16 July 2013

The Settlement Of The Night Monster

Santa Fe Island, Galápagos
27 October 1977


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


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 his knife's sharpness, too; its wide, unblinking eyes betrayed its awareness, as it gaped and gasped, painfully articulating its desperate need for oxygen. It needed to die, wanted to.

"Kill me."  That's what the fish was telling him.

A very sharp knife could 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 matar a ese pez, estúpido!"

"What?" the boy asked, stepping back as the 'hand lunged for the knife and pulled it quickly from his grasp and then, almost instinctively, pressed the back of the blade into his thigh, folding it into the hilt, and then jamming it angrily into his own pocket.  The boy understood very little Spanish.  But nevertheless, he knew that he'd been scolded for his intention 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," his grandmother explained later, as she secretly handed his knife back to him in the below-deck cabin they shared with his grandfather.

So the boy waited, sitting for much of the hottest part of the day beside the slowly dying fish on the deck amidship, his back against the wall of the bridge of their small chartered ketch, knifeless, helpless, until its eyes clouded over and the gasping seemed to stop.

The afternoon sunlight reflected off the rippling lagoon and danced silently on the wall behind him. The placid, perfect half-moon bay, its water crystal blue to a great depth, teemed with life: Gulls and frigatebirds filled the air, Sally-lightfoot crabs 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.

And in one split-second moment the boy recalled that he had been warned of this earlier in the day, as they all piled into the Zodiac inflatable to head to the beach, not to walk, and especially not swim, too near the nesting harems of sea lions.

"Those males, the fat ones with the big fangs, will think you're a rival for their mates if you get too close," their handsome, 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 was warm and simply too inviting, and before long the boy could be found swimming alone, well away from the group sunbathing on the vast sandy beach, 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, beautiful fish were all around him, unafraid, the water fathoms deep; it was heaven.

Until a large dark mass lurked beneath him, gliding quickly, stealthily, from his left to his right, disturbing the trajectory of all the fish and the sea lions around him, and, albeit just for a moment, thoroughly confounding the boy.

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

"Go!" Its deep voice belched across the water.

A watery scream escaped the boys lips as he turned in blind-panic to swim for the beach and the hope of safety as he'd never swum before.  Unhurt but terrified, he reached the shoreline, greeted by a cacophony of screaming from the rest of the landing party, in record time



He sought solace alone that evening, sitting at a small desk in his cabin, a 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 all sat above him up on deck together watching the sun set behind Santa Fe island's impressive relief.  Miles from the nearest settlement 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 overhead, downplaying his terror and the day's sadness and scold, playing up the excitement and adventure of it all instead.

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

"Have you seen my sweater?" he asked.  "It's a little chilly up on deck tonight," the older man observed, rifling through the cabin's small closet. 

"What are you up to, down here all alone?" he asked, looking back over his shoulder at the boy 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."

"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."  His typically stoic, distant grandfather sat down next to him on the nearest bunk.  "I want to go home," the boy admitted.

"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 so proud of you, and how well you've behaved and how courageous you've been to come on such a trip like this with us. 

"I don't think most ten-year-old kids could do a trip like this.  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, really glad you're here with us."

"I'm glad, too.  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 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 older man, reaching out to put a hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Whenever I go on sleepovers at my friends' house, and I have trouble sleeping at night, I like to think, if I need to I can just get up and walk home," 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."

The boy's uncle appeared suddenly 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 your sweater," his uncle continued, making small talk but looking carefully at his grandfather's face, concerned.  Sensing their 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 on deck.  As he stepped into the narrow hall outside his cabin he heard a faint noise, as though someone had tossed something heavy onto one of the bunks in the room behind him.

"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,

"Something's wrong with grandpa," he told his grandmother.  "Uncle Jim 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, too, and watched as a half-dozen crewmen and their guide all rushed forward through the ship, to peer into his cabin.  All but one crewman and the guide turned back as the captain began to shout orders at them in Spanish.  The boy quietly 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's chest, 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 big diesel engine had been engaged. The sails 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.

Dinner, fish filets, sat uncooked atop the galley stove.

Wanting to help offset the heat, the boy grabbed a folded game-board and took it down the hall to the cabin to be used as a fan, but he was brusquely brushed aside, likely misunderstood by men in the midst of a crisis. Someone told him to "Go sit down!"

Back in the galley, no longer homesick but just as alone, he did just that.  And he cried.  But only a little, more from the stress of the whole affair than from fear or confusion.  He understood what was happening, and what was likely to be the outcome of it all.

"What are you doing?! Are you crying?!" shouted Mrs. Bromley, an older woman, one of his grandmother's best friends and traveling companions, as she came into the galley to find the boy crying alone.  "You know, your grandfather can hear you crying.  Yes, he can!  And do you know that if you don't stop crying, right now, it's going to kill him?!  Yes, it will! He can hear you!  Stop crying!  Do you want to kill your grandfather?! Stop crying!"

Even in that moment, the boy knew this was a ridiculous contention and merely the fearful rantings of a panicked old woman.  But he also knew, right then, that he'd never be able to forget those crazy words, either. And he didn't.

Later, he fell asleep on the bench that ran the length of the galley table, the game board still folded, unused, tucked in along side the bench near his feet.

When he awoke the next morning, still on the galley bench, he found the sun already up, 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. They're going to come back later and take grandpa with them."

And they did, with a white-pine box and several strong men to carry it.

They all left the island later that day, traveling by bus up and over the central highlands, 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 atop the colorful, so-Latin-American bus, was shoved instead down the bus's center aisle, providing a couple gray-haired locals with a fine platform for card playing enroute.

Aside the dock where they boarded a ramshackle ferry for the quick trip across a narrow, dirty body of water to the airport on Baltra Island, stood a lone blue-footed booby on a decaying, barnacle-covered wooden piling, its once-bright feet faded and bestained with soot and oil from the transports' fuel and exhaust.  It stared hard at the boy as he walked the narrow gang-plank 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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