Authors: Abby Geni
Copyright © 2016 Abby Geni
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Is Available
Cover design by Elena Giavaldi
Interior design by Megan Jones Design
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e-book ISBN 978-1-61902-749-7
HE BIRDS ARE
making their battle cry. Miranda can see a group of gulls wheeling in her direction. White feathers. Glinting beaks. Mad eyes. She has enough experience with their capacity for violence to recognize their intent. They are moving into attack formation, circling her like bomber jets homing in on a target.
Miranda is on her way to meet the ferry. She picks up the pace, striding up the hill, her backpack swinging on her shoulders. The boat is late, which is no surprise. The ferry is always late. It is one of the few constants of the islands.
The lap of waves fills the air. The archipelago is shrouded in mist today. In the summer months, the fog is often present. There are no balmy, golden afternoons here, no sunbathing. The horizon is obscured, the sun a damp pinwheel. Miranda slips and skids on a crumbling patch of stone. Despite her eagerness to be gone, she must step carefully, consciously. Her progress is impeded by nests and baby chicks. The gulls have covered the ground like snowfall, making use of every inch of grass and granite. In their midst, Miranda is incongruous, a lone pine tree in a field of white.
The birds are not a silent presence. Their wings rustle. The chicks squawk to be fed. The parents shriek back indignantly.
Every now and then, there will be an explosion, a dispute over territory—feathers flapping, a spatter of blood. Miranda herself is not immune to their possessive, fanatical angst. A few gulls have been tracking her progress since she left the safety of the house. Any minute now, they will strike. Their wings are splayed, eyes glittering. Closer and closer.
But Miranda has come prepared. She is wearing thick leather gloves, exposing less flesh for the gulls to bite. Around each ankle, she sports a flea collar to keep the bird lice from crawling onto her skin. She wears a mask over her mouth to deal with the powerful stench of ammonia from the guano. A hard hat sits awkwardly on her head, and beneath it she wears a stocking cap, an additional measure of cushioning. Miranda is swaddled in a poncho, too, already streaked with slimy droppings, which the gulls have aimed and flung like weapons. When the ferry comes, she will shed all these items. She will remove her gear like a spy changing out of a costume, peeling off her wig and false teeth, unstrapping her gun, and fleeing the scene—becoming, in a moment, unexceptional, a face in the crowd.
Her knapsack is packed, such as it is. She does not have many possessions left. A collection of shells. A lucky puffin feather. A shark tooth, small and serrated. It is strange, after all this time, to make her exit from this place carrying nothing more than a backpack. But things do not endure here. The jeans Miranda brought with her so long ago have been reduced to rags. Her books have succumbed to mildew. Her ergonomic pillow is full of mouse droppings. The only items she has retained—at considerable effort,
requiring the use of watertight containers and all her cleverness and vigilance—are three digital cameras, one large-format instrument, and several cartons of undeveloped film. These are her treasures. She has photographed the islands in all their moods, from the crystalline sunshine of winter to the wild autumn storms. There are more than a dozen isles. Miranda has recorded each one. Chocolate Chip Islet silhouetted against the glitter of the ocean. Sugarloaf, a puffy mound. The Drunk Uncle’s Islets poking their bald heads out of the surf. And the people here. The few who are left. She has photos of them, too.
The impact comes without warning. A gull slams against Miranda’s temple, knocking her off balance. She cries out, her hard hat tilting across her eyes. Wings thunder around her shoulders. The gull does not escape unscathed either; it crumples to the ground, visibly disoriented. Miranda does not stop. Shaken and disheveled, she continues toward the water. She knows better than to pause out here, in the open. She mounts the cliff, breathing hard, finally reaching the crest.
Forty feet from shore, there is a solid wall of fog. The ocean is coated with coils of mist like smoking embers. Miranda readjusts her hard hat. The birds are keeping their distance now, regrouping, reconsidering. They shriek threats and warnings. They swivel and dive in her peripheral vision, menacing shadows.
Then the rumble of an engine echoes across the water. It is barely audible over the clamor of the gulls. As Miranda watches, the prow of the ferry noses through the band of fog. There is something audacious about its appearance, like an act in a magic show.
The boat seems to force itself into existence, appearing out of nothing, out of mist, out of dreams. Almost against her will, Miranda raises both arms over her head, waving desperately. The craft is still too far away for her to tell whether Captain Joe has waved back. She watches as the boat trolls through the surf. The gulls whirl around her, screaming. They have not given up. They will maintain their malevolence until the bitter end. Miranda knows what they would do to her if they could. She knows how dangerous the islands can be. She knows this better than anyone else.
Half an hour later, she is on board the ferry. Never famous for her sea legs, she leans against the railing, feeling her gut heave in concert with the lurching deck. She is ready to depart, to leave the islands for the first time in a year. She stands twenty feet and a world away from the coast. Captain Joe hustles around the boat, doing mysterious sailor things: unwinding a rope, tugging a lever, testing the strength of a latch. As the ferry grinds away from the shore, the ocean pivots, rotating on its axis. Everything about the landscape looks different from this perspective—the islands small, the mist a soft curtain, the birds as delicate and ineffectual as paper cranes. Miranda holds her breath, unaccustomed to the sensation of safety.
She has removed her flea collars, poncho, hard hat, and mask. Still, she is unhappily aware that her clothes—steel-toed work boots, a stocking cap, and a man’s jacket she swiped as a keepsake—are not exactly normal. Her attire would be inappropriate for any place other than the Farallon Islands. Once she reaches California, she will probably be mistaken for a homeless person. Passersby may pity her and offer her their spare change. If they only knew.
The ferry cleaves through the water. Its wake sketches a path back to shore. Miranda plans to watch the islands recede into the distance until the fog devours them. The archipelago is a collection of miniature islets, a tiny formation, a speck on the map. Southeast Farallon is the only one of the bunch that is even fit for human habitation. It has a shelf of greenery, on which the cabin sits, along with the lighthouse, the boats, and two small trees that stand proudly in the wind, their canopies overlapping for company. Scattered around this central island are sculptures of bare rock so insignificant that they can’t support plant life, beaten as they are by the surf and patterned with barnacles. As the boat steams away from the shore, Miranda bites her lip. She half hopes to catch a final glimpse of another human being—poised on the cliff’s edge, lingering there to see her off, to wave goodbye. But after all that has happened, she should know better. No one is standing there. The islands appear deserted. The lighthouse is black and solid against a bank of clouds. The cabin is barely visible, hidden by the hillside.
The waves grow larger, swelling beneath the hull. Saddle Rock swings into view, teeming with sea lions, some dozing in a pile, some bounding comically over the beach. Soon the ferry reaches the fog. From inside the deckhouse, Captain Joe is singing—a cheery tune carried on the breeze. As Miranda watches, the islands become ethereal and vague. A haze removes their sharp edges, blurring the outlines. She squints through the shroud, taking one last look at the coast. For a moment, she feels like a boat herself, tugging at her anchor chain. During the past twelve months, a length of iron links has tied her to the archipelago. She has been altered over her time
in this place like a vessel moored in a harbor—eroded by the tide, beaten by the waves, holes punched in the hull, dirtied and battered beyond recognition. Now she feels the chain beginning to distend. It aches as it stretches beyond its limits. Finally, with a wrench, it snaps in two. When that tether gives way, Miranda almost faints.
For the last year, she has spent every morning listening to Galen spit elaborately into the sink. She has stood at the oven range with Charlene, giggling as the two of them doused a pan full of scrambled murre eggs with every spice in the larder, all in a futile effort to make their breakfast taste a little less fishy. Miranda has taken numerous walks with Mick, orbiting the coast. She has waited by the front door, watching Forest carefully lacing up his boots, taking ten minutes longer than everyone else, as though the fate of the world might depend on each precise knot. Miranda knows all their quirks. She knows the way Galen laughs, his eyes crinkling shut, his mouth so wide that you can see every filling. She knows the way Lucy hums in her sleep, hour after hour, clearly audible in the quiet cabin. She knows the smell of Andrew’s sweat, earthy and sharp. She knows the exact span of Mick’s white hands.
She will never see any of these people again. In a way, she is glad.
On the long boat ride, she removes her cap and does her best to brush her matted hair. She grapples with the scary marine toilet. She examines her photographic equipment. Some people name their cars—beloved objects, imbued with personality. Miranda is in the habit of naming her cameras. The best of her brood is Jewel. It is large-format, and it has enough dials to bamboozle both Galen and Forest, who were prone to picking it up and playing with it
whenever Miranda’s back was turned. This is the monster that has, like an overactive queen bee, spawned a hundred cases of film, as yet undeveloped, waiting to hatch in the darkroom. The second camera is Charles, a period piece. Charles is at its best in the morning and the evening, when the sky is golden, the air thick with light. Charles imposes its own take on the world. And the remaining two (Gremlin and Fish Face) are digital SLR cameras: simple, flashy, wildly expensive. Miranda cares for each of them tenderly, a benevolent mother. She remembers their birthdays, the important date when she purchased each one.
Two of her babies have been lost over the past year. Casualties of the islands. Their names were Tomcat and Evildoer. Gone forever.
Now Miranda makes her way into the shelter of the deckhouse. She settles on a bench. Outside the window, the fog is undiminished, encasing the boat like a roll of cotton. The world beyond the hull is reduced to auditory impressions: a foghorn, the plash of waves, a gull crying. Distant now. A musical sound.
She reaches into her bag and removes a manila envelope. It is a bulky thing, swollen and rustling. She upends it into her lap, releasing a blizzard of paper. There are lined pages torn from notebooks. There is printer paper, covered front and back in Miranda’s own handwriting. There is graph paper, and tissue paper, and wax paper stolen from the kitchen. On every surface, Miranda’s cursive is unusually cramped, like ants marching in line. Paper in any form was scarce on the islands. She had to make the most of each piece. During the spare winter months, she ripped pages out of magazines and filled in the margins. She made do with old receipts, the
original printing faded, the surface now marked with her script. She even wrote on toilet paper. The contents of the manila envelope represent a full year’s work.
Moving cautiously, Miranda spreads the papers across her lap. There is order here, of a kind, though it would not be discernible to anyone but herself. Some might see the scribbling of a madwoman. Or the poetry of this place. She finds a note from a sunny afternoon in September. That long, frantic letter in autumn, the handwriting almost too desperate to be legible. The pages from the wet week of Thanksgiving still bear the rumpled memory of the damp air. There are notes from December, March, the spring, the summer.
Maybe she will find no answer here. Maybe there will never be an explanation for everything that has happened to her. But this is her last chance to understand. The ferry’s engine thrums. A faraway gull keens like an infant in distress. Miranda sits for a moment with her head bowed. Then she begins to read.