The Island

New Work

By Jeff Bursey

Though most went down with the ship, one man managed to swim through the heavy seas to a small island. It took some time for him to recover and accept a solitary life, to learn which fruits to eat and how to catch small birds and fish. A great deal of energy was spent in building a shelter out of grass and wood, and when this was completed he made himself familiar with the island, disappointed afresh when no signs of civilization could be seen. Initially, learning to survive kept him occupied with practical details, but as panic subsided and his abilities grew he began to dwell on his former life. He set up torches for passing ships or planes to see, signals which were never acknowledged. His anguish ebbed somewhat when he began to explore his new home with greater care and more scrupulous attention to the natural life around him.

Some time after he arrived on the island he felt the loneliness of a man for company other than the sky and the sea. He would wake in the middle of an intense night dream from a life no longer his gasping for breath or sobbing endlessly. In desolate moments he would find consolation of a kind in the physical pleasures of his own body. Generally in these times he would think of someone he had known and picture her in his hut; sometimes random thoughts of landscapes and colours would be in his mind. No matter who or what he thought of sadness followed, as the illusions were of little strength and no permanence.

One day he was in a far corner of the island, a place bare of trees and with only some grass, when a mood comprised of hunger and despair forced him to relieve himself of the pain, the first time he had done so anywhere except in his hut. As he did visions of a particularly luscious fruit appeared in his mind and he thought of its sickly sweet nectar as he came. Days later he was again in that part of the island when he noticed that something had changed, for in the spot where there had been nothing but scrub there now was a small tree bearing that same fruit. Confused and rubbing his eyes he approached it slowly, believing in its existence only after cautiously swallowing pieces of the unripe fruit. This did not tell him how he could have missed this patch or how it got there, and he was afraid to question too much in case the delightful apparition disappeared. Such was not the case when on a second occasion he discovered on another part of the island a vegetable which he had thought of with great hunger while easing himself of his sadness. It could not grow there any more than the fruit, and after one or two more episodes the man became convinced that if he wished for food while he sprayed his seed onto the ground it would in a few days be growing there.

Time went on and for a while the man, in amazement at the power of his loins and the fecund soil, almost forgot the loneliness and isolation until one night with a cool rain falling he was pierced by a vision of a woman beckoning to him and pulling him into her. For the next few days the man did not stray far from his hut and ignored the pain rather than attempt to assuage it. Each night he saw the same woman and it seemed to him that her voice was clearer every time, urging him to do something. Days passed before he left his hut to walk through the rain-soaked earth and escape from his thoughts, carrying a sack and some crude implements used to gather firewood. Towards afternoon the sky cleared and he breathed in the air atop a slight rise, a place with soft grass and many trees. He lay down on the warm earth and looking about focused on one tree which stood slightly apart from the others. Eventually he went over and examined its health and condition, for he had lost a weakly contested struggle over the idea of fashioning a woman. Slowly, deliberately, he stripped the tree of as many limbs as he could reach, leaving it with the two lowest limbs at shoulder level looking vaguely like arms. Then with his stone axe he made indentations in the tree trunk for eyes, nose and a crudely hammered shape of a mouth. When this was completed he discovered he was too frightened to proceed, but finally managed to spatter the tree trunk and the ground around it, keeping the image of the woman in his dreams uppermost in his mind. He walked away with a feeling unlike anything he had ever experienced, a mixture of elation, awe and revulsion.

It was a little while before he felt able to go back to the eastern side of the island to see what had occurred. Not far from the sight of the tree he could detect movement in its upper boughs, though the air was calm. Apprehensive, he edged closer, and when he saw the tree from a slight distance he refused to go any further, for the thrashing of the boughs was like a thrashing of limbs, convulsive and uncontrolled. It stood there with the beaten face of a human, serene up to where the branches began, insane in all the rest. The man watched horrified as waves of pain and hatred from the silent face struck him. He fled, imagining he could hear its commotion even as he sat in a corner of his hut shivering and weeping. It was some time before he went to set fire to the tree, coming up on it from the rear so as to avoid its face while he lit branches and watched them slowly burn, for rain had dampened the wood. As the flames touched each branch there would be a terrific flurry of motion but in the end no movement at all. When the rains came that night there was nothing left of the tree but black boughs and a pitted, scarred and split trunk.

Many days passed before the man returned to his previous state, eating very little in that time and sleeping fitfully, continually hearing the stirring of leaves during the day and seeing a masked woman consumed by fire at night. He wanted to stay in the hut forever, and the rains provided an additional reason for not leaving the shelter, yet as the memories and dreams weakened, and the sun and sky gradually appeared more friendly, he found confinement unbearable so resumed his walks. He went to the tree once more and discovered it produced a faint, distant echo in him, for the face was not a real face, the tree not now a living thing. After a long period of abstinence he began to masturbate again, once more calling to mind familiar things. One day he noticed fallen trees on the beach, uprooted by the last storm, which the ocean had not yet claimed for its own. He would have dragged one back to his hut for firewood and materials but it was too heavy. On the next day he came back with proper tools, chopped off its ends, and was cutting it in sections when he felt feverish. Sweat trickled off him as much a result of the exertion as from what he had been thinking. There was a long moment of consideration, then he painstakingly shaped a woman out of part of the trunk, making it his size, boring holes this time for eyes, nose, mouth and ears, crafting the suggestion of breasts, making arms from the few stumps left on the bleached gray wood. He then split the wood partway down in such a way as to form legs, and in the fissure thus created hollowed out a vagina, which he climaxed into, as well as spraying the ground around the tree with a second ejaculation. After making a few more holes and indentations he hurried home to wait.

Perhaps the final storm of this season suddenly burst after dark, thunder and lightning persistent throughout the night, rain and wind lasting for three days. The hut collapsed under the fury of the elements and the man worked at repairing its roof and supports. When the storm abated he hurried to the beach, and at the shore slowed down, his eyes scanning the land, his ears alert for familiar sounds. Finally, at the sea’s edge, he recognized a shape. As he got closer he saw it was a woman lying on her side, her skin darker than he expected, a darkness which dissipated as he reached her, for the flies that had made her their home were upset by the man’s arrival, though when he turned her over they quickly settled again. He brushed them away and held what remained of the woman who had been drowned by the ocean tides, whose cries, he thought, might have mingled with the thunder. Tears covered his face as he mourned the loss of a life he had created, yet even as he cried his eyes were caught by another piece of wood, and he envisioned a young girl.


  1. laurel
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    really fascinating writing. a little funny. a little creepy. good read for sure.

  2. Chris WunderLee
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    A vivid, well-imagined piece with an eerie, almost Brechtian resonance. A clever treatment of an archetypical theme only few could reimagine into an enthralling, amatory anecdote. Jeff Bursey’s “Verbatim” was one of the most inspired works of fiction to premiere in 2010 and this story indicates his equal mastery of the short form.

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Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of Verbatim: A Novel. His book reviews and articles have appeared in Books in Canada, Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, The Powys Journal, Rain Taxi, and many other publications.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty

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