No Man is an Island


t all started at home, like everything does. As a child, he surveyed the edges of the land and, eventually, came to the conclusion that it was finite. The rocks that peppered the edge of the grass behind their garden; the stones that ran in sequences of two, then five, then hundreds and more, laying idle on the beaches to the west; the old stone towers, fissures wrinkling their surfaces with age, standing desolate on the northernmost promontories. All of these signs pointed to one thing: his was an island home.

At first, he left his circumscribed world by boat. Though his home had been made on Sarnia, he had plans, and he had to start somewhere. Nestled alongside Sarnia were its sister islands; several larger and two smaller. First, he set his sights on the bigger though more sparsely populated Angia, whose cliffs of limestone rose jagged and tall out of the English Channel. After a week on Angia, he rowed to the other islands, each in turn, making notes in his journal on the features and topography of each: outlines of coast and untouched beaches he had the fortune to christen, the types of stone that lay underneath the grass and the fish that jumped across the water’s surface.

On the beaches of the smallest of these islands, Herm, he made camp for several months. The sheer quality of the island’s light burned premature crow’s feet into his face, but he was happy, for a time.

At the age of 16, he made the decision to visit all of them. When he explained his plan to a Herm native, the man laughed and turned the sides of his mouth up in disbelief.

“Ludicrous,” the man said. “Visit every island in the world?”

“All two hundred and seventy three,” he replied.

At dawn the following day, he swam out to a small canoe that he had purchased from the old Hermer, and rowed until he hit the shipping lanes of the Channel. Like so much salmon, he was hauled aboard and tossed beneath deck. Several days later, he disembarked at a small outpost in the center of the Atlantic.

The Northern Hemisphere was his favorite, at least for the first twenty years. When Iceland grew dark, he took a biplane south to Uguntu, and marveled at the temperate climate this close to the equator. Greenland intrigued him, and he spent a year investigating its cities and glaciers, learning four types of Greenlandic in the north of the island and falling in love with the snowfall that kept the ice sheets from melting apart. It was so different to the other islands that he had visited.

Then, after living among the Kalaallit for eight years, he moved on.

His youth was spent swimming, flying, sailing from icy sheets that passed for islands to small tropical Edens where he laid his head for months. He spent a year marveling at rock pools on the shores of Hokkaido, talking with the marine biologists whose mission it was to save the native mussels that were so mysteriously important to their electronics industry.

But his final and favorite stop in the north was Attilan.

The Attiliac jungles lay in valleys between the hills, and multicolored birds drifted out and surveyed the land as the bright Pacific kissed the coastline. The heat strengthened his bones and the sun, not sheer like Herm’s, but warm and glowing, made his skin tan and taut. He felt that he would live forever.

The biplane that bore him south into new territory was rusty but comfortingly solid. At the age of 38, his skin had wrinkled some but his mind was as sharp as ever. Crossing the equator felt like a betrayal, but the list in his journal still had 139 names left unchecked.

The Southern Hemisphere was different; blue like the blood behind his skin. The plane landed in Madagascar and he decamped to the forests that infringed upon the beaches. But the weather didn’t suit him, the humidity keeping his skin—like the broad leaves of the jungle—constantly bedewed with sweat.

After a year in the mercifully dry heat of Tasmania, he took a week to hop from one Micronesian island to another, finally resting up for six months under the wide Tungan trees in the Indian Ocean. As his notes grew longer, his list became shorter. One by one, he was scratching small check marks next to the remaining insular destinations: Christmas Island; Falls Rock; each of the Balleny Islands; Jødhut.

He cooled for several months in the Antarctic waters, and, during his second week in the Wyatt Earp Islands, frostbite set in. Helicopter blades whipped the tundra into a frenzy as the medics from the Australian base across the border treated his blackened hand.

“For a man of 57, you’re lucky not to lose these fingers,” they told him. He smiled—after all, what did fingers matter?—and waved as the rotors floated them away, back toward their glacial territory.

At 78, he was weaker and slower, but no less determined. In twenty years, he had visited more than half of the rocks in the southern oceans, and settled in the abandoned harbor lighthouse in Port Vila. He loved Vanuatu. The Polynesians were laid back, and he had slackened his pace to match.

But in the small journal, there was one name left unchecked. He sent for maps, picking them up at the post office, and purchased a small husk of a boat from a trader who owed him a favor. From the giant, incomprehensible maps, he tore a single square—the only square he needed—and climbed into the boat with a creak in his bones.

The final island. It took hours, but he made it. Pulling the map out of his jacket, he switched the motor off, letting the boat drift forward with the current. A constellation of points and rounded edges signified No Man’s Island, the smallest in the Pacific, and two hundred seventy third of two hundred and seventy three. But scanning the ocean around him, all that he could see was water, flowing idly to the back of the boat and pushing him on.

He lay back against the stern and stretched his arms out so that they balanced on the wooden hull to either side of him. The tides lilted back and forth, unsure which way they wanted to send him. In the sky, a single cloud. Wisps at either edge broke off and disappeared into nothingness.

He may have lain there for minutes or months. He wasn’t sure. Eventually, his hands grew numb, and he felt a huge weight pressing down on his torso. To either side, the boat had calcified into rock that now held steady and unperturbed against the waters of the Pacific.

Above, the sky was growing bluer, then white, then as clear as the waters of Herm. Around him—though he could no longer see anything—sand and stone coalesced and drove the waters back. Following the outline of his prone form, the stones increased his size by two times, then five, then hundreds and more.

Soon, all that remained was a rough approximation of a person, surrounded by rock and stone, grains of sand the size of pinheads, and the finite lines of No Man’s Island.

* * * * *

DLR is editor and cofounder of Snake-Oil Cure. He likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. His other Snake-Oil contributions can be found here.

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