After the high tide

A short story of the ‘speculative fiction’ genre, After the High Tide was written for the 2021 Graduation Publication of the Master of Photography at the Royal College of Arts in London. Built by weaving together the photographs made by the students, it unfolds the story of an imaginary island through fragmentation of narrative, highlighting how different spaces are created in concert with the work of memory and collective imagination. Here's the text of the short story. The book was designed and published by Folium.

From a granite inscription found at the capital city

As time runs, events spin the gears of chronicles, in a maze of causes and effects, while heroes and the not-seen ones pile up in an ever-expanding past. But be careful, wayfarer: histories do not occur at the tip of a needle. They unfold places, and places unravel tales, being inscribed over the lines of a landscape, whether the latter be imaginary or not. Myths and fables can stem out from the undergrowth of a forest or emerge by the mesh of rivers and bridges. Empires can rise and fall at the force of a landslide or wither under an overcast sky. Chess pieces would wander in a nonsensical void without the board fixing meaning to their behavior: you can trace back the movements of armies by looking at the scars on the worn wood, but the checkered field is no less important than the rooks and bishops roaming over it. Places are not still backgrounds, but agents in every conspiracy. Nonetheless, the lines are blurred when we can no longer distinguish between the plots of humans and the desires of environments, when they come to us in the form of narrated myths or traces over the territories. They will speak as one, with just one voice.

From the Seafarer Handbook, page 71-72

The Land, as it is called by its inhabitants, is a vast region rimmed with flat shorelines that extend far inland until the terrain rises steeply and then falls flat into a rocky plateau. It is surrounded by a tranquil, windless sea, deemed the sacred limit of Landians’ world, and often referred to as the Breathing Monster. As of now, it is predicted that deep volcanic structures across the seabed, oceanic currents flowing from distant continents and a thousand of other obscure phenomena that naturalists had in vain puzzled over in search for an explanation, are the causes of catastrophes that sweep away the majority of their world in an irregular pattern. But the main belief is that the Moon winds up a cosmic mainspring that sporadically bursts in a majestic high tide, immediately followed by an ebb that gives back the Land to the Landians.

Landian people, then, are mostly accustomed to eschatological cycles, and that is indeed the main fuel for the peculiar development of their society. During the Monster’s meal, Landians flock together in the capital city that stands on the high plateau at the center of the Land to celebrate the grand Wet Festival. The erratic nature of the Monster’s hunger forces the watery jaws to close in a time span that ranges from thirty years to over a century. Not everyone can experience the Wet Festival in their lifetime. Hence the old saying: “the dry voice croaked: happiness is soaked”. Nowadays the phrase is mostly shouted and misinterpreted from the bellies of taverns. It crystallizes the most baleful doom for a poor Landian’s existence: that is not to see their world destroyed, but to live in just one – without seeing the tide of the new.

Nevertheless, the Wet Festival isn’t always a peaceful affair. Because the whole population gathers on a tiny speck of their otherwise broad territory, there isn’t enough room to hold the tension of different desires and grudges, nor all the accumulated goods in the dry period, both material and intellectual. Only some belongings are spared each time, smuggled by the oldest (or wisest) ones. While the sea covers and sucks away dwellings, abandoned tools, written testaments, and all sorts of artistic productions and engineering constructions left behind for reasons of space, other kinds of sacrifices happen in the capital city. In light of a mass healing, poison might be poured. Hierarchies break as memory drowns in the Breathing Monster’s cavernous mouth. In the few days of the Wet festival’s madness, kings and queens are forced to abjure, children might find new parents or embrace orphanhood, the vile ones act and are revered as saints, but the virtuous suffer shame.

Eventually, the ocean retreats, just in time to prevent any major collapse of the crowded, boiling Landian population in their thermic peak. Then, a miraculous event begins: as the water surface lowers until its resting, quiet level, the generous ebb reveals the drenched Land teeming with cryptic and muddled remains, ruins dressed with seashell and seaweed beards dangling over shy crabs. For the Breathing Monster’s stomach not only devours the recent past, slowly digesting it, but it regurgitates the unremembered and the forgotten in the form of rubbed off wisdom and alien artifacts. After the Wet Festival, the Land is ripe for the Harvest, and the rebuilding of Landian people’s public realm.

Who’s in charge of making history? Who is responsible for the fragile and enduring threads that weave together a world? Where lies the root, the primary cause of the hues of reality? Landians never seek the answers to those questions, for they are always busy to reconstruct, circumventing the paralysis that strikes in seeking a definitive response. The Land and its swaying sea set the rules, but it is the Landians that have to play them. For sure, each Harvest is a creative phase. Strange, odd-looking objects that no one had seen before, whose function is foreign, novels scattered with plot-holes, places to be renamed, lost technologies brought back from the oceanic amnesia, all those fragments of the past – recent or remote, it is impossible to tell – have to be recombined and crossbred. Fixed within a brand new world, in the purest spirit of the ancient Landian tradition, building blocks of time are carefully rescued from the drenched soil and preserved through redaction.

The effort is mutual but not harmonious. The collective, active memory is far from being crystal clear, and the murky quality of both the reconstruction and the practices of remembering is delightfully manifested in another peculiar Landian habit. Right after the Harvest, a placid period always follows. Social bonds and regulations, just formed, stay in place until they shrivel, in wait to be swept away at the next Monster’s banquet. And at the high capital city, the main stage of the Wet Festival serves in dry times as a sort of common square, where merchants set their stalls and public debates unfold. On a small rocky pedestal at its center, a monument always stands. However, there is no general agreement upon the content of its commemoration, as its ambiguous figure eludes any clear explanation of its origin. Some recognize the traits of a past hero, others see the symbolic features of an idea. No one can prove it, but everyone has their opinion. As each Landian casts their own interpretation, the maze of different perspectives determines the atmosphere surrounding the monument. It forms the polychromatic quality that spreads across the whole Land. If the majority of the people feel that the dry period was a time of disgrace, the monument is simply tossed in the ocean during the frenetic ceremony at the next high tide – perhaps to be redeemed in the future, as many would understand – and quickly substituted with another enigmatic memorial, plucked from the mud of the ebbing water. There are some rumors, hard to confirm, about some episodic destruction of the monument, at the hand of some delirious Landian. Considering it a malicious jinx, or the embodiment of pure evil, they decided to burn it in order to banish anything associated with that obscure icon, now set alight on top of flooded Land. This practice, however, was not sufficient to obliterate the blamed figure and the meanings it carried, since it inevitably came back as a haunting ghost in every image of burning fire.

Scraps of an anonymous personal diary

5th moon, 21st day, 237 d.t.
I look at my old suitcase, in the dark corner of my living room. I have lived here for more than a couple of years, but I’ve never had the urge to remove or throw away my unused luggage, now lying on the floor like an empty shell. It was the only belonging I took with me, packed once just with food and water, when I had to leave my beloved homeland. I can recall the moment my boat touched Land’s shore as if it were a day ago. It was not so distant from here, as I’m living by the sea, close to the docking point where a family stood still on the sand. Keeping watch, their faces ablaze with astonishment the moment they saw the rocking vessel on which I was drifting, on the verge of insanity.

I still hold in my heart the same gratitude I felt when they helped me to settle down. They gave me food and a shelter in which I took up residence. Without them, I would never have been able to keep a single clear thought, not only for practical reasons – without bed and board, my head is a hollow mess – but first and foremost they pulled me out from a place of solitude. Since then, I haven’t set my foot on the boat, now idle and half-broken on the foreshore, the keel eroded by salt. It was not long before I fell in love with Adje, the major of their children. Our union was formalized a moon ago with a hasty marriage in the Landian fashion, a tradition that, in spite of myself, still survives. (We were left in the open sea for a night, on a creaky raft, and then, to my relief, retrieved by relatives at dawn).
I guess this has led me to reside forever where I am.

I’ve just learned the stories about the past of this island, and discovered that for a few centuries the high tide did not come. My parents-in-law told me the tales of their grandparents, who recalled the myths their own grandparents had kept, inherited in turn from their ancestors and some worn-out papers. A great joy arose in finding out that my curiosity and professional interests still had some spark within me, and I was overwhelmed by an irrepressible desire to dive into the history of a foreign country that somehow still spoke to me and for me, and did not refuse to host my curiosity. Strangely enough, I was exiled from my birthplace as a foreign body, and then dwelt twice in a welcoming house and a bizarre ruin of a cathedral made of memories, its decaying walls covered by lush layers of ivy. I am starting to acknowledge eerie resonances between Land’s history and my own journey.

2nd new moon-sharp, 238 d.t.
Ask some people to draw a circle: the arbitrary place from which the pen starts its curved ride on paper will not matter as far as the invisible center will be equidistant from every point of its ring-shaped enclosure. It is more a matter of taste than correctness – after all, beauty underpins any reasoning. As I had to organize the chronicles of Land, a similar problem arose, although with some crucial differences. A cyclical story can be well represented by a flat, round shape, but if time were a two-dimensional circle we would endlessly repeat the same tasks and triumphs and errors, shaded with the same hues and the same unrecognizable textures. In my case, I’m dealing with something akin to a continuous spiral that nevertheless repeats its rotational movement around a fixed axis, concealing its subtle differential motion under the appearance of a relentless, almost perfect, Euclidean echo.

7th moon, 18th day, 238 d.t.
Today we found a heavy chest in the fisherman’s cellar. It only contained some pebbles and what looked like a mollusk’s shell, which turned out to be a nuptial ring covered with a thick layer of calcar. Nothing remarkable, but every finding is useful. The members of my family are always of great help in the arduous research of any kind of documents and corroded shreds of evidence. It is only thanks to their connections that I am able to accumulate artifacts, excerpts of chronicles, ruminated testaments then recorded in my journal. These are scraps of an incomplete mosaic that I had to reassemble inasmuch as the history of Land is a cyclical recollection and digestion of its own memory, in a lopsided dialectic that is mingling with my own story. Now, all these snippets are scattered in our house: a torn map displaying the south coast of the island hanging on the wall, a flat star-shaped spool wrapped with threads, with a small wooden crossbar sticking out of the middle of it (I never figured out what it was for), a rusted cog engrained with verses around its perimeter, and many others. My rooms might look like a strange museum of memorabilia for an outsider, but for me those odd-furnished halls represent the establishment of what slowly became my home, or the fleeing idea of it. For hours I would sit in front of the window, facing the sea, spiraling down in recalling again the endless days I would stare at a blank point or hoard fragments of time, thinking about my youth fading away, drained of color, and the bits of past that were becoming part of my own past. Safe at home, while images of vanished seasons feed the fire of the here and now, and new memories are being built for the forthcoming moments of daydreaming, I float on a folded sheet of time. The past and future come closer, not as the frightening edges of a monstrous ocean surrounding the present, but rather as the comfortable sides of a soft pillow, until the breeze at dusk gently reminds me of the impending night, awakening me.

11th plenilune, 241 d.t.
Finally: a day when I didn’t have to run my errands. I went to the beach, to look at the sea and stand there in wait, repeating the same picture that greeted me at the moment of my arrival. I am acquainting myself with a contemporary Landian’s custom: in their free days they come to the shore to pray for the still Monster to breathe again, with their gaze pointed at the horizon, the firm line that marks the perimeter of their dormant world. Standing there with Landians in front of whispering waves, a stranger amongst natives, I couldn’t help but notice how we all shared similar passions. They were longing for a past that refused to come back, hoping someone to hear their desire to be part of an idea that went extinct, which nonetheless was inherited or, as some would declare, ran in their veins and was engraved on their Land. Me, instead, thinking of some waning, remote country, and about my effort – successful or not, I don’t know – to graft my own story to something once extraneous. Staring at the sea, all of us felt as strangers in our own home. Quiet and cherished by the glistering surface of the ocean.

Transcription from a magnetic tape

It’s the third tape, but now I remember, now I remember. It’s a good day to let things slip away. My mind is less annoying. Like a balloon that gets rid of its ballast, it strives to take back its beloved lightness.

I have a clear picture of this, and it was a clear day. You could discern the outline of the new moon against the sharp blue. A bruise in the sky. We carried our bulky suits up to the shore. Sweat on our foreheads shined. Distress dried our lips. The person we called the bearer of memory joined the small crowd of Landians that gathered on the dune nearby as we fiddled with our equipment. I am certain it was him, wringing his hands. I saw his disheveled silver hair, the nervous eyes. Only now I do realize that he came just to beg us to fetch some ancient treasure from the seabed. It was a great misunderstanding. We had another goal. Our unfulfilled goal. I fit inside my bell-shaped tank. They helped me to wear the gummy arms and legs of the suit, and everything became muted, save for my running heartbeat. The sound of my voice, which gained a metallic trait, tinkling against the inside of my armor. A faint hiss above my head, at the juncture with the air supply. I already felt the heavy pressure on my body. I looked at the sea sneering at me, distorted through the crystal globe mounted in the frontal side of the suit. I blundered around, to see my two other fellows in their tin shells. We exchanged a broad nod with our arms. And we marched towards the ocean.

Oh! My head is a kaleidoscope out of focus.

We called ourselves the cosmonauts. Nightmares disturbed our nights. We dreamt of everything, with painful lucidity, so much that we couldn’t tell the difference between sleep and wake, except by just an insignificant detail. The world was poorer, deaf to our desires. Had the Breathing Monster listened to us, we would still be able to believe in some kind of fate. Instead, it just gave us blindness. At least it spared us from looking at the dullness of reality. Our world was still, immobile, and we wanted to persuade the Monster to start breathing again. How to do so, we weren’t sure: our idea was to venture into the deepest recesses of its stomach, to look at the labyrinth of our past, to have a clearer vision of our universe by transgressing its sacred borders. To have a glimpse of the periphery of reality, and beyond that. But our arrogance was paid back in an unexpected way.

I said my name, now it escapes me. Did I say my name?

We surfaced back. Our comrades helped us to wear our suits off. And then I said: I can’t see anymore. I couldn’t recognize anything anymore. I imagine them wading through the mist of our hazy eyes, trembling over fixed grimaces, with no success. Soon after, they brought us home with no ceremonies, and we forgot the failed attempt.

What did we see under there? It’s hard to tell. Words are made for describing objects that persist in their existence, within our perception, without escaping our attempt to get in contact with them. Under the sea, our surroundings twisted and warped upon themselves. We entered into a dimension of confusion so deep that it deprived us of any coordinate system. In the undertow, we were ourselves twisted and warped as well, as nothing would stay in place, shifting their shape in a marvelous and terrifying fashion.

We walked towards the sea and stepped back. Now that old age is approaching, I am released from the burden of thick memories. They are slipping away, clearing my vision. As things break apart in my mind, falling into oblivion, I finally have the chance to see a horizon again. But I know it will not last for long.

From a rusty cog

The water up goes, or is it ground that sinks?
The old in wait asks. Depends on your place,
they quickly replied, Land and its beings.
Was it a shifting voice, or sea that rose?
That’s a doubt, alas, you have to embrace.

next: Mother as grave