Jem always tried to blend in with his surroundings. Like a chameleon he was, turning green against the leaves of the forest, burning brown in the hot winds of the desert.

Life was a moveable feast. Jem drifted seasonally from job to job, digging in, holding fast, until it was time to move on. It was best if he didn´t stay anywhere for very long. It was best if he didn´t talk that much, if he hid himself in the wallpaper of other people´s lives.

Over ten years of wandering, Jem drifted from coast to coast, up into the high mountains and down again, but he never went to sea. He had no desire to turn blue against the waves and sky.

He moved across the wetlands, turning pale yellow against the rushes. Red-winged blackbirds nested on his arms. Soft cattails brushed his bristly cheeks. He dreamed of resting in the swamps until it was all over. He could just decay, his colourless body softly dissolving in the brackish water.

But the signal came, as he always knew it would. He must move on - along the estuary, to the blue-grey sea. He must find the watery city and the salt-encrusted pub where they hired sailors.

He stood in the jostling queue for most of Tuesday, turning grey against the desperation of those who stood with him. Late that afternoon, he found himself on a merchant ship bound for the Azores.

In the dark, below the decks, Jem blended in, a black chameleon, invisible against the timbers. His black hands turned grey in the morning light as he grasped the ropes, climbed up the rigging. In the noon sun his body re-shaped - first rigidly itself, then blurry blue against the sea, and back again.

The captain was a drinking man and none could thwart him. They sailed right past the Azores, heading straight to Africa. Jem's body shifted in the Atlantic winds. The captain´s demons made him howl.  

The other sailors were not chameleons. They saw no reason to follow drunken orders. The first mate punched the captain, struggled to control the ship.

But the captain had set a steady course that night - straight for the rocks and the shallow water. Men jumped and tried to swim, but mainly drowned, in that black night, so close to shore, so far from a safe harbour.

Jem was caught below decks when they ran aground. His body understood his sentence was nearly served.

As the jolting of the ship tore lanterns from the walls, the ship caught fire, flaming like a torch as it crashed onto the shore.

Jem turned bright red. He became the fire. He glowed crimson, then gold, then icy blue and exploded into a thousand fragments. He soared through smoke, through clearer air, through starry night.

His grey ashes drifted slowly down onto the blue-green waves. His molecules tore apart, scattering his cells, setting his essence free at last across the shores of Africa.

by Frances Hay


  1. Love the shifting colors in this story. As a painter with a tricontinental upbringing, including many years in Africa, I felt as if your character captured something of the chameleon existence I tend to lead. Beautiful work! Thank you!


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