The next couple of weeks remain among her clearest memories, as radiant as sunlight gleaming off miniature ships dreaming in glass bottles. Tyler took Meredith to the beaches where they spent long hours swimming and snorkelling. He taught her how to surf, encouraging her as she continuously wiped out in the beginning, and cheering the first time she successfully caught a wave. They went out every night, sometimes to dinner, sometimes to the local bars. Some afternoons, they stopped to talk to the ubiquitous old men who sat under large shady trees by the roadside, playing dominos and checkers. Skinny and tough as old chickens, they smoked incessantly and discoursed in slow, gravelly tones on everything under the sun from the latest political scandal to where you could find the best pair of tits on the island. Meredith discovered she was a mean dominos player. Not that she was good at calculating her hand, but she was great at slamming down the tiles and swearing with the best of them.
One morning, they struggled awake at three o’clock to make the climb up the volcano at the centre of the island. To Meredith, it felt as if they had entered another world. First, there was the drive through the almost-empty island roads, winding through muggy rainforest with glimpses of black ocean between the trees. When the road gave out, they left the bike and hiked up a landscape seemingly devoid of life, rugged up in jackets against the freezing cold. The rock beneath their feet was black and smooth at some points, sculpted into frozen, flowing waves at others. They reached the top of the volcano and waited along with several other tourists to watch the sun rise over the rim of the mountain, turning the crater before them into a lake of liquid gold and bathing the alien landscape with scarlet and amber fire.
One day, he took her out on his family’s boat to one of the uninhabited islands close by. When Tyler had spoken about the family boat, Meredith had envisioned a small motor-powered craft of some kind, perhaps a small runabout. What she had not expected was the elegant thirty-two foot white sloop waiting for them at the end of the jetty. Meredith raised an eyebrow at him as he pointed out the boat.
“Don’t you need more than one person to crew this kind of boat?” she asked.
“You’ll be my crew,” he told her. “I’m going to teach you how to sail.”
He was as good as his word, spending a good hour going over the rigging of the boat and deciphering the mysteries of wind navigation and sailor terminology before they even cast off. Soon, he had her assisting with the tacking and keeping an eye on the jib to ensure it didn’t flag. There was a strong breeze that day, and the sea was not calm, but she loved the rollicking feel of the ocean beneath them, that sensation of flying once they crested each wave before settling back with a satisfying thwump on the sea. The wind swept through her tangled hair and fluted against her face, and the sun shone down hot on her shoulders which were coated with sea salt and sweat. She loved it.
After an hour, Tyler directed her attention to a dark spot on the horizon. As they drew closer, she watched the island take shape like a pudding on a plate, a dark mountainous centre clumped all over with thick forest, surrounded by a ring of white sand.
The water around the beach was too shallow to bring the boat in all the way so they dropped anchor and Tyler rowed them ashore in a small dinghy. They dropped their feet into the cool blue waters and dragged the boat far enough up the sand that it would be safe from the evening tide.
“Well?” he asked eagerly as he watched her look around. “What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Why doesn’t anyone come to live here?”
“It’s too small. That mountain in front of us is solid basalt, and it’s not worth the time or effort to clear the forest for buildings or agriculture. I’m kind of glad of that. I would hate to see this place urbanised into a resort or villas for the rich or something. Come on, let’s take a walk along the beach. It curves around the mountain without stopping. You could circle the island in one, maybe two days.”
They spent most of the day exploring the island. Further up beyond the tree line was a natural path which they followed into the forest, scrambling over huge knotty roots and uneven hillocks, careful of loose pebbles under their feet. It was humid in the forest, and they slapped constantly at the mosquitoes that bit their arms and legs. Glistening pearly webs hung between trees, presided over by furry yellow, orange and black spiders as big as Meredith’s hand. Enormous yellow toadstools sprouted among the ferns.
The path led them to a small waterfall trickling fresh spring water from some unknown source on the mountain above. They scooped the water to their mouths and dipped their feet in the icy liquid while Tyler told Meredith about the lore surrounding the island.
“Legend has it that a long time ago, a magician fell in love with a princess of the Fey Host. Their people disapproved of the union so they ran away and took a boat across the ocean to a far-off land where they could be together. But faeries are earthen creatures and they cannot remain long from their trees, their grass and good rich soil. They were barely halfway into their voyage when the princess grew so ill, the magician feared she might die before they came in sight of any land.
“Now it happened that they were sailing over a volcanic hotspot far below the ocean floor. Do you know about hotspots under tectonic plates, how they’re full of magma which erupts and rises to eventually form islands above the sea? The process takes ages, but the magician decided to try and use his magic to speed things up and create a natural rock island right then and there for his princess.”
“Is that possible?” Meredith asked. “I mean, I’m no magical or geological expert, but that sounds like hell difficult magic to me.”
“Practically impossible,” Tyler agreed cheerfully. “But according to the story, this unnamed magician was one incredibly powerful guy, that his powers surpassed even that of Ferdinand Galhardo’s.”
Meredith snorted. “Now I know it’s really a myth. If this magician was so accomplished, the whole world would know his name.”
Tyler shrugged. “I’m just telling the story as the locals told it to me. And think about it, what a spectacular sight it must have been if he had succeeded! Picture it, hundreds of years of slow geological processes sped up in the space of a few minutes. The sea must have been churning and boiling from all that magma spewing and cooling within its depths, building up like a goddess rising. Tidal waves must have ensued for miles around! Anyway, according to the story, the magician was successful in his spell. The seawaters drew back, the ocean floor built up, and an island in the shape of a hump was formed. The magician dropped anchor and carried his princess to the very centre of the island while the rock was still cooling under his feet. He laid her upon the topmost peak, as far as they could get from the ocean. But alien volcanic rock wasn’t enough to revive his princess. As a faerie, she needed the intrinsic magic of her native forests. So the magician tried to use the last of his strength to conjure up a forest for her.
“As you can guess, that’s another near impossible spell, magicking a full-grown forest out of pure basalt. He tried and tried, but he was so spent from his creation of the island itself that he just could not summon the energy required for that one final spell. The poor magician was near driven to tears of desperation and frustration. At last, the princess took his hand in hers in an attempt to join her waning magic with his, to add her strength to his to work the spell. The magician closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and tried again with all his might. And a forest did spring up about them, this very forest that we’re sitting in right now.
“But because the magic of the Fey Host and the magic of humans had never – should never be joined in this sort of desperate last-ditch manner, something else happened. The magician opened his eyes and found he was no longer holding onto his princess’s hand, but to the branch of a tree. For she had expelled her final strength into the creation of this island, and in the process had become a part of this land they had created together.
“The magician was heartbroken at the loss of his princess. He felt he could no longer continue on his voyage alone and made up his mind to spend the rest of his life on this island where his beloved’s spirit still lived within the trees and earth. Eventually, the Queen of the Ocean took pity on him and she used her powers to change him into the white beach circling this island, and there he has remained forevermore, protecting his princess from the sea that almost killed her.”
Meredith cast her eyes around them. It must have been her imagination, but she thought the whole forest had fallen silent, listening to Tyler’s story. She thought she heard an otherworldly sigh between the trees, like the sigh of a Fey princess.
Tyler paused, as if he too had felt what she had felt. Then he went on. “They say that was how this chain of islands came to be, that as the magician’s spell created the island, it pushed up the surrounding ocean floor into a mid-oceanic ridge that eventually led to the formation of other islands close by.” He added, “Until today, this story has a certain credence, for even geologists have admitted the seafloor spreading in this area is unusual compared to other parts of the world.”
“It’s a good story,” Meredith commented. “Kind of sad too.”
Tyler reached for her hand. “Come on. Let’s go back to the beach.”
They spent the rest of the day swimming and exploring the beach. They took the dinghy out to sea and Tyler tried to interest Meredith in fishing, but she found it too boring, just sitting and waiting for a bite on the line. “If you’d just sit and wait, instead of constantly twitching that line and scaring away the fish, you’d actually catch something,” he told her severely.
“But I don’t like waiting,” she answered peevishly.
“You’re too impatient a creature,” he said, and ruffled her hair.
What did interest her, though, was the cleaning and filleting of the two fishes Tyler did catch. He placed the knife in her hand, demonstrating the way of making a quick, clean cut along the belly of the fish and up toward its head.
They marinated the fish with the lime and spices they had brought with them and cooked them over a driftwood fire. Once they had eaten, they lay back on the beach and watched the clouds drift across the sky, obscuring first this star and then that one, rolling aside to reveal glittering constellations.
It was quiet and peaceful on the beach with just the sound of the waves and the crackling of the fire.
“What are you thinking of so hard?” Tyler asked.
Meredith moved a little. She had not realised how lost she had been in her thoughts. “I was thinking about that story you told me earlier,” she answered. “About the magician and the faerie princess.”
She felt, rather than saw, his smile in the dark.
“It’s an interesting story, isn’t it?” he said. “It used to be one of my favourites when I was a kid.”
“It’s … kind of sad. Don’t you think?”
“They’re still together,” he said. “I think that makes for a happy ending.”
Meredith wondered. But she stopped wondering the moment Tyler rolled onto his side and bent over, giving her a quick kiss on the lips before rolling onto his back again to look up at the stars. She caught a glimpse of sea-green eyes – the soft, sudden kiss which smacked of so much tenderness – then he was gone and all she could see were the stars.
She lay there for a moment, trying to catch her breath. She could feel the acuteness of his presence beside her in a way she had never before sensed any other person in her life.
Without thinking, she turned and bent over him. Her hands fluttered lightly, delicately against his shoulders as she returned his kiss.
She wasn’t exactly sure how it happened, but suddenly they were rolling over the blanket, their hands fumbling, tugging at fabric and zippers, yanking urgently at knots. They couldn’t get out of their clothes fast enough, they couldn’t stop touching one another, exploring each other’s bodies. Hands, lips, hair, skin, breath. Meredith forgot herself completely. She was lost in desire, in that urgent sense of need, in that sense of abandonment, as if he could free her completely from the bonds of the world, and she could free him too.
The ancient Greeks had theorised that a man and a woman were once the same creature separated by the gods, and only the action of sex joined them again. At that moment, under the stars on that warm summer’s night, Meredith felt this to be inherently true. They moved in unison, their bodies fusing so perfectly with each other til she was struck with the sense of having arrived home, of finding the place where she truly belonged. She gasped at this sensation and Tyler moved further within her, fitting in with her, intensifying that dizzying, wondrous feeling, and then they were lost, lost in the freedom of each other.
The tide roared against the shore, the stars burnt in the sky. The fire was a dim red beacon of warmth upon the dark beach.
“You’re beautiful,” he whispered, gliding a hand down her back.
She could hear his heartbeat, still thundering as fast as hers. She turned her head and kissed the warm skin there, then slowly worked her way up to his lips. Her hips brushed against his, she felt him move in response. Then they were melting away into each other, back into their completion.
Meredith awoke with the sun hot on her skin. She could hear the sound of sea birds and the crash of waves close by. The driftwood fire had long burnt out.
For a moment, she lay in Tyler’s arms, savouring his warmth and the memories of last night. Then she began to edge out slowly from under him.
His arms tightened around her, and his eyes opened, sleepy green eyes looking straight at her.
“Where are you going?” he murmured.
Meredith paused. “I thought I might do a quick run down the beach.”
Tyler opened his eyes a little more and he gave her a half-disbelieving look. “You are not going for a run this morning.”
“Why not?” she shot back, a little defensively. “I do it every day.”
“You are unbelievable,” he said. “Come back to me, sweetheart. Leave the running for another day.”
She hesitated, and he cajoled her until finally, a little unwillingly, she lay back down beside him. He kissed her on the shoulder, on the neck. With the sun’s fire warming their bodies, they closed themselves around each other again.