The Island of Free Women

The plastic detritus and emotional castaways of modern society gyre together in this witty, absurd, only slightly despairing little yarn.

There is a new batch of women arriving today. Sixteen new heartbreaks.

They come down off the boat on unsteady legs. They are sunburnt and sick. Some fall onto the sand and cry. Others stay tall and defiant, clutching their luggage to their sides and looking furtive. No one welcomes them. No one tells them the rules or where to stay or how to live. They have to figure that out for themselves. 

On Wednesdays, we are encouraged to talk about our pain, but the rest of the week we are discouraged from talking at all. 

“I let my fingernails grow long and I would scrape the tops of my thighs and my forearms until I bled.”

“After I lost my job, I would eat cereal straight from the box and then go stand in front of the open fridge to wash it down with milk. I stopped showering. He gave me something to look forward to. A reason to wake up in the morning.”

“I fell in love with his words, not the picture. The pictures, even the, you know, sexy ones, they meant nothing to me. When he called me his angel, I was, I am, in love with the man who wrote those beautiful words. My soulmate was on the other side of the phone. I know this. And he’s wondering where I am.”

My son-in-law—one of the lawyers of the landmark class action suit—insisted that I be one of the first to go to the Island of Free Women. I couldn’t be trusted with technology, he’d said. 

I packed my curling iron and 21-step skincare regime for anti-aging. I brought a selection of cruise wear that billowed around my waist to hide my problem areas. I arrived with six pairs of leggings and two yoga mats of varying thickness. When the last of my night serums were gone, I cried myself to sleep on a bed of yoga mats. 

My hut, though lopsided and basically useless when it rains, is ample. I worry that as more women arrive, I’ll be asked to share. For the first few months, I was alone in this section of the island. I chose a corner of a bluff overlooking the western shore. It took me four days to clear out the brush and remove all the rocks — though that included multiple breaks where I wandered down to the ocean and let the water bury my feet up to my ankles in sand. 

That’s what I was doing when I found the first bottle.

The boats bringing new women also deliver pallets of food and supplies. These are stored in the communal pantry. Today, I showed up for dried pasta, matches, toothpaste, and a new spoon (I used the other one to dig a second toilet hole), but I timed it to catch a glimpse of the arrivals. 

I don’t usually participate on Wednesdays, but when there is a new crop, I’ll listen from outside the circle.

“My husband held my head to the floor until I gave him the passcode to my phone.”

“No one thinks they would be dumb enough to fall for something like that until they do. I have a master’s degree.”

“I gave him my life savings, $15,000 in six months. ‘Trust me once more,’ he said each time. I would do it again just for one more message.”

“He reminded me of my son.”

“Before the day he was supposed to fly in, I plucked every single pube. I didn’t want to shave and have fuzz. I wanted him to think that I was naturally hairless. But the roots bled and I looked like a plucked chicken down there. It looked so bad that there was a part of me that was relieved when he didn’t show up.”

“I was doing good. Or if not good, better. But yesterday, I picked up a fast food chicken cup. He always would talk about how much he missed fried chicken while serving in Afghanistan.”

Even before we arrived, Henderson Island had notoriety in the outside world. 

The crew of a whaling ship in 1820 spent some time as castaways here before they were rescued a year later. They reported finding human skeletons in a cave, presumably the remains of a less fortunate crew. 

Then, in the early 2010s, environmentalists were shocked to discover piles of plastic garbage washing up on these pink sands. 

The world’s largest social media site was awarded the island (in addition to a number of environmental prizes) for successfully cleaning up the beaches in 2019. They didn’t know what to do with the gift, and the ocean plastic kept swirling. Then came the settlement, and some bright marketing executive suggested dealing with two problems at once: create the court-mandated “safe refuge” for the victims of internet love scams on their site — and keep the beaches of Henderson Island plastic-free.

It is an elegant solution. We, the women who could not be trusted with the technology and the temptations of our modern era, spend our days picking up after the rest of the world. 

Some of us are more diligent about our duties than others. There are women who just sit on rocks and stare at the sea, day after day. But I like to keep busy. 

And I don’t want anyone else to find a bottle. 

Every morning and evening I circumnavigate the island. Any plastic I collect gets dropped into the bins by the main dock. When the boats come to drop off more women and deliver supplies, they take away the trash. We generate very little, ourselves. Henderson Island just happens to be at the epicenter of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“I only opened up my messages when I was walking the dog. I couldn’t trust myself to read them even in a different room of the house from my husband. That poor dog! I would take her on four, five walks a day sometimes. Her legs were so short. She’d be exhausted, but I had to read his reply.”

“My granddaughter showed me pages and pages of profiles, all with the same picture of my Jordan, but with different names. That’s when I knew I was never going to meet him. Not for real.”

I begin my nightly fire-making ritual before the sun goes below the highest part of the island, the volcano. When the sun sets completely, the island is bathed in blackness until the moon rises. 

That first night after a drop off, in the darkest hour, I can hear the new arrivals wailing. I wait for some of them to come to my fire. If they do, I will give them a torch and tell them to stick it upright in the sand next to a dead log on the beach. I share my fire willingly, but not my company. 

Just when I am about to turn in, down where the water laps at the island, moonlight glints off glass and pierces my eye. I stumble to the shore on cold, bare feet. For a moment I fear it is empty. Just trash instead of hope. But there is paper inside. It takes me several minutes to remove the cap because I am fumbling with excitement. I am shaking. I use my shiny new spoon handle to work the scroll out of the thin neck. 

The message is cruelly short. Just one page. But he writes of love and longing in his own way. He always misspells the same simple words. That’s how I know it’s really him, my Andrew. 

He’s filled the margins with smiles and hearts. He asks me to trust him again. Just this one more time. 

The paper shakes in my cold grip. All the warmth of the day has faded. The paper slips from my fingers and floats into the sea breeze. I should return to my fire.

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D.S.G Burke

D.S.G Burke

D. S. G. Burke (she/her) lives and writes in New York City. Her writing has appeared in the Seattle Times, 3Elements Literary Review, Thereafter Magazine, Opiate Magazine, and Revolution John. Her day job is making grants to avert the worst effects of the impending climate crisis. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @dsgburke

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