by Mike Day
A tale of a man, a cave and a seahorse, or if you like a metaphore for old age.
By Mike Day
Word count: 1410
Outside, the soft rattle of pebbles dragged back down the beach was pierced by the aching cries of the gulls that arced and skimmed above the foam.
The sea cave was dank, green seaweed hung from the slippery dark rock and dripped salt water down onto its sole occupant. Jason, the solitary figure, sat loosely cross-legged on the damp sand that formed the perfectly flat floor by the caverns mouth.
He’d come inside to avoid the rain, his collection of drift wood stacked by his side testament to a mornings beachcombing. Old as he was, he still liked to collect pieces of timber left by the sea. With these he would carve exotic looking sea creatures; selling them in the local art shops here on the Cornish coast.
In his weatherworn left hand he held a salt bleached wand, no thicker than his thumb and about as long as his forearm. With the right he carved away with a pen knife whose blade was thinned from decades of resharpening.
As the pool of shadow crept towards him across the sand and the tide stepped ever closer, a seahorse began to grow from the wood. First the head formed an equine nose, then a rough tail, and then, slowly, detail began to seep out of the grain.
At last he was satisfied, the pale wooden sea creature looked as though it had moments before been plucked from the sea and petrified by magic. He stretched his back and closed the blade. Only then, when he put his hand down to help himself up, did he notice that the sand was so much wetter than when he had sat down.
Outside, the cave mouth was now at the edge of the ocean. He muttered a curse to himself and, abandoning the extra wood, splashed out into the shallows. The cold water swirled around his Wellington boots, robbing the sand from under his heels.
Irritably pushing his long grey hair out of his eyes he scanned the headland on either side of the cove. The sea was already beating against the rocks; great white claws that scraped the granite cliffs as though the sea itself wanted to scramble up onto the land.
He turned his back on the turbulent water and studied the cliff face. Ten feet above his head the black rock faded into a rougher, silver coloured, granite. He could see no path nor less a steep slope that he could hope to ascend. Panic, colder than the water rising around his boots, surged up through his stomach and gripped his chest. People died in situations like this.
Choosing the most likely looking crack he tucked the seahorse into his trouser pocket and grappled at the wet rock. His fingers, hardened by years of using tools, soon found a likely handhold and the toe of one boot finally found a purchase to match.
Feeling his years like an extra weight he pulled himself a foot above the lapping waves. The stone bit cruelly into his flesh as he stretched one hand higher, blindly seeking another place to jam his fingers.
Another Herculean effort dragged his chin up level with his knuckles; he could feel the muscles in his arms quiver as cramp started to rob his hands of their grip. Two feet above the water and he began to shake, his heart pounded fit to break through his ribs.
At five feet he was dizzy with fatigue; blood ran down his forearm from his lacerated hands. His knee ached from where it had cracked against the unforgiving cliff. He knew that if he stopped he was finished.
Ten feet of struggle, and now the last of the wet rock was behind him, he dared a glance downward. Through tears of sweat he saw the sea swell up towards him and drop away so that he felt his stomach go with it. It looked green and greedy. The lesser waves chopped back and forth, waiting for him to fall.
He needed to rest, the base of his back ached with a pulse like the beat of a drum and the colour kept draining from his vision. He promised himself a moment to get his breath after he made one more foot, one more precious foot.
He found a place where he could get three fingers behind a flake of rock. The security of the hold let him lean back from the wall, resting his aching limbs. Oh how he ached, as his vision cleared the pain flooded in, burning along his tendons, exploding into his muscles.
For a moment he thought his grip had slipped, instinctively he gripped the slab all the harder. Then the silent still moment of realisation as the slab detached.
He tilted further back, the dinner plate sized piece abandoned now as his arms cart wheeled in the salty air. He had a half second before the numbing cold crashed over him.
All the breath in his body slammed out as he hit the water. He sank, stunned, seeing only the white chaos that rushed over him.
Some instinct for survival broke through the shock and he started to desperately fight for the surface, fight for just one more breath, one more glimpse of the sky.
He broke the surface gasping for air, thrashing wildly to push himself higher. He'd never been a strong swimmer and the water he'd swallowed made him cough and gag. He began to tread water and look around for any sign of help.
The cold started to reach past the shock, like surgical knives slicing deep into his flesh. He shouted but only the echo from the impervious cliff answered him. He’d never felt this alone, his world had shrunk to the distance of the next wave, time to the limit of the next breath.
Summoning up the last of his courage he started doggy paddling out towards the nearest headland. It might as well have been the moon, even as he swam he knew he would never reach it, never mind swim around it to the next cove.
The waves lifted him and then drew him down into the next trough, over and over. With each elevation the outcrop failed to grow nearer. With each trough he sank lower as his clothes became more completely saturated.
He kicked off his boots and pulled his jacket away. As he felt for his belt, his hand touched the carving. It’s solidity in a fluid world made him grasp at it. Some vague idea about it adding buoyancy made him keep it in his fist as he pushed against the ocean.
Warmth began to flood slowly up his legs; it filled his thighs, his groin and began to seep into his belly. Feeling the first stirrings of hope he began to strike out for the distant surf.
His mind filled with images of his children, his grandchildren. A dozen lost moments blurred and blended into one. Then he saw the night when Mary died, felt again the ache of standing by her grave and remembered the sound of his loved ones crying. He called her name, his voice hoarse from the salt, as he felt the warmth reach his heart.
He was going to be okay, he knew it deep in his bones; calm washed away the fear that strangled his mind. Jason clung to that seahorse as though it was life itself.
After a few strong strokes he risked a glance back at the looming wall. It didn’t make sense, if anything it was closer than it had been a few moments ago. He swam furiously, churning the water. The heat moved up to his neck and down his arms. The old man decided to rest, he must be closer to his goal by now. He noticed in a distant way that the water no longer felt cold, he'd even stopped shivering.
He felt the heat move inexorably into his hands. His head was now barely above the surface. As the warmth flooded into his fingers he watched, as though from a great distance, as his own hand opened like a spring flower and the wooden carving slipped out.
The waves rolled into the open cave mouth and rhythmically pushed out great bursts of air that sighed above the noise of the breakers.
A sea gull swooped down on a likely looking titbit and then took off in disgust as it discovered its mistake.