Once there was a child who played. When older, the child and their friends began to play in the water. They looked at the islands far past safe swimming and said things like, “I can’t wait to live on that island,” “I’m gonna eat all the fruit on all the islands,” and “I’m going to burn that island to the ground.” No one actually ever said that last one, but it was true, nonetheless.

Eventually, as years went by, they learned to swim far and found themselves visiting nearby islands. Some were excellent swimmers and visited as many islands as possible. Some even decided to stay and live on them, as they predicted. As time passed, the child, now more adult than not, ventured farther out to sea to find unoccupied islands with their remaining friends. The sea became more unpredictable and occasionally more chaotic as the coast disappeared behind them. Then one day, the very much adult child, found himself drifting alone.

The drifter was tired, so they found a nice island. It was great to not have to swim all the time, to sleep without risk of drowning, and the island was better for them being there as well. But then, they realized something was wrong. The island seemed sick and somehow was making them sick as well. They didn’t want to go back to the cold, dark, and now stormy ocean alone, but the island was dying and their illness was getting worse. So, one day, they turned their back to the island and walked, once again, into the sea.

Years passed, the adult was now quite weathered and an expert at drifting alone. Very rarely now would an island appear through their salt-crusted eyes. And even more rare the decision made to put their rubbery legs on solid ground. If they did it was, if anything, to remember what land felt like and not to lose all sense of sanity. But there was always the spark of hope, that this time the island would fully embrace them. Yet, every time, in some way, the island showed its disagreement. And the drifter would drift once again.

Huuk! gak! arg! I woke up violently, shooting my icy surroundings from my lungs. Every nerve ending screams, my body convulses, oscillating between utter numbness and being engulfed by fiery magma—A cold so deep it radiates from inside every bone. Disorientated and water-logged, a wave punishes me for being in its way. I fell asleep again. Later, I look around for another island before I was forced under once more. How long have I been drifting? Years? Decades now?

I have never lived on an island. At most, I have visited a handful for an extended period. They have been my reprieves. And I am grateful for them.

I have a crude map of potentially new islands. When I find them, walking on land, it is utterly blissful. My legs, shaky and weak, feel good joining the fight against gravity once again. My ribs and lungs free of the pressure and constriction of an entire ocean. My skin drinking in sunshine, relearning warmth. So much bliss, sometimes I don’t realize the sand is burning my feet, blisters upon blisters, liquefying the dark side of my every step. If I stay long enough, I notice my presence is killing the island, as much as I might try to help, trees wither, fruit goes sour, the air thins. And I become hungry, nauseated, and struggle to breathe. I am not for you, it’s telling me, and it’s time to move on. Hopefully, my beautiful interlude reminds me of why I am out there alone drifting, swimming, why I endure. Before departing, I always attempt to leave the island better off than I found it, as a thank you, and perhaps it will be the perfect home for another, luckier, weary drifter.

Reluctantly, I sulk back into the sea and it is colder than I remember and the waves seem more brutal than before, something I did not think was possible. As ice permeates my soul, an angry, rogue wave punches me in the face just as its friend does the same from behind, retribution for leaving its clutches, for dreaming of warm embraces. I am plunged deep into its inky, cheerless grapple. In time, beaten and exhausted, I find myself drifting once more. I look around and where there have been fewer and fewer islands, now there are none. Aimless, I pick a direction and slowly drift that way, wondering if the right island, our island, will be the next or if I will one day find myself drifting downward.