Weekend Long Reads

Dam’s Island

By Vida Adamczewski

To celebrate the ongoing exhibition, Sara Anstis: Small Works, Kasmin Books has published a limited edition run of an artist book featuring a newly commissioned work of fiction by award-winning writer Vida Adamczewski, complete with illustrations of all thirteen works on view in the exhibition. Learn more about the publication here. Sara Anstis: Small Works will be on view at 514 West 28th Street through Thursday, May 30, 2024.

Sara Anstis, Shoots, 2024

The island is used to strangers. We all arrive here as outsiders, washed up on the shore. As bodies lifted from the sand, or the pier, helped from the belly of a boat like slack puppets, our arms slung round the necks of women we have never met. 

When my eyes opened properly for the first time, it was Dam that greeted me, a bowl of steaming porridge wafted under my nose like smelling salts. The smell of the sea was so strong, I turned green, tipped my body over the side of the bed and vomited chlorophyllic bile onto her shoes. It’s dulse, she explained, as I trained my eyes on the tissuey flakes of maroon among the oats. She placed the bowl on the side table, and tucked the spoon into my hand. Patting my fingers as they closed gingerly around the handle, she said: It is good. That’s all I remember of my arrival. 

I had been on the island for two months when the storm hit. The rain battered the farmhouse, seeping through the walls so that brown spots appeared like tea stains. The wind wailed in the chimney, snuffed the fire, clattered the shutters. It stripped the trees, and tossed the birds’ nests on the ground. The ploughed fields were churned to a thick brown slurry. All of us who worked on Dam’s farm gathered in the kitchen. All of the dulse that had been drying on the walls outside, was now strung up in the kitchen on washing lines, like the leathery dried pigs ears we sometimes bought for the dog. The air was close with our breath and the concentrated smells of hunkering down. Our wet wool jumpers and sodden hair, the drying dulse, the thick smell of the oil burner and the wolfy odour of wet ash steaming in the fireplace. Dam served soup and tea, with the air of a school mistress preparing her class for an excursion. I looked up from my bowl and noticed that the others seemed to be tightening the laces on their boots, hitching up their smocks, and tying back their hair. When the rain petered off, we could hear it, retreating from the walls, from the door. The silence that fell was total. I held my breath. Dam raised her chin, closed her eyes as if in deep thought. When she opened her eyes again, she sniffed. A new, mossy smell had crept under the door. Let’s go.

I trailed behind the others, as always, lumbered with my inferior fitness. As I crested the dunes, and caught my first glimpse of the rocking sea and the great grey stretch of sand, I halted, wobbled and stepped back onto the firmer mud. Ahead of me the others descended on the beach like ants. Plucking seaweed for their baskets, they stooped and rose, stooped and rose, one after another in an oscillating wave, an industrious murmuration along the shore. I shook myself, plunged my feet forward into the sand, which sank beneath me, spilling my body forwards so I found myself running down the dune, breathless, unable to slow down. I streaked across the beach and only came to a stop, with a skid, right at the edge of the water. It pulled back, then came towards me again with renewed vigour, and sloshed my boots. Come on, Dam’s hand on my wrist, so my empty basket shook and bashed against my thigh. We gathered seaweed side by side for a time, picking our way across the beach. Dam was faster than I, her movements assured and focussed. I found myself too interested in the other debris the storm had left. The snapped driftwood and dead jellyfish. The panicked circular tracks of a rushing bird, spiralling towards a limp soggy body, its wing broken beneath it. I lifted up polished pink shells and white pieces of stone like bones, sneaking them into my pockets, their weight slowing me down further. I was examining a shiny black pebble, when the others began to hoot. They were away down the beach, drawing bodies to them like ball bearings to a magnet. Dam looked over her shoulder at me, and scowled. Come on, she said to me again, the second time that morning. I pocketed the pebble, hitched my skirt, and began to run pathetically, my knees buckling and my feet slopping in the wet sand. 

Sara Anstis, Seperation Anxiety, 2024

There were two bodies on the beach. Dam and the others formed such a tight knot around them that I could not see them in full, only one of their hands that trailed out from the group, between their feet. Its pale fingers limply tangled in the seaweed. I wondered if this is how I had arrived. 

Between us, we carried the two arrivals back to the farmhouse. I was judged too frail myself to support their actual bulk but I held one’s hand for a time, stroking its palm with my thumb, despite the strange rubberiness of their marshy skin. I was grateful for their arrival in a way as I was quickly relieved of my field duties and allowed to spend my time in the kitchen, preparing broths and porridges for them, and sitting dutifully on their bedsides waiting for them to waken, as Dam had once done for me. I was joined by one other nurse, a woman I had spent scant time with before. We agreed silently to take charge of one arrival each. Their skin was clammy and their chests phlegmy with swallowed seawater. In their sea fever they muttered about their boat being dragged under the waves by a creature. It had whiskers, a gaping red maw and white teeth like a dog. Its eyes, rearing over the edge of the fishing boat, at first they thought they were the top of rocks, glinting in the moon. Jet black, wet and shiny. They wondered if this beast had caused the storm and the thunder was its yapping, the waves stirred up by its beating tail. The other nurse had some trouble calming down her patient that first night, who tossed and turned and complained constantly of the sensation of hair in her mouth. She refused water and broth, spitting it at her nurse, and crying out, what did it want? My patient was much more placid and with a worn down spirit answered that maybe it wanted to pull the boat down to the sea bed, to drown them and feast on their bodies. Then responded to themself in a whisper. Maybe it was also caught in the storm, maybe it was also tired of swimming, spluttering, half-drowned. I hit it with an oar. Then they sank into a fitful sleep. 

Sara Anstis, Sand Path, 2024
Sara Anstis, Sand Path (detail), 2024
Sara Ansits, Sand Path (detail), 2024

When I went to bed that night, still smelling of the sea and the faint sour scent of bile, I put the pebble under my pillow. Many of my other, prettier finds seemed to have fallen out of my pocket through a small hole, a finger’s width, that I had not noticed. But the pebble was too bulky to slip through. I had picked it up because it was shiny, but now it was dry, its surface was a worn and salt dusted grey. Still, it had survived. 

After a few days of dedicated work, I was relieved of my nursing duties. The other woman would take charge of both arrivals now that they were sitting up in bed and taking food and water. There was no need for me on the fields either, as the others’ capacity had easily expanded to fill the hole I left and I discovered I was of almost no use at all. I knew I had been bad at the work, built for the city, too susceptible to colds and blisters and too nervous of animals, so I didn’t mind being sent away. I found ways to fill my day. I darned some socks, stoked the fire, and sat on the doorstep watching the dulse crisping in the sun. After lunch, Dam found me there and pulled me onto my feet. Come on. 

Dam led me to the van. She slammed the back doors closed and settled herself behind the wheel. I clambered into the passenger seat beside her and we drove into the village. She dropped me and the van off in the corner of the cobbled market square. Together, with a plywood board serving as a ramp, we offloaded the trestle tables and the shelves on their castor wheels and set them up around the van. She showed me how to use the scales, and where to keep the money. Then she bade me goodbye. She had business to attend to. In her satchel, I noted some posters emblazoned with a picture of one of the farm’s sheepdogs. 

Sara Anstis, Two Heads, 2024

I was surprised by how much I liked working in the market. I fluffed the herbs and primped the vegetables, polished the apples on my cardigan and arranged the most shiny ones on the top of the crates. I enjoyed serving the customers. It felt almost like normal life, like my life before. And when there was a lull, I read there, on my wooden stool, rocking myself as I turned the pages. When the sun began to droop, Dam returned to collect me. The next day, she came to get me from the kitchen first thing in the morning, and I manned the stall again. 

I noticed her on my third day. She was working at the fishmongers, only a few stalls diagonally across from us. At first I watched her from my tall perch. With a knife like a whip she sent glittering fish scales spinning into the sky. They fell on the cobbles with the delicate pitter patter of rain. I stretched blue elastic bands round bundles of parsley. 

At lunch, Dam came by to relieve me of my stewardship for an hour. I wasn’t hungry but I took the opportunity to walk around the market, trailing my hands over the other shops’ wares. I found her leaning against the fishmongers’ van. Her thin white apron was streaked with blood and ink. She had the glazed, slightly milky eyes of encroaching cataracts. Her irises smudged into the whites. I asked if I could stand beside her and she smiled. A crow near us began to pick at the fish guts that were strewn over the cobbles, teasing the intestinal strings into fine maps. She crouched down and, with the beak of her hand, began to point at different clots and white rings of fat. She told me she could read the future in them like sailors read the sky. I asked her whether we would be friends. She looked into the bloody mess, looked up at me and smiled. Yes. 

So we were. 

Sara Anstis, Fishmonger, 2024

After Dam had collected the van, we would walk together from the market down to the beach and as far along as we could before she got tired. She got tired, quickly, like me. Breathless and dizzy. We sat ourselves on rocks to rest. Sometimes I swam. She would strip down too but not venture into the water, though she encouraged me from the shore line, whooping. She watched me splashing and bemoaned how before her injury she could stay in the water for hours. She had the lightest limp and it gave her the weighty grace of an approaching bride. One foot pulled slightly behind her, dropping her body to one side, a twist in her hips, like she was in perpetual curtsey. Standing naked beside her, I noticed that she had no hair below her forehead. Not even eyelashes or eyebrows. I was fuzzy as a kiwi. Still she did not shiver at all, even in the biting wind. To impress her I pretended not to be cold either, though my lips turned blue and betrayed me. Once, I invited her back to the farmhouse for dinner, but she declined. Instead she produced oysters from her basket and shucked them effortlessly, tipping one and then another into her mouth. She offered me one and I accepted but it stuck in my throat like a tonsil stone and I spat it up onto the sand. After that, every evening she brought some mollusks for me to try. Each time I had to taste them – cockles, mussels, razor clams – and each time I spat them out.

Sometimes she came to sit beside me at the vegetable stall. Here I noticed the differences between us. My fingernails were always lined with green, the wrinkles deeply ingrained with a patina of dirt. Her hands were spotless, though they smelt like fish. Her breath smelt like seawater and fish guts too. In turn, I became aware of the scent of soil and leaf mould in my hair. It made me smell like I was already dead, a buried thing. 

Sara Anstis, Woodwose, 2024

It is an unwritten rule of the island that no one speaks about who they were before they came here, or where they came from. Maybe the others don’t remember, I’ll never know. But memories of my before often floated into my brain. Perhaps I still had a touch of sea fever. Maybe that’s why I was so weak. One day the memories were very insistent, so, when she and I were shelling broad beans, I felt compelled to tell her something about my other life. I told her I was pregnant when I came to the island and she seemed to understand, though I’ve learnt the concept is alien to most of the other people here. Here, there are no babies. No one has been born on the island in years. The population is replenished by the arrival of new people from the boat, or new people from the sea. To demonstrate the size of my baby, I held one of the shelled beans against my midriff. Gone now though, taken by the water, I said and dropped the bean in the bowl. She picked it back up and turned it in her fingers. Still such a thick skin, she said, and used the sharp point of her nail to unsheath it again. She examined the naked legume with its small coiled tail, so like the beginnings of a spine. We shelled the rest of the beans like this too, removing them from the pods and then from their leathery jackets so they were tender and bright green. 

Sara Anstis, Cat and Broom, 2024.

That evening on the beach, she presented me with a spiky purple-black sea urchin. These are my favourite she said, and I offered her my tongue so she could feed me. It slipped down with ease. Salt and sea and something like butter. I gulped. I saw then that my heart was in her hand like that sea urchin, all armoured against her, still deftly shucked, the soft goo scooped out and eaten. It was then, my tongue still flicking round my mouth in search of that taste again, that she told me she had lost something precious on the beach near the farm house during the storm. Her leg was too bad to walk all that way and she wondered if I could look for it. What kind of thing, I asked. She shrugged. But how will I know I’ve found it? She sighed, raised herself unsteadily from the rock and started getting dressed again. Just look for something out of place. 

I searched the farmhouse high and low, rifling through the others’ possessions, and causing chaos in the pantry. I went to the beach under the pretence of collecting dulse, but actually combed the sand. I imagined I might be looking for a small object, easily lost, and precious. I thought maybe a ring, or a locket. I would even pocket some objects and bring them to the market, but as I went to present them to her, my confidence would be knocked out of me by some unknown force and I’d bottle it, turning red and breathless with shame as I did each time I choked on a mollusk. I am not sure if I was imagining it, but I thought she was going off me. Her eyes were duller than usual and rarely locked with mine. Sometimes she was too tired to even walk to the beach in the evening and I would climb reluctantly into the van with Dam, nose pressed to the glass as we pulled away. 

It was one of those days when I heard the news. Dam kept slamming the breaks so I was thrown forward and had to brace myself on the dashboard. She beeped the horn, holding it down so that it seemed to grow in strength, pushing violently at the thin membrane of my eardrums. What is wrong, I asked finally, emboldened by my ringing ears. No one ever questioned Dam. She pulled over abruptly, so the van’s wheels screeched on the road. We were on an exposed hard shoulder on a rising cliff, right at the edge of the island, a thin streak of rocky beach below us before the great swell of the sea. I expected her face to be full of thunder. But when she turned to me Dam was as pale and quiet as the moon. 

Sara Anstis, Burdock, 2024

One of the arrivals was pregnant. These were uncharted waters. No one arrived with a baby intact, just as no one arrived on the island with clothes, or wallets, or, once the sea fever had cleared, any memories of how they got here. All the people on Dam’s Island were strangers, to each other and themselves. 

The remaining nurse, Dam explained in a troubled whisper, had noticed that the foundling’s stomach was distended. Thinking nothing of it, she had changed their diet to try and relieve the bloating. Still, the stomach remained turgid. Then a distinctive pulse. A kick. Dam had been summoned. She felt the stomach and, without knowing how she knew, she knew there was something alive in there. Because pregnancy was as strange and distant a concept as the mysterious sea dog the arrivals had described, she did not feel she could tell the others. She drove me to the market. She spent all day pacing on the beach. I took Dam’s hand in mine and said I had some knowledge of these things, from before. Admitting I retained memories from then was risky and I spoke in the hushed tones of conspiracy, like I was offering her drugs or pirated DVDs. I awaited the sting of Dam’s disapproval and censure. But Dam only nodded and I noticed her lip wobbling and her eyes flicking from side to side like a lost child. I saw then for a second how young she was, how like I had been in the doctor’s office taking the news like a prophecy of death. 

Dam reinstated me as a nurse. I pressed my ear to the arrival’s belly, listening for a heartbeat. I could only hear the whoosh and gurgle of fluid. I creased my brow and tried again. Dam brought the pregnant arrival plenty of dulse porridge to fortify her before labour. While she ate and they spoke, I’d stand by the window, look out over the fields to the beach and think about my friend from the market. I wondered who manned the farm’s stall now, and if she went swimming with them instead. I hoped she did not think I had given up on looking for her lost possession. I was eager to return to her, to explain. This was one thing I was glad I knew about pregnancy; it ends. Soon I would be back with my friend. 

When the end did come, it was not as I expected. The arrival squatted in the bathtub, growling. Out of her came something I did not recognise. At first I thought it was a knot of seaweed, like the head of a bullwhip. Or a tangle of hair. When we scooped it from the water, I realised it was more like a puppy, but it was lifeless, limp. It weighed very little and seemed hollowed out, as if it had not developed bones, or guts. It reminded me of the bird body I had seen on the beach, and a shiver of auspice rattled through me. The arrival did not want to hold it. She seemed relieved that it was not of her. And once it was out, she recovered quickly from her sea fever and took her place in the fields. 

Sara Anstis, Unfolding, 2024

Not knowing what else to do with the strange skin, Dam pegged it up on the washing line with the dulse. We looked at it together, straining to recognise it. These tentative quests into the before gave Dam headaches. Though similar in colour, size and shape, flapping beside the dulse, the skin was easy to spot. It was like it glowed with its strangeness, with its being out of place. 

That is why early the next morning I stole it down from the line and put it in my pocket. Climbing into the back of the van, I hid myself beneath the cabbage leaves and returned to the market. I found my friend cradled in a camping chair by the fishmongers’ van. A milky scum coated both her eyes entirely like abandoned cups of tea. I put my hand in hers, let her sniff my palm which smelt reliably of parsley, dulse and soil. You’re back. I have something to show you. I carried her to the beach with me and set her on a rock. I reached into my pocket. It was empty. I splayed my hand in the pocket so it was fully stretched, in case the skin was hiding in a corner. My finger jabbed through the pesky hole. Sorry, I must have dropped it.

She mewled like a hungry kitten and rolled over so her back faced me. I asked if I should carry her back and she shook her head. Her disappointment this time was undeniable, it slapped me in the face like a wet fish. 

Bristling with failure, I walked back to the market. The stalls were packed away, the square clear and the van gone. I began the long walk back to the farmhouse. When I arrived, the van was parked outside, the back door open and many of the vegetables were still in their crates waiting to be unloaded. I lifted out a cabbage and tossed it behind me. Another, then another. Underneath them, curled in the bottom of the crate was the sly skin. I lifted it out. It was impossibly silky, so it seemed to shift and wiggle like it was alive. It moved like it was made of ink, of lycra, of kelp, of the cloth for cleaning lenses. I thought of her, her body wasting, drying out on that rock on the beach. 

Sara Ansits, Waders, 2024

This time I wrapped the skin around my pebble, fixing it with a blue elastic band. This way, it could not slither through the hole again. 

With this done, I ran straight back to the beach. Night was drawing in with the tide. I found her on the rock, just as I had left her. She was so still, I thought she might be dead. I shook her gently. I whispered in her ear: I have it. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew it was hers. She roused, her lungs crackling as she levered herself up to sitting. I placed it in her lap. She stroked it tenderly. Then with my help, she stood up. Help me undress. I did. She stood shimmering, naked in the moonlight, silver as a rippling beam on the sea itself. She scrunched the skin up like tights and stretched it effortlessly over her body like a furry wetsuit. It fitted her like a glove. She rolled her shoulders, swept her arms down to touch her toes. Let’s swim, she said. I removed my clothes and we got into the water. She was indeed a strong swimmer, her leg injury no longer troubling her. With just a few strokes she was metres ahead of me. She plunged her head under. When she surfaced again, her eyes were clear and wet like my pebble had been when I first found it. She encircled me with her long, slick haired limbs, and licked me all over in thanks. Her whiskers tickled my neck and ears. She disappeared beneath the waves. The next time she surfaced she was far away, just a silhouette against the shining water. 

I waded back to shore and there Dam was waiting for me. She offered me a piece of dried dulse. We stood beside each other, chewing and looking out. Another storm was mounting on the horizon. I took her hand. What strangers will it bring? 

Sara Anstis, Flanked, 2024

Sara Anstis (b. 1991 Stockholm; lives and works in London) was raised on a small island off the Canadian west coast and draws and lives wherever she finds good light. She uses sensuous soft pastels and oil paint to build worlds that set the stage for explorations of subjectivity, mythology, and ecology. These themes are woven together in her images alongside a plethora of otherworldly elements—strange creatures, surreal landscapes and plants—by which her figures lay claim to desire, for better or for worse. 

Vida Adamczewski is an award-winning writer from South East London. Her lyric play, AMPHIBIAN, was commissioned for the Play Mill Festival in 2021 and had a second staging at the Hannah Barry Gallery in 2022 raising funds for abortion providers in the UK and US. Vida received the UEA New Forms Award 2022 for AMPHIBIAN. Her writing appears in The London Magazine, Mslexia, Document Journal, Ambit and Vittles. Vida’s debut collection of writing, Amphibian & Other Bodies, was published by Toothgrinder Press in November 2023. 

Installation view of Sara Anstis: Small Works, Kasmin, New York, 2024