The beast settled down in the cool dark sea between two far-flung continents. It sunk until its splayed limbs rested on the ocean floor, leaving only the highest elevations of its rocky shell to protrude above the waves. The ridges and whorls of the carapace formed strange, concentric rings and clusters of mountainous islands. Slowly, the beast unfurled its proboscis and pushed it into the seabed. It drilled deep until the rock grew soft and hot, then began to patiently suck the molten nectar within the earth.
Seabirds, venturing far over the waves, spied the new islands and winged thither. They made homes on the steep bony slopes overlooking inlet and channel, and fed on the fish that came to eat the plankton teeming in the shallows. Lichen appeared on the shell. An errant seed was deposited by the wind, and a clump of grass took root in a narrow crevice. Insects were borne to the strange land by wind and wave, and buzzed and scuttled across the islands contentedly. Mosses, grasses, shrubs and trees appeared as years passed. A lizard peeked out from beneath a rock. A frog croaked beside a pond on a summer night.
Three hundred thousand years passed. The shell-islands were etched by wind and rain, and deep pockets in the surface were filled with eroded sediment, far more fertile than any earthly soil. The land blossomed, in tune with the thrumming of life within the beast below.
To the east, on the shore of the continent, men and women arrived and dwelled in caves among the hills. They were fishermen. Each morning, young men would push rough, fire-hollowed canoes into the waves, venturing out among the reefs to hunt fish with stone-tipped spears.
One day, a storm came up while the canoes were still out. The young men paddled furiously, but one canoe was swept far into the ocean by the tempest’s fury. When sea and sky had calmed, the fishermen found themselves out of sight of land and borne westward by the current. Grimly they labored with their oars, but they could make no headway and at last resigned themselves to fate. But what was that dark smudge on the western horizon? They squinted through the sea-haze as they drifted closer. The smudge sharpened into mountains, and forested slopes, and a white beach. Shouting, they took up their oars and paddled toward it with new strength. When they made landfall in a shallow cove, they were met with a scent of heavenly flowers and the songs of birds.
They rested many days in contentment, until at last the home-longing overtook them, and they thought of how to return to their people in spite of the contrary current. One man, walking along the beach, saw the fronds of a palm tree blowing back and forth in the west wind. An idea struck him. He explained it to his companions, and, though they laughed at first, they agreed to try. They hewed the trunk of a sapling, then bound many palm leaves to it with vines, making a large, upright mat. They mounted the mast in their canoe, and, to their delight, the leaf-sail caught the wind and pushed the boat along. After gathering supplies, they set out, navigating westward with sail and paddle until the shore of their own land appeared before them. They beached their craft on the shore, and were met with exultation and wonder by their comrades.
The tale of the bountiful land to the west fired the hearts of the people. Soon, they made better sails, weaving them from grass, and it was not long before a party of canoes went westward to explore. The islands enchanted them, and they thanked their sea-god for having led them to paradise. They built a temple for the god on the centermost island, and made houses for themselves around it, using wood and the hard but light, pearly stone that was found everywhere.
Centuries passed. The islanders learned to tend the soil, and the mild and constant climate let them reap two good harvests each year. They wove the fibers of plants and animals into rich and beautiful fabrics and bedecked themselves with jewels. Their houses became gracious villas and spires of white stone. Their canoes evolved into little sailboats that tacked smoothly between the islands. Then the sailboats became great sailing ships, which departed from their island paradise to carry the goods and the ways of the islanders to the great continents to the east and west. The savage natives peered out from within their caves and wooden huts at the blue-robed sailors, and named them gods. For a necklace of orichalcum, or a silken robe, they paid the islanders richly in gold and silver.
But in their long success the islanders grew arrogant. They erred from love of their land and appreciation of the bounty it had provided them, into a darker love of dominion. A day came when the sight of their sails brought more fear than admiration to the men of the continents. Within the islands there were disputes and intrigues, and swords were forged and blood spilled onto the pure white stone.
Beneath them, the beast sensed the darkness spreading on its back and was troubled. Long it had drunk in the earth’s life-giving warmth, and its thirst was nearly sated. In return for the earth’s gift, the beast had provided a haven for life. Now, perhaps, when some of that life was turning ill, it was time to move on.
The beast readied its vast anatomy and a preliminary rumble shuddered through its frame, as its molten sinews awoke from their long rest. Then it moved, crouching down onto the seabed and slowly submerging the entirety of its shell.
Above the ocean, the islands lurched and quaked, and men rushed from crumbling buildings in fear. The sea began to rise, engulfing marsh and field and city square. Men and women fled in horror. Some ran toward the highlands, others escaped toward the quays, where they boarded boats and put off to sea to avoid the shaking and drowning land. The earth heaved and dipped down, the tops of hills and mountains becoming little shrinking islets, while the waves crashed against them with the fury of the tumult. At last, all the land disappeared beneath the waters, and the survivors sat in shock in their ships, as the moon shone down on a sea strewn with the detritus of a vanished land.
The beast crouched upon the ocean floor and primed its stony muscles. Then it leapt upward, clearing water and air in one massive bound, pushing the earth behind it and jolting the planet’s axis. Its emergence sent a vast wave of water rushing outward, which caught the boats of the survivors and swept them far away.
Beyond the earth’s atmosphere, the beast reached the apex of its jump. As it hovered in the silence of space for a long moment, it opened its shell and extended massive, diaphanous wings, large enough to shadow the greatest continent on the planet it had departed. The thin membrane of its wings caught the wind of atoms streaming out from the central star. Slowly, the beast moved away from the planet, sailing out into the vastness between stars, searching for its next home.
On the earth, the great wave deposited the few survivors of the islands’ fall upon the continents’ margins. A grey pall of rain spread across the sky, and the sea rose and ate away at beach and cove. In fear and awe the islanders shed their ruined finery, and moved inland. They carried with them a memory of paradise and vengeance, and a tale of Flood.
Image at top from the 16th century Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus, via Wikimedia Commons.