‘You seem to enjoy this bit — talking to yourself.’
‘Yes, we are rather fine company.’
‘As opposed to what?’ thought the silent dragonfly nestling in the hollows of an old bark.
‘As opposed to whom?’ thought the dark ocean, as it gushed over a desolate shore.
‘Oh no, not this again,’ groaned the cold wind that was on night shift.
But the man sat huddled, impervious to voices save his own as he gathered his tattered rags about himself.
‘We could use a fire, you know.’
But the bark on the island was damp and wet. And the leaves refused to burn. It had been night after cold night of shivering between life and death, while the restless ocean churned on.
He had run out of body parts to name and notches to carve.
‘This place feels like home.’
‘Yeah, this is where the lost must live.’
‘You mean, this is the only place where lost isn’t lost?’
And the night wind sighed. Day 233, it thought to itself, how much longer will this stubborn thing last? His self-talk was getting crazier.
But in its empty boredom, the breeze felt there was still some fun left to have. Hiding behind the largest, oldest tree, it whispered, ‘We could have a fire. There’s so many of us — not all of us are needed.’
What was one more voice amongst so many?
And the man cocked his ear to one side and listened. The voice sounded like his own. Must be a part he had forgotten to name.
‘Is that you, Eliot?’ he yelled at his right leg.
‘Couldn’t be. All I can think of is sand and stone’
‘David?’ he yelled at his left leg.
‘Nah, it must be Eliot. Everyone’s always on about how smart he is. “Eliot’s always one step ahead!” He’s lying. It is him.’
‘Who’re you calling a liar, David? You wanna go? I’m right here! You and me outside, right now.’
‘Oh yeah, you think you’re so special? Remember when we learnt how to march, it was always left first – left-right-left. Yeah me! I was first, you cheat. But no, the right takes over everything, you right-wing fascist scum.’
And the man quickly crossed his legs so they couldn’t get at each other. The voice still echoed, and he strained his ears to locate its source but couldn’t. The night wind saw its mischief begin to work and whispered no more.
‘Who was that? Was that you, Henry?’ The man asked his right arm.
‘Are you kidding? I’m shivering so much right now, I can barely manage a sane thought. Certainly not a well-thought-out idea like that. Sounds like Eliot, if you ask me. He’s always been the brains of this group. I don’t know why the rest of you keep walking all over him.’
The man knew that Henry and Eliot had always been tight. In fact, he suspected it was Henry’s hand behind the incident that ended with David losing one of his toes. But this was not the time to bring that up.
‘Was that you, Michael?’ He asked his left arm.
‘C … D … G … must get the chords right. Am to E then F# … I don’t know how they do it … Two bars, break another tone bar and then break…’
‘No Michael, the voice. Was that you?’
The man heard the right leg speak. ‘Forget him. He’s broken; he’s been obsessing about that chorus sequence since we left. He’s been no help at all since we got here. C’mon Michael, snap out of it.
'You’re not at the academy anymore.’
These words had no effect on the left arm. ‘Must practise … show in three days must practice…’
‘Clearly, it couldn’t have been Michael,’ the man thought.
That left only Toby and Greg.
Toby was the brains of the group. He had been the one keeping them all together. He had been the one to tell David not to step on that suspicious-looking needled mushroom they had found on the other end of the island. The one who had told Henry to mash the unfamiliar pear-shaped fruit against the tree to crack open its shell. It was what had kept them alive all these days. Toby had also been the one to dissuade Michael from poking the star-shaped flower that grew in clumps in the tiny forest, the one that with nettles on its edges, and two days later they had found a half dissolved dead fly in one of them.
It couldn’t have been Toby; he was the one asking all these questions, the one trying to find out the source of this strange voice and stranger advice. He wouldn’t be the one advising caution and going through this elaborate process if it were his idea in the first place. But then, Toby had noticed the pear-shaped fruit grow fewer in number. They had been eating them faster than they grew.
The whole conversation was harder because Toby, as smart as he was, had really poor memory. He could never seem to remember who was what and which voice was whose. A lot of Toby’s grand plans and schemes were thwarted because of this.
Like that time he had to warn David not to step on an antlion trap, but he ended up yelling at Eliot instead, who declared a state of emergency, gave a speech about the vices of immigrants and the territorial loss of human superiority on the island, and proceeded to build a large wall around the antlion trap. In the process, he pranced around it, irritating the fuck out of the antlion, who then retaliated by climbing up David and injecting small quantities of lethal venom in various spots. It left David paralysed for two weeks, during which time there was a complete collapse in overall functioning. Eliot, meanwhile, prematurely built a cemetery for David, preparing a rousing eulogy using the incident as proof of malicious immigrant intentions and calling for public consensus to eliminate all antlions on the island. When David recovered, he tried to settle the score by kicking David on the ankle, forgetting the human body wasn’t designed for one leg stability. It took them an additional week to completely recover from this stupidity. Three entire weeks were spent with no gathering or hunting, living off whatever was within Henry’s reach. With David and Eliot engaged in a cold war, coordinated movement became impossible. Both refused to follow protocol and take one step after another. They either moved at the same time, leading to short bursts of pointless hopping, or refused to move at all, ending up crawling. This circus would have worked for a younger person, but after the age of thirty, they all agreed it was just pushing it. Another week spent in mediation and compromise followed. Finally, movement was restored only when Toby declared a state of emergency due to famine in all parts. Toby had created a little simulation of power brownouts through various parts of the body, pre-empting the actual starvation that would proceed. Hugh had warned that pressure was erratic and fading, and the pumping could only resume once power was restored. Eliot had taken this as an alien threat and was ready to secede, until he realized that this would require Henry taking an axe and physically separating him. Meanwhile, Henry was too busy trying to catch a bottle fly, in the hopes of eating it, but Toby’s orchestrated brownouts made it impossible for him to clench his fingers at will. This horrifying demonstration had worked as he expected, and everybody had fallen in line. The whole process seemed quite heartless, but, Hugh having been excluded, what else could it be?
It was that time of the night — the one-hour warning before the night chills began. Toby feared the night chills the most. Starvation was still a distant threat, but if they couldn’t keep warm, the night chills would pick off little bits of Eliot, David, Henry and Michael. David had already lost a toe and Michael had lost the smallest finger. These losses had compromised their perimeter defences and the border tribes were grieving the fallen warriors. The other day, it took them nearly an hour to fight a dragonfly; earlier it would take them only twenty minutes. They could gather food that would last for two days within a day now they could gather only enough to last for one day. They needed a plan.
And Toby heard the night wind’s words playing on a loop: ‘Not all of us are needed.’ It was true … sacrifices would have to be made for the survival of the whole. The question was, who could be tricked to the gallows? Toby realised that this wasn’t a new problem — humans existed to solve specific problems, which was how people had careers and made a living. If a specific problem could be solved for good, there would be no reason for the corresponding group of humans to exist, rendering them expendable. Very soon, they would be creating problems to justify their existence.
But he couldn’t take this decision on his own; Hugh would have to agree.
If there was someone Toby respected, it was Hugh. He had kept them going when he had failed to get into medical college. It was Hugh who had pulled them out of the gutter when Toby taken to the bottle, spending most nights hugging the toilet bowl. It was Hugh who had pulled Toby back from the 23rd floor of a random apartment building, when all Toby had wanted to do was let go and fall into the abyss below. It was Hugh who had kept Michael going, even when Toby had told him he played terribly and he was never going to make it as a musician. It was Hugh who had pumped his hardest through that night when Toby had drawn up a miscalculated drug dosage. They owed Hugh the last ten years. Even when there was talk of seceding, Hugh had been the first to request a compromise. When Toby felt lost and hopeless, he would call Henry, and they would both drive down and meet midway, somewhere around a nice bend in the throat and have a drink as old friends would. At some point in the evening, Hugh would slip some hope into the scotch that kept Toby going.
How could Toby now convince Hugh to trade lives? He had been quite clear when the union had been formed that was all of them or none of them.
‘Hey Hugh, do you have a moment?’
‘Do we really need to, Toby? The pumps aren’t working well, and I’d really like to keep an eye on them.’
‘Yes, we really need to. The usual place?’
Toby drove down to the little diner at the bend in the throat. The knowledge that this might be their last meeting made him drive just a little bit slower. He had never taken in the sights before, but today, he did. It was a good spot away from the prying eyes and ears. Stephen, who owned the place, was a good host and knew when to keep his mouth shut. By the time Toby got there, Hugh was already seated in his grease-covered denim overalls and his signature napkin hanging out from the butt pocket.
‘I’ve ordered our usual.’
‘Thanks, Hugh, but I’m not hungry today.’
‘Just pretend won’t you, Toby? I wouldn’t want Stephen to think anything was out of the ordinary. In the pump room, we always pretend it’s all under control. The pumps are skittish, and it keeps them calm.’
‘Good point, Hugh.’
‘How is the pumping going?’
‘We’ve re-calibrated the intake levels and diverted flows to priority areas. Most of the pipes are running on low pressure to ensure no ruptures … and I just got what you meant … no I haven’t thought about it, Toby. To answer your question, I am not aware of an overall kill switch for the machinery nor an option where we cease function painlessly.’
‘There must be something we can do, Hugh? To make it all seem passably normal. You could put me to sleep and then power down slowly. No one would ever know, Hugh. Or if there was some way you could just increase the pressure to let something rupture so it would be over quickly?’
‘Kill Bertie you mean … I couldn’t Toby, I couldn’t.’
‘Then let me do it.’
‘Never! Bertie will run until we can make her run, and then…’
Hugh got up and left the scotch glass empty and the eggs still hadn’t arrived. Toby left too; it was a long drive back. These days, roads broke down during the night chill, which left him with very little time to get back.
Two rocks, a handful of hair and a bone with some fat on it … two rocks, a handful of hair and a bone with some fat on it…
Hugh had been easy enough, Toby thought. Toby had presented the only option that could have countered Hugh’s and, while keeping his actual plan secret, had gotten Hugh to acquiesce to it. He knew if it did come up, he could always blame Hugh for his having taken this option. He knew this would sever any ties that remained between them. Imagine being a machine that had the ability to teach itself to inspect itself and then be able to hate itself if it didn’t like what it found. It didn’t make running any smoother. But then, as a machine, he knew his duty first was to ensure functioning. Why didn’t he question that as well? Maybe he didn’t want to. Questioning it would mean replacing a rock with an ocean. At least a rock he could cling to, just like Bertie did when the tide came in. The irony wasn’t lost on him.
Two rocks, a handful of hair and a bone with some fat on it … that was his rock. And the tide would take him in if he didn’t cling to it. The night chill had begun, and the extremities were slowly turning blue. The blue of the ocean in daylight.
‘Henry and Michael, we need two smooth rocks.’
‘No, we’re not having a showdown, Eliot. Stop trying to bludgeon David with the rocks!’
‘I don’t care if he’s a pacifist. We’ll talk about alien rights later.’
‘Henry, I want you to start pulling out hair. Don’t Stephen! Not a word will be uttered. Breathe through the pain.’
And a very bewildered man found himself pulling out his own hair. He chalked it up to a side effect of the night chill — maybe his brain was finally giving out. But then, it didn’t stop. He found himself unable to control his own arm from breaking off the leg with the foot still attached to it. He wondered why it was his left leg — that was the stronger one. The right had always been more obstinate not to follow his will.
Unable to control his own actions, the man put it all down down to madness.
A very angry David was laid down on the driest patch of sand covered with hair. Two rocks were struck — ceaselessly and unsuccessfully for want of a spark. The night wind was greatly amused by this bizarre dinner ritual. Let’s see them try to make a fire, he whispered. And then he stood still. A spark finally came through, as Michael played the opening verse of My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.
The hair — coarse and dry — was quick to catch fire, and it burned the lean, dead fat off David slowly. Toby wasn’t sure if the screams he heard were his own or David’s. The night chill was slow to retreat, but retreat it did, and Toby heaved a sigh of relief. He knew Hugh was straining under the pressure of the pumps going berserk; the valves were turned furiously, restricting flow to the parts that now hung limp.
‘Ah, a fire,’ mused the man, ‘this feels nice!’ He moved his remaining leg with his remaining toes closer to the fire to toast them up a bit. But the night wind saw the fire and was extremely agitated. ‘This will not do, it will simply not do,’ he grumbled. ‘This will just keep him here longer! He must be gone.’ And in a fit of fury, he did what he had never done before. He howled upwards and upwards, till he reached the end of the earth’s atmosphere. Even then, he did not stop. He howled till he reached the pale moon.
‘You must move the tide the other way; we must put out that fire. If you do, I will promise you thirty days of clear night skies. No clouds shall obstruct your magnificent glow. All of earth will be forced to look up in wonder and exclaim your glory!’
The night wind became more and more agitated.
‘Put out that fire! Surely you will not choose one human your fellow immortals.’ And the moon took the deal, tired of burning bright to make its light visible through the dense clouds. What was one more human, a human who had no business being there in the first place?
And the tide changed and inched closer towards the fire.
Toby was the first to notice the change. ‘This cannot be!’ How could the tide change? For all of the 232 days they had been there, it had never done so. Toby panicked. ‘We must not let the fire die.’ While David was easy to let go, Eliot wouldn’t leave without a fight, and yet, he had to be their next choice.
‘Eliot? Oye? What would you do to safeguard your land from the rebels? How far would you go to protect your rights?’
‘We must drive out the aliens no matter what it takes.’
‘Would you fight to keep them out? Even if you were alone? I don’t think you would, Eliot. I think you’re nothing more than plain talk.’
‘Of course, I would. Just tell me where they are, and I’ll show them. I’ll fight them alone, anything to protect our way of life.’
‘Good. This fire is an outsider. It’s trying to take over the island. Henry, Michael! You heard Eliot. Put him where the fight is.’
‘Why you … This will never make our land great again, I protest this tremendously, this will be disastrous … mark my words.’
And because Eliot was a whole lot stronger than David, the fire burned on despite the advancing tide. But the night wind promised the moon another thirty nights of clear skies and the night tide moved closer, faster.
The man with toasted fingers could now feel the brackish spray upon his cheek. It burned and stung, and the man inched closer to the fire till the ember of sparks flying from the flames left tiny burn marks across his arms. They stung like warm, angry hornets, but he was glad they were there. But the fire faltered as the waves lashed around it. The edges of the flames hissed as they died in tiny puffs of smoke.
It wasn’t going well for Toby. The fuel he had rationed for the entire night was being depleted in half the time. The night chill was still on and letting the fire go out was not an option. The cold of the night tide and the night chill would make sure they wouldn’t see dawn. He was now down to one last arm — the only thing left to keep the cold blue from creeping over the fingers all over again.
By now, the red of the blood outweighed the red of the fire. Between Michael and Henry, Toby chose Henry. Michael had sacrificed enough — his fingers numbed by years of pressing cold, hard metal strings to the fretboard. It felt only fair that Michael should stay longer. And poor Michael, who thought he was stringing up his guitar for the concert that had finally arrived, threw Henry over a flame eager for fuel.
In a different part of the sea, the moon’s antics had thrown an oil tanker bound for port hopelessly out of way. Puffs from its diesel engine were camouflaged by the dark of the night — its lights like tiny pinpricks that the man had earlier dismissed as errant flickers from the fire. And it was hard to blame him, for the loss of blood was making it harder to focus.
Toby kept an eye out on the horizon — as clear as his rapidly diminishing faculties allowed. Hugh was silent, but he registered his protest by limiting the flow to Toby. More blood was being sent to Michael’s slightly out-of-time chord formations than to Toby. If this were the end, Hugh preferred the poetic alternative, even if the music was mute. Michael had now moved to Hallelujah, almost as if an invisible conductor ruffling through his song book had picked an apt song for the moment. The final verse was punctuated by the unmistakable horn of an angry oil tanker dragging to shore. The fire on its final legs, the bones charred and mangled, let out an unmistakable stench and the sailors wondered what it could be. Eventually, they found the stump of a man — legless, with his left fingers still moving in silent rhythms. The stones on the coast had damaged the hull where the oil was stored, and unbeknownst to them, a silent river of black had been pouring into the blue.
The sailors hauled the part-man on-board. The night wind’s pact with the moon broke the tide and wind stood motionless. The tanker, which was beached, slowly pulled away. Behind it, the black river of wayward oil wound its serpentine way to the bones of half a man and an obstinate flicker that refused to die.
The fire burned for three weeks and three nights straight — an unmarked island found and lost. On board, Toby had found eager ears for his tale — voyagers bored and intrigued by the half man. And who could blame them?
After all, they were in fine company.
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