Sunday, October 29, 2017

4. The Tiger Shark

As promised, Michael and Evie visited late in the afternoon.  From his lookout, Derek focused on a third person in the Whaler, pink and pale next to the brownness of the Spencers, a white woman doing her best to hold onto a straw hat as the boat bellied through the chop.  The Air Canada descended.  Evie and the woman cringed within its shadow, then recovered to watch it glide to the runway.  Michael stood at the binnacle as stalwart as a dock-piling with the sun on his teeth.

Derek attempted to neaten his hair.  He didn't have a mirror because mirrors were his enemies, so groomed by casting his shadow onto a flat vertical surface and massaging his head until its outline was more-or-less smooth and symmetrical.  Late in the day, the best surface on the island was the back wall of the water tank.  He was making minor adjustments as Michael cut the engine and the bow-wave spewed through the rocks.  When Derek arrived at the shore, Michael was in the midst of his well-rehearsed ballet with anchor and line.  Derek re-enacted the role of boat-deflector without hurting or embarrassing himself in front of the expanded audience.  To signify the end of the performance, the men shook hands enthusiastically.

The white woman was Sally Pettibone, an American friend of Evie who worked with her at an insurance brokerage firm in Hamilton.  She looked to be in her late twenties, with short, reddish-brown hair.  Although tall and slender, she seemed cute and girlish in a flowery sun dress, which showed she had freckles just about everywhere.  She was from Atlanta.

Evie was last from the whaler and stepped ashore casually, as though daydreaming.  She was a large woman, a perfect match for Michael, slightly darker-skinned and with a full-mouthed, high-cheeked face.  Derek was not expecting her to hug him, and said, "Whgg," when she did.  He had met her only once before, and she had frightened him with a cold, suspicious stare.  Her scent was powerful, coconuts and jasmine.

Derek excused himself and rushed back to the water tank, which was a low stone building with a sloped roof, slightly smaller than a one-car garage.  It was built overtop a square, quarried pit about eight feet deep, in the sunken center of the island.  It served as a cistern, collecting rain water passively, channeled downhill by the water catchment, a stained and cracked, roughly paved hillside that stretched from the tank up to the redoubt, where Derek had set up his camp.  Overflow openings at ground level allowed partial exchange of the volume during every storm, but to Derek the water still tasted like three hundred years of twigs and dead spiders.  He drank twentieth-century bottled water, brought every other day by Michael Spencer, tapped from springs in France, or Canada, or the high Sierras of California.  He was grateful for the tank, however.  Its ample, though questionably pure, supply was suitable for showering and shaving, and he showered frequently to cope with Bermuda's punishing midsummer heat.

He had tied a yellow nylon rope to a rusted metal loop that someone had hammered into the doorjamb eons ago.  The rope trailed down and became invisible within black water that had fallen from the sky a century before Derek's great-great-great-grandparents were born.  Hand-over-hand he hauled up a large white plastic pail that had been rolling around on the beach several days earlier.  Around the base he had manufactured square perforations with his Swiss Army knife.  It was no longer useful as a container of liquids, except when the liquids were within aluminum cans.  The cold at the bottom of this tank was a puzzle.  Although the air outside was pushing ninety, the water couldn't have been warmer than fifty, which seemed to defy any physical law Derek could recall.  He did not care a great deal.  A lot could be ignored or forgiven for cold beer.  He thumped the door shut with his elbow, and gazed above the palmettos to the rampart where there was no sign of the fornicating archeologists.  He hoped it would stay that way.

By the time he returned to the beach, the women had stripped to their bathing suits.  Evie's was a purple one-piece.  Sally wore a gold and black-striped bikini.  It was more female flesh than Derek had viewed in some time, and he hesitated before stepping onto the sand.  Michael saw, and laughed.
 
They sat on spread towels, drinking beer, talking of usual things: the weather - how hot it was, the water - how pretty it was, and what they had done that day.  The most interesting story, until later when Derek related what he had observed through binoculars, was from Michael, about what had happened during fishpot patrol.  Fishpots were wire cages similar to lobster traps, and until the late 1980s had been in wide use in Bermuda.  They were baited with scraps of fish or crab and lowered among the reefs, their positions marked with floating buoys.  Because of the high number and dreadful efficiency of the traps, even when lost or abandoned, over several decades the nearshore fish-life became seriously depleted.  In 1990 fish pots were banned, and by 1993 a great improvement in the numbers of large reef fish had been observed.  Although everyone knew fishpots were no longer legal, unscrupulous or desperate fishermen continued to drop a few.  One of Michael's responsibilities was to remove them.  He would cruise the three hundred square miles of the Bermudian platform, scanning the waves for the tell-tale buoys.  Cheating fishermen used much less conspicuous markers than in the old days, but Michael had a knack for spotting them.

This day, working the reefs north of Pembroke Parish, he noticed a cunning little marker, small and grey, sticking out of the water only an inch or two.  He cut the engine as he neared, and drifted.  Lacking a gaff, he leaned far out.  Clamping on with both hands he experienced one of life's little jokes.  His fingers were wrapped around the dorsal fin of a snoozing 18-foot tiger shark.  He knew it was 18 feet long, he said, because it was one foot longer than his Whaler.  The shark flicked its tail.  Too surprised to let go, Michael was pulled halfway from the boat.  He teetered on the gunwale for a few seconds, and then slid overboard.  Surfacing quickly with his back to the Whaler, he watched a ton-and-a-half of teeth, cartilage and muscle glide past three feet away, taking a look.  "Funny things, those tiger sharks," he said.  "It's rather easy to become someone's lunch in Bermuda."  He laughed.

Evie said, "That’s not funny, Michael."

"Oh, Love, there's really no danger, you know," he said. "I'm too tough and chewy for one of those boys."  He laughed again.

"Things happen," said Evie, "even to Fisheries Wardens." 

Sally Pettibone exclaimed, "Let's go swimming!"  She grabbed Evie's hand and dragged her down the beach.  Derek was amazed at the non sequitur.  Sally obviously had no concept at all of the repercussions of having your legs chomped off by a tiger shark.

Michael said, "Nice girl, don't you think?"

He thought a bit.  "Thank you for coming, I needed some pleasant company."

"So, you haven't made up with the professor yet?" 
           
"Oh.  No.  I think not."  He added, "You wouldn't believe what I saw him and his so-called student doing today."

"I would believe it," said Michael.  "Where were they doing it?"
 
"On the rampart.  Right where anyone drifting in on a plane could get an eyeful."
“Ho-ho, this island,” said Michael.

Derek said, "No, really, it wasn't right.  It was definitely not right.  It was wrong, for so many reasons."
           
They looked at the women seated far out in the shallows.  Only their heads were showing.  Fragments of words and laughter bounced across the surface to the beach.  Michael said, "So, tell me about your incident with Dr. Lyon."

Derek related the story, negleting to mention he had been naked during the most dramatic part.

Michael told Derek how Adrian had treated him that morning.  The archeologist had almost immediately threatened him with arrest for trespassing, trying to pass himself off as a government official.  Then Michael, who this day as usual had not been wearing a Fisheries uniform, showed Adrian his identification, and in Michael's words, "Read him the Riot Act."  Adrian became sullen and brusque, but agreed not to bother the herpetologist.

"Why was he so rude to you?" asked Derek.

"I don't know.  Because he's a very rude man?"

"Like his uncle?"

Michael shook his head.  "The Admiral's not rude, not obviously.  He's oily and dangerous, like a snake."

Derek refrained from pointing out that snakes were not oily and that very few were dangerous.

Michael said, "The Admiral isn't a decent human being.  He's contrary to everything you and I stand for."  He raised his beer at Derek, who wasn't sure exactly what he, let alone Michael, stood for.  He was willing to believe that Michael stood for good things.  "I've had set-tos with him a few times."

"About what?"

Michael explained that because so little natural habitat remained in Bermuda, only crumbs really, the Bermuda Nature Foundation, of which Michael was a director, attempted to convince people with extensive properties to bequeath to the organization all or part of their estates.  Michael was always highly interested in obtaining waterfront properties in order to re-establish the rare mangrove or nearshore reef habitats.  Convincing land-owners to donate property was difficult, he said, because the Foundation was in competition with real estate speculators who could exert a lot of financial pressure.  The Admiral was one of the most aggressive speculators in Bermuda.

"I understand," said Derek.  "I'm ashamed to say that my older brother is like that."

"But there's more to what bothers me about the Admiral.  Financial pressure is one thing, but we've had dedicated, environmentally-minded people abruptly change their minds and sell to that old fiend."

Derek didn't get it.

"He strong-arms them," Michael said.

"Really?"        

"He's a demon.  He would've fit in beautifully when Bermuda was run by privateers."  Then with the palm of his hand he flattened an empty, undented can endwise against his thigh.
 
Derek knew from repeated experimentation that you could stand endwise on an empty,undented beer can without it failing.  He said, “Um, you were going to tell me about the gun?"

"Yes."  Michael gripped the two ends of the accordioned can and pulled it back out to most of its original length.  He set it down gently, but it fell over.   "I want you to shoot the kiskadees."

"Why?  Apart from them being noisy and waking me up every morning, what's wrong with the kiskadees?"

Michael told Derek about kiskadees.  He said that although attractive birds, and appealing in an irascible sort of way, they were an introduced species that destroyed and displaced native wildlife. "In particular," Michael said, "they eat baby rock lizards."

"Really?"  Derek was not strong on Bermudian ornithology.  Although he had tried to bone up on the little country's wildlife prior to this trip, there was still a lot he didn’t know.  He hadn't been aware that kiskadees were foreigners, introduced in the 1950s to control cockroaches.

Michael nodded.  "They may be the worst enemies of the rock lizards."  He said that kiskadees were intelligent birds, able to learn where the hatchling rock lizards emerged, from rock faces or stones walls, and there would perch patiently, gobbling up hatchlings one at a time as if they were candy.  Adult lizards were too big, but the babies were perfectly snack-sized and totally naive, with no defense against aerial attacks.  A single pair of kiskadees on Tea Kettle Island could clear away an entire year's hatchlings.

Derek had captured forty-seven rock lizards.  Only three had been hatchlings from the previous two years.  This was wrong.  Based on the average clutch size of a skink the size and estimated life-span of a rock lizard, at least twenty percent of the population should have been hatchlings from last year.

"That cannot keep happening," said Michael, "elseways, no more rock lizards on this island.  The poor old mothers can't keep pumping out eggs for much longer.  Sometimes I wonder if any new lizards have joined the breeding population in the past five years."

"So they should be shot," said Derek.

"Yes," said Michael.  "I wish they could all be shot, throughout Bermuda, but it wouldn't be possible.  And not at all popular either, I reckon.  People like them."

"There are only two birds here," said Derek.  "I keep seeing the same two, every morning, in the same tree.  You could probably clear them away tomorrow."

"Yes, but if you get rid of them, two more will fly over from St. David's to replace them within a day or so.   The resident pair keeps the others off the island, but if they disappear, another pair arrives almost immediately.

"That's one reason I was so happy to receive your email.  It was a minor miracle to me.  I've been wanting someone to do a methodical, daily eradication of kiskadees on this island.  There's no money to hire someone for that."

"I understand," said Derek, "but I really don't want to shoot them.  I don't like killing animals.  Any kind of animals."

Michael said.  "You're not being sensible.  You're no vegetarian — where does your meat come from?"

"I don't kill it," said Derek.  "I buy it.  I think of it as a substance, not a creature.  I probably would be a vegetarian if I had to kill animals myself."

"What if something were attacking your children?  Wouldn't you defend them?"

"I don't intend to have any." 

"Your family?"

"I don't really have any," he replied, which was almost true.

"Me?" Michael smiled.

"Okay."  Michael had embarrassed him sufficiently.  "I understand.  I know they should be shot."

"So you'll do it."

"I'll try," he said.

“You do know how to use a gun safely.”

"Yes," said Derek.  He had received extensive education in the safe use and care of firearms from his uncle, and had always enjoyed shooting.  He liked the smell of the gun and the heat of it, and the penetrating penny-whistle produced by blowing across the spent shell casings.  But he had never been a hunter.  He preferred to shoot tin cans, weather vanes, mailboxes and road signs — inanimate things.  Vandalism was acceptable.  Killing was not.

 Michael had more instructions:  "Best to keep the rifle hidden when the archeologists are here — it might raise a stir.  It might not even be legal for you to have it.  I decided not to ask.  I recommend trying to get the birds early in the morning, when they're easiest to find, when they do their territorial calls.  Go easy on the bullets please.  They're difficult to obtain here, and expensive."

Derek punched a series of sugar-cookie circles in the sand with a can. Michael watched.  "All right,” he said.  “I might as well focus my efforts on conservation.  My experiments aren't going well."  He explained what had happened and what hadn't happened.  He had observed no aggressive behavior among the rock lizards.  They seemed almost to comfort each other.

Michael nodded happily.  "They're very gentle.”

"They're more than gentle.  There's something eerie about them.  They don’t behave right.  They don’t do anything to each other.  It’s like they’re waiting for me to do something awful to them, and they’ve given up hope."  He lamented being unable to find a way to salvage his experiments.  "It's frustrating to come so far for so few results."  He said that career advancement was very important, now that other aspects of his life had fallen to pieces.  Being a scientist was something he could still take pride in.
 
“Science is good, but you have to have other things. You need balance.  You need someone to share your life with.  That’s the most important thing.”

“Yeah, well, I thought I had that covered.  It didn’t pan out.”

“Perhaps being a scientist got in the way.”

“That was definitely part of it.”

“Get some romance back in your life is my advice. That’s where the greatest discoveries are. It’s the greatest mystery, and the most fun.”

“Science can be fun, when it works out.”

“I like my job, even love it sometimes,” said Michael.  “But I adore my wife.” Then he said, "I feel it was a lucky thing you sent that email.  You can help save the skinks, and vice versa."

“What do you mean?”

The big man hesitated.  "What I should have said was, here, have another beer," and he handed Derek a fresh can.

From beneath the log behind them, a rapid sequence of mouse-like squeaks erupted.  Two male Jamaican anoles skittered up, the smaller bleeding from beneath a torn flap of neck-skin.  It squeaked again, then sprang into the vegetation bordering the beach.

"Now these animals," Michael laughed, "are decidedly ungentle.  They're pugnacious little blokes."

On seeing Michael and Derek, the victorious male did a series of jerky push-ups from the crest of the log.  Then it flared and retracted its fiery dewlap. Michael shook his can, and sprayed the lizard off the log.
           
The women sloshed ashore, giggling.  Evie crossed the sand and circled Michael.  She quickly doubled over to fling water from her hair down his back.  He screamed and pulled her onto himself.  They wrestled until Evie's wet skin was breaded with sand.  She broke free and ran back to the water, with Michael hot after her.  They frolicked in the waves, leaving Derek and Sally alone to talk, which he had been dreading.
 
Sally began.  "They're such a nice couple."

"Yes, they are."  He was unable to think of a way to elaborate on how nice the Spencers were.

"I hear you're recently divorced."

Derek opened his eyes wide, which she couldn't see through his sunglasses.  "I will be soon.  It takes some time for things to work through. Legal stuff."

"I suppose so.  Sorry to hear it."

"Thanks.  It's difficult, but I'm starting to think it's all for the best," he lied, hoping that would end this line of conversation.  Derek had not drunk anywhere near enough to let the whole sad story spill out.  It had spilled out numerous times to numerous listeners, but a certain degree of drunkenness had been required, which had not yet been reached.  Plus, it hadn’t taken him long to figure out why the Spencers had brought Sally.  He was curious how much they had told her about him, and was unsure how much he'd told them about himself.  He decided to turn the tables.  "Are you married?" he asked, knowing she wasn't.

"Me?" she said.  "No.  I was engaged a couple of years ago, but I called it off."

Derek said, "Well, it's probably better that way than to find out five years later it won't work."

"I suppose so."

The conversation limped along, until Sally asked, “Have you seen much of Bermuda?”

“The airport, and this island mostly. Michael drove me around a bit the first day, to his office and some other places.”

“You must see more than that. It would be a shame to come to this gorgeous country and not see more.  If you can get yourself ashore, I can meet you and show you around.”

“Well, maybe a break from my work would be a good thing. I guess a day away wouldn’t hurt.”  His answer was more of an attempt to say the right thing than an expression of interest.

Having worn each other out, the Spencers staggered onto the beach, panting.  Evie said, "Hey, my man, start the barbecue."

Michael said, “Whatever you say."

They barbecued hot dogs and chicken on the beach and drank more beer and told funny stories about people Derek didn't know.  Michael and Evie talked about their five-year-old daughter, Anna.  Sally talked about not wanting to return to America.  She was to be transferred back to Atlanta soon.

They fell silent and watched a towering cumulo-nimbus that was catching the orange and pink of the sunset.  Michael was sitting against the cedar log the lizards had fought over, his arms around Evie, whose head was on his chest.  Derek was near them, also against the log.  He was arranging empty cans in the sand, designing a pavilion for a new World's Fair.  Sally was in front, facing away, lying stomach-down with her chin on crossed wrists like a child watching television from the floor.  She suddenly turned.

"Hi there!" a happy voice called. 

The others craned their necks over the log.  Mimi was standing on the fringe of the beach in an emerald-green bathing suit.  Her hair was shining wet, stuck to her neck and shoulders.  Something was bunched in her extended hand.  She said, "Ah, Derek, here’s what you left behind last night," and walked around the log.  She unfolded the shorts in front of his uncomprehending face, and then, as if to emphasize where they belonged, dropped them onto his lap.  "See ya," she said.  She danced back into the forest, but not before turning to wave at the unfamiliar women.  Her magnesium teeth beamed the same pink and orange as the sky.

Derek dimly held up the shorts for all to see, to incriminate himself as much as possible.

"Yup, they're shorts all right," said Evie.  She was sitting on her heels, awaiting an explanation.

He lowered the shorts and said nothing.  A warm finger had entered his left ear canal, and the ringing became shrill. 

Michael leaned and punched his shoulder.  It was a congratulatory gesture, meant to agitate Evie.

It succeeded.  She poked him in the stomach with a stiff finger. "Michael!"


Sally looked to Evie and said, "Lone-ly?"

Continued...


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.