By Fred A. Reed
Somewhere in the farthest reaches of the Indian Ocean, southeast of Réunion and north of Kerguelen, lies an island that, having no Wikipedia entry, should not officially exist. This island, near the area where Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370 went down, has been a source of speculation and controversy for years.
Though available data cannot confirm its location, hints of its existence can be found in the accounts of whalers and sealers. Aerial views of the island are almost impossible to obtain, due to its thick and constant cloud cover, and the frequent eruptions of the volcanoes that dominate its geography.
However, recent findings from satellite search information, primarily in digital form and enhanced by AI, now allow us to postulate that there is indeed something out there. Access to such information is, of course, strictly limited due to strategic considerations and the exigencies of military secrecy but the ‘island’ is rumoured to emit curious sound signals at frequencies heretofore unknown.
It was in search of the origin of these signals that, in the last decade (exact dates are imprecise due to strong magnetic influence in these latitudes, turbulent glacial waters in the southern zones and the frequency of icebergs) an expedition was outfitted and dispatched from Campbell Bay in the Nicobar Islands to this aqueous Empty Quarter, arguably the place on Earth most distant from human habitation.
This exclusive account of the ill-fated expedition has been obtained thanks to a
grizzled mariner I encountered in a harbour dive in Agadir, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Suspicious of my motives at first, he agreed to relate what he had heard after I plied him with glass after glass of the potent local eau de vie, made from the crushed shells of the Argan nuts that grow only in this region.
Now, and without fear of contradiction, I can disclose the essential elements of the expedition’s discoveries, shocking though they may prove to some readers.
Relying not only on accounts of the aforementioned whalers and sealers, but also on the primitive star-charts used by Polynesian ocean dugout canoe explorers, it made landfall in the spring of 2008, the same year that the world banking system imploded. A conjuncture that, while apparently random, may prove to be significant.
What its members, all intrepid explorers, encountered was forbidding to behold. Dense jungles that lined the rocky shore made landing seem impossible until, finally, they came upon a tiny cove with a narrow pebble beach. It was there that they landed in Zodiacs, and from this beachhead, made their way cautiously inland. Communication proved difficult due to the cries and calls of the profusion of jungle creatures, arboreal and aerial.
But most inexplicable was the steady, persistent murmur that resembled muffled voices. The expedition leaders quickly became convinced that these were human voices, but ruled that hypothesis out, as no previous human visit to the island had been attested.
How wrong they were. For the explorers had happened upon a place long thought to exist, but never before seen by human eyes nor heard by human ears, though mooted in literature. As he spoke these words, the venerable seafarer’s eyes widened as in horror at the scenes he was about to describe.
I was soon to ascertain just how right he was, and how justified his fear and loathing.
As the expedition made its way inland, he related, though jungles so dense that it could only proceed by hacking its way with machetes, it was intercepted by pods of giant sloths.* These normally quiescent creatures that are content to hang upside down from sturdy boughs had either been aroused by the presence of the intruders, or—as it turned out—were carrying out specific instructions to attack and deter anyone who ventured into the impassable jungle.
Anticipating such an obstacle, the expedition had come equipped with powerful wind-up alarm clocks timed to sound at the same hour. It was thanks to this stratagem that the attack of the giant sloths was foiled, as the clangour of multiple alarms set off the beasts’ powerful impulse, in the manner of reverse psychology, to return to their slime-covered branches and resume their slumber.
The path thus cleared, the expedition made its way forward. To its good fortune, there were no prehistoric creatures surviving on this island: no pterodactyls or predatory monster lizards.
No, what they encountered was far more terrible, and more difficult to grasp.
For the expedition had finally discovered a secret kept for decades if not longer; an immense open-air courtroom complete with the finest wood panelling, official seals, flags and, at one end, a raised bench at which sat the presiding judge. From it rose a muted, discrete clamour; a muffled outpouring of semi-articulate legalese, punctuated by coughing and sneezing, wheezing, nose blowing and throat clearing.
They had come upon a place where barristers, judges, court-clerks, sergeants-at-arms, jurors, witnesses and, of course, the unfortunate accused, gathered every day to rehearse one particular and infamous case. The lawyers would argue and object, the judges in their white wigs and tight-lipped demeanour would harrumph and grumble, and rule them out of order. The members of the jury would listen impassively. The lawyers would address them shamelessly; defendant and plaintiff would stare with open hostility or imploring tear-filled eyes.
So this, my ancient informant revealed to me on that night out by the fishermen’s shacks at the Agadir harbour, just beyond the small dry dock facility, was what was spoken of, in fearful tones: the place known in whispered tones, as Judiciary Park.
Such a place it was, so grim and so forbidding as to defy imagination. But now, thanks to my informant, who became more prolix as the night wore on, a full picture of its true dimensions was coming into focus. And I was forced to confront my deepest fears, my existential doubts, my very concept of self, as though it had been captured and re-programmed.
For what the expedition had witnessed, and what was now being conveyed to me by the fisherman, was a tale I knew—alas—all too well. And caused me to wonder whether, as if by some commodious vicus of recirculation, the entire expedition, its discoveries and my chance encounter with my interlocutor, had been structured and—yes—arranged and planned for my sole and ultimate cognizance.
Yes. The courtroom scenes, in their apparent incoherence, were—on a supra-subliminal level—intellectual and even metaphysical references to an ancestral dread. One that had followed me through life, haunting my every waking moment and troubling my dreams. One that I had taken extreme means to elude, such means as wind-up alarm clocks that would help me avoid REM sleep when dreams are embedded in the sub-conscious and thus allow me to face the next day, which would always, unerringly, arrive with the sunrise.
Yes. Through the hearsay account of a now inebriated ancient mariner gleaned from his improbable knowledge of an expedition to the earth’s remotest place, I had come face to face with the spectre of Guilt. My own Guilt, for offenses not intended and hurts not willed, for innocent oversights and thoughtless youthful misadventures. For slights so minuscule as to harm not even one of the silverfish that luxuriate in the damp reaches of the bathroom and scatter, slithering, when the light is turned on.
Yes. The trial perpetually taking place was that of a man accused who perpetually struggles to grasp the nature of the accusations. Of a man, the author of these lines, who summons witness after witness, none of whom can offer compelling testimony of his innocence and whose ignorance points to his Guilt.
Hence the perorations of the barristers, the impatience of the judge, and the desperation of the accused, his tears and lamentations. For he knew, without knowing, that there would be no acquittal, no remorse. The court was implacable and proceeded with machine-like deliberateness that had neither beginning nor end, toward its verdict.
There could be, of course, no escape. Perhaps that is why, in the final analysis, the account of my salt-cracked interlocutor’s overhearing of the expedition’s account, had to be discarded as unreliable, if not unbelievable.
And yet, his sincerity and the deep verisimilitude of his encounter—though he never specified where or when it took place—seemed unimpeachable. It was only when the sound of a wind-up alarm clock roused me from slumber did I realize what had happened.
There had been no ancient mariner, no expedition, and no phantom island. All were products of intense dream activity. I rolled over to turn on the light. There, on my bedside table, stood a half-empty bottle of Argan eau-de-vie.
A confirmed teetotaller, to this day I have no recollection of ever drinking, let alone purchasing it. Now was the greyish hour before dawn. I stumbled over to the window, parted the curtains and there, loping down the sidewalk toward the harbour, I saw it: a giant sloth, limbs coated with lichens, carrying a wind-up alarm clock.
* A correspondent, to whom I showed an earlier draft of this piece, has brought to my attention that the giant sloth (now extinct except, apparently, on this singular island) is known by its scientific name, Megatherium, meaning ‘great beast.’ By no coincidence, he writes, this was the title adopted by that master of the black arts, Aleister Crowley. I have not, however, incorporated this information into my narrative.