It is said that when Elena Leranjo died, the smell of lilacs lingered in her bedroom for days, emanating from her corpse before tumbling softly out the window to smother the streets of Sao Brunois for years after. The scent permeated the brick and mortar buildings in both directions: up the hill towards the rickety old church, where she was later buried, and down the hill towards the bay where fishermen and dock workers alike began to weave rumors into mythologies, mythologies into truths that were carried out to distant currents and passed onto others. Whether real or imagined, men who had never seen a lilac before claimed to smell an army of its blossoms while their boats drifted slowly into port.
The saccharine odor soon came to symbolize the town, a place where the sun seemed to shine too brightly, the food too rich for outsiders to finish, the wine too sweet to get drunk on, the people too friendly to ever be completely trusted. The smell baked itself within the breads and pies, mingled with chimney smoke in the evening and spread yellow across the starry skies. It was a constant reminder of the impermanence of life and the permanence only found in death…
* * *
As a boy, I was told there was supposedly nothing special about Elena Leranjo; she was born like any other child and was treated as such. An unfailingly polite girl, she smiled at everyone when not transfixed by the slow-moving clouds above. On any given day, one could pass her home and find her helping her mother with chores or picking flowers from the lawn. She held imaginary conversations with imaginary things, believed her dolls to be living, breathing things. She was, like the other young girls, being groomed to take over the duties of keeping our village running while the men were out at sea.
No one knew what caused her to suddenly slump over in death while playing with the other children. No one saw anything out of the ordinary; she simply stopped running and fell face-first into the dirt, the hem of her dress flapping in the ocean breeze. The village doctor, and another that had arrived on a monthly supply ship, examined her, found nothing wrong, shook their heads, bewildered. The funeral procession up to the church was a small one; her parents, her older brother, an uncle from a distant village, her dog, a three-legged mutt that whimpered the entire way. So they say.
Now? Others in the village have her name stuck to their lips, as if she were the beginning of a curse that had turned our part of the world into something sickly and gangrenous, something to be chopped off and thrown away without a second thought. I don’t believe in curses and I don’t believe our current problems began with the mysterious death of a girl nearly half a century ago.
But this wasn’t the only rumor, oh no. With every ship that arrived, news of the world came with it. Some in the form of print on paper and the rest from the slippery tongues of men in easy lies and half-truths that made it hard to sift for reality. We saw a change come over our scenery, odd bits of detritus washed up on shore. Over the years, talk of Elena changed into whispers of a floating sanctuary, an island that moved on the ocean’s whim, full of tall buildings crammed tightly together and built deep down into its earth. The sailors who claimed to have seen it called it a castle on the horizon. I called it all nonsense until the sailors stopped coming to port.
One day, our wharf was a loud and bustling market place filled with foreigners and local tradesmen, harlots and wine sellers. The next, only the sound of seagulls could be heard flying through the nearly empty harbor. We pressed on, believing these changes to be momentary, but then pieces of vessels, thousands upon thousands of smoking and disintegrating slats of heavy oak, began washing up onto the beach. The tides brought with them questions about the missing sailors. They also, in their own strange way, brought answers.
For weeks they had washed up on the shores of our little ocean-side hamlet, looking like long and sun-bleached dominoes of the dead scattered across the sand. Femurs, tibias, ulnas, radii. Skulls both whole and caved in, lengths of spine still intact like tiny ladders. The smell of dead marrow and rot overpowered the sea spray and salt blowing in from the west. We could no longer fish for even their skeletal remains arrived picked clean by whatever had turned our water brackish and unclean.
The surface took on a marbled sheen; blood mixed into tidal pools and turned the water the color of fresh bruise. The waves, once high and mighty and full of power, lapped slow against the coastline, lazy and sluggish as if burdened by the phenomena too. Sunlight fell upon the surface and seemed to disappear or die within the thick fluid. Oars melted when sunk below the surface, came up smoking and missing ends. Some great unknown thing had poisoned our ocean, had turned it dangerous.
For the first week, packs of wild dogs had appeared in the mornings and disappeared by afternoon, carrying in their mouths the largest bones they could carry. Soon, they began coming at all hours of the day, snapping and snarling at anyone on the beach, as if worried their new treasure trove would be stolen away from them. And then one day, they too simply disappeared. Some villagers believed the dogs had finally filled their hidey-holes full with the chew toys. And while I couldn’t say why at the time, I felt it was something else, something more sinister. Their sudden disappearance was bad omen that trembled deep within my insides and kept me awake at night. And I am not a man of superstition.
The meadows beyond the outskirts of the village began to die. The grass withered to brown and then finally to ashy black. Our landscape looked like a shriveled organ, diseased and unusable. The wither spread closer and closer to our homes, large and spacious homes made of mudded stucco, bamboo and palm fronds tethered together with think vine lacing. Large windows cut out of the communal areas that opened up to views of the ocean, stairwells that spiraled up around the entire home. The more ornately crafted a home, the more respected the man who built it. I should say that my own home, built by my grandfather and later added onto by my father and me, began practically enough before I added several balconies and trellises for creeping seaweed vines and wild blossoms. It was a fine home to be in and one I had no intention of leaving.
But as the black crept closer, we had to choose: stay and possibly wither black ourselves or find a way to leave to make a home elsewhere. Elena Leranjo’s name became an unspoken whisper on our lips again. Had her death so long ago brought us this quick and silent decay? Was our little coastal hamlet in some way cursed? I dismissed the ideas as quickly as it appeared.
I was the first to start collecting the bones, worried that the supply washing up on shore would dissipate and thin out. We could no longer trek out to the forests beyond the black for fear, real or not, of instant death in the meadows. Some believed it would creep up from the ground, slither between toes and find its way into our veins, soaking arteries and strangling us from the inside out the way the sea had done to our boats; we heard them fracture and crack loudly one morning. They fell apart and dissolved within the water before our eyes. Steam rose up off the black water’s surface around the disintegrating vessels. What happened to the sailors now became clearer, but no less understood. The poisonous water was crushing in on us from all sides. It was only a matter of time now.
And yet, I noticed the washed-up bones remained strong and intact, floating in from every direction. They seemed to stand up to the strange nature of the ocean while the wood could not. I did not fall prey to wasting time questioning the strange nature of this phenomenon and instead began planning our escape. To where, I did not know, but the black would soon overcome us if we didn’t act. The choice between staying and being swallowed up by the unknown or floating out into a greater unknown was a losing one, but I’ve always thought it better to be actively moving in a direction, even if it’s the wrong one. Sitting around and waiting to die seemed like giving up. It seemed cowardly and I could imagine my grandfather’s face scowling down at me for even allowing the idea into my head.
And while I did not believe the rumors of a floating city that moved with the tides, we made a boat of bones and set ourselves adrift, hoping to find the water still blue somewhere. Hoping to find the rest of our sailor brethren safe and out of harm’s way.
By the end of the first day, we had acclimated ourselves to the idea that we were floating on the remnants of people we may have once known, may have once broken bread with on a slow and drunken evening. I realized the idea hadn’t occurred to me while putting the boat together, but necessity seemed more important than dwelling on revulsion or sentimentality at the time. The setting sun had gone all aflame, bathed the ocean in bloody light on the horizon. Behind us, we could make out the scraggly black outline of our island home. I wondered if I would ever see her coastline again. Or if I would ever want to after the ruin had its ways.
“How many of them made it, papa?” Giulia asked. “How many of them got off the island?”
I shook my head, unable or unwilling to speculate. I had hoped all but knew this wasn’t the truth. My cautious optimism was one of the few reasons her mother, Adara, had married me in the first place. I didn’t wear the constant scowl of someone staring into the sun like other men on the island. There is a spark in you that has yet to catch flame, she told me once. I always liked that particular memory and it was one I thought of often as we sailed to wherever.
“Here,” I said, cutting a slice of papaya. “Eat. We will need our strength in the morning and there’s not much to keep us.”
She took the fruit from my fingers and bit into it gingerly, still afraid the blackness had left the island and somehow traveled with our supplies. She looked up at me, juice running down her chin, and I smiled back while holding the fleshy insides of the fruit up for her to see. “No black,” she muttered.
“No. No black.”
I knew the waves farther out would get choppy, so I had fortified the sides of the boat with multiple layers of bones. I had tethered it all together with lengths of tendon and ligaments that also washed up on our shores, looking like fleshy kelp strewn across the white sands. Why these did not disintegrate like the rest of the body parts, I could not say, but I was thankful for it. Our sea-faring transport looked more like a small ship than a raft, what with its closed-in roof and high sides.
There were four oars made of pelvic bones and femurs, a sail-less mast of sixteen incomplete vertebrae tied together and reaching up to the gods that created them, a rudder made of whale fins (a fortuitous surprise as they were the only ones that washed ashore), the transom and forward pulpits made of a small army of ribcages.
We had space to sleep without fear of being splashed on, but I worried whether we would survive our first storm. Did the rain also have the same kind of melting effect on the human body as the ocean? I couldn’t be sure and didn’t want to take the chance, so a tiny, windowless, cabin was built in the middle of the deck, large enough to fit us both. Giulia slept peaceful and curled up in my arms.
It took her hours to fall asleep and I…well, I lay awake most nights, body tensed and taut, ready to fight whatever wave tried to overtake us, ready to lift her high above my head if the ocean found its way into our walled-off cabin. I hoped that the gentle rocking of the boat would lull me to sleep, that the motion would cocoon me into slumber, but it only served to heighten my nervousness. They were small waves, but how much damage would they do if they spilled over into our ship? Would we melt away in slow screams? This was the thought that kept me from falling hard into dreams. Death did not scare me, but I was terrified of a painful death. I was terrified of having my skin sloughed off by some great unknown with only my bones to wash up on a shore where I remained unknown. No one to mourn my passing, no one to sing a hymn in my memory. I know not why, but it feels important that I be remembered long after my body decays. I’ve done nothing to earn this remembrance, it is simply an idea that vibrates deep within me.
We had been out to sea for several days, had gotten into a routine. Guilia would fix breakfast in the morning before waking me. She would take the first shift of ridding the deck of water that had washed over the railing while I struggled to wake up. Today, however, there was something in her voice that shook me to my core. Something inhuman, cold.
“Papa! The sun!” Giulia shouted from the deck of the boat. I untangled myself from the blanket and left the dark of the cabin to squint out into the daylight.
“Come away from the railing, child. You’re far too close,” I said, hobbling across the awkward deck, my body protesting the aches and soreness of an awkward sleep. She didn’t move, but simply pointed out to the sunrise. A haze of yellowish green sat atop the ocean like a layer of foam. It turned the birthing sunlight a sickly color, made the day look nauseous and foul. Not quite the color of sky before a storm, but something else.
“It’s Elena Leranjo,” she said, sleepily, as if in a daze.
“How do you know that name, Giulia? Where have you heard it before?”
She shrugged, never taking her eyes off the horizon. “But can’t you smell it?”
I wrapped my hands around her chest and held her against my legs, sniffing the air. I smelled the static of coming thunder. I smelled the brine of ocean and the sweetness of deep ocean fish. I smelled other, unnamable scents that came on the breeze and then, as a landmass came slowly into view, I could smell the faintest hint of lilac. I inhaled over and over, hoping I had deluded myself into believing the fragrance was there, but it permeated, soaked through until it was the only thing I could smell. Giulia smiled up at me, but I could not return the sentiment.
The morning was long. We continued to drift, almost purposefully, towards the landmass as it seemed to grow larger on the horizon. We could make out its shape, see its colors. It had no trees, sparse vegetation jutting out from its rocky edges, but was like a large building set out to sea. Tall, brick walls lined its beaches and stretched their arm-like parapets up to the heavens. No birds circled it overhead; none sat perched along the wall’s edges. No movement could be seen from the deck of our boat. I wondered what lay beyond the gates of this floating city, this marvel the fishermen used to speak of so often. As I’ve said, I’m not a man of superstition and blamed this vision on hunger, a possible mirage.
By high noon, we were close enough to swim to its shores, but knew better. We took our lunch on the deck, me slicing up fruit for the both of us as she tore bits of bread into pieces. We stared at the edifice, now blocking the horizon, the sun beating down on its browning façade from behind us, illuminating the cracks and the grouting. It was quite beautiful once one got up close to it.
By mid-afternoon, I realized I’d been wrong about there being no vegetation. What I’d believed to be cracks in the surface of the walls were actually lengths of leaf-less vines snaking upwards to the ramparts above. It was as if a great castle had come under the ruin of the world, succumbed completely and totally to nature. Its walls, easily hundreds of feet tall, were choked by the slithering vines, covered in them.
Beyond, the horizon remained soaked with yellowish-green fog, though it had been hidden by the castle before us. I could still smell lilac if I thought about it, but found myself too engrossed by the enormity of the island structure.
It was wondrous majesty and Giulia and I were completely spellbound. That there were stories of this place on the lips of sailors no longer surprised me. I could see how one might believe it to be a paradise, some kind of holistic kind of retreat from the world. For the briefest of moments, I thought I saw a man standing on the tallest ramparts, his clothes flapping in the wind, staring down at us until we drifted ashore. Then the sun flashed and blinded me. The man was gone when I looked again.
Our little boat washed ashore, slid up along wet ground until it stopped. I jumped off the vessel gingerly, careful to stay out of the wake of the lapping waves, and carried Giulia on my shoulders. Once we were safely out of distance, I put her down and let her walk on her own. I was too old now; I would not be able to carry her like that for much longer.
“Welcome!” a voice called out from above. We both looked up in surprise, eyes wide and mouths open, to see an elderly man standing on the outskirts of the craggy beach. He wore sun-faded khaki pants and a billowing dress shirt. In his right hand, a walking staff as tall as he was. He held his left hand out to us, as if to offer his meager strength to us both.
“Hello,” Giulia stammered. “Is this your home?”
The old man smiled and looked back over his shoulder at the huge edifice behind him. “I’m more like the caretaker,” he replied. “No one owns this particular island, and one day, I’ll be replaced by someone who will take care of it the way I have for so many years. You both look famished. Please, come eat and drink.”
Giulia and I looked at each other. I could see the hint of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth as I reached out for her hand. We walked up the beach to our host and I realized we had become part of the island’s mythology, woven into the tapestry of its legend, though we would never know to what degree.
The sand slipped and slid beneath my feet as I stared up the face of the wall, saw the bright blue of the sky for what it was: illuminating and clear, piercing and calm. We clamored up the rocky shelf and stood next to our host, who smelled like clouds, like sunshine on hung clothing. “What is this place?” I asked through short, panting breaths.
He put his free hand on my shoulder and looked me right in the eye. I believed I could see the constellations in the gleam of his retina, the North Star imprinted upon his brow, the passing of time whispering through his bushy eyebrows. “We call this place O Anjo, my friend.” He smiled and walked towards an opening in the stone wall, never motioning for us to follow, just assuming we would.
And then, I understood, but all too late.
Elena Leranjo had been a myth, a girl you one had ever known. A dream perpetuated by those in love with ideas they could never wrap their arms around. A superstitious man’s way of explaining a grandfather’s death to his child or a mother’s way to explain the passing of a pet.
O Anjo meant “the angel.”
Elena and O Anjo sounded similar. Over the years, one had come from the other. I rolled the phrases over and over inside my head, moved my lips silently and felt the syllables dance across my tongue.
The island O Anjo.
Elena O Anjo.
There was no Elena; the island was O Anjo; the island was the angel; the island was death. It was so clear now that we were here, now that we heard the phrase fall like silk from the stranger’s mouth.
And yet we continued to walk, hand in hand, following our smiling host who explained in the kindest terms that this was how he received everyone that arrived and that some day, perhaps, we too would welcome strangers into the fold. His voice was that of softened fabric, of light thunderstorms in the evening, of waves gently rolling and crashing into the open arms of landmass. And we continued to walk while, outside, the yellowish-green fog slowly surrounded the island as it floated on into other currents…
* * *
It is said that when the village of Sao Brunois died, the smell of bones and rotted flesh smothered the crumbled, vacant streets for years after. The scent permeated what was left of the ornate homes, made them unlivable by those that found them later. Fishermen and pirates alike began to weave rumors into mythologies, mythologies into truths that were carried out to distant currents and passed onto others. Whether real or imagined, these sea-faring men claimed to have seen the lone survivor of this village, floating out on the ocean with his daughter on a boat they made of bones.