The Rocks

Nathan Witkin

Alea Laidlaw

Alea Laidlaw

        Every night at sunset, he’d walk out to the water’s edge. He’d sit in the damp sand, waiting for the moment the sunlight struck the pillars with such direct force that they splashed the beach with blue light. He could never help but smile as the sun hit the horizon, giving the sand a subtle, turquoise hue.

        These massive pillars held an unshakable magnetism for Rim that he always knew would one day pull him into the water. He often fantasized about dropping everything to swim to them, a prospect the other islanders only joked or told stories about. He imagined climbing to the peaks of the diamond towers to study the island from the clouds. What he wouldn’t give to spit off the gemstone pillars into the sea or just sit and watch from on high, even if only to leap blindly into the depths below after a few seconds of pure bliss. Those few seconds would be well worth it. The more he thought of the pillars, the more he resented his life on Marag, full of monotony and routine.

        He woke up each morning knowing exactly what the day would hold and went to bed knowing the next day would be the same. In the morning, he went to school, a small, wooden building in the center of the island made from the trunks of palm trees. For much of the school day, he studied history. Since the beginning of the year, he had learned that Marag was once a farming colony ruled by a faraway empire. The Marag people, his ancestors, had been enslaved and forced to work on massive farming estates without any sort of compensation, until, one day, they overthrew the island’s colonial government and declared independence. The colonialists were never seen again and the Marag people lived freely, subsisting off the same crops that had once been systematically stolen from them. None of this mattered to Rim of course, who found Marag history as boring as the island itself. Instead of taking notes, he’d use his pencil to carve crude renditions of the pillars into his desk.

        At midday, he would walk back to his home on the outskirts of the island’s central village. His house was made of palm trunks, just like the school, just like almost every building on Marag. There were three rooms, one for Rim, one for his parents, and one with a kitchen and dining table. Everyday Rim’s mother made him lunch, usually consisting of some combination of fish his father had picked up at the local market, and vegetables from their own farm. After lunch, he cleaned the entire house and worked in his parents’ fields until it was time to watch the sunset, at which point he’d sprint to the beach to eagerly await the moment the rich veins of red and orange gave way to the refracted rays of blue that shot forth from the pillars.

        One night at the beach, gazing off at the pillars, a deep sadness welled up inside him. Nothing he had ever wanted so much felt so out of reach. As the sun disappeared, he lay back and looked up at the stars. Somehow, even they felt closer than the diamond obelisks, ascending well above the cover of the clouds, their bases shrouded in mist where they broke the surface of the sea, their outer walls coated in intricate latticework carved into the crystal. The islanders said the carvings had meaning, said they were transcriptions of ancient languages spoken by the first men, remnants of a culture long lost, but Rim doubted this. The pillars seemed much older than man.

        They were arranged in a triangular pattern, each obelisk at one of the three points, each, he guessed, about half a kilometer apart. They were almost a day’s swim from the shore. He’d always sworn he’d swim there one day, swore it to his friends, to the Gods, even to his parents once in a fit of anger. Every idle moment of each day, he filled his head with fantasies of scaling the obelisks’ walls or diving as deep as he could to see how far down they went. To suggest this endeavor was sacrilege of course. As he had been told from a young age, the pillars were not to be meddled with.

        Even talking about the pillars, especially among adults, was taboo. They were frivolous curiosities at best and highly dangerous at worst. Any child caught talking about them (not to mention drawing pictures of them, as Rim often did) could expect to be scolded, or assigned extra field-work or chores.

        Everyone seemed perfectly content with their allotment on the island, but Rim thought they just feared the unknown. They refused to leave, refused to explore. Everyone seemed to know beyond a doubt that Marag could provide them with anything they’d need. “We here are blessed,” adults would often remark. “Do not long for that which you cannot hope to know,” they’d chide when children stared off across the water, transfixed by curiosity. “The soil here is the most fertile,” they’d repeat, “the trees bear the ripest, freshest fruits.” Their voices beamed with pride as they listed off the bountiful offerings of the island. In the eyes of almost everyone, there was no reason to investigate the pillars, even from afar, much less swim to them.

        “The Stone Garden has been off limits for as long as I can remember,” Rim’s father had once said. “There’s no need to concern yourself with such things.”

        Adults called them the Stone Garden, but young people had dubbed them the Rocks. Every kid on the island supposedly had a cousin or friend of a friend who had been to the Rocks and back, though it was of course impossible to find any first-hand accounts of such adventures, nor any modicum of detail as to what these daring souls had discovered or realized.

        “I heard it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen,” his school friend Eho had told him once. “The world’s never the same again once you go.”

        He was reminded of this conversation on the beach that day, staring off into the endless ocean. He lay there deep into the night, engrossed by the pillars’ mystery. The longer he lay there, the more his reservations faded, swallowed up by the unyielding ocean and the pillars’ allure. Eventually, it seemed like nothing could weigh him down. What about my family? he wondered. Despite never producing an answer, he pushed the thought away, determined to discover the truth of the Rocks, to end the suffocating monotony. He didn’t care what happened to him or his parents. He would leave the following night.

         After finishing his chores and field-work the next day, Rim glanced back at his parents for what he thought might be the final time and sprinted to the beach, kicking up pebbles and sand in his excitement. As the sun began to set, he noticed the massive tracks of shadow the obelisks cast along the island, wide cross-sections of the beach they shrouded in darkness. He turned to see three laughing children run from the shore and disappear back into the forest’s edge, probably late for their nightly curfew. Each held a seashell, little souvenirs that would forever mark this excursion to the beach. In that moment, Rim felt cynical, mature. He wondered how the children could be so satisfied with such pointless novelty. He felt a certain pride in this, like he had risen above the naïve contentment of the islanders. This place alone could never satiate him. Then again, maybe he would uncover the mystery of the Rocks and return a legend. Maybe he’d even be enshrined in myth.

        Rim phased back into reality from this daydream as the tide washed up against his legs, as if to beckon him from the shore into the blackening seascape. The foaming edge of each miniature wave held a nostalgic charm. He reflected for a moment on the beach, and how often he’d come here just to think or to play when he was young. And now this old friend would see him off, as none of his real friends could. His real friends would never let him go.

        He rose and stepped into the water, his toes sinking deep into the loamy sand of the shallows. With a deep breath, he leapt forward into the infinite and begin to swim, battering the water with his hands and legs, imbued with the strength of many driven men. He pounded away for what felt like days, every couple minutes lifting his head from beneath the water’s surface for a breath of salty air and a split-second view of the mind-numbing sunset behind the pillars, its beauty driving away any fear or apprehension. He lived a whole life on that journey, an endless toil with brief interludes of breathtaking vacation. He’d rise from the depths to catch a glimpse of the pillars and just as quickly descend back into the briny abyss. He heard only the internal drumbeat of his straining heart and the fizzling, white-hot friction of his body and the ocean as he sped through the thick blackness like an arrow. Nothing had ever been this important, had ever eclipsed his vision in the way the Rocks did. He could barely think of anything else the whole way. When he did separate his thoughts from the Rocks, even if only for a moment, he saw his parents. He saw his father’s bushy eyebrows and bright, green eyes. He saw his mother’s mouth sagging into a frown. Almost as soon as these images arrived, they jolted out of existence, drowned out by the pulsating beat of his body against the ocean, and by the fantastic image of the pillars, shooting straight into the sky like frozen geysers.

        He rose from the water in a final piscine leap, his great heaving breaths breaking the peaceful silence of the ocean’s surface.

        It was day.

        He had arrived.

        Now treading water, he looked behind him and saw Marag in the distance. It barely looked real, like a mirage in a desert of indigo. He looked ahead and saw the three obelisks before him, stretching forever into the cloudless sky. He had never been so close to anything so enormous, had never felt so tiny and insignificant. The sheer scale of the three pillars filled him with a growing sense of unease, as if any second they would collapse on top of him. As he stared, his mouth hanging upon, the pillars took on a cosmic importance, like the mammoth appendages of some three-legged God of crystal.

        Ignoring his growing anxiety, he swam towards the nearest obelisk, it’s intricate, turquoise body shimmering in the sunlight.

        The column had to be at least one hundred paces across. Overcoming his hesitation, Rim doggy-paddled right up to the pillar and ran his hand along the surface, taking care to notice the elaborate hieroglyphs marking its smooth exterior. Some of the symbols looked like people, but none of the others made any sense. With some dismay, he realized he could never climb a surface this smooth and resolved instead to try and swim down to its base.

        With the deepest breath he could muster, he dived into the murk and swam with all his might, pushing against the force of the air inside him buoying him up.

        The deeper he went, the clearer the water became. He could see his arms extended in front of him, their synchronized movement churning up bubbles that ran down his forearms and over his neck and shoulders, tickling his pruned skin. He took care to keep the pillar in his vision so as not to stray into the open ocean.

        After a few minutes, he realized he would soon run out of air. Suddenly, just as he was about to turn around, he felt himself break through some sort of membrane, some thin sheet of malleable material that now glinted about him in a flurry of hair-like strands, congealing into thicker chunks of crystalline sea glass as they floated upwards toward the surface. As he passed through this barrier, he looked up to see the sun’s glimmer fade into a sea of deep blue, its rays snuffed out by some mystical force. He looked back downwards and was met with the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.

        A vast metropolis stretched out before him, a boundless expanse of alien structures and titanic edifices of solid crystal, all of which interlocked and wormed through each other like a three-dimensional maze. The city looked limitless, stretching farther than his eye could see. Bewildered, Rim swung his head around left and right, drinking in the complex immensity of the city. He found the other two obelisks in his vision and realized they were not obelisks at all, but massive spires, extending up from the most colossal structures he would ever lay eyes on, massive cathedrals of cerulean stone that he knew would dwarf islands twice the size of Marag. They were the centerpieces of the cityscape. Huge sapphire bridges shot from all directions linking together and running through other smaller buildings, meshing and weaving through each other like huge, topaz flowers, then splitting apart and converging at one of the three cathedrals.

        But something was wrong. The longer Rim stared, the more obvious it became that he was entirely alone. The city was still. There wasn’t a living thing in sight.

        What happened to this place? Who lived here? Or what?

        As Rim floated there, just beneath the invisible barrier he had broken through moments before, his sense of wonder slowly gave way to an intense discomfort, a sinking feeling that something was about to grab him and pull him deep into the webbing of the cityscape. He was scared, scared of what could happen if he stayed, scared of what this place might mean for the island, for the people he loved, for the people he’d abandoned to come here. Guilty tears began to well up at the corners of his eyes and he turned to swim back, struck by a desperate need to return to comfort and familiarity, to his father’s firm lectures and his mother’s welcoming arms.

        But he couldn’t.

        He had run out of air.