Friday, December 2, 2011

Cross-pollination.

Because I'm unsure how (or why) to continue this blog now that the Golden Age of Blogging has passed and we are bumping our way down the enteron of endlessly morphing and remorphing social media--and because no one has read this story lately, I'm tossing its beginning in here.  (The links at the end lead back to its home site, where you may read on for hours of suspense and glee.)  If you have enjoyed my Interpreter Stories and already know what a skink is (Blogger spell-checker apparently doesn't), you might want to give it a try.  It'll make for joyful holiday reading while surrounded by extended family and other yuletide nonsense because it has nothing to do with any of that.

Apologies and gratitude to those who have already read it. You kind people please feel free to click elsewhere. 
*          *          *
One

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 been drinking beer and was drowsy.  He closed his eyes.  Subtropical sea air flowed over and around him.  Well this was nice, a relatively quiet moment.  The ringing in his ears was almost imperceptible.
            Then an impulse caused him to open his eyes at exactly the instant another airplane a telephone-pole or so overhead glided past with its landing-gear dangling.  He rolled left to watch, which hurt because he was naked, and rolling naked on weathered limestone hurts.  Because he had been drinking, it didn’t hurt as much as it otherwise would have.  The plane traveled the gap between Tea Kettle Island and the airport, going down, down, down, until blue smoke squirted from its tires, followed by the punching rumble of the reverse thrusters, which caused Derek’s ears to squawk.
            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!”  It was a white plane with a red maple leaf on the tail.
            “Piss off,” Derek said, and rolled back, adding to the dents in his skin.  “There are too many damn people in Bermuda already.”

"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.  Miriam 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’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.
            "You, wake up!”
            Derek was jarred awake in purple light by 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 he was wearing wrap-around sunglasses.   His mind cleared partially, enough for him to reach for the only weapon in sight, the 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 beer can, after caroming off the stick-man’s head, went skittering across the rocks. It had sprung a leak and was spiraling out foam as it headed downhill. Derek froze. This person was not his nemesis. He 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 dropped his stick.  Derek’s mind was ineffectively abuzz, the combined effects of adrenalin and alcohol and a sudden realization of pantslessness.  He heard the beer can roll to a stop somewhere.
            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 the side of his head.
            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 are 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.  Crap.  Derek asked, "On whose authority?" 
            "Look," said the stick-man.  "I'm Dr. Adrian Lyon, Curator of New World Archeology at the Royal Ontario Museum."
            Derek thought, These people are from Toronto. They were on that plane.  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.  Did I hurt you? You seem upset.”
            “You threw a can of beer at my head!”
            “You came out of nowhere and jabbed me with a cedar branch.  What was I supposed to do?”
            “For one, you’re supposed to be wearing clothing.”
            “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."  She rubbed her arm and 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 addition to carrying out a dig on this island, we’re teaching a course on field archeology."
            "No way.  This is a nature preserve. You folks have landed on the wrong island.”
            Adrian said, "We have not, 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 resumed the search for pants, walking along the shadow of the wall. They must have fallen off the other side.  He looked at Adrian and said, "I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be here. I have authority, from the Bermudian Fisheries Division.  I’m a biologist, here to study an endangered species, the Bermuda rock lizard."
            Adrian said, “There’s no such thing.”
            “It’s a skink,” said Derek.
            “A what?”
            “A large family of lizards. 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.
            “University of California.”
            “Which campus?”
            Ha. He had fallen into the trap. “Berkeley.”  This was a heavyweight answer. No Canadian institution could match that clout.
            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.  "We’re working here.  We're losing light."  He wheeled around and disappeared down the hill, into the palmettos.
            “You owe me a beer,” Derek said. He walked to where the can had bled out and popped the top to drain whatever might be left.  He then walked back to the rampart to toss it in with the others in his backpack.  He found his flip-flops, and climbed onto the wall for one last look.  It seemed his shorts had fallen into the sea and drowned.

The archeologist had been given a sufficient head start. Derek now followed down the darkening path.  He almost tripped over a nylon bag, which had been discarded by the young woman, 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 the spine of a prickly pear 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.  Like porcupine quills, they possessed recurved barbs, but were even more difficult to remove because the exposed shafts were short and smooth, 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  poked at the minuscule bloodspot.
            Derek stood to go.
            She said, “Thank you.”
            He said nothing and sidled away from her, mostly backwards. His left butt-cheek was in open air.
            “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."
            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 a 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 hang.  
            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 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 said, finally, "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 the opposite way.  She inflated the air mattress with a foot-pump while Adrian continued battling the tent half-heartedly, flipping it over and back slowly and staring at it and repeating this in the chance that its secrets might leak out.  Mimi 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 the uncooperative Nylon and Gore-Tex blob.
            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 to her eyes and fluttered her lashes coyly. He removed his shoes and shorts and crawled into the sleeping bag.
            She rolled astride him.  “Hi there,” she said.
            “No, not tonight,” he said.
            “C’mon.”
            “No, not tonight.”
            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.
            "Adrian..."
            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 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.

4 comments:

Susannah (Wanderin' Weeta) said...

Nice! I might even re-read it over Christmas.

Don't be too quick to bury blogging. It's got a lot of life in it yet!

biobabbler said...

ah... delightful. GREAT. Thanks!!!

Oh, lord, PLEASE don't abandon us here in the blog-o-sphere. Like many things, you can just pay attention to the things you like, and ignore the rest.

And just post when you wanna.

Your posts are among my very most favorite, be they photos and brief, always funny/clever captions, or your lovely fiction.

Do you care to hear about anyone's favorite little bits in your writing?

k. 'nuff begging for today. =)

Sally said...

Ah, wonderful! 'Bout time I reread it! Maybe I'll find those passages I wanted to mention to you.

You made me care about the Bermuda rock lizard-- hope they're doing okay!

Hugh said...

Thanks Susannah. I am continually impressed that you are able to produce on a daily basis a consistently fascinating and very interactive blog. I don't know that I've ever been able to do that. I started to lose hope in the practice of blogging a while back. A major blow was the quiet yet sudden hanging up of the blogging mitts by Pablo of the incomparable Round Rock Journal. Others have dropped away since, fewer newcomers are joining in, and festivals are withering away. It seems no one has time for the investment required. It's not dead by any means, but as with all things internet, despite being indelible it is definitely not permanent.

BB, Thank YOU, and thanks for the Twitter shout-out. I love the unique upbeatness and humor of your blog's content as much as I, as a science-boy, love the content. I'm not going to quit blogging, not yet, but I'm starting to wonder about what comes next.

Thanks Sally, I'm happy to hear you liked it enough to read it again, and still appreciate your helpful commentary the first time through. As for the rock lizards, they're still hanging in as far as I know.