From afar you see a petrified stump, an angular tree remnant just above the tide line. Years of salt wind and tide wash have stripped the tree bare of bark and leaves and branches. What may once have been a towering tree now, from this distance, looks no taller than, well, no taller than you. Only a fluttering wisp of dried seaweed adorns the tree’s weatherworn rounded top. The beach is sparsely peopled, the breeze is gentle, the water calm, the sunset just now pinking the edge of the blue sky.
You walk shoeless toward the dead tree and marvel that any living thing could live long enough on the edge of the land to leave behind this petrified pillar. How, you ask, could the tree have grown here on this beach? How could it have survived so many tides, so many storms, so many years with its roots in this lifeless sand? How mighty must this tree have been to leave at its death such a thick, tough trunk?
You move still forward and reach a hand toward the stump when you hear its quiet groan and see that the tree is no tree, but a man. That which you took to be dried seaweed is his hair, salt-crusted and colorless and fine. The tortured shape of the trunk comes from the man’s bent shoulders, his arms crusted to his sides, his hands buried near his thighs in the sand encasing his legs. His skin, the weather-stripped barkless wood of the pillar, is mahogany brown under a calcified varnish. His face is gnarled, inhuman, a petrified mask of rivulet creases, bewildered, bewildering.
The man groans again and you, anchored in place, lower your hand to your side, afraid to touch. You glance down the beach to the right and the left. You are alone. The sunset has drained the sky of blue and left in its place shades of charcoal and orange and red. You look again at the tree, the man. His eyes roll in his motionless head until his gaze meets yours.
He says, “How?”
“How what?” you whisper. “How did you get here? How did this happen to you? How do you get out?” You lift a foot to take a cautious step forward, then lower your foot and remain in place. “Tell me what you mean.”
The man groans again and then suddenly heaves his right leg out of the sand and free. His knee is crusted with sand and dappled with blood. A small crab clings to the pale skin of his calf. A small trickle of crimson blood oozes from the crab’s claw. You see this, and you see too the shape of the man’s foot, the strength in the ankle, the curve of the arch. You see that he is powerfully built and realize that, buried past his knees, he is your height; unburied, he would be a giant. You take a step back, afraid, as he takes a step forward with his free right leg.
Immediately the right leg is buried again past the knee. With a groan the man heaves his left leg free – sand-crusted and blood-dappled as the right was – and then moves it forward. It, too, sinks past the knee. The man has moved forward and now, again, resembles a tree. He says once more, in a voice that sounds like the groan of a mighty branch in a tropical wind: “How?”
You whisper again: “How what? How did you get here? How can you escape?” And after a moment: “How can I help?”
And you move forward, a hand extended toward the calcified shoulder, when beneath your right foot the sand slides away. Your toes meet the man’s petrified thigh, except that the gnarled mahogany skin of his thigh is neither crusted nor hardened, but soft and pliable and so very, very cold. Your toes leave an impression in his fragile skin as you scramble back to find your balance beyond the moving sand. The man groans again. This time the deep creak of his wooden voice is edged with a bright chirp of pain.
“I’m sorry,” you say, backing away still further. You avert your eyes to avoid his gaze. Behind the man two holes in the sand fill with gurgling water as the very edge of the high tide reaches them. The holes fill incompletely, though, as the man’s legs are wide, and the holes deep, and the tide at this height gentle. Soon all that remains are two round divots, footprints almost, or rather kneeprints, to mark where the man used to stand. You look to the right, behind the man, and follow with your eyes an endless double line of kneeprints extending down the beach until the sand blends into the sea and the sunset-stained sky beyond.
You meet the man’s gaze one last time. He groans but says nothing. You whisper another apology before turning to leave. From afar, when you turn back, you see a petrified stump, an angular tree remnant just above the tide line, a dark pillar now nearly invisible against the newly dark horizon.