As they headed toward the path, Derek asked, “Don’t you find it too hot to sleep in that tent, especially since you put it there, so close to the rampart? The rock will radiate heat all night. It would be better set somewhere that isn’t in full sun all day.” He added, “If you can find somewhere halfway level.”
Mimi asked, “Where did you put your tent?”
“I found a spot with a bit of actual soil that gets shade later in the day. It’s still pretty warm, so usually I sleep in my hammock, which is quite pleasant, unless the air is still and the no-see-ums are biting.” They descended into the palmetto forest. Derek asked, “Don’t you think it’s odd that your boyfriend is letting you stroll off in the dark with a crazy man to look for exploding worms?”
She didn’t answer right away, as though she were trying to come up with another explanation for the single tent. There wasn’t one. She said, “He checked you out online. It turns out you are who you say you are, just another boring biologist. I guess that means you’re harmless.”
He grabbed her arm and pulled her into the middle of the path.
She froze. “What are you doing?”
“You were about to walk into this.” He reached and flicked the leaf of a Spanish bayonet. “Let me turn my light back on.”
As they continued, he said, “I’m boring?”
“Those were Adrian’s words.”
“I’ll try to be more interesting.”
“You’ve been interesting enough.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means nothing. It means that if we all do what we intended to do when we came here, everything will be fine.”
“Okay,” said Derek. Then he repeated her words. “Everything will be fine.”
He didn’t seem to be mocking her. It was more like he was considering the possibility.
They arrived at the rocky ledge in the teapot notch where Michael would land his boat. Water was sloshing gently among the crags. Mimi said, “I’m sorry about the incident with the Admiral.”
“It’s okay as long as he stays away.”
“You might want to know, the students thought you were awesome, most of them.”
“They don’t like him, except for Joanne, who was the one who attacked you afterwards. I’m sorry about that too.”
“She was worse than the Admiral. What’s her story?”
Mimi said, “I haven’t figured her out yet.”
Derek clicked off his penlight and checked his watch. "It should be any second now," he said, and then, almost immediately, "There!" A fluorescent green dot had appeared on the surface fifteen feet away, twisting and bobbing in the wavelets. Within a few seconds it was joined by a second, more brightly-glowing speck.
"What's happening? asked Mimi. "Is that what they are? The green lights?"
"Just wait," said Derek. Another surfaced much closer, a tiny fluorescent curlicue spinning just offshore, near her feet, spewing a ghostly smoky trail. "That's a female," said Derek. "Now keep watching it."
A whitish spark appeared from below, brighter than the green-glowing female. It spiraled upward, seeming to follow the movement of the first worm. In a brilliant flash it hit the female just below the surface, and both lights went out.
"Hey — what happened?" Mimi jumped. "What are they doing?"
Derek was excited too. He'd never seen this before, only read about it. "Worm sex," he said. "The bright speck is the male.”
"Here's another," she said, pointing at a female a yard to the right. Almost instantly a spark rose to it too, and they disappeared in a joint-flash.
"Whoo!" she yelled. "This is great!” She jiggled his elbow. “Find another one!"
"There's one." He pointed with his light several feet the other way. They both cried, "Whoo!" as the male spark flew at the female. Another green female appeared directly below them, which Derek caught in the beam of his flashlight.
"Oooh, so that's what they are?" The twitching worm was bluish-white, small, the size of a cashew nut, and unexpectedly repulsive, like a maggot. "They're not very pretty," she said, and laughing, added, "We shouldn't see them as they really are. Give them back their privacy."
Derek turned out the light.
Over the next few minutes, worm sex exploded throughout the nearshore waters. Mimi and Derek cheered as glowing females and their brilliant mates performed. There were hundreds, if not thousands. The sea had become littered with flashing cats' eyes. Then suddenly, like a fireworks display, it ended.
"That's all till next month," said Derek.
"They only have sex once a month?" She laughed.
"Yeah, and it kills them too." Then he gripped the sides of his head. "Umm," he said. His right ear this time. The ringing was unusually penetrating and dizzying. He let the flashlight slip from his hand. It bounced off the rocks, into the water. "Damn," he said.
"Oh no!" she exclaimed about the light, but Derek was paying no attention to his flashlight. He was hitting himself.
"What are you doing, what's wrong?" She asked the obvious question. "Why are you hitting yourself?"
"Ringing in my ears," he said, through clenched teeth. "For eight months I've had ringing in my ears. Sometimes it’s really…bad." He sat and propped his forehead on his kneecaps, cupping and uncupping his ears with his hands. "Oh God," he said, "make it go away." He held his head, and was still. Finally, his hands dropped to his sides. "There, it's a bit better."
Mimi had been squatting a few feet away, watching. She was glad that whatever had struck him had subsided, and moved closer, changing her posture, hugging herself behind her thighs, with the side of her face on her knees. After waiting to make sure he was okay, she asked quietly, "Do you believe in God?"
He tilted his face to the sky, then at her. "No. I don't think so, not really. Not the way maybe you do."
"What do you mean?"
"This is enough God for me." He swept an arm over the water and back over the island. "This island, the rock lizards, the birds, the ocean, the planet. I don't yet understand it, or even what I mean exactly, but I feel it's all that really matters. I hope to understand it someday. Before it's all gone."
She had expected a simpler answer. "You're not a Christian?"
“No. I'm a zoologist. Why do you ask?"
"You seemed to be praying a minute ago, but I wasn't sure if you really meant it."
"About your ears, I guess."
"Do you think it would help?"
"It couldn't hurt."
“I doubt it would help. A radio signal needs a receiver.”
“I pray,” she said.
“Does it ever accomplish anything?”
“Maybe, sometimes. But I don’t usually ask for anything. For me it’s more like a conversation, even though he doesn’t answer back.”
“So it’s like writing letters to a cat.”
She laughed, “No, it’s not like writing letters to a cat!”
“Who taught you how to pray?”
“I forget. My mom, or the nuns, or both. I was raised Catholic.” And then, as an explanation or excuse, with a shrug, “I’m from the Philippines.”
He had grown up in a place where there were many Asian people and was good at differentiating among Asian accents and faces and names. He had known she was from the Philippines before he pulled the cactus spine from her ankle.
“Most Filipinos are Catholic,” she explained, “because of the Spanish.”
“Yo se, Senorita Villanueva.”
“Smart guy. She play-slapped his arm with the back of her hand.
He thought of asking her, What did the Filipinos believe in before the Spanish got there? But he suspected she wouldn't know, and the thought of her struggling for an answer bothered him. He was sitting less than a leg-width from her, watching her watch the circles of starlight reflecting off the jouncing surface of the water. His heart was punching his ribs. Finally he breathed, "Well, for sure now the worms are done."
Mimi came to life, a matchstick bursting to flame. "Thank you little worms," she sang. "I hope you have a lot of babies!" She put her hand on his shoulder and boosted herself up. She touched him easily. His brain was filing these little instances of contact. The handshake, the elbow jiggle, the little slap, his fingertips pressed through her hair, against the bump on her head—that had been way too much of her to feel all at once. He had drunk from her cup. He had grabbed her arm in the dark! A spark in his gut was set swimming frantically, wanting to fight its way to the surface, to the welcoming green target. The confusion of the day had not yet ended.
And more. She held his elbow like a blind person as they walked the path to the rampart under the thin light of the stars. Briefly, her hair swept along his forearm. He couldn't stand it. The fireworm was going to explode.
"Really," she said, "how can you see at night with your sunglasses on?
"It's not all that dark. You get used to it."
"Do you always wear them?"
He now had a new answer, but couldn’t spit it out. Because you shouldn't see me as I really am. “It’s a long story,” he said.
"Will you tell me some time?" she said.
“Some time,” he said. They had stopped just shy of the clearing that sloped up to the rampart.
"Well, Good night," he said. It was gut-wrenching that she was now about to go sleep with Adrian Lyon.
"Good night. I'll say a prayer for your ears."
He bit his tongue. "Thank you." Her heel rotated on the limestone. He couldn't let her go, not yet. "Mimi?"
"I couldn't explain what I meant about God, when you asked."
"That's okay. Religion's a personal thing."
"Let me try again?"
She said nothing and her hand remained on his arm. He said, "I think if there's a god, it isn't a conscious being, not something that can be accessed by prayer, not something that cares about us in particular, or anything. I think instead it's all of this — all the living things, and the bonds among them. And it's a good thing. A goodness. I think maybe it's why I'm a biologist, because I feel the pull of it and the goodness of it." Her eyes were watching him, black circles surrounded by white. Beneath her hand was a growing electrolytic dampness. "There are times when everything else is going wrong and I come to a place like this, surrounded by nature, and it helps,"
"To escape from your problems?"
"No, not quite. It's more as if I'm going to something, to a real thing, compared to which the other things in my life, good and bad, are completely irrelevant. There are instances when I feel it and I suddenly feel completely insignificant, but at the same time as important or as powerful as anyone or anything else. It makes me feel that somewhere in the surrounding natural world is something very strong, something comforting, and I feel I'm not alone, that I belong. Do you know what I mean?"
"I'm not sure. I don't think so." She seemed to ponder this. "I don't think it's God, whatever it is."
He pressed fingertips to his forehead. "Okay, try this. Think about what you just saw, the fantastic beginnings of the lives of thousands of creatures that half an hour ago you didn't even know existed. Wasn't that great? Wasn't that the best thing you've seen in a very long time?"
"It was neat."
"More," he said. "Wasn't there a real power in it? Couldn't you almost feel it? The magic of it, how it came out of nothing, how it drove itself, and how for a few minutes you were part of it? How you were in it?" Her hand fell away as he became more animated. He thought he heard her lips part, but didn't see her teeth because his eyes were closed. "And think about how the air here feels when it blows up off the water and you breathe it deep into your lungs. And think about the longtailed birds, of how fantastic they are, and how they laugh when they fly, and how their voices are carried to you on the wind, even when they're almost too far out over the water for you to see."
"It's nice," she said.
"And it's always in wild places like this, that city people never see. Like this island. Other places I've felt it are in the redwood forests, and the Mojave Desert, when a storm is coming."
She asked, quietly, "Did you come here, for this — whatever it is you mean? Is it because of your ears?"
He wasn't sure, but tried to explain, "I didn't think it through all that much. I...my life changed this year, and I was going to cancel this trip. But then I decided to come anyway." He shrugged. "And what I was talking about doesn't seem to be happening much, at least not very clearly. It's become messed up, with the mystery-men and everything."
"Us, you mean."
"Yes," he said.
Her teeth shone very briefly, and, as he watched to see if they would reappear, he was pinched on the biceps of his right arm.
"You are definitely not boring. I better go, bye." Her hand dropped and her silhouette was headed toward the light of the lantern where Adrian sat reading.
"Oh, God," Derek whispered, scarcely opening his mouth lest the blazing spark come flying out.