Bill was convinced his matches weren’t dry.
After his ship had gone down, Bill had been in the sea for more than twelve hours before sighting the island between rolling whitecaps. A hard swim and the tide had carried him onto the beach, where he washed up more dead than alive. Two weeks of sun, sand and survival had desiccated his clothes and burned his skin. But the three wooden matches were still wet. And more than anything, Bill wanted a smoke.
The matches lay on a palm leaf in a sunny spot on the beach above the high tide mark. Bill tested one with his finger. It was still damp. One more day. Maybe two. Then he could have a smoke.
The damned cockatoo in the palm tree overhead started chattering. “One coconut, two coconuts, three coconuts…” The bird began counting each day around noon. Some days the bird counted close to three thousand coconuts. Bill doubted the island’s trees sustained that much fruit. Perhaps cockatoos were not good at arithmetic.
But three thousand coconuts would last a long time, perhaps long enough for Bill to sight a ship. And Bill needed to eat something. He had given up on the oysters. They shrieked like babies whenever he tried shucking them with his jackknife.
Bill ambled over to the spring for a drink of water. A man could last a long time with fresh water and a little food. He would make it. He’d spot a ship and he would get off this island and he would go home. Passing the time until then, however, would be much more agreeable if he could just have a smoke.
He whistled a tune to take his mind off of the cigars in his shirt pocket. A man in his position had to guard against despair and madness. Every morning, when Bill washed his face in the spring, he stared at his reflection in the water and reminded himself who he was.
“Good morning, Bill Dawes!” Bill would say to his reflection.
“How are you this bright day, Bill? Holding up, eh?”
“Of course you are, lad! You’re “˜Battersea’ Bill, aren’t you?–known from Madras Point to Kowlpoor, San Juan harbor to Fernando Po! If there’s ever been a mother’s son who can weather this turn of luck, it’s you, old boy!”
Hearing his own voice was comforting, but he talked to himself as little as possible. Men who talked to themselves went crazy. He just needed that one affirmation in the morning to remind himself that the loneliness and the sun hadn’t turned his brain.
But he craved a smoke worse than he had ever lusted after women during shore leave. If only the matches were dry!
The matches were still damp at nightfall so Bill wrapped them carefully in a scrap of oilskin and hid them away in his shirt. He ate some coconut meat and lay down in the sand to sleep.
A crab skittered sideways out of the rocks near the surf and stood in the moonlight at Bill’s feet. Bill groaned and rolled over, pressing his hands against his ears. “Not tonight!” The crab cleared its throat.
Maybe the little fellow would get it right this time, thought Bill. Recently it had become fond of quoting Abraham Lincoln, but it confused easily. Bill tried correcting the crab, but most nights it was like teaching Shakespeare to a stone wall.
The crab cleared its throat again.
“Fourscore and seven years ago,” the crab said, in a reedy, nasal voice, “our four fathers…”
Bill sat up, pounding the sand with his fists. “It’s forefathers, you bloody crab! Forefathers! Not ‘four fathers’!”
The crab scampered back to the rocks. Bill was sure he heard sobbing.
Bill didn’t sleep well that night. He dreamed of tobacco and smoke.
He woke up inspired.
Bill whittled a hand-drill and baseboard out of wood hacked from a fallen palm tree. He remembered seeing Borneo bushmen do it. It took some work and a lot of sweat, but he spun the hand-drill between his palms till he created an ember in the baseboard’s socket. Bill rolled the ember onto a ball of wood shavings and string plucked from his trouser cuffs. The ball of kindling ignited like a Chinese firecracker. He had fire!
Bill built the fire into a roaring blaze, feeding it with sticks splintered from the dead palm. He retrieved the oilskin packet from his shirt, and plucked out the three wooden matches. Bill placed the matches on the ground next to the fire.
This would dry out them out, once and for all!
Two hours later, Bill sat in the sand watching blue smoke spiral up from the end of his cigar. He laughed.
The matches had been dry all the time. “˜Battersea’ Bill Dawes had succumbed to the isolation and the sun like a green-gilled cabin boy on his first cruise, and lost his mind for a while.
He leaned back against the palm tree and blew out a long stream of smoke. The crackle and hiss of burning tobacco, the swirl of rich smoke in his mouth, restored him. It had been a close thing, but he’d been lucky. The imp of madness had only tapped him on the shoulder and wagged its impish finger in Bill’s face. And then the imp had left.
He looked over his shoulder at the column of white smoke jutting into the sky. Wet palm leaves sizzled over the banked fire. Every ship in a hundred-mile radius would see that column of smoke.
“I’m getting off this island,” said Bill. “Nothing can keep old Bill down now.”
“Nothing at all, Mr. Bill,” said the crab, blowing smoke-rings, a cigar cradled in its left claw.
“Damn right,” said Bill.
Up in the palm tree, the cockatoo coughed. Cigar-ash sifted down through the palm leaves, settling at Bill’s feet.
Nick Logan lives and works in Woodstock, Illinois.