First Published in Issue 37 of The Beltane Papers
Remember that burnt over forests regenerate, the saplings nourished by ashes till birds nest again in their branches and animals seek sanctuary in their shade. Do not despair. In time, you, too, will stand firmly in your rightful place among suns and stars, though now you reel in free fall from strikes made long before your birth. Your feet will not even touch the ground because of the abundance of grass, leaves, and buds flourishing upon it where now you only stumble over rocky ground. You will never end before someone you love begins even if the rend violence has made in your spirit is now your only dwelling place.
The Island where I make my home is mostly deserted now, though once it was teeming with women. Smoke from their cooking fires rose like incense in a temple while their talk quickened the emptiness between us into an embrace. Every evening we would sit in a circle around a bonfire. The woman who had arrived most recently in a battered boat, a piece of wood set afloat in the open water, or floating on the tide, would be invited to tell her story. Each first told of how she had been forced from her world to come to the Island. This always led to a story that was a prelude of troubles to the first, then to another story and another, until they reached far beyond her own life to that of her mother and grandmother. When she finally became silent we knew that she was fully one of us.
This is the tale I told when my skin was still salt-dried from my voyage. My village had two river landings. One was where all the women came each dawn for water to carry to their homes. A half-hour’s walk away another landing had been left to ruin when the road to it had been abandoned for one newer and straighter. My mother had told me that the water at the ancient landing was sweetest so before each dawn I ventured to cup my hands in the chilled, pure water to drink. The drops would tumble from my mouth as I wiped the soot of my hearth from my face. Then, later, I would walk with the other women to the new landing as if I had never been out at all. All the women knew better, but said nothing.
However, while we strolled and sipped, chatted and labored, a plague was spreading from our well-buried ancestors in the village graveyard. It leapt from house to house like a flame racing among the rooftops. Once inside its host, it was fueled by small things, slights and dreads, some planted even before birth. Our friends and neighbors were consumed, replaced by the contagion hidden behind the face of the seamstress, the farmer, or the baker.
Anna was the first of many friends to be taken from us when those destroyed by the plague went hunting. The knock at the door came late at night when she was baking bread. She left the loaf in the oven thinking that perhaps she would be home before it was ready to feed to her family. By the time the bread was blackened and the hearth fire had burned itself out, her singed bones were cooling. With her last breath, she whispered into the dark of the village night “You have captured fire, but water is still ours.” Though not uttered louder than a gasp, somehow we all heard her. Perhaps her words were delirium, maybe prophecy, possibly a message to us, her friends, who may be next.
The next morning we gathered, as usual, to bring home the day’s water. Our children still needed to drink and wash and, besides, we had nowhere else to go. Into the river’s waters, the undefiled waters upstream from which I had drunk so many times, Anna’s destroyers had tossed in what had remained of her as if to annihilate her words as well as her body. We knew that one of us would be blamed that day for the water’s impurity and taken. Tomorrow someone else would disappear, until only the bees who would find no more flowers in our gardens would remember that we had ever existed.
One by one, we let our pitchers down to the ground and wandered away from the village. We took ourselves to the sanctuary of the sea where, as children, we had taught ourselves to swim in the living, black water. That morning we again shed our clothes, grasped each other’s hands, and walked into the waves. While my feet were caressed by the sand, I mourned the loss of my family’s bickering, of the sting of the smoke from burning leaves, of the moment kneading bread when time slows till it has no meaning.
The water rose over my hips and chest until the sea’s salty tears flooded my mouth and lungs, stilling my heart that would now never know desecration. In time, dead but not dead, alive but not alive, I again rose to the surface and floated to the Island, awakening on the shore. My companions lay in a circle around me, slumbering, seaweed twisted around their arms and legs.
When I was a child my mother had told me about an Island of Women far off in the ocean. All she knew was that women lived there together long, long ago when women’s lives were not as they are now. I never knew what she meant, but I had, over the years, built from those tiny nuggets a portrait of the Island in my mind.
When I washed up on the shore, I had lost everything that I knew so, I decided, all choices were now mine. I searched my memories for where I would most like to have landed. When the other women opened their eyes I welcomed them to our Island of Women.
Over the centuries, more and more women arrived and no one left, yet the Island never had too few or too many to live comfortably on its land. Perhaps this was because it was indeed the Island my mother had told me about or maybe we made it so because we believed and acted as though it was. Nor did the Island fail in her abundance to us. All around us, the sea embraced us, giving up life through the fish thrown onto the shores or the kelp on the tides. The land kissed us with berries, grapes, nuts, and seeds that dropped into our hands.
The Island was also generous with her peace. We closed our eyes each night knowing that no harm would disturb our sleep. In the morning we stood proudly on our feet, confident that no one would strike us to the ground by evening. Danger from the Island or any of those who lived on her was simply unthinkable and so we were not afraid.
Even our very experience of the day was not like before. We would awaken where we had had lain down the night before, bringing nothing to the dawn but what we most treasured from the day before. We no longer needed the security of each day being like the last and so we ate, worked, contemplated, and slept when and where we chose. Day by day, each of us made her hours more of a portrait of herself, reflecting her desires and nature. We were like butterflies whose flights make different shapes but who sometimes light on the same blossom to rub wings.
When we would first tell our stories of how we had come to the Island, we always stumbled when naming those who had driven us here. “Tormenters,” “pursuers,” “torturers,” “murderers” all were true enough, but after we had been on the Island for some time, we began to call them “Exiles.” We were home while they were so alienated from the land of their birth that they would even steal the elements for themselves.
Five thousand or more times I splashed the Island’s water on my face and came away clean, until the day that my eyes burned and my skin felt oily. The sensation was so unknown by then that I pondered for days what it meant till a sister, recently arrived, told me “We have not escaped at all. We may have eluded the Exiles for a moment, but our daughters suffer in our place.” The flames had not been quenched, even after centuries, and its sparks had scattered the plague so far it had finally come back to us.
This time the sea offered no sanctuary, yet, back to the sea we must go to save ourselves, our Island, and our daughters. Since none of us had navigated ourselves to the Island, we could only build our boats and set ourselves adrift to land where the waters carried us. So I traveled until I came to a place and time I did not know.
I crawled onto the sand and made my way to a plain where nothing can be hidden. Each time I encountered one of this place’s inhabitants, I reached out until one returned my touch with a barren stare and I knew this being was an Exile. When I did not bow or run, the Exile had found an enemy. The space between us became a battlefield alive and fierce. The Exile I faced, who had perhaps tortured and killed someone from the Island I loved, began to spew words I did not know and, when I kept silence, could only growl.
The Exile was amazed that I did not flee nor was I knocked to the ground. All that was hurled at me was like a baby’s breath and, finding no place to take hold in me and grow, it moved on and dissipated like particles of smoke on a cloudless day. The remains of what had captured my sister and taken her life were to me only a rush of meaningless sounds and strikes of wind blowing past me. Finally, the arsenal was empty and the Exile faced me empty-handed, muttering a last word.
When the Exile glanced at my hands to see the weapons with which I had warded off the blows, my eyes followed and I beheld what I had gained on the Island that I did not have in the village. Between my fingers were pictures I had drawn in the sky with stars, piles and piles of fruit sorted during content hours, pots of fragrant tea shared with friends, and thousands of women’s stories of their voyage to the Island. Though all the stories were from different times and places and each unique, all were, in the end, also the same. In each of these pure moments without illusion or deception, my vision had grown clearer so that when I looked at the Exile standing alone on the plain, I saw only the truth in front of me. Outside of one time and place, the Exile had no power. In those instants when I did wish to flee, my feet were stilled knowing that someone with whom I had shared friendship and joy was facing an Exile from my own village for me. I knew that I was not alone.
I turned and walked back to the shore. The Exile, frozen by vision that focuses all sights through the tiniest lens, could only stand on that plain until death finally ended the war that only the Exile had truly fought. In time, maybe a month, maybe centuries, forests and lakes will take root, overgrowing what happened there. People from the future may remember a strange story about a confrontation but mostly they will come to seek shade from the trees or look upon the face of the ocean as the sun fades.
When all was done I stepped back into my canoe and drifted home to the shores of the Island. I gathered apples and waited for all the women to return. As each boat landed, the woman in it ran into the arms of those who were waiting for her on the shore. Finally she sought out the woman whose exile she had faced down and embraced her, saying “Thank you. Thank you.”
We shook ourselves till the skeletons and cast-off skins of our own and our ancestors’ memories fell onto the ground. We heaped them onto our own fire roaring with the fuel’s desiccated fury. Then when we were done we poured water onto the fire until the last ember was cold. Even when every ash was gray, we kept bringing bucket after bucket, wanting no stray spark to escape. We thought of our own and our sisters’ stories, of what we had seen and come to know in life and in the eyes of Exiles we had faced. We poured until we had forgotten what fire was like when it warmed our bodies or transformed wheat, salt, and water into bread. We stamped on the embers until the annihilation within ourselves was complete.
When I went to the shore to drink the next morning, the water was dead. Though I drank cup after cup, my body was still parched. When I drizzled the water on plants, they withered. When I sat by to the spring to watch its meanderings, it spilled onto the ground but never bubbled. As life sparks life, so had death fueled death.
I waded into the sea and stared into its depths. I did not know what I might find there, but where else could I look? In the sea’s surface I saw a conflagration such as would have lit all the fires that had ever been. Since the water’s depths held only a void, I raised my eyes to the stars, the origin of the flames in the water that merely reflected their radiance.
As I had once fled to the sea, I rose into the sky, no longer bound to the earth by the weight of my body. When I looked down at our planet I saw that she was as cold as when the flames first came down to her surface millennia ago to warm the icy seas and create new life.
I flew into the sky’s fire and found that, once I had passed the outer rim of the flames and wiped away the last remnants of my singed flesh, the profound silence of that place stilled me. Here life is an absolute, not something that can be given or taken at the whim of myself or others. All I needed to do was hold out my hand and all the fire our planet could desire was given me.
I scattered the sparks on the seas till the fish swam up from the depths to flash back at the stars. I salted the mountains and plains until no landscape would be a desert that should be a forest. The last sparks I tended into a bonfire that drew all the women on the Island to its circle. Each brought her daughters by the hand. Since each woman is the daughter of someone, who is, in turn, the daughter of someone else, the women arrived not individually, but as one. The warmth of each woman’s body gave rebirth to her daughters. We were all free to leave the Island and make our homes wherever we wished. Only I and a few others stayed, the rest returning home or to some place that they had always wished to live.
Those of you who are still living, who drive to offices in cars, who cook dinner for your families over ranges, who dwell each day not knowing of life on the Island, do your bones and your heart feel what has happened? You may now stand firmly in your rightful place between suns and stars, your feet not even touching the ground because of the abundance of grass, leaves, and buds flourishing upon it. Now you will never end before someone you love begins. But maybe once a year you will gather on the Island around the bonfire. Do not remember us with memorial wreaths but invite your daughters and granddaughters yet to be born to come down from the sky to receive jubilant, warm flesh on this their home, their earth.
This story is dedicated to those who still, all over the world, risk everything so that others may live and that a new world may be reborn.