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The Archipelago

Rating: G

In the remote southern seas there is a cluster of islands. The weather is fair, the land is fertile and the ocean is rich with fish. Each island is inhabited by a different race of people. Although physically they look alike, you can tell them apart by their styles of dress, their distinctive dialects and even their most casual gestures. A cursory tour of the archipelago reveals that each island has its own unique form of architecture. If there is any similarity between them, it is that each race builds in a manner that is stubbornly at odds with the immediate environment. On rocky hillsides there are wooden huts and in wooded valleys, towns of brick. Arid uplands are irrigated and planted with leafy gardens, whereas, on fertile plains, the parks are paved with stone. On windswept outposts people live in tents but in the most sheltered regions they have stout, resilient cottages.

Despite their differences, the islanders coexist peacefully. There is rivalry over certain fishing waters and sporting prowess but it rarely amounts to more than a few heated exchanges. Distances between the islands are not great and the sea is calm but people prefer to stick with their own kind and mixed marriages are rare. For the most part, the only contact between the different races is for trading purposes.

At the centre of the archipelago, perhaps in the most favoured spot of all, lies an island that has been deserted for many generations. There is no obvious reason for its abandonment; it has good soil, plenty of freshwater, two natural ports and a climate no more or less suitable to the raising of crops than its neighbour's. But no birds circle overhead and no lights come on in the evenings.

It has not always been like this. Long ago, it was inhabited by farmers and fishermen much like everywhere else in the archipelago. They sailed brightly painted boats and were known for being excellent divers. Their beaches were rarely empty and even at night there were often fires in the dunes and people in the water, enjoying a swim. An offshore beacon on the north side, which warned sailors of a treacherous ridge of rocks, was tended by the islanders, who never let it go out. Goats were kept on the upland slopes, their bells tinkling as they grazed. The people were fond of seafood and sun- bathing, were enthusiastic winemakers, reluctant housekeepers and notoriously bad at ball games. They married early, died late and generally kept themselves to themselves. Things could have gone on like this forever, but everything changed when they decided to dynamite the cliffs and began building the first wall.

Now their island looks very different from the rest; darker, taller, silent. Giant loops of barbed wire lie rusting in the surf. The cliffs are sheer, blasted smooth and bristling with broken glass. Above them a great fortress extends the precipice way beyond its natural height. Slabs of granite, quarried relentlessly from the once volcanic heart of the island, make up the base of the wall. Smoothed flat by generations of wind and rain, they glitter in the sun. Above them the rocks give way to brick, darker in colour than the stone foundations and topped with ramparts, unbroken and lowering.

It looks as if the wall was meant to end there but as soon as it was finished a second circle of battlements began to rise from the centre. This one was interspersed with watchtowers, which, as far as anyone knows, were never used. When it was finished, yet a third ring of defences was built, slightly narrower than the one before, so that from faraway the island resembled an enormous wedding cake. Caged in scaffolding, the beginnings of a fourth wall are just visible at the top but unlike the rest, its edges are jagged and crumbling.

The surrounding islanders cannot say for sure why the wall was built. Nobody was planning an assault of any kind, nor was anyone powerful enough to pose a threat with enough strength to justify such a fortress. There were no rumours of an attack from overseas, although the people admit that while the wall was under construction, they had grown nervous. Perhaps the builders had heard of a new, formidable enemy that they had not. They felt uneasy, as if they too should be taking special precautions but against what, they had no idea. As the work intensified, so did their alarm. But they had crops to plant, cattle to feed, children to care for and pleasures to seek. Despite their bewilderment, the people of the archipelago got on with their lives and watched in wonder as year after year the fortress grew, until the low clouds grazed its upper reaches and its blackened walls seemed to swallow the sunshine; a broken crown in the deep blue sea.

Gradually the island fell silent. First, trade petered out and then ceased altogether. Onlookers muttered that with so much time spent on the wall, the builders simply had nothing left to sell. Next, the fishing boats stopped sailing from the ports, then the hearth smoke faded away and only a sandy haze was left hanging in the air; a death rattle of dust. Last of all to disappear were the sounds of building; the echo of brick on brick and the continual whine of pulleys.

Nobody can explain why the wall was started but there are many theories as to why it was never finished. Some say that so many had perished during its construction, that no one dared halt the work and thereby admit that it had all been in vain. Others claim that the builders simply ran out of materials and since they had scooped so much rock from the centre of the island, there was no land left to plough. There are those who believe that the bricks near the top of the wall are made from the baked bones of labourers who dropped from exhaustion further down. Or perhaps the islanders grew so used to the work that they just couldn't stop themselves. But one thing is certain, the prophesied threat never arrived and the people at the centre of the archipelago had, quite simply, bricked themselves in.