Monday, October 30, 2017

3. Fisheries 2

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.

"A gun?"

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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“How so?”

“Asshole." 

"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."

"No way.”

"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.'" 

"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."

"Oh?"

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?”

“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,




Dear Roy:

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.

Continued...

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