by Russell Helms
200 miles off the coast of northern Chile, warm seawater slides over the gunwales of a small empty boat.
Anthony recalls his wife’s obsession with food in his beard. “Just there,” Rhea would say, pointing to the exact spot on her own face. “Here?” he would say, pointing at his elbow, his eyebrow, causing her neck veins to engorge, distend. Anthony stares at Shepherd, who has something in his beard. Gristle, he imagines.
It’s been two weeks since they cut Allen’s throat, a young boy of sixteen, and drank his hot, thick blood. A flying fish, running from the circling hammerhead sharks, leaps over the boat, passes directly over Anthony’s head. A drop of seawater falls into his eye, and he curses.
Shepherd’s swollen eyes open to slits, feel like peach pits wedged in sand. A rag of coarse sail sticks to his face, which is a weeping mess of sunburned skin. The rag blocks his view of Anthony. He tries to remember if the legs on top of his legs are Anthony’s or Allen’s. He kicks his foot as hard as he can, mustering a light thump somewhere. He peers down and sees a bare foot. He imagines the foot is covered with dew, a sugary glaze, and he grunts.
The first rain in ten days. Anthony and Shepherd strain to open their mouths. Their hardened tongues clap like bone against their teeth. The boat fills with brown water, a gravy of the past month. Shepherd pulls the rag from his face, taking the scab of his left cheek with it. He soaks the bloody rag in the water, the floating bits of bone and grease. He shifts his hips and looks at Anthony, who says, “Something there in your beard,” and whose eyes seem to be growing. “What?” Each word takes hours. “In your beard. Just here.” Anthony raises his hand with great effort and points to his face. “My beard,” slurs Shepherd. Anthony reaches. “Rhea.”