A LOST AGE, A NEW BEGINNING by Benjamin DeHaan
Infinite ink waters sprawl out for the conquering. Light lapping waves nuzzling up the row boat lick my mind with fatigue. Dirty grey seagulls flock to a desolate buoy rocking drunkenly above time-worn, corroded chain.
These are my favourite kind of days. Alone days. Gray days so grey I imagine winds carrying ash across the sky, lush island greens buried deep in monotone gloom, and the world singing a tune to the end.
Temperatures take a dip and the hair on my arm rises. I look up to warm my face, but the blazing disc’s heat is cemented behind thick overcast. I breathe in deep and exhale to the taste of ship exhaust.
I look over my shoulder. The horizon is clear save my destination that is now still but the size of a penny after hours of rowing through this salty glass desert.
I rest the oars inside the boat.
The dark ale I packed goes down in one and my dry eyes moisten to life.
I look around and belch hot carbonation. I can’t stop here. Liquor will make me lazy and who knows when they will all come to figure I’m gone.
The oars go back in and my old muscles continue the melodic push and pull on the wooden oar handles.
Nothing. Can’t be nothing. I slice the oars through again. Sometimes the sea plays tricks on the mind.
Ain’t a rock, I think. Soft like a fish. Like hitting a tire with a bat.
I look over the side of the boat.
Slice deep now, I tell the oar. Dig in. Hit it again. I dare you.
The oar cuts through, nothing to bother it. Beautiful rhythm, beautiful tempo, it’s like a slow flow of alcohol through my veins. I can barely stay conscious as the oar slaps, pulls out, slap, pull out, slap.
I stop and peer over the side of the boat again. I love uncertainty, it’s what drives me. Boredom nulls me hard and thick, fat and dumb. If you knew what was coming to you you might as well be shaved to the bone and buried bare.
A flash of gills.
Finally, I see something that carries a wholesome set of balls and isn’t scared to smile at the world.
The gills flash again. A black dead eye. Pointed shards of white teeth that would slide uncooked meat off bone before you could blink to bed.
Nice try, buddy.
I’ve seen minnows bigger than you when I was on the LE Macha.
Come here again and smile, I say and grip the oar. I’m not in the mood for any fish fights. My old hands are all pain, all arthritis.
I grow tired of staring at the water and put the oars back inside the boat. By now the toothy terror must be miles away and tracking a new morsel to shred and wolf down its gullet.
My gut bubbles with acid and my mouth sweats. I bend over to try and shake the nausea. A mountain of bottles has formed between my feet and the air is putrid with ale piss.
I haven’t had this many since I graduated from Naval Service boot camp. I break into a quick spell of euphoria. The memory of swimming drunk and bare arse naked from Irish navy headquarters to Spike Island kills the persistent nausea.
I lift my head to the ash sky. Cool sea air feels glorious against my old crusty, thinning scalp.
Good times those were, I think. Protecting the Irish waters turned us boys into men and tempered our souls into grey cast iron. Nothing I can’t handle nowadays, ’cept that old hag and my son who lacks a pair. I’ll take the minnow over those buffoons any day of the week.
The nausea comes back and I retch a fountain of Guinness piss on Glass Mountain.
I kick the bile battered bottles to the front of the boat and spit a chunk of ham out to the fishes.
A lonely bottle rolls back and forth in the bottom of my cooler. Oh no you don’t. Get your arse over here. I empty the bottle in six tenths of a second. If they had Olympics for sud guzzling there would be a gold medal dangling from my neck right now.
I exhale and the ship exhaust returns. I love the smell. Infect me with it, drown me in it, lather me in it, fucking mince me in it. Hell, I wouldn’t mind it being the last thing I smell before I croak and roll into a hole.
I hear a motor engine revving. A white boat approaches from the horizon. The smell of exhaust doesn’t smell so good anymore and I piss out what’s left of the Guinness, slightly irritated I can’t handle liquor like I used to. Liver is about as strong as a sloth against a polar bear.
Great… party over.
“Dad!” he yells, but it’s a little high school girl scream. His hair is gelled back and he has sunglasses on the size of Neptune. He wears tight khaki shorts that wrap against his groin as if he thinks his pecker is some kind of electromagnet for the ladies. News, buddy, you are a lady!
“I will not go back to rot among the living dead in some nursing home!”
Jimmy pulls the yacht next to my rowboat and tosses the rope ladder over the side. He peers down from the deck and puts a hand out.
“Dad, don’t be stupid. There is a storm coming! Come on now!”
“Storm? Shit, this is great weather.”
A long sigh.
He backs off with his ruddy hand, and grips his hips like he’s King Kong of the Amazon jungle. Spare me.
“Ma said you found some letter?”
“Yeah, a piece of paper in a bottle, and we’ll just leave it at that!”
He scoffs and I want to throw him overboard into the ocean. Maybe the minnow is around. His eyes are serious but I know underneath that premature, unexperienced white-collar asshole skin of his that he couldn’t persuade a cow into a barn.
“You are too old for this shit dad. Let’s go now!”
“Get out of here son, before I—-” I snatch an oar from the side of the boat. He’s gonna be lucky if he survives this beating. “I’m still not too old enough to give teachings. Especially to a preppy boy who didn’t even have the marbles to join the Navy like his pa!”
Jimmy is silent but I know my forefathers would be pissed if I didn’t make a point. “Tell Ma that I need a vacation and I’m not coming back till I feel good about coming back. Tell her that she’s gonna bloody well forget about me rotting cooped up in some home for the next decade! I would rather hang!”
Thunder and lightning sprawl the skies and static electricity fills the air. Finally, my son has given up. He cranks the wheel hard on the yacht. His face is hard as a rock. His expression says “Die, dad, just fucking die.” And to that I think, maybe I will, but in doing so at least I’ll be dying knowing it won’t be a slow death, it won’t be a death on the main land with a crowd of people staring at me in some mouldy institution. I recall the pamphlets they showed me and I want to heave my intestines up. I won’t do it. I won’t. To that I will say piss off my friend.
Jimmy leaves. My yacht vanishes and I’m alone again in the row boat, with the bottles, and the stale stink of Guinness piss. I wish I had one more to celebrate.
Clouds roll in thick and blacken like tar on road. Winds pick up as if they are on a mission to blow my ears off. I hate to admit it. But Jimmy is right. A god damn storm is coming.
Also hate that I still love the prick. He’s blood after all.
Twenty minutes ago, I was giving the bird to Jimmy as he and the yacht disappeared into grey mist on the horizon, but now I wish he hadn’t gone back to Dingle.
The sky rains buckets and thunder deafen my ears worse than a blacksmith shop. As I scoop out buckets of water, I wonder even if I will make it to the island on the letter. Just “The Island” the piece of parchment said. Great name. But the coordinates on it are right. The island is now within sight. A massive sea cliff approaches that looks more welcoming than cockroaches on a wedding cake.
I pick up the pace with my oars and pump my muscles. I almost yell and complain to the oars, but realize I’m just an old fart with no power. The shore and the cliffs don’t get any closer and the boat fills and fills and fills with sea water.
Jesus Christ. My heart nearly wedges between my rib bones.
I slice the oar through the water again.
It can’t be that fucking fish again. Can it be?
Water fills to my knees and is only but inches from the top of the boat.
My arms and lungs burn. The boat no longer moves.
A sharp grey nose makes its great entrance through the hull of my pathetic wooden row boat. Rain comes down as if the sky doesn’t know I already have enough fucking water in the hull.
The nose moles its way through deep and the black eye stares up at me from the back of the boat. I know it would give anything to have a piece of my ass. Not much there but no doubt I would still make a good meal on the whole. God damn it, Jimmy. Why didn’t you put a noose around my neck and drag me on board?
This was so stupid, believing in some letter about an island that can bring back youth, bring back hope, bring back vitality to the elderly. Maybe the nursing home is the right place for me. I need to stop believing in fantasies and become a realist. I was in the Navy for god sakes. Why do I believe in this bullshit written on a piece of paper that was stuck in a bottle? I should have tossed the bottle in the trash and forget about it all.
Thunder cracks and my mind shifts back to my arms that are now so drained of energy they lay limp at the joints. The hull cracks and cracks. Wood splinters. The minnow is persistent. I am too tired to do anything.
My time has come.
I lean back and rest my head on the bow. I look up to the monotone sky. The water rises to my neck, then earlobe. My eardrum tickles. This is it.
This is how I will go.
Take me now and make sure the gate is unlocked up there, will yah?
My mouth fills with sea water.
The last thing I remember is a great calm. So damn calm.
I sink, I sink, and I fade...
I wake. I’m alive. Save the cold that pierces my skin like needles, I am okay. I crack my eyes open and peer directly into the granite eye of Balor, leader of the Fomorians, holder of the eye that wreaks destruction upon all.
Behind the statue of the great malevolent supernatural being of Irish Mythology lies a line of trees. They are being hacked by sun-scorched, bleached-haired boys in nothing but loincloths. Chop, chop, their axes go, tendons and muscles flex hard and strong but they huff and puff, huff and puff as if they run a marathon with bowling balls tied to their ankles.
I wipe my salty hair from my head.
My heart skips a beat.
I have a full set of thick hair!
I look at my arms. No flab, nor wrinkles and my arm muscles sprawl with shoe lace thick veins.
I touch my crotch. My pecker is thick and plump.
My god, man!
A hefty rock protrudes from the white sand next to me. I have to know its real. This youth. I pluck it from the sand like a pebble and do a couple reps with it. I drop it to the ground.
I’m just as strong if not stronger than I was during my early Navy years. I can barely believe it. I have done it. I made it to the place of my dreams.
And my god, it is not a hoax. The Island exists!
I hear moans on the horizon.
Kids busy as beavers swing axes with a fury, but one boy in particular mumbles something and points to his feet.
But before I can ask him what the hell is wrong and what the hell he is pointing at, a youthful man dressed in a shredded black suit and wearing a wrinkled, beat down top hat comes forth from the woods in my direction.
As he walks, he spins around and around, kicking up sand here and there, and flails his arms up and down as if he is some coked-up bridge hugger in downtown Dublin.
But it doesn’t matter. I am young. The nursing home is but a memory of the past and won’t be seeing me. This crew and this island will be my home.
The crazed young man approaches and puts his arms around me.
“Welcome, my friend, welcome, welcome. So glad you got the letter.” He leans back and grips my shoulders tight with both hands. “I’m Kelp.” He takes my hand and shoves it in his own. A fine, firm handshake. Something that the kids don’t know how to do back home.
His hair is just as sun bleached as the choppers and it dangles to his tail bone. He gazes with his blue orbs and it’s as if blue oceans exist in his eye sockets. I see my reflection in his eyes. I’m young. I was right. I’m the same age I was when I first joined the Irish Navy.
“I’m Conor.” I grip his hand hard. And then he waves back to the chop squad busy on the small plot of trees.
“The Island has given us youth, yes, but it has also given us all a purpose. We use our youth to work, set an example to the younger ones who have joined the island, and put them on a path of the true man.”
“I truly respect a good work ethic,” I say. “I want to work again, become part of society. I want to stay.”
Kelp smiles and a row of silver nubs break from hiding and glisten in the sun. I feel as if the kid can read my heart, knows that if there is anything I don’t want right now, it’s to go back home, bury my dead roots, and rot to a pathetic end.
I couldn’t be happier.
“How old are you?” I ask. “In real years?”
He puts an arm around me and we walk the beach. The arthritis in my joints is gone and I sprint sometimes at full speed to confirm my newly found youth. Kelp tells me his story. He came to the island during the late sixteenth century from Spain.
It was all an accident. His voyage, the slaves on board. The Ottoman empire was hungry for ships and so Captain Kelp took his vessel north to Ireland.
An unfortunate crop of rocks breached the hull. All slaves and deckman on board drowned save himself. He made it to the island and succumbed to decades of solitude. He couldn’t bear it anymore and so he called people from afar with his messages in bottles. They came. The people, the kids, they thrive now on the island because of Kelp.
A man of history. A man from the old ages. Now that is a man I can respect. I look at him for the longest time. I want to ask him if he was headed to America and if those slaves were destined for cotton fields, but he shakes my hand again. Always strong, always firm.
“That is all from me today. Let me show you to your lodging.”
We arrive at the lodging. When Kelp said lodging, I imagine maybe a warm log cabin or a hut made from the local wood, but I am very wrong. Castle ruins.
It is active with reconstruction. Amazing how the kids work it up and down with their carpentry skills. Kelp has taught them well. They are hard workers.
“Hi,” a boy says not but ten meters deep in thick overgrowth. I see his smile through thick green. He smiles and chops the wood. His bare back is covered in welts. Almost like fresh welding wounds. I look towards the sound of metal clanking at his feet. He chops wood but there is the sound of metal.
“Come now, Conor,” Captain Kelp says and grabs my hand. He pulls me ahead to the opening where the castle stands erect and strong. “This is where you’ll stay. Let’s let the others work in peace, shall we?”
I nod. And he ushers me inside the castle. He explains the recent storm has collapsed most of the rooms and the kids work as fast as they can to return the castle to its previous glory.
We arrive at a room with only a bed, bucket, and leaking ceiling that sweats from above.
“I’m sorry we had to welcome you like this. Deepest apologies.”
“It’s okay,” I say, “No worries. I’m a simple man.”
He pats my back with his bony fingers. His skin is grey as if the centuries have washed the pigment out from his skin. He isn’t some old mummy raisin or anything but despite his smooth skin and wrinkle-less face, his colourless complexion gives me the sense that he has already died and is just here because he is just here.
“Sleep tonight, well,” he says and makes his way to the door. His manner is swift as if something itches him and must go right away. “You’ll clean fish tomorrow. On the beach.”
“Okay,” I say and try to ask him what time I should be at the beach but he is gone already. Busy man he is. But with what? Oh well, I think. I am away from the mainland, away from the nursing home I was destined for just yesterday. I am on an island contributing. I am on an island and young. Nothing can take this from me.
Kids come silent and line up fish by the dozens. The table is so full of the slimy bastards I can smell the innards cooking under the sun.
But how can I complain about all this? I slide a knife along the backbone of the first mackerel and it cuts through like butter. The kids know how to sharpen their knives. They leave and I have a blast doing something useful for once.
In the end I have three great saltwater bowls filled with mackerel filets.
What is that smell? I think. The wind picks up and the putridness strengthens.
I put my nose to the pile of fish guts. Nothing.
I put my nose to the filets. Fresh.
I walk to the edge of the beach where the waves start to pull back into the sea. A wall of disgust violates the air and blankets me in its foulness. I feel more violated than an unflushed airport toilet.
A blanket floats in to shore. Heavy-looking, thick, brown, and a tinge of red surrounding it as if it’s some monster jelly-fish that has lost its way.
I take a long stick up from the sand and poke the centre of the mass.
It sinks into the flesh and a human head turns upwards, mouth open, tongue pointed out, pig liver in colour, a leather lump.
My knees fall to the sand and a hand grips my shoulder.
I look up to see the face of Kelp staring out at the body, expressionless, totally oblivious to the graveness of the dead bloated carcass.
“A small sacrifice to keep the majority strong my friend.”
Quite the disrespectful thing to say to the dead. I take his arm off me.
He sighs as if he has sensed my disappointment. Did I do something wrong here?
“It will bring more fish, Conor, we will catch more fish, feed more mouths!”
“Now, now…” His simplicity in tone flames me. Too straight, too unconcerned. His head is not on right.
“I could throw a net and catch more fish than what this carcass could bring in!”
“Conor… settle down…”
“I will not settle down. This is nonsense!”
“Shut the hell up! There is a dead body, man!”
I point a finger into his chest and it sinks through like a rotten pumpkin. I pull it out and smell it. The stench is worse than the ballooning body in front of us.
“Conor,” he keeps saying. Conor this, Conor that, I wish he would but speak his mind. Who the fuck is this crazed man of the histories?
The steadiness and calm of his face tell me there is nothing that can waver his state of mind. He whistles.
Four young men come forth from the overgrowth and take me away. They grip my arms hard. They seem younger than the choppers. No welts. Skin less disturbed.
“Loader,” Captain Kelp says.
That is all he says and all I feel as I’m dragged away is a sense of disconnection. But I still want to stay. I want to make this place my home. I’ll do better next time and make things right. I swear. God damn, I swear it.
I want to stay, yes, I do. Nursing home, no. Captain Kelp has appointed me to brick loader. One after another, speechless, wordless, expressionless workers come to my wheel barrow to pluck a fresh piece of stone for the castle repairs.
The body in the surf bothers me, but the fact that I am able to stay on the island and be useful overshadows those choking feelings.
One after another the workers come. Each one has more welts. Pink, fresh. Another one comes. Here comes another one. Welts. More welts. Unbelievably fresh and thick and blistering in blood. Just the look of all the injury instils a deep, thick sense of worry and perplexity in my mind. This island is hiding something from me. I know it. Something will rise one day, or something will fall. It’s difficult to tell but one thing I am sure of is that this island is not moral.
A boy the age of Jimmy twelve years ago comes to me and takes his share of bricks. His back has been ravaged and torn and the welts sweat clear blister juice. It’s obvious to me now. It’s disgusting to me now.
I look at him and grab his arm as he comes to unload my brick-loaded wheel barrow. “Where did you get those welts?” I ask.
The worker shrugs.
“Tell me, boy!”
His shoulders rise again and his tongue hangs. I want to slap him. This is nonsense. These workers, they aren’t workers, they are lower than that.
The boy points to the ocean.
I still don’t get it.
He tries to speak, but his tongue is but a pork liver stub and no words can possibly flow.
Captain Kelp arrives.
“There will be no yelling, Conor. None at all.”
“Why did you come to the island, Conor?”
I’m too embarrassed to tell him that I was about to be put in a nursing home until I croaked. But questions that need answering itch me. I’m the one that needs to ask the questions.
“It’s none of your business. And you?”
“You’ve seen the children,” he says. “The younglings, yes? Choppity chop chop. Clink clank. Heave and heave, sweat and sweat. You’ve seen the ones who work and work and work. These sla—these men, are going to make a great army. We are getting ready to sail. The wood will provide for the boats. We will extend our reign across the lands, taking over one island at a time and spread the word of Christ. And of course, everyone will go for a great price for the buyers. Including you.”
I’m lost for words and the only thing that grows strong in my mind is the fact that Captain Kelp hasn’t realized slavery has been abolished for nearly two hundred years.
“There is no going back, my friend, no going back.”
“To where?” I say.
“To the days when the masters and leaders before me thought they could achieve happiness on this small shithole island. Humans hunger for more, for everything, for domination, and in my decades on this island, I have realized I need to do something that will leave a legacy. I am dying, Conor.” He rubs the hole on his chest. “I am rotting, Conor. I am sick to my stomach and feel like moulded leather. Please understand.”
“You are nuts.”
“I am a man that will bring the people of the world to its knees and use them for good. I will be a trader, a leader, a god of eternity. And I will make you a Navy general, if you so much see it as your true calling. But you will be bound to my words forever. It’s the only condition.”
I am usually alert. A Navy man like myself had to always be cautious when out on the ocean and protecting the waters of my countrymen. But when I look around, all of a sudden, I see faces, bodies, and anger emerge from the tree line that surrounds the castle ruins.
Captain Kelp waves his hands around at the newcomers in large sweeping circles. “Friends, friends.”
It’s the tone in Kelp’s voice, it’s the simplicity of it all that drives a dull rusted nail into the top of my foot.
It sends my senses soaring and I feel lonely as ever. I need Jimmy, I need the authorities. Help is far away and everyone is against me now. My exterior is young but I still feel old in my spirits. Maybe we die after nearly a century on this Earth because our mind is limited. Maybe our mind can’t handle the psychological stress of the evolution of the persona over time. Jesus, I think a lot. This island has turned me into a thinking man. But now it appears I need to be a man of action.
Kelp moves behind one of the Balor statues on the beach and raises a hand. In his hand, he carries a remote device and presses a button. The shackles on the workers’ legs clank open and they rush at me in waves. I run and run and my lungs burn.
The edge of the forest is near, approaching, and I want to be swallowed up by it and disappear, but before then, I feel heat build in the middle of my back and then pain. I trip on a log and tumble to the ground. I look back.
The eye of Balor is red hot and glowing. Leaves and shrubbery smoke and burn as it tries to connect its laser with my flesh. It comes. I run and dive into the woods. I continue to run as fast as my new young limbs can take me.
I make it out of the woods to a new beach of the island. There is but one Balor statue and it seems to be out of commission. It is solid. No movement, no change in colour.
I fall to the sand.
Never in my life have I felt so weak, so prone to the end. The nursing home made me feel like everything was coming to an end. But this rotten man of history with a corrupted soul is like something from nightmares.
I scratch the welt in the middle of my back and it stings and burns along my spine. The Irish monster has wreaked havoc upon my young skin and burns hotter and is more painful than a finger held over flame.
I hear a sound but cannot make out what it is. It is like the buzzing of a bee. I strain my eyes looking for the bastard but I see a boat.
My yacht, coming towards the island!
It is Jimmy in his tight fucking Khakis. I want to tell them he can have all the Khakis he wants and they can be as tight as a tick on his arm pit for all I care. I love my son. God damn it I love him.
But he is heading to me, and to danger.
I wave my hands and then run as fast as I can into the surf, my body crashing into the waves and sea water spraying into my mouth. I yell as I swim. I know he is coming. Please, boy. Please.
The yacht arrives, I have only swum but ten metres from shore. My body is changing. I am ageing back to my original age. The magic of the island wears off. Th beach is now crowded with the islanders and I can see Kelp in his rotting suit and top hat.
The yacht is right next to me.
“Dad!” Jimmy screams.
Balor awakes and begins its red neon laser dance across the hull of the boat.
I look back and see Captain Kelp drink something from a blue vial and charge naked toward the waves. He wants me back. The secret of the island must stay on the island.
The hull of the boat begins to smoke.
I duck under the path of the laser and grab Jimmy’s hand. He pulls me aboard.
“We need to leave!” he screams.
“We need to stop Kelp,” I say as Kelp is now but ten good swimming strokes from the hull with a knife in his mouth. “Grab the shaving mirror from the deck storage unit.”
Jimmy pulls hard at the deck and rummages through decades of my shit in the bowels of the yacht.
“Here,” he says, and passes it to me.
The laser dances like it wants to make sure it sinks us with an utter glorious final performance. I put the mirror ahead of its path. It comes quick, searing wood along the hull and sending smoke into my face.
I reflect it just right, just on the mark, just on Captain Kelp’s neck. He tries to dive but it’s too late.
His jugular fries open and the water around him stains with his life. The Captain of histories is now but a memory of the sea. A man who was lost out of his time. A man who wanted more than the world could give him.
“Push it, Jimmy!”
The engine on the yacht roars and the bow rises to the sun. We fly.
Vanilla seagulls fly under a blinding sun. Not a cloud in sight. The island shrinks in the distance and the weight of the world and the chaotic dream seem to leave my shoulders like bowling balls dropped into the sea.
I walk slowly to my son who is now at the wheel, concentrating on the route home. He looks pissed off. He should be.
I grab his shoulder and rub his back up and down. I want him to know that I’m sorry. We can go to the nursing home. He can sign me in. I’m too old for normal living. I know.
He looks up at me.
“I don’t want you to go, dad.”
“What?” I ask, but I don’t need to. I know what he means.
“Ma and I talked. You and her are going to come live with me for a while.”
“But Jimmy,” I say.
“You tell me when you are ready to go. That’s the least I can do for my pa. I’m sorry about everything.”
“Shut up. I’m the one that should apologize.”
The sky is bluer than blue and the ocean air purifies my soul. The world feels like an empty canvas, ready for my new story to be painted upon. The distance increases between us and the island and my body already feel old and time-worn.
It doesn’t matter because I have Jimmy. Good ol’ Jimmy. I pat him on the back and there is nothing better than this moment, the now. Not the back then, or when we were young, or that time, just the now.
“Good lad,” I say. “You’re a good lad, son.”