step two from jerzy kosinski’s steps

"It was an advanced civilization, the professor claimed, but at some point a massive catastrophe had wiped it out . . ."

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There were several of us, all archeological assistants, working on one of the islands with a professor who for years had been excavating remnants of an ancient civilization that had flourished fifteen centuries before our era.

 

It was an advanced civilization, the professor claimed, but at some point a massive catastrophe had wiped it out. He had challenged the prevailing theory that a disastrous earthquake, followed by a tidal wave, had struck the island. We were collecting fragments of pottery, sifting through ashes for the remains of artifacts, and unearthing building materials, all of which the professor catalogued as evidence to support his as yet unpublished work.

 

After a month I decided to leave the excavations and visit a neighboring island. In my haste to catch the ferry I left without my paycheck, but I obtained the promise that it would be forwarded on the next mail skiff. I could live for one day on the money I had with me.

 

After arriving I spent the entire day sightseeing. The island was dominated by a dormant volcano, its broad slopes covered with porous lava rock, weathered to form a poor but arable soil.

 

I walked down to the harbor; an hour before sunset, when the air was cooling, the fishing boats put out for the night. I watched them slide over the calm, almost waveless water until their long, low forms vanished from sight. The islands suddenly lost the light reflected from their rocky spines and grew stark and black. And then, as though drawn silently beneath the surface, they disappeared one by one.

 

On the morning of the second day I went down to the quay to meet the mail skiff. To my consternation my paycheck had not arrived. I stood on the dock, wondering how I was going to live and whether I would even be able to leave the island. A few fishermen sat by their nets, watching me; they sensed that something was wrong. Three of them approached and spoke to me. Not understanding, I replied in the two languages I knew: their faces became sullen and hostile, and they abruptly turned away. That evening I took my sleeping bag down to the beach and slept on the sand.

 

In the morning I spent the last of my money on a cup of coffee. After strolling up the winding streets behind the port, I walked through the scrubby fields to the nearest village. The villagers sat in the shade, covertly watching me. Hungry and thirsty, I returned to the beach again, walking beneath a blazing sun. I had nothing to barter for food or money: no watch, no fountain pen, no cuff links, no camera, no wallet. At noon, when the sun stood high and the villagers sheltered in their cottages, I went to the police station. I found the island’s solitary policeman dozing by the telephone. I woke him, but he seemed reluctant to understand even my simplest gesture. I pointed to his phone, pulling out my empty pockets; I made signs and drew pictures, even miming thirst and hunger. All this had no effect: the policeman showed neither interest nor understanding, and the phone remained locked. It was the only one on the island; the guidebook I had read had even bothered to mention the fact.

 

In the afternoon I strolled around the village, smiling at the inhabitants, hoping to be offered a drink or to be invited to a meal. No one returned my greeting; the villagers turned away and the storekeepers simply ignored me. The church was on the largest island of the group and I had no means of getting there to ask for food and shelter. I returned to the beach as if expecting help to rise up from the sea. I was famished and exhausted. The sun had brought on a pounding headache, I felt waves of vertigo. Unexpectedly I caught the sound of people talking in an alien language. Turning, I saw two women sitting close to the water. Folds of gray, heavily veined fat hung fiom their thighs and upper arms; their full, pendulous breasts were squashed in outsize brassieres.

 

They sunbathed sprawling on their beach towels surrounded by picnic equipment: food baskets, thermos flasks, parasols, and nets full of fruit. A pile of books, heaped up alongside, conspicuously displayed library numbers. They were evidently tourists staying with a local family. I approached them slowly but directly, anxious not to alarm them. They stopped talking, and I greeted them smilingly, using my languages in turn. They replied in another one. We had no common language, but I was very They stopped talking, and I greeted them smilingly, using my languages in turn. They replied in another one. We had no common language, but I was very conscious of the proximity of food. I sat down beside them as though I had understood I had been invited. When they began to eat I eyed the food; they either did not notice this or ignored my intense stare. After a few minutes the woman I judged to be the older offered me an apple. I ate it slowly, trying to conceal my hunger and hoping for something more solid. They watched me intently.

 

It was hot on the beach and I dozed off. But I woke when the two women pulled themselves to their feet, their shoulders and back red from the sun. Rivulets of perspiration streaked the sand that clung to their flabby thighs, the fat slid over their hips as they braced themselves to stoop and collect their belongings. I helped them. With flirtatious nods they set off along the inner rim of the beach; I followed.

 

We reached the house they occupied. On entering I was hit by another wave of vertigo; I stumbled on a step and collapsed. Laughing and chattering, the women undressed me and maneuvered me onto a large, low bed. Still dazed, I pointed to my stomach. There was no delay: they rushed to bring me meat, fruit, and milk. Before I could finish the meal, they had drawn the curtains and tom off their bathing suits. Naked, they fell upon me. I was buried beneath their heavy bellies and broad backs; my arms were pinioned; my body was manipulated, squeezed, pressed, and thumped.

 

I was at the dock at dawn. The mail skiff came in, but there was neither a check nor a letter for me. I stood there watching the boat recede into the hot sun that dissolved the morning mist, revealing one by one the distant islands.

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