Out of the frying pan he made a mirror.
Each time he cleaned it he could see in its base that dim reflection - but of whom? The pan needed to shine. He saved soot from his cooking fire, every day mixing it with fine sand from the beach and scouring the steel surface until he was too exhausted to go on. Incomprehensibly an image of mirrors lived in his mind - vast mirrors like skies that great machines polished for months on end in meticulous circles. He polished his pan in circles, using a smooth pebble with one flat side.
* * *
How long had he been there? He didn’t know. One day he had woken up in the darkness before dawn, soaking wet and cold and covered in sand and weed and in pain on the edge of this island, clutching a frying pan in one rigid hand. His shirt and jeans were torn but his belt had held and something in a pocket bruised him. His mouth tasted foul. He lay there for what must have been several hours retching and coughing up sea water as a burning sun rose overhead, crystallising the salt on his skin. He had wounds that stung. He tried moving; everything hurt. He had to get out of the sun. Terribly slowly he coaxed his limbs into movement and inched his way up that agonising beach until he reached the roots of a tree and could pull himself into a sitting position. There was only a little shade. Out of the frying pan he made an insecure hat but the metal was hot from the sun and his arm ached holding it in place so he abandoned that idea and moved as far as he could into the tree’s shadow.
Over the days he slept and dreamed of people and places he didn’t understand; he woke and hallucinated towns he couldn’t reach, dramas he couldn’t resolve. He heard voices with questions he couldn’t answer and comfort he couldn’t receive. His clothes were loose ... he became aware of his thinness, the dried blood of his wounds, his smell, and his terrible hunger. He had to move. At night he crawled further into the trees and in a glade he found grasses with stems full of sugar. There were worms and grubs that he chewed raw, slaking his thirst wherever he came upon a stagnant pool. Here and there he found fallen fruit, often sour. He ate everything and was often sick but slowly, slowly his strength returned. Then the weather broke. He knew he had never known rain as violent as this; out of the frying pan he made an umbrella which kept the worst of the downpour and battering bullets of hail from his head but the rest of him was drenched and chilled and miserable. The only comfort was the unutterable beauty of that night’s stars, which filled him with nostalgia and longing.
Over the following days he found the stamina to gather branches and palm fronds for a shelter. The thing that was bruising him in the pocket of his jeans was the only other useful gift the waves had left for him - a penknife. It was small, but he sharpened it on a hard stone and it cut gradually through branches thick enough to build with. If he had ever lacked patience he was learning it now. The use of his limbs was reviving him, and he realised he might try catching something better to eat; there had been stranded fish and crabs after the storm, and now he went in search of fresh meat. Out of the frying pan he made a simple trap, bringing it down over scuttling crabs and holding it very, very still in shallow lagoons where there were swimming fish; as soon as a fish moved over the rim he whipped the pan out of the water and took his next meal. Words kept pushing into his mind - “sushi”, “little dipper”. They had no meaning for him. But he knew he was wearying of cold food, and one day he looked at the frying pan with fresh eyes, and he thought of fire.
Images came into his consciousness of dark, slim hands twirling thin dry sticks ... he went in search of dead grass and leaf litter, a strong straight twig he could sharpen with his little knife, and a good piece of well-dried wood. Making fire turned out to be tiring; he had to stop, recover, and start all over again several times before a tiny wisp of sweet smoke curled out of the grass and he was able to coax it into a confident flame. He fed his little fire until it was a blaze; then he cooked the day’s small catch of fish for the first time. Out of the frying pan came wonderful flavours, warmth for the core of his body, unformed memories that slipped away before he could hold them.
And so he would cook each day - sometimes frying, sometimes poaching his seafood. He tried cooking the plants and fruits that hadn’t harmed him, and began to feel well. As he scoured his pan he caught sight of that unclear image of a face that had to be his, and so resolved to make out of the frying pan a mirror.
* * *
The steel was as smooth and bright as a sunlit pond. He looked at the reflection and touched his nose, cheek, forehead. If he held it at arms length he could see more - the silvering matted hair, the full length of the beard, the ragged edges of the shirt he still wore to protect his skin from the worst of the thorns in the thickets and as cover from the mid-day sun. He didn’t know this face. But he remembered shaving.
All he had was the penknife; he went to his sharpening stone, whetted its edge, and returned to his mirror, propped on its handle in a bush at head height. He watched his hand move the knife against the roots of his beard. Hanks of long hair fell away into the grasses at his calloused feet. Slowly a new face emerged, half sun-burnt, half pale. Neither young nor old. Bright-eyed. Agreeable. He smiled at his image and was startled to recognise the smile. No name came with the recognition. The hair would be useful. If he plaited it into a string it would turn his firestick. Could he fish with it?
The next time he scoured his pan the concentric circles of soot brought him to a pause. Something else was surfacing in his mind ... the thought of a sound ... sounds ... words on a musical curve ... “a place in the sun...” And then he thought of coffee, and remembered the heady smell that had never greeted a morning on this empty islet. A voice echoed in the vestigial memory: “And which book would you take to your island?” A feminine, warm voice. His own reply followed in fragments but three words stood out, with them a mental image: “Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics.” He had forgotten books. He suddenly missed coffee. Music ... a rush of intense longing filled him as he realised he had once known many people and here, now, he was totally alone.
“You are never alone, Brian.”
Startled, he turned toward the sea. This voice was not in his head. There was nobody on the beach, nobody in the surf.
“Gia is looking for you.”
Gia? Who or what was Gia?
“Look, Brian. Look at the rocks.”
He swivelled on his heel to face the promontory of rocky pools where the high tides left fish for him. There were two ... women? Sitting on the glistening stones, smiling. One seemed translucent and full of light. The other with another shock he recognised. Her merry blue eyes and chestnut hair drew memory after memory into his reeling brain. It was Gia. It was his wife. How was she here?
“I brought her while she was sleeping, Brian. I have never been far away. I have helped you. It is high time you realised there is more to God’s world than even your brilliance can envision. Tomorrow a sea-plane will find you. You will return to your wonderful life and your people, and I shall be invisible again - until this journey ends, and your old eyes smile back at mine as we make your transition together.”
“This is not possible. It’s all just woo-woo! People who swallow this stuff are idiots. I’m hallucinating again.”
“Ah, the old Brian’s back at last! Soon you will fully understand reality; you are far too intelligent to fail. But tomorrow, look out to sea.”
* * *
He squinted into the afternoon light; something stirred the air. He heard the sound of engines - and then a lovely machine winged down to the waves and skied through the breakers onto the sweep of his beach.
A man stepped down from its door.
“Professor Cox? Thank God we found you.”