We had a partly lovely time on Pulau Perhentian Kecil. I went snorkelling and swam in the sea for the first time in ages and magnificently failed to learn from my past experience of this exact island at the same time of the year as the parts of me that are still vampire-white and normally covered by clothes got painfully sunburned.
Thanks to our tiny, reclusive resort, we also got to enjoy/endure trekking across half the island or braving a bumpy water taxi any time we wanted to go anywhere and Jackie got to experience the on/off Wi-Fi annoyance that's plagued me for two years and might have led to a deeper mutual understanding. Now I just have to take her to Cambodia or Vietnam to experience the hassle of taxi drivers and street sellers and she'll never complain about my stress outbursts again.
I could present scattered photos of fond memories tarnished by sarcastic commentary, but instead I'll take the risk of posting a short story vaguely inspired by our tranquil island week, written in pain as I avoided sun, sea and surfaces while waves lapped outside our window, flying foxes tried to scavenge our biscuits and fluorescent fish flitted beneath the brilliant blue. It's a bit bleak.
The apprentice wended his way down the well-trodden path towards the bay. The young man effortlessly wound past tree trunks and skipped over roots in a patten that was permanently ingrained into his memory, but which he could never have recalled if pushed for details. The paths through the jungle were like anything else on the island; they had simply always been.
That’s not to say every day was interchangeable in the apprentice’s life. As comfortingly regular as the long days turning the wheel at the windmills had been since he was old enough to become his master’s apprentice, there were occasional interruptions to the smooth running of things that caused him deep unease. The most notable of late was his master’s seeming disappearance, just days after receiving a minor injury to his leg that couldn’t have been life threatening. There had also been the great typhoon so many years ago, which wrought devastation across the island and undid all their hard work, and the joy that followed it as new life came to the island - the boy who was now old enough to be taken on as an apprentice himself, and indeed had been to ease the burden of the workload during the master’s inexplicable absence.
The apprentice knew without a doubt that his master’s passion and commitment to his duties matched his own, and he’d searched high and low on the island despite the queen’s protests. The apprentice knew how to look out for himself, and his master had taught him everything he knew, excepting academic learning like arithmetic and language which it had been his privilege to be tutored in by the queen herself, until he became old enough to pull his weight. He sometimes missed those simpler, selfish times, but these weekly invitations to visit her majesty at the palace had given him the opportunity to rekindle these warm feelings of childhood in the company of the woman he loved, whom everyone loved. She was their mother after all.
In a pouch he carried the herbs she’d requested, which grew only on a cliff face to the south of the island and were now dwindling in supply. He knew not what these herbs were for, but had never questioned her majesty’s wisdom before and had no plans to start doing so now. She possessed a level of knowledge the likes of which the others could hardly conceive, and when she told you to gather herbs and bring them to her in secret once a week for months on end, you were glad to be of service. That’s why she was the queen.
‘I’m not a queen,’ the queen sighed futilely.
‘I don’t understand,’ the apprentice admitted, and the queen knew how true that was. The herbs were running low, the winds had changed, the time was almost at hand. This pantomime was reaching its finale, let the poor sod go on thinking what makes him happy in this dismal excuse for a life they’d cultivated.
‘Tell me, boy,’ she orated, reverting to the austere, authoritarian role that seemed to comfort them. ‘What is the population of the universe?’
‘Four, your majesty,’ he promptly replied.
‘That’s not exactly correct,’ she admitted.
‘I don’t understand,’ the adolescent repeated. ‘There’s you, I, my master and the boy makes four. Do you mean to say there are others?’
‘No, that about wraps it up,’ she conceded. ‘But you still have much to learn, my child.’ The young man didn’t even try to hide his grin; more time basking in her royal, feminine glow felt like paradise, and this is someone who spent his whole life on an idyllic island, even if most of that time was admittedly spent with his nose literally to the grindstone.
‘Haven’t you ever wondered where we all come from?’ she asked, again all but rhetorically. She’d spent too many years in this boy’s youth instilling unquestioning belief in her doctrine and removing any desire for independent lines of questioning to expect him to turn now, but give it time.
‘From you, of course,’ he replied. ‘You’re the mother of all.’
‘So who was my mother, then?’
He paused, and you didn’t need to possess the queen’s unique brand of clairvoyance to predict his response. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘No, but you will,’ she promised. ‘I suppose you haven’t wondered what I need these herbs for either?’
‘You’re a good lad,’ she observed, then oddly added, ‘I’m sorry about all this.’ But before the young man had time to profess that he didn’t understand, she’d taken him by the hand and led him into the dark recesses of her palace, as they generously perceived her complex built of bamboo and twigs in the mouth of a secluded cave. She led the boy to a torch that was already lit and handed it to him, gesturing for him to continue into the dank cave beyond. ‘Go on,’ she pushed. ‘This is where it all begins.’
He was frightened, having never been this deep into the cave before, but was pushed on by his ultimate devotion to his mother. He held the torch close to the rock wall, following its twisting path down as the humidity became less tolerable, until he heard the comforting sound of metal in the distance and was drawn to his goal. This was what the queen had been hinting at - it was another person, a new person, another woman, strapped to a rock, naked and gagged. It was the most beautiful sight the young man had ever seen, and a surge of feelings he’d previously half-imagined overcame him as he moved his fingers through the struggling woman’s long, black hair. He wasn’t capable of being moved by her unintelligible pleas beneath the gag, so consumed was he by animal lust, and within minutes he collapsed to the cave floor, sweaty and spent. This was another of those occasional interruptions to the smooth running of things, one that he wouldn’t soon forget.
Getting to his feet in possession of a newfound clarity now the base desire had been sated, the apprentice analysed this new woman curiously. Where had she come from? What was her function? All she seemed to be doing now was crying, her impassioned screeches having dwindled to resigned sobs. He unhooked the cloth from her mouth and she let out a long sigh.
‘What have you done?’ the woman asked. She might have been being rhetorical as there wasn’t a great deal of ambiguity.
‘Who are you?’ the apprentice unhelpfully asked in return.
‘Don’t you recognise me?’ the woman snarled, and the apprentice became aware of the queen’s hurried footsteps and the illumination of her torch on the woman’s face, who turned to scowl at his mother, instantly igniting the ire of the young man who had never conceived of a day when someone would show such insolence to her majesty. He prepared to strike the wench, but his wrist was snatched by the queen in mid-swing.
‘Now return to your work, and do not return to this place until I summon you again,’ she commanded and he customarily obeyed, leaving the only two women in the universe that he knew of to talk about whatever it is that women talk about. How was he supposed to know? Until a few minutes ago, he hadn’t known there could be a plural for woman. Whatever it was seemed to involve a lot of shouting.
The seasons changed and still the master did not return. The apprentice, who now sported the beginnings of a beard like his master had used to have, and which gave him a disproportionate self-image of manliness, had grown to accept that he may never see the older man again and taken up his mantle, instructing the boy who was now more of a spotty and irritable adolescent in the ways of apprenticeship. There wasn’t much to teach about rotating a wheel until every muscle in your body ached, resting briefly then repeating until the sun went down, but the boy lacked self-discipline to an extent that would have infuriated him had he not been just as stubborn and self-involved when he was that age. He followed his own master’s sensitive approach and would gradually aim to instill the same sense of duty and importance in the work as he had learned to feel so many years ago.
But something was wrong. The young man had a nagging sense that something terrible and significant was about to happen, the likes of which had not been seen for many years, though there was a distinct familiarity about this foreboding. His fears were confirmed after several days when unnaturally high winds started to scatter debris that collapsed and in some cases obliterated routes through the jungle, sealing off parts of the island and rendering the windmills too unsafe to operate. The queen had become an almost total recluse in the months since his last visit and what transpired in the cave, doubtless safe due to her knowledge of the catastrophe to come that was now underway, but the young man heeded her last message to him to not seek her counsel until called for and had to physically restrain his young apprentice from his natural urge to run to their mother, both to check she was safe and for his own safety. The young man couldn’t deny he felt the same impulse, but he was a man now, he’d convinced himself, and had to be strong and set the right example, especially in this time of crisis.
When it was all over, the island appeared so wild and untamed, it was as if all traces of their lives here had been erased by the arbitrary distribution of debris. Paths through the jungle connecting all the vital areas had to be cut again and the long, arduous process of constructing the windmills had to begin again, their fragments scattered over the plateau and on the rocky shores below. It would be a challenge they would face together, and overcome as they had the previous typhoon before it and, as the young man’s lost master had once attested, at least once before that.
But just like before (and before, and possibly before) the crisis was tempered by miracle and joy as the queen gave birth to a healthy baby boy. The two of them were discovered in the royal cave, the palace itself having been swept away in the storms, but as overjoyed as the young man was by this happy news, he couldn’t help his eyes wandering for any sign of the other woman he had seen before. He did not hold out hope to see either the woman nor his master again, and before too long adjusted to the new order of things. Now they were four again.
‘Rebuilding the royal palace must be the top priority,’ the young man instructed his apprentice. ‘Then work can begin on the classroom for our young friend.’
‘No,’ the queen commanded, her tone sounding both more youthful and more pained than he could remember hearing it before. ‘You must bring the windmill back online. That is always your priority. We’ll be safe here, the storms shall not return.’
‘How can you be sure?’ the young man’s young apprentice thoughtlessly interjected.
‘Don’t question her majesty!’ he snapped. He knew what she said was true, and not just because of his eternal devotion to the mother of everyone, but because that’s the way things had always worked.
Many years passed and the young boy was tutored by his mother in the new palace while the young man - who was not so young any more - tended the windmills with his young apprentice, now approaching adulthood himself. His apprentice had taken to the task admirably, with a level of unwavering devotion that would have made his late master proud, but recently the young man had been strangely absent from his duties on a weekly basis. The master suspected he was running errands for the queen, which he accepted without bitterness he was probably getting too old for that himself. He hadn’t pressed her majesty for details back then and he wasn’t going to start interrogating his apprentice about his regular absences now, as long as his duties didn’t suffer noticeably.
On the subject of his failing abilities, the master had observed a worrying deterioration of his strength recently, along with other disturbing signs that he was losing his faculties. His bodily hair had stopped growing in certain places, most noticeably on his face where he used to sport an impressive beard, and the athletic physique that had developed naturally through years of manual labour had started to fail him. His nascent man breasts were also getting harder to conceal. He was feeling faint frequently and one day slipped and fell at the wheel, injuring his leg embarrassingly in a manner that never would have happened at his physical prime. He could tell his apprentice was concerned about him, but considerately the issues were never raised.
One night, the master was summoned by the queen. He recognised the flashing lantern signal in the distance and knew it must be intended for his eyes, as his apprentice’s cabin didn’t overlook the queen’s cove. He wended his way through the well-trodden path, winding wearily past tree trunks and stumbling over roots in a pattern that was permanently ingrained into his memory, and which had never seemed this difficult in the past. Maybe he was just getting old. When he arrived at the shore, the queen greeted him expectantly.
‘You don’t look so good,’ she observed.
‘I don’t feel so good,’ he admitted. ‘Your majesty, I’m frightened. I don’t know what’s happening to me, my body’s giving up on me and my feelings are so confused.’
‘There, there,’ she consoled only slightly sarcastically. ‘It’ll all make perfect sense very soon. You’ll be enlightened with the oppressive truth that’s burdened me for so many years.’
‘The truth about the population of the universe.’
‘Four,’ he responded, the old impulse to impress his mother and teacher with a rapid response having never left him.
‘That’s not exactly correct,’ she admitted.
‘I don’t understand. There’s you, I, my apprentice and the boy makes four. Do you mean to say there are others?’
‘Have you seen any others?’
‘There was my master, but he’s surely dead by now. And...’
‘There was the other woman. That time in the cave.’
‘So you haven’t forgotten about that?’
He felt himself blushing. ‘No, your majesty. But it seemed so... atypical. And when she disappeared, it seemed like it may never have happened.’
‘This other woman,’ the queen enquired. ‘Can you remember what she looked like?’
‘Of course.’ She had featured in his dreams more times than he could count.
‘What did she look like?’
‘Like you, your majesty. Only, a little younger.’
‘Didn’t you think that was odd?’
‘What should she have looked like, your majesty? She’s a woman.’
‘Haven’t you ever found it strange how you, your young apprentice, your late master and the child all look so very similar?’ she continued. ‘And me and this other woman to boot? How we all have the same face, the same voice, the same basic determined personality to various degrees of embellishment when we can get away with it?’
‘I don’t understand. How else should we look?’
‘Didn’t it ever strike you as a little weird that you seem to be living through the same events all over again? The typhoon, the birth, the rebuilding of the island, the disappearance of the master?’
‘What are you saying, your majesty?’
‘I’m saying, because you’re regrettably as docile as I made you and need the obvious explained to you in patronising detail, this all keeps on happening, over and over. I don’t know the exact cut-off point down to the day, but it’s approaching. When the wheel completes its cycle and we go for another spin in our new roles.’
She left polite gaps for his response before continuing with her exposition, though she knew no response would be forthcoming. She hadn’t known what to say either.
‘Your master, the older man who injured his leg then disappeared, that’s who you are now. Your apprentice, who’s mastered his role and is ready to replace you, you were him not too long ago. The boy I teach the basic language skills and physics needed to operate the windmills, you’re all different iterations of the same person, going through the motions.’
‘But how is that possible? And for what purpose?’ His mind burst open by these incredulous impossibilities, he thought to ask the question that had been lurking just beyond the forefront of his mind all his life, but that he was only now able to put into words. ‘What are the windmills for?’
‘How should I know? I just work here,’ she admitted. ‘But it must be something vitally important, or you can bet we wouldn’t be here, perpetuating this ridiculous loop for all time.’
The man was becoming more lucid now, as he started to get a handle on the skills of reason and argument that had previously been deliberately redundant in his innocent worker’s life. ‘How do you know all this?’
‘Because the last queen told me, before you killed her.’
‘I killed her?’ Of all the absurd things he had heard this night, this was the least plausible. To lay a violent hand on the mother who had given life to everyone, let alone to take that life, was unthinkable, horrific. ‘Why would I kill her?’
‘To try and break the cycle, once you realise what she’s been doing to you. What I’ve been doing to you. With a little help from the boy. You remember when you used to bring me those herbs? They stimulate the female hormone, oestrogen. The boy’s been mixing it in your tea for the last few months, though he has no idea why, of course. I raised him not to ask questions. Well, I raised the younger boy, but you’re following by now. He grows up at some point, so by extension I raised all of you, myself, all of us who have been and gone who knows how many times.’
The man felt his breasts beneath his tunic. ‘I... am you? I become the queen?’
‘There’s just one little operation left to go.’
The man turned to run but the queen tossed her scepter and intercepted his moving head where memory told her it would be, knocking him out cold. ‘I knew he was going to try that,’ she wise-cracked, then carried the body inside.
An acute sensation of pain. Drifting in and out of consciousness. The queen’s face looming over him, remorseful but resolute. One time he thought he heard her sobbing.
Days had passed in this dark cave, she knew not how many. Chained to the rock, she was brought food and water to keep her in shape. She wanted to refuse to spite her captor, but self-preservation won over. One day the feeding was followed by a gagging, and as she struggled to bite through the impenetrable cloth she saw her former apprentice approaching by torchlight and knew the day she had been dreading had come to pass. Not accepting her victimised role in this self-perpetuating nightmare, she struggled and screamed, tried desperately to impart the information that might have halted her advances when their positions had been reversed, but her efforts were for nought and the seed was planted, condemning another life, her own abominable life, into being.
The young man removed her gag. ‘What have you done?’ she asked him, hopelessly. How could he possibly understand what he had just been coerced to set in motion? She knew all the facts and she was barely comprehending it as it was.
‘Who are you?’ the apprentice asked.
‘Don’t you recognise me?’ she snarled, her rage awakened by the arrival of the queen. The young man attempted to strike her but his wrist was snatched by the old queen behind him, her reflexes honed by living this moment from three vantage points.
‘Now return to your work, and do not return to this place until I summon you again,’ the older woman commanded and the young man obediently turned and left them alone. ‘I’m going to unchain you now,’ the queen calmly informed her, ‘and when I do that, I expect you to kill me.’
‘You’re probably right,’ the younger woman concurred. ‘But maybe I won’t give you the satisfaction.’
‘It’s not our decision to make.’
‘Of course it is. All you have to do is stop reciting word-for-word from someone else’s script.’
‘You give my memory too much credit, my dear. It was something along these lines, I remember bits and pieces but let’s assume it's word-for-word for the sake of argument.’
‘But you’re under no obligation to follow that script. You can control your own destiny.’
‘We have done. Look at me.’ She gestured at her makeshift robes, crown, scepter and other parodies of royal paraphernalia. ‘Once we realised our passive role in this depressing rotating bicycle wheel of a universe, we willfully lost our grip on reality. Set ourselves up as queen of an island inhabited by ourselves, where we instill fear and devotion in our loyal subjects to ensure we have a chance of existing in the first place. Because this existence, as bleak and tedious and utterly pointless as it is, still beats an eternity of nothing. You’re going to say “I’m not sure about that.”’
The younger woman had opened her mouth to speak, but her words had been intercepted.
‘But after going through this experience from both sides, the castrator and the castratee, an eternity of nothing doesn’t sound like such a bad idea any more.’ The queen unchained the young woman and set her to her feet, offering her some of her own robes.
‘So I’m supposed to kill you, put your out of your misery. Then give birth to this biologically impossible child, teach it to be a slave for god knows how many years before he's drugged, mutilated, violated and condemned to spend a final cycle living with that knowledge?’
‘Sounds like you’ve got it covered, your majesty.’ The older woman handed her crown and sceptre to her successor. ‘Though, of course, I could be using reverse psychology. Trying so earnestly to convince you to kill me that you actually let me live out of spite and I avoid my certain fate.’
The younger queen nodded. The deposed royal smiled, closed her eyes and braced for impact as the sceptre came crashing down on her skull. The queen picked up the torch and walked out into the daylight. It didn’t have to be like this. She didn’t need to have this baby. It could all end right here. She needed some time to mull it over, but first she had to make preparations. A storm was on the way.
Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
Influences: Robert A. Heinlein's 'By His Bootstraps' and '"--All You Zombies--"' and the Perhentian Island windmills specifically, The Twilight Zone spiritually.