by Jacob Austin
It takes a lot of water to wash away the massive cow turds I leave behind in the bowl, and for that I feel bad. Few moralists would argue I am doing anything wrong. Still, I record the acts in my ledger in red ink though I have thought of no opposite act to balance them out. I look into the bowl before flushing, but in all such, shall I say, face-to-face ruminations, I have come no closer to acceptance. Slowly, almost mournfully, I push the lever and watch the bowl empty, its contents sucked down the small drain and into the intricate piping I myself designed, slopping, eventually, across the beach, and later taken up by the tide.
Some would say I am going strange living alone.
I had friends once, but lost is the best word to describe what happened to them. Lost as it is used commonly: lost like car keys, like ear buds, or a cell phone. I had them and then I didn’t.
I remember having days off, back when I worked, when anyone worked. They were rare and felt so valuable that I was terrified of wasting one. It often rendered me incapable of making a single decision for fear it was the wrong one. The mornings, of course, I devoted to my art project of the moment, back when those seemed of any importance, but my attention span slackened to the point that two good hours was the best I could hope for. Then something small would interrupt me, like I’d run out of coffee, or hear my phone buzz in the other room, or I’d get hungry, and even the act of making breakfast knocked me out of the project’s orbit, leaving me afloat without tether.
For breakfast, it didn’t much matter what I had as long as I prepared or purchased copious amounts of it. It was meant less as nourishment and more as a spark to propel me into the rest of the shapeless day. That’s when things often bogged down though. Depending on the day, either nothing sounded appealing to me, or everything did. They amounted to the same thing: lying on the couch, or in bed, or sitting rigid in a chair, picking up and putting down my phone, and watching the morning slide into the afternoon.
Well I never put much effort into understanding economics, but, now that all my days are days off, I do think I understand inflation. Their value has dropped out, but that is a good thing. It means I no longer have to worry about wasting one. When I want to be busy, it is not difficult at all. There is the garden to attend to, and my ledger, of course, is constantly in need of balancing. The labyrinth could always be widened, deepened, fortified, or adjusted. But when I want to do nothing, that is fine, too. I have spent entire seasons doing just that, hidden away in the deepest room of the maze, eating just enough to subsist, sometimes reading, sometimes sitting very still, sometimes just walking the long twisting hallways as slowly as I can.
While the ledger provides quite the key to myself, recorded in it as many of my acts and thoughts as I can possibly think of and what I have done to even them out, to return myself to neutral, there is no such key to the labyrinth. There is no map as it is always shifting, so I suppose walking the halls is serving some purpose, after all. It is embedding the layout in my mind, and in the memory of my hooves.
As the neighborhood continues to empty, my maze grows to replace it. It expands like a mass of roots, weaving into, over, and under houses, sometimes pulling them down into the ground, collapsing or liquidating them to use their material elsewhere, sometimes leaving them whole, incorporating their walls, openings, and foundations. The streets, too, empty of traffic, are walled up along their borders, turned into wide avenues through the labyrinth, open aired breaks from the claustrophobia of the underground that do not necessarily mean you are any closer to an exit.
Parts of the labyrinth have flooded in recent years since the tides have shifted and begun lapping further up the coast. The salt water oozes in the beach entrance as a single entity, a finger of the ocean, but at each fork it refuses to make a decision; it takes all paths presented to it at the same time, reshaping itself however it needs to, racing forward for as long as the moon allows it, but, when the orbit shifts, the water loses its impetus, begins to withdraw. Some gets left behind, caught in pot holes or other depressions, and little brine pools grow deep in the heart of my maze. Each high tide keeps them stocked not only with water but with sealife, the first colonizers, starfish and sand dollars, clams and other such creatures. I do not eat them, but I do like to sit beside the tidepools and gaze inside. Birds come and peck at their captive targets. Like shooting fish in a barrel, they used to say.
I don’t know why the old stories have such a fixation on us being maneaters. I haven’t even been able to stomach fish flesh since the changes started taking place, first in my legs, and finally the calcium spurs tearing through my scalp.
I thought it was some sort of bone cancer and felt sure that I’d soon die, so many were doing just that. I became so weak that I couldn’t leave my bed, and I’d lost my friends already, as I said, so no one came to look for me when the first evacuations were ordered. I stayed behind, content to die in my home. My own disease seemed to take precedent over what was happening outside. Surely I wouldn’t outlast the beaches.
Lying in bed, I became lost in fever dreams, and eventually awoke convinced it was not any type of bone cancer, but a punishment brought down on me from a higher power, for my life up till then had been a monstrous thing.
Now I see that period of sickness was not a visitation to the brink of death, but my own metamorphosis. I came forth born anew, and hungry for plants. Meat became repulsive to me, meat of any sort, much less the meat of humans which had always been a repulsive thought. I dove into my yard and ate the grass with relish. The nourishment calmed my hunger and I found I could think again, for the first time in months.
The odds that such a state of change would keep me bedridden during three waves of evacuation have sometimes occurred to me as fate, but for what purpose I was marooned on this island I do not know. I am simply doing what I can to make the most of it.
The labyrinth began as a series of channels meant to divert the water away from my house. It was clear to me a wall or dam would never hold the ocean back, but if I could divert it enough ways, it would thin out to nothing before reaching my home in the center chamber, and now that the waters have seemed to find a new equilibrium, continued construction could be seen as a hobby, I suppose.
I have a vision of eventually covering the entire island in my construction. It is a small island, and has grown smaller, so doing so is not infeasible. Much of the construction is difficult, intense manual labor, which I have used to balance out bits of red from my ledger. I have held long council with myself, presented my conscience with opposing arguments as to the legitimacy of such work being worthy of canceling out past misdeeds, and eventually ruled in favor. As the sole resident of my island, I have had to accept my ruling. It is better than the lashings I gave myself in the beginning, more productive, at least. You see, the open wounds could easily become infected, and with no doctors around, and the wounds situated in difficult-to-reach places on my back, I might die before balancing my ledger. Manual labor is a slower, but surer way than self-mutilation.
I am careful to add no further red. I move more slowly than I once did, more deliberately. Before, I tried to do many things at once, but wound up only doing halfthings. Now I complete a task before moving onto the next. It is easier, too, without people around, to be good, or at least to not be bad. It is so easy, with people, to miscommunicate, misunderstand, to be blind to anything but your own desires and afterwards build fabrications to disguise your actions from yourself. Alone, one can see more clearly.
I move slowly, build my labyrinth one brick at a time, and keep careful track of myself. In that way, I have lived for years, and might have lived for many years more, but a boat brought a group of humans from the mainland to my shores.
It arrived on the horizon under bloom of black sails. A shoreward wind brought it quickly from the sea, and I had to hurry towards my labrinth to avoid detection, but I did not go far. Curiosity had gotten the best of me. The small vessel ran ashore, meeting the gritty sand heavily, planting its hull and grinding to a halt. A small number of raggedy humans exited, a man and two women; its name, if it ever had one, was illegible against the mess of graffiti.
They were wearing hazmat suits, but upon reaching the island removed them.
The man went back on board and came tottering down with a bottle of wine in each hand. I watched the three put on a scene of celebration into the night. I was tempted to join in, but reminded myself of my monstrous body, so remained hidden, ducking down to one of my stores for a bit of my own celebratory wine. I watched from the window out an upper story of the labyrinth and wondered what they were doing here.
From what I’d gathered via radio transmissions, the scene on the mainland was not good. My father, a veteran of the wars in the Middle East around the turn of the millenia, used to talk about how civilization was never more than a couple catastrophes away from collapse, and it seems he had been onto something after all.
Those three wore themselves out after three days of Dioneasan celebration. They only stopped when they ran out of wine, or food, or both, and then in the sand they slept for nearly a full day. When they stirred again, I saw that wine and food was not the only thing aboard the ship, for they went back on, and came down with weapons, large rifles with which they seemed intimite. They headed towards the interior and happened to enter the labyrinth through a particularly wide gate, the sort of entrance that one might not notice having passed through anything at all. I grew unnecessarily nervous and began my retreat, towards my home at the center where I thought I’d be safe.
The wide boulevard of what had once been a bustling tourist destination was eerie in its desolation. Sand had been blown and flooded in and small dunes deposited in almost ritualistic symbols. The salty wind had torn away the festive paints of the storefronts, leaving them a dilapidated gray. Most of the windows were broken and goods were strewn through the area, sorry evidence of an era of cheap decadence.
“There’s got to be a grocery store or something around here,” the lone male of the bunch said as they walked down the middle of the main street.
“All I see is souvenir shop after souvenir shop.”
“We could fish.”
“I’m so fucking tired of fish. Let’s just look around a little. Besides, we drank all the booze. Need to find some more of that.”
“This place gives me the creeps.”
“This place gives me the creeps,” the man repeated in a mocking tone. “Jesus, will you listen to yourself? Does it actually give you the creeps or have you only seen so many characters in movies say as much in similar situations that it’s all you can think of?”
“When places give me the creeps it’s because I’ve seen shit, okay? Fuck you.”
“Guys, look,” the third said, pointing towards a decrepit Walgreens. “Should be food in there if it hasn’t already been raided.”
“I’m telling you, these luxury islands were evacuated real early, before the rest of us even knew something was up. No way they would have looted a drug store on the way out.”
The Walgreens sign, high on its pole, seemed to be only the next block over, but as the trio turned at the end of the street and headed down the next one, the sign disappeared. When they doubled back to get another look at it, they couldn’t find the street they’d come in on.
“What in the hell.”
The town evaporated and they were now on a narrow path, dense bamboo forest growing on either side, forcing them to walk single file. They tried to turn back, retrace their steps, but the path behind them splintered into innumerable options; in confusion, they burst forth as fast as they could, but even at such a click it took several minutes to clear the bamboo, and when they did they found themselves emerging onto a neighborhood street amongst pastel beach houses and felled palm trees.
Scared as I was at the thought of interaction with other humans in my new state, I understood the chance to make some real progress in my ledger. I followed their progress through the maze. They were hopelessly lost. The odds they would find their way were low, and that they’d recognize it even if they did happen to stumble upon it were naught.
What they did gather, and quite quickly, was the fact they were in some sort of purposefully designed puzzle, but they jumped to various, inaccurate, theories as to who had designed it and for what: serial killer toying with them, government hiding something, a billionaire islander living at the center. That was the closest to the truth, but for the fact I’d rarely had even four digits in my bank account at one time.
As I watched, it became apparent to me that the trio did not enjoy the feeling of being lost in the labyrinth, so I tried to help flush them out. I worked quickly behind them to redirect water channels, so that when the high tide arrived the rising water would steer them nearer an exit, but that only increased their panic, so I tried something else. When they fell asleep, I circled around in front of them and left caches of food and water, but they did not trust it.
I did all that I could to aid them without revealing myself, terrified my hideous appearance would frighten them and that I’d catch a bullet, but they refused all, and when they were clearly weakening from lack of food and water, I made the decision to show myself.
They’d settled down to rest in a beach house. There was no food within and no running water, but there was furniture to collapse on and rest their feet. I watched from across the street as they entered and then waited before approaching from the side.
I pushed open the door and announced myself with a low bellow, trying to make it sound friendly. The man was on me in no time. I waved my arms in front of me, trying to indicate that I came in peace, but my appearance must have been horrible to behold. He let loose a cascade of shots, many of which met their mark, and I fled, following some awakened bovine instinct, towards home, leaving a trail of blood behind me. The three tracked me to the room at the center of the maze. I’d made it that far before collapsing. There, on the verge of death—I must have looked already dead—the last thing I heard was the three discussing if I’d make a good meal.
“That’s one fucked up cow. I’m not eating that.”
“The flanks look healthy enough. Don’t know what’s wrong with its top. Cancer or
something, maybe. What if we just eat around it?”
“Is that safe?”
“Safer than starving to death.”
“Just make sure it’s well-done.”
This is my body—