“The Birth and Death of Islands” by Octavia Cade

“The Birth and Death of Islands” by Octavia Cade

Islands grow on her like tumors: bulbous, bulging, swelling in armpits and groin like buboes. She remembers them sometimes: the victims of Black Death, the way it swept over continents and across oceans, the way it took all the heartbeats of the world but hers.

* * *

There’s death all around and her body tastes of the ocean. She’s crusted over, not just with the dried-out sores but the fever sweat has dried in laminae, in little lacy scales. Coated in salt, and the taste of it is bitter on her tongue.

You’re licking at your own flesh like a madwoman, she thinks, lapping like a cat, like a dog, but though her flesh is salty she can sense the savory underneath, the way her flesh, whittled down by sickness, still blooms beneath the skin of her. She’s curing like pork in the sun, and there are wooden splinters in her fingers too deep to be pulled out.

There’s nothing to eat, it all molded while she lay not-quite-dying, while the rest of the village sank and stank, burnt and corrupted around her. She walks on bones and the memories of health, down dirt paths and cobbled roads littered with the debris of flesh—the birds fallen down from their perches, calves bloated in their fields, the duck pond scummed over with the disintegration of eggs. Even the insects are absent.

Some of the houses are nailed shut, boards over their doors and the windows barred from the outside. Several have burned to the ground, and with the roof fallen in she can’t see if there are remains underneath, charred bones and boiled fat. She thinks there must be, because clearly this is punishment and her palms hold the memory of hammers.

The Black Death could not be so clean in its killing without cause.

* * *

“I used to have a name,” she says, to the first island she sent away. “I don’t remember what it was.” There is no use for it anymore anyway; nothing alive to differentiate herself from, nothing that would require her to label herself.

“I can’t remember any of the names,” she says. There had been names, once, that she’d used more than her own. People she’d lived with and seen every day. So many names, a black coagulated mass of them and there is no mental strand she can pull on to make one of them come loose.

“If you find a name, bring it back to me,” she says to the island, cupping it in her hands before sending it off to search, her flesh a floatation in salt.

No names come back. The island sinks, loaded down with grief and too dense for sea water.

Fish eat it. They die too, overcome, their scales no protection from poison. They are eaten in turn by crabs, by crustaceans, by all the crawling things that lurch along the ocean bottom.

Within a century the entire ecosystem is gone.

* * *

She gives herself a name anyway. The Island Maker, because her body keeps producing them and no matter how many times she pushes the rising tumors back into flesh they keep erupting until she’s knobbled with them, and like to burst.

The name is less a designation than a statement of purpose—or of potential, for since the time she separated off that fragment of island self and saw the effects of poison and sinking, the Island Maker has kept herself intact, kept the Black Death caged inside of her.

She can’t think of any more damage to cause but she’d thought that last time, and look what happened. Her fault, all of it.

It is the silence that changes her mind. The slap of waves, the rise and fall of water. The emptiness of the world flays her so raw she even hears the whisper-roar of currents.

The second island is too light to float. It balloons up from the surface, the Island Maker having neglected to burden it with expectation. Without that to anchor it the tumor swells and soars until the she loses sight of it, her eyes streaming against the sun. The Island Maker thinks it erupted from bladder, that island, but when she gouged out that chunk of infection, edged her fingers round each new bubo and sank them into flesh until the whole round mass was in her palms and ready for removal, it had been solid all through.

* * *

The islands pop out like little lamb testicles.

The Island Maker remembers lambs. Remembers butchery and baking, long hours turning the spit over the fire. Remembers little woolly faces, and the way their tails wiggled when they ate, before the shepherd cut them away with their balls.

“I would like a lamb,” she says, lonely for company, and when her left palm begins to erupt with a new tumor, she prods the developing thing, pinching off bits and letting it bulge until, when she levers it out, the tumor has the shape of a little black lamb. It rots before nightfall, before the Island Maker even has the chance to feed and pet and put it on a spit.

She used to be good at killing lambs, before the Black Death came. Quick and gentle, they hardly suffered a bit.

Her fingers throb in remembrance, the bloody splinters aching. Sometimes you had to kill to live, and when the Island Maker floats on the barren waves of the world that is left to her, she dreams of rosemary and smoke, the quick hard fall of hammers, the shape of the haft in her hands.

* * *

Every lamb or lamb-equivalent she makes dies; the Island Maker is a poor shepherd. The little islands become waterlogged, salt spoils their wool, and they sink in sad fluffy clouds and drowning bleats. The Island Maker is bloated with guilt, for the flaw lies in her own flesh, innate, and nothing she makes could ever be free of it.

Guilt is her strongest memory from the time before the Black Death. She shapes her tumors into buildings instead, gouges them out of flesh and stretches them out like sweet dough, builds bells and steeples and spaces for the contemplation of fault. The buildings settle well, harden into uncompromising shapes and though it gives her some pleasure to see them, her splinters catch on walls and she feels unwelcome inside.

But the buildings open a place of stability for flesh, for when the Island Maker is sick of talking to stones and stained glass she tries for life again, and this time she learns to keep the tumors alive. She starts small, with bits of plankton and then krill, restoring the oceans from the ground up, as well as she remembers them which isn’t perfectly, for all she’d lived on the coast and seen the fishermen and what they brought.

Much of what she doesn’t remember she fills in with what she’d like to remember instead. Fish that illuminate at sunset and fill the ocean with lamps. Winged crabs and mermaids. Kelp with air sacs full of incense; frogs that croak iridescent bubbles which smell of wood smoke. Great, violet-furred bears that swim to the poles and bring her back chunks of ice. Salt-apples and selkies and sea lions with tails. Humans to fill up the churches and sing to her of sin and death; whales to fill up the oceans and sing to cover up church bells and choirs.

It is a prettier world than before, more colorful, but all of that prettiness is to cover the corruption she can’t keep out, because creation is nothing without it.

No one as diseased as she is could ever create anything that didn’t stink of flaws and sin.

The corruption makes all of her creations diseased too, and mortal. The Island Maker sees it in her whales and walruses, sees it inch over the wet amphibian skin of the frogs, and when the youngest mermaid comes to her with buboes on her tail and a wish for bipedalism, the Island Maker is aware of where corruption will take her.

“I wish to be mortal,” says the stupid child. “With legs.”

“I could make you into an octopus and you still wouldn’t be able to outrun the Black Death,” says the Island Maker.

“It’s not your tail that’s rotting,” says the mermaid, plunging her fist into her own too-soft flesh. The water around blooms with bits of blood, but the mermaid is unconcerned. “Even the sharks don’t want a piece of this,” she says, of the jewel-eyed carnivores the Island Maker has made from gallstones and the black bulges on her sweetbreads. “I’ll take any other shape you can give me, and please don’t bother with any bullshit about sea foam. I’m all over scum as it is.”

“Your nature is corrupt,” says the Island Maker. “Fucking some human thing won’t scour you out and clean. You’ll just be infected all over again, with who knows what new filth this time.” She isn’t foolish enough to believe that the Black Death is the only disease come again; her flesh has kept the memory of fever. That is what it is to be spoiled, imperfect—a continual mar on future creation. And perhaps the fault is hers, to have split herself so often, but it is so hard to be alone and the buboes keep coming, keep rising out of wet flesh and the sensation revolts her even now, having to pop them out all black with blood, congealing.

If she doesn’t pluck them out and set them sailing she’d be continental right now, wedged in oceanic trench and vomiting up putrefaction like a salt-water volcano.

“Are you going to rip my tail in two?” says the mermaid, and the Island Maker has to remind herself that the child is innocent of skeletons.

“You can’t walk on two pieces of rotting fish,” she says. “I’ll have to grow you an island instead.”

* * *

There was a root once that looked like a child. Mince it with wine and you saw the future, or at least went out of yourself enough to put on a show about it.

Close enough to witchcraft, my girl, she heard, but it wasn’t like they hadn’t all been burned anyway, with the doors nailed shut against them. She should have looked ahead while she had the chance, should have seen what disease would make of her: someone who could walk into water and not drown because putrefaction bore her up.

* * *

“They’re very big on cleanliness, on land.” That’s her fault too, the soft little islands she’s sent away, clotted hair laden with resentment, with her ability to feel guilt and suffer for it. “You’ll have to stand in big dry buildings and forget where you came from,” she says, but the mermaid is unimpressed.

“If only I could forget this stinking dive,” she says. Her scales are dull and shedding. She’d needed her sisters to drag her to the Island Maker, bits of her falling off in wake. The sisters are polite girls, don’t cover their noses though she is a fright, the youngest, and they must have been tempted to smother her before she burst, to weigh her down with grief-rock and tether her to the bottom of trenches.

“We’ll pay you if you change her,” they say, meaning “if you can make it so she goes away.” The sinful sick are a burden the healthy find difficult to pay, and their tails are still bright and pretty.

When the Island Maker digs a tumor out of flesh, she stretches it out in all directions, has one of the violet ice-bears—her favorite, the one who came back with half a glacier in his jaws and stayed—take it between his teeth and drag until it’s enough to wrap around the mermaid, to cocoon her.

She smothers the mermaid with black blood, wraps her up like a dumpling and leaves her to marinate for a month. The bear likes to bat the cocoon-dumpling over the remains of his ice, and the Island Maker is glad to wrench the mermaid out and toss her up to shore. She’s tired of growing sticky bits to cement over claw marks.

* * *

The spliced mermaid comes back, not as sea foam but as a slowly dissolving horror. “He didn’t want me,” she says, pustules ringing round her mouth because she’d learnt, now, the price of relationships and that compromise was not enough if it made you over into someone else.

“I told you you’d never be innocent again,” says the Island Maker. “I told you corruption would get you in the end.”

“I never even got to fuck him!” wails the mermaid. “Every time he looked at me he smacked a hanky over his face, fair reeked of garlic and lavender. At first I thought it was because I smelled all of fish, still, but he said he didn’t mind the fish, it was the pus that bothered him.” She glares at the Island Maker. “Look,” she says, holding one blackened, swollen leg out in front of her and wringing it as if it were kelp. The water around blooms with red and yellow.

“You stupid brat,” says the Island Maker, “you ignorant little ingrate. Did I ever say that corruption came from fucking? Did I ever say it came from love? Don’t go blaming me for your nature.”

“You are my nature,” says the mermaid. “You squeezed me out, popped me like a pimple into the water, you and your nasty old Black Death!” She glares at the Island Maker. “I did the best I could! It’s not like I gave up, even. The prince had a brother, and second sons aren’t supposed to be so fussy.”

* * *

It didn’t turn out that way.

“But my voice is all I have left,” said the mermaid.

“That is a lie,” said the prince, “and lying’s what I want you to do anyway, so what’s the harm?”

He couldn’t marry that which wasn’t pure. No one wanted a diseased princess, corruption in the royal womb. “Just don’t tell them about the Island Maker and, you know, snip snip,” he said, making little scissor shapes with his fingers as though she’d been cut up the middle by some sort of salt guillotine instead of sleeping her tail away in a fleshy coffin and dreaming of pulpits and bells.

“You don’t think they’d figure it out if an heir came along with a fish tail?” said the mermaid, skeptical. There was a lot more clear-thinking under the ocean; sometimes she thought his head was stuffed with jellyfish.

“We could always drown it,” said the prince. “We’d get one to take after me eventually.” He caught sight of her face, driftwood in a maelstrom, being sucked under. “Oh, for… it was only a joke!”

“Sure,” said the mermaid.

Jellyfish, she thought. All that blind and poisoned reaching.

There didn’t seem much point in having a voice if she wasn’t going to use it.

* * *

“It all seems so ridiculous,” she says to the Island Maker. “As if the same thing wasn’t going to happen to him eventually! The rot, and all the little worms. I could see it starting, the way his flesh was beginning to turn.”

“He shouldn’t have been so willing to lie,” says the Island Maker, squeezing a tumor to the surface of her skin as if it were a blackhead, flicking it above the ocean surface to fly landwards as a cuckoo bird. “But I expect nothing else; everyone is corrupt at heart. Everyone is willing to lie.”

“I’m not,” says the mermaid.

“Not yet,” says the Island Maker. “But you won’t be able to help it in the end.”

“Perhaps you are the one who is lying,” says the mermaid, and promptly flees when the Island Maker curls bloody fingers, lets her bear off the leash for chasing.

The bear doesn’t chase very hard. It has a good feeding life, snaffling up the bits and scraps that fall from the Island Maker in her eternal putrefaction. The Ursus lives on bacteria, on black and bloody flesh, and although it likes to lick her red fingers, tongue catching on splinters, it rarely uses that tongue for talking.

It expects the mermaid to return, and it is not disappointed.

Her sisters have had enough. They come with nets weighted down, with little oysters to clamp her tail to the knots and spaces. “We loved you more when you were whole,” they say. “Then when you got sick we loved you even more than that. But you stayed sick and stayed sick and stayed sick and our love ran out. We’re so sorry, but we’re just too tired to love you anymore.”

“You can’t do this!” cries the little mermaid, but her tongue is all swollen up in her mouth, and when she speaks it gets in the way of her words and tooth-punctures them with blood.

“It should be over quickly,” say the sisters. “We’re not cruel. We don’t like to see you suffer. If we did like it, we would have loved you longer.”

They bundle her up in the netting, close it over and tie it but it’s a difficult thing, because if the nets are tied too close around they sink into rotten flesh, make little diamond shapes in it, and the flesh begins to slough off.

“This is revolting work,” says one of the sisters, dropping the net to scrub herself with sand.

“When I was young they burned them alive,” says the Island Maker. “That was an awful death, but it was the only way to stop the infection.” Nailing the doors shut, blinding the windows with planks. Oiled straw on the threshold, and a match for the burning.

(Her hands curling into wood, her hands about the hammer.)

“It’s not their fault for being infectious, but no one can blame us for not wanting to be infected too. When they get this sick and there’s no hope it’s every girl for herself,” says the sister with the scrubbing sand.

The Island Maker shudders. Centuries gone and she can remember the way she wept and begged and apologized for her actions, the weight of the hammer in her hands. “Sometimes it doesn’t work,” she says, but the girls pay no attention. She’s done her best to teach them, to teach all of them, about corruption because it belongs in the marrow of them, in the thin diseased spaces between bones and it was all her fault, for being alive.

“I can’t remember,” she says. But in truth, she does remember some of it.

* * *

Black growth bulging under her armpits, making it difficult to wash. In her groin as well, but that was easier to cope with, sitting cross-legged in the shallows with her knees spread. Blood dripping from her fingers, the flesh all scratched down and trying to rip out little needles of wood with her teeth.

Her mouth full of charcoal, her hair full of ashes. She combed through with red fingers and where the ashes fell shellfish died. The little crabs, too, their bodies blackening and rising out of sand, on their backs with claws shuddering into silence. She ate them anyway, because otherwise it would be a waste and there was enough poison in her already that a little more wouldn’t make a difference. The shells splintered between her teeth, piercing her tongue. It was the same sensation as fingertips, and she stared at them as she chewed, the ten bloody pads, the places where nails had been.

Everyone dead, everything else dying around her. The ocean doesn’t drown her, no matter how many times she tries. She makes her home there, eventually. It has less memories than land.

* * *

“You’re bleeding,” says the little mermaid. She is bleeding too—from the diamond press of fishnets, from the tongue she didn’t see fit to silence. The mermaid bites her own fingers and presses them through the netting, stretching towards the Island Maker with green and swollen reach.

The Island Maker clenches her own fingers into fists but still the blood leaks out. Memory brings it to the surface, sometimes, though that memory is a fractured thing and nothing to rely upon. “They bleed all the time,” says the Island Maker. More slippery than water, and it helps to oil the buboes as she levers them out, makes them smooth and slick as glass.

“You needn’t sigh in that sorrowful way,” snaps the mermaid to her sisters. “Soon enough, and you’ll be bleeding too.”

“There’s no escaping your nature,” the Island Maker agrees. Pretty girls, pretty fins, but they were as diseased as the rest, born from the tumors of her body and one day it’ll be sacrifice and fish nets for them as well, when the love of those around them ran out.

“It’s our nature,” says the mermaid, wriggling her fingers again. “Don’t you see?” She turns to the bear, the nets scraping at her face. “You see, don’t you?” she says.

The bear sighs, violet fur drifting in the current, and he swims to the mermaid, gnaws off her netting, and chases the sisters away.

“There’s nothing you can do about it,” says the Island Maker, trying for calm although the bear disturbs her. There was pity in its sigh, and that alone is discomforting. “Nothing at all.”

“That is the most absolute bullshit,” says the mermaid. “I don’t believe it for a second.” Her useless legs float in the current, catching in kelp. The mermaid sighs and dives, smashes coral and comes up with the sharp bits. She slashes off pieces of kelp, exposing the honeycomb interior. “I can’t be dealing with this any longer,” she says, tying the kelp securely around to stop the circulation and beginning to hack at her own hips. “From now on it’s going to be my nature, not yours, and I’m going to decide what that nature will be.”

“You can’t take it away like that,” says the Island Maker, feeling the flesh between her left arm start to swell again, the bubo taking shape and beginning to squirm. “Corruption is our burden. Yours and mine. It’s my fault I know, but I was so lonely for islands that could talk back, that didn’t float away. I didn’t even care, at first, that they were all as diseased as I was. And by the time I did care, there was so much Black Death in the world that it didn’t seem to matter how much more I bred into it.”

“It is my function in life,” she says. “Corruption.” The first infected, and bringing it back to the village, not realizing how it would spread, or that within her was growing the first dark seeds of isolation.

* * *

“You are a diseased creature,” she heard. “The agent of sin. You are judgment upon us all.”

It didn’t sink in at first—not because the idea was so strange, so violently blameworthy, but because there was familiarity all through it and hearing an accusation once over was hearing it a hundred times. Unclean from birth, contaminated by fruit and disobedience, living on sufferance. Long hours before the altar, being convinced of lack.

The Black Death fell upon the deserving. Always.

* * *

“I think,” said the bear, its voice thick and creaking like icebergs, “that if you tell someone enough that they’re a filthy undeserving thing they might end up believing you. Right down in the marrow of them, they’ll believe it.”

“What the bear said,” says the mermaid, one-legged now and working on the other half, teeth gritting as she cuts corruption away. “I’ve heard it down here and I’ve heard it up there and I suppose you can’t really be blamed for recreating the world that tried to kill you and kept you alive both, but you can’t keep expecting the rest of us to nod along. I am tired of a tail that’s stuffed with pus. I am sick of scale-rot. If it’s algal infection that’s one thing. If I get pressure sores from lounging about on the rocks that’s another. But if it’s just you, determined to spread everything anyone’s ever told you like tentacles through the ocean, through all your little colonies, well then…”

“Bugger that,” says the bear.

The Island Maker stares at them, uncomprehending. “I still have splinters in my fingers,” she says. Splinters, and the memory of hammer strokes in her head, the way her fingers curled into wood as screaming echoed through, the vibrations felt through the doorway. Corruption was betrayal and unkindness, the desire to put self above all else, and while her body hadn’t failed under fever there was relapse and infection, the desire to see an end to it. It’s a hard reminiscence, and one that’s difficult to hear over the memory of screams. It comes in shreds and splashes and she’s had to piece it together—the weight of the hammer in her hand, the splinters from the planks over the door. The desperate attempt to preserve a world, to keep corruption on the other side of doors, an effort doomed to fail when it was inside her all along.

“What I did,” she says. “It’s something only a diseased person would do.” Someone small and selfish and fearful, corruption feeding off the sin inside her.

The bear and the mermaid look at each other. “Island Maker,” says the mermaid, careful in her questioning, “you do realize that those are not wood splinters?”

“What else can they be?” says the Island Maker, feeling the islands of her own disgust popping from her back, from her groin, from the hollows behind her knees.

“That is bone, mistress,” says the bear. “Splintered bone.”

“It’s why your fingers are always bleeding,” says the mermaid. “They’ve never been allowed to heal.”

“How can I heal after what I’ve done?” says the Island Maker, and her tears are black and buoyant, rising to the surface to float as a miniature archipelago.

“What have you done that’s so dreadful?” says the mermaid, and she is absent both her legs now. “Clawed your way out of a burning building?”

“I wasn’t locked in,” says the Island Maker, certain in her denials. “I couldn’t have been.”

The bear licks her finger ends again, the ruined bleeding tips. She feels the rasp of its tongue on exposed bone. “You didn’t get these hammering in someone else,” it growls.

“You’re wrong,” says the Island Maker, shaking. “You’re wrong!” She remembers, she does. The hot scent and crackle of fire. How the hammer shaft feels when she throws it away. Wood under her palms, the screaming, the smoke. Wandering the village with half her mind blacked out, half her body swelling buboes, and the certain knowledge that she was the cause. She brought it home, the Black Death, went visiting and brought it back, unknowing. Tried to contain it, first within herself and then within the village, and failed. The instrument of uncleanliness, the vessel of sin.

(You should have known, she thinks. You knew you were corrupt.)

And the houses were burnt, some of them, so someone must have done the burning. Why not her? She’d killed them all anyway, killed everything. Someone responsible for all that suffering wouldn’t shrink from increasing it, from wallowing in her nature. She wouldn’t be able to help it.

She shakes her head, sickens on flashes of clawing. That can’t be her. Fire destroys corruption, fire purifies, and the Island Maker isn’t pure. She never was, and no water poured over her could take that corruption away.

She is too impure even to let herself burn, to try to save the world thereby.

“But it’s all my fault,” she says.

The ice-bear and the mermaid share a long, sad look. “It doesn’t have to be,” says the mermaid, and she takes the Island Maker’s hand, guides it to the stumps below her hips. Tumors are boiling there, but they are clean and scaled and merging together, lengthening down into a nature that’s discovering its own certainty, and one different from before.

“Let me show you how,” says the mermaid.

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s had close to 50 short stories appear in markets such as Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Shimmer. Her first collection, The Mythology of Salt and Other Stories, is due out in July from Lethe Press. She attended Clarion West 2016, and is the 2020 writer-in-residence at Massey University.