My joints ached worse each time I thrust my fingertips into the earth. I cast piles and piles of the dirt aside, yet just as ever the hole seemed to be stubborn in its resistance to deepen.
I too had been stubborn; days had turned to weeks, all the while insisting to my ever-questioning consciousness that this was the spot. Many nights I returned to my ramshackle home and resigned to my thoughts; could I be wrong? Is it possible my eyes had deceived me? And yet every night, I eventually gave in to my body’s call for sleep, rose in the morning, and returned to the pit.
I found this routine soothing, and the longer I followed, the more entrenched I became in its pattern.
Only stopping for meals, the few distractions in my cycle proved therapeutic. Routine was the only thing keeping me from the incessant questions that would plague me had I been unoccupied.
However, the routine would soon be broken; the next day would not be like ones past, and my digging would be finished.
Most would find the stubbornness of my actions disturbing, so I will attempt to explain them before moving on with my story. I do not expect many to sympathize with my reasoning.
I have since lost track of the days, but from what I can guess it had been a month since I had jumped ship, abandoning my post to head for the island. A merchant on a small vessel, I had been writing in my journal, a habit of mine whenever at sea. I had just finished a letter when I glanced over the cover of the book. In the place of the flush ocean was a hazy mob of darkness. Smallish from the perspective of my ship, it seemed to appear in an instant in the dense fog.
Accompanied only by the soft creaking of the hull as the boards took on and released stress and the gentle lapping of the ocean waters, the sight stirred me from a semi-slumber. The island seemed to be in the wrong part of the world, like something out of a horror tale. Viciously carved cliffs adorned the periphery of the shores. Spires of rock rose out of the shallows like knives stabbing the suffocating depths. As we neared the island to port, the features of its interior came into view. The core of the island rose to a few forested peaks visible through the mist. Green dominated the center of the island with a few reprieves of brown and black, the overhanging faces of the rock.
I was alone on deck on the last watch until the crew would wake. Before I could call out to inform the helm that I had sighted land, I noticed something on the shore. My weary eyes could make out the light of a fire just behind the tree line, a faint flicker desperately fighting the obscurity that surrounded it. When I attempted to look directly at the light, it disappeared. Soon the clouds retreated, and the moon illuminated a figure on the beach.
I hurriedly doused my light in order to better see him. He was digging. He used only his hands or perhaps a scraping tool, shoving piles frantically aside. The thought of riches immediately stuck in my head, and at that moment I believe I had already made up my mind. I sat and watched the man retreat into the forest, and tied my journal to my belt.
I climbed down from my post onto the deck. Something actively drove me as I dropped a small boat and rowed myself towards the island. An alarmingly dangerous undertaking, I recall telling myself that the ship was barely breaking an idle in the water, I could easily reconnoiter the shore and return without risk. What controlled my thoughts is still unknown, and looking back that notion seems like folly to me. Once I stepped on the sands of that beach I knew there would be no leaving until I had found the treasure that lay beneath the earth.
Darkness engulfed me and although I could barely see in front of me, I had marked in my head the man’s position in relation to the forest. The roar of the crashing waves drowned out all else and the frigid winds were unforgiving. When I reached the area I had pinpointed, I found neither footprints nor leavings. None of that mattered to me. As I have mentioned, my mind had been made up; the island held me in its grasp.
I relieved myself of my water-logged boots and stood there staring at the spot where I had seen the man digging.
The coastal breeze blew, unrelenting. The night was a solid barrier of black past the first layer of foliage, the moist branches releasing droplets of water. The darkness allowed no shadows. The trees danced and gyrated madly as if demented by the howls of the wind. I wanted nothing more than to turn away but I remained, my gaze locked. What lay in the depths beyond that void? Was it an entity of evil? Or perhaps this was a façade, or maybe there was simply nothing but some bleak scape. There is something horrifying about the unknown. I could glean no new perspective of it without embarking into its core.
The tide, which had been several feet behind me, was now at my ankles. The rush of cold water awoke all of my senses and released me from my horrifying trance. I remained standing and slowly looked down on my feet as the retreating waves pulled the sand from underneath my heels and deposited some anew, burying my soles. My body gave me no choice but to sleep, something that happened often during the time to come.
That night, the island doused me in dew and salty spray from the tide as if I had been sleeping beneath the waves themselves. The cold winds tore through my body and chilled me, however the thought of what lay beneath the earth gave me purpose, and so even as my body shivered, my mind kept me warm.
Regardless, the next morning I arose and looked out to sea only to find an empty horizon. There was no ship. I turned away from the water and found myself maneuvering through the shallows of the forest looking for wood and vine. Soon I left the cover of the forest to retrieve my dinghy to use as a windbreak. As I returned to the beach, the boat was gone, as were the drag marks I had created in the sand. I was confident that I left the boat leaning against a tree well away from the tide. After some deliberation, I decided that in my haste to get to the hole, the boat had simply slipped and slid down into the reach of the retreating tide.
I then turned my attention to the events of the previous night. There was no doubt in my mind this was where the man had been, and so I began excavating the area. Without any available tools, my hands would have to suffice. I dug until my rough palms were smoothed by the coarse sand, all the while my mind focused on what sort of riches I would soon uncover.
As the reader knows, I would not find anything for quite a time. I had followed my routine just as I had for the past month, digging all day, making even less progress towards the end of my work as I had to remove the extraneous earth from the bottom of the pit. That night, just as my body grew too weary to continue, it happened.
I made a plunge into the ground, cutting my hand on the edge of a jagged seashell. I climbed from the pit to treat it when a noise erupted from the woods behind me. Animal calls were common here, but this was different. The noise resembled that of a laugh, but it was held to a great length and its tone was shrill. It was close. I quickly spun, and there behind the trees I spotted him. A moment’s glance revealed the figure of the man I had seen from the safety of the ship. I ran towards him.
But, just as the one I saw all that time ago, he left no sign. Resisting the constant siege of questions became impossible now. I sat against a tree to think, the sand beneath me warm from the sun, gradually growing colder with nightfall. This time however, my body’s physical needs would not win out, and I remained awake. I sat for hours into the night and the next day, thinking of the man, what he had buried, and what to do next.
I looked upwards, towards all of the nameless burning stars, wondering if they would ever gain recognition. Were they doomed to cycle each night into the view of millions of others and yet past their perception? Perhaps the man was like one of those stars, silent, unknown and out of reach.
I had been digging for weeks. This man was the only way for me to reach what I sought. The pit had taken my life and he was my salvation.
He had to be near. The island could not be very large, and so I ran into the heart of it. I sprinted until my lack of sleep, food and water made the green of the forest turn dark; one abysmal and endless mass. I stopped at a small puddle of rainwater to take a drink and then continued to run, the water still dripping from my tired mouth, oblivious to the sharp pain of branches cutting my face and limbs. I had to find the man.
After a time I collapsed. He was nowhere to be found, and now I would not be able to reach my bed before nightfall. I could no longer dig. The man was my new objective. I had not slept in days, but I knew that was an unattainable luxury now.
I lay under the canopy of a great tree, the earth beneath me dark and greasy with moisture. The trunk was hard and taxing on my aching back. All notions of real comfort had long since escaped me. My mind was invaded and the walls of my consciousness had been compromised. The island had robbed me of all sense of myself. Void of this mental security, I stood up, not of my own volition, more like a response intended to meld myself with the wild, entropic jungle around me.
I wandered where the path of least resistance led me. Around me, the normally screeching and din-filled wildlife ceased to disturb the night, even the trees were silent.
I stopped. Ahead, hanging from a low-lying branch was a figure. The man was swaying from side to side, much like the branches surrounding him. As I crept closer, his face became familiar. I had seen this man before, yet just as I passed around a tree, he disappeared. My faculties returned to me, this stark disruption halted me in my path.
I was frightened. I suppose it would seem odd that it would take so long for fear to crawl into my consciousness. Perhaps it should have been the natural feeling the moment I landed on this island. Surely I should have felt its presence when I saw the man in the woods, or when I had lost myself. And yet it had come now, of all times, in the middle of a dense forest of pitch darkness. I became frantic, I had to return to my pit, the only safe place I knew. And so I ran, dodging trees, branches and thick vegetation in my desperation to escape the hanged man.
Suddenly I was knocked on my back. There, in the darkness, silhouetted by the night sky was another man. He hung from a branch by his neck and swayed like the grotesque pendulum of some hellish clock. He was dressed in rags and his skin was so pale he seemed luminous compared to the black night. I cried out, jumped, and just as I started to run, I caught a glimpse of his face. It was my own.
From a distance I heard the call of my name. The call was faint and drawn out, turning my blood heavier and colder than any sight could.
I ran again, this time away from the odious chant.
Soon I could hear the ocean. When I broke through the brush, I finally found relief, to my right lay the pit, salvation. I jumped into its depths, digging furiously.
After a time my fingers began to bleed, the sand tore away at my skin, and yet I could not stop. I kept digging until the pile of sand and dirt had to be removed from the pit. I began to climb out. Each step I took slid me further down the sandy slope. The edge of the pit seemed to become more and more distant. There was no way out. I ran again at the face without success. My aching muscles offered no strength, and I fell down on my back.
Above me, the gaunt frame of the man crawled on all fours. His limbs were meager and his eyes were sunk like basins in his skull. A deep gash had opened under his chin, and he looked down at me from the edge of the pit, his pallid face staring. Tears formed in his eyes. I rubbed my own, and he remained.
I heard the call of my name again, long and shrill. The man perked his head at the cry, stood, and walked out of sight.
It was then that I came to my current realization. There was still one way out. A calm swept over me. Sand had found its way into my mouth and hair, and I spat into the pit. I stood and dusted myself, the sand falling off of my sleeves and out of my hair back to the floor.
This is where my story reaches my reality. I now believe that my time in this place may finally be over.
We realized a member of the crew was missing about a day after we passed the island, however no boats had been removed from the ship, so our only chance of finding him had to be that island. By the time we returned, it had been about a week since anyone had last seen him, as the favorable winds had carried us far from the place and then fought against us in our return. The island was small and so we began to yell for him, with no response. We soon reached a sort of lean-to shelter in the woods, and noticed a large pile of dirt nearby. As we approached, it became apparent that the dirt was from a large hole, and at the bottom of the hole we found him. It appeared to us that he had died from self-inflicted cuts to his throat, the weapon appearing to be a nearby rock. Our friend was very thin, it looked as though he had not eaten since we had left him. His mud-smeared journal lay beside him.