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Alvin's Compass

by Joseph Sheppard 5 months ago in Short Story
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A castaway's unreasonable approach to escape a deserted island

Alvin had a compass.

Becky watched him as he walked the beaches and rocks at the island’s edge, looking down at the compass and then out to sea. Whenever one of the other ragged settlers shuffled past he would put the compass away. Once the settler was out of sight, Alvin would pull it out and consult again.

For six months they had been stranded on the island. They were shipwrecked within sight of the shores they had hoped to tame and cultivate. It had been two months since the last expedition had left the island for those shores.

The captain and mate were the first to leave. They took four other sailors with them. They built a stout raft from the wreckage of their ship. It had a sail, rudder, and oars. The captain had studied the tides, plotted his course, and left when the tide was high.

The settlers were as confident as the captain and his men that they would reach the mainland shore. There it beckoned them- green and lush- less than two miles from their rocky island. The captain stood firmly in the bow of the vessel while the sailors pulled the oars and the raft was swept toward the mainland. The settlers cheered.

They watched as the raft steadily advanced toward the mainland and then suddenly was swept away, out to sea. They watched through the spyglass as the raft was broken to pieces on the same rocks that had broken the Daybreak and left them on the island. The raft was smashed again and again against the rocks. They saw the men’s heads bobbing up and down. They saw them swimming toward the rocks. Then they could see them no more. No one was washed back to the island.

The second group of sailors left a few weeks later. None of them was dressed so boldly as the captain. There were no cheers when the party left the island, this time with an ebbing tide. While still a short distance from the island, the current caught them and they were carried swiftly out to sea. They disappeared from the horizon as the sun went down.

Two other groups of settler men left the island. One group was brave- going to find help for the fading castaways. The other was desperate- a few men unable to bear their unrelenting fate. Both groups left on rafts of scraps and were broken on the rocks.

Now the settlers wandered the beaches. Most of them had stopped even looking in the direction of the green shores. Although the island was bare, they did not immediately starve. There were fish and crabs in the tide pools. There were gulls eggs in the nests on the cliff. There was a spring of water. But they became gaunt and quiet. And the weather got colder.

Alvin did not shuffle the beaches or stare out to sea. Alvin fished. One day while holding his slack line he saw a glimmer in the water. He dove and came up dripping- holding a bronze-colored metal box in his palm.

He loosened a latch and the casing opened on hinges. Alvin looked into the box for a long time. Then he began to walk, his eyes fixed on the box. He turned this way and that as he worked his way up the beach, but did not break his gaze. He did not fish again.

Becky watched as he walked deserted beaches, his eyes leaving the compass only to glance across to the green shores. One night she saw him swim into the quiet sea-side bay, the compass tied to a floating plank that he pulled behind him. He would swim some yards, consult the compass, and then swim further. He disappeared into the darkness and then emerged from the bay some two hours later, wet and confident.

The next evening Alvin approached the spot on the sandy beach where settlers slept on clear nights. Many had already stretched out for the evening. Alvin broke their silence:

“I am going to leave for the mainland. I want you all to come with me.”

No one had spoken of the mainland since the last failed expedition. All those bold or desperate enough to try crossing were now dead. The remainder were choosing winter exposure on the island over the near-certain outcome of a crossing. Only one settler verbally acknowledged Alvin before turning in.

“You’re mad.”

But in the coming days, Alvin sought each of them out. They tried to avoid him, but he insisted. He forced the subject and answered the questions that his persistence provoked.

They had little wood left on the island. How would they build a raft?

They would swim, holding onto driftwood and scraps from The Daybreak to help keep them afloat. The children could perch on the driftwood as the parents pulled them along.

Everyone else had been swept out to sea or pounded into the rocks. How would their fate be any different?

They would leave from the sea-side of the island- not the side facing the mainland. The current would sweep them out to sea, around the rocks, and back to the mainland.

They did not know these waters- the rocks, the reefs, and surprising currents. These had caused the ruin of the Daybreak as it approached the mainland. No one, not even the captain, had been able to reach the mainland. How would this be any different?

Well, Alvin had a compass. He explained that his compass did not point north, but rather indicated the way through the currents to the mainland.

A moment of surprise would follow, then incredulous silence, and a flood of questions tinged with outrage.

Where had the device come from? How could such a thing exist? Who had made it? Why had they never heard of such a device before? How could he know if it even worked or what it really did? If it worked, why had it been found in the ocean?

Even if Alvin had been able to produce answers to their questions, their tolerance for the subject was already exhausted. For them, the quantity of questions ruled out the possibility of satisfactory answers. The repeated pain of dashed hopes made further consideration of the subject impossible. There was humorless laughter and Alvin was dismissed.

Alvin persevered and demonstrated his plan to the settlers. He placed his compass on a floating plank and pulled it as he swam out of the bay on the sea-side of the island. He got a little beyond shouting distance from them and came back. He dared not go further. He explained that although he was confident the compass would guide him safely to the mainland, he could not continue without the current carrying him away from the island forever.

Becky was the first to agree to follow Alvin and his compass. Then some desperate settlers whose fear of an ocean death faded as island temperatures fell gave their shaky commitments. And finally, two serious-minded families with children agreed to go. Alvin was young, but he seemed sincere; and he had confidence, something not seen on the island since the captain had left.

Staying on the island was a hopeless prospect for those who were not persuaded, but it did not represent immediate death. But to witness another expedition… and the thought of children on driftwood at the mercy of the ocean...

Their questions and concerns were directed to the last surviving crew member of the Daybreak. Martin was an uneducated sailor- not a navigator or officer. He knew little of charts and compasses and much of rope and sails. However, Martin assured them there was no device that would help them navigate these uncharted waters.

And so Alvin was summoned to a council on the sandy beach. Becky hid herself a few yards from them behind the rocks, next to the cliff. She could easily hear everything said. The council began.

How could Alvin lead so many in what would be a fatal crossing? If he wanted to risk his own life, that was his business. But why take others with him? Why not cross himself and come back or send help if his crossing was successful?

Alvin confessed that although he was confident that he could reach the green shores, he did not believe he could re-cross the currents to return to the island. This was a one-way trip. And although the shores were appealing to them, they seemed to be uninhabited and devoid of anyone to assist them. So he did not want to lead just a few families across. He wanted everyone to come.

They asked to see the compass. Alvin reluctantly handed it to them. It was passed from man to man, who each peered in the casing at the spindles, springs, bits of wire, and a few gears. Alvin winced as they held it to their ears and shook it.

How did the compass work? Alvin did not know how the spindles and gears turned. But, did that really matter if the compass could lead them to safety?

They handed the compass to Martin. He held it in rough hands and struggled with the latch. Once open he gazed at it with uncomprehending eyes. He handed it back to a council member and concluded: “It is rubbish.”

At his sentence, they met eyes and nodded. Then the man holding the compass hurled it with full force into the cliff face.

Becky heard the crash as the casing broke open against the wall and a tinkling as its delicate contents fell to the ground behind her.

The council member turned to face Alvin. “No one will go with you.”

Alvin departed. Becky silently groped in the darkness and gathered casing and components as the settlers fell into a hopeless sleep.

In the days that followed Alvin kept to himself. The weather grew colder and spirits fell further. Then one morning he was gone.

They eventually sighted him with the spyglass, far out at sea- even beyond the rocks. He was swimming, tugging some floating driftwood behind him. Becky followed him, clutching her own driftwood. Trailing her were a man and woman towing a partially submerged plank straddled by two small children. They seemed to be struggling against the current.

They disappeared from view. But an hour later they reappeared. Clinging to their driftwood, they were swept past the rocks toward the shore. They stood up on a reef in shallow water, panting. In the spyglass the settlers saw Alvin lift a battered metal casing from his driftwood and consult with it. Then he splashed into the lagoon, the others following. They swam through quiet water and pulled themselves onto the green shore.

The settlers watched as Alvin consulted the compass one more time. They thought of the gears, spindles, and casing. There was no way the little device could have navigated the depths, currents, and tides! Becky and the others followed Alvin as he crossed the beach and disappeared into the trees.

Short Story

About the author

Joseph Sheppard

I am a journalism student turned small-town family doctor. I am ready to start doing some writing again.

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