They were at the shore in minutes, hauling themselves back into the air and lying flat on boulders facing the yacht. They could still hear Louis Armstrong and the calypso rhythms and the crew had broken out a bottle of champagne, probably as much for themselves as for their unknown and unimportant guests. The foam shone for a second as it spewed into the water. ‘Eviva!’ Naomi shook out her wet hair and leaned back. Once again, that aristocratic ease of movement and gesture, and Sam did the same, stretching out her toes with their crimson warlike paint. She had painted them the night before. There was a rustle of lizards darting under rocks and she turned, but they were faster than her eye.
After a few minutes they got up and climbed a steep hillside. They had soon reached a platform from where they could look down at the boat and the father and son hunched together playing chess under the awning. Sam thought how restful it was to be separated from them finally, away from the bickering and the family trivia. One of the crew was swimming around the boat, his voice carrying up to them with great clarity. ‘To nero einai gamo kryo! ’ one of the others called back to him. Their tongues had loosened in the absence of any Greek speakers.
The hillside behind them cast a shadow far out into the water that just clipped the aft of the boat and dimmed the little Greek flag hanging there. Another dishevelled slope led down to a cove congested with rocks and rubble, a place which must have been well out of sight of the boat. There was something tempting about it, with the absence of a track and the cactus proliferating across it. They got up. As they slipped out of view of the boat Jeffrey looked up and felt a moment of unease, but the crew didn’t notice. A small shadow had suddenly passed across his world. But the crew knew that Naomi was familiar with the island. In reality, the girls were exultant. The opalescent purity of the sky, the absence of cloud and contamination, made them feel secure. They skipped off down the shelving stones towards the second cove and the heat rose up towards their faces.
Sam felt freer as soon as she was out of her father’s sight. She remembered the warning her mother had uttered to her earlier in the day about the sun. To hell with her, though. To hell with the family brand. Her skin liked the sun’s ferocity.
‘What does skatofatsa mean?’ she asked as she trailed her guide. Naomi turned and said, ‘Shitface.’
‘Is it a useful word?’
‘I use it pretty much every day.’
‘Fatsa. You can use it in America.’
At the far side of the cove they sat again and caught their breath. The boat had disappeared behind the land’s shape but they could still hear the music from High Society. When the wind swept across the hillside, however, it vanished and all they could hear was dust and grit flying.
‘Should we keep going?’ Sam asked. ‘Maybe they’ll follow us and pick us up further on.’
‘I didn’t bring my phone. We’d have to wave to them from somewhere.’
‘Then let’s wave.’
They turned and climbed up the next slopes until they could see the boat again. They waved but no one saw them. Forgotten already, Sam thought with amusement, and with a certain amount of satisfaction. They shouted and the abrupt echoes came back to them. They wondered what to do next; beyond their vantage point lay ravines and coves, desert scrub shining under dark blue light. It was so still and undisturbed that it provoked in them a childish desire to ruffle it up and make it less pure. Without even talking about it they walked on, plunging down towards the sea a second time, singing as they went, threading their way carefully through prickly pears to the words of
What beautiful animals we are, Sam thought, beautiful as panthers. When they reached the white rocks along the water she saw two red spots as she stepped past them. Blood, she thought at once. She stopped and kneeled to look closer and there was a sudden bafflement in her face. She had been right. They were two dried spots of blood, like small things that have been casually mislaid. She felt a quick thrill whose root was hidden to her.
‘It can’t be,’ Naomi said.
‘They have animals here?’ Sam wondered aloud.
‘No one hunts in these parts.’
Something in Sam stiffened and her instincts kicked in. She touched one of the spots. ‘Just two spots? No, it’s a drip. From a height.’
‘I guess so,’ Naomi said.
‘It must be from a person. Hikers, maybe?’
People did come here on private boats, like themselves. But Naomi was sceptical.
‘We didn’t see any boats leaving before us.’
‘Then they must’ve walked over the mountain.’
They rose and looked around but saw nothing. A mood of doubt went through them, but they said nothing to each other. They merely kept walking, scaling the next rise until they were peering down at slopes thick with glistening thistles. There was a curve of rock and sheltered water beneath it, waves foaming a few feet out on the hidden stone. At first, nothing to see. But here, in the full sunlight, a figure lay stretched out in the thyme bushes, a man asleep on his side in a pile of rags with a plastic bottle on the ground beside him.
The man was half naked, in tracksuit pants, with thong sandals. A tattered sweater was laid out on the cactus a few feet away as if drying. He looked young to them, long-haired, the beard grown out and ungroomed. An exhausted hobo of the sea. Naomi could tell that he was not Greek. It was something about the clothes, the totality of his exhaustion. But Sam was thinking differently. She looked further down the coast and saw nothing. Not even the flimsiest dinghy or a discarded paddle. She was an avid news reader, being the daughter of a journalist, and something had already occurred to her, and though she might have come to the same conclusion as Naomi she was less moralistic about it. They couldn’t now pretend that they hadn’t seen him, and they couldn’t walk back to the yacht without making sense of it. She was curious for a moment, but she then wondered about the extreme concentration that seemed to have come into Naomi’s face.
Gradually, the English girl lost her alarm; it was Sam who held herself tense and wanted to go back immediately. But Naomi calmed her with hand gestures. There was nothing threatening about the sleeper. He was abject and abandoned, self-abandoned even. The two drops of blood were his. A cut hand, a cut foot: his misery had expressed itself. There was a way of telling that he had come from the sea, not from the port, and that he was not sleeping through a surfeit of leisure. Suddenly there was motion in the skies and they looked up. Two huge birds were circling overhead, turning slowly and looking down at the three humans as if there was something in their arrangement that needed to be deciphered. Slowly, they dropped closer. The man turned equally slowly onto his back and his mouth fell open. His naked torso was covered with long weals and scratches and the skin had begun to darken. They moved back to the ledge from where they had started out, one step at a time, not a pebble displaced.
‘He’s not dying,’ Naomi said. ‘He’s just sleeping. He’s washed up from the sea.’
Sam wondered aloud if they should go back anyway and talk to him. It seemed cowardly to just return without doing anything, without making contact.
‘Make contact?’ Naomi smiled.
‘I didn’t mean it weirdly. I meant – just go down and see who he is. He was bleeding.’
‘Not today. Another time.’
Naomi signalled and they set off back the way they had come, but more hurriedly.
When they were close to their original landing, Naomi said, ‘We definitely shouldn’t say anything to your father. Nothing at all. Right?’
‘I’m sure he’ll overreact. He’ll probably go to the police straight away. He’ll think it’s the right thing to do.’
She had reached out and gently locked a hand around Sam’s wrists so that the younger girl was forced to look up into her metal-steady blue eyes. There was a quivering little threat inside the pupils.
‘He’s an Arab, isn’t he?’ Sam blurted out.
There was a long silence as they worked their way back into view of the yacht, which had not after all dislodged itself in order to find them, and when they scaled the first hill on their itinerary they waved, as before, and the crew, who might have been growing a little anxious at their long absence, made signals in response as if it was they who had gone missing for a while.
Reprinted from Beautiful Animals. Copyright © 2017 by Lawrence Osborne. Published by Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Lawrence Osborne is the author of The Forgiven, The Ballad of a Small Player, Hunters in the Dark, and six books of nonfiction. His short story “Volcano”, published in Tin House in 2011, was selected for the Best American Short Stories 2012, and he has written for the New York Times magazine, The New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, Forbes, Harper’s, and several other publications. He lives in Bangkok.