He awakes to a trickle from his left nostril. The grass is comforting beneath M’s skull; he lifts his head, slowly, tasting slight dirt. Eyes open to the shoreline he heard through the blackout. The water is choppy, exuberant under the sun, stretching beyond his perception.
Where am I? The thought feels green between his charcoal fingers. M crawls to the water’s edge, his movements sending a line of sand flying. Peering into the water, an unknown face stares amidst the ripples: beaten, unshaven, pupils succinctly gray. A distant voice simmers in the back of his mind, a compliment about his disarming blue eyes. This is not the body he remembers but, then again, his memories are as stable as the water lapping his chin. Brief tastes of the freshwater remind him of kitchen sinks, school buses, lawns, mailboxes, but the aftertaste recalls a life on the ocean. Regardless, the sand is hostile, freezing just to thaw, never allowing his membranes to heal.
I can’t stay here. I just need to move. Carefully, M stands shoeless on the shoreline. Minute blades cut into his thigh; from his trouser pocket, he removes a necklace of barnacle shells. The land behind him only grows wild grass. In the distance, M sees rows of wooden buildings with signs that outshine the sunlight. He carves a path through the field with dirt under his toenails, the nosebleed leaving a diminishing trail of cherry in the green.
The buildings exude a timelessness from their boards; M does not know where he is, but the wind’s taste is familiar. A large plaque over the first building reads ‘APOTHECARY.’ M casts a quick glance before noticing the same sign adorning every edifice. He pushes through the tarp door to find aisles of bottles, texts, and mannequins. Sitting to his left at the entrance is a bearded gentleman with the same charcoal skin and hazy eyes reflected in the water, but face less taut. The gentleman smiles.
— Looking for something, stranger?
M can’t decide how to respond, and plays with a bottle near his left hand, the violet contents sloshing against the cork. His nose is only bloodstained.
— You could say that, yeah.
— I just did; your eyes gave you away.
The gentleman chuckles, enjoying the continued fumbling of the bottle. The gentleman nods towards M’s twitching fingers.
— That liquid is from the ocean out beyond the town. Salty and direct in its tumult.
The bottle is placed back in its spot. Something in the gentleman’s words makes M’s teeth chatter .
— Don’t you mean the lake? That’s no ocean; the water there is fresh.
Nodding past him, the gentleman chuckles again.
— Sometimes we need to make the oceans of our memories into actual oceans. Seems worthwhile, no?
M observes a wooden barrel in the other corner of the store. Under the lid is a mass of salt; the image alone reminds him of a thirst somehow pushed onto the sidelines, one that needs to be quenched but will always be marginalized. The gentleman locks eyes with him as he turns around.
— ‘Make the oceans of our memories,’ huh?
— Salt always helps preserve the present for the future. But only with the right concentration.
— How much is enough?
Gray eyes twinkle.
— You’ll find out soon enough.
He stands motionless. A sigh shakes his body as he turns around again to pick up the barrel.
— A nice, refreshing beverage will be waiting for you upon your return. And remember: we chose this.
M chooses not to respond, especially after noting the barnacle shells protruding from the gentleman’s chest. Instead, he focuses on moving the barrel to the water, and wonders how many trips, how many empty barrels, it will take until his lake drinks salty with memories. In lieu of walking, M’s knees become his ankles as he collapses on the floor. The gentleman is instantly by his side, leading him towards a wicker chair. M slouches in the seat while the gentleman watches; the gentleman sighs.
— I apologize; you’re my first pupil. I should be aiding in your rejuvenation. Allow me to get you some water.
M extends a trembling finger to hook onto the gentleman’s arm.
— I don’t know where I am, or why I’m doing this. I’m terrified.
— It is a tribulation, but it’ll be fine. You’re in science now. Can you hypothesize why there are one hundred and sixteen bottles of ocean in this establishment?
Charcoal skin gains a peach hue. The gentleman inadvertently begins drawing ellipses over the emergent shells in his chest with his free hand.
— Is that how many barrels it took you?
— And she helped guide me to my ocean, such as I will do for you.
— There are others? And one can turn this lake into an ocean?
— These are houses, not ruins, but we nestle on the perimeter of a leviathan; you’ll meet others on your journeys, even if you cannot see them now. Not all succeed. The successful supplant each other, from student to mentor, and then back to their ocean.
M nods a head full of thoughts painted charcoal. His nose is surprisingly clean. Pricks in his thighs cause him to wonder when he returned the necklace to his pocket. The gentleman smiles softly.
— Do not be afraid. This is both the time and place to embrace failure and become comfortable with the dirt underneath your nails. You do not have to carry every day; the leviathan is always eager for exploration. Try to enjoy your uncertainty. You’re going to be here longer than you think.
Kyle Siegel has presented his creative and critical works at national conferences, helped lead the creative writing community of his undergraduate alma mater, and has been featured in 3Elements and Eunioa. He is currently a pre-doctoral student in biochemistry at Northwestern University.