He left in the cover of darkness. He lifted the palm leaves that concealed the boat he learned to build from an outlawed book. He prayed it would be seaworthy. A branch cracked in the near distance. He watched. He waited. Sweat dripped down his back. With his hat, a small pack of food, and water placed gently in the boat, he eased it into the sea. If he were caught now, he’d get at least 5 years in the pit.
Please float, he whispered into the night as he pushed off from the sandy safety of the beach. He sat. He watched. He waited.
His oar sloshed water, his eyes glanced back at the shrinking island village of his youth. He remembered the day his parents left, the way he was now, when he was a boy. He wondered if he’d see them again. They had faces just like his.
His heart beat fast. For the first time in his life, his feet were off dry land. Dread flooded his senses once as his boat tipped sideways, but he shifted his weight and righted himself. His eyes were focused on the horizon ahead.
The sun was high in the sky when he saw it, the fabled Shadow Village. It towered above the water in dark stacks. As children, they were told it was an island made entirely of garbage and haunted by the ghosts of the living Earth. It was an abomination caused by centuries of pollution. As he grew older, he heard whisperings from island elders. They spoke of a hidden treasure on the island, buried in the trash by the oil barons of the past. Nobody who went in search of it had ever returned. High levels of pollution created strict laws against touching the water and made it a punishable offense to leave the island.
He pushed on, his arms burning with each stroke of the oar.
As he neared the Shadow Village, he heard a small splash in the water behind him. He whipped around, expecting a patrol boat from his island, but there was nothing. Just a piece of driftwood floating. There were no fish in these waters. A bird? He wondered.
The Shadow Village crept nearer. The air was stained with the scent of decay and it became stronger as he neared it. The sun heated the sky. He wiped sweat from his brow and put on the straw hat he’d brought with him. He looked at the packet of food: some cooked rice and fresh coconut, but the pungent smell of the air left a sour feeling in his stomach.
Black stacks of debris separated by narrow channels provided entry to the island. He chose one and began paddling toward it. Inside, shadows played along the walls casting everything in shades of gray and brown. He swatted at flies, buzzing around his head and neck.
A sound cut through the air, faintly at first. Whup-whup-whup.
As he moved deeper into the stacks, the sound grew louder. It was constant. His eyes widened with alarm.
In a moment he wanted nothing more than to turn back, to go home to his safe island.
His eyes darted to the spaces between crushed metal and bits of plastic. Rust dripping with oil, black and iridescent, seemed to be everywhere. His boat now squelched through water that blackened by the minute.
Ahead, a fraction of green in the dim, reflecting in oil. He squinted his eyes.
The ghost-noise grew loud enough it seemed to be around the next corner, forcing itself between the black stacks of filth. He pressed forward, brilliant green now refracting from the oil-coated stacks around him.
Around the corner, an island hidden in the stacks. It was impossibly green and alive. A shining metal structure stood in the center, as tall as the sky with arms stirring the clouds, whup-whup-whup. The base of the structure was surrounded with tiny shacks, windows lit as if by a thousand candles.
His boat nudged the edge of the island and he timidly stepped off. The grass was thick and luscious and wet. The stench in the stacks was imperceptible, replaced by a fresh green smell. He gasped as dozens of faces like moons first appeared in the windows and then emerged from the shacks into the sunlight. He swallowed hard at a lump in his throat as an elderly man and woman walked toward him, their arms outstretched. He felt tears stinging his eyes. They had faces just like his.