Mr Virgil Jones, a man devoid of friends and with a tongue rather too large for his mouth, was fond of descending this cliff-path on Tiusday mornings. (Mr Jones, something of a pedant and interested in the origins of things, referred to the days of his week as Sunday, Moonday, Tiusday, Wodensday, Thorsday, Freyday and Saturnday; it was affectations like this, among other things, that had left him friendless.) It was five a.m.; for no reason, Mr Jones habitually chose this entirely random time to indulge his liking for Calf Island’s one small beach. Accordingly, he was tripping goat-fashion down the downward spiral of the path, trailing in the nimbler wake of a hunchbacked crone called Dolores O’Toole, who had an exceptionally beautiful walnut rocking-chair strapped to her back. The strap was Mr Jones’ belt. Which meant he was obliged to use both his hands to hold his trousers up. This kept him fairly preoccupied.
Some more facts about Mr Jones: he was gross of body and short of sight. His eyes blinked a lot, refusing to believe in their myopia. He had three initials: V. B. C. Jones, Esq. The B was for Beauvoir and the C for Chanakya. These were historical names, names to conjure with, and Mr Jones, though no conjurer, considered himself something of an historian. Today, as he arrived at the dead greysilver sands of his chosen island, surrounded by the greysilver mists that hung forever upon the surrounding, sundering seas, he was about to make his rendezvous with a small historical event. If he had known, he would have philosophized at length about the parade of history, about the historian’s inability to stand apart and watch; it was erroneous, he would have said, to look upon oneself as an Olympian chronicler; one was a member of the parade. An historian is affected by the present events that eternally recreate the past. He would have thought this earnestly, although for some time now the parade had been progressing without his help. However, because he was shortsighted, because of the mist and because he was trying to keep his trousers on, he didn’t see the body of one Flapping Eagle floating in on the incoming tide; and Dolores O’Toole was spared the trouble of being an audience.
Sometimes, people trying to commit suicide manage it in a manner that leaves them breathless with astonishment. Flapping Eagle, coming in fast now on the crest of a wave, was about to discover this fact. At present he was unconscious; he had just fallen through a hole in the sea. The sea had been the Mediterranean. It wasn’t now; or not quite.
The crone Dolores placed the rocking-chair on the sands. Mr Jones supervised approvingly. The rocking-chair faced away from the sea and towards the massive forested rock of Calf Mountain, which occupied most of the island except for the small clearing, directly above the beach, where Mr Jones and Dolores lived. Mr Jones sat down and began to rock.
Dolores O’Toole was a lapsed Catholic. She sometimes took unholy pleasure in the act of stimulating herself with church, or roman, candles. She did this because she was separated from her husband but not from her desires. Her sometime spouse, Mr O’Toole, ran a drinking establishment in K, the town high on the slopes of Calf Mountain, and she disapproved of K in general, of drinkers in particular and of her husband most particularly of all. She gave vent to this disapproval by living in isolation with Virgil Jones (far from K, from Mr O’Toole’s bar and from his favourite place of recreation, Madame Jocasta’s notorious bawdy-house). And every Tiusday at dawn she carried Mr Jones’ rocking-chair to the beach.
—Crestfallen, murmured Mr Jones to himself, with his back to the sea. Crestfallen, the sea today.
The body of Flapping Eagle touched land face upwards, which explains why he hadn’t drowned. He was quite near the back of Mr Jones’ rocking-chair, and the encroaching waves pushed him ever nearer and nearer. Mr Jones and Mrs O’Toole remained oblivious of his presence.
It should be pointed out that Flapping Eagle was averagely kind and good; but he would soon be responsible for a large number of deaths. He was also as sane as the next man, but then the next man was Mr Virgil Jones.
There was an extraordinary coincidence involved in the relationship of Virgil Jones and Dolores O’Toole: they loved each other and found it impossible to declare their love. It was no beautiful love, for they were extremely ugly. It was undeclared, because each had been so badly damaged by experience that they preferred to nurture their feelings in the privacy of their own bosoms, rather than expose them to possible ridicule and rejection. So they would sit close, but separated by this privacy, and Dolores would sing cracked songs, toothless rimes of mourning and requition; while Virgil would talk his lilting elliptical talk, exercising the thoughts and the tongue which were both too large for his head to hold, and there on the deserted beach was as close as they came to joy.
Whitebeard is all my love and whitebeard is my desire, sang Dolores dolefully, to the rhythm of the swaying rocking-chair. Virgil, lost in thought, stroked his white-grizzled chin and did not hear.
—Language, he mused, language makes concepts. Concepts make chains. I am bound, Dotty, bound and I don’t know where. Not enough of the ether for the way of Grimus, not enough of the earth for the way of K, moving pingpongways in thought between them and you. Dolores O’Thule. Sorrow of the gods. My dear, I was not always as you see me now. The terror of the titties, I. Once. Then. Before.
—Early one morning, just as the Son was borning, I a maiden crying in the valley below, wailed Dolores.
The insensate Eagle was within a foot of the rockers.
—This island, muttered Virgil Jones firmly, but under his breath, is the most terrible place in all creation. Since we seem to survive and are not sucked into its ways, we seem to love.
He would have reflected further, on ritual, on obsession, on the neuroses and displacement activities that exile creates, on age, on entrapment, on friendship and love, on the state of his corns, on the ornithology of myth, and refined and invented thoughts in the peace of Dolores’ presence; and she would have sung further, until her songs dropped a tear from her eyes; and then they would have gone home.
But at that moment the body of Flapping Eagle came to rest against the perfectly-carved rockers of the perfectly-carved rocking-chair with the perfectly-carved dancers spiralling along them. The chair, thus affronted, stopped rocking.
—Death, exclaimed Dolores in terror. Death, from the sea.…
Virgil Jones didn’t reply, having a mouth full of the sea which had lodged in Flapping Eagle’s lungs. But he, too, as he breathed life back into the stranger, was alarmed.
—No, he said eventually, willing himself and Dolores to believe it. The face is too pale.
A remarkable fact about Flapping Eagle’s arrival at Calf Island: the island-dwellers, who shouldn’t have been too surprised at his arrival, found it highly disturbing, even unnerving. Whereas Flapping Eagle himself, once he acquired a certain piece of knowledge, rapidly came to accept his arrival as entirely unremarkable.
The piece of knowledge was this:
No-one ever came to Calf Island by accident.
The mountain drew its own kind to itself.
Or perhaps it was Grimus who did that.
Copyright © 2009 by Salman Rushdie. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.