Dawn brought a breaking surf and a thin wash of sunlight that illuminated the beach, transforming it into a lustrous sheet of wet satin, pulled smooth by the retreating tide. In the frothy welter left behind by a departing wave, a waterlogged square of paper swirled to the surface and danced in the backwash like the cape of a matador.
Above the surfline, and beyond the water-polished sand, where the waves could no longer reach, a ragged line of flotsam curled like dark lace to the seaward. In the fringe, Jude Tyler sprawled comfortably, his compact body stretched and loose, one sturdy arm pillowing his head. He lay deep in slumber, unaware that a muse called Fate had just rolled her loaded dice.
The sea pulled back to rally itself for another assault and drew with it the soggy, waltzing note. For a moment the missive lay on the crest, waiting for the wave to gather enough strength to once again assail the shore.
At that moment, stillness came over the sea and time slowed its inexorable march. For a heartbeat, gulls hushed their raucous calls, a distant fog-horn held its breath, and the restless mist thickened into curtain of translucent pearl.
Fate smiled grimly at what she'd wrought and the wave rolled in, rumbling with determination. That instant of hushed expectation ended and time's forward rush resumed. A wave, frosted with creamy spume, charged up the beach carrying the small paper rectangle, but exhausted by its invasion, lost momentum and ran out on the beach without enough power to reach the high-mark of the one before.
One small tendril, however, rushed on, carrying Fate's written proclamation. That stream of foam paused, then rushed back to the sea, leaving behind a sodden sheet of paper, lying slack in the curl of Jude's fingers. Faded letters faced the sky with a message that, for this moment, only the gods could read.
And still Jude slept. In repose, his sun-browned face, neither handsome nor ugly, had by virtue of some personal alchemy also managed to escape being ordinary. Clad in ragged shorts, little more than blue-jeans amputated above the knee, he slept easily, his heavy breath disturbing tiny insects that had gathered to feed among the nearby seaweeds and debris.
A thick, red crescent sun pushed above the horizon and began to devour the warm mists that concealed the demarcation between sky and sea. Through a fissure in the mist, a beam of sunlight lanced down and touched Jude's face. His eyelids fluttered and he turned away from the light.
He opened his eyes and looked around without a hint of confusion. In late summer he often he slept on the beach, where a cool onshore breeze lessened the effects of a hot summer night. Although he was thirty-three, the rigors of beach life had not yet grown too difficult for him.
It's the parties that sap your strength, he thought. I've got to stay away from the parties. But it was an idle resolution and he knew it.
With the indolence of a sated leopard, he stretched, yawned and licked his salt-encrusted lips. He started to rise and discovered the piece of paper lying like a dead fish near his hand. Words, painstakingly hand-printed in black ink, drew his gaze as if they possessed the same arresting power of a eulogy chiseled into a headstone. Carefully he picked up the sheet and spread it across his thigh. Crumple marks had damaged some of the letters, but the text remained legible. It was a poem.
Radiant light came out from me and in joy I wept.
Now the light is dim, a fading star on a foggy night.
Life once so sweet is now a curse I face with dread.
My courage, carefully hoarded against the gloom, is spent.
Oh God, if there be a God, take me instead
No signature, just a heart-aching cry of pain, written on cheap bond and tossed into the sea. For a long time he stared at the wet scrap, his mind in turmoil. Why did this enigmatic verse bring such a penetrating chill to his soul? It wasn't great poetry, but it had surely been written from the heart, otherwise it would not have so profoundly touched a stranger. And it had touched him, deep where he thought the walls of indifference stood tall enough to protect him.
Oh God, if there be a God, take me instead. How many times had he cried those words.