Read Beside a Burning Sea Online
Authors: John Shors
Tags: #Solomon Islands, #Fiction, #Romance, #War & Military, #shipwrecks, #1939-1945 - Pacific Area, #American Contemporary Fiction - Individual Authors +, #United States - Hospital ships, #Historical - General, #Pacific Area, #1939-1945, #Soldiers - Japan, #Historical, #Soldiers, #World War, #Survival after airplane accidents, #Fiction - Historical, #Nurses, #General, #etc, #Japan, #etc., #Love stories
Akira thought about each obstacle ahead before he began to move again. He held Annie’s hand, simultaneously pulling her forward and supporting her. He found it hard to believe how calm she seemed. Behind them, Nathan and Jake helped Scarlet. “Watch above!” Akira shouted, worried about flying debris. “I will watch the trail!”
The group proceeded to the stream, and after they all held hands as Akira suggested, he stepped forward. Soon he was knee-deep in the raging water. Branches and fruits and dead animals were carried toward the sea by the swollen stream, and these objects swept into Akira’s legs. He paid them little heed, as he was much more worried about the danger of trees shattering above. Incredibly, the wind grew even stronger as they neared the shoreline. Akira realized that he was walking directly into the storm’s fury. Each step soon became nothing less than a battle, a test of will.
“We are near!” he shouted, finally stepping from the stream. He peered ahead, trying to discern a path that would lead them safely to the beach.
“Watch out!” Annie shrieked, pulling on his arm.
Akira fell backward, toward her. A healthy-looking tree that he’d been standing next to suddenly split shoulder high from the ground. The upper part of the tree sailed for a few feet and then tumbled into a group of saplings. To his amazement, Akira saw a swarm of bees emerge from the hollow where the tree had split. The wind sucked up the bees and carried them away.
Akira wiped blood from a deep scratch on his cheek. Knowing that he might have died if Annie hadn’t pulled him back, he struggled to his feet and yelled, “How did you know?”
“I saw part of the hive! And then the tree started to split!”
He squeezed her hand. Not wanting any bees to be thrown into their faces, he walked upwind of the shattered trunk. The storm’s ferocity was suddenly appalling. He had to lean far forward to move. Through a break in the trees he glimpsed the surf. Akira knew the cave was close, but wasn’t exactly sure how to find it.
Unexpectedly, he thought he saw someone waving up ahead. Had Roger returned? Akira took a few steps and realized that Joshua had found them. The American, with the storm behind him, quickly ran forward. In fact, he almost ran completely past Akira, and only when Akira extended his arm and the two locked hands did Joshua stumble to a stop.
“You made it!” Joshua yelled, thrilled that everyone seemed to be fine. “Well done!”
Akira bowed slightly. “It is good to see you!”
Seeing that the group was holding hands, Joshua took Akira’s hand in his own and stepped into the wind. Sand flew from the beach, and he used his free arm to shield his eyes. He knew that if the typhoon further intensified, it would pick them off the ground and toss them to their deaths. And so he tried to walk low, tried to put all his strength behind each step.
When Joshua reached the beach, he turned to his left and was no longer walking directly into the storm. He started to half run, half stumble toward the cave. Still holding Akira’s hand, he willed himself forward. Lightning cracked above, as if the storm, seeing the humans headed for safety, wanted to give one last show of its strength.
Joshua saw the cave, saw Isabelle, Ratu, and Roger at its mouth. He staggered ahead and then shouted in joy and triumph and, without further thought, leapt into Isabelle’s outstretched arms.
To touch her is grace,
To hear her laugh is rebirth.
Summer stars burn bright.
A Walk Through Time
Within the cave, the typhoon seemed almost harmless, like a cobra that had been liberated of its fangs. Though the wind howled and the distant surf pounded, the cave’s interior was warm, dry, and quiet. A fire burned near the middle, casting uncertain light in all directions. The nine survivors had gathered around this fire and now ate dried fish and fresh mango. Everyone seemed exhausted by the previous day’s events, and aside from several intense arguments about Roger separating from the group, little had been said.
Despite his exhaustion, Joshua had thought through how they’d live in the cave and had been talking about such logistics. Though he’d welcomed input, he had mostly spoken alone, the cave magnifying his words. It had been decided that Jake and Ratu would continue to catch fish. Joshua and Isabelle would locate fresh fruit, as well as camouflage the cave’s entrance. Nathan would collect wood and keep a fire going at all times, as their supply of matches was limited. The detail of exploring the area outside the cave had been given to Akira and Annie, while Roger would probe the island’s innards, and Scarlet would find a high place to watch for ships. As far as social niceties, no one would bathe in the cave’s water supply, and people were expected to keep the area as clean as possible.
“The good news,” Joshua said tiredly, “is that the storm will destroy any trace of our presence at the harbor.” He glanced at his bandaged hands, which felt as if he’d held them in boiling oil. Though he wanted to do nothing more than lie down next to the water and soak his hands in its coolness, he continued to address the group. “Let’s all promise not to go back to the harbor. Unless Scarlet sees an American warship drop anchor, I don’t see why any of us should return. We’re much, much safer here.”
“Captain, what’ll happen if we eat all them dried fish and can’t catch a darn thing here?” Jake asked.
Joshua pointed toward Ratu and tried to smile. “With my first lieutenant leading the way, I doubt that will happen.”
“Thank you, my captain,” Ratu replied. “You won’t have to worry about fish, I promise you. Big Jake is just being cautious as usual.”
Joshua nodded, trying to think of anything but his throbbing hands. Addressing the group, shifting his gaze from person to person, he said, “We were lucky yesterday. All of us. Let’s not rely on luck any longer. And for the love of God, let’s get along. I don’t want to hear any more arguments about how or why Roger separated from the group.”
Roger glared at Akira. “The monkey needs glasses,” he said, wishing he had a cigarette, already feeling claustrophobic within the cave. “It’s not my fault he can’t see through those slant eyes of his. If he could, he’d have followed me.”
“I couldn’t see you either,” Nathan replied, surprising the group, for he rarely spoke during such conflicts. “And I tried to, believe me.”
“Maybe if you didn’t walk like a toad you’d—”
“I’ve heard it all,” Joshua interrupted, smothering his desire to shout at Roger, to scream at him for abandoning the group. “And I don’t want to hear it anymore. It doesn’t do anyone any good. Understood?”
Seeing that her husband was struggling to contain his emotions, Isabelle stopped wrapping leaves about the leftover fish and said, “We’re safe. We made it. Let’s just be thankful for that and leave it at that. It could have been much worse.”
As Akira nodded, he glanced at Roger, who glared at him. The glare contained the same sort of malevolence that Akira had seen on the field of battle and in Nanking. He’d never understood the sheer hatred that one human being could harbor for another, as if all the woes of one’s life could be blamed on a fellow man. He’d certainly never encountered a more powerful emotion, for such hatred led people to do unspeakable things.
Akira didn’t turn from Roger’s glare but absorbed it, committing it to memory. He suddenly understood that at some point, Roger would try to kill him. The American would come during the night, or in the midst of some chaotic event. And when he came, Akira would have to be ready. He’d have to see the attack before it materialized. And then he’d have to end Roger’s life.
THE BRANCH BURNED slowly in Ratu’s hand. He’d wrapped dried coconut husks around the gnarled piece of wood, creating a torch. Pointing to the back of the cave, which was dark and unknown and dominated by piles of boulders, he said, “Who wants to be an explorer with me?”
Jake, Akira, and Annie looked up from their spot by the side of the underground pool. They’d been talking about what they would do the next day, once the weather cleared. Though the cave was quite large, the stale air and muted light made for somewhat confining conditions, and everyone was eager for the storm to end so that the area outside the cave could be investigated.
“I reckon I never met a boy with so many ants in his pants,” Jake said, smiling at Annie. “They must be red ants, too. Them little black ones ain’t nearly able to do the trick.”
“What are you talking about?” Ratu asked. “Red ants? Black ants? Did a coconut hit that big head of yours yesterday?”
Jake splashed a handful of water at Ratu and got up. “I expect my legs could use a stretch. Sure, I’ll explore with you.”
“And you, Miss Annie?” Ratu questioned, handing Jake an unlit torch. “And you, Akira? Don’t you get bored of sitting there looking at each other? Come with us.”
Annie glanced at Akira, who actually wanted to explore the area for other reasons. Though the cave was wonderfully hidden, as Joshua had said, Akira didn’t like the fact that only one entrance and exit existed. After all, a lone gunman standing outside could trap the entire group. And though a cave could be a refuge, it could also be a tomb. Hoping to find a hidden exit, Akira dusted the sand off his knees and rose. “I would like to explore with you.”
“Can you lead us?” Annie asked Ratu, knowing that he enjoyed such adventures.
“Of course, Miss Annie. Just follow the light of my torch. And if you get scared, let me know and we’ll turn around.”
Annie smiled at Ratu. After allowing Jake to walk in the second position, she stepped forward. The remainder of the group was gathered much closer to the cave’s entrance, and, seeing that no one was looking in their direction, Annie sought out Akira’s hand and gave it a squeeze. The warmth and comfort of his flesh brought back memories of the earlier night. She remembered how the hand she now touched had stroked her face, the soles of her feet. She had kissed that hand. She had felt her heart beat against it.
Though Annie wanted to continue to hold Akira’s hand, she needed to be a free woman to do that, and with her engagement looming over her, she did not feel free. She reluctantly released his hand, immediately feeling vulnerable from its absence, as if this one hand could somehow protect her from her own dark thoughts. And as preposterous as the notion sounded, she knew that Akira’s touch was capable of just that. After all, she’d told him that he made her feel reborn, and those hadn’t been idle words she’d shared with him. He’d somehow infused her with such passion and energy and life that she did feel like someone completely new. And this newness almost overwhelmed her at times. Even during the chaos of the storm, she’d felt a childlike giddiness as unfamiliar emotions enveloped her, as she realized that for the first time in her life, she was falling in love.
Stubbing her toe on an unseen rock, Annie grimaced. Glancing at her bare feet, and knowing that she could ill afford to cut herself, she vowed to pay more attention to her surroundings. The cave was much deeper than she’d realized. Looking toward the orb of light that marked the entrance, she guessed the opening to be at least two hundred feet away. Even this far from the entrance, the height of the cave was much taller than even Jake. The rock surrounding them, which she thought might be limestone, was the color of old ivory. Unlike the caves she’d read about in novels and magazines, this cave contained no giant stalactites. The walls and ceiling were fairly uniform.
Ratu approached the large slabs of rock at the cave’s rear and started to navigate around them. The slabs had obviously fallen from the cave’s ceiling, and Annie wondered if it was wise for them to be walking so far from the entrance. Another cave-in could leave them trapped without any chance at escape. Feeling a familiar sense of unease seep inside her, she again reached for Akira’s hand. He reassuringly squeezed her fingers in the darkness, and she felt better.
Though the slabs lay in discordant piles, a path seemed to zigzag forward. Muttering to himself, Ratu continued ahead, holding the torch with one hand and his shark’s tooth with the other. After spending the past ten days in a world where everything appeared to move, Annie felt odd to be walking in a realm where not even the air seemed to stir. She wondered about the age of the cave. Could someone else have stepped here? Searching for an answer, she followed Ratu, twisting far enough to their right that the cave’s distant entrance disappeared.
“Please light another torch,” Akira said softly, a few feet after the entrance had vanished.
Ratu held his torch against the one that Jake carried. The fire spread, and the halo of light that surrounded them swelled. Ratu walked slowly ahead. The cave seemed to be narrowing, its walls almost reaching each other.
“So this big snake does have an end,” Jake said, peering about.
“Wait, Jake, wait,” Ratu replied.
“You’re eyeballing the tail, Ratu.”
“No, I tell you, I’m not.”
Ratu continued forward, feeling the presence of the others behind him, wondering if his father felt such a presence as he led Americans into the jungle. Though the cave appeared to end, Ratu sensed something ahead. He couldn’t define it, but something did exist. Something new to his senses. “Do you smell anything strange?” he asked, filling his lungs.
Akira inhaled deeply. “Yes. But what?”
“Air,” Annie said. “It’s fresh air.”
The four exchanged perplexed looks, and Ratu once again moved forward. The walls of the cave drew to within a few feet of each other. Remarkably, they then began to pull apart. The cave twisted again to the right, and to everyone’s amazement, a barely visible shaft of muted light fell from far above. It almost seemed as if they were deep within the ocean, and a slice of the sun managed to penetrate the gloom just enough to faintly illuminate the seafloor.
“Blimey!” Ratu shouted, his voice sounding unnaturally loud. “What a brilliant discovery!”
A small, subdued cry escaped from Annie’s lips as her gaze traveled to the walls that were so dimly illuminated, for as the torchlight fell on them, the walls suddenly seemed to come alive. They were covered in red-and-black images depicting ancient canoes and sailing ships. The vessels’ hulls were curved like bananas. Some of the ships had masts and sails, while others were powered by oars alone. Several of the largest boats boasted ornate bows resembling what appeared to be birds with their wings outstretched. The vessels carried anywhere from three to ten human forms.
Annie’s skin tingled. She felt as if she’d leapt back into time. Dozens of questions immediately surfaced within her. Who had created these astonishing paintings and when were they created? Who’d last seen them? Had this cave once been inhabited, or were these images left by passing travelers?
Stepping toward the most intricate of the paintings, Annie studied the ship and the people on it. The ship was elaborate and large and in some ways resembled the bird on its bow. The people, who were little more than stick figures, were bent forward as if performing some action, but had nothing in their hands.
“Look at this,” Akira said, rising from the ground. In his hand he held what appeared to be a piece of charred wood. He twisted his discovery between his fingers, and black powder fell to the floor. “Once someone had a fire here. A long, long time ago.”
“How long?” Ratu asked excitedly, dropping to his knees to search for an ancient fire pit.
“So sorry, but I do not know.”
Gazing at the ships reminded Jake of what it felt like to discover arrowheads on his family’s farm. He’d always experienced a sense of connection with the soil of his land, which was as black as the back of his hands. But the arrowheads had managed to deepen this bond. Eyeing the figures, he said, “They sure look mighty happy, don’t they?”
Annie couldn’t tell if the figures were meant to be happy, but replied, “Almost like they’re celebrating.”
Jake nodded. “They’re traveling somewhere. They’re free.”
Akira gazed up at the crack through which the faint light descended. The crack—perhaps reachable if all four of them stood atop one another—looked to be a foot wide and maybe three feet long. “We should go above and locate that opening, yes?” he asked. “And secure a rope to a tree and drop it down.”
“A secret exit?” Ratu asked.
Jake nodded. “I reckon the captain will want that done pronto.”
“He’ll love this place,” Annie said, knowing that Joshua enjoyed everything about boats.
“Let’s name it something,” Ratu suggested, still digging through sand and soil. “I tell you, we should name it something.”
Annie returned her gaze to the ships. “Name this place?”
“You should name it,” she replied, “since you discovered it.”
Ratu smiled, rolling a small piece of charred wood in his fingers. He thought for a long time, as everyone else continued to stare at the ships. Finally, he said, “Raja’s Ships. Let’s call it Raja’s Ships.”
“Raja’s Ships?” Annie asked. “Why that?”
“Ratu. Annie. Jake. Akira. We found it. It should have our names. Aren’t all great mountains and seas and lakes named after the explorers who found them?”
“It seems that way.”
Ratu nodded, rising from the ground. “Raja’s Ships,” he said happily. “What a cracking good name. What a perfect name. I tell you, names are everything. Better to have a good name than a good nose.”
Annie smiled. “It is a . . . cracking good name, Ratu. And you’re sweet to include everyone.”