The Exile

Seven men sat on a creaking boat in the middle of the ocean. Four of them rowed, two sat with daggers in hand, and one at the back of the boat remained motionless within his chains. The trip was three days long. Today was the last day. The man at the back of the boat was weak. His body was covered in splotches of black and blue, and his left eye was so swollen he had lost his vision in it. No food or water had been given to him since his initial imprisonment. Thirteen days, it had been. He had lost count of them himself, but it was always thirteen days. Around midday, the island came into view. It was roughly the same size as their home island, but it felt far larger. An island of sand and bone, flat and empty. The land mass was so flat the ocean could be seen at the back end of the island from the front. The man in the back thought of a colossal whale rising up from the depths, lurking and waiting to swallow up what ever dared wash ashore upon its back. A part of him expected it to actually move. The sand on the beach was pure white, so white it reflected a blue sheen. That blue glow cast the illusion that the island itself was partly under water at times. Every so often, he caught a glimpse of a human skull reflecting on the beach in that azure haze. When the group made land, the man in chains was escorted to the front of the party. About twenty paces in, he was untied. The other six men pointed their weapons at him. The leader of the party spoke. "This is your sentence. If you dare try to steal out boat, your blood will run on this shore. As is custom, these are for you." One of the other men tossed a jug of water and a knife on the ground. "I'm sure you're regretting what you did right about now. Why did you do such a foolish thing?" The leader asked. "You never did give your reason at the trial." The man stayed silent. "Not gonna tell? Well, then I hope you've made peace with it. This island is your grave." The six men rowed away. The man left behind watched as they went. He didn't regret what he had done, not truly. The only regret he carried was that he could not see his sister again. That day played over in his head. There had been nothing unusual about it. The sky was a beautiful overcast, thunder rumbling in the distance. His sister had put out jars to collect water in and was eagerly watching the skies for the inevitable downpour. That wasn't her only reason for staying so close to home, as it was typical of her to rush out across the beach and collect shells before the rain hit. He knew her reasoning, and said nothing of it. Both of them wanted to forget about that issue as quickly as possible. For much of the day, the two of them had sat in mostly silence watching the sky as she tended to making a net and he worked on one of his wood carvings. There was an unspoken hope between them that the rain would cleanse their minds of the day before. The village leader had a son about his own age who wouldn't stop pestering his sister. He had finally worked up the courage to tell the fool off the previous day, with much resentment from the other villagers. He hadn't cared so long as the matter was done with. The leader's son was a fickle and selfish man. His interest in any one woman waxed and waned like the moon, each inevitably discarded under the waves of resentment from him and his "friends". He had no intentions of letting that vile man use his sister like that, especially since she wanted nothing to do with him herself. Her rejections only made the foolish man more persistent. He was as much a fool as that cruel idiot. Late in the afternoon, he asked his sister to go into the village and get something for him. He had figure enough time had passed by then that the mess was done with. In the back of his mind, something didn't feel right. He should have went himself. Night fell before her return, and so did the rain. He grew worried, but assumed that she must have stayed with one of her friends in the village because of the rain. Still, he waited for her at the front of their home, pacing anxiously across their deck. At the night's darkest, she crawled up the steps covered in dirt and bruises. Her dress was barely there, scraps handing off her half-exposed body. He carried her inside and covered her up. Hastily, in what small section of his mind that remained aware, he packed up his sister's most important belongings. "What are you going to do, brother?" He couldn't muster a response. If he gave the action a name, his conscience would interfere. "You can't. You know what they'll do to you." He stayed silent. "I don't want you to die." "It's not safe for you to be here anymore." He packed way all of their money into a bag with her belongings. "Then come with me. We can go far away together." "I can't." He handed her the bag. "Go to the next island now, and keep moving until you're far away--too far for them to come after you." "They won't come if we leave together." "I can't." "Brother, please don't become another monster." "I can't." He took her hand. "Take the boat and go." She held on tightly to the bag, her face wet with tears and rain. He could see in her eyes all the words she wanted to yell at him. Gently, he patted her on the head. "I'm sorry. Please, go now." He couldn't remember what happened between watching her boat float on the waves and the pool of red washing away in the rain. What he knew of that time was what they told him during his trial. No one was sure how many times he'd stabbed him. Far more than was necessary to end his life. Supposedly, it took five men to pull him away and confine him. All of that was blank in his mind. There was only his little sister's boat floating, and blood under his feet. "Do you hate me?" He whispered to the sky. He knew she couldn't hear him, no matter how much his heart begged for an answer. He turned around and greeted the empty island. A perfect prison for a selfish man, he thought. Walking across the emptiness, he took in his surroundings more and thought back to his childhood. Back then, his parents often told him stories about this island. "It drives people mad with it's emptiness." His mother had told him it was never the hunger or sickness that took life on the island. Loneliness, emptiness. Humans cannot live an existence within a void. As he walked through the graveyard of half exposed bones, he didn't feel afraid. He felt nothing at all. There had been nothing inside of him since that day. Emptiness was already one with him. Laying down in the center of the island, every view was the same--a strange blue that went on forever. He laid there until his hunger finally persuaded him to move. His heart and mind may be dead, but his body's protests made it very clear how alive the most basic part of him was. Briefly, he contemplated ignoring his body's cries of starving and letting all of him finally end. He realized he didn't care either way. In a thoughtless endeavor, he used the only things available to him to make a spear for fishing, parts of his clothes and hair, tiny bits of driftwood, the dagger left behind, and the bones that were plentiful on the island. If he were still himself, the idea of using human remains in such a way would have disgusted him. To him now, the bones were nothing more than rocks, no more important than the sand and shells that littered the land. As he made the spear, he gathered up other bits and pieces he found around the island that could be used for later. There were a few daggers from other prisoners that were still in decent condition, and a few jugs that hadn't broken down completely. Shallow, clear water surrounded the beach. He could walk a good milk out with ease. Catching fish wasn't hard. There may have been no life on the island itself, but the ocean was filled with moving, sparkling colors and soft greenery. He collected some seaweed to eat with his fish. Fire was out of the question with his current resources. He didn't mind eating the food raw. For now, he only sipped a little out of the jug of water he'd been given. There would be no fresh water until the next rain. In the mean time, he sifted through the debris and bone, contemplating what he could do with everything before him. Even as he was, there was a sinking disgust in touching human skulls that the other bones did not draw out of him. As he mulled over what could be done with them, the nature of his barbaric act weighted heavily in his mind. There was no one to see the lowliness of his actions, nor to share in his shame. He discarded the guilt as he thought of the way he used to use animal bones without a second thought. The true reason for not using human remains for such purposes was there inside him, but he rationalized that such rules were for humans. Monsters roaming the realm of the dead did not need to adhere to such things. Rain came within three days and went on for another two. The length of the storm did not match its severity. A perpetual light rain. More than once, he saw the sun and the rain intertwined, glittering in the air. During the rain, he had spent much of the time walking out into the shallow water. He hoped the water would wash away what was left of him, but in his mind, all he saw was red. When the rain cleared, there were visitors at the island. A pod of dolphins played close by. He watched them and even approached them in the water. To his surprise, one let him touch it. The water's edge had always been right before him, and the dolphins always came. Never once had they let him get this close before. He knew it was wishful thinking. No such magic existed. In his heart, he repeated, "please, go see my sister". This became a habit of his. When a crab came to visit, he repeated those words in his heart. Again, for the seabirds who passed by looking for fish. Even to a few of the fish, he whispered those unspoken words. Everything he touched and saw that came and went from the island, he spoke to inside. Little shells that washed up that he threw back into the waves, coins lost by ships, a bottle with a message to soaked to read..."please, go see my sister". Playing pretend like this gave him a bit of an illusion of communication. Still, he was beginning to forget the sound of his voice. He couldn't remember the last time he heard himself speak. Sometimes, he thought he heard a message in reply when visitors came. He knew it couldn't be the same crab, but he once thought when he picked up one near the water's edge, he thought he heard a voice from somewhere. There were no words in the air. A voice echoing within, "are you there?" Again in the birds, in the waves, in the clouds. He knew it was only in his mind. There was nothing that stayed here but death. Her words could not reach him. Still, he never stopped listening for her, or sending his words on. A futile effort, he knew. In the emptiness around him, he couldn't shake his need for company no matter how he told himself he was dead. There he was, using his heart and mind. He thought there was nothing left inside, but the longer he stayed alone, the more he felt like his soul was filling up with trapped words and wants. I am dead, he repeated constantly to himself. As with everything else trapped inside, his memories of that night became clearer. Each detail rushed around his thoughts, boiling over into his dreams. The red pool around him, his clothes soaked to a dark shade under the rumbling sky. A sound he could not stop. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen... He carried on his daily routines despite the heaviness. There was a strange peacefulness around him. He wanted everything to be numb, but he could never stop seeing the beauty in the world around him. Somehow, in his loneliness and guilt, the sky and the waves had become more beautiful. He gazed at them with more attentiveness than ever. Silence itself became beautiful. There was something deeper hidden in everything, far deeper than the building storm inside himself. He wanted to lose himself in that and be swept away into a space where he couldn't tell himself apart from the wind or the water. Whenever he felt close to losing himself in that way, she was there in his thoughts. When he watched the night sky, the brilliant stars held meaning on their own, greater meaning than he had known before. His selfishness could not be content with that. He longed for the days when he shared that view with her, and even though their view was of a more shallow depth, it was worth as much merit. Staring into the deepest darkness, his heart split into two emotions--a content for what he knew, and regret for what he lost. Anger and hatred never rose in him despite his regret and sadness. His deepest regret was letting those two emotions control him for such a small window of time. On the first day, he thought he regretted nothing. The weight was finally bearing down on him with full force, like the seventh wave crashing on the shore. Staring into the dark sky, he gave a message for the stars to carry. "I'm sorry." In silence, he waited for the storm inside him to finally break free. The wait was long. His routine was beginning to lose its comfort. No matter how much he had accepted his death, the physicality of it terrified him. As with all the others who came before him, he too would become nothing more than white stones scattered across an empty beach. One day, a familiar boat came upon the shore. He hid down in the shallow water. Seven men left the boat, the one at the front covered in heavy chains. The process went on as before. He sense of reality felt distorted at the display. Long ago, he couldn't remember if it was his mother or father who said it, someone told him, "By the time they drop off the next one, the first once's always gone. The shortest time between was thirteen days. That's all it takes, and the ocean swallows them back up after they drown in their own madness." He hadn't been counting the days. Day and night, time, those things didn't mean anything to him anymore. If someone human was on the island, it must have been at least thirteen days or more. Sitting in the water, he looked down at his hands. He wondered if his body was really there at all. If not an illusion, then he was a ghost that dragged its own corpse around instead of letting it go. He had certainly felt like a ghost for a long time. He stood up and walked towards the men by the boat. The group was the same as the last time, save one. Before he could utter a word to them, the six men rushed to their boat in screams. The seventh man was left behind, still locked in his chains. His expression was the most terrified of all. "Leave me alone, ghost!" The chained man yelled. He ignored those words and undid the chains. The stranger was confused. "Are you not a ghost?" "I'm not anything." The man returned to the shallow water and watched the waves around him. "How are you still alive?" The stranger followed him. "I heard from someone that no one ever survives here. They all go mad and die." Those words were odd to him. This person sounded as if he had only just heard of this place before his exile. Now that he thought about it, the stranger was someone he had never seen on the island before and this punishment, as far as he knew, was something only their island did. The stranger, he presumed, must have been a visitor who committed a crime while on the island. "The dead can't go mad." He quietly responded to the stranger. "But you're not dead. Though maybe you have gone a bit mad..." He changed the subject. "What did you do?" "Huh?" The stranger hesitated. "You probably won't believe me...but I'm here because I protected someone." "I see." He replied. "What you mean is, you protected someone you shouldn't have." "That's what they said to me. They came to my island chasing a girl. I kept her safe. For that, I was framed for murder. I wish I could have helped her more. Those monsters did horrible things to her and her family." The stranger stared up at the sky. "I hope she finally got away from them." "You risked a lot for someone you don't know." His words weren't meant mockingly. It was merely a matter-of-fact statement, but he didn't care how the stranger interpreted it. "I know it sounds stupid...she would tell me all these stories. About her home, and the stars and rain, and how she would sit under the night sky with her family and watch the world move. They were simple things, but when I listened to her, I wanted to see what she saw in those quiet moments. The few moments we spent under the night sky, the world really did look different to me. Like I had opened my eyes for the first time." He laughed. "I'm sure you think I'm childish. Why are you here?" "I killed someone." He walked further out. Someone like this stranger did not belong on the island. He wondered how many others buried in the sand were the same. "Why?" The tone of the stranger's question was curiosity rather than revulsion. He wanted to give an excuse. Vengeance, justice, defense--all these words sat at the forefront of his thoughts. All lies. "Selfishness." The sky stayed as blue as the crystal water around him. Every part of him wanted it to rain, violently, to silence the sound of his thoughts. Only the sun greeted him, burning hot against the cool water around him. The stranger persisted with his questioning. "There must be more to it than that? What happened?" "It doesn't matter." He cupped some water in his hand and let it drip out. "A graveyard is the perfect home for a ghost." "You can't just let go like that." The stranger stood before him. "You did something bad, and now you can't go on? If you really didn't want to live anymore, you would have already died. You're still surviving, even if you've shut everything else out. Some part of you does want to live." "Why do you care? We just met." "Because I can't shake this suspicion that you and I are not really different. And I owe it to you to give you some sense." The stranger crossed his arms. "After all, I owe you for untying me." "It was my fault they left you that way." "So what? If you were really empty, you wouldn't care either way about a stranger." The stranger smirked. "Tell me, who are you really? I want to know the man who can terrify those monsters away." "I told you, I am no one." He didn't notice it himself, but he smiled a little. "Though you remind me of someone I once knew." Before either of them could say another word, a big wave came through and knocked them both down. Drenched, the man quickly stood up and coughed. The stranger moved faster than he did, grumbling as he wrung out his shirt. The stranger laughed. "Well, that was unexpected." "More like we weren't paying attention." He smiled again, this time catching himself and hiding his feelings back under a blank expression. The stranger smiled back. "I saw that. See, you're not dead. Smile again." He turned away. "That's enough of that." "I'll make you smile again." The stranger swiftly moved back in front of him. Getting closer, the stranger stared for a long time at his face. The way the stranger was looking at him, it reminded him of how he and his sister would exchange secrets without speaking a word. There was a knowing in his gaze, and he felt unable to contain whatever meaning reflected in his eyes. Without saying anything, his heart and mind overflowed. The storm had broken free from him. The stranger smiled and backed away. The stranger's response was there in his eyes. Birds and winds were not the same as communicating to a human. There was no room to pretend it wasn't real. This stranger before him was exchanging secrets with him the same way his sister did, as no one else ever had beyond them. He knew what the stranger saw in him. A question danced in his mind that he couldn't vocalize. His eyes displayed it plain as day. "She hears you, you know." The stranger turned away. "On the wind in whispers and from fish and birds, and little gifts that float onto shore. Honestly, I'm surprised. When she spoke of you, I imagined someone very different." The waves picked up as the clouds rolled in. Gently, the sun's light dimmed to a soft gray. One by one, little droplets hit on the ocean's surface. The stranger looked back. "I don't intend to die here myself. I'm going to go back. What will you do?" Water covered all of him in a cold embrace. The red in his mind faded away. He smiled again, but this time he did not bother to hide it.