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Adapted from an image by saxifrag

On the Island

1.  Lonelyville

The animals of Reincarnation Island ate shriveled red berries and dried chartreuse grass until the plane came overhead. The plane dusted the island with a white ash, and after fits of coughing and a burning in their throats, the animals died.

And then they raised their heads and took fresh breaths. They all had a strange desire to work out kinks in their necks but when they did, there were no aches. They’d scratch at insect bites that no longer existed. They’d lick cuts from prickly grass and lick only fresh healthy skin.

For most of the animals this was enough indication to get to their feet and trot off, swing off, or scurry off to find food or beauty. They did not remember that this was not their first shot at life. They remembered the vapid dark that came before sunrise and called it the long dark sleep, and went on. But Black Horse was truly bothered by the lack of soreness in his knees. That he felt like a strong, thick-hearted young stallion was no excuse to frolic with a mare no matter how much the ladies swished. When he ran around in circles it was not, as Mutt thought, to chase his tail, and when he watched the clear Pacific sky, Bluebird would nestle her talons into his mane and look up, look for something and see nothing.

“Too early for stars.”

“I’m watching for the plane. We’re all going to have to run when it comes. You’re going to have to fly, Blue.”

Bluebird said he was crazy and morbid and fluttered off, and nobody ever did run when the plane came except for Black Horse, who ran under trees and into water, but there was really nowhere to run to, and everything happened the way it did before. Over and over and over again.

Sometimes before the end when it was all coughs and burns, and he saw the others hunker down and shudder under the cloud of white ash, Black Horse pounded his hooves. He shed tears like an elephant. And in the coming daylight the stallion would wander alone amid the mulberries, like he was waiting, as Mutt would say on dog day afternoons, for something.

2.  The Saint

Mutt and Blue had a conversation about this, the merits of waiting. Blue said there was nothing to wait for, that the sky was always going to be some variation of chalk and blue—she spent enough time flying in it when she circled the island, she said, so she would know, and if Black Horse didn’t hurry up and stop his wishing games all the good mares would be gone. And Mutt said it was nice that he was always waiting for something, even if nothing came.

“Like Don-Don,” said Mutt, “She’s been trying to find another shore for hours.”

None of them knew it, but Don-Don felt that nomadic desire every time she woke up from the long dark sleeps. Her shaky knees took her straight to the sand on the eastern side of Reincarnation Island where she’d watch the sun rise with scallops on her hooves. She did not know the base of the yearning that ran in her veins and popped blood vessels. Maybe because she found the island so crushingly small, because she could run full circle around it in an hour, because she had acute claustrophobia. Maybe it was because the water of the river that curved through Reincarnation Island tasted too metallic to her, and she loved the taste of salt.

In some lives she tried to reform. In some lives the absolute absence of other animals in the water made her nervous. But in those lives she usually ended up creeping down to the beach by moonlight, wrecked with guilt and hunger.

And some wondered why she wanted to die when they saw her wade in to her knees, then her shoulders, and especially when she came howling out of the water because she’d been stung by jellyfish, only to try the swim again in a few hours. Don-Don never got very far anyway before the white ash and the long dark sleep came. Sometimes it came when she was out there so deep she was fighting to keep her head above the bubbling surf, kicking her legs frantically with pressure pounding her rib cage. Still, with every new life, her legs remembered moisture and she stubbornly had to try again.

Don-Don knew the sun, the great womb, arose out of some place past where the sea dropped off. So there wasn’t just a nothing over yonder. But the other animals did not think this was enough certainty, and unlike Don-Don, they deeply feared the chaos potential of all that wind and water and depth. So when during one life the sea and sky were stormy and the donkeys saw Don-Don charging down to the beach blindly amid lightning and hard pellets of rain, the donkeys decided they had to intervene.

They ran after her, calling for her through the storm, crying, “Don-Don, you have so much to live for!”

She was only visible when the sky lit up after a blast of thunder, but she kept veering off, kept winding round, kept almost falling down in shallow sand traps, and the donkeys were able to catch up to her. They tried to drive her, like sheepdogs, back to the highland. But Don-Don, channeling the sea, was mad. So mad she could barely speak. With lightning in her eyes she bared her grass-grazing teeth and bit the other donkeys.

That was how Don-Don crossed the line. Quite a few other animals answered the donkeys’ shrieks for help, and they all fell upon Don-Don in a flurry of fur and hide. The waves were still viciously beating the sand, and so Don-Don still struggled, kicking if she couldn’t bite. She whinnied for the sea to wash the animals off of her, but the sea sent neither a tsunami nor a flood. The animals hit back.

Maybe the sea drove them all mad. Maybe Don-Don’s spasms made them do it. It was one of the monkeys who finally put her to death with a rock to the head, but all the creatures had blood on their hands. Several hurried down to the rocky, rollicking sea to clean themselves, and that was how little parts of Don-Don’s soul went brushing up against the distant shores she knew existed, but that her body could not reach.

For the remainder of that life, the beach was quarantined. The animals did not speak of what had happened during the storm, and no one touched Don-Don’s body.

After the long dark sleep Don-Don returned, unbruised and fresh, as if just bathed. And in that new windblown day the others welcomed her once again, and if any of them had a memory they would say that their blows had cured her. Instead all they called her was a friend, a fellow denizen, someone to plod the island with. Don-Don had no memory and held no grudge. She just looked down at the beach and licked her lips for the horizon, the center, the beyond, the somewhere.

3.  Beast

During one life, there was a horrible noise on the island followed by a shudder that rustled the bushes and made a few of the daintier ungulates fall. Only a few animals were in the right spot to become the first witnesses to the arrival of the beast: there was Swing, who was looking for lice in Grayhair, and there was Grayhair, who was eating a thin-skinned fruit that gushed juice all over his lips and fingers, and there was also Copper, who had learned from Grayhair to stomp on the fruits that he and Swing had shaken out of the tree to open it.

These three heard the noise first, and when they peered through the leaves they saw a shape that looked like a storm embodied in a monstrous bird of prey come roaring out of the sky, as if diving down to catch them in its beak. Wanting to survive, Copper ran out of its path and Swing and Grayhair leapt into another tree. The roar heightened to the half-natural shriek of an abyss as the shape burst through the trees and skidded across the soil. Then the roar softened to a whisper, then a hiss. Smoke seeped through the thicket. The Earth stabilized. The animals came back, stepping cautiously and holding their breaths.

It was a wreck of a beast. Large flat pieces of it were charred and bent, and tender flames danced up out of its back. Its large circular feet and various internal pieces had been wrenched off in the crash and were quietly smoking far from the wreck, in trees and grass, on termites’ homes.

Then another beast came out of its head. This one was smaller, about the size of Don-Don, but walked on two feet like Grayhair when he felt like it. The beast was still alive, but barely. He staggered and shook—his brilliantly white and surreal skin seemed to be melting, or molting—until he fell, a few yards away, and lay under a cypress tree panting and moaning.

The animals approached the beast, taking great care because they could tell he was very hot from the combusted wreck and was possibly a predator. But the beast made no aggressive gesture—he was too busy looking at his bleeding, burned hands and crying in pain.

“It’s really sick,” said Swing. “Something must have happened to it while it was flying.”

Copper bent her head down toward a wound on the beast’s leg, and the beast jerked back.

“Dear God,” said the beast, trying to crawl away as if he feared them. “Stay away from me! Git! Git!”

They did stay away, but they did not go away. All night they watched the beast suffer, and as other animals filtered through the trees, intrigued by the smell of smoke, suggestions for remedies were made. One of the rabbits hopped up to the beast with a leaf in her mouth, thinking he needed food, and the beast, who was already pressed up against a tree as far as he could go and too weak to exert his limbs, howled as the rabbit came close.

“Don’t!” said Copper. “It’s really scared of us.”

The rabbit was indignant. “Why? I just wanted to help!”

“I guess it thinks we’ll hurt it,” said Swing, eating a louse. “I don’t know why it thinks that.”

The rabbit said if the thing didn’t want her help then she wouldn’t stick around, and she and many of the other rodents scurried back into the thicket as well, muttering something about beggars and choosers and ingratitude.

As the rabbits disappeared, the beast started to sob and thrash and finally limply point to the sky. The animals looked up along with him, whispering to each other that maybe another winged mechanical beast was coming in for a landing.

“Is this your idea of a joke?” asked the beast. “Because I’m not. . . laughing.”

By the next morning most of the animals had gone back to their dens. The beast had ceased being interesting when he stopped moving. But Copper the mare stayed behind, out of pity, and lay down a few feet away from him.

When dawn came trickling, the beast woke up, looked at Copper, and hissed: “You stupid dumb horse. What are you doing? You don’t know I came here to kill all of you? You don’t know what kind of poison that plane’s carrying?”

Copper was shocked. She asked the beast why he would want to kill them, but the beast sighed and turned his face away.

“Guess it doesn’t matter now,” said the beast. “Another few minutes and the morning plane’ll be making rounds. I’m not sure what’s on the menu for you all today. Brucellosis? Tularemia? I don’t know.” He dropped his burned hand. “Guess it doesn’t matter.”

Then the ash began to fall. In the soft haze Copper heard the beast say, “Would it have killed them to send a rescue mission?” It was unclear which incomprehensible force killed him, his own men’s poison or his own plane’s accident.

When the long dark sleep ended, and the island breathed life into all of them again, the beast also awoke. By the time he opened his eyes Copper had already gone off to find water. The beast stumbled around the island dumbly throughout that first life, calling nonsense names and trying to start fires on the beach, which disturbed Don-Don greatly. But in lives to come he would calm, and spend days with the primates, eating lice and fruit, and though they appreciated his expertise and he shared all his termites, they resented how much better he was at making tools.

4.  In The Wee Small Hours

Black Horse lay down during one of his lives and hoped to sleep through the ash fall. Dying hurt, and unfortunately so did his heart and his bones as he collapsed, no matter how sanitized this island and how young his body.

When he woke up again the air was cool, and the sky was magenta. His eyes focused on a small insect swiftly climbing a blade of grass. I’m hungry, thought Black Horse, and I’m still sore. He raised his head and checked for the strain in his neck. Why hadn’t his body been renewed? Hadn’t the ash fallen? Hadn’t he died?

Or did it all end?

Black Horse scrambled to his feet and had never been so happy to be sore. He stumbled over the plains at twilight, singing very old songs with melodies that he didn’t remember learning. His breath was running high and hot, his mouth was dry, and his head was pounding. As his eyes crossed at the intersection of celestial violet and rose, Black Horse saw two translucent mares that moved their heads in concert and eventually melted into each other to become a solid one. She was proud and weathered, and she had been in a thorn bush because her bony legs were covered in little cuts.

“We haven’t met,” she said, because she remembered nothing before today. “I’m Copper.”

“No, we haven’t,” he said, because they really hadn’t, in all their lives. “I’m Black Horse.”

They wandered through the night, all over Reincarnation Island and down to the beach, where Don-Don was trotting briskly over wet sand and her footsteps rose like little bubbles behind her. They stayed on drier land and looked across the sea and felt the weight of their lives. Looking at the tireless water they felt their enormous age, even Copper who had no conscious memory. In fact Copper imagined days erased, of Don-Don dying on the beach, of the climbing of fruit trees seasons ago, and of the tower the primates built that had long since been knocked down by a monsoon, and of things even older: other Palominos raining like thunder on steppes so barren they could have touched clouds if the sky wasn’t so clear; thick, stubby-legged ancestors foraging in temperate forests back when there were still predators; the continent, coming out of the burning red mantle underneath the planet’s skin.

“I think Don-Don’s right, and the water ends and turns into other land,” said Copper, her voice barely audible over the hum of the waves.

Black Horse looked surprised.

Copper shrugged. “Sometimes my bones dream up strange things.”

Black Horse stared at her for a long second and then agreed. As the sea came and went without pause, their many sleeping lives all folded in on top of each other like a bouquet.

The few days that followed were the longest reprieves between ash falls the animals of Reincarnation Island had ever had, but no one knew this. Copper did not remember and Black Horse thought it was over. And when they raced each other over the buckling terrain they could really let loose and gallop like the free and ancient, eternal horses that they were.

So that life was a happy one.

Copyright © 2008 by Nadia Bulkin

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Nadia Bulkin

Nadia writes:
In one of my classes last spring I learned about Vozrozhdeniye (Renaissance/Rebirth) Island, where the USSR conducted biological weapons testing. I immediately wanted to write a story about its animals, forced to endure multiple lives and deaths without knowing why, and it became a contemplation on memory and the soul. I lost my father when I was ten, and writing is my way of working through this and seeing that hope remains in spite of it all, if anything in our capacity to reinvent, to renew.

Nadia Bulkin is a political science major and the daughter of renegades from conservative families on opposite sides of the planet. She’s into wilderness. Her permanent address now is in Nebraska, but it used to be in Indonesia. Her latest story was published in ChiZine and another is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine. You can reach her through her website, nadiabulkin.wordpress.com.


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