The Backpack

By Alec Galin

Sun rays seep from above, caressing the clouds in strokes of yellow. The evening has come, casting a dark shadow that is both ominous and comforting, and the sun descends with the grace of a feather. A young boy, no older than seven, trodds across a freshly painted sidewalk in a small town, gazing off into the distance with an apathetic countenance. He wears a striped shirt, the kind that a well-intentioned mother might pick, and youthful stains cover his dull, blue jeans. An aura of suburbia permeates the air, the town having little to offer even the most monotonous of people. The moon creeps into view, contrasting with the scattered clouds in the horizon, the boy abruptly shifting his gaze to it.
His apathy stems from a two week cruise around the south Pacific, leaving him dreary. The boy would be lying in bed, paying little attention to the time or the sky, if not for a costly accident during a midnight trip to the ship’s bathroom. After opening the bathroom window, he had placed his travel bag on the windowsill, neglecting the sporadic gust. He insisted on bringing the pack everywhere, having some arbitrary fear of a thief snatching it. Predictably, the bag tumbled down the side of the ship, and his electronics and toiletries fell as if they were raining from the sky. Having returned from the cruise, the boy’s parents are now navigating through a clustered shopping mall and begrudgingly replacing the lost items.
Deep in the south Pacific, a girl, fifteen or seventeen years of age, paddles through the ocean in a wooden canoe. She was sent to search for pearls, instead traversing the deep seas in a whim of curiosity. There is something intrinsically reposeful about the open ocean; the flickering of sunlight across the water has a supernatural quality to it, and the absence of land, trees, and people distracts from the monotony of life. In the distance, the girl notices a pile of objects floating within feet of one another. She perceives them to be gifts from the gods – rewards for her tedious efforts. As the girl approaches the objects, she is awed by their obscurity; some are shiny, hard, and black, while others have a soft, fur-like texture. She resolves to save the gifts for her father, chief of the island she calls home.
On the way home, however, the girl’s curiosity exceeds her initial reluctance, and she examines one of the objects. For a mere second, the face of a woman appears on its silver surface. Suddenly, a burst of light is reflected across the mysterious object, and the girl hurls it in a fit of pain. She interprets the mysterious event to be a warning from the gods, deciding to return the objects to the ocean.
The girl makes her way home, paddling through the rushing waters of the jungle river that leads to a valley stripped of trees. After hundreds of trips, she is still awed by the lofty trees of the jungle, trailing the edges of the thin, sinuous river. The girl is able to map out the island from memory, as it is not particularly large. She arrives at her village.
“Any pearls, Alana?” a man asks, lifting his eyebrows as he ties straw around the roof of a hut.
“No father”, she responds, suspiciously turning her head. He ignores her lack of affection, having more pressing matters at hand.
The girl’s anxiety is conspicuous, but it does not stem from her failure to discover pearls. After all, pearl-searching is a symbolic task of the youth, performed every week or so. Rather, she is concealing her distress over the objects she came upon.
The boy also lies in bed, watching a football game on his television. He ponders about the items he lost: a map of the ships route, the south Pacific, and the Americas; a shiny new smartphone, which he spent many months pleading for; a mirror, silver and thinly shaped; a book of photos from the trip. Those are the items that come to mind. The boy thinks about the party he is missing, about the mountain of school work he has to complete, about leaving his town and all of its dull people.
Meanwhile, the girl, thousands of miles away, thinks about the man her father has selected to marry her, about the women that she despises, about the vastness of the oceans that surrounds her. She dreams of a larger strip of land, stretching out for miles with no ocean in sight.
In the middle of the night, the girl has a sudden vision of the objects she left behind. After much contemplation, she decides to recapture them, hoping to restore her sanity. She sets out in the morning, traversing the river that passes through a stone basin and feeds into the ocean. The girl looks around the open sea, having some metaphysical conviction that the objects will guide themselves toward her. They are nowhere to be found. At one point, she spots something floating in the distance, but it proves to be no more than a log, isolated amidst endless ocean. She heads back, neither disappointed nor satiated.

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