Now I’m going to show those damn dogs the island is real, Nicanor said with a grin and a growl and a puff of the chest worthy of a wolf that blows down houses, and with that statement to the air, for no one else was around to hear, he pushed his russet dinghy off the moonlit shore and began to sail for the ghostly islet he had first seen many months ago, an islet that only appeared on a full moon and when the moon was as close to the Earth as possible, dragging the little chunk of sandy rock out of the depths and up to the surface by its exceptional pull in that region, at least so Nicanor surmised, as he had never observed the islet during the day or on moonless nights, it was all just dark foam-crested waves, and no one else in St. Francis knew of such an islet or appeared to believe Nicanor had actually seen it, and what was more marvelous still about this moon-tugged mass was that it was not merely an islet but a short hump of land topped with palms and a pirate’s chest of treasures and on the sandy edge of which he had seen three half-fish half-women bathing in the blue glow. The boat shuddered and creaked over the waves, Nicanor had heard on his radio that a tropical depression was heading their way that night and he looked at the camera in his lap as some water splashed over the edge with a hiss, he wrapped it more tightly in his big white shirt that had a faded image of Knuckles the Echidna on the front and looked out to the horizon.
He had first come across the ephemeral islet almost a year ago when he was out walking by the docks on a lonely April night and saw something far out in the sea that he knew was not usually there because he had been all over the waters around St. Francis in his boat and seen no such thing, and at that time the tangerine streetlamp by the pier had gone out but he could still see the planks of wood and water perfectly because the moon was bigger and more resplendent than he had ever known it, he left after a few minutes, scratching his head, and then the next day Nicanor went to the decaying public library in town where he had not been in years and examined atlases both colonial and current to see if he could find any such thing in the Caribbean Sea, Hmm, nothing like that there. He asked the librarian if she knew about any unknown islets and she simply frowned and told him not to steal anything or she would call the security guard, later he asked his mother if she knew of such an islet but his mother who was a large woman with the sour face of a hound simply glared from her gray rocking chair with its knotted arms and shook her head and said she would pray he was not losing his mind from all those years of not going to church and roaming about at night like a criminal, and when he asked his girlfriend she told him to show it to her himself. But when he brought her to the same spot by the docks that night, their flashlights cutting through the air and her hand clutching his with a tightness that made Nicanor feel virile, there was no islet to be seen, nothing but dark sea, all the darker because the streetlamp was still out, What nonsense you brought me out here for, she said after five minutes, flattening the creases in her shirt and looking around to see if anyone was watching, Just wait, he said, it will come, maybe we in the wrong spot, erm, no no, this was it, just wait and you will see, but no islet appeared at least not until many nights later when Nicanor was returning home in his boat later than usual and found himself suddenly in a region of sea where the water was still and clear as Alice’s mirror and the moon was vast above him and then there it was, the little islet, mermaids with the faces of nymphets and Medusa curls and coils of hair, lounging on the beach, the palms taller than any hotel or the steeple of any church he had seen, the waters around the islet flanked by the fins of sharks and the air cool and the hairs on his arm sticking up, he was so shocked that he simply stared, not sure if he should approach the islet, and then something bumped his boat and he shook his head and grinned. Ha, I go show those pieces of crap that I never tell a lie as soon as I get back to shore.
But when he got back to the docks and tried to hail people by Ma Sosostris’s rum shop and on the crumbling front steps of houses everyone told him to leave them alone, what drugs was he on, these poor young men letting their brains go to waste, what a good pious mother Nicanor had, too, still a few people believed him perhaps because there had been rumors in the paper of Venezuela trying to buy up little islets in the region for oil schemes and espionage and already there was a bust of Simon Bolivar on the round-about in the capital city that read El Libertador but when the people looked out from the pier and saw nothing but black sea they cursed Nicanor and called him a vagrant with too much time on his hands. Why you don’t even have a photo as proof, one plump woman with a flat-ironed bob of hair and a kinder face asked Nicanor as he fumed under the orange streetlamp. I don’t own a camera, he replied, Well, then, the lady said, I dunno what to tell you, boy, but is not good to chase after ghosts.
This happened the next time he saw the islet, too, only this time he made sure he could see it from the dock before rousing anyone and indeed there it was, a chartreuse clump with silhouettes of towering palms against the horizon, yes, that was it, he was so excited he skipped and shouted to come see come see and this time more people by the docks and shops came to see what the commotion was about because not everyone realized it was Nicanor talking about that illusory isle and indeed some people simply came because they thought it was the second coming of Christ or perhaps Hugo Chavez had died and returned from the grave as yet another semi-incarnation of Simon Bolivar to set foot upon the island but when Nicanor turned back to the sea from the crowd and pointed out the islet from the edge of the pier his eyes widened, shit, there was nothing, nothing but a dark sea, for the moon had become covered by clouds and if there was anything out there it was just a distant boat, What de mother ass, and when the people saw this apparent deception a few of them beat Nicanor up right then and there to a pulp, kicked him and cursed him and stoned him when he escaped and ran off, and even the stray dogs with three legs barked and chased him as he sped by. Jesus, why do you keep telling people such foolishness, look what happened to you, his girlfriend said the next day as she treated his bruises, she was an outcast herself, a bony brown girl with slim glasses and fuzzy braids to her chin, and although she had never had a boyfriend before and did not know if she would find another she was mortified when people asked her if her man was insane or stupid, and so that night she told him she could not take any more talk of disappearing islets. It’s me or the island, she said.
Nicanor began to wonder what was the point if no one else could see the elusive islet, maybe belief and insanity are best left behind shadowed doors, he had thought of taking her with him in the dinghy under the pretense of swimming over the reef under the moonlight but he did not know what the consequences would be if there really was no islet there, she would probably push him overboard at the first sight of a fin, no, she wouldn’t, but, well, hmm. And he had a sinking feeling in his chest there really would be nothing there if he took along someone who already thought he was deluded or up to no good. And so he left the islet alone for months, mentioned it to no one, stopped going out to look for it. But the eldritch lump of moon-tugged rock had taken root in his dreams, and in many of those dreams he was a grinning explorer in a white suit with a flag in hand, ready to plunk the flag down into the top of the islet next to the chest of treasures, one leg higher than the other and his free hand waving to the crowds all around him in the water and in dinghies and in vast cruise ships garlanded with hibiscus and in one of the ships he saw his girlfriend with hands clasped like a saint and the mermaids beaming from the water by the shore and on a cruise ship deck he saw his mother in her chair with a half-smile on her sour face seated beside crowds of sunburned white people who stared in silent awe and a historian from the University of the West Indies was praising his discovery of legendary treasure associated with the Caribs and Nicanor was almost blinded by the flash of cameras and deafened by the crackle of reporters’ microphones and there was even the buzz of a helicopter overhead waiting to hear his tale and somehow he knew the islet would not sink as long as everyone had their eyes on him standing there. Many days he woke up with a smile or feverish sweat or in the middle of orating on the virtues of exploration and then he felt the glory whoosh out of him like air from a bellows, curse it all, Not like I could bring people to see it really, after what happen last time, but still. These dreams continued night after night until one evening he said aloud for no one to hear Shit, no more, I saw it with my own damn eyes, he would prove to himself and his girlfriend and his disappointed mother and the rest of the people near and far the islet was real. A photo, he suddenly remembered a lady had asked for by the dock, or better, a film, he could regain his reputation by catching it on film as he knew a digital camera could do. And so he asked his girlfriend to loan him her brother’s digital camera so he could take photos of her against the sea, Really, me, why, and he said, Because I keep dreaming of you and cameras flashing, and she blushed and smiled and went with him to the beach where a hurricane had many years ago strewn large craggy rocks along the shore, flash flash went the camera, his girlfriend leaning against the rocks in just a baggy white shirt, braids loose, then tied into a tight bun, and then she lay against the sand like a mermaid, and after it was done they went back to his home and made love, and afterwards he asked if he could hold onto the camera for a bit, As long as you like, lover, she had heard that in a foreign film once, he kissed her on the nose, and that night was when he went off into the dinghy by himself without telling anyone.
He knew he had come to the place where the islet was because the water suddenly became still and looking-glassy and the sky so near and clear that you could see Percival Lowell’s Martian canals and the rings of Saturn if you squinted, though Nicanor was not sure which planet was which and at any rate the real impressive thing was the moon, vast and white and pockmarked, a beautiful terrible goddess. Nicanor blinked and the moon seemed closer than ever and in an instant the stillness of the water was dispelled, the glass surface a shimmering mess, and out of the sea’s soft churn came leaping shrimps and milky white squids and the fins of hammerhead sharks and soon things from the bottom, first clouds of sand like great brown jellyfish then flecks of coral and stone then plastic bags and lost goggles and weights from the belts of divers and then finally the earth deep beneath the dinghy began to grind as though it were having a stressful dream and the waves became so rough that Nicanor was ready to sail back or even just leap out and swim, to hell with his quest for glory, waves higher and higher and Nicanor rolling about in his boat like a tumbleweed but after a long moment the sea calmed and there it was, the islet you could walk around in three minutes, a little hill of sand topped with grass and palms dripping with water, the three mermaids with their pale skin and gray fishtails lying on the beach, and at the top between the palms and the grass an open chest of jewels.
He gripped the crucifix around his neck for a moment then fumbled with the camera. As he tried to turn it on he dropped it in the boat. Damn it, I can’t come all the way here for nothing. He felt about in the damp wood for the device, hoping it had not fallen into one of the shimmering blue puddles of sea and then he saw it, Yes, praise the Lord, but a darkness came over the dinghy and blackened the puddles and when he looked back at the islet, camera once again in hand, he saw that it had vanished, nothing but a faintly blue sea choppy sea starred with phosphorescence, he blinked, waited near a whole minute, glanced at the moon but it was hidden by a gray mist of clouds, he blinked again and stared but there was nothing but sea and a bit of mist and foam and phosphorescence, and in his sudden fury he stood up and stamped his feet in the boat, stamped up and down like a child throwing a tantrum, and then the boat rocked so much that he fell to the floor and rolled and when he got to his feet the mist had parted and the clouds had left the moon and the islet had returned. He stared, rubbing his eyes, almost said Hallelujah and then he raised the camera again to snatch his photo before it was lost again, no click, what, he stared and it was then he realized there was no camera in his hands at all, What in the bloody ass of Christ, he searched his hands and then the boat and then his pockets and even inside his pants feeling about by his genitals but there was no camera there, none anywhere, and he let out a string of rum-shop curses at the sky and was about to throw a tantrum in the boat again maybe even throw himself to the sharks and eels when he saw something glinting out of the corner of his eye. He blinked. Ah, yes, it was the gold and jewels in the chest amongst the palms.
Then he knew the only way to prove he was not mad was to bring the chest of treasures back with him, well, some of the jewels, at least, it might not convince them of the islet itself but it would get them interested in his words for once and more than his words at that hehe but what to do about those women on the shore, those sublunary sirens, he eased the boat closer to the islet, his paddle passing through the glass water with a faint hiss and passing by the fin of a hammerhead, and then he was at the islet, just to the side of the mermaid on the left. He swallowed, staring at her, what a beautiful and hideous creature, and in a moment he saw himself exploring her body, trying to solve the ancient riddle of whether or not the women of the sea could mate with human males, and if she hugged him close and dove down to the Manueline cities of the reefs, he would not resist. But he shook his head and after another moment of hesitation leapt onto the islet and clambered up towards the treasure chest, the mermaids showing no sign of even having seen him, his tattered brown boots slipping on the sand and sending it into the water, and then he was by the grasses and he grabbed hold of them, by so doing he made it up to the chest in the shade of the palm trees, and how his eyes opened then, more gold and sapphire and ruby and topaz and jewels he did not know the names for than he could imagine, and right in the center of them was a grinning skull, man or woman he could not tell, its left eye stuffed with moonstone, no doubt some long-dead pirate, he thought, and then he thought of taking the whole chest back with him, but the chest was so wide and heavy that it seemed anchored to the rock, and when he stepped back, clutching his spine in pain, he glanced at the mermaids and saw one with her face turned towards him, head turned a full 180 degrees, and yet even this did not frighten him too much because of the young-girl sweetness of her eyes, he swallowed, then took out a coin, pinched it, rolled it about in his hands, and then bit it as he had seen someone do in a movie once, with that his eyes became belladonna-big and he remembered his dream and took off his Knuckles the Echidna shirt and wrapped it between two of the palm trees like a poor colonizer’s flag. Afterwards he took out another coin and another and now handfuls, as much as he could fit in his pockets, he considered again taking the chest and even of simply taking it for himself, to hell with proving the islet, but no, it was still too heavy, and one of his coins dropped off the side as he bent down to try to life it, the mermaid hissed and now the other two were staring at him, and it was then he saw they had the jagged teeth of deep-sea hunters, he turned and went down to the edge and then leapt into his dinghy and began to paddle but as he did so he heard splashes behind him and he did not need to turn to know the beings of the islet were following him, yet it must have been something greater because he heard a great grinding as if the plates of the Earth were rubbing together beneath him, as though a sunken ocean liner was being tugged along the bottom, he paddled paddled paddled fast as he could go, Shit damn it help, and then the moon was in darkness again and the splashing and grinding ceased, how glad for once was he for darkness. When he got back to shore, he was exhausted and instead of proving anything to anyone that night he went straight to bed, maybe he would prove it to them tomorrow, and if they then wanted to see the islet he could show them the shirt he had left as a flag. Ha, he thought as he lay his cheek against his yellowing pillow, They go see.
He awoke the next morning to a marketplace commotion outside his shack. The first thing he did was feel around for the gold he had taken from the chest and put in an IGA shopping bag but there was nothing there, nothing but coral and sea-sucked glass, and when he ran outside heart pounding like a bouyon track he saw a crowd of vendors and policemen and schoolchildren and people in work clothes around the docks pointing and chattering and taking pictures on their phones and indeed even the prime minister’s black car with its impenetrable windows was parked by some buses at the end of the road, and the reason for all this commotion was that the islet had followed Nicanor to the quay, leaving a vast trail of silt and garbage and the carcasses of hammerheads and stingrays and dolphins in its wake and it had torn up the pier and all the yachts and dinghies around it. Nicanor leapt up and down to see more and asked people to let him pass but no one took him on, eventually he had to push between people and when he got close enough he saw the islet for the first time under the light of a glaring sun and he also smelled its overpowering stench of rotting shellfish and when he had pushed to the front of the crowd he had to hold his shirt over his nose from the smell and saw the mermaids had been reduced to the skeletons of half-fish half-women hybrids whose mouths were frozen in silent Munchian screams that seemed to contain centuries and the palms that towered over the steeple of the gray church were filled with guano and the treasure chest had vanished altogether. He blinked. And then he saw a tattered shirt hanging between the trees, a faded image of Knuckles the Echidna grinning for all the crowd to see, though the echidna’s violet eyes had been obscured by guano. Nicanor suddenly remembered where he was and heard the commotion all around him and started to shout, then stopped himself. After a moment, he pushed back through the crowd and started walking away from the docks. As he walked, he chuckled and shook his head and said under his breath, You see, I told all you it had something out there.
Jonathan Bellot holds an MFA in fiction from Florida State University, where he is currently also pursuing his PhD in creative writing. His work has appeared in the New Humanism, Transnational Literature, BIM: Arts for the Twenty-First Century, Belletrist Coterie, St. Somewhere, Domnitjen Magazine, and Black Lantern Publishing, and on the blog of the Missouri Review.