Wednesday, November 1, 2017

1. Purple Light

Derek Coulter was lying face-up on a weathered limestone wall, envisioning his leap.  In high school he had not been good at gymnastics, but had mastered one vault, the simple one in which you placed your hands smack in the middle of the horse and threw your legs to one side.  If you landed upright on the smelly blue mat you threw your arms smartly in the air.  This was what he hoped for, except for the jubilant ending, a leap smooth and dignified — please, not klutzy, a misplaced hand leading to a face-plant on the International Orange rail, followed by an uncontrolled bloody-nosed descent.

He had finished a day of catching, measuring and releasing skinks on small and rugged Tea Kettle Island, Bermuda.  It had been a cruelly hot day, where humidity clung like hot, damp flannel.  He was accustomed to the hot dry heat of western deserts, not this kryptonite.  What had kept him going all afternoon was the thought of a 6-pack of Amstel beer that his sole contact with the outside world, Fisheries Warden Michael Spencer, had included in yesterday’s box of supplies.  The cans had spent almost twenty-four hours submerged in cold water.  Derek had placed them in a plastic bucket with square knife-holes cut around the base, and lowered them with a yellow nylon rope deep into the cistern in the middle of the island.  For a reason he couldn’t understand, the water in that ancient cistern was unnaturally cold.  It didn’t matter why that was.  What mattered was that cold beer would solve everything, at least for a little while. 

And now the remaining cans were beading wet, propped next to him. He was perched on the rampart, a stone wall eight feet tall and five feet thick that had been built atop a high and ragged cliff.   It had been designed to shrug off anything the Spanish Navy could lob four centuries ago.  That it had never been battle-tested was to Derek a shame.  He would have liked to have seen a cannon-ball dent.  

He turned his eyes westward, waiting for the sun to sink onto the lumpy mattress of mainland Bermuda, which was a continuation of his coping habit of sitting on his deck in the Berkeley hills, waiting for the same sun to sink behind the most glorious suicide machine in the world.  Four beers in, he mused morbidly that it was appropriate he was studying a lizard on the verge of extinction.

A large airplane, white with a red maple leaf on the tail, materialized above the island and glided overhead, landing gear dangling, almost noiselessly dropping down, down, until its tires squirted blue smoke half a mile distant.  The reverse thrusters roared, which kicked the ringing in his ears up a notch, as loud noises typically did.

Inside the jet people were feeling the tug of deceleration against their seatbelts.  Two weeks earlier, Derek had experienced that same sensation, staring out the window at the pretty pastel houses with their stepped, whitewashed roofs.  No doubt a large number of those on board were honeymooners, holding hands, beaming, mouthing, “We’re here!"

“Fuck off,” Derek said, and rolled back, adding to the dents in his skin.  “There are too many damn people in Bermuda already.”

He chugged down the fifth can, belched, and lay down.

The stone wall was hard and rough.  He removed his sunglasses, pulled his t-shirt over his head and folded it into a small square.  He positioned it carefully and again lay down.  That solved half of the discomfort.  The wall beneath his tailbone remained hard and rough.  What the hell, it was hot and he was alone.  He stood up, dropped his shorts and folded them into an attempt at a cushion and crouching, strategically positioned them beneath his naked buttocks.  He replaced his wrap-around sunglasses and after readjusting the t-shirt pillow, wormed onto this slightly more comfortable surface and closed his eyes.  He would rest his eyes until the setting of the sun.  His stomach growled, causing him to wish he had eaten a proper meal.  Since his wife left he had been letting things slip, had been eating poorly and drinking plentifully.  He thought of the upcoming year without her, the desperation job he’d had no choice to accept, and said, “Please God, no,” to no one in particular.  Within a few minutes he had passed out, the final can warming in his hand.

Two hours later in purpling light he was sound asleep, thus didn’t notice a 2-masted motorized sloop pulling a small aluminum dinghy as it sailed past, taking a path that would suggest it was headed for the lee side of the island where there was a level rock ledge suitable for the offloading of humans and supplies.

"Cheerio," the Admiral called.  He was old, but the kind of old referred to as “spry.”  He had strange facial hair, a broad moustache that tapered sideways to connect with his sideburns so that the bottom half of his face seemed left behind.  He was standing spraddle-legged at the stern of his motorized, forty-two-foot sloop.  It was an extraordinary boat, constructed from genuine Bermuda cedar, with decks thickly lacquered and buffed to brilliance.  All instruments and fittings were authentic brass pieces from the early 20th Century.  A sharp-edged Union Jack fluttered behind from a diagonal pole.  Mimi Villanueva, who had just disembarked, thought the sloop pretty, but that a speedboat with large outboard engines would have been more practical.

Adrian was the tall man standing next to her.  He said, "Right, now let's get this show on the road, shall we?"  He strode across the beach to the path that disappeared into the trees.  He had taken the hurricane lantern, leaving Mimi to choose from the big pack, the cooler, and the tent.  She rubbed her eyebrows, and then squatted to wrench her arms through the straps of the pack.  She stood and centered the load without flipping over like a ladybug, but her first two steps sank her feet deep into the soft sand and she needed quickly to splay her legs to keep from pitching forward.

"Adrian!" she called, into his torn footprints, "Where are you going?"  He was already out of earshot, making a beeline for the old house up by the rampart.

Derek Coulter’s first reaction to being prodded in the small of the back with a stick was to incorporate his pet cat, Roy, into his dream, in which he was lying on a grassy hillside, watching himself walk down into the grove of towering eucalyptus next to the biology building.  Roy was trying to settle down on top of him, what he always tried to do.

He swatted at the stick without waking up.  "Get lost, Roy," he said.

Roy clawed him again, this time at the base of his neck.

"Speak to me.  Who are you?"

Well this was wrong.  Roy was in many of his dreams, but never talked because that would have been cheating.  Roy was not clever enough to cheat.  Plus he probably wouldn’t have been speaking with a British accent.

"You, wake up!”

Derek jerked awake in purple light, again under attack from his nemesis, the Berkeley eye-gouger, the bastard who had ruined his life, who had arrived on the island as he slept and now was brandishing a stick, trying to gouge the other eye.  Fortunately, this time Derek was wearing wrap-around sunglasses.  His mind cleared partially, enough for him to make use of the only weapon at hand, his last unopened can of beer.  In high school he had been a pitcher on the baseball team. He had been pretty good at that.

The pack on Mimi’s back had become part of her.  It couldn’t be shaken off.  The straps bit into her shoulders and rubbed against her collar bones. With each step, the bottom of the frame banged the soft back of one or other knee, trying to topple her. She didn’t know exactly where she was going, or where Adrian was, but, expecting him to backtrack and meet her, continued laboring up the path, head down, wide-eyed for roots and rocks. Twice she was jabbed in the arms by very sharp-leaved plants she couldn’t see to avoid. She paused at a quarried limestone slab to prop the pack and wipe dampened strands of hair from her eyes, and above her pulse heard Adrian shouting.  At who, her? Bracing smooth heels against rough stone, she stood and wobbled to the top of the slope.  She saw Adrian first, down on one knee, holding his head.  Then she saw a second man, a naked man, jump down off a wall, holding something heavy, a pair of binoculars.  We was about to swing them at Adrian. “Stop!” she yelled.

The beer can, after caroming off the stick-man’s head, had skittered across the rocks, spirally out foam from a leak.  Derek kept track with his ears as it rolled downhill. He hoped he would be able to retrieve it before it bled out.  His eyes were steady on whoever it was with the stick.  This British-voiced person was not his eye-gouging nemesis.  Derek had no clue who this person was. In addition, a short, dark-skinned young woman was lurching forward, yelling something.  Inexplicably, she toppled backward.  Something had grabbed her from behind.

Mimi freed one arm and then the other from the backpack.  Ready to run, she shouted, "Adrian, what's going on?" 

The stick-man was back upright, but had been separated from his stick by the beer can.  Derek’s mind was ineffectively abuzz, the combined effects of adrenalin and alcohol and a sudden realization of pantslessness.  There.  He heard the beer can clunk into something and stop.  Good, it didn’t go too far.  With any luck the leak would be directed upward.

The stick-man ran to the young woman, held her arm and demanded of Derek, "Who the hell are you, and what are you doing on this island?" He was rubbing his forehead.

Derek had leapt back atop the rampart and was doubled over against the darkening sky.  He had his t-shirt, but the shorts were missing.  "Where the hell are my pants?  Where the hell are my pants?" he said.  He yelled, "Would you please just back off till I find my pants?"

They backed off a little.  "You're an American," said the stick-man.

Derek jumped down and approached, holding his t-shirt like a bull-fighter's cape.  He felt the young woman's stare and stopped to hastily tie it around his waist.  He said, "You’re not allowed to be here.  This is a nature preserve."

This information seemed briefly to confuse the newcomers and had the effect of calming things down.  The stick-man and the young woman looked to each other and the woman shrugged.  The stick-man said, "It's also an important historical site.  I'm here to take charge of an archeological dig."

This claim held an unwelcome ring of believability.  Derek said, "On whose authority?" 

"Look," said the stick-man.  "I'm Dr. Adrian Lyon, Curator of New World Archeology at the Royal Ontario Museum."

Derek knew where that museum was.  He had borrowed specimens from it.  These people were from Toronto.  They were probably on that plane with the maple leaf.  He said, “You don’t sound Canadian.  You sound British.”

“It doesn’t matter what I sound like.  People like me work all over the world!”

“Yeah I know”, said Derek. “But you felt it necessary to point out that I was American.” 
Then he said, “You should try to calm down.  You seem upset.”

“You threw a can of beer at my head!”

“You came out of nowhere and jabbed me with a cedar branch.  Those things are hard as iron.” He rubbed his neck.  “ What was I supposed to do?”

“For one, you’re supposed to be wearing clothing.”

“Why?  I wasn’t expecting company.”

The young woman asked, "Ah—have you guys stopped fighting?  Is this situation more-or-less okay now? ”

The men looked at her and said nothing.

“Good,” she said.  She turned to leave.

Derek said, "Watch out for the Spanish bayonets, the yucca-plants with the spiky leaves."

She said, "I already know about ‘dat," and then headed down the path.  Her accent was partly, not entirely, Canadian.

Derek asked, "And she would be your assistant?"

"My doctoral student.  She'll be the teaching assistant for our course."

"What course?"

"In conjunction with carrying out a dig on this island, we’re teaching a course on field archeology."

This was very wrong.  Derek said, "No way.  As I said, this is a nature preserve. You folks have landed on the wrong island.”

Adrian said, "No, we haven’t, but you seem to have.  You’ll need to go back to your campsite, if you have one, and gather up your belongings, if you have any, and be prepared to be removed in the morning. This island is off limits to everyone except us."

Derek took one last glance at the wall for his pants. They weren’t in its shadow. They must have fallen off the other side, and into the sea.  He said to Adrian, "I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be here.  I have authority to be here, from the Bermudian Fisheries Division.  I’m a biologist, here to study an endangered species, the Bermuda rock lizard."

Adrian said, “I doubt there is such a thing.”

“It’s a species of skink,” said Derek.

“A what?”

“A member of a large family of lizards, the Scincidae. Bermuda’s only endemic terrestrial species is the Bermuda rock lizard.  This island is one of their last remaining habitats.” It was difficult to sound or feel convincing while not wearing pants.

“I’ve never seen them. I camped out on this island as a boy. There are no lizards.”

“There sure are.  Anoles too.”

“Where are you from?” Adrian asked.

“The University of California.”

“Which campus?”

What?  This guy wanted to engage in institutional dick-sizing?  Fine.  He gave a 10-inch answer.  “Berkeley.”  No Canadian institution could match that.

Adrian tilted his head and squinted at Derek.   He said, "I'll consult with the Bermudian authorities first thing tomorrow to have them find you another island to do whatever it is you think you need to do here."

Derek said, “Wrong.  Tomorrow I'll show you the lizards, and then I’ll get the Bermuda Fisheries Warden to take you and your students to another island. This archipelago is packed with crumbling old forts."

Adrian seemed about to say something, but then waved his hand and said, "We’re losing light."  He wheeled around and disappeared down the hill, into the palmettos.

“You owe me a beer,” Derek said.  He found the can and popped the top to drain whatever might be left.  It wasn’t worth the effort.  As he walked back to the rampart to drop it in with the other empties in his backpack, he said with a pompous British accent, “Look, I’m Dr. Adrian Prick-face, Curator of Marching Around with a Pole up your Ass at the Royal Ontario Museum of Go Fuck Yourself.”  He found his flip-flops, and climbed onto the wall for one last look.  Yes, his shorts had fallen into the sea and drowned.  “Fucking hell,” he said.

Once he felt his new enemy had had a sufficient head start, Derek headed down the darkening path.  He almost tripped over a nylon bag, which had been discarded by the young woman, the alleged doctoral; student, who was seated on the limestone slab a little farther along and seemed to be fiddling with her sandal strap.  He was mistaken.  She was pulling at a spine from of a prickly pear that was stuck in her ankle.  He had suffered similar injuries from the ground-hugging cactus.  Once the spines penetrated the skin, any motion anchored them deeper.  Their needle-fine tips, once they hit moist tissue, curled and held tight. What made them even more difficult to remove was their short and smooth shafts, providing almost nothing to grip.  They hurt like hell.  She glanced at him.  Derek wordlessly strode past, but then felt ashamed.  He backtracked and knelt in front of her, mindful of the hang of his shirt.  "Let me help," he said.

"It’s a thorn. It won’t come out. I can't pull it hard enough."  Her voice was taut.

"Hold your leg still, okay?"  He clamped her ankle with his left hand and slid his sunglasses up into his hair.  He pinched the shaft.  "You have to rotate them.” A twist of his wrist and it was out.

"Ow!" she cried and pulled her leg away, which sent him tumbling.  The apex of his tailbone bounced off a limestone cobble.

She drew her knee up and across herself to examine the wound.  He hurriedly flipped his sunglasses back down. "That really hurt!" she said, poking at the minuscule bloodspot.

Derek stood, wincing at his own pain.  “It’s the only way,” he said.  “Sorry, I should have warned you.”

She said, “No.  It’s better now.  Thank you.”

He said nothing and sidled away from her, mostly backwards. His left butt-cheek was in open air.

She said, “I'm Mimi Villanueva.  I'm a graduate student in archeology at the University of Toronto.  Adrian is my supervisor."  She extended her hand. 

He stepped forward and shook her fingertips.  Their softness made him aware of his own hand’s roughness.  He said, "I'm Dr. Derek Coulter."  He rarely referred to himself as "doctor" non-facetiously, but the archeologist had set the rule for this island.  "I'm a biologist, a herpetologist, from California, here to study the endangered Bermuda rock lizard."

"Oh."  She smiled.  “That’s very interesting.  You’re an academic too.”  Her teeth were bright, even through sunglasses in what little twilight penetrated the canopy.  She said, "You pulled a thorn out of me.  Some day I'll have to pay you back."  The teeth flashed again.  She was hugging her knees.

"Some day, like maybe tomorrow, you could push your supervisor off a cliff.  There’s a good one back there, where we met.”

The teeth disappeared.  She said, hushed, "That’s just him. He’s not always all that great with people. Forget about it."

Derek dearly wished for his pants.  He said, "I want you to know I’m not generally a crazy naked person.  Usually there’s nobody here, and it is hot, and so…”  He continued, “I was asleep and he poked me in the neck with that stick.  I was dreaming and I thought he was someone else, someone dangerous.  I wasn’t even fully awake."  He tugged modestly at the edge of his t-shirt, adjusting its position.  

She said, "Don't worry.  It will make for a funny story some day." She added, "You shouldn’t be embarrassed, you have a nice body."

His face became hot.  He was thankful it was almost dark.

“I probably shouldn’t have said that.”

"Well, goodnight," he said.

They heard footsteps.  Derek stepped back from Mimi as Adrian came upon them, carrying the cooler.  He looked at Derek, then at Mimi.

"I had a cactus thorn stuck in my ankle," she said.           

Adrian gave Derek a dirty look.  Mimi gathered the tent and Adrian let her step past, and then gave Derek another dirty look before following her up the slope to the rampart.

The herpetologist reached down and his fingers found the ragged cobble that had injured his tailbone.  He could see the pitch, high heater, but didn’t throw.  He squeezed the stone hard until he had made a moonscape of the heel of his hand.  

Adrian and Mimi weren't having much success erecting their new tent.  There weren't enough poles, or pieces of rope were missing, or something.  It didn't seem to have corners.

"Can there possibly be such a thing as a spherical tent?" asked Adrian.

She let him carry on fruitlessly for a while, and then said, "We can sleep under the stars tonight.  It's nice out."  She couldn't remember ever having seen so many stars.  She spread her arms skyward and spun in a circle, causing the universe to spin in the opposite direction.  She inflated the air mattress with a foot-pump while Adrian continued fighting the tent, flipping it over and back, as if this would cause it to relent and reveal its secrets.  Once the mattress was inflated she zipped the sleeping bags together, took off her clothes and burrowed into the fluffy, cool lining.  "Oh Adriannn, oh Professor Lyonnn…" she called, to lure him from his latest foe.

He grudgingly gave up.  He balled up the tent and hurled it into a clump of buttonwoods, and then looked down at her, in response to which she pulled the edge of the sleeping bag up to her eyes and fluttered her lashes coyly. He removed his shoes and shorts and joined her.

She rolled astride him.  “Hi there,” she said.

“No, not tonight,” he said.  “Not here.”


“No, not here.”

She rocked on him, but got nothing. She sighed and rolled off. “What’s wrong? Show me where the beer can hit you on the head.”  She attacked his scalp with both hands. 
“Stop that.” 

"Don't be mad."  She tickled him.

"I want to sleep, Mimi."  And then she was staring at his back.


He didn’t answer.

"You are not helping," she muttered in her first language.

"English," he said.

She waited until she was sure he was asleep before saying her prayers, which were not in English until she got to the end.  "Good night," she said. She opened her eyes.  A satellite was creeping across the sky.  It winked at her, and then it was gone.

At his camp at the other end of the little island, Derek plucked a pair of shorts from the clothesline he had strung between two ghost cedars and pulled them on.  His hammock, slung between one of the old dead trees and a spike embedded in a mortared seam on the side of the redoubt, the most substantial stone defensive structure on the island, was swaying gently, beckoning.  He rolled in.  The sharp stick of the archeologist and the soft fingers of his student briefly fought each other in his head, but their argument dulled to irrelevance with the recollection that the big man would be here in the morning. The big man would make the intruders go away.

Then, as happened every night, Derek thought of what he feared was his future, of the place where he would be employed within half a year if something significantly more promising didn’t come along.  His empty stomach hurt and he wished he had eaten a proper meal.  He didn't want that job, but with his wife and her income gone, Derek couldn't wait around for something less like absolute hell.  "Please God, no," he said to no one in particular.

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