Benicio had been exiled to one of the outer islands of Rubio for longer than he could remember, penance for a crime of passion he was indeed guilty of committing.
For the first several years he tried everything to leave the island . . . a raft made of bamboo lashed together with vines . . . a flotilla of coconut shells wrapped in fisherman’s netting . . . a combination of bamboo and coconut shells and cork buoys found along the island’s mile-long beach . . . but strong rip currents near the outer reef simply shattered his hard work on the coral and sent him back to where he began, bruised and bloodied.
Eventually, he resigned himself to fate. But his fate had now become unbearable. He decided that if he had to endure one more sunrise on this desolate outpost he would surely go mad.
Benicio rose from his makeshift beach chair and walked down to the water’s edge. At first, he thought the hand was a small fish paled by death and bloated by the sea. But its fins were too slender, its body misshapen. When he realized it was a human hand he stared at it for a very long time. At last, he picked it up and brushed the grains of sand from its waterlogged skin.
It was a woman’s hand. Benicio knew by the flakes of red polish present on its fingernails. The wrist bone had been severed cleanly, perhaps by a sword or the blade of an ax. It couldn’t have hadn’t been in the water very long, for there was hardly a nibble or bite taken from its flesh.
Benicio took the severed hand back to his hut and set it on the sill of the bamboo window frame next to a piece of coral and an empty glass bottle. That night he lay in his hammock, the noose he had been working on earlier temporarily forgotten. He stared at the severed hand. The fingernail polish indicated the owner wasn’t a slave girl but a woman of means.
What had she done that was so horrible?
What was her age?
Was she married? Did she have children?
Benicio fell asleep thinking of all the possibilities the hand implied, and dreamed of the mysterious woman to whom it belonged.
The following morning, when Benicio stepped out of his hut, there on the wet sand of the beach, like a gift left by the receding tide, lay another hand. It was the match to the one he had found the day before. Again, the wrist bone had been cut clean through. There was a faint discoloration near the base of its ring finger where the skin had been scraped, leaving a thin stripe to the first knuckle.
She had been married, Benicio thought. But the wedding band had been removed, torn from her finger.
He placed the hand alongside its mate on the hut’s window frame.
That day, instead of debating which method was the best to end his life—death by hanging or death by drowning—Benicio’s thoughts were now occupied by the mystery of the severed hands. He spent the afternoon circling the island, searching the beach for more clues, more body parts.
He found none.
Exhausted, he dragged himself to his hut and lay in his hammock staring at the disembodied hands. He imagined them growing arms, bending at the elbow and connecting to a torso, a neck, a head . . . as if someone were leaning in the window from outside. Dark hair. A kind face. A gentle smile.
But the vision dissolved before he could see who she was.
That night his sleep was restless. He dreamed of pirates and kidnappers and the cruel men who ran the penal colony back in Rubio.
The next morning, when he walked out onto the beach, he discovered a foot. He cradled it as if it were a newborn. He spoke to it like a long lost friend. He carried it back to the hut and placed it on the floor beneath the window.
The following day the ocean delivered an arm.
Benicio’s days were now filled with purpose. Each night, he went to bed wondering which piece of her would wash up next. And every morning, when he opened his eyes, he rushed down onto the cool sand to see what the surf had brought. Each day presented something new:
A second foot.
Benicio assembled the unknown woman as the days progressed. There was no doubt the pieces were all from the same person; each joint matched cut for cut. He constructed a second bed in his hut and laid her parts out like pieces of a puzzle.
Days later, a storm brought her torso, rolling it up on shore like a whiskey barrel, and he knew then who she was. He knew by the mole on her left breast. A mole he used to kiss lovingly as an acceptance of her imperfection.
Luisa Maria Velasquez, wife of Gonzalo Velasquez, the Governor General of Rubio—a man to whom Benicio was once a trusted advisor. But trust on political matters was much different than matters of the heart.
As the world went about its business they would meet in the jungle, at an old plantation hut owned by Benicio’s cousin. There they would make love. It became their island amid the fear and brutality that surrounded them. Their affair lasted several more months before one of Gonzalo’s henchmen followed them to their secret hideaway. When Benicio was sentenced to the outer islands, he knew it was Luisa who had bargained with her husband so his life could be spared.
Benicio stared out to sea as the day ended. All that was left now was her head.
Soon, very soon, he whispered to the setting sun.
That night Benicio couldn’t sleep. The gentle thrum and whisper of the surf was the worst form of torture he had ever endured. Worse than the torture of loving a woman and seeing that love torn apart. Worse than his exile on this God forsaken island.
But maybe God had not forsaken him. How else could he explain the deliverance of his precious Luisa back to him? It was as if his penance was over and it was now time to rebuild his shattered life.
He lay in the dark, the smell of her now filling the hut. He pictured her face, breathless with the anticipation of once again being in the presence of her beauty.
Restless, he left the hut before sunrise and paced the cool, wet sand.
The immensity of the world surrounded him—the endless sea, the all-encompassing sky—an immensity that, during his years of exile and isolation, had grown to near crushing proportions. But that immensity had shrunk with each of Luisa’s body parts he had recovered.
At last, the sun broke above the softening glow of the horizon, and the glitter of the new day nearly blinded him. He held his weathered hands up to shield his eyes as he gazed across the rows upon rows of rolling waves.
“Luisa . . . Luisa, my love, where are you?” he muttered.
And there, bobbing in the surf like a buoy, he saw it: her head.
He rushed into the water, wading up to his waist. Waves gently slapped at his chest as if to reprimand his boyish eagerness. The elusive head bobbed further out of reach. In a desperate lunge, fearing if he didn’t grab her head when he could it would be drawn back out to sea, his hand latched onto her hair.
He felt a sharp pain in the middle of his palm. Perhaps it was a hairpin still attached to her flowing locks. Pain and blood were old friends of his, so he gave it hardly a thought as he carried her head to shore.
She was as beautiful as he remembered. Her slender nose, her full lips. Though her eyes were closed, he knew the deep green intensity of her gaze. He knew he held in his hands the final missing piece to his happiness.
He immediately went to his hut and placed the head on top of what he had already assembled . . . and waited. He expected the arms and legs, hands and feet to fuse together with an ethereal light. He expected her to open her eyes, see his face, and smile.
But nothing happened. The parts lay unconnected. Flies buzzed about the hut.
Perhaps she is tired, he thought, having traveled so far to be with me.
It was then the pain in his hand became excruciating; it shot up his arm and quickly invaded the rest of his body. He doubled over with spasms and his skin grew slick with sweat.
He collapsed onto his hammock, his head spinning. Without sleep the night before, he too needed to rest. He and Luisa had been apart for so long, he decided, an hour or two more would do no harm. He let his eyelids close. He listened to the sound of the surf gently pounding the shore like a human heartbeat.
And like a dream, he was awakened several hours later by a gentle caress. “Benicio?”
He opened his eyes. “Luisa? Is it really you?”
She leaned over him, a vision of loveliness. She had worn the same dress the last time he saw her. He reached up to caress her face. He had trouble breathing. “Your dress . . . but how?”
She smiled. “It was you, Benicio. You made me whole again. When I awoke, everything was here for me.” She pointed to an open sea chest filled with her belongings at the foot of her bed. “You must have found it washed up on the beach.”
Benicio didn’t remember finding the chest. But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now. All the years of pain and solitary suffering spent on the island were but a distant memory. He had his Luisa back. It was as if she had never left his side.
He raised his head to get up and fell back. A cold chill swept across his skin. Luisa put a hand against his chest.
“You must rest, my Benicio. Your body is not well. I will take good care of you.” She kissed her finger and pressed it against his lips to seal any rebuke.
He relaxed then, the warmth of her touch and the comfort of her gaze settling him into a hazy sleep.
Several days after the hurricane that ripped through Rubio, a pirate by the name of Francisco DeMarco dropped anchor outside the reef of a tiny island. He and a couple of his men rowed ashore with a wooden crate filled with stolen bounty. While searching for a suitable location to bury it, DeMarco came across a bamboo hut. Inside the hut he found the body of a man lying in a hammock. The man appeared to be sleeping, but on closer inspection he was dead, his hand horribly swollen and discolored.
Also in the hut, was a makeshift bed; on it lay the figure of a woman. Her arms and legs were made of driftwood, her feet two conch shells, her hands twin cuttlefish, her body the decayed remains of a large sea turtle, and her head . . . her head was a man-‘o-war, its tentacles parted and draped across her shoulders like long flowing hair.
DeMarco stared at the dead man. He had seen men die in many different ways, but death by the sting of a man-‘o-war was one of the most excruciating. Why, then, did this man in the hammock have an almost serene expression on his face?
DeMarco quickly crossed himself. His lips mumbled a simple prayer. He then searched the hut. Finding nothing of value, he left to join his men, leaving the dead man to the comfort of eternal sleep.
Creatively, Kurt’s early influences were Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Edward Gorey. Later influences include J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, and Jonathan Carroll. Kurt’s fiction and poetry have appeared in wide variety of publications including Grasslimb Journal, Strangelet Journal, Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry, Cyclopean, A cappella Zoo, and Polluto. Kurt and his wife have a sixteen-month-old son which gives him the excuse to reread such classics as Green Eggs and Ham, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Gashlycrumb Tinies.