In some places the birds fly and screech endlessly. In some places the soil, that the millipedes tip-toe over, is nothing but years upon years of accumulated seabird guano. For fear that my feet would break through the soft ceilings of shearwater burrows in the guano-soil it was necessary on Aride Island, Seychelles, that I stepped only on rocks and roots, which seemed to support the entire island. If it weren’t for the island’s stabilising ancient boulders and the roots of Pisonia trees, the whole place would surely crumble into the Ocean, under the weight of millions of noddies, terns, shearwaters and frigates. There is a large banyan tree on this island and I used to swing on its vines. All rocks and leaves beneath it are white with excrement, and all day the vast space below the branches and vines echoes with the chatter and squawk of birds.
A few minutes’ walk from the village into the forest there is an old wooden building known as The Lodge. It is a creaking wooden thing, populated by dust, darkness and spider webs. Aride consists of the village, which is about the size of a football pitch, and the Lodge: The rest is all trees, boulders and birds.
At 10pm, long after the sun has set, I am asleep in the Lodge and it is quiet outside. The wash of waves echoes through the island and Sooty Terns squawk, but the sound is dim and soothing. By 3am my dreams are full of strange figures and sounds. Witches and shapeless creatures shriek and dance about me. They are carried by an endless breeze, occasionally presenting themselves from out of dark spaces before retreating and becoming invisible. I wander fearful and confused in my dreams but there is no space free of these figures and sounds. In the waking world, the space around the Lodge is now saturated with the nocturnal activity of birds. Wedge-tailed and Tropical Shearwaters return from fishing to burrows dug among the island’s roots and boulders. From their burrows, hungry chicks moan and wail like lonely ghosts. I drag myself out of sleep and lie on my back with my eyes open attempting to make sense of the great noise which filled my sleep and now continues to resonate within the thin, wooden walls of the room. Gradually I realise the noise is from the birds.
The moonlight lands on the path to the village, and dresses the edges of the trees. Beyond, the forest is dark and deep. I stand on the porch, bare but for a pair of shorts, feeling the salty breeze and attempt to focus on the dark patches of ground where these noisy birds are landing laden with fish for their chicks. The noise from my dreams continues but now it occurs here and there – in my dreams it was ubiquitous, as if the noise was water and I was suspended in its depths. Now, awake in the breeze and moonlight, a wail from my left builds then fades away, and the forest is quiet for a moment. A rattle and screech flies invisibly in front of me, greets me, then melts away into the forest. I tune in to the dull sounds of the birds shuffling along the ground as they make their ways via the inviting calls of their kin to their black burrows.
Stepping from the porch, I move tentatively along the path into the forest in the pitch-black shadow of the trees. Slowly, I walk towards a patch illuminated by the moonlight penetrating a gap in the canopy. On reaching it, I see that I’d been walking through a writhing path of forest crabs and giant millipedes, which had scuttled away from my footsteps. Heading for their obscure burrows, birds land and run before me, colliding with each-other, with roots, and with me. The forest is alive and I can only just make out the shapes of rushing birds and arthropods on the dappled forest floor. Ghosts wail and witches emit rattling screams. I am standing still now and the crabs and millipedes have lost their fear of me. They crawl over my feet or nibble at the skin of my toes. I can all but make out the esoteric rejoicing of the hungry offspring as fish-bearing parents find their burrows. Intermittently, there is relative quiet and my ears pick up the ongoing crash of the waves and the little clicks and knocks made by the articulating joints of crabs scuttling across the path.
At length, I say to myself, “Darragh, why are you wandering barefoot in the forest at 4 in the morning?” So I turn around and find my bed. When I wake again, it is morning and there are no more strange sounds. The forest floor is calm. Waves crash and sooty terns circle in the sky above the island’s edges.
Later, days or weeks after the crabs nibbled my toes, I was lured to the northern edge of Aride. I was drawn to cling to the brow of a cliff and to breathe down on thousands of swordsfish, each about 8 feet from sword-tip to tail. They passed eastward for hours and for hours there were great iridescent flashes erupting from their flanks as their swords swept through the water to stun prey. I was lured there by some shapeless, enormous thing.