Floating Islands

Scott Hatch

The old man looked over the herd. His count was short. He  whistled, and his note laid across the meadow. The two dogs circled up to him. The dogs watched the sheep and goats, then watched him. They were diligent shepherds. They felt shame and did not want to  look at him, though the loss was not their fault. It was the goats. Nothing could be done with them.

He left one dog, the male, with the sheep and started down toward  the mouth of the canyon, tying his blanket, then his shirt, around his  waist and whistling off the other dog to come along.

The old man loped across a last sloping foothill at the mouth of  the canyon. The dog ranged ahead to the side, trotting with fastidious  economy. A last cedar, stunted by alkali from the dry lake, floated and  surged along his field of vision and was gone.

There was no living thing on the dry lake, not even alkali grass. There was not even the finest stone. The bed of the dry lake was  salt, hard, white desert, crusted from the rain season. The salt whispered, sifting from the man’s feet, pattering all about the dog’s feet in the stillness.

The sun was most gone, sliding away. Still they ran, floating across the dry lake.

And on the dry lake, turquoise–magenta islands lanced up, drifting on a mirage of flat blue fire that flowed with each day’s sun and ebbed into each night.

They ran toward an island twelve miles out on the lake bed. The closest of the islands. The island hunched, folded down onto the bed  of the dry lake like a thunderbird. This island was named Rain King. Watching the temperaments of its mirages, the old man’s tribe  determined what weather would come off the dry lake from over the  horizon. But Rain King held no superstition for the tribe. It created  in them a wistfulness for magic that might be. Rain King was gatekeeper for the return of the lake.

The dog intersected a scattering of delicate hoof tracks that weaved, stretching toward the island. She turned with the tracks and followed them loosely, keeping a truer course than the tracks, not looking up or changing her gait. The man followed. And for the time of the sun’s languid, setting cant, they ran on the lake bed, the man grasping its  heat like a shepherd’s staff, feeling through it the rhythm of their journey.

The islands floated. On the horizon they sank deep in their fire. The man and the dog came up to Rain King, and fire drained away in front of them, trembling at the ends of the island, away from the man and the dog, then flowed away in sheets to the other islands. Turquoise and magenta unfolded from Rain King and left it barren-cloaked.

The sun set, and the two left the weaving tracks behind in the lake  and skirted the base of the island walking in dry brush and shore, hard grass. Locusts flew up, crackling in the twilight. Beneath the highest peak of the island, they turned and started up a shoulder of the peak. The dog curled her way up the shoulder like a fox. The old man climbed straight ahead, bringing his knees up to his chest, picking his way around boulders. When he was winded, he waited, then went at long weaving angles up the shoulder until his weakness left, and he began pulling  straight up to the peak again.

Twilight filtered away. It did not matter. For some time the man  had not been watching the mountain but rather feeling it, drawing it beneath him.  

They came to the top. It was a jumbled thrust for the sky, twenty yards across, covered with flakes of stone worried from the mountain  by rain seasons. One side sheared off a half-mile to the dry lake bed. The other sides curved away too quickly to know, by seeing, where it was safe to climb down. From this peak at the extreme end of Rain  King, all the island could be seen.  

The dog circled the dome and came into the center where the man  stood. The night winds were starting, and the man shivered, unslinging his blanket. His sweat cooled away. He untied the shirt from his waist  and put it on.  

When he was dry, he sat against a rock and drew his knees up under his chin, spreading the blanket over him. The dog circled to settle at  a discrete distance, and plumed her tail over her nose and paws.

At night the islands do not float. At night the stars sing. The man  remembered these words more than half a century after his shepherd  grandfather had spoken them. He remembered the words and drew  down into his blanket. He held the words to him, warmed them,  burnished them , and he watched the stars, waiting for their song. Only  a shepherd on a mountain could know such a thing, the song of the  stars, and once off the mountain he was likely to forget. He felt with  his fingers the etchings of the desert on his face.

He could not hear the stars in the night wind. There were those  who could hear the stars over the wind—this he knew—and there were also those who heard the wind and thought it to be the stars.

The dog unfurled herself and came to stand near the man. He broke biscuit with her. She bared her teeth and grasped her biscuit carefully,  taking it across the dome to eat. He chewed at his biscuit until she came  back. He took the leather bladder and jetted water for her, and she  sat and lapped the stream from the air with her eyes closed, her head  following the exquisite stream. She took the rest of his biscuit back to where she had lain before and lowering her head, dropped it, curling in front of it.

The man dreamt of when he was young. He dreamt the day of the Rainbow Sing. He dreamt the Sing from memories woven on the voice  of the patriarch in the dark of the hogan, in the chanting of the night. Awake, lying in his shelf with his brother and sisters, he heard the  seven-year sing of the Rainbow Warrior.

Late in the night of the day of the Rainbow Sing, his father chanted, for this was his father’s hogan. He chanted the song of the Spider Woman, who taught the women in the way of the loom. She weaved before them. Thus they weaved. Their looms speak of the earth and sky and their children are warm.

Of the chants, the man remembered this chant. He dozed then, and awoke to the whisper of a bell. The dog’s head was raised. She probed and speculated with her ears and sifted the wind with her nose. He noted this and settled his chin back in.  

The buck goat, he thought. Ozymandias.

He had found Ozymandias on the dry lake ten years before, far beyond Rain King. He had come across a pole. It was part of an  abandoned telephone route. Some of the other poles had been pulled. Others had sunk through the crust, out of sight in the lake bed. This pole stood straight up, and he went to it from curiosity. He found the goat in the shade of the pole, moving with the dance of the sun. An Angora goat in the middle of the desert.

“What is his name?” the grandson asked when the goat was grown.  

”He has no name.”  

The grandson came back two months later, finished with his school  for the summer. ” Ozymandias is his name .” It seemed a good name. 

The dog searched out the bell of Ozymandias.  

The old man sought the dreams of chants, but they would not come  again. He saw the sand paintings blurred across the floor as his father chanted the last chant. The sand paintings of the Rainbow Warrior.

His knees had slipped out from his chin, his legs stretched out. And the dog had come and curled between his feet. He awoke and leaned  forward, careful not to move his feet, and he touched the dog, drawing  his hand around her ears, sleeking back her coat until she raised her head and yawned and moved to his side. He spread the blanket at his feet.

The pattern on the blanket was from a sand painting of the Rainbow Warrior. Spread across the blanket were seven figures. The old man  unclasped his hands, seeing the figures one at a time between his palms  as he drew his arms apart, flexing the sleep from his body. An eighth figure compassed these figures. The eighth figure wrapped its red and blue torso around three sides of the blanket, its lower appendage on the right edge, at the top, upside down, and its upper appendage on the left edge, at the top, right side up. This was the Rainbow Warrior. The figures all faced out at the man.

He had laid the blanket out so that the bow of the Rainbow Warrior opened to the dawn and the heads of the other figures pointed toward  the dawn. This was not superstition. It seemed right to him; the blanket caught the way of the sand painting from his childhood. 

The man closed his eyes, feeling through the lids for the dawn. Near-grown, going farther for his school, the grandson had brought  home a book. As the grandson watched over his shoulder, he had leafed  its pages, studied its plates. It was of great tribes, dead tribes. The old  man smelled the pages deep in toward the binding. He traced the edges  of a plate and pointed out a circle, a whorl of black and white spinning  after each other. “This is immoral,” he said.

“It is life, ” said the grandson.

“It is deception,” he said. He turned back through the book to  a plate of an ancient bas-relief, crumbled once and meddled back  together. “This is better,” he said. 

“It is Nut,” the grandson said. “She is Egyptian.”  Egyptian. The old man tried the word, felt the newness of its edges. The goddess, Nut, bent over the world like a rainbow, protecting, nurturing. He looked back to the vortex of black and white. ”The circle, in its completeness, lacks. It is indulgent. Man cannot make his own circles.” He spread his knees, looking at the blanket that scrolled out  over his lap. “The Rainbow Warrior,” he said. “This is good.”  

The unclosed circle of the Rainbow Warrior reached to the sunrise  in chimeric daybreak. The wind had died off.

In still morning the stars shimmered, a soundless song. The man heard it. An ordered chiming, a chant of stars. A chant of an order he did not understand but accepted and knew to be good. The chant clung in the spider-weave of the blanket. A coolness, the death of a  breeze, tapered along the island and over the peak. Again they heard  Ozymandias. The dog looked away from the sound of the bell, out over the dry lake.

The air was impatient. The man knew why and watched the dog until her head began to train. He followed her head. A dot moved in  the sky straight and silent, lower than the tops of the islands. It was  a thrall of power. It shouldered its wings in an extreme back sweep, drawing a seared curtain of sound across the lake bed, shimmering with  its heat. The curtain rolled across Rain King and into the mountains  at the edge of the lake, murmuring to chorus the thunder now past the horizon. The man and the dog started down across the island toward  the sound of the bell. 

The goats did this in the spring-once or twice they got off, out  from under the herd . And some of the sheep came along , not knowing what to expect. The buck goat, Ozymandias, was most likely at the bottom of it.  

The dog did not turn them. She came up fifty yards from them, spoke her language, and they turned, following the economy of her route home, bunching along in a bland, crystal filtering behind the  buck goat. Dust devils spawned at the mouth of the old man’s canyon, spooling down to the lake bed. 

Why do they come here? He did not truly wonder, did not diligently prevent them. The buck goat had memory that surpassed his existence. This, the man knew.

It is in truly few places that the stars sing at night.