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Human Island - Part II
While making a documentary about a sacrificial ritual, a grieving mother comes to terms with the untimely loss of her daughter.
First time here? There Is Hope is a climate fiction series I email to subscribers. First time here? There Is Hope is a climate fiction series I email to subscribers. Each short story stands on its own but I recommend that you start by reading the first story, Human Island, here👇.
Human Island - Part II
The Japanese wooden shrine glows dark in the morning sun, contrasting with the white-grey of the dry garden. Inside the dome, the air is fresh and moist, adjusted to the optimal temperature and humidity necessary to maintain the wood’s condition.
‘Please wait here,’ the Counselor says.
Nova stops before the shrine, inhaling the unusual fragrance: the wood smells bitter, earthy, warm and spicy. Next to the entrance door, there’s a stone bench. Nova sits down and speaks into her microphone.
‘When the rising Pacific Ocean finally made the collection of islands that used to be Japan uninhabitable, there was a large migration wave of Japanese climate refugees to Europe. Tens of thousands of people loaded their most precious belongings on boats and embarked on a long, dangerous journey to save their lives and, hopefully, their culture. Those who survived settled on the abandoned Iberian Atlantic coast, forming self-sufficient colonies governed by a Colony Counsel and presided over by a freely elected Counselor.
‘At first, the European community living in the secluded North Colonies Alliance thought that the Japanese communities wouldn’t be able to survive the southern heat and lack of natural resources. But the Japanese refugees proved more resourceful than anyone had expected. They recycled materials from abandoned cities and built their signature floating capsule homes. They quietly started a long-term project to revive the marine ecosystem by salvaging the algae that had survived the frequent marine heatwaves. In addition, they grew kelp forests with much work and dedication and created a thriving business by harvesting and processing seaweed.
‘Today, The Cooperatives are the leading buyer of seaweed, followed by the underground smuggling lords of the Dust Road, who use it as the primary food source for their undernourished workers. Everyone has to eat. In the past years, the thriving Japanese seaweed industry started to attract people from the over-populated Northern Colony Alliance who relocated to the south and turned to seaweed farming. The heat and farming work makes for a hard life, but there is food, jobs, and a thriving marine ecosystem that in and of itself is a little miracle.
‘Besides the floating capsule homes and seaweed, the Japanese colonies are also known for the traditional heirlooms they brought from Japan on their sailing boats, such as silk kimonos, musical instruments and historical tools. But the most precious is the ancient wooden shrine they dismantled plank by plank in Kyoto, then shipped to Europe.
‘When The Cooperatives tried confiscating it, the Japanese community pointed out that the wood had become very fragile during the long trip. Not wanting to risk damage to the precious material, The Cooperatives reluctantly agreed to leave it in the care of the Japanese colonies. The shrine is the only wooden construction outside of the NCA and is an important site for pilgrimage in the Iberian Peninsula. Unsurprisingly, it plays a central role in today’s ritual.’
The shrine’s door opens, and the Counselor’s head peeks out. Nova removes her shoes, takes out the urn with her daughter’s ashes from her bag and enters the shrine.
The old plank floor creaks under her bare feet, and the sound makes her stop, afraid she would damage the wood if she took another step.
‘Don’t worry; it won’t break. It’s normal for old wooden floors to creak,’ the Counselor says.
A slender teenage girl with long black hair wearing a white under-kimono stands in the square room. Her pale skin, bathed in the warm light filtering through the washi paper windows, looks almost translucent.
‘This is Shia, the youngest of the chosen ones. She just turned 15,’ the Counselor says.
Nova catches her breath: Ania would’ve turned 15 this same year. She presses the urn tightly against her chest. The two men and two women dressed in white kimonos beside Shia smile at her warmly and nod their heads. One of the men approaches, bows and picks up the urn with Ania’s ashes.
‘When you set yourself free from life and death, you should know your ultimate destination,’ the man says in a familiar voice.
Nova recognizes the old man with the red turban she had interviewed the previous day.
‘It was her deepest desire to one day see the wooden shrine,’ Nova says with tears flowing down her cheeks.
The man looks into her eyes, then bows and walks away. Nova wipes away her tears and brushes her fingers against the wood, proof that trees once existed.
Moving slowly, tasting the wood with the soles of her feet, Nova starts filming the sparsely furnished shrine, takes a close-up of the Counselor’s wrinkled hands wrapping a white kimono around Shia’s body, tightening it with an obi, a kimono belt, around her waist, and, finally, rests her camera on the stoic face of the girl who had chosen a shark’s belly as her ultimate destination.
Outside the shrine, Nova finds a dusty crowd waiting for the chosen ones: the pilgrims have finally arrived. She lifts her camera to film the rickety group and then turns around just in time as the wooden door of the shrine opens, and the Counselor, carrying a golden tray, exits, followed by the four adults.
‘The chosen ones,’ whispers rise from the crowd.
Then Shia steps out into the light with her black hair flowing down to her waist, and the pilgrims catch a collective breath. The girl stops in the doorway with her gaze floating above the crowd. Nova zooms in on Shia’s feet, wrapped in white socks with a split toe and her beautiful wooden sandals, then slowly moves up to the long sleeves of her furisode-kimono, befitting a young girl and finally rests on her face.
‘She is so young,’ voices murmur from the crowd.
Shia glances sideways, and suddenly, there’s a stir in the girl’s eyes. What is she looking at? Nova follows Shia’s gaze with the camera, and there he is, outside the glass dome looking at Shia, the teenage boy with the colorful kimono and the saddest eyes. Nova swings the camera back to the spellbound young girl, frozen in place, eyes locked on the youth. But the Counselor touches her arm, breaking the spell, and they all step out of the dome and into the crowd that parts to make space for the procession. A Japanese taiko drum ensemble joins the chosen ones, and a gust of wind blows the delicate silk fabrics of their kimonos, and they flutter like tired butterfly wings wrapped in dust. Clouds gather in the sky as the Counselor leads the chosen ones to a platform where they sit in a circle. The ocean’s waves break lazily on the shore a few hundred meters behind them.
The crowd forms a wide semicircle around the platform, and the taiko music ensemble strikes the drums in a trance-inducing cadence. The Counselor pulls a mask on her face, lights up the incense and places it in an incense holder in front of each chosen one. Nova approaches the platform and films the five silhouettes enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke, their loose heads and limbs moving slowly to the fast swing of the drums encircled by an endless mass of dancing people. One of the men slips a mask on his face. After she lights up the last incense, the Counselor bows and walks in Nova’s direction.
‘Don’t get too close. It would be best if you didn’t inhale the incense smoke. It has a strong sedative effect,’ the Counselor says.
‘What about the one with the mask?’ Nova says.
‘He chose not to get sedated,’ the Counselor says.
As they walk away, the cloud of smoke dissipates, revealing the numbed faces of the chosen ones, and the tempo of the drums becomes gentler, like the whisper of a thousand oceans.
‘The music is divine,’ Nova says.
‘The song’s name is Fertility of the Ocean,’ the Counselor says.
The gentle strokes of the drums now resemble the muted sound of rain on a metal rooftop. A soft hum rises from the crowd, and the limbs of the chosen ones seem to grow heavier and heavier, their heads bobbing. The rhythm of drums and the sound of the ocean’s waves enclose everything like a lullaby putting the day to sleep. Then the taiko drums pick up the tempo again, and the musicians twirl their arms in the air and hit the drums in perfect synchronization, breaking the rhythm repeatedly with shouts. The music grows to a terrifying crescendo before suddenly stopping. There’s a deep silence but for the languid waves of the ocean when the Counselor stands up.
‘Over the past thousand years, we have achieved brilliance without conscience. After a millennium of seeing nature as devoid of spirit and intrinsic purpose, not relating to anything higher than humanity, a resource to be exploited and consumed to further human progress, we are finally ready to move on. We enter a new age where the idea that human thought is the determining factor of all things, that our senses can somehow perceive the world objectively, without any prior commitment to a paradigm, will come to an end together with the blind acts of biocide and geocide committed in the name of advancement. It is in our power to change our reality by imagining a better future and acting upon it now, and use our action as a barrier against despair to provide a hopeful source of ideals offering inspiration for change. An Old Earth religion told us about a man and a woman thrown out of paradise after tasting from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But unlike this old religion, I don’t believe paradise was a distant place in the afterlife; paradise was here on Earth. And what threw humans out of paradise was not the knowledge of their natural nakedness but the evil knowledge and greed to exploit and destroy the very nature that gave them life. This paradise was there for all living species on Earth. And to revive this paradise, no sacrifice is too high. To give life back after it was taken with such savagery and disregard is our highest honor and duty. One day the world is re-spoken, and a new being is released,’ the Counselor says.
The clouds part, and a pinkish-golden light falls on the weathered faces of the pilgrims watching the Counselor with transfixed eyes. Then, finally, the Counselor turns toward the circle of the chosen ones.
‘You are the chosen ones,’ the Counselor says, kneeling on the sand. ‘And we bow to you and your sacrifice.’
Warm tears flow down Nova’s cheeks as she films the crowd gathered around the chosen ones, kneeling and bowing in respectful silence. She approaches the platform, taking close-ups of the chosen ones numbed after inhaling the sedative—all except for the older man and, to Nova’s astonishment, Shia. The young girl finds the power to lift her arms and grabs at the neighboring heads and shoulders, looking for support.
‘Lucius,’ Shia says.
Despite the silence, the pleading whisper is so weak that Nova wonders for a moment whether she actually heard it or just imagined it. But before she can process that thought, her body jumps into action.
‘Is there anyone called Lucius here?’ Nova says.
The Counselor’s head springs up.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ the Counselor says.
‘Shia, she just called a name: Lucius,’ Nova says.
The crowd releases a collective gasp, and Nova feels the weight of the countless eyes looking at her.
‘It’s Lucius,’ voices whisper.
A silhouette is moving through the kneeling crowd.
‘Stop him!’ the Counselor says.
Two men stand up and try to stop Lucius, but the teenager fends them off and reaches the platform, where he lifts Shia.
‘We wanted to get married in the old, wrecked ship on a full moon night. Do you remember?’ says Lucius.
Shia’s limp hand tries to touch Lucius’s face but falls lifeless beside her body. Lucius searches his pocket and takes out a golden bracelet.
‘I wanted to give you this. It was my grandmother’s,’ Lucius says and fits the bracelet on Shia’s left wrist. ‘Now we’re family. I knew you would claim me, my wife,’ Lucius says, tears streaming from his eyes.
A woman steps out of the crowd.
‘My son, no!’ the woman says, then she turns to the Counselor. ‘Please, our family made a sacrifice last year!’
‘You cannot go against the will of a chosen one,’ Lucius says.
The woman falls at the Counselor’s feet wailing. The Counselor approaches Shia.
‘Is it true? Did you mean to claim Lucius?’ the Counselor says.
For a moment, the girl seems to be unconscious, but then her lips move, and the Counselor lowers her ear to hear what she has to say and then nods.
‘The girl’s answer is no,’ the Counselor says.
‘Then I volunteer to take her place,’ Lucius says.
The woman kneeling at the Counselor’s feet gives out a loud cry.
‘This is not a suicide ritual. You are disrespecting the chosen ones and their families,’ the Counselor says.
‘How can you be so heartless? She is the only family you have!’ Lucius says.
‘I’ll take her place,’ Nova says, and when she meets the Counselor’s eyes, she sees in them the same astonishment she feels as the meaning of her own words sinks in.
‘Please hear me out. I crossed the Dust Road to come to this gathering. Not to witness the Human Island sacrifice or shoot a documentary but to bring the ashes of my late daughter to her final resting place, the great wooden shrine she wished to see. And after completing my mission, I thought that, with my daughter dead, I had nothing left for which to live. But the selfless example of this young woman who has a whole life in front of her humbled me by showing me that there is meaning in life, just as there is in death. So I wish to take her place. Please help a grieving mother give meaning to her death by allowing this girl to live,’ Nova says.
There is dead silence. Finally, the old man removes his mask.
‘I claim this woman,’ the old man says, and as his words come out, Nova feels a blessed peace washing her soul for the first time in seven years.
With tears streaming down her eyes, the Counselor takes Nova’s hands.
The bodies of the chosen ones lie naked on a round metal platform bathed in the soft sunset light. All eyes are peacefully closed except for Nova’s, which are wide open, staring at the night sky. She cannot feel her body, she cannot feel her face, but her head refuses to shut down. Memories of her daughter rush through her head: Ania as a newborn, Ania taking her first steps, Ania calling her mother for the first time, Ania going on a school trip, Ania coughing up blood. Her breath is caught in her throat and the old man squeezes her hand.
‘Just here and now, when you are struggling: what is your true nature? Can you show me here and now?’ the old man says.
She sees the smiling face of her daughter and her body relaxes ready to let go for the first time. Goodbye, my love, see you on the other side. Nova feels the lightness of a young butterfly that has finally broken out of its cocoon and will soon be able to fly through the endless corridors of the kelp forests toward her ultimate destination.
A few men lift the platform and start walking toward the ocean. The soft humming of a prayer song rises from the crowd, and heavy eyelids fall over Nova’s smiling eyes. Finally, the men enter the water, holding the round platform above their heads. Waves crash at their ankles, knees and waist, but the men don’t stop until they are chin-deep in the ocean. Then they dive in, leaving the platform to float and swim away fast. Behind them, the platform dives under the water’s surface, and a loud cry rises above the crashing waves.
Lucius and Shia fly in Nova’s pod over the deserted, powdery landscape. From above, they watch the Japanese colony, the pilgrims witnessing the end of the ritual sacrifice, the Atlantic Ocean spreading like a blue blanket beneath them. The platform floats on the ocean’s soft waves, carrying the bodies of the chosen ones like a human island. From the backseat, Shia looks at Ania’s picture on the board, then reaches into Nova’s luggage and pulls out a cloth bag. Shia opens it revealing a handful of seeds, the photo of a young blonde woman and a handwritten note that she reads aloud.
‘The Seed Keepers.’
The neon-orange sun descends towards the horizon, where the blood-stained ocean meets the sunset blush on a white sky.