Friday, August 6, 2010

Four

Mimi set up the tent single-handedly by following the directions printed on the side of the bag.  She went inside and changed into a bathing suit, blue, two-piece, constructed of very small triangles connected by strings.  Until now it had been solely a bedroom accessory.  Adrian was seated on a plastic cooler, his back against the rampart in a shady corner, tapping away on a laptop.
            Carefully she tiptoed across to him.  She was not being stealthy.  The exposed surface of this island consisted of a series of tilted limestone plates, whose angled knife-edges protruded from the ground every few inches.
            She said, “Put that away and come for a swim.”
            “Not now.  I have to finish this chapter by Friday.”
            “Your battery won’t last.”
            “It will if I’m not interrupted.”
            She sighed, spun around and tiptoed a way.  She turned to see if he was looking. He wasn’t.  She continued across the treacherous landscape. All the promotional pictures of Bermuda showed pink beaches.  They didn’t warn about the sharp parts. She took a towel from a bag and went to a spot where it was easy to scale the wall, thanks to paired foot-holes that had been excavated in the distant past. She thought of the soldiers who had stepped here three hundred years ago.  She even knew some of their names, because they had carved them deeply into the rock in remarkably elegant script. They must have had a lot of spare time.
            Much of the far side of the rampart was sheer cliff, 40 feet down to the water.  She walked to where the seaward slope was more gradual, more hillside than cliff until near the bottom, where it dropped away quickly.  Here more excavation had been done, stairs that descended to a little ribbon of beach.  She picked her way down carefully. The sand felt good after all that stone. She entered the water and waded out up to her knees.
            The heat, the humid air, and water as warm as a bathtub caused her to think of home, her first home, on the other side of the world, where she and her sister had learned to swim.  She touched the water and tasted her fingertips. It had been a long time since she had been in salt water.  She remembered being about four or five, riding on the back of a man, a man who came and went in her early years.  Her arms were around his neck as he swam out from shore into deep water. He sang and laughed as he swam.  They called him “Tito.”  Uncle.  Tito Romeo. Her mother denied it, but Mimi suspected that Tito Romeo was her father. She had not seen him since they emigrated.
            She stepped forward into deeper water, watching the bottom, making sure it was sand, not rock.  She remembered warnings about stonefish.  Were there stonefish in Bermuda?  The water rose up around her, compressing and lifting her.  She found herself breathing rapidly, sweeping her arms and kicking her legs faster than was necessary.  “Calm down,” she said to herself.  “You’re from an ocean island. You know this.”  She found her form and swam out, but not far.  There would be plenty of time to swim.
            Stepping back into air, her buoyancy draining away, also called back childhood, long days on beaches on whichever island Tito Romeo landed his boat, but there was also a difference. Philippine sand had been grey and gritty.  Tea Kettle Island sand was very fine, almost icing sugar, and beige, not really pink.  It stuck to her skin, gradually scuffing off as she climbed, step by step, until she was at the top.  She scrambled onto the rampart through a cannon port where she had left her towel neatly folded.  It wasn’t there.  Now it was 30 feet away along the top of the rampart, still neatly folded. Adrian remained far across in his corner, head down, typing.  She leapt up and walked to her towel, glancing from the corner of her eye at the dense forest that fringed the downhill border of the former fort. Anyone could be hiding in there, watching, crouched among the tall palmetto trees and the bushes that grew between them. She wondered if someone, if the American with his binoculars was watching, had moved the towel so he could get a good long look.  She picked it up, flicked it open and wrapped it around her waist, but then changed her mind, unwrapped it and leaned way over to dry her hair.  If he wanted to look, he could.  She had seen more of him.  Fair is fair.  She then strolled along the curve of the rampart, dropping down into and then climbing back out of each cannon port along the way.  She stopped above Adrian and said to him, “Was the American biologist up here?”
            Adrian looked.  “Where? He shouldn’t be here.  I’m pretty sure we agreed to that.”
            She pointed across the site. “Over there, by that far stretch of the wall?”
            “I didn’t see him.  But from this vantage point I probably would have missed him unless he ventured far out from the path and ran around in a circle or committed some other insanity.  God, I hope he has his clothes on by now.  Besides, I’m pretty focused on this.” He meant his book chapter. 
            She folded the towel into a square and sat cross-legged. She was silent for a while, watching a pair of longtails dance in the wind. She looked down at Adrian. He had been crunching away at his chapter since the big black guy was here more than an hour ago.  The big man had basically scolded Adrian, and Adrian was not one to take a scolding well. When he was upset, he busied himself with work.  He was obsessively revising a file that probably didn’t need it.  He needed a different distraction.  She moved to the edge of the wall to stretch out a leg and muss his hair with her foot.
            “Would you please cut that out?”
            She shifted further forward, almost slipping off, and tried to stick her toe in his ear.  That would be different.
            He grabbed her ankle.
            “Ow!”  She pulled it back. “You hurt the sore spot.”
            “Well, whose fault is that?”
            “Come up here. I want to show you something.”
            “What?”
            “What you haven’t seen enough of lately.”


Derek would take the day off.  He deserved a break in this place that thousands of people spent millions of dollars each year to visit, certainly not to work in the hot sun, reeking of sardines.  He would relax the first half of the morning and later stealthily check out the archeologists.  Caught by the appeal of intrigue, he had accepted Michael's suspicion that there was something not quite right about their presence.  He also wanted to get another look at the "real little sweetie."  Furthermore, he had no longing to continue his behavioral experiments, which so far had been disappointing.
            Using stiff plastic sheeting, he had built six enclosures at the edge of the palmetto grove.  He captured rock lizards using the simplest of pit-fall traps — plastic one-liter soft drink bottles with the neck and top two inches sawed off, inserted into holes dug with his collapsible infantryman’s spade —  baited with the most foul-smelling thing Michael could find at the local grocer, New Brunswick sardines in tomato paste.  He ran experiments to see how the lizards established territories. Do big ones chase off small ones?  Do residents chase off newcomers?  He varied the numbers of males and females, of residents and non-residents, of big and little ones.  He did numerous combinations and permutations, expecting to see behaviors similar to American skinks, in which males were very territorial and would wrestle enthusiastically, given the opportunity.  Who won the bouts depended on who was bigger, or more experienced, or had stronger jaws, or was there first, or already had a harem, or some combination of these.
            But what had happened during his first eleven days of experiments with the Bermuda rock lizards?
            Nothing.  The lizards refused to confront each other, no matter who was placed with whom.  In fact, they huddled together like scared children, blinking their big black eyes.  They didn't even flick their tongues to check the identities of their enclosure-mates.  Large and small, old and young, male and female, stranger and neighbor, they cringed en masse, watching Derek.  This was not what Derek wanted to see, because in scientific terms it constituted a lack of results, an absence of data.  It was impossible to describe aggressive behavior when there wasn't any.  No matter what question Derek could ask, the answer was "No," or "Nothing," or "Not applicable."
            His experiments were not only unproductive; they were disconcerting.  The cowering skinks made him feel he had become an unwilling guard at a concentration camp.  One by one he took the inmates back to the spots on the island where they had been captured and watched them slither away.

So he returned to the spout, the highest ground along the northern perimeter, carrying picnic supplies, water, and binoculars.  Below him the island was a large bowl containing a fragrant, wildly-tossed salad of shaggy palmettos, compact, shiny-leafed olivewoods, musky, scrubby sage, and dry, sprawling buttonwoods.  Interspersed among these were the prickly pears and Spanish bayonets, and the bleached, contorted skeletons of the extinct cedar forest.  Somewhere on the far rim were the archeologists, out of sight, almost out of mind.
            He spent the morning dozing lightly, on and off, flushing away tinnitus with the slosh and hiss of gentle summer waves on the rocks below.  Several times between half-dreams he opened his eyes a crack to view, unfocused, tropicbirds flying above turquoise water.  He had, the day of his arrival, decided that these birds, the "longtails," were the most beautiful animals he had ever seen.  Tirelessly circling, flapping fast, they gleamed platinum-white above, with the foreign blue of the sea reflected on their sleek bellies.  As if to prove they were a deluxe species, far above base-model seabird, they sported black dazzle-painting — stripes through their eyes, and diagonal slashes across the tops of their wings and back.  When they swooped or turned sharply, their most striking feature was fully displayed.  The tapered tail would fan, and two extravagantly long middle feathers, as long as the birds themselves, would waver like flashing sword-blades.
            Often the birds flew in pairs, wings beating synchronously, one just above and behind the other, almost riding its tail.  They called intermittently, with voices a bubbled mixture of mirth and anger, rising and falling with the breeze.  Sometimes, when they came close to Derek on his crag, it seemed they were calling to him, or laughing at him.

After several hours with the birds, hungry and almost contented, Derek's attention was drawn to the far end of the island, up to the rim of the bowl, the rampart.  As if another person’s strong hands had taken hold of his binoculars and jammed them to his eyes, to show him what he really needed to see, which is to say “the very fine bottom,”  he found himself witness to a very unwelcome sight, and ten times nearer than had he viewed it unaided.
            "Hell!" he exclaimed.  Thoughts of lunch and longtails plunged into the sea.  He ran back to his tent and dug within his backpack for his notebook.  He tore out the first empty page, pulled off the pen cap with his teeth, and then scribbled,





Dear Roy:

I hate hate HATE HATE HATE archeologists.






Unimaginable to Derek, below Adrian and Mimi on the rampart, a blue-tailed baby rock lizard had made its first, feckless emergence from the crevice where it had hatched and snuggled for a week with its weary mother, one of three born to that old girl.  It crawled up toward the warming sun and rounded the top of the wall, surfacing a scant three inches from Adrian's nose.  Eyes closed, neither Mimi nor Adrian saw the baby skink.  The little lizard saw them, however, and reflexively, brainlessly, leapt backward.  It fluttered to the water and landed with the tiniest of splashes, like a noodle slipping from a spoon into a bowl of broth.  It floated motionless, then was sucked down the pharynx of a hogfish where it was drowned, ground, and swallowed with merciful swiftness.


No comments: