"Archipelago" by Mathias B. Freese
|Freese is the author of The i Tetralogy and Down to a Sunless Sea. Visit his site.|
© 2010 Mathias B. Freese
The azure blue Pacific kisses the white sands in several places before receding like watery wrinkles here and there on the untrammeled beach. A way up from shore, I made a lean-to from palm fronds I had gathered. Ovoid coconuts like partly bald men are plentiful, giving me milk and meat. The island is one among many in the Archimedes chain, I had learned aboard ship, and is unnamed. I gave it a name: Ginsburg, Island Ginsburg.
I’ve been here roughly three weeks since I swam ashore after a storm capsized the freighter on which I was traveling, the Belsen. No one else came ashore as I walked Ginsburg’s circumference more than once (about two miles, I suppose). I saw no one and came upon no bodies.
There’s not much on the island except a grove of palm trees, a few ugly and non-descript birds, and a rise near the center of the island that I camp out on. From here I look out upon the sea with a better view. Once a day I receive mail and other incidentals from a bi-plane – Sopwith Camel, I believe – which drops crated food, medicines and a few magazines, each delivery bringing something new and useful. I’m not sure at all why I get regular – and quite punctual – deliveries each day, but there it is. At times, if I can shield the glare from my eyes by screening them with my fingers, I can make out the goggled pilot as he waves at me with his left hand while jettisoning supplies. They gently parachute down, the silk emblazoned with huge red swastikas. Quite disconcerting, I must say.
I spent the early morning dragging my feet to make an immense SOS on the beach, hoping that Saint-Exupery might see me again and this time send out information to rescue me this time. With his burnished leather pilot cap and dark goggles, and that French wave he gives, I grow weary of his good intentions as he buzzes off in his bi-plane.
At this time I am eating a Jew for sustenance. It is near the end of the war and the Germans know that they have lost. Decidedly edgy, they try to kill as many of us as possible with starvation and forced marches. Bodies are strewn everywhere about the camp. For us food is non-existent. They feed us slop, if that, while typhus ransacks the barracks. We are all infected with lice.
A gang of several Jews cannibalized a dead Jew. They attended to his carcass, at first hesitant, then avidly. Embarrassed, they removed pieces with a rusty razor: skin from his buttocks, fingers, toes, ears. The extremities are all they can bear. A liver means going inside, unbelievably, unpardonably taboo, a crazed excuse. Each one of us slinks off with his morsel to eat in recumbent and secret pose late at night, to gnaw and pull away.
Disgust doesn’t even enter into it. Digestion is the difficulty, that which I’m experiencing at this moment. I’ll get it down, and so will they.
I’m beyond hungry. And Saint-Exupery drops off condiments: French mustard and American ketchup. I wish I had an entree to use the condiments with, something that might kill the taste, for the meat is rubbery and, in fact, not cooked. I smell nothing but sweaty skin; it has hairs. To cook it would make me rebel against that which I need to eat to sustain myself. To place it on a spit might make me pale before the idea. The longer I hold it secretly, the weaker my resolve becomes.
Again the pilot passes over my lean-to. This time he drops a packet with bandages, iodine, medical tape as well as an anti-fungal cream. I imagine he wants me to tighten up the flesh so that it would be presentable to my senses. I’ll eat that which is repugnant in order to live. To roast or char the substance is not possible. I have limits. I must eat it raw. I have nothing in me, so throwing up will not happen. At most, I’ll bring it several times to my mouth and then stay myself from going on: all trial and error.
As I unpack the latest delivery, I discover it contains a strange assortment of foodstuffs and other supplies that aren’t really appropriate for a castaway on a Pacific isle who has been marooned for several weeks. A chocolate bar in the shape of a Jewish star makes no sense to me, but I eat ravishingly until the star is no more and only a chunky hexagon is left in the middle. A peppermint swastika is included. I break off its arms and suck on them as if taking in marrow from a bone joint. Among other peculiarities is a comic book, vividly drawn, showing Eva Braun going down on Hitler’s dick which is sketched as if as lean as a drummer’s stick. The most fascinating candy is a little white paper bag filled with licorice Hitler mustaches, serrated and bite-size, rather good and gummy. There also are salt tablets (which are helpful, realistic and sane, given my condition), a liter of delicious water, American bubble gum, a polo shirt that reads “GAS” on the back (as I put it on, I wonder if it’s a command or noun), a deck of pornographic playing cards (a really good companion) that mostly show bare-assed Nazis giving blow-jobs to one another. Quite distracting while playing solitaire on the sand.
I go the meat down at last by mostly swallowing it. I couldn’t savor it; that’s beyond me. I’m “amazed” that a barrack cellmate chews it. It’s not intellect, rules, values, essential humanity that separate us while we sup. I cannot say what makes me swallow without tasting, and yet he devours with relish. I suppose he’s one of those men who comfortably piss right into toilet water while I skirt the edges of the bowl. Style, I think. Or the very way we face life. Perhaps I’m a doily and he is the end table. I imagine if I had a napkin, well-mannered as I am, I would clean around my mouth.
As I’m swallowing the mortal morsel, the water seems warm as syrup or blood, and I wade in, entering it like a sea otter, swimming out a few yards, turning, and heading back to shore. The taste in my mouth has been replaced, thankfully, by sea water, and it’s refreshing. I can swallow comfortably now, the salt spotting the back of my throat. I leave the water and lay down on the wet sands. Above I hear again Saint-Exupery and his Sopwith flying by. He reaches out of his cockpit, only fifty feet or so above me. A very tiny box floats down from his unclenched gloved fist, held aloft with a miniature silk parachute emblazoned with a huge Jewish star.
Getting up, I sprint over to the landing, unwrap the box’s packing paper and find several toothpicks. Although Saint-Exupery has not chosen to rescue me, toothpicks are a thoughtful touch, given the circumstances.
“So, you’re eating your own, Ginsburg, you yid bastard.”
I say nothing, head down, beyond mortal shame.
“Have you and the yid gang decided how good it was?”
I say nothing. I have no remorse anywhere on my person.
“When I have a moment after duty, I’ll see if the canteen has an after dinner mint for you.”
Laughing, the blochfuhrer strides off.
I’m in my archipelago tonight. I needn’t be rescued, ever. I’m again on Ginsburg Island. What was left over I devour, less ashamed now. The coconut milk is pleasant with the meal. I get up from my lean-to. I go down the mild slope to the beach. I watch the waves’ redundancy. I see driftwood: like me. Abandoned shells are splintered shards, and crabs scamper away. Avoiding what is inside me, what I’ve proven myself capable of, what died within shadows, I know I’ve transgressed. Why survive my island if what I am isn’t worth surviving?
Saint-Exupery is flying again. His Sopwith flies by, buzzing. I can almost make out his face, and when I look sharply, I see the one I’ve eaten. As the plane banks to the left, I run after it as another gift drops. I’m depressed when I see that this parachute has a skull and bones on it. Rushing over to my new treasure, I open it to discover a wooden plaque. It is a Yiddish curse: “A klog dir in boykh” (“May there be a lament in your belly”). Something tells me inwardly that Saint-Exupery will no longer look after me. The flights of the Sopwith Camel will stop.
I truly lament.
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