- Category: Uncategorised
- Written by Jim Dee
*** Chapter Three ***
That night, Clive’s sequential food-dream continued . . .
But the waiter, thinking himself clever, conspired with the cook to “teach this American a lesson.” They had spiced up Clive’s meal to a level beyond what even the most racy Indian would consider hot: —a sweat-inducing blend of cayenne, crushed tobascos, and probably a dash of something reserved for sacred ceremonies—perhaps for the last rites of great religious leaders before their bodies are set ablaze and sent floating down the Ganges . . . —a blend so terrible, wide-eyed employees began to gather quietly at the sky-blue curtain separating the kitchen from the dining room . . . —a mix so horrible, behind the quietness, one could almost perceive a faint ringing of giant Tibetan bowls . . . —a concoction so entirely feverish, hell beasts granted temporary repreival to all lost souls boiling in the tar pits. . . —an assemblage of such temperature, Aphrodite had summoned her own Eros that he may gather heat to further inflame his “treacherous gifts.”
When he placed the dish before Clive, time ran as if it were the moment the universe reaches its maximum entropy and all things begin again to converge. A fork formed from the cosmic dust of perhaps aeons, and the buzz of the sitar, the hum of conversation, the light cream weave of the tablecloth, the aromas rising, and finally, the dry, dry heat of cauliflower . . .
Maria, the zombie of Delta flight 107, could not sleep from excitement. They’d planned a three-day excursion into the Arabian Sea. By six a.m. breakfast arrived and, jarred awake, Clive discovered Uttapam, his next love. He would never be the same. Uttapam consists of a spongy pancake and an extremely spicy bowl of thick curried soup. Well worth the heartburn, though they’d forgotten to bring antacid tablets.
They’d remembered, however, the water purification tablets. Both eyed up the pot of masala tea they’d ordered. Clive recalled the voice of the Indian consular: You know, you have to boil water for a full 15 minutes to kill everything, like hepatitis. “On the other hand,” Clive said, “everyone does say that tea is safe. You think they boiled the water for 15 minutes?”
Maria answered by dropping a tablet into the pot. Both, upon tasting the tea, imagined how wonderful it would be without that distinctive iodine taste.
Clive concentrated on the uttapam. “It’s in the hotels best interest to keep the food on the spicy side,” Clive said. He fumbled at the tiny room refrigerator. “It helps out the mini-bar business. See? We’re out of Limca again.”
“Let’s get going,” Maria said. She’d arranged for the hotel staff to look after their bags for a few days. By eight o’clock, the couple paid roughly twice an average Indian’s annual salary for a three-day, two-night trip to the Laccadive Islands situated roughly 250 miles west into the Arabian Sea.
In no time, they joined a Hindi couple and a plane crew of three aboard Vayudoot’s old PF/657 propeller plane to Agatti Island. The lowest ranking of the three handed out taffy (to be chewed at takeoff to help ease the ear-pain of a quick pressure change) and cotton balls (for earplugs). All watched, cotton-eared, India’s coast shrink away until nothing but emerald and blue waters glistened a few thousand feet below. Occasionally, they’d pass over small atolls or sand bars. The pilot, presumably aware that he carried adventuresome vacationers, consistently tilted the plane to 45-degree angles for better viewing of these sights. Maria, as well as the other female on board, clung to her seat in somewhat of a panic. Clive believed he perceived a grin on the head pilot.
After landing on Agatti, which resembled a World-War-II south-pacific airbase, the two couples climbed out of the plane and stood around for quite some time on the landing strip. It wasn’t exactly LaGuardia, after all. In fact, the old propeller plane was the only one there. Barbed wire surrounded the landing strip and kept out what few natives lurked about. An armed guard warned the Hindi couple not to photograph the airplane or the landing strip. After a half hour of administrative proceedings, the four were escorted to the other side of the tiny island to meet their guide, Frederick.
“Welcome, welcome!” Frederick shouted, as though he were the Indian answer to Ricardo Mantalban.. A fit man, sharply dressed and well-groomed, he led the group to the first boat, which rowed out to the main boat, an old dirt-yellow fishing boat. From there, the couples had two hours to avoid heat-exhaustion as best they could. Clive and Maria sat along one side of the boat with their feet hanging off. Each time the boat swayed to their side, they leaned considerable weight on a thin railing in front of them; each time, their feet nearly skimmed the sea’s surface. The temperature was 96, Frederick had mentioned earlier, and rising. Clive donned a safari hat for shade—functional, but touristy. At that temperature, though, he wasn’t concerned with fashion.
Heat had always bothered him. Clive remembered, from his childhood, the first time he’d broken a sweat. Teatherball. Since then, he’d sweat almost continually every May through September. Since it was still March, he found himself thrust into a great oven, and his thinking slowed noticeably. Thus soaked, he watched open-mouthed the Arabian Sea’s light emerald surface rise and lower before him and, tasting his own salt, slowly pondered his logistics: five planes and two boats from home—nearly as far as one could get from civilization.
He kept pondering it and pondering it, until the thought, along with the boat’s continual drone, became a mantra. His other senses slowed and spread out, too. But, sooner or later, a voice began to break the trance. He heard someone talking -— words like: cawn-whey. It was Frederick. (Clive snapped out of it.) He’d quietly positioned himself next to Clive. He’d been there for God knows how long, and had finally begun to speak. He leaned on the rail and expressed sincere concern to Clive: “Conway Twitty. . .” he stated.
Five planes and two boats, Clive thought again. It simply couldn’t be that this Indian man just said “Conway Twitty.” Clive’s quickly repressed his first impulse to laugh maniacally—because, as absurd as the situation seemed to Clive, it was clear that Frederick had taken a desperate tone. It was one of those moments when all you can do is ask, “What?”
“Conway Twitty . . .” Frederick repeated. “This man is dead?” His new frozen facial expression, moustache somehow twisted and eyes bulging, begged an answer.
“I’m . . . I’m . . . sorry. I don’t know. He might be? Maria . . . is Conway Twitty alive?”
She actually sounded apologetic as she informed him: “No, I think he died.”
At that, Frederick looked out at the sea, perhaps in a moment of silence. He must have thought something like: From the sea we come, to the sea we return. When a moment had passed, still gazing out over the water, he asked “You are liking country music?”
Clive shrugged. “Listen, Frederick, aren’t you supposed to be listening to sitars and drums?”
“I like American music. Top forty is nice, but country and western . . . [he paused and motioned as if he were tasting something] . . . This music has meaning.” Suddenly he pointed far off and jumped up again: “Look, some tunas!” he called to everyone, and soon the hindi couple maneuvered to the same side of the deck. All gazed at the jumping tunas-which from this distance resembled dolphins. Frederick stared and smiled in amazement at what must be a usual sight for him. “With luck,” he said, “we’ll see some rays.” Mantas, he meant.
Every so often, winged fish would break from the shallow waters and glide lightning-fast only inches above the surface for perhaps fifty yards before diving under again. These heavy-looking gray creatures seemed to defy gravity with such lengthy flight durations, often bearing right or left while in flight, probably scanning for food. They reminded Maria of Escher drawings.
Barracudas broke the surface as well. Clive and Maria always heard them first, and then spotted them—a splashing, propeller-like sound, and then what appeared to be a light-green snakehead would race out in a straight line, leaving a small wake in its path where its tail had frantically worked to propel it.
When several others came near to view the fish, Clive briefly entertained the thought that so many people on one side of a boat could cause it to overturn. Of course, one could presumably wade to safety in these waters—that is, if it weren’t for the barracuda’s teeth, the tuna’s size, the flying fish’s haunting ash-gray color, and most of all-something he’d seen in a promotional brochure: Upon close inspection, it was a huge manta ray, but photographed from such an angle as to make it’s head and far wing appear as a giant and powerful—and utterly inescapable—mouth and jaw structure, which appeared to smile in an enticing manner. Not to mention the moray eel (also in the brochure)!
Maria, conversely, harbored no fear of the underwater world. She’d gladly hitch a ride on such a monstrous fish, stroke the gills of the reef’s tropical inhabitants, brush her bare legs on kelp or sea urchins.
Fortunately, the boat withstood such an imbalance of weight.
The newlywed Hindi couple introduced themselves as Siddharth and Archi. Archi still bore traditional bridal henna designs on her hands and feet, which she allowed Maria to inspect closely. The extravagant peacocks and paisley designs would stay for a month or so, she said.
“Ours is a love-marriage,” she said proudly, and hugged her husband round his waist.
“We were not arranged.” Both looked entirely wealthy—the husband living up to his princely name, the wife right from the fashion pages of Femina magazine. Clive and Siddharth began a financial conversation regarding reservation pricing for the island. Indians, it turned out, were charged much less than foreigners.
“It’s all the same, really,” Siddharth said.
“Relatively, I guess so,” Clive agreed.
Archi and Siddharth photographed everything: the boat, Clive, Maria, Clive and Maria, Frederick, the fish, etc. Several times on the trip, Clive or Maria offered to photograph the two together. For each photo, Archi would gaze into the eyes of her prince, passionately full of youth and love. (There’s was, after all, a love-marriage.)
Both wore shorts, unlike Clive and Maria who’d read that shorts may lead to shameful stares in some parts of the country. Siddharth even asked Clive, “Why are you wearing jeans? You must be very hot.”
“It’s not so bad,” Clive politely lied. “Besides, I burn easily. I already have a ton of sunscreen on my arms and face.” Either the travel guides erred, or Archi and Siddharth purposefully disregarded custom. Clive and Maria wore shorts several times after that.
An hour into the journey, the group encountered some evidence of civilization. Nearby islands loomed in the distance as they passed a number of large, iron, floating docks—each one maybe thirty feet square and covered with rust. Their rusty contrast to the bright waters begged explanation, although none was offered. Clive remarked to Maria, “It’d be a hell of a chore to get one of those out here.” Atop one, a single child sat with a fishing pole, his rowboat anchored below. Everyone aboard waved at the child, who returned the gesture with a puzzled smile.
When Bangaram came into view, everyone gathered anxiously at the front of the boat: two Americans, a young prince and his bride, and a crazy country-music loving Indian named Frederick. All felt the exhausting heat of the open-sea as well as a certain determination to remain up front until their arrival, as if denouncing some collective mirage of an island before them. The journey had lasted so long, Clive wondered if perhaps being so close to the equator stretched time a bit. Staring at the distant island, he considered the spin of the Earth: someone near the equator must travel further in a day than someone closer to an axis.
The elapsed time between first sighting Bangaram and actually arriving at its main lagoon seemed longer than that of the entire ride before it. At first, there seemed to be an inch-long slit of forest-green occupying a place directly ahead of them, as if someone giant artist had forgotten to cover this portion of the canvas where the white of sky blended with the white of sea—or, perhaps such a painting was finished and subsequently bumped into by another freshly-painted edge of green. This edge thickened as they neared, gained depth as they approached. When it occupied their entire view, they began to discern the patterns of trees. The lagoon had shifted colors into a lustrous sapphire, a bright slice of white beach became visible, and the sky appeared a washed-out hyacinth. Closer still, and the living-green thickness rose up, thinned out, and countless palm trunks connected the land to the treetops, resembling long legs in a congregation of exotic sea-birds. Soon the beach rose up somewhat, widened, and revealed the details of small huts and brown-green grasses.
The fishing boat cut its engine, and a beautiful quietness replaced the drone—not quiet merely out of comparison to the preceding trip, but an absolute quietness that amplified even the softest of island sounds: the rippling lagoon, the breath-like breeze through palm branches, and, internally, even one’s own thoughts.
A few of the natives rowed out to the big boat, and brought everyone and their luggage to the shore, where another small man in a button-down work-shirt and bright-blue sarong scurried down from treetop with four coconuts, hacked the tops off each, inserted straws, and greeted the four tourists. Maria was quite impressed, and had finished off two coconuts in the first half hour hour on land while waiting for the other staff to finish preparing the cottages.
Indian service, they found, surpassed that of any other nationality. They’d learned this first in America at the restaurants in New York City, where one can not finish a second sip from a water glass before it is promptly refilled.
They’d seen it at private gatherings in the homes of certain Indian friends in America. At one such affair, Clive remembered being offered a drink literally seconds after entering the party. And, not some ordinary drink like beer, wine, etc.—the bartender meant to extend a gesture of utter class, and panned the scotch section with a wave of his hand as if modeling it for an advertisement. “Whiskeesoda?” he suggested. Of course, not wanting to appear rude, and in spite of a dislike for scotch and somewhat of a language barrier, Clive accepted a tall drink on good faith.
Within fifteen minutes, the bartender noticed Clive’s mere sippage of the drink and demanded, “You are not liking this?”
“No, it’s fine, really . . .”
“No. You are not liking this. I get you something else.”
Clive had felt slightly embarrassed—”uh, maybe it was a bit strong for me”—and even more so after practically guzzling the replacement drink, a Screwdriver.
“Ahh, Screwdriver!” the Indian man had said. Communication had been established.
They’d seen it at their Cochin hotel, as well. They’d understood the principal of hospitality to have a certain grounding in economics—and not exclusively demonstrated by hotel staffs or other interaction with foreign tourists: the principle of baksheesh, for instance, which seemed to translate into a broad area lying between straight-out tipping and offering alms to the poor. Below the economic grounding, perhaps, lay a religious one. Thus, after certain fasting periods, and for certain holy days, Clive and Maria’s Indian friends offered the hospitality of celebratory gatherings.
Tapping the deepest essence of hospitality, however, is the essential phrase of communication in India: “No Problem.” Used by everyone, the words cannot be precisely described as simple idiom. In fact, the definition, or translation of the phrase is often relative. For instance, from the Indian perspective, it can mean as much as “What you are asking is not normal procedure, but I will do it for you anyway (and a tip would be nice).” From the tourist perspective, it serves a remedial function, translating into “You have perceived that I have a problem, but I assure you that there is none, and furthermore that I am okay.”
When the cottages were ready, Frederick passed out the room keys and informational brochures, and excused himself. The young laborer who’d climbed after the coconuts led both parties to the edge of the palm forest, where immaculate white-sand paths connected all points of interest on the island. Thick-leaved bright-green bushes lined the paths; rather like monstrous rhododendrons, but with softer branches, like young rubber trees.
The wooden cabanas, complete with dried palm branch roofs, faced the eastern shore from under the trees. Each had a deck and a large plastic pail of water for washing sand from one’s feet before entering. He dropped Clive and Maria off at theirs, and continued two down the row for Siddharth an Archi.
Several mongrel cats and various roosters roamed the grounds freely. The island itself boasted 128 acres, and promised no more than 30 inhabitants at any one time. There appeared to be at least one other family already present, judging from some drying swimsuits on a line they’d passed.
After literally a few minutes fooling with the cottage’s skeleton-key lock system, they settled in and Clive immediately purchased a few shirts and several pairs of swim trunk shorts bearing large red crabs over a slogan, Where the natives walk sideways. Returning to the cabin, Clive remarked to Maria that most things in India—like the skeleton key locks—happened sideways. “So what? . . . Sideways works too,” Maria said. Clive agreed in a not-bad-just-different manner, and began changing into the trunks.
He had developed a reasonably severe case of prickly heat on his back. Luckily, the small souvenir shop also carried a powder which looked soothing—basil and sandalwood scented talcum powder. It cooled him well, but he and Maria agreed to relax for a while. Their cabin’s most important feature—a three-speed ceiling fan—provided a strong breeze, which both found refreshing under such humid conditions. They slept dry and sheetless in the wooden room.
Frederick knocked by around five to announce dinner, and the three walked to the dinner-hut. Several saronged natives smiled behind the buffet line, which consisted of bread, fresh onions, a fish curry and a vegetable curry, and rice.
Archi and Siddharth were already eating, as were the other vacationing family: a mother and father, and a twelve or fourteen-year-old boy. All had rather ragged sand-blonde hair, and smiled at Clive and Maria. Clive heard them speaking German, which interested him.
Germans always interested Clive -— he’d studied their language for several years in the early eighties, and it’d come in handy a number of times. Once, while visiting George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon (on a ninety-degree day), he watched an elderly woman at the front of a line of perhaps 100 people step out of line and sit on a concrete bench. The bench was situated in such a way that only someone who’d waited in the entire line could access it—but no one did because the line eventually moved into the mansion. She sat for perhaps ten minutes, looking old, fragile, and confused, until a security guard asked her if she needed anything? Mein Tochter! Mein Tochter! she explained. Of course, thinking she’d meant “doctor,” the guard called in an emergency unit and several other guards. One woman addressed the crowd: We have a sick old woman at the front of the line. We think she’s not feeling well, but she doesn’t speak English. Is there anyone here who can translate German? Clive stood amid a mass silence—perhaps as quiet as Mount Vernon had been during the daytime since it opened for tourism—and finally volunteered. He spoke briefly with the German senior, and explained to the guard that tochter means daughter—she was simply waiting for her daughter. He wouldn’t have guessed he’d encounter many Germans in India, though.
Like the cabins, the dining hut had ceiling fans. While a dozen or so teak picnic tables filled the room, only four sat directly under a fan. At these four tables sat the staff, the Germans, the hindi couple, and Clive and Maria. They were happy they’d arrived last and been the ones to complete this certain symmetry.
As for the food, Clive wrote in his journal, it’s nothing to really write about. Mainly blandish curries. They’d gone against travel-book advice and sampled the fresh vegetables—on the supposition that they’d been washed with non-contaminated water—but promised to abstain once again when back on the mainland. The blended pineapple juice, which would have cost a fortune per glass in the states, cost only a dollar or so, and both indulged accordingly.
After dinner, Clive and Maria invited the hindi couple over to share a bottle of champagne they’d managed to lug all the way from the states. Presumably, many young Hindu women don’t drink alcoholic beverages—or perhaps aren’t allowed—but Archi was the first to accept their invitation. The four returned to the room by way of the lagoon, pausing to examine small shells and fragments of coral. “Take only photographs,” the brochure read, “leave only footprints.”
Clive threw a chunk of coral into the lagoon, saying, “I can’t believe I’m throwing coral into the Arabian Sea!”
The four toasted marriage and friendship. The hindi couple photographed everyone, and all made smalltalk in a relaxing atmosphere. Maria had brought along a vanilla-scented candle to burn, which added a certain magical ambience to the cabin. Outside, the palm-leaves made pointy silhouettes, and the sea was fading from view. Two of the brown and white spotted cats sat on the porch in hopes of any scraps the four would produce.
“I make boxes,” Siddharth announced. He described his own box-making plant in northern Kerala. All described their respective careers: boxmaker, boxmaker, food-critic, school teacher. The Indians explained the marked difficulty in constructing fruit boxes. Clive told them all about American food, and Maria described her students’ love of Madeline L’Engle’s fiction.
That evening, Clive and Maria walked out to the shore for a clear view of the stars—which turned out much clearer than the usual view from their home; the milky-way cloud was visible, as well as several dimmer stars usually blocked out by Washington, D.C.’s, air pollution. But they stood, remember, on the complete opposite side of the globe. They brought along two flashlights which they’d purchased in anticipation of seeing the ancient caves of Ajanta and Ellora later in the trip, and were walking near the water-line when they began to hear the hindi couple in the distance; Archi’s sounds carried on the night breeze through the dense strip of palm trunks separating the shore from the cabins. The bleating rhythm matched something in the Arabian sea. One could sense its surface waving like a sheet on the night air, the stirring sands tingling in its belly, and the instinctive sea turtles crawling ashore to deposit eggs. The sounds spread out along the strand, latched onto the tide, and retreated outward.
Clive and Maria walked the beach hand-in-hand, shone their lights on the white crabs running in and out of the water, and watched the soft-white beacon of a nearby atoll periodically light up and fade into the night.
Even 250 miles into the Arabian Sea, mosquitoes persisted. Clive always carried Deet after sunset, and both splashed on a few drops before returning to their cabin. Once inside, they acquainted themselves with their first mosquito coil in India. Frederick had explained how to operate the device: unwrap a blue chemical chip from its foil package, slip it between the plastic bars and the metal, plug the unit in, and voile. “A little Deet along the edges of the bed couldn’t hurt either,” Clive said. Under threat of Malaria, even Maria agreed, and both meticulously placed a drop or two every few inches along the bed’s perimeter. In a perfect world, they’d have lain above the top sheet, feet hanging off, perhaps even a leg touching the floor; but they stayed completely covered the entire night.
Clive dreamed of standing on a large rock in the middle of a lake. Below him, a coiled snake floated as if dead on the lake’s surface-but it’s head began to slowly rise; a flat, heart-shaped grey head rose slightly off the surface, turned sideways, revealing its thinness. It resembled a spade or devil’s tail, slightly inflated. Clive crouched, thinking he’d avoid any confrontation with the serpent, but the snake rose from the water in a triumphant metallic blue and orange. It’s scales glistened as it seized on the area directly between Clive’s right thumb and forefinger.
The following morning at breakfast, Clive had barely spoken the word snake to Archi & Siddharth when Archi enthusiastically asked, “Did it bite you on the hand?”
This astonished Clive. Maria too. “How’d you ever guess that?” Clive asked.
“Because that is a sign of good luck. It means you’ll be getting money soon.”
Clive, as a rule, didn’t astonish easily. He preferred to look upon the conversation in only two ways: First, simply as an amazing coincidence; second, there in fact must have existed a single event, which was witnessed by Archi and himself, and which coincidentally slipped into the unconscious minds of both. As to the latter, since they’d only been acquainted for less than a day, Clive decided that whatever the particular event was, it had been experienced probably as an an extremely peripherally overheard story (perhaps related by Frederick to one of the crew during the long boatride yesterday). Neither could recall such a story, however. Clive also considered that dreams of snakes biting hands may be commonplace, and Archi may have been a connoisseur of dreams.
Breakfast consisted of fried banana slices, toast and jam, and fresh sweetlime juice. Neither Clive nor Maria had ever tasted sweetlime juice—perfectly described as half-orange, half-lime. “Somewhat overwhelming citrus flavor,” Clive penned in his journal. “Surely an acquired liking. I found the second glass surpassed the first in taste.”
Afterward, they went in search of a raft for exploration. They found one near the Germans, who religiously frolicked by day. Clive thought, What does their enjoyment say about Germany? They’re having so much fun, it must be awful there. In any case, Hans, a plump and heavily bearded specimen, stood from his beach-lounger in greeting the two, and inhaled an unfiltered cigarette more deeply than either had ever seen. Sheer lung-capacity. It crossed Clive’s mind that heavy people look better when tanned. Hans’ leathery gut expanded and contracted as he spoke: “Over there (he pointed to a spot perhaps a quarter mile out), there are some good views of the reef.” With this, he sat once again. No smoke had returned from his lungs since the initial drag.
The raft, a crafty orchestration of thick pvc pipes and rope, satisfied Clive’s basic specs for buoyancy; he wanted something which would float forever, something you’d have to chain to the ocean floor to keep down. So, the two walked into the sea and climbed aboard. There is a certain brightness, they agreed, that one can only experience at sea. It was nearly noon. In another thirty yards in any direction, they could see exact boundaries separating sapphire from patches of crystalline sky-blue, every now and then, the sky-blue became the green of, perhaps, a boa, like the young barracudas.
When they reached the reef, the deep sapphire gave way to a pure blue, in tops of which rock formations could clearly be seen. Soon, coral formations completely surrounded them only a few feet below the surface. The bright rounded tops seemed alive, and deep in the formations crevices reached to secret places. The crevices sent a quiet wave of panic through Clive, who imagined himself hovering over nests of fierce eels, beds of poisoned tentacles, and razor-edge coral spikes. He politely refused Maria’s offer to anchor the raft and have a swim.
Later, before an afternoon nap, Clive considered exactly what it may be about certain natural things which terrified him.
Something in his upbringing? A native of, of all places, Missouri. An inland soul. No beaches there, except of course, Times Beach, the modern-day dioxin-filled ghost town. Basic fear: medical. Latest manifestation of this fear: mosquito-bite prevention.
Marine life? PBS specials: on the Man of War, on the Great Whites, on Crocodiles, etc. Stinging tentacles, eyes that roll into the head while biting, taking the prey under until it drowns. Basic fear: inextricability. Latest manifestation: middle of the reef. Fish have an unpredictable temperament, Clive thought—and the most alluring may be the most deadly. He pictured himself treading water over giant clams, etc.: Ocean currents, the slime of urchins, entanglement in kelp, the Sargasso.
Something deeper? Simple fear of death? He could not pin it down.
About an hour before sunset, they set off for the western side of the island. Thin dirt paths lead through the maze of palms. Perhaps one hundred yards in, they came to an amazingly still pond whose surface mirrored the surrounding forest with an uncanny clarity: the vibrant green of the young leaves, fire-yellow dying leaves, brown dead leaves, the tan color of the thick stems which support dozens of coconuts in each tree, the dark textured tree trunks, and the shaded undergrowth—all reflected . . . but with a few patches of white here and there; these were the migratory birds, which stood in the pond as though painted on, like single brush strokes. Frederick had mentioned them earlier at dinner. He said they came from Siberia: slender white birds, like cranes, perhaps two and a half feet tall; elegant birds, like ivory statues for mantles.
Trails darted off in several directions. Neither Clive nor Maria considered the peculiarity of the existence of trails on an island described as uninhabited, but they chose one pointing relatively westward. “We are the Lewis and Clark of the Arabian Sea,” Clive said.
The path eventually widened into a small gypsy camp of sorts—a circular dirt area containing two driftwood shacks, a ring of stones for a fire pit, and a clothesline. No sooner than Maria could say, “Someone lives here” did they see an utterly terrified woman crouching against the shanty. Her eyes contained immeasurable fear; both pupils entirely visible, the whites a stained ivory as if stone. She sat still, clutching a purple scarf to her chest.
Clive sensed her fear, and tried to calm the woman with a friendly waving gesture, a reassuring showing of the palms one might use to say: Don’t get up. Just passing through. We’re friendly. But only her eyes moved, following, as the couple carefully maneuvered their way around her fire pit and back onto the exiting trail. Clive attached a certain significance to this event: Clive considered her fear. He considered whether or not certain gestures translate accurately across such vastly different cultures—because it pained him to be unable to convince himself that he had not instilled terror in another human being, however unintentional. But Clive was afraid, too; afraid something sudden would happen, something perhaps desperate. In retrospect, he could not recall if he allowed his heels touch the dirt of her private circle. But the woman—she must have felt exposed; discovered, as though she were a chameleon—her face, the smooth washed out brown of driftwood; her hair, fibrous like a handful of coir; her eyes, non-camoflaged, the give-away.
Esthetically, the western shore far surpassed the lagoon side. No cabins, huts, or rafts spoiled the pristine nature of the place. However, near the shoreline, someone had apparently sawed the tops off several palm trees, leaving a strange-looking row of 4 foot high stumps. On each, a small mound of visible roots surrounded the base like a stringy bush of pubic hair around an appropriately large (and erect) phallus. Arriving at this comparison required little stretch of the imagination. Maria was the first to laugh audibly: “They look like penises,” she said.
“Maybe they put them there purposefully in an effort to set a certain mood?” Clive said.
Maria began walking into the sea, and Clive followed, deciding where to leave their room key, and finally stopping to hook it (with its large wooden handle) onto his necklace. Here, the beach gently sloped into the warm sea and soon leveled off. One could wade away from the island presumably for miles, chest-deep. In this instance, they ventured out perhaps 30 yards before Clive suggested stopping to watch the sunset, which had already cast a violet hue to the entire area.
“It’s like bathwater. What are you afraid of?” Maria asked.
“Simple, Maria. Big fish. Just scanning the area for skates, rays, you know.” He had planned further explanation, but began splashing wildly in front of him and backing away yelling, “Get it away! What the hell is that?! Get it away!”
“Clive!” she yelled and he kept splashing. “Clive! It’s only the key!,” she shouted, fully embarrassing him. The wooden handle attached to his necklace had been floating, unnoticed, directly at his chest since he entered the water.
Once he calmed down, he said, “I knew it was the key. Just joking.”
Maria splashed him, laughing. “You did not.”
“One time,” he said, “I was invited to this waterslide park with some friends. I’d never been to one before, you know, so I didn’t know what to expect. They gave you these mats to ride down on. The place was huge . . . See, no one told me to raise the mat up when you come to the big pool at the bottom. If you raise the mat up over the surface, you simply glide across. No problem. So I come storming into the landing pool at full speed and crash head-first into the water. I was so disoriented . . . splashing and in a full panic, when someone grabbed me and said `Hey, just stand up.’ Turned out I was in only three feet of water.”
The hot evening air promptly thickened into darkness, and the two realized they’d now have to walk all the way around the island to get back. They’d forgotten to bring the Deet—an obvious error, the fact of which perhaps enhanced the pain of each sting and bite felt during the thirty minute walk. Arrival at their cabana consisted, in retrospect, of an amusingly fast execution of several tasks: fumbling for the key, swatting away some flying pests, shooshing away the mongrel cat on the stoop, jumping into the room (quickly shutting the door), turning the fan on high, replacing the mosquito coil’s blue chemical tablet, grabbing the cortisone cream, applying it to several points on each of their bodies, applying Deet, and finally, exhaling and reclining in the ceiling fan’s breeze, drained of all energy, onto the cot.
At dinner, Siddharth and Archi invited Clive and Maria to the conference hut (which housed a television and videocassette recorder) for a viewing of the island’s promotional diving video. Siddharth surprised everyone by producing a fifth of gin, some club soda, and a few sweet-limes.
The video confirmed every fear Clive harbored concerning Moray eels—who seemed to be the only non-vibrantly colored reef inhabitants. The featured specimen’s ashen color reminded Clive, of course, of death. “Look at that damn thing!” he said, as if defending his position. The others laughed.
The video finished-up late; all yawned frequently. It took no more than a few conversational pleasantries, address exchanges, and friendly good-nights to bring the evening to a much-welcomed bedtime.
Strangely, Clive’s sequential food-dream continued this night . . .
They gather around; one waiter asks, smiling: I’m Indian, and this is too hot. How can you eat this food? But Clive’s meal seems to follow a rhythm, as do the sitar and tabla—a sure and triumphant raga. The chewing, the beats, the colors and flavors follow a predetermined pattern. Clive experiences the food by simply considering its heat. He seems undaunted by the extreme—though his brow beads up, his eyes begin to water—and he distantly does not waver. Raga is taken from the Sanskrit “color,” Clive considers. He draws his index and middle fingers, pressed together, across his forehead. Gold hues predominate. The cauliflower entering one’s mouth resembles a tree. A saffron painting of an eel hangs across the way. The sky-blue curtain separating the kitchen from the diningroom, whose surface bears moving clouds as if filmed in time lapse, reveals the sun’s rays occasionally—and when a hand enters through the clouds from behind, piercing through as if reaching from a sky . . .
[Ed Note: This immediate section remained unwritten, aside from a few notes. One was that this section would contain a lengthy meditation on heat and what, exactly, "hot" means, what it *is*. There would also be monks here in the dream sequence who come out (described with adjectives suggesting “hot”) and take him into the back room for some mythically hot / sacred / forbidden food. In still later sequences, there would be the possibility that Clive had foretold this in a past life, and that's why the monks are there now. As for the story, they would now leave the island and head back to the mainland.]