Total Oblivion

"A fast-paced, suspenseful dystopian picaresque, part Huck Finn and part bizarro-world Swiss Family Robinson..."



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Long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and finalist for the Crawford Award. Title short story listed for the 2000 O. Henry award.

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The Watcher’s Journal (Total Oblivion outtake)

They’re replacing the furnace in our house, so as the living room gets colder and colder, I’m typing faster, as if that will provide some heat. But before I set up some space heater contraption, I thought I’d post this, before the new year: a relatively short outtake from Total Oblivion, More or Less. Consider it apocryphal! (But then again, most of the novel is anyway.)

Wishing you all a safe and happy new year.

The Watcher’s Journal

[note: journal entries of Imperial signal corps vision-engineer Nike Proclus, stationed in Transocean gulf watchtower (ex-Shell coat-of-arms), equidistant from Lafayette to Nueva Roma. Nike's journal, written on palm-sized scrolls, was transmitted to Nueva Roma via carrier kingfisher to the Emperor himself.]

Dolphin’s Month 2
Bats chase seagulls. I don’t know where the bats have come from. Is there a cave that I don’t know about in the vicinity? No. I am two days sail from Nueva Roma. And north of me… I look for islands and signs, but I haven’t found them yet.

The bats are white.

Dolphin’s Month 4
I do have a little garden, with vegetables I have brought from the swamps of Orlando, on the aft of my platform. The red squash and kelp do well in this climate. I had wanted to bring chickens to the watchtower—for companionship besides the ethereal gulls, but it was vetoed by the signal corps. Perhaps it’s just as well. The bats have taken to harassing the gulls, and I can only dare to think what they would have done with flightless birds. This evening, I found a gull in my garden with one of its wings gnawed off, presumably by the bats. I suspect that they are hiding somewhere in the watchtower.

Dolphin’s Month 7
Am I only imagining the bats? I haven’t seen them since I had found the one-winged gull.

Cool wind. Then rain that lashes the platform. The tower rocks. I hear the groaning of the sea and imagine serpents coiling around the foundations of my lonely post.

Dolphin’s Month 9
Bats are back, like they have never left. I think they are watching me when they think I’m not looking.

Fewer gulls.

I leave a plate of succotash for the bats on the opposite end of the platform from the garden. They are uninterested.

Dolphin’s Month 10
Perform a full inventory of my storehouses and quarters. They have been undisturbed. I miss land for the first time in a year.

How many days until the supply boat? Five.

At sunset, witness gull and bat spar. Gull loses and drops into the sea. I’m tempted to fish the carcass out, but it would require unfurling the ladder and readying the raft, and I’m too tired. The gull sinks soon enough anyway.

Dolphin’s Month 11
Sore throat. Mist. I can’t see the bats, though I can hear their wings, and the gull shrieks. I keep to my bed, only taking to the watchtower twice for the customary reconnaissance. Which is futile anyway.

The sea is phosphorescent as I write this. The mist hasn’t cleared, either. All I can see is gray and green.

Dolphin’s Month 12
Mist’s cleared. The platform is littered with gulls, in various forms of severance. All is quiet. I take the morning to clean their carcasses and the blood.

When night comes, in a fit of inspiration (or madness?), I do, in fact, drop the raft into the water and roll the ladder down. I row underneath the platform. It’s shadowy. Hanging underneath the platform on the beams are scores of the white bats. They are not the same as the bats I have known on land-they seem to hunt only in day and sleep at night, like any person would.

Dolphin’s Month 14
Black speck on the horizon. Is it really there? I check again with my lens, calculate the distance. Impossible to tell without knowing the size of the craft. So it’s pointless.

Perhaps a whale?

I make a trap for the bats, involving canned meat, box and string. But they don’t trigger it. Smart.

Dolphin’s Month 15
Supply boat arrives late in twilight. Crew of two seems none too pleased. They bring a lordly kingfisher. Wine. More succotash. Bundle of letters from my wife.
(My Emperor, if you read this, don’t think that these details have no use to the Empire. I stand vigilant here to protect her, and those like her.)

I tell them about the speck, but they have no use for it. They think the vision-engineers are strange on account of their exceeding loneliness. Yes, well.

The kingfisher is caged and is agitated.

Dolphin’s Month 16
The sailors seem eager to go. They eye the swooping bats with great apprehension. I tell them they haven’t harassed me, but they are suspicious, as if I’m colluding with them. I don’t tell them about the bats’ resting place. The sky is empty of gulls.

The speck remains the same.

I consider telling the about the speck, but the evidence is still too inconclusive.

They leave, sullenly.

I miss them, and yet I’m glad when the bats, two leagues out, swarm on them. I watch.

Dolphin’s Month 17
It’s too much.

Dolphin’s Month 18
The speck grows larger.

Dolphin’s Month 22
Bats are in the kitchen.

The speck has turned into a boat.

Why haven’t they killed me.

Dolphin’s Month 23
So, the trap. I have set it every day but it remains unsprung. The bait, I realize, has been insufficient. I realize that now.

My wife, I say to myself, I hope you forgive me, that you’ll be able to kiss my missing finger, my ghost digit and make it better.

The trap works. I’ve listened to a bat screech for five hours inside the box. The ship hasn’t revealed its heraldry.
The kingfisher looks ashamedly at my mutilation. I’ve named him Rufus.

Dolphin’s Month 24
Right before dawn, I extract the bat and dissect the bat in my quarters.

Only it’s not a bat.

At least it’s not the kind that I have been familiar with.

The fur is like a whale’s bristles. The eyes are covered by a membrane. Tiny webs along the legs.

I toss it back.

[The next page's script is blurred beyond recognition. Whether this occurred during the kingfisher's transit or beforehand is impossible to say.]

Egret’s Month 2
I see twenty-two craft now.

Gave them many signals, in every code I know.

Rufus is restless.

Egret’s Month 3
Have watched their first volley with a deck-side trebuchet. Two hundred yards shy. They are testing me. It won’t be long. I extinguish the tower fire. I’m writing this at my own perch, the kingfisher beside me. When I am finished writing this, I tie the scrolls around Rufus’ leg. And I will wait. Rufus will speed past the bats-I know this. Its heart racing as he makes his way to Nueva Roma.

He has a head start.

Thu, December 31 2009 » Total Oblivion

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