"When you first see it, you won't think it's an island. It's more like a weightless apparition with a blurry outline. It doesn't look heavy enough to be an island--it seems to be missing that solid connection with the earth's crust."
With these words the man bent over the rail, spat into the water, and watched the little foamy fleck drift backward along the boat's seaweed-covered hull until the propeller wash swallowed it.
"An island like this one's a world in itself. The laws that prevail here are different from anywhere else. I might go so far as to say that the very sky over such an island is different. You'll understand me after you're there. People say that the sky above it is less far away, less deep. The sky's like a glass bowl placed over it."
With a sweeping movement of his arm, the man gestured toward the west, where the sky was beginning to redden. "There it is. Do you see it?"
All that Olsen could make out was a thin line between a purple cloud bank and the green iridescence of the sea, as though someone had gone over that segment of the horizon with a pencil. The boat did not make straight for this apparition. Rather it followed the curves of a shipping channel that was marked out by red barrels.
"Do many people actually live there?" Olsen asked.
"People? That's a matter of opinion," the other man said with a mocking smile. "According to the count, there are just a few, but once you're on the island it'll seem that there are too many of them."
He spat into the water again. "We've started going slower--we're only at half speed. We probably have too little water under the keel. It's no joke to sit out here stranded and wait for high tide."
By now Olsen could distinguish details. That thickening blackish line might be houses or trees. A lighthouse and a windmill seemed to be the tallest structures.
"How long do you want to stay?" the man asked.
"I don't know yet. Maybe by tomorrow I'll be ready to leave. It depends on whether I find what I'm looking for."
"Tomorrow?" the other laughed. "There'll be no boat tomorrow. The next one goes in three days. It's like that in the winter. In the summer the connections are better." He shrugged his shoulders. "If I were you I'd see about a room right away. Most of the hotels are closed in winter. Try at the Ferryman, right on the harbor. What are you looking for anyhow, at this miserable time of year? A job, maybe? You can put that idea right out of your head. They stick together as thick as thieves."
Now Olsen too spat in the water and watched the speck of foam. They were moving faster again. "I'm looking for the elevator man," he said. The other nodded and was silent. He apparently felt no interest in having this strange piece of information explained to him.
When Olsen looked up again, the island was suddenly enormous. Its houses, together with a long bare avenue, covered up the entire horizon. The small vessel slipped into the harbor entrance, and Olsen stared at the black, narrowing chasm between the side of the boat and the quay wall. Something bright was drifting below the surface of the water, moving its limbs to the rhythm of the sloshing waves. Tiny, splayed arms and legs. By now dusk had fallen. The man by Olsen's side drew a flashlight from his coat and aimed its beam at the thing. "A dead rat," he said. "It's white. Maybe an albino. Or maybe just bleached by the salt water. Take good care of yourself."
He poked Olsen in the ribs with his flashlight, grabbed his bag, crossed over the lowered gangway onto dry land, and disappeared among the sheds that lined the dock.
The wind had changed direction. Now it was blowing harder from the east, bringing with it something black and sooty that settled on everything, on objects as well as temperaments.
Olsen also picked up his seabag and stepped onto the gangway. At the other end of it stood a uniformed man, who took his ticket. "What is it you want here?" the man asked in a slightly unfriendly tone.
"Me?" Olsen would have much preferred not to answer the question at all, but the man had grabbed hold of the sleeve of his jacket.
"Of course you. You see anybody else around?"
"I think I'd like to stay here for a while, but I'm not sure." The visor of the official's uniform cap gleamed like a sickle blade. To Olsen's astonishment, his vague declaration seemed to satisfy the man. He released Olsen's sleeve, stepped aside, and touched his visor with his fingertips.
Olsen looked around. Drops of rain, driven by the wind, hatched the darkness under a streetlight. A gleaming wet road led along the back of the harbor to the village. Squalls blew in from the sea, tearing at the tops of the trees that flanked the road. A profusion of little hailstones danced on the pavement. The howling of the storm resembled the voice of a person rendered inarticulate by blind rage. Beyond the stone balustrade that shielded the road to the beach, Olsen saw the sea. It was black as tar. But there, where the finger of the lighthouse touched it, you could see it bare its waves' white teeth.
The road ended in a square at the edge of the harbor. Here was a little shelter, under the lee of some high, dark buildings. Olsen dropped his seabag and rubbed his eyes, which the salt air had irritated to tears. He found himself near a house whose fa*ade projected past those of the other buildings. Had it not been for the boards nailed over the windows and the cracks in the wall, the house, with its gables and its little tower, would have presented an almost distinguished appearance. Over the entrance a naked lightbulb swayed in the wind, as did a sign hung on rusty hooks and bearing the words The Ferryman. Olsen pressed a brass button next to the door, but nothing happened. He pressed the button again, longer this time, and listened to the shrill sound of the doorbell as it resonated from inside the house and even managed to drown out the whistling wind. Still nothing. When Olsen tried the handle, it yielded, and the door flew back as though wrenched by someone inside. But it was only the wind, which flung the door open and rudely thrust Olsen, together with his bag, into a faintly lit corridor traversed by a threadbare red rug. In an alcove stood a small lamp, its dim light shining brownly through a singed parchment shade. Next to the lamp a counter, where a sign read Reception. Olsen rang another bell, this one set into the counter, from which intertwined wires led to the baseboard. He listened. Now that he was inside, the storm raging outdoors was muffled to a monotonous lament. A shutter banged somewhere. Then he heard something else: a distant hum, rising and falling, like voices and singing and music, but distorted, incomprehensible.
It cost Olsen an effort of will to press the button. This time, however, there was no shrill ringing to be heard. He was left with no other choice but to penetrate farther into the corridor, which looked to him like a maw. The walls, covered with ghastly flowered wallpaper, seemed to move, almost imperceptibly, in a continual peristalsis, which drew him in deeper and deeper. His longing to turn back grew with each step, but the thought of the cold wet night spurred him on. At this moment the light in the hall went out. Olsen groped for the wall, which was damp and woolly, as though covered with thin, tiny strands of mold. Ahead of him was a door, and under it a narrow strip of light. Behind the door, in a steady crescendo as he approached, the sound of voices, popular tunes, laughter.
Olsen finally reached the door and knocked on it. First hesitantly, then harder. Someone bellowed, "Come on in, if you're not my wife!"
There was a roar of laughter. "You're not married, you idiot!"
When Olsen opened the door, the light from inside blinded him. Unable to see, he heard all the more clearly the renewed laughter and such shouts as "Who is that?" and "He sure looks funny." Then, like exposed film in developing fluid, the white blur before Olsen's eyes began to resolve into shapes. These flowed together until he was looking at a large room filled with tables and chairs, where people were sitting with their glasses in front of them. Bunches of wildflowers decorated the tabletops. The bright light came from the large helm, its rim and spokes adorned by numerous electric lightbulbs, that was fastened to the ceiling. Wall lamps augmented the dazzling brightness.
Most of the people were sitting around a large round table. It had no tablecloth, but in its center lay a massive brass ashtray with the words Regulars' Table engraved on its rim. The regulars were all men, most of them red faced and stout. They were dressed in suits, though they had unbuttoned their shirt collars and loosened their ties. A few had removed their jackets and laid them over the backs of their chairs. Many were smoking; cigars, cigarillos, cigarettes littered the ashtray. Their beer glasses were full, half full, urine yellow, foaming, and tobacco smoke spewed from their mouths like a defensive screen. A woman was standing on the table. She was a blonde, with a pretty, remarkably pallid face, very blue eyes, flawless teeth. She was dancing barefoot amid the glasses, moving with doll-like stiffness to the rhythms emanating from a large radio-phonograph console, in whose illuminated innards a black record was spinning. It was apparently defective, because the same brief musical fragment was playing again and again, part of a hit song: "the red ro . . . the red ro . . . the red ro . . ." This appeared to deflect the men's interest away from Olsen. Someone began to bawl, and the others joined in with "the red ro . . . the red ro . . . the red ro . . ."
The dancer lifted her skirt, so that her black lace garter belt, her sole undergarment, was visible. One of the men took his cigar out of his mouth and stuck the moist end between the dancer's thighs. Everyone howled and clapped, except for Olsen, who had withdrawn to a spot near the wall. He watched from there as a second female appeared. She was armed with a dish towel, and she began beating the men with it, shouting, "You pigs! You filthy pigs!" as they laughed and dodged. Her curly hair, fiery red, was bound with a velvet ribbon, and her lips and eyes were heavily made up. She was wearing a white waitress's apron over a black skintight dress that accentuated her figure. "Get a grip on yourself, Stella," the dancer said. She removed the cigar, drew on it, exhaled smoke rings, and jumped down from the table. "The boys are all right, they were just having a little fun. Who can blame them, with those wives?"
"Stella, it's your turn!" someone yelled. "Take it off! Show us your tits!" Stella threatened him with the dish towel. Then she ran from the room and slammed the door behind her.
The dancer, who was obviously the landlady as well, came up to Olsen. "This is a respectable house," she said, "even if it doesn't look like it sometimes. Would you by chance have some fire, young man?" She twirled the extinguished cigar between her fingers and stuck it in her mouth. Olsen patted his pockets as though he expected to hear the characteristic sound of loose matches in a matchbox. In reality, he knew his efforts were in vain. "He doesn't have any fire, this young man," the landlady said, stressing her double meaning. "Maybe because he was already in one."
Olsen knew that the many operations he had undergone had not remade his face into what one might call a human countenance. He could never get used to seeing himself in the mirror, a familiar person with a stranger's face, a mask of skin and scars. Sometimes it itched and burned so much that he wanted nothing more than to tear it off.
"Here's a light for you, Maria." A hairy hand snapped open a large windproof cigarette lighter and held it toward her. Maria sucked so powerfully on the cigar that her face disappeared inside a thick cloud of smoke. Meanwhile the company had fallen silent, so Maria's voice was clearly audible when she called out, "Stella, come out here. We have a new customer, and he wants service."
Stella appeared. This time she seemed notably calm and composed. She had apparently put her hair in order and touched up her lipstick. While she was approaching him, Olsen could see that she was an extraordinarily lovely young girl. She curtseyed and asked, "What may I bring you?"
"A beer and a schnapps," Olsen said. Then he sat down on the empty chair that someone had drawn up to the regulars' table. The broken record was still spinning; now it was stuck on "so swee . . . so swee . . ." Someone stood up from the table and hopped over to the music console. Although he had but one leg, he moved about with great agility, even without the crutches that he had left beside his chair. He lifted up the tonearm and laid it carefully on its rest. "The Capri fishermen aren't what they used to be, either," he said. Then he took a new record from the bottom compartment of the console and put it on the turntable. An up-tempo tune began, featuring trumpet, drums, clarinet, trombone. "Goddamn jungle music," said someone next to Olsen.
Stella came and put beer and schnapps before him on the table. Olsen's neighbor tried to pinch the waitress's behind. She gave him a slap on the cheek. Olsen smelled her sweet, cheap perfume. The man turned to him. His face was as flat as a cake plate. Olsen stared into eyes that looked artificial, like the eyes of a trophy animal. "Are you looking for work, by any chance?" his neighbor said. Olsen shrugged his shoulders and downed his schnapps. Another man cried out in a cracked voice, "A round for everybody, on me. Stella, give us all another round, including Frankenstein Face. I can think of a good job for him--bogeyman."
The landlady arrived with a tray full of frosted schnapps glasses. Everyone drank and slammed the empty glasses down onto the table. "All right, let's have it," said the man who had stood the round. "You have to understand, we're all curious here. Whoever comes to the island in winter must have a good reason. Or he's not quite right in the head."
Excerpted from The Phoenix by Henning Boetius. Copyright © 2001 by Henning Boetius. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.