Piker Press Banner
August 01, 2022

Direnistan

By Jeffrey Wade Gibbs

It's September on the island, a night after a storm.

You're scrambling down through the trees, trying to follow the bends of the path by the light from her phone. She moves too far ahead and then pauses, turns, and holds it out for you. The white beam reveals damp pinestraw, scraps of garbage, nettles and sand. When she resumes walking, swinging the phone back around, the shadows of the trees pounce on your own and then leap forward into the darkness. You hear the impact of the surf on rocks, smell the salt, the seaweed, her perfume.

You steal a glance behind.

"I think somebody saw us when we left the road. The zabita, or maybe just a security guard."

She doesn't answer. Instead, where the trail ends, she sits and slides, dropping over a steep ledge. The light vanishes briefly and then it shines back at you. You see the red cliff wall slanting down toward where she stands watching you impatiently from a nimbus of illumination.

"Don't start," she says. "It's not even a meter and a half drop."

A meter and a half. About 5 feet, you calculate. "You know I'm no daredevil."

She sighs. "This hardly requires a daredevil."

It's clearly more than five feet and you're afraid of heights, but for twelve years she's refused to bring you here, the island of her birth. Now something has changed. Maybe it's some sort of sacrifice after the long separation, a yielding to help heal the wounds. Or maybe it was the visa application, never mind that it failed. The attempt to leave was enough to jar something loose. In any case, she's finally agreed to show you the points of her childhood geography, and you have the feeling that any little mistake on your part will end it, that you'll blink and open your eyes on a ferry back to the city without her.

You suck in a breath and let yourself fall.

It's not as far as you imagined. You land with a stumble. Your hands fly out to steady yourself, but you stay on your feet.

"Not bad for a mainlander," she says.

The beach is all small chunks of shale and limestone worn smooth by the waves. There are bits of driftwood, plastic water bottles, beer cans and a tangle of old blue rope. More garbage surrounds a dumpster spray-painted with the slogan, in English, Fuck Religion. You stop next to the ruins of a wrecked fiberglass boat. Along the shore and on the ledge that winds up from the sea are tents -- some set back in the trees, some on the beach, some backed up against tall cliffs. They all glow from within, luminous with the light of electric lanterns or flashlights or candles, each one a different color -- blue, green, or red according to the surface of the fabric. Shadows move within.

"Campers?" you whisper. "In the city?"

"We don't exactly think of the islands as part of the city," she says in a normal voice. "And they aren't camping. They live here."

"Who?"

"Hippies or dropouts or just whoever wants a break from all the bullshit happening on the mainland. All the government's 'moral renewal'." She pulls off her shoes with her toes. "And they're not all kids. There's one woman, forty-seven, who just walked out of her bank job one afternoon and never went back, left her car keys and telephone and everything on her desk with a note that said, 'kolay gelsin'." She lifts a foot up and yanks a sock free with the hand holding the phone. "She lives in that green tent over there, out at the end of that cliff. Her son visits her sometimes. Brings beer."

"For someone who never comes here, you know a lot about what's happening."

"Don't you look at your phone? It's been all over social media this past year. All the online opposition papers are calling the island 'Direnistan'."

"What's that mean?" You feel that prick of guilt you always feel for not knowing the language.

"'Resistance-Land'," she says pulling off the other sock. "It's been in the regular papers, too. Which is a bad sign, of course, since they are one and all controlled by the dear leader himself. I can't believe you haven't noticed. It's even in the English ones."

"I've tried to stay away from the news."

"You're missing the sexy headlines, then. 'Islands are Terrorist Nest!' and 'People's Fury Rises against Colony of Traitors'. 'Traitor' meaning, of course, all those who don't kiss their ass but can't leave the country." She turns the phone's light on your face and then on her own, holding it under her chin so that it casts long Halloween shadows over her features. "Like me."

You don't answer. The last time she said something like this, just after getting the rejection from your consulate, you'd barked something out of anger and frustration, something stupid, and she hasn't forgiven you for it.

"No comment?" she says. "Anyway, I just assumed you'd heard about it. Everyone has. It's all very dramatic."

"Riveting," you say pulling off your own shoes. "And somehow pathetic that all a 'Resistance Land' can muster is some graffiti and people in tents."

"People are arrested for less now."

"Right. So why would the government leave this place alone for so long when they've prosecuted the hell out of everyone else?"

"Let's not talk about politics. We're here to bust up the moral code."

She switches off her phone, shoves it in a shoe, and moves closer, wriggling her body under your arm. You feel the outline of her ribs, the movement of her breaths. You've missed this.

"The weather's turned," she says. "Fall is coming."

"You're cold?"

"No, I'm just saying there's a difference. From yesterday even."

She pushes away from you and pulls off her shirt.

"Let's do this before you chicken out."

She unhooks her bra, then unbuttons her pants and slips them off. The sea is black. You hear it and smell it, but you can't see the water. Far on the horizon, to the east, is the radiance of the city and its reflection in the Marmara. To the west is nothing but the two tiny islands the ferries don't go to. In all your years here, you've never visited. The one on the left is flat. It twinkles with the lights of construction equipment and half-built hotels. The one on the right, a steep, lopsided pyramid, has one single security lamp like a star on its peak. They're nicknamed Hayirsiz, the Islands of Misfortune.

She steps out of her underwear.

"Well?"

She's naked, breathtaking, her clothes a dark pile at her feet. She's a half-lit moon of curves and thin brown arms, the right side of her body visible in the ambient glow from the tents and the city, the left lost in shadow. Her short spiky hair is new, bleached platinum blond. She had it all cut off after the visa rejection. The waves rattle the rocks.

"Come on," she says. "Daredevil time."

You yank off your shirt as she wades noisily into the water. You want to tell her to be more careful, quieter, and steal a glance at the tents to see if anyone is peeking out. You unzip your jeans and pull them down. They get tangled around your ankles and you lose your balance, stumbling sideways as she dives like an otter into the waves. When you're completely undressed, you take both your piles of clothes and stash them under a bush, throwing on rocks and shells to better conceal them. You can't decide if it's enough and toss on a few scraps of garbage for good measure. She's calling to you, too loudly, and you hurry into the sea just to hush her. The rocks in the shallows hurt your feet. You dive, opening your eyes in the salty blackness and swim until your lungs feel like they're about to explode. You surface once, grin at her, and then go back under. The water is cold, thrilling. You feel it more intensely than you ever have because you're naked and because you're together again. When you surface for the last time, you're shivering. A yacht is crossing in the distance, all fairy lights and pop music and hard bass. She swims toward you as if riding the beats.

"Why so shy?" she says. "This was your idea."

"Yeah, but ..." You glance back toward shore. "I just didn't know there would be an audience."

"The risk is half the point," she says. "And we're just following tradition. This beach was named for that skinny dipper I told you about. People swim naked here all the time. It's become a thing, I guess, because of her story."

"What was her name again?"

A young man emerges from one of the tents nearest shore, one glowing red. You tense, distracted, and realize you just missed the answer to your question. The man dumps a liquid from a mug into the water and looks out toward you. He shouts something in Turkish you can't understand.

"What did he just say?" you ask.

"She was the most beautiful woman on the island. You know how these urban fairy tales go. She was supposedly like a kind of a forest spirit. She wandered the woods in bare feet and wore colorful Roma skirts, with bangles around her ankles and wrists. She talked to trees. And she swam. I mean, all the time. My dad said it was like a form of worship for her."

The man goes back inside his tent and zips it closed. You hear a burst of male laughter.

"Of course, some people didn't care for how free-spirited she was. She wasn't from here to begin with."

"A foreigner. Like me."

"Not exactly, gringo. She was raised in France, in exile, but her parents were born on the island and she came back to get married. People thought she'd been corrupted by the 'decadent West' or whatever. They started to gossip, saying she swam in the nude. That all the innocent teen boys were sneaking down to this cove to watch. Her fault, right? Soon all the islanders were bad-mouthing her. She was shameless this and godless that and a witch who carved idols. So one day she swam out and never came back."

"You mean she ..."

"I think she took pills before she went in the water, to make sure." She looks toward the red tent, raising her chin and clenching her jaw as if expecting a blow. "There are rumors someone in the family was persuaded to lay pills on top of her towel with a note to encourage her."

"That's awful," you say.

"Now all these misfits come here. Like they're on the Hajj or something."

You glide through the water to get closer to her, wanting her suddenly.

"My God," she says.

"What?"

"Your ass is so white, I thought it was a big fish following you!"

You had been swimming almost horizontally on your belly, but now you kick down in alarm so that you're vertical. She laughs. "Don't freak, no one else can see."

She kisses you. It's been so long. Her lips are slippery and salty. You try to put your hands on her waist but you have to kick too hard to stay afloat. Your chest bumps her. Your legs slip over each other. You drift apart.

"You're hard," she says.

"Let's move where we can stand up," you say, backstroking toward the shallows.

"So he does take risks."

"Sometimes."

She hesitates, then follows. Your feet touch the bottom, slick stones and weeds, and you pull her tight against you. She is a wall of heat in the cold sea and it's like a fog floods into you, filling your chest, your throat, your mind, and you forget to worry about people seeing and reach down to fill your hands with her thighs. It's been so long. You lick the salt gently from her neck and ease her down so you can enter her when abruptly she jerks back.

"You're drowning me!" She puts her feet against the flat area just below your stomach and kicks off, thrusting herself out to sea. She's on her back, kicking loudly. You catch sight of her breasts and then she rolls over and begins a front crawl out and out, in the direction of the lone islands to the west. You hurry to catch up.

"Let's try again," you say. "We'll go where you can stand, too."

"Let's imagine we're on another planet," she says, facing shore. "Exploring its ocean." She spits a bit of salt water out and nods toward the glowing tents. "They're our base and we're out here, floating beneath the ice of one of Jupiter's moons. It's dark. Even the glow of the planet is hidden by the kilometers thick ice cap, and there are creatures, not carbon-based, animals no human eye has ever seen. Just ... utterly mysterious things."

You try to take her hand but it flits away like a startled fish, so you join the game. You paddle clockwise around and fix your gaze in the opposite direction, on the Hayirsiz Islands to the west.

"And somehow we have to make it there," you say, picking up the story. "The doom of alien explorers that have gone before us for eons and eons. Our mission? To take samples of whatever living things we find and drag them back, dead or alive."

She glares at you over her shoulder.

"What?"

"We're not raiders," she says. "We're just explorers. We don't need to capture anything."

"You're scared maybe," you say, theatrically lowering your voice. "You know no one has ever come back from the dreaded Islands of Misfortune alive."

"Certainly not if they go in guns blazing, trying to take samples of 'every living thing' they find.'" She faces shore again. "Is that what I'll become if I ever make it to America?"

"We were just playing," you say. "Jesus."

Neither of you speak, treading water. Her eyes are locked unflinchingly on the beach, the glowing tents. A breeze rushes over the surface of the sea from that direction, unnaturally warm, and for a second, you see bright bursts illuminate her face. Startled, you whirl around. You expect to catch a boat passing with a spotlight, or flashlights from one of the campers, but there's nothing. Was it lightning? The sky is starless, cloudy maybe. Has the storm not completely passed?

"Only the island on the right is called Misfortune, by the way," she says. "Why won't you get the names correct after all these years?"

"I don't know what you ..."

"You just said 'Islands of Misfortune' in your war fantasy. But there's only one."

"It wasn't a war fantasy. And I was just ... Look, I'm sure both islands are called Misfortune."

"They're not."

"But I wrote an article on it years ago. And I did my research. On one they executed a bunch of people after a coup, on the other they brought all the stray dogs of the city and let them starve to death. For weeks, people could hear them howling and ..."

"I grew up here. I know the stories. Only one gets that name."

"I even interviewed some locals. They said --"

"I'm not saying they didn't. But maybe there are all sorts of subtleties you're missing."

"Like what?"

"You wouldn't understand. That's the problem. You have to grow up here. It would be like a swallow explaining to a crab why one twig's better than the other when building a nest."

"I've been in this city a third of my life," you say, indignant. "Married to you."

"And you're just as ignorant of us as ever. You can't even speak the language. Today you couldn't talk to any of the people I introduced you to without me translating. I could have been telling them you molested horses and you'd never know."

"Your uncle spoke English just fine."

"And after all this time, I still can't get over you writing an article after just a few months here. As if you could know anything."

"It was just for some stupid travel magazine back home."

"When my visa rejection came your first response was 'Well, at least I can still go'."

Your face reddens. "I meant I could set up a place. And bring you over eventually."

"It was the first thing you said. And I know that's not what you meant. Then when you were explaining it to your parents, on Skype ..."

"What about it?"

"Your mom was begging you to come back anyway. And you told her that all the arrests wouldn't affect you because you were foreign. That's all you kept saying. They can't take 'me' and 'I' am safe and the most they can do to 'me' is kick 'me' out of the country. There was no 'we' anywhere. And I was sitting right beside you, watching my stupid face in the bottom of your stupid computer screen, wishing I could just melt away."

"It's just that ..." You stop, because you have no explanation. You have no idea why you spoke like that.

"And you kept saying 'this country.' As if it doesn't even have a name. That's how it works in 'this country' and that's how the government is in 'this country.' Never mind that in your country, they turned down my visa application because they think I'm Muslim. Despite a billion years of marriage. And your parents didn't even give a shit. All your dad said was, 'We have to be careful of letting people from certain places in, son. There are terrorists out there.'"

"We don't know that was the reason."

"And you said nothing."

"We'll re-apply."

"No." She shakes her head. "I won't."

Something cold and slimy slips against your leg and you flinch. You see a white circle bobbing in the water as she says, "Something stung me."

"There's a moon jelly right there," you say. "But they're not poisonous."

"My back is fucking burning."

You feel another strike your shoulder, but there's no sting. You see it riding a black wave and reach in to lift it out. It's like a small cold brain in your palm.

"See?" you say.

Shouting erupts back toward shore, making you both flinch, and then comes what sounds like the popping of gunfire.

"Shit," she says.

You see lights descending out of the trees. There are arcs of fire in the air, trailing smoke -- canisters of tear gas, you realize. Some splash in the water, some hit the tents, some fall on the rocks. Police leap one by one from the same forest trail you did, wearing gas masks, billy clubs in hand. Each new armor-clad officer rushes up toward the tents, shouting for everyone to get out. Sleepy-eyed kids in various stages of undress stumble forth, choking, long haired boys with scruffy beards and tangle-haired girls in shorts and tank tops. One tent on the edge of a drop-off is thrown into the water. Another is set on fire.

"What do we do?" you ask. A heavy white smoke creeps over the water. Your eyes are burning so badly now you can't keep them open.

"Swim," she says. "As far out as you can go."

You both go under without taking a breath and kick as hard as you can. You open your eyes hoping the salt water will wash out the gas. Everything is black. You strike more jellies, batting them out of the way. When you can't bear it anymore you surface once for a gulp of air and dive again. You repeat this over and over.

"The wind is blowing the gas east," you hear her say between breaches. "I think we're okay."

"We've come out so far," you say, shocked at the distance you've covered. "What are we going to do about our clothes?"

"Shut up for a second and let me think."

Another tent bursts into flames. She paddles closer. Her shoulder slides against yours.

"How tired are you?"

"I'm okay," you say. Now that you are just treading water, your breath comes easier.

"There's this place about a half a kilometer down from the cove," she says. "It's the private dock of my dad's cousin. We could hide out there for a while."

"A half a kilometer?"

"Maybe not that far."

"All right," you say, feeling unsure. "But let's go slowly. To conserve energy."

Neither of you talk about the raid. There's no need. Batons and tear gas are background noise these days. They accompany you on the way to work, out to a movie or a concert, they sit beside you at dinner. Her cousin disappeared two years ago. Your friend in December. There are endless security operations, the Assault of Democracy, the Onslaught of Freedom, the Hammer of Peace. They always swallow someone you know. She's been working with one of the opposition movements, you've heard. Something she started after you separated because you'd never let her do it when you were together. What would you do if she, too, vanished? Nowhere is safe now. Everyone is under cover. The professors at your university pin pictures of the president to their lapels. They get his name tattooed on their hands. It's hard to tell who's a true believer and who's faking it for safety. You knew something like the campers on the beach shouldn't exist, not any more. A blow was coming, one that might finally sweep you in. Her visa rejection was a sign.

You swim west.

The city lights are quietly eclipsed by the shadow of the cliffs and the island becomes a black hulk on your left. The gravity of it seems to tug you landward. You find yourself drifting shoreward and have to constantly correct your course. You watch warily out of the side of your eye, expecting the tear gas canisters, the flashlights descending through the trees. The woods and cliffs give way to the small neighborhood on the northwest coast and you pass beneath the watch of grand mansions and clusters of apartments. By the time you reach the dock, your leg muscles are burning and you're out of breath.

"My whole body stings," she says. "I think we swam through a swarm of them."

"Nothing's bothered me," you say.

"They're everywhere."

The dock is a wooden pier built in an L-shape that bends around a lumpy outcrop of boulders. It rests on tall pilings made of rock and shell fragments that scrape your hands when you try to grab hold, so you both hang onto the smooth boards at the edge. The base of the L emerges from a brick wall bordering a line of fig trees. A flight of white marble stairs runs steeply up from the gate and fades into darkness. The roots of the figs have started to sprawl over the bricks, like the tentacles of an aquatic monster returning to the sea. There's a barbecue set in the wall to the right of the gate and to the left, a strange statue sits in the water. It's large, at least ten feet tall. The details are hard to make out in the dark, but it looks like a giant animal of some kind with life-sized people gathered around the belly reaching in their hands.

"What the hell's that?" you whisper.

"What's what?"

"It looks like a ... rhino?"

"Oh that," she says. "Nothing. Just some leftover from one of the art festivals, before they were prohibited. This Polish sculptor, she built all these creepy animal statues out of trash she found around the island. It was a long time ago."

"I remember that exhibit."

"You weren't even here."

"Yes I was," you say. "It was like ten years ago. You and I were planning to go together but something always came up and you never had time."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Because I know I went. It was the last one ever. And I really liked this statue, so when the cops started confiscating them, my friend managed to save it for me. He hid it in his garage until the government forgot about them or just didn't care anymore, and then put it on display here as a birthday present a couple of years ago."

"Your friend must be loaded. And I thought this was your father's cousin's house."

"That's what I meant."

She stares at you for a second, as if waiting to see how her words will land, and then swings her other hand onto the dock, dragging herself up onto her belly with a pull-up that tightens all the muscles in her back. You see the welts from the jellyfish stings then, like stains on her shoulder blades. She scrambles onto her knees and freezes, regarding the trees at the gate for a second, and you get the feeling that she's sending out some kind of signal, that some part of her is dashing up those white stairs and into the blackness beyond. She turns and sits on the edge, dangling her legs over the water.

"I don't think we were married yet," she says.

"If you mean a couple of years ago when this birthday present supposedly was displayed, we were. Whose house are we are at?"

She lies back and puts a knee up. Drops of water stream down her thigh where you see another set of welts. She folds her arms under her head and arches her back. You feel yourself start to get hard again, but it only makes you angry now. Your heart is still pounding from the swim.

"You should get back in the water," you say. "The police might be raiding the whole island."

She laughs softly, "The whole island?"

"You never know," you say. You just want her off the dock.

"They only care about those hippies on the beach. Some locals called them in, I bet. The islanders don't want people sleeping there."

"Well maybe the owner of this place will call the police if he sees strangers on his dock."

"He's not even here," she says. "And he wouldn't do that."

You want to ask her how she knows the owner isn't here, how she knows what he would and wouldn't do. Why you didn't know about this stupidly expensive and risky birthday present. Instead you say, "Why do you like that dumb statue so much? It's a fucking rhino."

"I think it sums it all up pretty nicely," she says.

You know better than to ask what she means or try to steer the conversation where you want it to go. You look up toward the sprawling branches of the trees and wonder what they conceal. The leaves rattle. You think you can feel a presence there, up the hill, someone standing in a dark window and gazing down at you both there naked in the night, a man who speaks her language, who knew her when she lived here, a man reckless enough to return that statue to the open water after a government raid.

"She had these wooden carvings," she says finally. "She was kind of a sculptor, too."

"Who?"

"The skinny-dipper, the suicide they named the beach after."

A wind rustles the fig trees and their shadows flutter over the white of the stairs.

"What kind of carvings?" you ask.

"She used driftwood, stuff she found from wrecked boats or collapsed houses. She said she could hear voices of the old owners in the wood. People who used to live on the island but then had to go away or ... or I don't know. Were lost or died or something."

The waves lap at the pilings, making a gulping sound.

"She'd shape the pieces into birds, sometimes gulls or crows but often something no one recognized. She thought her carvings had souls, and making them birds gave them the power of flight so that they could leave the island and return the voices to their owners. Crazy shit. Sometimes she made them part human. There was one, actually this whole series she worked on that last year."

"You talk like you knew her."

"She was still around when I was little."

"Before, you made her sound like some long-ago legend."

"If I did, it wasn't on purpose."

She sits up, shivers, and looks over her shoulder and up the steps. You notice another welt on her neck. When she speaks again, you are surprised to finally hear her whisper.

"She made like forty of these things. They all had her face but the body of a stork. They were crude, like something some archaeologist might dig up out in East Anatolia. She said she'd seen the birds while out swimming one day, just swirling and swirling about the towers of the monastery. She said they weren't there because of the monastery itself but because of the ruins of a temple beneath so old no one knew the god's name who was worshipped there. She said the birds had 'caught his scent.' That it rose up into the sky in the shape of a DNA helix and lured them down. So she made all these wooden creatures, put them on necklaces or charms and gave them to the island kids, who didn't know better. It was all kinds of ... bizarre. And people didn't like it. I had a whole windowsill lined with them and I used to think they flew around my room when I slept. They terrified me. Our crazy neighbor thought they had spells in them that made his son go down to the bay at night when she swam."

"You must have known her pretty well," you say.

"As well as anyone."

Then she's silent for so long that you call her name, but her eyes seem locked on the staircase. You call again and her head slowly swivels toward you.

"Are you okay?"

"She scared me, too," she says. "You know that old cliche about how innocent children are? Well, they're not. We were all there, even us kids. It's just what people do."

"There where?"

Her voice is trembling.

"When she died."

She scoots to the very edge of the dock, leans over and peers long into the water. The surface throws its darkness over the details of her face, but you see her head move as if following the passage of things beneath. You see her brown legs kick. Then, without warning, she inhales deeply, squeezes her eyes shut, and screams. It's a quick fusilade of cursing in Turkish. You're startled. Panicky, you start to move hand over hand toward her, to comfort her or to pull her in the water and shut her up, you don't know. You're frantically looking around as if someone or something was alerted. You scan the trees, the gate, the shadowed statue. Something about it seems aware, sentient. You eye the human figures for movement, expecting at any second for one of them to whirl around and reveal itself a spy, an undercover cop, its mouth smeared with the blood of the beast.

A red light illuminates the sky above you.

"Well fuck," she says. "You were right."

She hunches over, covering herself and looking up. Her skin glows crimson as three more flares arc from somewhere behind the trees. You hear shouting from up the hill, then the whine of boat motors. She stands, her hands fluttering over her body as if searching for a position that would hide the most flesh.

"Follow me," she says.

"Where?"

"I know this house. There are places we can hide."

She starts up the dock. You think of her naked, running up the stairs toward whoever lies beyond the trees.

"No," you say.

"Don't be stupid! Can't you hear the boats?"

"Can't you hear the voices up there?"

"But there's a cellar, overgrown with ..." "No!" You say with finality and then launch out to sea. You hear her jump in behind you as the gas canisters land. You glance back. She's angry, frustrated, but following. The statue is brightly lit behind her and you see it clearly for the first time. It's a rhino made of beach-trash stuck together and painted white. The stomach is hollow. A mob of humans are reaching in up to their arms and tearing out chunks of its insides. The heads of the figures are eyeless, noseless, earless. They have only mouths to expose their insides to the world.

Something lands in the water between you and the gutted rhino, spewing smoke. Your eyes and throat begin to burn, and so you swim out straight, leading her into open sea.

To the east, the flares sink toward the surface and you think you see others like yourselves in the glow, the heads of dozens of swimmers in the waves. The ones furthest back are still moving west, hugging the shoreline, but the ones in front are desperately changing course, swerving in the direction you are headed, out and away from the island.

"I told you!" she hisses from behind. "You led us right into the middle of it!"

You hear the whine of motors approaching from the left. Police boats at full throttle, their hulls thumping on the waves. Before you can turn, four of them speed by straight into the crowd of swimmers. There are cops in gas masks standing in the prows with long guns trained on the sea. They all start to fire at once. Two more boats zip by you. They haven't noticed you, yet. They are focused on the crowd.

"That's just rubber bullets right?"

You turn to get her answer only to see her swimming frantically backward toward the dock. You start to follow, swearing, then freeze. You're angry again, furious at the lie of a cousin. You find yourself hoping that the cops have bombs, that they blow the statue and trees and whoever lives there all to hell. She's doing a backstroke. It's tactical; she's not retreating, but only wants to make sure she knows what's coming. A boat crosses between the two of you and stops, blocking your view. A light shines down into your face. You pivot around to find two more boats forming a wall there. Another cuts in from the left nearly striking you in the head. You look up at the shadow of a man with a gun pointed straight at you, red arcs of light descending through the night behind him. Hands reach down and haul you up.

There are four police in total, all wearing gas masks. One of them sits across from you and calmly crosses his legs as the boat rocks violently. The top of his mask has two long ovals of glass, tinted black. You see no eyes or features, just the double reflection of the scene around you. Smoke and flares, the heads in the sea and other boats cutting through them. The mouthpiece is large and juts out from the base of the mask like a proboscis. In the flickering red light you could swear it moves, flexing and expanding as if trying to catch your scent. You try to turn in the direction you last saw her but the officer's gloved hand shoots out and seizes your chin, guiding it back around toward him. Your eyes stream with tears. Your throat burns.

"English?" he asks.

You nod.

"Open your eyes."

"The gas," you say. "It hurts."

"We just want you to tell the truth," the officer says. "To be honorable."

His speech is calm, but mechanized by the mouthpiece. The driver has turned the engine to idle and is shouting something in Turkish, his own shrill voice muffled by his mask. You wish you could understand him. The one in the prow is still firing into the water. He is counting aloud with each bullet, his words like radio squawks. The numbers, at least, you know. Yedi, sekiz, dokuz. The fourth cop is behind you, holding your wrists together.

"The woman you are with is a terrorist," the officer across from you says. "I know you know this."

"You're crazy," you say. "That's my wife."

"You must think of your honor." His gloved hand holds your chin a bit more firmly, his thumb digging into your cheek. He pulls your face closer to the surface of his mask. Your features fill the mirrored panes, blocking out everything behind. Your eyes look confused, your nose bleeding. Did one of them hit you?

"She's a terrorist," he says. "She works with a cell hiding on this island to plot the overthrow of our democratically elected president. We finally have the evidence now. We just need you to sign a statement confirming you heard her brag about it. You're a foreigner. You don't need to be any part of this."

You are surprised by the fluidity of his English. It's almost as if they knew they would need him, that you would be here.

"My wife is a pharmacist," you say.

The cop behind you lets go of your wrists and hands your interrogator a picture sealed in a plastic freezer bag to protect it from getting wet. He takes it with a snap of his free hand and holds it in front of you. You see scorched bodies lying in a bombed-out building. A tiny arm sticks out of the rubble, covered in ash and blood.

"She corrupts children," the cop says, shaking the photo. "She seduces girls into harlotry to undermine the morality of our country and weaken the president's rule. Look at you, swimming in our sea so unchastely, so wantonly. How easily she corrupted your virtue."

You're tempted to smirk at his language, so old-fashioned, so Biblical almost. You look at the black jacket he is wearing and see the badge on the breast -- on a bright blue background there's a yellow squid with cartoon eyes and a big smile. It's the symbol of the president's volunteer 'peace keepers', groups of organized vigilantes loyal to him alone. These aren't even cops.

"She has a lover on this island. Did she tell you that? He's the ringleader of a terrorist group that kills anyone who opposes him. She has cuckolded you with him on countless occasions."

You think of the white staircase, like a spine going up through the fig trees. The officer pushes your head back but does not let go of your chin. The reflection in the eyes of his mask pans out. You see a boat behind you rocking on the waves and she sits in the back with a police officer beside her, leaning down, the mouthpiece of his mask pressed against her ear as if he's whispering something. She's nodding fiercely. Or is she trying to pull loose? It looks like he's attached himself to her skull. The glass distorts things, stretches the image. You want to turn around and get a better look but the hand keeps your jaw firmly in place. They have covered her in a blanket, something no one has done for you. You remain naked and wet, shivering uncontrollably. It's cold. The officer at the prow continues to fire into the water, still counting. Yirmi, yirmi bir, yirmi iki ...

"She seduces pure young boys and girls," your interrogator says, "She takes them to her terrorist comrades hiding on the city's edge and forces them into lewd behavior. It's all in this photo." He flicks the picture at you. It hits your face and then falls between your legs.

"Those kids are bomb victims," you say.

The fingers dig harder into your flesh. He shakes your head in rage.

"How dare you make fun of dead innocents!"

You know it's useless to talk, that they've already written your story. The whole country knows what it means to be interrogated by the peacekeepers. If they were police, your foreignness might have saved you. But these men are unofficial. They exist nowhere on paper.

"I've lived with her for over ten years," you say. "I know exactly where she's been the whole time. Every minute."

The mouthpiece quivers. "So you're part of this. A foreign agent." "No, that's ..."

"Your low morals are clear. That you would swim like this, with your cock and balls for the world to see." The shift to crudity startles you. His free hand clamps down hard on your thigh, squeezing fiercely. "Maybe it was you who lured her into displaying her cunt for those horny boys in the tents?"

"We were just swimming," you say. You try to close your legs, but he shoves his knees between yours and holds them open.

"There are ways to punish perverts."

He glances back at the driver and gunman, then behind you. The gas masks make them look not so much like cops but prehistoric crustaceans that have crawled out of the water and devoured whomever once inhabited these boats. You feel tears start streaming down your cheek. Your whole body is trembling.

"Look," you say, "Please." You hear the whining in your voice, the fear and subservience. "You want us gone and we're leaving. We're going to America, I promise. We're never coming back."

"We know how a whore like that can lead you into sin. We just need you to make a statement so we can put her away. So you can get on that plane and go home to your own country."

The driver turns toward you, the mouthpiece seems to reach out, as if tasting the air. He barks something in Turkish. Your interrogator laughs.

"And he says you get to keep your balls."

Again, you instinctively try to close your legs but his knees do not yield. You look at her in the reflection of your interrogator's mask. She is looking back at you, the officer still hanging in her ear. She's been crying, too.

"It's such bullshit," you say.

"You were clearly tricked," he says. "Women like her weave spells over guys like us."

"Bullshit," you repeat.

"It's a witchcraft passed down from generation to generation. Her mother was the same, flaunting her tits in the water for all the islanders to see until God drowned her in the sea."

Her mother.

The officer at the prow is counting past thirty. How can he aim at anything through that mask, you wonder? A wave of tear gas wafts up from the east and you squeeze your eyes shut, coughing uncontrollably. Your interrogator releases your jaw but the hand on your thigh holds firm. When you are finally able to see again, he has a different picture in front of you. It's clasped between forefinger and thumb over a white paper with an official seal at the bottom. Your eyes burn but in the photo you can make out the figure of a woman on her knees in front of a naked man.

"She sucked his cock," the cop says. "Right out there on that dock you were swimming from." He shakes the photo. "What do you think she was doing those months she spent away?" he says. "Do you think she was honorable?"

"Neither of us were honorable."

There's another wave of gas and you squeeze your eyes shut again. The sting is unbearable. You feel the officer behind you put a gloved hand on your neck. The fingers trace your throat then come to rest at your jugular.

"She's telling all sorts of lies about you now," your interrogator says. "She can't help it. Corruption is in her genes. All you have to do is sign this statement and tell the world that even you West agents knows what she is."

The interrogator releases your thigh. You toss the picture in the floor of the boat and take the document, peering down at the government seal at the bottom. Your eyes still burn. The words are blurry and even if they weren't you couldn't read it. It's not in English. It could say anything. You recognize only the president's name.

"You're cold?"

You nod and the cop behind you throws a blanket over your shoulders.

The driver stands, pulls out his cell and hands it to the interrogator. He looks down at the screen. You see the glow of the words there reflecting in the glass. He leans in. Without someone at the steering wheel, the boat is spinning on the waves. The edge of the island sweeps into view, the houses on the hill, and then the boat where they're questioning her. It's moving away from you, returning to shore. She is slumped, her head down. One cop stands to her right, rubbing her back. The other is snapping pictures of her with his phone. They both look up as if sensing your eyes on them.

"Give him a pen," your interrogator says.

The shooter at the prow of your own boat lays his weapon against the boat wall. He steps over boxes and nets to stand next to the driver. He reaches in the front pocket of his jacket and pulls out a pen. The three of them look at you, three masked faces. You see a reflection in the six ovals of black glass of a middle aged man with his thin chest and flabby belly, his balding head and wrinkled face. When did you get so old? You see what looks like a cluster of dim stars cross the black sky behind the three cops. It's only when you hear the squawks that you realize they're gulls, not stars. The boat is pointed straight at the Island of Misfortune.

You make a plan.

They are all four standing now, on a violently rocking boat. You will leap up unexpectedly and shove them off balance into the water, a daredevil move. You'll take the gun from the prow and shoot anyone left, then drive the boat headlong toward the one carrying her away. The whole scene plays in your mind like an action movie. There's music, dramatic fist fights. She'll kick her captors in the groin and leap over the gap into your arms. She'll grab the gun from you and start shooting anyone foolish enough to follow as you speed away. You'll rescue as many on the way as you can, for her. All of it for her. You'll both be so brave. You've never heard of anyone here successfully evading the peacekeepers, but you'll be the first. You'll take the boat as far as the sea stretches, past Greece, past Italy and Tunisia and Spain and Morocco, into an ocean big enough to keep the vision going.

"Fuck all of you," you say.

You step on the picture, grinding it into the wet floorboards, then rise to stand against them, bracing for what's next.






Article © Jeffrey Wade Gibbs. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-05-10
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Anonymous. LOisellen
05/14/2021
08:34:36 AM
Interesting. Held your Attention and left conclusion to the reader.
Your Comments






The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.