By: Steve Carr
Like angry fists the cold Atlantic waves pounded against the hull of my yacht, The Explorer, as if demanding to be let in. The icy water washed over the decks shifting about the broken masts and rigging that still clung to the yacht's topside. The small vessel was tossed about like a plaything, violently rising and falling on curls of seawater amidst cyclonic howling wind and driven rain laced with hail that threatened to break the portholes. Smoke curled up around the edges of the trapdoor to the motor compartment where pumps strained to keep the ocean from filling the boat. The door that led to the deck rattled so furiously I was certain it would burst open at any moment, allowing the ocean in and drowning me while I laid in the bunk, paralyzed with fear.
The storm continued throughout the night, easing up for brief periods, and then coming back with renewed ferocity. The two battery operated lanterns that hung from the ceiling swayed back and forth, throwing across the walls flashes of light and flickering shadows that came and went like ghostly apparitions bent on adding to my terror. I gripped onto the edge of the bunk, my fingers aching, my knuckles white, to be kept from being tossed out. Unable to get even a moment's sleep, I repeatedly cursed aloud, like an angry mantra, my decision to try to cross the Atlantic alone. The Explorer was the best solo-manned yacht money could buy, and I had trained long and hard to prepare for the journey, but neither the yacht nor I were strong enough for such an unexpected storm.
"What if you die out there in the middle of the ocean, what'll I do?" my wife had railed as we stood at the pier just before I departed.
"It will save you the cost of a grave site," I responded flippantly.
I regretted not telling her before I departed that I loved her, even though she shouted it to me several times as I backed the yacht out of its berth and set out for the transatlantic journey. With the radio malfunctioning, I had no ability to relay a message to her that if I went down with The Explorer, she was the last thing I thought about. I heard the ceiling above my head splitting apart and peered up from under the blanket in time to see it collapse on me.
I awoke shivering and stretched out on a bed of rocks and seaweed. I sat up and stared through the thick fog at the hazy early-morning sun and hugged my arms around my wet body. I placed my hand on my forehead and felt a large, painful lump, but in all other regards I was uninjured. I stood up and scanned the beach around me, looking for anything from my yacht, which included hoping to find my right shoe. As fog rolled over the rocky beach I could hear the crashing of the waves, but couldn't see more than a few yards out beyond where I stood. Behind me there was a gently sloping cliff dotted with tufts of pale purple sea lavender. I took off my shoe and stuffed it into my back pocket and climbed the cliff.
To my astonishment, at the top stood four children. Their clothing appeared handmade; tunics and trousers on the two boys, simple shifts on the girls. They wore smooth, white masks that covered their faces, disguising their ages, with a slit for the mouth, and holes for the nostrils and eyes. They stared at me with a mixture of wonder and fear.
"My yacht has sunk," I said, pointing seaward.
They immediately turned and ran away, quickly lost from view as they bounded over grassy hillocks. I followed behind until I came to the top of a mound and saw before me several dozen houses built in a haphazard fashion amidst gently rolling hills. Smoke arose from their stone chimneys and lamplight shone from behind shuttered and curtained windows. As I stood there pondering which house to approach, men from two of the houses wearing the same kind of masks the children wore came out and looked my direction. One of them raised a wood flute to his lips and blew into it, emitting a high-pitched shriek. Within seconds the doors to many of the houses were thrown open and men and women ran out. All wore masks, all alike. I could hear their excited chatter as they gathered in small groups, pointing and gesturing in my direction.
Nervously, I gave a casual, friendly wave, and started in the direction of the nearest group. "My name is Edward Stanton," I called out, feeling on the edge of panic. When I was a very small child I had been so frightened by Halloween costumes, particularly the masks, that it induced in me a lifelong phobic reaction to the holiday. The sight of them was like seeing a Halloween celebration in progress.
I didn't see the man with the slingshot until it was too late. The stone hurtling my direction reached my head before I could react. It hit me between the eyes, causing me to collapse to my knees, stunned.
The people of the village rushed toward me and circled me while chanting in a language I didn't understand. Several men scooped me up and lifted me above their heads and carried me to a small shed where they stripped my clothes from me, threw me in, and secured the door.
Still dazed by the impact of the stone, and the spot where it struck me stinging, I sat on the dirt floor and tried to stop trembling as the icy air nipped at my naked flesh. Through dozens of holes in the walls, the villagers stared at me, one eyeball being replaced by another as they jostled each other to get a glimpse of me. They spoke in hushed tones, in English, but in a thick, strange dialect that made what they said difficult to understand. The one word that was very clear and often repeated with a mixture of fear and awe was "stranger."
"I mean you no harm," I said again and again through my chattering teeth.
Some of the men struck the sides of the shed with their fists in some form of masculine display. I wondered if I had in-fact left The Explorer at all and this was all some kind of nightmare.
As the morning wore on, fewer eyes stared in at me and the chilled air was replaced by warmth, I took stock of my surroundings and situation. I scooted across the floor, put my eye to a hole, and gazed out at what I could see of the village. There were small gardens alongside most of the homes. Goats and chickens ran about freely. Small herds of sheep were held in small pens. There were wells that stood in the middle of several circular patches of bare earth along the pathways between the homes. Every house was almost exactly the same size, each built from a mixture of logs, stone and sod. Hills that rose above the last houses, hid what lay beyond them. In area the land that the village covered was small, no more than a quarter of a mile wide and long in its entirety, and devoid of trees. When the fog withdrew I could see the ocean, its water churning; white capped waves washed onto the rocky beach.
Throughout the day I watched the women of the village tend their gardens, feed their livestock, and sit on stools outside their doors sewing while watching the children who played tag and a form of baseball with long poles and ping pong sized wooden balls. The men got into dugout canoes that lined the beach at mid-morning and cast out to sea, not returning until just before dusk, carrying with them through the pathways in the village nets filled with fish that they distributed door-to-door.
It wasn't until after everyone had gone into their houses, that I examined the shed I was in more closely. It was held together by hemp and mud. The roof was thatch, like the roofs of the houses. It came as a shock when I ran my hand down one of the walls and found a shiny nail sticking out from it. It was the only nail I found in the structure and the only thing I saw up to that point that indicated they were possibly aware of the world beyond theirs.
At no time did I see anyone without a mask on.
The sun was setting when the door to the shed was opened. Two men holding spear-like weapons stood on each side of the door, while a third man tossed in three sheepskins and a woven basket holding boiled mutton, bread and an earthen jug filled with water. Just before they closed the door, I stammered, "What are you going to do with me?"
"No time to think of that now," the man who had given me the food said. "This night there is to be a culling?"
Misunderstanding him, with the hairs on the back of my neck standing, I asked, "A killing?"
"A culling," he repeated. "Two babes been born recently and now two elders must be culled from the clan to make room for the newborn." He closed the door. I heard them lower the bar on the door and walk away. I sat on the floor, pulled a sheepskin across my shoulders and ate and drank ravenously.
I awoke from a deep sleep inhabited by nightmares where in some I was back home and my wife, family and friends wore masks and blood poured from their eye holes. In others I was being carried through the village in a fishing net and parts of my body was being given out. I sat up quickly, suddenly aware of a screeching whistle, like that made by a teapot, only this sound was coming from the direction of the hills behind the village. Through one of the holes I watched as the residents of the village left their homes, lit torches, and chanting in monotone words I didn't understand, traipsed up and over the last hill pulling along two women bound with strands of hemp. When everyone was lost from sight, I could only see the glow of the torch flames in the darkness.
I sat in the middle of the floor, the sheepskins pulled around me and for the next hour listened to tortured female screams that reverberated from beyond the hill.
Soon after the screaming ended, silently and with the torches extinguished, the villagers returned to their homes. I heard light footsteps circling the shed and could feel eyes looking in at me, but whoever it was went away without purposely making their presence known.
I laid down, curled into a fetal position, and spent the rest of the night trying to erase the echoes of those screams from my mind.
At the first hint of sunrise, the door was flung open. Before I could sit up, three men entered the shed, pulled the sheepskins from my body, and poured buckets of icy sea water on me.
"Rise up," one of them commanded.
Shivering, I sat up and looked at the masked faces and tried to determine the emotions I saw in their eyes, but they were cold, dead eyes with no spark of life.
"Why come you to our village?" the same man asked me, his voice even more gruff than before.
"As I told the children, my yacht sank. By some miracle I washed up on your beach."
"Liar!" he shouted.
One of the other men who had kept his hands behind his back brought out a cane and struck me hard across the face. "Why do you come here?"
I spat blood from my mouth and stuttered. "What I told you is the truth."
He raised the cane above his head and held it there for a moment, and as he stood there preparing to strike me, the thought crossed my mind that I was going to die, not at the bottom of the sea as my wife feared, but at the hands of my worse nightmare. "You come from beyond the woods," he growled in part statement and part question.
The woods? Of course! There was wood all around and yet I hadn't seen a single tree. The wood they used to build their homes, this shed, the canoes, the bat and ball, had to come from somewhere.
"What woods?" I stammered.
He lashed me across the back with the cane. I screamed out in pain as I felt welts rise on my skin. I fell onto my side, curled up, and stayed in that position as he beat me with the cane, ripping my skin in places on my back, arm and side. I had never in my life felt such intense pain. I passed out. When I awoke some hours later I lay on a sheepskin and tried to ignore the searing pain I felt from the caning. The remainder of the day and that evening went much the same as the day before. When I wasn't being stared at by someone, much like an animal in a zoo, I thoroughly examined the shed, searching for a way to break out. But despite how crudely built it was, I could find no weaknesses that would allow me to escape.
At first I thought I had imagined the gentle voice speaking to me through one of the holes. It was a young girl, a teenager, judging by the tenor of her voice.
"Are you married?" she asked, her voice shaking.
"Yes, I am," replied. "I love and miss my wife very much."
"Do you have children?"
"No, not yet, but we hope to have one or two someday."
She left and returned some time later.
"Is it true the water carried you here?"
"Yes. I didn't mean to come here. I mean no one any harm and would leave if I could."
She left again.
Night arrived bringing with it a full moon. Light shone through the holes casting rays of light into the shed. I was taking small swigs of water from a jar when the door opened and standing there was the girl. She was slight of build with long blonde hair. She was bathed in moonlight. Her mask was aglow from the reflected light.
She shifted her slight weight nervously from one bare foot to the other while frequently glancing toward the village. "What's it like where you come from?"
It struck me how cruel it would be to tell her the truth, how different it was from this world of hers that she would most likely never escape from. "It's horrible," I said with solemnity.
"They plan to kill you," she said staring off toward the village again.
"I thought as much."
She tossed in my clothes and the shoe that fell in the dirt in front of me. "Try to get away," she said and started to turn away.
"Wait. Can I ask you a question?" I asked.
She turned back, facing me. "What?"
"Why does everyone wear a mask? Why don't you show your faces?"
"I'll show you." She reached behind her head and began to untie the strap that held her mask in place. At that moment the sound of a door being closed in a nearby house startled her. "I must go," she said, and then ran off. I quickly dressed, looked out the door to make sure I wouldn't be seen, and then dashed out and ran as swiftly as I could up and over the hill that ran behind the village, following the path the villagers had taken during the culling. I stopped in my tracks, when with my nostrils assaulted by the stench of burned flesh, I saw a small field where dozens of posts were stuck in the ground and tied to them were burnt, decaying and skeletal human remains.
It was then that I saw too that the piece of land I stood on was an isle, surrounded on all sides by the ocean. On the other side of a narrow channel stood what looked like a vast forest with no sign of civilization in sight. Even if I found a way to get across to the woods I knew with certainty I would never get out alive. I turned about and faced the direction of the sea. It too offered no hope of survival, but I hastily reasoned that with the use of one of the dugout canoes I may at least have a chance of another miracle occurring.
I quickly lost track of the days that I drifted on the vast ocean, but I was near death from dehydration and nearly out of my mind when I was pulled from the canoe onto the deck of a cargo ship traveling south. They took me to the infirmary where some of the crew stood around me as the captain slowly poured small cupfuls of water into my mouth and the ship's medic fed fluids into my veins.
"How did you get way out here, mate?" the captain asked when I began to show signs of alertness.
I explained about my yacht and about washing up on the isle. I told them everything I remembered. When I was finished the infirmary was as quiet as a graveyard.
"I've sailed this part of the ocean, along that coastline, for almost thirty years," the captain said with great soberness, "and in all that time I've never seen an isle like the one you've described or heard tell of one."