WALNUT • by Paul Malone

He spotted it bobbing on the wavelets out in the bay between the two islands, eventually waded out, wary of the hammerhead sharks that often chased fish in the turquoise shallows.

On the eastern island he cupped it in his palm, studied its smoothly crumpled surface. It looked and felt real enough. Woody grain darkened from months or years at sea. It wasn’t heavy or waterlogged. If he cracked it open he might discover its yielding flesh, that particular market-place aroma. He lifted it to his nose, inhaled. Just the ocean’s salty fragrance, masking. Probably it was fine; he craved it, but what if he found something else inside? Something intended for him, something entirely unpleasant.

At dusk he crossed the narrow sandy spit to the western island. He’d made a nest for himself out of dried sea-grass at the base of a giant and prehistoric pine. The stars came out, the moon a pale sliver. Shadow was waiting, form diffuse, fuzzy, as though covered in mangy black hair. Human-like, Shadow appeared, almost. A sorrowful creature from a dark realm.

“I was going to crack it,” he said to Shadow. Forked tongue glowing faintly like cooling embers, flickering, Shadow seemed to be looking his way, or at least he sensed Shadow’s attention. It felt like a sudden drop in barometric pressure, enough to make his hairs stand on end, even after all this time.  “But maybe I shouldn’t open it. They might’ve sent it.”

Their names — Andy, Sharon, and baby Thomas — hadn’t escaped his lips since that time, although they were always on his mind, trying to break out. “What if they’d stuck a letter inside?” he continued, observing smoke billow thickly from Shadow’s nostrils and mouth and ears, infusing with the darkness beneath the pine’s clusters of needles. “They might’ve glued it back up, thrown it in the ocean, you know — like a message in a bottle, only not so obvious, figured if they waited long enough, it’d come to me.”

He was crazy alright. Yet there he was turning the walnut over between his fingertips feeling for any trace of glue or silicon on its seal. “It’s just a walnut, right?”

Two islands, way out in the Indian Ocean, coordinates unknown. He’d escaped Europe by plane, used the remains of the stolen funds, what was left after the online gambling, their money. All of it gone. Not even a cent remaining for baby Thomas. In Sri Lanka, sensing his trail too hot, he’d stolen a shambling wooden sailboat. Not that he could sail, or navigate. The wreckage like fragments of memory, all scattered now. A rotting plank amidst the rocks; a sudden recollection, cruel, like the midday sun reflected on the ocean. Now he too was nocturnal, like Shadow, sheltered from that harsh light, from memories, if he really tried.

Shadow hadn’t been there when he’d first washed ashore. Or he’d been too preoccupied with survival to notice. On the other island grew a storm-battered fig with plentiful fruit. The fish here were too trusting, his reflexes quick. And the rains were frequent, forming freshwater pools in the rocks. So he lived, and lived on.

Thomas with his toothless smile, watching that night, when he’d come to do their books, to babysit, a trusted friend. Thomas watched as he went online, emptied their bank account, forty thousand euro, spending almost all of it that very night, online gambling. He’d panicked, left Thomas alone. Anything could’ve happened.

Shadow appeared the night after his lucid dream: Thomas had crawled outside, the door left open, and into the snow. There he froze to death.

Along the islands’ shores he had collected dark volcanic rocks, built a shrine to Thomas beneath the fig tree. He should’ve closed that front door.

“No,” he said to Shadow now, judging the walnut’s weight in his hand, just that bit too light, as though stuffed with a crumpled note. “I don’t think I care to open it.”

Shadow grew larger, reached out, fingers enveloping the walnut. It was a dark night, but the stars reflected on the blackness of the ocean. It was dark, but still he could trace its path — a clean arc, descending, a strong throw. “I never liked walnuts anyway.”

Paul Malone is an Australian writer living in Austria.

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