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Ferdinand's Island front cover

Excerpt from Ferdinand's Island, a stand-alone short story

18th of July, 1831

Ferdinand paused to catch his breath and stood on his island. He wiped the sweat off his brow and pulled down the brim of his hat against the sun. The intense July heat dried the briny spray from the Strait of Sicily and left the taste of salt on his lips. He took off his rope sandals and felt the rough, wet stone of the bare rock on the soles of his feet as the cold Mediterranean water washed and foamed around his ankles.

The waves broke and sprayed on the shore and screeching gulls wheeled around, diving for the fish that bobbed, lifeless and one-sided around the stark boulders of the shore, their sightless eyes gazing at the sun.

The rock of his island was loose, rough and brittle, the kind of stone Ferdinand thought that the sea would pull apart and wash away before long. The jagged edges of the dark rock made a climb to the highest point seem perilous. It took several minutes, but the view from the taller of the island’s two peaks gave a view all around it. Ferdinand smiled as he caught his breath and scanned the horizon.

In the island’s middle, two water-filled craters continued to release vapour, but the rumbling of the past two days had fallen silent. The sea continued to bubble as though from the breath of a fearsome sea monster, and the rotten-egg odour of brimstone remained thick in the air.

It gave Ferdinand a boyish pride to be the first to stand on this rock, the kind he hadn’t felt since climbing the tallest tree, balancing on a high wall or climbing cliffs on the Sicilian beach when he was a young lad.

‘Look! Look at my island! You were too slow, I got here first!’ Arms raised above his head, he called out to the other fishing boats and yachts that drew in, hesitant and wary.

The journey took him hours to sail here from near Sciacca, a town on the Sicilian coast. Yesterday, after Mass, he and his family were on their way home from dinner at his mother in law’s house. They heard the eruption that forced this little island from Neptune’s depths to above the waves. The eruption was sudden - a loud bang - like the cork popping from a wine bottle left too long in the sun and it sent echoes around the coast.

They looked out to sea. Nothing could be seen from the shore but they had felt tremors in the earth that rattled the pans and glassware for days beforehand. Maybe a new Mount Vesuvius could be upon them, or an eruption like the ones at Santorini. They all heard the stories of pillars of smoke that turned day to night, snowstorms of ash and rivers of liquid rock. It was too late in the day to investigate then, Ferdinand had the family with him, and of course it was the Sabbath. 

Today he set sail at dawn, in the rough direction he heard the bang. On the way he saw the bubbling in the sea, and crossed himself at the dreadful imaginings of some gigantic serpent coiling in the impenetrable black depths of the water, breathing deep with terrible lungs and watching his little boat from below. More ominous still, he passed sardines, anchovies, hake, bream and bass, all the kind of fish he would catch for a living, dead and spoilt in the water. They were often so numerous they were like a silvery carpet on the water’s surface.

The wafting stench of brimstone hung in the air and at times made it hard to breathe, but a column of smoke came into view. It looked like a ship was on fire but at the foot of the smoke was the island.

‘Ferdinand! Ferdinand’s island!’ he called one last time to the other boats with a laugh and a grimace at the thick air. He scratched his mark onto the topmost stone, swallowed a mouthful of wine and anointed a splash on the bald rock to christen it.

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