Tea Kettle Island is a story about a biologist, an archaeologist, two long-dead soldiers, a Love-god, a treasure chest, a hurricane, and a lizard on the verge of extinction. It is also the name of a 9-acre teapot-shaped island located half a kilometer off the eastern end of the runway of Bermuda's international airport.
Note: This is a work of fiction. No character is meant to resemble any real person at any stage of existence.
WARNING: There is a small amount of "adult content," in this story, but not enough that I thought the whole blog should be flagged as such.
Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Derek Coulter was lying face-up on a weathered limestone wall, envisioning his leap. In high school he had not been good at gymnastics, but had mastered one vault, the simple one in which you placed your hands smack in the middle of the horse and threw your legs to one side. If you landed upright on the smelly blue mat you threw your arms smartly in the air. This was what he hoped for, except for the jubilant ending, a leap smooth and dignified — please, not klutzy, a misplaced hand leading to a face-plant on the International Orange rail, followed by an uncontrolled bloody-nosed descent.
He had finished a day of catching, measuring and releasing skinks on small and rugged Tea Kettle Island, Bermuda. It had been a cruelly hot day, where humidity clung like hot, damp flannel. He was accustomed to the hot dry heat of western deserts, not this kryptonite. What had kept him going all afternoon was the thought of a 6-pack of Amstel beer that his sole contact with the outside world, Fisheries Warden Michael Spencer, had included in yesterday’s box of supplies. The cans had spent almost twenty-four hours submerged in cold water. Derek had placed them in a plastic bucket with square knife-holes cut around the base, and lowered them with a yellow nylon rope deep into the cistern in the middle of the island. For a reason he couldn’t understand, the water in that ancient cistern was unnaturally cold. It didn’t matter why that was. What mattered was that cold beer would solve everything, at least for a little while.
And now the remaining cans were beading wet, propped next to him. He was perched on the rampart, a stone wall eight feet tall and five feet thick that had been built atop a high and ragged cliff. It had been designed to shrug off anything the Spanish Navy could lob four centuries ago. That it had never been battle-tested was to Derek a shame. He would have liked to have seen a cannon-ball dent.
He turned his eyes westward, waiting for the sun to sink onto the lumpy mattress of mainland Bermuda, which was a continuation of his coping habit of sitting on his deck in the Berkeley hills, waiting for the same sun to sink behind the most glorious suicide machine in the world. Four beers in, he mused morbidly that it was appropriate he was studying a lizard on the verge of extinction.
A large airplane, white with a red maple leaf on the tail, materialized above the island and glided overhead, landing gear dangling, almost noiselessly dropping down, down, until its tires squirted blue smoke half a mile distant. The reverse thrusters roared, which kicked the ringing in his ears up a notch, as loud noises typically did.
Inside the jet people were feeling the tug of deceleration against their seatbelts. Two weeks earlier, Derek had experienced that same sensation, staring out the window at the pretty pastel houses with their stepped, whitewashed roofs. No doubt a large number of those on board were honeymooners, holding hands, beaming, mouthing, “We’re here!"
“Fuck off,” Derek said, and rolled back, adding to the dents in his skin. “There are too many damn people in Bermuda already.”
“Fuck off,” Derek said, and rolled back, adding to the dents in his skin. “There are too many damn people in Bermuda already.”
He chugged down the fifth can, belched, and lay down.
The stone wall was hard and rough. He removed his sunglasses, pulled his t-shirt over his head and folded it into a small square. He positioned it carefully and again lay down. That solved half of the discomfort. The wall beneath his tailbone remained hard and rough. What the hell, it was hot and he was alone. He stood up, dropped his shorts and folded them into an attempt at a cushion and crouching, strategically positioned them beneath his naked buttocks. He replaced his wrap-around sunglasses and after readjusting the t-shirt pillow, wormed onto this slightly more comfortable surface and closed his eyes. He would rest his eyes until the setting of the sun. His stomach growled, causing him to wish he had eaten a proper meal. Since his wife left he had been letting things slip, had been eating poorly and drinking plentifully. He thought of the upcoming year without her, the desperation job he’d had no choice to accept, and said, “Please God, no,” to no one in particular. Within a few minutes he had passed out, the final can warming in his hand.
Two hours later in purpling light he was sound asleep, thus didn’t notice a 2-masted motorized sloop pulling a small aluminum dinghy as it sailed past, taking a path that would suggest it was headed for the lee side of the island where there was a level rock ledge suitable for the offloading of humans and supplies.
"Cheerio," the Admiral called. He was old, but the kind of old referred to as “spry.” He had strange facial hair, a broad moustache that tapered sideways to connect with his sideburns so that the bottom half of his face seemed left behind. He was standing spraddle-legged at the stern of his motorized, forty-two-foot sloop. It was an extraordinary boat, constructed from genuine Bermuda cedar, with decks thickly lacquered and buffed to brilliance. All instruments and fittings were authentic brass pieces from the early 20th Century. A sharp-edged Union Jack fluttered behind from a diagonal pole. Mimi Villanueva, who had just disembarked, thought the sloop pretty, but that a speedboat with large outboard engines would have been more practical.
Adrian was the tall man standing next to her. He said, "Right, now let's get this show on the road, shall we?" He strode across the beach to the path that disappeared into the trees. He had taken the hurricane lantern, leaving Mimi to choose from the big pack, the cooler, and the tent. She rubbed her eyebrows, and then squatted to wrench her arms through the straps of the pack. She stood and centered the load without flipping over like a ladybug, but her first two steps sank her feet deep into the soft sand and she needed quickly to splay her legs to keep from pitching forward.
"Adrian!" she called, into his torn footprints, "Where are you going?" He was already out of earshot, making a beeline for the old house up by the rampart.
Derek Coulter’s first reaction to being prodded in the small of the back with a stick was to incorporate his pet cat, Roy, into his dream, in which he was lying on a grassy hillside, watching himself walk down into the grove of towering eucalyptus next to the biology building. Roy was trying to settle down on top of him, what he always tried to do.
He swatted at the stick without waking up. "Get lost, Roy," he said.
Roy clawed him again, this time at the base of his neck.
"Speak to me. Who are you?"
Well this was wrong. Roy was in many of his dreams, but never talked because that would have been cheating. Roy was not clever enough to cheat. Plus he probably wouldn’t have been speaking with a British accent.
"You, wake up!”
Derek jerked awake in purple light, again under attack from his nemesis, the Berkeley eye-gouger, the bastard who had ruined his life, who had arrived on the island as he slept and now was brandishing a stick, trying to gouge the other eye. Fortunately, this time Derek was wearing wrap-around sunglasses. His mind cleared partially, enough for him to make use of the only weapon at hand, his last unopened can of beer. In high school he had been a pitcher on the baseball team. He had been pretty good at that.
The pack on Mimi’s back had become part of her. It couldn’t be shaken off. The straps bit into her shoulders and rubbed against her collar bones. With each step, the bottom of the frame banged the soft back of one or other knee, trying to topple her. She didn’t know exactly where she was going, or where Adrian was, but, expecting him to backtrack and meet her, continued laboring up the path, head down, wide-eyed for roots and rocks. Twice she was jabbed in the arms by very sharp-leaved plants she couldn’t see to avoid. She paused at a quarried limestone slab to prop the pack and wipe dampened strands of hair from her eyes, and above her pulse heard Adrian shouting. At who, her? Bracing smooth heels against rough stone, she stood and wobbled to the top of the slope. She saw Adrian first, down on one knee, holding his head. Then she saw a second man, a naked man, jump down off a wall, holding something heavy, a pair of binoculars. We was about to swing them at Adrian. “Stop!” she yelled.
The beer can, after caroming off the stick-man’s head, had skittered across the rocks, spirally out foam from a leak. Derek kept track with his ears as it rolled downhill. He hoped he would be able to retrieve it before it bled out. His eyes were steady on whoever it was with the stick. This British-voiced person was not his eye-gouging nemesis. Derek had no clue who this person was. In addition, a short, dark-skinned young woman was lurching forward, yelling something. Inexplicably, she toppled backward. Something had grabbed her from behind.
Mimi freed one arm and then the other from the backpack. Ready to run, she shouted, "Adrian, what's going on?"
The stick-man was back upright, but had been separated from his stick by the beer can. Derek’s mind was ineffectively abuzz, the combined effects of adrenalin and alcohol and a sudden realization of pantslessness. There. He heard the beer can clunk into something and stop. Good, it didn’t go too far. With any luck the leak would be directed upward.
The stick-man ran to the young woman, held her arm and demanded of Derek, "Who the hell are you, and what are you doing on this island?" He was rubbing his forehead.
Derek had leapt back atop the rampart and was doubled over against the darkening sky. He had his t-shirt, but the shorts were missing. "Where the hell are my pants? Where the hell are my pants?" he said. He yelled, "Would you please just back off till I find my pants?"
They backed off a little. "You're an American," said the stick-man.
Derek jumped down and approached, holding his t-shirt like a bull-fighter's cape. He felt the young woman's stare and stopped to hastily tie it around his waist. He said, "You’re not allowed to be here. This is a nature preserve."
This information seemed briefly to confuse the newcomers and had the effect of calming things down. The stick-man and the young woman looked to each other and the woman shrugged. The stick-man said, "It's also an important historical site. I'm here to take charge of an archeological dig."
This claim held an unwelcome ring of believability. Derek said, "On whose authority?"
"Look," said the stick-man. "I'm Dr. Adrian Lyon, Curator of New World Archeology at the Royal Ontario Museum."
Derek knew where that museum was. He had borrowed specimens from it. These people were from Toronto. They were probably on that plane with the maple leaf. He said, “You don’t sound Canadian. You sound British.”
“It doesn’t matter what I sound like. People like me work all over the world!”
“Yeah I know”, said Derek. “But you felt it necessary to point out that I was American.”
Then he said, “You should try to calm down. You seem upset.”
“You threw a can of beer at my head!”
“You came out of nowhere and jabbed me with a cedar branch. Those things are hard as iron.” He rubbed his neck. “ What was I supposed to do?”
“For one, you’re supposed to be wearing clothing.”
“Why? I wasn’t expecting company.”
The young woman asked, "Ah—have you guys stopped fighting? Is this situation more-or-less okay now? ”
The men looked at her and said nothing.
“Good,” she said. She turned to leave.
Derek said, "Watch out for the Spanish bayonets, the yucca-plants with the spiky leaves."
She said, "I already know about ‘dat," and then headed down the path. Her accent was partly, not entirely, Canadian.
Derek asked, "And she would be your assistant?"
"My doctoral student. She'll be the teaching assistant for our course."
"In conjunction with carrying out a dig on this island, we’re teaching a course on field archeology."
This was very wrong. Derek said, "No way. As I said, this is a nature preserve. You folks have landed on the wrong island.”
Adrian said, "No, we haven’t, but you seem to have. You’ll need to go back to your campsite, if you have one, and gather up your belongings, if you have any, and be prepared to be removed in the morning. This island is off limits to everyone except us."
Derek took one last glance at the wall for his pants. They weren’t in its shadow. They must have fallen off the other side, and into the sea. He said to Adrian, "I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be here. I have authority to be here, from the Bermudian Fisheries Division. I’m a biologist, here to study an endangered species, the Bermuda rock lizard."
Adrian said, “I doubt there is such a thing.”
“It’s a species of skink,” said Derek.
“A member of a large family of lizards, the Scincidae. Bermuda’s only endemic terrestrial species is the Bermuda rock lizard. This island is one of their last remaining habitats.” It was difficult to sound or feel convincing while not wearing pants.
“I’ve never seen them. I camped out on this island as a boy. There are no lizards.”
“There sure are. Anoles too.”
“Where are you from?” Adrian asked.
“The University of California.”
What? This guy wanted to engage in institutional dick-sizing? Fine. He gave a 10-inch answer. “Berkeley.” No Canadian institution could match that.
Adrian tilted his head and squinted at Derek. He said, "I'll consult with the Bermudian authorities first thing tomorrow to have them find you another island to do whatever it is you think you need to do here."
Derek said, “Wrong. Tomorrow I'll show you the lizards, and then I’ll get the Bermuda Fisheries Warden to take you and your students to another island. This archipelago is packed with crumbling old forts."
Adrian seemed about to say something, but then waved his hand and said, "We’re losing light." He wheeled around and disappeared down the hill, into the palmettos.
“You owe me a beer,” Derek said. He found the can and popped the top to drain whatever might be left. It wasn’t worth the effort. As he walked back to the rampart to drop it in with the other empties in his backpack, he said with a pompous British accent, “Look, I’m Dr. Adrian Prick-face, Curator of Marching Around with a Pole up your Ass at the Royal Ontario Museum of Go Fuck Yourself.” He found his flip-flops, and climbed onto the wall for one last look. Yes, his shorts had fallen into the sea and drowned. “Fucking hell,” he said.
Once he felt his new enemy had had a sufficient head start, Derek headed down the darkening path. He almost tripped over a nylon bag, which had been discarded by the young woman, the alleged doctoral; student, who was seated on the limestone slab a little farther along and seemed to be fiddling with her sandal strap. He was mistaken. She was pulling at a spine from of a prickly pear that was stuck in her ankle. He had suffered similar injuries from the ground-hugging cactus. Once the spines penetrated the skin, any motion anchored them deeper. Their needle-fine tips, once they hit moist tissue, curled and held tight. What made them even more difficult to remove was their short and smooth shafts, providing almost nothing to grip. They hurt like hell. She glanced at him. Derek wordlessly strode past, but then felt ashamed. He backtracked and knelt in front of her, mindful of the hang of his shirt. "Let me help," he said.
"It’s a thorn. It won’t come out. I can't pull it hard enough." Her voice was taut.
"Hold your leg still, okay?" He clamped her ankle with his left hand and slid his sunglasses up into his hair. He pinched the shaft. "You have to rotate them.” A twist of his wrist and it was out.
"Ow!" she cried and pulled her leg away, which sent him tumbling. The apex of his tailbone bounced off a limestone cobble.
She drew her knee up and across herself to examine the wound. He hurriedly flipped his sunglasses back down. "That really hurt!" she said, poking at the minuscule bloodspot.
Derek stood, wincing at his own pain. “It’s the only way,” he said. “Sorry, I should have warned you.”
She said, “No. It’s better now. Thank you.”
He said nothing and sidled away from her, mostly backwards. His left butt-cheek was in open air.
She said, “I'm Mimi Villanueva. I'm a graduate student in archeology at the University of Toronto. Adrian is my supervisor." She extended her hand.
He stepped forward and shook her fingertips. Their softness made him aware of his own hand’s roughness. He said, "I'm Dr. Derek Coulter." He rarely referred to himself as "doctor" non-facetiously, but the archeologist had set the rule for this island. "I'm a biologist, a herpetologist, from California, here to study the endangered Bermuda rock lizard."
"Oh." She smiled. “That’s very interesting. You’re an academic too.” Her teeth were bright, even through sunglasses in what little twilight penetrated the canopy. She said, "You pulled a thorn out of me. Some day I'll have to pay you back." The teeth flashed again. She was hugging her knees.
"Some day, like maybe tomorrow, you could push your supervisor off a cliff. There’s a good one back there, where we met.”
The teeth disappeared. She said, hushed, "That’s just him. He’s not always all that great with people. Forget about it."
Derek dearly wished for his pants. He said, "I want you to know I’m not generally a crazy naked person. Usually there’s nobody here, and it is hot, and so…” He continued, “I was asleep and he poked me in the neck with that stick. I was dreaming and I thought he was someone else, someone dangerous. I wasn’t even fully awake." He tugged modestly at the edge of his t-shirt, adjusting its position.
She said, "Don't worry. It will make for a funny story some day." She added, "You shouldn’t be embarrassed, you have a nice body."
His face became hot. He was thankful it was almost dark.
“I probably shouldn’t have said that.”
"Well, goodnight," he said.
They heard footsteps. Derek stepped back from Mimi as Adrian came upon them, carrying the cooler. He looked at Derek, then at Mimi.
"I had a cactus thorn stuck in my ankle," she said.
Adrian gave Derek a dirty look. Mimi gathered the tent and Adrian let her step past, and then gave Derek another dirty look before following her up the slope to the rampart.
The herpetologist reached down and his fingers found the ragged cobble that had injured his tailbone. He could see the pitch, high heater, but didn’t throw. He squeezed the stone hard until he had made a moonscape of the heel of his hand.
Adrian and Mimi weren't having much success erecting their new tent. There weren't enough poles, or pieces of rope were missing, or something. It didn't seem to have corners.
"Can there possibly be such a thing as a spherical tent?" asked Adrian.
She let him carry on fruitlessly for a while, and then said, "We can sleep under the stars tonight. It's nice out." She couldn't remember ever having seen so many stars. She spread her arms skyward and spun in a circle, causing the universe to spin in the opposite direction. She inflated the air mattress with a foot-pump while Adrian continued fighting the tent, flipping it over and back, as if this would cause it to relent and reveal its secrets. Once the mattress was inflated she zipped the sleeping bags together, took off her clothes and burrowed into the fluffy, cool lining. "Oh Adriannn, oh Professor Lyonnn…" she called, to lure him from his latest foe.
He grudgingly gave up. He balled up the tent and hurled it into a clump of buttonwoods, and then looked down at her, in response to which she pulled the edge of the sleeping bag up to her eyes and fluttered her lashes coyly. He removed his shoes and shorts and joined her.
She rolled astride him. “Hi there,” she said.
“No, not tonight,” he said. “Not here.”
“No, not here.”
She rocked on him, but got nothing. She sighed and rolled off. “What’s wrong? Show me where the beer can hit you on the head.” She attacked his scalp with both hands.
"Don't be mad." She tickled him.
"I want to sleep, Mimi." And then she was staring at his back.
He didn’t answer.
"You are not helping," she muttered in her first language.
"English," he said.
She waited until she was sure he was asleep before saying her prayers, which were not in English until she got to the end. "Good night," she said. She opened her eyes. A satellite was creeping across the sky. It winked at her, and then it was gone.
At his camp at the other end of the little island, Derek plucked a pair of shorts from the clothesline he had strung between two ghost cedars and pulled them on. His hammock, slung between one of the old dead trees and a spike embedded in a mortared seam on the side of the redoubt, the most substantial stone defensive structure on the island, was swaying gently, beckoning. He rolled in. The sharp stick of the archeologist and the soft fingers of his student briefly fought each other in his head, but their argument dulled to irrelevance with the recollection that the big man would be here in the morning. The big man would make the intruders go away.
Then, as happened every night, Derek thought of what he feared was his future, of the place where he would be employed within half a year if something significantly more promising didn’t come along. His empty stomach hurt and he wished he had eaten a proper meal. He didn't want that job, but with his wife and her income gone, Derek couldn't wait around for something less like absolute hell. "Please God, no," he said to no one in particular.
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
Two men were perched on the wall of the rampart. One was kicking the heel of a boot against the stone. The other was hunched forward expectantly, in danger of falling off. They were wearing identical blue waistcoats trimmed with red and fastened with shiny gilt buttons, straw hats embroidered with gold and encircled with rose-colored ribbons. They were soldiers. Unbeknownst to them, they had died a very long time ago.
Their names had been Robert Murchie and Reginald Chambers, and they had been British infantrymen, brought to Bermuda in 1712. Five years later they lost their lives on Tea Kettle Island during the ceremonial firing of one of the 12-pounders up on the redoubt, close to where Derek was presently asleep. The fateful cannon blast had been the third of a three-gun salute to celebrate the successful return of one of Bermuda's large fleet of privateers. Cannon-firing was a much-enjoyed ritual, carried out so often that the young colony was usually precariously low on gunpowder.
In early Bermuda there was little public money to replace aging cannons, and many were seriously salt-eaten or in other states of disrepair. Thus the guns tended to be far more dangerous to those firing them than to any potential foe. In fact, only once in Bermuda's long history were shore-mounted guns fired in anger, and no casualties resulted on either side. This occurred in 1613, when two Spanish ships, allegedly returning to dig up a cache of buried treasure, were repelled by two cannon shots from Castle Island, a short distance to the southwest of Tea Kettle.
On the other hand, injurious misfirings of cannon during practices and ceremonies were distressingly frequent, although usually not entailing as spectacular a loss of life as befell the Tea Kettle company. Had someone sat them down and explained what happened (there were to be opportunities to do so over the next few hundred years), Robert and Reginald might have admitted to part of the blame. It had not simply been the fault of the salt-eaten gun. The eve of their demise, both soldiers had consumed a significant quantity of rum in celebration of a recent, completely unexpected acquisition of wealth. As a result of their hangovers, which felt about as miserable in 1717 as they did 292 years later, their performances as gunners on the morning of their deaths hadn't been representative of their true abilities. Each made a serious error. Robert, whose job it was to put the touchstick to the vent to ignite the charge, neglected to check if Reginald, whose job it was to insert the charge and wadding and pack them in place, had fully extricated the ramrod. He hadn't. His shaky hands had slipped from the shaft on the third and final stroke, and the ramrod was left protruding from the muzzle of the rickety old gun like the handle of a lollipop. As Robert stood rigid, hungover and proud, one arm bent in salute to the victorious pirate ship, he heard Reginald say, "Oh dear..."
The gun went off.
The ramrod flew end-over-end, far above the bow of the vessel, trailing a helix of blue-black smoke. The privateers gaped in amazement, then cheered lustily as shards of corroded metal and bits of Robert and Reginald rained down, decorating the turquoise water with variously-sized red and white splashes.
Robert and Reginald hadn't enjoyed being Bermuda troopers. The pay was miserable and the job earned few favors from the grossly outnumbered Bermudian women, who considered soldiers stupid and boorish. Life on Tea Kettle Island was harsh and boring, with only goats, pigs, rabbits, other equally dispirited men, and Bermuda rock lizards for company. Robert and Reginald made life bearable for each other by speaking privately of a shared dream. They intended one day to buy a boat, a sleek, seaworthy sloop, and join the lucrative Turks Island salt trade that was making other Bermudians so very wealthy. Their dream might have come true, save for their dramatic deaths, because two days before being blown to smithereens a miracle happened. As they were quarrying out a pit near the center of the island to provide limestone blocks for yet another reinforcement of the rampart, the ground gave away, revealing a small cave. Inside, lo and behold, was buried treasure, consisting mostly of Spanish bullion. It was late in the day, and to hide their breathtaking secret from the others they back-filled the hole. After dark, they retrieved the weighty bounty and hid it on the island in a place where none of their mates would ever find it. Soon, they reckoned, after working out a few details, they would be free from this rock, free from Bermuda, free from lonely, womanless boredom.
Coincidentally, the treasure they had found was the cache the Spaniards had returned to claim in 1613, leading to Bermuda's one and only instance of hostile cannon-fire.
But now, almost three centuries after their obliteration, they were still on the island, without a boat, and unaware the world had changed substantially. They were puzzled over the disappearance of the other soldiers. The rest of the company had vanished without a trace some time ago, a few hours or days or weeks. They couldn't be sure. Time seemed to have come all unbuttoned.
In addition, the island had become inhabited by spirits. Several times during the past few hours, days, or weeks — they couldn't be sure — they had seen a solitary figure appearing and dissolving in different places throughout the island. He was an unclothed man with unkempt hair who sometimes could be seen scraping in the leaves, and sometimes could be heard digging holes. He had been seen at the cistern too, which made them nervous. Whenever one of the soldiers called to him, he jerked upright, wiggled his fingers into his ears, and vanished into the thick blue air. Instead of eyes, the specter had a shiny band of brass across his face.
And now, just a few minutes or hours or days ago, Reginald had seen a beautiful girl, dusky and dark-haired, unlike any girl he'd seen before. She was dressed like a boy in knee breeches and shirtsleeves. When Reginald first saw her, she was standing in the middle of the clearing, rocking up and down on one foot. Then she turned and faced Reg and started pulling off her clothes, right in front of his jiggling eyeballs. As he gawked in fear and excitement, without saying anything she vanished too.
So Robert and Reginald sat waiting, hoping the girl would reappear. They were sincerely alarmed at the presence of spirits, but it had been a long time since either of them had seen a girl (it had been 292 years, but seemed like weeks or months), and they were willing to risk a scare for the chance of viewing the beautiful apparition.
Monday, October 30, 2017
Derek was at the El Cerrito Plaza, a 1960's indoor-outdoor mall in El Cerrito, California, whose primary clientele was grey-haired Caucasians who would pull up in slow-moving parade floats. He was waiting for his wife, Laura, in the Ladies' Shoes Department of Capwell Emporium, the plaza's blocky, windowless hub. She had headed over to the sales desk while Derek browsed among display tables at the periphery, trying to be inconspicuous while inspecting slinky reptile-skin pumps. He was curious what species had died for them, so picked up a shoe and squinted at the grain. He read the sole. Made in Malaysia. It had probably been a water monitor, Varanus salvator, smaller cousin of the Komodo Dragon.
The shoe sprouted muscular legs tipped with black, meat-hook claws. A razor-edged tail unfurled and cinched tightly around his wrist, and a head with long, flexible jaws unfolded from below. Strings of saliva stretched between teeth as it swiveled to bite.
Derek yelled, "Laura! Let's get out of here!" He whipped his arm in a circle to dislodge the thing, now entirely saurian. The claws tore gashes into his hand and wrist. "Laura! Where are you?" He was terrified. He couldn't see her.
"She's gone, she's gone, she's gone!" the monitor taunted in a screeching voice, "You’ll never know where!" The other shoes on the table had also transformed, were lashing their tails and lunging at him. The first sank its teeth into the webbing between Derek's thumb and forefinger, which caused him to wake up in Bermuda and flounder in his hammock like a porpoise in a net.
In dead cedar branches overhead a pair of kiskadee flycatchers was continuing the maniacal screaming from his dream, greeting the sunrise with piercing territorial calls.
Derek shook a fist and yelled, "Shut up!" Every morning these birds perched on a branch eight feet above his head, and jolted him awake with their maniacal screams. They invaded his nightmare, become part of it, made it worse, and left him knotted and jangled in his hammock.
They looked down on him with predatory dinosaur eyes, and then swooped into the palmettos.
He tumbled to the ground and fumbled with the little propane stove, pausing in the middle of this to find his watch. Exactly two minutes later than yesterday, and four from the day before. How tightly were these birds wired to the sun? Once the flame was ignited and set, he stood and strained to listen for the friendly drone of Michael Spencer's Boston Whaler. As the kettle heated, he hiked to the point, the tip of the teapot spout, and crouched on the highest crag. The morning air was pleasant, humid but cool, and it calmed him until he remembered the night before. He glared back over the island at the elevated rampart where the archeologists were probably still asleep.
Tropicbirds were flying long arcs above the ocean, chuckling, celebrating the new day.
“Stop being happy,” he said. “There is nothing to be happy about.”
With no sign of Michael, he returned to his camp. The kettle was singing. He reduced the flame and then couldn’t decide what to make for breakfast. Instant coffee, and…cookies. They were weird cookies, cream-filled imitation Oreos from the UK. The humidity had made them squishy, which by chance made them more palatable. He ate three, and then, appalled at himself for how his diet had deteriorated, took an apple from the cooler and ate it as quickly as possible.
He walked to the shore and hurled the core into the sea. That’s when the sound of the boat rounding St. David's Head was carried in on the breeze. Derek ran back to his campsite to grab the garbage bag.
The big man shifted the engine to neutral and hurled the anchor back-handed, frisbee-style and blind. Maybe five years older than Derek, Michael had pommel-horse shoulders and upper arms thicker than Derek's, or anyone else's, thighs. He reversed to the rocks, where Derek sat with feet dangling inches above the water, and cut the engine. The anchor chain continued to feed over the bow in a rapid, musical clatter. Stretching out, Derek deflected the stern to the side with the soles of his tennis shoes, having by now learned a few things about boats. There had been embarrassing mishaps on previous visits when he had tried to push aside the engine-cowling with his hands. Once he had pitched headfirst into the boat. Another time, misjudging the complicated momentum of the bouncing craft, he folded like a cardboard box and allowed the engine to scrape noisily against the rocks. That’s when Michael had said, “You’re from California. There is an ocean there, right?”
Derek replied, “There’s a lot of desert there too. Ichthyologists do ocean. Folks like me do desert.”
Michael leapt ashore gracefully with stern line in hand. He tied an unrepeatable knot around a small spire among the mishmash of wave-eaten limestone and the boat settled alongside, squeaking gently on plastic bumpers. The Bermudian reached to shake Derek’s hand. He always did, and it usually hurt.
“You look good,” he said. “How are things?” Before Derek could answer, Michael dropped back into the boat with unusual lightness — he weighed at least two hundred and eighty pounds Derek guessed — and started handing up supplies. Today he brought the usual assortment of fruit, cheese and luncheon meats, plus bread, cartoned milk, canned goods and bottled water. There was a new gas canister for the stove, three bags of ice for Derek's cooler, and, mercifully, a palate of beer. Derek handed him the garbage, neatly bundled and clanking with the sound of crushed cans. He said, "You know, I like this arrangement, I give you garbage, you give me beer."
Michael laughed. "The necessities of life." He tossed the bag into the bow, and said, "A couple more things." He reached into the binnacle and pulled out a black walkie talkie with a short, flexible antenna. "A phone," he said. Then he lifted a long, brown vinyl case from the floor of the boat. Derek could see it contained a rifle.
Michael leapt back ashore. "For you," he said. Then something caught his eye, far up on the rampart. He lifted his binoculars. Like Derek, Michael usually had binoculars strung about his neck.
Derek looked too. It was Adrian Lyon, scowling down from atop the highest remaining wall of the old stone house. His hands were on his hips and he was wearing a floppy cloth hat.
"Who's that? Did you know there was someone here?" Michael waved, but the figure remained motionless until the hat blew off. Then it started yelling at someone not visible from the shore.
Derek answered, "We have a problem." He was happier now that the cavalry had arrived, armed.
"If that fellow isn't careful, he'll split his skull,” said Michael. "Do you know who he is?"
"We met yesterday — last night. He's an archeologist from Canada, from England actually. He says he's here to do a dig and teach a field course."
Michael did a double-take of surprise. “Are you sure?”
“That’s what he told me.”
“I don’t think so,” said Michael. “Apart from Fisheries, the only person allowed on this rock is you.”
“He has a graduate student with him. A girl called Mimi.”
"I know nothing of this. I'd better go have a chat." Michael started toward the path. “Coming?”
“Do you need me to?”
“Then I’d rather not.”
“You didn’t hit it off with him.”
“He’s an asshole.”
Michael said, “An English asshole in Bermuda. Imagine that.”
After Michael departed, Derek unzipped the rifle bag. The gun was a single-shot .22 with a telescopic sight. He took it out and raised it to his shoulder. He found a tree-top. The magnification was at least twice that of his binoculars. He lowered the gun and popped open the bolt. He snapped the bolt closed. He put the rifle back in the bag and zipped it shut.
He carried the supplies to his campsite, three trips, back and forth. He was packing ice around the meat and cheese when Michael appeared.
"Derek-boy, correct diagnosis.”
"Beer?" Derek pointed to the palate. It was not yet 7:30.
Michael seemed to consider it, then shook his head. "It looks as though you're going to have company for a while."
"Apparently they're here under the auspices of the Bermuda Historical Society. It's legit. I'm sorry, I never thought to ask if the historical folks might be doing anything on this island this summer. I don’t believe they've ever done any work here before.”
"They're going to be here for how long? How many? They can't possibly stay here." Among other things, Derek was thinking about sanitation. He had set aside one corner of the palmetto grove, one of the quarried areas, for himself, where every morning he went about his business and buried the evidence with his little collapsible infantryman's spade. The island with its limited surface area was too small to support a larger population without modern washrooms. He definitely didn't want to be stepping around human waste and soiled toilet paper while working his traplines.
"It shouldn’t be too bad," Michael replied, picking up the walkie talkie. "The students will only be here during the day. They'll be boarding with Morris Ashburner in Tucker's Town. He's Mr. Lyon's uncle, apparently.” He added, “Another piece of work."
"You know him?"
"He's well-known. Everyone calls him 'the Admiral.'"
"He was in the Royal Navy. He's probably involved in this somehow beyond just housing the students. I don't trust the man. I've had run-ins with him. I'll try to find out what he's up to."
Derek said, "The archeologist told me he'd have me removed to another island. Can he do that?"
"Oh no. He can't."
"Can the Admiral?"
"I doubt it. Fisheries is higher up the tree than the historical society. We are a governmental department. They are not." Derek brightened. "So don't worry, you can stay, and if they start pestering you or interfering with your research, give me a call. Now you've got a radio. Don't use it too much. The batteries won't last. I'd prefer if you'd check in with me every night at 9 PM. My code-name is 'Fisheries Two.'"
"Fisheries Two," Derek repeated. He liked how the radio looked in his hand. "Who's Fisheries One?"
"There isn't one. I choose not to use it. It would sound conceited."
Derek looked up. "It would sound conceited?"
“We're like that here, Derek. On a small rock, you don't want to put on airs. There's a second radio on the charger at home. Every time I visit I'll trade with you so you'll always have fresh batteries."
"Great," said Derek. "And why the gun?"
"For you. I want you to do me a favor."
Michael took a box of cartridges from his pocket and plunked it into Derek's hand. Then he looked at his watch. "There's a lot to do today. Fishpot patrol." He started walking away. "Evie and I'll come over late this afternoon. We'll bring supper. It'll be fun."
Derek asked, "Do you want me to shoot the archeologist?"
Michael roared at this hilarious idea. “I probably do, but don’t, okay? If you shoot someone it will mean endless paperwork for me. Let’s try to keep things peaceful.”
"Okay," said Derek.
"I'll tell you tonight," said Michael, farther away.
"Okay," said Derek.
"Nice girl he's got up there, a real little sweetie." Then, as he disappeared down the hill among the trees, Derek heard him yell enthusiastically, "Fine bottom! Very fine indeed!"
Derek had not seen her bottom. He had been too intent on covering his own. He was still holding the rifle and cartridges as the engine coughed to life. He hid the gun and ammunition in his tent as Michael drove away, and then fixed himself another cup of coffee.
* * *
Mimi single-handedly set up the tent in less than ten minutes 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 a pair of 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 the 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 was 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 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, ready for lunch and almost contented, Derek's attention was drawn to the far end of the island, up to the rim of the bowl, the rampart. It was 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. That bottom, naked and brown, was going up and down, up and down.
"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,
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.