An extract from ‘Once, Two Islands’

Once, Two IslandsChapter One

There is an island situated in one of the three vast oceans of the world, an island which is actually a peak of a huge mountain, lying on the ocean floor like a sleeping dragon with only two scales of its humped back poking through the surface of the sea. Two, because near the island is another, smaller one, further east, which has all the qualities of the larger yet is different, like an echo. A man and his wife, some of the islanders call them, although their appointed names are Ergo Island (the larger) and Impossible Island (the smaller). They were formed long ago, before the beginning of time, by the power of the dragon, bursting out of the ocean with fire and ash and steam, affecting a quarter of the planet, causing tsunamis and black skies. But now they are merely two islands, the only comma and full stop for miles and miles in the blank blue page of the sea. To look at them, you would never guess the power of the dragon below, for they seem inconsequential, out of the way of the main shipping lines, in the way of the gales that roll in from Antarctica. Although the islands are made mostly of black volcanic rock, Ergo has an apron of settled sediment which is fertile, and on which people and their animals have come to live with the seabirds and seals and penguins.

Amongst them was a young girl, born on the island one winter’s day while the spindrift wind sang strange songs around the cliffs. Her body had thus far been immersed in the music of her mother, the shush of the sea of her, the thrum of the blood drum of her, the tinkle and resonance of her belly embrace. She’d grown from a full stop to a comma, from a tadpole to a frog to a fish, the plates of her face slowly colliding to form her features. She’d put on flesh and hair and pushed out frontal lobes, preparing to leave the sea behind, to drag herself out of her mother’s belly onto dry land.

The handsome doctor, Orion Prosper, washed his hands, snapped on a pair of latex gloves, and examined his wife again. Prostrate beneath his gaze, the brown mound of her belly tightening, Angelique gripped the bedpost as a wave of pain rolled through her.

Not too long now,” her husband informed her.

Remember, when the time comes, close your mouth and push!”

Angelique’s thoughts strayed to her cow last season, lying and lowing, a black struggling sack emerging from under her tail.

You must push into your bottom!” Sister Veronica concurred. She was childless, but trained in one of the best hospitals on the mainland. “Don’t forget to push as though you are going to the toilet!”

Angelique remembered the beached whale last summer, dying under the weight of its enormous body, its sonar gone wrong.

Frieda, who’d had her own babies, held her young sister’s hand. “Soon you’ll be seeing your child,” she consoled her.

At that moment, all Angelique could see was the Virgin Mary hanging on the white hospital wall, left there by one of Veronica’s predecessors, her face full of good sadness, her only son lost, lost, and all for a good cause. Another wave washed through her, flushing all thought from the pink coral of her brain as she clung to the side of the bed, and to an ancient body knowledge of how to give birth.

It seemed to Frieda that this birth was taking too long. Something in the flow of things had been arrested; the passage would not open, despite the doctor’s modern chemicals flowing into Angelique’s arm, up her vein, through her heart and down to her womb. She knew from her own son’s birth what was required. Of course, Sophia should be there, but that was impossible, impossible.

Frieda wiped her sister’s brow with a cloth and tried to keep her mouth closed. She liked the doctor enough. A confident man, a man who had brought all manner of good to the island. Why, he had saved her own daughter’s life when her appendix blew. No home remedy from Sophia could subdue that beast, only the knife would do, and so her Liesa carried the mark of the surgeon upon her belly: a neat straight scar where her body had sewn itself closed around the doctor’s stitches, a reminder forever that life can change in a moment. There were some things a woman knew better than a man, though, some things that the spirit world knew better than the human one, and some things better left to those who do not have to wrestle through the confounding drapes of love and ardour; the doctor was, after all, the patient’s husband. Frieda watched the doctor’s brow pinch and wished there was a way she could open him too: he was closed, as closed as the unfathomable language of his journals.

Her chance came an hour later, when the doctor and Veronica were called away to attend to Elijah Mobara, who had fallen badly on the rocks at the Point, and to little Phoebe, Graça Bagonata’s newborn, who had the croup. Frieda sat by her sister’s bed, torn by the roar of warring loyalties inside her.

Please!” gasped her sister as another spasm gripped her, lifting a face brimful of fear.

Frieda could sit and watch no longer. She went to the window and flung it wide open. The cupboard doors, too, she opened, and the taps till they gushed. She undid the ties that bound the curtains, her own shoelaces, and the ties of the hospital gown around her sister’s neck and back. It was up to the ancestors now, she thought; she had done what she could.

When Veronica returned a quarter of an hour later, she found winter right inside the room, a gale blowing in the patient’s hair, rain slanting in through the window. Like a whirlwind herself she stormed about, shutting out and cutting off water and wind, tying and closing, releasing from her mouth a torrent of horror directed at Frieda – “You people are a danger to yourselves, imagine exposing a woman in labour to the elements!” – while Angelique, gripped by the end-stage madness of her yawning womb, felt how her body had become an instrument, how the oboe of her body had opened, how her mouth moaned a long and perfect O sounding out of the foundation of her and somehow flowing in two directions, out through her open throat and through her dilated cervix simultaneously, a sound to move the heavens. There was no stopping her now.

The baby released her grip, pushed aside her mother’s swollen lips and slid out into her life. The doctor, her father, arrived in time to cut the cord, too late to be told of Frieda’s duplicity.

The doctor allowed himself a quick smoke and a whisky before delivering the afterbirth. He had been afraid it might come to a Caesarean section. He was a good surgeon, clean, efficient, working by the book, taking no undue risks, but he did not relish the thought of putting his hand into the very centre of his wife’s body. He was not a religious man, but somehow that would be going too far.

Of course, some would have said he took risks, delivering his own child so far from the help of obstetricians. They had considered going to the mainland for the birth, but it was a week by ship, and ships only visited the island four times a year, bringing provisions and luxuries. What if his wife had gone into labour on the high seas? Besides, if he was not prepared to deliver his own child on the island, what would the islanders think – that he was not a good enough doctor for theirs?

He went over to where Frieda was washing the baby, dousing the child in coos and smiles and warm water, and looked his daughter over, this sprung and fragile scrap that had something to do with his loins, with the nightly pleasure he took in his wife. Everything was present and correct, but he had to admit a moment of disappointment. He would have preferred a son; a daughter was too vulnerable to predatory men. He was a man who did not like to worry, and he could feel worry tighten in him already.

Well done, my darling,” he said, kissing his wife on the forehead. She smiled at him, happy he was pleased with her, happy the ordeal was over, that her wayward body had brought their daughter safely to the shore of the world.

© Dawn Garish 2007