A rock like a lion, that’s what he remembered, a tawny stone standing at the water’s edge. The tide had been high then too, so high it lapped at a tree root that writhed out under the stone; and like today, the water along the shore was as clear as glass.
Peter had found the island the summer Grandpa died. Grandpa, everyone called him; he was Peter’s great-grandfather. Peter could almost picture him, an ancient little man with sparkling eyes, dead now for forty years.
That summer, Peter had learned to sail. The mastery had come suddenly; gleefully he’d taken command of his boat. The Wing she was called, a tiny boat that had been Grandpa’s long ago, so cleverly made she’d almost sail herself.
At first he’d tacked back and forth, going nowhere special. Then he began to conquer the islets that lay, like smoky blue bars, across the sun’s track on the bay. At home he might study a chart, and identify this island or that. But he liked best to call them by names of his own: Wing Island, Shark Island, One Tree Island. The one with the lion rock he named Lion Island.
It was just big enough for Peter to get a little lost on it. At its eastward end it swelled to a brush-covered hill; Peter had climbed it that first day by a path over the boulders. In the lee of the hill the sun was hot, drawing the scent of bay leaves from the thickets.
Other parts of the islet were flat and sandy. A whispering grass grew in tufts and crests. On a spit at the westernmost end, terns were nesting; they dived at Peter’s head, screaming.
Then he’d had a long tramp round the shore, wondering if he’d ever find his landing-place. At last he sighted the Wing. There was somebody with her.
He ran towards the boat. Was that the owner, was he trespassing? But then he saw it was only a boy. He was barefoot like Peter and his trousers were rolled to the knee. Peter stopped running and slouched up, hands in the pockets of his shorts. The strange boy was grasping one of the Wing’s stays: he swung on it, grinning.
‘This your boat?’ he said.
‘Course she is,’ said Peter, though she was Grandpa’s. The boy let go of the stay and sat down on the rail, making the boat tip. Peter said, ‘Hey! What’re you doing?’
‘I’m sitting,’ the boy said. ‘What’re you doing? You’re on my island.’
‘You’re on my boat,’ said Peter.
The stranger jumped up. His eyes sparkled; he had freckles on his nose, and his cheeks were flushed. ‘Fight you,’ he said invitingly.
‘All right,’ said Peter. ‘I’m bigger than you.’
‘Bet you can’t beat me.’
‘Can so,’ Peter said, squaring up. They jabbed at the air. Then the strange boy kicked Peter’s foot out from under him and Peter hit the beach. The boy jumped him, and they rolled over a couple of times. Peter landed a punch to the ribs, then took one in the stomach. He sat up and threw a haymaker and caught the boy on the ear.
‘Yow!’ said the boy, rolling out of range. He sat on the sand. ‘You’re not bad. Want a race? I’ll beat you.’ Off they flew, but Peter was already winded. The strange boy forged ahead in his rolled-up dungarees. Then he stopped and turned round. ‘I win,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘Shake?’
The boy’s name was Rusty. He showed Peter every bird’s nest and rock pool on the island, every stone. All through that summer, whenever the wind was right, they’d meet to go climbing or fool with the terns, or cut sticks from the underbrush for wild quarter-staff battles up and down the shore.
Rusty seemed slightly simple to Peter. He didn’t talk about anything besides what they did on the island. He’d ask all about the boat, her sails and rigging and trim; but he wouldn’t come for a sail, and Peter never found out how he got to the island.
The next summer came, and Peter sanded and painted the Wing. Each morning he watched as the wind got up, for it wouldn’t always take you to Lion Island. The right conditions were a southerly, not too strong, and a flat sea with the sun high over the bay. If you beat up close-hauled, pretty soon you’d see the island like a black lion couched across the sun’s track.
Sure enough, he’d found his way back, and there was Rusty sitting and whittling a stick. They agreed to try fishing if they could find bait. The tide was way out, the mud was showing. While they were digging, Peter cut his toe on a clam.
‘Salt water’ll clean it,’ said Rusty.
Next summer and the summer after, the boys would meet just to mess around. Rusty was always the same: carefree and small with a sparkle in his eyes, and freckles and hard bare feet. Peter began to worry that he’d outgrown him. He was bigger, for one thing. But still when they ran a race, Rusty could beat him.
Peter didn’t talk much about Rusty at home. His sister would tease him. ‘He’s not real,’ she’d say. ‘You made him up. And I don’t believe in that island. It’s not on the chart.’
‘There’s the scar on my toe,’ Peter said.
‘Proves nothing,’ his sister said. ‘Eugh, you have vile toes!’
‘Your feet are the same,’ said Peter.
‘They’re not. They’re normal. Yours are deformed.’
‘Maybe you’re the one who’s deformed,’ said Peter. ‘Rusty’s got feet like mine.’
‘Cause you made him up,’ said his sister.
So today, smiling as he thought of her still teasing her grown-up sons, Peter sailed south, close-hauled for the island. The tide was high. It lapped at the root of a tree at the landing, where the lion rock lay tawny in the sun.
The coarse sand was gritty between his toes. He paused to look: there was that scar. But decades of wearing shoes had taken their toll. His feet had grown middle-aged.
‘New boat, Peter!’ said a voice behind him. ‘Aw, not a patch on the old Wing.’
Peter turned. Rusty strode through the shallows, a freckled boy with his trousers rolled up and a sparkle in his eyes.
‘Rusty,’ said Peter. ‘Rusty! Well, this is just great.’
‘Can’t race you now less you want to get wet,’ Rusty said, ‘tide’s in.’
‘You come for a sail then,’ said Peter.
‘Guess I will,’ said Rusty. Peter hoisted his sail and untied the painter. He held the boat while Rusty climbed in. Then he stepped aboard, gave a shove, and they were at sea.
‘You ever sail before?’ Peter said.
‘How d’you think I got out here, silly?’ said Rusty. ‘Head her up. Points well, don’t she? — though she ain’t the Wing.’
But she had that same habit of sailing herself. She heeled to the breeze, and Rusty sat up to windward. Peter rested a hand on the tiller, gazing into the sun’s track, going nowhere special.