After making sure the rifle was safely zipped back into its case and deposited within the tent, Michael left Derek, who had finally stopped doing disturbing things to his ears. For now, there were no more kiskadees on Tea Kettle Island, no need for Derek to be tormenting himself over killing them, Michael thought, as he sped across Castle Harbour toward the Fisheries Office at Coney Island. Michael had been sincere in suggesting Derek come ashore for a break. He believed the boy needed to get away from the lizards, from the gun, and from his lonesome self. At least Michael now knew something of Derek's puzzle, had clues to mull over and talk to Evie about, to figure out why Derek was so erratic, why he could so easily switch from cheerful and engaging to distressed and withdrawn.
He wanted to help, believing that he would be at fault if Derek's time here didn't in some way ease at least some of his troubles. He was responsible for this boy. How would he be able to live with himself should anything unfortunate happen to him, which was always a possibility out on the rugged little island. His concerns, rekindled this morning by Derek's odd behavior, were rooted in a secret about Derek that Michael had told no one, not even Evie, about why Derek was in Bermuda.
Michael had been dishonest a year earlier after he received a cc of an email sent to the Fisheries Division. It had been opened and read by many in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Parks, but until Michael read it, no one knew how to respond to it. No one wanted to take responsibility. The email was from a graduate student at the University of California.
Bermuda Department of Natural Resources,
or equivalent department
Dear Sir or Madam:
I will very soon be completing my PhD at the University of California. My dissertation deals with the social interactions within the lizard genus Plestiodon, commonly known as skinks. I have studied most of the species of skink in North America, but one that I have been unable to observe alive is the Bermuda Rock Lizard or skink, Plestiodon longirostris. I am curious about this species, because unlike all others in which males are much larger than females, males and females of the Bermuda skink are almost indistinguishable. If possible, I would like to visit Bermuda and observe individuals of this species to test if their intersexual similarity is related to a unique social system. I would hope to carry out experiments in which adult males are housed together in large enclosures for observations of aggression. All would be released at the locality where they were captured within three days of capture. I expect that none would be harmed. Experiments would strictly follow animal care protocols set by relevant Bermudian authorities and those of the University of California, which are among the most stringent in North America.
I would like to add that I have a strong personal aversion to harming or killing animals in the name of science, for research or for museum collections.
I hope to visit Bermuda this coming year, perhaps with my wife, finances permitting (there is a very good chance I might receive a grant for such a study). Should this come to fruition, could you recommend how or if this study might be accomplished and somewhere we could stay relatively inexpensively, hopefully near a population of skinks?
Thank you in advance for any advice or information.
Derek L. Coulter
Michael was different from the others who read the email. For one thing, he knew what a Bermuda Rock Lizard was and where to find one.
He hesitated before answering, because he couldn't understand why this young man wanted to study the rock lizards. He googled him. The Berkeley page showed his picture. Yellow-haired white boy, skinny, baby-faced. He had fourteen publications, five of which were substantial single-authored papers, a respectable record in a world of umpteem-authored three-pagers. Here was an imminent graduate, seemingly with his research completed, ostensibly with little to gain by studying an esoteric aspect of the life history of a barely-known species on the verge of extinction. The proposed work was not going to add significantly to his qualifications, much less earn him a job, if that was his motivation. And Michael suspected that Derek's intended research in Bermuda would be at the very best a challenge. Aggression? From years of casual observations of rock lizards, Michael was certain that the little creatures would never express aggression to each other the way Derek expected, if at all. Derek's behavioral experiments would be fruitless. In terms of his research, it would be a complete waste of time and money for him to journey to Bermuda. But instead of explaining this in his letter of reply, Michael whole-heartedly encouraged him to come and told him that he and his wife could stay on Tea Kettle Island. It had been a nonsensical act. Now, for the first time, he doubted himself.
He recalled staring at Derek’s image on his computer screen and feeling that this boy should come here for a reason other than studying lizards. He remembered wanting the unknown Californian to come. There would be little harm in it, he believed. If nothing else, the young biologist and his wife would have a nice vacation together, which perhaps they needed. Here was a potential new friend, appearing via the internet out of the blue. Michael tended to trust gut feelings. He also remembered being charmed by Derek's specification he would not want to harm or collect any of the lizards. It had seemed sanctimonious, but also amusingly ingenuous. When Derek eventually showed up, solitary and close to penury, sunglasses plastered to his face, Michael was reminded of the peculiarity of the situation and wondered at Derek's motives — and his own. The Californian didn't seem to have been fishing for a cheap vacation for himself and his wife, which had been Evie's unwaveringly cynical contention. His wifeless arrival showed he had wanted to come here to work.
Now, having witnessed a sample of Derek's ongoing turmoil and feeling partly to blame for it, the Fisheries Warden found himself doubting his impulses of a year ago. "What was I thinking?" he said aloud. He was looking behind at the churning wake of his boat, which stretched in a fading, broadening ribbon out of the harbour and back to Tea Kettle Island. "Why did I do this?"
* * *
The Admiral said, "So, Caliban should be up the other way?" He was pointing at the path to the redoubt.
"I expect he's there," Adrian replied.
"Splendid. Come along, you lot." The Admiral made beckoning motions. "Let's go find the bogey man."
The students were bewildered that the Admiral had not returned to his boat and sailed away, but massed behind him obediently.
"I'll wait here," Mimi said. She sat on the cooler. She wanted nothing to do with whatever the Admiral intended and was angry with Adrian for going along with his uncle’s stupidity. "Wait till Michael, the Warden, finds out about this," she said. "You'll see what a clever idea this was." Stew's CD player was protruding from the top of his knapsack on the ground beside her. She pulled it out and slid the buds into her ears. "Oh, come on, Miriam," Adrian coaxed, attempting but failing to sound engaging, aware that uncle and students were watching and waiting, twenty yards away.
She turned up the volume until his voice faded into the background.
"Hey cool, Mimi's listening to my mix," Stew said proudly.
Adrian said something to the part in Mimi's hair the others couldn't hear.
She walked her legs around to the far side of the cooler.
Adrian said something else. His hands were pleading.
She placed one thigh across the other and tweaked a tiny, egg-shaped burr from the lace of her running shoe. She flicked it aside and looked out to sea.
Adrian glanced back at the expectant faces behind, and then again at the stubborn young woman in front. He was getting tired of this. He dropped his head briefly, and then puffed himself up and marched off to join the others. He announced importantly, "Mimi will stay and guard the gear!" then hurried past the students — who were not so gullible to believe anything was in danger of being stolen by anyone — to catch up with the Admiral, who had tired of the little drama and was enthusiastically approaching his victim.
As Adrian trotted up beside, the Admiral gave him a withering look.
"She's in one of her moods," said Adrian.
Deep in the palmetto grove, Derek buried the evidence, which included the last of his present supply of toilet paper. Uncharacteristically at peace with the visible universe, he stepped onto the path leading to the redoubt. A large male Jamaican anole appeared from the opposite side of a ghost cedar, four feet above the ground. When it saw the human, it flared its dewlap and performed three push-ups. Derek scoffed, and as an afterthought took a half-hearted swipe with his spade. He hadn't expected to hit the lizard, but one of the side-effects of his damaged vision was compromised depth perception. The anole may have been similarly afflicted. It landed in the middle of the path, almost bisected at mid-body, twisted grotesquely around its still-intact spinal column. There were spasmodic twitches of hind limbs and tail, then nothing. Derek stared, disbelieving. The carcass was turning from green to brown as the neural messages charging chromatophores in the skin fizzled out one by one.
"Oh God," he said, "I didn't mean to do that — did I?" He reached forward to prod the sad little corpse, to flick it into the covering vegetation, but something in the guts caught his eye. He bent and carefully tugged at a delicate, sky-blue structure that didn't belong in there. From the body emerged another freshly-consumed baby rock lizard.
"Shit!" he gasped, "These things eat them too!" He kicked the anole into the undergrowth.
The implications of anole predation on baby rock lizards were very serious. It was no wonder there were no young individuals in this population or anywhere in Bermuda. There were thousands of Jamaican anoles on Tea Kettle Island alone. They bred very rapidly, much faster than rock lizards, and were very agile, able to run swiftly on any surface, even the undersides of leaves. Although adult male anoles were no larger than adult skinks, there was an important difference: the heads of male anoles were proportionally much more massive, which allowed the more aggressive species to take relatively large prey. If a hungry male anole saw an infant rock lizard, the little skink was as good as dead. Tea Kettle Island had been the last place in Bermuda colonized by the anoles, about ten years earlier according to Michael. Derek understood: now that the anoles were plentiful here too, there was almost no hope for survival of the rock lizard. As the remaining adults aged and their gonads withered, they would produce fewer and fewer offspring, who would be eaten more and more quickly. No one knew the lifespan of a rock lizard, but best guesses put it at about ten years. How many breeding seasons could possibly remain before no more were born? Five? Four? Three?
And how to get rid of the anoles on this island? There were too many to shoot without poisoning the environment with lead and probably inadvertently bringing down an airliner. All the killing it would require. What sort of person could stand it? He doubted there was an efficient means to trap them, because they weren't attracted to non-living bait, and could easily climb from the crude pit-falls the hapless skinks found completely escape-proof.
He tucked the tiny, blue-tailed body into the breast pocket of his shirt, intending to preserve it in formalin. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Derek saw another anole also taunting him with push-ups. He again swung the spade, and with the flat of the blade whacked the lizard against the side of a palmetto. It fell, twitching, so he scooped it and hurled it against the ground. It lay still, but for good measure he stomped its skull. And then he saw another, eyeing him from the arched axil of a palmetto leaf in front of a cedar trunk, too far away to be clubbed. Derek held the spade like a throwing axe and let it fly, knowing before it left his hand it would follow the linear trajectory in his mind's eye. The lizard was sheared from its perch and skewered spectacularly against the cedar, several feet above the ground.
A massive slaughter was underway. The herpetologist whacked and slashed and stomped like the madman he had earlier pretended to be, his violence fueled by his disgust at his own actions. He was able to convert the frustration and anger over what he was compelled to do into rage, into vengeance against the aggressive, invading lizards. He did well, breaking new ground in the lengthy and revolting history of human destruction of other creatures. Instead of using proven, conventional means—shooting, poisoning, or burning—he was dealing death with his collapsible infantryman's spade, the sawed-off shotgun of excavating tools. After fifteen minutes, he stood sweating profusely at the spot the massacre had begun, above a mound of lizard gore. More anoles skittered nervously through the understory, but Derek turned away, his limit reached. His fury had soured to revulsion and remorse.
After a shake of his head to reorient, to recalibrate, he decided it would be wise to dissect his victims to determine if others had recently consumed baby skinks. He created two rosettes, seven bodies each, tails overlapping. He would suspend them from pinched tail-tips to avoid bloodying his hands. Blood itself didn't bother him, but he was loathe to get it on his palms or in between his fingers, a frightening reminder he had once felt his own blood as he lay on the sidewalk, holding his ruptured eye against his face. He clamped the spade beneath one armpit with the blade extending forward. It bobbed as he walked, throwing red droplets onto his legs. Additional spatters landed from the mangled clusters dripping at his sides, but his hands were clean.
* * *
Mimi turned off the CD player. Stew’s music hurt her ears. Frustrated with herself for lacking the confidence to shame Adrian and the Admiral into leaving the herpetologist alone, she began toting equipment up to the dig, wanting at least to be useful, unlike the rest of them.
On the way back from her first load she felt the sun's heat soaking into her black hair, a further frustration, because she had left her hat on the boat. She wouldn't be able to endure a full day without it. She rubbed her eyebrows in irritation and stared at the silent sloop moored fifty meters offshore, whose little skiff was bumping suggestively against the rocks at her feet. She untied its rope and stepped in. Although she had never before rowed anything, she managed an almost straight course and thus was pleased with herself until she reached her target, where she discovered that stopping a boat was more difficult than making it go. The skiff bounced off its mothership's hull, but before it deflected very far Mimi was able to reach up and grab the small metal ladder hooked like a drinking straw over the stern. She pulled on it and in doing so shifted the skiff, rooted to her feet by the rubber soles of her shoes. With the line of the skiff in one hand she raised a foot to the lowest rung and, as her body moved forward, the skiff moved backward, out from beneath her other foot. She had not expected this equal and opposite reaction, which also yanked away the line she had been holding too loosely. "Oh, no," she cried at the small craft as it drifted. She dangled her free leg in an attempt to snare it, to no avail. The skiff was headed back to the shore.
Adrian and his uncle would have a reason to criticize her, for setting the skiff adrift and stranding herself on the sloop. She could imagine Adrian's sarcasm, how he would remind her of this mistake for days. "Hell," she said. She thought of swimming after it, but the embarrassment of being soaking-wet would be no better than being marooned on the sloop. With nothing else to do but wait for the humiliation, she went below to find her hat.
* * *
Derek emerged from the palmettos to find the Admiral, Adrian, and the students inspecting his campsite. He was instantly re-enraged, with anole-crushing adrenalin not yet entirely gone from his blood. He rushed forward with the spade projecting like a jousting lance. The handle jiggled loose and the heavy blade swung to clip his right kneecap, causing him to release the tool. The clank of metal against water catchment alerted the Admiral, who wheeled to face him. The old man narrowed his eyes and put his hands on his hips.
So did Adrian.
So did Joanne.
The others didn't know what to do and were ashamed at being caught in the midst of someone else's personal belongings. They had broken an agreement made yesterday with the mentally unbalanced herpetologist without knowing why.
Derek was speechless. Indignant rage tended to render him ineffectual and flustered, and put him in greater danger of getting himself injured than had he not sensed that his integrity was under assault. His hands shook, scattering red droplets in a lawn-fertilizing pattern. The dead baby skink in his breast pocket had bled down the front of his shirt and its blood had blended with his perspiration to produce a heart-shot wound. The Californian was far more frightening than the persona he had devised for his first encounter with the students. They were thoroughly shocked, and four of the five seemed eager to leave, but the Admiral acted as though pleased to see him. He smiled, and said, "Helloo," like a child predator. "You must be the biologist." With exaggerated posturing he made it clear he was looking at the mutilated anoles. "I see you've been hard at work, killing our native wildlife. Is this why you're really here, to make a jolly fine collection for your university of rare Bermudian animals?"
Derek wouldn't play along, not at first. He was working on quelling his anger and hoping for a relatively controlled and dignified way to demand that these people leave. It was at least a relief that Mimi wasn't with them. He wouldn't have wanted her to see him suddenly so unsure — and bloodied, like a butcher. As he surveyed the group from behind the safety of his sunglasses, a finger rapidly jabbed within his left ear and the thin whistling tone dropped an octave and doubled in intensity. The asymmetry of sound made him wince and involuntarily jerk his head to the side. To counteract the unbalanced noise he gritted his teeth and growled from the opposite corner of his mouth.
The Admiral was surprised by the reaction, but not deterred. "Well, Dr.... What is your name?"
Derek could see more of what he had already observed in Adrian in this old man. He was patronizing and arrogant. Then Derek recalled he had no reason to fear him or pay him undue respect. There was nothing the Admiral could do to him, Michael had said, and Derek believed Michael completely. The comment about the dead lizards had bothered him briefly, rekindled his guilt, but he brushed aside those feelings and focused on the present annoyance. He had a legitimate reason for being on this island, for doing what he was doing, and felt no need to explain anything to any layperson, wealth or nationality or former military rank notwithstanding. Derek was almost disappointed in a way. This was Michael's "demon?" The Admiral was bandy-legged, about sixty years old, with thin gray hair combed straight back and a ridiculous moustache that halved his face. He was wearing a crisp white shirt, blue shorts, matching knee-socks and shiny black shoes.
What remained of Derek’s adrenalin returned to its corner and sat with a towel around its neck and Derek's hands stopped shaking. But then he heard himself growling. He stopped, and said calmly, "You probably know my name. What difference does it make? Why are you here?"
The Admiral, still smiling, said, "Now, now, no need to be hostile."
Derek began to be drawn in. "I'm not being hostile, I don't think. I'm much different from this when I'm hostile, aren't I Adrian?" He rotated his head slightly to shift the insect-stare of his metallic visor directly onto Adrian, who threw his hands in the air.
The Admiral said, "You know, Doctor...Coulter? I have always found it somewhat impolite, and well, perhaps even cowardly, not to make eye-contact during conversation. Would you mind removing your sunglasses so we may continue in a more civilized manner? If you pardon my saying so, they really are the most dreadful things. It's like talking to a large housefly." He chuckled at his own small joke. The Admiral had recognized the psychological advantage provided by the glasses and wanted to remove it. He didn't understand that the sunglasses served a purpose beyond protecting Derek's eyes from the bright Bermudian sun.
Derek bristled and the lizards plopped to the ground. He crouched and reached for the spade. "You'd better all go," he said. His confidence had faded and his voice reflected this. Obviously there was an unpleasant reason for the archeologists' presence. It was not merely a casual exploration of the island. Despite Adrian's agreement with Michael, a conspiracy had been organized. Derek said, "You have no reason to be in this part of the island." He pointed the bloody blade at the students, who seemed the most vulnerable component of the group. They clumped together naturally, like soap bubbles. He fanned the air in front of them, and said, "Go on now, GO! You know you shouldn't be here! Leave!"
They were startled at having suddenly been included in the conversation, as if they'd been watching a play that had unexpectedly called for audience participation. They made uncertain steps toward the path, then looked back at Adrian, who looked at the Admiral.
Derek saw the chain reaction and laughed derisively. He cut short the return message with a vertical swipe. "LEAVE!" he yelled. "Get out of here!"
The Admiral boomed back, "NOBODY move!" The students bumped into each other, then readjusted themselves. The Admiral approached Derek, but halted as the American assumed a dramatic, two-handed broadsword posture with the spade.
"Back off," Derek said, rigidly.
"What's wrong?" the Admiral hissed, "Afraid of an old man, are you?"
Derek did nothing, paralyzed by an unfortunate upwelling of childhood memories, of being bullied by his cousins, who had been larger and more rambunctious and — unlike Derek and Peter — close together in age, thus life-long, experienced tussling partners. Derek's one effective tactic had been to curl into a ball like an armadillo. His cousins would give up when they realized he wouldn't fight back, that he was no fun, leaving nothing but hard parts, elbows, knees, and head on which to crack their knuckles. In addition, Derek suspected that even though twice his age and funny-looking, the Admiral was not to be taken lightly as a combatant. Derek was no match for a professional soldier of any age, even with a lizard-slaying device in his hands.
The Admiral stepped closer still, until his crisp, white shirtfront was in danger of becoming stained on the bloody apex. "Well, Doctor? What are you going to do to make us leave?"
Derek didn't dare touch the old man, whose stale breath brushed his face, and desperately didn't want to form a defensive ball in front of the students or Adrian — who would tell her. He just wanted them all to go away and leave him alone, what he would yell at his cousins to do. His arms were tiring and he was shaking again.
The sky was split in two by an MD-11 blasting overhead, obliterating Derek's plaintive words, "Just go away?" Everyone except Derek and the Admiral looked up and so missed the first move. The Admiral attempted to snatch the sunglasses, and with anyone else would have succeeded, but Derek protected his sunglasses more ardently than most men protected their testicles. He instinctively ducked and spun, deflecting the lunging Admiral with his right shoulder. The Admiral grunted and toppled onto his prey, who was very rapidly transforming into a spade-toting armadillo. Straddling Derek, the Admiral stubbornly continued reaching for the sunglasses with both hands, alternately over left and right shoulders, an open posture that left a clear path between the handle of the spade and the old sea-farer's testicles, which hadn't been protected very carefully for some years. The Armadillo was about to strike back.
The students heard a "thok," like a heavy ladle falling into a vat of pudding, and the Admiral immediately ceased grappling and slid down Derek's back. Derek stood quickly, shedding his attacker like a heavy winter coat. The old man lay among the lizard corpses with hands between his thighs, and moaned quietly as tears crowded his eyes, preparing to abandon ship. Shana and Molly gasped. Adrian rushed to his uncle.
"Whoa, two minutes for butt-ending!" said Stew in delighted amazement.
"Maybe five minutes," said Brian.
"That was completely uncalled for!" Adrian shouted from beside his stricken uncle.
Derek was pacing back and forth, left and right, waving the spade, frightening most of the students, who backed away. Joanne didn't move. Derek pointed the tool at the men, still down on the rock among the flat and flatter anoles. "Stay away from this end of the island!" He'd been hit in the nose by one of the Admiral's futile swipes and was bleeding. As yet unaware of the injury he turned to the students. Shana had her fingertips in her mouth. Molly was mortified. Stew was standing with his hands in his pockets. Brian was scratching himself. "Good one," he said to Derek, respectfully.
"Go," Derek said.
"Bye," said Stew, who left, followed by all but Joanne, whose face was screwed up like a fist. Derek could only watch as she charged and slammed into him. The spade clattered off uselessly to one side. "Holy shit!" he wheezed as he landed on his back. Pressing protective eyewear to face, he struggled to his feet while she pummelled him blindly. Her punches were solid but inaccurate, most hitting his forearms or the sides of his skull, very much like the blows from his cousins, but more forceful. Leaning away, Derek thrust a foot into her abdomen in an ungainly but partially effective karate manoeuver, and then fled to the wall of the redoubt as she tumbled. She rebounded quickly and pursued him with arms windmilling. He braced himself against the stonework and kept her at bay with an extended leg, until Brian and Adrian arrived to subdue her. They dragged her away as she continued to spit and grunt and leer at Derek.
"Enough! ENOUGH!" Adrian yelled. He led his uncle and students back to the shore.
Alone and in relative silence, Derek walked slowly and sorely to the trampled remains of the anoles. Most were as two-dimensional as autumn leaves on a rain-soaked roadway. The little rock lizard had fallen from his pocket and lay among them, also flattened, useless as a specimen. He limped back to the side of the redoubt and was suddenly overwhelmed. His knees folded and he sat, then removed his sunglasses and placed a hand over his sorry left eye. He started to sob, but stopped almost immediately, startled by the goose-like noise in his throat.
He heard footfalls returning and slipped his sunglasses onto his face, which hurt. It was the skinny, long-haired one, approaching quickly. "What the hell do you want?" Derek demanded.
The student stopped. His face fell. "Uh, Mimi is missing. I was wondering if you knew where she was," he said, quietly.
"How the FUCK would I know?"
"Sorry to bother you," said the student. He turned and hurried away.
Derek watched him go, then swatted himself in the head, an easy and familiar action. He was angry at himself for yelling at the kid, the friendliest-looking of the bunch. He stood to scoop up a pebble and in frustration bounced it against the side of the redoubt. He saw that again there was blood on his hands.
How could the girl be "missing?" Rubbing palms against hips, he set off after the student, keeping a distance until reaching the water tank. He stopped and peered around the corner. The path continued on another fifty yards to the landing area, where the student had just arrived and, Derek supposed, was telling the straggled others of his lack of success in finding her.
Then he heard her voice. It sounded as if she was in the water. Those on shore were looking out and the good-looking blond girl yelled, "There she is, on the boat, Mimi!" Derek hustled around the back of the tank to the other corner, from which he could see the sloop through gaps in a bay grape tree.
Mimi waved to the shore. "Hey!" she called. "Someone hit me!" She was rubbing the back of her head.
"Someone hit you?" Adrian replied, “Who?"
Mimi said, "I don't know."
Adrian shouted, "How did you get out there without the skiff?"
"I took the skiff," she answered, “It got away from me, and floated back over there."
"And re-tied itself to the shore?"
"Mimi, please don't fool around. How did you get there?"
She rubbed her head again. "Did you hear what I said? Someone came onto the boat when I was down in the cabin, and when I came out, he hit me!"
"I didn't see. A man, I think, but it was from behind!"
Derek felt a flash of comprehension and a chill. There were others on the island, and one of them had bopped Mimi on the head. It must have been one of the two he'd seen when the students arrived. Where could they be now? Nine acres of rock didn't provide a lot of room to hide, and Derek covered virtually all of it in his daily rounds. They would have to be moving constantly to stay out of his sight, which didn't seem possible.
He heard Adrian order, "You two, go get Mimi." Then from behind the first corner he spied the beefy boy and the blond girl boarding the skiff, with terrifying advice from the old demon.
The archeologists' crisis was over, but the herpetologist was ill at ease. He walked back to his campsite slowly, warily, pondering the danger of being unaccompanied on an island in the presence of men who stole up easily and quickly — who could be violent. Derek realized he would probably never be able to hear them coming.