“They come back with these amazing stories, you know? Every one of them has something different to say, something romantic and fantastic and believable all the same, but they all are filled with the same look of undeniable joy.” I smiled at the thought, leaning back in my chair. “It’s as though their entire life was justified in that trip.”
“What sort of stories?” I asked. I was curious.
The stranger paused, lost in a blissful thought. “Well the last guy who came through, it was about a week ago – his name was Dan, I think – came in almost unconscious. His eyes were glazed in something between joy and pain – sometimes it’s hard to tell with these folk that come in – and he was dirty and unshaven and a complete mess.
“So, after a few hours he comes to. He’s muttering things about dances and fruits, and the first thing he asks when he sees me is, ‘Where’s Lucinda?’ I lay him back down and give him some water and soon enough he’s out again, out harder than the dead.”
“Was he sick?”
“Can’t say for sure. No fever, no sweating, no visible signs of illness if I know it. But he was out that way for the entire night. Didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. Nothing. The next morning, though, when he wakes up, he’s refreshed as can be as though he shed some years through his dreams, and when he sees me he gives the widest, politest smile any man can give and says, ‘Hello. How long have I been here?’ just like he’s not even surprised to see me.
“I give him a mango and some water and tell him, ‘I found you last night out on the beach. You were almost dead, by the looks of it, and happy to be so from what I could tell.’ Dan chuckles and shakes his and says to me, ‘And I would have died happy, too.’ So he eats his mango and asks how I’ve been and treats me just like he did the first time he came except nicer, and when he’s finished he goes out and cleans and changes and comes back in as healthy and as handsome as he did the first time.”
“Did he tell you what happened?” I wanted to know every detail, hoping to compare it to my experience to come.
“He sure did. I didn’t want to be pushy on the subject; some guys are touchy about their experiences and get upset when I ask them about – as though they might lose the memory if they spoke about it and that might just be true – so I leave it up to them. Anyway, Dan and I are sitting out on the beach drinking beers when he says to me, ‘It was brilliant.’ I look at him and he’s staring out over the ocean, reemerging himself in his thoughts. ‘Was it?’ I ask as casually as I can. ‘Absolutely brilliant.’ His voice took on this odd tone, sort of angelic and soft, you know? ‘They were out there to meet me when I arrived, the people there. I remember drifting up from the ocean. It was night, and around me the water was as calm and placid as I’ve ever seen it and the wind was light and warm and the moon was so bright I could see for miles.
“‘I could make it out just on the horizon, the island, and I knew it was the one I was looking for because of the lights. They were everywhere. It was as though the island held its own halo; maybe it did. Who knows? Well, I remember floating up and slowly letting my emotions drift away. I remember their voices gently grow with strength – oh their voices were divine – and they were singing the most beautiful song. It was in their native tongue and I didn’t understand a word of it, but it lulled me like a careful hand and I would give my life for the rest of the world to hear it.
“‘And there they were, all of them gathered on the beach with open arms. It was hypnotic. I got out of the boat and stumbled onto shore, and then they grabbed my arms – gently, so gently – and led me to the feast where they had prepared the most fantastic food I have ever tasted, true Ambrosia. And afterwards they built a large fire and played music on the most heavenly instruments and everyone else danced. They were the most graceful dancers – so graceful – and if I could even crudely mimic how they moved I would be considered the greatest dancer in the world.
“‘And then she appeared, perfection on two legs. You have not seen true beauty until you have seen her; even the most beautiful of women back home would be intimidated by her looks. Oh, if I could just remember her name!’
“‘Lucinda?’ I ask, but he’s too lost to notice. ‘This woman, this perfect being, takes my hand and shows me what life is meant to be. Not even Heaven would be sweet enough to grant me another night in her arms, another chance to hear her tender voice and recall her simple wisdom.
“‘It was brilliant, my friend.’ As soon as he finishes, he slips back into the sand and sleeps.”
“Was that it?”
“It’s the same with everybody. They are gone one night but I don’t see them for two weeks. No one regrets the trade, though.”
I reflect on the story a moment, unsure what to make of it, before asking the obvious question. “Have you ever been there?” He gave a soft sigh. I continued, “Did you put the sign up?”
He let out another breath and said, “No. The sign was here when I arrived. Don’t know who put it up. Some think it was the people, that they put them up around all the islands in this area to point young sailors in the right direction, but most agree that it wasn’t put here, but that it was always here; always will be here. It is part of the land, as natural as the rocks and the water. It is old and rickety and it is stuck crooked in the ground, but as long as this island is around it will be here to point to paradise.
“Some even say the sign changes, that it is legible to all people. It doesn’t matter if you’re German or Russian. The sign will know. It will tell you in a way that makes sense.”
I burned with questions. I wanted to pursue why he has not gone and wanted even greater to ask if he would come with me. Instead, I went with the one question that would answer it all. “Why didn’t you go?”
“I can’t read.” He chuckled and sighed. “I thought I had found it...”