THE TEXT

The Life of Henry Fuckit
(1950 - 2015)

 

91   He reaches the Vital Isle

It was nearly nine when he rose in the morning. There had been no dawn, no proper breaking of day, just a gradual lessening of darkness until he was sure it could no longer be night. What kind of fog was this? How could it form such a dense blanket, smothering the light so completely? Maybe there was cloud cover as well. He lay in his bunk for a long time contemplating his inertia and the mood that was upon him. He should have been excited at the prospect of exploring this mist, finding the Vital Isle, discovering its secrets. Instead, he was calm and phlegmatic, indifferent to what lay ahead. Could it be the effect of the fog? Finally he roused himself, got dressed, made coffee, ate something.

Out in the vaporous gloom, standing erect upon the Whale's back, he marvelled at how dark it was. Visibility couldn't have been more than a few metres. The air was cold and laden with moisture and smelt slightly sulphurous, like bad eggs or rotting kelp. Faintly the confused din of the nesting multitude came to his ears and he resolved to use it as a foghorn that would guide him in. He might as well get on with it.

At a slow pace he sent his rubber vessel forging through the water, every few minutes cutting back on the throttle to listen and make adjustments to his course. After a quarter of an hour he was convinced the sound was discernibly louder, and once he even thought he heard the bark of a seal. The sea was so flat and slick he didn't expect to hear any surf. There would be no crashing of waves to warn him of protruding rocks or submerged reefs. He reduced speed to a walking pace. Was it getting lighter? The mist seemed to glow ahead of him, a brightness, he could make out a larger expanse of water ahead. The radiance grew rapidly in intensity and suddenly he was aware of dark outlines taking shape, gaining definition like the images on a photograph developing in a bath of chemicals. Then he broke free from the fog and coasted into sunlight.

He was unprepared for the extravagant grandeur of the scene before him. Not half a mile away the volcano reared up out of the sea, impossibly high and overwhelming, staggeringly beautiful in its effulgent cocoon of mist. Black cliffs rose up from the water, a girdle of verdant greenery sloped steeply to meet the bare rockface that formed the highest reaches of the cone. And from the lip of the crater, ragged like a broken tooth, there streamed not smoke but iridescent light. This emission of supercharged particles shot many hundreds of feet into the sky like a giant auroral flame before disappearing in the glare of the sun.

Henry was awe-struck. Open-mouthed he gazed up at this towering splendour and felt dwarfed, insignificant, puny. At the same time he knew he had moved into a different realm. Behind him, on the other side of the fog, was one world, a particular reality, and here, on this side, was another reality. This was so fantastic it was surreal, a figment of artistic fancy. He thought of Plato's cave. Behind him lay the world of flickering shadows where knowledge and perception dealt with a feeble, indistinct copy of what he was encountering here in this, the realm of ideal forms.

At an oblique angle he moved in closer and began to circle the island, looking for somewhere to land. There was no sign of a beach, just cliffs dropping straight into the sea. At one point there was a break and greenery ran down into the water, but as he approached there was a rumble and the lower section broke away and slid down into the sea. Imagine if he had been trying to climb that slope!

There was something odd about the vegetation and now he realised what it was. In Pretoria he had joined the replacement weather team on one of their orientation courses, which included a slide show featuring the fauna, flora and topography of Gough Island. The lecturer had pointed out the vegetation belts typical of Gough and the Tristan da Cunha group. Tussock grass on the cliffs as well as some sparse scrub on the narrow coastal plain. Then a profusion of ferns on the lower mountain slopes, growing to a certain altitude and abruptly being replaced by mosses from there on up. Three distinct vegetation types adapted to climate and weather conditions. What he was looking at now was an absence of tussock and scrub. And he had begun to note an increased amount of plant debris floating in the water. Furthermore, the smell of sulphur could well be the result of anaerobic decomposition taking place beneath him. Was this not conclusive evidence to support Harry Bergson's preposterous theory that the Vital Isle was in the process of sinking into the sea?

He was approaching a point, a projection of the cliff-line which had to be rounded. He passed close beneath the craggy outcrop and caught sight of an eyrie high above him. On a low mound of earth and plant matter sat a large bird of dark grey plumage tinged with brown. Its head was even darker with an incomplete white circle about the eye and its long heavy bill was black. Suddenly from overhead there came a wild drawn-out scream, the first note shrill, the second deeper. His skin prickled and he gulped with alarm and something akin to panic. The bird on the nest returned the terrible call and a moment later its mate came down in a fast swooping glide, slammed on the brakes at the last minute, tilted back, hovered with outstretched wings, and settled on the ledge. As it folded its pennons and waddled a few steps all its grace and mastery deserted it. The effortless precision and elegance of flight was transformed into earthbound clumsiness. This was the famous sooty albatross, about which Bob Avis had enthused so rapturously. The maestro whose artistry was beyond comparison. But that disembodied call! It had immediately put him in mind of the cerebral cry tearing through the darkened hospital corridor, the inhuman wail of a doomed soul.

The Whale had circumvented the jutting piece of headland and now he was in for another shock. The eroded stone face had been split asunder as if with a giant machete and a gaping fissure penetrated deep into the volcano's side like a necrotic wound. Christ Almighty! This was Giger's Hommage á Böcklin, an interpretation of Arnold Böcklin's Isle of the Dead, which had hung in an alcove of Adolf Hitler's diseased psyche. Giger left out the cypresses, the building, the columns and the spectral boatmen but retained the looming silhouettes, the towering shapes, the placid water, the portal, the sombre colours, the baleful depth of shadow.

Henry throttled back and, as the Whale drifted closer, he peered fearfully into the gloom. A gap broken through the middle of a basalt dyke provided access to the inlet. Gingerly he edged in between the jagged columns of rock and entered a frigid, sunless space. The waterway stretched some two hundred metres in, tapering into walls of blackness. The sound of minor waterfalls dripping and splashing echoed about him. The cliff faces rose up in steps, higher and higher till, far above, the sky showed through a rent in the roof.

He let the Whale drift to a halt, the engine throbbing like a heart, thump-thump, thump-thump. His eyes grew accustomed to the dimness. He scanned the walls of the grotto, searching for a way up, and his gaze was drawn to a ledge ahead of him, high up, maybe a hundred feet above the water. Upon this ledge sat a blob of blackness, darker than the surrounding obscurity, devoid of any substance, like the coalsack in the Milky Way.

With much swinging of the rudder and repeated surges of power to the screw he manoeuvred the Whale in against the left wall where he had spied a shelf sloping into the water. As rubber grazed granite he jumped the short distance, mooring rope and grappling iron in hand. For the first time in two weeks his feet were on firm ground.

It was an easy matter to jam the metal hook into a crevice and secure the rope. Now to find a way up. The manner in which the lava had been extruded in slanting layers, and then been cracked and split apart by other forces had resulted in folds and steps running diagonally upward. Without much difficulty he was able to climb these tiers, mounting the irregular steps with their narrow treads and high risers. He wasn't required to perform any fancy mountaineering techniques, thank goodness, and was able to ascend in a zig-zag line until he was roughly on a level with his destination. Then he followed the ledge he was on for the last twenty metres to the mouth of the cave. Glancing down, the Whale seemed a gut-wrenchingly long way below him. Out to sea beyond the dyke the wall of mist was glowing with pink and brown light.

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