The Fever of Clay
A man walking on the water. When Marcella first saw it she blinked her eyes. The morning cast a strange light across the blue of the ocean, illuminated the sandbar like a mist. From her position in the chair she could barely see the lip of it, so the man appeared to be hovering like a water phantom. It surprised her, this anomaly, and she began to feel comforted by this, that someone was out there.
Then she thought about it again. Stamford’s bulk forcing the girl to the desk, pinning her clawed hands back as he leaned over her. He was capable. She understood his strength. He was strong, despite his age. The girl would go rigid by then, surrendering to the pressure of his big hands vised around her wrists. The girl would feel his weight push against her pelvis, the ridiculous whalebone belt buckle he found in the village pushing into her pubic mound, the hot wet breath invading her face as she turned her head away. The legs would open and relax, tolerating the heavy thrusts until it was over. He would be pleasant then, caress her, apologize.
Her stomach tumbled. For God’s sake the girl was his student, barely twenty years old. Stamford had denied it of course, said the girl was getting even, had some sort of grudge against him. He didn’t really want to talk about it. Every time she brought it up he denied it and refused any other questions. Either way, something happened in that room, and it wouldn’t end well. He would probably lose his tenure. Perhaps face prison. It wouldn’t be pleasant. They were primitive here. She envisioned a tomb, a dungeon. Or they’d have to go back to the States, which would be fine with her. And then what? She didn’t know. This was a difficult thing. If he did it, this was rape. The girl would never be the same. How would anyone get over this? How do you put space between it, try to fill in the disbelief and repair it? And how do you keep from going mad?
The studio was an escape. Kadek had built it from bamboo, really just expanded the shed that was already there. It had been blown to splinters once during the typhoon season; Marcella found pieces of her pottery shattered like eggshells as far as the rear of the house. That was the way it was in this tropical vortex, she thought. The assaults came from all angles, often disguised and always relentless. The pottery was a hobby she had started since they arrived here, a way to deal with the insomnia. She used her hands to free her mind, squeezing the texture and essence of something shapeless. There was something to being able to close your eyes and form whatever your hands formed, whatever mass of life was there when you opened them. There was a ritual to it. Let the clay harden. Preheat the kiln. Watch the color of the clay change as it became hot, the metamorphosis of it all. Clay never used to be cathartic, not before. Clay was just clay, a soggy mass jutting out into space, waiting to exist as something grander. Now it held universes, constellations and suns. Clay was enduring now.
There were the other things. She did plenty of volunteer work on the island, helped sew up kids who cut their skulls open while swimming in the rough currents, assisted in births to the village women, but she was unsatisfied. It made her miss the excitement of big city trauma centers. The blood and the stress and the lack of sleep; here she couldn’t find the right sublimation for the sleep deprivation, the right tasks to handle it. The irrational city time was so different from here. Island time was suspended, seemed eternal. It made her think about how different it all could have been.
There were signs, red flags across their conjoined landscapes. She couldn’t deny the signs. His physical assertiveness. She thought it exciting at first, there was prowess in it, the shear rapture of being overcome by him. She allowed it. Put up with the soreness and the bruises for a time. She knew they were moving into dangerous territories. The night he clasped his hands around her neck as he came was the end of it. He didn’t even know he was doing it. And then the remarks he made one night when Se Chan was over –- they were pretty sauced up on wine –- about the dark-skinned girls in the village, how he’d like to share one with her. It was easy for Se Chan to smile, he had divorced his wife, left her in Taiwan years ago. She was sure he had had plenty of the village girls. Later that night Stamford prodded her about it, slid up behind her in the dark. She couldn’t believe he had suggested it, that he even thought it might interest her. She pushed him away.
“You will like it,” he had said.
Marcella told him he was out of control, was going too far. His reply was cold.
“Very well, then.”
Very well then. She wanted to sting him then, remind him of their age difference. She wanted to tell him about the village boys, that she thought about them when she couldn’t sleep. How they entered her in her dreams when she did find sleep, three at a time, their bronzed skin enveloping her like dark cocoons. But she remained silent.
After that it was the way he looked at her, anticipated her movements and words as though she were some stranger in the house. He had been coming out to the pottery studio a lot, his body half hidden behind the doorframe, as though part of him wanted to come in but the other half resisted. He stared at her a long time, watched her work the clay between her thighs, then turned away without saying a word.
The skiff at the dock moaned against the rotted wood pilings. She hadn’t slept again last night and now every sound was ethereal, sedating. Kadek had found the skiff in the village for Stamford, insisted they needed one, although he was the one who used it to fish. Kadek was one of the rare benefits of Morchodos living. Houseboys were affordable and part of the culture. He was like family and Stamford let himself be conned. “We need it, you say?” he said to Kadek, who dragged him into the village to have a look at it as though they were looking at new cars.
Kadek nodded and slapped the side of the old wood stern. “To fish,” he said. He spread his arms out. “Big grouper.”
Stamford preferred the mainland, especially after he considered the age of the old wooden boat. The one time Kadek took him fishing he had gotten seasick, spent the rest of the day on his back eating ice chips. The last storm nearly destroyed it, blew it up onto the shore like a toy.
They were all doomed to wind up like that, blown to pieces by the typhoons or countless other maladies. She had survived so many things. There was her accident last year. She had warned Stamford that it was a sign. The village woman said her body moved through the air in an arc, the machine sliding out from under her on the sea-shelled road. She later found pieces of the shells in her hair when she awoke in the hospital, thought they were giant lice and immediately began plucking them out until the nurse gently grabbed her hands. The woman had wrapped her head in colored scarves as she lay on the road, had a cart full of them to sell in the village, leaned over her and told her not to move in her native Modol tongue. The woman called her “Fortunate One” every time she saw her now, raised her fat arms in a wave to remind her of the way she flew through the air. Stamford talked about how he had seen the scarves as he approached her body from the road, colors licking the wind like downed kites. The old woman insisted he pay her for them so he did, said it took her months to make them. Stamford kept the scarves, said some goddamn thing about the quantum symbolism of the accident, that they’d keep them for good luck. When she awoke at the hospital the fool was wearing one, bright yellow stretched over his mass of gray hair like a pirate, even had the nurse laughing. Her eyes were fuzzy when she awoke, but she had looked at them and asked for a margarita, no salt, asked the doctor if she would be able to make her pottery still, is anything broken. She was lucky, had healed up quickly, did no serious damage to her brain. When she got home she told Stamford she’d walk everywhere now, no more mopeds, even though the house was secluded, some five miles from the village.
Then there was the dengue. Marcella had contracted it earlier in the year, had the fever for weeks before the antibiotics ate the little parasites from her system. Stamford had had it before, so he babied her through the sweat-filled nights, the shakes and the diarrhea. He told her not to worry, he found and squashed the pesky mosquito that gave her the bug, as if a single insect were the cause of everything. There were many times she blamed everything on the dengue, decided that once you contracted it, you’re fucked, even though Se Chan had told her it only lasts about two or three weeks and it’s gone. The island doctor she had seen told her otherwise. It was a virus that could come back at any time for a relapse, and it never gave you warning. She had asked Se Chan if any Morchodo’s fables existed concerning the fever, there had to be ancient Chiefs that were bitten by the day biter mosquitoes, that sat in their huts sweating and moaning and shitting for days on end, but he said no. She was convinced that once it crossed the blood-brain barrier it implanted in your soul, changed the course of everything. She had begun to believe that the dengue had altered both of them, cursed them.
Marcella lost track of how long she had been by the water, had been here before the sun spilled through the atolls. She tilted her head back to look for the village children up on Skiken’s rock. It was too early yet. She looked out to the sandbar again. The light on the island played tricks on you. The man was more solid now, still abstract, incandescent. Now she imagined the vision to be an Eni, a ghost of the ocean, the way the gray dawn light exposed him slowly, a translucent embossment in the horizon. She saw a similar illusion with the flocks of seabirds, the dawn angling the light so they appeared as large white eyes blinking in the sky every time they changed directions in flight.
She knew Stamford would come to find her soon, would wake hung over and twisted in the sheets, jutting his hands out to the empty space. She did not sleep next to him again last night. She heard Se Chan and Stamford laughing well into the morning, had found three empty bottles of good wine on the table. Stamford had been in exile since the accusation weeks ago, had closed the world out. He ignored any calls, even refused to speak at length with Se Chan. He finally agreed to have him over for dinner last night. She had cooked up the fresh mahi Kadek caught that day, seared it with olive oil and garlic, sautéed bok choy to go with it. She told Stamford to get a good bottle of Bordeaux out of the makeshift wine cellar. Kadek had built it, removed part of the wood floor under the stairs to the loft, dug down into the soft floor and poured his own version of cement –- lava sand, coral, and water-- created a hinge door that you peeled up and back, and it managed to keep the wine a little cooler. Stamford had came back cradling the bottle.
“You have gained weight in your seclusion.” Se Chan said. In truth Stamford had been looking gaunt, not eating like he used to. He’d lost six pounds.
Stamford squinted at the wine label and tapped his stomach. “I know the most effective secret diet in the world. Cease eating.” He slid the bottle into the refrigerator. Mocks had been shipping them wine occasionally from the States since they came here.
Se Chan grinned. “We will drink to Kadek and Mocks. Bless their very souls.”
“It will be chilled soon. Let’s sit on the porch. There’s a breeze tonight.”
Stamford slid past Marcella without touching her. She unwrapped the fish and ran her hand over the pink flesh. It was pillowy and fragrant. She waved her hand over the skillet. The olive oil expanded in the pan and gave off a light, fruity scent. “I’m going to put the fish on soon,” she said.
“Se Chan. A beer before dinner?” He said it looking at Marcella, then turned to catch Se Chan’s nod.
She reached to pour a glass of wine from the bottle she had opened, moving her hand over the hot skillet. Her wrist brushed the side of it, and she jerked it away, sending the bottle to the floor. It didn’t break but wine went everywhere.
“Goddamn it, Marcella.” Stamford squatted to save the bottle. He stood and grabbed a towel, moved the skillet off the burner. She held her wrist up and looked at it. It was red, burning.
Stamford went to the freezer, took several ice cubes from it. “Maybe I should cook. We’ll have wine left for dinner then.” He rubbed the ice over her skin and she flinched. It wasn’t a gentle glide, but forced, hurried. When they first met he rubbed her sun burned skin with ice cubes. Sat and stared at the beaded water on her flesh and asked about her family. She told him her father had taught physics at a small college, told him how her father’s face resembled Einstein’s, the sad eyes and wiry gray hair, the sacs of skin under his eyes, the way his forehead did the Einstein furrow when he talked. Stamford used to explain Einstein’s theories to her, seduce her with them. He used her stomach as a blackboard, wrote formulas in chocolate across her stomach before he licked them up.
She jerked the ice from his hand. “No. Go drink your beer with Se Chan.”
No one had wanted to discuss Stamford’s situation over dinner. It wasn’t like before, when Se Chan came to dinner and they sat around getting drunk on wine. The conversations then were spirited, fun. On Friday nights it was dinner and wine and lazy talk, island tales. Se Chan knew every Morchodo’s tale there was, told them with his deep, rhythmic voice, hypnotizing them. He was an adroit raconteur, and they often went late into the morning listening to him. She often wondered if he had the same effect on his students, wondered if he blended stories of the islands with marine biology.
The silence at dinner became unbearable, the sounds of chewing and forks scraping plates monotonous. She had gotten up once to open the shutters, get the cross breeze going, purge some of the stagnant air. You could hear the tree frogs singing in the trees, a chorus of sweet notes.
Se Chan looked at Marcella and grinned. “There was a man once, a simple Modol villager,” he began.
It made her smile. The timing was perfect. She had heard this one before, about a man in the village of Pampov who suddenly became very ill. All the villagers considered him a normal, family man that worked hard carving furniture and musical instruments out of wood and raised his family under God. At night, after a long day, he’d sit with his wife and watch his children play with the bamboo marionettes he had made for them. When it was their bedtime he helped tuck them in, told them stories of dolphins leaping through rings of fire, kissed them on their noses. Yet all this was one life, separate from another. He really lived a secret other life, one full of debauchery. On his deathbed he murmured that he was spinning away from the earth, falling into death.
“Meyoua en kepirepir. Literally ‘spinning death,’ ” Se Chan told them.
Stamford became interested, tried to rationalize it. “Why a spinning death? There are other ways. This island is fascinated with death.”
“As a consequence of a poorly lived life. It is what the chiefs believed, that you were sucked into a whirlpool, that the soul would forever be spinning.” He swirled his wine. “It is not that this island is fascinated with death. They believe in living with it, embracing it. Americans have a difficult time with that.”
Stamford grinned. “Poor bastards. It’s not that we have a hard time accepting it, it’s just that we don’t have the time for it. We want immortality.”
She could not resist. “You seem fascinated by all this,” Marcella said.
“All men are fascinated by legends,” said Se Chan.
Marcella pushed the fork around in the white flesh of the mahi. “No, men like Stamford are fascinated by a poorly lived life.”
This silenced them. Now she wished Se Chan had never brought up the fables. It made her want to discuss the matter at hand, get it out. She wanted to sleep tonight, wanted to know what was going to happen. She stared at Se Chan and waited.
“The good news is no one has come forward to say they saw you in the room with the girl,” said Se Chan.
“I was in the room with her. It’s no secret. I’ve said all along that the girl came to my office with a question.”
“You know what I mean. The girl claims another student saw her run from the office. Her blouse was ripped.”
“You mean she says it was ripped. Good God. The girl could have done that herself.”
“The girl, she comes from a prestigious family on the island.”
“So I’ve heard. She behaves as such.”
“The word is they have ties to Rai Cachone.”
Stamford stopped chewing and looked at Se Chan.
“What are you saying?” Marcella said.
“That the Rai Cachone have their own way of doing things. You know this.”
“And?” said Stamford.
“Perhaps you should hire some security guards until this ends.”
Stamford laughed. “Guards? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I am not. Things happen on the island, Jon. You are not in the States.”
“We have Kadek.”
“I would keep an eye on him.”
“This is silly. Kadek?”
Se Chan didn’t answer.
“What is the University’s stand?” asked Marcella.
“The University will support the girl, not an American professor.”
Marcella looked at Stamford. “Have you contacted Mocks?”
He set his fork down and picked his teeth. “What Se Chan is saying is that this will not go to a court of law. Not like in the States. Besides, you know what Mocks would tell us. Go home.”
“Then what? You are guilty with no proof, and these people decide how to handle this? Perhaps a hanging or a burning at the stake?” She didn’t know why she was pretending. She knew there must be proof. Perhaps Se Chan knew more than he told. She wondered if Se Chan thought he did it.
He shot a glance to Stamford. She couldn’t read it.
“The matter has to be handled politically, through the right channels,” Se Chan said.
“There is no Embassy here,” said Marcella.
“It does not matter. Their advice would be that you should leave, go back to the States. It is normal in a situation such as this.”
She wanted to say it was fine with her. “And your advice?”
Se Chan waved his thin fingers around the room. “You would give up much. This can be handled in other ways.”
She wondered how. Going straight to the family? Paying them money? And lose what? She moved her eyes around the room, a house made of thin wood and bamboo that could be blown to pieces this year by the winds. She wanted to get up from the table. The entire thing sickened her. This was rape. This was a young woman who would never be the same. She suddenly wanted to leave for the States tomorrow and let Stamford work this out. Then she said it. “Has the girl been examined?” She was surprised at the cadence in her voice. Accusatory.
Stamford threw his fork down and glared at her. His face was pale; he looked tired and old. “Marcella. The girl will be proven a liar.”
She looked at Se Chan. “Well? Has she?”
He waited, sipped his wine. “No. The girl refused. It is typical here. A fear of disrupting the spirit. It is bad luck.”
Marcella laughed. “Bad luck. Well that’s ironic. I’d say if she was raped she’s been disrupted.” She pushed away from the table.
Stamford had wobbled into the spare bedroom after Se Chan left, his thick body silhouetted against the window as he stood over her like a gargoyle. She had her eyes open in the darkness, studied the stencil of his hunched form, the wiry hair dancing at the edge of the phosphorus moon light, as though it might tell her something more, reveal the truth. She smelled the wine and unfiltered cigarettes he smoked when Se Chan was around. She waited, listened to his labored breathing. If he moved on her, tried to press his body into her side, she would push him away. He wouldn’t persist, not now. When he finally stumbled out of the room she gazed out the window to the night sky. She heard the hollow timbre of villagers pounding kava plants into the balsam rock, and she imagined it resonating from the stars.
The white hump of the sandbar was exposed more now, puffs of sea birds speckled across it. Black anhingas sat on the dock piling near the skiff, exposing their wings to the wind like muddy crosses. Though it was calm here, the tide was fierce, swirling in small circles out beyond the dock. Marcella heard the shuffle of the pandanus trees, knew he was behind her. He handed her a glass of orange juice, stood there with his red gauze shirt open, exposing his white belly. She ignored him and he set the glass on the chair arm.
“An empty bed last night. Again. Look, why don’t we go somewhere, get off the island for awhile. I will probably take a sabbatical until the girl comes to her senses.”
“You might not have a choice.” She turned her head away, searched Skiken’s rock above them, its green lava hills rising up to the clouds.
He followed her gaze. “Children sleep forever in the village.”
She spoke to the water. “When I manage to sleep I dream of them. That I stand with them on the rock, lifting my robe into the wind, waiting for it to take me over.” She often watched the children playing up on the cliff from the dock, the bright yellow and blues of their clothes blinking against the green of the atoll, spreading their robes like graceful birds into the powerful wind. The best winds were before the typhoons, when they were building in strength. The wind lifted the children up, suspended them in the air like human kites. They used their robes like wings, folded them to their sides so the wind set them gently back on the ground. If it was strong enough, it blew them over the edge into the sea. She had treated many of them for bruised skulls, the ones that banged their head against the cliff but didn’t go over. The lucky ones. Though many children had drowned, still they came. It was like playing on a playground filled with landmines.
“And where did it take you?”
She had forgotten him for a moment. “Into the sea.”
“You are so dramatic.”
She felt him staring at her face, knew the mountain’s shadow and the angled light made her skin appear like clay when it’s in the kiln, the pale amber glow a fever of clay. She hoped she looked ugly to him, unrecognizable, just a shapeless mass. “There’s a man on the sandbar,” she said.
“That white hump floating in the pacific is known as a sandbar.”
“No. Something moved- there!” She pointed.
He looked again, hand to his forehead. The image appeared to furl into the horizon.
“The hell?” Stamford searched the outline of the sandbar for any kayak or small boat. There was nothing. She knew what he was thinking. A person would have to swim through swift currents to get there, and a long way from a boat anchored yards off the bar. Jagged corral surrounded it like an enormous gaping mouth. “I think he’s been there all night. Poor drowned ghost,” she said.
Stamford sat. “He probably fell from some party boat that came up the channel. They’ll be back when the bridge on the east point goes up.”
She glared at him in disdain. “It’s Sunday. A boat won’t get through the channel until three. If Enic is conscious to raise the bridge.” She pictured the old man, flat on his back in the bridge shack, snoring in a rum-coma. “That’s more than six hours in the sun without water.”
“How do you know he has no water?”
She folded her arms. “You’re right. He probably has all the amenities he needs.”
He squinted. “How do you know it’s a man?”
“I’ve watched the village boys.” She leveled her eyes at him, a jab to the groin. “He moves like a man.”
“Shall we have breakfast down here or not?”
“I don’t care. He’s waving to us. He may be injured.”
Stamford stretched his legs out in the Adirondack chair. “Nonsense. Probably drunk. Morchodos’ hellions.”
“For God’s Sake, Jon.”
“He can swim to shore. It’s only 400 yards.”
“In this current? The reefs will make chipped beef of him. You know he won’t make it.”
He stared at her. “What do you want me to do?”
“Take the skiff out there.”
“Nonsense. Ignore him.”
She thought about what Se Chan had said last night. She heard the stories, the Rai Cachone and their ships patrolling the islands, doing what they do, pillaging and taking, using the vortex of the Pacific as a way to disappear. They murdered their own when they had to, the rogues who betrayed them, that didn’t comply. Maybe the ghost man was a rogue, swam to the sandbar and survived. The ghost man was waving his arms in the air. She dismissed her thoughts as ludicrous and paranoid. Aiding and abetting didn’t exist here, not in island reality. The man needed help.
She stood up. “Fine. I’ll ask Kadek to get the boat ready and we will go.”
Stamford set his glass down and glared at her. “Marcella. I won’t be able to get within fifty yards of that sandbar before the coral rips the boat up. I’m not an Olympic swimmer, either.”
She moved toward the path leading up to the house.
“Goddamn you’re stubborn. You don’t have to involve Kadek. I’ll figure something out.”
Stamford stepped onto the dock and started to untie the ropes. His face looked strained, probably recalling his last time on the water when he spent the rest of the day horizontal. There were dried fish scales and blood over the stern floor of the boat, tangled fishing line and barbed hooks. “Kadek needs to clean up his mess. Haven’t we told him?” He climbed into the boat and checked the gas and oil, reached into the cabin trunk to remove an old life preserver. He found a coil of bloody rope, tied it on the life preserver and tossed it to the bow. He reached into the trunk again and jutted his hand under the ceiling plank. The gun was rusted and pitted on its exterior, but he managed to open the chamber to see if it was loaded.
She was amused by his hero act. “How long have you been hiding that thing?” She didn’t like seeing it in his hands. It seemed unnatural, a clumsy deformity.
He slipped the gun under the steering wheel. “Long enough that it probably won’t work.”
“You don’t even know how to fire one.” That got a smirk. “The ghost man doesn’t look dangerous,” she added.
“Regardless of your sarcasm, I will get your ghost man and bring him to the dock. He can walk to the village.”
“I will have the first aid box here when you return,” she said.
“Get the last rope.”
She kneeled and removed the thick rope from the rusted cleat. She tossed it into the boat as he started the engine. It choked a blue puff of oil into the air as he hit the throttle, his head bent into the wind. He had both hands on his hips, the front of his thigh pressed into the steering wheel, guiding the boat as though he were captain Ahab. When he turned to her she didn’t look at him. The old boat sliced through the inlet, opening the water like a wound.
Marcella came over the slant on the sand path from the house carrying the first aid box, pushing aside the enormous pandanus branches and palm fronds. Stamford had told Kadek to clean up all the dead fronds from the last storm, trim some of the larger live ones to lighten the house more. She passed his shirtless bronzed back bent over in the yard, hacking the thick branches with the machete. When she passed him he stood up, his sweaty face covered in dirt.
“More house, no?” he said.
She asked Kadek to work his way down the path to trim the pandanus trees by the dock. Marcella continued on the path, then stopped and turned to Kadek. She studied him. He looked harmless, like a well-fed puppy. How could Se Chan tell them not to trust him? Kadek was from Popolon, the west end of the island, and lived in the village now. She was sure he had heard about the accusations against Stamford.
Kadek looked at the ground, then back to her, his wide cherub face drawn.
She nodded. “Don’t worry”
Kadek’s face widened, all ivory teeth flashing. “No worry.” He bent over and took long swings at the palm fronds. It surprised her to see him swing the blade like that, to see his body become suddenly violent with tension. It made him less innocent, and revealed something hidden. It made her realize that Stamford could be the same, that men could hide things and give nothing away. They had shadows that obscured reality. Kadek turned toward her again and smiled.
Marcella moved through the trees. She saw the turquoise water now, the boat a velvet shadow floating just off the sandbar. A late morning haze had moved over it, blanketing the horizon like yellow silk. She walked further down the path as coconut crabs and lizards scattered for cover. She stood for a moment when she reached the chairs, watched three dolphins curl their blue backs through the water. Telamachus. It was what Stamford called the dolphins. It seemed like a long time ago when he said it, several typhoons ago, back before all this current mess. When they first came here, Se Chan had told them about the legend of Telamachus, son of Odysseus, who had been saved from drowning by a dolphin. The currents fooled even the village people. The islands were full of tales about dolphins saving swimmers from drowning.
The sandbar had grown in length because of the storms this year, now ran a full length perpendicular to the shore. She could just make out the form of the man standing to the right of the boat. She imagined the man would wade into the water, assumed Stamford would throw him the life preserver and pull him in. Stamford would not get into the water if he could help it. The boat’s bow faced her, so any movement in the boat was impossible to see, blocked by the cabin frame. She sat, tried to look away, think of something else. She would tell him when he returned that she didn’t want to do this anymore. She would tell him she doubted his innocence, that she thought he did it. Wasn’t it true? She would go back to the States for a while, maybe try to resume the life she had left behind. She could apply for the nursing license again, could do a lot of things. She needed time to think this through. She needed sleep.
She rested her head against the chair, looked up at the sky. Decades went by. She felt alone. She thought about going back to bed. She glanced back to the boat. Nothing. She wished she hadn’t made him go out there. Kadak could have gone. A white heron flapped from behind her and landed to her side. The bird stuck its long neck out, jerked its head around, examining her. “I have no fish for you today, Henry.” She liked to feed the bird the baitfish that Kadek caught with the cast net. The bird coiled its neck back to a sink pipe, took a graceful step forward with its shiny black plastic legs. It moved across her over to the water.
Quaker parrots squawked from overhead, and when she tilted her head back she saw them. A brilliant swarm of green painted into the blue sky, yellow beaks squabbling over food. Chunks of feijoa fruit hung in their beaks, and pieces scattered to the ground as they fought in mid-air. They set down in a mangrove tree, quickly dotting it with furious green puffs. They didn’t settle; there were explosions of lime feathers as they leapt from the branches, batted the wind madly, and landed again, nipping at each other like angry cats. The caws echoed forever between the atolls, creating the illusion that millions of birds were in every direction. The heron screamed and leapt to the sky in a white mess. They looked clumsy when startled, all tangled in wings and legs. It frightened her. What was going on? She leaned forward to the water. In a rush the parrots took flight, a burst of fury that dispersed, then came together as a mass of green darting across the blueness. She looked behind her to see if Kadak had frightened the birds but saw nothing.
It was suddenly quiet now, like the air after a thunderclap, the ions settling so they could collide again. She only heard the distant squawk of gulls. She was confused. Why hadn’t the heron come back? It rarely left the dock for long if someone was there, usually circled anticipating a possible handout. She examined the scene again. The boat floating in stillness. The sea birds swarming the sky, haloing the sandbar. She had sent Stamford, made him go. Where was the ghost man? She stood up and moved to the edge of the water, scanned the horizon for Stamford’s red shirt. She looked up to the atoll, then to her right, hoping to see the heron.
Her head throbbed. Now she understood. She saw the scene in her head, Stamford cocking the old rusty gun gripped tightly in his wet hands. She saw the bullet leave the chamber and slice into bone and flesh. Then she reversed it, told herself maybe he was too old for that, that the ghost man was younger, agile. The ghost man was trained to do this. It was his duty. She saw the ghost man take the gun away, saw Stamford stumbling back in the boat surprised as the gun discharged. The ghost man would not talk. He would not use the gun on him, either, for fear of frightening the spirits any more than the foreigner already had. He would use a machete, swing it the same way Kadek had, exposing that hidden force that all men acquired from birth. It would slice a leg or an arm, sever the limb completely. It was a preferred method of retort, letting the victim bleed to death. He would do it quickly, in silence, efficiently. This is what you get for the girl, the ghost man would think.
She was burning up. Whiteness flashed in her periphery. The heron was circling above her, trying to decide whether to land again or not, and it darted off near the dock and disappeared over the atoll. She almost called after it, foolishly having the name she had given the bird on her tongue, almost took a step forward as though to follow it. Her own movements were rigid, involuntary. There were small steps back toward the chair, the world of the islands tunneling through her eyes in a funnel. Items weighed in her thoughts, of making the wrong decisions, taking the wrong turn, fucking up her life. Hadn’t she always felt alone here? The last person on the Morchodos. The shadow of the boat, floating out there in empty space, the wide blue sweep of the water. Marcella’s father had told her there was no such thing as empty space. Einstein had written that empty space contained gravity working in the opposite direction, not pulling things down but across and away, giving birth to new universes. Stamford had said it was never proven, but so what? Could it be that all of this was happening in reverse? That clay and all her pottery filled empty space that was never really empty?
Her mind clouded. This is what happens in island time. She closed her eyes. Fire. The sun burned through her pores, heavy on her eyelids, like some force in the universe pushing them in. Head pounding. It was like that with the dengue. The dull thuds of pain behind your eyes. She didn’t fight it, let the heaviness drag her down.
A tired drone vacillated across the water, the rusty propeller struggling against sand and water. She let it move through her and away, felt the wooden chair under her body, realized it was supporting her.
She heard the voice, distant, as though from another universe.
Colors exploded and faded in the blackness behind her eyes. He came up behind her, said it again. The Gods sent the birds away, a storm coming.
She knew his big, dark arms were slung to his sides, one hand clasping the sweaty, pitted machete, the tilt of the sunburned head, the kind face with the blinding smile waiting to be acknowledged.
He wasn’t looking at her. He cast his eyes out over the water, studied the skiff intensely. The wind was stronger. The children. Brilliant yellows and reds blinked against the green rock, the children’s almond arms spread like feathers into the blue. The colors danced until they were obscured by stark wisps of clouds.
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