Chapter Eleven
Soft Rabbits and Hollow Hopelessness

   Monday was a school holiday. When Justin asked if Issy could come along on the charter, Cedar hadn’t hesitated. She didn’t take the girl as a favor. Simply put, Issy lit up the world around her. Perhaps because her parents were missionaries, she lived each day like it was a heavenly gift. The girl also knew how to work. She had been out on the boat before and put everyone to shame. By the end of the day, even Cedar couldn’t keep up. If she hadn’t been too much, too close, Cedar would have hired her to come out with them weekends and summers.
  When Cedar, arranging Danishes on a tray on deck, heard someone singing James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, she looked to the dock. Issy was pushing the cart of tanks. Justin carried a cooler behind her.
   Cedar whispered to the Danishes.
  “Good God almighty.”
  Issy wore a string bikini. Head to toe, the girl was skin and smooth curve without blemish. Cedar glanced down at her own legs and said a silent curse. No Danishes for her this morning.
   Issy swung one unnerving leg and a tank on to the Wendell Holmes.
   “Top o’ the morning, Mrs. Mahoney! Thanks for having me!”
   How could it be anything but? The girl looked like a fawn. Justin looked like a buck in the headlights.
   My son is a ruin and so is my breakfast.
  “The pleasure is always ours, Issy. I made Danishes.”
   To fatten you up.  
   She couldn’t even insult the girl in her subconscious.
   Issy eyed the gooey pastries as she eyed everything else, with unconcealed delight
  “I could eat the whole tray,” she said.
   “You could,” Cedar said, “but we have our customers to consider.” She gestured to the paper bag beside the tray. “There are napkins, cups and forks in the bag. If you don’t mind arranging everything so it looks pretty, I’d be obliged. Justin can get the tanks.”
   Issy started before she finished asking.
   Cedar looked to her son. Now was not the time for a lesson. She doubted he was even aware of his mother’s presence.
   She did not look up.
   “Yes, Mrs. Mahoney?”
   “Might you put on a tank top and shorts before the divers arrive?”
   “No problem.”
    The tank top and shorts only accentuated her figure. There was just no winning.

   They had a full boat of ten but it felt like half that because the divers, all men, were polite and organized, and they clung to Issy’s every suggestion like unabashed clams. Not one to put pride ahead of a tight ship, Cedar had Issy do the pre-dive briefing.
   It was the kind of day dive operators dream of; no one left anything at the dock, no one got seasick, no one drifted off for Hawaii. First they dove a wreck and then, after a pleasant surface interval, a nearby reef pass on the outgoing tide. Both wreck and reef were fat with color and life. At the wreck, a Japanese destroyer, a school of barracuda some forty strong hovered in the water column, their chain mail forms glistening in the sunlight.
   Back at the dock the tip jar swung madly, but what Cedar liked most was the sound of laughter disappearing down the dock.
  Even on perfect days everything had to be washed down and stowed away, but they finished the job in half the time. Issy worked in an efficient flurry. One day, thought Cedar, she would have many someones snapping to. She wondered how the girl handled Justin, who drifted from moment to moment as easily as a leaf.   
  When they finished rinsing the boat and the gear, Cedar pulled an envelope from her file folder and held it out to Issy.
  “A day’s wage, plus one-fourth of the tips,” she said.  
   “No thanks, Mrs. Mahoney.”
   “I insist.”
   “Nope. You saved me from getting sunburn.”
   Justin smiled.
   “Mother to one and all,” he said.
   Issy waved a finger at Justin.
  “It was nice of your Mom to look out for me. You didn’t tell me to cover up.”
   No you didn’t.
   Their teeth were white, their faces smooth; their eyes fairly glowed. It almost hurt to look at them.
   “I can’t let you work for free, Issy,” Cedar said.
   “I can’t work for anything else. I got to dive for free.”
   Missionaries don’t give in and neither do their offspring.
   “Fine then. Refuse dinner and you’ll never set foot on this boat again.”
   “You’re a tough negotiator, Mrs. Mahoney. Thanks. Dinner would be nice.”
    Poised too. Was there any reason she should like this girl?

   Dinner was nice. She took them to the Thai restaurant she knew Issy favored. They talked and laughed and drank sweet tea, and Cedar ordered a second glass, even though she knew it would go right to her thighs. Mr. Na Songkhla, the owner, a jolly man shaped like a jelly bean, came over and sat with them for a few minutes until the restaurant began to fill up.
  When they finished, he brought three bowls of green tea ice cream.
  “Compliments of the house.”
   Cedar started to protest, but he raised a plump hand.
  “Stop,” he said. Leaning in, he whispered. “Everyone, they hear your laughter from the street. Look how full my restaurant is. Who can resist an establishment filled with bliss?”       
   Late that night, passing Justin’s cabin on her way to bed, Cedar saw light under the door.
   When she knocked and poked her head in, her son was in bed reading “Of Mice and Men.”
   “The perfect cap to my perfect day,” she said.
   Justin’s eyes didn’t leave the book.
   “I’m near the end.”
   She shut the door softly.
   She was drifting off to sleep when Justin knocked.
   “I’m going to get Jonathan a banana,” he said. “Want anything?”
   That the rest of my days repeat this one.
   “No thanks. Thanks for a great day.”
   “Thanks for bringing Issy.”
   “I’d hire her if she wasn’t such a distraction to you.”
   The way he blushed made her want to rescue him.
   “What did you think?” she asked.
   “About what?”
    “The book.”        
   “Kind of slow in the beginning, but it turned out to be really good. The ending was incredibly sad.”
   It was on her mind every breathing moment.
   “Sometimes you have to let go,” she said.
   “Sometimes.” He had a way of studying her that melted her heart. “You know I love it here. You know I’m coming back.” His smile broke slowly, like dawn.  “Meanwhile, wherever I am, you’ll manage to lecture me.”
   Cedar turned to settle her pillow, hoping he would take it as a signal to leave.
   “You know you can bank on it,” she said.

   Lying in bed she thought of Steinbeck’s sadly beautiful ending; George lifting the pistol from his jacket, speaking softly as Lennie looked out to the river, soft rabbits hopping in his mind.
   A farm, a friend, a first love, a son. So many things we would like to go one way, so easily go another.
   Her sleep was restless and troubled.
   She woke in the middle of the night, her heart galloping. Beneath the hull the faint scratching was rhythmic, like a stroking. Pulling a t-shirt over her head, she went up on deck. There was nothing, only still water and floating trash.
   Back in bed, she dreamt. In her dream she and Wyatt were still lovers. They were young, her body sleek as Issy’s. She ran her hands over Wyatt’s nakedness, every inch hard as teak. She thrilled to the tropical night against her bare thighs as Wyatt’s urgent hands pushed her skirt up. She shimmied up his calves as two fingers pulled her panties aside. Her intensely private husband, made different by tropical madness, slid inside her, the two of them hidden in foliage a stone’s throw from the crowded hotel patio. They both gasped in pleasure and surprise, rocking, holding their breath, nearly laughing and nearly crying, the Polynesian drumbeat taking up their own rhythm. Chills swept her body like schizophrenic breezes.
   Back in the room they laughed at their daring and made love again, quietly this time, but with equal effect. They fell asleep entwined, Wyatt’s breath slightly sweet from the fruity drinks that in her dream smelled more like flowers.
   Even in the dream Cedar noticed how Wyatt’s caresses were strangely gentle and oh-so-right, his touch like a woman’s.

    Yes, I now come to the harbor. It is irrational, foolish, dangerous, and more. But there I am. There are times I feel as if my will is not my own. I do this rarely. Some might see this as weakness – I do – but I allow myself this indulgence. It is quite pleasant being guided by something outside of intellect. I find it comforting, and, honestly, more than a little stimulating. It is stepping beyond the rules of convention. Maybe this is part of the attraction of what you call love.
  Reaching out I gently clasp the hull, smooth like a shell. We lay together in the darkness. I do not try to influence her thoughts. With this one I do not want to overly interfere. In these midnight moments I don’t know if I could. Her loneliness is a tremendous weight requiring great effort to push aside, a Sisyphean boulder that keeps rolling back into place. Instead I insinuate the seed of something pleasant, but beyond that I have little control. She dreams her own dreams. A curious thing, but I have found my powers have their limits in the face of good things. Wicked people and wicked thoughts are easily manipulated. But the pure few, they are a far tougher shell to crack. I do not know why this is. I have existed for millennia, but the unknowable permeates my life too. Mystery is part of all our lives
   Life. A cup full of surprises to the last drop.
   Yes, I had a mate. He is responsible, in part, for my current spate of irrational behavior. And, of course, the eggs. He lives still in the eggs.
   What happened, you ask? I prefer not to talk about it.
   I know her loneliness. It is far worse than hunger. Beyond hollow and hopeless.
  It is what you feel when you know there are no more chances.

   She woke wet and mildly embarrassed. She lay in the dark, still tingling. Wyatt had never accomplished anything of the sort during their marriage. When it came to lovemaking, he was no sure-of-hand gunslinger. He was more of a lustful farmer.
   She let the pleasure continue to course through her body, and then she listened. Jonathan fluttered. In the ensuing silence she strained for sounds, but she heard nothing.
   It was strange. She was no longer dreaming, but she still smelled it. It wasn’t fruit, or her own muskiness.
   It was plumeria.
   She drifted back to sleep, remembering how her body had jerked.

   I am back on the reef by dawn. If you’ll pardon the pun, I often rise at dawn, lifting from the deeps to float just above the reef. No matter how many dawns I witness, the magic never wanes. I am touched by the way the light creeps slowly over the stalks of staghorn and the wave-smoothed plates. Every dawn is the unveiling of a fresh painting. After all these years, it still moves me.  
  Before you slip into meditative bliss, let me tell you I have seen dawn on other reefs, broken and bleached, the colors gone. These reefs are not like a lovely painting. They are like a splintered ichthyosaur carcass, like Hiroshima, like smoking rubble and burning flesh that, a moment ago, was a pre-school.
   There are more and more ruined reefs. And, with tough love in mind, you’re doing a stellar job on terra firma, too. Great swaths of forest slashed and burned. Rivers reduced to curdled brown eddying. Skies of filth and soot. Outside of epoch ending comet strikes, our world has never witnessed cataclysm like this. Never before have such terrible changes been wrought by a single species. You are making history.    
  We are racing to the end, but even I cannot say what the end will be. You speak of mankind’s will to survive. Wholesale redirection and recovery are one thing; survival another. Imagine a world of fire and ash and hot, sour oceans, where your phlegmy, emaciated child may or may not last the day on pickings. There are no discards.
   Not a pretty picture. No fable either. Already terrible fires are burning on your continents. Already dead zones carpet vast swaths of sea floor. Already ocean temperatures are rising.
   The average species lasts a few million years. You’re probably not even going to make the average.
  Just because you have an opposable thumb, doesn’t stop you from sticking it in your eye.

Author / Speaker