I was walking down a long wide empty street when I met the first friend. His face would soon be one more among many, and I would lose track of his distinctive features, but on that first meeting his uniqueness would have been clear.
There were leaves flying in the wind all around me, and the sound of children playing in the distance, releasing tiny screams into the air like atomic explosions of enthusiasm. Several little restaurants were open on the street where I was walking and people ate quietly, reading a newspaper, chatting in soft voices, looking out at the world that only sometimes looked back.
I looked straight ahead of me as I walked and suddenly there he was. As much as I knew who he was, within the scheme of my unspoken story, he know who I was as well. We both instantly knew that we would travel far together. It was hardly necessary to exchange any words at all.
From that moment on, our loyalties and our purposes became entrenched with each other. We became a single voyager looking for ways to move through a strange world that we only barely understood. Our movements became so aligned that people would routinely confuse us with each other, even though we hardly looked alike.
We found others, one by one, in little bookstores, in dark alleyways, in old brothels, in desolate rooftops. From two we became three, from three we became four, and from four we became many. When there was as many of us as we needed, and maybe even more, we found a ship and we began to travel. We all knew that we were searching. The object of the search was never spoken but it was known in the way that only things unspoken can ever be known.
This invisible search would take us far away from everything we had ever known. We left behind the wide streets of the cities and the soft spoken people of the bookstores and the cafes. We dived into the great expanse of the open ocean, the endless flat blue surface that offered amazement and death from every cardinal point.
I remember many afternoons of sitting on deck, looking out at the waves, at the far off mountains that stood like lonely sentinels in the middle of blue emptiness, at islands that passed us by like fellow lonely travelers made of brown earth, green trees and shining black stones.
We traveled so long that we forgot ourselves, we forgot our previous existence but we never stopped to identify a new one. We began to notice that things had changed in ways we couldn’t have predicted. We were no longer the same men who left that quiet city that now only lived only in our memories. We were no longer in the same ocean that we had once stared at from the city’s concrete piers. This new ocean now stared at us with eyes of open and unforgiving mystery, it was a restless blue question that never offered an answer.
We had become something strange even to ourselves. Our manner of speaking to each other had changed. Our voices were rougher and louder than we remembered. Our bodies were strong and violent, they had lost the delicateness that had flourished in the languid afternoons of city streets. Our eyes were sharp and piercing, more like hunter animals than human beings. We looked at each other and we could only vaguely accept that we were still the same men that had set out on this great voyage, we could only vaguely accept it and surrender all misgivings before they became so large that they would swallow us like giant waves and bury us under their heavy weight of watery shadows.
It was around this time that I began to realize that this had all happened already, so many years ago that it was only understandable that I would have completely forgotten. It was around this time that I remembered the letter I had written to myself, the letter I was now in the process of writing, the letter that spoke of memories of the future, of things that had happened so long ago that I could only barely glimpse at them as they appeared on the thick manuscript page.
I was writing for myself, under the light of a dying candle, so that I would remember, so that I would recognize, so that I would know that everything I could conceive of as my life was in fact a memory. I had been running through it like bright light through an old film reel. It was all fixed and unmovable like a stone statue or an ancient island or a sphere of rock floating in endless empty space.
And then I saw the island itself, which rose out of the water like a kiss of earthly power on the waiting emptiness of the sky. It was a single peak, a volcano that loomed over our boat as we approached. It was surrounded by deep dark jungle which I could smell even from so many miles away. It smelled of strong life, life that drips hot and humid, life that claws and rips apart whatever stands in front of it, life that waits in dark holes under wet dead leaves.
We dropped anchor close to the island, close enough that we could make out the shape of the long green leaves, but far enough that we could still leave if we decided that it was better for us to do so. We all sat on deck and stared at the tall palm trees, at the thick dark bushes, at the open and untouched white beach. We all looked and looked, trying to spot danger if it waited for us in the green darkness. At last we decided that we could see no movement other than the wind, no life other than the trees, no hunger other than our own.
It was determined that we would disembark and explore the island. It was no longer clear to us what we were looking for there, maybe we were looking only for food, maybe for something more. We had changed so much that even the vague object of our search had been dissolved in the white oil of our own strangeness. Still the decision had been made and we prepared little boats for all of us, five to a boat and there were so many of us.
At the last moment I told them I would stay behind and wait for them. I would keep guard on the boat itself and on the island from a distance. I would look for something that we may have thought was only wind but could be otherwise, something that we may have thought was only trees but which could actually hide evil eyes.
It was agreed that I would stay and so I did. I watched them floating away on those little boats, and they waved at me with open smiles on their faces, their eyes newly washed in the fresh hope of adventure.
I found myself alone for the first time in as long as I could remember. It felt strange, as if I was missing several limbs, as if I had just lost essential elements of my body.
“How would I protect them if I saw danger coming? What would I do if it came for me?”
I read the words on the ancient letter and I nodded, knowing that the question was truthful and knowing that I had no answer, no answer at all. But still I looked towards the beach where the men were now leaving their little boats, and I looked towards the green edge of the jungle where the men were now disappearing one by one into the heavy darkness, and then I simply looked at the island itself which was now as quiet and still as it had been when we all had searched for suspicious movement.
I stood like that for so long that it seemed that nothing else would ever happen. Maybe they would never come back, and maybe the boat would never move from where it now was, and maybe I would never leave this spot where I was standing and maybe I would never know the difference. But just when I was completely convinced that nothing at all would ever happen, something did.
“Strange beings appeared from under the surface of the calm ocean water. They were half men and half fish, and they moved towards the ship where I was standing. Their skin was thick and covered in gills. Their bodies seemed strong like a shark’s and yet flexible like a stingray’s. Just as I had predicted, I could do nothing to stop them. There was nothing I could even try.”
The letter said it, and it happened just as it described. I stood fixed on the deck, unable to respond in any way that was reasonable for I was facing the end of reason, and it was scaling with many wet green hands and feet up the side of our moored ship.
Soon they were next to me, twelve of them altogether. Their eyes were big and shiny and black, and they stared at me and made no move to hurt me or even bother me in any way. Still I wanted them to disappear. It was their very presence that hurt me in ways I couldn’t pinpoint. Their presence burrowed under the skin of my perception and pulled at the exposed tissue of my understanding. I stood like that for hours and still I couldn’t bring myself to reconcile with the utter shock of these beings’ existence.
Eventually many of my fellow voyagers came back. They didn’t come back all once. For reasons that were never explained to me, they had become separated in the perpetual night of the jungle. As they returned, they found me standing on deck, surrounded by these strange creatures that didn’t speak or attack or leave or do anything at all other than exist and stare at us.
The men stared back at them and their eyes grew wide with fear. I realized that my eyes were pouring out the same fear that I now saw clearly in my faithful companions. It wasn’t a fear of violence or pain or even death. It was a much deeper fear that I had thought had disappeared from among us long before we embarked on this strange voyage. Our basic assumptions about the nature of this world we inhabited were in the process of being shattered.
I heard some of them crying, some of them talking quietly, some of them running below deck to hide in their own compartments. Some of them even jumped overboard, refusing to deal any further with the single great question that was now standing on our deck, dripping with green water.
I looked towards the calm ocean surface and I saw more of the strange creatures. They were floating there, staring up at me with their deep black eyes without pupils, eyes that were big and oval and empty. I looked back at them and then at the ones close to me.
We had changed so much, the men and me, and yet there was so much further we could go, so much more to discover. Maybe some of the men would continue with me. Maybe our voyage had only just begun.