ballard’s terminal beach concluded

The Submarine Pens

 

This precarious existence continued for the following weeks. As he walked out to the blocks one evening, he again saw his wife and son, standing among the dunes below a solitary camera tower, their faces watching him expressionlessly. He realized that they had followed him across the island from their former haunt among the driedup lakes. At about this time he once again saw the distant light beckoning, and decided to continue his exploration of the island.

 

Half a mile further along the atoll he found a group of four submarine pens, built over an inlet, now drained, which wound through the dunes from the sea. The pens still contained several feet of water, filled with strange luminescent fish and plants. The warning light winked at intervals from the apex of a metal scaffold. The remains of a substantial camp, only recently vacated, stood on the pier outside. Greedily, Traven heaped his sledge with the provisions stored inside one of the metal shacks.

 

With this change of diet, the ben-ben receded, and during the next days he returned often to the camp. It appeared to be the site of a biological expedition. In the field office he came across a series of large charts of mutated chromosomes. He rolled them up and took them back to his bunker. The abstract patterns were meaningless, but during his recovery he amused himself by devising suitable titles for them. (Later, passing the aircraft dump on one of his forays, he found the half-buried juke-box, and tore the list of records from the selection panel, realizing that these were the most appropriate captions. Thus embroidered, the charts took on many layers of associations.)

 

 

Traven: In Parenthesis

 

Elements in a quantal world: The terminal beach.

 

The terminal bunker.

 

The blocks.

 

          ***

 

The landscape is coded.

 

Entry points into the future=Levels in a spinal landscape=zones of significant time.

 

August 5. Found the man Traven. A strange derelict figure, hiding in a bunker in the deserted interior of the island. He is suffering from severe exposure and malnutrition, but is unaware of this or, for that matter, of any other events in the world around him He maintains that he came to the island to carry out some scientific project – unstated – but I suspect that he understands his real motives and the unique role of the island… In some way its landscape seems to be involved with certain unconscious notions of time, and in particular with those that may be a repressed premonition of our own deaths. The attractions and dangers of such an architecture, as the past has shown, need no stressing.

 

August 6. He has the eyes of the possessed. I would guess that he is neither the first, nor the last, to visit the island.

 

—from Dr C. Osborne, ‘Eniwetok Diary.’

 

 

Traven lost within the Blocks

 

With the exhaustion of’his supplies, Traven remained within the perimeter of the blocks almost continuously, conserving what strength remained to him to walk slowly down their empty corridors. The infection in his right foot made it difficult for him to replenish his supplies from the stores left by the biologists, and as his strength ebbed he found progressively less incentive to make his way out of the blocks. The system of megaliths now provided a complete substitute for those functions of his mind which gave to it its sense of the sustained rational order of time and space. Without them, his awareness of reality shrank to little more than the few square inches of sand beneath his feet.

 

On one of his last ventures into the maze, he spent all night and much of the following morning in a futile attempt to escape. Dragging himself from one rectangle of shadow to another, his leg as heavy as a club and apparently inflamed to the knee, he realized that he must soon find an equivalent for the blocks or he would end his life within them, trapped inside this self-constructed mausoleum as surely as the retinue of Pharaoh.

 

He was sitting helplessly somewhere in the centre of the system, the faceless lines of tomb-booths receding from him, when the sky was slowly divided by the drone of a light aircraft. This passed overhead, and then returned five minutes later. Seizing his opportunity, Traven struggled to his feet and made his exit from the blocks, his head raised to follow the faintly glistening beacon of the exhaust trail.

 

As he lay in the bunker he dimly heard the aircraft return and carry out an inspection of the site.

 

 

A Belated Rescue

 

‘Who are you? Do you realize you’re on your last legs?’

 

‘Traven… I’ve had some sort of accident. I’m glad you flew over.’

 

‘I’m sure you are. But why didn’t you use our radio-telephone? Anyway, we’ll call the Navy and have you picked up.’

 

‘No…’ Traven sat up on one elbow and feltweakly in his hip pocket. ‘I have a pass somewhere. I’m carrying out research.’

 

‘Into what?’ The question assumed a complete understanding of Traven’s motives. He lay in the shade under the lee of the bunker, and drank weakly from a canteen as Dr Osborne dressed his foot. ‘You’ve also been stealing our stores.’

 

Traven shook his head. Fifty yards away the striped blue Cessna stood on the concrete apron like a brilliant dragonfly. ‘I didn’t realize you were coming back.’

 

‘You must be in a trance.’

 

The young woman sitting at the controls of the aircraft climbed out and walked over to them. She glanced at the grey bunkers and towers, and seemed uninterested in the decrepit figure of Traven. Osborne spoke to her and after a downward glance at Traven she went back to the aircraft. As she turned Traven rose involuntarily, recognizing the child in the photograph he had pinned to the wall of the bunker. Then he remembered that the magazine could not have been more than four or five years old.

 

The engine of the aircraft started. As Traven watched, it turned on to one of the roadways and took off into the wind.

 

Later that afternoon the young woman drove over to the blocks by jeep and unloaded a small camp-bed and a canvas awning. During the intervening hours Traven had slept. He woke refreshed when Osborne returned from his scrutiny of the surrounding dunes.

 

‘What are you doing here?’ the young woman asked as she secured the guy-ropes to the roof of the bunker.

 

Traven watched her move about. ‘I’m… searching for my wife and son.’

 

‘They’re on this island?’ Surprised, but taking the reply at face value, she looked around her. ‘Here?’

 

‘In a manner of speaking.’

 

After inspecting the bunker, Osborne joined them. ‘The child in the photograph – is she your daughter?’

 

Traven hesitated. ‘No. She’s adopted me.’

 

Unable to make any sense of his replies, but accepting his assurances that he would leave the island, Osborne and the young woman drove back to their camp. Each day Osborne returned to change the dressing, driven by the young woman, who seemed now to grasp the role cast for her by Traven. Osborne, when he learned of Traven’s previous career as a military pilot, appeared to suspect that he might be a latter-day martyr left high and dry by the moratorium on thermonuclear tests.

 

‘A guilt complex isn’t an indiscriminate supply of moral sanctions. I think you may be overstretching yours.’ When he mentioned the name Eatherly, Traven shook his head.

 

Undeterred, Osborne pressed: ‘Are you sure you’re not making similar use of the image of Eniwetok – waiting for your Pentecostal wind?’

 

‘Believe me, Doctor, no,’ Traven replied firmly. ‘For me the hydrogen bomb was a symbol of absolute freedom. I feel it’s given me the right the obligation, even – to do anything I want.’

 

‘That seems strange logic,’ Osborne commented. ‘Aren’t we at least responsible for our physical selves, if for nothing else?’

 

‘Not now, I think,’ Traven replied. ‘After all, in effect we are men raised from the dead.’

 

Often, however, he thought of Eatherly: the prototypal Pre-Third Man – dating the Pre-Third from August 6, 1945 carrying a full load of cosmic guilt.

 

Shortly after Traven was strong enough to walk, he had to be rescued from the blocks for a second time. Osborne became less conciliatory.

 

‘Our work is almost’ complete,’ he said warningly. ‘You’ll die here, Traven. What are you looking for among those blocks?’

 

To himself, Traven murmured: the tomb of the unknown civilian, Homo hydrogenensis, Eniwetok Man. ‘Doctor,’ he said, ‘your laboratory is at the wrong end of this island.’

 

Tartly, Osborne replied: ‘I’m aware of that, Traven. There are rarer fish swimming in your head than in any submarine pen.’

 

On the day before they left, the young woman drove Traven over to the lakes where he had first arrived. As a final present, an ironic gesture unexpected from the elderly biologist, she had brought from Osborne the correct list of legends for the chromosome charts. They stopped by the derelict juke-box and she pasted them on to the selection panel.

 

They wandered among the supine wrecks of the Superfortresses. Traven lost sight of her, and for the next ten minutes searched in and out of the dunes. He found her standing in a small amphitheatre formed by the sloping mirrors of a solar energy device built by one of the visiting expeditions. She smiled to Traven as he stepped through the scaffolding. A dozen fragmented images of herself were reflected in the broken panes – in some she was sans head, in others multiples of her arms circled about her like the serpent limbs of a Hindu goddess. Confused, Traven turned and walked back to the jeep.

 

As they drove away he recovered himself. He described his glimpses of his wife and son. ‘Their faces are always calm,’ he said. ‘My son’s particularly, though really he was always laughing. The only time his face was grave was when he was being born—then he seemed millions of years old.’

 

The young woman nodded. ‘I hope you find them.’ As an afterthought she added: ‘Dr Osborne is going to tell the Navy that you’re here. Hide somewhere.’

 

Traven thanked her.

 

From the centre of the blocks he waved to her the following day when she flew away for the last time.

 

 

The Naval Party

 

When the search party came for him Traven hid in the only logical place. Fortunately the search was perfunctory, and was called off after a few hours. The sailors had brought a supply of beer with them and the search soon turned into a drunken ramble.

 

On the walls of the recording towers Traven later found balloons of obscene dialogue chalked into the mouths of the shadowy figures, giving their postures the priapic gaiety of the dancers in cave drawings.

 

The climax of the party was the ignition of a store of gasoline in an underground tank near the airstrip. As he listened, first to the megaphones shouting his name, the echoes receding among the dunes like the forlorn calls of dying birds, then to the boom of the explosion and the laughter as the landing craft left, Traven felt a premonition that these were the last sounds he would hear.

 

He had hidden in oneof the target basins, lying among the broken bodies of the plastic models. In the hot sunlight their deformed faces gaped at him sightlessly from the tangle of limbs, their blurred smiles like those of the soundlessly laughing dead.

 

Their faces filled his mind as he climbed over the bodies and returned to his bunker. As he walked towards the blocks he saw the figures of his wife and son standing in his path. They were less than ten yards from him, their white faces watching him with a look of almost overwhelming expectancy. Never had Traven seen them so close to the blocks. His wife’s pale features seemed illuminated from within, her lips parted as if in greeting, one hand raised to take his own. His son’s face, with its curiously fixed expression, regarded him with the same enigmatic smile of the child in the photograph.

 

‘Judith! David!’ Startled, Traven ran forwards to them. Then, in a sudden movement of light, their clothes turned into shrouds, and he saw the wounds that disfigured their necks and chests. Appalled, he cried out. As they vanished, he ran off into the safety of the blocks.

 

 

The Catechism of Goodbye

 

This time he found himself, as Osborne had predicted, unable to leave the blocks.

 

Somewhere in the centre of the maze, he sat with his back against one of the concrete flanks, his eyes raised to the sun. Around him the lines of cubes formed the horizon of his world. At times they would appear to advance towards him, looming over him like cliffs, the intervals between them narrowing so that they were little more than an arm’s length apart, a labyrinth of corridors running between them. They then would recede from him, separating from each other like points in an expanding universe, until the nearest line formed an intermittent palisade along the horizon.

 

Time had become quantal. For hours it would be noon, the shadows contained within the blocks, the heat reflected off the concrete floor. Abruptly, he would find that it was early afternoon or evening, the shadows everywhere like pointing fingers.

 

‘Goodbye, Eniwetok,’ he murmured.

 

Somewhere there was a flicker of light, as if one of the blocks, like a counter on an abacus, had been plucked away.

 

Goodbye, Los Alamos. Again, a block seemed to vanish. The corridors around him remained intact, but somewhere in his mind had appeared a small interval of neutral space.

 

Goodbye, Hiroshima.

 

Goodbye, Alamagordo.

 

‘Goodbye, Moscow, London, Paris, New York…’

 

Shuttles flickered, a ripple of lost integers. He stopped, realizing the futility of this megathlon farewell. Such a leave-taking required him to fix his signature upon every one of the particles in the universe.

 

 

Total Noon: Eniwetok

 

The blocks now occupied positions on an endlessly revolving circus wheel. They carried him upwards into the sky, from where he could see the whole island and the sea, and then down again through the opaque disc of the concrete floor. From here he looked up at the under-surface of the concrete cap, an inverted landscape of rectilinear hollows, the dome-shaped mounds of the lake-system, the thousands of empty cubic pits of the blocks.

 

‘Goodbye, Traven.’

 

Near the end, he found to his disappointment that this ultimate rejection gained him nothing.

 

In the interval of lucidity, he looked down at his emaciated arms and legs, decorated with a lace-work of ulcers. To his right was a trail of disturbed dust, the wavering marks of slack heels.

 

To his left lay a long corridor between the blocks, joining an oblique series a hundred yards away. Among these, where a narrow interval revealed the open space beyond, was a crescent-shaped shadow, poised in the air above the ground.

 

During the next half an hour it moved slowly, turning as the sun swung, the profile of a dune.

 

 

The Crevice

 

Seizing on this cipher, which hung before him like a symbol on a shield, Traven pushed himself through the dust. He climbed precariously to his feet, and shielded his eyes from the blocks. He moved forward a few paces at a time.

 

Ten minutes later he emerged from the western perimeter of the blocks, like a tottering mendicant leaving behind a silent desert city. The dune lay fifty yards in front of him. Beyond it, bearing the shadow like a screen, was a ridge of limestone that ran away among the hillocks of the wasteland beyond this point of the atoll. The remains of an old bulldozer, bales of barbed wire and fifty-gallon drums lay half-buried in the sand. Traven approached the dune, reluctant to leave this anonymous swell of sand. He shuffled around its edges, and sat down in the mouth of a shallow crevice below the brow of the ridge.

 

After dusting his clothes, he gazed out patiently at the great circle of blocks.

 

Ten minutes later he noticed that someone was watching him.

 

 

The Marooned Japanese

 

This corpse, whose eyes stared up at Traven, lay to his left at the bottom of the crevice. That of a man of middle age and strong build, it rested on its back with its head on a pillow of stone, hands outstretched at its sides, as if surveying the window of the sky. The fabric of the clothes had rotted to a bleached grey vestment, but in the absence of any small animal predators on the island the skin and musculature of the corpse had been preserved. Here and there, at the angle of knee or wrist, a bony point glinted through the leathery integument of the skin, but the facial mask was still intact, and revealed a male Japanese of the professional classes. Looking down at the strong nose, high forehead and broad mouth, Traven guessed that the Japanese had been a doctor or lawyer.

 

Puzzled as to how the corpse had found itself here, Traven slid a few feet down the slope. There were no radiation burns on the skin, which indicated that the Japanese had been there for five years or less. Nor did he appear to be wearing a uniform, so had not been some unfortunate member of a military or scientific party.

 

To the left of the corpse, within reach of his left hand, was a frayed leather case, the remains of a map wallet. To the right was the husk of a haversack, open to reveal a canteen of water and a small mess-tin.

 

Traven slid down the slope until his feet touched the splitting soles of the corpse’s shoes, the reflex of starvation making him for the moment ignore that the Japanese had deliberately chosen to die in the crevice. He reached out and seized the canteen. A cupful of flat water swilled around the rusting bottom. Traven gulped down the water, the dissolved metal salts cloaking his lips and tongue with a bitter film. The mess-tin was empty except for a tacky coating of condensed syrup. Traven prised at this with the lid, and chewed at the tarry flakes, letting them dissolve in his mouth with an almost intoxicating sweetness. After a few moments he felt light-headed and sat back beside the corpse. Its sightless eyes regarded him with unmoving compassion.

 

 

The Fly

 

(A small fly, which Traven presumes has followed him into the fissure, now buzzes about the corpse’s face. Guiltily, Traven leans forward to kill it, then reflects that perhaps this minuscule sentry has been the corpse’s faithful companion, in return fed on the rich liqueurs and distillations of its pores. Carefully, to avoid injuring the fly, he encourages it to alight on his wrist.)

 

DR YASUDA: Thank you, Traven. In my position, you understand

 

TRAVEN: Of course, Doctor. I’m sorry I tried to kill it – these ingrained habits, you know, they’re not easy to shrug off. Your sister’s children in Osaka in ’44, the exigencies of war, I hate to plead them. Most known motives are so despicable, one searches the unknown in the hope that YASUDA: Please, Traven, do not be embarrassed. The fly is lucky to retain its identity for so long. ‘That son you mourn, not to mention my own two nieces and nephew, did they not die each day? Every parent in the world grieves for the lost sons and daughters of their earlier childhoods.

 

TRAVEN: You’re very tolerant, Doctor. I wouldn’t dare – YASUDA: Not at all, Traven. I make no apologies for you. Each of us is little more than the meagre residue of the infinite unrealized possibilities of our lives. But your son, and my nephew, are fixed in our minds forever, their identities as certain as the stars.

 

TRAVEN: (not entirely convinced) That may be so, Doctor, but it leads to a dangerous conclusion in the case of this island. For instance, the blocks – YASUDA: They are precisely what I refer to, Traven. Here among the blocks you at last find an image of yourself free of the hazards of time and space. This islandis an ontological Garden of Eden, why seek to expel yourself into a world of quantal flux?

 

TRAVEN: Excuse me (The fly has flown back to the corpse’s face and sits in one of the dried-up orbits, giving the good doctor an expression of quizzical beadiness. Reaching forward, Traven entices it on to his palm. He examines it carefully) Well, yes, these bunkers may be ontological objects, but whether this is the ontological fly is doubtful. It’s true that on this island it’s the only fly, which is the next best thing

 

YASUDA: You can’t accept the plurality of the universe – ask yourself why, Traven. Why should this obsess you? It seems to me that you are hunting for the white leviathan, zero. The beach is a dangerous zone. Avoid it. Have a proper humility, pursue a philosophy of acceptance.

 

TRAVEN: Then may I ask why you came here, Doctor?

 

YASUDA: To feed this fly. ‘What greater love – ?’

 

TRAVEN: (Still puzzling) It doesn’t really solve my problem. The blocks, you see

 

YASUDA: Very well, if you must have it that way

 

TRAVEN: But, Doctor

 

YASUDA: (Peremptorily) Kill that fly!

 

TRAVEN: That’s not an end, or a beginning.

 

(Hopelessly, he kills the fly. Exhausted, he falls asleep beside the corpse.)

 

 

The Terminal Beach

 

Searching for a piece of rope in the refuse dump behind the dunes, Traven found a bale of rusty wire. After unwinding it, he secured a harness around the corpse’s chest and dragged it from the crevice. The lid of a wooden crate made a crude sledge. Traven fastened the corpse to it in a sitting position, and set off along the perimeter of the blocks. Around him the island remained silent. The lines of palms hung in the sunlight, only his own motion varying the shifting ciphers of their criss-crossing trunks. The square turrets of the camera towers jutted from the dunes like forgotten obelisks.

 

An hour later, when Traven reached the awning by his bunker, he untied the wire cord he had fastened around his waist. He took the chair left for him by Dr Osborne and carried it to a point midway between the bunker and the blocks. Then he tied the body of the Japanese to the chair, arranging the hands so that they rested on the wooden arms giving the moribund figure a posture of calm repose.

 

This done to his satisfaction, Traven returned to the bunker and squatted under the awning.

 

As the next days passed into weeks, the dignified figure of the Japanese sat in his chair fifty yards from him, guarding Traven from the blocks. He now had sufficient strength to rouse himself at intervals and forage for food. In the hot sunlight the skin of the Japanese became more and more bleached, and Traven would wake at night and find the sepulchral figure sitting there, arms resting at its sides, in the shadows that crossed the concrete floor. At these moments he would often see his wife and son watching him from the dunes. As time passed they came closer, and he would sometimes find them only a few yards behind him.

 

Patiently Traven waited for them to speak to him, thinking of the great blocks whose entrance was guarded by the seated figure of the dead archangel, as the waves broke on the distant shore and the burning bombers fell through his dreams.

 

 

1964

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1 Comment

  1. […] the entire section entitled “The Catechism of Goodbye” from the J. G. Ballard short story “The Terminal Beach” […]


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