I Am An Archipelago

By Joel Allyn


4,700 words

A man finds himself on an island with a shifting landscape, perfect weather, and the physical embodiment of all his favorite memories just as he recalls them.

No man is an island

I am an archipelago. I would say I am an island but popular opinion states this cannot be so.

Upon further study of the environment I found that though my far-seeing place is removed from everything there are a few other islands, though their connection to my island was not at first apparent to me, or they may not have even been there at all. I am aware that island chains aren’t formed overnight, but time is funny there. One night I shaved my head and when I woke the next day my hair was at least three feet long.

Exactly how long I was there I can’t say – days, or years – but I know it was not forever. I remember knowing that there had been a time before the island – nee archipelago – and while I struggled to remember inane details like the year, age or my occupation, I had not forgotten the face of my father. I walked the place’s coastline countless times, always discovering new things upon each expedition. You see, my island shifts its landscape when my back is turned.

One day I woke to find a pier connected to the beach, on it was an entire carnival. Its manifestation came at a time early on when I had not yet become accustomed to the places fluctuations. I fought the curiosity pulling at me and resisted the urge to explore, until night fell. Once the lights of the giant Ferris wheel lit up and began oscillating they hypnotized me, and I was helpless to resist its allure. The pier groaned under my weight as I walked between the rows of empty booths. The place smelled of popcorn and cigarette smoke. I heard the faint whispers of people all around me, the occasional barker’s yell rising above the murmurs – though besides my creaking footfalls and the great wheel, the place remained motionless.

As I reached the wheel’s peak I realized, looking down on such a wondrous view, that though I heard whispers far away, there were no other people coming. I had not forgotten I was alone there, but I still had absurd expectations folks would’ve come out for the carnival. I found it sad that there was no one else, because they were missing out on this precious viewpoint of paradise, but I was exuberant in the knowledge that it was all for me. On that night at least, alone at the top of that Ferris wheel, I truly was an island.

One of the things I love about the place is all the banyan trees and bamboo which are never the same one day to the next, and not just because they grow so damn fast. The ever-shifting landscape lends elasticity to typically fixed vegetation. I walked north through the bamboo and banyan jungle one time for three days straight without stopping. When I exited the jungle on the other side of the island I turned around to find there were no more trees there, they had been replaced by a hundred foot waterfall running from a huge rock wall into an inviting crystal pool. I jumped in without hesitation and the water was perfect, of course it was. I swam for hours, or what felt like hours. I floated on my back with my ears underwater, hearing nothing but my breath. I stayed that way long enough to watch the sun set and the stars come out one by one.

I slept beside the waterfall and woke lying near a pool of lava which had recently hardened. I learned to be careful about where that volcano may move to, sometimes it disappeared entirely. But as long as I was careful I never worried that anything there would hurt me, nothing yet gave me reason to believe otherwise.

I wasn’t always alone there, on a few occasions I had visitors. This didn’t surprise me, if I could get there why then couldn’t others? The first one to show up was my sister – we sat on a hill overlooking a stretch of grassy beach and had a picnic. There was an oak tree big enough to give us shade, and we sat there barefoot in the grass eating and getting a little drunk. I couldn’t really understand her, her voice sounded like she was speaking through a pillow, so we mostly sat in silence. We understood each other well enough without words. When I blinked and found myself alone I thought then that her visit may have just been a dream. We’ve always helped each other out and so I feared it was probably just wishful thinking, a comforting mirage of sorts.

The next one I can recall was a girl I’d gone out with in high school, Jasmine or Jackie or something like that. She came out of the surf like something made fresh and new, and though she looked different she still smelled the same. I’ve never forgotten that smell, a strange mix of vanilla and citrus, and smells always take you right back, don’t they. We shared a joint she’d brought–and miraculously kept dry – just as we had when we were kids and would sneak out to meet up. Then we stuck to tradition and made love; first on the beach as the sun set, then later under the moon, and then under the sun again. We talked after and laughed together until nightfall, reminiscing over inside jokes and other forgettable nonsense important to no one else.

It’s funny the way memory works there, I still couldn’t remember the names of my brothers or even  my own middle name, but I could remember that simply biting my lower lip set this girl off and brought out that wonderful laugh I have since forgotten. We each enjoyed a cigarette in silence, and then she went off to ‘water the plants’, kissing me on the forehead as she went. While laying there in the warm sand I drifted off, and when I rose later I was on a grassy hill and it was raining, she was gone.

Both my mother and father showed up as well on separate occasions trying to get me to go with them. I found it strange when I saw my mother swimming to shore, and not just because she couldn’t swim but because she had died years before I ever reached the island. She looked as thin as she had when the cancer had finally taken her, so I scavenged around and fixed her something to eat. I joined her out of politeness but I didn’t eat much. I didn’t have much of an appetite there and ate only when I had a taste for something. When she asked me to play her some of her favorite songs I said I didn’t have a guitar with me, adding that I was sorry. She looked at me with her brows furrowed, the way she had done when I was a boy, telling her the bathrooms were clean when we both knew different. She asked what that was behind me then. I turned to find my first real guitar resting there in the sand as if I’d just laid her down not a moment before.  A beautiful solid top steel string acoustic, furnished by hand from a warm dark cherry wood, still smelling slightly of glue and sawdust as it had the day my mother and I split the damage at Chicago Music. When I picked it up and played ‘Moonlight Sonata’ for her the strings rang out strong, but delicate.  Besides requests for ‘Blackbird’, ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’, ‘Hotel California’ (which I had to refuse, I wouldn’t play the Eagles if it was her dying wish) and ‘anything by Dylan’ she didn’t say much. What little  she did say was confusing.

I didn’t bother to ask where she came from or how she’d found me, I only wanted to make her comfortable. She said I should go with her, but I told her I didn’t feel like leaving yet, and I especially didn’t want to go swimming into the ocean. Besides death, I had only a vague idea of what waited out there in the endless blue abyss. She said she understood, and that it took her a while to get up the nerve to swim to me in the first place, but it ended up not being so bad. She gave me a big hug and we kissed goodbye. She dived back into the clear water and faded slowly into the waves. I watched her go and as her form disappeared into the dark blue horizon I felt a sadness I had not gone with her into the unknown, but wherever she had come from, I knew I didn’t yet want to go there. I felt terrible, but still felt bad for not feeling worse. Like so many other times in my life I was not crying at a moment when I felt like I should be – like it was expected.

The night she left the stars sped up their movements for the first time, and I watched them grow curved tails above my head. Aurora borealis danced through the sky in a real life time lapse and the moon skittered its way across the heavens in only a couple of hours. In what should have been one night I witnessed two sunsets and three sunrises. I wonder now how I never guessed then what was going on. In retrospect, it seems so obvious.

When I woke one day to see father had shown up, I was a bit more concerned. I figured mom had spoken with him somehow and had sent a reinforcement to try to talk some sense into their foolish boy. The firmness I had come to expect was absent however, and when he spoke he was near tears. It was rather shocking to see him this way. I couldn’t really make out the words he was saying, it was as though he were speaking from far, far away. Though I would recognize that voice even as a faint whisper from beyond eternity. I’d like to say something sweet like ‘you never forget the voices that taught you to speak’ but in truth he’d always treated me like a dog, and a dog never forgets its master’s voice.

I got the gist of what he wanted. Like so many times before we didn’t want the same thing for me, and I couldn’t abide to lose this place just to make him happy. I was used to the disappointment that showed on his face when I declined his invitation. He turned from me without speaking. As he walked away down the beach he looked older to me, more fragile now, as if he had suffered some trauma which had aged him at least five, maybe ten years. Then again maybe it was just that place that made it seem that way, time is funny there.

Both of my brothers popped in as well, and we explored the jungle the way we had journeyed through the woods as boys. I heard their voices as whispers from time to time, but when they showed up they only shared stories with me from our youth and never asked a thing of me. I loved them for that. I knew they wanted me to come with them too, but they knew better than to ask.

I found a radio buried in the sand on one of my walks. When I tuned it I heard a cacophony of sounds that slowly became more focused, until eventually they formed notes, then melodies until the thing started playing one after another of my favorite songs – and commercial free! This truly is paradise, I thought. Yet I would be a liar if I said I didn’t wonder from time to time if I could leave. That is of course if I wanted to.

Not everything was perfect, exactly. Things were strange and not strange at all, familiar and unfamiliar and I loved that. Yet when I found a movie screen one night and watched a couple of my favorite films they were…off, somehow. Like something was missing. The same thing happened when I found the tablet. I saw a massive tortoise on the beach, and when I moved in to see it up close there was a black tablet sticking six inches straight out of the ground like a miniature 2001 monolith. I picked it up and it reminded me of The Book from that old Douglas Adams Galaxy series. As it lit up in my hands I half expected it to start telling me about a restaurant at the end of the universe, instead it had a list of all the books I love and had dearly missed since being there. Though as I read through Gatsby and Poe’s tales, King’s short stories and and even some childhood cornerstones they all seemed… a bit off. It’s hard to explain, they were all exactly how I remembered them, but that was what was wrong.

I realize now what it was. Whenever you revisit a movie or book you love and cherish, one of the best parts of the experience is not just the rediscovery but always finding that you remembered something wrong, that you missed or forgot some detail which then further enriches your appreciation for it. That was not the case on my island – they were all exactly as I remembered them. I started to worry if I could keep it all straight. I started to fear that if I remembered Moby Dick being blown up by an air tank in his mouth after he swallowed Jonah and Gepetto, then perhaps when I opened The Book it would show me just that. I was already having enough difficulty recalling specifics about my life, how the hell was I supposed to keep the whole of literature, film, and music straight? Luckily, soon after I found The Book, the dog I’d worshipped as a boy showed up. He served as a welcome distraction from my building stress and paranoia.  We had a great time playing together and for a while I was happy again, once again enjoying my private paradise without worry. When night fell he ran into the brush and left me alone there on the beach.

I waited for the next visitor to show up, but none ever came. Once again, for a while, I was an island.

Fell asleep one night watching a storm off in the distance, it was the first big one I’d seen there and it was massive. I awoke in the morning to a piercing scream. When I shot up and looked around I was alone but heard my sister’s voice, still part of the whispering chorus but much louder than normal. I struggled to make out what I could, but only got bits and pieces. Over the waves I managed to catch No…he’s…there…wait…time…please…Cyrus… I tuned it out and busied myself chopping up a tree for firewood.

I played the radio while I did this busy work, but the songs started to sound tinny to me and they were repeating far too often now. The original vast catalogue of my favorites had dwindled down to only a few songs I got stuck in my head from time to time. The ‘Lion Sleeps Tonight’ or ‘Bird is the Word’ variety or some other awful pop song that despite your best efforts you could never forget.  When The Eagles ‘Take it Easy’ came on I clicked off the damned thing and pitched it into the ocean. I had my guitar around here somewhere if I needed to hear music.

I saw that the volcano was higher than usual and decided to take the chance to hike up to its summit and see what I could see. Once up there I could observe all the smaller islands dotted around mine that make up the archipelago. From that height I saw that my island was shaped in a rough triangular form, the smaller islands formed a half circle surrounding one tip. The vision reminded me of a sun setting behind a pyramid, the skyward point cutting a pie slice into the massive star. On the opposite side of the island – what would be the base of the pyramid – I saw on what that day was a rocky shore, that there were several large stones jutting out of the water just beyond the beach. The stones, like the smaller islands seemed to form a shape, but instead of a circle they formed what appeared to be a figure eight or the symbol for infinity.  I heard a grinding noise like a jammed car transmission and underneath it a strange beeping noise that was getting louder and louder. I turned and saw the smaller islands started shifting their positions and I felt the still giant beneath my feet start to rumble. It felt like I was suddenly standing atop a massive subwoofer and just as I thought  I should hurry down from here, the shadows all over the island started sweeping from one side to the other.

Looking up I saw the sun had started speeding up its trek across the sky. An absurd image bloomed in my mind of it wearing a number and running a marathon, quickening its stride from a slow walk to a steady jog. As I followed its progress, it sped up faster and faster and it was only then I noticed the great star was moving from west to east. It vanished with blinding quickness, and in the blink of an eye it was gone and the full moon was already a third of its journey across the sky. The speed of the orbiting spheres increased exponentially. I began to feel queasy and looked away. Behind the plethora of noises I heard the sound of my sister’s voice again, somehow both louder and more distant than before, a whisper both far away and right inside my head. Then her voice loud and clear boomed like a shotgun blast in my ear. Please Cyrus! Please.

The ground beneath me shook violently. I observed everywhere below me the trees, bamboo and rocks all fading to nothing, receding like a shrinking tide. Due to the sun’s speed their diminishing shadows whipped back and forth on the ground, resembling windshield wipers blurring side to side, side to side, side to side. It had been so foolish of me to go so high when I knew the impermanent state of my island. I repeated all the useless questions that came to mind. I had all I needed down below, why did I have to take this foolish chance, why did I follow such a careless compulsion?

The sun and shadows sped up their progress and now instead of dialing a dimmer switch somebody was just flicking the lights on and off, on and off, on and off, faster and faster and faster. I closed my eyes, I couldn’t stand it anymore.

I felt the sensation of being pulled in circles, as if I was standing in the middle of a merry-go-round while somebody whipped it around quicker and quicker, my balance being pulled in different directions every moment and my equilibrium starting to fail. My nausea increased and I began to feel a deep pain in my ribs along my left side. It felt like something was trying to rip me off my island, flick me off like some pesky insect. I bent to my knees and gripped the dark rock under my feet, squeezing hard, pleading with it not to leave me, not to vanish while I was so high up. It couldn’t hear me, couldn’t control itself, or was just indifferent. I felt myself being ripped from my island.

Right before the solid rock turned to air I looked out again, not above or below at the sickening shifts but out, and I remember thinking, the storm is back on the horizon again.

As I fell I grabbed at the air, hoping something would appear for me to latch on to, but all I felt was a tightening in my stomach and the pull of gravity’s cruel embrace. When I looked down to see how it would end for me I couldn’t believe my eyes. Since coming to my island I became accustomed to seeing all sorts of peculiar things, impossible things, but after a short adjustment period they never seemed odd to me. I understood you see. What I understood I didn’t exactly know nor did I try to articulate it – words would have cheapened it – but it was always there in the back of my mind reassuring me, and I understood. What made it easier to deal with is that most of the impossibilities occurred gradually, and if not they occurred behind my back, so it was simply like turning the wheel on a huge viewfinder. One image, pull the lever, a new image, a transition but a slow one and that was fine. This rapid pace of shifting scenes was just a sickening blur. I was falling towards a vat of bubbling lava, then a crystal clear pool, the next instant it was a bamboo forest, the next a mountain of sharp rocks, then grass, a tree, sand dunes, water, rocks, lava, a dark pit, a hot spring, a field of flowers, a batch of banyans…my island was fading away. I was losing it. I closed my eyes and waited.

It wouldn’t be like a dream, I knew that somehow. Whatever it was, it was not a dream. I wouldn’t be lucky enough to wake before I smacked into whatever the roulette island landscape landed on at the moment of my impact. I held my eyes closed tight and refused to give in to curiosity. As I descended, the pain in my ribs became unbearable and I felt more and more nauseous. On top of that, my legs now hurt and my left arm felt like it had been shattered. It took forever to finally hit, but of course time is funny there.

Right before I crashed into what ended up being a hard horizontal wall of water I remember two things. First, I had the most inappropriate – or perhaps most appropriate given my predicament – thought that the atoms which made me up were ancient, that I had possibly been a part of some long dead dinosaur, an exploding star, or even a drop of water. We are made of sand and it’s like a sand castle being washed away, the same granules are used the next day to build a new castle. I realized that no matter what, my atoms would go on without me and reform, and be a part of something else. It’s not reincarnation exactly, but I think it’s as close to eternal life as we can hope for. The other thing was hearing my sister’s voice boom again like she was right next to me, yelling in my ear. Wake Up!

I hit the water with a loud smack. I felt it mostly in my cheek.

Much later and right away, I opened my eyes again. That annoying beeping I’d heard was clear as a bell now, too clear. The island was gone. My sister was there, so were my brothers, even my father. I couldn’t help thinking and you were there, and you, and you. I tried to smile and a bolt of pain sliced through my head. They all looked at me, shocked. My sister was crying and hugged me so hard I let out a ragged, choked cry. My ribs were throbbing and my cheek was on fire. She pulled back and apologized, then said she was sorry for shaking me, and for smacking me.

The doctor was there and he asked what I remembered. I remembered the island of course, but for how long I wondered. I waved off their questions and asked for a pen and some paper. I had to hurry, I was afraid it would fade away forever like some dream – that perhaps it was already fading – and soon it would be less than a memory. It never did fade though; I can still remember all of it.

When I’d jotted enough of the details down to feel I could finish later I set the pad aside, turned my attention back to my patient audience, and asked how long. More had come back to me. I barely remembered the car hitting me, I just remember leaving the grocery store on my bike and pulling out into the bike lane and then…and then… well, then the island. Drunk driver of course, isn’t it always. They said the coma had only lasted a couple weeks, though they all look as though they’ve aged ten years in that short span. Time must be funny here.

I found out that, per my wishes – the same ones I still have – since I did not want to be left on life support beyond a three week period if it appeared I would not be returning, or not returning mentally intact, that they were on the verge of pulling the plug. My sister, – Marie, now that I can remember her name again – knew better than most what I wanted, but since there had been no severe brain damage in the accident she refused to accept that I was gone. She told me later that she knew I was in there somewhere. She hadn’t seen me in a dream or anything like that, she just knew.

“Had you been a vegetable, I would have been the first one in line to suggest yanking the power and tossing you to the nearest necrophiliac.” She said. “But they showed mental activity, a hell of lot of it. Apparently it was way more than normal. They just tossed around the word anomaly, and they wouldn’t even bother trying to understand or explain it. They all talked about options but nobody would do anything!”

I loved her at that moment more than ever, and she’s the only one I ever told about the island. She is the only one, I think, who would ever believe such a thing. When I jokingly said, “I am an island” it was she who said, “Well from what you’ve d described, technically you’re an archipelago.”

It’s taken me a year of physical therapy to get up and walking on my own again, and even now I walk with a cane and a limp, but I can walk and that’s enough. I do miss the island sometimes and wonder if I’ll ever see it again. I think I might but I can’t be sure, I do hope so. Maybe next time I won’t be so scared of the ocean, and I’ll go for a swim.

While I’m around I’ve been enjoying all my favorite things, and they’re sweeter than ever. I am after all a cast away returned to the mainland, and such an event in one’s life allows you to indulge in life’s simple pleasures, and experience the nuances of every small joy. I’ve been listening to music nonstop and in addition to tearing through my ‘to read’ list I am rereading all my favorite books, zooming through The Dark Tower series right now and it’s better than I remember. Recently I checked Moby Dick, and was reassured to find Ishmael still kicking things off and Moby Dick not being taken out like a certain famous great white. Marie and I were lucky enough to catch a matinee showing of one of my favorite old Scorsese films last night and it was better than ever. It really is amazing how much you overlook or just plain forget about.

No matter how many times you’ve seen a thing, there’s always something you missed.


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