The Parting of the West

craggy mondasWhen the storm came, it was all storms; the ur-storm. Every tempest the Atlantic had ever unleashed before that night was just a premonition, each squall that would escape its abyssal depths from that day forth merely an echo. It would not be named.
Most of the islanders had seen the weather forecast, and those without televisions or radios had heard the talk down the pub. Hurricane, affirmed one pintman, with the wisdom of a sage. Cyclone, prognosticated another, with the weight of a doctor delivering ill news. Meteorological events, being among the only events that occurred here, received an unhealthy level of discussion. (No-one really had the spirit to debate the meteorology this time, though – that’s Mondays for you.) It was the same eternal, inexhaustible musing (there’s great drying out) that had kept Ireland’s people in conversation (it’s fierce mild) for centuries, now refined and elevated to the status of sombre emergency. The mainlanders didn’t know how handy they had it; here, a few miles off the coast of Galway, the islanders lived at the westermost brink of the continent, precarious wrasses daring the jaws of the restive ocean. There was no protection for them. Often enough, weather was all they had.

They were all indoors when the storm arrived. Some sat huddled around fireplaces, some read paperbacks by the light of bedside lamps, but most had already sunk into a fitful sleep as the gale outside whistled and whirred. It was very early in the morning. The island didn’t have much in the way of streetlights, not having much in the way of streets, but between them the moon and Milky Way were enough to see most drunkards home. If anyone did stay outdoors, they probably didn’t see much – just a shapeless blackness rising from the west, gnawing away at the edges of the star field as it drew closer.

Naturally, the west side felt it first. Children stirred as rain and sleet pelted leaky roofs and bedroom windows, and the dreams of the sensitive few took troubling turns. Lightning struck out, and for an instant a hardy observer, eyes battered and bleary with melting hailstones, might have glimpsed the storm-clouds themselves, their great roiling black mass now filling the sky, horizons buried. The thunder-clap followed like the sound of an underground car park alive with wheelie-bins, and somewhere a stray dog barked, retreated to the shelter of undergrowth, closed its eyes.

For a few minutes, there was quiet. Winds died away, gates stopped creaking, and the tumult dwindled to a soft and unseen rustle. It is widely known that storms have eyes, but such metaphors imply a certain normalcy, and this was not a normal storm. It was a heavy pause – an inhalation.

The moment held. Then something broke.

And pandaemonium stood revealed in all its blind and quaking glory, the island ripped apart by a deafening nightmare scream with the volume of a divine revelation. Asserting itself with the malice of a blizzard, the west wind lacerated the unseen night-time countryside. Electric, spasmic light tore through the bulbous black clouds – tattered curtains in a skyscape billowing with cruel and sickly flames. Hills buckled and fields shifted, revealing strata of soil and silt and sand as they came undone, forced aside, forced upwards, plate tectonics accelerated beyond logic or imagining, and the boiling sea surged in to fill the swelling swirling ravines. Dry-stone walls held together by nothing but gravity – walls that had stood for centuries, quietly and solidly delineating the island’s humble farms into that misshapen grassy lattice, that hive of frigid wax – now were scattered into disarray, old grey rocks rolling and clattering without purpose before disappearing into the widening rift. In his narrow hut in the desolate central plain, a watchman woke with a start, and without thinking held his grandfather’s whistle close. On the far side of the island, a forgotten shipwreck groaned and creaked, staining the pebbles with ancient rust.

And then there was silence.

Some of the islanders, roused by the noise, looked blearily out bedroom windows in an attempt to discern what had woken them. A tired shopkeeper searched for a way to blame her hated husband; began a heated argument in their unlit bedroom. One startled priest, not normally given to such things, fleetingly considered a quick Hail Mary in case it should turn out to be Gabriel’s trumpet; calming, he reasoned that a backfiring car exhaust was about equally likely, and decided he wasn’t arsed. Seeing only thick rain and empty night, the islanders returned to their beds.

The next morning, they were stunned into mute confusion on discovering that the west side of the island was gone. It was a clean split: beaches entirely absent, whole fields missing. Severed tarmac roads splintered to a halt, their crumbling edifices suspended yards above the mild surface of the Atlantic, hanging like half-formed notions in a surrealist’s sketchbook. No-one could have mistaken this for erosion: it looked, for all the world, like some fearful hand had simply taken a vast cleaver to the island. Generally speaking, their first response was to assume that they were still dreaming. As the morning crystallised, bright and cold, it became apparent that this was not the case – that the west side really had been carried off in the maelstrom. It hadn’t been submerged, hadn’t been flooded – it was simply no longer geographically present.

For the first few weeks, naturally, it was all the islanders talked about. The night of the great storm, and how the western side had drifted away. After a time, what had happened aged into a fable, and eventually decayed into an anecdote. When they found that guests dismissed it as a tall tale or an exaggeration, reasoning that islands could not be broken apart like that, that that wasn’t how it worked, most of them stopped mentioning it. Those who lived in liminal places learned liminal rules; lived through liminal days. The island, that blasted little rock clinging to Europe like a barnacle on the hull of some vast ironclad, was as close to the world’s end as anywhere on Earth, and occasionally provided quite a view. You couldn’t always reason with mainlanders – their world was so much smaller.

Initially, some concern was expressed regarding what had happened to those poor souls unlucky enough to have been living on the vanished region of the island. One by one, however, the islanders realised, with some curiosity, that none of them could name any particular west-siders. One might faintly have recalled a young couple who’d lived in an old shack by the windswept seaside, and another may well have remembered a great-aunt – or had she just been a family friend? – who’d probably lived somewhere in that general direction, maybe, though they hadn’t visited her in quite a while, and it was funny how you sometimes lost track of people, even though the island was so small, wasn’t it? Funny how people came and went; how their little island seemed to breathe. Had the storm been that bad, really? These things grow in the telling, after all, and in any case, anyone living over there would have moved inland for shelter, surely. With no faces to name, no inheritances to claim, and no bodies to bury, the islanders’ response to the disaster was as earthily pragmatic as it was characteristically puzzling: they got on with their lives.

Months passed, then years. Despite the storm, and despite a myriad other tribulations, the island remained very much the same. Nothing ever changed there, and perhaps nothing ever could. That just was not how it was designed.

*****

The night was cold, bitter and acrid, the stars leering in the vast dome of their orbit.

Past the surf, past the waves, the voyagers looked on, sextants turned to the black horizon. Their momentum amplified the night air, already vicious and cruel, transforming its chilly stasis to a keening gale.

They had long since moved past excitement, such meaningless chemical disruptions purged carefully from their systems, and yet the atmosphere was one of anticipation – somewhere, deep in the dusty remnants of their nerves, stirred a sense of foreboding. They had wandered for such a great expanse of time; had seen so very much. An eternity ago, there had been a vast and terrible storm. They had been part of an island, once – an ordinary island, inhabited by ordinary people. Then the storm had struck, and everything had changed – their world had been sundered, and they had been lost, cast off into the emptiness of the Atlantic.

And it had still been the Atlantic, in those dreamlike first moments. But the seas that border life and death are strange and unforgiving, and it had not been long after those first ear-splitting thunder-claps, not far beyond those first anguished gulps of chill salt-water, that they found themselves passing shores never beheld by men, under the celestial light of moons too vast and young to comprehend, their quarry sailing an unknown sea of stars. They passed beyond memory, beyond faith, beyond the innermost edges of the globe.

The islanders may not have wanted to admit it to themselves, but the west side did indeed have several dozen residents at the end. Perhaps it didn’t quite account for a full quarter of the landmass – certainly not a full quarter of the population, as even the first settlers had sensed the eerie stillness of that region, that implacable beauty which somehow verged on the upsetting. No, those few who felt drawn to it were shunned like changelings… but they were people nonetheless. Then, one night, the tempest came. In their terror and confusion, the west-siders turned to each other in mute supplication, desperate for guidance – and they found it. The earth below their feet – it had been lovely once, so lovely – torn from its natural moorings, now resolved in its movement, drifting with no storm to drive it. It had become an islet in its own right – no, a ship, a craft, a vessel, its secession engineered by the forces of nature and abnature. The people of the west side found their home become their prison. A wordless understanding passed between them. There was no more use for names, nor jobs, nor family allegiances. The people they had been no longer mattered; no longer existed. All that mattered now was survival.

So they had begun to change. In their old lives, they had been straightforward folk, for the most part – farmers, fishermen, shopkeepers. They had no visionary engineers; no scientists or magicians to guide them to the light. Rather, the light came to them, as if the cosmos itself had seen their inadequacy and extended a hand to remedy it. As they sailed into colder and more treacherous waters, the aeons foaming at their shores, knowledge came to them. Messages arrived on the stinging mists, and instructions were spelt out by the shifting constellations. As if in a trance, they set to work, and little by little, they remade themselves. Their bodies were improved, armoured to withstand radiant environments that conventional humans could scarcely imagine, let alone survive. They developed new arts to widen the doors of their perception, new tools to enhance that reach and vision, and many of those tools eventually ceased to be distinct from their flesh – simply became further appendages for their reshaped consciousness. They were safely encased in skins of steely cloth, but rather than isolating them, their bodily elevation only drew them closer, their brains now woven by implants into wireless communal unity.

Never having encountered beings with whom they wished to engage in sustained communication, they had no need to refer to themselves, but in their innermost minds, the old words remained. Like a guilty secret, an unspoken and uneasy truth: cyber. (And hadn’t that been the name of a building, too, back on the prime island? Café, had it been called?) But they had little need for names, and certainly no use for image or identity or persuasion. They were no cult. Cults recruited or inveigled – the voyagers simply took. When they came across other astral travellers, other wanderers in the void, they suppressed them quickly and assimilated them to their ranks. Some stranded beings welcomed their help with open arms; others, ensnared by dream and ego, fought to the bloody end. It was the way of things. The population of the island waxed and waned, with new anointees taken from passing lands as old ones left to found colonies or fell in battle. Disease and ageing were now things of myth, as trivial as faeries or gods in the piercing gaze, but there were wounds even they could not undo. When memories are shared, death is a small inconvenience, accepted when it comes.

Their true lives had begun on the night of the storm. It was an old story, but their telling could just as easily have been the first as the last; their cybernetic scientists had since established, after all, that stories poured upward as easily as down, so the mythic tenth planet was just as likely to be their shadow as the other way round. (The voyagers, in the interests of their own functional sanity, opted not to worry about any counterparts they themselves might have had on the other world, off the coast of its own Ireland.)

But as the billennia wore on, a sense of hollowness settled upon the voyagers; an awareness that their shard of land, their wayward commune, had accrued around an absence. They started to do something they had not done since the night their journey began: they started to look back. Slowly, a sense of coalesced in their minds; an atavistic longing for something lost. No-one knew whether it was an ocean current that drew them back; or some of arc of gravity, the apex of an orbital arc finally reached; or perhaps the strength of their own will, the collective effect of their instruments and structures, their aetheric mills whirring and straining brightly against the void. And no-one thought to wonder, as such distinctions were no longer possible: the voyagers, in their enlightenment, knew that their will and their world were one. So the nebular continents on the limits of their uttermost horizon slowed their approach, and stopped, and began to recede. An age had passed, and the voyage was halfway through.

The eternity that followed, like the second half of any return journey, seemed much shorter than the first. And now, at last, the time of reunion was at hand.

A figure emerged silently from the antiseptic central dome, stepping onto the deck for a clearer view. The voyagers were out in droves, filling those spaces which had once been fields or beaches – not excited, but purposeful, deliberate. Past them, the coast foamed with water, simple salt water, for the first time in an epoch. It seemed dead in light of the seas they had sailed; the seas where tidal waves seemed to reflect galaxies, but in truth reflected no such thing. She considered the name, as strange and familiar as the words of an ancestral proto-language: Atlantic. Had she lived here herself, once? Or had she originated worlds away, with this knowledge simply imparted, copied across generations to erase some earlier, lower-priority memory? She’d never know for sure – leaders required a great deal of specialised software, so even less of their original identities survived the cyber-conversion and upgrade processes – but that did not diminish the frisson of meaning she felt as their destination came into view. She was dimly aware that their arrival came in the midst of, or was itself causing, quite a prodigious storm. A being with a simpler mind might have smiled at that, but irony had been excised a very long time ago.

There it was: the island, the motherland, stirring in the night with faint signs of simple life, as green and craggy as the day they left. The island whose west side had been so cruelly rent away was to be made whole again, the offspring returning to embrace its parent. She did not need to smile. Every tragedy contains within it the seeds of new life: the voyagers had learned so very much, and what wonderful gifts they had to bring.

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