who we are

But the boat wasn't there. He'd turned around only to take a piss; it'd taken a minute, maybe less.

"Nick, what the hell?" Jonah had snuck up to stand behind Nick on the beach. His face was sunburned with worry, and the way he said it instantly incriminated Nick. "What the hell?!" The rest of the men were in the woods somewhere, foraging whatever wood they could find. Some of them had been through this type of thing before, which was a good sign.

Nick jogged away from Jonah, to the edge of the shore. The wooden ship had been beached, he was sure of that. The five of them had pulled it ashore hours ago, heavy clothes dripping, their swearing and hacking and spitting shattering the calm of the island. It had been around the break of dawn when the currents, out of nowhere, had begun roiling and churning, the awful pitching and rolling waking Nick from his usual spot on the bow. They'd had to point it straight toward the island, and they were lucky, actually, that there'd been an island in sight at all.

Where the boat used to be, there was only a piece of wood floating in the ankle-deep water. Nick picked it up. It was gouged at, as if the boat had been scraped across sharp rocks. He didn't remember hitting anything on the scramble in to shore, but he wouldn't. He'd been busy navigating, cap pulled low over his eyes, his squinting glare fixed on the stormy horizon while he ordered the men to stay calm. "This will get worse if you don't listen to me," he'd shouted, and pointed to the sandy section of beach where they'd land.

They'd tried to listen to him. Jonah was the only one who'd lost it, pinching his nose and jumping off the boat when they were still almost a mile from shore, floundering in the surf like a child. Nick had yanked him up with an oar before the waves nearly drowned him. Tossed him to the deck. Then the sea ran them straight up on shore, leaving them all gasping, their hands painfully clamped to the gunwales.

Nick shook his head. That was all in the past. There was no point in trying to figure out what happened out there. Not now anyway.

"How the fuck—how in the—" Jonah was stammering now. He snatched the piece of wood from Nick's hand and threw it to the sand with a thud. Nick had been irritated by Jonah since they washed ashore, though he was probably the closest thing he had to a friend on the trip. Much younger than Nick, Jonah had followed him easily, lured by his cryptic mentions of being "out in it," which was how Nick apparently referred to being at sea. There was the promise of cash, too; usually one hundred dollars per man when they were finished, more or less. Depending on what they scored, and who they sold to. And, there was this broken idea of adventure. At that age, Nick thought, something probably still seemed exotic about the hunt. He, too, remembered the heat in his belly when he strode down the docks and leapt onto the deck for the first time. But now he felt nothing when they set sail, except a strange, displaced longing. For what? He wasn't sure. Maybe his wife. Maybe a new life. Maybe both of these things, together.

Jonah had asked him a series of frantic questions, and was pointing to another piece of gnarled wood floating lazily in the water. The tides were now as calm as bathwater.

"Just shut up, Jonah," Nick said grimly. "Let's go tell the others."

The rest of the men were mirror images of each other; their names didn't matter. Ruddy-faced, black-fingered chain-smokers who passed a jug of whiskey around at night and took turns shitting off the side of the boat in the morning. Some had been out with Nick before, some had been out on other boats. Normally, after they went in, there'd be one man who he'd simply never see again, who took the cash and faded into obscurity. All in all, they were hardworking misfits unfit for other trades and addicted to the tradeoff—the loose string of days off when they returned to shore. Some spent it gambling, or on hookers, others found their favorite bar stool, nursing the warm lump of warm cash in their pocket.

It wasn't like any other job, Nick thought. Especially when surrounded by strangers at all times, most of whom picked their teeth with pocket knives and some of whom jerked off before falling asleep. Nick knew—he could hear it at night, the steady rustling that quickened at the end, then stopped suddenly, to be replaced only by the hiss and suck of the tides on the hull. Men changed out on the sea, that was true. The longer they spent hunting, the more each of them reverted to some deep-seeded, carnal version of themselves, a self normally hidden and stored away. Was Nick one of them? Maybe when he was out here, he thought, but not on the mainland. Not when he was with Victoria. But things weren't the same anymore. She wasn't the same anymore, was she?

"Boat's gone," Nick announced to the small ring of men who sat in the shade of the trees, contemplating the small fire they'd built. They looked at him, hard. Searched his face, swore in disbelief. Waited for an explanation.

Nick shrugged and scratched his balls, looked out at the lapping tides.

They ran to check, pairs of legs pumping in the sand, then came back slower, more carefully. Defeated. Nick sat on the edge of the woods, where the branches cast frail shadows over the rocky sand, and tried to focus. Slowly, the men gathered on either side of him. Jonah stood apart from them, biting his nails and digging in the sand with his toes.

"Well, we have fire," one man announced. He drew a fist-sized box of matches from his pocket. Shook them in the air.

"We pulled some meat from the boat this morning," announced another man. Nick knew only that his name started with a W. W licked his raw lips and pulled on his beard as if he weren't telling the entire truth. Nick wondered if he could trust him. He needed to know.

"Good. We'll have to stay here a few nights before we can set out." Nick told himself to speak slowly and clearly. He knew everyone was looking to him for assurance, for directions. For indications this would all be OK.

Nick was hearted by their reaction. Stay steady, he told himself. Keep an even keel. They can't see you down, just like they can't see you up. He held up his canteen of water. "We should have enough of these to keep us going while we're here, and knives to chop and build with, right?"

A few men held up their canteens or blades in a mock salute. Nick motioned to the man with the beard. "Take the others to find wood we can use. Jonah, you stay with me."

Jonah looked gladdened by this. Nick knew how to manipulate his fear. See, he wanted to say? This was how a man reacted in situations like these. Not by frantically leaping off the boat. They'd survive. They'd work together. Maybe another boat, another crew would get caught in the same rip—there were ten other boats that set sail from the harbor when they did, all of them waving to each other as they veered away on different courses, each captain knowing something the other didn't.

The men spent the dusk scavenging the water for debris, while Jonah set up camp. Nick stayed in between, settling into the role he played these days.

"Think we'll make it, Cap?" asked W, throwing a wet plank into the pile.

Nick studied the wood. It was obviously from their boat.

"Floated right up to shore," said W matter-of-factly.

Nick had to admit the holes looked like bite marks, the way they arranged themselves in large U shapes. But what did that mean? That something actually came up on shore and took their twenty-two foot boat in its mouth? It was a preposterous, silly, stupid notion. "Absolutely," he said, to answer the first question. "We'll be home in a few."

The man waited a minute, then waded back into the water. Nick noticed a cigarette tucked into his cap. He wondered if he was waiting for permission to smoke it.

Jonah had been strangely quiet as he worked—normally he wouldn't shut up. "A few what?" he barked now. "A few what?"

"Easy," Nick said, and walked away. He'd thought he'd placated Jonah. He was wrong. Were they friends? What did that word even mean? There had been beers hoisted during a few blurry nights. Victoria and Nick and Jonah and his wife—Gerty? Gert?—had eaten dinner together once. Nick had tolerated their conversations but what he couldn't take was the approval Jonah seemed to constantly seek. "He just looks up to you," said Victoria. "That's a compliment." Actually, she'd said "That's a compliment, my love." But that was back in the days when she called him little names like that, love and hon and others he couldn't bring himself to even begin to think about.

The sun set, and Nick kept staring straight up as the sky went blue, then black and star-speckled in the west. They'd need to head east as soon as they could. Tomorrow they'd build something and in another day, they'd go. The food would run out if they waited any longer, as it was, he'd firmly rationed the meat. They'd each had one oily strip, burnt until crisp and oozing over the flames. As they chewed on the flesh, Nick could've sworn he heard some flashes of splashing down near the beach, some clicks or calls floating up toward the fire. But when he quickly searched the men's faces, no one reacted.

None of them had eaten enough, but the men obeyed because they knew what was necessary, even as their stomachs out-growled one another. He'd thought they might find some berries or watercress—something to have on the side. But they'd found nothing but live trees and dead limbs, and bees and snakes. One man swore he saw a rabbit, and Nick wished he believed him. "Jesus, fucking kill it if you see it again," he'd said, but he didn't have much hope. The island was desolate and lifeless, surrounded by deep water and rocky shoals. Plus, the guns had been on the boat.

"We'll catch fish," Jonah had said, his mouth full, reaching for another piece.

Nick batted his hand away. "Not more than one piece," he'd said. "Tomorrow, that'll be your job."

Jonah sulked away, out into the flickering darkness. The men spoke little, as was the custom out on the sea, but there was cause for some sleepy chatter—they'd recovered two and a half oars, washed up sadly on the beach.

"The other one looked like it'd been bitten right in half," blurted Jonah, who'd come back. His eyes glittered brightly and he sucked loudly on one finger. Nick guessed he'd chewed his nail until it bled.

"Enough," said Nick in the new silence. "Tomorrow we build. Get some sleep." The men filed into the lean-two and lay side by side on their backs, hands folded over chests or groins. One of them, Nick noticed, was younger than the rest, his beard barely growing in. He was pushed into the corner of the tent, where he curled into a ball.

When they were settled, Nick collapsed by the fire, digging his heels into the sand. He'd pushed Victoria away all day, but now she came to him. He dug his nails into his palms and tried to reject it, but he was too tired.

Did she love him, anymore? It was the perpetual question, viciously tormenting him. First, it had been an almost novel idea, since for years, he was so sure of her love he couldn't get away from it if he tried. An unbelievable notion, a thought lit brightly by disbelief. Each time he'd gone to sea, she cried; each time he returned, he could spot her from a mile out, a stick-figure waving from the docks. There'd be cooking and lots of sex and new promises and plans, and the recounting of what she did each day he'd been gone. Her voice a lilting drone, lovely really, and Nick let her talk as he lay next to her and ran his hand up and down her bare skin. Nick had said he loved her before he was really sure he did, years ago, when they were kids. But then he'd been ambushed by the feelings that grew inside of him. When he was on the ocean, reeling in line, or cutting great swaths of heavy meat into strips, he'd find himself lost in some dream of what their future might be. A kid—a boy or a girl, either would be amazing in its own way—and a dog and a house, inland, with enough money saved to only go to sea once a year, maybe less.

But then she began to change. That was how he said it in his head: she began to change, to become someone else. A mask either put on, or pulled off. It wasn't all at once, but a gradual shift, so subtle he made excuses for everything, until he couldn't. Victoria didn't call him those stupid names anymore; the ones he hated himself for liking. When they went to bed, she read her book by candlelight and when he pressed against her from behind, she simply closed the book and drifted away. And the last time he came home, squinting his eyes at the gray mist hanging over the docks, she hadn't been there. Instead, Jonah's wife was waiting, sobbing and holding open her arms until Jonah stumbled off the boat and ran straight to her. Nick walked past them, head down, cap over his eyes, but they didn't notice him, anyway.

She loved him, though. She had to? The years they'd spent, the memories so brutally thick they weighed his pockets down like sand. Their wedding day, they were married on the beach—her idea. Her veil blew away, rippling down the shore, and Nick ran after it, and told himself as he raced back to the small crowd that this was the last time he'd really be alone. Nick knew everything about Victoria—the way her breath smelled in the morning, the cold chill of her feet in bed at night, the soft hairs on her arms she pulled on when she was unsure of something.

He knew she loved him. Or, he knew she had loved him.

But maybe she didn't love him, anymore. Why, though, why?

She loved him. She didn't love him. The spinning, whirring rotation of these two thoughts plagued him at night, pressed the creases under his eyes deeper when he finally left his bed at home, giving up. Sometimes he'd stand with a cup of black coffee in hand and watch her sleep: the intoxicating, dreamless slumber he couldn't have anymore. And sometimes, he resented her for it.

She loved him, still. She didn't love him.

The dawn felt only like hope, with its color and cold breeze and emptiness. Nick shit in the damp, chirping woods and let the men sleep a few beats more. He'd barely slept: when he wasn't seesawing back and forth about his wife, there'd been strange sounds he'd have to ask to the men about. Groggy and frustrated, at first Nick had thought the noises were from the woods, but when he sat up, his ears pricked in the direction of the ocean. Some sort of high-pitched squeaking or moaning, and one louder, gurgling shout or scream; it was hard to say. Strange, because they hunted in deep, deep waters. Nothing should be swimming in the shallows near the beach.

"Jonah," Nick said, watching a thin, dark figure glide the beach toward him.

"What are we going to do, Nick?" Jonah's voice floated in front of him.

"We're going to do what needs to be done," Nick said.

"What do you mean? We're stuck on an island that's fucking—"

Nick shoved Jonah and he fell to the sand with a thud. "You're going to listen to me, and we're going to be fine."

Jonah looked up at him, stunned. Hurt.

"Go wake up the men. That's your job."

Halfway back to camp, Jonah turned around and dug his hands in the sand, then flung the spray back at Nick. "Fine, then!" he said. "But this all better work! I need to be home! I need to see my wife, Nick. I don't know about you, but I need to be home."

Nick's thoughts stuttered as he walked toward the water. Had Victoria said something to Nick or his wife? He counted to ten slowly to calm down. She loves me. She doesn't love me.

They worked through the evening, hacking at wood and branches the best they could with their dull knives and carrying dead trees down to the beach. There was a bit of an uproar when the tide came in, and with it the lifeless bodies of two seals. They were dragged to the fire, their bodies pummeled and bloodied, flesh torn away, but no one could explain what had killed them. And whatever it was, why hadn't it eaten them? Jonah looked as though he had an idea, but when he opened his mouth Nick had walked away. "Back to work," he'd said. "W, skin 'em."

When night crept in, they ate a little more of the meat they'd brought, and then shared the sizzling, sour-smelling seal meat, which tasted terrible. "Only a few bites each," Nick cautioned. He knew if any of them grew ill, they'd all die. The oils from the skin they rubbed into their aching hands, and they set up for the night with little talk. Nick noticed, again, the cigarette still in W's cap, and wondered if it was the only one he had. The box of smokes must've been on the boat. But where had this one, dry smoke come from? Nick craved the hot smoke in his lungs, but said nothing. The men retired to bed, and only Jonah remained, standing petulantly before the fire with his arms crossed.

"I need to see Greta again," he finally said. "We're not dying on this island."

Nick lay down. The sand was cold beneath his back but he was too tired to care. His stomach churned fiercely and he willed it to stop.

"I thought you'd get fish today," Nick said. He tried to keep his voice calm.

"I tried! You saw me out there!"

"That was trying?"

Jonah stewed.

"I'll get some tomorrow," Nick said. "Forget it."

"I need to see Greta, Nick."

"You'll see her again."

"Is that a promise?"

Nick said nothing.

"How are you so sure?" exclaimed Jonah. "We're stuck here! No one's coming, you know. So if this doesn't work-"

"It will work," Nick said grimly. "It has to."

"And if it doesn't?"

"Then we'll try something else."

"With no food or water?"

"Just let me think," said Nick, closing his eyes. But when he opened them, Johan was standing over him.

"What happened to the boat?" he demanded. "What really happened?"

"How do I know anymore than you?"

"Well, what do you think happened?"

Nick rolled onto his side. He thought about the dark shadows he'd seen in the shallow water, when the men were in the woods.

"Something just doesn't feel right," Jonah said, and stomped away.

"You just haven't been out enough times," said Nick. But it was true. They'd landed here almost as if they'd been delivered. And the boat? Where had it gone? There'd been clothes, maps, more food and water, smokes and booze, Nick's gun and a few other rifles. None of it had surfaced.

Nick didn't wait for sleep anymore, he waited for Victoria. And tonight, he willingly gave himself up to her. What had he done wrong? "I know I'm acting different, Nick," she'd said to him before he left. "I'm sorry. I really am." It was an empty statement, an admission of nothing but blurry doubt. "I know it's a cliché, but this is not about you. It's about me."

"Did you read that in a magazine?" Nick demanded. "Who's filling your head with this shit?"

She looked at him sadly.

"I love you," he'd said, before he left, as he tied his boots. "I love you so much." When he looked up, Victoria was already outside, waiting to say goodbye. "Did you hear me?" he said.

"Yes," she said softly, pulling her long hair back, avoiding his eyes.

"What's wrong?" he asked, hating the way he sounded.

"Nothing," she said. "Nothing at all. Goodbye, be safe, and come home soon." It was the phrase she always uttered when he left, but as she kissed his cheek and avoided his lips, Nick knew this was very different. He wanted to throw himself on his knees, he wanted to take her to bed and not let her go when the morning brought its dappled sunlight. But instead, he walked away.

He wanted a child, and she wasn't sure. Was that it? He'd told her he didn't care. He'd broken down and told her they didn't need to have one. He only needed her to make him happy. "That's not it, Nick," she'd said.

Then did she know? How could she? Nick's thoughts turned darker, spinning in the inky blackness with the sounds of the waves breaking. Jonah was there at the bar that night, but Nick had raked over this in his head many times—he didn't know, and even if he'd seen, he wouldn't betray Nick. He looked up to him, right? It was one night, four sweaty minutes in the rusty bathroom, the girl bending over a cracked toilet. She'd hit her head on the sink, Nick remembered ruefully, and when he'd stopped for a second, concerned, she'd pressed into him and braced herself. "Keep going!" she moaned, too loudly. "Don't stop, don't you know anything?"

Nick thought he did. He thought he knew about making love, and hunting in the deep, beautiful swells, and a wife who adored him, and the men who listened only to him. But maybe he didn't know anything. And maybe, somehow, Jonah had told. He couldn't ignore that possibility anymore. He just couldn't. She loves me. She doesn't love me. She still loves me. She doesn't love me, anymore.

They spent the next day preparing, sharpening their knives on rocks, and it was decided they'd leave at dawn of what was now Day 4. None of them slept the night before, and Nick picked up static whispers filling the lean-to with strained tones. They were hungry and sore, and when Jonah crept over and collapsed next to Nick, Nick didn't have the strength to protest.

"I'm scared, Nick," he said quietly. " Aren't you?"

"No," said Nick carefully. He tried to clear his mind. "No, and yes."

"Jesus. We never—no one—ever knows what you mean," said Jonah tiredly.

Nick's eyes popped open. Was that true? He stared up at the sky, dotted with arrangements of stars. Was he not a good captain? He wasn't scared, but he knew all of the men were. The way they hemmed and hawed, the way they fingered the blades of their knives and crossed themselves. The way W, when he thought no one was looking, carved his initials into a tree by the edge of the woods. Something to take his place in the world, just in case.

Nick envisioned the morning: five of them balancing on the unsteady raft, pushing out into the deep. Their bodies clutching together as they scanned the horizon for other boats—their real only hope. He could only think of his wife, and try to convince himself that she'd be waiting on the docks when he came home. Because if she wasn't, it wasn't worth it. It wasn't worth any of it.

What was his life made of? Nothing but endings, Nick decided. Nothing but hunting and killing out on the big open sea, and selling the spoils. His life was empty.

"What will you do when you go home to your wife?" Nick asked, thinking of the night at the bar again. Jonah's face was damp and dirty, and he was laughing at something Nick said. Throwing cash down, ordering more whiskey. Things had gotten out of hand. Nick couldn't remember everything. He hadn't told Jonah about the girl, the prostitute. But he could know. He could.

"What?" Jonah must've drifted off.

"What is the first thing you'll do when you see your wife?"

"Tell her I love her," Jonah said with certainty. And he sat up and almost grinned in the growing light. "I'll tell her I love her, Nick. What about you?"

Nick shrugged. Did you tell Greta about the prostitute, he wanted to ask. But for some reason, his mouth wouldn't open.

"Look, Nick." Jonah cracked his knuckles. "I'm not supposed to tell you this."

Nick perked up. "What."


"Out with it, Jonah." Nick eyed the side of Jonah's neck, where he'd place his hands. He knew how it would feel to squeeze hard enough to cut off airflow, he could hear the choking rumble that came afterward. He'd done it before, on another voyage many years ago. Say it, Jonah, he thought greedily. Say you told my wife I cheated.

"Greta told me not to tell, but…"

"Out with it!" Nick roared, surprising himself. He heard one of the men sleepily protest.

"Victoria's pregnant, Nick. You're gonna be a father."

Nick dropped his hands in his lap. He rocked back and forth, looked up at the stars again. They looked the same. Then he pulled Jonah to him, hard, kissed his smooth cheek.

"But you can't tell her I told you, Nick. I mean, if we make it back, you can't, because then Greta will be—"

But Nick was already walking toward the tent. He stole in quietly, and reached to pluck the cigarette from W's hat. No one stirred. Nick lit it in the fire and walked down to the water in the glow of dawn. It was time.

There was no ceremony, really, not like when they normally began their journey. There were no proclamations or handshakes, no tearful goodbyes. He didn't smell the stink of chum or the minty scent of tobacco. W crossed himself, the others followed suit, and they carried the boat down to the shore. The logs were locked together with spools of green branches and long tendrils of seaweed, and one already looked poised to snap off. Nick tried to secure it, tying it tighter.

"Are we ready, Cap?" asked W. His eyes were bloodshot, but he managed a curt nod and tried to smile. "Are we?" He said nothing of the cigarette.

Nick made a show of licking his finger to check the wind, just as he had exaggerated when he stamped out their small morning fire and kicked sand over the rocks and piles of ash. There was no coming back, that was for sure. "Men, let's go home," he said, because it felt like the right thing to say.

"Wait!" said Jonah. He dropped his corner and the men grunted, trying to keep the raft in the air. Jonah wrapped his arms around himself. He was shivering.

"Jesus, Jonah, grab it!" instructed Nick. "We need you."

"There's something out there. We can't. We can't do it. I've seen things, and the boat was taken—eaten—by it, and there's something out there that will—"

It was W who hit Jonah in the face, so that blood slipped from his nose, coloring the sand red.

"There'll be no more talk like that," the man said calmly. "We're headed out to sea. We're headed home."

Jonah's right, Nick wanted to say. But he couldn't. He'd seen the ripples, too, the fins. But worse men had made it back from shipwrecks. And better men probably, too. When he got back to the docks, whether Victoria was there or not, he'd make things right. After all, they had someone else to think about now. Maybe she was just scared. If she didn't want the child—but how could she not?—then he'd take care of him. Or her. He'd do whatever was needed; it was a thought that almost cheered him.

And Nick knew he needed to tell her. About the night he drank too much, about the girl, about everything. About how this island scared him, and how maybe he was done with this life. Maybe the sea had given him all it could. The thought of laying himself before her, clean and open and waiting, wrenched his heart into a giant, hopeful knot.

"W's right," said Nick, and he patted Jonah, who'd gone silent, on the back. "Let's go."

And with that, they waded into the water, the grip of it cold on their legs even as the sun warmed their faces. Small fish swam around them without fear. Crabs scuttled over their feet. The boat plopped into the water and surprisingly, floated evenly, and they took turns clambering aboard, pushing the ground away with oars and sticks. Then they sat in a tight circle, and let the current float them away.

It started as a gentle knocking on the bottom of the boat. The island was just barely still in sight, a foggy black strip of land, and Nick had his arms clasped around his legs while the others rowed. He was picturing Victoria waving from the shore, her hands clasped around her belly. He imagined they were arriving, not leaving. All around them, the sea was calm. The sky was blue.

Flashes, then, of fins moving around them in a tight circle. The sun reflected cheerfully off their shiny, gray-skinned backs as they swam. Jonah's breath began to be audible—loud and raking, small cries escaping. "What's happening?!" he shouted. W locked eyes with Nick and stuck out a calloused palm. Nick shook it. Then the man crossed his red arms, closed his eyes, and let himself fall backwards. There was a splash, a surge of water, and a cloud of red beneath them, swirling into the black.

Nick knew what was coming. He'd tried to convince himself for days that he didn't, but he did. With a deafening crack, the boat snapped down the middle—the logs they'd lashed together now splitting apart. Nick tried to hold onto the log floating next to him, but it drifted from his grasp. Then, there was nothing. Four men treaded water next to each other as the waves lapped gently around them.

"They're gone!" exclaimed Jonah, after a few minutes. "They got one, and they're gone!" His voice was high-pitched, and he choked and rasped as a wave sloshed water into his mouth.

"I can still see the island," he shouted. "I'm going back!" And he began to swim away from them.

The other men looked at Nick. They waited to see what he would do, their hidden feet churning tired circles beneath them.

Nick watched Jonah drift away, chopping the surface with his arms, kicking his bare feet. Jonah's head bobbed like a cork as he swam further and further from them, his feet kicking. Maybe he would make it back, Nick thought tiredly. Maybe Jonah had betrayed Nick, had told Victoria everything. Maybe he was just a young, stupid kid, with a wife waiting for him at home on the docks. Or maybe Jonah was the only friend Nick had. Who could tell?

But before he could begin to follow Jonah, Nick felt a slicing pain in his right knee. He heard a blood-curdling yell. And he shot straight down, his arms outstretched overhead. It was beautiful, really, watching the colors change as he plunged deeper, the blues turning to greens, then shimmering purple, then black.

But she loves me, he thought.

She loves me.