Excerpted fiction by Kyūsaku Yumeno translated from the Japanese by Sacha Idell.
To the Institute for Oceanographic Research:
I hope this letter finds all of you in good health. In accordance with your instructions, we have been gathering the beer bottles, sealed with red wax, that were released for your research on tidal currents as they wash ashore. On the south coast of the island, however, we discovered three bottles that were sealed with a different material. All three bottles were found within two hundred and fifty meters of one another, either buried in the sand or stuck in gaps between rocks. In any case, it appears that all three are quite old, and the contents look to be not the government-issue postcards used for your research, but rather scraps of paper torn from a notebook, and as such it is impossible to enter the standard information in the research logs. In the case that they might provide a reference, we have decided to send you the bottles at our expense, their seals still intact and otherwise untampered with. We hope they prove useful for your research.
XX Island, Town Hall
Contents of Bottle-1
Father, Mother, Everyone,
At long last, a boat has come to rescue us from this deserted island.
From a large ship with two smokestacks, two rowboats were dispatched in order to navigate the stormy seas to the island. It appeared that you, mother and father, were on the boats, mixed among all of those who had come to see us off, and we were overcome with homesickness. Someone waved a white handkerchief in our direction, and in an instant we understood.
We understood that all of these people and you, our mother and father, must have seen the message from our first bottle, and that you have come to save us.
White smoke rose from the ship, and a high-pitched whistle blew, as if to say we’re coming to save you now. It was so loud that all of the birds and insects of this tiny island flew away and vanished in the distance over the wide ocean.
But for the two of us, that whistle was more terrifying than the final blasts of Judgment Day. We couldn’t help but think that heaven and earth had been torn asunder, the light of the Eye of God and flames of Hell blazing together before us.
Oh. My heart is racing; my hands are shaking too much to write. My tears have blinded me.
In a moment, the two of us will climb a cliff facing that giant boat so that you might see us better, mother and father. So that all of you and the sailors you’ve brought along and begged to save us will see us clearly as we drop, clinging to one another, as we cast away our bodies and die.
The sharks that swim in these waters will surely devour us.
And then, after that, this letter than we’ve shoved into a bottle and set adrift will be picked up by all of you on the boat.
Oh. Father. Mother. We are sorry. We are sorry, we are sorry, we are sorry. Please, know that from the beginning we were not worthy of being your precious children, and give up on us. And to those who came all the way from our distant hometown in order to save us, give them our condolences. We are truly sorry. Please, please forgive us.
And after that, father, mother, hold each other close and return to the real world. Have pity on us and our miserable fate, for having to die the instant we were given a chance at salvation.
Our bodies and souls are not able to atone for the sins we have committed. This is simply retribution for the horrible things we have done on this deserted island.
Please forgive us for not confessing more than this. We are fools who are worth no more than shark’s prey. Ah. Farewell.
We can be saved by neither God nor humans.
Your Sorrowful Children
Contents of Bottle-2
Oh, inscrutable God!
Is there no other way to end this suffering but death? When I climb the cliff we call God’s Footrest alone, there are always two or three sharks swimming in the water below. I don’t know how many times I’ve peeked into that abyss and wondered. . . even now, I am considering casting my body aside. But then I think of poor Ayako, I sigh so deeply it’s as if my soul is crumbling, and I climb back down the cliff. I understand all too well that if I die, Ayako will follow me soon after.
How many years has it been since Ayako and I drifted to this deserted island after being separated from our caretaker and her husband, the sailor? It’s as though it’s always summer here, and though I never know when Christmas or New Year’s is, I would guess that at least ten years have passed.
At the time the only things we had were a single pencil and knife, a notebook, a magnifying glass, three beer bottles filled with water, and a small copy of the Bible. That was all.
But, we were happy.
On this small, verdant island there was rarely anything more troublesome than an ant—no dangerous birds or beasts, not a single deadly insect crawling along. There were mynas and parrots, birds that I had only ever seen in paintings, magnificent butterflies the likes of which I had never seen nor heard of. For myself at eleven, and Ayako, who was barely seven, it was easy to find enough food from what was left over. All year there were coconuts, pineapples, bananas, fragrant red and purple flowers, and the eggs of small birds. We sharpened sticks and hunted fish and birds.
We gathered these things together, and using the sunlight and our magnifying glass, made fires out of driftwood so that we could cook and eat.
I found a clear pond one day while searching among the rocks on the island’s eastern edge during low tide, and so I built a shelter from the wreckage of the ship for Ayako and me on a nearby beach. I gathered dried grasses for us to sleep on. After that, I fashioned a makeshift storehouse in the side of a rock using parts from the boat as shelves. Eventually our clothing was worn away by the wind and rain and the edges of stones and we were forced to live naked, like savages, but each and every morning and evening we climbed God’s Footrest, read from the Bible, and prayed for our parents.
We wrote a letter to our parents, placed it within one of our precious bottles, sealed it tightly, and after kissing it many times, threw it into the ocean. The bottle circled the island, adrift on the ocean’s currents, before vanishing into the distance, never to return. As a signal for anyone who came to save us, I placed a pole made from a large tree at the highest point of God’s Footrest and hung fresh leaves from it.
We fought sometimes, but we were quick to make up. I decided to make Ayako my pupil and taught her the scriptures and how to write. As we thought of the Bible as our God, Father, Mother, and teacher, and as it was a thing even more precious than our magnifying glass and beer bottles, we placed it on the highest shelf of our makeshift storehouse. We truly were happy and at peace. It was as though this island were Eden.
We were so happy on the island that I kept waiting for the Devil to find his way in. And of course, he did.
I don’t know when it began. As the months and years passed, it was as if Ayako’s body had transformed into something miraculously beautiful, like the glimmer of light off a flowing mountain stream. Sometimes she seemed as bright as a flower-spirit, and others as seductive as the whims of the Devil. For reasons I couldn’t understand, uncivilized thoughts began to cloud my mind, and I grew distraught. It was when Ayako said my name and looked up at me, her eyes bright and innocent, and my heart began to beat with a new kind of excitement, that I understood.
Around that time Ayako’s attitude also began to change. Like me, she was acting completely different from before; she grew more and more homesick, and glanced at me often with tears in her eyes. And then, as time went on, she seemed more embarrassed, or perhaps saddened, by physical contact.
We stopped arguing altogether. Instead, we would sometimes make troubled expressions at one another and sigh. Perhaps it was because we were alone on this island and there was no proper way to put anything into words. The anxiety, the happiness, the loneliness . . . it wasn’t just that. What we saw in each other’s faces was the shadow of something darker. Unsure whether it was a revelation from God or the seeds of the Devil’s manipulations beginning to bud, my heart would roar so loudly that some days I worried I would not be able to return to myself.
Though I knew our hearts were growing closer, I feared violating one of God’s teachings, and never let the words escape my mouth. What if something happened, and then soon after a boat finally arrived? Thoughts like that would flicker through my head before I could put anything into words.
But then one afternoon, after roasting and eating sea-turtle eggs, we took a walk on the beach to stretch our legs. As I was watching distant clouds glide above the ocean, Ayako asked me an important question.
“Brother, if one of us gets sick and dies, what do you think the other should do after?”
As she spoke, her face was flushed, and tears ran down her cheeks before dropping into the sand. I didn’t know what to say. I made a face that was sorrowful or laughing or both.
I don’t know what sort of face it was that I made that day, but the thought of death was suffocating. I stood on the sand unable to say a thing, and eventually Ayako gave up and walked away.
I climbed God’s Footrest alone and began to pray.
“Oh, God in heaven. Ayako doesn’t know a thing. That is the only reason she said such a thing to me. Please forgive her your punishment. In return I will always work to make certain we remain pure. And I, too, will . . . oh . . .
“I will dirty my hair with sand. I will press my stomach into the rocks. If it is your will that we be punished for this, please let a bolt of lightning extinguish me now.
“Oh, inscrutable God. Please grant me some sort of sign.”
A sign never came. The sky was a deep blue, white clouds unspooling across it like thread. In the azure sea below, a whorl of waves rushed white into the bottom of the cliffs, the fins of sharks occasionally poking above the water’s surface. As I stared over the cliff’s edge into the depths of that blue abyss, my eyes began to spin. I grew dizzy and stumbled, and for the instant before I caught my balance, I was certain I would fall and crash into the foam of the waves. Without giving myself another second to think, I turned back and climbed again to the highest point of the cliffs. I grabbed the pole I had adorned with leaves and hurled it, with all of my strength, into the water below.
It’s fine now. Even if a ship finally comes, they will simply pass us by without stopping. Thinking this I laughed scornfully, and like a lone wolf, I ran down the cliffs and to our shelter. I opened the Bible to the Book of Psalms and placed it in the smoldering coals of the fire we had cooked our lunch in. I covered it with dried grasses and flames burst upwards and then, until my voice gave out, I ran throughout the island calling Ayako’s name.
When at last I found her, she was kneeling on a great rock jutting out of the sea, her head craned skyward in prayer.
I staggered backward.
As the waves shrouded the rock in purple, the setting sun glimmered like blood above Ayako’s solemn back. The tide slowly rose, and soon the seaweed beneath her knees was washed away by the current’s water, and as it flowed, like a waterfall, back into the ocean, the sunlight gave it a golden sheen. The sight of the water rushing over my sister as she prayed with all of her heart, its nobility, its brightness. . . My entire body turned to stone, and for a long while I simply stood and stared.
As if moving in a dream, I found myself rushing, running, gliding across the water to the rock. Its sides were nothing but seashells, and as I crawled up it my body became covered in cuts. With the force of a madman, I embraced the crying and grieving Ayako with both arms, covering us both in the blood from my wounds. After that, my memory fades. I can only recall our return to our shelter.
For us, there was no more shelter there. Along with the Bible and withered grasses it, too, had turned into white smoke and vanished somewhere in the distant sky.
After that, we did everything we could to drive away the darkness. At night and at noon, we despaired and repented. Whether we embraced, encouraged one another, prayed or mourned, it was all in vain, and I no longer felt we could so much as sleep in the same place.
Perhaps all of it was a punishment for having burned our Bible.
At night, the light of the stars, the sound of the waves, the singing of insects, the rustling of leaves, it seemed that all of these were the murmurs of prayers from the Bible’s pages, that they had surrounded us and were drawing ever closer, one step at a time. Unable to move or sleep, the terrifying thought that we might lose each other crept in through a hole in our hearts.
And when the long night finally ended, a long day would begin. The bright sun of this island, the singing parrots, the dancing birds of paradise, the iridescent insects, the moths, the palm trees, the pineapples, the colors of the flowers, the scent of the grass, the sea, the clouds, the wind, the rainbows, all of it had blended together with my memory of Ayako’s blinding profile, of the scent of her body, to form a brilliant whirlpool spiraling out in all directions, and whenever I thought I had finally done away with it, she would find a way back into my thoughts.
Ayako, who I knew was caged by the same suffering, was always watching me, and though her eyes were as enchanting as always, I could no longer tell whether they held God’s sadness or the Devil’s grin.
The pencil has almost run out. I cannot write much longer.
I am thinking that I will place all of this, our suffering and worries, our sincere devotion and fear of God’s Commandments, into a bottle, seal it, and throw it into the sea.
So that we will not succumb to the Devil’s seductions tomorrow. . .
So that at least our bodies will still be pure . . .
Oh, God . . . Even as we suffer like this, our bodies are fit and healthy. We are protected by this island’s pure wind, its clean water, its abundant harvest, its beautiful and fun flowers and birds.
What terrible torture this is. This fun and beautiful island is truly no better than Hell.
God, God. Why will you not spare a moment’s thought and kill us?
Contents of Bottle-3
We are well. We are getting along and living together on this island. Please hurry and come save us.