Acceptance, p.14
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       Acceptance, p.14

           Jeff VanderMeer
 
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  This is what I can remember now, when memory begins to be interwoven with so many other considerations. In the end, I took a hair sample that proved as useless as any other—a consistency I suppose I should have admired but did not—and went back to my sad little fire out in the middle of a nowhere that was everywhere.

  But this encounter did affect me in one way. I became resolved not to give in to the brightness, to give up my identity—not yet. I could not come to terms with the possibility that one day I might put aside my vigilance and become the moaning creature in the reeds.

  Perhaps this was weakness. Perhaps this was just fear.

  03: THE ISLAND

  Soon enough, the island became a shadow or smudge on the seaward horizon, so I knew it was only a matter of days, even if I had trouble telling how much time was passing. The island that was as blank to me now as my husband had been upon his return. I knew nothing of what I might encounter there, and the reality of this sobered me, made me monitor the brightness more closely, fight it harder, as if, ridiculously, by the time I made it across, I had to be at my best, my most alert. For what? For a corpse I might find if I were lucky? For some memory of a life back in the world that we could now misremember as more placid and comfortable than it had been? I don’t know the answer to those questions, except that an organism’s primary directive is to continue to exist—to breathe and to eat and to shit and to sleep and to fuck, and to otherwise carry on with the joyous repetitions of its days.

  I secured my backpack, and I dove into the water.

  * * *

  Anyone reading who likes stories about characters huddled around guttering fires with the wolves waiting just beyond will be disappointed to learn that I was not attacked by leviathans from the depths as I swam over to the island. That, although tired and cold, I easily set up living quarters in the ruined lighthouse waiting on the shore. That I found enough food there, over time, by catching fish and foraging for berries, digging up tubers that while bland were edible. I trapped small animals when I had to, planted my own garden using seeds from the fruit I found, fertilized it with homemade compost.

  At first, the lighthouse perplexed me more than anything on the island. It kept striking me as a mirror of the lighthouse on the coast—the way the light glanced off of it—and that seemed to me like some kind of obscure and potentially ruthless joke. It could be just another detail in a host of them that brought me no closer to answers about Area X. Or this confluence, this incomplete synonym, the top caved in and the landing I chose as my stronghold languishing under a trough of wet dead leaves … it could be an unmistakable and massive indicator of some kind.

  I took my time, later, exploring the lighthouse, the buildings nearby, the abandoned town, with a systematic and scientific thoroughness, but I felt that my first reconnaissance should be broader: to scour the island for threats, for food and water sources, for any sign of other human life. Not wanting to hope, for I had found no evidence of recent occupation of the lighthouse, which seemed the most likely shelter because most of the other buildings were, even at first glance, dilapidated, had rotted with astonishing swiftness once Area X had imposed its will on this place. There were also signs of pollution, of old scars, but faded so fast into the firmament that I could not gauge how long ago they had been inflicted. Whether Area X was accelerating the erasure of their effects.

  This island is about fourteen miles long, six broad, and forty in circumference, containing what I would estimate as about eighty-four square miles or more than fifty thousand acres. The pine-and-oak forest comprises most of the interior, sprawling down toward the shore on the landward side, but the side facing the sea has been assaulted by storms, and there you will find mostly scrub and moss and gnarled bushes. Fresh springwater occurs more frequently than I had expected, from rivulets meandering down from the hills toward the shore. This probably explains the placement of the abandoned town, along with protection from storms blowing in from the sea. But I also found one faucet on the lighthouse grounds that, although spewing forth brown rust at first, eventually settled down to a trickle of something brackish but drinkable, from some hidden aquifer.

  Farther afield, I found a rich ecosystem in which a wary rabbit population was held in check by raptors and island foxes, these latter the scrappy small sort that suggested an isolated initial breeding pair or pairs had adapted to the limited range and opportunities of their surroundings. The birdlife was robust as well, from tree swallows and purple martins to vireos and wrens, woodpeckers and nighthawks—along with too many types of shorebirds to catalog. At dusk, the sound of avian life triumphant forms a mighty bursting chorus of voices, such a contrast with the silence of the marshes, whose own richness is more muted, almost watchful.

  I wandered the island for many days, both its perimeter and the interior, getting a feel for it and what it contained. As I recorded my observations, I cursed the Southern Reach for not providing us with a map, even if I also knew that I would have tested any map provided to me and wound up doing almost as much work. Not just because I distrusted the Southern Reach, but also because I distrusted Area X. Yet when I was done with this initial inspection, I could not say there was anything preternatural or unusual about the island itself.

  Other, perhaps, than the owl.

  04: THE OWL

  Did I find my husband? In a way, if not in the form in which I had known him. On the far side of the island, in the late afternoon, after I had burst through nettles and scrub and sticker, lacerating long grasses, all of it overshadowed by close-knit copses of wind-gnarled black pines—burst through to a tranquil cove that cupped a white-sand beach and shallows that extended a fair distance before the darkness of deep water took over. On the beach, a scattering of low-lying concrete pilings and rocks, all that remained of an abandoned pier from another age, created a perch for more than a dozen cormorants.

  A single stunted pine the height of a person stood defiant amid rocks and cormorants alike, blackened and almost bare of needles. On one outstretched branch, the unlikely silhouette of a common horned owl with sharp tufted ears: rust-brown face with white feathers at chin and throat, mottled gray-and-brown body. My loud approach should have alarmed it, but this owl just perched there, surrounded by the cormorants sunning themselves. An unnatural scene, to me, and it brought me up short.

  I thought at first the owl must be hurt, more so when I came closer and it still didn’t move, unlike the whirling circle of cormorants that, complaining bitterly, flew away, a long low line over the water, exiled to rove, restless. Any other owl would have taken wing and disappeared back into the forest. But instead, it remained glued to the ridged, scaly bark of the branch, staring out at the fading sun with enormous eyes.

  Even when I stood right beside the tree, awkward on the rocks, the owl did not fly, did not look over at me. Injured or dying, I thought again, but cautious, ready to retreat, because an owl can be a dangerous animal. This one was huge, four pounds at least, despite its hollow bones, lightweight feathers. But nothing I had done had yet provoked it, and so I stood there as the sun began to set, the owl beside me.

  I had studied owls early in my career and knew that neuroses were unknown among them as opposed to other, more intelligent bird species. Most owls are also beautiful, along with another quality that is hard to define but registers as calm in the observer. There was such a hush upon that beach, and one that didn’t register with me as sinister.

  At dusk, the owl turned its fierce yellow gaze upon me at last, and with the tip of its outstretched wing brushing against my face, the bird launched itself into the air in a smooth, silent arc that sent it off toward the forest behind me. Forever gone, or so I believed, with any of a number of reasons to account for its odd behavior. The lines between the eccentricities of wildlife and the awareness imposed by Area X are difficult to separate at times.

  I needed to seek shelter for the night, and I found on the far western edge of the beach a small circle of rocks around the black
ened ash of an old fire—above the high-tide mark, set back almost into the beginning of the forest. I found, too, in the last glimmers of light, an old tent, faded by the sun, weathered and crumpled by storms. Someone had lived here for a time, and without daring to think who it might have been, I made camp there, started my own fire, cooked a rabbit I had killed earlier that afternoon. Then, tired, I fell asleep to the sound of the waves, under a soft and subdued canopy of stars.

  I woke only once during the night and saw the owl perched opposite me across the fire, atop my backpack. It had brought me another rabbit. I dozed again, and it was gone when I woke.

  * * *

  I stayed there three days, and I admit I did so because of the owl, and because the cove was near-perfect; I could see spending my life there. But also because I wanted to know more about the person who had made the fire, lived in the tent. Even in disarray and so old, it was clearly a standard-issue tent, although it carried no Southern Reach logo on it.

  A little ways into the forest behind the tent, I found an expedition-issue sidearm, much like my own, in a rotting holster, amid wildflowers and sedge weeds and moss. I found the undershirt from an expedition uniform, and then the jacket and socks, strewn across that expanse as if given up willingly, even joyously … or as if some animal or person had thrown them there. I did not bother to gather them up, to try to re-create this exoskeleton of a person. I would not find a name, I knew that, and I did not find a letter, either. I would never really know if it might have been my husband who had camped there or some other person even more anonymous to me.

  And yet there was the owl, always watching over me, always nearby. Always a little closer, a little tamer, but never completely tame. It would drop twigs at my feet, at random, more as if through some absentmindedness than on purpose. It would bow at me, a typical owl behavior, then spend the next hours distant, almost sullen. Once or twice, it would perch at close to my height, and I would approach as an experiment, only for the owl to hiss at me almost like a cat, and beat its wings and fluff out its feathers until I had retreated. Other times, on a branch high up, the owl would sway and bob, bob and sway, moving its body from side to side while gripping its perch in the same place. Then look down at me stupidly.

  I moved on, following the shore, sometimes also shadowed by the cormorants. I did not expect the owl to join me, but I am unashamed to say I was glad when it did. By the end of the second week, it ate from my hands at dusk, before going off to its nocturnal life. During the night I would hear its curious hollow hooting—a sound many find mysterious or threatening but that I have always found playful or deeply irreverent. The owl would reappear briefly toward dawn—once, in a tangle of feathers as it plunged its head into the sand and ruffled out its plumage, giving itself a dry bath and then picking at lice and other parasites.

  The thought crept into my head when I wasn’t careful, and then I would banish it. Was this my husband in altered form? Did he recognize me, or was this owl simply responding to the presence of a human being? Unlike the uncanny presence of other animals, there was no such feeling here—no sense of it to me, at least. But, I reasoned, perhaps I had become acclimated by then. Perhaps I’d reached a kind of balance with the brightness that normalized such indicators.

  When I came full circle, back to the ruined lighthouse, the owl stayed with me. He tried even less for my attention, but in the twilight would appear in the branches of a tree outside the lighthouse, and we would stand there together. Sometimes he would already be there by midafternoon, if I walked through the shade of the dark trees, and follow me, making great hoot-hoots to warn of my coming. But never earlier, as if he remembered that I hated the unnatural in animals, as if he understood me. Besides, he had his own business—hunting. After a week, though, he roosted in the shattered upper spire of the lighthouse. The cormorants, too, reappeared there, or perhaps they were not the same cormorants, but I had not seen so many of the birds in that place before my explorations.

  During the day, the owl would sun himself up there before falling into a sleep that sometimes was accompanied by a low and nasal snore. During the night, I would fall asleep on the landing and above me hear, so faint, the whisper as his wings caressed the air on his flight to the forest to seek prey. In those transitional moments, between day and night, when anything seemed possible, or I tricked myself into believing that this was true, I began to talk to the owl. Even though I dislike anthropomorphizing animals, it did not seem important to withhold this communication because the evidence of his eccentric behavior was self-evident. Either he understood or did not, but even if not, sound is more important to owls than to human beings. So I spoke to him in case he was other than what he seemed, and as common courtesy, and as a way to help with the welling up of the brightness.

  Despite this, which might be foolishness, how could I ever truly recognize in him the one I’d sought, ever cross that divide? Yet there grew to be a useful symbiosis in our relationship. I continued to hunt for him, and he continued to hunt for me, although with a kind of sloppiness, as if unintentional—rabbits and squirrels falling from his perch down to mine. In some ways, wordless on his end and based on the most basic principles of friendship and survival, this arrangement worked better than anything back in the wider world. I had still seen no person on the island, but now I found more evidence of a prior presence.

  It was not what I’d expected.

  05: THE SEEKER & SURVEILLANCE BANDITS

  Returned from my exploration, with the owl as my companion, I now slowly took the measure of my immediate surroundings: the lighthouse, the buildings around it, and the town beyond. The town, which must have been abandoned long before the creation of Area X, consisted of a main street and a few side streets that then faded into the impression of dirt roads, the tire ruts overgrown with weeds. All of it empty; I could be the ruler of this place by default, if I wanted to be.

  “Main Street” had become a kind of facade, having fallen to a disheveled army of vines and flowering trees and bushes and weeds and wildflowers. Squirrels and badgers, skunks and raccoons, had taken over the remains, ospreys nesting on the ruins of rooftops. In the upper story of a house or former business pigeons and starlings perched on gaping windows, the glass broken and fallen inside. It all had the rich scent of the reclaimed, of sweet blossoms and fresh grass in the summer, with the pungent underlying odor of animals marking their territory. It had also a hint of the unexpected for me, a kind of lingering shock to see these rough, rude memorials to the lives of human beings in a place I had thought largely free of them.

  Here and there, I found more signs of expeditions that had reached the island and either gone back across the water or died here and been transformed here. An abandoned backpack with the usual map in it. A flashlight. A rifle scope. A water canteen. These were tantalizing remnants—indicators that I tried to read too much into, for reasons that revealed a weakness in me. It should have been enough to know others had come here first, and that others had sought answers, whether they had found them or not.

  But there were sedimentary layers to this information, and some of the older materials, which I believed dated back to just before and right after the creation of Area X, interested me more. People had taken up residence here within that narrow spectrum, and those people went by the initials of S&SB, although I never once found a fragment that told me what these initials stood for. Nor could I recall, either back in the world or during our training for the expedition, ever hearing of such an organization. Not, of course, that the island had been given any thought or attention in that training. By then, any betrayal by the Southern Reach struck me as just more of the same.

  In lieu of any other evidence, I called them the Seeker & Surveillance Bandits. It suited what I knew about them from the scraps they’d left behind, and for a time, it occupied my days to try to reconstruct their identity and their purpose on the island.

  The leavings of the S&SB, their detritus, took the form of damaged equipment
that I identified as meant to record radio waves, to monitor infrared and other frequencies, along with more esoteric machines that defeated my attempts to decode their purpose. Along with such broken flotsam, I uncovered weathered (often unreadable) papers and photographs, and even a few recordings that croaked out incomprehensible too-slow words as I plugged them into a failing generator that gave me only about thirty seconds of power at a time before cutting out.

  All of this I found inside the abandoned buildings on Main Street, remains protected by fallen-in supporting walls or in basements where certain corners had escaped flooding. Burn marks existed in places where controlled fires had been started indoors. But I couldn’t tell if the S&SB had started these fires or if they had come later, during some desperate phase before everything had been assimilated by Area X. Looking at all of that ash, I realized that any attempt to reconstruct a sequence of events would be forever incomplete because someone had wanted to hide something.

  I took what I found to the lighthouse and began to sort through it, such as it was, all under the watchful but unhelpful eye of the owl. Despite the oblique nature of what I had recovered, I began to piece together hints of purpose, suggestions of conspiracy. All of what I relate here is highly speculative but, I think, supported by the fragile evidence available to me.

  The S&SB had begun their occupation of this island not with a mapping of the perimeter but with a thorough investigation of the ruined lighthouse, which meant they had come here with a specific purpose. That investigation had been twinned to establishing a kind of link between the lighthouse on the island and the one on the mainland. There were references to something that “might or might not” have been transferred, suggesting that perhaps the lens in the lighthouse I knew so well had originally come from here. But in context, this “might or might not” seemed almost certain to exist separate from the lens itself—or could exist separate. Torn pages from a book on the history of famous lighthouses, the lineage of lens manufacture and shipping, helped me little.

 
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