“The terrible great invisible eye of God never blinks–the empty infinite mind behind, never thinks.” Maeva Endival
WILLOW AND THE ROCK GOD
Dusk. A grubby little green wooden boat was beached on the narrow spit of pale sand below me.
This was the easternmost tip of a semitropical islet–part of an old chain of volcanic islands. My spirit hovered like a lazy kite over the point of land, floating directly above a tall, dark, and precariously balanced construct of thick chunks of sea-worn shale.
Bloated purple clouds in a race south, lashed by thick whips of lightning, would carry their burden over the point, and yet a little further out to Mother Sea.
Whether blown ashore by salted breezes, dragged there by the tides, pulled by the force of gravity, or pushed there on the snouts of porpoises, this battered rowboat had caught the last possible stretch of beach before being swept further out to the merciless sea, and capsized in the south-going gale. A few late-flying seabirds veered away from the skiff, casting suspicious glances back as they came down to land a short ways to the west, near a pair of rotting right whale carcasses.
White rimmed waves toyed at the little boat, but seemed only to nudge it even further ashore. Lying as if thrown there, like some ragged discarded doll in the bottom of the boat, was the twisted body of a young woman. There was something hauntingly familiar about her, even from my point of view high overhead. She wore military boots, and several layers of thick clothing that had soaked up a good deal of water. Under her head, toward the prow, dried blood stained the floor of the boat. I watched her for a few minutes, looking in vain for some sign of life.
And there was something unsettling about the little rowboat. I’d seen it before somehow, somewhere, felt a connection to it. The craft’s rugged little blue outboard leaned upside down in the prow. One end of a long nylon cord was tied around the shaft of the prop. The other end was lashed to a bracket on the nose of the boat. One of the oars was gone, missing from its socket. The other was locked in place, with the paddle end resting inside, pressed up against the young woman’s waist.
The body in the boat had my dark skin, my sooty black ringlets of shoulder length hair, my mannish chin, and my high cheekbones. My blood. I realized that the clothes were mine, stuff I’d scavenged along the way, mostly for its insulating value. It would be later before I would see the deep scabbed-over gashes up the left side of my neck and jaw.
I’d first thought of my floating consciousness as ‘something new’ when I had found myself, lighter than the wind, shimmering, draining upward, but it was the island that was new–to me at least.
There was no immediate sense of danger in my mind when I came to realize that I was looking down on my own body from a gull’s-eye view. More than anything, I was amazed, except I couldn’t see whether or not I was breathing. I found it strange to perceive the lightning and the last reddish tinges in the clouds on the western horizon, but neither hear the thunder, nor feel the howling winds.
What I did feel, was that my soul had been strained through muslin and distilled into vapor, and all I could sense of myself now, was pure energy. I-I must be dying then. A chilling terror slowly began to besiege my mind. Even so, I sensed that it was accompanied by only the shadows of Fear’s physical manifestations, which when I could not feel my heart racing on adrenaline, couldn’t even close my eyes to the scene below, my whole reality became a deep dark well from which was building an ancient and unutterable scream.
Along with the dread, fueling its fire, was coming a strong deep love for this body below. I wanted nothing more than to be back down there, back inside my skin. I began to panic, sought to claw my way back down through the air. Thinking that maybe I could dive in through my ear, or bellybutton, I tried to get my arms to work. They felt as if strapped to my sides, or not there at all.
But apparently just wishing it was enough. Sinking slowly toward the little boat, I sensed a slight tugging from an elastic blur of silver energy, stretched between my floating consciousness and my seemingly lifeless body.
I kept sensing another energetic presence nearby, like the sense of being stared at from behind. My thought patterns began to oscillate through the oddest blend of warps and spastic jumps. Visions, memories, and dreams flashed in and out of my mind, threatening to overload my limited consciousness.
The boat lurched to one side as a last white-capped wave rolled in from the retreating tide. I watched my limp body roll face down in the grimy wooden hull. To my relief, I found that I could rotate my focus away for the moment, let something else attract my attention.
I was trying to calm myself as I slowly descended, by focusing on the images around me, and giving my imagination a bit of free rein. Down the beach to the west, the trio of seabirds, an ordinary family of gulls, was made suddenly extraordinary being the first birds from our world to come to the shores of this new place. Seemingly unbewildered at having found an island in their flight path, the birds tipped their wings into the brisk breezes and played their game of hopscotch down the strand past the whale remains, in search of a little luck, and then a likely spot to spend the night.
A kilometer to the west, the beach became rocky where the island rose more sharply up from the salty waters. Another kilometer, and there was no beach at all where the island met the sea at an almost right angle. The red cliff rose higher and higher as the western coast curved further out to the north.
Surely this wasn’t the first time a soul had to come back from on its way to whatever awaits us after death, to find a way back into its cage. Closer . . . I slowly continued to spin until I was facing a dark stone giant.
From above I hadn’t been able to tell what it was, but the huge stones of the point had been piled up and cleverly balanced to resemble a man, facing the sea. The sky was suddenly lit by a series of lightning flashes that gave the titanic statue the illusion of movement. A single long piece of shale took the form of an outstretched arm, pointing west.
Almost there now.
I was ready to beg for entrance to my own body, but I felt a definite smoothing shift in my perceptions as my consciousness easily reentered, home. There was an almost comical click, a physical wave of relief mixed with various aches, then darkness.
Girls’ summer camp, and I had the luxury of one of the little canoes all to myself. Camp owned a large land tract where the Nigger Brown Creek met the upper northeast branch of the Altalanta. Despite the creek’s regrettable name, I liked it for its deep narrow languid channel beneath the alders and willows.
My favorite thing to do at camp so far had been my own special brand of cloud gazing. I’d paddle up to about where the creek quickened, and turn the canoe around. Let the serene currents carry me back down the kilometer stretch, while I lay on my back on a blanket in the bottom.
Watching the sky, the clouds and branches sliding by overhead, gave me such a feeling of freedom in my heart, it would carry all my thoughts away–thoughts of life at home, of Mom, and of ‘Darrell Dee; the-real-deal’. What a jerk!
It wasn’t often that the other girls came this way. They’s no bus to haul your butt, and no trailer to haul your canoe. This lent me a sense of solitude that I almost felt guilty over. Why ain’t I more like the other girls? I crossed my arms under my head. I could be if I tried. Could at least look the part.
Above the arching alders, a particularly large dark cloud was rolling across the sun. I was happy for the shade it gave–this was my second trip and the morning was warming. The cloud was slowly changing form as it lolled on. The canoe scraped the root of a submerged log, sending a shiver up my spine.
I came to the one long straight stretch where there were no overhanging branches. I was coming to feel the familiar sense of weightlessness that made the canoe disappear beneath me. We were traveling in the same general direction, the cloud and I. It was halfway across the sun when it took the shape of an immense floating bear.
We were flying through an eternal sky. I watched curiously as the huge bear slowly turned, as if to face me. As it turned, churning and billowing, it stretched its limbs outward. The whole cloud was expanding, causing the illusion that it was coming closer, and its back legs reached down to meld with another cloud below it, as if it were trying to stand.
The bear-cloud seemed to lean forward, and as it opened its mighty jaws, I had to remind myself, it’s only a cloud. I’d almost, for a few seconds, been expecting a deafening roar to come out of those jaws. As it was, the sun was now pouring out of them, in brilliant silver rays, like the eye of God.
I was about to bring my arm up to block the light, when a sharp tug on the side of the canoe brought me completely back out of the clouds. Immediately, another stronger tug downward threatened to capsize me. Two sets of furred black claws curled over the top edge of the aluminum trim. A splash of water drenched my mid-section. A deep snorted grunt came from over the edge and sent a wave of panic through me as another vicious pull rocked the narrow craft.
I rolled with the canoe, and would’ve broken my nose on one of its ribs if I hadn’t already had my arm halfway up to shade my eyes. I had only a split second to glance up at whatever was trying to tip the canoe. Its hairy jaws split in a wide sharp-toothed grin under deep-set green eyes.
It roared as it dipped its clumsy head in toward me!
The canoe started to bob, causing the strange animal to lose its grip. The side of the canoe came up and struck the underside of its jaw with bone wrenching force. I heard a cry and a splash, and—
A dream! . . . No. That really happened. Six years ago? Seven. I opened my eyes to blackness, closed them again. They hurt. My cheek was pressed into something wet and wooden. I couldn’t move at first. The way I felt made me want to sink back into delirium.
I was finally able to get my left arm to move enough to put my gloved hand up under my head as a pillow. I rolled onto my left side, slowly–painfully. I saw a quick succession of bright flashes behind my eyelids and thought there was something really wrong with my brain, but some seconds later came the telling crack-boom-rumble of thunder. The murmurous rolling in and out of the waves was drawing me back under.
I brought my knees to my chest, tucked my right hand in my thighs–it was the only defense I could muster against the bone deep chill, before darkness again settled mercifully over me.
Third times’ charm Willow–last chance now girl. It was mama’s voice, or perhaps my own. I woke slowly to the sound of waves, odd visions clearing away in the dark. I opened my eyes to a blurry, floor level vantage point. With night having settled in, there wasn’t much to see; dark wooden planks stained with splotches of something blackish.
The cold-blooded painful reality of my situation was slowly sinking in.
I must have slid my left glove off in my sleep, and my hand was cupped protectively over the back of my head under my hood. It took a bit of effort but I pulled my stiff left arm out from under me enough to get my upper body onto my elbows. An empty canteen rolled away.
My biggest concern when I first found myself stranded in the small boat on the strange island was the goose-egg at the base of my skull–and the fact that I couldn’t remember how it got there. I could feel the sticky mess of dried and matted blood that clung to my hair. The pain at the site of the wound was itchy and intense, while the pain beneath it filled my head with an ache like kidney stones on the brain.
My next concern was the grinding empty pang of my belly. Must’ve been in this boat a long time. The wetness in my pants attested to this as much as the dryness in my throat. Wonder what woke me, the growling coming from my belly, the pain banging around in my head, or my own stench?
Most of the angry clouds had disappeared to the south, and a three quarter moon was high on the rise. I turned my head, painfully, to survey the situation. Dimly I began to remember acquiring the old boat from the abandoned cottage up the Hexarkana. I saw my pack, precariously perched on the boat’s back seat, saw the scattered .38-caliber rounds from one end of the boat to the other, and in the midst of them, one pistol, half submerged in water.
Shadows swam in the dark before my eyes as I lurched up onto my hands and knees. I’d formed a simple plan–get up and get out of the boat fool, or else lay here and die. I had never felt so weak, but I’d never been one to deny a matter of fact, or to turn down a challenge.
I crawled to get over the edge. I could make a successful effort at standing with my feet on the ground. The boat rolled back toward the sea when I took my arm off it. I was glad to see that it wasn’t going anywhere. If I’d had to make a grab for it, I might have had to let it float away. As soon as I could, I would pull it farther onto land.
For the moment, I’d be better off on my knees, using the side of the boat for support. I edged sideways out to the back of my little ark, feeling worse than ever, nauseated and quaking with cold, a cocktail of aches rattling around my head. As the faculty of memory struggled to reestablish itself, I had to suppress the nagging question of whether the will to survive was equal to my present agony, especially in the light of the last few years. It would’ve been just as easy to reach for the pistol as the pack; end it now, or prolong the misery?
I’m not ashamed to say that I knelt there and peed my pants. I’d already done that and worse anyway, in my coma.
I kept pumping my fists until my arms were finally awake. I took the glove off my right hand, and pulled the other back onto the frozen left. My right hand trembled, but worked enough to fumble the clasp open on my pack. If memory served, Life itself, in the form of candy bars and an extra canteen was within reach.
I pawed the flap out of the way and started raking through the neatly stowed supplies, not caring that half of it was spilling out onto the damp floor.
I sat there leaning into the boat for a few minutes letting the water and sweet chocolate soak into my system. With my elbows resting on the boat and my head in my hands, I wasn’t yet letting myself hope for too much. After a few minutes, I took three aspirin. Then for good measure, swallowed another.
I was still chilled through to the very bone, but realized that the air was only cool, not frigid. It’s just that I was damp from urine and sea spray, from stem to stern. At least my pack was waterproof. One of my totes was strapped to a plastic sled in the back of the boat. I just couldn’t remember how it got there, or why it would be flipped upside down.
I started to gather enough reason, and energy, to repack a few of the items I’d strewn. I also retrieved the empty .38 and soon had it resting on the back seat, reloaded with dry rounds. Lightning flashed, and the echoing of gunshots came from the depths of my mind, in time with the crackling thunder.
I looked up from the boat, away from the water–finally able to turn my attention to my surroundings. Everything was just as it had been in my unconscious visions–the electric silver moon, the stack-stone giant, the dark distant cone of an old volcano. So where’m I?
Worry about it in the morning. I groped down to check under the tarp–it was neatly secured over a nice little pile of split hardwood, and I recalled clearly, stacking the firewood there in the back, and covering it exactly as it was now. What came after that? I think . . . No, I know. I had then pushed the boat into the cold currents of ol’ Narcsip’. By then I’d become good with the craft and had no trouble avoiding the more formidable ice floes.
With these clear memories came a sense of relief that my brain–indeed my whole sense of identity–was intact, at least for the moment.
I began shaking convulsively with cold and adrenalin. Since I’d so far found my body in unbroken condition from the neck down, I leaned into the boat and stood. Getting my sense of balance back, I began to jog in place to get my blood flowing. I was sure I’d have made a pathetic sight–also sure there was no one to see me.
It was just a feeling, possibly nurtured on the solitude I’d grown accustomed to, but I had never before felt so alone. The island’s only other inhabitant was the great stone sentinel–the Rock God.
I took up a small armload of firewood from under the tarp, and soon had transferred several loads of the cordwood to a cluster of huge black boulders several dozen paces inland. That brought my temperature up enough to worry about other uncomfortable things.
I stripped the soiled clothes off the bottom half of my body and stashed the .38 in my coat pocket. The sea had finally sent its waves to rest. Without double-checking to see if anyone was around, I waded out into the chilly waters. A towel and my only dry pants hung folded over the side of the rowboat. The moon’s reflection broke away from me in dozens of long brilliant crescents as my legs slowly disappeared.
I went out no further than I had to. The water wasn’t as cold as I’d feared, or else I was colder. I worked my shirt and jacket up under my armpits, careful not to dump the pistol, and squatted in the water to wash up. I was almost finished when a sudden shudder of the ground beneath me put me off balance. I quickly changed my position to a tiger crouch to keep from falling over into the water face first. Another tremor followed–the boat tilted slightly back and forth as I watched.
By the time I pulled the fuse on the mini-thermite, I knew the meaning of the old phrase ‘my goosebumps got goosebumps’. Shaking with bone-deep cold, I tossed the sparkling hissing tablet into the pyramid of waiting wood. The fire flared and crackled away in a matter of minutes. I felt a momentary flush of shame as I recalled Tuva’s admonition to some of the guys at Fort Clifford, “No good spirits visit the fireside lit with gasoline.” Just this once old friend? The wind lifted growing tongues of flames in a blue-green-gold vortex that danced and bowed.
I wrapped myself up in my one dry blanket and folded the tarp about me. In the seclusion afforded by the jumble of giant stones, I was soon warm and dry, if not cozy.
A great crashing noise shook me awake in the night, just as the moon was about to disappear over the horizon. Echoes of the sounds flew away on the sea breezes. The strange surroundings gave me a moment of terror, and I leaped to a shaky crouch, my old snub-nose drawn and cocked.
Tremors in the ground were fading away. To my left was the heaped ruin of rocks where hours before, the giant stone sentinel had stood.
I poked at the fire’s remaining embers, threw on a couple small chunks of wood, and settled back into my nest to wait for the coming sunrise. When it finally dawned, still characteristically crimson from stratospheric dust, it was noticeably brighter than what I had become accustomed to since the catastrophe of last fall.
Over the next week I recovered, and watched in daily disbelief as beneath my feet, the island rose, slowly but surely, up and up from the depths of the ocean, coming up for air like some gigantic primordial sea turtle. The beach where I’d landed became a high dune, and the western cliffs became a four hundred-meter sheer drop to the sea.
I wandered around a bit at the outskirts of the island, cautious out of old habit, and always on the move. All the gear and supplies I’d stowed on the rowboat, in several plastic totes, were in good shape. Of course, the outboard would never run again. If I had to stay here, at least I had all the comforts of camp.
Tremors gently rocked the island daily. The tops of palms and other trees would appear out in the surf in the morning; by night, a waterlogged forest had climbed up out of the waves. There were outcropping rocks in places where I could cup an ear to the cold stone to hear the deep grumbling, and mournful song, of the shifting aerth below.
There were actually two islands at the start. I had beached between a pair of dead volcanoes. A long bridge of land eventually emerged between them as the soggy ground arose from the sea.
I walked the circumference of the western island in a single strenuous excursion on my fourth day here, before the two became joined. After that, it became impossible. Every day, the island’s acreage would increase exponentially. By the end of the first week, the total amount of land that I couldn’t explore on my daily wanderings doubled. By then I’d started a map on one of the tablets of paper stashed in a tote under the overturned boat.
I saw no sense in trying to map the ever-changing and expanding shoreline, so I started with the part of the island that made up what I called ‘the spine’. It stretched away from either end of the tombolo to link the two highest points, the jagged rims of the worn volcanoes. It would take weeks at the rate I was going to get to the east end.
In a small dense wood, was a flowing crystal spring, home to tiny white shrimp, between two of the formidable ridges that made up much of the island topography. The water I tasted there, gurgling up from under algae-draped rocks and huge old roots, was so sweet and clear that I decided to scout around for the best campsite within a few minutes’ walk.
Making ever larger circles, with no small amount of effort, I found a spot up the side of one of the long forested ridges. A natural stone stair led up to a narrow but protected ledge half way up the slope. The ‘perch’ was some seven paces long and three to four paces wide–just enough room for my tent, a tarped-over table and chair, and a cookfire. Someone had made camp there before, though the evidence was not recent. I found ashes and cracked bones at about a hand-span down when digging out the most obvious spot for a small fire pit.
This seemed to be one of the wildest spots on the island, and as far as I was concerned, that was fine. A small clearing where several huge old trees had come down, between my new camp and the spring, became an excellent spot for a garden.
There were other signs around of a bygone civilization–I came across something new, and usually puzzling, every day. There were trails and stone roads, sprawling old orchards, circles of standing stones, and the occasional aerthwork. There was also a remarkable trio of tall polished red-stone spires far to the east. As I discovered them, I would map and sketch them.