16 July 2013

Archival Footage: The Settlement Of The Night Monster

I will confess that long ago, as a high school student and likewise throughout my undergraduate years, I wrote bad poems.  The short story that follows, about a trip I took to the Galapagos Islands with my grandparents in 1977, is not a bad poem.  But it is a tale based, at least in terms of its sequence and style, on a poem that I wrote for Beckian Goldberg's ENG 200-something intro-to creative writing workshop as a sophomore at Arizona State University in '86 or '87.  I long-ago misplaced the original text of the poem, but much of its essence has nevertheless stayed with me, in the back of my mind, during the interim.  For reasons I can't really articulate beyond that, I felt quite compelled recently to sit down and retell it... in prose.

For whatever it's worth, the photos below are also mine, taken by ten-year-old me with my prized Kodak Instamatic camera.

What follows is a true tale, or at least as true a tale as I am able to tell of it these days, some 40 years later. It is, not surprisingly, a story I have told and retold, one way or another, many, many times over the years.

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 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 explained later as she secretly handed the knife back to him in the small below-deck 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 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 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, his grandfather surprised him when he 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. 

"Say, 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."  As his typically stoic, distant grandfather sat down next to him on the nearest bunk the boy admitted,  "I 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.  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.

"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."

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 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 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, the boy did just that.  And then 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 also 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.  He can!  And do you know that if you don't stop crying, right now, it's going to kill him?!  It will!  He can hear you!  Your grandfather can hear you!  Stop crying!  Do you want to kill your grandfather?! Then stop crying!"

Even in that moment, the boy knew that this was a ridiculous contention and merely the fearful rantings of a panicked old woman.  But he also knew, right in that moment, 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 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. They're going to come back later and take grandpa with them."

When they did return they came 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 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 gray-haired locals with a fine platform for card playing while 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.