Saturday, October 28, 2017

5. Fort York

Derek awoke with a mild headache.  Again, the kiskadees were his alarm clock, shrieking their namesake song, "KIS-ka-DÉEE - KIS-ka-DÉEE - KIS-ka-DÉEE!"  They were overhead, the same branch as always, screaming their fool heads off in tandem.  They could have shat on him as he slept.

He tipped from the hammock and scurried into the tent.  The curious birds halted their chorus and watched.  From where they sat, he was no more threatening than a dairy cow or golf cart.  They resumed singing while he moved beneath the nylon shell.  Nothing in their experiences had trained them to recognize the cold click of a rifle bolt being pulled open, or the quieter clack of it being eased shut overtop a live round.  When Derek crawled from the tent commando-style, with the gun resting in the crooks of his elbows, they were throwing their heads back for another verse of their cockamamie song.

He crouched and pulled back the firing pin.  That tiny click also gave them no warning.  It might as well have been the sound of an infant rock lizard poking its egg-tooth into the world.  He swivelled the rifle back and forth on his shoulder, searching with the telescopic sight, which was meant for targets five times this distance.  The dead branches of the cedar whirled through the field of view until, finally, one of the lemon-yellow bellies flashed past.  Derek backtracked and found it. He raised the cross hairs slightly, to rest them upon the shining black eye.  The bird cocked its head as if to say, "Now what?"

He adjusted the gun accordingly, held his breath, and slowly squeezed the trigger.  The bullet bored a tunnel exactly twenty-two one-hundredths of an inch in diameter through the skull, in one orbit and out the other, taking both eyes and much of the brain with it.  There was not much there to stop it, or even slow it.  The skull of a kiskadee was no more substantial than a blown-glass Christmas tree ornament.  The bird dropped like an empty cigarette packet as its startled mate squawked and swooped into the palmetto grove.

The decisiveness of the shot surprised Derek too.  He didn't feel fully awake.  He yanked back the bolt.  The brass shell-casing sprang free and landed on top of his foot.  He picked it up and saw tiny wisps of smoke milling about inside.  Similar wisps crept from the exposed chamber of the rifle, which smelled sulphurous and oily and great.  He set the shell against his lower lip and blew across the opening.  This time he stopped immediately.  His ears could no longer tolerate that old, penetrating, penny-whistle sound. 

He lay down the gun and walked to the bird. In his hand the body was almost weightless.  It was perfect, apart from the scarlet beads where the eyes had been.

After zipping the rifle into its case, he sealed the body in a plastic bag and buried it beneath ice in the cooler.  A few minutes later, while eating his breakfast of oatmeal and dried apricots, he heard the low putter of an unfamiliar boat in the notch of the island.  He dropped his plate, grabbed his binoculars, hurried to the spout, and from behind a dense clump of buttonwoods observed the arrival.  It was the Admiral, he guessed, bringing the rest of the archeologists, the students.  Adrian and Mimi were waiting on the rocks beyond the beach.  Adrian had his hands on his hips.

“Asshole.” said Derek.

Mimi was more animated, with hands lying atop opposite forearms, then fluttering about, pointing, swishing at invisible insects, then pushing hair back over her ears.

Derek was relieved that there weren't many newcomers.  It looked like only five students, two male, two female, one indeterminate.  There was the Admiral too, a grey-haired man who remained on the boat, handing off supplies, waving and shouting at everyone else

Derek shifted his binoculars up to the rampart.  Two more were there, men on the wall of the old house, standing dark against the brightening sky.  "When did they get here?" the herpetologist said aloud.  One of them pointed at the students, causing Derek to scan back down.  When he looked again at the house, the men were gone.  He watched the entrance to the path from the palmettos, expecting them to emerge near where Adrian was standing.  He gave up waiting and shifted to the students.
*   *   *

Mimi waved at her charges as they clutched the sides of the small skiff used to ferry them and their supplies from sloop to shore.  Adrian was watching, critically, and she remembered his annoying instruction, "First make them respect you, then let them like you."  He said it was particularly important to keep a healthy distance from students on a field course, where there would be many unforeseeable variables, many potential dangers. To hell with that; she’d do what she always did.  They would respect her because they would like her.  For something to do, she took attendance, a list that could have been written on a cocktail napkin with a tube of lipstick.

There were two male students: Stew was tall and thin and wore a bandanna on his head and four or five twisted leather bracelets on one wrist.  He had long hair hanging past his shoulders, and a goofy grin.  Brian was shorter and more powerfully built, with large pectoral muscles.  He looked solid and reliable.

There were three females: Shana, Molly and Joanne.  Shana was blond and athletic-looking, maybe a swimmer or basketball player.  Molly was Chinese, even shorter than Mimi, and resembled an owl behind round, black-rimmed glasses.  Mimi smiled at her, the only person in the boat wearing a life jacket.  Joanne was short and thick-bodied.  She was blond too, with hair tied in plaits pulled either forward or backward — it was difficult to tell — and glued to her head.  She had small, squinty eyes and a lipless mouth down-turned at the corners.  Stew and Brian were watching her warily from the opposite end of the skiff.

After the students disembarked and introductions were made all around, the Admiral directed his antique craft toward open water.  "Cheerio!" they heard him call.

"Cheerio?" said Stew.

"Right, you lot!"  Adrian began barking orders and loading them down with shovels, trowels, a wheel barrow, sieves, bags, brushes, and boxes of all sizes.  They spent half an hour marching to the rampart and back.

The students sat cross-legged on the ground, hot and perspiring and eager to start this adventure.  Adrian was giving a rundown of the role of Tea Kettle Island in Bermuda's history.  He was pacing along a section of the rampart, sweeping his arm grandly back and forth across the narrow breadth of the tiny country as he talked.  He had begun with the island itself, indicating the features of greatest interest to most visitors, the weathered grey ruins of British military fortifications.  The first fort had been constructed early in the seventeenth century, but had been altered and reinforced several times during the following two centuries.  By the time the island was abandoned after the War of 1812, the defenses consisted of a massive hexagonal redoubt with embrasures for 6 guns at the opposite corner of the island from where they sat, and a rampart running along the tops of the western cliffs, crowned by a thick stone wall with places for six more guns.

Adrian talked loudly and dramatically as he walked from ruin to ruin while the students, seated in the middle of the small, crumbled compound, spun on their rumps to watch.  Mimi was encouraged.  Here was good-old, charismatic Adrian again.  Finally.  Since arriving in Bermuda he had been very difficult to deal with, either temperamental or remote.  The athletic-looking blond girl seemed entranced.  Mimi smiled to herself.

The professor placed a hand on the wall of the old stone house in which the officers had lived.  It was a two-story structure, approximately fifteen feet square, now lacking second floor and roof.  Beyond that, he scuffed a boot along the dilapidated wall of the cramped stone barracks partially dug into the rock.  Here, conscripts had sweltered.  There was also a heap of blocks, the cookhouse, with an old, charred oven carved into a quarried rock face behind it, and the remains of an outhouse with a sluiceway cut through the wall of the rampart to provide direct drainage to the water below.

Dr. Lyon gestured to the low-lying, overgrown middle of the island and explained that somewhere in the jungle were rock quarries, from whence came the rock for the buildings, walls, powder magazines, and the slope-roofed water-storage tank, which they had walked past on the way up from the boat.

The professor explained that the Tea Kettle fort had been constructed to protect the eastern entrance to Castle Harbour, the southern gateway to Old Bermuda.  It was one of a series of small forts built along the southeastern coast of the colony, intended to ward off the Spanish, the French, the Spanish plus the French, and much later on, the Americans.  He had the students stand on the wall of the rampart to picture it.  It took a degree of imagination, because the entrance to the harbor the island had once protected no longer existed.   In 1941, prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, when England had been at war with Germany for two years and the Royal Navy desperately needed ships for convoy escorts, Great Britain received 50 World War I-vintage warships from America in return for 99 years' use of hundreds of acres of prime Bermudian real estate, consisting mostly of Longbird, Cooper's and St. David's islands, but also including smaller outlying islands.  The Americans reshaped much of the countryside and filled many of the gaps between islands with material dredged from the bottom of Castle Harbour to construct a naval air station, which now served as Bermuda's commercial airport.

One of the gaps filled was the channel between Cooper's and St. David's Islands, the strip of water the Tea Kettle fort had guarded for two hundred years.  Since 1941, the fort had guarded a beach, and beyond that, the eastern end of the airport and a NASA downrange tracking station.

Mimi did not climb onto the wall.  She sat quietly on the cooler, writing on small cardboard tags with a black pen. TKI BDA 117, TKI BDA 118, and so on, listening carefully to Adrian's posh pronunciations, noticing how he said words like "cannon fire" and "embrasure" and "powder magazine," and wished she could speak half as elegantly, without the accidental emission of Filipino pronunciations, substitutions of "p's" for "F" sounds, and "d's" or "t's" for "th's."  Her mispronunciations annoyed her, and could be problematical during public speaking.  Hearing herself slip, she would stop cold, unsure whether to try again the bungled word or keep going, and then, as she continued, her mind wouldn't stop hearing the error she'd made and her words would tumble out in fast Filipino bunches with more of the incorrect pronunciations sticking to them like lint balls.  She hated what people thought of her accent.  They thought it was cute. 

Adrian and the students descended from the wall and, while the professor continued to lecture, the undergraduates resumed their seats on the rocks near the pretty teaching assistant.  Mimi didn't say anything until Adrian got to the part about the role of Bermuda in the War of 1812.  He related how the Bermudian-based British forces sailed across the western Atlantic, up Chesapeake Bay, then marched on Washington where they burned the White House.

"Cool!" said Stew.

The others smiled, enjoying the poke at their scary southern neighbors.

Adrian continued, "This, of course, was in revenge for the destruction of..."

The students stared dully, not recognizing a cue to hazard an answer.

So Mimi responded, "York, which is now Toronto."

Mimi loved Toronto, her adopted city, and Fort York, its ancient defense, which still existed as a tourist attraction near the waterfront.  It had been accurately restored to its 1812 layout, save for the elevated, six-laned Gardiner Expressway that now spanned its south-west corner.

She began working at the fort at age sixteen after responding to an advertisement for summer employment, and continued on, working weekends and during the summers, until the end of her first undergraduate year at the University of Toronto.  In the cook-house, in period-garb, she demonstrated bread-baking, tallow candle-dipping and other early nineteenth-century domestic skills to tourists and student groups.  During breaks she watched the other presentations and soon could identify and correct the mistakes of the newer recruits.  If noted historians visited the fort, she would track them down and interrogate them about aspects of the fort or city related to their areas of expertise.   Within a short time she was hugely more knowledgeable of the early history of Toronto than the vast majority of its natives.  She took pleasure and pride in this.  When she was explaining early Toronto to visitors at the fort, she was not an immigrant.  This was her place.

Mimi met Adrian Lyon when, as a newly cross-appointed professor, he accompanied a group of university students to Fort York.  After she had finished her demonstration he thanked her and spoke at length about life in York before the war, about the infrastructure, fires, church, drunken brawls, disease, and someone who died after being bitten by a rabid fox.  He spoke clearly and surely, as if he were reading paragraphs from a beautifully written text book.  She hadn’t known his name, but two years later as a university student recognized him immediately at the first lecture of his undergraduate course that dealt with the history of Upper Canada.  She loved the material.  At the end of term he asked her to consider taking a job as a summer assistant.

Over that summer, gradually, slowly, they found themselves becoming entwined in a relationship that, although not illegal, was considered by most, including Adrian, as improper.  "The flesh is weak," he said.

"We shouldn’t be doing this?" she asked.  "I don’t want you to get into trouble."

"We really shouldn’t do this," he said. 

“But we haven’t really done it yet.” 

After which they did.

"It’s not of great importance to me what people say," he said.  "I have a position that cannot be terminated for something as mutual and genuine as this.  What worries me is what they’ll think of you.  They’ll make it all tawdry.  Some will not respect you, and your successes will be questioned."

"I guess you’re right, we shouldn’t do it," she said, placing her hands on the sides of his face and mushing her mouth against his.
But now Adrian was glaring at her for interrupting the flow of his speech and stealing the punchline.

"Oops," she grinned.  The students were revived.  They smiled back at her.  By saying "Oops," she had made them like her.

On and on went Adrian, and Mimi kept quiet.  The students were unable to absorb any more.  Their thimbly short-term memories were filled to overflowing and the lecture had become punishment.  Adrian was a superb lecturer, a perfect wind-up professor, with the sole flaw a tendency to talk until students got up to leave for their next classes.  The five students on Tea Kettle Island had nowhere to go.  All had been taking notes at the start, but had long since stopped.  Most were now surveying the grey, grainy soil around the buildings and beneath them, curious what surprises it contained.  Molly surreptitiously worked on a pencil sketch of the old house.  Eventually Adrian got to the rules of the island: when they would take breaks, when they would eat, how many liters of substrate they would be expected to process each day, how they would be graded for the course.   Finally, he uttered the greatest understatement heard on Tea Kettle Island since Reginald Chambers said, "Oh dear," a split second before he and Robert Murchie disintegrated.  Adrian said, "We're not alone here."  He was thinking of Derek.  "There is an American, a  Californian herpetologist presently on this island, who claims to be doing some sort of research."  The students didn’t know what a herpetologist was and looked back and forth at each other.

Adrian seemed to be trying to give the impression that Derek was just shy of an axe-murderer.  He described him as having a violent temper, having attacked him on their arrival, and instructed the students, should they encounter him, to say nothing, and immediately walk away, but then tried to comfort the students — who by this point were picturing a madman lurking in the palmettos below — with assurances that he and the Admiral were doing their best to have him removed from the island very soon.

Mimi was about to say, "Oh, he's not that bad," but saw in a dart of Adrian's eyes that he wanted her to keep quiet. She returned to writing on the tags.


No comments:

Post a Comment

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