Reading Time: ~15 minutes
The floating island was home to several hundred men, women, and children. Beyond it, a floating mist perpetually floated, where clouds clung together like errant dreams. Rivers squirmed through the tropical air, bubbling in the misted sunshine, and spiraled off into infinity. Long, endless vines hung from the grassy edges of the island, tendrils dangling down into churning swirls of fog. People told stories about brave men and women who had dared to hang from the vines and try to climb down, but no one could imagine what lay underneath the island or past the clouds, so these stories primarily resulted in disappearances.
The people of the village lived in houses constructed from the moist bark of the island’s palm trees. They tended fields of worthless green hay for hours and hours, until their skin felt like it was melting from the wet heat of the sunlight. Night would fall like ash over the island and people would retire to their houses, talking quietly and telling stories. It wasn’t a bad life. There were no murders and no suicides.
“Depression is selfish,” Father would proclaim above the skies. “It festers from the idea that your happiness is more important than another’s.”
Father talked to them of their morning duties and their night duties. His troops of masked men would arrive at the villages after the work day and exchange food for truckloads of the green hay. The hay was useless to the people of the island, although the children occasionally made forts and ropes from it.
This is what Nicholas and Richard enjoyed doing after their morning chores had been finished. They would grab handfuls of the sticky green hay and run into the woods. Sometimes, they tied it in tight knots and made ropes, throwing them over the branches of trees. Richard always led the way, as he was older and it took more danger to excite him. He would pull himself up to the first few branches, throw the knotted cords of hay over higher branches, and pull himself high enough to peer over the sparkling treetops. He always looked for something more, some answer in the clouds above, but he never found it, because he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to see.
Nicholas would always be several feet below, sheepishly looking down from his perch. He didn’t feel free in the trees, he felt uncertain and frightened, like he was already slipping on the slick branches, moments away from flying through the air and landing with a thud on the tangled green undergrowth of the forest. Richard would look down on him and laugh, then slowly climb from his perch, punching him on the shoulder after they dropped to the forest floor and headed back home.
A year and a month into their tree-climbing, Richard and Nicholas hiked deeper into the forest than they had ever gone. It took hours. They hadn’t been required to tend the fields that day, as it was Father’s birthday, so they had woken up just as the glitter of dawn began twinkling in the sea of clouds. Richard had made them both egg salad sandwiches, even though Nicholas said that he hated egg salad (“It’s for energy,” Richard told him). Richard liked eggs because of the mystery they held. The masked men brought them to the villages in exchange for the hay, but never told the people from where they had come. There were no animals in the forest or in the villages.
With their sandwiches in a backpack, Richard and Nicholas trekked across the still fields and into the humid forest. They were some of the only children in the village, and certainly the only children close to each other in age. It was inevitable, then, that they would bond, especially since Father discouraged parents treating their children like anything besides untrained laborers.
Richard had a secret for their hike today. The day before, when Father’s masked men had handed food out to the villagers, he had ran to one of their trucks and taken a camera. The masked men used cameras to take pictures of the fields. Richard spent all night looking through the pictures, but every one of them was of a different village’s field. He was startled to see how similar they all were. After this disappointment, he had discovered how to delete these pictures and take his own. He had often wanted to remember the grandeur, the unparalleled freedom, of climbing the island’s trees and looking down on the island itself, and now he finally had the device to capture this sensation.
Richard and Nicholas stopped at a small creek and ate their sandwiches in the splintered shade of a squat palm tree. Richard poked at the creek with a stick, watching the way the water seamlessly absorbed the stick, wrapped around it. Water isn’t much different from air, Richard thought.
“What do you think is beyond the clouds?” he asked suddenly.
Nicholas’ mouth dropped open. There were tales in the villages about people who had gone through the clouds, seeking answers, but they always failed to return. “Nothing is beyond the clouds,” he said. “The island is the only place for people to live.”
“Is it?” Richard asked. He jabbed his stick into the dirt, watched pebbles drift in slow motion from the earth. He left the stick there and stared at it for a long while. Richard’s mother had passed away when he was very little and he had always been more interested in life beyond the clouds than most others.
“What else could there be?” Nicholas finally asked, frightened.
“More islands,” Richard said. He stood, then, and slipped the backpack over his shoulders again. “Because how can we just be alive among clouds and then disappear? How can we be surrounded by nothingness?” He hopped over the creek.
Nicholas stumbled to his feet and followed. “We don’t disappear. Father says that we become the earth. We become part of everything else. ”
“Maybe,” Richard said. He suddenly felt angry at Nicholas. It was offensive to him, that his mother was just a pile of dirt where hay grew. How could the earth beneath their feet be everything else, anyway? Thoughts flickered in his head like sparks trying to catch. Maybe he would walk until he reached the edge of the island. Maybe he would find a bridge there. Because how else did the masked men get to the island in the first place? He remembered when he was very little, chasing after the trucks as they rumbled away from the village, down the tired dirt road and into the forest, and his father had come hollering after him, grabbing his wrist.
“Don’t ever follow the masked men,” his father had said, pulling him back to the house.
Did they know about a bridge? Richard wondered. No one knew how big the island was, nor how many villages existed. The roads were like mazes. Some led to other villages, while others twisted in tortured shapes, coiling through the gloomy parts of the forest where poisonous plants grew and the fog was heavy, like the froth of midnight. There was no need to travel on the roads, Father told them, because the fields were right by the houses. Traveling the roads wasn’t productive.
Richard and Nicholas had never gone farther than the creek before. The forest grew denser and darker. Colorful flowers bloomed in tatters of sunlight, vines climbed the trees like snakes. Richard wanted to use his camera, but he knew that he had to be patient. Nicholas would start to squeal when he saw it, because he would know that Richard had stolen it from the masked men. So, they squished onward through the damp foliage. The air became stale and burnt, oppressive, as it was trapped by the cells of the leafy canopy above.
Nicholas got more concerned as they wandered farther from the village. It would take hours to get back. He could tell from the mellowing sunlight that it was late afternoon. He imagined the night circles gathering within the spires, with his parents and his sister and the rest of the village all holding hands and getting ready to praise Father, and only then realizing that he was missing. It was forbidden to miss a night circle. Nicholas couldn’t remember a single time when someone had missed one. Night circles kept the village connected, reminding people that they were only one of many.
He wondered if Richard even cared about the village. They would have to turn around soon to make it for the night circles. He wanted to tell Richard that they had to turn around, but he was scared. Richard would call him names. Not only that, there was a dark corner of Nicholas’ heart that wanted to see what was beyond the forest. He tried to quell his curiosity but, as he walked among the trees, he felt budding excitement. Still, he hoped that they would turn around.
“It’s arrogant to assume that you should have the answers to life’s mysteries,” he suddenly blurted.
Richard turned around. “What did you say?”
Nicholas shrugged, feeling defiant now that he had been challenged. “Father always tells us that. Aren’t we going against him?”
Richard nodded. “Of course we are.” He shrugged the backpack from his shoulder and tugged the camera from it. He dangled it in front of Nicholas’ wide eyes.
“Where did you get that?”
“Where do you think?”
“But the masked men need those to report on the villages!” Nicholas’ hands twitched. Richard put the camera back, slipped his arms back through the backpack. He jumped onto a mossy rock and over a small puddle. Nicholas came after him. “So what are you going to do with it? You have to give it back!”
Richard slipped between vines that hung from tree branches like curtains. “I want to show people something that they don’t see every day.”
“That’s not productive,” Nicholas said, ducking underneath the leafy limbs of a round tree. They brushed past turquoise flowers and bushes bursting with tiny, blue flowers encircled by thorns.
“We’ll give people experiences that they’ve never had,” Richard said. The painting of this scene began to brighten as he thought about the possibilities. “Everyone wonders what’s in the other parts of the island. This is the one day a year where we have time to find out.” He smiled as he thought of arriving back at the village, streaked with dirt but gleaming with a secret knowledge. He would know sights of which other people only dreamed. He would become like a figure in one of the village’s legends. And where, he wondered, did the stories come from? Had other people gone into the forest to try and see what was beyond their village? Or did people summon the stories from air, from the dreamy clouds of imagination? What came from experience and what came from fantasy?
Nicholas grappled at his wrists, trying, and failing, to argue again with Richard. His enthusiasm for their adventure rapidly waned. He could only see Father’s face on the television monitor, glaring down at them as they arrived late for the night circle. Most of the village already thought very little of Richard and Nicholas, because of their outings in the forest. “Unhealthy,” they said, “Selfish. They aren’t helping the community.”
The sun folded in on itself like the fluttering of an eyelid. Pale fingers of darkness flexed along the leaves. It was sundown. The boys stopped and leaned against a tree. The forest reflected in their glossy eyes. For the past hour, they had traveled in silence, unsure of themselves, unsure of their thoughts, unsure of their doubts. Neither wanted to speak, for the fear and the relief that the dream would be broken.
A distant horn sounded. Father’s broadcast, summoning the villages to their night circles. Nicholas swallowed, looking towards the sound as it bloomed on a gentle breeze. The gust skimmed the fronds of the palm trees and rustled the bushes around them, then went still. He could see his father and mother call for his sister, then call for him. Their pale disbelief when discovering that he still wasn’t back from his hike. Could this even be real? Nicholas wondered. How could he be this far from the village as the night circle gathered? He could hear traces of Father’s voice on the rolling breeze, rumbling echoes made watery by the shivering of tree leaves. The night circle had begun.
Richard felt proud when he thought of the night circle, and the confusion when people realized that Nicholas and he had gone missing. Something new for them, he thought. They wouldn’t be grateful for the experience, not at first, but Richard knew they would come around.
“Richard,” Nicholas breathed, “why are we doing this? We need to get back home!”
Richard laughed. “No, we don’t. We’re free to do what we want.” They started to trudge up a long hill. The trees bent with the incline, crooked in their ascent. “We’re just like the heroes in the stories.”
Nicholas jogged, so he was beside him. “Heroes?” he panted. “That’s not the point of the stories, Richard. The people in the stories never return!”
“That’s not what I hear when I listen to them,” Richard said.
They reached the top of the hill. On the other side, the forest disappeared. In its place was a blackened field, bordered by the shells of houses. The breeze coasted through the empty village, making wooden shutters clap hollowly. Richard adjusted his backpack with his thumbs while Nicholas climbed up next to him.
“What happened here?” he asked quietly.
“Fire,” Richard said. He walked down the hill with stilted legs and found the hints of an old footpath leading to the village. Green grass grew in knots along it. The path hadn’t been used in a very long time. The sky opened up above the silent village as the sunlight withered and moonlight materialized within the screen of clouds, foaming silver like waves curling into shore.
The village center had been burned as well. Plants had made their way through house floorboards and ivy was slowly dragging the crooked wooden boards back to the earth. As Richard and Nicholas slowly walked through the village, they heard a muffled sound coming from a building at the other end of the village center, one of the spired buildings where the morning and night circles gathered every day.
The roof of the spire had collapsed in on itself. Richard could see a faint light flickering against the darkness of the building walls. He heard a tiny, static voice and approached the spire doors cautiously, ready for something to leap out from the doors and attack him. Of all the stories told on the island, none had ever been told about dead villages. Clearly, these buildings had been decomposing here for some time. Years, perhaps.
Yet here was a light, still flickering within the spire. A sign of life, if not life itself. Richard crept up the three steps leading to the door, but came to a stop when he saw a heavy padlock hanging from the rusted door handles. The padlock was attached to a bundle of chain, strangling the door handles and keeping them immobile. A single board had been nailed across each window to the spire, but both front windows had been shattered. Shards of glass glittered in patches of grass growing at the base of the building.
“Help me up,” Richard said to Nicholas, motioning at one of the windows. Nicholas moved in trance, mesmerized by the moment. Every time he drifted too far, however, the nagging noise from within the spire dragged him back, crackled in his ears. He cupped his hands and went on one knee and lifted Richard’s foot. Richard grabbed the edges of the windowsill and peered into the building.
The darkness within the spire fell like a mist over broken pews and a carpet burned to threads. In the center aisle of the spire lay skeletons, toppled over on top of each other. Their bony arms reached out across the floor with fingers that looked like claws. The moonlight slipped through the hole in the roof, turning fleshy bones milky, making scraps of clothes glow. The skulls grinned back at him, but the bodies were twisted in agony. All of them were powdered with ash.
Beyond the skeletons sat a tiny television set. It gilded the bodies with its murmuring white light. Richard could see Father on it, directing the night circle. The broadcast was current. The only thing in the spire that was not dead was the image of Father, cutting over the gloom, padding the silence with soft, whispered words.
Richard dropped from the windowsill, his eyes still full with the burned bodies.
“What is it? What did you see?” Nicholas jumped up towards the window, but couldn’t reach it. “Get me up there, I need to see!”
Richard shook his head. “Bodies,” he said. It was all he could manage. He felt what he had seen gathering in his stomach, forming like a storm. He bent against the wall, slammed his hand against the splintered wood, tried to vomit. Nicholas watched him retch several times, wipe his mouth with the back of his mouth.
“Do you want to see?” Richard asked, standing and putting his head against the locked doors.”
Nicholas nodded, but didn’t actually feel too sure of himself, not after witnessing the effect the sight had on Richard. Richard, who climbed trees too dangerous for everyone else, who had plunged deep into the bowels of the forest just to see what he could find, the only one who had been bold, stupid, and reckless enough to steal a camera from the masked men.
But soon he was boosted into the air from Richard’s hands and his head crested the windowsill. His eyes fell on the bodies, traveled to the television, and immediately blinked with a film of apathy. He slipped back to the wet grass and shrugged, but his mind twisted like a worm under the heel of multiple truths, only coming to rest when he came to his conclusion: “An accident,” he said.
“Don’t be stupid,” Richard said. He pointed at the padlock. “They were burned. Burned because they defied Father.”
“You’re the stupid one! Why do you think they defied Father? There’s no evidence for that. They died in a night circle in front of a television.” This was proof enough for Nicholas, because televisions only spun images of Father and his sermons, delivering nothing else but the hypnotic clash of black and white static. The people had been worshiping Father when they had died.
“They were murdered,” Richard said. His arm swept over the sagging houses. “Everything was burned. There wouldn’t be evidence left.”
“Father wouldn’t murder them. Is that what you’re trying to say? It is, isn’t it?”
Richard didn’t answer. He removed his backpack and retrieved the camera. He lifted it above the windowsill and took a picture. The flash left a fizzling burst of brilliance against the thin night. The smoky lights of stars hung above them now, glowing like dull coins. Richard turned around and took a picture of the village itself.
“What are you doing?” Nicholas demanded.
“I’m going to show this to the village,” Richard said.
“What!” Nicholas imagined Richard stomping back home, running from house to house to show people his pictures. Before he could stop himself, he punched Richard in the jaw. He grabbed the camera and held it in his hands, trembling with shock.
Richard stared at him, putting his hand to his cheek.
“I’m sorry,” Nicholas said frantically, “but you can’t just use this for whatever you want. It belongs to the masked men. I’m giving it back to them.”
“Nicholas,” Richard said. “Give it back.” He calmly put his hand out, but Nicholas backed away. Richard was much stronger than him, and Nicholas could tell from his smoldering eyes that he was only seconds away from retaliating.
“You’re not getting it,” Nicholas said. “I can’t let you lie to people with your pictures.” He shook the camera.
“A picture can’t lie!” Richard shouted. “People will decide what to think of these pictures.”
“But you’re doing it for you, not for people,” Nicholas said. “This won’t help them!”
“Give me it!” Richard lunged, but Nicholas hopped down the steps and started running. He heard Richard pounding through the village after him. Nicholas didn’t know where he was going, but he wanted to lose Richard before thinking about anything else. He knew that he could easily trip over something in the darkness, so when he saw a road leading away from the village, he turned onto it.
His breath filled his ears. The road unraveled ahead of him with worn tire tracks, but none of the tracks seemed recent. This whole corner of the island was silent, except for the wandering breeze, hissing through the trees and blowing against his back. The shadows swallowed him, devoured him, until he could just barely see the outline of his hands in front of him. Richard hollered after him, insulting him and then pleading with him. Their feet thudded heavily on the dirt.
They ran for twenty minutes, maybe thirty minutes, before Nicholas arriving at a sudden cliff. He skidded to a stop. Dark clouds lapped at the broken rock face. Long vines curled out from the forest and drooped over the edge, dangling through the mist. Richard came to a breathless stop beside him. They stared into the clouds, recovering their breath.
“So,” Richard said, still panting, “you want to take a picture of it or should I?”
Nicholas said nothing. His body still swelled and deflated with his heavy breaths.
“Think of it.” Richard stretched his arms to either side, demonstrating a sign. “A picture of the edge of the island. Everyone wants to see this. Now we can show them!”
Nicholas adjusted his sweaty grip on the camera. “No one should need proof of the edge, they should just know,” Nicholas said through his teeth. He lifted the camera into the air.
“Don’t throw it, you idiot!” Richard shouted, grabbing his wrist. They struggled against each other.
“Who needs to know that the edge exists? Pictures can lie,” Nicholas grunted. “We could be at the end of the island, we could be on the top of a hill on a foggy day.”
Richard punched him in the stomach and grabbed the camera. Nicholas buckled over. He tried to tackle Richard’s waist, but Richard’s knee came up into his face. Nicholas staggered backwards, his arms flailing, and he tripped over a rock. His momentum sent him over the edge, into the mist without a sound.
Richard watched the clouds absorb his friend without even parting. He heard no sound of impact and no scream. So, he thought, this was all there was to life, after all. Perhaps Nicholas would fall forever, but who would ever know? He looking down at the camera, then took pictures of the churning clouds putting it into his backpack. Now, he decided, he would be able to tell his tale of the burnt village as it should be told: Father had murdered people who had defied him.
After this flash of triumph, Richard wept. Nicholas had been his only friend. They had worked in the fields together, just as they played in the forests together. His tears stung his eyes. He turned towards the dark road with slumped shoulders and headed back to the village. He deftly avoided blaming himself for Nicholas’ accident. Instead, he blamed Father’s preaching and his march home became a hero’s walk. He would enter the village, show them the pictures, and the people would be free.
As Richard walked back with only shadows for company, Nicholas fell into the ocean with a salty splash. He sputtered and clawed at the surface of the water. His clothes and his shoes hung gelatinous on his body, and he slowly sunk underneath the surface of the waves. Panic burned in his brain so fiercely that he could only think that he was imagining the water itself. How could he be drowning in an ocean that didn’t exist? He closed his eyes to find himself still falling through the endless clouds, flapping his arms against the rushing, howling wind, in the vortex of the infinite drop.
Richard broke from the forest as the sun blurred the clouds with a damp, orange dawn. He ran from house to house, shouting that he had important news. People peered from their windows and doorways at him, rubbing their eyes. Richard shouted that he had proof that Father had killed an entire village. People reluctantly clustered around him, muttering their fears about sacrilege. Some didn’t dare approach him, for fear of Father’s wrath.
Richard excitedly showed his audience the first picture of the skeletons in the spire, then the burnt village. People asked him how he was so sure that Father had murdered them. They asked him why he thought it wasn’t an accident. He told them about the padlock, but had no pictures of it. He didn’t have time to show them the pictures of the island’s edge before his father burst from the crowd, scowling, and snatched the camera from his hand.
He angrily led Richard back to the house and sat him down in a chair. “Do you think this is funny, bringing back two pictures of some burnt buildings and making accusations like this?” Richard tried to speak, but his father cut him off: “And what about Nicholas? His parents kept asking me where he was. They know he went into the forest with you.”
“He fell,” Richard said slowly. His throat filled with pebbles as he thought again of his friend, who would always be falling. He told his father the story, then he had to tell Nicholas’ parents the story. Nicholas’ mother let loose a strangled sob while fissures of grief wrinkled across his father’s face. Richard watched, aware suddenly that no words, no sentiment, can replace or displace some things.
The masked men came for him in the afternoon. He numbly walked into the back of the truck with the piles of green hay. No one said goodbye to him. They feared and condemned him for the pictures. Richard sat quietly in the back of the truck, watching the road melt behind him. They stopped at one village, then another and another, until he lost count. At one village, one of the masked men hopped into the back with him.
“Let’s see those pictures,” the man said.
Richard handed him the camera, which the masked men had let him keep.
The man looked at the camera and shrugged. “That’s horrible, but I don’t know who did it.”
“It was Father,” Richard said with the strength that comes from a highly personal belief.
The man shook his head. “Father isn’t real. And none of my men did it.” He hopped from the truck and it grunted to a start again. They didn’t stop at any more villages. Richard stared with unseeing eyes at the trees, unable to make sense of the conversation. Everything faded into a background. They drove well into the night, until finally coming to a bridge. Dozens of trucks moved forward on the bridge, all of them brimming with piles of the green hay. Richard watched. He tried, and failed, to understand the sight.
The truck rumbled over the bridge. The clouds dissolved in front of them until a clear night sky replaced it. Richard stared up at it in awe. The cold points of the stars glittered down on a cool desert. The truck pulled away from the road, parking by a cactus, and the three masked men jumped out.
“Get down,” one of them said to him, and Richard slipped down to the hard, dry earth.
“We’ve only had to induct two others,” the man who had looked at his pictures told him. “So we don’t really know the procedure. But you can’t return to your village. Your people there already despise you for accusing Father of murder, and they think you abandoned your friend. You have become one of us, instead”
Richard looked at each man, trembling. “What do I do?”
“Exactly this,” another man said. “Drive around the island, gathering the crops. From here, we drive it to the factory.”
“Do you work closer with Father?” Richard asked, clutching the camera to his chest.
The masked men laughed. “There is no Father, only the factory.” One of them pointed to an enormous steel building, swollen on the horizon. Pipes belched out endless plumes of smoke. Richard saw that the smoke drifted straight over the island. The factory made the island’s clouds.
“Why do you gather the hay?”
“Because people smoke it,” the first man said, “so they can feel just as they do on the island, day after day, following Father and not thinking about dead villages or edges.”
Richard nodded dazedly and turned to look back at the night sky. He had never seen the moon or the stars without the thick tissue of clouds. He wondered, then, how far up in the sky they were and, if he could fall up, whether he could land on them or if he would fall up forever. Perhaps, if Nicholas fell down forever and Richard fell up forever, they would eventually meet again.