ISSUE 4 · SPRING 2010
When the war started, I really didn’t care. I was living in a secluded beachfront home on the edge of a small island connected by a wisp of sand to a larger island. I’d gone there to convalesce after throwing myself off a building. It was only three stories high; I’d broken both legs and crushed my skull against a windshield. At least this is what I was told. I remember little.
The boat ride from the coast to the main island, Christiantown, lasted one hour. To reach the second island, Pogue, required another trip on a small barge-like ferry. On that first crossing of the channel, those seven minutes were more terrifying than the seventy I had spent on the edge of the roof before I tumbled off.
I arrived on Pogue in my little truck with just a rifle, a typewriter, a few changes of clothing, and one of those new kinds of portable tape-playing stereos. The setting and simplicity of my situation was highly conducive to my recovery, for in those first few weeks on Pogue I felt life returning to my legs and heart.
In the morning I walked to the water’s edge and rinsed my mouth with saltwater. I scooped up handfuls of cold sand and let it pour through my fingers. I watched the waves roll in like gluttonous gray wraiths. I pretended that I owned the world.
After breakfast, I’d set out on foot down the beach to collect things: shells, old bottles, bits of metal and such. The rest of the day was spent sitting on the porch swing, making simple meals, listening to music, or working—translating the forms that arrived in the mail, then relaying the information by telephone with a special device.
Once a week, I took my truck on the ferry, The On Time, to the main island. I bought food and supplies and occasionally visited the coffee shop where I’d listen to the locals—known as Christians—discuss things like the size of the prongs on their quahog rakes or a new formula for rock wall mortar, but perhaps also the pattern of the crows that passed over that morning or the recent changes in the tone of the tabernacle bell.
At times it was utopian, at times it was maddening.
. . .
Over time I grew stronger and wandered further. One day, I came to a footbridge leading to a small pine forest. The ground was coated with a century of pine needles and owl pellets—little gray-and-brown tufts filled with tiny skulls, bones, and fur. At the end of this forest was the barrier beach that, at low tide, put one a stone’s throw from Christiantown. The water was shin-high, just deep enough for small fish and large angry crabs to go about their business. I convinced myself that I’d be able to leap or possibly even swim back if I had to.
I waded across. On the other side, I looked back and barely recognized my island.
I walked past the old whaling captain’s mansions and decaying fishing shacks, then across the soft steep dunes. The shore had been pummeling the sand and the offerings were lucrative: a buffalo nickel, a brass hinge, an old rust-encrusted pistol.
When exhaustion set in, I took a meal of canteen water and stale bread. I slept for a while, waking when the sun emerged. As my eyes adjusted to the brightness I saw a woman approaching. Not just any woman, but perhaps the first woman I’d seen—that I’d truly taken in with my eyes and mind—since my accident. Something about her immediately pained me. The sand seemed to be parting slightly to let her pass, while the breeze played with her long dark-red hair, glimmering in the daylight like a bloody mane. She moved with the awareness of a creature that had never known a cage or tether. She was unrepeatable.
She slipped off her sweater and jeans to reveal a white swimsuit, then without hesitation waded forward and dove into the surf. I waited anxiously, counting off the seconds, and when she finally resurfaced she was further out in the ocean than I had ever gone. I watched her for a long time, windmilling her arms like some spindly farm machine. Eventually she came back toward shore, but when she went to stand a wave knocked her onto her hands and knees. This happened three more times. She expelled a bit of vomit, composed herself, then climbed back into her clothes like a creature returning to a shed layer.
I pushed myself up and brushed off the sand, all the while thinking of something clever or profound to say, but when the time came my mouth only widened slightly like a dry-mouthed desert nomad, and though no sound came out, none that I recall, she turned to me.
Hi, she said, coughing quietly and wringing water from the clot of hair.
Do you know what time it is?
I’ve forgotten my watch. Mid-afternoon, I think.
Yes, probably. She cleared her nose without shame, then said: I haven’t seen you here before.
I’ve never been to this beach. I live near the lighthouse.
The lighthouse? On Pogue? Must be quiet.
Yes, sometimes too quiet.
What do you do out there?
She came closer. I shouldered my pack and came down from my dune. I shrugged, told her I’d had an accident. She was a few feet from me now, her face vibrant and red.
Oh, I see. I’m Chelsea.
She offered her hand. She did not shake, simply squeezed as if she were testing produce. Her hands, I noticed, were riddled with numerous tiny white scars, as if more than once she had reached into a bucket of knives. They felt like hardened strokes of paint.
Mills, I said.
Nice to meet you, Mills.
Hard to believe you’re still alive.
My car’s around the corner. It was nice meeting you.
Perhaps I’ll see you again, she said, the red rope whipping across her back as she spun and walked off. I stood there watching her go, all the while turning the rusted buffalo nickel in my hands.
. . .
The ferry was having a problem, stalled out in the channel, so I walked on, my chin against my chest, the wind needling my face with sand. When I reached the barrier beach, the small gap was now a wide and chaotically spiraling nightmare. As I stared at the water, it seemed to only deepen. I should have returned and taken the ferry, but I didn’t. I decided to swim.
I carefully stepped down the bank, but my still-weak legs caved in and I pitched chest-first into the water. I slapped wildly while gasping for lungfuls of dark air, then started stroking gracelessly toward the opposite shore. I made progress, slid back, progressed again. Right when Pogue was within reach the undertow tore me away. I lashed out at the dead roots lying there like nerve endings but my wet palms slid over them. Soon I was caught up in an eddy, bobbing and spinning, and while I hovered there I saw something extraordinary and uncanny coming toward me.
It was crowned with ten or twenty points, like a giant menorah. Then I saw that it was not singular but plural—a herd of deer swimming the channel, just like me, only they weren’t aiming toward land, but at the center of the harbor. The row of them kicked past, snorting, eyes knifing forward, then faded into the waves and were gone.
I managed to finally pull myself back to shore. Another minute passed before I was able to drag out my legs. I spent a few more minutes on the bank, but it seemed as if icicles were forming in my heart, spurring me to crawl into the forest. I retched and heaved, then buried it like a cat.
My pants slid down as I stumbled toward home. My legs wobbled like kelp. Eventually I crossed back to the beach where the waves were rising higher and higher as if building a wall against the horizon. Something scraped against my leg for a good thirty minutes before I stopped to see what it was: the pistol I had found, its rusty hammer gouging my thigh. I untangled it and continued on with it in my hand like some dejected lawman.
. . .
That night the rain was beating so heavily on the windows that I thought the glass might shatter over me. I sat upright and the old pistol fell to the floor. I had no clothes on. I wrapped myself in a blanket and wandered the house, turning on the lights in every room. I ate three apples through to the core while waiting for morning, but it seemed to never arrive. The night was simply staved off with a lesser darkness.
Thus began our season of brutal godless storms and constant coffin-like overcast. I was ill-prepared, without the proper clothing for this weather. I dropped new batteries in my flashlight and descended into the cluttered cellar. I rifled through the crates and boxes in search of raingear, all the while thinking that I could strike my head on a beam and die, and only my father would know. It would have been weeks before he could cross the ocean to find me.
I found a seaman’s drybag containing a giant rain hat and a moldy raincoat that stunk of gutted fish. Straightening to try them on, I knocked over an old gas lamp. It cracked open. Within seconds, a ball of moths unfolded from an eons-deep slumber and spiraled through the air in some agitated procession of dusty wings and black antennae. They turned toward me as if spited and struck my face, dug at my mouth, dropped down my collar, and tried to burrow into my ears.
I fled that underworld. I ran all the way to the porch and hurled myself off the stairs. I rolled on the beach like an old dog until one-by-one they flew off or burrowed into the sand.
. . .
My little truck’s bald tires spun out on the corners of Pogue’s one paved road. I was driving too fast, in a hurry for something I could name, but I wasn’t going anywhere. The harbor was a boiling chasm of white-capped waves. A crew was lashing the ferry to the pilings while the storm tossed sailboats onto one another like pool toys. I returned home to a dark house. The electricity had gone out for the first time, and I had neither a generator nor candles. I ate a cold meal at the front window while watching the storm. I had only experienced such hatred one other time: right before I leapt.
I walked out to the mailbox. There was normally a bird’s nest inside, but it had been blown into the road. Within the braids of grass and twigs lay two tiny blue eggs, broken in half, the shiny life-goop hardened into a perfect shellac, the shriveled birds never to fly.
It seemed vastly improbable, but the mail had been delivered. I inspected it for signs of tampering, then took out the papers and spent no more than five minutes deciphering the code. It was almost childish. I was angry at their ineptitude and elated that my brain still functioned.
The phone line was still connected, so I worked. The typewriter was physical, noisy, messy, and though the arms’ metallic twang reminded me of father’s voice, the machine gave off a noxious odor that to this day I can still detect somewhere in the back of my skull.
This time as I typed I heard voices for real—moaning, then a sharp hum, almost like a scream. I closed my eyes and blocked my ears but still I could hear it, only louder. Just then a moth leapt out of my hand and flew off. The noise stopped.
. . .
When the rain tapered to drizzle I donned the coat and hat and ventured to the water’s edge to see what vomit the sea was tossing my way. I expected a giant squid or a few bottles or some ship beams. Instead it gave me a bomb.
At first I ran. Then I realized that it had fallen from a plane or had been unearthed by the storms and had yet to burst, and that it likely wasn’t going to now. I walked over and set the bomb upright in the sand, tipped back my hat, hid behind a dune, and flung a few stones at the invader. All missed. I returned home and got the rifle. I hadn’t shot it in ten or more years. I had to relearn the weapon and calibrate the scope. The fifth shot struck the ordinance with a sharp chink. I dropped below the dune and covered my ears. I waited and waited, but there was nothing.
The boiler contained enough warm water for a bath. That night I filled the claw-foot tub halfway and cleaned myself in the dark. The gash that the pistol had made in my leg had not yet begun to heal, and right as I pushed my thumb into the gooey flesh an explosion rocked the shoreline. I ran dripping and naked to the porch. The sky was clear and the lighthouse eye was awake and vigilant, scanning the shoreline autonomously. I surveyed the beach with the flashlight but saw nothing. Perhaps the tidewaters swept the bomb away and struck it against a rock.
And yet the next morning there were no dead fish, no gulls feeding on the surface, not even a crab claw. The beach appeared to have been swept smooth. I sat in the cold wet sand, watching my breath form thought bubbles in front of my face. I let myself be hypnotized by the waves, their texture as soft and electric as the human brain, their crests and troughs syncopating with the opening and closing of my eyes. Only after a great while did something interrupt it all.
I walked toward the shore, then waded in a few inches, slashing at the water with a buoy stake, but couldn’t get near enough. I waited—too long. My feet went numb and when I went to move, I fell into the water.
The cold hurtled through my blood. I panicked. Just then a large wave threw the thing over me and the world went dark. I fell back, or what I thought was back, but in my confusion I only hurled myself further into the waves. I was drowning two meters from shore. I clawed at the water until the seafloor miraculously appeared underfoot. I waded and then crawled onto the beach, moaning and gasping with the thing still on me, then spun around and peeled the assailant off.
It was just a piece of clothing. I laughed. Then I stopped. I unfolded it and tried to understand its design. I found only a narrow slit near the top. I looked through it, toward the ocean, then balled it up and buried it in the sand.
I would mention this in my report, if only as an anecdote.
. . .
Whenever I left Pogue, it felt like crossing into a foreign country. This time especially—after the storm—nothing on Christiantown was recognizable. The main roads were swept over with sand and small lakes of seawater. Cars were everywhere, nose-first in the dunes, floating in the harbor, smashed into light poles, waiting for someone to haul them off into the graveyard in the center of the island. Men chased garbage trucks and stuffed them with branches and lobster traps. Kids swung cattails around like swords, plumes of the spores shooting off like sparklers.
I stopped at the coffee shop. I used my hands as blinders to avoid the offshore news. Still I caught “diplomacy” (or “dystopia”). The patrons chatted quietly, as if being overheard would bring on a new storm. I hummed quietly to myself, but by the time I left the shop I had heard force (or farce), indigenous (or indigents), and faceless (or baseless).
I had to get out of there. I pushed open the door and took a walk around the little town, looking into the windows of gaudy summer cottages and studying the gothic jigsaw work hewn into their facades. I visited the tabernacle, a vast open-walled place of worship topped by a stained-glass dome. High above, pigeons were strutting and arguing, dipping and flapping. When they started to shit, I fled the place, and just then a small red car pulled up. The driver leaned out.
Hi again, she said.
The swimmer, I said. Chelsea.
Right. And you’re . . . Mitchell?
That’s right, Mills. Want to see something strange and incredible?
I don’t know. Do I?
It hurt to climb into a car that low. Chelsea saw me wince but kept it to herself. The car was quick and she cut the corners wide and accelerated over the top of the hills so aggressively that I thought we might leave the tarmac. It had been a long time since I’d traveled at such a velocity. I studied her sideways: the red hair, the shape of her clothes against her body. I also wondered how she would taste—like human milk, I thought, but tinged with salt and flecks of mica.
Chelsea followed the road fronting the southern edge of the island, then parked and said that we’d be on foot for awhile. She climbed the dunes, turned, then pulled me up through the dead beach plums and thriving poison ivy. A gale swept across the white-capped waves, driving dagger-like bits of ice through our clothes. Sand poured into our shoes. We struggled over the slick talus and soft wet shore. Chelsea fell against me and I stepped into the water, soaking my foot.
An hour later we reached a stretch of beach dotted with huge boulders. She said it had to be close.
I need to rest a minute, I told her, and sat down on a flat rock, but Chelsea had climbed atop a boulder. She summoned me up. The ascent was thwarted by my ruined bones and slick-soled shoes, prompting her to reach down and pull me up with ease. If the wind hadn’t already numbed my face, my skin might’ve turned a deep red.
We pulled our knees to our chests and looked out toward an island smaller than Pogue, but with a thin-beaten silver haze hovering over it.
Tashtego. It’s a bird refuge. But it used to be a practice target for bombers. Lots of unexploded ordinance out there. It’s in my book.
Your book? You’re a writer?
Artist. Someone else wrote the words.
What is it about?
Folklore. The story of Na’kkt.
Nah-uh-kit. He’s a giant. He made the smaller islands. Tashtego, Pogue, a few others.
Oh. I’d like to read it.
Some day. Maybe. We’d better go.
She climbed down in three deft maneuvers while I slid and tumbled. She took my hand, leading me from rock to rock across a frozen creek. We rounded the corner of the red clay cliffs and there it was: a whale. A great gray-blue form sprawled across the beach, mouth agape, flukes frozen in death. But we weren’t alone.
Six figures stepped out from behind the animal, all of them clad in strange black pants and cloaks that fell from the crowns of their heads all the way to their knees, with only a small opening for the eyes and nose. The cloak was identical to the one I’d found in the ocean.
Who are they?
Original Christians, descendants of early settlers.
They were cutting into the whale’s side with blades the size of their arms. Three of them peeled back a ream of pink-white flesh while two others reached into the body. Then they noticed us. The sixth came forward but just stared while his or her brethren continued the work, tossing handfuls of gray and red slop into the sand.
Isn’t it too rotten to eat?
It’s not for food. They make stuff. You don’t want to know.
I always want to know.
Well, I don’t want to tell you.
The sun wasn’t out, hadn’t been for days and days, but a bit of gold shone in the center of the whale’s dark eye as if its last vision were frozen within the vitreous.
Soon more Original Christians appeared. Half of them formed a wall between us and the beached creature. We couldn’t see what they were doing, and when the wind shifted the otherworldly stink of the rotting flesh hit our senses and we reeled back as if struck. We retreated slowly, leaving them to their bounty.
. . .
We returned to the car in the dark. The wind intensified and brought hail. Shapes scurried past, blurring together like ink and oil. I wasn’t dreaming and wasn’t fully lucid, but stuck in some nether-space reserved for fevers and head injuries—both of which I’d suffered in the past year—until the cold shocked me awake.
Sorry, Chelsea said, raising her window.
My hand was on her leg. I slid it back.
Want me to drive you all the way home?
You don’t have to do that.
I want to.
I want to.
She drove to the docks. Cars were returning from Pogue but none intending to go there. The ferryman said that if the storm grew worse, we wouldn’t be able to return.
That’s okay, Chelsea said.
We rolled and rocked toward the other shore. The waves in the harbor were big enough to surf. The pilot approached at an angle, slamming into the dock. He waved us off the ferry and Chelsea resumed her crazy Christian driving, taking the sandy corners wide and driving faster than those roads had likely ever witnessed.
. . .
I gave her a tour of the house, all the empty rooms. She ran her fingers over my typewriter, tapping lightly on the keys. She brought her face close to a photograph that was in the house when I had arrived. The picture was blurry, depicting a couple standing on the beach, neither smiling nor frowning, as if the weather were simply passing through them. She unpinned it and read the note written on the back in an angular cursive, which by then I’d memorized: Tea is all gone. Kids didn’t visit this summer. A porpoise washed ashore today. Finally finished the summer project: crushing shells for the driveway.
She pinned it back in the same hole and picked up the old pistol I’d found, aimed it toward the water with one eye sighting down the barrel, then set it back and turned to me, smiling, effervescent. I wanted her.
We ate a small meal by the fire. My legs thawed, ached. We talked about our current lives, clumsily avoiding the past. Before settling on art, she’d done other things, but she didn’t want to talk about it. I told her I had been clerical, dull. But I didn’t want to talk about it. We fell asleep in careless affection, like new drunks. When the fire died we carried one another to the bedroom.
We’ll be warmer if we share our body heat, she said, sliding up my shirt. I unbuttoned my pants and she helped me out. It was too dark to see each other’s parts. I felt my way to the far side of the room and pulled the curtains open. Only more darkness spilled in until, a few seconds later, the eye of the lighthouse swung around and illuminated the room. I glanced over at Chelsea and she at me, and then it was gone.
Come closer, she said. The light returned. The beam briefly lit up her body and she seemed to be floating. She took my hand and pushed me down onto my own bed. We slid under. I kissed her collarbones, her small and perfect breasts. I drove my tongue down the valley of her stomach, the cup of her hips, the planes of her thighs. She squirmed. I tasted her, nourished myself. She called out like a bird at first light.
. . .
The storm worsened, like an illness deepening. I opened my eyes to the purest darkness I have ever known, a near-complete blindness. Chelsea was against me, the slick aftermath of sex between us. When I touched her I felt joy and when my hand came away I felt death. Or so I told myself, because I wasn’t quite sure what joy felt like, though I had felt death many times over.
Is it snowing? she asked.
I left her and opened the window a crack. I reached out and let it strike my hand. It didn’t melt.
I don’t think it’s snow, I said, closing the window.
Chelsea was sitting upright in bed, her body glowing.
This could be rough for awhile, I added. We’re stuck here.
Will we be okay?
Probably. I have a rifle.
She laughed, then said: Come back to bed.
. . .
Although the ferry had returned to the opposite shore, it still wasn’t running. We drove back to the house but were restless and didn’t go back inside. Instead we set out down the beach in the opposite direction of where I normally went. The sky had hints of gold and red along the horizon, like a wick burning across a tabletop, but as we walked the waves swelled and stretched and soon the horizon was veiled from us. When we reached the bend in the shoreline, the beach suddenly ended without warning, as if Na’kkt had scooped it away with an enormous spoon.
We took to the forest. We followed a deer trail until it tapered to nothing, leaving us to bushwhack through the undergrowth toward a field hosting a decrepit old tour bus. We approached tentatively, for most of the windows had been blown out with rocks and bricks and its sides were pocked with bullet holes. Arrow shafts stuck out its side like quills.
The door was open. We climbed aboard. Chelsea took the driver’s seat and I took the rearmost passenger’s bench. She gave me a tour of the underside of the ocean, narrating our encounters with monstrous sea creatures and U-boats and such. It was silly and escapist and our laughs circled gleefully through the metal box until the tone suddenly veered wildly.
Problem, miss? I called out from the back of the bus.
Chelsea saw something in the mirrors, past me, beyond the bus. She slid from the seat and hurried to the back and took the bench opposite mine. We slowly raised our heads above the seatbacks. Dark shapes were rising from the forest floor like shadows materializing into true form—Original Christians, six in total. They moved so slowly that their prey, an eight-point buck standing some fifteen meters off, simply raised his head, saw nothing unordinary and detected no strange scents, and returned to grazing on the dull brown grass. The shapes inched forward along the forest’s periphery until they were within a leap of the animal. Then, with a deft and unified maneuver, they flung a net over the animal and pinned him to the ground. He fought for a moment, then realized the futility of his situation and submitted.
I rose up slightly. We have to do something, I whispered. Chelsea pulled me back down.
They’re not going to kill him.
What are they doing?
They’ll take his antlers when he’s ready, which he almost is, and then he’ll be free.
I don’t believe you.
You don’t have to.
We raised our heads again. They were gone.
. . .
We returned home, built a fire. I asked if the Original Christians also lived on Pogue, or whether they had come across the channel somehow. She said they lived here, there, everywhere.
What do you mean?
Chelsea’s manuscript was in her car. She returned with it, lit a candle, set me at the table with the huge unbound pages, then peeled back the transparency.
This was the story of Na’kkt, a native islander, a giant. He had lived there for centuries, subsisting on the flesh of passing whales. Chelsea’s book depicted him tearing their skin off with his pointed teeth and beating them against the cliffs, which was why their clay was red. He made friends with the regular-sized indigenous residents, trading whale meat for their tobacco. Where he continually dumped his pipe’s ashes into the water, the smaller islands were formed.
But then, when sailboats appeared on the horizon, the natives asked Na’kkt to hide. He waded off, broken. The Original Christians came ashore, explaining their history with drawings in the sand—years of persecution, immolation, incarceration, ridicule, hangings, stonings, etcetera. The indigenous islanders aided and fed these strangers, then offered to share the land and its bounty. The Original Christians then harvested the land beyond regeneration. They shot all the deer and birds and siphoned out any remaining fresh water. Their diseases reduced the indigenous’ population by three quarters. When the survivors asked the Christians to change their ways, the crusaders chased them off with their muskets.
Na’kkt was living on Tashtego. When he saw the sky fill with smoke he sloshed his way back to the island which, by then, was essentially bare rock. Its white roads were paved with the bones of his people. Now Chelsea’s drawings showed Na’kkt using whales as clubs, crushing the crusaders like ripened fruit. He tore off their heads and tossed the bodies into the ocean. When he was done, his huge tears rinsed the island of blood and restored its life. And while he and the native islanders were never seen again, a few Original Christians survived in a few small caves on Christiantown and Pogue. They were the ancestors of the ones Chelsea and I had seen that day.
I closed the book and immediately wanted to know more.
In your drawings, one can see the Original Christians’ entire faces, but the ones we saw . . .
Some people say that they’re hiding their shame. But in truth they’re hiding their identities.
Who are ‘they’? Townsfolk that I might pass in the aisle or stand beside at the coffee shop?
Chelsea shrugged. Probably.
Does anyone admit to wearing the robes or cloak or whatever you call it?
Just about everyone on Christiantown, at some point, has worn the shroud.
What do you mean?
It’s not something I can discuss further.
Sure you can. No one’s listening.
You don’t understand. Everyone is listening.
Chelsea, in one clean move, pulled on her jacket and stepped into her shoes and went outside. I chased her but didn’t touch her. Just followed her prints in the dark sand.
She turned. You didn’t even say anything about my art!
Oh. You’re right. I’m sorry. It was magnificent.
She sat. I kneeled before her but she looked past me, toward the water. I held her cold face in my colder hand and repeated my contrition. I explained how the art and the story were so unnerving and extraordinary that I had been wrapped up in it all, and that that was the best compliment she could hope for. She softened slightly. I embraced her. She loosened and said she was sorry for overreacting, that she didn’t even know me and here she was cooped up with me during a war that we knew nothing about, and that this was all so strange yet also not strange at all for an even stranger reason that she couldn’t quite explain.
I get it, I said.
She shivered. My body echoed hers in sympathy. I suggested that we make a fire, so we rigged a tarp with handholds for gathering driftwood and broken branches. The ensuing flames sputtered frantically in the snow and wind. Chelsea held my hand, squeezing it rhythmically like a soft instrument. Our bodies formed shallow indentations in the sand, and for a moment we were like two children huddling against the earth’s breasts.
We watched the waves struggling hesitantly toward shore, undulating at an unnaturally slow cadence. They crawled upon one another as if retarded by some unseen force. It soon occurred to us, singularly and simultaneously, that something was not right.
That the waves—
As we watch.
We studied them and listened to the heavy slush striving painfully toward land. A small floe broke over the top of a wave and separated into glassy white bits, not unlike my bones when I impacted the ground.
. . .
The sun became a legend and time was lost. The house’s beams sang and the boards creaked. We were refugees adrift at the edge of the sea. The electricity came in surges, and when it did we leapt up and cooked and drew a hot bath. We climbed into the tub together and washed each other quickly, expunging the salt and sand and sex.
Chelsea ran her fingers down the scars on my legs, the dots and dashes where stitches had held me together, but didn’t ask about their origins. I didn’t ask about the scars etched into her hands.
In trade for letting me read the book, Chelsea demanded to know what the reports were, what my work was all about. I told her it was accounting. She didn’t believe me. She tried guessing at their purpose, but I snatched the forms away and gave her a nice paper cut across her palm. She retreated to a spare room and stayed there for hours. I had no idea what she was doing, but when she finally emerged at night she was covered in sweat. Then she was fine, and we ate and fucked away our fears, hammering one another like fascist lovers.
When we ran out of wood that night, I woke to chop more. On the second swing I struck a knot and the axe’s old handle crumpled like a concertina.
. . .
We slept messily, tangled like dead flowers, only to wake in chaos. Horns were blasting long and steady, followed by what sounded like the girders of a building crumpling inward. I jumped out of bed and opened the curtains. The lighthouse beam was circling at an angle, its light bouncing off the beach and then disappearing into the sky.
A ship must have hit the lighthouse, I said. It had to be big.
Wow. What time is it?
Morning, I think. There’s a bit of light on the edge of the horizon. But my watch isn’t working anymore.
I stood looking out the window and then the glass exploded. Shards came down like claws across my face. Chelsea screamed, but I was okay. A few bright red cuts to complement the dull pink scars. After dressing, we covered the window with plywood and fence slats that we found in the shed. I prepared the rifle, and then we followed the path behind the dunes toward the lighthouse. It was true—a boat had struck it, but now the vessel was caught in the breakers. Black and devoid of all indices of allegiance, it was more like the idea of boat than the boat itself. We saw no bodies, footprints, flotsam, freight, or otherwise.
By morning, the boat was gone.
. . .
Suddenly the war storms quit without warning. Chelsea and I stumbled off the porch, delirious, shielding our eyes from the bright new infection.
Let’s get out of here, she said.
We pulled on our shoes and lowered ourselves into her car and hurried to the ferry. We debarked and raced across Christiantown to where my truck had been parked. Its bed was filled with leaves, rocks, branches, a few dead fish, and six inches of water. Chelsea squeezed me, said she’d come over later, then vanished. I went to the coffee shop and knocked back six cups of the dark stuff. I sat near the radio so I wouldn’t have to hear the islanders discussing anything, but still I heard about the holes in their hulls, the strange birds that appeared on their chimneys, the blue shells of unknown origin.
A small parade of Original Christians filed past, each with a hand on the shoulder of the devotee ahead of them, the last carrying a small black guitar but playing no song. All talk and activity in the coffee shop ceased for a moment. When they were gone, I called my father on the pay phone.
Hi, Pop. I’m still here.
Good, son, good. We’ve been worried.
The storms have been terrible.
I know, son, I know. Have you heard that—
Pop, if it’s about the war, I don’t want to know.
Please, Pop. I’m recovering.
Sure, son, sure. So things are okay?
Yes. I’ve met someone, too.
Congrats, son, congrats. Is she nice? A looker?
Exquisite, Pop. Not sure what she wants with me.
The reports . . . ?
Getting them done.
Ok, son, okay. Your mother says hello and that she loves you.
No she doesn’t, Pop. I know that.
Don’t be. It’s my fault.
We said goodbye and I returned to Pogue. There was a backlog of reports to complete. Peace persisted throughout the day, ending with a sunset so holocaustic and unreal that I couldn’t sleep. I worked through to the morning, then contacted my controller and relayed ten reports.
I left a note on the door for Chelsea and walked the beach alone. I returned and the note was gone. I was excited, but it had simply blown away. I spent the rest of the day ridding the house of sand and moths and waiting for her, but she didn’t arrive.
I fell asleep early, alone and cold, but soon after my phone rang for the first time since I’d been on Pogue. It was a skull-cracking alarm whose tinny violence resonated across the floor and up through my spine. It was Chelsea, breathless, ecstatic. She didn’t tell me where she had been and I didn’t ask. She told me that there was a party.
I haven’t been around a lot of people in awhile.
It’ll be okay. I won’t abandon you.
Listening to others talk about themselves tended to sicken me, but I wanted to please her. I dressed in my cleanest sweater, my least-stained blue jeans. An hour later, after crossing on the ferry and driving through Christiantown, I arrived at a house overlooking an entirely different shore. The air tasted strange here, as if it they’d experienced a different war.
Chelsea grabbed me from behind as I locked my truck. We approached hand-in-hand, but once the door was open she dove into the pond of celebrants. A tall, sharp-chinned, raven-haired woman came over, took hold of my shirt, rubbed it between her fingers, then raised her eyebrows and moved on without a word.
Now Chelsea returned.
Making friends? she asked.
I don’t know.
She handed me a urine-colored drink and dragged me to some couches arranged in a triangle; people lay on them as if posing for a clothing catalog shoot, their hands around coconuts with long red straws.
All—this is Mills.
Mills—a bunch of people.
I waved, they waved. Some parted, made room for us on the couch. I sat beside an old man with an eye patch and fisherman’s cap. I looked down to see if he was missing a leg but saw only two dark boots. Chelsea sat sideways on my lap, her arm around my neck.
They talked. What about, I can’t say, even though Chelsea’s voice was inches from my ear. I looked around: a driftwood mantle, seafaring books, semaphores tacked up like sports pennants, and a large reproduction of a classic socialist mural. I played with my drink, sipping at it cautiously.
How about you, Mills?
I searched out the voice, but the faces all looked the same and I couldn’t attach it to any of the wide eyes and pinched mouths.
What do you do for a living? a woman said, leaning forward to reveal herself. She wore a loose green scarf that hung to her waist, jangly wampum earrings tangling in her hair.
I’m nothing. I had an accident.
All life is an accident! the old sailor said.
The collective giggled, murmured. Someone’s straw sucked obnoxious-ly at the bottom of their glass—the raven-haired woman.
Were you a criminal?
No, I said, I worked for the government.
Explain, Mills. It was the raven-haired woman, perching on the edge of a brick-red couch.
Chelsea slid back as if to remain with the audience. Yeah, tell us.
I was in the worker safety division. I was in charge of the filing system. Terrible, terrible job.
The room went quiet.
Was it federal?
We feel for you.
Chelsea pulled me close again, kissed me softly. The others cooed. I excused myself and they let me pass through like a celebrity. My legs throbbed. When I reached the bathroom I could still hear their voices. After a few futile minutes on the toilet, I crossed the hall to a tight and half-wrecked office. The books had all spilled onto the floor. A typewriter was tipped over in the corner and the desk was cluttered with papers and a photo album. I picked it up.
The first photograph depicted the scarved woman in a red swimsuit, skin smooth and tan, her hair bright yellow, standing on a garishly painted raft-house of sorts, with a few similar crafts floating nearby. Then there was a photo of the old sailor-man, devoid of the eye patch, sitting on its deck with his feet in the water. Subsequent photographs depicted other hideous rafts and other free-spirited travelers. Here was the butcher from the grocery store, but fifty pounds lighter with hair past his shoulders, doing something with a long rope, and in the next he and Chelsea, also much thinner, her breasts nearly nonexistent. I can say this because she was wearing nothing at all, neither top nor bottom. Her hair was a different shade of red, bright like a flame rather than dark like crushed insects. And behind her, painted onto the craft’s side, I could see Na’kkt, doing a little dance, one hand raised to his brow as if blocking the sun. I followed the photographs through their journey, up and down the coast. On the return voyage, circling Christiantown, the crafts were far fewer and their paint was fading and peeling. The travelers’ faces appeared weathered and anguished, perhaps from the strain of the ocean’s glare, perhaps from something unknowable to an outsider. The last photo in the album showed a black blur crossing a wide and barren stretch of beach.
I heard someone coming down the hallway, their heels noisy on the hardwood. As I returned the album I knocked over a ceramic figurine and it smashed on the floor. I swept the white shards under some papers. Someone knocked and the raven-haired woman stepped in.
I just needed a minute alone.
Do you like my house?
Sorry about the mess. The earthquake, or whatever it was, hit this room the hardest. So how did you meet Chelsea?
On the beach.
I should be getting back.
Want a sip? The woman held out her drink, lipstick on its rim. Then she pulled it back. She watched me. You have questions, don’t you.
No, everything is clear. I should get back.
The woman stepped aside. I found Chelsea, told her I wanted to go. She asked me to stay. I said that I had to make the last ferry. She grabbed my hand but I slipped out at the same time as the sailor man. He limped off in one direction and me in the other.
. . .
Now came the storm of all storms, a supernova of gray rage, Na’kkt pound-ing the earth with his giant fists. I noticed the change in the atmosphere as I drove onto the ferry, the air suffused with a scent somewhere between burning plastic and decomposing bodies, and by the time I reached my house the sky was anarchic.
I tapped on the typewriter and toured the house as if I’d been gone for weeks. I kicked up some old dust and a couple of moths attacked me. I beat them as hard as I could but it seemed as if they were made from rubber. They’d fall to the ground, play possum, then launch at my eyes with renewed vigor until I could sweep them out the door and lock it behind me.
A shoal marker had come unanchored in the storm and was now ringing softly just beyond the beach. I sat in the dark on the porch stairs and fired the rifle at its swaying green light. The metallic ping of a successful shot was satisfying. I misspent half of my ammunition in no time, and immediately regretted the foolishness.
I also regretted leaving Chelsea behind. I longed for her.
I was dining alone, fork near my mouth, when a horn blared across the water. I waited perhaps two whole minutes before lowering my hand. I blew out the candles and crawled to the window. In the ocean: ships. One was on fire. Then a siren started up and the sky broke into red lightning. I spied on the visitors with the rifle scope, but now it was snowing and with all the chaos I didn’t know who was who, what was what.
After an hour of waiting I dressed and exited out the back door. I followed the path through the dunes, then lay down and glassed the shoreline. The large red light atop the largest ship’s cabin blinked slowly and steadily like a wounded pugilist. Figures roved the beach, the blue lights on their heads illuminating all that they did. They had a small fire going, and more figures were squatting around it, perhaps eating, perhaps making plans or assembling things.
All night I lay there monitoring the ship, then fell asleep for a short time before dawn. I woke shivering and barely able to grip the rifle. The vessel remained but no figures were on shore. I decided to return home.
As I cleared the last dune I noticed a visitor at my door, enshrouded in black and carrying what looked like a flamethrower. I brought the rifle around but my limbs were trembling and I dropped it. I fell to one knee and was clearing it of sand when the invader’s blue eye swung around and landed on the center of my chest. Without thinking I fired and dropped the figure.
Seconds later a siren called out and the rear of the ship opened. It released a stream of dark figures who immediately formed an echelon and proceeded toward me. Every twenty meters or so they’d all drop to one knee, scan the shoreline, then wait for the signal and march forward again. The sun was finally in sight, breaking golden and quiet over the horizon. I carved divots into the sand and prepared the rifle and considered my options. I knew that I had less than seven shots, that the invaders would seek to enact revenge, and that I should at least make a stand.
But a decision wasn’t necessary, for the sky suddenly went dark. It wasn’t a storm—it was a wall of silhouettes, a whole chain of Original Christians cresting the dunes with a swiftness that I can only describe as holy. They swept down with clear minds and tight fists and odd black shoes with huge buckles. The first ten, carrying antique short-barreled blunder-busses, took up position at the peak of the foremost dune. The row behind them set down planks of hardwood with the deer antlers mounted on the tops and a rubber sling strung up between each set. These were for launching the wooden balls filled with flaming oil that the third and fourth rows were preparing. The last two lines of defense were armed with bladed bludgeons that, upon further scrutiny, proved to be whale spine bones mounted on short poles.
The blue-eyed invaders fired first, their bullets embedding softly in the sand. Suddenly moths were everywhere, circling the war parties and attacking any available orifice. I rolled down the dune and covered my ears. The first five blunderbusses cracked and a series of flaming orbs were launched. The second five marksmen fired while the others reloaded. More balls of flame exploded on the beach. Screams rang out. When I glanced over the top of the dune I saw perhaps a dozen of the blue-eyes lying in the sand, some on fire, some crawling toward the ocean. Soon the entire rank of blue-eyes was retreating, perhaps out of utter bewilderment, and in their wake were the bludgeon-toting Christians, finishing off any laggards or survivors.
The battle hadn’t run more than ten minutes by the time the blue-eyes’ ship was sliding away from shore.
I stood up and brushed myself off, the rifle limp in my arms. One Original Christian coughed dryly, but beyond that they suffered no deaths or injuries. They worked wordlessly, only nodding subtly to one another as they collected their armaments and the bodies of the invaders. Then one stood tall and released a sharp and extended whistle to their whale-axe-toting brethren down the beach before turning and leading the crusaders back into the dunes.
It was the last one across who stumbled and fell. I ran over and took one arm, but when the Christian saw that it was me, he didn’t simply shake off my grip, he rose up and struck me across the chest. Now it was me tumbling down the dune, heels over head, moths stabbing my eyes and fighting their way into my mouth.
Then I was alone again.
I sat on the porch stairs and recomposed my senses. The beach would be swept clean by morning. I would neither hear nor see anything. Although none of this would go into my report, the image of the crosshatching age lines around the Original Christian’s eyes, like inlays of thatching in a crude third-world prison wall, would remain with me until death.
. . .
Chelsea never returned, but on a walk weeks later I came across a set of footprints in the sand, as distinct and ominous as discarded body parts.
Looking to the furthest bend in the beach, I saw what was clearly the perpetrator. I wanted to know who was trespassing on my peace this time. I quickened my pace, and even though they seemed not to be running or even walking, the figure moved faster, the tracks continuing past the bend in the beach and around the hull of a destroyed sailboat.
The figure climbed a dune and stopped. Then it was clear. Something about the sea’s gray air warping around the loose black pants and the billowing shroud. The person beneath was revealed for a moment—her swimmer’s posture and careless elegance—before she turned slightly, backed away from the water, and fell out of sight. I pursued but the ocean ate her tracks. Perhaps the wind swept over them. I couldn’t say exactly. When I reached where she had fallen, there was nothing.
I turned and looked to the ocean for answers. A trawler motored past. My hands were sweating and half-frozen. Something was crawling along my neck. I fished it out—the largest moth I’d ever seen. I unclenched my fist and it shot out across the waves, toward the sun.