Flecks of gold glimmer across the open ocean; the yawning orange sun burns brilliantly in the sky. A little way from shore, beneath hovering lilac clouds, a bamboo raft floats alluringly at sea, beckoning us to watch dusk fall from its wooden cylinders. We have little choice but to yield to its irresistible call. As I make my way to the steps down to the shore, my fingertips yearning to sweep the sea’s unknowable surface, my friend Raj has already navigated the rocks and is wading into the sunlit tide.
Placing my flip-flops on a smooth round boulder, I momentarily consider going back for my reef shoes. This wise idea is swept quickly away by the seductive golden winks of the sea. Aching for her cool wet embrace, my feet are already dancing onto the rocks. I glance back to shore, see the orange glow that the hazy sun has cast over Alex and the others gathered on the balcony. Then, wary of the sharp reef, I ease into the crisp navy waters until I’m submerged.
Plunging my head beneath the surface, gliding powerfully through the cool water, I relish in the feeling of swimming without purpose, in the feeling of ocean caressing bare skin. Despite the salt, the water is so clear and so clean, that when I open my eyes underwater, I see blurs of mystery fish weaving between rippling rays of light.
Goosebumps flare up my arms when I reach the raft and see the horizon beyond it. Golden hour. Everything feels electric. The vast orange sky is melting into purple and yellow and blue. I ascend the bamboo ladder to find Raj, his lean silhouette stretching across the sunlit raft, inspecting his toe. “I think I cut my foot on the rocks,” he murmurs. I offer to swim back to shore and get his flip-flops, but he assures me that he’s fine.
Soaked in tranquil golden light, with bangka engines purring as they pass us, we frolic in the sunset like excited toddlers. The raft and the sea feel like old friends; Raj and I take turns making whooping backflips and running dives from the edge of the pier, each endeavour ending with a satisfying splash on the water’s surface.
When a whistle sails through the air, we see Alex, our divemaster, waving from shore, signalling me to return for our night dive briefing. With one last look at the electric horizon, I plunge back into the water and swim towards shore.
At shore, the water is so shallow I have to stand on the reef. Simple, except ow, ow, the rocks are a lot sharper than I remember. I pick my way back to my – ow – flip flops, and then, keen for our night dive, leap up the stairs two at a time, joining the rest of the dive team huddled on the balcony. Alex is about to begin the briefing when Allison interjects, her voice a little nervous.
“Uh, Mel?” – Allison points at the floor – “I think you hurt yourself.”
Confused, we all look down. Bright red blood, viscous and thick, is oozing from my feet and pooling onto the wooden slats. It looks unnaturally bright in the twilight, like radioactive ketchup – or, as Curtis puts it, red slushie.
“Just an idea,” says Allison. “But you should go wash your feet. Like, now.”
“Right,” I reply, a little dazed. I turn abruptly and head towards the ladies room, vaguely conscious of the blood I’m spreading across the floors. In the brightness of the bathroom, the white tiles accentuate the red smears left behind. I enter a shower cubicle and lift up my right foot. Two deep, bleeding gashes are on the soles of my feet, and blood is coming out, thick and heavy. I check my other foot. A smaller cut, near my toe, also oozing blood.
Oh, dear. Really should’ve gone back for those reef shoes.
Amila comes to the rescue, helping me rinse off the blood with a wet towel as her wide-eyed, inquisitive little girl, Angie, zooms around the scene in riotous excitement, reacting just like a 7-year-old should.
“Whoooooaaaaa,” Angie squeals with disturbed delight, peering at the blood-smeared tiles. “Her foot is bleeding! Look at all the gross blood on the floor! Ew, Mama, look, Charlie is eating it!”
To our combined horror, the hotel owner’s shaggy little dog, Charlie, has trotted into the bathroom and started lapping up my blood. Angie cackles in morbid fascination and I try not to pass out. Huge mosquitos are starting to hover around us. Limping my way out from the bathroom onto a chair, I find Allison and Asanga level-headedly unpacking a first aid kit on a table. They clean my wounds up with hydrogen peroxide and betadine, then bandage them with gauze. When Alex comes over and sees my bandaged feet, he unsuccessfully attempts to stifle his laughter.
“So much for the beautiful sunset, eh, Melissa?”
I cringe and apologise for interrupting the dive briefing. Everyone tells me to stop being stupid. I look for Raj since he’s also injured, but he’s disappeared somewhere, probably mortified at having recommended our swim. It’s not his fault at all. I ask Asanga if I can still make the night dive, but he shakes his head no; the wound might get infected. It’s hard to hide my disappointment.
An hour later, feet covered in band-aids, I’m standing with Ruki, who busted his ear during our earlier dive. We watch lamely from the balcony as our buddies set off for a nighttime adventure. I wait for their boat to disappear into the dimming orange horizon before going to my room to shower.
When I go back down to the pool area, it’s already dark. Music is playing, people are chatting; the evening is picking up. Oliver, the kind owner of Acacia Resort, offers me a glass of wine, which I heartily accept.
Oliver and Ruki one-up each other with outlandish off-roading stories as I sip my wine slowly, taking unusual pleasure in its bitter redness. I relax a little, recovering from the shock of losing blood and the disappointment of missing a dive. Leaning back on my sunlounger, feeling the heaviness in my feet, I begin to respect the fact I’ve injured myself. I take a moment to breathe.
Everything happens for a reason, I think to myself. Maybe, just maybe, something worse may have happened to me on the dive.
Raj eventually comes out and joins us. I counteract his pained apologies with firm reassurance that my injuries are nobody’s fault but my own, and soon, we’re making jokes about the fleeting, bloody ordeal. Awaiting the return of the others, we all chat animatedly about family and life and travel plans.
All is well.