Journey to North Brother Island

Google may grant you directions to North Brother Island, but you cannot reach it following them, unless you have a boat or a pair of wings at your disposal. Having neither boat nor wings, I must visit it solely through images, for the sight of the crumbling buildings fascinates me.

The island is abandoned. I watch the rapacious vegetation as it swallows the old hospital, lost in a slow, furious, green digestion. The June sun naked and barbarous, untamable. There is the syrupy smell of decay, the sound of a million tiny gnawing mouths. “Typhoid Mary was confined and died on North Brother Island,” says my imaginary guide. He smells like dry branches and his face is smooth as the rind of a melon. Meanwhile, crows are winging from tree to tree through the forest-leaves’ arterial light, leathery leaf litter squishing under my boots, gnats clouding the air like the souls of wicked children. “Furthermore,” my guide informs me, “here mentally unstable adolescents were incarcerated”. He fishes an animal mandible from beneath the layer of detritus, picked clean as the crescent moon chiseled into the sky. The Bronx is only a mile away, you can just hear its vehicular mutterings, as though it were the angry neighbor on the other side of your bedroom wall. Its proximity only makes the ruins look more ruined. Vines thick and muscular as an octopus’ tentacles clamber through the gouged-out windows. In the distance, a great heap of clouds seems static as a mountain, white as a blind man’s eyes. The warm light lulls you. If we trespass in these buildings, who will be watching us?

In the kitchen the kettle whistles, a noise formed when steam passes through narrow apertures. Little sounds come through the narrow apertures between sentences, like the scuttle of lizards through the aisles of the church on North Brother Island. According to Wikipedia, after the steamship General Slocum erupted in flames, most of the 1,000 passengers that perished in the blaze washed ashore on North Brother Island. It was the worst maritime tragedy in the history of New York City. A historian knows how to spook us with the grisly details, stories that keep us awake at night. We fumble for the button that will unlock their meaning. I would like to know why the City now refuses to go near the place. My guide won’t tell me, although the writing on the wall of the men’s dormitory whispers to us, as if through a small aperture in the wall of time “help me, they are holding us here against our will”.

There is nothing written on the walls of my apartment, they are faultless white, like the spirit of an animal, or a machine. I can feel the earth beneath me gurgle, as if it were a stomach, ready to eat the flesh from my bones. Will I become a briar, a berry to dangle, red and luscious, for a beast?

Down the staircase a lone shadow steps, and the bile of bad memories floods the hot room of your mouth.

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