16 July 2013

Archival Footage: The Settlement Of The Night Monster

What follows is a true tale, or at least as true a tale as I am able to tell of it these days, so many years later, about a trip I took to the Galapagos Islands with my grandparents when I was 10 years old in 1977. It is a tale based, at least in terms of its sequence and style, on a poem of recollection that I wrote for Beckian Goldberg's ENG 200-something Introduction to Creative Writing poetry workshop as a sophomore at Arizona State University in 1987.

The photos below are also mine, taken by ten-year-old me with my prized Kodak Instamatic camera.



"Yes, the night monster will settle there and will find herself a resting place." Isaiah 34:14b


Santa Fe Island, Galápagos
27 October 1977

It was a very sharp knife, much sharper than most ten-year-old boys would usually be allowed to possess.

It was the right knife, too, its stainless three-inch folding-blade and utilitarian Swiss-army implements perfect for carrying confidently in one's front pocket all day long, especially on a grand, far-away excursion such as this.

The fish, lying on its side on the deck, a large trolling-hook still pinned in its lower jaw, had obviously gauged the sharpness of the boy's knife, too; its wide, unblinking eyes betrayed its awareness, as it gaped and gasped, painfully expressing its desperate need for oxygen. It needed to die, wanted to.

"Kill me,"  the fish was telling him.

A very-sharp-knife would do the job: quickly and easily.  At the lake, in the summer, he'd watched his father gut small trout, caught by rod and reel from the deck of their tiny wooden sailboat, with the same very sharp knife: quickly and easily. A jab below the chin, just behind the gills, a few grinding cuts against the grain of the fish's belly, and it was done.

"¿Qué estás haciendo?" the teenage deckhand yelled at the boy. "No mates a ese pez, estúpido!"

"What?" the boy asked, stepping back as the 'hand lunged for the knife, pulled it quickly from his grasp and then, almost instinctively, pressed the flat back of the blade against his thigh, folding it quickly into the hilt and jamming it angrily into his own pocket.  The boy understood very little Spanish.  But he knew, nevertheless, that he'd been scolded for his intention to use his very-sharp-knife to kill the big yellow-green dorado, the evening's prized entree, prematurely.

"If you'd killed it, it would have begun to spoil out there in the sun before we had a chance to eat it for our dinner tonight," his grandmother, Zun, explained later as she secretly handed the knife back to him in the small below-decks cabin they shared with his grandfather.

Unable to carry out a mercy killing, the boy had waited instead, sitting for much of the hottest part of the day beside the slowly dying fish on the deck amidship with his back against the wall of the bridge of their small chartered ketch, knifeless, until its large eyes clouded over and the gasping stopped.

The afternoon sunlight which reflected off the rippling lagoon danced silently on the wall behind him. The placid, perfect half-moon bay, its water crystal clear and blue to a great depth, teemed with life: Gulls and frigatebirds filled the air, Sally-lightfoot festooned the black rock headlands, herds of dark-skinned marine iguanas grazed on underwater algae beds off shore, and massive, fleshy sea lions riotously occupied each beach and rock outcrop, baying, mating, and whelping, day and night, as far as the eye could see in an endless doggish chorus.  Somewhere inland, at the foot of the mountains, he'd been told huge land iguanas and other remarkable creatures were waiting.



Up close, its teeth looked a full yard long.

It took just one split-second moment for the boy to recall that he had been warned, earlier in the day, as they had all piled into the Zodiac that was to ferry them to the beach, that he was not to walk, and especially not swim, too near the nesting pods of sea lions.

"Those males, the fat ones with the fangs, they will think you're a rival for their mates if you get too close," their tall, affable Australian guide had warned.  "They've only got one thing on their mind this time of the year, and you don't want to get in the way of that," he said, grinning as he pulled confidently on the outboard's starter-cord.  And all the grown-ups in the bow laughed as the motor roared to life.

But the clear water of the cove was warm and simply too inviting, and before long the boy could be found swimming alone, well away from his own pod, sunbathing on the vast sandy beach, well out past the rocks and reef and into the deeper darker blue waters of the lagoon. Young sea lions darted in and out of his path playfully, multicolored fish swam all around him, unafraid, the water fathoms deep; it was heaven.

'Til a large dark mass lurked beneath him, gliding stealthily from his left flank to his right, disturbing the trajectory of the sunfish and the sea lions, and, albeit just for a moment, thoroughly confounding the boy.

Without warning, a massive head exploded out of the water directly in front of him, mere inches from his face, wild, whiskered, snarling, a thing full of teeth, and threat, and animal-rage.

"Go!" Its cavernously deep voice belched and then redoubled across the water.

A watery scream escaped the boys lips as he turned to swim for the beach  in blind-panic and the faint hope of safety.

Unhurt but terrified, he reached the shoreline to be greeted by a cacophony of fearful screaming from the rest of the landing party who had heard the 'lion's roar.



He sought solace that evening alone, sitting at the small built-in desk in his cabin, dull pencil in hand, feeling all-too-intimately the great vastness of the equatorial Pacific. Writing postcards to his parents, he could hear his grandparents and a cross-section of his extended family as they sat together above him up on deck watching the sun set behind Santa Fe island's impressive silhouette.

Miles from the nearest outpost from which his postcards could hope to be sent, he nevertheless found it comforting to write to his mother about the day's experiences while the others laughed and drank wine overhead, downplaying to her his terror and the day's sadness and scold, playing up instead the excitement and adventure of it all.

Lost in thought as he wrote, he was mildly surprised when his grandfather came into the cabin unexpectedly.

"Have you seen my sweater?" the old man asked.  "It's a little chilly up on deck tonight," he observed, rifling through the cabin's small closet.  Turning back to face the boy he remarked, "Say, what are you up to, down here all alone?" as he slipped an arm into the sleeve of his sweater. "Everyone's having a nice time watching the sunset tonight.  Why don't you come up?"

"I will.  I'm writing postcards right now."

"Oh, Postcards.  Good.  To your folks?  Where will you mail them?"

"Yeah, to mom and pop.  I guess I'll mail them when we get back to Santa Cruz.  I just feel like writing to them right now."



"Feeling a little homesick?"

"Yeah," said the boy, stifling tears.  "A lot."  As his typically stoic, distant grandfather sat down next to him on the nearest bunk the boy admitted,  "I just want to go home."

"I'm sure you do.  You're a long, long way from home right now," the older man observed.  "Much further than I ever went when I was ten years old.  And, ya know, I am proud of you, and how well you've behaved, and how courageous you've been to come on a trip like this with us.

"I don't think most ten-year-old kids could do it.  But your grandma and I knew how much you'd love to come here. We were a little worried that it would be too far away for a boy your age to travel without his folks.  But you've come so far, and you've been so bold. I'm really glad you're here with us."

"I'm glad, too," said the boy, honestly. "I just miss mom and pop right now."

"I know.  And that's perfectly okay.  When I was your age the farthest I ever went away from home was to summer camp in the mountains a few times.  And that was only a few hundred miles from home.  But here you are, thousands of miles from home, in the middle of the ocean, and it's taken you 'til now, almost two weeks, to get even a little bit homesick.  I'm impressed!  You should be proud of yourself," said the old man, reaching out to put a hand on the boy's shoulder.

The boy smiled, just a little. "Whenever I go on sleepovers at my friends' house, and I have trouble sleeping at night, I always like to think, if I need to go home, I can just get up and walk there," the boy explained. "But I know," he sniffed, "I can't ever walk home from here."

"Nope.  You sure can't." his grandfather smiled, compassionately.  "But you'll be home soon enough.  Hang in there, Juanito, you'll see your folks before you know it.  They'll be at the airport to pick us up when we get back, and they're going to be just as happy to see you as you'll be to see them."



Unexpectedly, he boy's uncle appeared in doorway.  "You okay, Percy?" he asked, evidently concerned.

"Sure.  Fine.  Just came down for a sweater.  Been talking with John."

"Well, looks like you found a sweater," his uncle continued, making small talk but looking carefully at his grandfather's face, concerned.  Sensing the conversation was over, as well as his chance to be alone to write postcards, the boy got up to go join the rest of the group up on deck as his grandfather had suggested.  As he stepped into the narrow hall outside his cabin he heard a faint noise behind him, as though someone had tossed something heavy onto one of the bunks in his cabin.

"Percy?" his uncle called out urgently as the boy turned to look back.  "Percy!" His grandfather was lying back awkwardly on the bunk, his eyes closed, unresponsive to the other man's calls.  "John, go get your grandmother.  Something's wrong!"  The boy obeyed, walked into the adjacent bow-cabin, and stuck his head up through the small hatch in the ceiling,

"Zun, Uncle Jim says something's wrong with grandpa," he told his grandmother.  "He wants you, they're in our cabin."  Everyone gasped and headed for the main hatch and were soon gathered in the galley and outside the boy's cabin door.

The boy sat in the galley along with the others, and watched as a half-dozen crewmen and their guide all rushed forward through the ship to peer in on his grandfather.  All but one crewman and the guide turned back as the captain began to shout orders in Spanish at them.  The boy wandered forward himself a short time later, looking cautiously through the doorway between the arms and legs of his elders, to see one crew member straddling his grandfather, now fully prone, face-up on the bunk, and their guide holding his head with both hands, ready to breathe for him when the crewman momentarily ceased performing CPR.

It was so hot now. The crush of bodies and panic had raised the temperature below-decks to a stifling degree.

All the lights on board, but one small oil lamp in the galley and the light in his grandfather's cabin, had been turned out when the ship's giant noisy diesel engine had been engaged. The sails, too, were raised on the masts as the captain pointed the prow toward the nearest hospital, in the small settlement of Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz, which the boy knew was hours and hours away by night across the open sea.

Everyone's dinner, dorado fish-filets, sat uncooked and ignored atop the galley stove.

No longer homesick but just as alone, the boy cried quietly in the dark galley cabin.  But only a little, more from the stress of the whole affair than from fear or confusion.  He understood what was happening, and also what was likely to be the outcome of it all.

And then, a little later, he fell asleep on the padded bench that ran the length of the galley's dinner table.



When he awoke the next morning, still lying on the galley bench, he found the sun already up, its diffuse light shining through the portholes above him, and his head nestled comfortably in his grandmother's ample lap.  He stretched quietly, looked up and caught her gaze.  Her lips pursed, her eyes red, she nevertheless tried to smile.  He always loved her smile, especially in that moment.

"Grandpa's dead" was all she said.

"I know."

"You were very brave last night," she told him.  And then a moment later, "The doctors were here a little while ago, while you were sleeping. They're going to come back later and take grandpa's body away with them."

When they did return they came with a white-pine box and several strong men to carry it.



Together, they all left the island later that day, traveling by bus up and over the central highlands of Santa Cruz, from the settlement of Puerto Ayora to the small airport on the island's opposite side.  The white pine casket, either too large or too heavy for the luggage rack bolted atop the colorful, so-Latin-American bus, was instead shoved down the bus's center aisle, providing a couple of gray-haired local men with a fine platform for card playing while enroute.

Beside the dock where they boarded a ramshackle ferryboat for the quick trip across a narrow, dirty inlet of water to get to the airport on Baltra Island, stood a lone blue-footed booby atop a decaying, barnacle-covered wooden piling, its once-bright feet faded and bestained with soot and grime from the many transport boats' fuel and exhaust.  It stared hard at the boy as he walked the narrow plank to go aboard.

"What did you expect?" it asked from its rotten perch, permanent, immovable, and fixed in his memory.


1 comments :

Kaci Mae said...

So...I thought this post was going to be about fishing. I'm sorry that you had to go through that, even though I know that these moments are what make the shape of our lives and memories. It just seems a little heartbreaking to be a slightly homesick boy on a trip of a lifetime and to have it end that way. Your retelling leaves me hanging (which was probably your intent)...wondering how you felt...you told about your homesickness and your fear at seeing the sea lion, but not how you felt about seeing your grandfather die or having your adventure turn into a family emergency. Unless of course this is a fiction story or it happened to a different John...but I don't think that's the case. I have some questions to ask you when we come over for dinner--you better be ready! :)

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