by Vera d'Auriac
The boys in the fishing camp were of two sorts—the boys who came with their fathers or some other relative, and those who had been abandoned to the world. Zurga had been alone since his mother died when he was 8. The fishermen had taken him in, and he had always been grateful to them.
Nadir was different, though, somehow. He fit neither of these types, having just floated into the camp, not with anyone, but also not sad and lost, and as if he had long meant to be there. For him the fishing camp was not a refuge, but a home, a place where he had always belonged. His ease and comfort immediately drew Zurga to him. He wanted both to be Nadir and be with him. Everything about the way he smiled and spoke made everyone want to find themselves close to him. Zurga sometimes had to fight for the place at Nadir’s side, but he always managed to get there. If Nadir noticed or cared, Zurga couldn’t say, but every time Nadir smiled and welcomed him, Zurga felt content in the warmth offered him.
The boys with no families stayed together in a large tent, and there Zurga and Nadir slept side-by-side, grew up whispering in the dark. Their bodies began to change, and they never tried to hide it from the other. They even joked about what happened so often at night. Zurga, in a fit of boldness, asked Nadir if he touched his when it stiffened at night, and Nadir laughed. Yes, he admitted, he touched it. It felt good to touch it, made everything finish faster. Did Zurga touch his? Yes, he also confessed. But he kept to himself what he thought about when he did so, and that he liked nothing more than to lay beside Nadir, listening to him breathe, as he touched himself.
And so they went on as they became young men. A few of the older men in the camp lived in pairs, no one commenting on how anyone found companionship here in this harsh world. Zurga wondered if Nadir would want to live with him like that someday, or if he’d rather find a wife and have children and move into the village proper like most others. But he was afraid to ask. Too afraid to even touch Nadir. They were both over sixteen now, considered adults by everyone, and they could do as they liked. But as things stood between them now, they slept next to each other every night, shared the other’s warmth in the cold, listened while the other touched himself. Zurga longed for more, but he feared in the deepest part of his soul losing what they had, and he would not endanger that. He would never be able to touch Nadir in any way other than a squeeze of his shoulder or a clasp of forearms.
Then one day they went out onto the water. Stripped to their breeches, they dove several times, gathered pearls, teased and challenged the other to stay under longer. But the wind shifted suddenly. The boat they had come out in was carried away on a swell, the men aboard calling out, their hands reaching uselessly to them as the boat floated farther and farther away. Zurga bobbed in the water, helpless and watching, but unafraid. He had been out farther before when a storm swept in. That time, he had been back in the boat, but he still didn’t fear. He would slowly make his way to shore, which he could see, and as long as he did not panic, he knew he had nothing to fear. Only panic could sweep him irrevocably out to sea. He clasped the pearl he kept pinned on a string in his pocket for luck.
He spun around to say something to Nadir, something silly and brave, but Nadir’s eyes had gone wide with fear. Zurga could already see his beloved friend stop thinking clearly, his body tense, his being giving into fright instead of allowing the water to help him. If Nadir fought the current and the storm, he would not win.
“Nadir. Relax. We do not need the boat,” Zurga assured him. “We just need to drift to that promontory. We will be fine. Take my hand.”
Zurga let his hand float before him, extended toward his friend, but Nadir still looked around desperately. His breathing became rapid, and he opened his mouth to take in more air, but a wave smacked into him, and he only took in water. Nadir spluttered and coughed, and never looked to Zurga.
Calmly explaining what they needed to do was no longer and option. Zurga clasped Nadir tightly at the junction of neck and shoulder. “Do as I do. I will save you.”
The terror had gotten into Nadir’s skin, though, and he could hear no reason. His arms flailed, and he looked at water and sky—everywhere but at Zurga. Soon he would tire and be lost. Rain began to fall as though poured all at once from some impossibly large bucket. Zurga grabbed Nadir by the hair, not gently as he had longed to do so often before, but hard, hopefully hard enough to wake Nadir up to their growing danger.
Zurga kicked hard toward the promontory.
For a moment, he thought they would be fine. Nadir went limp with shock and floated on his back behind Zurga, and then a wave slammed into them, pushing them toward the promontory. But the water also woke Nadir from his shock and restored the dread. He fought Zurga in an attempt to reach a closer piece of shore, a mistake many a fisher, swimmer, diver, makes when this moment comes.
“No,” Zurga shouted over his shoulder. “The water is against us! Aim for the promontory.”
“We’ll never make it that far! We’re going to die!”
“Nadir! My friend. Trust me! I will never let you die.”
But his fear would not be assuaged. Nadir pulled against Zurga, insisted on making for the nearer shore, so tantalizingly close, yet impossibly far given waves, current, and wind. The older men often talked about this moment. Adrift at sea with someone who had lost all sense. The choices, these men maintained, were one of two: stay and fight with the mad man until you both drown, or leave the mad man and save yourself. Zurga never had to give the second option a thought. He would far rather die than leave Nadir.
Although, he did not intend to die this night. He would live. Nadir would live. They would once more sleep in each other’s warmth.
Zurga shoved his hand hard into Nadir’s armpit, pinched to once more startle him into submission. Then he hooked his arm through Nadir’s, his friend on his back while Zurga kept the promontory in sight. He kicked and got into the current. They were, at last, heading the right way again.
The water tossed them about as rain lashed their eyes for Zurga could not say how many minutes until he was uncertain whether or not the promontory was, indeed, getting closer. He wanted to scream, but he was too tired, fighting to keep two heads out of the salty death that tried to take them. He wanted nothing more than a short moment to rest when he heard his name. “Zurga! Zurga, my friend! I am sorry. I am myself again. Bless you. What should I do?”
Zurga breathed as deeply as he dared, this more refreshing to his body and spirits than any rest. His friend had his senses and they could survive anything. “Just stay afloat. We are trying for the promontory. The rest of the shore is against the current, and we can’t do that.”
He felt Nadir slip along his side, no longer requiring Zurga to keep him above water. And yet, they never lost contact, knowing that in this tumultuous sea, if they were parted for but a heartbeat, it could become a lifetime.
“We’re going to miss it,” Nadir said, but in an appraising tone, not a panicked one.
Zurga had been wondering the same since the great wave had pushed them further west. The promontory was already out of the area of where the people of their village ventured. The other side was practically another world. More importantly, Zurga did not know the coastline on the other side. If they were pushed around this spit of land, he did not know where or if they might land.
“Then we miss it,” Zurga answered. “We will come ashore somewhere on the other side.”
“But what is on the other side?” Nadir clasped Zurga’s shoulder, yes in fear, but no longer in blind terror.
“How do you know?”
Zurga reached up and placed his hand over Nadir’s. “Because our time has not yet come.”
As they both had feared, they missed the promontory that marked the edge of their known world. But they stayed afloat and the storm did not push them farther away from the shore. And there was no more panic, only the two of them clinging to each other, not out of fright, but so that they might never be separated.
“We’re staying parallel with the coast,” Nadir finally said. “We can’t float out here forever.”
Zurga knew his friend was right. They had been in the sea for…how long? Too long. The storm had darkened the sky, but it was now taking on the shade of black that came with night. Soon they would not be able to see safety even if they could reach it. And Nadir shivered under Zurga’s touch. They were getting cold. If their muscles seized, they would lack the strength to reach shore. It was time.
“We have to start trying for shore,” Zurga said. “Do you see the outcropping of rocks ahead? If we aim for it now, we might make it.”
Nadir looked, saw the spot several hundred feet ahead of them, but they both knew how fast they were being pushed through the water. Some might call that little hope of safety far away, but they understood it might very well be too close with this roiling sea. Still, Nadir met Zurga’s eye, nodded, and as one, they kicked.
The wind howled, as though deliberately fighting with them, attempting to keep them in the arms of the sea. But they were still young and strong, full of love for life and each other. They would not die out here. At least not tonight.
A wave raised them up, almost seemingly out of the water, as though it were made of some other substance. Zurga adjusted his grip on Nadir’s arm, and then spun himself to face and tightly embrace his friend. “Hold on!”
As he suspected, when the wave crashed down, the impact very nearly pulled them asunder. But their finger sank into the flesh of the other, because no power in the world would drive them apart. Also, when the bottom fell out of the wave, Zurga felt his toes scrape the bottom. They were so near their target now that if they only had the strength to keep their heads above water, they could practically walk to shore.
“We’re almost there!” he assured Nadir. “Just a few more kicks. We can make it!”
And Nadir did kick, and Zurga could feel the energy seeping from his friend’s body. It did not matter. Zurga had enough strength for them both. He would always save Nadir. Give up his own life for his friend if he must. Nadir would always matter more than anything else. One more kick. Hold him tight. Another kick. And another. Until, at last, Zurga could crawl and drag Nadir onto the rough pile of rocks they had seen from so far away.
They both spluttered and shivered, sucked in all the air their lungs had longed for and missed while tossing on the salty waves. They were breathing, though, and safe from the water. Nothing else mattered now that the fear of death had been left behind in the raging sea.
“I’m cold, Zurga. So cold.”
Now that he had caught his breath, literally and figuratively, Zurga could feel nothing but the cold penetrating his own limbs. They might not be free from the water’s dangers yet after all. He scanned the coastline—there were no people out, not in this storm, but he saw no homes or tents, either. No village or camp where they might beg for refuge. There might be some sign of habitation just over the ridge of the coast, or it might be a swamp or open farmland. They could walk until they collapsed in the open, the wind and rain driving the cold deeper into their weary bones.
But he did see and indent in the curve of land. It might be a bit of a shelter, perhaps even a cave. It looked protected from the waves by jutting rocks on either side and it stood well above the waterline. “There,” Zurga point out to Nadir. “We just need to get there.”
Nadir barely had strength left to nod, but he managed it. Zurga slipped his arm around his friend and lifted them both to their feet. The first few steps were shaky and then he tripped over a loose stone. But Zurga only fell to a single knee, and he did not allow Nadir to hit the ground. He struggled back up, Nadir pressed tightly to his side, and took each step with care.
He could not say how long it took them to reach the cave—for it was an actual cave to protect them from all sides but one—but what light had lingered still in the sky when they hit land had vanished by the time they climbed the few slippery rocks up to their safe haven. Zurga went first, and when he finally pulled Nadir in beside him, he could see almost nothing but his friend’s exhausted face so close to his own.
He could no more have fought against the urge to embrace Nadir at this moment than he could have successfully fought the sea earlier. Not doing so would just have surely killed him. Nadir shivered in his arms, but he held Zurga just as fiercely in return.
“You saved me,” Nadir said.
“We saved each other.”
“No. You would have lived without me. I would have been lost without you,” Nadir pressed a long kiss to Zurga’s cheek, clutched him tighter.
A shiver passed through Zurga’s body that had nothing to do with the cold. As much as he had needed to embrace Nadir before, he knew he needed pull away. He could not face the impossible situation of Nadir knowing the true depth of his feelings. Not here and now where he could not run away. But when he tried to separate their bodies, Nadir’s hold became more unbreakable. And he kissed Zurga again—not quite on the cheek this time, more on the jaw, just under the ear. And this kiss had more tenderness in it. Zurga wanted to weep.
“We should see if there is anything in here,” Zurga whispered, hoping his words might loosen the hold his body could not break.
“What would be in here?” Nadir asked, ever so softly in his ear.
“An angry crab. I don’t know.”
Nadir laughed. And much to Zurga’s disappointment and relief, Nadir let him go.
Zurga turned swiftly away and crawled about the cave, hands in front groping at the ground and air. Eventually, he brushed against something wooden. Holding his breath, he felt around the edges with his fingertips. It was some sort of crate or box, the angles and smoothness unquestionably manmade. It must be at least four feet long and two feet deep. So much might be found within.
“We aren’t the first people to end up in here,” he whispered.
“What’s inside?” Nadir asked, quickly at his side. “Open it.”
Zurga was attempting to do just that, but Nadir, who had always seen better at night, found the lip and shoved the lid off. The inside merely appeared dark to Zurga’s still adjusting eyes, but Nadir reached right in, pulling out first one and then a second blanket with an exclamation. Even better, beneath this, they found all they required to set the driftwood piled beside the crate on fire.
And so Nadir shook out the blankets while Zurga built the fire. The activity helped warm him, but what he really needed was to peel off his wet breeches. Nadir needed to do the same. Luckily they would have blankets to wrap themselves in while their clothes dried. Not that Zurga and Nadir were not often naked around each other. And they needed to remove the dampness from their skin and stop the chill from seeping into their bones. But….
For the first time Zurga could remember, he felt awkward at the thought of wearing nothing in Nadir’s presence.
He turned his back to Nadir who had already stripped and lay atop a blanket at the side of the fire. He tossed his wet breeches on the lid of the crate, then draped himself in a blanket before once more facing Nadir. And when he did turn back, saw Nadir in the firelight, damp skin aglow, he shuddered.
“Come here,” Nadir said, scooting slightly as though making more room for Zurga, but truly only making a show of doing so. “It will be warmer together.”
“I…I should not lie in front of you, though. It will block you from the fire.” Zurga sat near Nadir’s feet, his knees bent under the blanket with his arms wrapped around them. He thought he would be safe like this. But he would never be safe from his desire. And now for the first time in all the years they had known each other, lay next to each other in the night, Nadir decided to press.
Nadir sat up, as comfortable in his nakedness as Zurga was suddenly frightened by his own. He rested his chest along Zurga’s side, a hand brushing the bare skin on the back of his neck. Zurga held his breath, waiting for Nadir to speak.
“Don’t you want to keep me warm?” Nadir whispered, his lips so close, Zurga thought he felt them graze across his ear.
“Of course,” Zurga said weakly, before clearing his throat. “Of course, I want you to be warm. That’s why I didn’t block the fire. Do you need me to move so you can get closer? I can sit on the other side.”
“Zurga, I think you know that isn’t what I want. Please tell me you know that. I…need you to know that.”
His voice was so plaintive, Zurga had to turn his head to look at his friend. Nadir’s eyes met his, and they begged Zurga, begged him to….
They kissed. Zurga could not say if he kissed Nadir or the other way around, but their lips met, and nothing had ever felt half so thrilling. It seemed as though Zurga could feel the blood as it raced through his body, every sensation magnified because of the gentle brush of his lips with Nadir’s. His blanket fell from his shoulders, leaving them both naked under the tenuous touch of the other. Hands and mouths searched the body so long desired, the skin of Nadir’s shoulder melting across Zurga’s tongue, the flesh of his own back disappearing into the tips of Nadir’s fingers. They required no words or looks to move together, stretching out before the fire as Nadir had wanted to do from the first. Zurga was hard, and he felt against his thigh that Nadir was as well.
Again, no verbal agreement was necessary. Each wrapped a hand around the other, they mouths meeting to devour the breath and life of the object of their perfect desire. Zurga slowly stroked Nadir, once, twice. Nadir did the same in return, and by the third stroke they moved in unison. When they achieved that same perfect rhythm, Zurga’s thoughts wandered for a few heartbeats. He thought how he had always assumed this would be impossible, and yet, here they were, and it was real, and for at least this moment, Nadir belonged completely to him. Just as utterly as he had always belonged to Nadir.
Zurga awkwardly wrapped his other arm under Nadir, pulled him closer. He could not get near enough, and as Nadir groped with his free hand as well at the nape of his neck, Zurga knew Nadir felt the same. There were ways to get closer—Zurga knew them, had heard those other men in the camp talking when they didn’t think he was listening. But his heart and hand were frantic with desire at last realized, and these fumblings were all he might manage. His mind could only understand that he had Nadir in hand, and he could not let go.
Nadir moaned into Zurga’s mouth. The sound was familiar, one Zurga had heard before in the night when Nadir got lost in the pleasure of touching himself. Zurga knew he must already be close. The excitement pushed him nearer his own release.
A shudder in his arms and then something warm on his stomach told Zurga that Nadir had spent—that he had caused him to spend. His hand trembled as Nadir finished. He bit Nadir’s lips unintentionally, and then his own on purpose to keep from hurting Nadir in this new world of pleasure where he could not control his own body. He could feel it building, the tingle and pressure in his groin. The sensation so overwhelmed what few thoughts he had, in fact, that he missed the even greater growing pressure in his heart until the words spilled from his mouth unbidden—
“I love you.”
Zurga spent and Nadir pulled him close. He let out a soft whimper against Nadir’s shoulder as he once more whispered the words that flowed from his mouth as uncontrollably as his seed.
“I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Shuddering, both of them, Nadir pulled Zurga tightly to him. Zurga enfolded Nadir in return, neither of them caring now about the cold or the stickiness on them. There was only the other body, the beloved soul that was now more a part of the other. It was all Zurga had wished for in the dark and quiet, but never allowed himself to believe might happen.
“I’ve wanted you for so long,” Nadir whispered, his voice so soft Zurga wondered if he could possibly have heard him correctly.
“Me?” he finally asked, needing to make sure. “Why would you want me? You’re a million times better. I’m the one who has always wanted you.”
Nadir lifted his head from where he had tucked it against Zurga’s shoulder. “Better than you?” Nadir asked, his eyes sparkling in the flicker of flames. “How could you believe that? Everyone in the village likes you. The men in camp all respect you, even the old men who could be your grandfather. Someday, you’re going to lead these people, because you are smart and good.” Nadir kissed him very gently. “I love you. I feel blessed that you love me in return.”
Zurga laughed, hugging Nadir so tightly he thought he might never be able to release him. “You’re wrong. So wrong. You’re magic and perfection. But thank you. Thank you for loving me.”
Nadir kissed his cheek and then shivered. As much as Zurga did not want to let Nadir go, even a little, he groped with one hand until he found the blanket that had been around his shoulders when this beautiful moment began. He draped it over them, rubbed his hands up and down Nadir’s back.
“Are you warmer?” Zurga asked. And he realized his body lay between Nadir and the fire. “I should move you nearer the fire.”
“No, just hold me. You’re warmer than any flame.”
Zurga could not help himself—he kissed the top of Nadir’s head, his light brown hair slowly drying. “I will always keep you warm. Whatever fire is within me, will always be yours.”