The Last Islands in the World (Craig Cormick)
Captain Cook has had another dream. They were cruising northwards, with the engines at half-power, searching for the last island chain pulled up from the ocean by the Great Navigator – that mythical hero of the stories of the islanders, whose path they are following. In the dream Cook knew it was their last chance to find wealth and trade goods for the Company, yet they cruised further and further north without finding the islands, until the seas began to turn cold around them. A chill mist wrapped itself tightly about the ship, and then it began to snow. The ship’s electronic instruments were giving ghost readings and they had to proceed by listening to the plaintive wailing of sea lions, warning them of rocks nearby.
All around them were reefs and whirlpools, which seemed to move and shift. And then, when the fog and the darkness of the north had closed most tightly about them, when Cook was about to give the order to turn back southwards, they came upon a long chain of islands. They were bare wind-swept rocky places and Cook inscribed on his chart they were the last islands in the world.
They cruised past each one in turn, looking for signs of life, until they came to the very last island, a low twin-volcano-shaped rock.
Cook went ashore alone and found a missionary there, clad in a long black frock, standing on the dark beach, waiting for him. He bade the Captain to follow him so he could show him the island’s treasures. He led him into the only building on the island, a small church that seemed to be built from drift-wood. But once inside, Cook saw a long dim corridor, stretching off into darkness, with glassed in cubicles all down one side.
It was like some kind of a museum, he thought. He walked to the first cubicle and looked in. It was a small spartan bedroom. It had a bed and chest of drawers with some religious ornaments on it, and a single chair. He looked at the missionary, his guide, who just smiled at him and then stepped back to allow Cook to look into the next cubicle.
It was just as small. Cramped and simple. And he wondered if it were a room or a cell? This one was clearly a woman’s, he could see, from the lace cloths and hair brushes there. He turned to the missionary again and cocked an eyebrow. The missionary made no movement. Cook looked back and saw a reflection in the glass that looked like a face. Was it his own or the missionary’s? He looked at it closer and saw that it was neither. It was a woman’s face. A dark-skinned woman.
And the closer he stared at her, the more clearly he could make her out. She was middle-aged, with dark frizzy hair and a smile full of white teeth. And she looked straight at him. Cook stepped back a little in amazement.
‘That’s Eve,’ said the missionary. ‘She was one of the first.’
‘The first what?’ asked Cook.
But the missionary didn’t say. He stepped back, inviting Cook to look into the next room. There was another woman there – or the ghost image of a woman – if that’s what these were. She also had dark frizzy hair and a dark face. But she just glared at him. Angrily.
Cook didn’t know why the look in her eyes pained him so much, so he stepped away, walking down the entire corridor, glancing quickly into each room. Or cell. But most were empty, the furniture covered in dust. Some had empty bottles in them. Some had broken furniture. Others had native ornaments cast about on the floor like useless detritus.
‘Where are the people?’ Cook asked.
‘They come and go,’ the missionary said.
‘Where?’ Cook wanted to ask. There were so many things he wanted to ask. But when he turned to the missionary, he saw that he had become a dark-skinned native too, with elaborate tattoos about his face, still dressed in the missionary’s frock.
‘Who are you?’ Cook asked.
‘Do you not know me, Captain Cook?’ he replied.
‘No,’ said Cook. ‘We have never met.’ Then, ‘How do you know me?’
‘From the stories about you.’
‘They say that you sailed across the seas of the world, naming all the islands.’
‘Yes,’ says Cook.
‘Even when they had names already,’ the missionary said. ‘And you made people sick and destroyed their beliefs. You impregnated their women and shot the men who opposed you. Then you cast nets over the islands and dragged them up into the cold northern climes, far away from the warm oceans the people had once known. And here they had to live, removed from their gods and customs and their knowledge of the seas, even removed from the warmth of the sun.’
Cook wanted to deny it. Wanted to say that it wasn’t like that at all. He’d never killed people in that way. Never stolen land. He wanted his voyage to be remembered for more than the perpetual coupling with native women. He wanted to say that it was not the truth. But he could not, for he had worked for the Company long enough to know that the truth could be many things.
As could a dream.
He wakes with a start and sits up in the dark of his cabin. The dream is still close about him, and he thinks of going to his desk and writing it down. But then he decides not to. He closes his eyes and let’s it slip away from him. Better it be unwritten and unremembered. There will be others a plenty who will seek to write the meaning of his voyages, he thinks.