AMULET ON THE ISLAND OF WALAPAN
His almost-wife held in her hand a piece of ‘nothing.’ At least that’s what her almost-husband would have called it, had he called it anything at all. Throw that away, he said. You can’t just pick things off the ground like that.
But she just stood there barefoot on the steep dusty path looking at it in her open palm.
On the mountainous island of Walapan, men were either husbands, almost-husbands, not-yet-almost-husbands, never-husbands or past-husbands. Women were either wives, almost-wives, not-yet-almost wives, never-wives (who were looked down upon), or past-wives. She and the almost-husband were about to announce their marriage.
A few days earlier she had dreamt of this ‘nothing’ in her hand. True, whatever it was, it was dirty. But it had been dirty in the dream too, at least until she cleaned it off and realized it was a shimmering sunstone amulet. She did not know what the dream meant. She only knew that since the dream she was having doubts she could not even admit to herself.
Yes, the almost-husband had more cows, more pigs, more chickens, more rice fields than anyone else on Walapan. He was the richest man on the island. All the not-yet-almost-wives envied her. Every one of them would have married him in a minute. Her mother said she will be set for life. She will have everything she ever wanted.
But the almost-wife thought about the heavy headdress with beads, feathers, many long silver chains and silver coins all wives had to wear even while they slept. The long heavy woolen dresses so hot in the sun. The chores wives had to do from dawn to dusk while their husbands sat and smoked: in the morning, starting a fire, cooking, feeding the animals, chopping trees, collecting firewood, working in the rice fields, spinning thread, spinning wool, weaving clothes, cooking, washing, cleaning, bringing water from the well at the foot of the mountain, caring for the twelve children which, of course, they would have.
Annoyed, he said again, Throw that away.
Instead, her palm closed around it.
AMULET ON THE ISLAND OF DARGENA
On the island of Dargena, the visitor stood watching from a distance while two men wearing white protective gear carried off twenty-nine bodies, one by one, from the island to the boat that would take them to be cremated. If not for the silver amulet ring, given to him by the oracle back home, he, too, would have left on that boat.
The visitor, who was the only survivor of his group, had been so distracted by the twenty-nine who did nothing but jabber on the trip, he was unable to enjoy the strange beauty of this desert island.
Towering white limestone formations rose from the desert floor like carvings by a deranged sculptor. Day after day, filled with awe, he roamed the coastal desert as well as the inland one, careful to avoid the villages. The islanders did not welcome outsiders. He began to miss sharing his experience. He thought of the oracle back home who was infatuated with him.
One day a delicate green winged insect landed on his hand. Surprising himself, the visitor said hello to it. Surprising himself yet again, he said hello to a scorpion on the sand. He was shocked to hear the scorpion say hello back. Soon after, he found himself reaching out to other creatures, especially to those that were rarely seen, endangered or thought to be extinct. Rare addax antelopes responded, then fennec foxes, horned vipers, crested porcupines, desert monitors. Of course, he did not forget the baboons, ostriches, armadillos and dolphins he saw more often. They all felt comfortable confiding in him, especially after learning he survived on saquaro cactus with their edible white flowers, chia sage, agave, mesquite, as well as water from wild plants.
At first, he had difficulty accepting his ability to understand and empathize with all the creatures he encountered but, in time, it became second nature. He felt the pain of ostriches hunted for food by the villagers. He even understood the glyptodon, a relative of the armadillo but the size of a Volkswagen Bug. Scientists claimed that glyptodons became extinct eleven thousand years ago but the creature told the visitor that his species could stay alive only so long as humans thought they were extinct.
Still, a part of him did not quite believe that he, the visitor, was conversing with non-human creatures. Had he gone mad like some of the twenty-nine who hallucinated at the end? He began to wonder if his entire experience was nothing more than a hallucination. Were hallucinations contagious? Did he catch this madness from one of the twenty-nine?
He decided he had to leave the island to gain some perspective. But how could he leave? Another boat might not arrive for months, maybe years. The men in white protective gear had thought no one from the group was left alive on Dargena.
Thinking about his long conversations with creatures, even if this was a hallucination, he wondered if it were possible to hitch a ride on the back of a dolphin. He sat on the beach to wait.
Roberta Allen is author of nine books, including a novel, a memoir, a novella, and three story collections. Her latest is The Princess of Herself, stories. Over three hundred of her shorts and short stories have been published in magazines, including Conjunctions, Guernica, and Bomb. She is also a conceptual artist with work in the collections of MoMA and The Met Museum. She has exhibited worldwide.