I woke up lying on the soft white sand, facing up towards the cloudless azure sky. I could feel the early morning sun bearing down on me. I sat up, rubbing my eyes. The sea was now calm, gentle turquoise waves breaking on the shore. The storm was truly over. And I had survived.
I tried to dredge up the foggy memories of last night. The ship… the black clouds… the raging winds… I had been on a voyage to America, across the Atlantic, from England. Back then, it was the only method of travelling long distances – planes had not been invented yet. It was the fourth night. We were close to our destination. I was just about to retire to my cabin when the storm rolled in.
Thunderous black clouds. Strong gales with forces enough to make trees fall. The sea was choppy – churning grey waves battered the steel hull. The crew called all the passengers on deck… they loaded us into lifeboats, women and children first… our boat trying to stay afloat on the vicious waves… our screams, as the monstrous water crashed over us, devouring the small craft… That was all I could remember. Then everything went black. And now here I was… well, where was I?
I stood up shakily, my legs unsteady under me as if they were unused to carrying my weight. And I looked around in wonder – and horror.
There was no doubt that the island was beautiful. The small tropical island was surrounded by the ocean – endless, blue-green waves, glittering and shimmering, as far as the eye could see. The sky was the clearest shade of cerulean. There was a lack of the ominous grey clouds that I was so used to. Instead, there were tiny whisps of white up above, puffs of cotton wool. The silky soft sand underfoot was so white it was almost silver. It was dotted with shells; peachy pinks, shiny purples, charcoal greys. After the sand came dense green forest, dark green with brown trunks, black shadows and strange noises. Yes. The island was beautiful.
But I was cut off from all civilization. There was no land on the horizon. No means of communication. I had no food. No clothes either, except the damp rags that I was wearing. No one even to talk to – there were no signs of life in the immediate vicinity, and it was my evaluation that the island was inhabited. My situation was dire.
But I was still lucky. I was alive. When I thought of all the people on board the ship… total strangers, people I had come to know, people I could consider friends… No! I couldn’t cry. Someday I could, someday I would mourn the men, women and children who were lost. But now I had to think of myself – shipwrecked on a tropical but desolate island. I was alone, cold, despite the gentle warmth coming from the sun, and hungry. The very thought made my deprived stomach protest.
I needed food. But how could I get some? I had no tools, no experience and no grocery store down the road. I looked at the sea. There was no way I could ever catch a fish, even with proper implements. Besides, a decent-sized catch would be swimming a great deal farther out than the shallows. And I wasn’t going to swim.
I wasn’t going to find any form of sustenance from the sand either. And it was very unlikely that a basket of food was going to fall from the sky. So that left one place… I turned my eyes to the intimidating rainforest behind – and started walking towards it.
Once under the heavy, dark green canopy of evergreen foliage, the atmosphere immediately became humid – damp, heavy, stifling warm air surrounded me. A feeling of claustrophobia swept over me as I walked, or rather stumbled, through the undergrowth. But the wave – more of a tsunami really – of hunger that rushed throughout me fought it off.
The forest seemed… alive. At first, I heard nothing except the rustle of leaves and the heavy hammering of my own heart. But then, as the forest was alerted to my presence, I began hearing other noises. Growls, screeches, hisses, croaks, grunts. They were not comforting sounds. They were saying go away. Turn back. You’re not welcome. Danger. Painful death ahead.
Although I was scared, scared witless, I could still appreciate the beauty of my surroundings. I could now see that the place wasn’t all green. Multicoloured flowers bloomed overhead. Lush ferns swayed when I brushed off them. Humongous trees – so tall I could not see them fully even if I tilted my head so far back it was parallel to the ground – were everywhere, blocking me whichever way I turned. And, maybe a mile into the tropical forest, I began to see other living creatures.
The animals here were so beautiful compared to the normal, mundane ones I was used to. The birds that sailed overhead were a rainbow of colours – red, yellow, green, purple, orange, blue… They were nothing like the dull-feathered sparrows and starlings back home. Butterflies fluttered together in small congregations, sorted by size and colour. And the frogs were the strangest I had ever seen. Some were green, lime green, with yellow bellies. Others were plain black, with an arrow of colour on their heads. One I saw had rainbow stripes up and down his back. It was bizarre, seeing creatures I knew so well in such vivid colours.
I must have been a mile into the forest; at least, it seemed that way. The jungle was darker now, murkier; more alive. It felt like this place had never been uncovered before, had never had a human trek through its undergrowth. Somehow I knew that the rainforest had been untouched by humanity throughout the ages. Up until now.
I was stumbling along, eyes squinting through the gloom, searching for anything that looked remotely edible. Suddenly, all I could see was the overgrown cat who had just slinked out of the bush foliage on the other side of the nature trail I was following.
The leopard was massive, taller than my waist, with a tail that was about a metre long, a body that was a metre and a half. Its fur was a golden tan, sprinkled with black spots and rings. Its snout was white; whiskers stuck out from his face the same way normal cats would. The creature had small round neat ears and little dark eyes like round pieces of onyx.
I froze. I wanted to scream and run, putting distance between the jungle predator before me and myself. But I found I could not move. My muscles had locked, my legs had shut down, my voice was lost.
The leopard started prowling, circling me like a cat circle a trapped mouse. It scrutinised me as if assessing the ways it could kill me. For it was going to; if this I was certain. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t hide, I couldn’t fight. I couldn’t even move. I had managed to survive the storm, get off the ship when something was wrong, I had even avoided drowning like the others probably had. But I was going to meet my fate one way or another. Even if I survived this encounter, I would starve to death on this wretched island or be eaten by some other animal. My death was inevitable.
After stalking me three times, the animal came to a stop in front of me. It looked up at me, boring its eyes into mine. The jungle cat’s eyes seemed misplaced – there was intelligence there, a sharpness that was unsettling. It was as if it was asking me something, a question I could not understand. Those eyes, that stare would not seem out of place on a human’s face.
What happened next surprised me more than anything had, or ever would, in my entire life. The leopard threw me one last searching glance, then turned and disappeared into the undergrowth.
It took a moment for the movement to return to me. Then I started shaking. I stared at my still sandy palms to see if they were still there. I checked the rest of me too, just to fully convince myself that I was still standing. I was. Against all the odds, I was still alive. It was nothing short of a miracle.
Logical thinking also returned. What was I going to do now? I was sorely tempted to run back the way I had come, to escape this dark place and its creatures, and to never come back. But that would not banish the hunger that made my stomach ache. I could keep going, praying to not encounter any other wild animals, and maybe even find food. The thought made terror invade my system, causing me to tremble even more – but it seemed a better idea than starving to death. I continued.
After fifteen minutes of walking, I heard a new noise among the other jungle sounds – the muted tinkling of running water. It got louder with every step. Five minutes later, the trail widened into a clearing. It was fairly unremarkable – just bare ground surrounded by the thick evergreen trees. But dividing the clearing was a small stream. Dotted here and there around the source of water were trees. Fruit trees, which were laden with a multitude of exotic fruit I had never seen before. I started to run.
When I reached the stream, I knelt beside the river and drank from my cupped hands. The water was cool and refreshing – it tasted pure, purer than any water I had ever tasted. My thirst satiated, I turned my attention to the fruit trees.
I didn’t recognise any of the fruit on the trees. I didn’t know if they were edible, or even if they were a fruit. I was wary of trying any of the foreign food, for fear of being poisoned. But the constant rumbling of my stomach told me I had to try. I scanned the few trees, searching for something that at least looked edible. Then my eyes came to rest on the familiar yellow bunches hanging off one of the trees.
Although I had only eaten bananas twice in my entire life, I still recognised the fruit hanging off the tree. I made my way over towards the hanging fruit.
It only occurred to me as I reached the tree that I had no means of cutting the bananas from their tree. However, standing on the tips of my toes, I managed to pull the fruit off the tree. They were ripe. All the better for me. I devoured it, absolutely ravenous, before reaching for another.
After the seventh banana, I started to feel full; altogether, I ate nine. Picking five more, just in case, I reluctantly made my way back to where I had entered the clearing. I decided to return to the beach so to think about what I could do next.
However, returning to the shore was easier said than done. I was hopelessly lost in the forest. It took me at least three hours to navigate my way through the murky foliage and back to the silvery sand and aquamarine sea.
I sat down on the silky ground, laying my yellow food supply down beside me. Although the island was an undiscovered paradise, I wanted nothing more than to return to boring old grey coloured England. But would I ever see my home again? Would I stay here, stranded on this little island, for the rest of my life? Would I even live to see tomorrow? Questions like these exploded in my mind and for hours I sat there on the sand contemplating life on the island, how I would survive if I’d ever return to my homeland.
The sun was just starting to set, turning the sky red and pink when I first saw the boat. At first, I thought I was dreaming. Rubbing my tired eyes, I dared to hope. But the little kayak didn’t fade from view. It was there. A small wooden vessel, with white sails. Two men with nets were manning the craft. They weren’t too far off the coast of the island. I stood up… and ran to the sea.
I began to yell. “Hey! HEY!”
They were sailing away! “HEY!!!”
One of the men turned his head towards me. I waved my hands like a maniac, tracing invisible lines in the air. “Please! Over here!”
The man called something to the other man in a language I did not understand. And then they turned the boat towards the island – towards me! My heart began to thud. I was saved!
I took one last long look at the island, the glistening ocean, the white sand, the emerald forest. It was the most colourful, beautiful, terrifying place I had ever seen. But I wanted nothing more than to return to dull, boring, safe Ireland – home.