The Mainland – a story about fear.

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The Mainland – Timothy N. W. Jackson

It was a long swim to the island but that wasn’t why no one had ever been there. Herpeton – it meant “creeping thing”. Herpeton Island: the island of creeping things.

Franz looked up and saw the island, just a smudge on the horizon. They’d been swimming for over half an hour already and it didn’t seem as though they were getting any closer. An eagle was flying back towards the mainland and for a moment Franz saw himself and Jean-Paul as the eagle did: two monkey-shaped specks alone in a vast and glittering wilderness of water. Jean-Paul was 10 metres ahead of Franz, swimming with an unbroken rhythmic stroke. Jean-Paul was indefatigable. In school, Franz’ classmates taunted him because his best friend was two years younger than he and because Jean-Paul was so clearly the leader of their pack of two. Franz didn’t really care what those other kids thought and besides, Jean-Paul had put a stop to all that when he stabbed fat Paul Smithson with a sharpened Paddlepop stick. That was a good day.

Franz put his head down, tasting the clean saltwater, and kept swimming. There were sharks out here. Just last week he’d been sitting on the wharf when the Graceful Swan had tied up and Old Grizzled Sam had shown him a four-and-a-half metre tiger shark pulled out of this very channel. Franz had looked at the blank and lifeless black eyes and felt sorry; he saw himself in those eyes. When Franz leaned in to look at the giant fish’s serrated teeth, Sam had tried to scare him by saying a dead shark could still bite. Everyone knew Sam was full of it: once he’d told Franz that there was a drowned city in the channel with vaults full of treasure and women who were half fish and knew what men liked. Franz told Jean-Paul about the shark and Jean-Paul said it was a small one and that it didn’t matter if there were sharks around because sharks could smell fear and all you had to do was not be afraid. That night Franz had a dream in which a shark the size of a bus swallowed him and Jean-Paul. The shark’s insides reminded him of that club Jean-Paul’s mum had taken them to when she couldn’t get a baby-sitter: it was dark and there was loud music and girls were dancing without many clothes on. Franz had become hypnotised watching one of the girls dance on a podium; he thought she looked like a fish flopping around on the sand and her eyes were black and lifeless like the shark’s. He’d turned to tell Jean-Paul about it but he wasn’t there anymore – there was just a tiny fish flopping around on the floor opening and closing its mouth as though it was trying to speak but the words wouldn’t come.

Jean-Paul was getting further ahead so Franz tried to concentrate on swimming. It didn’t matter that he was scared: he would follow Jean-Paul anywhere. In truth, he was a lot more scared of the island than he was of sharks anyway; everyone knew that the island was cursed. In school they’d been read a passage from the Bible:

“And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”

Mrs Andrews had told them that a great man, a saint, had banished the serpents from the mainland and that they were all exiled to Herpeton Island, which was so called because nothing lived there but serpents which spent all their days creeping around on their bellies. She said that the serpents were hungry because there was nothing to eat but dust, so that if anyone ever went there the serpents would finally break their fast and feast on human flesh. Everyone in Franz’ class had been very frightened by the story, but when he’d told Jean-Paul the younger boy had just laughed and said, “What a bunch of cowards! Personally, I think snakes are fascinating.” Franz had never seen a real snake and he knew Jean-Paul hadn’t either; as far as Franz knew no one had ever seen a real snake. The only snakes he and Jean-Paul had seen were in drawings depicting them swallowing humans whole.

They’d been swimming for over an hour now and the island was definitely closer, Franz could begin to make out yellow stripes of sand and the shapes of forest clad hills in the background. He realised the island was much bigger than he’d thought and that its thinnest part was facing the mainland; he could see now that it stretched into the distance and he thought that the dark silhouettes behind the hills might even be mountains. The whole place looked rather foreboding and Franz wondered again what Jean-Paul had got him into. Jean-Paul had approached him only yesterday, looking like he did that time Sadie had let him put his hand up her dress, and said, “Tomorrow, we’re going to swim to Herpeton Island.” It was a statement, not a suggestion. Franz hadn’t said a word in response, but Jean-Paul had seen the fear all over his face. “Fear is all in your head man, it’s not real. I had a dream last night that we swam there and the snakes prepared a feast in our honour. They called us ‘little masters’ and told us all the secrets of the world. It’s going to be great!” Franz hadn’t argued. He didn’t argue with Jean-Paul because Jean-Paul was always right and anyway Jean-Paul was his only friend. He didn’t have a choice. “Listen,” Jean-Paul continued, “do you want to spend the rest of your life here, afraid to see the world like the rest of those cowards? As soon as I’m old enough I’m getting out of here and I want you to come with me. The swim to the island is going to be our first real adventure, the first of many!” Franz just nodded and swallowed. He’d told his foster parents he and Jean-Paul were going for a hike in the hills behind town and the next morning he’d walked down to the beach at first light. Jean-Paul was waiting; he looked Franz in the eyes, smiled, turned without a word and ran into the ocean. The adventure had begun.

Franz was getting tired and the island was still a long way away. His shoulders were beginning to ache. He looked ahead again and saw Jean-Paul swimming with the same unbroken rhythm; he hadn’t looked back once since they’d left the beach. Franz wondered if he could make it; if he just stopped swimming and began to sink would Jean-Paul even notice? He would sink down into the depths of the channel, down into the drowned city to live with the fish women. When he’d told Jean-Paul what Sam had said about the fish women Jean-Paul had told him all women had a fish between their legs so in a way they were all part fish, but they didn’t all know what men liked, that was for sure. Franz didn’t have much experience with girls so he had to take Jean-Paul’s word for it.

Once Franz and Jean-Paul had found a man’s body in the rocks at the southern end of the beach. The body was white and blue and the lips and eyes had been eaten away by fish. Jean-Paul poked it with a stick and a crab crawled out of its mouth and hid itself in the rocks as though it was ashamed to have been seen in a place like that. It made Franz think of that night at the club again when he’d seen his teacher Mr Bergmann putting money into Jean-Paul’s mum’s underwear as she flopped around on a podium. Mr Bergmann had seen Franz looking at him and his smile had vanished: he’d taken his money back and rushed out the door of the club as though the hounds of hell were on his trail. Franz knew he’d been embarrassed but he didn’t really know why: so what if Mr Bergmann liked watching girls imitate asphyxiating fish whilst taking their clothes off, there wasn’t much else to do in that town.

Franz knew he was going to drown. He couldn’t swim any further; he’d give up and begin to sink and Jean-Paul wouldn’t even notice. Franz saw the body in the rocks again, only it wasn’t the body of an anonymous man anymore, it was his own. The world was becoming dark and peaceful; he knew he was sinking but he felt no fear. Somebody poked his cadaver with a stick and Jean-Paul crawled out from between his blue and nibbled lips and started shouting at him: “Wake up! We’re going to make it!” Franz opened his eyes and he was in Jean-Paul’s arms: the younger boy had him on his back and was dragging him through the water. He looked up and saw his friend’s determined face and knew nothing could stop him, nothing could hold him back.

“I can swim, I can swim,” said Franz. Jean-Paul released him and he began to swim again of his own accord. He looked up and saw that the island was much closer than he’d realised: he could make out the shapes of individual trees now, exotic shapes he’d never seen before. Jean-Paul was a few strokes ahead already and suddenly a huge dark shape loomed up out of the water between them like some great submarine about to breach the surface. Franz felt his scream catch in his throat; he would die after all, he would save Jean-Paul by throwing himself at the shark. He lunged towards the shadow but instead of a mouth full of hundreds of razor sharp teeth a head like the tip of a round and scaly iceberg broke the surface and Franz found himself looking into the large and personable eye of a giant sea turtle. He saw his own face, wild with fear, reflected in the eye of the turtle and burst into maniacal laughter. Jean-Paul’s own astonished laughter reached his ears, barely audible over the sound of turtles exhaling as their nostrils broke the surface. Franz looked around and saw that they were suddenly in the centre of a vast flotilla; sea turtles in their hundreds were surfacing around them and beginning to swim towards the island.

“Grab one!” shouted Jean-Paul and they each caught hold of the carapace of one of the great beasts which scarcely noticing their new passengers began to tow them towards the island that had been their goal for the past two hours. The turtles carried them into the mouth of a great shallow water bay filled with dozens of tiny sand islands encrusted with shrubs and small trees. The trees on these islands were unlike any Franz had seen before although they were strangely familiar as though remembered from a dream. They had gnarled trunks and spiky leaves and what passed for their fruit were strange pods that looked like bunches of steel wool. Some of the shrubs were flowering and they had beautiful inflorescences composed of hair-like petals of bright red and yellow. The water was crystal clear and Franz could see swarms of tiny brightly coloured fish and a myriad sea slugs and unidentifiable worms of exquisite beauty. The water was now shallow enough to stand so Franz let go of his turtle and let his feet fall down to rest on the soft sand; the water was warm and the sand felt pleasantly squelchy between his toes. Jean-Paul, following Franz’ example, let go of his turtle and they both stood marvelling at their surroundings. Ahead of them on the beach dozens of turtles were hauling themselves out of the water and beginning to dig nests in the sand. Franz moved closer to one of the small islands, wading in amongst the tangled roots that protruded from its sandy banks. Ahead of him, hidden among the roots, he saw movement. Suddenly an enormous lizard broke cover and swam slowly away, all the while observing him with a large amber-coloured eye that contained a Franz unlike any Franz had seen before: a Franz without a trace of doubt. Feeling no fear Franz caught the lizard by the tail and it turned to face him directly, flicking a long forked tongue from its narrow jaws. Franz admired the intricate patterns adorning the animal’s leathery skin, skin so tough a bullet would not pierce it. After a moment he released the lizard’s tail and it resumed its unhurried escape from his prying eyes. Looking over at Jean-Paul Franz realised that the younger boy was looking at him in a way he had never before done so: with admiration.

The boys waded ashore, each of them feeling exhilarated and truly alive for the first time. “Man, I wish Sadie were here,” said Jean-Paul. “I’d show that fish I meant business!” Franz gave him a quizzical look and they both suddenly fell to the ground shaking with paroxysms of laughter. Franz was the first to recover his composure and the first to enter the jungle that fringed the beach. All around him was an exotic new world with sights smells and sounds that were completely unfamiliar. The jungle was teeming with life: huge technicolour butterflies flitted back and forth between patches of light, the humming of insects drowned out the sound of his own breath and the smells of fresh and decaying fruit and flowers filled his nostrils. He knew at that moment that the stories he had been told at school were false: even if there were serpents here they had plenty to eat besides dust! Jean-Paul walked ahead of him and turned over a log; they both stooped to look at the universe he had revealed. There were dozens of types of insects and other creepy-crawlies under this one log: things with armour-plated backs and things with more legs than they could count; things that burrowed into the soft soil as soon as they were exposed to the light and things that looked ready to stand and fight; things they didn’t even have names for on the mainland where they knew no insects other than ants; things Franz had never seen before but which seemed somehow familiar. Jean-Paul replaced the log and said, “If they have girls here, I’m never going back.”

The boys continued a few metres further into the forest when suddenly Franz saw it: a large green snake coiled around a branch at head height, just a metre or so ahead of them. So: they were real. Both boys froze, unsure if the snake would suddenly strike at them in an attempt to envelope them in its coils as they had seen in their books at school. The snake, however, appeared undisturbed by their sudden appearance; perhaps it was asleep. Franz took a step closer and admired the creature. Jean-Paul had been right: it truly was fascinating, amazing to look at. Its skin was bright green velvet with a line of pure white a single scale thick running the length of its spine; its eyes were large and grey and subdivided by the tiny slit of pupils running from top to bottom. Franz could see intricate blood vessels criss-crossing the eye like a beautiful fishing net. When Franz was less than half a metre from the snake’s head it appeared to notice him, slowly turning in his direction. Franz could see deep pits in the scales around its lips and he knew that the animal was sensing him in some manner unique to snakes. He tensed himself, ready to jump back and run if it should strike, but the snake turned slowly away from him and began to slither into the jungle like some giant tentacle being withdrawn. Franz glanced at Jean-Paul and saw that once again his friend was looking at him in smiling admiration. Franz returned his smile and said, “I’m glad I came.”

Advancing through the jungle the boys found themselves at the edge of a large clearing. Through the green filter Franz could see shapes moving down a slope on the far side, shapes that looked like people. He could hear a strange humming sound that recalled the music of church services. He parted the leaves and gasped: coming down the hill towards them was a large group of bipedal reptiles. The creatures were similar in size and shape to humans but covered in green scales and with teeth more frightening than those of any shark. Franz felt his fear returning, the familiar gnawing sensation in the pit of his stomach swept away all the joy of the past hour and his knees began to shake. He was frozen to the spot. Even worse than his fear came the realisation that the newfound respect Jean-Paul had for him would surely disappear when the younger boy saw what a coward he truly was. He looked at Jean-Paul and saw for the first time that he too was gripped by obvious terror: he had turned as pale as the moon and beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. Neither boy moved as the reptiloids made their way across the clearing, their fearsome fangs gleaming in the sun. As the terrible creatures drew close the boys realised that they were singing: rising above them, a nest of intertwined serpents, were the lines of a four-part canon. Illegal intervals, subtly employed, generated harmonies of a sophisticated beauty that eclipsed any the boys had heard in the churches of the mainland. As the music filled their ears the boys felt their fears melt away, replaced by a dreamlike aura of contentment. When the reptiloids were only metres away they stopped advancing and one, larger than the rest and with teeth the size of daggers, stepped out from their ranks. The song of the other members lowered in volume until it was scarcely a murmur. “Welcome, little masters,” said the lizard man, removing his mask, “welcome to the mainland.”

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