The boat was worn and the couple had to grasp the outer railing to keep from spilling over the side. No bigger than a toothpick in a sandstorm, the little boat rocked violently with every wave as it made its way from shore. The people scattered along the sand stood with a sort of mechanical stillness, watching with hesitant or eager eyes.
Jane Hill looked at her husband, salty wind blowing strands of hair every which way, making it look alive from a witch’s curse. Travis met her gaze. The single bag allotted to them sat in the middle of the boat, close to both couple’s feet. Two canisters of river water. Two servings of day-old bread wrapped in linen that could also serve as a crumbly blanket. They had one match which was big enough, Travis thought, to be seen from the shore. Although he wouldn’t mind the comfort of light in the impending night (assuming he and his wife lived for that long), he wouldn’t give the village the luxury of viewing their death lest they decide to watch the spectacle.
“How far, do you think?” She asked him.
“As far as John Dancy.”
Jane nodded, too afraid to move her white-knuckled hand from the boat’s edge to pluck a hair stuck against her mouth. There were no oars or sails for the already pitiable boat. Made solely to retrieve poor swimmers or those ignorant of the floating red rope 500 meters from the island’s perimeter, the wooden heap knew where to go. Like everything else that ever left the island, the boat just knew, as though excited to meet Hell’s creature –you didn’t have to be alive to have the desire to get the hell off the island.
When the water eventually balanced out and grew calmer, Travis appreciated the lack of chilly water splashing over the side and hitting the side of his face. Droplets still hung in his beard and hair, stealing his warmth as the hours ticked by. They felt like hours, but perhaps they had only been casted off minutes ago. There wasn’t a sun with which to tell the time anymore, not since the clouds that made residence hundreds of years ago and refused to leave.
“I love you.” Travis said, but he wasn’t sure why. Death was coming, but not immediately. If he could delay his wife’s hysterics, he would.
“I miss her.” Jane’s face crinkled under her hair, eyes blurring with tears to warm her face. “So much.”
Travis let the noise of the ocean speak for him. He stared at his wife with a solemn face, the same face he used during the trial as he allowed their counsel for speak for them, to speak for the death of their child. Death by water was an unheard punishment for an unheard crime, but the couple found each other through their hatred for the village. Without Little Jen, their ties to the island had vanished.
“I know.” He said. He made a move to sit closer to Jane, but the boat shifted too much and it wasn’t worth the trouble. He sat back down, grasping the bench under him for stability. Soon the people resembled nothing more than vague freckles along the island’s shore. Travis looked over his shoulder at where the boat seemed to head toward, but it the ocean was vast. No land was in sight.
Almost three hundred years ago, John Dancy and his crew attempted a massive excursion. When the water grew and the land sank, all anyone had was the island. But John needed to find others. With twelve men, a large number for the population then, they left on the ship John had arrived in. But just moments after they sailed into deeper waters, a creature born of Hell swept the boat under.
Travis looked to where the skyline and ocean met, the horizon a cold line without promise. The wind bit at his nose and made his eyes burn dry. John and his crew had been swept under. The red rope came soon after. It encompassed the island like a fence; declared how far out one could swim before they’d get swept under too.
The water grew unnaturally still and, soon after, so did his wife. Jane sat frozen on the bench across from him, eyes wide and breath harsh. The boat ceased its rocking. Travis looked back towards the island, and tried to measure the distance between. Had John Dancy died here? Right in this very spot?
There wasn’t a need to look over the side of the boat. The couple could see the changing colors of the water from far away. A monstrous dark mass, big enough to engulf a quarter of the entire island, drifted under the boat. They were no bigger than a twig in a forest. The shadow stopped, lingering underneath them.
“Shush.” He watched the shadow, eyes searching for the edge of it. The counsel had never sentenced death by ship, and the story of John Dancy had a good chance of resembling something more of a legend. Did the beast stall before consuming the ship? Was it prompted by movement or sound? For a creature the townspeople worshipped, no one knew anything about it. Little Jen liked to make guesses, and her latest involved the beast’s origin from a deep sea trench. It had escaped from Hell when the water came, she said. Jane always thought it caused the water to come. He was never sure.
“What’s happening?” Jane whispered through the wind. She tried to lean towards Travis. Since Little Jen’s drowning, she held onto Travis like a worry stone. Even during the trial, which became the defining act that put her in the boat with him. What sort of wife would not condone a husband that murdered her child?
The shadow drifted under the small boat, never moving nor floating away. It stayed with them even as the misty sky darkened into night. Travis knew the boat was still moving, though slowly, as the island over Jane’s shoulder grew smaller and smaller. The shadow wasn’t idle; it was following them.
Time ceased its meaning on the boat. The couple tolerated the pain of the stiff bench they sat on, the biting wind, the petrified coldness if it meant the shadow would not surface. Travis looked at his wife. For years her face was the best thing to look at on the island. The four precise lines etched on her forehead, the subtle peach fuzz on her cheeks, and the blue in her eyes that put any body of water to shame. His had always been brown. His and Little Jen’s. Brown like everything on the island and off it, save for that soggy red rope.
Even through the foggy darkness of night, the couple knew the shadow was still with them. Hovering and waiting. Neither knew what kind of patience the serpent possessed.
“Oh god,” Jane’s voice shook. “What is that.”
It was another black mass, though this one was above the water. It was difficult to see in the heavy dark, torches from the island barely able to keep the shore lit and Travis didn’t want to light their only match to view another nightmare. But as the boat drifted closer to the unmoving blackness, the couple stared collectively as familiar sights came into view.
“Did we circle?” Jane wondered.
But it wasn’t an island, Travis thought. He turned his body fully around, causing a slight rock in the boat, and tried to understand the new mass they were directly headed for. It was much larger than the island, with more hills completely covered in evergreen trees. It wasn’t the island Travis had eternal distain for. It was the utter opposite, it was his dream, his fantasy come true, the reason why his ancestor wanted to leave that godforsaken rock on water and be desperate enough to do it with only twelve men.
The boat drifted closer to the unfamiliar beach and when the waters turned shallow, the shadow had left them. Travis helped Jane out of the boat and they collected what little supplies the counsel had given them. After all, it had been a death sentence.
Together, the couple walked along untrodden sand and into the dense woods. When a match was lit, no one was around to see the faint glow of orange between the trees as they ventured forth.