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The Tower in the Sea


Die Toteninsel – Arnold Böcklin, 1880

There’s a dismal island lost to man and memory out on a nameless sea, at the very edge of the world in the grey area between light and shadow, where the normal cycles of day and night do not apply. There’s a constant darkness in one direction, a grayish smear spreading overhead, and a distant, cold light along the opposite horizon. Underneath wheels this lone pinpoint of earth, fixed to the sky above it, within a roiling black sea.

There’s a tower on this island, the lone distinguishing feature, that juts from a dormant heap of black volcanic rock. The tower faces the lit horizon, monolithic, its facade narrowed like a knife’s edge. Mist blows in from the light in a channel, as unrelenting and mysterious as the tide, lending the island a sort of insubstantial quality, like a swipe could dispel it from existence. The tower offers the only stark contrast as it slices through the vapor like the bow of a ship, its substance asserted by its dark prominence as it cuts into the corpse-grey sky above it. As if the tower had swatted the mist from the sky, it settles upon the land like a blanket. On occasion a soft, cold rain would fall from the swirling grey clouds overhead. If the stars could have been seen from the ground, they would have given the impression of blinking shut in revulsion as their gazes fell upon the corpulent rock in the sea. The light of day had never touched this land, so far removed were they from the distant cognizance of civilization.

There were people on this island that dwelt in modest homes, huddled about the foot of the mountain that cradles the tower. As much as the light filled them with a distant wonder, so did the darkness opposite fill them with a dull dread as the wind howled and blew mist into its abiding shadow. The people lived every day in the dull and artificial glow of phosphorescent gems, which were extracted under the mountain and brought to the surface. These gems lined the streets and buildings of the settlement giving off trace amounts of heat. The dim, blue glow was not strong enough to penetrate the mist that had formed a layer over the hamlet, and only added to the dreary existence of the people who shuffled along the roads, eyes cast to the ground, going about the monotonous chores of their labored lives. Their only respite was to gather in throngs at the shoreline and gaze at the light, like flowers opening to the sun.

Besides this, the citizens had come to parallel their environment: vague and consistently introverted. They went about their duties in a machine-like way, their minds drifting to imagined retreats, tranquil escapes in their minds away from the fogged land and harsh realities of their habits. Their bodies were forever bound to the waking world but they themselves flew above the mountain peak in whose shadows the village was hidden. Their flesh was pale due to the lack of light that they had been deprived of them. From the unfocused gaze of their eyes to the color of their skin to the hazy, blurred land they lived in, the people of this town resembled ghosts. Just like ghosts, the people of this hidden hamlet wanted to depart this world, not frequent the places they so obviously and desperately wanted to take leave of. They yearned for the chance to go to the green pastures, endless skies, comforting waters, or whatever other Elysian sanctums that their roving consciences had conjured. No one uttered a sound in this place, although if this was from inability to produce words or the lack of interest in doing so is not known. The only thing that breached the silence was the roar of the nearby ocean and the meager shuffling of wretched feet.

Out of all these people only one of them was not like the others. He was the one who inhabited the tower, indeed, he who had built it. Instead of the glazed look so typical of his peers below him, he alone possessed a focused glare, a sight that perceived his environment and the predicament he and his fellows were in. He sought knowledge and purpose. He sought to understand why he had been cast in such a place, such an existence.

His quest had begun when he had been walking the desolate beach. The mist clung to him, swirled around him on that unknown shore, lost to time. It was then the ocean breathed and heaved, breathed and heaved. On the beach it left a gilded tome, the sea foam reluctantly releasing its bubbly tendrils and frothing maw from the artifact. He received the book from the ocean as a man might receive a child from his woman and cradled it as such. Accordingly, he sought to understand this, his child, lovingly devoting his years to unraveling this enigmatic thing. He kept it by his head at night. It would whisper to him in his dreams, quietly murmuring its secrets in his ear.

By means unknown to him, he was eventually able to derive meaning from the book. He read of faraway places, mysterious and exotic. Cities made of gold and mountains made of glass, rivers of fire and plains of never-ending shadow. The things he learned from the book astounded him. With all these new worlds before him, he wanted to know more, he had to know more. The book demanded to know more.

At first he built the tower to rise above the mists, to see what lay beyond that. He wanted to see if all these lands in the tome could be viewed if only he could attain the height necessary. As his despondent fellows watched him, he built, brick by brick, his tower on the rock. After years of strenuous, lone labor, he ascended his construct.

He fought his way through the blanketing fog, the obscuring screen that kept him ignorant and limited his sight. With his new knowledge, he would soon see the world clearly; he would be master of his destiny. He had conquered that obscuring veil; it could no longer hide anything from him. Finally breaking from the mists, almost shoving the last of the vapors from himself, he broke free! He closed his eyes, drew in a sharp, deep breathe and—

All he saw was that infernal sea, churning and roiling, its green-grey undercurrents writhing like a serpent beneath the surface. He also saw those distant points of light, the stars clearer, surely, than any man had ever seen them before. Although disappointed he could not observe the magnificent places he had read of, he found some solace in having escaped from the mists.

From this point on, his eyes were forever upward, searching the gray skies above the vapor for some answer or sign that was not forthcoming from his unconcerned counterparts. He dedicated himself to unraveling the cosmos and his place in it. He delved into the secrets of the past. He studied the horizon, that unattainable yet eternally tantalizing prize across the sea. For years he sought some way to attain his obsession, his desire. He journeyed to the boundaries of his land, always finding the sea, the very sea that had borne him his dreams, that had delivered wonder and hope to him, blocking his passage. That mocking, chaotic sea. It had given him the means to escape from ignorance, yet it also was a constant barrier from any further knowledge.

He among all did not look inside himself for his retreat from the vague world. He did not find his hope in his despair like so many others. Worse, he found despair in is waning hope. By building this structure he had hoped to pull himself out of the norm. He was now observing the futility of his actions, actions borne of desperation. He had attempted to break away from the dreary stupor that typified his comrades, a stupor that had fallen on them whilst they had gone about the meaningless, simple, and forgotten paths of their shadowed existence. He looked in one direction and saw the looming darkness, pulling the obscuring fogs to unknown retreats. He looked the other way, across the sea, and saw the impossibly distant light and in that moment he realized that in ascending above the vapors he had been cursed with enough awareness to not only see from where he had come but to see that he now had nowhere to go.

His cracked lips turned up in a maniacal grin. He laughed, hollow and devoid of mirth, he laughed, twitching and chittering in spasmodic and sporadic episodes, his gurgling laughter ululating and reverberating down the steep face of his tower. So huddled on the balcony of the highest room in his tower, his eyes glazed over and he turned in on himself rocking back and forth unceasingly to the incessant drone of the wind howling above him. He had now fallen into an irreversible stupor more complete than the unfortunate beings who resided below. Not missed in the town by the oblivious people, he was left up there to sit in his self conceived illusion of happiness as he stared across the expansive waves where the distant glow of unknown hope resided and slept.

In the same hour he gave up, there appeared on the shore a strange wooden craft, quite sea worthy if one had the desire to go to sea. It beached on the shore in front of one of the villagers as he sat and wiggled his toes listlessly in the sand. He looked at it incuriously, a blank expression on his face. There came a sudden cackle as from the ocean. The idiot on the beach frowned, tilted his head, and then returned to his inner meanderings. All was then silent. After a few more hours sitting there without movement, the man got up, walked to the craft and examined it. There were some sort of markings on the bow. Gleaning no meaning from them, the man lost interest and walked slowly away, back into the encompassing mists.

The inscription read, for those with the means of making sense of it, “For the Man with Nowhere to Go but Up.”


Give it to me straight.

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