Iím scratching out my tally sticks on the rough surface of the cave wall; the only light comes from the small natural opening in the rock face to my upper right. But itís enough. †Stone on stone, thereís a screech as I press hard; it echoes around the walls of the cave like some demented bat. †I sure hate that sound, gives me goose bumps, but I keep going, because these marks and all the others before them, are my way of keeping track of how much time Iíve spent here on this uninhabited lump of rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
It makes me feel like Iím taking back control of my darn life, telling Mother Nature itís not just her terms here. I still have a connection to that world out there, with its timetables and clocks;† a world that Iím determined one day to get back to, despite her best efforts at balking me. †If I got my math right, and I didnít confuse those first few days plane-wrecked before I found the cave and started tallying on this wall, then all these scratches are a true account of my time here.†
Iíve only just recovered from being ill, must have been some bad shellfish, (gonna keep off that stuff for a while now). †My stomach and ribs still ache from all the retching, and the pounds just plumb fell off me (and believe me, I was already having to stand up twice to cast a shadow Ė ainít no donuts or fries to snack on out here).† The bug came over me real fast and I was on all fours like some sick dog, too weak to walk to my cave, with its blessed coolness on the far side of the beach. †So I lay for several days under my summer shelter, my arbour of Mylar blanket and palm frond matting. †But it was hotter than the hinges on the gates of Hell, beating me senseless, and between the bouts of retching and my delirium, I believed I was gonna die, without anyone ever knowing how, or why. †
But something inside of me kept my spirit alive, the same spark that has kept me going all these past months, when any future might have seemed hopeless. †I was determined to stay alive Ė no matter what. †Iíd survived a blasted plane crash and no stinking mollusc was going to keep me from getting back to my family.
So I kept forcing trickles of water into my mouth, about the only thing I could face in my sickened state, and I slept fitfully. †Somehow, I got through it. When I felt strong enough, my first thought was to get to the cave and make my scratches; I didnít want to lose any more track of time.
This cave is a Godsend, both as a refuge from the intermittent storms that blow across the island and as a dry place to store my meagre belongings. But the storms are a mixed blessing for sure; when the winds whip the palm trees into frenzy, and the rain lashes with the force of a hurricane, Iím filled with pure dread that my precious handiwork will be destroyed. †But the storms also bring life; the rain creates pools in the hollows of the rocks and caves and small waterfalls of fresh water cascade down the cliffs, without which Iíd have perished months ago.
Iím luckier than most folks who might have found themselves stranded in the middle of the Pacific. †I was Ė am Ė military, a test pilot in the World Army Air Force and Iíve had more than my fair share of survival training. †Itís why Iím still alive, I guess, when a civilian in my position would have died from water deprivation and starvation. †Being military also gives you a focus, you donít worry about whatís gonna happen in the future Ė youíre trained to concentrate on the moment, on how to plan and stay alive right now. †Minutes become hours, hours become days, months, and before you know it, nearly a year has passed.
I know Iím in the southern hemisphere, from my last navigational trace and the unfamiliar constellations in the night sky. †Those stars are like old friends now; I talk to them at night, pretending theyíre my family and the other folks Iíve left behind. Darn it, I talk to myself a lot, even out loud, although thereís no one to hear me, apart from the insect life chirping around me.††
Iím finished, and I sit back on my haunches and stare at the wall, at all the other tally sticks sitting to the left and above, little rows of picket fencing, and I count out the months and days, just to make sure. †It takes me a while, and when Iím done it takes another few long seconds before all my rusty neurons finally join up and realisation hits me like a coconut dropping on my head.
Today isnít just any day.
Itís Christmas Day.
I clamber out of the cave entrance, a little confused and a lot unsettled, and I almost stumble on a rock that Iíve walked over effortlessly for months, and almost cut my hand open on a ragged piece of black rock when I try to steady myself. †I curse myself for it; so I get myself back from the nearly-dead and then get an infection from a wound? †The medical supplies from the survival kit have long since run out Ė used on umpteenth occasions when Iíve cut, bumped, bruised myself in the process of trying to stay alive.††
Nice one Maggie.
The sunís just starting to climb but I know todayís going to be hotter than a billy goatís ass in a pepper patch. †I pick my way carefully across the remaining rocks and across the sand, willing myself to concentrate. †Thereíll be time enough for feeling sorry for myself later. †Habit and survival
Iím good at it now, know where to wait and where to watch and I keep as still as a flamingo, perched on an outcrop of black rock, my spear held like a javelin, ready to throw.
†I might be here a while but they always come by, sooner or later;† I just have to have patience and thatís a trait that I never thought Iíd possess when I was† knee high to a grasshopper and running wild in my folksí cotton farm back in Atlanta.
Sure enough, a glint of silver catches my eye and Iím barely aware Iím holding my breath, willing my prey to swim closer. †It weaves its way along the shallow sandy bottom and I stay motionless, except for my eyes tracking its progress. The glare from the sun reflecting on the crystal water makes me squint.†
My aim is deadly, I donít miss much these days, and soon I have a fine wriggling fish on the end of my makeshift spear.
I wait some more and thirty minutes later another two fish join their friend.†
Thatís Christmas lunch sorted.
It might be Christmas Day but I still have work to do. The sun becomes unbearable in the afternoons and I try to get any heavy jobs done before lunch. †I sip some water from my canteen, followed by some coconut flakes, (I can live on precious little these days) and then I trudge slowly along the wet sand beach to where my salvation takes shape. †Sheís diminutive beside the silver hulk that was my XKF-115, but that aircraft couldnít take off on this stretch of sand anyhow, never mind the fact sheís crippled every which way.
Thank God for the mechanics classes I took at the WAAF. †I even learnt how to build a plane from scratch Ė as if I knew that someday Iíd need to know that.†† Course, I ainít exactly got a hangar full of equipment here, military survival kits do have some tools, but cutting metalís a lot harder than cutting wood, and it takes time. †Still, thatís something I seem to have a lot of and somehow, Iíve slowly, painfully and frustratingly, sawn away at the XKFís fuselage and the trees around me to get what I need to construct an aircraft that will hopefully take me far enough across the water to get onto known flight paths of shipping and aircraft.† Itís taken me the best part of ten months to get this far, but now Iím more determined than ever that Iím not gonna spend another Christmas on this island.
I can only work a couple of hours however, the sickness has drained my strength, so I have to concede defeat and practically crawl to the shelter of my bivouac, looking out to the turquoise ocean, at the long waves lapping onto the soft sand of the beach, chewing my food. †Some Christmas dinner Ė fish Ė pretty much the same as yesterday, and the day before and the..... well, you get my drift.
Donít ask me what Iím eating, possibly a grouper of some sort. †But it tastes good charred and flaky from the fire, and keeps me going a whole lot longer than coconuts. †Donít get me wrong, coconuts saved my life, (once I figured out to get the darned hulls cracked open Ė like breaking into concrete) but they got samey real fast.
But the thought that my folks and my brothers (and maybe even a girlfriend or two) are all sitting down around the big old cherry-wood table in our house in Atlanta makes the tears well up in my eyes. †I swallow hard and then wonder why Iím even bothering to stop them flowing Ė it isnít like anyoneís going to see me blubbing like a three year old, is it?
Thatís me of course - hard as nails Magnolia Jones, who wouldnít even spill tears when Tyler ( thatís my brother, the one born just before me), used to pinch my arms as hard as he could down in the cotton fields where we ran as kids. †Heíd try to make me squeal, but even when he let blood, I wasnít going to give in - no sirree.
I didnít cry when my folks packed me off to finishing school in Switzerland, taking me away from everything I knew and loved, because they thought I should be a lady rather than haring around dirt tracks on a motorcycle.
No, I just got even. †Learnt to fly at a Swiss Air school, loved every darn minute of it, and as soon as I could, got myself enrolled in the WAAF and never looked back.
Course, family is important to me. †Iím a Southern belle at heart, despite everything and Iíd always crawl back to the family plantation house for Sunday dinner whenever I was able. †Iím a terrible cook, the only thing I can make is a mean chilli, but who wants to live off chilli seven days a week? †So I could never resist those plates piled high with thick slabs of savoury meatloaf and smoked pork, mashed potatoes and biscuits with gravy and, since I have one big sweet tooth, I would always have room for a barn-door sized slice of pecan pie or apple cake from Mommaís oven.
If I close my eyes I can see them all sitting there around the table. †I can almost smell that roast turkey and stuffed squash, Momma in her flowery dress sitting at one end, hollering at everyone to mind their manners and smacking wrists, too eager to get to the dishes of steaming food on the cloth. †No one eats at table till Pappy says grace.
Mommaís still trim despite giving birth to five kids and no one dares cross her, even my eldest brother Ethan. †Weíre as dissimilar as mother and daughter can be, although Pappy swears we have exactly the same stubborn streak running right through us. †Maybe thatís why we fought so often - her immovable object to my irresistible force.
My pappyís at the other end of the table, lording it over that bronze turkey all glistening with sweet butter.† I guess I was spoiled rotten, being the only girl and all, but I think he was secretly pleased that I dared to beat his boys at their own game, and he always tried to take my side when Momma got mad at me (which was a lot). He works hard and never complains and he taught me everything thatís important in this life; that your actions speak louder than words, that you become who you are by the choices you make.
I really miss him.
Tell you the truth, I miss them all more than I could ever believe. †Despite all our bickering and wrangling, weíre a close family, even though we donít see one another from one six month to the next.†
Just so you know, Ethanís my oldest brother at twenty-nine. †Heís always been the brainy one, even if he tried to kid us on he wasnít when we were growing up and squabbling.† I remember all the arguments when he was supposed to leave school and join the family business like he was expected to, but
Luckily for my folks, Jerome (the second born in our family) is a homeboy, loved the farm, and heís more than happy to stay and work in the business. †Times have been hard the last couple of years though, what with the crazy weather. †Big old hurricane hit landfall two years ago and nearly wiped us out. †Funny how I still say Ďusí, like I depend on the money thatís coming in Ė old habits sure die hard.
Leroy, heís the next oldest, was born with incredible hand-eye coordination, and could hit a ball to a target ten times out of ten as soon as he could hold a stick. †It was no surprise to anyone that he ended up playing baseball and heís done okay, I guess, as first baseman for the Atlanta Astros, with a fancy apartment in the centre of the Big Peach (thatís Atlanta to you northern folks) and a string of girlfriends in tow, all desperate to become the next Mrs Leroy Jones.
Tyler, my arm-pinching brother, turned out just like me Ė well, according to my folks, anyway. †Heís an acrobat on a bike, a stunt-rider with one of the biggest tour shows in the US. †When heís not looping the loop or leaping over monster trucks heís so laid back heís horizontal.† Donít get me wrong Ė I love my brother, but if he ever had a good idea Ė itíd die of loneliness.
I think of them all, and my nieces and nephews, sitting around that table groaning with the weight of that Christmas dinner, and I start wondering what theyíre talking about, and whether any of the conversation is about me. †Are they toasting my memory as they all raise their glasses, are they still hoping that Iíll come back to them one day, or have they lost all hope and are just getting on with their lives without me?
Iím crying tears now, with those poignant thoughts, crying almost as much as I did eight months ago now, when I finally gave in to the realisation that no one was ever going to come and get me off this lump of rock.†
Iíd sweated my butt off doing all the right things I remembered from the manual and all the lectures in military training; went around this volcanic stub and gathered the biggest rocks I could find, made a triangle of them on the sand beach, big enough that aircraft flying overhead would see it and know I was here, plane-wrecked. †Then I gathered all the dead wood I could find and stoked a bonfire on the beach with a pillar of flame that could have been seen in Panama.
But nothing came, no ships on the horizon, no aircraft. †I began to figure that I wasnít on anyoneís radar, on anyoneís flight path. †I still donít know what happened to make the jet lose control over the South Seas, although Iíve tried and tried to figure it out.† Now I wonder if somehow my navigation was faulty, for Iím obviously nowhere near civilisation. †How I drifted so far off my own flight path is still beyond me.
All I do know is my last navigation beacon put me about a thousand miles west of Santiago when the storm hit.† I was flying over the South Pacific, on my way back to the WAAF base on Honolulu, the end of the test flight. †It should have been an easy ride, just a fuel trial for the XKS-115.
The storm blew from nowhere, Iíd had nothing on my screens until it was too late, - unless my systems were faulty Ė and how could that be? It was like Iíd suddenly crossed a line marked ĎBermuda Triangleí.
The XKS was tossed and buffeted like a butterfly in those winds; the rain lashed against the screen like God had turned the hose on. †Lightning played around me and I fought with the controls.
Next thing I know, a bolt struck the jet, and I was losing power.
Crazy, how could a state-of-the-art test jet with all the latest on-board computer systems get fried in a storm?
I tried sending out a May-day call, but all I got was an answering reply of static from the radio, and all the while I was losing height. †I trimmed back the speed. My vision was filled with roiling black clouds, illuminated at times with flashes of lightning.
†My heart was pumping adrenaline back and forth as sheer desperation kept me from panicking in the middle of this maelstrom.
Falling Ė falling Ė out of the sky Ė with no instruments to tell me how close I was to the miles of churning ocean below.
I can still replay it all back in my nightmares Ė convinced that I was facing the last moments of my life. There were no white lights, or flashes of my past, I was simply aware of a deep sadness Ė† that there was so much left to do, so much of life I hadnít lived yet.
But miracles sometimes happen.
I adored horses when I was a girl, that feeling of mastery over a powerful creature, becoming as one with it.† Planes were no different, there wasnít one built that I couldnít ride in the same way as my horses, becoming more acquainted with it than the bones in my own body. †I might not have had any instruments but I had the joystick of the XKS in my hands, felt her movements beneath me like an untamed filly.† She was powerful and she was scared, like me in this hellacious storm Ė but we could ride it out.† It didnít occur to me for a moment that I should eject and leave her to her fate. We were in this together.
I didnít know it at the time, but I closed my eyes, running on instinct as I fought the storm, straightening her nose so we wouldnít go into a crazy dive. †We seemed to spiral in slow motion, caught in the hurricane winds.
Then a flash of lightning tore the clouds around me in two and I saw it Ė a big dark lump, even darker than the water around it Ė an island.
It was almost dead ahead Ė closer than I would have believed Ė a refuge in a hell of ocean Ė my only chance of survival. And thatís when I made my decision.
The XKF had two chutes Ė one for me, one for her. They werenít designed to be blown together.
†Mine was for ejection in the atmosphere, hers for reducing speed on an emergency landing on an airstrip.
It was a huge risk; that as hers blew and slowed her, I might get caught in her slipstream. †There was a real possibility Iíd be dragged into one of the engines.
I ignored the possibility of being mangled and punched the flat of my palm on that big red dial.
Somehow, my luck held and instead, the storm winds tossed me like a leaf in the wind, away from the path of my stricken aircraft.
It was a long time before I finally regained consciousness. †I remember my sense of elation at being alive that morning, the sky washed clean with the storm. †I was bruised and battered from my landing - the webbing harness had done its job - and I was okay apart from a few minor scratches.
The XKF was another story altogether.
She lay half in the water, and I knew Iíd have to drag her out of there if I wanted any crazy chance of using her to get off this island. But all I could do for now was to haul out the survival bag and place it somewhere safe at the beginning of the tree line on the beach. †Thankfully most of the supplies were intactÖ
Oh boy, have I wandered off on one this time Ė Iíve probably bored you senseless with my prattling.† But a girlís got to keep herself sane, and talking out loud helps Ė otherwise I might just forget how to do it. Talk, I mean.
I squint at the sky Ė the sun has arced all the way around to the rocks on the far side, so I know itís way past the middle of the afternoon.† Itís too hot for any more working on my little puddle-hopper on the beach and my fingers are raw and my muscles scream, so I guess Iíll just keep lying here for a while.
I pray a little. You can take the girl out of church, but you canít take church out of the girl. Momma and Pappy are devout and we were marched along every Sunday to the Mount Vernon Baptist church on Peachtree Road. †Iíve never really been any good at praying but Iíve become real clever at it in the past months, all on my lonesome.† After all, who else is gonna listen to me on this lump of rock?
Yeah, the Lord and I are on good talking terms now. †After all, He gave me a miracle when I dropped out of the sky onto hard ground, and another when my aircraft didnít sink into the waves of the Pacific.††
†I am the Resurrection and the Life, and those who believe in me will live, even though they die.
I donít believe Heís ready for me to die, not just yet. Todayís not about His death, or dying. †Itís Christmas Day, the day of his birth, of our renewal.
Into the light.
Soon, my own personal little miracle will be born right along this beach, to take me back to the light of my own life Ė to my family.
My phoenix Ė almost ready to rise from the ashes of her predecessorÖ
In my dreams Iím with Momma and Pappy and my brothers, all sitting round that big table, and weíre arguing and all talking so loud no one can hear anyone else. And then weíre opening presents and hugging and kissing Ö
Itís dark when I wake; I must have been plumb bushed. Christmas Day is nearly over, and Iíve survived yet another day.
Itís far too dark to do anything else now, with no moon keep me company, so I settle down again for the night.
Happy Christmas Momma, Happy Christmas, Pappy. †Keep my presents for me, so I can open them up when I get back.
I do not own the rights to the character of Magnolia Jones, who is Melody Angel in the Captain Scarlet TV series. She is the property of her creators Gerry & Sylvia Anderson, and copyright of © ITC/Polygram/Carlton Entertainment. Maggieís brothers have no names in her official biography, so Iíve just used my imagination to create those and their backgrounds.
††††††††††† I found the beautiful picture of the beach scene on a wallpaper site, but could not find the name of the original owner. I would just like to say that it is not my work and the copyright remains with whoever created the amazing image that I used to add the story title.
††††††††††† My thanks to Skybase Girl for proofing this story and making it the best it could be, and to Chris Bishop for allowing me to post it on her marvellous site for this years Christmas challenge.
Any errors and omissions are entirely mine
A Happy Christmas to all our readers!
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