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The Going Is Never Coming:
Quickly fading into the obscurity of the early morning mist, the island was barely a whisper amidst the tumultuous crash of voices inside Bacchus’ mind. Gone were the individual definitions of the scattered needle trees, and in their place was an ambiguous shadow, the forest. Tauntingly, the single remaining image of clarity, protruding from the mist, was the two-story schoolhouse at the crown of the cliff. The school pinnacled at a steeple and bell. Its gong was swiftly drowned out by the fierce pounding of frothy azure waves against the rocks far below.
At the horizon line, the clouds were lit up yellow, saturated with light where the sun was rising. Fragments of the mist were illuminated and floating just above the surface of the water like glowing cobwebs. Bacchus shuddered in the crisp morning air. He tugged on the sleeveless steam-pressed white shirt he had earlier abandoned, but it was soaked through, and offered him little warmth. His thin lips were bluish, and the hair across his biceps and lower legs was raised.
Embarked as he was upon some thoughtlessly construed escape, Bacchus nonetheless carefully steered the vessel of his youth, a glass-bottomed river-tiger, through the tumbling scape of waves and ocean, ever pointing himself away from the island. The boat had a flat hull and shallow walls. At either side were concealed water-wheels controlled by a pedal. He held the handle of the rusting iron rudder in his left hand, and grasped a harpoon in his right. Salt spray from the waves stung his nose and throat, and the mocking call of faraway gulls riled the collective force of his fear and remorse and hatred. The multitude of his inner voices crowded within him, one remarking on the inefficiency of the river-tiger’s pedal-powered turbines, another chanting a prayer for well-being, and a third moaning like the blustery wind about the deepness of the world on all sides of him, the extensiveness of the ominous steely sky, the eternity of the empty space, swiftly expanding, and the ocean that called him in.
It seemed as though, with an increase in distance, the frequency and pitch of the third voice escalated exponentially, until, when the island was entirely shrouded, memory bounced upon the forefront of cognizant thought, and the island engulfed everything.
He remembered how it had struck him, the urge to disappear. His mother had been casting the torn and cumbersome reed net into the shoals by their home, hoping to capture minnows and an occasional jasper-fish. Stooped and toothless, her hands bled every time she cast out, and she cursed at nothing but the wind, in the language of the island, how Bacchus should be with the other seventeen-year-old boys, mastering the language of the mainland so as not to suffer the same way that she suffered. And Bacchus had the river-tiger out in the shallows, listening to his mother curse, searching for ribbed sharks or, better yet, the glint of a red tsari-clam embedded halfway in the sand. If he were to go to school, it would not stop him from becoming like her, with hands that bled and wrinkled and peeled back until they became mere stubs. Then even that would erode. What is it that the wiseman says, mother? That even the scarlet hue of the tsari-pearl bleaches pink with time.
He saw it through the glass-bottom of his boat, in the water. Practically a legend amongst his people, it was a Gorgon-clam. Much like its name, it seethed with the flagellate strands of black snake-heads, and it had two inscribed eyes on the upper lip. He knew that inside, buried in tender pink flesh, there awaited a luminescent pearl of a cerulean hue no longer found in nature, except there. Mother had said that the Gorgon-pearl is a gift from the gods, back from the time when sand was blue instead of red. She said that the clam chooses who discovers it, to share with the world some secret it kept hidden until the moment it exposed itself; it was a blessing.
Bacchus pulled off his sleeveless, steam-pressed, white shirt, and leaped half-naked into the water. He felt the embrace of the cold water meet the olive skin of his barrel-chest and strong arms and propelling feet. Despite how it stung, he opened his emerald eyes into the haze of the ocean. His finger-length hair undulated as he descended. Seen from the eyes of a ribbed shark, it was a shimmering sandy-taupe pennant, highlighted in every shade of ochre, betokening some hidden gold. The pressure built in his ears, and he ignored it. He would buy a hatchery for his mother, and she would no longer cast a net. Maybe then father would return from the mainland, and abandon the mistress he had been pulling around. Bacchus would buy a ship and establish trading partnerships at mainland port cities. He would no longer need to fight amidst the ribbed sharks in the shallows.
A school of jasper-fish scattered like splintering shards of green glass when Bacchus pressed through them. He reached out his hand and the snake-heads of the clam bit sharply into his skin, but it was no more painful than the whipping salty wind that he had felt every day of his life since he was born onto the island. The skin of the clam felt slimy.
With a tug, he lifted the gorgon-clam from its sandy encampment and pressed it against his chest securely with both arms, such that the snakes tore at his breast and abdomen and thin navel. Using only his legs, he swum upwards again, trailing ribbons of deep carmine blood. At last he reached the river-tiger, and he pushed the gorgon clam on board so that it settled to the bottom of the ship, scratching against the glass, desperately banging against that transparent surface the same way trapped wasps will continuously ram into the window in order to return home. He then wrapped his leg around the wall of the boat, and lifted himself using both hands, sort of sliding over the edge. Breathless but exuberant, he grasped his harpoon and attacked the muscle that held the jaws of the clam together.
His mother had stopped reeling in her net, disturbed by the splash of water she had heard, and the net lay floating on the surface of the shoals. She straightened her back, placed her hands on her hips and called out, “Did you find a tsa-tsa?” That’s what they called tsari-clams on the islands. It was also the word for treasure and heart.
“Something much much better, mama-jya.” He crooned.
Mother’s brow wrinkled perplexedly and she began to waddle over the shoal rocks, “What? What could be better than a tsa-tsa? My son, what have you found?”
The clam’s muscle finally gave way, and suddenly the snake-heads lay limp and dead. Bacchus lifted the upper lip of the clam and it fell away effortlessly. Inside there was layer upon layer of pink flesh, rolling in valleys, but no pearl. No pearl. No pearl. No pearl, then no fortune, then the hands of his mother would bleed indefinitely until they were not hands anymore. There was nothing. Bacchus sifted desperately through the clam, but only disappointment waited for him there. He began to cry, and his mother called out once more, scared and excited now, “What have you found? Is it so good that you cry? What is it?”
And that was the moment, knowing that along the seafloor, buried amidst the sand, there were gorgon-clams upon gorgon-clams, but that there were no pearls, knowing that he was not chosen, and there was no secret other than that he would never escape the island he was born on, one of a thousand others in the archipelago. That he would never speak the language of the mainland, or set up ports or meet his father respectfully in the eyes, he knew. It was just a feeling, and his feet began to pedal, and the early morning mists rose from the water or descended from the sky—Bacchus could never tell which—and his mother returned to casting the net, because she understood that what Bacchus had found was nothing when he did not tell her what it was. She did not scream for him to return because Bacchus often went out into deeper waters where the ribbed sharks frequented and she could not have known that he was pedaling away, away, away. He did not need to hear his mother’s voice tell him to come back or never come home again. The voices in his head were already telling him that, churning with desperation and angst and innumerable disappointments that he was recalling one-by-one, how the first day of school he was examined for his intelligence and found lacking, how he could never understand how to differentiate between words in the mainland language, how he ate too much so that his mother starved. Those were the voices that crowded out the voice of the island inside him, until the island was no longer in sight, and then it was speaking inside him the loudest. For a moment, he remembered how it had happened, and then he began to pedal again, riding the slow, dreary route towards anywhere. He was ejecting the slithering husk of his shattered dreams, and disappearing.
Meanwhile, it was sinking to the bottom of the ocean, the inlaid eyes on its upper face wrinkled in a smile at the secret it had shared.