by Chris Bird

 

     They washed up on the shore in the early spring morning unseen and uninvited. At first there were only four or five moving on the brisk waves. Riding the white water they landed on the level brown sand like massive shells from the ocean floor. Then each day the numbers increased, left in clusters on the sand by the ebb and flow of the sea. Soon people came from the nearby village to see.
     The books came every day, sometimes embedded with starfish and seahorses or shells and glossy seastones and pebbles dredged up by the tide. The words, blurred by the sea often slipped out of the hard covers and drifted across the sea’s surface into rock pools spelling out intricate new meanings.
     The fishermen dragged the increasing piles of books in from the sea and stacked them along the beach and the rocks. The village priest came to inspect them for sacrilegious content but went away disappointed when he found none. A retired general dug a shallow trench near the books under a flapping national flag. However he couldn’t decide on any further military response. He persuaded two volunteers to stand sentry on the beach head to monitor the incursions.
     Local politicians made committed speeches both in favour and against the crowding piles of books. As the numbers increased further the villagers noticed that the covers of the books were etched with strange symbols such as stars, moon crescents, sea snakes, spiders, keys, domes, ladders and random numbers and letters. When they opened the individual books the words poured from the pages and drained away before their eyes. One inventive villager requisitioned a great pile of the books and made a bonfire of them. He and his children watched the crackling words rise on the flames floating amongst white ash up into the night sky.
     But as the numbers continued to increase the night grew gradually darker. The villagers noticed that there were far fewer stars in the sky each night. The night sky became an empty blackness over the thatched roofs of the village where once there had been shimmering constellations. Divisions between the villagers as to how best to respond to the gathering deluge of books created hitherto unknown social tension in the village. A number of new political parties were soon formed.
     Soon two principal factions solidified. One group argued that the books should be dumped into an open pit and then burnt using gasoline. Their opponents wanted to construct an enormous monument in adoration of the sea’s unsolicited gift.
     The gradual loss of the stars intensified the crisis. One faction, in an attempt to blame their opposition for the loss of the stars wore large star shaped emblems as masks in night time rallies beside the shore. Another faction draped themselves with symbolic wooden flames painted orange and gold. The small community took to segregating themselves on either side of a village dividing line known as the ‘Sea Word Wall’.
     Then as the crisis smouldered on the books on the shore began to rot. A great stench rose up from them and a slimy grey green moss began to crawl over them forming hill-like mounds on the beach.
     The ‘New Sea Hills’, as they became known, swarmed with flies and mosquitoes and the stench swayed over the entire village. A group of young men rolled a stone boulder down the cliff to break up the nauseous mounds of books. Another gang shot fireworks down at the slimy mass to burn it away.
     Crabs and sea insects burrowed into the decomposing words to build new homes. Gulls and herons nested on the green mounds. The sea began to wash over the massive hills as if trying to reclaim it.
     Local politicians tried to get control of the crisis by inserting national flags and party banners into the mounds. This, they argued, would prevent them from being annexed by unscrupulous foreign powers. The village priest hurriedly added crucifixes and icons and expressed hopes of an ornamental bell tower on the highest mound. An artist described his aim to re-colour the green mass blue as a symbolic tribute to the books' original source. Certain extremists were held responsible for a small explosion on one of the mossy peaks.
     But the plans of the disparate groups were soon overshadowed as first one child and then another fell seriously ill. The illness spread rapidly from family to family. The children fell ill with a flu-like virus which quickly became more serious. Within a few days the children fell into a deep sleep which continued uninterrupted day after day. Later strange boils grew on the children’s fingertips and tongues. The boils only grew on these particular points. The village doctor was bemused and could find no cure. Over seventy children fell ill. All slept soundlessly while their fingertips and tongues throbbed red. Mothers kept each other awake in the early hours with their tears and sobbing.
     Fishermen hauled a wide net over part of the mass and tried to drag it back into the sea with a flotilla of fishing boats. But their attempt came to nothing. The books could not be shifted. Spring soon turned to summer and the rotting stench of the books intensified. Flies swarmed incessantly over the putrid mounds.
     There seemed to be no end to the villagers' suffering. At night as they decomposed, distorted echoes of words moaned and wailed out across the village’s thatched rooftops. No one could ignore the strange sounds and no one could sleep through the long summer nights. One frail old man lost his senses and leapt from a cliff top into the mounds where crutches and all he sank slowly from view. The sea gulls called and sang in ecstatic loops of flight over the ‘New Sea Hills’, peeling away to dive at isolated crabs amongst the decaying words. The sea rolled back and forth and the long summer days were tainted by the acrid smell of the books. Crabs grew fat on the digest of words; hornets and mosquitoes saturated the moss with countless eggs.
     But the news of the village children was not good. As the fingertips and tongues reddened further, single words grew from the blemishes and wounds. Their injuries spelt out new cryptic sentences.
     No boats left in the early morning to fish. The fishing nets were overrun and clogged with decaying words. The word mass gradually began to seep over the cliff tops and spread along the narrow village streets. Families had to move to higher ground around the village church.
     The children passed away one by one and were laid in the cemetery ground. Wrapped in cotton shrouds their injuries poured open with contrived obscenities and blasphemies. From their graves strange purple flowers grew, each petal of which contained a word or message.
     The priest himself could take no more and was found dangling from a noose from the highest church beam in a mossy rope he had made from the sea hills. The local militia having peppered the mounds with cannon balls and grenades to no avail mutinied in despair and ran in ragged uniforms into the sea.
     The disease then spread from child to mother and then to father. Wreaths, lilies and poppies adorned the silent doorways of the village houses. Superstition led to the building of a huge straw man which was torched and then pushed from a cliff top down onto the mass of words. The straw man burnt in gold and amber flames on the mass of words.
     Then as the morning sun glowed over the half empty village the mass began to shift and stir. Gradually the mass of words began to harden. A week later it had solidified even further. The mossy appearance gave way to a new stone-like hardness. A month passed by and slowly cracks and splits appeared on the surface of the stony word hills. The cracks only appeared at night and only on nights when the moon glowed strongly onto the beach.
     One night a few villagers crawled to the edge of a cliff top and with binoculars and telescopes observed the cracks and openings widening noticeably. For another week the mass crackled and shifted, tearing here and there in jagged moonlit openings.
     Then one night, watched by a small group of fishermen, the mass split into two enormous boulders, one of which crashed into the rough night sea. The two huge boulders began to crack and groan. Slowly new cracks opened up on the surfaces of the two boulders. Through the moonlit night these cracks opened further and further until suddenly the two boulders simultaneously split apart. From inside stepped two gigantic figures, naked and covered with seaweed and shells. The figures slowly stood on the sand, stretching and yawning. Their skin was almost transparent in the silvery moonlight.
     Together the giant man and woman walked out toward the sea. Their bodies shone and beneath the pale surface of their skin, crawling one over the other were thousands upon thousands of words, linking and splitting, fusing and diverging in endless shifting patterns shimmering in the summer moonlight.


 

Chris Bird was born and brought up in London, but worked in Istanbul for a number of years as a freelance journalist and teacher. Influenced by the movies of Buñuel and David Lynch...loves the words of William Burroughs and Jean Rhys. www.newseda.com

This story originally appeared in Issue 3.

 

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