About the Author

Johanna Skibsrud

Books by this Author
Island
Excerpt

It was not gradual. For at least several seconds Lota lingered, drifting among images from dreams she no longer recalled. But then the images vanished, the dream dissolved. She sat up in bed, already fully awake.
   Her clothes had been laid out carefully the night before and now she dressed quickly in a pair of army-green cargo pants and a cobalt football jersey with the Brazilian national team’s logo on the front nearly rubbed out.
   The room was rented. Up three crooked flights of stairs in an old cable company building that used to house the foreign workers. These days, foreigners hardly ever came to the island and, whenever they did, they were flown in and out at the north end. They did their work at the new cable station that had been constructed there, and never actually set foot in town.
   Lota had been in the room six months, but it was still nearly as bare as when she’d first arrived. She’d hardly unpacked, was still living out of a single suitcase. There really was nowhere to unpack, even if she’d wanted to. The room had no closet, or drawers of any kind — only a single bed in the corner and a small table beside it, which supported a cheap porcelain lamp. Also on the table were Lota’s mobile phone and a glass of water, half drunk. Her suitcase, in the middle of the floor, gaped.
Opposite the bed and next to the door were a small sink and mirror. A bar of soap, a comb, and a toothbrush balanced on the rounded edge of the sink. Lota stood in front of the mir­ror now, gazing at her reflection in the spotted glass. The room was so narrow that if the door beside her opened she would need to step aside.
   But the door never opened, except when Lota herself en­tered and left the room. No one came to visit, or even knew where she lived. Her family in the village believed she lived with her auntie Toni, in the shopping district. No one had in fact spoken with Aunt Toni in many years and she didn’t have a tele­phone. It was safe, therefore, to say, “I am living with Auntie.” Nobody questioned her, but neither would they have known where to look for her if they’d needed to. Lota went back to the village frequently enough that the idea never crossed their minds. She saved just enough of her salary, and she brought it home every two weeks, along with tinned meat, potato chips, toilet paper, and other odds and ends from town.
   She worked at the fish plant, fifty hours a week, and when she wasn’t working she was either at the gym or at headquar­ters. By the time she got back to her room, she just fell into bed —sometimes without taking off her shoes.
   Lota splashed cold water onto her face and examined her reflection. The mirror was chipped in the corner and the glass rusted. In places it was difficult to tell what spots were the spots on the glass and what spots were her own. She was naturally freckled, like her redheaded grandmother.
   It was not white blood that ran in their family, her mother used to say: it was fire. The family could count back one thou­sand generations, knew how they were related to the sea, the sky, and to the hot lava that boiled beneath them. But like prac­tically everyone else on the island, her mother never spoke of the family’s white ancestors: the Irish and German settlers who’d come for the sugar trade, their colonial masters, or those — from all over Europe and America — who’d arrived on the island along with the first telegraph wire.
   In the old days, “white ghosts” had flooded the island and practically every islander was employed by one. The grandparents recalled this time fondly now, but whenever they spoke of it it was always as if the “white ghosts” had just been passing through. As if they belonged — and could only belong — nowhere, to no one.
   Yes, in those days, the old people said, there’d been a sta­tion, long since demolished, nicknamed “the old chateau.” It had had something like fifty rooms, including a billiard room, a dance hall, and a library. There’d been little electric bells in every bathroom that when rung would almost instantly sum­mon a Chinese servant.
   After the war, a new station was constructed with none of these finer points. It was located underground in an old fallout shelter with twenty-four-inch-thick walls; the only luxury in the place was a wall of showers where employees could wash off radioactive material in case of a nuclear attack. But at least there were still jobs. Lota’s father had been em­ployed there, briefly — and her grandfather and great-grandfather before him. But in less than a generation, everything had changed. Ø Com, the Danish outfit that acquired the station in the late seventies, laid off nearly all local workers, then simply stopped hiring.
   They built an even newer station on the island’s north end, so that what had once been the “new station” became the “old” or the “main” station and the even newer one was referred to as the “outer station” — if it was ever referred to at all.
   Mostly, because no one who lived on the island had ever set foot there, they didn’t call it anything, and half the time they even seemed to forget it existed. The work at both stations was done remotely these days, using computers, or else was too specialized for the undertrained local employees. Technicians and engineers were flown in for monthly service trips, and though a handful of islanders had been hired at the main sta­tion as janitors, desk clerks, or guards, no one but foreigners ever visited the outer station. It was as if, even before it was constructed, it had already disappeared: every official depiction of the island after 1982 left the entire northern end —occupied by the Empire, and by Ø — entirely blank.
   The island’s history was another blank spot. Except on very rare occasions, no one spoke of the day that, nearly fifty-five years ago, they’d looked up and — miracle of miracles! — seen snow raining down slowly from the sky. Or about the sixteen years they’d spent after that living as refugees on the Surigao coast. 
   They didn’t talk about the war, either — in which more than half of the island’s young men had fought and died on behalf of the Empire. Or, except in passing, of the telegraph days, or of sugarcane, or of sandalwood, or of coconut oil. It was really no wonder, then, when you thought about it, that, aside from sto­ries of boiling hot lava and fire, no one seemed to recall exactly how light skin and red hair had got into the blood.

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Nothing that Is, The

Nothing that Is, The

Essays on Art, Literature and Being
edition:Paperback
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Sentimentalists, The

Sentimentalists, The

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
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Tiger, Tiger
Excerpt

Finally, I managed to seize on something. I lifted it, trem­blingly, from the bag, and Dr. Singh and I crouched together in order to gaze, with wonder and delight, at . . . well, at nothing. We could see almost nothing at all at the tweezers’ pinched end. I motioned to Dr. Singh to move aside, and in unison the two of us shuffled a pace or two so that our backs were now to the door rather than to the window, and the specimen was suddenly exposed to the light. Now, we could just barely make out a small speck, as inconsequent seeming as a mote of dust. It was so slightly different in colour and texture from the air that if we had not been looking very hard we would, almost certainly, not have seen it all.
     There it was. The tiger.
It had been Dr. Wolff, in fact—not either myself or Dr. Singh— who had stumbled on the idea. He who had first informed us of the team of Russian scientists who had recently unearthed the remains of a laboratory dating back at least a hundred years, since sometime before the Last War. The laboratory had evidently been affiliated with a wildlife sanctuary and had housed the genetic information of at least several now extinct Siberian tigers. The specimens had been carefully stored, and three of them had been recovered—it was tempting to say miraculously—intact. They were now being sold to the highest bidder.
     A lab in Moscow had already snatched up one of them, Dr. Wolff informed us. But their science programming hadn’t yet fully recuperated from the war, and it was doubtful that anything would come of it. The second specimen had been sold shortly after, to a collector from Brazil. He would keep it on some high shelf in his Rio penthouse, no doubt, Dr. Wolff sniffed. Show it off whenever he remembered it to his more fashionable guests. 
     The Chinese would almost certainly sweep up the last speci­men. Take it back to their laboratories and—hastily, without a thought to the consequences—create their own little monster . . .
      “Yes! That would be just like them,” Wolff cried. “A scien­tific approach like that of a spoiled child!”
      Dr. Singh began to fiddle with the top button of his laboratory coat. I gazed ahead, using a technique I’d perfected—my eyes making just enough contact with the doctor to suggest attention, but in fact gazing steadily past him, toward the row of high shelves that flanked his desk.
      The shelves housed the Wolff’s own collection—the extent and variety of which would have impressed even a Brazilian collector. And just like the specimens in Rio, there was no more promising future for these than to remain where they were, gathering dust and waiting for the day when, in a burst of paternal affection, Wolff would take out the feather duster he kept for the purpose and dust each jar—contemplating their secrets, which he alone now kept. His eyes would shine as he dusted the jars in the way that eyes shine only in moments of sincerest love.
      How quickly that light would go out once the job was done! It almost made you sorry for him, the way his eyes flickered, then turned inward, toward the trap he had made of his mind. To imagine him in there, shut up and alone—the last of his kind.
      Just as for Dr. Wolff, the jars provided me with a source of respite and relief by offering me something to look at while he spoke. For some reason I couldn’t bear to listen to him and look at him at the same time. One or the other, yes—but not both. And so I would look behind him at the collection of human and chimp fetuses floating in formaldehyde, their skin grey from long exposure to preserving agents, and think about how strange it was to decay that slowly—or rather, to not decay at all. Because it was the preservative process that was slowly eating away at the specimens, not the other way around—the possibil­ity of their own immortality that was now slowly destroying them. Sometimes I even imagined I could see it happen. That I could actually detect, in the length of time that I gazed at them, their incremental deterioration. (No doubt this was only my imagination; the oldest specimens, boasted Wolff, were nearly four hundred years old. It was quite ridiculous to imagine that given that great length of time I, who was witness only to the smallest fraction of it, might actually be able to see the moment in which some identifiable change occurred.)
     Other times, I would amuse myself by hazarding guesses at which of Dr. Wolff’s specimens were human and which were not, because often in the smaller, less developed specimens it was quite difficult to tell—especially from a distance. I tried to keep my eyes level, and my mind focused on this task, because if I let my eyes drift even slightly—according to some irresist­ible gravity—down toward the lower shelves, they would inevitably betray me.
      The lower shelves housed the doctor’s collection of preserved testicles—all of the human variety. It was the second-largest collection of human testicles in the world, Wolff would some­times boast, transferred into his care by the great-great-grandson of an ex-Nazi surgeon. Wolff maintained the collection “in the name of science,” though even he would have had to admit that, by this point, the evidence these specimens supplied was less scientific than spectral; from within their murky jars, they con­jured a gruesome past only Wolff was capable of looking in the eye. My own always blinked, compulsively, when they drifted to those lower levels. Or skittered away.
     It will be an immense relief, if and when the Wolff ever does finally retire, to clear out those lower shelves. Sometimes I even allow myself the brief fantasy of overseeing the operation. Of course, I would hire someone to do it; I could never bring myself to actually touch them. I would merely watch as the specimens were carried away by a sanitation engineer on a metal dolly, but it would give me a great sense of satisfaction—even pleasure—to see them go.

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