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Letter From An Island In The Middle Of An Unknown Sea
By Dee Sunshine
Monday, July 14, 2003
A shipwreck survivor writes a letter to her husband.
Husband of mine, Iím missing you badly, for there is a gaping hole in my heart where you are not. I have cried myself to sleep these past three nights without your arms around me. It has been a rare long time since last we held each other, but since Iíve arrived here I have fair noticed your absence. And if I fear that youíre sleeping with someone else this night, as the sun sinks red into the red ocean, itís because I still hope to see you again.
This is to be my fourth night on this island. I donít know how many other nights Iíll bide here. I keep waiting to see some ship passing, but the oceans are all empty, empty as my heart.
Danu is dead. She died in my arms as I was stroking her hair, her fine blond Irish hair. She just stopped breathing, and I sensed her spirit leave. I saw it with my other eye. It was gold and pink and shimmering. Beautiful. And I knew she was off to a better place. But it didnít stop the tears falling from my eyes. And the salt of them made me thirsty as a mariner, and I downed the last of our stale water as a mourning of her passing.
Robert, I had to throw her overboard, because I knew that maybe after a few days more of hunger Iíd have had to eat at her. And I couldnít have bared the thought. Because I knew in my heart that the urge for survival grows on some and diminishes on others with the passing of time. And I knew I was a survivor, and that in the end I would do anything to survive, and it would be an abomination on my soul to eat the dead flesh of a dear friend.
Oh Robert, when I lugged her overboard I didnít think straight. I thought she would sink down and thatíd be her, but she just floated there, out of reach, but ever so close. What with the winds having died down to nothing, it wasnít till yon night that I lost sight of her. I fell asleep, knowing full well she was bobbing about somewhere just out there. I fell asleep till well after the sun would have risen, with my heart in bits. I woke with the wind and rain lashing my face and I was so pleased to slake my thirst that I didnít think of Danu one time. And I was fair afraid and all, for it was a fragile craft I was in and it felt like it was made of matchsticks and rabbit glue on that heaving ocean. I was sure I was for the sharks or whatever dreadful beasts that live under the skin of the ocean.
Well Robert, the light is failing awfully fast the now, so different from back home. Iíll have to wait till the morning light before I can write you any more.
Husband of mine, Robert my love, it is not the morning after, nor the one after that, nor am I sure how many it is after. When I awoke, that I can remember, I was bathed in a dreadful slimy sweat and my bodice and skirts were soaked in horrible skitters, the thinness of piss, and I was so cramped up with the pain of it all I was sure I was going to die. It was terrible. The fevers were raging on me and I was seeing daemons and faeries and all sorts, and I was praying to the Lord like I never did in all the times I was drummed up to the church with my mammy and daddy and all my sisters and brothers. You would laugh at me, with your head full of all that modern thinking, but I think maybe the Lord did get me through it, and in my heart I think it is providence and one day I will see you again.
I think about Australia and wonder what it is like, and of how youíre earning three times what you were earning in Glasgow, and Iím so proud of you being an engineer on the railroads. I often imagine you carting those big sleepers with your big arms. And how I wish your big arms were round me now, my darling. You say itís hot in Australia. Itís hot here to, awfully hot. There are many strange things on this island, and sometimes Iím very afraid, but I know with my other eye Iím to see you again. I know it with my heart too. I love you, Robert MacRae.
I have never felt a heat like this. It is too hot too wear clothes. But I have made a covering from the lining of my skirts, and while it is thin and cool, it is both modest and becoming. And besides my arms are burnt raw red with the sun, worse than the hottest days of summer when weíve been rounding and shearing the sheep or cutting down the grain. Iím sitting under the shade of a tall tree with the hugest, fattest leave you have ever seen and no branches or nothing, just a long lean stem.
For a while after my fever broke, when my head was not quite fair, I was dancing like a gull, naked as the day I was born, along the edge of the beach, with all my shitey skirts washed out and lying out in the sand to dry, and I felt a strange kind of happiness come down on me, the like Iíve never felt before. Only the next day was my head screwed on right again, and I had to taste the shame for my wanton ways. But it is very hot here, my dearie dear, and I wonder if itís such a sin, with no folk to see.
It isnít a big island, about forty or fifty acres only, and there is nobody else camped here, but strange birds and small dragon-like beasts that bathe on the rocks by the heat of the day. They are but two foot long and should prove no danger. The island is thick with all sorts of trees and there are fruits and nuts of many strange types in plenty. But I miss my meat and feel a strong hunger for it. Though I couldnít find it in my heart to devise ways of killing these weird brightly coloured birds that caw and yammer, each to its fashion.
And I think with shame now that the day after the storm I was crying for my stupidity at throwing out Danuís poor wee body onto those waters, what with the hunger gnawing at my belly worse than hellfire and the sweat pouring out my hair roots and blinding my eyes. I tell you Robert, I would have eaten at Danuís pale flesh without thinking that day. And I give thanks to God that He found me this island the very next morn, because I swear I would have died. That night Robert, I was sore afraid. I couldnít sleep for the pains in my belly and I was mortally reminded of our child who I lost on the third day of the sailing. You never knew that I was carrying, but I knew the night your seed touched mine, I just knew, and I was sore grieving for losing it, sore grieving and sore to the pit of my stomach, like a hunger I never knew until I knew hunger for real. What a night. I donít remember sleeping, but I must have, for the next thing I knew, the wee boat was stranded on a sand spar, but twenty yards from this island, and the sun was blazing into my eyes so fierce I thought it was the light of the Lord. And for a wee second there, Robert, I thought I was dead and had come to paradise, but then I felt the cramps in my neck and shoulders and I knew I was still of this mortal coil. For there will be no bodily pains in the world here after. That I know.
Oh Robert, Iím sore grieved by Danuís passing and sore grieved for your brother. You must tell Sandy that her passing was painless and that her soul now resides in heaven. She was a poor wee thing, afflicted by weakness of the bones and the rickets, but she had a strong will to survive, like me. And even though I knew she wouldnít, with my other eye, my heart did but hope. Robert, there were seven of us in that wee craft and only I, by the grace of Godís love, did survive. And I canít help but wonder why I was so graced. Does the Lord have a purpose for me?
I havenít written now for several days, Robert my love, for my heart has been full of sorrow and anger, and I couldnít write you with that burden on me. Even now, I canít bring the light into my heart. But Iím filled to bursting with love for you and cannot leave my pen dry any longer.
The news of our shipís downing must have reached you and Sandy by now and I know you must be heavy hearted at the death of me and Danu, and you will not, being the men that you are, bide with false hopes of our survival.
I have been watching for ships, and the day before did see one, far on the horizon, but it didnít come anywhere near to this wee island, and my heart sunk to my knees for seeing it so, and I wondered if my angels were feeding my ears with ungodly lies, to lift up my hopes and dash them cruelly against the rocks. But I hear them and they are talking soft in my ears, lifting away my fears as I sit here with my ankles in the warm foam of this huge sea, and I know in my heart that it will not be long before a ship takes me to Australia and joins me to you once again.
I have all your books, but one. Iíve lost ďThe Rights Of ManĒ, but your Ruskin and Dickens and all the others are safe in my bag. Iíve torn the blank pages from them, and I know youíll be sore about that, but there was nothing else to write on. I have leafed through the books and can only make a wee bit of sense of them, for they are written in a strange Sassenach tongue and I had but few years of schooling and hated the dominieís ways for all that, wishing only to be doing the milking or collecting the chookieís eggs. But Iíve been thinking of you reading those books by the hearth, after your twelve hours at the shipyards, and thinking so, my heart has been filled with wrath for the injustice of it all. When I think of those wee nancy boys from the university with their heads in the clouds up Kelvingrove, just a mile away from Partick, with you sweating away at the shipyard and with ten times the sensibility of those wee twats. There, Iíve said it now. Shame on my cursing mouth. But when I think of the injustice of it all it gets me right in the gut and I want to lash out and smack those wee nancy boys with the back of my hand, with their plummy voices and soft bodies which havenít done a dayís labour in their lives. Honest to God Robert, I could curse till the cock crows for it all. I wish weíd never gone down to Glasgow. Its dirt has got into my soul, and even on this island, hundreds of miles from it, I feel its poison in me. We would have been happy if weíd stayed on the farm, poor but happy, if yon bastard factotum hadnít put us out on our arses.
Is Australia really the paradise you say it is? Is there no poor, no starving, nobody put out of their homes? Itís hard to imagine, an empty paradise just waiting for the finding. And you say itís a hundred times and more the size of Scotland. I cannot tell you how hard that is to picture. I mind our trip from Inversnoddy to Glasgow. Three days walk it was to Inverness, and a full dayís ride on the train from there to Glasgow. How long must it take to cross Australia? And you say that the middle part of it is just burning stone, and that thereís no water to be had, and that many have died there prospecting for gold.
I wish you had written more Robert, my mind is fair taken with this strange land that is to be my new home. I have your letters here, both of them, but the ink has run with the salt water. But I know what you say in them by heart. I think about Australia with its heart of fire and skin of velvet and wonder if all is really good there. Tell me itís so Robert. Tell me itís better than our wee farm in Inversnoddy.
Yesterday, Robert, one of those red and blue birds was walking along the edge of the clearing and I spotted it was carrying its wing and I knew it wasnít a far cry from death, so a clobbered its wee head with a big bit of wood and I roasted it good at the fire. It took me many long hours to get the fire going, but I got it using stone as flint and wee bits of dried grass and now itís blazing away good style. The meat on the bird was better than anything I ever tasted from a chookie, and Iím determined Iíll have another before the night is out. Wondrous as they are to behold, there are hundreds of them and Iím fair ravenous for meat.
Iíve collected enough wood to keep this fire going for a couple of days. I know thereís another ship near and my smoke will draw it nearer still. My angels have shown me.
Iím going to put this note in the bottle and set it off to sea. I know fine it will not get to you, but I had to write it for my soul was aching with the pain of it all. My ship is coming and soon we will be together, and of all this I will tell you nothing. For how can a wife unburden her heart? A womanís heart is no empty vessel, but it is capable of holding more grief than any life can give it. I love you Robert MacRae, youíre a good man, but you cannot carry my burden for me.
With love and fond kisses,
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