notes from the island
This story first appeared in Zahir Tales Magazine (nom de plume: Diana Swift)
I decided to start keeping a diary today. Yes, it is ridiculous. There’s no one else to read it here, of course. Nor will there ever be, here or elsewhere, if what we believe has happened since the last Visit is true. Years have passed since then; we’ve no reason to doubt our belief. So why write anything? But I’ve decided this will be company for me, of a kind. My diary will be like the invisible friend a child has, and I had once upon a time as well. With all that has happened in my life, I don’t suppose I ever imagined I’d want an invisible friend again. But there you are. Today I do.
Lars has his music, and his solitary nature, and he has me. He never needed other company much. When he was exiled here, after the first shock, he adapted quite quickly. When I chose to follow him rather than to become one of the slave-women in the Director’s household, I, by contrast, had to relinquish my pleasure in a small society of friends, family, a circle of acquaintances. Because his preference for solitude and the sparseness of his family had not added anyone to that limited circle, the connections we lost were almost exclusively mine. I was never entirely dependent on society; in fact, I had learned to be independent of it from living with Lars. But it was still almost unbearable for a time, the loss.
It was more difficult for me, yes. But that was so long ago; it’s funny I should decide to take this up now, after twenty years of life on the island, after forgetting even to miss any other human voice, any words but his terse daily commentary. Nothing particular has happened; that’s the beauty of our situation, the strange beauty of it: we’ve grown into our routines like plants, and nothing disturbs them any more. So I really don’t know what made me do it, finally. Nothing I could name. An ancient instinct, perhaps.
The pens and paper have always been there, waiting to be used. We were supplied at the beginning so that Lars could work on his compositions. It was the only request he made of his judges when the sentence was passed. We were not allowed to send letters with the annual Visitor; we were officially dead. There was nothing else to use them for, so we are still well-supplied, even though we are fairly sure no re-supply or relief will come now. When the last supplies are gone… well, our sentence will be over, that’s all.
Don’t mistake me: I don’t fear that day; I’ve never feared it, exactly. When I climb the headland above our cottage to the cliff, and look over the island, as I do every morning and every evening, I always think of it, every single time. I imagine the fall, the breathless rushing up of the earth, the shock of impact. The impact frightens me a bit, I suppose. But the idea of a final act of will instead of some slow ultimate submission is exhilarating.
Why, you (my invisible friend) ask, have I postponed that day, then, especially now that it seems inevitable? Why do I think of the act every day, and never do it, after uncounted thousands of days since we were brought here?
Because (I explain patiently) I love Lars. I know, although he does not express it in words, that I am necessary to him. And so, as long as he lives and I can care for him, I will continue. But even beyond that, I’ve actually come to like our life. You could say I am happy, in my way. I think I will start this diary by telling you what a day is like here, so that you can understand:
I wake to the sound of the sea. I used to imagine it as an enemy, a huge dispassionate monster keeping me from my loved ones forever. But gradually, as they faded to the corners of my memory and it remained, hugely and benignly present, it became a friend. Now I know how beautiful it is, how wise. Its voice is the voice of what is, of things as they are in themselves, that will exist whether we are here to acknowledge them or not. It gives perspective, it comforts. I hear it, knowing it is speaking, as everything speaks here: wind, trees, animals, empty houses—and hoping one day I will finally understand its language. After waking I always lie in bed and listen to it for a while: a language lesson.
Lars stirs but does not wake as I rise. I make the fire if there is a chill, and uncover the panels if the sun is shining. I light the stove and heat the water for our coffee. There is bird song outside the kitchen window and, beyond the garden, a glimpse of the sea. A pleasant light filters through the cottage windows.
I am proud of the coffee I make. Every day I feel a moment of pride as I think how I learned to make it from toasted corn, corn that grows in my own garden, the one I look out on as I prepare the cups. Lars would have lived only on the minimal stores we were given each year, and what we scavenged from the deserted villages. Had that not sufficed, he would simply have wasted away, I think. The garden was my idea. I demanded the seeds. The Visitor we had for many years was sympathetic; he found a way. The Director must have been confident we’d cause no further harm; he didn’t object. The Visitor told us that there were thought-criminals scattered on dozens of these empty islands: the Director’s exiles. The Director still provided for them all, the basics at least. That was his generosity.
I remember I asked once how they lived, these others, some of whom we had known. The Visitor would not give details. “Some better than others,” was all he said. That’s when I thought of a garden, and petitioned him for seeds. The next year I began.
I had so many failures at first. I wept when I lost a crop of peas to blight, or worms destroyed the cabbages. I had always lived in town; my food was grown by others. What did I know of gardens? But slowly, with the boundless expanses of time I had to learn, my failures taught me. Now I look out of my window every morning, and what I see in my garden fills me with pride and pleasure, and a sense of the miraculous. A few chickens now, too, scratching about, that I have managed, all on my own, to keep alive—another miracle! The water boils; I make the sweet coffee (sweetened with sugar from beets); it steams in the cups. You see? A good life.
I bring Lars his coffee. He has woken, he smiles; sometimes he tells me what he has dreamed. He puts a great store in dreams. He says his music often comes to him when he is dreaming. His music is to him what the garden is to me: his pride and his daily work, so I am glad to know his dreams are fertile.
My own dreams I don’t like as much. They are always full of the people I lost. It’s the only place I still see them clearly: my mother, my sister, my cousins, my friends. And in the dreams they are angry, hostile. Of the judges who convicted Lars, the crowds who jeered us as we boarded the boat, I never dream. They hardly matter. The idea that they are all gone, that their stupid allegiance didn’t save them, that we have survived and they very likely have not, is, if not exactly a satisfaction, at least un-troubling to me. But the others, my lost friends and family, they haunt my dreams; they blame me for something and I am not sure what. For choosing as I did perhaps. Angry ghosts.
Lars has never thought to ask about my dreams, and I have never offered to tell him of them. I am happy to listen to him tell me his dreams instead and look out the window at the day, bright or shrouded in fog, and try to hear what it has to say as well. Everything on the island speaks, as I told you. It’s like someone whispering in your ear, just too low for you to make out the words. While I’m listening to Lars, I’m hearing the whispering too. I still don’t get the words, but with time, the sense has slowly become clearer. It shapes my day.
He gets up to wash, and I take my walk up the headland, to look over the island. I climb the path through the scrub, smelling the pungent grass and feeling the freshness of the wind. The wind is a constant here, as constant as the sea. On clear days, I can see little white peaks on the waves far below. The sea is a giant eye, looking at the sky. Other days, the fog pours in like a white flood. Sometimes it is so heavy you can almost bathe in it. In the winter it rains; that’s how we know it is winter.
From the top of the cliff I can see almost all the way around the island. I used to look for ships. I used to see them, too, every once in awhile. They were always the Company’s ships; they sailed on by, except on the one day each year when the Visitor landed.
The day the Visitor left for what was to be the last time, Lars and I climbed the headland together. In all the years he had stopped here, the Visitor had never spoken to us of the world; it wasn’t permitted. He was as taciturn as Lars, more so perhaps; we hardly spoke at all. But that time I remember I couldn’t help noticing that even without his having said anything to warrant it, something was preoccupying him. He left us our stores and refused the breakfast we offered him. From the top of the cliff, Lars and I watched his ship move out of the harbor, into the open sea, and finally disappear in the glare of morning sunlight on the water. We could see the ship was heading for one of the distant islands on the horizon—another exile’s home, we supposed. We stayed awhile, looking at the sea in silence, as we often do. Then, just as we were starting back down the path to the cottage, we heard an enormous sound, one that seemed to compress the air all around us for a split second. It didn’t sound like an explosion, exactly—more like a giant crack! as if some unimaginably large tree had been split by a bolt of lightning. I thought suddenly of an ancient story I had learned in school: a people who told of a tree at the heart of the world, its roots sustaining the earth, its branches the sky. I turned back to look—I thought I saw a flash of light, impossibly distant, on the horizon. But it might have been the glare of the sun. Lars didn’t see it.
A few days later, as we were returning from another walk, a strange fog came blowing in, damp and heavy. All paths disappeared; we barely found our way home. There was silence: no birds, no insects called. Only the wind, moaning ceaselessly, with an odd, intermittent sound like dead leaves crackling. We sat by the fire, cradling cups of tea I had made, and looked at the blankness outside the window. Two steps beyond the house, nothing was visible at all. Finally Lars spoke:
“I think something—may have happened.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“If he doesn’t return…”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, staring out the window. He considered this for a moment.
“Yes,” he said. “All right.”
We did not speak of it again.
Once I have viewed the island from this height, and seen and heard what kind of a day it’s going to be, and had my brief, faithful vision of the last day, I go back down to the cottage. I gather eggs; we breakfast. Then I work in the garden; he works on his music; I listen to him play and sing as I work. I asked him once, many years ago, if it bothered him that now only I would ever hear the pieces he composed.
“This is the way I think,” he answered. “I could no more stop composing than stop thinking.” (But for a few weeks, after the strange fog came, he did stop. That was a fearful time. I walked up to the top of the cliff every day, thinking of the drop, feeling it closer. I was afraid I had been wrong to think we would just go on. Then one morning, as I was descending, I heard the strains of his violin again, and a tremendous weight was lifted.)
When I’m done with my tasks in the garden, I wash and mend our clothes, or prepare dough for bread. I remember that I used to despise such tasks. I did not know then how pleasant they would become to me. What was all my schooling for? I chose to be lettered even though it was frowned upon by the Directorate, because I had decided to be important in the world, to change it for the better. But then I was swept up in the darkening times with so many others, and when the times got done whirling me around, all that was left was Lars, and a ship heading across an empty sea for a deserted island.
Now, though, I feel as if I know the secret of mending and washing, of carrying water, chopping wood, planting seeds: it is that there can be no doubt of their value. It seems to me now that all I did before we came here was of dubious and uncertain worth; my motives were mixed, my objectives unclear, my progress abstract. Little by little, that abstraction has disappeared, as the memory of what I was fades away. It’s sad to think of rescue when it is possible and it doesn’t come. In fact, it is unbearable. But when it is no longer possible, it is no longer sad.
After our midday meal, if the weather isn’t too inclement, or if other tasks don’t demand our attention, we walk the island. We used to forage in the villages or the ruined town; we rarely do that now, as over the years we’ve learned better how to provide for ourselves. I do sometimes still gather fruit in the ancient groves, untended for a lifetime or more; the trees have grown thickly together, like small forests. But I don’t really have to do this anymore, as I’ve taken cuttings and planted my own trees close to the house, and they have grown and borne. And we long ago hauled away all the stone and metal we could use. We’re not builders, of course, but we have managed to teach ourselves a few things in order to keep the roof over our heads and the walls snug and dry.
But we still enjoy walking over the cliffs and climbing down into the old settlements, imagining what life was like when they were inhabited a thousand years before. Well, some of the villages had life in them more recently, of course; that’s why we could still occasionally find things there that were useful to us. But the once-great town is another matter. What must it have been like to live there when it was in its glory? The ruins speak of a place unlike any I’d ever known in the Directorate—so much earth covered with stone. So many buildings that must have seemed like mountains. And dug deep into the earth as well. As if they had meant to own it forever, above and below.
I love the ruins, and if there weren’t so many chores around the cottage to see to, I would spend time there every day. Lars has some interest in history; he tries to recall what little we were taught of the old civilizations. But I prefer to remember an old quote: “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.” I go to the ruins to think about the things they seem to suggest to me: what great hopes come to; how small things survive. How mute things speak, if you can only still your own voice long enough to listen. The ruins stand by the indifferent sea, and they are more beautiful because of its indifference.
When we are gone, they will go on speaking. Why in the world did we ever imagine that we were the only things that speak? We ought to have listened more, and spoken less.
I could sit there and listen for hours. I sometimes think that if I could just be still for long enough—for as long as I’ve left to live, perhaps, without ever moving again—I would come to understand the words at last.
But there are so many things that need seeing to, for Lars’ sake. When I walk with him we don’t linger, we survey our territory, as it were; we look for useful things along the way; we gauge the weather. I like to draw Lars into conversation. Around the house he doesn’t talk much, but walking seems to stimulate him, and when I prod him for his thoughts, they are always interesting. He has such a memory for details. History comes alive for me when he describes it. It’s funny: it’s as if for him the world is still there, as much as it ever was, anyway. I think life was always more of an abstraction for him, so it’s no different now; he creates in his mind the things that are missing in the world; he doesn’t feel the lack. An enviable talent; I admire him for it. But it isn’t my way.
You see how full it all is, though—even so? And I have to tell you, it’s as if we are finally free of the last burden here, the one that outlasted all the others: the burden of the future. Of responsibility for it. Now there is no longer any need to wonder what our purpose is, or live in mortal fear of making a mistake. What was our purpose ever, except the future of the race? With that charge lifted, we have no other duty than simply to participate in all of this, while it lasts. While we last. That is enough.
We can’t walk the whole island in an afternoon; we walk as far as the edge of the ruined town and back, usually. The far side of the island is a distant memory: it seemed such an accomplishment when we had finally explored it. There were no settlements there; it was wholly wild. We had to cut a path to the shore. But once we had gone and looked round and come back, we didn’t have a great desire to go again. I almost wished we hadn’t gone at all, that we’d left it unexplored, something to wonder about. Or something that would just continue to be on its own terms, without our intervention. Perhaps it was also the final confirmation of how bounded our world is: there was the sea again, surrounding, indifferent. But now we have bounded it even further by keeping to our circuit, and instead of feeling more limited I feel freer that way, because the depth of our little world is virtually boundless. A tiny plot of land is a whole world. Four walls is a universe.
We return from our walk, pleasantly tired, hungry and thirsty. The water in the jugs behind the cottage is cool and fresh; it comes from a spring a little way up the hill. We drink it gratefully. In the Directorate, the slave-women used to get the water for their households; they’d gather at the taps in the morning, laughing and chatting. It always made me wonder why a task that appeared so pleasant and was so essential to our lives was considered fit only for slaves. But the Directorate was like that: everything was done to preserve the idea that there were people born to rule and people born to serve. How could so foolish an idea have cost so much? How could it have been so tenacious? It is a mystery that will never be solved now. Lars says that what we understand of all our history circles round this very question. His understanding cost us our place in the world. But it seems the world paid a higher price than we did, in the end.
Our prison freed us; something our jailers could never have imagined. Perhaps a lack of imagination was their true failure.
If it is warm enough by late afternoon, we bathe in the sea. I dive in from the pier and the sea’s thousand voices rush up to greet me. They are so seductive. I have to keep Lars’ music in my head when I dive in, to remind me of the surface, and my life there, or they would hold me. The sea is the most powerful thing left on the planet. We are nothing to it, nothing at all. Why not join it and become part of something so vast and strong, so enduring? But Lars’ music calls me back. He sings his little tunes as he swims about on the surface. They are pretty, and he still comes up with new ones, almost every day. Sometimes he will even say: I was thinking of you when I wrote this.
We walk back up to the cottage, drying ourselves off, refreshed and content. I gather food and begin to prepare our evening meal. Lars sits by the cottage door, looking at the sea. The fading sunlight lengthens on the headland behind us, the colors deepen. I think perhaps this is our favorite part of the day. The constant wind dies down a little bit, and there is a brief stillness at twilight. Just before sunset, Lars and I walk up to the top of the cliff together. We don’t speak; now we are both listening, although I don’t know if Lars hears the island speaking as I do. But he holds my hand and is content; that is fine.
As we walk back down the darkening slope, a few birds call to one another, like children talking from their beds before they fall asleep. Sometimes I think they mention us in their songs, as if we were beings as distant and strange to them as parents. But this may just be my fantasy.
I don’t often think of the children we never had, though sometimes I dream of them. And I wake, feeling the deepest sense of happiness that they have remained in the dream world. They are sad there, like all the people I meet in my dreams, because they still think of what might have been. It’s impossible to comfort them. I’m always grateful to leave their shadowed world and wake to the bright cottage, where the conditional has vanished forever, swept away by the eternal wind from the sea.
But I don’t try to fight off sleep either. When we have eaten our meal and cleaned up afterwards, there isn’t much left to do. A couple of candles suffice to light the room; Lars builds a small fire in the stove if there is a chill. He has invented a kind of game that he plays in the evenings; he made the pieces himself. It’s a bit like chess, but different in ways I can’t describe, although he has tried to explain it to me. Sometimes he tinkers with the rules, trying to figure out how to make it more challenging. But since he plays against himself, there are fairly severe limits to what he can do in this regard. I sense it is perhaps his only real frustration with our situation.
I was only allowed one book, ever; I chose a volume of ancient poetry. But it is ample: like the day, you can never really come to the end of everything in it. There’s one poem I particularly like to read at this hour of the evening. I worked to translate it many years ago as a student:
Every farthing of the cost
All the dreaded cards foretell
Must be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought
Not a kiss nor look be lost
So much speaking has been done, so many words in our thousands of years in this world. At last I feel as if I have with me all the words, and the only words, I will ever need, until the final, everlasting silence comes. The last, best gift.
When we are tired, we make our way to bed. I kiss Lars tenderly, and put out the light. The stars shine through the windows, everything continues. Without us, thank goodness.
You see how it is, my Friend? One day more, and one day less.
But even so, I’m glad to have you with me now. For as long as there is.