It was a blowy night, inky black with clouds obscuring the moon and stars of the sub-Antarctic sky. Inside the stout white cottage, the fluorescent yellow lights flickered and hummed at normal speeds, mostly. Everyone else had gone to bed. Five adult Americans whose brief residence had nearly doubled the population of the island.
I’ve written and produced a documentary film about our time here on Saunders Island, out in the westernmost Falklands. In an entire world of places, unique and beautiful and strange, it is singular. When John Kendrick’s ship Columbia arrived here in early 1788, the settlement at Port Egmont was already a decades-old ruin, abandoned by the British, destroyed by the Spanish by treaty.
The stones of foundations and wharves are still there. The cemetery for the British garrison overlooks the treeless landscape of well-grazed grass dotted with flocks of sheep, a handful of goats, a horse or two, and us. There are no native land mammals here in the Falklands. The last of the warrah (the Falklands wolf, miniaturized to fox-size via evolution from isolation and resources) died almost a century and a half ago. But plenty of birds. Plenty of penguins. And bats.
We had gotten used to the wind. I’d prepared everyone that May down there was like November on Cape Cod. But windier. Much. Gusts to 70 mph, not uncommon, were clocked the day before we arrived. Good weather is not judged by whether it is sunny or rainy, but whether the wind is blowing or not.
Not a stick of wood in the place. That’s why Columbia moved on to the perils of rounding Cape Horn late in the season rather than stay here. Trees can barely get a start here. Those we encountered anywhere were like those I’ve found just below the tree line on Mount Washington. Gnarled and bent over. Wild bonsai on a life-size scale.
It has been a long day and we had spent it visiting the penguin colonies at The Neck, a birder’s paradise. The spitting rain had stopped, the clouds parted and we found much of the visuals we had been looking for. Ending with the gruesome discovery of an old tri-pot from the days of whalers and sealers. In this case, it was a penguin pot. Four of the birds could yield a gallon of oil when boiled down.
Knotty pine paneling in the cottage reminded me of the three behind my grandmother’s place in West Chatham. Same paint colors in the dining room, same furniture in the living room. Same appliances. But the walls and windows were meant to withstand a real and regular pounding.
It was dark outside and in every room. The inside lighting overhead wasn’t kind and begged to be turned off. I was reading, making notes, preparing for our last day of filming. There was something out there in the darkness, I thought.
It has all the elements of a horror movie. Far, far, far from civilization – an island off an island off the end of the world. No WiFi, no phone at hand. Rain tapping on the window, wind swirling all around. What comes out of the sea, the miles of expanse of fields and marsh and kelp beds? I did not look out the windows because I did not want to see anything looking back.
I then realized, no, there was no bear out there. There couldn’t be. There was no lion, no wolf, no cougar. No wild boar or snake. There was, as was so obvious from observation and research, no danger here. Nothing was coming to kill us. Nothing was coming to even beg for food or shelter. There was really, really nothing out there.
But 21st Century Man reverted to Edgar Allen Poe, wondering what was knocking on my chamber door? My mind has invented a fear. Things had gone swimmingly well for the entire trip. It was almost routine, which was an unusual experience. Yet deep down I felt the need, when left alone on a dark night to invent a monster.
That’s a thought that has stayed with me over the years. The human compulsion to create monsters when things were fine. The evolutionary advantage is clear: those who are predisposed to being on guard, to be wary, will indeed survive then the Big Bad actually rounds the corner. The sanguine perish.
That said, it predisposes us to see monsters that are not there. Or, more dangerously, make monsters out of those with whom we disagree. The demonization of the Other is a trap we so often fall into, this past year especially. Sadly, I see these tactics employed by both ends of the political spectrum, often by people I see as otherwise generous of spirit. It’s the All Right-Thinking People Believe X school of thought.
It’s marked by a shrillness of tone, a professed sense of heroism coupled ironically with a woe-is-me sense of grievance. It is venal. It harbors no dissension. It grants no point of fact to the other, and is therefore silent in reply. It is suspicious and critical in private of those closest. It willfully misses the point and is intellectually dishonest. Its great target is not the monster on the other side, but the middle. The middle is the prize, like some hapless princess in need of liberating from the beast.
I don’t really believe in monsters. It is why horror movies don’t work with me. People are bad enough in real life. We’ve proved it. I believe in ghosts. Ghosts remind us what not to do.
A year later I was told by a psychic that I was being haunted by a woman on the island, one they thought was quite real. And that she didn’t stay there. Couldn’t make sense of it at the time.
As I finally got to bed, I thought who died in here? No, how many people have died in this house? Family members, farm hands, visiting hikers and birders – who died in this very room?
The morning was brilliant. The wind had died. The sun came out, and much like the odd November day here, this early May was brilliant. Warm sunshine had us shedding our parkas as we trekked from one side of the island to the other. A fog descended that night.
Without another thought to it, we packed and went to bed, ready to leave the following day. In the morning I was asked what happened in the dining room. The tablecloth had been pulled off, spilling salt shakers and such haphazardly like a magic trick done poorly. I had no explanation. No one did. We filmed it for half a minute, then focused on breakfast and waiting for our plane.
As well-documented already, our plane never came on Friday the 13th. The fog kept us from leaving for a whole day, and we missed the one flight home from the Falklands that week.
Our monsters tell us what is most scary in us. Ghosts remind us what not to do.