Beads of sweat gather beneath the woman’s remaining breast and slide down her ribs. Prone, in the white Zanzabari sand, she resists the urge to wipe the sweat away, as the sun pulls droplets of moisture from her pores, one by one.
Grains of sand prickle the skin, taught across her shoulder blades. She caresses the silky soft sand with her fingertips, hypnotically clenching fistfuls to release through her long tapered fingers, then,clenching more again. Soothed by the repetition, she lays motionless, inhaling the spicy smell of her skin as it bakes in the mid-afternoon sun.
Distant calls spark her curiosity and she raises herself up on her forearms. The local children chase ghost crabs along the shoreline, the girls' wrapped in colourful kanga that flap in the breeze. Her view is intermittently blocked by topless Italian goddesses escorted along the shore by Masai warriors in full regalia, and pasty northern European pre-pubescent girls self-consciously strolling with their families, their flat chests bound with triangles of cloth. The woman scrunches her chin to peer down at her own bikini-clad chest. Even before the mastectomy she’d had what she’d fondly called her mosquito bites.
She thought back to the noisy London bar where she’d had the ‘interview’. With a raise of a glass, she’d been surprised to learn she had the job and would be heading out to Tanzania before the end of the week. It had been the first nice surprise in two years, the others—cancer and then coming home to find her husband of less than a year in bed with his ex—were more shocks than surprises. Without hesitation, she’d jumped on the first flight out of Heathrow with a brand new helmet in one hand and her rucksack in the other. When she’d been asked if she could ride a motorbike she’d answered yes. It was the truth. Hadn’t she ridden around a car park on a cousin’s bike one summer evening? The bikini, last worn on honeymoon, was a last minute addition. Essential, she had thought, upon deciding to take a few days on the island of Zanzibar before heading north to Tanga to work on the health care project.
She tugs at the ties behind her back. Hesitates at the nape of her neck, then pulls, allowing the lopsided scrap of a top to slide down to rest around her protruding ribs. Whipping it away, she bunches it in her hand and presses it beneath her into the small of her back—stomach hot with a broth of thrilling freedom mixed with a tinge of guilt at her cultural insensitivity. Perhaps with her cropped black hair and boy-shorts she'll be mistaken for a boy, or if she keeps her mouth shut, an Italian tourist.
The sunscreen bottle farts as she squeezes the lotion into her palm. Slathering it across her golden-brown skin, she pauses to trace the horizontal scar across to her singular nipple and circle the pinky-brown areolar. Her hand falls away, thumb brushing her nipple. It hardens. Sensation is back. She rolls onto her front, pads the sand beneath her left chest and presses her cheek into the sand.
One eye open, she gazes at the sand before her. A tear escapes. A physical reaction to the intense sparkle, an emotional response to beauty. The sun’s rays pin her to this patch of earth, melt her body into the sand. Her insignificance—small and perfect. One small grain glints within the whole—a grain of sand, her hand, the beach, the ocean, Planet Earth. Each consecutive still flashes before her, each image moves in increments further out into space.
A translucent white crab scuttles out of its burrow. She twitches her finger. The crab stops, eyes protruding on stalks scanning the sand for predators. She twitches her finger again. The crab scuttles underground, only to surface again, deposit a load of sand and ghost-like disappear again. Tracks, along with flicked sand, create a pattern radiating out from the burrow. She holds her breath. The crab comes to the surface. She walks her fingers over towards him. He scurries to the side. Her fingers follow. She’s between him and his hole now. He picks up his back two sets of legs and sprints on his front legs right towards her fingers. Both the ghost crab and finger crab, take a step back to prevent collision.
The woman and the crab continue with this dance until the squeals of the children coming up the beach interrupt the intimacy of the dance and the crab disappears underground. The finger crab waits at the edge of the burrow, only for the ghost crab to emerge from a nearby hole. She snatches him. Tiny legs scrabble in her palm. She has an urge to crush him, but the children are watching her, their wide-spread toes in the sand a few feet away from her, matching their wide-eyed gaze. There are other eyes too—those of other ghost crab. These crabs are attached by almost invisible pieces of thread to the hand of each child.
All but the youngest girl hangs back. She unclasps the woman’s fist and deftly ties a thread to the crab's body and places him onto the sand. Forming a loop, she slips the other end of the thread onto her ring finger, bare apart from the white band of skin that had been covered by her wedding ring. The woman and the ghost crab are now joined as one. The children scatter, along with their crabs. One-handed, she steps into her sundress and wriggles it into place and walks with her crab to the water’s edge. The ebb and flow of the tide caressing and pulling at her as the sand beneath her feet is sucked away with the tide.
The woman and the crab dance—wed as they are—to the reggae beat drifting down from the beach bar. She stops mid-dance. She’s come far in an attempt to distance herself from the ghosts of her marriage and the cancer, yet it seems that they got on the plane with her.
She rolls the paupers' wedding ring from her finger and watches as the thread flutters into the surf. Her ghost crab scuttles to freedom, the thread dragging behind him in the sand. She’s tempted to step on the tail of the thread, hurt by the crab’s willingness to be separated from her. Instead, she watches him go and covers his tracks with her toe.