Tuesday, October 24, 2017

9. Rum & Fishbones

The best he could without a mirror, Derek washed and disinfected the scrapes and assessed the non-bleeding damage.  The tops of his ears was sore from the Admiral's vain attempts to yank away his glasses, he had a fattened lower lip, courtesy of the fists of the strange, violent girl, and the bridge of his nose hurt when he pressed on it, possibly cracked.  He dreaded what he must look like.  Unbelievably, things seemed to be getting worse.

Too agitated to work and too angry to sit still, he paced the top wall of the redoubt with reckless leaps across the narrow outer cuts of the embrasures.  He was debating whether to let today's incident slide, or request of Michael that the archeologists be evicted.  Step, step, leap.  A slip in one direction would cause yet further minor injury; a slip the other way might mean a fatal tumble into the sea, where the larger fragments of Robert and Reginald had landed.  This would be somewhat ironic.

It wasn’t an easy decision.  On the positive side, having the archeologists removed would mean the end of Adrian Lyon, his insane uncle, and the nasty woman who attacked him.  On the negative side, it would ensure he would be lonely except for Michael's visits, and maybe also in danger from the two mystery-men, if they came back.  That they had assaulted Mimi was to say the least, puzzling, and to say the most, worrying.

He had thought of her again.  He wondered if he really wanted Mimi to leave.  He pitied the soldiers who had once been isolated on this island for weeks or months at a time, without even a glimpse of a woman. He sat down to think more clearly, without the distraction of concentrating on not falling to his death, and observed his shadow superimposed on the discarded spade.  Nearby were the mashed corpses, fourteen anoles and one baby rock lizard, none salvageable.  He jumped down and pushed them onto the spade with a stick, then catapulted the conglomerated muck into the sea.

What a versatile tool this is, he mused. He found his Swiss Army knife, another versatile tool, and cut a series of shallow notches into the shaft on the left side, upward from the metal collar that held the blade in place.  He cut fourteen, representing the anoles.  Then he cut a single notch on the opposite side to represent the baby rock lizard.  Then he cut a second for the rock lizard eaten by the kiskadee.  Then he turned back to the left side and cut two more for the kiskadees he had shot.  He wondered how to represent the old man’s testicles. No, that that was too much.  He lay the spade down and folded his knife.

Watching the circling pairs of tropicbirds made him drowsy.  After a short snooze on the rocks he awoke, stiff, sore, and imprinted on the damaged side of his face with the rough texture of limestone, which did nothing to improve his features. 

That evening, long after the Admiral had retrieved the students and the sun had descended onto the lumpy mattress of mainland Bermuda, Derek finished his supper and cast a longing look at a bottle of dark Bermudian rum that thoughtful Michael had given him.  He knew Adrian and Mimi had remained on the island, because he had watched the departure of the archeologists.  He remained undecided on the eviction issue, but was leaning toward inaction.  He didn't want to punish the four decent students for what the others had done.  There was the other reason, too, the real reason.  Nigh two weeks alone on the tiny island had played havoc with what remained of Derek's common sense.  A soft hand had disconnected a fistful of plugs.  Shining teeth had gnawed through bundles of color-coded, insulated wires.  The Californian herpetologist was a tiny speck, living on a tiny speck, in the middle of an enormous ocean covering much of a planet that was yet again, little more than a tiny speck.  No wonder the rock lizards were in trouble.  They were only seven inches long, very tiny, all things considered.

He decided to go talk to professor and graduate student in hopes of engendering a more friendly arrangement than had developed so far, and then maybe also discuss the problem of the mystery-men.  But what if he came upon them as they were a second time fornicating on the rampart?  Could it only be the second time?  It would kill him, seeing her with Adrian again.

"To hell with it," he said, speaking aloud like a hopeless nutcase.  "I must deal with this."  He would stride on over under the guise of making a friendly truce — or of demanding an apology — whichever Adrian deserved, depending on his reaction.  Whatever would happen, would happen. 

*   *   *

Mimi stamped on the pop can. It squirted from beneath her shoe and clattered down the slope.  Derek came from the shadows and stomped it flat.

“Oh, hi!” she said.

“Hi,” he said. Then he paused, and seemed confused about where he was.  The sunset was reflecting off on his sunglasses. It made it hard to read him.  He was dressed nicer than before, in a pale shirt with a collar and dark shorts, tennis shoes without socks.  He said, “Ah, I want to talk with Adrian.”

“He’s on the wall, smoking a stupid pipe,” she said.  They looked.  The archeologist was on the rampart, silhouetted against the sunset, smoking a stupid pipe.

“Thank you,” he said.  He walked past her.  He was holding a bottle.

“I was flattening the cans to make sure the lizards wouldn’t get caught inside,” she said.

Derek turned.  “That’s good.” He opened his mouth as if to say something else, but then bent to one side and stuck his finger in his ear.  “Damn,” he muttered.  Then he continued on to Adrian.

She followed.  Well this held promise, unless Derek planned to throw the bottle at Adrian’s head.  The American hopped up on the wall three feet from Adrian and placed the bottle between them.

Adrian looked at the bottle, then at Derek.   He asked, "What are you doing at our end?" 

"A gift," Derek said.  "I want to smooth the waters."  He added, " — and remember, please, this is not your 'end.'  I go wherever the lizards are.  I promise, I won't harm anything here.  I have no reason to."

Adrian picked up the bottle.  "I don't drink," he said, and handed it back.

Great, he was screwing things up already.  Mimi said, “Since when?”  She reached up for the bottle, and read the label. It was rum.  She said, "We have some Coke to mix with this."

Adrian was tapping his pipe.  He said, "No, Mimi.  We have a lot of planning to do.  I have a lot to explain before tomorrow." 

She ignored him.  He still didn’t get it. They had to make friends with Derek, especially after today, before Derek told the big man what had happened.  She took plastic cups from a bag and a two-liter Coke bottle from their cooler.  She had drunk rum and Coke before, but had no clue of the correct ratio.  She figured it would be better to have too much rum rather than not enough.  “Thank you for bringing this, Derek,” she said.  She stared at Adrian and made a rigid, nodding motion.  It meant, Smarten up.

Adrian rolled his eyes.  He pantomimed reading his watch, a non-digital model nearly invisible in the feeble light.

Mimi lifted three full cups onto the wall, and then reached to Adrian’s arm to anchor her as she clambered up.

He pulled it away.  "Ow, my sunburn!" 

She fell back to the ground, barely managing to land on her feet. "How many times did I tell you to put on some sun-screen?  Four?  Five?  Even I use sun-screen.”  She stepped over to Derek.  “Would you help me up?"  He leaned to extend his arm. She grabbed his wrist.  His hand clamped around hers, and he pulled.  Her sticky sneaker soles allowed her to scoot up to the top. She sat between the men.  She handed out the cups, took a sip from her own, and said, “Yikes.  Too much I guess.”

“Ugh,” said Adrian. “Is there any Coke in here?”

Derek took a big gulp.  “It’s perfect,” he said. He drank some more. “Okay, not perfect.”

Adrian said, “So, really, Derek. The purpose for your visit.”

Mimi said, “Adrian…”

“Three things,” said Derek. “First of all, how is your dig going?  Find anything good yet?"

Adrian narrowed his eyes.  “Why would a herpetologist care?”

Derek said, “Because it’s interesting?  Isn’t it?  Isn’t that kind of the point?”

Adrian was slow in responding.  Mimi knew he suspected bullshit.

"Nothing so far," said Adrian.  "It's a slow, meticulous process."

"But you've already dug a lot.  A couple of the pits are quite deep."  He pointed at the ruined barracks.  "Have you found any coins or anything?"

"No," Adrian said.  "It's not like looking between chesterfield cushions."

“In California we have old guys in Speedos with metal detectors.  They find Rolexes and other cool stuff.  You should add one of them to your team.”

“Yes, we should have thought of that,” said Adrian.
“I don’t think he was being serious,” Mimi said.

“Sure I was,” said Derek. 

“You were not.”  Again, because of his glasses, she couldn’t read him.  She thought of something that would draw him out a bit. She said, "Maybe you can help us with the bones."


She put down her cup, slipped from the wall, walked a short distance to a cardboard box.  She delved through a heap of partially-filled resealable plastic bags.  "Here."

Adrian said, "Forget that.  We'll leave those to the experts."

"Maybe Derek is an expert," she said, walking back.  She put the bag on the wall, and said,

“One of you please help me up.”  This time Adrian reached for her.  Mimi resumed her seat, and passed the bag to Derek.  It contained about a quart of mostly small, brown bones that had been collected from the soil below one of the windows of the old house.  She said, “It seems to be part of a food midden. Maybe you can tell us what the soldiers were eating."

"This is a waste of time," said Adrian.  "He won't be able to see anything in this light, especially since he's still wearing his sunglasses.”
“That leads to my second question.”  Derek pressed on the nosepiece of his sunglasses. “Why was your uncle trying to steal my sunglasses?”

Mimi said, “Uncle Morris tried to steal your sunglasses?”  She had heard the story from Shana and Stew, but wanted to hear Derek’s version.

“He did,” said Derek.  “Right off my face.”  Then he leaned forward to dig around in a back pocket.  He pulled out a small penlight.  He clicked it on.  It had a bright blue beam.  He jiggled the bag to rearrange its contents.

"Be careful," said Adrian, "those samples are fragile."

"Why did the Admiral try to steal his sunglasses?" asked Mimi, to Adrian.

“I think he was trying to make a point.”

Derek replied, "That he's a psychopath?"

"If you're trying to smooth the waters, I would recommend that you not refer to my relatives as 'psychopaths'."

Derek handed the light to Mimi.  She pointed it at the contents of the bag.  "That's good," he said.  He said to Adrian, “What did he want? He obviously wanted to pick a fight.”

Adrian said,    “Your reaction was cowardly.  You could have injured him seriously.  He isn’t a young man.”

Derek dropped the bag onto his lap and said, “What is it about your family that makes it difficult to understand that assaulting a person might result in that person defending himself?”  His voice rose. “Have you ever been unexpectedly assaulted by a stranger, to the point where you were seriously injured?”

The vehemence was startling.  Mimi and Adrian glanced at each other.

And then Derek suddenly smacked himself on the head with the palm of his right hand.  He repeated, “What the hell did he want?”

“He, I don’t know what he wanted.  I think he wanted to make sure you weren’t interfering with us. He thought he was being helpful. He is a very impetuous personality... and he is, I suppose you could say, a little eccentric.  But he means no harm."

Derek asked, "Has he ever killed anyone?"

"Jesus, what a question."

"I mean, even with something as impersonal as a heat-seeking missile, people who kill strangers for a living have got to be a bit more than a little eccentric, no?"

Adrian responded, "There are things that the soldiers of our countries must endure that you and I will never comprehend."

Derek said, "But so what?  There are also things that the dry-cleaners of our countries must endure that you and I will never comprehend."

Mimi could not help but laugh out loud at that, then contained herself, saying, "Oh, sorry."

Adrian said, "I don’t know the details — he won’t talk about them — but I know from my mother that he went through hell in the Falklands conflict."

"So thirty or whatever years later he gets to beat me up and steal my sunglasses?"

"You’re exaggerating.  It was a misunderstanding.  I’m sure he regrets it."

"A misunderstanding?  He came, he saw, he attacked."

"You weren’t being particularly hospitable — nor have you been since we arrived.  What was that nonsense with the students yesterday?  You were quite an ass."

Derek gulped down the rest of his rum.

Mimi said, “Hey guys, calm down.  Things were almost going well for a while here.”  She could tell Derek was angry.  “Here, you can have my rum,” she said, pointing at her cup.  He took it and drank .

“Okay, sorry,” said Derek. “But if this arrangement is going to work, I think it would be best for everyone if he stayed off the island."

Adrian said, to Mimi’s surprise, "I agree.  I’ll see what I can do."

Derek said, “Thank you.”

Derek returned his attention to the bag and said, "It contains fish vertebrae mainly."

"We know that," said Adrian.  "What kind of fish?"

"I can’t tell, not my field.  You'd need a comparative collection, but being from the ROM, you already have one.”

“You call it the ROM?”  Mimi was surprised that Derek knew the Royal Ontario Museum’s popular nickname.

“Of course.  We call all museums by their acronyms. I also know that the ROM has the best natural history collection in Canada, and is especially strong in coral ecosystem fishes.”

“How would you know that?” Adrian asked.

“I know people who work there.  I go to the same conferences, and attend their presentations.  They are excellent scientists.  I get drunk with them in cities all over the world.  They’re fun people.”  He gulped down the rest of Mimi’s rum.

“You know people from the ROM,” Adrian said.

Derek listed the names of two curators and four graduate students.

“I don’t know those people,” Adrian said.

“We mix in different circles,” Mimi said.

“To your loss,” said Derek.  “I’ll write those names down for you.  You should look them up when you get home.”  Then he asked, "Do you know what this thick bone is, above my finger?"  He held the bag so that a short, stumpy bone was visible through the plastic.

Mimi asked, "It’s not a fish bone?"

"No.  See how much more heavily calcified it is?  It’s from a mammal.  I would guess it's a metacarpal, a distal forelimb bone, similar to a human hand bone, probably from a pig.  They must have kept pigs on the island.  That must have been fun for the lizards."
"Neat," said Mimi. “See?  He is an expert, even in the dark with his sunglasses on.”

“Fine,” said Adrian.  “Come back tomorrow when the students are here and go through as many bags as you want.”

Mimi smiled at Adrian.  He had said something intelligent, if he wasn’t being sarcastic. Things might be working out.

Derek handed the bag back to Mimi.  "It could be quite a story," he said, "a record of all the species that have been destroyed since humans arrived, and now, as a sad addition, you and your students are here, witness to the last days of another species — the Bermuda rock lizard."

Adrian asked, "Why are you so obsessively concerned with these lizards?"

"I don’t know," said Derek.  “I love underdogs.”

Mimi said, "I think the students would be very interested in this, and they'd appreciate the help with their samples."

"I'm bored a lot of the time anyway, and it gets pretty lonely," he said.  "I've been here two weeks, with only short visits from Michael Spencer to keep me company.  It might be fun to work together to get a complete history of this island, zoological as well as human."

Mimi looked to Adrian.

“Sure, fine,’ he said. “I have no problem with that.”

Michael Spencer is a bit scary," said Mimi.  “He’s huge.”

Derek laughed. “He’s not scary.  He’s a teddy-bear.”       

She shouldn’t have said anything about Michael.  The mention of him irritated Adrian.  "Excuse us, Derek, but I have to ask you to leave, now.  We really are busy.  Please take the rest of the rum with you."

“Hang on, I have a third question, for Mimi,” said Derek.  He asked, “Why was one of the students looking for you? The long-haired one told me you were missing."

"Not this," said Adrian.

Mimi gave a run-down of what had happened.  She said, “It all started when I porgot, forgot my hat.” She described how she had rowed to the sloop, found the skiff was difficult to control, that it got away from her, and that after she finally found her hat — it had been knocked onto the floor, under a table — and came back out of the cabin, someone hit her over the back of the head.  "Here," she leaned forward and took Derek's hand.  "Feel this," she said.  She took his hand and pressed his fingertips through her hair to a small egg behind her right ear.

"Huh!" he exclaimed, and yanked his hand away, as if it burned to touch her.  She looked at him, puzzled, and then continued her story.  She tumbled back into the cabin and the door slammed behind her.  Afraid, she locked it, then, after waiting a while, cautiously opened a window and called for help, "but everyone was still with you," she said to Derek.  "And then in a while I heard voices and saw everyone, so I came out."

Derek said, “The morning your students arrived, there were two men up there, on the house, looking down at you. That’s what I was talking about before.  I saw them from the spout, but then where did they go?  Where was their boat?”

Adrian said, “Crazy story time is over. Thanks Derek for coming by.  I’ll keep my uncle off the island and we’ll let you know if we find any coins.”

Derek pushed a button on his watch that caused a little blue window to show on his sunglasses.  He said, “In about seven minutes the ocean is going to become an orgy of light.”

Mimi said, “What?”

“You should come and see this, said Derek. “The fireworms, Odontosyllis."

"What's that?" asked Mimi.

He explained that once a month, three days and fifty-six minutes after the full moon, the fireworms swam from the their sandy burrows in the shallows to the surface, where they engaged in suicidal sex.

"What?" she laughed.

Adrian sighed in exasperation.

"They break apart and squirt their gametes into the water," said Derek.

"Really?  How big are they?" She was picturing exploding dew worms.

"Small," said Derek, "but the reason they're worth seeing is that they fluoresce.  They glow.  They find each other that way.  The summer months have the most spectacular shows."

"That's amazing.  Let's go."
Adrian held her wrist.  "Miriam, we didn’t come here to watch worms.  Honestly, we have plans to make.  I have to explain something to you, about the course."

She pulled away.  "I'll be right back.  I'm not in Bermuda every day you know.  I want to see this."  She dropped to the ground.  She wanted him to come.  She didn’t want him to come.  She would give him the choice. "Come and see it.  Come and see it with me."


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