Tuesday, August 23, 2011
126/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Fitz and the Dizzyspells" by Andrew Bird
When I woke up I didn't remember anything about being a pilot. I guess I was knocked out pretty good. All there was above me was the cracked window of the cockpit and a bright blue sky. It gave me vertigo, like I was looking down instead of up. I was lying on my back still strapped in, like they did in the space shuttle when they were waiting for take off, but I wasn't going anywhere. There was a metallic bump-bump-bump as the plane got buffeted gently by waves. The dash was leaking engine oil through the instrument casings onto my chest and legs. I was soaked through. There were a surprising number of flies and they congregated over my left knee and probably elsewhere. I let them be. In the back of my mind I remembered that maggots were good for cleaning wounds of bacteria. I didn't know where I was. I figured pretty quickly that I'd been there a good while, and if I'd been there a good while then there probably wasn't any help coming for me any time soon.
I remember the bad smell, the smell of rotting meat. I figured it wasn't me, despite my bashed up knee. I unstrapped and had to grab the stick to keep from sliding back. I remembered how to open the door, but that's not hard I guess. I kicked it open--the plane wobbled and slid a few inches and came to a crunching stop. Water sloshed. I maneuvered around and looked down, towards the back of the plane. There was another row of seats with two passengers submerged.
"Oh shit," I said. Their faces were already bloated and ghostly. It was a man and woman, probably kind of young. I pegged them as honeymooners. I guess I was taking them somewhere. The woman had orangey hair that flowed around her in a halo. Her eyes were closed. The man had his head split open and his brain was swelling out the side of it.
I climbed down. The plane was wedged between tall wet igneous rocks. I stepped down onto a flattish one. I still had my shoes on back then or I would have cut my feet on the little broken glass-like bubbles on its surface. The plane was missing one of the wings, but the other still looked good. The tail was crumpled into the depths of ocean water between the rocks. There was a rainbow sheen on the surface. It was probably a miracle the whole thing didn't explode on impact. I must have been a god awful pilot.
The rocks were in a lagoonish area protected by a distant reef. The waves crashed white on it. The noise of it was constant but I got used to it. And then there was the island, about a hundred yards from the crash. I eased into the water. The bottom was sand mixed with rocks and coral but I was mostly able to walk to shore.
I sat on the beach for a while that first day. There were some trees right down there and I sat under them. I knew the island wasn't big and I wasn't optimistic. My lips were cracked and bleeding and I knew the first thing I was supposed to do was find fresh water, but I didn't want to look because I was afraid there would be none to find so I sat and looked at the crumpled plane and wonder who the people inside I killed were.
But I did get up and I did find water--always look for places that could collect rainwater--and I found trees with fruit, and plenty of crabs. I collected a lot of crabs, from on trees and right on the ground, and I bashed their little brains in with a rock, right between those black pin needle eyes.
The days moved on. There was a spectacular tropical sunset every night where the sky got pink and purple and the clouds on the horizon looked like they fluoresced. I did get maggots in my knee. The feeling was...interesting, but I knew they were doing important work. When everything looked healthy pink I picked them out one by one. I thought about eating them, but ended up tossing them into the ocean. My knee healed up pretty nice.
Eventually I went back out to the plane. The stench was unbelievable and I vomited up crab and guava a couple of times. I pulled the plane down on its side, which took at least an hour. The water drained out and pulled the bodies out. I floated each one back on their stomachs so I couldn't see their faces. They got buried under sand that I dug out with my hands.
Back in the plane I retrieved their luggage, and I pulled apart whatever looked useful from the plane. I had handfuls of wire and pieces of metal and dials for things. I ripped out the front two seats and they made good bedding for a couple years before they finally disintegrated. I tried yanking apart the fuselage with sticks and my hands but it was futile. I soaked up as much oil as I could into my shirt. I used it to help me get a fire going the first time. You know it's really a bitch to get a fire started with sticks and tinder. You've got to keep it going always or it's a huge time-wasting hassle to deal with. I had roasted crab a lot before I got sick of it.
The luggage was interesting. It confirmed they were honeymooners. Jean and Michael James. They were packed light. I guess they expected to be wherever it was they were headed for only a few days. Michael's crap fit me pretty well, and better as I lost weight. I used the thread from Jean's clothes to make tools and a fishing net, and I no longer was stuck eating crab. The lagoon was just crawling with life, so I never really went hungry. It was a lot of work, but I would dive under, into relative muteness though I could still hear the crashing waves at the reef, and I'd watch the fish, all sorts of colors, darting around, and I'd just scoop them into the net like I was capturing them to be sold at some exotic fish store.
Also in the luggage was a book. I guess it was Jean's because it was a romance novel. The cover had a swirling pink title, with a mediocrely painted couple entwined in each other's embrace. I let the book dry out over a couple of days. The pages were stiff but the print was readable. I read the thing because there wasn't any other entertainment around.
The couple was Leo and Lucy, and Lucy had time-traveled to the Bahamas of 1775. It wasn't clearly explained how. It was really a story about how a modern age woman, lamenting a lack of chivalry in society got to experience her fill of it from an earlier time. Apparently she didn't missing indoor plumbing (which I sorely did right about then), modern medicine, or civil rights. Leo was a tall dark and handsome brigand with a tortured soul. There were sex scenes on pages 49-51, 78-79, 92-94, and 120-125. I turned down the corners on those. By the end of the book Lucy decided to stay in the past and get married to Leo. Leo changed from being all dark and brooding and crime committing, to an optimistic, loving, respectable plantation owner. They swanned around in period clothes, watched sunsets, and drank iced tea (which I believe was anachronistic for the era). The was an epilogue that promoted the next book in the series with a teaser of dark things to come to Lucy and Leo's Bahamian plantation, including a slave revolt (I'd be cheering for them), a plague of locusts (also cheering), and a new interloping brigand threatening to tear Lucy away from her beloved Leo.
I didn't touch the book again for a couple of weeks. It sat out in the sun getting all faded and bleached. I fished, I ate, I slept, and I watched the horizon for planes and boats. I tried to remember my past and who I was and what I did, but it was all very patchy. I taught myself how to climb palm trees. I collected fruit seeds and dug in the dirt and planted them. I remembered the story about the Easter Islanders, Rapa Nui, I remember that, about how they deforested their island to make those rock heads. So I decided to grow trees, even if they wouldn't be grown while I was still there. Mostly I was bored out my mind.
I read the book again, skipping over the boring paragraphs. I tried to imagine Leo and Lucy in the next book. I invented new characters, the slaves who revolted. The new brigand I relegated to a minor role. He killed Leo and kidnapped Lucy and the slaves got to live in the big house. They decided to plant food instead of sugar and started running their own commune. A missionary wandered into their milieu and he taught them how to read and write, and then he went away and spread communism to the world a century early and radically changed the global timeline. I had men and women landing on the moon in 1880 rather than 1969, and they stayed and built moon colonies, with glass domes and moon buggies and monorail. I named the first babies born on the moon Jean and Michael. They were twins.
After a few days that story just fuzzed out, burdened by it's own grandiosity. I swam out to the reef and examined the open ocean beyond. I scanned the beaches of the island in detail, and scooped up a great pile of broken, worn plastic. None of it was particularly useful, it was just the dregs of civilization. I sorted everything out by color and size and decided to make a mosaic, but I couldn't think what to make it of. After a few days of mulling I decided on a sunset. I mixed crab juices with fruit pulp and made a sticky paste. There was a relatively large flat rock near the middle of the island where I could work in the shade so I used that as my canvas. The mosaic ended up looking like the handiwork of a kindergartner, but I left it alone. The glue held pretty well and the mosaic survived several rainstorms.
I read the book a few more times. I mostly read the pages with the folded-down corners to be honest. I put the book away between the folds of Michael's remaining clothes in the luggage. I took it out again once and tore out several pages, thinking they would make better toilet paper than leaves, but it wasn't that great. Days later I thought about what I'd done, and got into a downright funk, like I had sullied a Gutenberg Bible or something. I leaned moodily against trees, sat and picked at my toes, and pitched rocks into the ocean. I couldn't get away from myself.
The book ended up on the mosaic, like it was an alter. In the late afternoon the light hit the book and lit it up like it really was a sacred object. I sat and looked at it, with my hands folded in my lap. I don't know, it was sort of peaceful, and I felt like I was restoring somehow. At night I gently put the book to sleep inside the luggage case, and in the morning I brought it out again and carefully carried it to the mosaic. I'd leave it there during the day when I went to gather water or food. I never actually read it again.
One morning I left the book on the mosaic as always, and went away and came back to sit beside it and watch it, but it was gone. Just gone, like it had ascended to heaven of it's own accord. It wasn't a windy day and there were no large animals on the island. I was scared, a little bit. I looked down crab holes. I looked all over. I couldn't find a single page.
I didn't sleep that night as a thunderstorm brewed and crackled with light on the horizon. I watched it drift from east to west, missing me and the island. I looked again the next day. I looked in the luggage. I had all it's content laid out on the said, each item apart from all the others, making sure I hadn't missed the book somehow. It was there or anywhere.
A few days later is when you came in your boat.
"How long do you think you've been here?" It was the man with the beard who identified himself as the captain. They were from a science vessel of some sort, or so they said, but they looked a little too scraggly and I fantasized they might be smugglers.
"Months, maybe a year. I don't really know," I said.
"We saw your plane," he said.
"Yeah, it's still there."
"We got the serial number from the tail. We ran it over the radio and it turns out nobody ever reported it missing."
"Well, I don't know what to say about that. I guess my employer must be pretty shoddy."
"Hmmm. And you say you can't remember who you are?"
"Not a clue. I didn't have any identification."
"Hmmm. Yeah." And the captain goes and talks to one of his guys. They're eyeballing me and talking quietly. The captain walks back to me.
"We're going to Fiji. We'll take you, but you're on your own from their. It'll be about ten days. We're low on food and water, so..."
"So don't feast like it's 1999. Got it."
"Yeah. And don't touch any of our instruments. Our investors put a lot of money into this survey."
"Investors? Are you guys real scientists? What exactly are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?" I said. And the captain squints and grimaces, exhaling stale breath into my face.
"You'd have to have a couple of PhDs to understand. Don't bother my crew."
Who knows, maybe I did have a couple of PhDs, but I let it slide. The captain looks like he might have an advanced degree in mafia interrogation.
"Well I'm pretty good at doing nothing all day."
On board and underway, I mainly lied in a bunk, looking up at boards painted a slick white that serve as a ceiling. I luxuriated in the warmth and softness of a polyester blanket. I slept a lot. I learned that the bathroom is called a head. The crew didn't speak to me. They looked and kept their distance, even after I finally shaved and cleaned up and stopped looking like a resident of the neolithic age.
The ship zigzagged around, and they would stop every few hours to dive and collect water samples. The samples were put into freezers. There was a computer room that was closed off from me. They somehow processed the samples there.
On the last day before Fiji, I went to the head, and there it was, sitting on the floor next to the toilet. The Leo and Lucy cavort in 1775 book. The cover was faded and bleached, and the sex scene pages were folded down. I turned to the middle where I'd torn out pages for toilet paper. And they were there, resurrected and complete. I threw the book to the floor and told myself it had to be a different copy. I laid in my bunk and pulled the polyester blanket over my head and tried to think about what Fiji would be like and if anyone had ever missed me.
I went back to the head and the book was still there. I took it, and shoved it in the folds of Michael's clothes, in the luggage case. I closed the case and stared at it. I thought maybe I hadn't ripped out the pages after all, and maybe the science vessel was around my island long before they approached me. Maybe they thought it would better to leave me to die there. Who were these people? I watched the crew go about their business with suspicion, but I was too afraid of them to ask questions.
In Fiji I was left along with customs officials. They were congenial and a lot more relaxed than the so-called scientists. I felt better. They said they didn't have any clue who I was either. They said there was no record of the plane (according to them it never existed), and no missing people called Jean and Michael James.
They gave me a place to stay and food to eat. I took out the book. It looked newer. The cover was more colorful, and the pages less worn. I made a place for it in the center of a table in my room. I positioned it so the afternoon light would frame it. I would sit each day in front of it, from the time when the rectangle of light first touched it to when the light faded to sunset, and watched it. I didn't touch it other than to dust it.
The scientists left port again. The captain came to visit me beforehand.
"Did you watch me?" I asked. The captain stared at me. He scratched his face.
"No," he said.
"What is it that you do?"
"You know, I told myself I shouldn't come to see you, but if I were in your place, I'd want an explanation."
"What do you mean?"
"You didn't exist until a year ago."
"You don't remember anything."
"I have amnesia."
"No, you don't."
"But how can I be a fully-grown human being...what about Jean and Michael?"
"They never were alive."
"That's ridiculous, that's--"
"Listen, calm down. We've been tracking a...well a phenomenon. A potentially lucrative one, but that's beside the point. We came across you, because you were on the path the phenomenon took."
"What the hell--"
"You know that mosaic you made? Out of washed up plastic bits? Just like those bits, the source came to your island."
"The source? And you're looking for the source."
"Yes. The source that generated you, so to speak."
"Generated me? Out of thin air?"
"Well, yeah. Kind of."
And I throw up my hands and put my hands to face and I sigh deeply, but it's a mask. The captain assumes I think he is delusional, and that's partly true. My heart's really beating and I'm sweating, and what he says feels like it could be true. We're sitting outside so he can't see the table.
"Thanks for the visit," I say quietly.
"Well hold on now. About the novel. You say it just disappeared?"
"I thought you guys had snuck around and took it."
"Hmm. No. We would have still been a couple of days out from your location."
"So, you think that's your source?"
"Well, maybe it is, maybe not. Do you remember the title and author?"
"No, actually I don't."
"You said you read it several times."
"My memory is patchy."
"Hmmm." The captain stood up and held out a hand. I took it and shook it. He squeezed down on my digits hard. He let go and started down the stairs and said "Have a good life."
I watched him until he was out of sight, then I went inside and looked at the book on the table. It looked completely new. I picked it up and riffled through the crisp pages. The once turned-down corners were uncreased. I sniffed it, and it had the reassuring scent of freshly printed and bound paper. I thought about slave revolts and moon babies.
I observed the book closely over the next few weeks. I had to attend hearings and meetings and the like to sort out my identity. I carried the book with me, concealed. Finally a judge just gave me Fijian citizenship and let me pick a name. I chose Wright Smith, like the Wright brothers, but with a nod to my unknown origin. Over this time, the book changed further. The print inside faded. The embossed covered flattened, and Leo and Lucy became the ghosts of their own story. Within six weeks the there was just a white glossy cover over 130 pages of blank pulp.
When everything was finally gone from it, I walked down to the beach with the book. It was night and I walked into the surf. I submerged the book until it was soaked. It turned transparent and floppy in my hands, and then it twitched and my heart jumped. It shuddered and flipped open, and then jumped out of my hand and, well, swam away. Who knew.