Golden light moves with the silken grace of a dancer, across the rolling waves. Sunset. Behind me, amber leaves crown aging trees and the ground slopes ever upward to the distant, snow-capped peaks. I feel the cool, frail blades of grass beneath my bare feet as I sit, my knees held tight to my chest. The air is chill and I’m thankful that I pulled this sweater on before I went out, but still I go barefoot. I need to feel the earth; I need to be a part of it.
Wind pulls my hair across my face, an unwilling partner. Here on this shore, the smooth, vast sea stretches before me and the sharp, harsh world of industry – a world that I have not seen in many, many years – is hidden far behind. So here I sit, sequestered from the world, at the corner where the sea meets the mountains and the forest meets the shore, and despite the invigorating beauty that surrounds me, my body is weary from the wear of years. I stand and stretch. I always seem to be stretching for something.
Walking across the beach, squeezing the malleable sand through my toes. It’s amazing how many grains of sand are on a beach. I try to think about how many there are exactly, but the number is too astonishing to conceive. And yet, each grain used to be a piece of something else, something bigger and stronger. But nothing is strong enough. Everything gets broken down.
There’s something on the sand, by the high tide line. A letter. Yellow and frayed by age and distance, the page looks ancient. Yet the flowing lines are as clear as if it had been written this very day. Water has not damaged the unfamiliar script.
It seems a lifetime since my pen last strove against these pages, but in truth I have no comprehension of how long it has been. I am no longer counting the days. Long ago I lost track, and even if I hadn’t there would be no purpose. The sun rises and sets, the moon waxes and wanes, but the seasons – they never come. Each day is like the last: harsh and unchanging, just as the Isle itself.
But what can be done by one man in a day? In a month? In a lifetime? The liquid sheets of the calm, blue sea cannot be undone. The jagged and rocky terrain of the Isle will not be submerged in my time. Countless days spent, breaking and weathering like a shell into sand, all the while hoping against hope that the world would break upon me, like waves upon a rock. But even if I were so solid and anchored, eventually the waves devour even the grandest of stones. Little by little, bit by bit, even the great towers of the world are carried away – slowly the fragments lost and fractions taken add up, and all that remains is the endless sea.
I cannot hope to change the world without. It is beyond me. Whatever I once was, whatever name I once bore, all of that is gone, washed away like so many black and nameless nights, forgotten.
Remembrance is a curse. Just like the freezing rain on those long ago days, falling from the sky like anvils, striking the ground without rebounding; no flowering splash like rain, no soft and gentle landing of snow. Just crashing to the earth to lie dead and broken. I remember trudging through the graveyard, every step leaving the indelible sign of passing. Don’t leave marks; don’t tell where you’ve been. But there they are, each footprint is a line in the story and, step by step and page by page, it’s written. And the only way that these drafts get burned is if the sky opens up and pours out more of that frozen shit. But it has to be enough to fill the prints, or it’s all for nothing.
In this house, a house that so many ghosts call home, the memories are suffocating. I need some fresh air. Back to the beach, to where I found the letter a few days ago. You don’t need boots in the sand.
There are more pages ashore.
Day Three – Two complete and miserable days have passed since we arrived on this accursed slab of rock. In my rage, I have thrown these pages into the water, probably forty times or more, yet on each and every occasion, they return to the shore, unharmed by the waves. Some strange power is hiding in these stones and, though I am somewhat ashamed to admit it, I am afraid. But I have always been a coward; in fact, that is why I am here. Paying the debt of my cowardice.It seems that I cannot escape from this Isle, and these pages.
Day Four – Adoleor, who refuses to tell me his true name, seems to be handling our imprisonment much better than I. Though he is smaller in stature than I am, he is a healthy and grown man, yet he runs naked across the Isle like a child. Somehow he does not seem to understand the hopelessness of our situation. It is as though he expects a rescue of some kind; he keeps the white robes that he was given in a neatly folded stack deep within a cave, as if he were preserving their immaculacy for some special occasion. We are doomed.
Day Five – Adoleor did not return to the cave until the sun was nearly setting. I warned him that we know nothing of this Isle and what might be lurking on it. Fool that he is, he behaved like a child being scolded; he rolled his sallow eyes at me as if I were an overprotective mother. The imbecile! Does he know what monstrosities are hiding in wait on the Isle? Is he too foolish to see that we are not here by some act of grace and charity? Yes, we found a brook today, so we have water, but there is still no reliable food.
He is such a fool; I could kill him. His naivety is infuriating. He could only avert his eyes as I berated his folly. There is no courage in him to stand and face me, to stand and take his punishment. I have tried to help him, to show him the error of his ways. The Isle will destroy him, and it will not be on my conscience.
Day Six – After our quarrel last night, we did not speak this morning, but Adoleor and I have made camp within the cave on the beach where we came ashore. He found a grove of trees bearing a sweet fruit (the spherical fruit is a pale beige, like the rock formations of this Isle, and is marked with deep, vivid green and occasionally a raw pink not unlike human flesh – I have not been able to identify it, but I know little of botany) not far from here. It was imperative that we find some source of inland food, since the waters around the Isle are shallow and bear no fish (or life of any kind, as far as I can tell). This is the most, if not only, useful thing that Adoleor has done.
As the day has passed, I think he has forgiven me for my harshness yesterday. During the morning it was clear that he was upset by my words, but he seemed to realize that they were just and deserved. Yet, I am quick to anger and probably spoke more strongly than necessary. He must know that I was trying to help him. Either way, my spirits are raised. Between the abundant fruit and the fresh water, I think that we may actually have enough to maintain us for some time.
Day Seven – The Isle itself seems to be fairly small and capable of being circumnavigated in no more than a day. Adoleor, being a simpleton, is entranced by the Isle – he spends hours and hours away from the cave and I can only assume that he is exploring our prison.
All that we need to survive is within a few steps and it is a waste of our strength to spend our energy traipsing about such a wild and dangerous place. But Adoleor does not understand this, and so he goes like a boy in the park – pretending to be a great explorer yet, in reality, finding nothing but dead ends.
I suppose he is lucky to be so simple, he is free of the need for mental stimulation. Boredom, it seems, will force me to find a tolerable way to pass the days. There are many colors on this Isle – vines of deep green, leaves and grasses of vibrant oranges and bold blues; perhaps I will be able to concoct makeshift paints. I need something to keep my mind from falling into disrepair.
It seems that almost everything is out of place and out of order. At sunrise I wake to find that my heart has sunk once more into my stomach. Dreadful silence pounds at my ears, the pressuring nearly popping them. To find warmth I let the fire die and instead I come out here, onto the frigid autumn shore. I only feel alive when I think of her. It is a cruel reversal.
Who orders this world? Who is it that reverses the way things ought to be? Strangely, the more I think about it, the less I care who is to blame. It’s not the mover that makes me sick, it’s the motion. Or the lack thereof. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is spinning out of control, the inside or the outside. But in the end it doesn’t matter; you can’t tell when things are out of order if you never really knew how they should have gone in the first place.
Day Ten – It is a few days since my last entry. I have fashioned paints from the flora that appears on the Isle and have spent the last few days recreating The Beautiful Queen on the wall of the cave, though its quality is lost on Adoleor who does not even recognize the masterpiece.
I cannot convince him to reveal who he was before we arrived here; he will only answer to Adoleor and will only refer to me as Artifex even though I had insisted that he call me by my true name. He must have been a man of no consequence, as he is clearly uneducated – today I had to teach him how to make a fire of his own. Yet his simplicity is a blessing; he appears free of the burdensome weight that I bear.
Day Fourteen – I see less and less of Adoleor with each passing day. He goes out at daybreak and returns only at dusk. Although he maintains that he eats enough to sustain him, he is thinning. An anxious expression seems to be on his face at most hours of the day. I think he is realizing that there will be no escape.
Day Nineteen – I have completed versions of Autumn in the Down and The Ride of the King, but I am losing interest in painting already. Adoleor is almost never at hand when there is suitable viewing light and when he is, he has no interest in my work and seems agitated by my attempts to educate him.
Day Twenty-One – I have been on the Isle for three weeks now, though it seems a year. I long for some camaraderie and brotherhood. Though I would prefer a more suitable compatriot, I would settle for Adoleor’s friendship at this point, but he retreats from all my advances. In fact, he hardly speaks at all anymore, and when he does he only mutters jumbled words about his ‘purpose’. Seeing that it was the only way I might be able to stir up a conversation with him, I told him to tell me about this ‘purpose’. He claimed that ‘his path is laid before him as mine is before me’. I humored him and asked him to explain himself.
“To be Adoleor and Artifex,” he said, “those are our purposes.”
I think the sun has baked his mind. Still, conversation with a fool is more appealing than the alternative: unending silence. I asked if he had been given anything besides his robes, which still sit neatly stacked in the cave, when we were marooned here.
“My true name and purpose,” he replied.
I had to look away from the utter seriousness on his face to avoid laughter. When I asked if that was all, I think he may have perceived the sarcasm in my voice, since he remained silent. After a few moments, he looked at me with anger in his eyes and said, “What did they give you besides the stylus and book?”
I could not help but jest and answered, “My true name and purpose.”
With a smirk on his face and a strange glance that troubled my heart, he replied, “Is that all?” and then rose and walked away with the pride of a fighter that has just delivered the crushing blow to his opponent.
His response was extremely unsettling, but surely he does not know about the knife.
Look at these trees. Huge beyond reason, each one is a monument, a golden kingdom of its own. No file or rank, just trees. No total sum, just one and one and one and one. How is it possible to be one and one and one and one, and to never be anything but ‘one’ on the way to ‘forest’? No tree ever looked to the sapling springing up near its roots and proclaimed, “You shall be as a son to me.” But there they are, all together; their wholly accepting congregation a testament to fraternity. There are no revolutions, there are no schisms, and when one falls, all mourn in respectful silence. At once, they are one and they are all.
For many years now, I have been one. She is gone. The years have stolen the warmth from all the places that she once touched. The voices of those who loved her, those that she called family, are only echoes now and they are drowned out by the constant beating of my heart. Singular beat after singular beat. I am one only.
What then is the sea? Today at least, it is a messenger.
Day Forty-Two – It has been a week. I went back to the circle. There is only ash. I am hungry.
Day Forty-Four – Each day I am surprised to wake up. I have not eaten in nearly ten days. There is some cruel power in the Isle. Writing is only a waste of the small strength that still resides in me, but the Isle demands it of me, and I am loath to disobey.
Day Fifty-Six – I have not eaten. I drink little. Yet, weak as I am, I fear that I am no closer to death, and while death has not found me, despair has – I must defeat it, or suffer a worse fate.
I try to remember my old life, but it has forsaken me. I am no longer a son, a brother or a friend – those bonds have been erased. I try to remember the sounds of the orchestra playing Dolce Vita, the smell of fresh buns from the café on Main St., the sense of identity that comes from walking your own steps, from holding your own mug, from sitting by your own fireplace, from having your own name, from being your own man, alive in the world. And I begin to wonder whether or not I am that any longer.
Day Sixty-Five – I have used ash to black out my paintings. I could bear them no more.
Day Ninety-Seven – Still no food. I long for peace, but I am still a coward.
Day One Hundred Forty-Four – Today I walked as far as I could go, out into the water. No matter how many steps I took, I was never more than a stone’s throw from the shore. The water was never deeper than my ankles. I had hoped to drown.
On the beach once again. The dark and turbid sky brings with it a cold wind from the sea that freezes me to the bone. Neither the rising mountains nor the hidden paths in the trees nor the walls of the house are able to keep out the cold. Groping and clawing with icy fingers, there is nothing that it cannot touch. It permeates everything. And so here I sit, watching the frigid waves break, accepting the stabbing cold as inevitable, a foregone conclusion.
Lightning strikes, out over the turbulent waves, revealing the royal hue of the sky. Somewhere out there, beyond where my frail eyes can see, there is a ship warring against tragedy – there always is. “Furl the sails!” the captain shouts, “Batten down the hatches!” The crew will wear brave faces, though fear will fill their hearts, as they follow his every command. Water will soak them all through and through – their skin will be as sponges, their hair and beards become mops. Proud of these men, the captain will stand tall and strong until…perhaps until the very end, until the water fills his lungs and he makes his bed upon the reef. Few men are built to change their fate and contend with the sea, the mighty power that takes and yet, may give.
Day Thirty – Adoleor worries me. He did not return to the cave last night, and when he finally returned this morning, he was ragged and sweat soaked. His skin hangs on him like canvas on a frame and the glint of anxiousness that was once in his eyes is now darkened with a tinge of madness and insanity. Though he is a simple creature, the air around him stinks of mischief and I wonder if he has not done something wicked, though I cannot imagine how anything that he could do would make my situation any worse.
Day Thirty-Four – I have not seen Adoleor in four days. I think that he may be dead. I have run out of paint.
I start to wonder what I am doing here. The beauty of the sea and the mountain and the wood keeps you, I remind myself. I once loved all these things.
Remember the sunset? Explosions of gold and platinum shoot like stars from the daily meeting of sun and sea. An aurora each and every night. She loved the sunset.
The view from the mountain, surely you have not forgotten that? I have not forgotten. To sit atop the world and survey all that lies beneath; to see from such heights is to be more than just a man. The view from above is a remarkable thing; it is a brilliant and lonely lens on the mountain, on the peak, alone in the sky.
What of the paths through the woods? Worn and trodden, often by feet much older than my own, the paths wind through the ages of the world, as told by the trees and their deafening silence. The breathing and aching of the towering giants tells the stories of all that the wood has seen, all the people and moments that have passed under the reaching canopy of that ancient garden. I can hear their tales from inside the walls of the silent house, but here, on the shore, the sound of the waves drowns out those solemn epics.
So yes, there is beauty here aplenty. But I begin to wonder, am I capable of enjoying it anymore, if I bring none myself?
Day Thirty-Five – I can barely bring myself to do so, but I must describe in full what has just happened while it is fresh in my mind.
I woke in the middle of the night to find Adoleor kneeling over me. In the light of his torch I could see that his face was dripping with sweat. The violent light of the flame was reflected in his black eyes. I was too drowsy to notice that he was wearing his white robes.
“Artifex,” he said, “you must come with me. It is time.”
I protested, saying that the dead of the night was time for sleep and nothing else and that, while he may be comfortable risking life and limb on this treacherous Isle at night, I most certainly was not. But he would not be shaken. Clammy, worn hands grabbed at my arm and his eyes burned into mine with a passion that raged like wildfire. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to humor him and see what strange sight he was dead set on showing me.
For more than an hour I followed his frail yet nimble figure through the secret passageways that he had discovered over the previous month. Being both tired and completely unfamiliar with the path, the journey was difficult and frustrating as we clambered over rocky slopes and weaved through forest mazes. So intensely was I focusing on my footwork that I did not notice when he stopped, and I stumbled into him.
“We are almost there,” he said in a ghostly whisper.
He lowered himself down a small ledge, over which I followed. We stood for a moment as he wiped his face with hands, and then we continued. Soon I realized that there was an enormous, sheer face of rock rising straight to the sky on my left. I was being led alongside it. With my left hand I traced the curve of the stone as I followed his dim figure, but I soon no longer needed the stabilizing rock front; a pale, red glow was illuminating our path and growing brighter with each and every step.
As Adoleor vanished around a sharp corner of the rock, the tails of his white robes whipping behind him, something fell from his robes, but I was too fatigued to care. I followed and, turning the corner, was choked by a wall of heat. The full force of it made me close my eyes and stumble; my hands shot out to keep my balance, only to find that I had turned not at the edge of the rock face, but rather into a crevasse cut into it – I could touch walls of stone on both sides.
Eyes lowered to avoid the drying waves of air, I moved forward until the walls on either side fell away and I was in an opening – I was in a vast circle of rock, where the only entrance was the one I had just stumbled through. Standing before me was Adoleor; he was pulled up to his full height, not hunched over in the ape-form that he had adopted while he scurried about the Isle. The light of the fire turned his white robes crimson; he shone like a bloody angel. A twisted grin hung on his face like the notched blade of an executioner’s axe. Behind him, towering to monstrous heights, threatening to topple and devour us both, a fire was raging. It was the greatest flame that I have ever seen. The sheer size of the blaze was staggering. Instead of leaves and branches, it was made of limbs and trunks; whole trees built its arching spine. Instead of tinder and grass, the coals had been fueled by a mound of…
“The fruit! You damned fool! You’re burning the fruit!” I could not hear my own voice above the roar of the fire, but regardless of whether he was reading my lips or knew in advance what I would say, Adoleor knew what I was shouting at him.
“Yes, the fruit” he said, with a calm that froze me despite the oven in which I stood. “All of the fruit. Every last piece of it. There is no more.”
I drove at him with the force of a bull charging a matador. I broke his nose with the blow; his blood arched through the air – just another shade of red in this inferno. Adoleor did not even defend himself.
“Why would you do this?! You’re mad!” my voice was already growing hoarse from the heat.
“Because it is the only way.”
I leapt at him, knocking him to the ground. I delivered blow after blow and he absorbed them all, still wearing that foolish grin – though it was now bloodied and broken.
“This is your great purpose?” I screamed at his battered face. He nodded. “To kill us both by starvation?! What kind of purpose is that?!” I ceased my blows, but held him by his bloodstained robes. I was drenched in sweat, my head and chest pounding from anger, heat, and exhaustion. Adoleor was not sweating.
Through his broken teeth he sputtered an answer, “To teach repentance, and to find salvation.” I was shocked and my rage renewed.
“WHAT?!” I bellowed. “You don’t need to teach repentance, you’re supposed to learn it, you fool. That’s why we’re here! We’re criminals; this is our punishment! All that ‘salvation’ nonsense that they tried to spoon-feed us is just archaic dogma, to give hope to all the ignorant fools like you who think that you can be saved from this inescapable Isle!”
“No. That is not why I am here. That is why you are here.”
I think I broke his jaw when I hit him after that.
“Then why the blazes are you here?”
“To help us both find something more than ourselves.” I hit him again. His eyes could barely focus and he could barely speak anymore. “You…you don’t understand…do you?” Another blow. “I’m…not a criminal…I asked to be here…to help someone…someone like you…to save you…to save us both.”
I could take no more. I lost control. In one swift and fluid motion, I reached behind my back to my belt, pulled forth the knife from its hiding place, and drove it into Adoleor’s heart. His mouth gaped, a bloody cavern. His eyes went wide, singing first of shock, then of achievement, and then of regret. I watched as the reflection of fire in his eyes became glossy like glass.
A crack echoed in the furnace as one of the trees finally gave way, raining sparks and flame from above. I knew that soon the whole conflagration would be unstable and would likely collapse, filling this stone circle with fire in the process. With one final glance at Adoleor, I ran through the opening from whence I had come. Just as I passed through the farther side of the opening, I tripped and fell – at the same time, the fire imploded and devoured the circle. Turning back I saw that I had stepped on what Adoleor had earlier dropped. It was a book and the top of the page read, Salvation Through Sacrifice. I stood and threw the book into the chaos of fire from which I had just escaped.
Once again, the lonely night has forced me inside. Ghosts haunt this house. At every turn I stumble into phantoms that I cannot vanquish. Wearing their Sunday best, they stroll throughout this empty shell and make it their home. Laughter falls from spectral lips into a bowl where skeleton hands are mixing and kneading dough. Gaping wide, the toothless mouth of the oven once breathed the sweet fragrances of vanilla and cinnamon into the air, but now only the damp stink of decay issues forth. On the stairs, the ghastly spirits of visiting children run up and down the now creaking steps, still amazed at the novelty of the indoor mountain. Around the hearth sit the rotund old men, veiled in the fog of their pipes. Heartily they chuckle, their plaid shirts straining at buttons and hoping not to tear. From deep within the wells of their eyes come tales of a world that was once another place, where they were young men, brazen and ready to face anything. “Life,” they would say after one of them had finished a story of conquest, “is only what you take from it!” and so return to their assault on patterned cotton. All these specters fill the space with the memory of their laughter, their warmth, their speech and their hearts. Though they are gone, these rooms are theirs.
But upstairs, that is the lair of the ghost-queen. Her pallid knees crossed ever so gently as she sits on the edge of a bed that ought to be a throne. She always sits the same way, with her back straight but her arms held down at her sides, locked at the elbows and pressing down on the mattress as if to hold her up against the constant pounding of years that batters her memory. It makes her shoulders tight, but she is victorious – she is not forgotten. I was there once, with her, in that room. But the ghost that comes through the door and walks with such careful purpose to the corner of that bed…it is long since I felt that ghost to be mine.
But all these apparitions are thin and fading; years have loosened their grip on this house. It is the ghost of my days that truly troubles this place. Singular and alone, he stalks the same path day in and day out – each day moves in the same way, the same places at the same hour; it is a miracle that time passes at all. Cold fingers tap at worn keys, keys that issue the commands for congealed ink to be smattered onto yellowing pages, pages that are never filled. Across from the typewriter sits the phone, buried in deep layers of dust. It is long since its ring rode the airwaves and brought news of the world outside these walls. I have not seen that world in many years. Surely it has forgotten me.
Yet the measured hand of the clock ticks ever on and on, and slowly, ever so slowly, the ghost changes, lingering while the others move on and fade away. Over the years, his posture bows and his shoulders slump. The sea breeze blows by him, stealing the color from his hair and the strength of his face, leaving him grey and wrinkled. Ever back and forth, back and forth he moves; all the same paths to all the same places. As if that were enough, as if he could truly find perfection through repetition.
I need to get out.
Back to the beach, to the open sea where I can see to such distances that the vast world, the crawling, writhing, living organism that sprawls under the blue canvas of the sky, is only just beyond my reach.
On the sand. One last, lonely page.
And so – the end. This is my last entry; I can give no more. All that I am is either in these pages or incommunicable through them. What time remains to me is a mystery, but I am not concerned. For I am but one single piece; one small piece amongst all the splendor of the world. All about me the earth turns and the sky moves.
And not with all the colors of the earth could I paint the sky. It is out of my reach. My hands are so small; so small beneath the arching dome of the heavens and above the vast slate of the ocean. And as I cannot touch the sky, as I cannot expand the lights that shift and sing above the earth, I will put these pages out to sea, for that slow and persistent force is within my grasp. Without them – without you, my phantasmal reader – I will be truly alone, but no longer do I fear it. I am a coward no more.
Though I do not know who you will be, I know that someone will read this – that is why I am here, that is my purpose: to help us both find something more than ourselves. I hope that you do. I finally have, and I am weary.
The door closes with finality. The lock drives home with a sound like a clap of thunder, shattering the pristine and still quiet of the world. I turn to see flecks of light shooting with urgency across the deep sea. Sunset.
I am leaving. I will not forget. But I will not return.
This work was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead.