After years alone in a cell, an aging prisoner is released without explanation, expelled into a great city now utterly unfamiliar to him. Broken by years of brutality at the hands of the prison guards, he scrounges for scraps, sleeping wild, until a museum curator rescues him from an assault. The museum has just opened its most controversial exhibit: a perfect replica of the marshes, an expansive wilderness still wracked by conflict. There the man had spent years as a doctor among the hated and feared marshmen, who have been colonized but never conquered. Then Marshlands reveals one of its many surprises: it is written in reverse. The novel leaps backward once, twice, returning to the marshes and unraveling time to reveal the doctor’s ambiguous relationship to the austerely beautiful land and its people. As the pieces of his past come together, a great crime and its consequences begin to take shape. The true nature of the crime and who committed it will be saved for the breathtaking ending—or, rather, for the beginning.
Early on, he kept a journal, but there was nowhere to hide the paper scraps. They disinfected his cell once a week. He returned from the yard to find every crevice blasted clean, the floor puddled with bleach.
The cleaning left a residue on the walls, so he took to writing in that alkaline dust, tracing letters with a burning fingertip, knowing his work would be scoured away at the end of the week. Still, it was work. Erasure was the fate of all written words. Books eventually moldered and disintegrated. Even the ancient shards he used to collect on hunting trips in the marshes eventually succumbed to sun and sand, the maker’s marks becoming fainter and fainter until they vanished.
Nevertheless, he observed; he wrote. The point was to get it down. His writing was a source of amusement to the guards, who called it “finger painting.” They came in and altered words as he was writing them, changing “hunt” to “cunt,” or “cape gun” to “rape gun,” adding cartoons, sometimes even caricatures of him.
There was one guard whose caricatures were uncanny. It was a marvel that crude lines could be so pregnant with truth. He spent many long nights contemplating the artistic superiority of that guard, a prankster who once pissed in his open mouth while he slept.
He came to prefer the caricatures to his own ramblings. He encouraged the guard to draw more, but it only led to beatings. He lost several teeth to the man’s talented baton.
Then one day he returned from a work detail to find the walls of his cell gleaming with paint. The chemical odor frightened him. The cell, which had been painfully bright before, was blinding now. The new paint dried into a kind of armor. Cleanings no longer left a dusty residue. Now it was impossible to write; therefore, there was nothing to be said.
He missed his old walls. What is this? he asked, tapping the paint with a long fingernail, but instead of answering his question, they told him that his parents were dead. Or perhaps they said his parents were dead to him.
In any case, it was time to go home.
He had no idea what they were talking about. His cell was his home. He’d made up his mind to die there. There was a kind of symmetry to it. This sunbaked country had stolen his life, and he was looking forward to stealing it back. He was saving bits of thread toward that day, secretly braiding a slender rope.
They made him shower and comb his hair. Afterward, they sat him in a room with a stack of magazines and told him to read up on current events. Some of the magazines were crumbling with age, and even those were filled with futuristic wonders. He found himself lingering over photographs of food. Food and bathrooms. Dinner tables had gotten to look like beds heaped with full- bodied women; bathroom fixtures shone like weapons of war.
They handed him a paper bag with his effects. Beetles had gotten to the wallet, which crumbled in his fingers. There was a watch, but no watchband. He didn’t recognize the watch; its face was cracked, the time frozen. He tried to give it to one of his minders, but the man shook his head and handed it back.
His uniform had somehow survived, but the voluminous trousers swallowed him up. Years of unrelenting heat had rendered every ounce of fat from his body. He was ashamed of his skeletal hips, of the fabric at his waist that could be gathered in two fists. The generous cut of the jacket— his old size!—felt like a rebuke, another measurement of his fall.
Someone wanted the uniform as a souvenir, so he traded it for clothes more in keeping with his station, a scorched cook shirt and torn houndstooth slacks, discards from the prison laundry. It was a good trade. He wasn’t a doctor anymore, much less an officer. He was a disgrace; even so, he wished he could wear the uniform, if only as a hair shirt, a badge of shame.
On the way to the airstrip, they told him the black hood was for his own protection. There had been death threats. In the same breath, they told him not to count on government protection.
The amount of anger in their voices astonished him. These were young men. They would have been children at the time of his trial, perhaps not even born.
He was led up a ramp and into the hold of a cargo plane, where they chained him to a metal chair by the waist and ankles. The tight blindfold underneath his hood provided for total darkness; the deafening roar of the engines made his isolation complete.
During the flight, the changes in pressure reminded him of one of his first guards, an amateur boxer whose favorite punishment was a cupped blow to the ears. Still, he was glad of the earache, despite the pain. The way it came and went was proof that time wasn’t standing still.
A day passed. Perhaps two. There were stops for refueling. At each stop, a few soldiers would bribe their way onto the plane. As the thunder in his ears gradually died down, he’d hear camera sounds, followed by laughter and loud talk as bills surreptitiously changed hands.
Being spoon-fed and toileted were familiar humiliations, but there was something new: they wouldn’t let him sleep. Whenever his head would start to loll, the butt of a rifle would descend on his toes or his instep, sometimes even his fingers. Keeping him awake was something they did with great enthusiasm. Perhaps they were following orders, but he suspected it was simply sport.
He knew the journey was over when the plane lurched to a halt and his minders burst into patriotic song, keeping time on his head with a roll of papers. When the singing was done, he signed and initialed the papers blindly, wherever they placed his hand. Then they undid the chains and dragged him to the bottom of the ramp, where they made a ceremony of removing the hood and blindfold.
Even with his eyes shut tight, the brightness was overwhelming. He was forced to his knees and made to kiss the tarmac while they posed, one by one, for pictures. After that, they freed his hands and walked him to the terminal through a haze of atomized fuel and dust.
They hired a cab to drive him downtown, strapping him into the backseat as if he were a child. He was given an envelope and told he was offi cially a free man. One of them reached in, slapped him playfully on the cheek, and warned him not to misbehave. Then the cab pulled away and he was on his own.
He was curious about what had changed in the capital, but not overly curious.This wasn’t his city anymore. What mattered was that the cab was warm and no one was there to hurt him. He was asleep before they reached the airport gates.
The cabbie drove until the money ran out, then helped his uncomplaining passenger onto a park bench with pale blue slats. He’d never seen anything like those slats, which had shallow whorls like fingerprints. Even though the whorls were identical from slat to slat, he liked that the bench had them. His own fingerprints were long gone, casualties of a plumber’s torch.
The bench was restful. It didn’t occur to him to get up and move. He was waiting for someone to tell him what to do.
Commuters began to fill the park. He’d forgotten what his own people looked like, how they flowed like milk on the footpaths. Their flesh was firm, their teeth correct and bright.
And such wealth! A dowry on every wrist. Some of them talked into their jewelry; others merely addressed the air in front of their faces. Had they always been so talkative?
The things they carried still served a first purpose. A newspaper was for reading, not fire- starting. A tote bag was for dry things, not game birds, slick with blood.
They strove. No one strove in the marshes, in that mind-emptying heat. Civilization may have started in hot places, but it ended up here, where there was winter, where ice crystals skewered the eggs of dormant pests.
He worried about being recognized, but no one really noticed him. He supposed he understood. Sunlight seemed to pour right through him. There was very little left of himself.
Eventually he let himself be swept along by rush- hour crowds. Young men in suits barreled past him. Their raw ambition was magnetic. How he wished to be a midge on the eyelid of one of those serious young men, drinking from an optimistic eye! He’d been a serious young man once, a believer. He’d yoked himself. Now he was unyoked.
He wasn’t simply drifting, although that’s surely what it looked like, the random wanderings of an old derelict. Perhaps there was an element of randomness to his path, but he moved toward certain people, just as he shied away from others. He followed a sad young woman with a bruise on her neck; he retreated from a police officer with bristling hair. His path was not straight. Like a starfish that can’t fight the tide, but nevertheless swims as best it can toward the next meal, he was swimming, too.
He walked for a long time. Eventually he came to rest on the plinth of a huge bronze sculpture. The sculpture was abstract, but the plaque read THE TRIUMPH OF GENERAL CURTIS. A tribute to his famous general. He said the name out loud, once, twice, conjuring the pale, lifeless face. Then he pressed his cheek to cool granite and fell asleep thinking of war time.
A security guard woke him. It was morning again. His pockets had been gone through. The envelope was missing. He asked the guard whether it made sense to file a report. The guard laughed, then prodded him with the tip of a polished boot.
Time stretched before him like an empty waterway. He decided to visit certain touchstones, places that had mattered to him or to his parents. Sometimes he couldn’t remember which was which. For instance, seeking a particular diner and finding instead a gleaming office tower with a lobbyful of marble, he felt a pang, but later, drinking the dregs of an abandoned cup of coffee, he realized he’d never seen the missing diner with his own eyes. It had been a place his father talked about.
The tower had a prominent water feature. He hadn’t tasted the water, at least not yet. There were public drinking fountains in the capital. The city was still hospitable to that small degree. After all of his time in the marshes, a machine that produced cool potable water on demand was something of a miracle.
Imagine, waxing poetic about the miracle of a water fountain! He could sit for a long time thinking about the ramifications of such a machine.
He feared seeing people he knew from happier times, but still he craved it. They would be old now, whereas the capital was a city of youth. Occasionally, a tour bus full of retirees would come to a halt near him. He’d make out the ghosts of gnarled fingers pointing at him from behind tinted windows: Look, isn’t that him? But no, it can’t be. Wasn’t he hanged? These fleeting identifications made him feel less substantial, not more. Being almost recognized was worse than being recognized outright. People saw a faint similarity to the man from those old headlines; therefore he was not that notorious man. Therefore he was no one.
He understood their confusion. He looked different now. He’d lost hair to the prison diet, something he predicted at the beginning. He actually said as much to the prison doctor. Food like this will make me lose my hair. The doctor had smiled indulgently and said, Perhaps you’re right. But you should have thought of that before.
Prison hadn’t erased his youthful vanity completely. He’d been a handsome man once. Women had told him that, and it was still with him.
Shopgirls on their lunch break offered him bits of food as if he were a bird. A large stinking bird, but still one of God’s creatures, nevertheless a life to be cherished. They were too skinny, these shopgirls. They seemed to hold it as an immutable law not to finish their lunch. Food was to be suffered briefly and then scattered to the animals: the pigeons and squirrels and the toothless old fellow in the park whose courtly manners were so comically at odds with his dereliction. He never rushed to take it, no matter how ravenous he might be. There were rules, even for the fallen. This was the capital!
Sometimes they left him a pastry. How he loved the buttery layers, the texture of sugar crystals on his tongue. One bite, and he was back in his childhood bakery, his mother holding a cookie hostage for a kiss on the cheek. His father standing apart, disapproving. Boys were supposed to be outside playing, not crowding their mother’s knees under a café table, clutching a stuffed crocodile. Or perhaps not a crocodile, maybe a snake, some creature from the marshes. This was long before he’d even heard of the marshes, but already its monsters dominated his imagination.
MATTHEW OLSHAN is the author of The Flown Sky, a fantasy for young readers, and Finn, a novel for young adults. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.