We spent our summers out on the island, and our winters we spent in the city. In the city we were packed in together like sardines (sardines come from Sardinia, I know this because I went to Italy once long ago with my mom) in an apartment building that smelled like onions. But on the island we stayed with grandpa and it was nothing but clean air and wide open spaces. The sky and the water met somewhere far, far away. The sand on the beach was all we knew.
Grandpa stayed inside the hut pretty much all the time, taking pain pills for his back, sleeping until he needed to eat or shit. We were pretty much on our own. The old man in the hut next to Grandpa’s was so wrinkled by the sun he looked like a raisin. He was the same color as a raisin too. He didn’t have many teeth, so it was hard to understand him. He drank rum and he gave us some, even before we were old enough.
“No rules here,” he would say to us. “You can drink anything on the cay.”
My brother Ty drank too much one time. He started stumbling down the beach singing to himself. He stripped down to his bare bottom and went swimming. He was whooping and hollering from the water, but then his head disappeared beneath the waves and he didn’t pop up again. I was starting to get worried, but before I could jump into the water to save him the old man was already there, swimming like a fish (but not a sardine, like some great, ancient sea creature) through the water. He pulled Ty back out and onto the shore where Ty spit out water, his lips a little blue, and sat up with his eyes crossed.
I’ve never seen anyone move as fast as that old man did when he saved Ty.
“Know yourself. Know what you can handle,” the old man warned him, “because the ocean doesn’t care who you are.”
Ty’s nose was bleeding. He didn’t go into the water for a long time after that. When we went home to the city where mom was cooking food for rich people she asked how the island was. Ty didn’t say anything. He went to his room and stayed there pretty much all winter long.
Things are different in the city. You forget all about the ocean. People are everywhere in the city, talking on phones, sitting in cars, waving for taxis, walking on sidewalks with their heads down and not looking at anyone else as they pass. I feel small in the city. Lost among the faceless people and the things they have built to make themselves feel bigger. Everyone feels small, so they keep building things bigger, and stronger, and better than themselves.
On the island you’re a part of something. You can become a part of the ocean and the sand and the sky and the sun that are greater than anything people could ever build.
The old man died the summer after he saved Ty. The last time we saw him he was catching fish with his bare hands in the surf. He didn’t have a phone or a computer or even a clock or anything in his hut. He was standing up to his knees in water, seaweed wrapping around his raisin skin. He pulled out a bright yellow snapper and held it over his head.
“Take this,” he said, and handed me the fish. “You kids are the future. Do you understand? It’s up to you what to do with it.”
Later that night I took a walk deep into the forest. Grandpa was snoring and Ty was sleeping on his stomach. I walked for an hour until I came to a clearing I had never seen before. There were a bunch of round, red fruits lying on the ground. Bright red, like the color of Ty’s blood coming out of his nose. “Only eat the fruit when you truly know yourself,” the old man had told me one time and I knew at that moment these were the fruits he was talking about. They looked so good. So bright and so perfectly round. I bit into the fruit and immediately the whole world started to change around me. I saw the water breathing, moving back and forth like it had a pulse and a heartbeat. It was the first time that I could see ocean was alive. I could see the water move forward and slam against the beach with confidence, showing how big and strong it was, and then curl up and disappear in humility because even the ocean knows that it is only a small piece of the universe.