We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
This short story was first published in Global Dystopias and is featured in our new special project:
After the boat arrived we boarded a khaki bus and were taken to the cabins. The silver water had been cold to my bloodless fingers. There were no fish, no birds to disturb its mirror surface. A thin, white-haired woman had met my eye; I fixed my gaze on a blank horizon.
We waded over rocks, our hems soaked. The old woman slipped a couple of times but didn’t fall. No one spoke. Ashore, we trod grey sand over the bus’s rubber matting. The woman was toothless, her nose nearly meeting her chin. She sat behind the driver, breathing through lipped-over gums. I opened my mouth and pinched my tongue, experimentally, between thumb and forefinger. Dry.
We were each allocated a cabin at random. No instructions were given; we waited by each one until a passenger disembarked.
We lumbered up a gravel hill, past a granite cenotaph. From the summit the island’s jagged geography could be observed: black rocks, clusters of pine, and rows of cabins about fifty meters apart. We were each allocated a cabin at random. No instructions were given; we waited by each one until a passenger disembarked. The bus sighed diesel fumes as we fidgeted, eyeing each other. The first stop was the longest. Eventually a tight-lipped man heaved out of his seat and braved the steps. The doors wrenched shut and he watched us judder away.
At the next stop, a shorter wait. The old woman stood cautiously, looking to the driver who stared ahead, her gloves squeaking on the steering wheel. I was one of the last to disembark, so saw most of the island. It was hard terrain. Thick clumps of pine passed in a tumble of black stripes shot with milky light; gunmetal clouds rendered the scene monochromatic. I used to paint, I thought I remembered.
As our number dwindled, an ample man with sparse hair fired competitive glances my way. Now just the two of us, when the bus stopped he turned his hard eyes to mine. I contemplated my toes and moved toward the door.
• • •
A single window leaked light into the shack, revealing the pine’s grain. I lay on the peaty floor, inhaling its odor. It was soft but particulate, like worm castings; I scooped out a hollow and covered myself with a thin layer. I may have slept. When I opened my eyes, there was a perfect darkness, no stars or moon, only the gentle wheeze of the pines. I lay still until the grey light slunk back in.
I felt no hunger but the habit of food struck me intensely. My nightgown was grubby and torn. My limbs were scraped, spotted with yellow bruises, but I felt no pain. I explored my surroundings, ignoring the sharpness underfoot. The pines were, up close, curiously featureless, and rang with a hollow tone when knocked. I struck them with my knuckle, closed my thin eyelids, and let their soft notes eclipse the scene.
There was movement around the cabins below. People were assembling and attempting to communicate with exaggerated gestures, pale in their shabby nightclothes. They formed loose groups and wandered toward the shore, not daring to enter the water.
Days came and went. I felt no thirst, no hunger. I spent nights on the dirt floor of my shack and returned to the pine grove at first light.
Days came and went. I felt no thirst, no hunger. I spent nights on the dirt floor of my shack and returned to the pine grove at first light. When the silence grew oppressive I struck the trunks softly, pressing my ear to the warm wood. I observed my fellow travelers from this vantage point. Many had dispensed with their ragged clothing altogether.
More boats arrived. There was no bus this time, and the boats left as soon as their cargo was unloaded. The newcomers huddled together, wan and dripping, wary of the more established residents. Within a few days they were indistinguishable from the rest, just as ragged, pacing the shoreline, mouths open, feet thick with mud.
One afternoon, from my grove, I saw two men and a woman next to my shack. One man wore stained white pajama bottoms while the other was naked, his prodigious belly shading his genitals. The woman’s knitting-needle legs poked out from drab underpants, a camisole barely covering her bird chest. Gingerly, they opened the door and stepped inside. From then on I remained among the pines, their fraying black canopies dancing beneath the soft sky.
The boats continued to bring new arrivals; the island was becoming crowded. The residents would run into the water and try to climb aboard, and the crews would strike their hands and heads with wooden batons. The abandoned bus was tipped on its side. Occasionally a cabin would be set alight and burn to embers, glowing into the night.
• • •
I learned that I could climb the pines to avoid the others. My waxy skin was scratched but it never bled. I remained secret and unseen for a long time, but the day came when I was discovered. He crept behind me in the weak dawn and I reacted too slowly. He pinned me to the ground, his yeasty body engulfing me.
His mouth wet against my face, he pawed aimlessly at my frame. Unfulfilled by this abstract conference of flesh, eventually he tired, labored upright, and shuffled back to the shore. My sad brown nipples were exposed, my nightgown torn. I forced fingers to the back of my throat until I felt bone, but could not retch. For the first time since my arrival I contemplated the flat water that encircled the island.
Day, night, day, night, I bobbed and drifted, encountering no variation in the horizon.
I waited until night, the darkness thick and close. The residents were in the cabins and stretched out on the dirt outside, some lying together in lethargic embraces that brought no comfort or pleasure. I dawdled by the shoreline, mouth open to receive the sulfurous breeze skimming the water. Careful not to pierce the crystal silence, I stepped forward, my ankles, my thighs, my shoulders submerged and chilled, until I lost contact with the rocks underfoot and bobbed gently, a vast emptiness above me.
Day, night, day, night, I bobbed and drifted, encountering no variation in the horizon. I no longer registered the chill of the water or even the sense of my own body, dry on the surface and bloated below, trailing translucent strips of skin in a soup of sea and sky.
Theo Costantino is an Australian visual artist and writer who holds a PhD from Curtin University, where they have worked as an academic since 2005. They work across drawing, sculpture, video, photography, and performance, and have written prose, libretti, and dramatic text. A choral work in collaboration with Tim Cunniffe, Requiem for the Heroic Dead, is currently under development. In 2009 they wrote the musical theater work Heart of Gold, which appeared at Perth Institute of Contemporary Art. They have written critical texts including “Ruination and Recollection: Plumbing the Colonial Archive,” which appeared in Visual Arts Practice and Affect: Place, Materiality, and Embodied Knowing.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.
Our well-being depends on a better understanding of how the logic of labor has twisted our relationship with pleasure.