Isle Of The Dead
To Banks Mebane.
Life is a thing--if you'll excuse a quick dab of philosophy before you know what kind of picture I'm painting--that reminds me quite a bit of the beaches around Tokyo Bay.
Now, it's been centuries since I've seen that Bay and those beaches, so I could be off a bit. But I'm told that it hasn't changed much, except for the condoms, from the way that I remember it.
I remember a terrible expanse of dirty water, brighter and perhaps cleaner way off in the distance, but smelling and slopping and chill close at hand, like Time when it wears away objects, delivers them, removes them. Tokyo Bay, on any given day, is likely to wash anything ashore. You name it, and it spits it up some time or other: a dead man, a shell that might be alabaster, rose and pumpkin bright, with a sinistral whorling, rising inevitably to the tip of a horn as innocent as the unicorn's, a bottle with or without a note which you may or may not be able to read, a human foetus, a piece of very smooth wood with a nail hole in it--maybe a piece of the True Cross, I don't know--and white pebbles and dark pebbles, fishes, empty dories, yards of cable, coral, seaweed, and those are pearls that were his eyes. Like that. You leave the thing alone, and after awhile it takes it away again. That's how it operates. Oh yeah--it also used to be lousy with condoms, limp, almost transparent testimonies to the instinct to continue the species but not tonight, and sometimes they were painted with snappy designs or sayings and sometimes had a feather on the end. These are almost gone now, I hear, the way of the Edsel, the klepsydra and the button hook, shot down and punctured by the safety pill, which makes for larger mammaries, too, so who complains? Sometimes, as I'd walk along the beach in the sun-spanked morning, the chill breezes helping me to recover from the effects of rest and recuperation leave from a small and neatly contained war in Asia that had cost me a kid brother, sometimes then I would hear the shrieking of birds when there were no birds in sight. This added the element of mystery that made the comparison inevitable: life is a thing that reminds me quite a bit of the beaches around Tokyo Bay. Anything goes. Strange and unique things are being washed up all the time. I'm one of them and so are you. We spend some time on the beach, maybe side by side, and then that slopping, smelling, chilly thing rakes it with the liquid fingers of a crumbling hand and some of the things are gone again. The mysterious bird-cries are the open end of the human condition. The voices of the gods? Maybe. Finally, to nail all corners of the comparison to the wall before we leave the room, there are two things that caused me to put it there in the first place: sometimes, I suppose, things that are taken away might, by some capricious current, be returned to the beach. I'd never seen it happen before, but maybe I hadn't waited around long enough. Also, you know, somebody could come along and pick up something he'd found there and take it away from the Bay. When I learned that the first of these two things might actually have happened, the first thing I did was puke. I'd been drinking and sniffing the fumes of an exotic plant for about three days. The next thing I did was expel all my house guests. Shock is a wonderful soberer, and I already knew that the second of the two things was possible--the taking away of a thing from the Bay--because it had happened to me, but I'd never figured on the first coming true. So I took a pill guaranteed to make me a whole man in three hours, followed it with a sauna bath and then stretched out on the big bed while the servants, mechanical and otherwise, took care of the cleaning up. Then I began to shake all over. I was scared.
I am a coward.
Now, there are a lot of things that scare me, and they are all of them things over which I have little or no control, like the Big Tree.
I propped myself up on my elbow, fetched the package from the bedside table and regarded its contents once more.
There could be no mistake, especially when a thing like that was addressed to me.
I had accepted the special delivery, stuffed it into my jacket pocket, opened it at my leisure.
Then I saw that it was the sixth, and I'd gotten sick and called things to a halt.
It was a tri-dee picture of Kathy, all in white, and it was dated as developed a month ago.
Kathy had been my first wife, maybe the only woman I'd ever loved, and she'd been dead for over five hundred years. I'll explain that last part by and by.
I studied the thing closely. The sixth such thing I'd received in as many months. Of different people, all of them dead. For ages.
Rocks and blue sky behind her, that's all.
It could have been taken anywhere where there were rocks and a blue sky. It could easily have been a fake, for there are people around who can fake almost anything these days.
But who was there around, now, who'd know enough to send it to me, and why? There was no note, just that picture, the same as with all the others--my friends, my enemies.
And the whole thing made me think of the beaches around Tokyo Bay, and maybe the Book of Revelations, too.
I drew a blanket over myself and lay there in the artificial twilight I had turned on at midday. I had been comfortable, so comfortable, all these years. Now something I had thought scabbed over, flaked away, scarred smoothly and forgotten had broken, and I bled.
If there was only the barest chance that I held a truth in my shaking hand ...
I put it aside. After a time, I dozed, and I forget what thing out of sleep's mad rooms came to make me sweat so. Better forgotten, I'm sure.
I showered when I awoke, put on fresh clothing, ate quickly and took a carafe of coffee with me into my study. I used to call it an office when I worked, but around thirty-five years ago the habit wore off. I went through the past month's pruned and pre-sorted correspondence and found the items I was looking for amid the requests for money from some oddball charities and some oddball individuals who hinted at bombs if I didn't come across, four invitations to lecture, one to undertake what once might have been an interesting job, a load of periodicals, a letter from a long-lost descendant of an obnoxious in-law from my third marriage suggesting a visit, by him, with me, here, three solicitations from artists wanting a patron, thirty-one notices that lawsuits had been commenced against me and letters from various of my attorneys stating that thirty-one actions against me had been quashed.
The first of the important ones was a letter from Marling of Megapei. It said, roughly:
"Earth-son, I greet you by the twenty-seven Names that still remain, praying the while that you have cast more jewels into the darkness and given them to glow with the colors of life.
"I fear that the time of the life for the most ancient and dark green body I am privileged to wear moves now toward an ending early next year. It has been long since these yellow and failing eyes have seen my stranger son. Let it be before the ending of the fifth season that he comes to me, for all my cares will be with me then and his hand upon my shoulder would lighten their burden. Respects."
The next missive was from the Deep Shaft Mining and Processing Company, which everyone knows to be a front organization for Earth's Central Intelligence Department, asking me if I might be interested in purchasing some used-but-in-good-condition off-world mining equipment located at sites from which the cost of transport would be prohibitive to the present owners.