I met her at the young girl's funeral. We were sitting in the tenth pew, I remember. Our island is a small one, and the church was built in just proportion. The tenth pew is the last one: for the sinners and the outcasts, the ashamed.
The casket was wide open. There were a couple houseflies dancing up above it, and beyond that, lamplights swinging in the breeze. There was a ring of rusty iron, hung on chains stretched from the rafters, and it held a dozen burning lamps. We have no lightbulbs here, we burn whale oil like savages.
She turned to me and said, "I know what you are thinking. You're thinking, what if it falls into the coffin? What if she gets a ring of oil lamps rammed into her chest?"
I have a bad habit of snapshotting. And so I thought: here I am, out on the tenth pew, and before me is a young corpse; up above it dancing houseflies; and a rusty ring of lamplights above that. There you have it, that is everything.
What would it matter if the ring fell? Why are we cringing at the thought? Precisely for the comedy of it. There is something laughing in the iron that pins flesh to coffinwood. Something hides behind the altar and whispers, this is not a holy object. No. It's what it is: a corpse.
Everyone was sitting silently. She took my hand and led me to the front. I couldn't understand what she was doing; I was searching through the faces. I was waiting for some strong fisherman to stand and seize us, lead us to the tenth pew where we belonged. The secret fear of criminals is that no man will stand up and restore the just order of things.
I didn't understand what we were doing--but she touched my shoulder, and she flicked her index finger at the body in front of us. There was some sort of gentle carelessness inside that fingerflick: the gesture stuck in me, like a sand grain in the slow mouth of an oyster.
Interlude. In Rome there was a thing called homo sacer, sacred man. He was cast out of the city; you could hunt him like an animal. But he was sacred--that is, filthy. Unlike stags and horses, he could not be sacrificed.
One bishop said, without a city, you cannot be a man. You are either a god or an animal. Another said that exile turns us into both of them. A beastly god and godly animal. Homo sacer is not god and he is not an animal. But he is also not a man.
He is purely insignificant: the butt end of a fingerflick, the dying-place of laughs.
I dreamt that I was dead once. I was wandering around the island, and everything was just as it should be. The men down at the docks were taking sacks of fish upon their shoulders. I called to them; they couldn't hear me. I was dead.
By the time the service ended, it was dark.
The islanders walked out in slow procession. They walked barefoot over dunes and docks and old wood bridges. They pressed their soles into the soil and did not pray but walked with silent slow remembering.
We did not join in the procession. We walked across to where my house was, isolated, looking out across Burnt Cove.
Interlude, again. Some miles outside of Rome, a lake, a hidden temple. The priest sits, waiting to be killed. He doesn't sleep. He killed the priest who came before him for the honor of it; and now another one will come to do the same to him. That is the simple cruelty of things.
All that's left is one slow floating moment, one more senseless moment before dying. He's got one friend, of course; that is his death, which does not hide like most deaths but sits right there beside him, maybe smoking. And there is something fairly funny in that.
Why do islanders believe in immortality? They live in a catalogue of fixed smells and ennumerated images. Each soul is sunk into the surfaces of everything. There can be no forgetting.
The smell of cities is the thick smell of a million bodies burning. Bodies do not sink into the soil. They float out over the suburbs and off into the cold steppes of forgetting. I was living in the city when my older sister died—so I panicked through her archives for the ticket stubs and plastic souvenirs. I chased the vestiges of her through parking lots. Try to hold a bit of airborne dust: your hand fans it away. I tracked the scent of her through every street, until it led me to the harbor and its salty laughing lack of smell.
Of course, there is something in an islander that will kill without a thought of it. That is as senseless as pressing your soles into the soil; it is just as sensible and just as much without consequence. It is no different from taking fish-filled sacks upon your shoulders and no different from spitting a pearl into the sea. It will wash back up, with little consequence, as sand.
Can there be killing on an island? Can there? No, there can't. Of course there can't. There can't be much of anything at all.
And what are city people when you throw them on an island, what do they become? The kings of floating cities; that is all. Kings of the tenth pew, priests of the trashheaps of remembering. Load them full up with remembering and give them nowhere to forget.
Then you'll see a rusty ring of lamplights pin a corpse to coffinwood. You'll watch a floating city sink and disappear into the sea.
I came back, inevitably. I came back on the mailboat, and no one really minded my departure. It was raining and the boat ploughed on through it. There was nothing but rain; sheets and sheets of it; silver and then grey and once more silver and then grey: like that to the limit of my vision.