He’s bent in the bushes, under a Manchineel tree whose sap seeps into skin, burns internally, results in terrible blisters. His camera looks like a machine gun, its bipod buried in the sand, its muzzle towel-wrapped, like the man himself. I follow the trajectory of the lens’s gaze, but everyone at the hotel’s beach looks tiny and the same. Out a bit from the huddled man, young boys twirl all the way round on their surfboards. Near the edge of ocean, kids dig holes, build pyramids, kick a soccer ball. And somewhere there I am, under an umbrella, buried under 100 SPF, overkill in this unseasonably overcast afternoon.
Our beach is for the villa owners and their guests. We aren’t allowed at the hotel’s beach, not allowed to order drinks from its bar, reserve seats at its restaurants. Has anyone else come here alone? Once this gray patch passes overhead, it’s all blue and sunshine. I imagine that’s what the camera waits for, the sun to bring out the stars.
But now the sky darkens. If it rains, the sap from the tree will fall upon the man like a bucket of acid dumped on him. I make my solitary way over to him.
He’s very dark, sun-baked, not young, not old, grizzled. “It’s going to rain,” I tell him. I explain about the tree, the sap, the acid-bucket above his head.
“Why’s that your business?” he asks.
I don’t know. It is for this reason I’m huddled by myself on some faraway island. I point to the large red X on the trunk. I tell him, during a storm, a woman committed suicide once by lying under it, no, not this particular one. A different one.
He mumbles so I can’t quite hear him. I catch heiress, recluse, and money. Lots of money. I think he tells me I worry too much. I think he says life is full of risks. I think he says that there’s more money in this one shot than he might make all year, any year. I think he tells me, again, to mind my own business.
As I return to my umbrella and chair, the security guard, Mario, comes up to me. He asks me about the man. I tell him I don’t know him but if it rains, he’s going to burn. That, Mario says, would be justice. I tell Mario he’s just taking pictures; Mario says that’s what killed Princess Diana. I realize I don’t really care and agree, yes, you are right. Of course. We will watch him burn.
The rain begins on the forbidden beach, sending the few people there scattering, and next the edge of our beach, the families running like in Jaws, then my umbrella, and finally the Machineel tree. If the tree itself were to burn, the smoke would cause blindness; its fruit, if eaten, would make the stomach bleed, the airways to close.
“You okay?” I yell through the downpour. Nothing. I yell it again, three, four times. The rain lasts two minutes, 46 seconds. The surfers stay out, the waves maybe more intense, their shouts drowned out a bit by the rain against umbrellas and tree leaves.
And then it’s over. Suddenly sun. A slow procession back to the beach, to the dug-out holes and sand constructions. I get up and go to the tree. I find only the camera, set-up for the shot. No puddle of oozing man. No trail of burnt blisters or blood. A camera poised for the money shot. A single raindrop will cause skin-blisters. There’s something next to the camera. A picture, I think, probably of the heiress.
I return an hour or so later. I have my hat, my towel. Still no man. I watch for any rain-drips. Nothing. I wrap myself, duck under the tree, crouch behind the camera. Written on the picture is “Claire.” She’s maybe eighteen, tan and lithe, a purple bikini, sparkling earrings, sun-streaked hair tied back, holding up a white beach tennis paddle.
The distant beach has begun to fill up. In the camera, the tiny figures loom large. I try not to move it. At some point, I imagine the pus-covered, skin-peeling man will emerge and tackle me; or maybe a security guard will lash me to the tree trunk as the far gray clouds move closer. Through the lens, they all look like somebodies. They walk arm-in-arm with lovers or parents. They run past, blurs. They bend to put on lotion. They examine the folds, the wrinkles. I am Gulliver among the giants, only I find them not monstrous at all.
I am wrong, about their being all somebodies. She descends into the frame, gleaming. Without my touching it, the camera follows her, holds her perfectly centered. There’s something frantic about her too, turning this way and that. No one comes to hold her close, take her hand to the water or down the beach. Crystals—in her hair, her purple swimsuit, on her bracelets—catch the sun, like tiny flashbulbs. She giggles at something off-frame, flicks at something unseen bothering her, reaches for a white beach paddle, the one in the picture, waves it, then again looks here, there.
Water drips onto the camera. I dry my eyes with the corner of towel.
“Did you get it? Did you get the shot?”
I am wrong about him, too. He is a monster, pock-marked with poison oozing through gauze, a too-ripe mummy. He reaches for me, and I scramble crablike out from under him, toppling the camera, away from that tree, run back into the light. I keep running toward that beach screaming until the security guard at its border stops me.
I walk back to my umbrella. The families pretend not to watch me. I don’t know what’s under that tree anymore. I sometimes hear a moan or a hum. The surfers paddle back out to the waves; a small boy stands knee-deep in a hole; his father smooths the terraces of the ziggurat; a Frisbee soars past a young girl and lands at my feet. Claire has gone back inside or maybe I just can’t find her without the lens.
The world has returned to the way it was. Far-off at the edges of horizon, the gray pushes into the blue. He waits for it to look like something: an elephant, a forbidden beach, something, anything at all.