By Peter Haynes
The isthmus is a dusty outcropping the shape of a witch’s finger, a cursing finger. It captures the creeping river in a vast lagoon. It is sundown and the sea lazes beyond the gravel breakwater. There is something in you that wants to see it break over but it is locked by geography. You’ll have to keep going.
You slide down to the still form trammelled face down in the wreckage of a Maersk sea container, part submerged by the runoff from heavy night time rains. His leg is folded wrong. Tools are arrayed around him: a crude knife with a wooden handle, sketch map of the local pathways, a canteen (empty). The pictograms of his last words are scratched in the paint.
Tiny eddies in the outlet still carry his blood, but that reservoir is near drained. You roll him over. His flesh is composed of an ancient failing light: a face glimpsed through century old glass. The crabs have done their work.
The container looms up out of a sandbank but you can clearly see the rear doors are missing. Inside, swilling about in a half-and-half soup of seawater and sand, is a school of upturned blue plastic robot toys. Some of them still click into a whirring imitation of life, their paddle feet spinning in the sludge for a moment before falling still. A dozen or so of these bright plastic insults have drifted free and now bob toward the breakwater.
“That is downright ignoble,” you say.
The translator arrives in a dusty huff, takes one look at the crate - the man’s last testament - and steps away. For the rest of the day you swear she weeps. You're not sure. She turns from glances. And anyway it’s rude to stare.
Later, you ask her what the man had scratched into the rust and she just shakes her head. “I choose this,” she says, and you’re not sure if she is quoting or explaining her shock. “I choose this,” she says again, and in her voice are the last words of a bloated drowned man who believed for a moment he was addressing the very means of his rise to become a prophet.
In a quiet moment, waiting for a pick up, you ask a cup-dancer how these islands came to be. He holds the conventional view: disgorged whole from the womb of their benevolent goddess-come-sea-cow. He points at himself and beams. The people she formed from the sand and sun are not the islands’ inhabitants but their custodians.
Newer, less-credible theories of the island chain being born from a grinding together of vast pacific plates are waved off. From the sea all good things come. You came from there, so the point is well made.
You feel that you and the translator becoming lovers is inevitable, but it will not be immediate. Knowledge of their saviour’s years of chaos tears at you. The man you seek is her father. Part of pursuing red notices is living under assumed identities. Part of his life is the same. Strangers pitch up on the islands from time to time - it’s to be expected. You cannot stop people coming here. It's impossible. Borders are a myth, nations owning people more so.
Regardless, the translator tells you there is a place for you on her island. “All who come here have a place,” she says. “You are the rats in the walls of my father’s house.”
Witch houses stand on the archipelago's storm-wracked northern shores. “Anyone can become a witch here,” the translator tells you. “Even me. You could be one now and no-one would know.” You tell her it should be obvious you’re not a witch and she demures. “Those are the words a witch would use.”
In your first exploration, the signs of their saviour's expectation are obvious: a map of the archipelago has been scratched into a turtle shell hanging on the wall. Several of the outlying islands have already been taken by the ocean. The ones remaining - the many - are guarded by the blocky impressions of family hatchbacks, by air conditioning units, by Buzz Lightyear.
“Where is the person who lives here?” you ask. Like many others, live is the wrong word.
“He is teaching,” the translator says. “Later, we will go to him. The children will want to touch your hands.”
The translator asks about your phone. There’s no signal here but you still use it to tell the time. You haven’t worn a wrist watch in years. When you tell her you come from a long line of speakers-over-distance she seems unsurprised. You have too much to drink and tell her of how, at school, your new best friend had thought it easier to say his father had died than tell the truth. A prison term for fraud seems impossible to you even now.
When she says her father will kill you if the peoples' faith is broken, you say you'll take her seriously if she mentions it a second time. "Bury me in the forest," you say, laughing. "So my bones break the earth like roots."
Hungover, everything is too close or too far away. She looks at you like you are carrying a sickness. You can feel the oil of your sweat like quicksilver under the hammering sun. They want everything factory-made. It's what they claim will save them, but they're wrong. The only word for pollution on the islands is the one brought with you.
You meet the messiah on the fifth day. In the morning, in an eastern clearing, where lariat vines are stirred by onshore winds and marching ants lie like cotton thread across the dunes, you tell the translator her skin is the most pure thing you have ever tasted. In their saviour's chambers you tell her father that he's changed since you watched him digging out the concrete of old German bunkers overlooking the English Channel. They were all in a work crew back then.
It doesn't matter now. You have fulfilled the task in locating him, but still you have questions. He does not demand proof of your purpose, just wanders about the room as if still guided by ancestors. There is a shroud of cold about him. Winters in coastal transit camps will do that: even the strongest become contaminated by thin dreams and heavy weather.
He never calls himself by name; rather he shares a name with the big island. He claims to speak for all here. You reply that your presence is required by all who are not of the islands. A reminder is unnecessary. More than all his trouble, more than a new name and that cheap-looking tribal ink, he saw a way home on that used-up springtime night of knives in the Quartier Pigalle.
“Every step was made possible by the memory of this place,” he says. “In paradise, what can you tell me of homesickness?”
There are mirrors in his eyes. You drink from a frosted glass with a long crack down the side. He takes you along a boardwalk fringed with dune grass. Together you spend an hour scanning the horizon for the blur of passing ships. You see nothing but squally weather fronts. The islands are insignificant to navigation, no map gives them importance. Wait, perhaps there is a ship there? You blink against the sunset and it is gone.
He talks of a blinding brilliance in the dance of sand. You talk of voices calling across wooded valleys, of drawing shapes through the soft January frost on car windows. Handfuls of fish dart in shallow straits, their scales patterned by geometry surely too regular to be born of nature. “A place is not my home that has an equal light in the sky and the water,” you tell him.
In the end, nothing you say matters. You can see how he has adopted the systems of the ocean in his movement and speech. As night steals in, the island begins its devotions. Lanterns on the stoops of the witch houses form a gathered loop of light around the shallow promontories. Rhythms swell. The people come to build this sacred appeal. Their songs are the engine of ritual. The sky is filled with colour.
Only witches hold power here. The translator comes to you as the goddess and fills you with promises. She tricks you to suffer desire, love, and other impermanent states. You swirl with the people. She claims you as her own. You can still feel the crack in the glass on your fingers.
Morning. A gift has come from the sea. Another container. No-one has died. The doors have buckled and resist initial efforts to open. You no longer wonder as to the broad elliptic that dragged it here. You have no choice but to share their jubilation: heat can etch the strongest materials.
Rusty crowbars are brought to bear. Jubilation turns to disappointment: the contents have leeched away on the container’s journey. Even so, their dismay is short lived: there are yet more bounties in the sea for them. They have only to summon them.
The translator appears happier than most. She gives her father sideways glances. “He wants your madness to be our salvation,” she says. What can you say to that? You can only take her hand.
It will soon be time to leave. Even so, without judgement, her father blesses your coming together. They pick a place on the northern shore for your home. He supervises the pulling up of the container, the construction of a driftwood veranda.
On your first night together you tell her you cannot stay. "You will return," she tells you. There is no trace of sadness in her smile.
In the bay, the low drone of a seaplane’s engine accompanies the sunrise. A flotilla of canoes accompanies you. As you board, there are no goodbyes but for the last brush of her fingers against your palm. The noise of the engine is like a klaxon. There is awe in their eyes. An island dog barks at your take-off.
From the air, you see for the first time the islands as a spiralling organism in torpor. You turn and watch them become specks, only looking forward when there is nothing left but the turquoise ocean.
In the city, the grime of others and the dust of spent fuel infects you. You are permitted to change before answering the summons of your superiors. In haste their speech overlaps. The questions come at you like a storm. There's a clock running - yours is just one case in many. There is to be a reassignment. They've wasted too much time in this empty portion of the world.
You decide to give them something. From your hotel room window you can see a distant, darkening sea. It is the sea that drains the light of stricken vessels. You build in the possibility of return: explain that, for such a small landmass, there is an odd kind of gravity for its lost sons.
But that’s all. Of the man from Quartier Pigalle, you say, there was no sign.