There was a time when we were peacefully going about our lives in this paradise-on-earth, the one we had thought of as a well-kept secret. Until the day “He” showed up. How to describe this paradise, even attempt to describe it, is simply beyond me. If I were to speak of this tiny island’s pine forests, its cerulean sea as clear as nature’s own aquarium, its alluring coves with their brightly colored fish that mesmerized us as we watched them, and its seagulls that always flew around us like white ghosts—this might be a scene that would amount to no more than a tourist postcard.
Far from any continent, it was a world unto itself, its night air releasing the delicate sweet scent of jasmine, cloaked in the same mild climate regardless of the season, it existed entirely independently with its forty houses nestled among the trees.
It was as if some sacred secret were hidden in the tranquil nature of the island. How could one begin to describe the morning’s milky white mist above the sea, the early evening’s light breeze licking your face, the whispering of the wind amid the cries of the seagulls, the scent of lavender? Or the spell cast each morning by the misty twin-island that would appear before us as though suspended from the sky while we were still rubbing the sleep from our eyes? Or the seagulls, diving in and out of the sea in their hunt for prey? Or the violet bougainvilleas that entwined our houses?
The fact is, it no longer even occurred to us how beautiful this life was. We’d grown so used to it that we were just going about our lives as usual, really. You don’t think of the sea as being beautiful; nor do you think of a seagull alighting on a rock cliff in front of your house as being beautiful, when it’s something you see every day. Nor of the way the branches of the trees meet and intertwine into a canopy as you walk along the dirt path running through a copse, nor of the quiet conversations amid the gardens, where the morning glories bloom like a sudden miracle, nor of the whispers of love that waft, almost inaudibly, from a house here and there. A person simply experiences them. But being neither a professional writer nor a good one, I’ve chosen to tell you about everything by means of a series of descriptions. In truth, it is my friend, the Writer, who should be telling you this story. But sadly for us all, his fate has made this impossible. He was my closest friend on the island for years, and who knows what clever metaphors he could have worked into the text in telling you the story. So it’s unfortunate that you have no choice but to learn of the horrifying events that befell the island and my friend from me. Bear with me, the common writer that I am, ignorant of all forms of modern novels and elaborate techniques of exposition.
The fact of the matter is, back then we didn’t want any of this to get out. We would keep our island a jealously guarded secret, given that in our increasingly insane world, it hardly would have suited our interests for others to find out that a place like this even existed. We were the forty resident families of the island who somehow had been fortunate enough for it to have entered our lives.
We were living in peace, without anyone interfering in anyone else’s business.
Having previously suffered considerable disappointment and deep sorrow, I deeply felt that the new friends that all of us had made on the island were precious beyond words, and I loved them genuinely. So much so that I nicknamed this place “Isle of Angels.” Yes, we really were living on an isle of angels now. The only thing we wished for was to continue leading this life of peace.
As we had no television reception, the newspapers brought in by the weekly ferry were the only way we had of finding out about what was going on in the world. With eyes half-closed as we were about to doze off on the heels of a lunch taken with wine, we read the news on this untroubled little planet of ours, seeing reports that the insanity on that other planet was on the rise. But I must admit this news may as well have been about the space wars, for all we were concerned. It was all so remote to us.
We were mistaken, however, as we found out in the end. Far from being a separate planet, what we were was an island in the very belly of the insanity—a reality we failed to see even as the President settled on our island after having reluctantly concluded his term as the nation’s head of state.
I should fill you in on some of this island’s history. Years ago, when it was deserted, the island was bought by a wealthy businessman. In his old age, he built a magnificent country house, where he settled in with a staff of servants. He lived out the last years of his life far removed from the struggles of the world, spending his time fishing and napping in his hammock in the afternoons.
To relieve his boredom, he invited a few acquaintances to his home and encouraged them to build homes of their own. They came and built houses that were smaller than his, so he didn’t ask them for any payment for the land. The houses were built of natural materials by the islanders, making use of the island’s forests for the log cabin–style houses, so that only a bare minimum of construction materials needed to be shipped in from elsewhere. In time, as word spread among friends and acquaintances, the number of houses on the island reached forty. It was then that the wealthy man put a stop to further arrivals and to the construction of any more houses, to prevent any spoilage of the island’s natural beauty, its serenity and its forests that shimmered with a thousand and one shades of green.
When this man passed away, he willed the house to his oldest son. Being something of an idler, the son preferred to spend his life on the island in leisure rather than assuming the more complex job of governing the island. In time, he came to forget, as did the other island residents, that the island actually belonged to his family, whom the islanders regarded as no different from anyone else—they just lived in a larger house.
We called him Number 1. It wasn’t because he was the leader, or was particularly distinguished, or even that he had descended from the island’s original owner, but because of an odd tradition around here: We tend to address folks by the number of their house.
My family’s number is 36. My father found his way to this island rather late in the ownership sequence of the forty houses. Through invitations from some acquaintances, he managed to seize the opportunity, despite a history of prior personal disappointments, to grab the fourth-from-last house. As for my friend the Writer, though neither he nor his family owned a house here, he had a close friend who was a fan of his books and who let him use his house at a time when the Writer had been looking for a quiet place to write. He was Number 7. His was one of the first houses on the island, at the head of a dirt path that lined a shady tunnel woven by majestic trees.
The row of houses starts at the tip of the island where a ramshackle pier stands. A weekly ferry approaches it, but it’s never able to touch the pier because that ferry is so enormous it has to be anchored offshore while small boats carry supplies to the island. From there, the houses are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on, in lockstep progression until they reach 40. Next to the pier there’s a small grocery that meets all our needs, and a simple garden café run by the same man, which offers seafood and fresh fish on a daily basis. We simply call this old veteran “the grocer.” This is because he has no number. He lives with his wife and their son, a young man, in the two-room annex behind the shop. He had arrived and settled on the island with his family years ago, and is now an inseparable part of it.
So I’m hoping at this point that I’ve provided the necessary information about the island before I start telling you the story. I hope I haven’t left anything out! Rest assured, I would have liked to have given you an account of all this in a manner full of literary flair—more like a pro, that is. Yet, being an ordinary storyteller, I can’t help telling the story in simple terms. All these hours at my notebook, I continually admonish myself: Do as modern writers do and try to create a work where what matters isn’t content, but style. Be bold!
But those things don’t really matter that much to me, when all is said and done. My aim is not to prove what a literary pro I am. It’s to tell you this story. Granted, I’m very tempted to use one of those complicated styles, interrupting the flow of things. However, I promise that from now on, I’m going to tell you what I want to tell you right off the bat, and I promise not to bore you.
There’s a certain other party I should mention in order to round out the details of daily life on the island. The most important neighbors settled here thousands of years before we came, and they are the ones to whom this island truly belongs—the seagulls. Because, you see, it would be impossible to describe the island unless they’re included in the story. The same seagulls who savagely shriek as they swoop in and out of the sea, triumphantly bringing ashore the fish they’ve caught from just below the water’s surface. The same seagulls, we’ve come to realize, who have their own unique language of sounds and frequencies. Those very seagulls who traipse on the stone terraces of our houses some nights, making noises similar to human footsteps.
We had become so intimate with their white shadows that we could almost understand the language they spoke among themselves. We were able to distinguish when they grew angry from the warnings they would exchange among one another, and to discern their cries of lovemaking from those they reserved for scolding their young.
The wisest thing the island’s first human inhabitants did was to refrain from frightening or threatening the lives of the seagulls, the primary residents of the island. The seagulls, at that time, probably looked suspiciously upon these strange intruders, subjecting them to a type of test that would last for years—a test that could determine whether they would do harm to their children. A state of harmony was established at last between the humans and the seagulls, between these wild birds and these hermitic people who were seeking refuge from a previous life, agreeing to mutual non- interference by means of a silent pact.
This agreement came to a permanent end one day with the sale of a house. Prior to that sale, none of the houses on the island had ever been sold, be- cause their owners preferred to live in them themselves, or perhaps let their friends use them. But one day, our elderly uncle—that was how we thought of him, though we were unrelated—at Number 24 had a heart attack. The island’s much-loved doctor, residing at Number 18, had always cured us of our aches and pains, and never stinted on his endless and noble volunteer spirit. Even so, the doctor was unable to save the old man, whose idler of a son then put the house up for sale.
It was ultimately through the real estate sales ads in the newspapers that we got wind of these events, and not from this good-for-nothing son—who lived in the capital and didn’t even show up to bury his father in his grave. But as a result, this event caused one of the biggest waves of excitement on the island, with everyone giving a piece of his mind to this loafer who had put his father’s house up for sale merely to have a little more fun in the capital’s discotheques, thereby sullying his father’s good name. Number 24 had been one of the most admired people on our island. Those of us of the second generation who were in our thirties and forties had shown this man the utmost respect. He had been known throughout his working years as one of the country’s most respected and renowned attorneys, having subsequently settled on the island upon invitation by the island’s owner, who was also an acquaintance.
Lara and I were among the later arrivals to the island. I ache as I remember her. I’ll be telling you about Lara a little later.
During my first days on the island, when I was still figuring out who was who, people would speak with great respect of Number 24, otherwise known as the attorney. They told me that I would be highly impressed by him when I met him. I enthusiastically looked forward to this occasion, but hesitated to disturb him—not wanting to upset the placid life he led. As a result, it wasn’t until about a month after arriving on the island that I was able to meet this modest and rather reclusive man—and in the quirkiest of ways, at that.
I had been swimming in the sea with my friend the Writer, whom I’d met during my first days on the island. We were just about to head back to shore when my friend called out to the attorney and told him I was the friend he’d wanted to introduce. The two of us began to swim toward the attorney, who, in turn, had begun to swim toward us. Still swimming toward each other, right there in the sea and in that most ridiculous of circumstances, we proceeded to utter polite words of introduction that would only have made sense if we were fully dressed and ashore: “So pleased to meet you, sir! I’ve so been looking forward to meeting you, as luck would have it! What an honor!” The attorney, you see, being of the older generation, was speaking in an extremely polite vein and in that deep voice of his, which so stirred our sense of respect. I, in turn, was doing my best not to be outdone.
But then, just as we came face-to-face, a bit of comic mishap occurred. We found ourselves among a swarm of vegetables tossed into the sea from some ship or other—no way of knowing! A cucumber peel attached itself to my mouth. As I was swiping it away with my hand, I was trying both not to swallow any water and to reply to the gentleman in a suitably graceful manner. A smashed tomato had also found its way to the attorney’s forehead, where it stuck. And so it was that we experienced this painstakingly polite and formal introduction ceremony, attempting to stay afloat in the sea while we peeled vegetables from our faces and mouths.