before he could get rid of the man, his wife appeared on the stairs, wearing only the diaphanous nightgown he had given her for this vacation.

“Oh, Bo-Jim, I can’t thank you enough!”  She looked down.  “I’m afraid I’m not very well-dressed.  My skin seems so sensitive; even this peignoir hurts to wear.”

The innkeeper turned away politely.  Bo-Jim did not.

“Oh, miss, don’ you worry none.  We-uns don’t care how you look; we jes want you to feel better.  I brought you a little somethin’ to he’p that.  You think you can walk down to the garden there, behind them oleander bush?”

He turned to Henry.  “You know dis ganja illegal, right, sah?  One t’ing to ask dat man to provide us some before.  Was a crisis, you know?  But dis innkeep could get into a heap of trouble if folks thought he was providin’ to his guests regular-like.  You follow?  You jes’ wait here a few.  I gonna bring her right back.”

Carol was already out in the garden, moving more quickly than Henry would have thought possible.  He wanted to follow, but the innkeeper put a hand on his arm.  “She’ll be all right, sir.  We must wait here.  Bo-Jim is right; it is better than neither I nor any of my guests see him providing marijuana here at my inn.  Even you, sir.  I’m sorry.”

“How soon can we get her medical attention?”

“I’m afraid we’re rather remote.  I’ve sent word for the doctor. He covers a wide area.”

Carol had disappeared into the dark at the back of the garden.  Henry started to walk there.  The innkeeper caught his arm to hold him back.  A wisp of smoke rose above the dark oleander and grew, caught silvery in the garden lights.  The sweet fragrance wafted back.  It seemed to go on forever.  Then she reappeared, alone, looking back toward the dark shrubbery.  “Oh, thank you, Bo-Jim, thank you so much.  I feel better already.”  Then turned to him:  “Thank you too, dear Henry.  Do you mind if I go back to sleep now?”

He led her up, letting her lean on him, but she turned him away at the bedroom door.  “Not now, Henry, I’ll be all right.  I need to rest.  Why don’t you go enjoy yourself a little, and not worry?”  The other guests had retired.  He took a book downstairs to a rattan chair in the sitting room under a fan.  He might as well have been reading Greek.

She had been hardly better this morning.  The innkeeper whipped up a mango smoothie in the blender.  She whimpered as she sat up to drink it, then lay back again.

But when Bo-Jim came in mid-morning she wakened, put on a bathrobe only slightly less revealing than the peignoir, and hurried down the stairs.  Hurried.  Off to the shelter of the oleander.  Henry started to accompany her, but she turned.  “Wait here.”  It was a tone of exasperation he’d heard often before their reconciliation.  He hesitated, then turned back.  He imagined the marijuana being held to her lips.  He twice started to walk to the back of the garden, and forced himself to retreat.

After an interminable time, she walked back, giving a little wave to Bo-Jim as she started up the stairs and back to bed.  She again urged Henry to let her sleep.

He walked down the beach to where the whole thing had begun.  It was deserted.  Inland, over a bit of dune, through a screen of sea-grape trees and palms, he could see the roofs of a few houses, some thatched, some with corrugated zinc.  Bo-Jim must have come from one of those.  The sea was calm, the reef as innocent as that first morning.  With his thick-soled reef shoes he could easily have walked out to the spot where he’d watched her in trouble, where he should have dived in to help her instead of watching Bo-Jim rescue her.

He went up to the room at noon with another fruit smoothie.  She was awake, lying motionless, still handsomely naked.  He wondered if her pain would subside before they had to start home.  “Oh, thank you, dear.  Is it lunchtime already?  Please don’t worry about me.  Why don’t you join the other guests and have something to eat yourself?”

He left her reluctantly, but was in fact hungry, and welcomed the solicitous company of the other guests.  So he was in the dining room when he saw her, out of the corner of his eye, come down the stairs and disappear into the garden again.  He got up from the table.

“Could we have a word, sir?  Sir?”  The innkeeper finally got his attention.  Henry hesitated, then followed him into the little office.

“I’m glad to say, sir, that we can get your wife some medical attention today.  I don’t doubt the marijuana is helping, but there’s a limit to folk medicine, isn’t there?  Perhaps Bo-Jim has done as much as . . . well, as much as you’d want him to.  The doctor will be here in a few hours.”

Henry got back to the table just in time to see her go back upstairs.  He forced himself to finish a bowl of red-pea soup before going back to their room.

“Resting any better, dear?”

“Oh, yes, Henry.  What Bo-Jim calls ganja seems to be helping.”

Henry did not mention seeing her slip down.  “The innkeeper has arranged for a doctor.  Maybe you can sleep some more until he comes.”

“Thank you.  I’m not sure I need him, though.”  He waited until she dozed off, then went back downstairs to stare blankly at the book again.  The doctor, thank God, arrived before Bo-Jim came again.  A light-skinned man wearing a faded suit, carrying the kind of black bag English doctors once used.  As he led the man upstairs, Henry saw the innkeeper hurry into the garden.  Intercepting Bo-Jim?  Good.

The doctor decorously slipped a sheet over Carol’s hips, ignoring her wince.  He put a thermometer in her mouth while he took her pulse.  She winced again.  “A bit of a temperature, but not serious.  Heart rate just a bit fast.”  He produced a narrow silver flashlight tube and shone it first into her mouth and then into her eyes.  He examined her welts.

“I think your wife is mending, sir.  An urchin sting is not usually serious, but she has endured many of them.  She may need another day or two of bed rest.  You should let her decide that according to how she feels.”

He turned to Carol.  “The innkeeper tells me a local man has provided you some herbal relief.  I would not continue that.  I’m giving you an injection that should promote healing as well as ease the pain.”  Ignoring her protests, he swabbed her arm with alcohol, deftly jabbed with the needle and stanched the needle mark with a cotton ball.

“I’d bandage it, sir, but the adhesive would hurt terribly when taken off.  I’ll leave you some alcohol and a few swabs.  Dab it carefully several times in the next half-hour.  We don’t want her to get an infection on top of this.  If she still needs pain relief in the morning, have the innkeeper give me a call before I set out to the next village.”  He turned back to her.  “Good luck, madam.”

Henry followed to pay him.  By the time he got back to their room she was sleeping soundly.  He went down and ordered the sea-puss again, but it was not like that first night.  He nibbled, then came upstairs again, sweating, wishing he might use the fan.

The hotel fell silent.  He rehearsed in his mind the events of these two days, wishing he had been braver, more forceful.

At last he slept.  And woke to discover that Carol had disappeared.

. . . .

Now, recovered from his fruitless race up the beach, he sits despondent on the very bench where she had sat with Bo-Jim.  The night breeze is still warm.  He tiptoes upstairs, hoping to find her in their room, her disappearance easily explained.  But she is not there.  Wretched, he exchanges the pajamas for slacks and a long-sleeved shirt, and goes back to the beach.

Walking now, he covers the full length, from coral headland to coral headland.  He is no longer sure he wants to find her.  Against the moon the stars are faint, but Jupiter is bright overhead, and Venus sets in the west.  He reaches the break in the reef where this all began.

The tide is up again.  The sea is not as strong as the first afternoon, but in the moonlight he can see where the water sluices out.  He kicks off the flip-flops, takes off his shirt and slacks and starts naked toward the water.  Steps back to take off his wristwatch, tucking it into the thongs of the beach sandals.

He walks resolutely back into the surf, steps farther in, feeling the current at his thighs, coursing outward.  He hesitates, half-turning to look once more at the dark beach, then dives forward into the sluice, feeling it carry him rapidly, silently, out beyond the reef.

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