The Island of your Encryption

The guide greeted him on the quayside, a wooden jetty stretching out from the stony beach.

"Hello," she said, "I'm your guide." She adjusted the satchel on her shoulder and smiled, her skin was tanned, her hair sandy.

For a moment he wondered where he was. Looking back he could see the distant silhouette of a ferry. But if he had been on it he couldn't remember.

"Where am I?" he asked.

"Oh I'm sure you know where you are," she said, "This is the island of your encryption. This is where you will be preserved."

She took him by the hand and led him along the jetty onto the land. The air was cooled by a gentle breeze and there was a delicious fizz as the tide washed between the stones on the beach. He wanted to linger here but the guide pulled him on, smiling as she did.

They trudged up the beach, his feet a little unsteady on the loose stones. Ahead was a ridge and it was only when he reached this that he saw that there was really nothing here at all. The landscape stretched away a featureless grey, it wasn't dirt or earth, just nothing.

He stopped and felt the guide grip his hand tighter.

"It's okay," she said.

"What is this place? Why am I here?"

"You just are," she said.

"Is this heaven?"

"No," she smiled sadly.

"Hell then?"

"It is neither heaven nor hell. But it has often been mistaken for both."

He wanted to go back, to the beach, the sea.

"Here," she said. And she handed him a folded paper. "It's the map."

He unfolded it but it was blank, fluttering like a flag in the breeze from the sea.

"What is all this?" he asked.

She let go of his hand and took a step back.

"Up ahead," she said, "you'll see."

Now he wanted her hand back, wanted to cling to her.

"I have done terrible things," he said, this was knowledge rather than memory.

She took another step away from him, straightening the satchel on her shoulder.

"It will be all right," she said, "Everything will be all right. Just go on."

Then she was off, back over the ridge and he was alone.

As he walked up the incline what he thought was a featureless landscape began to reveal itself. He stopped and looked up at the apex of a low hill to the ruins of a town or rather a village. It was built of that sort of stone, whitewashed, irregular, such as is found in the hill top chora of Aegean islands.

He looked at the map.

The village was marked there, relief lines circling the hill and at the top the outlines of streets, a cross marking a church. He did not understand the writing. And yet it wasn't that it was in a language or script that was foreign to him. Rather he knew that he should understand it but he did not.

He compared the map to the view ahead. There were more details on the map now: smaller thoroughfares marked, symbols for particular types of establishment. But he didn't know the meaning of the symbols.

It was hot here away from the sea and the bright disk of the sun made him squint. It would be better to get to the village soon, to get into the cool interior of one of those stone buildings.

He checked the map again and it was as though detail had been enhanced, made into a larger scale and the sudden memory came of a world of electronic tablets, iPads and sat-navs, of zoom and touch screen, of hyperlinks. A world of infinite knowledge.

But this map was just a piece of paper.

As he entered the village he soon realised that it was not at all like a Greek chora. He came into a back alley of what must be a city. There were dustbins outside the back doors of a shoddy apartment building. It stank here, rotting food and dog shit, split black bags next to the dustbins, bits of leftover meals, broken bottles and dented beer cans from the era before recycling. Somewhere, high above in one of the apartments, someone was shouting. He couldn't make out the words even though he knew he should have been able to. When he tried to listen, to catch the sense, it was though the voices were underwater.

On the map this back alley was shown in the minutest of detail: the dustbins as the little circles and along the side of the apartment block small shaded rectangles with numbers indicating the doors.

If he went in that particular door, that one there, he suspected that the map would show stairs, the smell of cigarette smoke, the piss stains on each landing.

He gripped the map so hard that it crumpled. No, he wouldn't do it, not go in there. He couldn't linger here. With his finger he traced his way up the alley and as he did it was a though he were drawing the map itself, filling in the blank space as the alley opened into a road that flowed into the great city. There was the corner nightclub where he had worked cracking the heads of troublesome drunks; there was the barracks where he had spent happy days as a member of the Civil Guard. And then, he saw, the road led to a wide boulevard lined with trees, grand houses either side. The map showed these like a tourist map might, with little drawings as though they were attractions.

He ran, wanting to be out of the alley. Using the map his memory had made he found his way.

On the boulevard he stopped and knew that over there, in that house, he had often sat in the window upstairs looking down on this clean, neat street, the trees and houses, wondering how he had had the good fortune to live here. That particular house was highlighted on the map, printed in bold. As he stared across at it he remembered his life there, his wife, his children. His position of importance.

There was a pride that one such as he should have made it from the slums and alleys to such a place, and to such a position in society.

The map showed this part of the city in line drawings. The mullioned windows of the houses, the brass door knobs, the topiaries and the gravel on the drives. It was a work of art, as intricate as a medieval manuscript.

He looked back down the surface of the map to the slum he had come from, then back to where he was now. Then, further up the page from the boulevard, was the city square and seeing this he tried to fold the map away entirely. But it was too late. The city square was marked with an elaborate, stylised icon, something like a statue of Poseidon riding the crushing waves of horses bringing them to break on the shore feet reared, nostrils flared as their riders drove them against the crowd of protestors, trampling them underfoot.

All he could do was walk up the boulevard towards the square where all this happened.

I have done terrible things, he had said to the guide.

But for a while he had forgotten, for a while he had wandered from the back streets of his youth to the bright boulevard of his success. He had forgotten the terrible things.

He held the map and followed the boulevard to the square, striding ahead not exactly eager but at least determined. All around the city became clearer, more vivid, the sound of distant traffic, the children playing, the ringing of church bells and somewhere on the river the horn of a ferry. On the map too the details spread, ink flowing across its surface like a bloodstain spreading over a paving stone.

It was all just as it had been and he had to remind himself that he was not in the city at all but on the island.

The map itself was nearly complete now, and if he wanted he could have followed the pages of his life across it, for it is true that it was a progress in space as much as in time. The thug of the slums, the guardsman, and then the Head of State Security ensconced in the boulevard.

And just ahead was the city square.

He slowed to walk the last few paces.

The streets were paved with flagstones here because this is the old part of the city. On the map he still couldn't read the writing but the images were clear, monstrosities in the margin, the people depicted as bent, malformed. Where their limbs had been broken they looked comical. Human beings rendered into gargoyles, imps, hardly people at all now. Their faces showed their pain, the anguish of the damned. All this has been skilfully executed by the cartographer so that it looked like a scene from Bosch or Breughel. 

It was almost a relief to walk into the square itself and confront the reality.

There was the smell of smoke and the iron tang of blood. Across the flagstones of the square, around the National Monument, the bodies were strewn, so many that they were tight together, their shoulders touching, sometimes with limbs wrapped or arms splayed.  The blood on the flagstones had already begun to dry in strange patterns, islands, continents.

He had never seen this before. He had not waited to see the results of his actions after he had ordered the Civil Guard to fire at the protestors, the mounted units to run them down.

He walked among them now and the map filled out the final features, little annotations to the side that he supposed might be the names of the fallen, their lives, their last thoughts.

When he looked at the face of a corpse he saw no expression, no hint of what this person might have been. That has all been erased completely, or else translated into a form he would never know.

Later the guide made her way up slowly from the quay towards the chora on the hill.

The chora itself was a ruin, abandoned long ago, the white stone walls wind blasted, the roofs caved in leaving cracked tiles on the floors. As the wind picked up a fine dust swirled around and window shutters rattled. The guide brushed her fingers across her face and moved the hair from her eyes. The sun was still bright and in the shadow at the bottom of ruined wall an emerald lizard twitched for a moment before settling again.

In the middle of a small area between ruined houses the guide found the map atop a slab of fallen masonry. The map was weighed down by a rock. She picked up the map and spread it across the slab, sitting next to it and smoothing it out with her palms.

She nodded as she made sure that everything was there, another life preserved in the language of immortality.

Then she placed the map in the satchel and went down the hill towards the quay. Soon the boat would come and carry her away, she would look ahead across the open sea towards another island where she would deposit the map in the Hall of Records. Behind her, the island of encryption would fade until it was tiny, little more than a smudge of ink on the horizon.