The Waiting Island
Competition Entry, 2019, Co-illustrated with Lily McBride-Stephens and Written by Joselyn Takacs
Some of us had been on the waiting island so long that we’d forgotten how long we’d been waiting. We sat on the rocks of the waiting island and stared at the great grey towers of the mainland. We longed for our beloveds there. In a building on the mainland somewhere, the bureau-bots were processing our “historical determinant tests” to see if we were of use to society. We knew our beloveds were busy, so we had a wailing time every day. We hoped the wind would carry our voices to them. We laid on the rocks, wailing to be remembered. “Remember me, beloved cat!” and “Don’t forget, beloved Uncle!” Each year, we watched the mainland city grow taller. You see, the mainland had to lift itself from the funky water below. They made a lot of consumables on the mainland. How we missed our consumables! On the mainland, you spent a lot of time thinking about consumables and comparing your consumables to other people’s consumables. The byproducts and sometimes the consumables themselves went into the water because they were only good once. From the rocks of the waiting island, we’d watch the consumables go by—"look! A consumable receptacle for hot liquid.” How we missed hot liquids!
We thought of our beloveds so busy with the consumables that they would forget that they missed us. We watched the water changing. When we looked at the water, we rarely saw any water dwellers. We wondered if our loved ones on the mainland saw what was happening, but it is very hard to think about what is happening when you are awfully busy like we once were, and even on the waiting island, we didn’t give much thought to one another. We called each other only by the waiting numbers on our backs, and we looked, instead, to the mainland and thought of our pasts.
One day, something incredible happened. The water dwellers leapt out of the water and into the air. They were leaving, and for good, it seemed, but where? A whale-bird led an airborne parade of them. Up went the lookie-loos, up went the dragonfish-lurtle, even the spotted jelly-belly. It was most beautiful to watch.
The island trembled, and we watched in horror as our island, unhappily, most unwillingly, joined the great migration. Our island was going out to sea, and we were most helpless to stop it. A few of our grieving fellows jumped into the water and tried to swim back to the mainland, but the water swallowed them up before they left our sight.
We floated without hope for days. The water dwellers had returned to the water, leaving us to watch the consumables go by and to ponder our past lives. The remnants of our pre-waiting lives taunted us. We had once known cake pans. We had once upturned water holders to our thirsty mouths. We’d once emptied ourselves into urinals. That life was over now.
We sat on our stools and admitted we had nothing to live for. Some in-fighting happened, some name calling. We’d grown weary of one another. We were often thinking of our beloveds and finding our fellow waiters most undesirable in comparison.
We’d given up hope when a whale-bird splashed into view. We prayed it would return us to shore. We raced about the island, chasing the whale-bird’s shadow, pleading with it for help. They’re highly intelligent creatures, whale-birds. You can interest them in play. But this whale-bird reared up on his tall spine, gave us a curious wink, and plunged under the island. Then the big bastard knocked the whole island over like a toy boat in a bathtub. We were flung into the sea.
The whole island tottered on its side for a precarious moment before flipping all the way over. We screamed; we flailed. The roots of the island’s underside emerged dripping from the ocean. We scrambled up on the muddy ground, exhausted and gasping, our cheeks pressed to the muck of the long-submerged soil. The roots rained seawater down on our heads.
We looked up at the roots and then looked away. It hurt the eyes to see it! It burned. We blinked at one another. What was it? We hadn’t seen color in a long time, not since television on the mainland. The roots were alive with pinks and purples and yellows. Coral! The root systems stretched to the sky, and there were so many water dwellers scuttling about. The whale-bird who’d unearthed us was perched in a hollow way up in the root-trees. It looked down on us mischievously, flapping its tail.
We wandered the upturned-island and found kelp forests. Gardens of anemone-scrubbers lured us into their jelly arms. These ate up all the dead skin from our bodies and left us shining like new pennies. We looked at one another in our new bodies that were suddenly like gifts from the underside. Our waiting numbers gone! We watched in amazement as the floating water dwellers snacked on succulent coral growth at bloom-times. They lived their lives in peaceable abundance. This was unfamiliar to us.
Here we made a mistake, we must admit. We shimmied up the root trees and tasted the succulent coral fruit the whale-birds enjoyed twice a day at bloom-time. We couldn’t believe how sweet, how meaty the succulents were! We’re an industrious race, you know, with a mind for the future, so come bloom-time, we skinned a swath of coral to its skeleton in an hour. We filled our shirts with succulents and shimmied down, well-pleased with our efficiency. The most able-bodied among us filled sacks and sacks and stored their succulents high up in the tree hollows where no one else could reach.
The next day, the skeleton coral dissolved into heaps of white sand. This didn’t stop us. We skinned and saved and bartered and stuffed up hollows in the trees with succulents for a later day. We watched the whale-birds’ sad floating around the sand heaps and the general dismay we caused. The water dweller homes disappeared. They lived in the coral, we knew, and we were killing it rapidly.
We couldn’t be too bothered by this sad fact of life.
The succulent trade was good and brought some of us high status, though our quarreling grew intense and a strange smell filled the air.It took the great rot for us to see our mistake. The island stank to high heaven with rotting succulents. One couldn’t hoard them, we realized. The succulents wouldn’t keep. We’d made a grave, and nearly fatal, mistake. We’d kill the peaceable water dwellers and ourselves in killing the corals. Most uncomfortable it was to sit with that ugly fact. We knew no other way to live. It’s what we’d done on the mainland.
We vowed to change. We started with a listening-looking hour. We watched and listened to the island. Prior to this, we knew that the coral was alive without thinking about it as being, for real, alive. To us, it was just resource. You could eat it, use it, you could tuck your house into its bony branches. But the more we watched, we thought, goodness, it’s all living reef! The whole shebang was working together in ways barely visible to us. The coral was keenly aware of its environment and grew and adapted to changes in the environment, and it was a living host to all these various water dwellers who existed in a web of relations so intricate we could not fathom them in a lifetime of listening-looking, but we decided to try. We posed a request to co-habitate within the polyps, to grow with them and never at their expense. Our polyp homes were elegantly minimal—elastic, flexible and adaptable. We tried to embody this too. We became mutualists. We tended the polyps. The polyps tended to us. Others of us built root-treehouses and the heat of our families encouraged coral growth on our roofs. We realized our homes should be a part of a bigger living system—all big cities might become living systems like reefs! We grew to love one another, to live modestly, and how we wished our beloveds could see us now.
We dreamed some young one on the mainland, at least, might see us and tell the others. Look at us now!