On my island, the sky flashes green as the sun rises and sets, the trees along the shore have jungle-bark the color of mist and when people talk, flocks of parrots fly straight out of their mouths, flutter between the tree branches, their plumage draping behind them as they swoop into the sky making figure eights with their wide wings.
And everyone talks, so you can imagine that there are a million parrots overhead, almost enough to block the sun. It would be strange on my island not to speak about the inclement weather, the way the sun glints off the water, the moist air that wraps you in its warm white chocolate fog, the temerity of the howling dogs that run around the town in packs, eating vanilla ice cream that the storekeepers set out for them in big silver dishes. Sometimes the women gather around the cisterns and talk of revisionist histories or Platonic love or some lost strand of phenomenology.
Chatter mixes with the sound of parrots talking and dogs barking at each other. It is a cacophony of sound, an island of syllable skyscrapers. Luckily, you can swim a short distance from the beach around the island to get some semblance of quietude, but even there, fathers dangle their children in the waves, chatting with them incessantly, training them to welcome the urge to birth parrots from between moistened lips.
From the time I was very small, I knew that either I needed to escape the riot of sound or I needed change my island so that people spoke less. Often I daydreamed about the desert island I could see from the coast of our island. The men and women from my island belittled that desert island. I had heard that the shores were covered with clay and overgrown with tomatoes and roses and hot pepper plants. All along the shore were little bamboo huts with thatched roofs and earthen floors and terracotta kitchens, each hut spaced a stone’s throw from each other. Supposedly, the inhabitants of the island never spoke to each other if they could help it. They hid indoors, let their skin turn pale as the palest parts of a flame. Their eyes were glassy and nervous. They scribbled notes on rocks with pencils made of volcanic ash and tossed them to each other across the fence, all in order to avoid speaking. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to speak or were somehow prevented from speaking. And when men and women were married, they spoke to each other not at all (in this way, they were like everyone I have ever heard of): they mostly read or hiked into the volcanic mountains to gather raspberries and hunted yak all day. When I was young and could not speak, my parents wondered if I were a changeling from that island that someone rowed over and left with them as a sort of cruel prank. It was a fantasy of mine to swim to that island, but nobody could teach me how to swim — nobody could stop talking for long enough.
They called me Dog Boy at home because of my propensity to howl when frustrated. Unlike the rest of my family, I found it a struggle to speak, to form words and to make my sounds mean something. Howling, also, shuts people up. I came from a long line of linguists, all of them fascinated with words and sounds and the meaning of things. My mother spoke to me while I was in the womb and it is my theory that the sound of soliloquies eventually took over, and so overwhelmed me that I could not talk any more. By the time she pushed me from her noisy uterus, my lips were sealed. I did not cry, nor did I laugh as a baby. For awhile they thought I was mute or an aphasiac.
As I grew older, I learned better how to talk, but when I was excited, the noise that jangled from my body sent forth deformed parrots, bald ones, dirty ones with broken wings and spotty tail feathers and although I eventually learned how to tell stories, like the rest of them, my stories were as short as possible, so as to avoid populating the island with malformed birds. As if it were not bad enough that I hated to speak, talking to me was an ugly experience with which nobody around me wanted to engage.
Still, I was convinced that eventually, one day, I would like making words, rattling off stories, sculpting sounds into proper somethings. I was certain that one wonderful day the paucity of my speech would be good for all, instead of a detriment to my social advancement on my home island.
I had been wandering through a park at dawn, watching hang-gliders take off from the wide bluffs that loomed over the town sand-colored clouds. The gliders hovered in the air, shouting to each other- “see that?” Their lungs were so powerful, you could hear them from the ground far below. Everyone else must have been pretending to sleep. Dawn was about the only time you could catch a few moments of solitude. I trekked between some palms onto the beach. I waded through the abrasive, brown, crystalline sand and nearly ran into a tall woman wearing a heavy tank on her back, striding in from the sea. Of course, I’d heard of scuba diving, but only in legends.
She removed her heavy mask and spit into it. She circled around the plastic eye of the mask with a salty index finger. “Getting the fog out,” she said when I asked, as a common courtesy, what she was doing. Her voice was unpracticed; she nearly croaked her words. No parrots came pouring forth, not even deformed ones. I figured the Scuba Woman was a foreigner.
“You could just pour water into it,” I said grimacing.
Because of her beauty, I tried to engage her, to parry. Nervously, I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. “What’s it like down there? Do you dive much? I mean, it must be hard on your lungs,” I said.
I tried again. “Where are you from?”
The Scuba Woman gestured at the desert island off in the distance. She shook her head and droplets of water flew everywhere. I realized with a burst of optimism that this might be my ticket off the island in the event that the volcano erupted as the soothsayers predicted. I could learn to scuba and swim long distances, swim to the other island, even. And nobody would speak to me underwater. “Can you teach me to swim and scuba dive?” I asked her. On my island, it was common for everyone to help each other. I didn’t think I was asking anything untoward.
However, she looked sulky at being asked a question that required a response beyond a nod or shake of the head. “No.” She began to walk off, down the beach, her lava red hair streaming down her back.
“Wait, don’t leave me. I want to talk to you,” I said and chased after her as she sauntered up the beach toward the park. “Please, I’ll pay you.”
She shook her head again.
“Perhaps you could just teach me and I’ll show you around the island, make sure that everyone treats you well. On this island, we talk. A lot. Not like your island.”
She looked faintly dismayed and then blew her hair out of her eyes. “Don’t need money.”
“It’s not that. I need your help. I can’t learn to scuba on my own. Please.”
A band of rowdy children and dogs approached the woman.
“What’s that for?”
“Can we have those?”
“Where are you going?”
“ Where are you from?”
“Where have you been?” they asked in a breathless rush of parrot plumage.
The Scuba Woman threw up her arms in confusion. Her mouth twisted downward in dismay and anguish. “She doesn’t want to talk right now,” I told the children and took her by the arm and walked with her down an alleyway to a bakery. I paid two coins and bought her a sugary palm pastry and a coffee.
The Scuba Woman nodded at me, I suppose as a thank you, cleared her throat a few times, and wrote on a napkin with a crayon from her pocket, “Meet me here at 5:00 pm.”
That night, I met her in front of the bakery and together, wordlessly we went back to the beach and she fitted me with a mask and a tank and put her own on, too. We pushed out on a dinghy, rowing far out to sea. The water surrounded us in all directions. “Here,” she said. The sun was low in the sky as we slipped into the ocean waters.
The water was warm and she held my hand as we went down together, adding smooth stones to weigh ourselves down enough to scale the reef. She showed me how to adjust my scuba tank and add stones at the right depths. One stone, two stones, three stones. We sank so deep, I thought we’d never come up. Beneath the surface of the water, the fish came up and wiggled by our scuba skins. I bruised myself badly on the coral, banging against it as I tried to figure out how to move underwater. But then the Scuba Woman showed me how to rid myself of the stones, one by one. As the stones fell away, we swam to the surface. My instinct was to rush up, very fast, but she held onto my arm, clutching it as I flailed in the deep waters. She grabbed my other arm and we slowly emerged to the surface, as the sun flashed green on the horizon.
When we came up, we walked onto the beach and a crowd gathered. I approached and talked with the village of the coral reefs, of the giant chocolate chip starfish as big as my palm or the sea urchins with spines like big purple porcupine quills. Children gathered around me and oohed and aahed, but the grown-ups, well, they were a bit less impressed. The Scuba Woman kept to herself, smiling at the round eyes of my listeners and spitting into her mask to defog it.
Every day the Scuba Woman met me to dive into the depths. She and I took the dinghy out into the deep water and rowed it closer to shore, tying the dinghy to a mandrake branch before swimming back to shore. We did not speak. I tried the usual pleasantries –
“How beautiful the moon looks as it rises over your island!” (which it did) or
“Do you miss home?” (she didn’t answer) or
“Would you like to have dinner?” (she shook her head no). After our dives, she always walked off, shaking her hair vigorously until it dried under the moonlight, the color of molten lava. Sometimes she suggested an early morning dive when bits of sunlight crept between the banks of coral. Otherwise, I did not know what she did, where she went between dives, only that she walked into the alleyways and disappeared. Without her, the rest of the day seemed cluttered with sound and wings flapping. The neighbors were talking of re-roofing their house, the children spoke of dice, the teenagers chatted about crushes. Heidegger and Husserl were briefly mentioned. The Scuba Woman pointed out the colors, the way they bled into each other on a particular fish or the way the light refracted over the stones that weighed us down, the way a mother would chase a chorus of dolphin babies as they waggled their tails through the ocean.
But then, unexpectedly, a few days passed without the reappearance of the Scuba Woman. I appeared at our usual time and waited until the sun went down, but the Scuba Woman was gone. Finally, on the fourth night, I dove by myself. The darkness was quiet around me. The sharks were out. I hurried back up, dizzy when I hauled myself back into the dinghy and headed home.
I dove for the rest of the month alone — the only time I could find silence was when I went scuba diving. I’d hear myself breathing, the wondrous sound of my own breath, the bubbles rising up, a big silver rush of them as I weighted myself down. And down, down, down I’d go. The villagers thought it was strange, watching me put on the plastic mask and the unwieldy plastic fins like I was about to embark on some sort of space journey.
Eventually the parrots that burst from my mouth gained a healthy color, their curved beaks now beaky. “Why do you spend all that time alone?” they asked. “What makes you so special?”
“Nothing in particular,” I said. “I just like going down- do you want to come with me?” I offered to teach them, both the young and the old, the wonderful pleasure of sinking, league after league into the salty depths of the ocean that surrounded our island. As you went deeper down, I explained, it became less and less leafy, and all around a cool blue light shone between the crevices, the deep layers of the island emerging like a dark dense fruitcake. Fish venture forth and ogle you through the glass, as you blow a silver stream of bubbles. You are, in fact, a giant fish, weaving among the long black lettuce of kelp.
“Why do you want to be like a giant fish? Fish don’t talk,” asked and answered one child, feeding a mangy street dog a scrap of meat from a kabob.
“Because he is cuckoo-bananas,” answered the child’s mother and took him firmly by the arm, steering him down the lane to their house.
Sometimes I donned my fins and tank and mask under the stars. “Oh the stars,” I’d say, they’re nothing compared to the fish!”
“Yes, he’s truly crazy!” Said the village folk and they left me alone after that.
I grew more and more accustomed to the silence. When I heard everyone talking about nothing, I walked the other direction, taking to the sea to watch the fish and the dolphins and the sharks swim and enjoy the relative quiet of the ocean, the rushing sound a welcome invitation next to the harsh clang of human voices. As the years passed, I thought often of the Scuba Woman and wondered if she had returned to her island.
I took the dinghy further and further out onto the ocean. Petrels flew overhead. The red island beckoned, as day by day, I missed the Scuba Woman and her strange full silence. Surrounded by people who could not or would not stop talking, I thought sometimes there was nobody else in the world that understood the meaningfulness of wordlessness.
Then one day, long after I’d reconciled myself to a life without the perfect beauty of the Scuba Woman’s silences, I dove deep into a chasm, under the ocean. At first there was nothing but coral to one side of me, and then the coral turned to porous rock. I followed the dark pores of the rock through the water and wondered where they would take me. The light grew dimmer as I set stones aside. The oxygen in my tank seemed to be getting a bit low, but it still sufficed. Then suddenly, around one of the rocks, just as I was readying myself to go back, I saw her flame red head disappear into an undersea tunnel.
I could not stay down there because the air was running out of my tank. I threw a stone in her direction but in the water, the stone drifted downward without unsettling the waters by the Scuba Woman. She looked back as I floated back up toward the light. I tried to motion to her to follow, but she vanished into the tunnel.
The next day I went out at exactly the same time and to the precise spot where I had spied Scuba Woman entering the tunnel. This time, I wasted none of my precious oxygen watching fish or searching for schools of dolphins to track. I dove straight and true to the opening of the tunnel. I swam into the tunnel of shadows, the craggy volcanic rock. I tried to swim quickly through the tunnel. I felt the oxygen in my tank bleeding out. As I was about to give up, the tunnel angled upward and pinkish sunlight streamed into the tunnel. I threw stones aside slowly, trying not to panic in my excitement. At the opening, I popped my head out of the water and carefully pulled myself onto the dark red sand. Around me were people at their huts, watching at a distance. Nobody came over to greet me, the way they would have on my island. They continued to milk cows and read on their porches, swinging quickly, nervously, as if they were prepared to ward off my approach. Red sand was strewn with black porous rock, like the rock I had seen below the island in the water.
I did not see the Scuba Woman. I took off my mask and walked through the tomato plants to one of the huts by the shore. A stout woman with sparkly barrettes was tending her rosebush, clipping away in silence. “Have you seen a woman with red hair come out of that tunnel?” I gestured at the hole on the beach. The woman looked up briefly and shook her head.
I walked to the next house and the next, searching for the Scuba Woman. At every house, the person refused to speak with me and continued to work. Surprisingly, I grew as frustrated with the lack of speech as the sound of constant speech. Silence is different when you don’t talk underwater, when all you see are fish. It is somehow uncomfortable when you are silent with strangers. I had never understood that distinction before this moment on the desert island.
I walked out to the waters and howled. They did not call me Dog Boy for nothing. A crowd gathered around me in silence. They just huddled there, pointing at me. Through the crowd came a familiar figure, the Scuba Woman, her hair streaming out behind her. “It’s you!” I said excitedly. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” She looked at me scornfully, but took my arm and led me out of the crowd. “Please, please talk to me,” I said. “I can’t take the silence anymore.”
The Scuba Woman frowned and opened her mouth. She closed it again.
“Fine, at least explain, what were you doing down there in that tunnel? Why did you come to my island and why did you leave?”
“I don’t have to tell you,” the Scuba Woman said finally, croaking a little as she spoke.
“Why do you have to be so difficult? Talking is part of living, it’s exciting, it’s what makes life worthwhile.” I didn’t necessarily believe my own words, but I wanted so badly for her to speak.
We walked down the shore to a hut. She brought me in and went to a bookshelf in the corner. She came back with a map that she spread out at the kitchen table. The map showed the land under the sea, all pocked with craters like a moonscape. On the map you could see the two islands, rising like red and green stars above the water. She took her pen and made a black mark between the two. “There,” she said, when I had no reaction.
“There what? You can’t just make marks and expect me to know what you’re talking about.”
“You don’t belong either,” she said.
“That’s why I stay in the water. Because it’s better than life on either island. No matter where I go, I’m an outcast.”
I nodded, marveling at the strangeness of identifying with somebody else.
She gestured at the map. “Down there is the remedy.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“We’ll go tomorrow and you’ll see.”
That night I slept on her porch swing like a dog guarding her in the night. In the morning, just as the sun bloomed on the horizon, she emerged from the house in her skins and her mask, holding two shovels, and beckoned me to follow her. I padded after her, slipping and cutting myself between the black rocks. We slipped into the opening in the sand dune where the tunnel began and swam down into the tunnel, through the lapilli and seething black crags, until we were once again in the depths of the ocean next to the tunnel. She began digging into the sand at the base of the tunnel, quickly, efficiently and I joined her, scooping sand from the ocean floor.
As she dug, I noticed that the oxygen was rapidly disappearing from our tanks. She pulled out a tiny gilded peach-stone, and another gilded peach-stone. I shook my head — what good were these? She took one of the gilded stones and pushed it under her mask, eating it and then motioned that I should do the same. She was beautiful, but I was uncertain. I carefully put it in my mouth and finding it impossible to chew, swallowed it whole.
I took her hands and tried to pull her to the surface. I felt the light go out in my mind first, like the stone had robbed me of all possible words, made me a small child again. Then the Scuba Woman pulled me to the surface. We were going up much faster than I thought advisable, but it was not causing me any pain. I look down and saw that I was slowly growing green and gold scales. Scuba Woman, too, was covered with scales, hers were pink and scarlet. As we neared the surface of the water, I saw that she had developed gills and her lava-colored hair had vanished. Where her face used to be, burst an enormous fish head. The earth rumbled. In the distance we saw that the island was erupting, that the incandescent rocks were glowing purple and magma rolled down the hill. The people were climbing into the water and swimming toward the other island as lava poured from the volcano.
I found I could not speak. Instead, I looked up at the clouds that were reflected in the still ocean waters and at the Scuba Woman who was now a giant fish. The air around us was filled with rumbling, with the strange wild sounds of explosion and fire. Scuba Woman swam ahead. I followed her away from our islands. We swam away a distance but we could still hear the people talking on my island, shouting at the parrots to come home and launching their hang-gliders to fly out over the mouth of the volcano. The silent men and women and children swam from the red island quickly, absconding with dinghies and rowing quickly toward my home.
We could not go home again and so I followed that giant fish, her tail whipping around, scarlet and long, into the ocean. I found I didn’t need to speak, did not want to speak once more- the sounds of the ocean waves, their rolling, wide, wild sighs, were enough.
Anita Felicelli’s writing has previously appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Blackbird, Prick of the Spindle, India Currents, Publishing Perspectives and elsewhere.