The salt spray of the Peaceful Ocean stung Michaela Khoarn’s cheeks. She leant into the wind and prayed that her eyes weren’t playing tricks.
An island peeked between the swells, alone in the expanse. Right where the islanders (reluctantly) told her it would be.
A big rolling wave pushed Michaela’s boat up on its side, the outrigger dug into the water. She flew off deck.
The ocean came up to meet her so hard that she lost a lung full of air on contact.
The roar of the ocean snuffed into silence when she went under. She pulled upward with cupped hands. Strong and lean and no stranger to the water, she swam easily back to the boat.
From the top of the next wave she saw the island again.
That had to be it.
Had to be.
Michaela pulled her boat onto a black gravel beach, the only break in a series of sharp volcanic cliffs. Beautiful. Breathtaking.
But she wasn’t there for the cliffs. Or the black beach.
Michaela climbed to the grassy plateau, daring to hope that the shapes at the cliffs edge were what she thought they were.
Laughter exploded from her mouth when she got close enough to see. She swiped at the tears of joy obscuring her vision.
Four on a pedestal standing in line, looking inland over their tiny volcanic empire.
She’d found the Island of The Lonely Totems.
Of course it had been rumored and there were artist’s renditions. The totems were exactly as anybody with knowledge of the Many Islands would expect: huge versions of the statuettes that had been traded amongst the scattered tribes of the far flung archipelago for generations.
Great stone men with regal chief’s noses. Stern eyes.
Eyes that tracked Michaela as she approached.
She backpedaled a few paces.
“Hello?” The wind swallowed Michaela’s voice as soon as it left her mouth.
The words came like reed whistles on the wind. Michaela’s skin prickled with gooseflesh but she put one foot in front of the other and moved closer.
What do you seek?
“History. Culture?” In her mind’s eye she saw a cover of World Geographic with her name plastered across it.
The totems told Michaela the story of their people. The fertile mountainside that grew thick with breadfruit and bananas. The great quarry where the totems themselves were born from the stone.
Their hunger began at birth. Its legacy could be seen in Michaela’s explorations. The shattered bodies of impatient totems. So hungry for lives that they sometimes collapsed on the laborers themselves, dying of greed before they could even reach their pedestals.
To Michaela’s eyes the island was a balding rock with a few wisps of grass to cover its sharp skull.
Look closer, the totems whispered to her, seeing the questions in her eyes.
As she did she could make out the shapes of houses in the valley. Their outlines barely visible in the grasses.
Michaela ate tuna with the ghosts of the villagers. For them the fruit still grew thick on the mountain. All they had to give was their lives.
It had all happened so long ago that few could remember their deaths well enough to relate how they occurred.
Michaela mapped every bit of the small island. Catalogued the standing totems, the ones that lay toppled and shattered, and the ones left half-born in the side of the mountain. The wrote down their names and their stories. She drew the faces of the village ghosts.
Michaela sealed her notes. The trip back would be long. She inspected her boat for seaworthiness and caught her reflection in a tide pool.
Her skin hung from her bones, malnourished on the food of ghosts. Her teeth moved in their sockets when she pushed against them with her tongue.
She didn’t know how long she’d been on the island or why she’d not noticed her decline until then.
The short walk to the totem platform took all her energy.
“Why?” Her words were dull from hunger.
Stay. In return the tuna and fruit will always be plentiful.
Her mouth filled with saliva at the mention of food. “You can’t trap me.”
She covered her ears, refusing to hear anymore of the totems’ promises.
Michaela pushed her boat toward the surf. Her knees buckled with the effort. She would make it back home. She would tell the world all about her discovery.
Her foot slipped into a rock pool. She followed, knocking her head on the way down.
The last image to pass before her mind’s eye was a glossy spread in World Geographic magazine: she stood before a row of totems, arms akimbo.
A conqueror’s pose.