Prospero’s Island

A Stage on the Waters

A flower, two or three grains of sand, and a note of song make an island. Add the splash of a tear for the sea.

But I am more, this island says.

The white-capped blue of mov­ing moun­tains cir­cles the land, and the isle is still and not still, the pray­ing man­tis­es stir­ring ever so slow­ly among the stems and leaves, the day-songs of birds and cicadas and Ariel-the-sprite whirling the clouds and call­ing to the sun. Then flick, flick, the grasshop­per springs in the shore grass. From his cave, the wiz­ard Pros­pero speaks a word that flash­es with light­ning. Ruins from the back­side of time crum­ble to shards, held pre­car­i­ous­ly in place by flow­er­ing creep­ers. Motes drift upward, fired to gold by sun­light. Live flesh is stilled, becomes coral at the island’s root. Grit makes pearl. All things are changed, changed!

A place of mur­mured prompts and sto­ry, the island is the the­atre of selves. Peer into its realm, and the island will glance back, its eyes radi­ant with flow­ers, sun, blood, and thorns, for an isle is a mir­ror to wiz­ard or fairy, woman or man, hero or clown.

Stare with no regard for man­ners. Eaves­drop. Tune in to words tossed on breezes combed by the scrub, to the wash and rasp of tide, and to the night-chants of katy­dids, led by a fey choir­mas­ter.

The island is a con­cert of Miran­da-notes and Cal­iban-groans, set apart from the world by salt seas and by mag­ic. Teas­ing as an ora­cle, the isle whis­pers what will be.

 

Res Miran­da

I must be the first per­son to bear the name Miran­da, for my father made up the name from the Latin word miran­dus.

You would think that I would be won­der­ful with such a name, and so won­der­ful that I could nev­er be bored. But it is hard to live on an island with no oth­er peo­ple but a beard­ed old man and Cal­iban, who reveals to me that men are not much to look at, nor ter­ri­bly well-behaved. I don’t sup­pose Ariel counts, as sylphs are not men, but he is more pleas­ant to look on than either my father or Cal­iban, the child of the Prince of Dark­ness and the witch, Syco­rax.

And I sup­pose that makes Cal­iban roy­al­ty of a sort, so per­haps I should admire him. I do not. Occa­sion­al­ly he offers me a flower, and I take it, but I am care­ful, as I believe he would kiss and then eat me if he could, Cal­iban-can­ni­bal!

I will tell you a secret that nobody but Ariel knows, and that is a great won­der, for my father knows almost every­thing. His wis­dom tow­ers over the island like a thun­der­head, packed up with rain that could drown and wash away the world — like a fleck of dirt expelled by tears — if he were only to let it fly at once!

The secret is this: at night when my father pores over the gri­moire that is ever-chang­ing, nev­er reveal­ing the same pages, and that dis­plays to him the buried secrets of the round Earth, I swim in the sea. Ariel makes sure that Cal­iban is far away, lur­ing him to some thick­et where berries are plen­ti­ful, or else to a brine-pit where he sits and sucks the crys­tal salts. I float on the ocean, and then for once I am tru­ly won­drous and wor­thy of my name … pale as a moon under stars, brushed by the sil­ver writhings of mys­tery, leapt-over by fly­ing fish, kissed by the nib­bling dam­selfish and oth­ers than have no names but are bro­ken frag­ments of a rain­bow.

Ariel chas­es away the puls­ing canopies and ruf­fled trail­ings of the jel­ly­fish­es. He spanks the sharks, and they swerve and bore a way through the cold and dark to where their glad­i­a­tors fight in under­wa­ter col­i­se­ums. I have not seen it, but Ariel has dived to the bot­tom of the sea in a bub­ble of air, and he has told me how they tear one anoth­er to gob­bets and shreds and streams of blood in their sport. They, too, are can­ni­bals.

I drink in the moon­light and starlight, become more than I am by day, and feel a long­ing stir in me like a fish — splash­ing up dia­mond drops and swerv­ing into the blue. Ariel tells me that this is the flash­ing and move­ment of my soul, a thing he is not trou­bled by because he has none, being fey. I don’t real­ly know what he means by soul. But the name does not mat­ter, any more than the word Miran­da mat­ters when I float on the waves. My light increas­es and spreads in flakes across the ocean, a moon­lit path to my bright naked­ness.

 

Cal­iban by Starlight

He flies off laugh­ing, the lit­tle bas­tard, and leaves me in the thorn bush­es to pluck stick­ers from my hide — said he would show me some­thing won­drous, but I can see won­drous for myself with no help from a fairy. I suck at my sore fin­gers and then moan to let off my anger.

It’s a pret­ty night for mosey­ing around the island….

The stars have come out to pulse and wink at me, and the moon is as round as a sea anemone shell, a white test, all knob­bly. If I go by, the cave will be yel­low with can­dle­light, and the wiz­ard will be hunched over his book, mut­ter­ing. He’ll only curse me if I speak, though he is the one who taught me how to say, how to think. Then I thought too much. And so I have lost his love.

Instead, I go limp­ing off to the beach, round­ing the edge of the island, my head bathed in sweet, fishy airs that prick­le my nose. Some­where close by are the voic­es of angels or sylphs, rid­ing on the wind. Often when I was alone, I hear them sing as if to me.

Then, far out in the waves, I see a some­thing — a fairy or a god­dess, naked in the waves. She gleams like the moon, is more beau­ti­ful than its white sea-urchin test. I love, I salute, I wor­ship!

Dreams flick­er before me, dreams in which I am a lover, danc­ing with my moon-god­dess wife. Dreams in which she loves me, as my dam Syco­rax must have loved my father, the Prince of Dark­ness. The wiz­ard says my father was evil, but I will not believe him. Father! Father! I cry out to him, but no one ever answers.

I see a train of lit­tle chil­dren walk­ing behind us in the moon­light, each one com­posed of a dark side and a light like the moon when it is half in shad­ow. Our chil­dren! I name them.

Cora.

Prince-of-the-Isle.

Cal­ly.

Liba­tion.

Sy.

Burnt Toast.

Apple.

Moon­let.

Whirk.

In an instant, a riv­er of dark cloud sweeps over the face of the moon. And when the moon peeps out and then returns, the god­dess with her bright­ness is gone from the sea. The voic­es are still coast­ing on the breeze, but they sound sad. I am sad. What is the use of learn­ing words and thoughts with­out love, with­out lit­tle Cal­ibans to dance in a ring?

Marly Youmans is the award-win­ing author of thir­teen books of poet­ry and fic­tion. Forth­com­ing books are: a col­lec­tion of poems, The Book of the Red King, cen­tered on a Fool, the Red King, and their sundry friends; and Charis in the World of Won­ders, a nov­el about a young Puri­tan woman set in the 1690’s Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Colony.