by Teodor Reljic
Unidentified journal fragment, found off the coast of North Carolina, 22 November, 1718.
Rattling cages; the place is about to explode from the noise and I feel my body: naked and grimy from this animal hole.
Captain Blackbeard is dead. I can feel it in the Navy’s sneers and jeers: they descend from the deck to ‘inspect’ us, patronizing us with rhetorical questions and arbitrary beatings. They make themselves look busy: moving boxes, hurling abuse, while my fellow crewmen, the final pack of Blackbeard’s loyals, jeer with defiant abandon: more themselves now than they’ve ever been.
The place is dark, the noise makes concentration impossible, but I realize that my cage lies opposite Sneaky Jack’s. For whatever reason, three of Maynard’s men have chosen to single him out. The big one is laughing at something I do not get a chance to hear. His friends whisper something mock-conspiratorial, and the big one lowers his trousers to his knees and begins to piss in Sneaky Jack’s cage.
I want to draw attention to this, to at least dignify one of our own with focused, angry solidarity.
But all my fellow crewmen do is bray and really, what else is to be expected? This will be our end, and we refuse to go quiet. I cannot make any noise above the din.
True to his name, and bolstered by his bony simian legs, Sneaky Jack bounces back in recoil to avoid the sailor’s stream.
Over the din, I think I hear: “Sprightly little lady we have here, boys – looks like we can turn this into a team sport!”
His friends heed to this and, curiously, Sneaky Jack edges forward, on his knees.
The sailor to the left passes another comment, but the trio have no time to laugh: first, the two at the extremes are yanked towards the bars from their crotch, to collapse onto the ground, knees first, before Sneaky Jack grabs a hold of the big one and I can see what he is doing: the scalpel he normally hides on the roof of his mouth has been unleashed on their manhoods, which drape the ground in thick, shadowy dollops.
The next thing I witness, after a full second ticks into shape, is the form of Sneaky Jack’s electric head: a nervous buzz of sharp cheekbone and jaw; with a starshaped beard, all haloed against hopelessly dirty and obstinately vertical hair.
He extends his left hand, and whatever it is he is holding remains engulfed in darkness while he suspends it, assuring the un-manned members of the Royal Navy that they are going to die at the hands of a Blackbeard pirate, one they would have executed only a day from now.
There are three bangs and – –
The Floating Island, (or: Dispatches from The Ends of the Earth, by Anon.)
In its way, it had been elegant. The hugeness, seen from most angles, was just so much bulk: a reptilian creature, the island nonetheless glided across the sea as if it had just forced the water into a home.
Travellers would rarely apprehend it in its entirety; even a fin was large enough to be mistaken as landscape, seascape.
It should not, by rights, have been there. Its body was bone-dry, though its home was the sea, it was a reptile… categories slid off it as easily as the water did.
It rose from the surface, and the sea it encountered was not in the least bit clear or tranquil. With detritus scattered across the surface and an alien, pungent green colouring its interior like the outpourings of some sickly squid, these were not welcoming waters.
The lizard-island moved with purpose, and without any sense of stealth or subterfuge, despite its lumbering speed. Were a boat to float by, it would drift past it with no heed as to what was happening.
Below, the beast’s tail made a distinct flutter; an aberrant move, even the most basic of lifeforms could intuit that this meant panic, or at least a sense of sudden urgency.
The island it pretended to be, splayed on its back, shook. It shook again and again, but the creature’s movement was steady, inevitable.
Something had been set in motion.
There had been expanses of tree-freed acorns, studded fields used for torture or play.
There had been bowers shaped like giant wine barrels, the oak crackling with delicious age as Sneaky Jack stepped in, the crisp grass surprising his well-worn soles (this was an altogether alien experience: he was not used to the ground, and neither the raw wood. The wood he knew was controlled, shaped into ship form for travel and pillage.)
There had been long nights – both troubled and blissful – spent among the deep trees, the rustling of animals and insects either lulling or ominous.
Sneaky Jack explores the island with no purpose for days… in an enraged fever, he gathers fruits, notes the landscape and starts again, numb to his movement, feeling nothing except the fresh images seared onto his mind.
In that varied expanse, he feels suspended away from his former self. Willingly and not, he is transforming from the inside out. He spends days, which feel like hours, and vice-versa, in a haze between sensation and no sensation; his body a canvas for the island and the island a canvas for the body: a passive explorer. He has experienced mutiny before, even exile and imprisonment, but it is only on this island that he feels a sense of finality, an innate knowledge that he is changing. Before, his instinct would tell him to flee, for death and glory, on an improvised raft. Now, all he feels is a contained inertia; he wants to explore his vast prison, and feels no compulsion to leave.
He makes a home out of the rocky enclosure, a few miles (as far as he can make out) from the coast he approximates King George’s men had thrown him. On what he believes to be his second week on the island – he keeps half-hearted track of time through marks on rock faces, improvised landmarks, a system he quickly abandons – Sneaky Jack hears odd skittering noises. There is only a cool quiet in this enclosure, which reminds him of the fact that he is getting old, old enough to enjoy it.
He tries to identify the noise, but it disappears as soon as crouches to the ground for some quiet. He needs meat – the simple insinuation of an edible animal being present is enough to remind him of what he is missing, and he begins to drool, feeling neither shame nor abandon, simply letting his body do what it will.
He has a mission now: he will find something to kill and cook, and he will occupy days and nights with it.
But two nights later, the island begins to shake.
Some will call the island-beast Leviathan, some will call it Kraken, some Zaratan; but whatever appellation it is given will doubtlessly be of academic importance once its target has been reached.
But its journey, smooth at first, is losing momentum. First, it cuts a whale with its tail. Then, it chips off a smaller island from a large, but uninhabited one.
It is not in its nature to be reckless.
Sneaky Jack’s skin has begun to peel from the sun, and the sweat sears his fresh-but-rotting skin: he feels like an adolescent again, only without the vitality. His shade is gone – the rock has been cracked by what appears to be an earthquake.
Only it isn’t an earthquake. The island is moving. Sneaky Jack is familiar with that initial rumble, the shake of the sea bubbling underneath, the inevitable plunge into adventure, the only thing he knows.
But this is not the pace of a schooner. It is luxuriant, and even the destruction is relatively sedate: it is only cliff faces, the rock surfaces that avalanche forward, lunging into the unsteady earth with dramatic crashes, dispersing birds and, Sneaky Jack imagines, having just gotten acquainted with a variety, obliterating entire insect cultures.
Though its pace is not fatal, the island’s resolve is steady. Sneaky Jack rushes into the jungle, with all the hopelessness of a lemming freshly endowed with self-awareness. He is as directionless now as he had been on his arrival. Only now, he finally realises that humans, even pirates, are not welcome here.
Perhaps out of desperation, it makes an absurd gesture.
The island arches its back forward, revealing its true skin and obliterating the sham of an island in the process. As the last remnants of its rocky mask collapse into the sea, an underwater groan shakes the expanse, and all creatures empty themselves out of its orbit.
All except a single seagull.
It flies in full confidence, lowering itself to the beast’s level.
When it reaches the beast’s mile long neck, there is a foamy rumble, and its head is raised.
It is both shark and dragon; both frog and dinosaur. The seagull glides just under its leathery eyelid – which could have housed a dozen of flocks – and touches it with its wing.
The beast descends and, within seconds, disappears, leaving only a foamy mess in its wake.
The body of Sneaky Jack floats over the mess, as much detritus as anything else. The scarred, pock marked body has an immaculate tan, its wiry frame testament to the agile health he was endowed with, out of circumstance more than anything else.
He is entirely naked: and peripheries of his body are lost – a toe, bits of scalp – but his frame remains obstinately entire.
A school of fish, passing by after the beast had disappeared, entangle themselves in his hair.
With futile effort, one of them tries to chew itself free.
Teodor Reljic was once an addict, but now prefers tea. He thinks Malta is perfect for many things, even though co-running a fiction magazine may not necessarily be one of them. Still, he persists, for lack of any business and, indeed, common sense.