A Game of Dice
Georgie rolls a four. The three of us are crowded around a little wooden box, kneeled down on dark crimson stained floorboards. The sun comes down like pure misery, so unbearable I hardly even care about the roll. Nelson collects the die from the box with raw fingers, grunts significantly after a moment of stillness. He shoots next, his arms jerking strangely, his broken, ghoulish face emotionless and dead, but his eyes burning with some undefinable barbary. Five. Nelson rolls a five. We all stare at it together for what feels like ages. I don’t pick it up after Nelson says my name once, twice, three times. Finally he snatches the die out of the box, pushes it into my hand. The yellowing ivory cube looks up at me slyly with its perfectly round, uncaring snake eyes. Jaundice colored and sickly, resting like a bone fragment of some dead and bloating justice in my swollen, beet red, crooked hand.
Water is everything. Without water, you’re nothing.
Listen: You’ve never felt sun like this. My lips have cracked and dried into withered scabs and my skin is flaking everywhere that it’s exposed. Mostly I try not to look at the other two. Sunken eyes, shriveled mouths shiny with sores, boils and burns from the unbearable sun and god knows what else. They’re hideous, as I’m certain I am, too. I’ve become some kind of ghost. All I can think about is water. I’ve never known a more possessing obsession.
Georgie’s only seventeen. He mutters and cries, mostly, only there’s no actual tears, of course. His face just wrinkles up, quivers spasmodically like an animal in its death throes. You can still see the youth beneath the sunburn, the blisters and the dried blood. When he first started with the mumbling and the whimpering, Nelson flew off the handle. Nelson’s venomous, you know. He’d scream at the kid until it sounded like his vocal chords were hemorrhaging. Even slap him and stomp down with his boots so that it seemed like the lifeboat might splinter up beneath us. But he doesn’t do that anymore. Nelson mutters now, too, but it’s an angry, seething sound. A sort of whisper that works itself into a terrifying frenzy, boiling over with a contagious ferocity.
There was a fourth in the beginning. Robinson. He never stopped raving about paddling back towards the shipwreck. We don’t have any oars, you know, so we would have had to use our hands. After more than eighteen hours of drifting, he thought we could just paddle back, and that somehow, some much needed supplies would have magically floated to the surface for our convenience. On the third day he drank seawater. After twenty minutes of his not dying, seawater started to seem like a reasonable idea. And then he started seizing as if he was being electrocuted. Bit off his tongue, fell onto his face and started kicking madly at the gunwales. He was making a sickening choking sound that came bubbling out between clenched teeth. There was blood all over his face, mixing into the seawater that was splashing around in the bottom of the boat. He was unconscious ten minutes later. It was a long ten minutes. Very long. Nelson and I threw him overboard when we thought he was finally dead. That’s when Georgie started his muttering.
Water is everything. Without water you’re an erased man. No personality, no thoughts, no morals, nothing. Only need. A dry, murderous need.
The night after Robinson went over, Nelson caught a sea turtle. There was a little wooden box onboard under the aft bench, stocked with hooks, fishing lines and a bowie knife. Starving as we were, eating sounded like pure torture without water. My lips cracked and bled every time I opened my mouth too wide, and my tongue felt like a dried out dead rat rotting away in its dark, cramped hole. Nelson spotted the turtle first, then tied an orange painted bobber onto fishing line and tossed it out towards the slow moving creature. You could hardly see it in the dark, could just barely make out where its head broke the moon’s reflection. Somehow the turtle was attracted to the bobber. It swam closer and closer as Nelson reeled in the line. He was whispering violently through his teeth, stringing together expletives into a syrupy coaxing sound, begging the turtle to come a little bit closer, a little bit closer. Almost crying with anticipation. It swam right up to the lifeboat. Nelson grabbed at it wildly, and when his grip started to slip he pitched over the side of the boat, wrapping both arms around the creature’s shell. He was screaming and cursing rabidly, flailing about in the water and demanding, between short bouts beneath the surface, that I paddle the boat closer so he could bring the damn thing on board.
The turtle was writhing in panic. It was huge, at least sixty or seventy pounds. When we finally hauled it onboard Nelson had me sit on it while he scraped all the seawater out of the bottom of the little boat with a cup. He wrung out his clothes, then demanded that Georgie use his comparatively dry clothes to mop up what remained of the saltwater. The turtle was frantic, its clawed, paddle like legs worked feverishly against the wood of the boat. Slapping and scraping. I couldn’t keep it still, could hardly keep it from escaping. In a few moments, the bottom of the lifeboat was dried by Georgie’s efforts. Both Nelson and Georgie had stripped down to their shorts. Nelson to get rid of his wet clothes, and Georgie to use his dry clothes as a mop. They looked like zombies in the moonlight. Shrunken and brittle. Covered in bloody lesions, mouths a twisted mess of scabbed lips, receding gums and dry, leathery jowls.
Nelson didn’t prepare me before he slaughtered the turtle. He grabbed the bowie knife from the supply box, spent two seconds dodging the turtles snapping beak, then took hold of its head with one hand and cut its throat with the other. Blood cascaded out of the creature’s severed neck, flowing down into the boat like it was pouring out of a jug. Its flapping legs slapped onto the wood at a steadily slower rhythm. Nelson was on his knees, face pressed down into the floorboards. I didn’t understand until I saw Georgie stoop down, crying his dry tears, and dipping his cupped hands into the red pool. In a half-second I was crowded between them drinking handful after handful so that I almost choked several times. I could actually feel my body come alive with the moisture. A rapturous, indescribable sensation like every cell in your being is singing sweet defiance into the face of dry, certain death.
Without water, you’re nothing.
Nelson spent all day and night keeping an eye out for sea turtles. He cast the bobber out into the water over and over, hoping with all his fiber to lure one from the deep. Georgie returned to his whimpering, opting for some reason to shade his body from the terrible sun by lying his clothes on top of himself instead of actually wearing them. He lay aft in a crumpled, muttering pile, sometimes raising his voice so that we could all hear his sanity slipping. I stood by, ready to help Nelson if I had to. There was nothing for two long days. Nothing but blue rollers, and white miserable sunlight.
On the third night, Nelson caught another sea turtle. It was much smaller and he didn’t have to go overboard this time. At the sound of the clambering turtle, Georgie stirred from his nest of filthy clothes, crawling towards Nelson and I like a dog that knows it’s about to be fed. The smaller turtle left us unsatisfied, bickering violently over the last few handfuls of precious liquid. Nelson cut the thing open, tried to squeeze it like an orange. All of us took little morsels of its flesh, the first food we’d had in nearly a week. We’d been at sea now for seven days.
Another day passed. And then two. Georgie had returned to his little haven. He was quiet some times for hours so that we thought maybe he was dead. On the third day without drinking Nelson flew into a rage. He screamed and cursed, flailed about wildly and hurled several of the bobbers from the supply box into the unending sea. He tired himself out quickly. Sat down dejected, panting and coughing. I could feel the moisture leaving me. Sifting upwards into the relentless sunlight like an unanswered prayer. My eyes seemed to scrape against their sockets like sandpaper.
We’re going to die if we don’t drink something, Nelson said. A man can’t live more than three, maybe four days without fluids. Georgie moaned. It was a sad, howling sort of sound like a woman that’s just lost her only son. It could break your heart, that sound. We’ll have to shoot for it, Nelson said, after a terrible, scratching silence of some ten minutes. We shoot for it or we all die. Lowest roll loses. I could feel my eyes dehydrating, two of the fingernails on my left hand had fallen off and a third was close behind. Nelson produced an ivory die from a little sack on a silver chain around his throat. He emptied the wooden supply box, set the bowie knife down next to it.
You first, he said to Georgie. Georgie wailed as he crawled towards the box, his lip quivering. Georgie rolls a four. Nelson rolls a five. And now it’s mine.
Shoot, Nelson says. Come on, shoot. Jaundice colored ivory cupped in my crab-red hand. There’s nothing else to do, of course. And so I shoot.