Saturday, October 21, 2017

12. Another Dead Rock Lizard

One day later, the blue-bellied jet roared above the island.

"Isn't that Dr. Lyon's plane?" asked Shana.

“I’m sure he would like you to think it was,” Mimi said without looking up, and continued rummaging inside a large cardboard box.  She was looking for Adrian's notebook containing the week's instructions.

"Hey!  What the..." Joanne's low voice came up from her pit.  She was already four feet down after only six days.  She had dug the deepest and had uncovered an assortment of regimental buttons and clay pipe stems.  Her stubby, meaty hand appeared, wrapped around a bottle, a new, freshly discarded bottle of Red Cockerel Olde English Ginger Beer.  Within it lay the limp body of a Bermuda rock lizard.  She heaved herself onto the surface and showed her find to Molly.

"It's one of the rock lizards," said Molly, "one of the rarest animals in the world.  Is it dead?"

Joanne shook the bottle.  The lizard flopped back and forth.  She squinted at it.  "Yes, it is," she said.  Then her eye caught a flicker of movement, a twitching of the loose skin beneath the lizard's jaw.  "No, it's alive," she said.  She waggled the bottle again.  "But it's almost dead."

"We should take it to the herpetologist," said Molly.  "Maybe he can help it."

"D'you think so?"  Joanne was skeptical.  "I think it's a goner.  I don't think he wants to see us, either.  Especially me."

The other students saw what Joanne was holding, and agreed the that best thing would be to take the lizard to Derek.  They asked Mimi if they could.

Mimi looked at the poor creature.  “Oh, crap,” she said.  She noticed the bottle it was in and felt such anger at the man who was now becoming more distant with each passing second.  “Just put it somewhere and I’ll take it to him later.”  She assumed the lizard was dead, but also thought that Derek would want to see it.  There were so few of the lizards that he probably knew them all.  Maybe this was one of his favorites.

“Mimi, it’s still alive!” said Shana.

“It is?  Okay, go!”  They rushed off to the other side of the island and she felt lost. 

The students found Derek at the redoubt in one of the embrasures, holding a pad of paper and calculator on crossed legs, looking very unhappy.  He pushed his glasses up his nose and slid to the ground when Joanne called out, "Hey!"  He approached, looking annoyed.

"What do you all want?" he asked. 

Joanne showed him the bottle, and he snatched it from her.  He tried unsuccessfully to shake the lizard out.  He found his spade and after a few unproductive, soft taps, smashed the bottle with a heavy-handed chop.  The lizard lay on its back amid curved shards.  Derek carefully extracted it and ran a finger across its throat.

There was no movement.

He surprised the students by inserting the pointy snout between his lips.  With a series of rapid, shallow breaths he tried to blow air into the nostrils.  He stopped and again looked at the lizard's throat.  "Shit," he said.

He stepped over to his cooler, kicked open the lid, and bent down.  He thrust one hand deep into the ice water at the bottom.  After half a minute he pulled it out, red and shiny.  He placed the lizard into his palm and closed his fingers around it.  "It's overheated."

Molly nodded.

After another minute, he opened his hand and tried again to blow air into the tiny lungs.  There was no response.  A tear appeared from beneath his sunglasses, on the left side, and dribbled down his chin.

"Is it dead?" asked Shana.

"It looks dead," said Stew.

Derek answered, "It's dead."

"Poor thing," said Joanne.

"We'd better go," said Shana.  "Mimi's waiting for us."

The students departed for the rampart, except for Joanne, who was looking at the little body in Derek's hand.  "Poor thing," she repeated.

Derek said to her, angrily, "This is what happens, you know, when you leave bottles or cans around.  What I told you not to do!"

Joanne bent her mouth into an inverted "V."  "It won't happen again," she replied, almost as angry as Derek.

"...I hope not," said Derek.  What an odd person this was.

"You have my word on that," she answered in her threatening way.  "It will NOT happen again."  She extended her hand.

Derek cautiously extended his.

She grasped it and squeezed with a grip strong enough to make a bricklayer wince.  Then she bustled away.

Derek watched her go, and kicked himself for not making the correct decision.  He should have had the archeologists removed.  He filled a syringe with formalin, then gently picked up the little body and forced the needle between the tough scales.  Taking care to not pierce himself, he pumped the noxious fluid into the abdomen, then deep into the muscles of the legs and tail.  He lay the body on a layer of paper towel in a shallow, rectangular Tupperware container, extended the limbs and tail, and straightened the neck.  He placed a second layer of paper towel over top, which he doused liberally with more formalin until the little corpse showed through darkly.  It looked adequately soaked, so he placed the lid on the container, burped it, and shoved it to the bottom of the cooler beneath his moldering cheese.

Then he unfolded his Swiss Army knife and cut another notch in the spade.

Joanne did not return directly to the rampart.  She had decided to take a few minutes private time on the beach on the way back.  A field course could be stressful for a loner, the way it required the company of others all day and all night.  She had hoped the island would be larger, with more places to hide.  Too bad the herpetologist was here, hogging most of the space.  With a stick she wrote her name in the wet sand between waves, and then watched the water lap the letters away.


The other students were on the ground in front of the teaching assistant, who had given up on finding Adrian’s notebook.  It might have been left behind at the Admiral's house, but probably, more likely, was still in Adrian's briefcase, on its way to England.  He had been so keyed up about his job interview he had forgotten about everything else: the lectures, the course, the students, "And me," Mimi said crossly.  She was atop the cooler with a clipboard across her lap bearing nothing but doodles on the upper sheet.  It was a prop. She was talking, winging it, not concerned about Joanne's absence.  The strange girl never seemed to listen to anything anyway.  She was a digger, who seemed to care little for the other aspects of archeology.

Beside Mimi on the ground was the bag of bones, to which she referred several times while giving a brief discourse on the diet of soldiers on Tea Kettle Island in the early eighteenth century.  This was based on what Derek had told her, and what she had learned about soldiering at Fort York.  She had talked for slightly more than ten minutes when Joanne burst upon them like a bear.  She announced that anyone leaving bottles or cans around was in trouble.  Mimi had almost run out of things to say and appreciated being interrupted.

"Oh for Godssakes, cool down Jo," said Stew.

She growled, "Everyone knows we're not supposed to leave bottles here.  I don't know which of you killed it, but I'm not gonna let it happen again."

"Well I know who did it," said Stew.  "It was Dr. Lyon.  He's the only one who drinks ginger beer.  He probably tossed the bottle into your pit.  You can beat him up when he gets back.  It will most likely get you an 'A.'"

The students turned to Mimi.  It was true.  Adrian was the only one who drank ginger beer.  They expected her to defend him, to say that the bottle might have accidently been kicked into the pit by any of them, these sorts of accidents happened, they should all be more careful to prevent this unfortunate incident from happening again.  She was crossing out something with her pen.

Shana said, "Maybe the wind rolled it in." 

Mimi said, "No, it was probably him.  He doesn't care about animals."  She opened her lips as if she were going to say something else, something cross, but then closed her mouth with a click of her teeth.  Her face changed and she looked at them all, at their eyes.  Then she stood and assumed a rigid pose with the clipboard tucked under one arm.  "All right you lot, back to the trenches!" she imitated Adrian's accent.

The students formed a tight knot around the boxes of supplies, gathering plastic bags, trowels and brushes, except for Molly, who as usual was waiting for the scrum to disperse.  From behind the group she said, "Did any of you see the herpetologist's eye?"

"What?" said Mimi.

Molly told them that Derek had a mangled left eye.  She saw it when he was fighting with Joanne, and when he was breathing into the lizard.  She said he always tried to cover it, would not let anyone look at him closely, and would back away, or turn his head so you could only see his right side.

They listened carefully, interested by the observation, but intrigued also because until now they had not heard Molly say more than one short sentence at a time.  She stopped talking and they waited in case anything more were to come from her mouth. 

She blushed slightly.  That was all.  They thought about what she said.

"That's why he wouldn't let the Admiral take off his glasses," said Shana.

"And why he butt-ended him in the schnurts." said Brian.

"And why he's a jerk sometimes," said Joanne.

Mimi was back on the cooler, biting her lower lip, remembering Derek's evasive comment after the worm-sex about why he always wore his sunglasses.  She thought about his ears, about how horrible tinnitus must be, and now knew that worse, he had a facial disfigurement.  "Oh Derek," she said aloud, a mixture of pity and sudden comprehension that sounded decidedly passionate.  She saw their suspicious looks and felt warm embarrassment in her cheeks.  "The poor guy, I mean," she shrugged.  Then she stood.  At five-foot, zero-point-five inches, she was slightly taller than Molly, who also was standing, and towered above the rest, who were crouched low, next to the supplies.  "Everyone," she said, as though talking to a much larger group, "We'll pretend we know nothing about this."  She added, "And we'll never look behind his sunglasses again."  She glared at Molly in mock ferocity.

Molly looked at the ground.

"Right," said Stew.  "He's weird, but he's okay.  We won't bug him."

After preserving the rock lizard, Derek spent a productive morning catching and measuring its living relatives along the tops of the ocean-side cliffs above the palmetto grove.  He also carved a notch for the rogue kiskadee that Mimi had prevented him from shooting earlier.  It had been calling from a buttonwood slightly below on the crest of the south cliff, and he hit it without using the sight, holding the rifle one-handed like a pistol while nervously hanging out above it, clinging to an exposed casuarina root.  Because of his precarious position, the shot was less accurate than the others.  A wing had been removed near the shoulder joint and the unfortunate bird had plummeted to the water screaming.  He knew he would have nightmares about this.

To stifle the ringing, which had picked up because of his exertion and the gun's report, he went to the spout to surround his head with what little breeze could be caught.  He took his notes and was retracing penciled numbers with a mechanical pen when he spotted Michael skimming across the low waves.  After running to meet him, like an idiot, he yelled, "Ahoy!"  His glasses had bounced free as he ran and were hanging from their cord, which had become twisted.  He wasn't quick enough to unhook the earpieces and replace his shield before the big man vaulted ashore.

"You seem jolly today," said Michael, cheerfully, waiting for a hand to shake.  Then he saw Derek's uncovered eye.  The herpetologist was still fumbling with the cord and earpieces.  Because of what had transpired with Emily and Evie two days previously, Michael played along, pretending Derek didn't look all that bad, although the wound, which he had just glimpsed face-on for the first time, was truly alarming.

Fortunately, Derek seemed to be in a good mood.  Michael thought he knew why.

They shared coffee while Derek spoke of his morning's efforts.


Michael said, "You seem happy the professor's gone."

"What?"  Derek knew nothing of this.  He had assumed Adrian was with the students at the other end of the island.

"You don't know?  He left for England.  I saw him at the airport this morning when I was dropping off one of my staff."

"Really?" said Derek. "Gone?  For good?"  He was almost chirpy.

"Well, no, sorry to disappoint.  Apparently he has a job interview at a university over there.  He'll be back in a week."

"Oh," said Derek, sinking.  "Well, I can't say I'll miss him."

"So the girl must be in charge of things"

"I guess."

"Is she okay?"

"Okay?"

"Not troublesome?"

"Oh no.  Not at all."

"I didn't think so." 

Half an hour later Michael said, "Well my friend, thanks for the coffee, and the trash!"  He stuck a large little finger through the loop at the top of Derek's neatly-tied bundle of garbage and started down the hill.  "I'll talk to you tonight."

"Nine o'clock sharp," Derek answered.  He raised his watch and tapped it.  "And thanks!  Oh, one more thing!"  He hurriedly retrieved the latest letter to Roy, which Michael carefully slid into his back pocket.

The Air Canada floated past.  Its dying rumble at the far end of the runway blended with the farting of the Admiral's approaching sloop.  Derek carried his shower bag to the water tank.

Shana and Molly walked past, en route to the boat.  "Hello," they said, in a reserved, Canadian way.

"Hi," said Derek.

Joanne grunted along, carrying a heavy box.

"See ya," said Derek.

"I guess so," she said.

Next came Brian and Stew, with boxes and the cooler.  "Good night, Dr. Coulter," Brian said courteously.  Stew flashed a grin.

"Good night, guys," Derek said, pulling up the filled bag and pushing in the plug.  He hefted it to one shoulder and shut the door, waiting.  He wanted to say good night to Mimi, and had another letter for Roy in his pocket for her to mail for him.  It was actually nothing but a folded page of rough data, but it would give him a chance to speak to her without Adrian glowering disapprovingly at the two of them.  He wanted to talk to her alone again, just for the sheer electric buzz of it.  He felt like a twelve-year-old waiting next to a locker in Junior High.

He waited two, three, four minutes.  The bag on his shoulder was gaining weight.  The shaded opening to the path remained empty.  He heard no soft tread through the ringing.  Confused, he lowered the bag and leaned against the ancient tank.  The motor of the Admiral's sloop spluttered.  It fell into a steady rhythm, signaling departure, and solitude for Derek.  "Nuts," he said.  He trudged uphill to his shower tree.  "How did I miss her?"

He snagged the branch with the bag, easily this time, took off his shirt and sunglasses, and dropped his shorts to his ankles.  Something moved at the edge of the grove.

"Oh no!  I've done it again!" she cried.  Mimi was standing with one hand over her eyes, the other behind her back.  She was grinning.

"Shit!" Derek blurted and pulled his shorts back up.

She waited what she guessed was an appropriate length of time and opened her fingers.  Derek's pants were fastened and he was clutching his shirt in front of his chest with both hands.  His sunglasses were back on.

"I'm sorry," she said.  "I should have called out.”

"Why are you still here?  Isn't Adrian away?"

"Yes.  He went to England."

"I heard," Derek said.  "I assumed you'd be leaving with the students.  Why are you here by yourself?"


She shrugged, still with one hand behind her back.  "Why shouldn't I?  I don't like the Admiral.  I would hate to have dinner alone with him."

"I don't blame you," said Derek.  There was an awkward silence.  The shock of her standing there was rapidly reorganizing into the thrill of being alone with her on the island.  The air was becoming a little thin.  "You surprised me," he said.

"Sorry," she said.

"No-no, it's okay, I guess.  As long as you're safe." 

“I’m safe if you are.”

Derek stepped sideways.  He bent and picked up the radio.  "I have this, to call for help," he said, "and," he stepped in the opposite direction, "I have this."  He pushed the spade with his toe. “It turns out to be quite the lethal weapon.”

"You have a gun, too."

"Mm," said Derek. 

"I have a surprise."  She produced a bottle of wine.  "Got any plans for dinner?"

Derek glanced at his cooler, where his cold cuts and cheese and a dead rock lizard lurked.  He said, "Uh, no."

"I got this bottle in Hamilton," she said.  "It's from California, like you."

"Like me," he said.  He would have said, "Like me" if she had said, "This bottle is filled with helium, like you."

"But I don't have an opener" she added, worried.  "Do you?"

He nodded, mechanically.

“Great.”

Derek's mind chiseled out a short, simple sentence, which his mouth managed to deliver.  "Do you mind if I take a shower first?"

"Oh, no, sorry, go ahead.  Can I take one too?  May I use that thing?"  She pointed at the shower bag.

Derek looked at the bag as if he expected it to answer the question.  It didn't say anything.  "Sure," his brain prompted.  "Sure," he said.

"I'll give you ten minutes while I get my shampoo."  She gently set the bottle on the sloping ground and placed a rock next to it.  "Hurry up!" she called, as she skipped back into the palmettos.

Derek twisted the valve.  The flow was cold this time, because he hadn't left the bag in the sun.  As he lathered and rinsed quickly, to use as little water as possible, he understood that Mimi had been correct.  He was shy.  It had been a long time since he had been single.  He was out of practice.

He closed the valve and stooped for his towel.  As he carefully dabbed the ragged, stretched skin where his left eyelid had been, he spied a cloud with its top third outlined in gold.  "Thank you," he said to it.


On the way back to Tucker's Town, the students sat with their backs against the bow rail on the upper deck, leaving the old man alone at the stern.  Thus, a safe boat-length from him, they talked about Mimi and the course.  Things were becoming complicated, which worried them.  All except Molly needed strong sessional marks to boost dangerously low GPAs.

None had ever before been abandoned by a professor in mid-course, and they felt like children in the back of a minivan at the drive-in A&W who had watched Dad leave the car and wander off down the byway toward a real, sit-down restaurant.  Losing Dad had been in some respects good.  Life in the car was much more relaxed without the old grump.  But his departure had really annoyed Mom, who, left behind to control the brood, had retaliated rashly and wantonly by also leaving the car and jumping into the cab of the mud-caked pickup in the adjacent spot.  Worse, now she was making googly eyes at the weird guy driving it.  "Hey!  What about us?" they wanted to shout out the windows.

The students had expected and wanted Mimi to stay with them, had hoped that with Dr. Lyon gone she would no longer spend nights on the island.  She was fun, and a buffer between them and the old man, whom they found intimidating, and who was not always a boat-length away.

As can easily happen on field courses, the distinction between instructor and students, especially between young assistant instructor and students, had become blurred.  Although the students respected Mimi as a teacher, they also saw her as a comrade and friend, and knew more about her than she had told them.  She was not wearing a ring, but it hadn't taken them long to figure out that she and Adrian were attached beyond their professional relationship.  Aware that she was angry at Adrian, they speculated on what was going to happen.

Shana was sure.  "She's going to sleep with Derek," she said.

“Oh yeah, right,” said Brian.

“No, she will,” said Shana.

"Whoa, lucky Derek," said Stew.  "Mimi's a babe."

"No she isn't," said Brian, authoritatively.  "Too short, and too small."  He supported imaginary cantaloupes in front of his chest.

Stew laughed.  "How tall do you have to be to be a babe?"

Brian scrunched up his face.  "Five-six," he said, “and at least a B-cup, preferably C."

Stew laughed again.

Shana said, "Think about something else, boys, if you can.”

"Yeah, well we're not the ones suggesting she's gonna screw Derek," said Brian.  "Why would she?  Like, of all the guys on earth."

Shana explained, "You don't understand.  He has a special quality, there's something very interesting about him, something mysterious.  How did he get his eye injured?  He's exciting.  Maybe a bit dangerous."

"Oh," replied Brian.  "Dangerous is good?"

"He's nice," Molly said.  "He tried to save the lizard."

Stew said, "And was that good?  Giving mouth-to-mouth to a lizard?"

Shana sighed.  "Molly understands what I mean, don't you Molly?"

Molly tugged on the buckles of her life jacket.  "I think it's somewhat romantic."

"Huh?" said Stew.

"See?"


"Anything could happen," said Joanne, ominously.  "It doesn't matter.  We're here to work."

Continued...

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