The Archipelago: a short story in three parts | Part III: The Western Island
May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment
The Archipelago: a short story in three parts
Part III: The Western Island
… continued from Part II
Brother Luke digested the contents of the warning from the Northern Island with a feeling of utter dismay. He then looked down into the coracle at the supplies that the lighthouse keeper had given him. There was plenty of food and water to help him make the journey home, but given the man’s morbid condition it all felt touched by death … he could muster little appetite for what lay bundled there. He then slumped forward onto the oars.
Eventually he turned the coracle round and headed back in a south-westerly direction towards the Western Island.
The sea had returned to a glassy stillness, and he was glad of the lack of wind, but it felt like a labour of Sisyphus to continue rowing. By now his hands were raw and blistered from contact with the oars. Time sank into the stillness of the empty disc on which he floated and the sun’s energy shrouded him in sickening layers of heat. He loosened the habit from around his shoulders and rowed half naked. Sweat dripped from his brow, his flesh cooked.
Then, quite close by, he saw a long black rock; the perfect place for him to rest from the exertions of rowing without the coracle drifting. The rock was slightly mottled, grey and black, marble smooth, slimy beneath his feet and strangely warm – a fact that brother Luke put down to its dark colour. Feeling a sudden chill, he slipped his arms back into the habit and sat down for a moment before gingerly exploring the outcrop. The rock was featureless apart from a strange protrusion that ran along its centre and a slight, shallow depression at one end …
Suddenly, Brother Luke felt a tremor pass through his feet and a great geyser of frothing brine erupted from the depression. The black rock began to rise from the water and he fell sideways into the ocean. Initially buoyed up by the air trapped within his habit, he soon began to feel dragged down by its weight. He had no choice but to tear the garment from his body. The cold wrenched breath from his tightening chest. As he struggled to the surface he saw what, in fact, the rock was; through a cloud of bubbles a tiny sentient eye set within a huge bulbous head, a small flipper held out at an angle to the rippled bulk of its body. A true leviathan of the deep; what was once known in a long dead European language as a cachalot …
Somehow he scrambled back into the coracle and lay shivering, wet and naked in the shallow belly of the boat. From his supine position, he could see the great tail of the beast rise; he cowered in its terrifying shadow, fearing that the gigantic flukes were about to smash down and shatter the flimsy coracle. He covered his head and closed his eyes.
Then the shadow disappeared. He felt the coracle rock and, feeling a potent rush of relief, awkwardly raised himself up. All that was left of the whale’s presence was a lens of still water amongst the turmoil, the surface limit of the column of water displaced by the leviathan’s descent.
Brother Luke began, again, to row.
The night was desperately cold and a low, oppressive cloud blanketed the moon and stars from view. He continued to toil onwards in a mindless state, wrapped in the coracle’s sail. Finally, the soft granular light of dawn spread through the darkness from the east, and the Western Island became dimly discernible as a small grey lump on the horizon. As it grew closer, he could detect its familiar fluted limestone buttresses emerging from the sea. Again he heard the sounds of seabirds. He rowed closer, made his way to the small bay on the eastern side of the island, and anchored the coracle with a heavy stone.
The island’s familiar emptiness greeted him as he walked up the hill. The day was windless, still, and a fragrant dampness rose up from the pasture beneath his bare feet. Exhausted from his journey, he felt glad to be home. Following the tiny path that he alone had made since his arrival many years ago, he took pleasure from the sun that was gradually warming his cold, weary, naked body. He skirted the beehive, and then cast a handful of feed from his store to the chickens. As he passed by the cow he gave her an affectionate stroke. He then returned to the store to grab a flagon of mead and made his way up to the solitary, beehive-shaped cell.
He looked out at the sunset that was beginning to paint the western sky in broad strokes of vividly melding reds, yellows and violets. Beams of crepuscular light radiated downwards from the warm grey clouds that shrouded the sun. He sat down on his humble straw cot. He took three mouthfuls of mead from the flagon, relishing the rich sweetness that burst in his mouth. The last man on earth then felt a desperate need for rest.