Saturday, October 7, 2017

25. The Eye

Derek winnowed the remaining cans from among the ingots.  Within the disintegrating chest were at least thirty gold bars.  Some felt as though they consisted of several bars fused together in odd agglomerations, like solid gold baseball gloves or stacks of hotdog rolls.  He was disappointed that among so much wealth, so little beer remained.  He noted this irony, but didn't enjoy it.  The gold was of no worth, he thought — he hoped — beyond its status as a spectacular historical datum.  He couldn't wait to tell Michael, to scoop the gold-digging "archeologists," now that he possessed the answer to the big man's suspicions.  Yes, the Admiral had been up to something.  He drank the last beer, and then there were none.

Eventually the drain of body heat into the water overcame the alcohol-induced drain of sensation from his body, and his knuckles, elbows, and shoulders began to cramp.  He was losing his finger-nail grips on the walls with increasing frequency, and in treading water disrupted the slightly warmer boundary layer between his shirt and skin, which chilled him further.  It was a downward spiral into hypothermia and eventual unconsciousness, he knew, but he expected the storm would end soon.  It came up quickly; it would pass quickly.

He became colder and colder.  He wished for more alcohol.  The whole situation was very depressing and his thoughts turned melodramatic.  If he drowned here, would Laura would ever find out about it?  If she did, what she would say.  Would she cry?  Would she laugh?  Or would she shrug, like Mimi?  What a place to be!  How did I get here? he wondered.  Was there any sense in any of this?  He tried to think of heat.  He remembered the cotton fields and rice paddies of the Central Valley, where he had grown up shooting mailboxes and weathercocks.  Midsummer heat, when even the wind was hot, would flatten your hair to your head.  He remembered once being very thirsty, riding his bike, seeing nothing but blue sky above the Sierra Madres, their snowy peaks forming false clouds through the haze.  Because his ears were ringing like a school bell, he failed to notice that the wind had stopped.  He also didn’t hear the scuffing and thumping sounds just before the door popped open.

When it did, he turned.  There, blinding him, was the limitless sunshine from his imagination.  He squinted and recognized the form of a man in a wetsuit, mask and snorkel.  He laughed at his rescuer.  "Wow!" he said happily.  "Is it over?"  He reached for the doorsill and slowly pulled himself up.  Depression dribbled away with the foul water.  He was alive!  The hot Bermudian sun felt so good.  Wait till Michael hears about this! he thought.

He was hitched halfway from the tank, and said to the diver, "Who are you, Search and Rescue?"

Then there was a sound he had never previously heard, yet was unmistakably limestone against bone — the fracturing of his skull — almost instantly accompanied by the unpleasantness of wet, gritty, Tea Kettle Island dirt being rammed up his nostrils.

Next he was being lowered into a hospital bed by a very strong nurse.  No, this was not correct.  He was back in the tank, in the dark, face down, drowning.  Oh, he thought.  He wasn't scared, more confused, and his head hurt like hell.  He tried to make sense of it.

“Turn over, boy, hurry!" a voice yelled.  It was Michael.

Derek's body flipped and he filled his lungs with sour air.  Then, lying still on the surface, he experienced a peculiar sensation.  Absolute, textureless silence.  "My ears," he mumbled.  "My ears are quiet."  A searing pain shot through the left side of his body and his arm and leg went numb.  He tried to move them, but they had disappeared.  "Not good," he said.  The left side of his mouth was rubbery and uncooperative too.  He remembered finding an improperly preserved lizard in a jar of formaldehyde in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley.  The lizard was cocooned within a mat of foam on the surface of the fluid, swollen with gas and covered with a dense pelt of bluish mould.

What will grow on me? he wondered.

"Get out, mate!"  He heard Michael again.  "Get out of the tank!"  Then the big man said, "Don't let the demon get away!"


"Who?"

"The demon!  The Admiral!"

Derek didn't want to move.  A pleasing warmth had crept up his torso.  Nice, he thought, until he realized that his bladder had emptied itself.  "Damn," he said.  He flailed toward the door with one arm, kicking with one leg.  He reached up and pushed, but it wouldn't budge.  He pushed harder, and hit, with no result.  With half his body missing, he had no leverage.

There was a bright spot, a fuzzy ray.  It was at the edge of the doorframe, a small, illuminated hole.  He knew what it was.  He had put it there himself, the first night Mimi had stayed, when he panicked in the dark and fired the rifle. He reached and stuck his finger into it, then let himself sink.  "Please," he said.

The doorframe pulled away from the surrounding stone and splashed into the tank beside him, taking with it the eternal door.  After nearly three centuries, the wood had finally rotted through.  "Thank you," said Derek.

After a spell of hopeless, half-bodied grappling, it suddenly, inexplicably, became easy. He spilled from the rough-edged orifice like a farm animal being born.
           

Although it was mid-afternoon, he could barely see.  His bad eye was swamped by glare, and his good eye was swollen shut.  On his back, he could hear a slow-cycling engine idling near the shore.  He's still here, Derek thought, and squinted at a perfectly Bermuda-blue sky directly overhead.  He rolled onto his side, and through the tattered forest could see darkness along the horizon.  The air was calm, but the sea was heaving.  The eye, he thought.  This is the eye of the hurricane.

His head and face throbbed.  He coughed, and a spider of blood flew into the air.  More blood came into his mouth. 

"Don't let the demon get away!" Michael said again, and kicked him kindly.

Derek didn't care about the Admiral.  He coughed more blood.  If anything, the old demon had done him a favor.  For a long time, things had not been going very well. It might as well end here.  But the ground scraped out from beneath him, which seemed odd, as though he were sliding.  No, he was being dragged, to behind the tank, toward the sound.  "Michael?"  He was placed with his cheek against something soft and smooth, a young woman's thigh.  It was pulled away.

"Uh?" he said.  He heard a zipper opening and saw the rifle, dry and clean, the only thing dry and clean on Tea Kettle Island.


"Load."  There were voices, low and muffled.  He was kicked again, less kindly.  "Load this weapon."  He tried to do as he was told, reached to the bolt, but his hand slapped it, then fell.  He heard the click.

The cartridge box had fallen out of the case and lay on its side with the lid partially open.  He pawed at it, extracted a round.

"It fits here," one of them said.  The round was taken from his fingers.  He heard the clack.

He twisted his neck to look up.  Through the murk was the sunny face of his colossal friend.  “You can do it boy, your best shot,” he said.

"Okay, Michael," he tried to say.

His cheek was on the stock.  The barrel rested on a ridge of hardened limestone.  His hand was placed on the trigger guard.  He removed it, tried to pull the firing pin, gave up.  It was pulled for him and a rough sleeve scratched his face.  He stopped, breathed, and coughed more blood.  "Okay," he said, his eye moving to the circle of light.

"Haste!" said the voice.  "Fire!" said the other.

“Not yet,” Derek whispered.  The eye saw more clearly than it had seen for months, though tears and salt, through the bloody slime of tank water running down his brow.  It grabbed and held the image, the Admiral, working frantically at the stern of his sloop.  He had not headed back to safe haven in Tucker's Town to ride out the second half of the storm with his new-stolen wealth, because his anchor had been stuck, wedged within a crevice washed clear of sand by the storm surge.  He was in a dark blue diving suit, standing spraddle-legged, fighting with the anchor controls, rising and falling with the swell, every few seconds looking up at the approaching eye-wall above a sea so laden with coralline sand it resembled aquamarine-tinted milk.  The anchor emerged from the water, dripping sand like pablum.

Derek held his breath and shifted enough to put the old man squarely in the crosshairs.  The Admiral moved from the controls, was bent over, and when he turned sideways Derek saw what he was doing, lifting gold bars from a heavy-mesh bag and depositing them into a plastic fish bin.  He knew it would have to be a head shot.  He would wait until the Admiral was standing upright behind the wheel, and then put a bullet into his skull which might not kill him — it was just a .22; it might only dent his thick noggin—but might be enough to send him over the side, or leave him lying senseless on a drifting sailboat as the wall moved in.

And then the Admiral took position.  His slickered head, rising and falling with the ground swell, changed in Derek’s fading vision to a kiskadee riding a casuarina branch in a gentle breeze, and then to an iron rooster at the top of a weather vane.  "Fire!"  He was kicked, lightly...  He squeezed.

The Admiral turned, and, like a grebe on a pond, dived, or tried to.  His wet, neoprene-soled booties were coated with beach sand and studded with fragments of limestone. The carefully-polished, lacquered deck was greasy with salt.  His feet skidded from beneath him and he fell.  His head smacked soundly against one of the authentic brass cleats.

Derek saw the Admiral rise, then fall backwards.  Straight-kneed legs shot into the air and the heels dropped to the deck, bouncing lightly.  The booties did a few perfunctory hornpipe steps, then lay still.  The soles of the dive booties, toes pointed toward heaven, were the last Derek saw of the Admiral as the freed boat chugged fearlessly from the notch.

"I got him?" he gurgled.  He wasn't sure if the bullet had struck the Admiral, or if the Admiral had knocked himself out in his verve to avoid being shot.  It seemed a subtle difference.  This was not the biathlon.  Derek raised his fist in the air, then slumped back against the side of the water tank.  With great effort he removed the shell from the chamber and put it next to where he felt his lower lip might be.  He blew weakly across the opening to hear the victorious penny-whistle.  His ears remained quiet.  He gave the shell a hasty, one-fingered burial next to the tank and pushed the rifle back into its case, which reminded him of a body bag, warm and dry.  He wished one for himself.  He saw a parade of exploding black spots and heard the bumping rasp of the back of his head describing an arc against the side of the tank as he toppled.


He regained consciousness during the second, weaker half, but remained immobile except for short fits of shivering.  There was an unremitting peppering of wet sand, which gradually tore through the weakened weave of his worn t-shirt and abraded his skin, until a berm formed over and around him and severed palmetto fronds became heaped on top.  This is how fossils start, he thought.  He imagined himself in a long drawer in a museum.  He imagined a small, dark-skinned graduate student opening the drawer and holding her hand up to her mouth as if she were about to cry, or vomit.

Larger but slower-moving raindrops spattered heavily against the side of the tank and flowed onto his face.  He blew frothy pink bubbles with his nose.  Now I'll drown, he thought.
                         
The second half died, but Derek stayed alive.  Night came, and brought with it a very soft, watering rain, gentle enough to bring out even the most Molly-timid of whistling frogs.  On Tea Kettle Island, Derek heard none.  For a minute he heard nothing.  A warm numbness had closed around him like a hand, like his own hand cupping the tiny, beer-soaked frog.  That's better, he thought, and wondered if he had died yet.  He moved his neck, and a rude pain ripped through his sinuses.  The thud and hiss of the waves came back.  He moaned, and tried to fall asleep.

"Don't do that," said Michael.  "We're coming to visit you.  We'll bring supper.  It'll be fun."

He drifted.  The rain's whisper faded, the sounds of the surf became quieter, and the pain became duller.  The numbness had spread throughout his body.  Good-bye, Roy," he whispered through a gap in his teeth he'd just discovered.  "You're a good boy."  He felt himself going, his guy wires unraveling, and he was up, above the tank, above the island.  It really did look like a teapot, char-blackened against the glowing pale blue of the sediment-heavy water.

Then he heard wet and heavy footsteps far below, and there was a light.  "Ahoy!" he called out, like an idiot.

The footsteps stopped.  "I heard something." a voice said.

A second voice yelled, "Anyone here?  What's his name?"

"Derek."

"Hey Derek!  Are you here?"

He was surprised that the voices were looking for someone named Derek.  It seemed a lucky coincidence.  He decided to have fun with them.  "Over here," he sang, falsetto, trying to make his voice sound as if it were coming from somewhere else.

Flashlight beams scanned the heaped detritus encasing his body, then moved away.  The feet walked around to the front of the tank.

"You're getting col-der," Derek called softly.

"What the hell?" the voice said.  Its owner leaned into the tank.  "Anyone in here?"  The voice sounded hollow and silly and Derek started to laugh.  He had settled back inside his body.

The men ran back around the tank and shone their lights on the detritus.  It was gently heaving, and then it started to gag.  They ripped it open and shone their lights on what remained of Derek.


"Congratulations," he coughed, "You've found the treasure."

Continued...

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