Articles

Little Gnat

Leslie Hodgkins

The island emerged from the sea in a roiling ecstasy that convulsed the ocean’s already intemperate surface. Magma exploded from the crag of sea-bottom coral and inched its way toward the air of day through the green currents, poisoning every creature, their terror communicated through the salt-thick across half the globe, and every living thing suffocated and perished in the furnace of toxic brine. A plume of deadly gasses steamed into the air and charred the lungs of a pelican V that flew through it, dropping them dead into the stew of retching rock and foam. From out of the boil solid fingers of newly formed rock groped, piling vertically through the steam and smoke infused daylight, and continued vomiting the primordial terra firma, protean and unpredictable in the new world of howling wind and screeching birds. The magma continued to pile and spew and then run in ever thickening rivulets down the sides of the gaping, hellish muzzle opening from the depths of the earth’s molten guts. For years it continued in a spasmodic elemental fit until a conical mass of rust black rock towered several miles above the turbulent waves. There it cooled and stoked and exhaled vapors in the chilling air stream for nearly a century until it was ready to shelter and exude the parasites of life. Over time the sea claimed much of the new mass for its own, populating the lower quarters with a carpet of mollusks, anemones, and starfish. The basalt soil of its upper quadrants proved incredibly fertile to the first bird-shit-borne seeds that would drop into its cradle, until most of these regions were adorned with a tangled mass of abundant green flora. Untold millennia would pass before the first ships of men would land upon these earth-young shores.

 

João’s birth parodied geographic formation when he was ejected from his mother’s well-worn womb, the parodic formulation of the universe is comical both for its grandeur and the dirty rag which soaks up the afterbirth. The eleventh of fourteen broad-headed babies who spread from top to bottom of the island’s vertical features, his family of farmers, goat herders, peddlers, fishermen, and dock swain were an inescapable presence.

As a toddler he was often put to use greasing the bottoms of toboggan carts with seal blubber for easy passage behind toiling donkeys—or often in front of plodding slip-shod men—up the steep and narrow roads of the island’s villages. They called him gnat, “little gnat,” an odd redundancy since he’d never encountered a big gnat. Why or what it meant was even more mysterious, but he would figure it out once he was older and wasn’t pleased by the implication. What he did know at this young age was that whenever he was around his family members they made him work. He developed a good arm for mashing the large yams the brood would feast on most mornings and afternoons. His older brothers and uncles could hardly eat anything else, their teeth blackened and broken to stumps as if they spent their days chewing lava rocks. They were in fact rotten from the sweet wines they would constantly drink, donated by the vicar and the merchants who passed off the casket dregs in exchange for manual labor or bartered for crops of grapes. João did his best to avoid the blood-bonded with the reflexive vigor nature instills in humans to avoid rancid smells and sickness.

He’d often hopscotch over the high rust-orange outcroppings that separated his village from the larger town nearby. It was bestowed the status of “town” by virtue of its port, and from this port the extensive loading and unloading of material goods commenced daily, primarily the sugar and wine the island was famous for. João was mostly interested in the oddly clothed men who spoke in a barrage of incomprehensible languages. When they did speak the common Portuguese they did so with almost unintelligible accents. He loved to watch the dockhands rolling barrels up the long wooden docks and over gunwales to be loaded into their deep holds. Animated beggars would paddle out in skiffs and attempt to balance in their unsteady bottoms, standing upright to show off their wares to the merchants aboard the regal frigates, sometimes lurching and spilling head first into the water. More often he was entranced by the long-limbed women who prowled the streets near the docks with comely smiles and would sometimes spy them crouching behind rocks to urinate in plain sight of the men coming off of the boats. He loved having conversations with these women and would run errands for them, usually to fetch alcohol, sometimes clean undergarments, once even a knife. Mostly he just stared with mute fascination. When he told them his nickname they started to call him that as well, usually with the possessive: “my little gnat,” except for one particularly dignified whore who insisted on calling him Mr. João. He gave her his absolute devotion.

Construction was nearly constant, with a scatter-shot of bungalows, shanties and shacks stretching up the side of the green mountain gradually being filled in by newer cathedrals, a large fort on the waterfront to guard against pirates, and even the first Grand Hotel—pompous in its stature among the derided shacks—positioned far up on the mountain like a sentinel for the rich. Some mornings the low mist would hug the still glassy polish of the windless harbor and the ships emerging from this shroud materialized from out of the amorphous gloom as if magicked there by craven sorcerers. Tethered pleasure boats were reduced to silhouettes beyond a veil of unmolested white, all other details lost except the lapping mass of cold grey where they floated.

 

Wine production had a long and prestigious history on the island. Legend, hyperbole, and pretension fed into the demand. The romance of the island setting enthralled the imaginations of travelers enough to fetch high prices for the sun-soaked grapes. Volcanically ripened and glazed in sea air, aristocrats from all over the globe—none of whom had ever stepped foot on the island—insisted it produced the most unique and invigorating wines they had ever tasted.

João rarely drank the wine for which the island was famous. His first experience was a sad initiation down on the rocks near the short fishing pier at the hands of his older brothers. After too many blackened sardines and under-aged Boal the siblings left him retching purple into the shore froth, drenching his shirt and pants and leaving swirling violet patterns across the glassy waters lapping against the wooden pylons where the early morning fishermen leashed their skiffs. He stared up into the sky from where he stretched across a mossy, barnacled plank, feeling his stomach swell with that deep blue-hewed space, a chaos of magenta clouds, the nausea of the ever-moving, glass-topped sea reflecting the colors back. His mind spun until he raised his head high enough to see the cliffs and fog-covered peaks of the looming volcano.

 

João spent most of his time skittering across the polymorphous rust shapes of the broken shore. He’d inhabit caves and ravage them with his imagination, collecting slimy fish skeletons and opulent oversized shells from the refuse pilings to assemble makeshift ships and mermaids within his rock-skull hideaways. Laying on his side in the sea moss he’d stare into the alien landscape of mollusk and anemone aqua-terrain; sinking into the depths of watery kingdoms, glimpsed in puddles set beyond the golden warp of reflecting sunlight.

Often he’d be pulled out of his solitary reveries by the work-coarse hands of an older family member who’d drag him up into the mountain terraces where the vineyards were built, cut into slopes rising up the steep face of the volcano. Lugging along a basket he’d gradually fill it with the plump grapes picked from the underside of the vine-choked lattices. When a cluster of berries would pull free from the vine, he’d feel their full, perfectly round shape in his hand, and sense a mildly erotic tingle in his loins. Dappled sunlight shined through the canopy of vines, exposing the grubby insect life underneath where he’d let his gaze fall, the shapes beneath the clinging wet clothes of the female beachcombers fixed in his mind. The grape burst in his fist and he’d felt the juices running down his arm. Then he’d fill his stomach with mashed yam and some of the weak beer from his gourd-flask and fall asleep among those grubs, hearing the faint rumblings of the sea deep beneath his ear.

When his uncles found him sleeping beneath the broken wooden lattices they pulled him by his hair all the way down a narrow cobblestone street into the village to report to his mother what a lazy slouch he had become. They told her he barely filled one basket with grapes before he decided to take a nap for the rest of the day. They also said they should send him out onto his great-grandfather’s cliff terrace to tend the vines there. If picking grapes here is so boring you need to sleep the day away, perhaps something more exciting will keep you awake. And good luck sleeping on those cliffs, they spat at him like a death sentence.

 

The cliffside vine-patch of João’s great-grandfather was a place that he had only heard stories about. No one really knows or understands how a poor farmer managed to flatten a terrace on a small outcropping jutting from a cliff face thousands of feet above the jagged shoreline. He heard stories of men sent to harvest grapes there who suffered vertigo so severe that if they weren’t tied to ropes they would have plunged into the abyss below, the shore so far away it can rarely be seen through the shroud of mist it wears. Mountain goats have refused to walk out onto its surface, something in their nature instinctually repelled by the path. It says something about humans that they are able to convince themselves through rational process to undertake a task that even nature’s stalwarts refuse. And says even more that the reason this farm terrace exists is because of the high prices that are paid for the grapes grown there, prices fetched through the sly salesmanship of generations of storytellers. British and Spanish merchants loved the exotic stories of the island and they would carry them back to impart in parlor smoke, impressing their fellow aristocrats with expert assessments of the enriched qualities of cliff-grown grapes, that their separation from other vine patches produced over so many decades a special strain, unique in color and firmness of skin. And thanks to the exposure to the moisture of the sea, combined with the purity of unobstructed rainfall, the salt-rich air and unimpeded sun, the flavors produced when fermented and casked are like no other. And naturally the cost increases with the added danger of sending a person onto the teetering outcrop, so many thousands of feet above the waves, to collect the grapes and maintain the lattices supporting the vines.

Engravings were made, printed on a broadside, copied and circulated to buyers all throughout the world’s watery orbit. One showed the rock outcropping like a stiff finger indicating a distant point on the horizon, the flattened surface hirsute with vines, and a ratty peasant leading a bone-thin donkey down the narrow broken steps. The other engraving was from a distance, showing the entire cliff face on the slope of the volcano, with the shore visible where a three-masted clipper with full sails was placed in the foreground for perspective. Size-wise the ship looked like a pencil set at the foot of a sequoia. The vine patch was even smaller, circled, with a pointing hand to direct the viewer’s attention to the tiny welt two-thirds of the way up.

 

The following day João was woken early from the hammock that he slept in outside of the family’s small cottage. His all but bedridden mother—stumpish and troll-like in her advanced age—upbraided him for his laziness and informed him that his brother Nestor was going to take him to the other side of the island where he would be put to good use. While technically the other side of the island from the village where João’s family lived was not that far away, to travel along the vertical inclines and through the deep valleys of the island would take days. The narrow roads hugged the cragged sides of the volcano and wound through every notch and furrow, ravine and runnel, slick with moisture and often completely blocked by rockslides.

Nestor deposited João in the back of his cart pulled by an undersized donkey that brayed and shat frequently. João was made to share the cramped space with a recent catch of large black lobsters that flopped and thrashed in the bottom of the cart in several inches of water. Even though João tried to keep his feet dry while in the cart the angry crustaceans slapped at him with their tails, and since the donkey was fond of kicking anything that wasn’t the cart it drug, and the mountain path so narrow that kicks were inevitable, it was easier for João to endure the sloshing and slapping of the lobster tails. If amusement was what Nestor displayed, his lips folded back from his broken black teeth, then Nestor was surely amused. Men and women in gnarled clothing with hand-knitted sweaters and hats cured and colored by years of unwashed use made their way on foot, backs loaded with large buckets of fresh mussels, bushels of passion fruit and banana, hemp stringers hung with long scabbard fish, coal black and wide-eyed, their mouths gasping reflexively at the air. One bedraggled old man carried a long blue-bright marlin hauled across his shoulders, its back-fan pulled taught in the air like a serpent’s mane, the spear-snout cut off and secured at his waist by the rope that held up his pants. A fetid smell trailed the man, the seams between the long dead marlin’s scales split to dripping, with spoilage in the yellowing underbelly. He moved steadily over the pass, a cloud of flies his natural escort.

When they reached the summit of the mountain pass the highest peak of the island loomed over them, a bank of inching cumulus on the far side of its scowling face. Once they negotiated a number of switchbacks that took them out of view of the high ridges the clouds must have snuck past since very soon it started to rain. Still several hundred meters above the valley the road became slick with mud and the donkey continually lost its footing in front of the erratic cart. They rested beneath a craggy, vine-draped overhang to avoid the inevitable mudslides brought on by the weather. The back of the cart became so full of water that the lobsters continually jerked from one end to the other in erratic death somersaults. How they were still alive in that sweet water was a mystery to both Nestor and João. When the rain slowed from a solid downpour to a drizzle they could see across the valley to a tan smudge expanding down one side of the slope, a gradual spill across the green that looked like a Spanish galleon lying flat and elongating on the side of the mountain.

 

They had to go up before they could go down and once they reached the top of the cliff from where the terrace could be seen João spun with vertigo. He had never been suspended so high over the ground in his life. He’d been higher in the mountains but the view to the lower depths is gradual, the end point a distance tempered by other surfaces, a gradual ratio from which the eye and mind will concede the height. This cliff was an entirely different geometry, he had to take in all the distance from where he was standing to the shore below in a straight line of sight, the scrawl where the water met the rocks so drastically miniaturized that it was indiscernible. The immediacy of the distance made his stomach want to turn inside out, as if the horizon was levered onto its side. 

After fighting the vertigo spell he could see that the face of the cliff was frantic with birds, mainly gulls and pelicans nested on the crags and shelves and outcroppings. In places it was nearly solid with white flapping, a metropolis in the sky that João and Nestor peered down on and could hear the white noise of their collective yammering. Nestor walked João along a path to where the much steeper trail accessing the terrace began, then to a perch providing a direct vantage over the coveted terrace. This is how we keep all those buzzards from eating the grapes, he said as he moved to the edge. We make our own rain, he confided, as he withdrew his penis from his pants and urinated a sprinkling down onto the vines nearly a hundred meters below. The birds won’t go near that smell. Go ahead and try it. João wished to oblige his self-satisfied brother but couldn’t piss no matter how hard he tried. Standing on the ledge looking down all he could think about was plummeting through the air with his pants around his ankles and the urine would not come. The wind was chilling and dull fear competed with nausea, making him swoon so that he had to jerk his pants up, taking several quick steps back from edge he tripped and ended up hard on his tailbone. Nestor brayed with laughter at the sight.

João covered his face with his hands hoping to steady his vertigo. Nestor lifted him by his collar and scooted him toward the steep trail leading down to the terrace.

 

Nestor walked over to the cart and pulled out two baskets. He tossed one into João’s lap and then scurried down the trail to the terrace. João stood up and followed him, stepping cautiously onto the first smooth-worn footholds on the narrow path. Nestor had already entirely vanished out of sight. Curving through a cleft in the cliff face the trail was easy to follow until it reached the partition between the massive slopes of basalt that formed the cleft, their textures an insane decalcomania opening to the wide expanse of sea. The horizon was half shrouded with fog, rolling in from the obscene distance like the soft exhalation of the sea and sky’s commingling. At the sight of this João stopped where he stood and his knees grew wobbly. He was overcome with the sensation that the entire island was moving forward like a massive ship setting forth with him at the helm, when in fact the fog was so uniformly moving toward him in the distance that it created the illusion that he was moving forward. Reeling, he reached for something to steady himself and nearly let go of his basket. He decided the best thing to do was to look down at the path and at the outcropping before him so as not to be pulled in by the vortex of the horizon. From here the path became a flight of shallow steps roughly cut into the stone, with nothing to hold onto to steady himself on either side, descending was an act of pure balance as the steps weren’t as wide as his feet were long and the next step down was a distance as long as his ankle to his knee. Once he maneuvered down the majority of these stairs he was hit by the stench of urine and felt a sticky residue covering all the rock around him. A few paces out onto the terrace he could hear the sound of the birds and see the vines coiled and wildly disheveled over the tops of their trellises, but the ocean and the sky had all but disappeared behind the approaching fog.

He inched forward until he felt secure on the tapering plateau of the path and looked back at the cliff face. The chattering and bleating of the birds seemed to become louder as he turned his back to look up at the scalloped and decaying rock face, seeing all the way to the volcanic peak flickering in and out of sight behind the passing accumulations of fog. When he turned around again he could hardly see the trellises that were just steps away a moment ago. He felt afraid to move in any direction at all because he wasn’t sure what direction he was facing and he knew a misstep would mean falling through the thickening cloud. He called out for Nestor and in response received an unholy caterwaul of shrieking birds, as if thousands had surrounded him, cloaked in the fog and so close they could be inside of his head. He kneeled and groped to try to feel the grape vines and grabbed only air. The condensation from the cloud was quickly soaking his clothes and the rock beneath his feet. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled until he felt the soil thickening. The hidden birds were becoming more agitated, screaming at him through the gloom, and he feared they might try to drive him off of the cliff. He continued, hoping to find some safety beneath the trellises. Once he felt his hands deep in the soft soil he continued crawling forward, feeling the dried vine cuttings and crushed overripe grapes smash into his palms. He yelled for Nestor and there was no reply, so he groped his way across the grape-littered soil trying to find his sibling but it seemed no one was there. The covering of vines managed to create a pocket within the fog but it was dark and João had no fire to light the space. Not sure what else to do he laid down, tucked his knees into chest, placed his head inside the basket and eventually fell asleep.

 

When João woke up it was light and perfectly clear. The morning sky was a ponderous aquamarine and he could see all the way to the other islands in the archipelago. Since he’d never been to this side of the island, he had never seen them before, he only knew of their existence from the tales spun by travelers and wharf-rats. The clarity of their presence nearly made him weep.

Nestor had vanished and the cart and donkey were gone as well. Joao was frightened then relieved by this revelation, and figured that Nestor returned to sell the grapes he had picked. João looked at his empty basket and felt like he had failed for not brining anything back with him. Then he tossed the basket down over the edge and watched it disappear, unable to see when it hit the rocky beach because it had shrunken so small from his sight. He retraced his way back down the mountain path by foot, recalling most of the turns. Once he found his way to the main road he had no idea which way was the right way to get back. As he followed the road inclining downward he hitched up his pants and enjoyed the sunlight on his face, and the view down through the overgrown trees into the valley below, framed in the distance by jagged angles of green, and gauzy with a low mist.

Eventually he came to a small cluster of shacks built into a clearing off of the road. It wasn’t something he recognized from the previous day’s ascent, a realization that sunk to the depth of his empty stomach since he was now sure he was lost. Whoever lived there was cultivating a small farm and João decided to ask if they had any water to give when he heard the distinct bray of a donkey. This lightened his mood because he thought it could be Nestor’s donkey. A cat skittered out across a tree branch, looking down on him, and he noticed a thin curl of campfire smoke rising through the air from behind the slipshod constructions. A peculiar smell hit his nostrils as he came to the front of the first shack. He could see that it was used for storage: piles of yam, stacks of wood, and brown tendrils of drying viscera nailed to a wall. Further on was a clearing; a large blackened cauldron resting in the flames of a fire pit, and he could see a donkey tied to a tree. Not far from the donkey was a small wooden cart nearly identical to Nestor’s.

To his left a woman stepped out from the other wooden shack and walked toward the cauldron. He could see from her posture and gait that she was very old. Her clothes were layers of loosely connected rags, fraying and grey as smoke. She carried a lobster in each hand, both held by the back of their carapace, claws and legs strained away from their sides. She dropped them in the boiling water and João heard a clipped whine that he recognized as their death screech. He stepped forward and asked the old crone for some water. She didn’t speak to him but he could see a glow in her expression such that the sight of this young boy brought her pleasure. She beckoned him toward the fire pit where she was standing watching the boil of her cauldron. When the donkey caught sight of him it brayed wildly and kicked its hind legs at the tree to which it was tethered.

Standing next to the crone he could smell the rich stench coming off of the boiling water more acutely. The froth curdled and clots of unidentifiable matter rolled to the surface and then disappeared. She stared down at him like she had been blessed with the presence of an angel. He looked back expectantly, his throat dry and insides shrunken. She fished around in the stew with a stick until she pushed one of the lobsters to the surface and grabbed it with her bare hand, then dropped the steaming, perfectly poised creature onto the ground. It landed standing, as if at attention, the steam wafting from its every surface like an apparition, its insect eyes turned from black to milky white. She fished out the second lobster, plucked the first from the ground, and walked with the steaming sea-bugs clutched in her callused hands back into the shack she had stepped from originally.

João followed her there. She tossed the lobsters down onto a roughly hewn wooden table, wiped her hands on the front of her rag dress and picked up a clay beaker from the floor and filled it with water from the jug next to it. She handed this to Joao without saying a word. He drank the water like it was going to save his life and handed the beaker back to her. She filled it up for him again and returned it. This time as he drank it down she reached out and touched his face. Her fingers felt as rough as gnarled sticks and smelled like starch and smoke, but he didn’t flinch. He simply accepted the gesture of affection. They stared at each other, remaining entirely silent, and then she took the beaker and went to a large basin sitting in the corner full of a thick purplish liquid that she dipped it into and handed it back. Expecting the concoction to taste like the sweet wine his family drank he was surprised by its bitter flavor. It was full of fruit chunks and had a strong taste of fermentation that burned his throat as it went down. Having not eaten anything since the previous day he felt the home brew hit his stomach quickly and his mind reeled at the sudden change to his perception, an unease pulsing into his brain.

Then he noticed the wooden trunk sitting in the corner opposite the wine basin. The fine brown and blue lacquered wood with brass latches and leather handles resembled the trunks he had seen unloaded from the ships from Europe full of travelers coming to stay on the south side of the island. This trunk was filled with rotting meat and animal viscera, covered with flies, a tangled mess of red and brown that in his sudden swoon of drunkenness was so incongruous as to be a relic from a nightmare. He courteously handed the beaker back to the mute woman and ran out of the shack, passed the donkey and cart and caught out of the corner of his eye a man emerging from a thicket of trees with a large cluster of bananas slung over one shoulder.

 

He walked in a drunken stupor through the shrill calls of the mountain forest until he came to a harbor on the shore. Nestled in a cove near massive pools of volcanic rock that reached out of the choppy water like the half-sunken hands of a gigantic sea kraken. The tall masts of the variously docked and anchored ships lanced the sky and rocked in unison to the swells. João had found one of several harbors entirely avoided by merchants and pleasure-seekers since the weather was consistently rougher on this far side of the island and was favored instead by whalers, slave ships, and the occasional privateers who would slip in under assumed pretenses when they needed to take on fresh water or unload stolen goods to buyers in an unofficial capacity.

Entirely devoid of the pretenses of the port that João grew up on, he gazed upon the refuse piles, the discarded planks and piles of rotten rope, the carcasses of unidentifiable sea denizens scattered at random. The battered skeleton of a massive ship was consecrated to ruin on a rocky shoal, a spire of ragged basalt its counterweight to the constant batter of incoming waves eating away at her disarticulated hull. João’s attention was drawn to the largest shark he had ever seen. Nothing brought in on the other side of the island compared to this monster that must have been five times as long as he was tall. Whoever caught the leviathan had decided to impale it upon several poles so it sailed aloft and unevenly slumped several feet in the air, the poles sunk akimbo under its weight. There was a large hook through its snout attached to a rope that was pulled tightly back and tied around the tail so as to pull open the powerful jaws into a hellish grimace of row upon row of serrated teeth.

He approached the mouth in a daze to run his fingers across the teeth and feel their sharp edges, an inherent fascination he could not deny. As he was stroking the teeth in a daze a hand slipped into his and he was led away by a man in a jacket of exotic fabric who possessed the countenance and bearing of someone who had seen the ends of the earth. João was easily seduced and offered no resistance to the pull of this hand that fit so perfectly into his own. They boarded a small skiff and some men rowed them to a sloop anchored further out in the harbor.

 

Later in life, after seeing a great swath of the Earth—both its oceans and foreign lands—and surviving experiences far removed from his earliest years on that sea-scourged island, João encountered a man who told him the story of an English Duke whose final request upon notification of execution for treason was to be drowned in a barrel of wine from the island of João’s youth. João questioned this salty story-wielding man to discover that the make and vintage of the Duke’s deathly desire originated with his grandfather’s vine patch, high on the careening cliff face imprinted on his memory. The mental image of a portly English aristocrat lowered headfirst into that barrel, strung up by his heels like a hog for bleeding, brought him tears of pleasure. And laughing hysterically at the idea, he couldn’t help but imagine a man dropped from the sky into the molten crater of a volcano.

LESLIE HODGKINS is a filmmaker living in New York City. This is his first published short story.