|Apr/May 2019 Fiction|
Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm
Truly demented ideas take time to grasp, which explained my initial bafflement.
"Ever wonder what's under this?"
"Under?" I said.
I sat in the Shipping Office. It was the 20th of November. Between us, standing on the map desk, was a copper-engraved globe of the Earth. Behind it, the man who'd summoned me, a certain Mr. Beasley, and behind him, the masts and spars of Boston harbor. He pressed a square, tobacco-stained finger on a midpoint roughly between Brazil and West Africa.
"Here, sir. Obscured by this scroll-like emblem pasted upon this sphere—what cartographers call the 'cartouche.'" Reading around his digit, it said, "The WORLD, as according to the LATEST Authorities and the BEST Discoveries."
He thumped it. "Surely you've noticed, this sort of heraldry is nearly always positioned in exactly the same spot on any globe made. Ever wonder why?"
I hazarded a guess. "Empty ocean?"
"That's what they'd like you to think!" His face was florid, a big nose and small eyes, and a wreathe of red hair and mutton-chop whiskers, suggesting a comic character in a melodrama. Yet his linen was clean and his costume refined, untouched by crass show. He was a gentleman.
He spun the globe to Africa. "Examine this mighty territory. Note the many named ports and bays along its coasts and the titles of its kingdoms extending superficially inland, like so many tooth marks inserted into an apple. Now turn your attention to the apple's meat, its deep interior. What do you see?"
He swiveled the globe, back to the "cartouche." Thumped it again.
I sighed. "Am I to say it too conceals secrets?"
A handsome black man in gentleman's cast-offs and wire spectacles displayed himself from behind a Chinese screen, something like an actor entering stage-left.
"You summoned?" he said in a mellifluous tone.
"Mr. Pedrick," he said to me, "Jozabad, my assistant." I nodded. Jozabad gnashed a smile. "Bring the samples." Jozabad strode back behind the screen, where I heard tinkering.
"Are you not a naturalist?" said the red-haired man.
I had one published article, "A Catalogue and Bibliography of Floridian Mesozoic Invertebrata." Unfortunately, it had come out the same month as the publication of the famous Mr. Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and had not, shall we say, received much attention. (Or any.)
"Then this will interest you." Again on cue, Jozabad twirled into view bearing an enameled tray, setting it before us on the map table.
Upon it were several large, shell-like fossils. But preposterous. One I recognized from the Miocene, a helmet-shelled snail known as Echphora gardnerae, but it had artificially stuck to it two absurd "legs." Upon scrutiny, these were fossils of the common jackknife clam, Ensis leei. As if the extinct beast were meant to walk about on them like a willful little warrior. But how had they become conjoined within the same ancient stone? Another, a beaded sea cucumber, Euapta lappa, bore a pair of incongruous "wings," but these were falsely made up of the ubiquitous bivalve Petricolaria pholadiformis! As if it might flap and take to the air! There were several more of such frauds.
I looked up to the gazing faces of Beasley and his servant.
"You have been had, sir," I said.
Said Beasley, "You find nothing of virtue in them?"
"They would make excellent fantasies in an ancient Roman garden. Where did you procure them?"
He exchanged a look with his Negro. "To the right man, all shall be revealed."
I wished such things existed. Darwin had discovered his Galapagos penguins, his finches, his dancing Blue-footed booby. Why should not I? But I was not Darwin. I was Martin Pedrick, of the lower branch of the Pedricks of Cobhollow Bay. The one to whom academic employment had not rushed to find. The branch to which Lucy Bretwater of the Marblehead Bretwaters had declined to join in matrimony. It put me in a desperate funk.
"I have no more observations," I said, placing the last down.
Unruffled, Beasley said, "Your skepticism does you credit. You do not flatter, seeking reward." Quite the opposite. I longed for reward. Yet no such sail seemed ever to appear on my horizons.
"Jozabad," he said. The Negro swept the tray away. Yet his presence lingered behind the screen. I suspected he listened keenly to our every word.
"If you require a clerk, sir?" I ventured, inwardly ashamed, "I would consider it." I being the hope of my family, their sacrifices for my education had brought them to the brink of ruin.
"Oh, no," he said, amused, "Jozabad performs that function for me."
"He is literate?" I said, glancing, surprised.
"Oh, yes. And knows Spanish and Portuguese, and some German besides. He is most useful."
Badly disappointed, I said. "Then my presence is no longer required."
"Wait." He pushed the globe forward. "You forget my business." The globe with its cartouche... its supposed hidden secret. "What land is here concealed?" Beasley said, tapping the symbol, "What, its marvels? I need someone to catalog numerous, heretofore unknown, flora and fauna."
My heart grew wings. "Where?"
"Why, sir, can you still misconstrue my meaning? Right here, under the cartouche!"
The wings melted, feathers scattered, and I plummeted to earth. I grew heated. "Mr. Beasley, there is nothing there. That is decoration," I said. "It could just as easily be located in some blank space of the Pacific. Or, as I've often seen on globes, down in that convenient emptiness above Australia. Because... there is nothing there!" I knocked the globe and it rocked. Beasley had to grab it. I did not care. "For your own good, you must disabuse yourself of such notions. Or scholars will not take you seriously."
The black whisked in, bearing a small sack and a rolled document. He unfurled the paper. It was a contract. He pulled the bag's string and out spilled coins, silver pieces tumbling merrily across the table, 20 or more. Beasley said, "US Liberty dollars, newly minted. Bite one. They do not bend."
Hushed, I said, "What, sir, do you require?"
"You will accompany me and Jozabad to this place of which I speak. You will inventory, classify, and itemize all its secrets." He spoke with fevered enthusiasm, his eyes gleaming coals. "It is undiscovered, Mr. Pedrick. I warn you, it will be back-breaking work. But for one such as you, I am sure quite glorious. Bring your imagination, sir, for we will be handing out new, never-before-heard scientific names left and right. I, myself, have named the land. I call it after the map's emblem. What do you think?" He gestured at the contract. Boldly, at its top, it specified the land be called "Kartoosh."
I knew not what to remark.
"Indeed," he said proudly.
But the yellow coins cast Beasley's tale in a warmer light. "What?" I said, "Are there some pinprick islands there, overlooked or ignored by commercial vessels? Perhaps, after all, there is something to look at?"
"No," he said decisively, "a land. It is a country undiscovered."
"Of what size, sir?" I said dubiously.
"Oh, as to that, Jozabad would know best. He is our master of sextant and compass."
The servant stood tall, hands clasped behind his back, an almost laughable figure of pride.
"You, Jozabad, performed the calculations. What say you?"
"You could march an army back and forth across it many times, sir," he said, "and never discover its extremities. Consider the mass obscured by the cartouche itself? By scale, what enormous square miles must be concealed there?" The wires of Jozabad's spectacles shone as he turned his head with keen intelligence to the globe. The coils of his black hair glistened. He turned the globe and traced a journey with his finger. "Picture this distance, from New York to Buffalo, traveling the new Erie Canal to the first of the great lakes?"
"What? That's hundreds of miles!" I said.
"Or, from north to south, along the Californian Sierras."
"Mr. Beasley!" I said, shocked. "You are proposing immense distances."
"Indeed, sir. It is an entire island continent, I call Kartoosh."
I bowed my head, forbearing to look upon my proposed patron. The Negro might be gullible. Or he might find it expedient to gratify his master by flattering his delusions. But what excuse had Beasley, but that he was mad?
"I am aware," he said, "the proposition is confounding."
"Perhaps some Porto wine?" said Jozabad.
"The thing," assented my interlocutor.
What was I to say? I gazed upon the money. Perhaps, despite the outlandish claims, there existed some small, overlooked piece of dirt in the middle of the Atlantic?
I thought of Galapagos. A cold, severe, lonely place, but where Darwin had unpried the lock of many subtle secrets. Perhaps, in time, over the voyage, I could educate Mr. Beasley? Perhaps Mr. Beasley, of necessity, due to some inner psychology, felt obligated to exaggerate on a fantastical scale? But suppose I translated his extravagancies? Showed him God's genius for the small and humble? Brought him to understand that naturalism, and the new theory of evolution, advanced wondrous change in the form of an infinite string of utterly miniscule adaptations? Would not he come to see that his enthusiasm was thoroughly justified by science itself, and no longer needed his prop of gigantism to honor it?
Jozabad arrived with the wine.
"To exploration," Beasley said to me, with one eye twinkling as much as it winked.
There was nothing to do. It was to be Kartoosh—that silly name, Beasley's cherished conceit—each time we spoke of plans. Soon, its usage became habitual, and even I mentioned "upon our first sighting of Kartoosh" and "when we make land at Kartoosh," as if such a thing weren't a deluded and credulous dream. When I said it, I meant a narrow gravel beach, inhabited hopefully by some few fascinating species of seabird—perhaps a seasonal, migratory flyway? It would be a lonely, postage-stamp bump sticking above the threatened inundation of a pounding sea. Whereas when Beasley did, he meant a vast secret kingdom, fantastical beastiaries, a paradise, and the hope of mankind. In a word, Atlantis.
If I write breathless, it is because I am.
We traveled by packet down the Atlantic coast, all paid by Beasley. If nothing else, he was a well-funded lunatic. At stops at Baltimore and Charleston, Beasley hid Jozabad in his cabin and I was instructed not to speak of his presence, as inspectors might be tempted to seize him for the established head price at that time on escaped slaves. As a result, for several days we had to shift for ourselves, without benefit of Jozabad serving meals, but I had sympathy for him.
Skipping Cocoa Head in the Florida territories, due to current rebellious trouble by the Seminoles, we boarded a schooner at Port Saint Lucie for passage to Itaqui on Brazil's northeastern bulge.
During the Caribbean leg, as the seasons somersaulted and northern winter turned to equator's spring, I would work on deck, at a wooden table and chair, as at a library carrel, only with the flapping of the sails in my ears and the clouds rolling above. I inventoried my equipment: ink, paper; slide rule; my magnifier in its flat mahogany case, with handle; my double-barreled gun and the various diameters of shot needed to kill different animals; my brass light-microscope. In Darwin's Beagle writings he mentions his own employment of magnification, and I felt some pride, by association, however anonymous, in that scientifical club.
Studying my drawings of Beasley's "fossils," I considered George Shaw's consternation when he first beheld the platypus preserved in a bottle of alcohol. As he describes that fantastical hodgepodge, the creature possessed the tail of a beaver, the beak of a duck, a duck's web feet, but with claws! and the furry body of a cat. I thought to myself, "There are many impossibilities under God's heaven, and that is one."
Finding Beasley on the quarter deck, his cheeks red apples in the wind, bound in a great coat topped by a toque hat, I showed him my penciled sketch of the famous little beast from New South Wales.
"And this is?" he said.
"A real living wonder."
Glancing, he seemed to sniff. He said, "There is nothing of that sort in Kartoosh."
In the evening, before Mr. Beasley demanded to be put to bed, Jozabad and I talked. Jozabad smoked his pipe sideways, its ash fulminating toward the bow. The further we progressed from the United States, the more confident he became, as he was wanted by his master in Mansfield County, North Carolina.
His life, to say the least, had been colorful. He had escaped his plantation with a visiting band of actors. He was made literate by Pennsylvania Quakers, where he also became conversational in German and Dutch. Adept at navigation, having traveled several portions of the Atlantic as a sailor in the merchant marine, including ports of England and France, his plan was to discover Kartoosh. Mr. Beasley—so said Jozabad—had promised, in writing, to declare it slave-free. He would then return to Europe, where he would stage crankies. These, it turned out, were a novel form of entertainment.
Little seen in the United States, they, as it turned out, involved sheets of canvas sewn together, a hundred yards and more, becoming painted living scenery, turning on giant rollers, before which actors played their parts, walking, marching, dancing, running, according by which the crankie sped or slowed, so that mountains, towns, rivers passed, as the result of which, along with music and explosives, a mesmerizing panorama of life was enjoyed.
"The spectator shall see me," he told me, "run away from the plantation, hide under the axles of a real moving carriage along with the actors, cross the waves of the Atlantic, and plant the flag of freedom upon the first high hill of Kartoosh. I expect," he added, "to become rich." I assured Jozabad I would attend his triumph, if the show traveled near Cobhollow Bay, and if I possessed the funds.
Unlike Beasley—whom I feared really banked on the existence of the Kartooshian continent—I felt Jozabad had the wherewithal to weave gold from disappointment. That is, he possessed that enviable faculty of forming new ideas or images from inspirations not particularly present to our immediate senses. In a word, imagination! Jozabad would weave crankie spectaculars from whatever humble bits of Kartooshian straw available. Just as I would count myself a success if I came away with half a notebook of drawings of some intriguing new species of crab or small auk or fulmar. In that way, perhaps Jozabad and I were—despite the canyon imposed by our differing skins, which thus determined our unchangeable places in life— somewhat alike? Whereas, would not Beasley not drop to his knees, howl into the dirt, upon discovering his Kartoosh was nothing but a lost, forlorn rock capped by a hill of stinking, white-caked guano and squawking birds?
We arrived off Brazil in December, or, as the seasons are all upside-down there, Summer. As Beasley explained, "The skies concealed under the map's cartouche should be clear, with all the visibility required to find Kartoosh!" (Insane.)
At Itaqui we stood upon a crude dock and met our crew. They who would transport us either to Kartoosh or empty ocean.
They were three bronze-skinned men with no necks and massive shoulders and face tattoos. Jozabad conducted negotiations with them in pidgin Anutan. They, he explained, spoke a related tongue, Tikopian, but, as the two languages have a high degree of mutual intelligibility, in that way they made one another understood.
I considered the miniscule number of sailors present and the near-empty dock. "Where," I inquired of Beasley, "is our ship?"
One would expect to gaze up to a forest of masts, but Beasley cast his eyes down. Mimicking, I found a small two-masted luggar with a fore and aft and not much in between, the top spar of which barely swayed at our eye level.
"Are you proposing to find Kartoosh in that thimble?" I said, alarmed.
"Mr. Pedrick," he said, looking about, "it is incumbent that we keep the secret of Kartoosh and its inestimable values as tenderly held as an infant babe. To that end, a fine, seaworthy vessel requiring the smallest crew possible, is the urgent choice. The fact that none of them understands English is optimal, too."
"Nor do we understand them," I said. "They might be discussing cutting our throats?"
"Bah. You disrespect the nature of honor. These men come from a race of Solomon Islanders who cross vast oceans routinely, with nothing more to guide them than the wind, moon, and stars. Why, they can taste the nearness of a new continent by the quality alone of the salt on their tongues. Do you think they acquire such sterling reputations by going about cutting off the ears of everyone they come across?"
I did not see how navigational prowess ruled out murderousness. Nor did the thought of cutting ears off comfort me.
He said, "If you are concerned where you will sleep, there is a snug cabin below for the two of us. Jozabad and these men will doze upon the deck, taking the watches. The hatch will be locked and we have a pistol and your shooting gun between us."
"I am more concerned about going awash in a storm in this fretful thing, and drowning."
Mr. Beasley beamed, proud. "I have never swum, and cannot. It is almost universally held a threat to health. But you will see me sleep like a possum, with the knowledge I am in the hands of these gentle, skilled, truly virtuous men."
"What is the miserable boat's name then?"
"A ship, sir."
"Well, a very small one."
"It is called the Bivalve."
We cast off on the afternoon tide.
We were 11 days out when Beasley declared the proximity of the great find. By his reckonings, lying somewhere south of Ascension Island and north of Tristan de Cunha.
"That is a vast area," I said, leaning the railing, "Can you not narrow its location's scope?"
"It is difficult to say."
"It is possible it changes."
"What do you mean?"
"It might be that it floats."
"What? You mean it moves itself!"
Beasley observed me struggling with his claim. His previous neglect to reveal it now explained. "It is possible," he admitted, sheepish, "the minor continent we seek is buoyed atop a massive underpinning of seaweed, many centuries old, compressed and hardened into a mighty raft or barge. It is possible it moves, by considerable degree of longitude and latitude. However," he said, brightening, "that explains its elusiveness to human discovery. Previous explorers have given up in despair, not to mention hunger and madness. So-called experts have scoffed. But we, armed with knowledge, shall be unshakeable."
Beasley had Jozabad fetch from the cabin a leather bag of about the size to hold a mole. By Jozabad's translation, he required the Solomon Islanders to inhale its content's odor. After some wandering from port to starboard, sniffing, they gathered at the bow, pointing their short, thick arms to the southeast. "Kartoosh!" Beasley said to me, patting the bag. "Jozabad!"
"Take the reckoning and establish the new heading!"
"What is it?" I asked of the pouch. He unstrung it. Inside, I observed a fine, granular mulch, almost oil black. "It is Kartoosh?" I asked.
"Might I take a small sample?"
Down in the cabin, away from the deck's relentless glare, hunched at a small secretary with a hinged, drop-down top, I observed my first life from Kartoosh. Peering through my light-microscope, grains became fuzzy boulders, upon some of which walked, or rather swam or crawled upon cilia, some minute animalcules. Smitten by the joy of the newly discovered discipline called science, I employed the entire day tracing pictures of their strange, amusing shapes. Slender, pulsing ovals. Splatters that moved. Jerking, insistent worms. Sometimes they touched and recoiled, and I endeavored to capture these charming encounters with my pencil, breathlessly sharpening it with a paring knife. One peculiar specimen seemed to sport a hundred tiny feet and two wobbly vacuoles that imagination might call eyes. Did a pair look up at me as I stared down at it? Is it a wonder I now longed to believe?
In the mornings, the Solomon Islanders would swim. Beasley, Jozabad and I would gather at a rail to watch this wondrous enterprise, as they threw themselves, naked and heedless, into the brine. They would plunge around the boat, laughing and shouting at each other in their strange tongue. And, as each day we became sweatier and more sour-smelling, they remained cleansed and sweet to the nose. I longed to try, and after some arm-waving and pointing, they got the idea, and strung a net along the starboard waterline, down into which Jozabad and I climbed and splashed safely about, up to our necks! From the deck, Mr. Beasley watched our play with an avuncular smile.
"I have swum!" I said to Beasley, as I crawled over the rail, and he nodded, with an expression of skepticism that suggested mine for Kartoosh.
On Christmas Day, Mr. Beasley conducted service under a sweating sun, and then Jozabad staged a pageant. He, I observed, was as much in his element as one of my teeny creatures crawling its magnified rock under my microscope—dashing about with directorial energy and positioning us by our shoulders for our entrances. I had never been under orders by a black before, and he seemed to enjoy the reversal immensely. A chest on the quarter deck was Kartoosh, and Mr. Beasley had to claim it while I waved a flag over his head. The islanders processed from the poop, snaking around cabling, wearing seaweed head-wreathes and grass skirts Jozabad had manufactured by trimming rope from the shrouds, representing the people of our newly discovered land. When they kneeled to Beasley and presented their offerings, I felt a strange catch in my throat. As Jozabad explained to me, there's a magic in the acting of roles that oversweeps the player. "It's the actor's own self-belief," he told me, later, puffing on his pipe, "that draws the convinced spectator into the entrancement of the show."
"I swear you know how to do it, Jozabad," I said.
"That's nothing. Wait till you see a crankie."
Later, when we were stuffed on our feast of fish and corn meal, feeling that I wished to make a contribution of my own, I struck upon the idea of drawing portraits of my shipmates, something I had never done or thought of before. As it turns out, the drawing of the human face is no different from capturing the likeness of a fossil plant. I traced the bristles in Mr. Beasley's beard like branching lines in stone, and followed the curves of Jozabad's nose and lips with the elaborate care I would outline the lineaments of an extinct animal. The challenges of the island men were especially gratifying. As their faces were composed as much of intertwining tattoos as they were of mouth, nose and eyes, and, as each man's "ink" was dreadful in its own different way, the capturing of a face in friendly repose under that menacing mask was quite satisfying. How patient and indulging were each of my models. My replicas were well received. The Tikopians rolled theirs and placed them in the bags they wore at their groins, when they were not naked, as if storing talismans.
That night, staying upon deck under the light of a swinging storm lamp, I wrote a letter, with the expectation we might meet a homebound ship and trade mail.
It is Christmas in the southern latitudes as I write you, and under a cloudless sky the Southern Cross illuminates our way. Kartoosh is a moving target, but despite my skepticism, I am become a believer. Each day, with each thing we do, it feels closer in our crosshairs. Wish me luck, and God speed to Mama and Papa. I hope the 18 liberty dollars have assuaged hardships. I pray this reaches you by March.
P.S. You will be proud of me, as I hardly think of Lucy Bretwater, and when I do, it is without bitterness.
P.S.P.S. I enclose a portrait of myself I have drawn by mirror in candle light. Please ignore the plotting paper. I had never thought of drawing human images before. What do you think? The beard is new, as shaving is tedious. I have drawn my cheeks less gaunt than they really are, but I am happy."
On the night of December 29th, the storm hit. In that morning the Solomonites had grown uneasy, sensing the onset of something mighty, and Jozabad had nervously tracked all day the progress of the barometer nailed to the midmast. They huddled, and Jozabad explained that the Tikopians spoke of eight dangers at sea: isolated-coral-rock, sea-monster, long-wave, short-wave, fish-shoal, animal-with-burning-flesh, crane-empowered-by-Ta'aroa, and giant-clam-opening-at-the-horizon.
To prevent wrecking the masts and rigging, we climbed aloft (with the exception of Mr. Beasley, of course) and fully triced the sails, except for the storm sail Jozabad rigged for running ahead of the gale. Jozabad and Afu threw out the towing bridle, which hauled a drogue meant to lessen rolling.
Yet nothing prepared us for the sudden, biblical fury. The first strike was exactly like a physical blow. The Bivalve tipped so sharply, its main mast touched wave and the timbers groaned, and we came aright under a towering flood of spume. The wind howled like an angry god, and the darkness turned from a nauseous bottle-green to a frightening, red-tinted black, a gaping mouth seemingly forming in the empty air, encircling a fathomless, hungry vortex—its hungry throat.
Mr. Beasley was sent down to the cabin, and I too was placed below to man the bilge pump. Swamped to my thighs, I struggled to stand, heaving the rocker arm in a fury, when Jozabad appeared in the hatch, his face a wild mask of horror. "She's going down!" he cried. "Come up, come up! We are manning the lifeboat!"
"But what of Mr. Beasley?" I called, abandoning the handle, which gyrated on its own. The roar of the ocean through the staves was demonic, full of bangs and knocking, as if something without were trying to break in.
"He's above! Come now! There is no time!"
I stopped only in the cabin, to snatch two of my precious notebooks, shoving them down into the belt of my soaked jacket, and just in time to witness the green, boiling sea smash through the sloping panes of the Captain's Window.
Atop deck, I was met with a terrifying sight. A long sloping wave stretched above us at an impossible angle. As the ship endeavored to climb this monstrous surge, it was impelled from behind by the action of the titanic infilling of water behind us. The Bivalve broached in a cloud of spray, and, after a dizzying pause, fell, into what quickly became a new, precipitous valley. The others gathered at the away boat, hanging to the shrouds. I tottered to them.
"Mr. Pedrick," Beasley shouted, "into the boat! Jozabad, my logs!"
"Here, sir!" Jozabad had two air-tight bottles containing the rolled logs clutched to his chest. I climbed the rail as the islanders swung the boat on its gimbal. Even as they did , the ship rolled again, so that they fell into the boat with us.
"Cut the lines!"
Jozabad slashed with his rigging knife, just in time, as the Bivalve heeled, sucked away by the tidal action, and the stern began its dismaying process of sinking, as the bow reached for the heavens and the masts split.
We rose another green mountain. Behind us, in the rushing valley, we watched our poor ship sucked whole. For a supreme moment our little boat trembled at the lip. The underbelly of the storm suffused with a strange green light, for miles illuminating a shocking view of tempest and churning, watery chaos. Then the Bivalve was gone, and we slid into the trough.
"What was that light?" cried Beasley.
"What," I said, "a ship?"
"To the south! Did you not see it?"
We seized the rails, but the boat was plunging, as if descending a satanic elevator.
"I see nothing," I said.
"It was there!" He shouted into my ear over the ocean roar, with a strange, elated expression.
"What? Please, sir, sit down!"
Standing being impossible, he abandoned me by crawling up toward the bow. Suddenly I was angry. It was the consummation within me of all his willfulness, and of his obstreperous, inexplicable manias. I snatched at his coattails. "You will sit!"
"I shall not!"
He broke away. I pursued him on hands and knees. Our brave boat climbed the surge, the planks become a ladder. Jozabad and the Solomonites were tying ropes to their waists. He threw me one, which hit me. He tossed another, which spanked me in the face. "Take that, and tie it to Mr. Beasley! Strap him, and make him our figurehead!" Moved by Jozabad's distress, so unlike him, I blurted, "I am sorry, sir!"
"I, too!" said he, suddenly. His eyes burning strangely, he spun away, heaving at a box gone loose and about to crash on us.
With my rope cinched, I inched toward Beasley, where he clung at the bow. "Here, sir! I am to help you!"
He turned eagerly. "Watch to the south, Pedrick!"
"Jozabad says I must tie you."
"Wait!" He resisted me, pushing, so that I half fell into the boat's footings. He turned, transfixed, to the black horizon. "There, do you see? The lights!"
I reached to seize him. "I see nothing!"
"In a moment, when we top the crest!"
I grabbed for his coat. But the boat plunged shockingly, another wave crashed, and when its backwash drained, leaving me sliding and gasping, I held Beasley's coat but not Beasley!
Flailing, I hauled to the starboard rail. Looking, there below, to my horror, was Beasley, some little ways off, in the water! Strangely placid, he bobbed a patch of ocean that had found peace in the midst of all the green, crashing, surging, countervailing forces. He dog-paddled, twisting, searching the horizon.
"Pedrick!" he shouted.
"Mr. Beasley!" I reached. "Take my hand!"
"Yes—!" he cried, straining, yet, at the same time, turning, gulping, moving away. "But—! Where is it? Can you not see it?"
"Beasley! Listen! You must take my hand!"
Then the long, green, slide of mounting force began once more, and Beasley was sucked away, from the boat and from me. Not far, yet a maddening distance. He spun himself to face me. Despite his fear of water, his expression exuded joy.
"On the peak, watch then!"
But as he spoke, whether the boat's wild swing or my own heedless action, I, too, found myself hurled. The consequence only struck me as icy water flooded my clothes and I floundered to stay afloat against the sudden lead-bag weight and numbing shock. Flailing, I made my way to Beasley and seized him. He did not fight, only turned with wide, somber eyes, full of wonder, saying, "We go down first, then up."
He meant the next, long interminable slide into the ocean valley below. It was impossible to do anything, certainly not to swim to the boat, but only to hang there, suspended, almost as if standing, as we hurtled down the draining gorge. We went under, I holding him, he clinging, the side of the boat colliding around us. Until we reemerged choking and coughing, beginning the next steep climb.
As soon as he'd spouted water and could breathe, I shouted, "Mr. Beasley! At the surge's next top, I shall climb you into the boat!" With each conflux, the boat yanked me by the rope, even as tidal action pulled me away. "Hold to me!"
"Yes—!" he said. "Only—!" He clung, yet pulled. "Look when you can—!"
"What? What, Mr. Beasley? There's no time!"
"Only—! Oh, you must! Look—! You only have a moment!"
Then, we seemed to emerge, bobbing atop the wave, as buoyant now as two pats of butter in that strange, halcyon cessation that occurred at the top of each massive swell. And I looked where Beasley pointed, and became transfixed, forgot all, even our safety.
For, across the horizon, under glowering sky, was a radiance, a sheer band of brilliance, glistening against the storm, formed above—atop—an endless line of black towering cliff. Below that, a white beach, as endless, the storm crashing into it. And atop the great mesa, of many miles, was seen lights, ten thousand and more of them, pricking its outline. And behind and between them, ran machines, denoted by their speeding windows, criss-crossing elevated pathways of riveted iron. And even above that, lightning, in the form of horizontal electrical currents, jumping and sizzling from one raised metal pod to another; a hundred pods, a thousand; a leaping, breathing spark of inconceivable energy, powering whatever it was we witnessed, that existed under its flashing light, the apparent City of God.
My jaw dropped, and even as I spat water, my soul went slack, and Beasley sucked from my grasp. (I shall never forgive myself.) The descent into the next pit began. The ocean slowly gathered its force. The City of Light disappeared under its foamy head.
Even so, Beasley spun lazily, arms raised in triumph. "Kartoosh!" he cried.
We fell, the lights of the secret continent vanishing. Yet Beasley faced me, a grin of most intense satisfaction wreathing his face. "Mr. Pedrick, you saw! It is real!" We fell, my eyes locked to his, until that moment when the circling deep took him, his smile unyielding, to the grave of its bosom. Almost too late, I did awake, and shouted back, "Yes! Yes, Mr. Beasley, I did!"
"Remember, name it Kartoosh!"
In the grey drizzle of a new morning, I awoke, outstretched on a wet stone shingle. By force of instinct, or rather, as Darwin teaches, adaptation, I crawled out of the ocean, slithered like a thing on new legs, inexperienced of using them, up toward the land for which my survival lusted. I was a newborn on its first day. I looked about my Eden.
My arms hung and my shoulders slumped as if from lead weights. I shambled up the beach. Made my way through rock and saw grass, climbed hand over hand to the highest spot of the small island's middle. I judged I was perhaps 200 feet above sea. All below was my little piece of rock. The stink of guano and sting of salt strong. The sky swept perfectly clear, as if by God's broom. One saw for miles. There was nothing, anywhere, in any compass direction, but unbroken ocean. Certainly no Kartoosh.
Seabirds of a sort I did not immediately recall cried their outrage at me.
The island was narrow and long. The tip to my left where the sun rose, I saw, must be the east. Down upon a natural curve of rock was a sheltered inlet. Erected there were a wood-and-iron water tower and a coaling station. So, wherever Kartoosh had floated, this was some seldom-visited, neglected waystation, convenient more or less at the midpoint of the old world and the new. With luck, I had only to survive and, in time, some stopping ship would take me off.
I studied those birds. With my notebooks lost, and no quill or ink, I scratched my observations on a flat, upraised rock, something like a natural schoolroom slate. At each day's end, I would endeavor to memorize the most recent findings, my intention to write it all down when I was back at home in Cobhollow and publish a work of natural observation.
Those humble birds intrigued. Small and flightless, I could not understand how they had made it to this inaccessible island. Entirely unafraid, they would perch my forearms. I thought they were a type of dot-winged crake, Porzana spiloptera, a species heretofore limited, to my knowledge, to tiny portions of Brazil's northeastern seaboard. The Galapagos crake, Laterallus spilonota, also has a very reduced ability of flight. Though alone, even so, I stood in communion with Mr. Darwin.
I wrote it all down.
In different lights and weathers I would climb the island's top. But whether in violent rain, with that same green gloom haunting the sky, or pristine sun, no sign of the wandering continent returned. And when shattered pieces of the lifeboat floated ashore, with no signs of my companions, I knew for certain I would be writing the story of Kartoosh alone.
But how? And who would believe? What kind of terror shares with itself the most extreme exaltation? For, I was certain, we had seen something together, I and Beasley, in that moment in the keening flood, of horror and joy. Had it been delusion he had communicated, through the power of his mania? Or was it something truly witnessed?
I longed for the air-tight bottle containing Mr. Beasley's ship-logs to bob onto the gravel beach. Would they contain proof undeniable of the floating world's existence? Or of a date and location certain at which to attempt its next rendezvous? Or if not those things, at least of that opaque gentleman's perceptions of me?
But they never did.
In the absence of certainty, I chose Kartoosh.