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From Colin Fleming's
Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep
It was the gull who first noticed that the island had left. Not that he was the only gull, although he thought of himself that way. But the island was definitely not there, one morning, when the gull arrived with his breakfast crab. He liked to dine on the island, because the island also made for a good plate, and table too, come to think of it. Some crabs were tougher than others, naturally, and when the gull found that his beak would not do, he'd drop his breakfast crab out of the air, and it'd open up nicely on the island, and he could eat in peace.
But the island was definitely not there on that particular morning. There was no arguing that. The gull, besides, had an excellent sense of direction, and he had been dining at the island for years. It was a standby for him. He had tried not to get caught up in the debates, as many others had. Well, as some others had. It had been argued, for centuries, whether the island was a proper island, or part of the coast, like the boulder that was twenty yards to the north, and closer to the edge, for that is what islands -- official or otherwise -- called the land that none of them ever got to visit. He was close to the edge as well; would a real island be thusly situated? There was talk of him being an oxymoron, if he were, indeed, to remain an island. The geologists would quarrel, while the cartographers, having less and less respect for the quarreling geologists, would get up to their varieties of mischief-making, which was not so exciting as everyone else -- the gull and the other gulls, included -- knew.
They would call the island an island, when it suited them, or a mound of rocks, when it did not. Maps could be frightfully limiting, in terms of how much space one had to work with; sometimes, the more details a cartographer wanted to put in -- some liked to include asides on the currents, the contours of the bottom of that portion of the coast, or even figures representing the shapes of the headlands -- the easier it was to call the island nothing at all, because it saved a few letters. And besides -- no one had ever really gotten it right, in that you could call the pile of rocks, where the gull took his breakfast, whatever you pleased, and have your supporters. Naturally, your supporters would be spread across centuries, because whom, really, would you come across in your daily life to discuss this matter with? And this provided the island with an opportunity.
He had been a jumble of rocks for as long as he could remember. He didn't have any trees, or bushes, unless one counted the beard of barnacles that covered his outer edges. There was a high school football field off in the distance, where the Lobster Men played. These were different Lobster Men, of course, from the lobster men who skirted around his edges, returning to the land, where the trees and bushes stood. Some of those trees and bushes would wave to him, or in his general direction, anyway, when the wind decided to come out and play, but he wasn't sure if that made them friends, or just acquaintances.
In earlier times, after he'd been there a few thousand centuries, the lobster men would trip over him in their boats, and on several occasions their bodies became tangled beneath him. Or it felt like that, anyway. There really wasn't a "beneath him" him in the regular sense, where other things moved around. He went down to the bottom, but, then again, he was only two or three football fields from where the trees and plants were, if he could trust the measuring devices of the Lobster Men (for that is what he assumed football fields were) who'd never, so far as he knew, become tangled in him, although there was a chance they could grow up and end up in such a state.
One time in particular was especially horrible. The head was like one of the eggs, only bigger, that a local heron -- who at least understood, unlike the gull, that there were other herons (they even had a system of nomenclature, so that they might distinguish between themselves) -- had tried to leave on him, despite his efforts to suggest that one of the places with trees and bushes would probably work better, for he was more of a loner, and it did not seem like the heron and he were suitable companions, even for a short period of time.
He hung out with the waves, naturally, but everyone, just about, did that in his circle. You couldn't shake those waves. And what inconstant fellows; a wave would come by one time, and it was always just the one time, like he had better things to do, on the other side of him, closer to where the trees and plants were. He'd watch the waves get out of the water. That was impressive. Got straight out, and headed up the beach. And then into the beach. It never failed to amaze him that waves could be so ambulatory, and go wherever they pleased. Ah, that was the stuff! The pleasure, the privilege, of coming and going as you liked. True, the waves could be brutal, and maybe it was that brutality that empowered them.
No one would ever let it be said -- not the crabs who hurtled through the air, the gull with his singular belief in his uniqueness, the herons with their nomenclature, or the beard of barnacles -- that the waves did not inspire respect, regardless of their penchant -- when afforded the opportunity -- for brutality. Like with that lobster man's head, which became softer each day in the water, and more and more egg-like, as the battering army of waves drove it, again and again, against him, against his will, until finally it broke and caved in against the island's toughest portion, the corner of himself that he had previously been most proud of, where his granite was like felsic razors, capable of fighting off any other island, if it came to that, although it had been years since any of the islands had battled the others.
Most days passed the same as all the days before. The plants and shrubs would wave, and the island would lament his lot as an island who could not make like the waves. That is, until he learned that he was to be an island no more, nor a pile of rocks. A man came to him. He measured him, he felt his beard of barnacles, he probed his underside. He discovered a part of the island the island himself was unaware of. He had a leg. Sure, it was not a standard leg. Most islands with standard legs showed them off, so that everyone else could see; that is, they were above water, and those legs made them not islands, but rather spits. And that is what Herbert Schrimschmidt determined him to be.
"Yes, that is what you are," he declared, after a final day of study. "Connected to the land by a granite ledge that originates near the center of this. . . island. Pile of rocks." The island, who was about to officially become a spit, wanted to thank the great man, for he assumed he could be no less than that. All of these years, and the mystery that he himself had no solution for, was at last solved. Was this exciting? Was this the point of all of the thousands of centuries? Is this what the glacier meant when she said, "Go forth, my son, and score this earth, as best you can, and leave your mark, as here I have left you."
That was some impassioned speech. Still, he had his doubts that she hadn't made it to all of his brothers and sisters, along the way. She was well-traveled, to put it politely. The waves would not have been so delicate.
"Fucking whore's bastard" one shouted as it careened past him, like a missile, during one of the almighty storms, when the waves were launched from the sea, and he remained where he always remained, grateful, for once, to be so securely anchored. He was a fixed point, and knew it. But usually, that was a downer, because his opportunities for adventure were limited.
The birds would boast endlessly about theirs. He couldn't do anything but listen. Where was he going to go? One of the gulls would tell tall tales about the affairs he had had "out of species," meaning, so the island thought, affairs that did not center on working himself over, as some of the amoebas did.
"So I'm nailing this chickadee, right, and this bitch is like, ‘Oh, Mr. Gull, damn, Mr. Gull," and I'm like, "Call me Gully, bitch, say my name," and she's like, "Gully, Gully, Gully!' You hear me island? Hot, right? Got me a date with a crow tonight. Little white on black, if you know what I mean. And then a different kind of white on black, if you know what I double mean. High five!" At this point, the gull would peck the island with his beak. The island was grateful when bottles with trace levels of alcohol would wash up on him, especially if the gull had recently visited. They helped take the edge off, and made it easier to forget the gull's boastings.
"Time to make it official," Herbert Schrimschmidt stated, patting the island who was about to become, officially, a spit, on top of his tallest rock. "Now don't you go anywhere in the meanwhile."
"What a thing to say," the island, who was starting to consider himself as a spit, thought as Herbert paddled his dingy back to the edge.
"I'll say," added the rock crab who sometimes dined on his south side, where the less intelligent minnows hung out, and got themselves caught in the tidal currents.
Now, this was not a crab to be trusted. True, he was at times ingenious. He'd be hauled up on the boats, with the lobsters, and every single time, he'd get tossed back into the water. No one knew how he did it; the rock crab said it was a matter of his way with words, and his incomparable wit. As he was known for saying: Logic was enviable, but wit was influential.
But he was also a dick. When the urchins all started dying because of some dye that had gotten into the water, he went around gathering them up in this bucket he had found, selling their spindles -- which were most effective as weapons, and for fence-building, which was, at that time, all the rage, with the local real estate boom, so that you could maintain your privacy -- at cut-rate prices or in exchange for minnows. He was a glutton for minnows. The spit -- nee, island -- knew to be wary of the rock crab, but still, he was worth listening to, so long as you did so judiciously.
"Now's your chance, you know. If you wanted to go to the edge. I've been to the edge loads."
This, at least, was true. The spit had seen the rock crab up on the edge, not very far from the trees and plants, walking in the sand, nibbling on the trash he found there. The rock crab had extreme tastes. Still, he did not get along with the gull who did the boasting, and that gave him some credit, at least, in the eyes of the spit, which he figured were the spaces between his fifteen or so rocks. He had many eyes, like a scallop, even, but his were bigger, and this made him proud. The rock crab knew pride when he saw it, even if it was a temporary pride.
"My chance for what?"
"You're off the books right now, boyo. You're not anything."
"I'm a spit. Herbert said so."
"Yeah, of course he did. I heard him. Relax. But he's got to file everything. Your old status is in flux right now. So you don't have to stay here. There's nothing keeping you. You're off the grid, baby."
"The water. If you want to be. Geez, you're naïve. What are you, like seven?"
"I'm like seven million."
"It's just a joke, son. Keep it together."
The rock crab sure had a splashy way of talking. The waves might like how he put that. Maybe he'd try out his new joke -- although he didn't like to gossip -- one of these days. But now was the time for listening.
"So you're footloose and fancy free. Think of it like being alive before you were born."
This was very heady.
"Well, if you knew you were about to be born, but you weren't yet, you're not anything, right? What could you do then? Any fucking thing you pleased. Until you were born. Then you'd be the thing you were. And you'd have to accept that. What an opportunity. I'd almost say I envied you, if I wasn't so. . .
"Yes, I know. Ambulatory."
"That's right, baby. But why don't you make the most of your chance? Why don't you, you know. . ."
"Yeah. Go the edge. Have a spree. How long have you been here?"
"Like I said, seven million years."
"So you really deserve it then. Do your thing. Only do it soon. Now I gotta roll. Some of those dumbass jellyfish keep getting themselves trapped by the jetty" - the spit and the jetty were distant cousins, and they both liked getting news about the other - "so I'm going to drink a bunch of them down. You don't know what mesoglea is until you've drank jellyfish mesoglea. Mega delicious."
"Okay, rock crab. Thanks."
"No problem. . . what do you want me to call you?"
"Call me the spit," came the firm, proud reply.
"You got it, spit. Happy travels."
Come the evening, with the sound of the last of the fog horns still in his ears, which were, intriguingly enough, the same as his eyes, he was off. The gull who enjoyed his breakfast upon him each morning heard his crab drop into the water, with the triumphant report of "yahooooo!"
"I don't normally miss," he thought. "I'll try again."
And so he did, and missed again. And it was then he realized --
"Good fuck. He's gone. How can that be? I wouldn't be surprised if that braggart of a fellow. . . so strange he is, can't even tell what species he belongs to. . . had something to do with this. I saw him with a cardinal the other day. And you know what they say about cardinals. You can trust a cardinal about as well as you can trust a. . ."
But he understood he was getting off subject. He'd have to go hungry, that morning. Besides: he wasn't in the mood to eat. Something was very wrong, he felt.
And indeed it was. For no one had requested to look at the maps that detailed the specifics of the water, and the edge, for a long, long time, and the main map that was held in the basement of the building that Herbert Schrimschmidt finally got himself to (his discovery had necessitated a celebratory spree of his own, which he undertook in the next town over, as that town was more hardscrabble than the one where the spit, the rock crab, and the two gulls lived, and where you could drink the day away in the company of out-of-work fisherman, with whom Herbert liked to think he had something in common) fell to pieces when he began to work upon it. A replacement would have to be made, but that would take time.
In the meanwhile, everyone became ambulatory, more ambulatory, than ever. The water switched sides with the edge, the moon went to the side of the sky where the sun liked to be, and the sun went to where you'd normally find the moon. So it turned out that no one missed the spit at all, since it looked, more or less, like he was where he always was, especially once the world turned over, and what had been up was now down. He wasn't, of course, where he had always been, but as the rock crab pointed out to a hermit crab who had made a disgusting face while the former drank down some jellyfish remains: "Perception is a fickle bitch. Fancy some jellyfish mesoglea?"
The hermit crab, who was a most educated hermit crab -- he'd read every last word of every random page of every book or magazine that he chanced upon -- wouldn't even deign to disabuse the rock crab of the notion that there was such a thing as jellyfish. They weren't fish. They were, more technically speaking, jellies. But he was not above a tart literary reference that would be lost upon the rock crab.
"Enjoy your Slough of Despond, my chap, enjoy your Slough of Despond."
"Right on, brother. Right on. You too."
Eventually, Herbert began to put map matters right, and everyone started to realize that if they all got caught in flux -- in flagrante delicto, as the literary hermit crab put it -- why, they were going to blow a good thing. The gull who had just propositioned and been turned down by a ring-necked pheasant was listening in on this meeting -- which was held, as these meetings always are, from across vast distances -- and made a crude joke, but the others paid him no mind. He was that kind of gull. Thankfully, they'd all been reading the papers. Well, you couldn't help but read the papers. They were bound to blow your way, at some time or other. There was this Super Bowl thing, and they could move about in safety, that night. The streets would be deserted, it seemed.
So it came that the sun sheepishly passed the moon, who was equally sheepish, and the edge went back to where it had been, nodding to the water as it did so. The gull who thought he was the only gull in the world, who had become the most forlorn of gulls, thanks to the absence of his treasured breakfast routine, dropped his latest crab out of the sky, anticipating the now familiar plink of crustacean hitting water. He didn't know why he bothered anymore. Tradition, perhaps. Or the sort of homage that doubled as a lament. The hermit crab had been lecturing him on what he knew about requiems, which was, in sum, that they weren't supposed to be danced to. Best as he could tell. But this time, there was the solid, resonant response of crab bouncing off granite.
"What the fuck!" the rock crab screamed out, as the hard surface of the spit, however unwittingly, robbed him of his left claw. He rolled down into one of the many eyes/ears, before the gull who thought he was the only gull could claim his breakfast treat, but at least he knew that he'd probably be able to start the next day right. The wind blew the detached claw down into the socket/canal where the rock crab was presently tasting his own blood as it floated in the water.
"Fat load of good it will do me now," he bemoaned. "What are you doing here anyway? I thought we talked about you having a spree, and me getting in some well-deserved recreation as an aerialist?"
"I don't recall that part," the spit countered. "Are you sure?"
"Why else would I partner with that moron of a gull?"
This was a fair point. But the rock crab wondered if maybe he'd been mistaken, given that the spit seemed to possess a surety of purpose that he had not had before. He'd have to be crafty.
"So what did you learn? Come on. Dish."
"Well? Speak up, unless you're too scared. Are you too scared, spit?"
The truth was, the rock crab, despite his reputation, wasn't nearly as ambulatory as he liked everyone to believe. He was curious, to say the least, about the world beyond the edge.
"Come on, man, I'm bleeding out here. What am I going to do if I end up with a chance to roam around again, all footloose and fancy free, before I am something again, if it works that way. Is the edge worth my time?"
"A guy like you would do alright for himself on the edge. Very well indeed."
"Well. That's good to know, anyway," the rock crab concluded, as he bled out, and the gull who thought he was the only gull returned, upon second thought, to try to retrieve the rock crab's corpse -- for a meal, for a homage that one could dance to, nobody knew.
"I've been talking to this guy who I think is a parrot about nailing pheasants. What do you think, spit, should I give it a shot?"
But by that point, the spit preferred to keep his mouths shut, which he figured were the same holes as his eyes and ears.
Stories for When
the Rest of the World is Asleep
by Colin Fleming
$16.00 paperback ISBN 9781937402563
$9.99 ebook ISBN 9781937402570
Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep
by Colin Fleming
$16.00 paperback ISBN 9781937402563
$9.99 ebook ISBN 9781937402570