Wednesday, October 18, 2017

14. The Man 'o War

The next morning, the students arrived at the dig-site shortly after 8 AM.  Mimi was waiting on the wall.  She dropped down.

"Hey there, Mimi," Stew called happily.

“Hey there, Mr. Stew,” she said back to him.

Brian placed the cooler in its usual spot, and she sat.

They formed a semi-circle around her.  She lifted her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes.  Her hair was uncombed.  She looked tired.  "So, how was your night?" she said.

“Can we please stay here with you?” Shana asked.  “Last night he forced us to learn how to play cricket.”

“He got so angry, he intentionally beaned Brian,” said Stew.

“It’s called an LBW,” said Molly.  “Leg-before-wicket, even if it hits you in the head.”

“In baseball, you go to first.  In cricket, you’re out,” said Brian.  “What a stupid sport.”

Mimi asked if he was okay.

He nodded.  “Can’t hurt me in the head.”

“I want to see,” she said, springing to her feet, and before Brian had a chance to move she had his head pushed to the side, looking for damage.  He squirmed beneath her moving fingers.

“Sit still,” she said, pushing his head the other way.

“You had it right the first time,” he mumbled. 

She pushed his head back and looked him straight in the eye.  He was sitting cross-legged.  She was squatting in front, still holding his head.  Then her hands dropped.  She said to Shana, “Y’know, I wouldn’t mind if you stayed here if there were the facilities for it.  This island is a little frightening at night, and it would be nice to have a few more friendly bodies around.”  She resumed her seat on the cooler.

“Friendly bodies?” said Stew.

Mimi sensed they were inferring that something had happened last night that had not.  She quickly changed the topic.  “Here’s what we’re going to do.  I want you all to get up and go over to the rampart there, and stand in two lines behind the first embrasure.”

“What for?” said Shana.

“You are a crack nineteenth century artillery squad, and you’re going to fire a 12-pounder cannon.  Your target is the NASA downrange tracking station.”

They thought this was a terrific idea.  Mimi drew a cannon on her clipboard, described how it would sit and the mechanics of its firing.  She explained to each his or her rank and duties and led them through the steps and timing.  She knew the drill by heart from Fort York demonstrations and did her best to bark the orders.  Within fifteen minutes they had successfully taken out both tracking satellite dishes.

“Now let’s nail the Admiral’s house,” said Joanne.  Everyone laughed heartily except Joanne herself, who seemed dead serious about it.

"Okay, time to dig,” said Mimi.  They groaned.  Mimi said, “Now if you all don’t mind, I’d like to leave you alone for a short time.  I have to talk to Dr. Coulter about something.  I’ll be back in less than an hour.”

Shana looked at Stew.  He made a face of dumbfounded amazement back at her.

“Everybody drink lots of water, and is everyone wearing sunscreen?”  Mimi gave a quick hug to Molly, who was standing next to her, and waved to the others before heading down the path.

Shana said, "You can get into a lot of mischief in less than an hour.  I told you this would happen.  We shouldn't have let her spend the night alone with him.  Now she's all mixed up."

Stew rolled his eyes, "Oh, cut it out.  Maybe she’s going to ask if we can go dig at the other end."

Brian added, "So what even if she slept with the guy?  It's none of our concern."

"Shana replied, "I don't care if she messes up her own life at night, but during the day she should be here with us.  We paid money to come here. I didn't come all this way to be ignored!"

Stew said, "There are worse places to be ignored.  I would rather be ignored here than many other places."

Shana was upset.  "Well, I'm going to see what she's doing.  This isn’t right!"  She scrambled to her feet.  Stew grabbed her shirt-tail.

"Let it go," he said.

"Hands off!"  She broke away and scampered down the hill in pursuit of Mimi.  She slowed as she passed the water tank and stepped lightly up the path to the redoubt, where she hid behind a buttonwood.  Between the scraggly branches she could see Derek's tent, but no sign of either Derek or Mimi.  Then the side of the tent bulged, a movement within.  Hmm, she thought.

Mimi emerged with a cloth folded in her hand.  Shana hunched lower and held her breath.

Mimi opened Derek's cooler and dipped the cloth.  She pulled it out, wrung ice-water from it, and then held it by the corners to shake it open.  It was a blue-and-white face-cloth.  She placed several pieces of ice in the center, and then refolded it around them.  She crawled back into the tent.

Shana could hear murmurs, but felt she had seen enough.  She returned to the rampart.

"Well?" asked Stew.

"I'm not sure," she said.  "I think Derek is sick."  She told the others what she had seen.  After a short discussion it was agreed that the situation seemed morally acceptable.

They set to work, but as they dug and brushed, sieved and bagged, they thought about how the course was being run.  They were doing their best to be understanding and not too demanding, but as the hour wore away and then went past they all came to the same conclusion: whether or not the herpetologist was ill, their teaching assistant should be helping them.  Maybe Derek needed her, but they needed her too, especially since Dr. Lyon had abandoned them.

Joanne threw down her trowel and climbed from her pit.  She had found nothing but fragments of snail shells, and was fed up.  "Where is that girl?" she demanded, what they had all heard Adrian say about Mimi on more than one occasion.

"I have to ask her a question, too," said Molly.

"Yeah, screw this," said Brian.  "I'm not gonna work my ass off if the teachers aren't here."

The students went on strike.

"We could go snorkeling," said Shana, cautiously, as if it were a sin.  Several had brought fins, masks and snorkels to Bermuda and had been bringing them to the island each day, hoping Dr. Lyon would relent and let them try them out among the innumerable intriguing caves along the shore.  Brian, Stew, and Shana changed into swimming gear, and Molly and Joanne accompanied them down from the dig site to watch.  The three snorkelers waded in at the beach and started swimming east along the shore, past the large rock that comprised the lid of the teakettle, toward the stairs that climbed to the rampart.  Land-bound Molly and Joanne followed.  The tide was low and they could walk on the slippery, uneven shelf of limestone jutting below the overhanging cliffs.

“I really should be heading back,” Mimi said.

"That’s fine. I'm all right, go back and check on the kiddies," said Derek.

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm okay," he said.

"But it's swollen.  It looks bad.  I feel completely awful about it.”

"Look," he said, "My face is a mess, I know.  But I've learned to live with it.  It was a mess long before you hit me, and don't worry about that.  It was my fault."

She made a frustrated growl.  She knew she was needed at the dig, but wanted to tend to Derek.  She had walloped his bad eye, and a blood vessel had broken, flooding the cornea  and causing swelling in the tissue damaged from his original injury.  Mirrorless, he was unaware that he looked considerably worse than usual.  After his head cleared, he had found a flashlight next to his hand and clicked it on.  He was on his back with the rifle across his chest.  Mimi was hanging above him, one hand holding back her hair, the other covering her mouth.  She had looked as if she were about to cry, or vomit, or both.             

He said, "I'll go with you.  Where're my sunglasses?"  He sat up in the tent, which was becoming nauseatingly hot, and pawed around the edges until he found them.  "Let's go," he said, sounding as if, really, he would rather not.  He was suffering, and he knew that she knew it, and the way she was worrying over him provided a certain satisfaction.  He crouched to crawl out, but there wasn't enough blood in his brain to get him to the opening of the tent.  He tipped forward onto his hands.  "Yeow," he said, as the nerve endings in his face came on line. 

"Oh, Derek," she said.

He rolled back to a seated position.  "I'm okay."   His ears kicked in.  "I'm OKAY," he said louder, defiantly, and used his heels to pull himself forward, into the soft, warm air of the island.

She helped him stand but his legs were wobbly, so he sat.  His head throbbed.

She pressed the icepack against his forehead.

"Ummm," he said, "that feels good."

Then she removed the icepack and brushed the hair and sweat and icewater from his brow with the side of her hand.  On this cleared space she placed her lips, and kissed. 

"Yeow," he said again.

"That hurt?"

"Nope," he said.  "You made me all better."  To demonstrate, he rose slowly to his feet.  "Let's go."  He held his hand back and she took it.

They coasted down the path through the palmettos, past the water tank, up the opposite path to the rampart.  As they neared it, their moist palms fell apart.

"Where are they?" she asked.

They climbed onto the wall and could hear voices below, somewhat to the right of where they stood.  There were splashes and the "sp-loot" of water being ejected from a snorkel.

"They're swimming, " said Derek.

Mimi and Derek walked the rampart until the splashes and laughter were directly below.  Stew swam out from the base of the cliff, far enough to be visible.

"Hey!" Mimi yelled, but he was face-down and didn't hear.

Before she could yell again, agonized screams erupted from near the base of the cliff.  It changed to a bellowing cry, "Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck!"  Then there was splashing, then silence, then the sound of resurfacing, and another, panicked "Fuck!"  It was Brian.

Derek and Mimi clutched each other as if that would prevent whatever had gone wrong from becoming worse.  Brian's cries continued and became mingled with yells from Joanne, and shrieks from Shana.

"What's going on?" Mimi shouted.

Amid the chaos, Derek heard the quiet word, "Jellyfish."  Molly had seen it, but was unable to warn them.  They had been making too much noise.

"Hell," said Derek, who had seen the dangerous Portuguese Man o' Wars from time to time in the waters surrounding the island.  The blood deserted his head again.  He let go of Mimi and slid from the rampart onto the eroded crest of the cliff.  He leaned over as far as he safely could and yelled at Molly and Joanne, who were on the ledge below, "Get him out of the water!"  Then he lost his footing.

The impact - after a drop only ten percent the height of the traffic deck of the Golden Gate Bridge - almost knocked him out, but the salt sting and his name being screamed from above jolted him back as he went under.  He surfaced in front of Stew, who was swimming back toward Brian, who was floundering, white-faced, in ten feet of water.  Joanne was squatting low, reaching vainly to grasp his arm.  Clinging to her other hand was Molly, who had anchored herself like a limpet to the face of the cliff.  Derek was revived by a nudge from Stew and flailed ahead of him to Brian, whose eyes were rolling.  The big boy seemed about to sink.  Derek wrapped an arm around him to drag him to the rocks.  From the corner of his good eye he could see the purple float of the Portuguese Man-o-War drifting harmlessly toward the airport, but then, to his horror, discovered that the gelatinous tentacles had detached and were wrapped like a necktie around Brian's shoulders and chest.  A stray strand washed against Derek's cheek, which felt like a row of needles injecting acid into his skin.  He screamed, swallowed seawater and lost his grip on Brian, who was now less than three feet from safety.  Stew swam past and pushed Brian up to the rocks, where he was grabbed by Joanne and Shana, who had climbed from the water farther down and picked her way back along the ledge.
Half up on the jagged limestone, Brian came back to life and resumed hollering curses.  The tentacles were eating through his skin.

"Scrape off the tentacles!" Derek shouted from the water.

The students were petrified.

"Use a stick or something!"  Derek yelled, but they didn't react, utterly confused.

Derek pulled himself out recklessly and tore his knees and palms on the rocks.  He looked around fruitlessly.  After hesitating for a second, against his better judgment, he reached and plucked the tentacles from Brian's skin with his bare fingers.  "Ahhhh!" he cried, as microscopic cnematocysts fired poisonous barbs into his hands.  The tentacles stretched away from Brian and snapped like weak elastic bands.  They flew back across Derek's forearms.  He howled and flicked his arms toward the water, causing the tentacles to fragment and slide off, but leaving burning stripes on his skin.

Mimi had run down to the beach and worked her way along the rocks, following the route taken by Joanne and Molly.  "Oh, oh, oh, oh," she was saying.

Brian lay twitching, eyes closed, grinding his teeth, making jerky, bus-driving motions with his arms.  The skin above his pectoral muscles was raised in long pink welts, as if he had been flogged.  Derek was on bleeding knees, bent double next to him, squeezing one hand with the other, breathing rapidly through his nose.

Mimi put her hand on Derek's back and on a spot on Brian's shoulder that did not seem to be inflamed.  "Oh, what can we do?" she asked.

Derek grunted, "There's nothing we can do unless you have some meat tenderizer in your pocket.  We just have to wait until it stops burning."  He sat back with his shoulder against something soft, Molly's leg.  His weight pushed her against the sharp points of the cliff face, but she stoically bore the discomfort.  They all stayed very still, and at least one was praying.

Brian's breathing gradually deepened and slowed and he opened his eyes.   He smiled gamely at his worried colleagues.  Then he looked at Derek.  "Fuck, Dr. Coulter," he gasped, "what the hell happened to you?

Derek was shocked.  He put his numb fingers to his eye.  All the faces were staring as his all-important sunglasses dangled uselessly around his neck.  He frantically tried to manipulate them with shaking hands, fingers half-paralyzed by jellyfish venom, but the earpieces detached from the cord, one side, then the other.  The sunglasses plopped into the water and spun to the sandy bottom.  He moaned and covered his face.

Mimi felt the pain of something irreplaceable being lost.  "Everyone up at the dig site in five minutes!" she ordered.  "This wouldn't have happened if you had been doing what you were supposed to be doing!"

Stew stretched his mask over his head and dove to retrieve Derek's glasses.  He placed them on the rocks and swam away around the corner, following the others without a word.

Once certain they were alone, Mimi used the front of her t-shirt to wipe droplets of seawater from the sunglasses, then pushed back Derek's head to dry his face.  She dabbed carefully around the eye. “It’s okay,” she said.

“I wish it was,” he said.

She slid his glasses over his ears and kissed him again, this time on the mouth.  "Thank you for saving my student.  Now let's go have some lunch."  She stood and smiled down on him.

Derek sat still for a moment, running the tip of his tongue across his lips.  He tasted salt.


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