Out of the Cold

Stephen Twartz

It must have been more than ten years, an age it seemed to Daniel since he had laid eyes on the man, a lonely figure, trudging doggedly across the barren dunes that built to steep walls against the encroachment of the sea.

Beyond the rolling surf, grey, foam-flecked, past the shifting sands that submitted to the will of storms, to the vagaries of the tempest, the spirits of their ancestors rode unceasingly with the beasts, great, slow bodies ignorant of the temporal construct. Fine wisps of vapour rose as they exhaled, warm flares that quickly dissolved in the cold air, fading like ghosts against the steely hue of the water, never reaching the flocks of wheeling, diving birds as they sought the fountainhead of life, the gathering, circling school that would feed them all. Above, high above, the threads of cloud raced eastward, thin against the pale blue, fleeing he thought, from the old day, from the storm that he knew would come.

The afternoon sunlight stretched across the ground as a bland vein, feeble, barely carrying enough energy to show the way, long shadows hiding the treachery of the biting waves, something Daniel had watched over the years, the diminution of the land. The bay and the shore had always been a wellspring, to seaward the shallow sandbanks that protected the land, the fertile plain stretching to a distant scarp, the remnant of misaligned continents, the cataclysmic parting of earth's crust. Now, the waves beat ever closer to the relic of time's passing, the sun forever fuelling change, some said irreversible; some days, weeks, the sun was absent, beyond the scudding, grey clouds, other’s a baking orb, forever relentless it felt, as it dried and murdered the land.

Evening approached now, the shadows stretching into the dull of dusk, an icy breeze from the south making his eyes water, despite the heavy hood wrapped about his head, a sharp line of twisted clouds defining the transition, like some vast moving curtain draped about the horizon, endlessly growing, evolving, potent.

Before the billowing mantle, the clear evening sky fled from the day; an ethereal mix of colours that deepened as he watched, hinting at the starlight to come, budding perforation in the fabric of the universe, in the universal cloudscape of stars that enriched them all, that fell leaden into the tangled ocean, reflected in the folklore of his people.

Sheets of water surged along the steep beach, almost breaking over his feet, slicing vigorously at the crumbling shore, gnawing at the substrate, exposing shattered shelly fragments, charcoaled wood, clattering stones, remnants of some sunken lake, stream or field that once sustained them. Wisps of foam and spray drifted upward from the slap of the waves, carrying the pungent salt aroma to him, mixed with the faint eucalyptus tones of the land, the scrappy plants that clung tenaciously to life against the hostility of change, change that had enveloped everyone, that forced adaptation against brutality, against the natural spite of the world.

Daniel looked again to the man trudging across the sandy promontory, at the waves as they wrapped around the broken, disintegrating seawall, the last defence he thought, before the mad rush of waves to the scarp. Still, that thought brought with it too much of the negative he had fought so hard to banish, the legacy he had determined would lead him to places he need not go, to behaviours without value, without benefit, to him or anyone.

He heard the man’s laboured breath now, carried on the wind, the kind of sound that signalled a long walk from the car-park, implied physical stress, suggested too much of the easy life. The man's steps began to falter in the soft sand, loose deposits from the last storm, so many, so often now. A flock of terns swooped down to the wall as the man passed, jostling for position, faces pointing into the stiffening breeze. The man walked resolutely onward, a slight limp developing as he met the steep gradient of the water washed beach.

The message borne on the wind, through the clear air, was simple: his time had come, this visitor marked a turning point. Throughout his time here, the decade of his isolation, he had managed to ignore the worst of the world, eschewing the meaningless chatter, the didactic, the dread, the terror promulgated by fashion, by trendy commentary. Daniel had only ever received two visitors, the woman – girl really – called Jessica, a seeker he thought, seeking what, he wasn’t sure, perhaps evidence her past, proof that there was more to existence than the pointless consumerism that gripped humankind, the ephemeral whims of a culture in decay? What surprised him was how she had found him, returning every day for a week, questioning him, delving into his past, searching for references to old friends, associates, enemies. They ate breakfast, lunch, drank his peculiar variety of wine, sifted through his memory. Then she left, replaced, very briefly, by the man – likeable but with an edge that revealed distress, grief he could not contain, loss that seemed to warp the fabric of his life.

Daniel pinched his nose, shuffled his feet against the growing evening cold and nodded to the man making his way along the last stretch of saturated beach. ‘Good afternoon,’ he said.

The screech of the terns on the wall made the man turn slightly before answering. ‘Daniel, good afternoon.’ He paused as if listening to the plaintive cry of the birds. ‘Long time no see. How have you been?’

‘Doing well, thank you,’ Daniel said. ‘In splendid isolation, no one to please, no one to disappoint. Perfect as always.’

'I've come a long way to see you again.'

Daniel had always abjured the formal, the meaningless, redundant niceties that characterised so-called civilised society. He was convinced that such mutterings were merely a displacement activity, a verbal sizing of the opposition, a ritual to reveal gaps in defences.

Close now, Daniel could see that time had treated the man well; despite the heavy going across the sand and a slight limp, he saw a change in the face, tension released, equanimity that belied their last meeting. 'It's been a while. You seem changed since I last saw you,' he said.

Daniel looked upward at the clouds, thin vapours now turning to ballooning grey as the storm-front approached. Change, he thought, again, the earth, the sea, the fretting of the land, humanity, this man. He shook his head, wondering what circumstance could have drawn this man to him once again, could require a trek to this forgotten corner of the world.

‘We’ve discovered a few things,’ the man said. ‘Things we feel we need to share.’

Daniel stood mute for a moment, debating what could be so revolutionary, so crucial to his simple existence.

‘Shall we go inside,’ he said, turning towards the house perched on the precipice above the beach.

‘Yes, that would be good. Out of this cold.’