Today, my brother swam in the ocean for the first time in a year. The water was frigid and licked our toes maliciously, tempting us to dive in and merge with the fish. We entered at the same time, and immediately sprinted metres away from the shore. The burn of our muscles fought the tingling cold. With our laboured breaths, we streamlined in and out of the salty water, eyes agape, trying to make shapes through the fog of our goggles. The underwater realm was turquoise, but of a dark tint: the clouds were to blame for this, as they stood above us, troubled and stormy. Yet, the sea was just as calm and welcoming. It took us under its battered blankets of algae and mossy rocks. The pebbles and dark algae armies seemed incredibly alive beneath our floating bodies. Occasionally, big boulders would rise above others, so we would plant our feet on their welcome mats and rise above sea level, looking for the shore like kings. Leo placed both feet and a slipping hand over a rock, and climbed it.
“That yellow, huge box-shaped buoy, behind the smaller red ones…”
He bent forward, slightly swaying like a lanky tree to the force of the tide. “Let’s swim there,” he mumbled, and threw his body back into the ocean.
Wordlessly, I glanced for a second at the yellow blob in the distance. I spit in my glasses, rinsed them twice, and tailed him. Minutes later, we both stopped, and the big yellow buoy, probably the size of both of us, remained just as far. I overtook my brother, then realised he had stopped.
“You’re coming, right?” I inquired.
“No, I’m scared.”
And so I watched his back hunch over the water and each node of his spine dip back into the sea like a while after having come up for air. He swam back towards the shore, and I followed him too.
Half an hour later, we’re both back in the water. We rented two kayaks and we were ready to go looking for jellyfish, like the year before.
“Left or right?” I yelled in front of me.
“Let’s go left, then,” I replied to myself.
Nonetheless, we both ended up drifting to the right. Like falcons searching for preys, we looked for lighter spots in the ocean: sand not populated by the algae, better for finding jellyfish. Having caught a glint of bright blue at the bottom of the sea, we both dipped our heads underwater like ostriches. It turned out to be a piece of plastic. We were expecting to find the big blue jellyfishes from last year. And as we pedalled, we realised that we had reached the big yellow buoy. Out of nowhere, a sense of satisfaction and closure filled my heart. But what truly took me aback was the low thumping that came from around the buoy. I circled around it further, to then gather that the soft humming actually came from inside it. As we leaned forward, with our kayaks uneasily tiptoeing forth, we picked up the melody of a song. The discrete music seemed to vibrate all over the surface of the buoy.
“It must come from the beach, they probably have strong speakers…” Leo mumbled.
But we both knew his assumption was a rather scarce attempt at covering up what was truly happening before us. And as we came full circle around the box-like buoy, we found a small circular window near the water surface, half engulfed by sticky moss. A thin rod poked out of a tiny hole from the window. I pressed my face to it, and saw an old little crumpled man holding a record player. He sat cross-legged, spine bent over, and was completely naked. His skin shone, as moist as an amphibian, and his wrinkled, swollen eyes were closed. In that tiny enclosed space, he somehow still managed to sway slightly to the music’s beat, as if his body were part of the music itself. His beard and hair cascaded over his whole skeletal body in cataracts, reflecting shades of faded brown and grey from the scarce sunlight that filtered through. Before we both decide whether to knock on the window, our kayaks crashed with force against the buoy, and the strong wind opened the window wide. The little man stopped the music and looked directly into my eyes, as my face contorted in shock and embarrassment.
“Well, hello.” His voice was melodious, and flowed like liquid. Yet, there was something to it that made it remain slightly inhuman. He pulled the fishing rod back in and stashed it behind him. At the same time, I noticed his thorax did not expand or contract to breathe.
I struggled to find an explanation. So my brother did, from behind me and remaining hidden.
“What are you doing here?” He asked.
“I’m living. What else?”
“How long have you been here?”
“Oh, a long, long time, my dears. I can’t really truly remember how I came to be here…”
He squinted at my face and I moved back slightly.
“What did you say your name was again?” he asked.
Before I could reply, he checked his watch and swiftly pulled out the fishing rod from behind him. I was surprised there was even space for him to move his arms that way. He took a worm out of his mouth and poked it through the hook. Soon enough, he was fishing from inside the buoy. I gave him another inquisitive look.
“It’s dinner time and my stomach’s rumbling for jellyfish,” he blurted out.
“It’s him, taking all the jellyfish away from the sea,” Leo whispered in my ear. “That’s why we didn’t see any.”
The old man didn’t hear the comment for he had already turned the music back on. He was happily humming again.
“The jellyfish are attracted to this music. And so am I…”
He seemed completely unworried about the lack of response.
“It calms the soul, this soft music, doesn’t it?” He continued.
“Yes?” I barely whispered, still utterly in shock. I couldn’t stop staring at his incredibly moist and shiny skin.
“Why are you here?”
He stopped and really looked at me.
“I don’t know, really. I’m the only one that can fit in here, and I truly do suffer from memory loss…” He scratched his head. “Nature has taken one thing away from me, memory, but IT has given me something else in return. You see, nature is always give and take.”
He untangled his limbs and came towards me. Alarmed, I sat back into my kayak. He poked his head out, nodded at my brother and touched the water. The moment he did that, his face scrunched up and his tiny eyes shrank into miniature fish. A tear slid down his cheek in pain. A few seconds later, he pulled his hand out of the water with a curse.
“It burns,” He hissed. “I can’t touch water, but I can have conversations with it. You want to know what the water told me today?”
We stare back at him, and he continued.
“It told me tomorrow will rain and that your cat died two years ago on June the 25th. Is that right?”
We took one last look at him, and our muscles clicked at the same time. We paddled away as if we were saving our lives.
The next day, it rained like never before. The palm trees outside the small glass rooms shook and shivered in pain, and breakfast was delivered directly to all the rooms. My brother and I didn’t speak about the old little man, nor the fact that his prediction was right. I didn’t tell Leo what I planned to do that night, once the rain had subsided.
At 3am, I WAS awake. Under the blooming sky, I ran to the beach. My heart felt palpable and crazy from adrenaline. It was the first time I was running off, or breaking any rules. I got hold of the the first kayak and ran off into the frigid sea. I found the little man by following the faint music I heard the day before. He opened the window to my knock, not at all surprised. I wondered if he had predicted that too.
“I’m taking you out. I’ve decided. You need to see the world, you can’t stay trapped here forever. I need to save you.”
“Well you needn’t save me.”
“Why?” I ask, incredibly perplexed.
“I don’t want to leave. I may not know much about the outside world, but I know that this is my purpose and my place on earth: to stay in this little buoy, play music and eat jellyfish. I was born into this life with this sole reason.”
“But, don’t you want to explore all this, outside? Let me at least take you to those boulders over there.”
He didn’t protest.
He wrapped himself up in a blanket, picked a few dried jellyfish and told me to not let him touch the water as I carried him on my kayak. We paddled towards the boulders peaking from the water, at the southern edge of island. He didn’t speak the whole ride. I carried him with utmost care, as if he were made out of porcelain and ice and the floor were made of fiery spikes. With serenity, he sat cross-legged on one of the boulders and calmly waited for me to join him. We both sat on different rocks and gazed up at the sky and the water, hugging our knees. He offered me some dry jellyfish and we both munched on them.
“Won’t you ask me about all this?” I asked him. “Have you seen these rocks or trees before? Or those umbrellas at the shore? Do you know what a shore is?”
I was completely bewildered.
He looked around once more, not amused, as if he had seen this view forever.
“You see, my dear, I’ve lived so long in this little buoy of mine, and as time went by, I sat in pain and talked to the waters. And you know what they told me? That I could not be anyone else and could not be in any other situation. My role had been assigned already. Right now, outside my buoy, I am not playing my role and this hurts the universe around.”
I looked at him with a blank glance.
“In every universe there is meant to be a little man in a yellow buoy hunting jellyfish,” he explained. “That role happened to land on me. Just as there was meant to be a role for you, and you’re playing it out accordingly.”
At that time, I was thirteen and I couldn’t understand a word he said. So, we finished our jellyfish in silence and then I brought him back to his little buoy.
He gave me parting words. “The waves tell me that it is of utmost importance that you don’t come and find me anymore. Human contact deteriorates me.” And he looked down on his body. I noticed moss and barnacles starting to crawl up from his feet.
Only years later did I understand his need to return to his purpose. And only after four years later did I return to the little island in Italy. I only remembered him once I saw the same yellow buoy. The first thing I did was to swim there, fearlessly. The music thumped and I was filled with nostalgia. I looked inside the buoy but I only found the record player. Dazed and sniffing from the salty water swim, I looked underwater and followed the cord attached to the buoy. There was a boulder that served as the anchor. Expelling all the air from my lungs, I sank down to the sea bottom, and I saw him. His features and cross-legged position were were mummified into stone. Moss covered him from head to toe. Even frozen, he held held his fishing rod. I stretched out my hand to caress him, but I ran out of air before I could do that, and my legs pushed off the bottom as a reflex. I came up for air calmly.