Patience and Blindness
I am not the monster of anyone’s nightmares. I possess no razor talons, no yellow eyes, no unbalanced mind or morals. I am capable of short bursts of speed, but as I said, I am rarely quick, and I am far from lithe. From a distance, without the scope of proximity to account for size, my approach might elicit a laugh or a scratch of a temple; though as I grow larger the laugh is likely to clutch in your throat. If there were a red carpet for sea monsters, I would garner accolades for worst dressed. But I am strong, and intelligent enough -- though one should never overestimate one’s intelligence -- and, after all these years, though I’ve discovered many things I wish I could forget, I remain curious. And I am very patient. The importance of patience cannot be overstated.
Although patience cannot be strung out forever.
Cedar knew she watched Justin with a keenness that bordered on obsession. She had watched him today when they were down with the cages. When she had a good group of divers, and the Wisconsin frat brothers had proved to be a good group of divers, she let Justin free dive, descending to the reef with just mask and fins. Should anyone need supplemental air, she could provide it; and really, at forty feet, they could just swim to the surface.
Letting him free dive was selfish in part -- his ease in the water was a joy to behold – but it was practical too. Without a tank, Justin emitted no loud stream of bubbles. He went to the cages first. Opening them from the top, he gently lifted each nautilus free, handling them for a few moments, gently bumping them up again as they drifted down, acclimating them before the clumsier divers handled them, with their bubble bursts and muffled regulator shouts.
This morning when they had winched up the cages, each cage attached to fifteen hundred feet of line, the chickens were already sorely shredded, courtesy of seven gorged cephalopods. It was a better than average haul. Raised from such depths, the tremendous change in pressure saw most deep sea creatures explode like briny fireworks. Not so the remarkable nautilus. Their chambers released gas as they rose, letting them adjust to the decreasing pressure.
One by one, Justin had presented each Cheesehead with his own nautilus. For thirty minutes the divers had admired them; the brown and white shells ivory smooth, the inner curves white as snowfall. Underwater they possessed the heft of an ephemeral paperweight. When released they wobbled resolutely for the deeps, so that their diver had to gently nudge them upward again. The scene always reminded Cedar of an astronaut volleyball team in sore need of practice.
It was the rarest gift, holding a creature from another epoch. Most divers appreciated this. The Cheeseheads had. But not everyone was smitten. The previous week, the divers back on board eating orange slices in the sun, Cedar heard a man mutter, “What a surprise. A big fucking snail. I could have picked one up in my garden for free.”
She had said nothing. Back at the dock, she had presented the man with his refund, informing him that money can’t buy insight. That had surprised him.
They returned to Koror harbor at one in the afternoon, the happy Cheeseheads rumbling down the dock for shade and beers at the White Squall, the thatch-roofed bar that looked out over the lagoon.
Cedar and Justin loaded everyone’s gear on two carts, wheeling the carts to the concrete bunker that served as a locker room. They dunked the gear in the rinse tanks, hanging the wetsuits and BCDs on hangers. Justin placed each diver’s fins in front of their gear, tucking their mask inside one fin. Full service was what it took to survive.
Cedar left Justin behind when she went to refuel. She didn’t ask him, but she knew he would head for the White Squall, where he would order a cream soda and further charm the divers. Had she wanted to condemn him to a life of sun-burnt toil and sleepless nights, she would have made him a business partner in an instant. She knew he would accept in an instant.
Santy was, as always, at the fuel dock. In ten years Cedar had rarely seen him anywhere else. By her best guess, he was well past seventy, but Santy was not a man to divulge personal details, although he was muchly interested in the details of others. A lifetime of equatorial sun had turned him to mahogany. He was equally stoic. She had never heard him laugh, much less seen him smile. On the rare occasion when something amused him tremendously, he tugged an ear. Many regarded him a sourpuss.
Santy did not need to be convivial. Owning the island’s only fuel dock provided him power and the steadiest income on the island. Even the owners of the big resort hotels kowtowed to him.
Cedar liked Santy. He had two gears, complaint and nosiness, for which he made no apology.
As soon as she stepped down to the rocking dock, Cedar heard the mewling. The two kittens were tucked in the shade of a propped up box. Santy was always taking in strays. He was something of an anomaly on an island that preferred to eat their animals.
“They’re even cuter than you,” she said, peering under the box.
“They eat too damn much,” said Santy.
Something about their needy cries made her stomach feel empty. She tried to push the loneliness away.
“A coward dropped them here in the middle of the night. Now I have to listen to their squalling even after I fill their stomachs. You want them?”
“You need to refine your sales pitch.”
They stood quiet as fuel poured into her tanks and money poured into Santy’s pockets.
“Seventh Day Adventists were just here,” Santy said. “Holy rollers asked me for free gas for their dinghy.”
“Those without, need a lift from us all.”
“Those without can take up the oars. Heard the swingers had a party Saturday night. Should have told the holy rollers that. A true second coming.”
Cedar considered ignoring him, but Santy proved it wouldn’t matter.
“Maybe instead I should sell Wesson oil, plastic sheeting and ecstasy,” he mused.
“It still won’t get you on the guest list.”
“You are mistaken. The Nelson woman favors me.”
“It could be a wait. She favors everyone.”
The Nelsons were ex-pats from Birmingham, Alabama. Although their parties were held in secret, everyone on the island knew about them. The guest list was equally well known. It included some of Koror’s most powerful and upstanding citizens. Cedar had heard that, before arriving in Palau, Martine Nelson had served as head of Birmingham’s National Charity League chapter. The tropics changed people. The Nelson’s two teenage daughters went to boarding school in New Hampshire and never visited.
“She is a comely woman. No doubt she looks the same, shining in oil.”
This time Cedar did ignore him.
Santy spat a glop of betel nut into the water. He gave it single-minded attention as it floated beneath the dock.
“Got an engine needs inexpensive repair,” he said. “You interested?”
Santy knew almost as much about engines as Cedar, but he refused to invest in more than the bare minimum of tools. Anything he couldn’t permanently solve with creativity and duct tape rapidly went south. The engine on his dinghy was forever quitting, his colorful curses raining down on every ear in the harbor.
“If it’s minor, why don’t you fix it yourself?”
The water lapped beneath them.
“You are troublesome on every front.”
“You’ve already told me that.”
“I am too busy now for repairs.”
“I can see.”
Santy was very literal. It made him difficult to goad.
“As I said, the repair is inexpensive. Barely worth your while. Let me know. If you are not up to the task, you can send the Filipino.”
Santy had known Ernan since she hired him three years ago.
“His name is Ernan.”
“That is his parents’ concern. You bring the Heidi Klum today?”
Santy always called her that, as if there were imitation Heidi Klums. Cedar had brought the German model to the fuel dock so that she could meet a local character. She had also wanted to see if the presence of Heidi Klum might cause Santy’s stoicism to falter. Santy had retained his mahogany visage as Heidi Klum stepped on to the fuel dock, but Cedar had not missed how his hands had fidgeted, picking at his weather-beaten trousers as if pinching himself. He had been so nervous, he had barely talked to her.
Now he never stopped talking about her. She had departed four weeks earlier, back to a life only Heidi Klums know, but Cedar knew she would be the topic of conversation four weeks from now and four years from now.
“She sends her regards.”
“Yes. Women are smitten with me.”
“Women like the silent type.”
The old man closed his eyes, opening them again almost immediately. As much as he liked resurrecting Heidi Klum, he liked complaining more.
“Even the Godly try to bilk me,” he said, spitting again.
“You shouldn’t complain so much. Look at your job. Standing around in the sun all day, shooting the breeze with Heidi Klum, and staring at her breasts from behind those mirror shades.”
“They are aviator glasses.”
He was looking at her breasts now.
“Fine Charles Lindbergh.”
Cedar paid him.
“Tip,” she said.
The slight uptick almost made her smile.
“Push your glasses up on your nose or people will see where you are looking.”
“You are a cruel and difficult woman,” said Santy, pulling at an ear.
Justin was waiting when Cedar eased the Wendell Holmes into the slip.
He hopped on board.
“Just tie off the bow line,” said Cedar. “We’re going back out.”
Justin looked up to the bridge, disappointment on his face.
“We have an afternoon booking?”
“No.” Already she felt badly. “I was just hoping to sleep away.”
Cedar saw Issy, standing by the army green dunk tanks outside the locker room. Six feet tall, and most of that legs, she was difficult to miss. She reminded Cedar of those long ago circus performers who marched about on stilts, only they didn’t move with a ballerina’s grace. The rest of her body matched her legs. Issy’s yoga routines, performed in a bikini at the end of one of the docks, were famous across the island and, no doubt, to shores far beyond. Power yoga on a humid island was sweaty work. That the girl was absolutely oblivious to her charms made her all the more charming.
Not surprisingly, Issy was a profound distraction to her son, but Cedar liked her just the same. The girl was whip smart, and though she was still slightly shy around her boyfriend’s mother, Cedar saw how she laughed around Justin, and when he did something stupid she cuffed his temple with the heel of her hand. They’d been dating for six months, if this generation still called it that. She had nice parents. Cedar didn’t know them well, they had all met once for dinner, but on Koror they were known as dedicated social workers. Also, Issy always smelled of coconut sunscreen. In Cedar’s experience, teenage girls didn’t readily apply sunscreen. That Issy’s parents kept a close eye on their daughter eased Cedar’s mind a little, although the sight of her legs always renewed Cedar’s concerns. One heated mistake could ruin a life.
Issy waved and smiled, displaying teeth white as snow. Cedar waved and smiled back, wondering if it was okay to hate her just a little.
“You have plans,” she said, looking down at her son.
“There’s a new movie.”
Koror had one theater that screened one film, usually for about three months at a pop. It was true they were far off the beaten path, but it was also true the theater was owned by a man with little interest in movies.
Justin tied off the bowline in two quick motions.
Cedar kept a small apartment which she used mostly as a rental for tourists. It was empty now. She wanted to say You can stay, but you don’t put rib roast in front of a starving man.
To firm her resolve, she looked at Issy again.
“Tell Issy I’m really sorry. Really, I am. I’ll have you back in time for tomorrow’s movie.”
“Give me a second,” said Justin.
Justin landed soft as a cat. He walked down the dock with an easy bounce.
She hated herself for her selfishness, but she suddenly needed to go. It was often that way. And Justin needed to go with her because his sixteen-year-old girlfriend already had Heidi Klum’s legs. He also needed to go because his mother wanted him with her.
Justin stayed below the entire way out. He didn’t come up when Cedar cut the engine. She tied the Wendell Holmes to the mooring buoy on her own.
Justin had always possessed a strange sense of fairness. When he was in third grade, the teacher had called everyone to the rug for a discussion. A classmate had stolen a colored pen from one of the other children. How, the teacher asked, did this make them all feel? Justin stood. How, he asked, would they feel if they had to sit and listen to everyone talk about how bad they were? The teacher had called an end to the discussion. She had told Cedar the story at her parent-teacher conference.
This sense of justice had a dark side, though. These days anything that impinged on his magisterial sense of right turned him annoyingly sulky.
When she went below he was reading at the table in the galley. Of Mice and Men. Her latest assignment.
“Don’t worry. We’re tied off.”
He didn’t look up.
She almost stalked off, but then she recalled she was the adult.
“What do you think of Steinbeck?”
“He’s okay. A little slow.”
She reached into a cabinet.
“He’s a tad short on car chases, CGI and gratuitous skin, but he grows on you.” She placed the bag on the counter, but not before giving it a healthy crumpling. “I’ll make us a popcorn appetizer.”
“Popcorn,” she said. “My way of saying thanks for coming.”
“Did I have a choice?”
“No. Sometimes life is like that.”
She popped the popcorn in the microwave and poured the steaming mass into a bowl.
She put the bowl on the table.
“Careful,” said Justin. “It’s hot.”
It was a perfect imitation.
“I won’t be around to protect you forever, you know.”
His eyes didn’t leave the book.
She made tuna casserole for dinner. While she worked at the stove, Justin set the table and returned to reading.
When she sat down, sliding the casserole dish toward him, he said, “It’s better already. The book,” he added, and she saw the flicker of smile.
“The other, too, shall pass.”
Uncorking the rest of the smile, he put Steinbeck down.
“Coming out here doesn’t bother you because you’re only interested in one movie.” He said it kindly. “I’m sorry. It’s just that we were really looking forward to tonight. I can wait until tomorrow.” He paused. “You don’t deserve to be treated like that.”
She looked down into the casserole, allowing for a moment of recovery.
“Summon Kong,” she said.
After they cleaned up, restlessness drove Cedar up on deck. She unfolded the director’s chair and settled her feet on the railing. The sun was setting, the world assuming a golden hue.
My golden girl Wyatt had called her, back when things were right. It was meant to sound possessive and it rang a little shallow, but in the days when she had loved him with every fiber it had only made her flush.
Alone on the deck, she ran a hand along her thigh and smiled. The skin was the largest organ, always a fun fact, and her skin had always been her showcase. Though at one time she had belonged wholly to Wyatt, she had never belonged to Chicago. Even during Chicago’s Viking winters she had somehow absorbed sun from somewhere; in a pasty world she had glowed, a tropical flower (a foreshadowing?) in a snow-blown field. Men had responded like bees. A few women had proposed pollination too, though most simply had a question. You must tellme dear. What do you do for your skin? The honest answer was nothing, and Cedar was honest. Though she had wanted friends, even among the society women (here mostly to please Wyatt), always the women had retreated, angry and stung by her refusal to share.
Although she was careful about the sun, Palau had heightened her glow. In Chicago she had kept her thick hair in bob; a bob dried quickly and so was more conducive to a social schedule that developed on the fly. Now her hair was long. She had no social schedule and she liked the way it tickled the small of her back. Light brown by heredity, salt and sun had lightened it so the tips dissolved against the backdrop of her skin, gold on gold.
Hand still resting on her thigh, she probed with her fingers. As a girl she had been bony and hard-edged, perfect for a tomboy vying for supremacy with Midwestern farm boys. Womanhood had softened and curved the edges, but her fingers told her the underlying firmness was still there, maintained by a life of movement.
Alone on the deck, she allowed these little indulgences in vanity.
Alone on the deck she took her hand off her leg.
She couldn’t remember the last time another hand had rested there.
When Justin came up on deck the stars were out. He was wearing boxers and a t-shirt. There was much Chicago in him. His legs fairly glowed in the dark. In a place of blazing sunshine, he was like a mushroom tucked away. It made her want to protect him even more.
“Goodnight,” he said.
“Hmm. Perhaps it is. Have you been reading all this time?”
“Nope. Watching a movie.”
Justin was looking out at the water.
Sometimes it was like chipping paint.
“What did you watch?”
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet made love in the back of a car.
“Some captains might deem that bad luck,” she said.
“Any captain who hits an iceberg out here should be doing something else.”
He was turning to go.
“I was young. I had dates. I went to movies. Plural.”
She pretended to look out at the water, but she was aware only of her ghostly son. His smile was like the sun rising.
“Is that another apology?”
“You don’t need to apologize. I like it out here.”
“We’ll be home tomorrow in time for popcorn. Movie popcorn. You can eat it at whatever temperature you like.”
She tried to smile but she couldn’t.
After he left, she sat listening to him moving about below. The porthole window creaked open. She imagined him settling into bed, putting in ear plugs.
She knew why she was restless and sad. Her time was running out. Now was the time for Issy and the Issys to follow. She now stood in the wings.
This loneliness was far worse than the loneliness that had swept over her on Santy’s dock. She wondered if she should take the kittens.
She went below and opened the footlocker.
Up on the deck she sat for a time simply holding the bagpipes. Finally she put the blow pipe to her lips.
A breeze rose. In the dark water, things stirred.
Oil spills, overfishing, rising ocean temperature, ocean acidification, extinction rates 10,000 times the norm; the wanton destruction of our nurseries, our reefs, our worlds. You are, quite literally, killing us. It is almost like war. You force us to fight back. Against you, but for all of us. For as the oceans go, so you go. You are blithely sawing at your own throat.
Why can’t you see this? How can a species so intelligent be so blind?
Author / Speaker