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The Net by Chris Hill



Fragments at first.

A curiously wrought coracle, wizened leaves from a mysterious shrub. Detritus washed up along a familiar foreshore signifying an elsewhere.

The Olandii cast a pale shadow across the Net, alluding to their presence without revealing themselves. They play hide and seek with me among the search engines and directories for days. Lost in the insistent static of news groups, we haunt each other through electronic B roads. Every now and then a glimpse: a headdress of implausibly bright feathers, the notion that your father was once your child.

A footnote here, an abandoned link there, yet slowly, uniquely, as though through mist, Oland appears in all its miraculous detail, strung out on this glittering panel like the autopsy of some strange sea creature. Yet still alive somehow, existing here in this vast inclusive mind; this developing, enveloping memory.

Oland is an island, misplaced among thousands of other islands, among tens of thousands of leagues of opaque, shifting sea.

An entire land which has been missed off the maps of the world, skipped over by the canons of human knowledge.

How could it be? A nation, its peoples, flora and fauna, culture and tradition, how could this huge and elemental thing slip through the all-embracing butterfly mesh of progress?

How is it that the citizens of Oland have never seen Madonna naked, or dreamed of tossing a ball through a hoop like Michael Jordan?

In a word, indifference. They care so little for what passes for civilization beyond the silver dream of their encircling reef that it has ceased to be. Ignore maps for long enough, their message seems to be, and maps will ignore you.

And yet Oland has not escaped entirely. Here it is, encoded in this vast tangle of disembodied information ready to be picked out piece-by-piece and reassembled into its whole.

A scrap here on the nationís indigenous creatures, transcribed from the long neglected babble of an 18th century seaman who washed up far-eyed and barely coherent after falling from the deck of a brig the previous year.

Top of the food chain, he tells us, is a hundred-and-fifty pound toad which barks like a dog and wrestles its unlucky prey to the ground Sumo-style before smothering it in toxic spittle. Fed up with finding their farm animals emaciated and lathered in goo the Olandii have tried at various times in their long and illustrious history to wipe out the Leth, both brown and grey, as well as their lithe and delicate cousin the red. Until they realised that by doing this they would be overrun by various other types of equally troublesome fauna who suddenly found the evolutionary path open for islandwide domination. A dwarf ape, snow white, with long fingernails which could give you a nasty pinch; several types of scuttling, scaly land-fish with sharp teeth; and the foot long maggot of the Sunset fly which, though tasty, let out bursts of flatulence which have the bony pong of burning hair.

So, in 1673, outside time, the Leth was made a ward of Plebum and statues were erected to it in town squares. Now if you see one on the trail it is forbidden to wrestle with it, pelt it with stones or otherwise test its patience. Instead, a neat bow and a polite greeting are required by state dispatch.

Elsewhere someone has attempted an overview of the geography. A crudely drawn map, stained by time, shows the island measures barely one hundred and seventy miles by sixty in a curled foetal strand, but, given these constraints, its geography is remarkably varied from the mighty stone pillars of the northern shore, like towers of ivory out at sea, past the sandbars and plains through the lush blue-green jungles of the inner hub. Then pastures on the rising ground to the Mountains of the Moon where it is rumored a lost tribe lives on lichens whose people will have nothing to do even with those who will have nothing to do with the world.

The map chances a baffled attempt at marking these high points and the inland areas of water.

But what of the people? Here we read a linguistic study of their tongue: limpid, unwavering, poetic in its very refusal to accept the idea of poetry. Elsewhere, tantalizingly, what looks like the remnants of a far bigger, now deleted, study of the Olandiiís daily routine. It describes them as an elegant people, long-limbed. They move like Falokas on the Nile, like wind-blown things. Their grace is such that few observers have ever noticed their colour, which is so neutral you cannot be sure whether they are black men or white men tanned by centuries of sun.

Couples on Oland mate for life like swans, though there is no equivalent of what we would call a marriage ceremony. If either partner raises a hand to the other in anger during their union they lose their status as a citizen and become a slave to the household, useful but without the rights and privileges of normal Oland life. There is no court of appeal except the heart of the other partner.

The Oland do not mourn departed kin--their bodies are forgotten like dead grasses, useful only to fertilize the next crop, their spirits will come again in the next child born to the family, so there is never long to wait until they are back again. That is why there are only 40,000 Olandii in creation; always were, always will be, though not all of them are alive at once.

When someone dies they hang around on the island waiting for a new body which needs them. Where else would they want to be? Your Olandii is afraid of nothing, not death, not childbirth, not the mighty grip of the grey Leth, only the possibility of losing the soft embrace of the silver dream and floating elsewhere and unwanted. So they stay in the orchards and on the trails. They walk the peaks of the Mountains of the Moon. If you see a dead person you wave, they wave back if they are not too busy, though they do not talk to the likes of the living, even those they love more than life.

Snow last came to Oland more than a decade ago, according to the web site which approximates the meteorological conditions in that area of assumed empty ocean.

A link takes us to diary jottings found on a lump of floating driftwood which describes how the young Olandii, those who had never seen snow in that lifetime, raced out in to the virgin powder where they voted unanimously to postpone lessons until the mountain tops were purple again.

The elders used the snowfall as a parable. Like all things from outside, they said, snow is not what it seems. It looks solid, you can shape it into bricks and build a wall to keep your Moogs from straying, but when you wake the next morning it is gone like it was never there and the Moogs are scatted, prey to the terrible ministrations of the grey Leth, leaving just a few spit-stained furbags to mark their passing.

There are essays on social history, an overview of the customs, at least two separate accounts of the annual festival of stupid ideas in which the nationís young men join in fevered competition to act out the most brainless scheme, for sheer joy of seeing something odd done well.

Then there is the primitive land survey, an architect's drawing showing hut construction. There are transcripts of an oral storytelling tradition dealing mostly with what terrors lie beyond the dream. Tattoo designs, fishing tips, even a stab at describing some of the localised medical conditions which afflict the Olandii and their herbal cures.

When I found the first photo of an Oland tower my excitement was absurd in its intensity.

They started building the towers lost centuries ago. The why has been misplaced, perhaps even the Oldandii themselves have forgotten. But impossible chunks of stone were quarried from the foothills, then humped straining and grumbling for months across tracts of land littered with the dead consumed by the effort, then levitated who knows how into place before the carving began.

And such carving: quaint dreams and uneasy images of things which could not be. Fabulous and intense they pass beyond the boundaries of decoration and into the fabric of the stone; each piece tells the craftsmen what it wants to be.

And why do they bother hundreds of feet into the air where only a passing albatross could marvel at the workmanship?

Perhaps they were the notion of the first and greatest winner of the festival of stupid ideas, perhaps they were put there simply because they are a beautiful thing.

The towers are remarkable it is true. The Olandii themselves more wonderful still.

But the most magnificent, most splendid, most baffling thing about Oland is that, outside of the Internet, it does not exist.



Chris Hill is a newspaper editor in Gloucester, England. He's had some success as a short story writer including winning Britain's biggest story competition The Bridport Prize in 2001. He is currently working on his second novel and looking for an agent.


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