By Jonathan Balog

Adam Percival charged at the wave with all his might. As the white foam began to cascade three metres before him, it became appallingly clear that there was no way in hell he was going to scale it before it broke. Panic drove the words of warning from Jian Rheno, his surf instructor, far from his mind and he gripped the nose of his longboard. The surge threw him backwards like a piece of debris, the leash pulling on his ankle tight as a gallows rope.

When the tidal force subsided enough for him to thrash his way above water, he became acutely aware of two things: a throbbing pain in his right shoulder, and a near inability to move his arm.

“Hey mate, you all right?”

The Australian with the shaved head who had ridden out to Rock Island with them was paddling his way.

“I think I fucked up my arm, man. I need to get back to the boat.”

“Shit,” he said. “Can you get back on your board?”

A meagre attempt shortly ruled out that possibility.

“OK…rest your bad arm on it.”

They began the awkward, painfully slow migration towards the boat, the Australian calling out to Jian that they had an emergency. Adam’s mind reeled at the thought of being thrown by another wave in this condition. The pain would be unbearable, the swim back an impossibility.

By the time they reached the pambot Jian had caught up with them. The man had the motions of Gollum both on deck and in the water. After he and the Australian handed their boards to the captain he dove beneath to unfasten Adam’s leash. Now they faced the most daunting task of all: getting him back on the boat. The ladder, a three-step contraption of driftwood and frayed rope, bobbed in and out of the water. A challenging scale under ideal conditions.

Jian climbed aboard while Adam hooked his arm over the bamboo wing, the Aussie right beside him.

“All right bro,” he called from above the ladder. “Give me your hand and I’ll pull you up.”

Adam let go of the outrigger and kick-swam towards the hull. Never in his life had he appreciated the privilege of having two arms as he did then. He’d been swimming since he was five years old, yet now he felt like the proverbial one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest. He reached for the proffered hand, but with no leverage he couldn’t get close. He slipped away, drifting down the hull.

He called out for help. And then, gravity.

As the saltwater increased above, it occurred to him that he’d been thinking about death his entire life, in countless movies and an endless playlist of songs. He’d joked about it, worried over it, speculated on the myriad ways he might encounter it, yet for all that preparation he still felt like someone had walked in on him masturbating.

He continued to thrash, more out of reflex than expectation. His brain wouldn’t stop racing long enough to register fear or even curiosity when through the sting and bubbles he noticed a shadow approaching.

Hands came to rest on his shoulders. Not rescuing but consoling. Fingers traced up his neck and onto his face. In the dark he felt a hungry kiss on his mouth like a last wish.

And then Jian Rheno’s hand hooked under his shoulder, pulling him up.

—-

Adam tried to admire the view as the pambot glided over the aquamarine Philippine Sea. The Australian, whose name was Trevor, fed him paracetamol and assured him that his shoulder was most definitely dislocated. He winced as the boat skipped across mini-waves and shook his head. Day one on Siargiao had marked his first time on a surfboard in a year, and he’d been absolute shite. The second day he’d switched to a longboard and caught at least a quarter of the waves he chased. Today he’d started out strong, catching every single one and riding each for what felt like a solid minute. Then just when it seemed he was going to cap off this trip on a high note he had to go and nearly get himself killed.

The ambulance was waiting for them when they reached shore. Adam rode in the back of what was essentially the covered bed of a pickup truck. One of the paramedics sat with him, holding him still and sharing words of consolation, while the driver careened down a country road, hitting every bump at top speed.

At the hospital, the middle-aged nurse asked him, on a scale of one to ten, how much pain he was in.

“Right now somewhere between a kidney stone and childbirth.”

After giving him an x-ray, he sat him down in a wheelchair.

“All right,” said the nurse. “The good news is there’s no fracture. The bad news is it’s badly dislocated. The other bad news is we’re not equipped to treat you here and we’re going to have to transfer you to another island.”

“Are you serious?”

“I’m afraid so. The next ferry leaves in two hours, so we need to get you to the dock as soon as possible.”

Traveling in this condition would be insufferable, not to mention the prospect of the bill. Like most Brits, the concept of health insurance was something with which Adam had never had to grapple. Still, at that moment he’d be willing to turn over his life savings to anyone who could make the hurting stop.

“All right,” he said. What a fucking way to end a holiday. “Is there a washroom I could use?”

The nurse gestured towards the back of the room. He stood, cupping his useless arm by the elbow, feeling like it would drop off without support. Halfway to the bathroom door, in a purely unconscious motion, he shrugged his shoulders.

He felt the joint pop back into place.

He stopped. He bent and stretched his arm. He reached forward and moved it a quarter to the right like a referee. He pinwheeled it backwards and forwards.

“Hey,” he said.

The nurse looked up from his clipboard. He blinked, and looked again.

“You’re shitting me,” said Jian over their freshly opened San Miguels. “It doesn’t even hurt?”

“Not a bit,” he replied, and clinked his bottle neck against Jian’s with the arm in question. He had dutifully worn the sling they gave him back to his bungalow, but after showering off the day’s accumulation of sand, sweat and brine, he hadn’t bothered to put it back on.

“Bro, I saw the shape you were in. You were annihilated.”

He thought back to asking the nurse if he’d ever seen anything like this before.

It’s not abnormal, but in twenty years I’ve never seen a shoulder that badly dislocated spontaneously reattach.

They walked onto the outer peripheries of the dance floor and panned their vision over the crowd. Being the middle of February, the university contingent was limited to gap year backpackers. The club’s genetic makeup was comprised mainly of between-job adventurers, weekenders from Manila or Cebu, a few middle-aged early retirees. A dozen or so local boys stood patiently off on the sidelines.

After their second beer they moved onto the floor. The DJ’s played the T-Pain and Black Eyed Peas numbers that had been Top 40 when most of the crowd had still been in school, along with the obligatory white-girl-at-the-club 70’s rock screamers. Adam imagined they’d been playing these same tracks in this order every night for years.

The first thing he noticed was the dress. Streaks of cobalt blue and emerald green swirled and mixed, approaching the colour of the sea that had nearly destroyed him just that morning. It hung long and elegantly off caramel shoulders by thin straps and danced in the air as she spun towards him on bare feet. Her face was a language of archetypes that put similes and metaphors to shame. A white Jasmine flower, a Sampaguita, was tucked behind her ear.

She smiled when he approached. As they danced together he was struck by the overwhelming gracefulness of her movements, juxtaposed with the generic booty-shaking all around. Nor did it look like some kind of traditional Southeast Asian dance. It was organic; nature’s own poetry.

Normally he felt completely awkward and out of place in clubs like this, and had been told more than once he needed to consult a proctologist about that corn cob up his ass. If she thought so she gave no indication, and rested her hand gently on his shoulder as they moved together.

What struck him the most was her unbridled love of what she was hearing. They were playing obligatory bar songs that existed solely to help tourists seal the deal on their drunken mating ritual. She was dancing like it was the most beautiful music she’d ever heard.

“What’s your name?” he asked a few minutes later, as the bartender brought them their drinks.

“You can call me Audra,” she said. “I’m glad you approached me. I wanted to talk to you but didn’t get a chance.”

“When?”

“Earlier.”

Wondering when she was talking about, he scraped for conversational seeds.

“So where you from? Do you live here?”

She nodded and sipped her Mai Thai.

“I live here with my two sisters.”

“How long has your family been here?”

“We’ve always been here,” she replied.

“Really? I mean, I was reading my Lonely Planet about how the Spanish colonization happened in the fifteenth century. You can trace your family back that far?”

“If we ever lived anywhere else, I don’t remember.”

She finished her drink and sat it down on the bar.

“Did you know there’s a full moon tonight?”

He followed her to the beach. General Luna didn’t have much in the way of a swim-and-relax scene; the strip of sand she took him to was near the dock where all the pambots waited in a row to escort tourists out for their surf lessons and island hops when the sun came up. Sure enough, it was a full moon. The massive orange-pink orb loomed over the wine-dark sea like an apocalyptic balloon.

They might have talked, but he couldn’t remember afterwards. He only remembered her stepping into his arms, the feel of her stomach and breasts pressed against his torso through the dress which seemed thin as a veil, the smell of the flower seeping through his nostrils as they kissed. Nor did he remember much of the walk back to his bungalow. The details of the love they made were lost as well, apart from a distinct recollection of her straddling him and pulling the dress off over her head. What he remembered was a sense of light. That was all. Love and light.

He wasn’t entirely surprised to find her gone when he woke up the following morning. He was however pleased to discover the Sampaguita resting on his bedside table.

—-

It was still dark when she slipped back into the water, but the sun was beginning to make its presence felt just below the horizon. Unbeknownst to her, a 12-year-old boy whose parents owned a small beachfront hotel was already up and getting a start on his morning chores. As he swept sand and leaves off the gazebo deck, he noticed a woman in a blue dress wading into the water.

He didn’t think too much of it. In a party town like General Luna one got used to people doing things like going for a pre-dawn swim. It wasn’t even that outlandish that she was wearing her clothes into the water. Yet he would spend the rest of the day wondering if he’d missed something, because he could have sworn he saw her dive below never to resurface. Then a few seconds later, a tail as thick as a phone pole flicking the air.

She glided through the crystalizing blue sea, oblivious to the undercurrents and riptides. A milling school of sardines parted like fog when she charged through their core, then reassembled their tornado-like form, the interruption already forgotten. A sea turtle eyed her through his ancient sideways gaze. The yellow-lipped sea kraits, noticing her swimming above, paused their hunting with the reverence of a soldier acknowledging a queen.

When she reached the eastern side of the jutting land mass the Filipinos had named Rock Island, she dove. Deep down, where scuba divers had no business venturing, and no explorers ever would, a passage between rocks opened like a geological birth canal. She swam through the crevice, down the passageway which opened up into a cave the size of a church. She raised her neck above water and slithered aground. The cave was quiet, save for the occasional plink of water dripping into small pools from above. Three holes in the ceiling sent diagonal beams of light piercing through the darkness.

“And where were you last night?”

The voice echoed across the walls. Audra looked up and saw her sister’s massive serpentine form wrapped around a stalactite.

“Well don’t keep me in suspense. Is this a Walk of Shame, as they say?”

She knew there was no hiding it. Devorga could smell recent desire on anyone. A bath in the sea wouldn’t help.

“I met someone, yes.”

“And did you bring anything back for us?” she asked, her head and the first meter of neck hanging below the spike.

“No.”

“What a pity,” she replied, in barely disguised annoyance. “So go on. I’m dying to hear it.”

“Yes, please,” concurred a third voice from across the room. “We’d love to know.”

Audra looked to the far corner and was able to make out the shape of her other sister. Wismadra lay coiled atop a flat ledge about chest height to a man, her ancient head resting patiently on her body, the way she did when she was contemplating the state of the world and the nature of being. Which was always.

“All right, I met a young man yesterday.”

“How splendid. And how did that come about?”

“He was hurt, so I helped him.”

“That’s certainly your raison d’etre,” said Wismadra.

And yours, she thought, but said nothing.

“Well, what happened then? Did he thank you?”

“He was drowning. I don’t think he even noticed me.”

“Hmph.”

Devorga moved her head back up the stalactite, caressing it with her whole body.

“But that wasn’t enough for you, was it? You had to see him again.”

Audra imagined her sister could anticipate the sex in her story the way a carnivore smelled fresh meat. Among their three respective vocations, there was considerable overlap. Wismadra shared, albeit to a lesser extent, her penchant for healing and replenishment. Her relationship with Devorga however entailed much more caution. They were both well acquainted with hunger.

“Yes, I went to see him at a dance club.”

“…and?”

“And we danced, and he bought me a drink.”

“Oh, I can see it now,” she said, uncoiling from her perch and lowering herself slowly to the floor. “Bass thumping like a heart. A mist of pheromones. Coquettish smiles over your shoulder. Hips talking to his loins like a lion tamer.”

She slithered in her direction, their eyes not quite meeting.

“And then later, kisses in the moonlight. Holding hands on the walk home. His trousers thrown on the floor. Taking him deep inside…”

“Enough, Devorga. We’re well aware of your prowess.”

“I am simply congratulating our sister on her successful venture,” she replied. “Even if she couldn’t spare a moment’s thought for her own family.”

Audra changed back into her human form. Over the past few centuries this had become an accepted signal that she no longer wished to talk. She walked on the legs that had so captivated her lover just the night before and sat by herself in the corner.

“One more thing, though.”

She breathed out of her nose, knowing it was coming.

“Is he ripe?”

Wismadra waited in silence as well.

“Yes,” she said. “I suppose he was.”

Seemingly satisfied, her sister gave the water a light splash with the tip of her tail.

—-

Seriously bro? You want to go out again?

Adam grinned at the SMS. He’d been traveling the Philippines for a month. If he had to pick a defining characteristic of Siargao, it would be that landing there marked the point when people stopped addressing him as “sir” and started calling him “bro.”

Absolutely. See you tomorrow.

Only three other people were waiting at the dock when he arrived in the half-light of 7 am, aside from the captain, his first mate and Jian Rheno. As the boat pulled away from the shore, he sat down next to him.

“So you’re not in pain at all?’

“None whatsoever.”

“And you’re OK with going out again today?”

“Bit late to ask,” he said with a laugh. “No, I’m fine.”

In all truth he couldn’t wait to get out. Since about the time his arm had healed he’d been filled with an exuberance he couldn’t remember feeling since he was a kid.

“What about that girl you left with with the other night?”

And yes, there had been that.

When they got to the island the swell was about three meters, a long barreling right-handed wave that careened into the open sea and could carry you for what felt like a mile. On previous trips Jian had positioned himself behind Adam’s board and launched him at the opportune moment, shouting paddlepaddlepaddlepaddle, then standup! the second it was within catch.This time Adam shirked any assistance. He caught waves by instinct, or maybe physical memory, carved all over the open face, riding until he ran out of speed.

The clockwise paddle back could last up to twenty minutes with the current moving against him, but he didn’t mind. He felt like his arm muscles had been reshaped into a form that had previously only existed in their imagination as an intangible ideal. During that long journey back to the crowd, he stopping to sit up and straddle his board and give his body a rest.

That’s when she chose to make her appearance.

She surfaced and rested her hands on his board, her long black hair floating like seaweed. He wasn’t in the least bit surprised. More like he’d been told a secret that on some level he’d known all along. So it was her, he thought. The hands under the water. The kiss. He’d been ninety-five percent sure before, but now there was no doubt.

“I was hoping I’d see you again.”

“I’m glad I made an impression,” she said, leveling her eyes, chin propped on her hands. She was still wearing the dress. “Enjoying your day?”

“To tell you the truth I can’t remember the last time I felt this good,” he replied. “And somehow I get the feeling that’s thanks to you.”

“Well. If you’re wondering how you can thank me, you can meet me on the beach tonight at midnight.”

“All right. Midnight it is.”

“Don’t be late.”

She plunged backwards, and was gone.

—-

He sat on the beach smoking numerous off-brand cigarettes that tasted more like paper than tobacco. He hadn’t smoked regularly since uni, but a backpacking excursion without cigarettes felt like a football match without beer. The moon, now a sliver below full, had risen and shrunk like a pupil. It was a quarter to twelve.

She was some kind of mermaid. An obsessive analysis over the course of the day had left him with no other conclusion, though he wasn’t familiar with the folklore of the islands, and wasn’t sure if the Filipinos or the French, Spanish or Chinese colonials had ever told tales of sea nymphs or the like. He decided he would ask her tonight.

It was quiet, and he heard the modest splashes before he saw her wading out of the sea.

—-

As far back as she could remember (and that was a very long time) she and her sisters had been together. They were distinct entities in their own right, but none could exist without the others. A triple-ouroboros, so to speak. Perhaps at one time they had been one singular being, but if so she had no memory of it, and besides, knowledge was Wismadra’s thing, not hers.

There was nothing extraordinarily remarkable about him. Nevertheless she had seen right away why Audra had been smitten. His romantic sense of adventure must have set her little heart aflutter. He’d be of passing interest to Wismadra as well, even if he wouldn’t be composing Homeric verse or reconfiguring quantum mechanics anytime soon. Audra was correct—he was ripe.

The others might deny it, but among their triad her function was paramount. If there was a truth universally acknowledged, it had nothing to do with a single rich men needing a wife. It was that every living thing on earth required sustenance. Her sisters were more than content to pass through eternity dreaming of love and pondering the meaning of it all. But without food, without devouring, all bets were off. If a thing didn’t eat it perished. Simple as that.

For all their differences, there was one part of a man that appealed to all three. She could see it encased in his chest, pulsing with the accumulated love, knowledge and appetites of thirty years. Like a perfectly ripened apple.

—-

“I’m leaving tonight.”

They were sitting at the patio section of a recently opened hostel-bar-restaurant called Harry’s which claimed to have the best burgers on the island. Adam had dutifully confined his diet to Filippino or at least Asian food for the duration of his trip, but he’d had his fill of tapsilog, pork sisig, lechon and the various street fare. Besides, mentally he’d already checked out.

“I thought you were sticking around for another few days.”

“Yeah, well two close encounters with death are enough for one week,” he said, finishing off his second beer. “Don’t worry, you’re getting a good review on Tripadvisor.”

“So what the fuck happened last night?”

He’d been asking himself the same question since waking up on the beach that morning. Like the night after the club, only fragments came back.

“You think she drugged you?”

“Possibly. I don’t know.”

He remembered she hadn’t wasted much time getting him down on the sand and ripping his clothes off like wrapping paper. One thing stood out above all, and he had no problem sharing this, was her complete change in demeanor. Gone were the coy sideways glances of the other night. She’d stared right into his eyes, like she was looking into his soul. When she was riding him on the beach she looked down on him, and never in his life could he recall feeling so vulnerable. So much like prey.

Of course he left out the part about her walking in from the sea, their encounter out by Rock Island earlier in the day. He certainly said nothing about the dream in which two gargantuan snakes had clashed violently in the water. Thrashing, biting, shrieking like no animal on earth. He knew he would hear that sound in nightmares for the rest of his life.

“But you still had your wallet when you woke up?”

“Left it back in the room.”

The two of them had struck up a quick rapport since meeting for his first surf lesson, and Adam fully expected them to stay in touch in the years to come over social media. Jian seemed to be trying carefully not to hinder that when he nodded at his chest.

“Can I see?”

Adam unbuttoned the green linen shirt he was wearing and pulled it open. His right breast was lacerated. Deep diagonal wounds were slashed left and right in a psychotic patchwork of flesh. He’d applied the local generic Neosporin that morning, and while some of the thinner cuts were already beginning to scab over, the majority were still fresh and ugly. A patch held on with medical tape covered the widest gash.

He muttered an epithet. They looked like claw marks.

—-

The silence of the cave was profound when Devorga slithered in at dawn. Her entire form ached. Once she’d recuperated enough that she was able to move without agony, she’d made the swim home at a quarter of the speed it would have normally taken. She’d been propelled on by a burning rage and the prospect of the discussion she was going to have with her sister.

How she hated her reliance on Audra. As the fates would have it, only she had the ability to see into the hearts of men and discern which were ripe for consumption. Devorga was free to hunt on her own, but without her sister’s eyes she was hunting blind, and most often her catch amounted to little more than an appetizer. That was no way to live.

Yes, when she got home they would have words.

Wismadra sat on her usual throne, while Audra lay in identical coil atop a flat rock directly across the cave. Devorga disliked their projected air of joint monarchs.

“We are going to talk.”

“Yes, we certainly are,” said Audra. “Sister, you will never, ever meddle in my affairs again.”

Their other sister sat by, listening, saying nothing.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, dear, but it’s been just over a year to the day since we’ve enjoyed a proper meal. Perhaps that doesn’t concern the two of you, but I’m fucking starving.”

“Cross me again and you’ll have more than your stomach to worry about.”

She rushed out of the water and across the floor to her and reared up. They faced each other with their necks craned like two swans.

“I don’t know if it’s slipped your mind,” she said. “But if I die, you die.”

“Possibly,” she conceded. “I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to finding out. Eternity’s a long time, Devorga. And believe it or not, there are more important things than survival.”

She stared at her in silence, then shot her gaze over at their silent sibling.

“Are you going to say anything?”

If she’d had shoulders, she might have shrugged.

“I’d be interested to see what would happen too.”

—-

“OK, remember: first your left foot, then right. Keep your knees bent to center your gravity, and your eyes forward. Ready?”

The nervous young American girl nodded her head. Jian Rheno launched her a few seconds ahead of the coming wave.

Paddlepaddlepaddlepaddlepaddlepaddlepaddle, stand up!

She stood, awkwardly but stably, and rode into the distance.

It would be at least twenty minutes before she made it back. He took the opportunity to hop on his own shortboard and catch one of his own.

He’d been working as an instructor for ten years. During the high season, two or three lessons covered half the rent of the flat he shared with his brother, and another paid for his children’s school fees in Cebu. He was never in less than optimal shape—most people didn’t realize that surfing required the use of practically every muscle in your body. As a bonus he was usually surrounded by fine-looking women in bathing suits. All things considered it wasn’t such a bad gig. It certainly beat working in a hotel or restaurant.

Still, he was hungry for something new. A more challenging endeavor. True love. Or even just some really good sex.

Jumping off the board and paddling back to their launching area, he thought about Adam. In all his days as an instructor he’d never seen anything that weird. Previously the mishaps suffered by his students were limited to sunburn and scrapes on the coral. Adam however seemed to attract disasters wherever he went. Jian didn’t know if the dude had bad luck or he was bad luck.

At any rate, he wished him the best, and thanked his lucky stars that everything had worked out at the hospital. If he’d suffered a serious injury (or God forbid, drowned) it would have opened a legal can of worms that he didn’t want to even think about.

Amongst the dozen and a half people out on the water, one girl in particular caught his attention. It would have been hard not to notice her the way she was shredding all over the water. He hadn’t seen someone move like that since the Cloud 9 Cup.

Her complexion and body type suggested the Philippines. She was wearing a skimpy two-piece the colour of the sea. Unlike most of the girl surfers he knew she didn’t bother tying back her long black hair.

As she paddled in his direction and her face came clear he had to check himself, but sure enough it was her—the chick Adam had hooked up with the other night.

He should be afraid. Whatever she’d done, she was dangerous.

So why was he adamantly aroused? Why did it feel as if her spirit had reached through the water and into his bathing suit?

“Excuse me,” she said, swimming up close to him. “Haven’t I seen you before?”


About the Author

Jonathan Balog grew up in Maryland and graduated from Washington College in 2005 with a BA in English. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Ares, Dark Moon Digest, Chiral Mad 3, Chilling Ghost Short Stories, Dark Visions vol 1, Ominous Realities and Dread: A Head Full of Bad Dreams – The Best of Grey Matter Press. He lives in Rome, Italy.