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The Island of White Houses by Alisa Alering

Today, I am going to the island.

I climb the slick wood stairs down to Whitmuth beach. The wind blows fierce through the town like usual and swirls back out to sea, smoky with our coal fires and smacking with hot oil from the fry shops up and down the boardwalk.

The fishermen bring in their morning catch, baskets of big fish with whiskery heads like dogs and nets of slippery green crabs. The amusement men drag out the red and yellow sign painted with flaking curlicues and cinch up the shaggy donkeys with the faded saddles. The donkeys have big brown eyes, and I sometimes wish that they could go to the island, too.

The air is cold as I pick my way through the driftwood and trash that piles up at the base of the dunes, and I am glad of my thick, double-knit wetsuit. I knit it myself, in the evenings, sitting in the armchair beside Hanshet with my feet up on the fender, resting them from my days spent walking.

I pass the lifeguard chair, ready to wave a last good-bye to old Gus scanning the empty waves and puffing the smoke from his pipe into the air. But Gus disappeared to the island last month, and his grandson Leo has taken over his perch in the high white chair. I wave at Leo, but he scowls and draws his head farther down into the collar of his coat.

At the water’s edge the tide has turned, leaving razor shells in its wake. I step carefully around their sharp-toothed edges and kick the sea-frond away, clearing a flat spot out of reach of the surf. I take the boat out of my knapsack and unfold it on the sand, smoothing the paper flat.

I found the boat after last week’s big storm, wrapped in brown oilcloth and string, bobbing slap in the water against Whitmuth pier along with the banana peels and peanut shells and the waterlogged carcass of a rat. I turned my umbrella around, hooked the handle on the string, and lifted the package out.

Folded, the boat is a rectangle of stiff, waxed paper, stacked on itself like a blouse with so many tiny, eye-straining pleats that you can only buy it in the kind of marble-countered shop we don’t have in Whitmuth since the island appeared.

I reach into the prow of the boat and poke out the corners of the intake valve, carefully popping out the seams. It unfurls like a trumpet flower on the end of a stalk, the blossom end perforated with a scatter of holes. I attach a rope to the cleat, then I kneel down in the wet sand and speak into the trumpet.

I start with the basics and say, ‘‘The island’s first appearance was ten minutes past dawn on December 3rd, the Year 168.’’ There is no textbook for getting to the island, but I have made it my life’s study. The flattened boat rustles and comes to life, the paper rising up in three dimensions. The hull is rounded, with low sides, like an aspen leaf turned on its back. There’s a shallow seat, just enough room for me, and a rudder that sticks like a wasp’s tail out the back. ‘‘The day the island appeared, a landslide closed the road to Whitmuth,’’ I say into the intake. The boat quivers and springs forward on the sand, straining towards the sea. I lunge for the rope and hold it fast while I collect my knapsack.

I have always known I would go to the island. That’s why I took the walking job. I carried a parasol and changed my outfit every two hours, so I looked like more than one person. If visitors would no longer come from afar to stroll our boardwalk then we must do it ourselves. The municipal stipend was small, but I was paid to promenade up and down all day, looking out past the pier and the burned-out ruins of the Marine Pavilion, over the water to the island. The sun shines on the island, not like in Whitmuth where it’s always cold and grim. At the end of my shift, I could use the big metal telescope mounted at the end of the promenade, aim it out at the island, and look at the white buildings with the red tile roofs. Through the magnifying lens, I could see the people on the island, strolling around in the bright sunshine or resting in the shade of the spiky trees.

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I loose the boat into the water and run alongside, pushing it past the breaking surf. I scramble over the side and onto the seat, trying to stay upright. The boat hops over the incoming waves, rolling out into the fog-draped water. I keep one hand on the rudder, and the boat rocks on the waves, moving steadily ahead as I recite facts into the valve: ‘‘The island lies between 10 kilometers southwest and 45 kilometers northwest of Whitmuth, depending on its mood. It has never appeared farther than 55.983 degrees north. The first person from Whitmuth to disappear was Mrs. Angela Piallu, in the Year 169.’’

Tiny fish glow in the water, darting in and swishing off with flicks of their phosphorescent tails as The boat purrs smoothly forward, steering for the open sea.

 • • •

The boat purrs smoothly forward, out into the water. ‘‘The first person from Whitmuth to disappear,’’ I say into the trumpet, ‘‘was Mrs. Angela Piallu, in the Year 169.’’ I read this in one of the big volumes of the Whitmuth Gazette I brought home from the library and pored over in the evenings while I knitted by the fire. It was the Year 194 when I read that, so that meant she had been on the island for twenty-four years. I said it out loud because I couldn’t keep all of my envy inside.

And Hanshet said, ‘‘What makes you think that the people who disappear end up on the island?’’

Hanshet has his uses, including being something nice and warm to lie down beside when the wind is howling down the flue, but this isn’t very smart of him.

‘‘People didn’t disappear until right after the island appeared,’’ I said.

‘‘That doesn’t mean they go to the island,’’ Hanshet said. ‘‘It just means they disappear. We didn’t have the razor shells and the whip current and the trash storms before the island either.’’

Which didn’t prove anything.

 • • •

Out here, away from the stagnation of Whitmuth, the air is brisk and salty. It smells just like being at the top of the observation wheel, before it stopped working. The fog, though, is thicker than milk and clings to my face. I squint, but I still can’t see where I am going. Ahead is just the faintest glimmer of blue sky. ‘‘Small yellow birds with bright red beaks fly among the forests of the island. No one who disappears ever returns.’’ I speak into the trumpet and steer toward the sunbeam break in the clouds.

Only the week before the boat washed up against the pier, I had dragged Hanshet into the Oracle Parlor and dropped a coin in one of the machines. The velvet curtain drew back and the frail doors of the cabinet unfolded on their wire hinges. I breathed onto the coated mirror, putting all of my desire into it like it says in the instructions pasted under the coin slot. The film on the mirror rushed to gobble up my longing, racing around the pane and connecting me to the face I most wanted to see.

Hanshet watched over my shoulder as my Auntie Uta, who had disappeared in the Year 179, appeared in the mirror. She had a fierce bun and two eyes black like shiny ants. She was missing her ear, and part of her neck, which was my fault since I was only five when she disappeared, and I didn’t remember her that well.

The connection was bad—the oracles always sound like shouting down a tin can over a gale—but still I tried to ask her why, when hundreds of people have disappeared from Whitmuth since the island appeared, I have been left behind. It seemed like she wanted to help, and she started out telling me about what she was doing when she disappeared—showing her fourth grade class how to make a baking soda volcano—but she got mixed up somewhere along the way and started giving me a recipe for clam jelly.

‘‘Why you?’’ I shouted, but the mirror was clearing, and Uta’s face dissolved.

‘‘I don’t know why you want to go there so bad,’’ Hanshet said, putting his hand on my shoulder. ‘‘Your aunt is batty.’’

‘‘She was always like that,’’ I said, and it was part-true.

A turtle glides by the boat, bumping the hull with its hard shell. It turns its curved snout towards me, then flaps away. A school of stalk-eyed eels swim up, and before I notice it, they are massed around the boat on all sides, so many that the water churns with them, their long backs twisting out of the water.

The boat rocks, dipping the sides dangerously. ‘‘Hey now,’’ I yell, ‘‘stop that!’’ I poke the eels with the pole, and they writhe and snap and quiver their eyes at the ends of the stalks. More of them come, and the boat heaves up out of the water. I grab the intake trumpet. ‘‘The oracle was invented by Dhomas Smith after his daughter disappeared. The first poem written about the island was a villanelle, ‘Looking at the Island and Drinking Tea.’’’ I pour into it every fact I can think of, trying to get away. ‘‘Small yellow birds with bright red beaks fly….’’ No, I’ve used that one before. The engine coughs. Before I can think of a fresh fact, the boat rises onto the backs of the swarming eels. We pick up speed, and the wind and spray hit my face as they carry me away from the island.

Then, as suddenly as they came, they leave me. The school breaks apart, and the eels slither down into the deeper water. My boat bobs on top of the waves. The sky above me is still gray, the fog thick.

‘‘A rocky atoll appeared overnight off the coast of Sidcoombe in 152, but vanished again two weeks later.’’ I feed the boat small facts and putter forward, turning the rudder first left and then right until finally I get a glimpse of what I think is the island. It turns out to be the coast south of Whitmuth. I adjust my course and steam ahead, digging into my brain for every fact I know to spit into the trumpet, until the island comes back into view, the sun shining on its white buildings through the break in the clouds that is always above the island.

I am going so fast now that I almost don’t see the first rock. There are no rocks between Whitmuth and the island, but thanks to the eels I am coming at the island from the east. Or maybe it’s the north. I don’t have time to think about it—the rocks are all around me now, poking out of the water like lizard’s teeth. The fog has swirled in thick and I can’t see my way through. ‘‘Two mountain peaks jut into the sky at the island’s southern end,’’ I say. ‘‘Forty-eight percent of all disappearances—.’’ A jagged rock looms, and I pull hard on the rudder. The boat smacks port abeam into the rock and the paper crumples. I pole away frantically, and poke out the side of the boat. It pushes back into shape, but the paper is softer.

I brush off the thought of Hanshet coming back to the house tonight after the clamming. Lighting the fire under the kettle in the brown kitchen, and sitting at the scarred table with the single slice of toast on a plate, staring at the wall where the photo of us hangs, taken by the boardwalk photographer who later disappeared.

• • •

When I clear the rocks, I am out of the cloud and fog, and the island looms up bright in front of me. It is so near I can see the trees and the white houses. They are bigger and brighter than through the telescope. A flash of color among the fronds could even be a bird.

‘‘Mrs. Angela Piallu was the first person to disappear,’’ I say. ‘‘The oracle was invented…’’ The engine splutters, then stalls. The boat sits there, rocking on the waves. I try history, meteorology, geology, anecdotes, gossip, and poetry, excavating my brain for some fact I haven’t yet remembered. Surely I haven’t used up every piece of knowledge I have about the island. Yet it seems I have.

The water here is clear and so shallow that I could stand. Except the sea floor is blanketed with barnacles and razor shells—not a scattering like washes up on Whitmuth beach but covering every surface, every ripple of sand, their tooth edges waiting for my flesh.

I sit in the boat, and the day passes, the bright sun overhead. The water I brought in my knapsack is almost gone. My lips are dry, my hair sticks to my burning cheeks. My swollen tongue lies limply in my mouth. I don’t understand how this has happened, that I am stuck here in my dried-out wetsuit, so close.

The paper boat rides lower in the water, and the sea seeps into the cracks, swelling the fibers and splitting the seams. Behind me, I can barely make out the distant smudge that is the Whitmuth coastline. I am out of facts about the island, and I wonder for a moment if I could tell the boat enough facts about Whitmuth to power it back to shore. I search my mind and realize that I don’t have many facts about Whitmuth—I have spent my whole life studying the island.

I want to know why other people get to go to the island without trying, how they are just poofed off while stirring the morning porridge or taking a walk on the hills with their dog. I have worked my whole life for this. ‘‘I belong on the island. I am going to get there,’’ I say into the limp trumpet.

The boat doesn’t move.

I heave over the side and into the water. As soon as I’m in, the calm sea turns rough, and the waves swell and swirl, battering me hard. I go under and barely keep above the razor floor. I come up choking and grab the boat. I cling to its side. Already it’s a wet newspaper, bobbing like flotsam. The waves crash harder, tossing me around.

If I can’t swim, I will walk. I put my feet down, and the razor teeth shred my feet. I cry through my cracked lips and yank my feet away, but the current bashes me down. I breathe in the seawater, spluttering and gasping. I must either stand on the razors or drown.

I fix my eyes on the island and put my weight on one foot and then the other. The shells bite down to the bone. The water around me blooms red, billowing with clouds of my blood. I am so tired. I think of all the miles I trod up and down the boardwalk and almost laugh to realize I will die here in this shallow water, with my island a few footsteps out of reach.

I take another step. The barnacles that lay among the razor shells detach from the sea floor and swarm up into the current. They stream into the reddest water and multiply, schooled together in a frenzy of feeding and breeding. They cement one onto the other like a chain, forming an arc that stretches all the way to the island. Unsteady, I place my shredded feet along their narrow bridge and walk, safe above the razor shells. The water calms, lapping around me.

As I take the last step from the barnacle bridge onto land, a small yellow bird darts past my head. My toes touch the shore, and I fall down on my knees in the island’s warm, clean sand. The breeze has a wonderful cinnamon scent. Through the spiky trees I see red tile roofs, and I wonder which house will be mine.

I try to put out of my head the image of Hanshet sitting by our stove alone. I have left him a little stash of coins tied up in one of his wool socks. I have put it down among my newspaper articles and walking shoes so that when he misses me and goes to look at the things I have left behind he will find the coins and be able to take them to the Oracle Parlor and talk to me. I will talk back straight if I can.

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Alisa Alering’s short fiction has appeared in Clockwork Phoenix 4, Flash Fiction Online, and Missing Links & Secret Histories. She is a graduate of Clarion West (2011) and winner of Writers of the Future (2013). She tweets as @alering. For more: http://alering.com

Posted in fiction, Issue 11

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