Author / Speaker















Chapter Twenty Two
Silent Stars





   Selling petrol, even at inflated prices, wasn’t enough. Loading the boxes, Santy felt his back seize with each heft. Beside him, his nephew grunted in the darkness. They both sweated profusely. Puffs of breeze tossed mangrove mud smell and body odor into Santy’s face.
   “You stink, boy. I would rather plunge my head into a buffalo dropping.”
   “You smell worse than the White Squall’s shithole.”
   “You are lucky I don’t add sting to your stink.”  
   Santy had never insulted his elders like children did today. But in his nephew’s defense, they were both on edge. No matter how many times they went out, the entire operation always seemed a stomach-churning eternity. They had started going out at night six months ago. They could stop anytime. But the envelopes of bills the German gave him were impossible to resist, and Santy saw how Steinman’s breathing quickened when he accepted his share. The boy was not greedy; they lived on a poor island. Santy himself didn’t really care for the extra money, but he had a plan and it was costly and so they kept going out.
   He always took the long way out of the harbor to avoid passing too close to the Wendell Holmes. He was fond of Cedar, but the damn woman never slept. She was up on her deck at all hours staring at the stars as if they were going to do something different that night. Now that Marty was fucking her – how did a prissy man get a woman like that? – she did less star gazing, but Santy didn’t want to take the chance. She was observant and smart. He had no doubt she would eventually ascertain their mission.  
   When they finished loading, they stepped into the last thin spaces on the panga. Santy did not miss how low they rode to the waterline. The boy didn’t either.
  “How far are we going tonight?” he asked.
  He heard how Steinman tried to sound bold and his heart softened a little.
  “Not too far,” said Santy, and they both knew this was a lie.
   Steinman sat in front. Santy saw how he craned his neck as they puttered toward the harbor mouth. Santy subconsciously put a hand on the crate containing the mix of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil. The ingredients were easy to come by. Rigging the bombs was easy, too. They always motored a safe distance away before detonating the caps. Then they motored back, scooping the stunned fish into plastic bags. They only had to get the fish back to the docks. After that it was the German’s job to keep the fish alive until they were shipped off to the aquarium collectors.
   The biggest danger was sinking. And getting caught.   
  “It is a calm night,” said Santy.
  “I don’t care if it is rough. You are the one who can’t swim.”
   Santy forgave him his insolence and false bravado. He loved the boy. Santy’s four sisters were a fruitful lot – they had eighteen children between them – but Santy had a soft spot for the boy. He admired his swagger and lies. Santy knew it was how he coped with his deformity. Santy was going to use the money to change that.
   “Tell me where we’re going,” the boy said.
   “To sea.”          
    Santy opened up the engine, erasing any chance for words.




   It is an improbable time for an engine. At first I wonder if I am the one dreaming, if my wishing has actually brought her here. But this sickly sputtering is not her engine and this is not Long Drop-Off. No one comes out this far at night. Sometimes in the distance I hear the propellers of a long range fishing trawler chewing at the sea, but I have never heard an engine directly over the reef at night. It is why I chose this reef. The sea has its hidden places.
   The engine rattles and dies. I feel two heartbeats. Agitated. Fearful. The younger one positively dashes.
   I exit through the opening in the bottom of the cavern.
  This is wrong, I sense it, but I don’t know what to do.




   
  The boy leaned over the gunnel and looked into the black water.
 “There is a reef here?”
   Santy, occupied with the fuses, half heard him.
   “Yes.”
   “How did you find it?”
   “A fisherman told me.”
   The boy fell silent. Santy knew he was afraid.
   “No one will catch us,” Santy said. “Even during the day the fishermen come here only occasionally. Below us is a winning lottery ticket. Think of the envelope.”
   Six more envelopes and he would have enough for the boy’s flight to the mainland and the operation. He had looked it up on the internet. To be so close bolstered his courage, though he also knew it made him rash. This reef could produce the equivalent of two envelopes in a single night, but it was very far from shore.
    “I’m scared,” the boy said.
    Surprise saw Santy rest the fuse on his knee.
   “Why?”
   “I don’t know.”
    They floated amidst the silent stars. Santy wondered if this was how it was for the astronauts.
    The boy’s unease was contagious.
   “I wish there was a breeze,” said Santy. “I believe you took a dip in the White Squall’s shithole.”
   The boy did not take the bait. He pivoted slowly to and fro, peering into the darkness.
   “How long will we be?”  
   “The usual,” said Santy. Quicker, if I can help it.




   Why is this panga here? I see its puny outline, no more than a matchstick. They are desperate, these fishermen. Granted the night is calm, but weather changes. There are also the long range trawlers. Collisions are not uncommon. A trawler would never know of the splintered panga and the bodies in its wake.
   Why would they come here at night to fish?
   This is wrong. But what is wrong about it?
        



   
   Santy rigged all the fish bombs first. They would move in and out as they detonated each one, scooping the spoils off the surface. Tonight this process would take time. He had rigged six bombs. The boy’s apprehension had infected him. Already he had decided they would not come here again.  He would get the last envelopes close to shore, and then he would tell the German to fuck himself.
   Something like sickness sat in his stomach. He tried to think of the Heidi Klum, but all he thought was that they were very far from shore in a place like outer space.
   For one of the first times in his life, he wished for additional human company.
   He slid the oars to the boy, who settled them expertly in the oar locks.
   Steinman rowed them toward the center of the reef.




   I hear the dip of oars, then quiet. The first sound is like a pebble dropped. The second is not. The report is short and sharp, like a slap. The concussive force of the blast actually knocks me back. I spin like an awkward top. Above me I hear the patter, the geyser of water now falling back to the sea.
   But I am no longer analyzing.
  I am rushing upward, my tentacles lunging.





   In the final moments of confusion, Santy wondered if the fish bomb had exploded directly beneath them. Perhaps in the darkness the boy had rowed in a circle. It was an admissible mistake. The sea tossed itself into the air. Oddly the boy, far above him, did not fall back to the sea. In the night sky, he swayed as he sometimes walked, but wildly this time, his flopping head grotesquely canted.
    Santy felt something clasp his chest, like a mother’s hug. He twisted to look behind him, but not of his own accord. Very close, Santy heard a sound like a wet paper towel being torn.




   I forget the man and the boy before I finish them. I plunge down, expunging air. The bomb exploded directly on the reef. A foot to the left and it would have wobbled down into the leftmost opening. I rush down along the reef wall, noting how the fissures have widened and shifted, the sand inside the cavern wafting through the largest cracks like thin whips.
   I can hear the grinding. The reef is still settling back on itself.  I thrust through the opening 150 feet down. I am inside the cavern. I feel as if I am pushing against an anvil. It is only twenty yards, but it takes me an eternity to ascend.
   The reef has collapsed.
   The shelf is gone.
  Do I feel pain, shock, abject loss? No. I am aware of nothing. The pageant is not mine. I see as a theater goer sees from a balcony seat: water, already clouded with sand, now whipped to a frenzy of swirling current and bubbles by tentacles thrashing pointlessly against unyielding rock.