Friday, October 6, 2017

26. Complications

Like an ant colony kicked by a child, Bermuda hurriedly set about rebuilding itself.  Two days after the storm, golfers were insanely whacking balls across vegetation-strewn, salt-soaked fairways.  Other less essential activities took slightly longer to re-establish, but within a week, most repairs were well underway.

Two people were known to have died directly as a result of Hurricane Dexter, foolhardy onlookers sucked from south-shore rocks by mountainous waves.  Two others were missing and presumed drowned.  One of these was Admiral Morris Ashburner.   When his yacht was spotted floating upside-down twenty-five nautical miles northeast of the islands by an American Aurora Air-Sea rescue plane three days later, it was concluded that the loopy old admiral had gone for an inexplicable joyride in the middle of a major hurricane and had been washed overboard.

Communications within the country remained knocked out for some time, but overseas phone links were interrupted only briefly.  Unfortunately, the airport was heavily damaged.  A tornado had plowed much the length of the commercial terminal, tearing away the roof like a finger dragged through a pie-crust, and a small private jet had been picked up and flung into the operations center of the control tower.  There would be no non-emergency flights in or out of Bermuda for at least a week.

As Michael had predicted, Tea Kettle Island was scoured almost clean.  The larger casuarinas had been torn out by the roots, and many had been thrown far out to sea.  Most of the palmettos had been stripped of their older dead, hanging leaves, and now looked trim, green and handsome, fit for the courtyards of the finest hotels in the universe.  The old house and the barracks had experienced a little more structural damage, but the redoubt, ramparts, and water tank were unaffected save for small chips and divots — and the broken door on the tank.  Apart from the rifle and spade lying with him when the Search and Rescue members discovered him, the only possession of Derek's found on the island was his cooler, imbedded in the root mass of an overturned ghost cedar.  Inside the cooler were his binoculars, three notebooks, a very rancid lump of cheese, and a tupperware container housing a single dead rock lizard.

Michael worked with his staff to repair his boat and the facilities at the Division.  He cruised the shoreline and reefs to look for boats run aground, bikes washed offshore, and other misplaced property.  When possible, he or Evie went to the hospital to sit with Derek as he lay connected to tubes and machines in intensive care.  They talked to him and held his hand to try to bring him back from wherever he was.  Michael brought Derek's notebooks, thinking he might want to have something familiar nearby when he woke up.  Of his surviving belongings — spade, preserved lizard, rotten cheese, notebooks — the sweat-puckered, sardine-smudged, nail varnish-spotted books seemed the least offensive, most appropriate items for the hospital.  Michael also brought the books for himself, something to look at as he sat with his absent friend.  Mostly, they contained raw data from the boy's studies of the rock lizards.  There were columns of numbers, schematic sketches of lizards indicating their identifying nail varnish patterns, and hand-drawn maps of sections of the island, illustrating the locations of traps.  But there were additional thoughts and observations scribbled here and there.  Michael ran his finger along them.

Each day's report started with the weather, which seemed a pointless, inside joke.  It was always the same, "Weather: It's sure hot today!"   Then would follow lists of traps set, lizards caught, and the vital dimensions of the captives.  Michael figured out the purpose of the measurements.  Derek was trying to determine how old the adults were, how far along the growth curve they were — to see if there was any hope at all.

Derek also wrote about other animals.  He said of the tropicbirds:  "These birds are incredibly beautiful.  They are a completely pleasant distraction.  There are times as I watch them that I feel I am being rewarded, that I must actually have done something right in my life.  Hell if I know what that could be."

Michael didn't know either.   At this moment, it was hard for him to believe that Derek had ever been rewarded for anything.
           
The dig continued.  Michael ferried Mimi and the students to the island and back each day.  And the dig party had increased by two: Cora the housekeeper and her boyfriend, a native Bermudian bartender and musician named Franco.

After the Admiral had been pronounced "almost certainly dead" by the media, with an unmistakable, if unprofessional, hint of optimism, Mimi and Joanne took a taxi to his estate to retrieve the students' belongings, abandoned after the mutiny on the island.

“I sure hope they didn’t throw our stuff out,” said Joanne.

Cora answered the door.  She was dressed casually, in a t-shirt and shorts, which made her look younger than before.  “Hi! I thought you were all gone,” she said.

Mimi explained the changed situation, and that they were now staying at the Bermuda Biological Station.

Cora said, “You broke up with your boyfriend?”

“I guess it was time,” said Mimi.

“I’m sorry.  Breaking up is sad.”

“Thanks,” said Mimi.

“Come in, have a cold drink, and don’t take your things back to the biological station. Come back and stay here.  The boss is gone, to heaven…or the other place.”  She pointed at the floor.

“Definitely the other place,” said Joanne.

“Really?  You would be okay with that?  We don’t want to trouble you.”

“I don’t have a job anymore, do I? I like the kids.  I’ll feed them.”  She patted Joanne on the arm.  “Come back and share this beautiful house.  Then we’ll all get thrown out together.” 

Joanne said to Mimi, "Of course we'll stay here, won't we?"

She shrugged.  "I guess it would be okay."

A man with a deep tan walked in from the veranda wearing a pair of floral swim trunks.  He had a gold chain around his neck.  “Hello there,” he said.

Cora said, “This is Franco.”


The arrangement was more than okay with the other students, who much preferred the poshness of the Admiral's home to the spartan, damaged dormitories at the Biological Station.  Their only concern was that Adrian Lyon might be coming back to settle the Admiral's affairs.  Mimi said, "He won't be back.  He isn't as important as he thinks he should be when he's in Bermuda.  He'll stay in England where he's very important, with his boring food and rainy weather and primitive plumbing.  And we won't ever mention his name again.  Okay?"

"All right!" said Stew.  "Who?"

He wrote about the archeology students: "They seem nervous and baffled, like the victims of an elaborate practical joke or travel-agent scam."

He was more correct than he knew, Michael thought. 

Derek not only wrote.  In the second notebook was an inked sketch of a naked woman, obviously Mimi, sleeping on her side.  Michael held up the book sideways, like a centerfold.  He hadn't known Derek could draw.

"What are you looking at?" Evie asked.

"Nothing," he replied.

But for the most part, Michael didn't feel guilty about invading Derek's privacy.  He wanted to find something to say to him that would reignite his pilot-light.  He read sections out loud, and asked, "What does this mean, mate?" in hopes Derek would pipe up with a response.  Derek remained obdurately corpse-like.  Once, Michael smuggled in a can of beer and opened it next to Derek's ear.  He waved it beneath his nose and tried to fan fumes up the open nostril.  There was no response, so he sat and slurped dejectedly.

In the third notebook he came across Molly's portrait of Derek, folded in two and tucked between the pages.  It was a very good pencil-drawing of Derek from the waist up with a rock lizard in his left hand.  There were two blatant discrepancies.  One, the lizard was smiling far too happily.  More conspicuously, Derek was healed.  Molly had drawn him with two fully-lidded, unscarred eyes, how he must have looked before the "bad man hurt him."  Anna had repeated to her parents what Derek told her in the shallows.  "A bad man hurt him," she said.

The sketch was signed, "To Dr. Derek Coulter.  Best wishes, from your friend, Molly Mok."

"Oh, look at this, Love," Michael said.  Evie looked at the sketch, and then at Derek's purple and yellow, swollen, bandaged, intubated face.  She had to leave the room.

He wrote about the kiskadees: "These birds are a little too human for their own good.  They are smart and clownish.  They are heartless and murderous."

One evening, as the students sat around the dining room table preparing a group report on what the dig had shown thus far, Cora entered with a portable phone.  She handed it to Mimi. “For you.”

Mimi asked, reaching for the handset, "Who is it?"  She hoped it was Michael at the hospital with good news. 

"Iyong dating kasintahan," said Cora.

 “Adrian?”

Cora nodded and handed Mimi the phone.  She pushed it as far from her head as possible, as if it were putrid, and looked around helplessly at the worried faces.  Her eyes fell on a china cabinet in the far corner.  She hurried to it, carefully opened the door, and then lifted the lid of a large white tureen.  She deposited the phone inside, replaced the lid, closed the cabinet door and walked out of the house, into the yard overlooking the ocean.

He wrote about other creatures: "There are large silk spiders, as big across as a child's hand.  When I first got here, they spun their webs high overhead among the upper branches of the ghost cedars.  Now all the webs are down low, a few feet from the ground.  It's hard not to bump into the damn things."

Michael nodded.  According to Bermudian folk-lore, the spiders came down from the upper branches in anticipation of hurricanes.

And other creatures: "Tonight I saw the fireworms.  For a minute or two, I felt it." 

"What?"  Michael asked.  "Felt what, boy?"

Michael was surprised that apart from the sketch there was no evidence of Mimi in the books.  He didn't know that Derek had written a fair amount about her and sent his opinions to his cat.

With ten days remaining, Mimi gave the students a holiday and went with them into Hamilton to buy more snorkeling equipment, which she loaded onto her credit card.  After a guarantee from Michael that the Man o' Wars were gone for the year, they swam the perimeter of Tea Kettle Island.  Cora stayed ashore with Mimi, using a small barbeque to roast meat on skewers, while Franco swam with the students, taking turns with Joanne to tow Molly, who floated behind like a cork in her life jacket.  Back at the dig, as they ate lunch, Brian noticed the small girl frowning.  "Hey there, Molly, what's wrong?" he asked.

"I saw so many fish," she said.  "I don't know what they were."

"So we'll buy a fish-book."  It seemed an easily-solved problem.

She shook her head.

Shana moved closer and gave her a squeeze.  "I know what you mean.  He should be here to tell us what they are."

They looked to Mimi, what they always did when Derek entered the conversation, no matter how obliquely. 

"I'll tell you again," she said, softly and sadly, "I'm praying for him.  I have not stopped praying for him.  That's all I can do.  I think about him and I pray for him all the time."

A baby rock lizard skittered onto the top of the rampart from the unseen ocean side.  It dashed between Molly and Shana, flew into space, landed without a sound at the base of the wall, then disappeared into a crack as if yanked by a string.

Stew said, pointing at the crack, "Maybe you should pray for him, too."

Mimi smiled in a motherly way, and then went for a walk to the rocks where Derek had shown her the fireworms.  She took off her shoes and lowered her legs into the water.  A parrotfish lazily chewed algae from the rocks below, as if a hurricane hadn't recently turned the entire world upside down.


Some of Derek's scribbles bothered Michael.  There was a brown smudge of dried blood on one page, a drop brushed aside.  He had circled the smeared ring and written, "Pitangus" next to it, the scientific name for kiskadee.  Underneath, he jotted, "I'm very good at killing these things.  My gift."  Then Michael read further and frowned at an entry near the end of the third notebook.  It said, "I don't care anymore what happens to me.  I just seem to be floating along in this weird place.  It is a concentrated version of my entire, pointless life.  Why am I here?" 

There was a gap.

The last day's entry started, "Weather: HOLY SHIT!!!!!" and was followed by a blank page.

The third-last entry in the book said, "Long live the rock lizards."

The second-last entry said, "God save the rock lizards."

The last entry, which Michael imagined Derek penning while waiting in vain to be rescued, was scrawled diagonally across the page in large, loose letters.  It said, "GOD SAVE ME!"

Michael felt as terrible as he ever had.  He believed he had failed and betrayed Derek, deserted him, as his wife had, as his parents accidentally had, as Mimi had (as far as Derek knew).  "You will be okay!" he said, to quell his anger at himself for not having gone earlier to the island, and for not being honest a year ago.  He didn't understand why this disaster had happened, and now doubted himself and the reason for his lie.  So much for the powers of the Mid-Ocean Love God.  He put his head in his hands and said, "So why did I tell him to come?"
           
On nights he wasn’t working at the tavern, and if the students were not busy with preparations for the following day, Franco played reggae music on the Admiral's expensive stereo, and doled out exotic mixed drinks few Canadians had heard of.  Mimi sequestered herself in the large private library at the far end of the house and sat at a heavy wooden table to write lectures.  She knew that when she returned to Toronto there would be a battle regarding accreditation for the course.  She wanted to throw as much paperwork as possible at the Anthropology Department and the Dean's Office, including well-written, comprehensive lectures to make it abundantly clear that the students had received a respectable dose of instruction.  She hoped if she demonstrated that a rigorous course had been taught, the Faculty would grant the credits gratefully, able, thanks to her efforts, to escape embarrassing entanglements resulting from Adrian's fraud, without compromising university standards.

She worked harder than she ever had, also thinking that this painful effort would somehow be enough to make Derek wake up.  Every night she called the Spencers for word ofhow he was doing.  She was glad for solitude at these times, because she rarely got off the phone not in tears, despite Michael's words, "It's entirely my fault, Sweetheart.  You did nothing wrong."

It ate at her, this experience with Derek, which had resulted in horrible damage to him physically and to her own life in general.  He wouldn't have been on the island during the storm.  She had prayed for the storm to come.  She lay her head on her arms.

She woke up with Cora jiggling her shoulder.  “Mimi, Panahon na upang pumunta sa kama.”

She rubbed her eyes, and looked at her watch.  It was half- past midnight.  “I think I’ll stay here.  I’m too tired to go to bed.”

Cora pulled out a chair.  “Ikaw ay nagtatrabaho masyadong matigas.”

Ako pinay. That’s all we do, isn’t it?  Work too hard.”

“Yes, we certainly do.”

Mimi asked, “How long will you be able to stay here?  Will you have to leave Bermuda now?”  She had quickly connected the passing forward of Derek’s splinter of wood to the Admiral’s disappearance—and now, death—which was one more consequence of her actions.  Cora now being out of a job in a place where she had few rights or options was another.

Cora placed her left hand on the table.  A stone glittered.  “I can stay, and get a new job. Franco proposed.”

On Derek's fifth night in the hospital the Spencers visited, bringing Anna.  To keep her occupied they brought along Jeremy the Giraffe and some books, but inevitably the child became restless.  "Be good," Evie pleaded. 

"I'm bored!" she declared, and she swung her legs violently beneath her chair.

"Anna," said her mother, "don't you want to help Mr. Cooter?"

Anna nodded.  She looked at him sadly.  She had forgotten why they had come.  "I want him to talk to me," she said.

"Well, maybe you should talk to him some more," said Evie.  "Read him one of your books."

Anna eagerly climbed up and sat daintily on the edge of the bed.  After spinning her book around the right-way-up, she realized she had forgotten Jeremy, so jumped down, hurled him up onto Derek's body, causing Evie to gasp, and then climbed back up.  She shoved her giraffe to the opposite side of the bed, and after a short struggle had him arranged with his concerned gaze cast onto Derek's half-mummified face.  She began to read with the exaggerated expressiveness of adults.  Several times she paused to point out features of the pictures to Derek, despite his unwavering inattentiveness and the layers of gauze across his eyes.  It was her favorite story, the lonely dog not allowed to join the circus.  She read it all the way through.

Her parents knew the story by heart, so slumped in their chairs, holding hands.  Finally, Anna finished, "'The circus is not for everyone,' the dog said.  'This is where I belong.'"

Michael looked up.  "That was nice, Sweetheart," he said.  Anna wasn't looking back at her daddy.  She was holding the book to her chest and staring at Derek with eyes as wide and round as Jeremy's.  "Huh?" said Michael.  Evie was jarred awake.

His lips were moving slowly.  They were gluey and swollen, but worked themselves apart.  The family leaned close, holding its breath.  The mattress sank beneath their weight, causing Jeremy's nose to dip close to Derek's face.  Michael tucked the neck of the fluorescent animal beneath his arm.  Derek whispered, very softly, "I have… a cat."

"Derek-boy?"

"My head hurtsh."

Then Michael was in the hall, whooping and laughing, with Jeremy's neck and worried face extended in front like a chartreuse-and-pink battering ram.  A nurse scowled.  He waved the giraffe at her joyously and bellowed, “He's back!  Oh yes, my baby did it!  My sweet baby brought him back!"  A doctor rushed around a corner and flattened against the wall, afraid of the big laughing man with the stuffed giraffe who was reaching to hug him.

As though waiting for Derek to revive, the next day the airport re-opened, and Peter Coulter and his pretty young wife arrived, pale and blinking in the brilliant sunshine.  They dropped their bags at their hotel, and then took a cab to King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.  At first, Peter was unable to believe that the swollen face shown to him belonged to his sleeping younger brother, whom he had last seen more than five years earlier.  The doctor explained.  Derek had suffered a compound depressed fracture of the right side of his skull, which had caused a serious epidural hematoma and other predictable complications of severe head trauma.

"Other complications," said Peter.

"There are facial fractures too," said the doctor, "of the cheek bone and upper jaw, but these problems are merely cosmetic compared to the damage resulting from the prolonged ischemia."

"Prolonged ischemia," said Peter.  "What the hell is that?"

"He suffered a period of acute hemorrhaging," said the doctor.  "There was an indefinite period of inadequate perfusion of the mid-brain."

Peter's jaw hung open.

"Basically, your brother has had a stroke.  He’ll be dipping in and out of consciousness for a while as his brain sorts thing out, but we believe he’ll be back with us on a permanent basis before not too long."

Peter and Stephanie took another cab back to the hotel.  Stephanie went to the beach.  Peter found a seat in the darkest corner of the bar, and for a few seconds, the room went all swimmy.

Mimi and the students did not visit him in the hospital.  Mimi doubted he would want to see her, and wasn't so sure she wanted to see him, because Michael had warned that "he was a little scary-looking."  She didn't think she would be able to deal with that very well.  Derek had always been a little scary-looking.  She told the students that they could see him off at the airport if he left before they did, but otherwise they wouldn't take time off.  She had become paranoid that the course wasn't rigorous enough, so pushed them hard, day after day.  She was making it up as she went along, and lay awake every night, worrying about the next day.

Six days after he had regained full consciousness, it was decided that Derek was stable enough to be flown to America for further surgery and rehabilitation.  In the days prior to his departure, Michael kept him apprised of the continuing archeological efforts.  He rarely responded, except for bland comments, such as "Oh, good," or, "That's nice."  He was on strong pain-killers and anti-convulsants, and couldn't concentrate long enough to produce full sentences. 

Michael was perplexed that Derek wasn't happier the girl had stayed.  He had thought that apart from Derek's substantial, but unquestionably temporary, injuries, this little affair had worked out nicely after all — as it was supposed to.  Mimi would stay in Bermuda to help him recover, and then, who knew?  Maybe they would go back to North America together, or at least arrange to get together soon.  But Derek's surprise comment had been, "Please don't bring her here!"  Michael asked why.  Derek laboriously explained that he didn't want visitors.  After being winced at for so long, he had been happy that the Canadians on Tea Kettle Island learned to ignore his disfigurement.  He couldn't bear to be winced at again, now that he was so much more damaged.  He didn't tell Michael it was Mimi's reaction he feared the most. She was perfect. He was a disaster.  She had rejected him.  All she could do now was pity him.

He revealed nothing to Michael about the treasure in the tank, even after Michael informed him that the Admiral's overturned sloop had been found, but that the old boy remained missing.  There was nothing in the media about treasure on board, which would have been enormous news.  Derek watched the television from his hospital bed and nothing was ever mentioned.  He guessed that, like the Admiral, the treasure had been washed overboard when the sloop capsized.

He hoped the Admiral's whereabouts would remain a mystery and didn't mention the old man's mid-storm visit to the island.  He knew he would become the focus of an investigation.  What if the body were found, with a bullet wound?  He didn't think the police knew of the gun, because quick-thinking Michael had removed it from the island the night of the assault, but how difficult could it be to track down a firearm in Bermuda?  What a pack of surprises this research expedition had become.  Several days ago he was certain he was about to die, but now, having survived, his brush with death seemed completely trivial.  Derek Coulter, victim, reluctant exterminator, was a murderer.  Maybe.  Even half-pithed and flying on morphine he had the sense not to mention the Admiral's name or ask if Michael had retrieved the rifle from the island.  Ass-covering was a hard-wired instinct with redundant circuitry. There was also the puzzle of what had happened, of who had been there.  He was certain of the act, but not sure of the number of witnesses, and which of them had been real.


An ambulance took him to the airport, where he was transferred onto a special airplane gurney and wheeled to the departure gate.  He maintained a listless stupor as officials double-checked the paperwork, until Michael, Evie and Anna appeared.  Michael placed his daughter on the side-rail.  Derek managed a pleased mumble.  Each adult Spencer put a hand on a shoulder, and Anna held his hand and smiled down sweetly as he was wheeled along, toward the door.  Other travelers watched on with charming concern.

Peter and Stephanie loomed above at a sliding door separating the air-conditioned terminal from the oppressive humidity outside.  This was Derek's first conscious experience with his latest sister-in-law, and seen through a mangled eye.  She stared back, pink and repulsed.

"Guh?" he said.  He was trying to remember if she was number three, or four.  Another thing about his brother that Derek disliked, or envied, was that he went through wives the way most people went through automobiles.  He never seemed to suffer from losing the previous one, and the next was always right there, seemingly younger than the previous model.  Up until now, people had been telling Derek he was "going home."  He hadn't been sure what that meant.  He fought to assemble his limited mental resources, which was like trying to pee words in snow, and asked Peter, "Where are you taking me?"

"Back to civilization."

"Am in shivilization."

Peter said, "American civilization."

"California?"

"No," was the stern reply.  “New York."      Peter turned and fearlessly grabbed Michael by his log-like forearm to pull him from Derek's hearing.  "I hold you responsible for this.”  It would have been very difficult to hurt Michael more.   Peter had spent several days trying to find out exactly what had happened to his brother, and had learned that Michael had been expected to remove Derek from the island in time.  "Pray he recovers fully.  I know a lot of lawyers."

Michael said nothing.

"And I'm not foolishly soft-hearted — like HIM!"  Peter released Michael's arm and pointed at Derek.  He took Stephanie's hand and pulled her up the stairs into Executive Class.

Michael and Evie stood muddled with Anna buzzing about, until distracted by the pathetic beckoning of Derek's only functional index finger.  Michael approached slowly and bent low.

Derek spoke dryly in his ear.  He tried to pat a shoulder, but only feebly stirred the nearby air.  He whispered, “It’s okay.”

"No mate, it’s a screw-up," said Michael.  "I have never been so sorry."

“Michael?”

He leaned close.

“Eye of the storm, you were at the water tank?”

“The water tank?”

“In the eye.”

“I don’t understand.”

Derek thought for a few seconds. “It’s okay.”

Michael let him go.  The gurney moved away, guided by two uniformed attendants.

The Spencers threaded their way back through the terminal.  Anna was on Michael's hip.  The students stampeded in with a get-well card and gleaming mylar balloons.  "Oh, this is terrible," said the big man.  "His plane just left."

"Fuck," said Brian.

"You can say that again," said Stew.

"We had to get the stupid balloons!" Joanne glared at Shana.

"Where's Mimi?" asked Michael.

"Paying the taxi," said Shana, dejectedly.

The frosted-glass, automatic doors swished open.  Mimi was outlined by sunlight.  She walked to them and read their faces.  She stopped.  "He's gone?  We missed him?"

The students looked at each other, then at the floor.

Anna reached for the balloons and Shana gave them to her.  Michael put her down and she ran uncannily toward one of the more damaged and dangerous areas outlined with warning tape.  Evie ran after her.

Mimi turned to Michael, "Did he say anything?"  Her voice trailed up.


"Sweetheart," he said, with the world slipping through his fingers.

Continued...


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