The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965
“You know, there’s a whole bunch of kids’d give their right arm to be here. Out in the sun, on a desert island, with all the beaches and the sea…”
His mother waved her arm, scoping out the packing cases, the packets of food, the water containers and the other junk that cluttered the make-shift veranda in front of the wooden shack. And of course, the rocks and the spindly plants shirking in the cracks as the land tumbled down to the black beach and the sea.
“Yeah, but I never imagined it’d be like this. It’s so bo-o-oring. There’s nothing—”
“Look, I do not want this conversation now,” she said, hitching her bag onto her shoulder where it bounced against her backpack and slipped back off. Again.
She pulled on a lock of her hair, bleached nearly white and frazzled from the salt air and pinned it behind her ear. Again.
“Have you seen my cap? I really do need it out there, even if it is just to keep my hair out of my eyes.”
“Behind you. On the box.”
“Ah!” she said, turning and nearly blinding him with a corner of her backpack. “Thanks.” She pulled it on, sliding it up over her forehead so it caught most of the stray strands of pale hair and pulled them back from her face. She left the brim low, over her eyes. “You see. What would I do without you.” She make another attempt at persuading the thick nylon bag containing her equipment to stay on her shoulder and stepped out into the crushing sunlight.
“Don’t forget to eat,” she called out. “And drink a lot of water. You can dehydrate in no time here, believe me.” She started down the crumbly rocks, all black and grey like compacted ashes, before turning back. “And if you’re looking for something to do, you can always start by tidying things up. Try and find a place for everything.”
She turned back, setting off down to the beaches and her precious turtles.
He had arrived on Pei two days ago. From the boat it had barely seemed an island, just black rocks poking up from the blue-green ocean, windswept and possessing no shelter, no trees, just small stubbly shrubs and small dry thorny plants that hugged the ground. As they got closer he saw that the beaches were also black. It was gritty volcanic gravel and dirt and not the great yellow sandy expanses he’d imagined.
Peter had cut the diesel motor on the small fishing boat, letting the current pull it along the lee side of the oval land mass — on the maps, or at least those detailed enough to feature it, it looked, fittingly enough, just like a turtle’s shell emerging from the surrounding sea — until they reached the floating jetty that the research teams had built leading up to the shallows in the half shadow of the low cliff. He wasn’t really called Peter, but his real name was so unpronounceable and Peter was close enough for the occasional tourist and, more regular, research teams to use. He was short, shorter than the boy even, but stockier and strong looking. He looked sort of Mediterranean with a heavy blue beard and was tanned almost an olive colour. But when he took off his wraparound sunglasses, his irises were egg-shell blue, and his eyes almost almond shaped.
“They’ve been lots of invaders, lots of sailors and travellers through these parts over the centuries,” his mother said when she saw him staring at the eyes.
Peter also had two scars on his right cheek, a mishmash of his thick black stubble and shocking pink flesh, all puckered up like arseholes or bullet wounds. The aftermath of an operation to remove malignant melanoma, skin cancer. His mother had interrogated Peter with typical scientific curiosity, as cold and exact as a scalpel, reformulating his answers from the broken English they used to communicate.
“It’s an occupational hazard out here,” she said, turning to her son. “All this sun. And reverberating off the sea only makes it worse. Let that be a warning to you. Keep yourself well covered and top up the sunblock regularly.”
She had white stripes left by the zinc oxide on her cheeks and nose.
“Isn’t it dangerous for him? I mean, if he got it once, can’t he get it again? Why does he keep coming out?” he asked.
His mother was holding on to a rail under the side window in the small hot cabin. She turned to face Peter again. He had one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the throttles, his eyes reading the water ahead.
“I got boat. I got work. No boat, no work. How I do live and feed chil’run then?” he shrugged.
As they drifted down the lee of the island, the waves grew smaller. The boat stopped pitching as it was trying to buck them. It glided with Peter giving short thrusts on one of the controls, correcting their course, then throwing the motors into reverse when the boat came alongside the jetty that seemed more like flotsam from some wreck than something that had been built. It was just planks and oil drums and canisters roped together. Where the jetty met the shore was an empty flag pole, just a pole and a rope and a pulley at the top, clicking in the wind, and below this was a weather-beaten sign in three languages — English, Spanish and some sort of sharp squiggly script that was probably the local idiom — proclaiming that the island was a Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and it was forbidden for the public to debark here. It was signed by some Governor’s Office and nearly a whole alphabet of initials and squiggles.
His mother looked up into the air, as if hunting out for some sign, and then adjusted the heavy chronograph on her wrist to local time. She climbed over the side, carrying a thick rope and started to tie the boat to one of the supports on the jetty. Peter finished the job, pulling the ropes tight and threading complicated knots around the poles. His mother shaded her eyes, holding a hand up under the brim of her cap, and inspected the small lump of the island.
It was the first time he really saw it, in other than photos or the view from the swaying and pitching boat. Yet it felt to him like the island was just a bigger boat with all that rocking and wobbling still in his legs.
They had spent the rest of that day carrying boxes and packets along the rickety path, loading the rubber dinghy with the water canisters and the heavy stuff, pushing and pulling, splashing and hauling, stacking and counting. He got sunburn, and the black gritty sand got everywhere.
That night his mother had lit a fire, just a small one of mostly rubbish and scraps, and just to cheer things up.
“You’ve already noticed,” she said. “There are no trees. And there’s next to no wood gets washed up here either. Plastic bottles, nappies and worse, but practically no wood. There used to be trees, they’ve found traces. Mostly roots and bark in the peat bogs…”
“Doesn’t that burn? Peat, I mean. I thought I read somewhere…”
“This is a minimal impact project. We touch as little as humanely possible. We could probably get through the whole bog in just a season. And then it’s gone forever. Something that took the island hundreds of years to create.”
“But you said there used to be trees. Where’ve they gone, then?”
“Nobody knows for sure…”
“Perhaps they chopped them down and built a raft. To get away I mean…” he said.
He was beginning to realise that there wasn’t much to do here. No TV, minimal internet access. A radio reserved for ‘real’ emergencies…
“You might not be that wrong. That’s one of the mysteries. What happened? To the people, to the trees. Alejandro thinks this was like a staging post. One of many flung across the ocean. And it just got overused. They wore out any wildlife, trees and plants… until it was all gone. But that was the past. At the moment there are still living breathing things that need our help. They can disappear too.”
“You mean your turtles?”
“Yes, the turtles. But even they have been hunted and depleted over the years. They used to catch them and keep them down in the holds of the old sailing ships, as a source of fresh meat. Now there are only a few thousand left.”
“And that’s why you study them…”
“In part, yes. Now with their human predators gone for nearly a hundred years, why is the population still so low..?”
“So you count them…”
“That’s not all of it. We track them, follow them, try to understand. What’s so incredible is that they all come here, to the same beach like they’ve done for thousands of years to lay their eggs. All on the same night after swimming right across all the ocean.”
But Alejandro was retained back at the lab, and as they had a permit for two people, that was how he found himself stuck on a pile of rocks in the middle of the ocean, miles and miles away from everything and anyone.
After breakfast he had tidied up, then gathering things for his backpack — water, or course, dried fruit, a book, a camera… — He changed into walking shoes, which meant socks, even in the heat, but even if he ignored his mother’s warnings, yesterday’s unpacking had shown how incredibly sharp the rocks could be. Already his shins and knees were covered with a multitude of small cuts and bruises. He picked up a GPS, switching it on to check the battery as his mother had shown him, and set off to explore.
It felt funny not having to shut and lock the door.
He walked down to the beach and the jetty, planning to walk off to the right as far as he could. His mother’s beaches, off to the left, were out of bounds. As the gritty black sand crunched underfoot he realised he didn’t even have a telephone or anything to call his mother. He realised, for the first time, how alone they really were.
He came across the water trickling over the rock face after about an hour’s walk. It glistened and plocked where it dripped. There were also slight greenish smears outlining the path, some deposit accumulated along the edges.
He dipped a finger in, then tentatively licked it. The water wasn’t salty. It tasted faintly of earth and vegetation and what he imagined were the minerals it had leeched out of the rocks and poor soil. Yet there was so little of it. Cupping his hand under a drip, it took minutes to create a small pool, not even big enough to fill a small thimble.
His mother had said there was no fresh water on the island, that was why they’d had to transport all the water canisters yesterday. Why at any one time they always had to have twice the estimated supply in case Peter couldn’t get through for one of the designated drop-off dates. It wasn’t yet the rainy season with gales and typhoons and everything that could last for weeks, but even so, squalls and small local storms could easily stop him getting through for days on end.
He calculated. Even supposing this could only collect one litre every two hours… That was still more than ten litres a day. And this was the dry season, probably the worse time for water. Perhaps at other times they could collect… twenty litres a day, he estimated.
He pulled the GPS unit to get a fix on the spot. The small screen showed radiating bars flowing up and outwards, but that was all. No signal. He stepped back, moving the small box from side to side, but there was still nothing. He’d have to find some other way to mark the spot.
Looking back, even knowing the trickle of water was there in the shadows he realised how easy it was to not see it, to just walk past and never notice the water. He scanned the beach. There was nothing to mark the spot, no flotsam or jetsam on the tideline, no trees, no bushes. Even his footsteps disappeared in the chaos of the black sand.
He made a mental list of useful stuff he didn’t have with him: chalk, that would show up fine against the rocks; rope, if he needed to climb or down the low cliffs and rockfaces… Then he started to get fanciful: a deep freeze stocked with pizza; a microwave; satellite TV and internet access; videogames and DVDs…
He looked back at the rocks. Now it was impossible to make out even the tiny gully where the water dribbled down. He stared at the shadows, imagining faces and forms, heads and hands and figures frozen in different postures, as if the wall was a frieze. Slowly it came to him that he wasn’t inventing the forms, they were already there, rows of pictures like a comic book across the small cliff. He tried to make out the story, but he felt he was not seeing the complete picture. Parts were worn and missing, lichen scattered like ash, obscuring the edges and the clarity.
He fished for the digital camera in his backpack, hardly daring to take his eyes away from the scenes in case he lost them. He lined up fragments in the viewfinder: a figure standing among trees; what looked like a large many-legged worm, or it could be many people carrying a tree trunk on their heads and shoulders; stylised waves; a long boat with its sail unfurled; a coil of rope, or a worm, or a sea-serpent. He photographed a fish motif, or perhaps they were turtles. He thought he could make out the sun, and stars, so perhaps it was the moon…
He stopped pressing the button and shielded the screen from the light to examine his photos. He saw only charcoal smudges on a mottled slate-grey background… Was he really seeing something, or was it just the same way that people see faces in a stain on the wall, or the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast?
He strained his eyes, looking at the stick figures and the carvings and the rubbings, sure that it wasn’t accidental or just a coincidence. He lifted his hand and felt out towards the rocks, towards the form of an outstretched hand. He placed his own hand over it, feeling his fingers sink into the ridges, feeling the curves match the bumps and valleys on his own hand. That couldn’t be a coincidence. He hand filled the shape as if they were made for each other.
The rock shifted under his hand, moving backwards.
She could walk this path with her eyes closed, she thought as she made her way along the beach. But if she did that she’d miss the changes. Today the sea was grey where the breakers raked the shore, fading to blue and then a sort of indigo further out, and then almost black at the horizon. She saw pale shells washed up against the black sand, over there on the rocks, a turtle shell, picked clean by the crabs; tiny violet splashes where a sprig of something in the rocks had flowered.
She reached the beach The light wind flapped at the edges of the tarpaulin Alejandro and she had installed at the top of the beach. As it was in the shade, and this wasn’t the rainy season they didn’t really need it, although the meagre shelter did provide some protection against the UV reverberation and that was always appreciable.
The true sense of the shelter was elsewhere. By encouraging them to keep their equipment on the same rocky platform, they cold better control their impact on the environment, even here. Every little helps, said Alejandro.
She dumped her bags, reset her cap, pulling back the strnds if hair that were sticking to the transpiration on her temples and forehead, and pulled out a tube of sun-block to renew the layers on exposed skin. It was still only morning but she could already feel the sun pulling at her skin.
As she squeezed the tube and spread the white paste on her face and neck, she surveilled the thin beach, counting off the items on her mental checklist. Make sure the spots where they’d planned to set up the cameras and lights were still dry and clear. Put back the securing rope along the base of the low cliffs in case she needed a handhold at high tide. When the tide was out, verify the topography of the beach and note any changes. She had to check the GPS signal from the transmitters fitted to the handful of sample turtles and plot their progress, and then, if she had any time left, patiently rake and sieve through the sand for unhatched eggs. It was going to be a busy week until the turtles got here. And even busier once they did.
She screwed the stopper back on the tube and looked back along the beach. Had it been a good idea to bring him along? When Alejandro had had to drop out it had seemed a perfect opportunity to spend more time together during his school holidays.
Together! she snorted. If you call being stuck on the same plot of volcanic rock in the middle of an inhospitable ocean, being together. She’d have to get him to talk about his day when they met up that evening.
And with that, she turned back to her work.
Inside the cave, everything was fresh and damp and dark. He took off his sunglasses, letting them dangle from the cord round his neck, and, arms outstretched, shuffled over the smooth rocks, advancing like someone just learning to walk. A torch would be really useful, he thought. They had some back at the camp, ready in their boxes for when the turtles would arrive.
He stepped in a pool of water, hearing the splash echo off the walls. With the thick waking boots he hadn’t felt a thing. Nonetheless he shifted back, it could be just a puddle, but it could also be a deep pool.
He stood there, listening to the sound of his own breathing.
Surely there should be more light, he thought, the light from outside. He turned, careful not to fall into the water.
He was surrounded by darkness.
She put down the water bottle and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Then looking at the dots on the laptop screen, she took off her cap and ran her fingers through her hair, as if trying to massage the air through to her scalp and work away the heat and transpiration. She looked over at the screen. The map refreshed lazily, rectangle after rectangle. The little cloud of dots didn’t seem to have moved, but she knew this wasn’t true. With the currents there they could be advancing at about thirty miles an hour. Every two minutes, when the map refreshed, they could have covered a new mile.
She slipped the cap up on her brow, catching her hair again and flattening it against her head. Then she pulled the brim down to her sunglasses, effectively hiding her forehead. She leaned over and pushed the laptop closed. Don’t waste the battery, she thought. No waste. It had become a mantra. That and making the smallest possible impact on the environment. But what was there really to preserve here? A few rocks, some bogs, crumbling beaches, a few shrubs and small plants that struggled against the heat, the drought and the constant drying winds. There was a stark beauty here, but that was only humans could see. Or was it? Could the place still be beautiful when there was no-one to see it? That sounded sort of Zen. She’d have to ask Alejandro what he thought.
She carried her bags on aching shoulders back across the beach towards the shelter.
He felt the dark pressing in, crushing him.
How come he hadn’t seen or felt the entrance closing, he wondered. he wasn’t sure of the direction back, now he had turned. He thought he was probably facing the right way, but he could easily be looking off to one side.
He stilled his breathing and willed his heart to beat more quietly. The sea, he thought, surely I should still hear the waves breaking on the shore. Even a murmur would be a clue as to the right direction. He could hear a faint hiss or rushing sound, barely audible above his breathing, just a constant wash of sound but with no clear direction as, tentatively, he moved his head to the right and the left. Bt he wasn’t sure this was the sea. He seemed to remember reading something about this noise, that it was always there, the noise of your inner ear or your nervous system or something. Even people in sensory deprivation chambers that block out all outside sounds said they could hear it.
He felt the coolness all around settle on his skin. Either that or he was breaking out in a cold sweat. Being aware of his body, he remembered he was still holding the digital camera. Surely it had a flash… He lifted it, brushing his thumb against the button at the top, activating it without actually taking a photo. Instantly the screen danced in front of his eyes, burning itself into his vision. He screwed his eyes shut and the afterimage glowed and danced. He opened his eyes, blinking, as if to force out the image in tears, and this time concentrated his attention on the small, bright screen. He flicked through the menus until he had activated he flash. He held the camera down on his chest, estimating that there was less chance that the flash should accidentally blind him. It brushed against his sunglasses. Should he put them back on? If the light was too strong they might preserve his vision. But finally the idea of wearing sunglasses when it was pitch black, seemed altogether too strange.
He steeled himself and pressed the button.
As she walked up the sloping beach to the camp she was surprised to see that there was no light. The sky was turning violet, with black streak above the horizon. Already a handful of stars twinkled. Quite soon it would be completely dark but already it was impossible to see anything inside the camp.
She had expected him to be waiting for her, waiting and looking out. In her dreams he would come bounding down like a puppy, panting and excitedly telling her about the day’s adventures, but that son seemed long gone. In all probability he’d sulk and not meet her eyes, and moan about the long day.
She climbed up onto the wooden platform under the heavy canvas that made up the veranda and banged her boots, shaking off the sand. She stopped. Perhaps he was sleeping. The days out here could be exhausting, especially at first what with the sea air and the near constant winds. It took it all out of you.
She dumped her bags and looked around for a lantern, or a torch. Dusk was falling rapidly now and everything had turned to shades of grey. As she felt around, she couldn’t remember what they had unpacked, and what they’d left for later. Delicately she felt along surfaces taking care not upset and break anything.
The hammock was empty.
She had brushed aga
inst it in the half-light and could tell by the way it swung free. She walked through patted his sleeping bag down. He wasn’t there either.
She paused, wondering what to do next.
She couldn’t have lost him. He had just been overtaken by the rapidity of nightfall. The best thing to do was to get some lights on, give him something to aim at on his way back.
Eventually she set her hand down on a box of matches on a rickety shelf. Just next to a storm lantern. Soon she was busy lighting up the camp.
The walls exploded into a mess of colours.
At first he flinched, regretting he hadn’t put his sunglasses back on. Colour wove and gyrated all around. So much so that for a moment he felt dizzy, or as if he had just got off the boat and could still feel the sea lurching in his legs.
Then, slowly, he realised that this wasn’t the afterimage if the flash he was seeing, but the light glowing from the walls of the cave. The sudden flash had somehow woken it up.
The colours seemed to crawl, snakelike, around the forms. It must be some sort of photoluminescent reaction. The walls had absorbed the light and were now using it to shine back and illuminate the drawings.
While the forms and figures here were more precise, clearer than the more worn and weathered carvings outside, they were also slightly blurred, slightly out of focus, or as if he was seeing them through a frosted glass.
He saw the sea, this time with stylised fishes and turtles, but he could now also see the details of scales and the patterns on the shells. He also noticed that he seemed to see all this more clearly if he didn’t look at it directly, but sort of glanced at the pictures, or caught them at the edge of his vision.
He saw the sailing boats, but also canoes, scalloped and decorated with swirling geometric patterns that seemed, at moments, to resemble the scales and shells and waves, as if everything was one, just parts of the same whole, or just echoing a barely different note in the same scale.
He saw a land covered in trees and in whose branches there were birds and small animals. Lizards climbed trunks and sunned themselves on rocks, and insects played in the air about. As he looked he fancied he could hear them nearby, buzzing lazily just out of sight. He saw water gathering in pools, bubbling up from springs…
He saw the people who had lived here, cutting down trees and carrying them to the beaches, picking fruit from the trees, chasing some sort of hairy pig through the bushes and then spearing it and carrying it back aloft to the others before roasting it over a fire. There were others spearing fish, and smaller ones who he took to be children gathering shells and small creatures in the rock pools. The people on the wall appeared happy and industrious, and occasionally stopped what they were doing to dance and play. In fact, he felt he could sometimes hear the faint drumming of their music.
He followed the cycle of seasons, saw them planting and tending to crops and to the trees, saw the activities rhythming their days, the months rolling into seasons, the seasons into years.
Still the forms played out on the walls, moving and sliding along, washing over each other, swelling and then shrinking like the waves on the black stone beaches.
He saw the turtles, hundreds, thousands of them, crawling up the beaches under the light of a full moon held high like a lantern, scraping at the abrasive grit laboriously, digging holes to lay eggs that lay white and bare like pearls in the sand, sparkling like the stars in the night sky above. Then turtles then hid their treasure, pushing the darkness to bury them, and patted down the small mounds with flipper that ached from the effort, from the long journey, from the hard rough sand. And now they pulled themselves forwards, back towards the water and the journey home.
He saw this repeat, year after year after year, and the arrival of the turtles wove itself into the dances and the rhythm of the people on the island.
Then he noticed something else. It had been gradual and so not obvious, but as time passed it became more and more apparent. There were more and more people now on the island, working, planting, building, caring, playing and dancing, but fewer and fewer trees, the birds and lizards became rarer, the large hairy pigs that they had chased could no longer be seen. But still the turtles came. Until he saw someone standing on the beach under a low red moon, holding a spear at the ready. As the first water scrambled out of the water and up onto the sand, the spear flew and pierced the creature through a fleshy neck. Others gathered round and rolled the animal onto its back where it died, waving flippers and heavy with unlaid eggs.
There were disputes and fights now among the islanders as more and more turtles were massacred when they emerged from the crimson waters. Islanders cut trees and hollowed out canoes, and left the island and the years continued, now rhythmed by the killing of the turtles.
Great ships appeared, heavy under a multitude of sails. Men rowed to shore and exchanging greetings with the islanders shot and massacred them before piling the boats high with turtles and leaving the straggle of survivors to shelter under the few remaining bare trees.
This too became part of the rhythm of the dance until the islanders learned to flee at the first sight of the white sheets on the horizon, only daring return when the shallow row boats, weighed down with turtles and plunder had rejoined the great masted ships, hauled anchor and left. And in the pauses between the departures and arrivals, the island grew to resemble what he had seen from the boat when they had first arrived: just a few black, barren rocks braving the ocean waves.
The vision faded as he saw faces and hands in the cave, carving and printing the story of the island for those who would come later and wonder. The vision faded and once again he was surrounded by the thick cloying darkness.
He had lost track of all time. He rubbed his eyes and tried to decide if he had been watching for just minutes, or perhaps years as he remember the details of the story he had just lived.
He sat cross-legged and then as exhaustion overtook him, lay down on his back and closed his eyes.
She looked at the chronograph on her wrist. It was just after 9 pm, local time and quite dark outside.
She’d checked for a note, and checked again. Then she’d tried to determine what was missing. His walking shoes, his rucksack, those were obvious. After that she’d given up. There was no way of knowing even if the searching and counting had kept her from worrying too much.
She lit another lantern and carried it down to the flag pole, hoisting it up against the sky. From there it was visible from all over the island. For miles out to sea too, she imagined.
Up to now she’d managed to resist the urgent need to go out and look for him, telling herself he’d be back in a moment, that he couldn’t have gone far — not here —, that he’d just lost track of time and been surprised by the sudden nightfall, telling herself that panicking and running off into the night was the surest way for something to happen to herself. But as time dragged on and she walked back up the beach she decide she couldn’t put it off any longer and prepared to leave.
She left a note on the table and packed a small rucksack with essentials; water, dried fruit, protein bars. A thick woollen sweater as soon it would be getting quite cold with no cloud cover to hold back the day’s heat. A torch. A first aid kit. This she picked up and then put down, shaking her head. No, better be prepared. She told hold of it again.
She unpacked a walkie-talkie, planning to leave one on the table next to her message and stopped. Did she remember unpacking one last night and stuffing it into his rucksack just in case? Or had she just intended to do it before abandoning herself to sleep? She shook the boxes one after the other, but only got as far as the third when she knew she had been righ. The box was empty.
She snatched up the small radio and pressed the button.
“Where are you? I’m worried sick here. What are you getting up to?”
She took her thumb off the button and waited.
In fact, the walkie-talkie hadn’t hissed when she’d pressed the button, she realised. A sure sign that the other one wasn’t switched on. Of course, no-one was going to leave them on all the time. It just wastes the batteries.
It was useless.
She was about to throw it back into the box with the others when she decided to have a good look at it.
On the other side was a small red flap. She prised it up with her fingernail. There was a small red button in the recess underneath and embossed in tiny letters on the back of the flap were the words: ALARM PRESS. She pressed.
In the box on the table, the other walkie-talkies screeched, stopping as soon as she lifted her finger in surprise.
Now she knew how to locate him!
She pocketed the radio and, as a precaution, removed the batteries of the four remaining ones in the packing case. She didn’t want their signal giving her false directions or covering up the sound of just one buried in the bottom of a rucksack.
Electric torch in hand in hand she set off down the beach, turning right to follow the path he’d most probably taken and stopping every hundred steps to press the red button and listen intently.
He woke, his senses lost in a riot of squirming lights and turtles scraping at the crusty sand. And mixed in there, the sound of an alarm clock, dragging him back awake.
He reached out to silence it and switch on a light. His hand closed on grit and rock. He opened his eyes to a splash of stars across a sky so dark he felt it had depths he was falling up and into. Far out, behind him, a gibbous moon hung fat and yellow on the horizon. He sat up, supporting himself in his hands, feeling aches and bruises from his shoulders and back. Opposite him the moonlight blocked in highlights and shadows on the rockface.
The alarm screamed again, from just behind his back. he twisted round, his back and shoulders sending out twinges of pain at the sudden movement, before realising that the sound was coming from his backpack.
The alarm stopped.
He pulled off the backpack, fumbled to open it and started pulling out the contents. At the bottom he found the small yellow and black walkie-talkie. He found the switch on the side, turned it on, and then pushed his thumb down on the transmit button. It gave out a burst of static.
“Mum..?” he said, lifting his thumb for the reply and wincing at the hiss of static in his ear.
“Where are you? Are you hurt? Over.”
“Ah, Mum. I’m on the beach. I’m… I’m not sure… it’s weird.” He lifted his thumb then pressed it down again. “Over. I mean, I’m alright. I’m fine. Over.”
When they met he tried to tell her what had happened, the words tumbling and jumbling as he stumbled along the beach at her side. Her face was closed as she tried not to demonstrate her relief, tried to impose a distance to show her worry and anger. But as the words poured out she stopped and turned to him, taking first his wrist and hen gently touching his forehead.
“Are you sure it’s not sunstroke?” she said. “You did remember to drink lots of water, didn’t you? I did warn you…”
“No mum, it’s for real,” he said. “I can take you back and show you.” He stopped, hit his hand against his forehead. “The camera. I got pictures.”
He pulled off the backpack rummaging through before emptying it on the sand.
He mother shone her torch as he picked over the contents.
“It’s not here. I must have… We’ve got to go back,” he said, standing up.
“No,” she said. “Not in this light. You’ll never find anything anyway.”
He followed her back to the camp in sullen silence.
When they arrived at the flag pole he looked up at the lantern glowing at the top. She shrugged before lowering it and carrying it up the beach.
The camp now appeared alien, the canvas cover to the veranda, the rough wooden walls, as if it had been uprooted on another planet and then dumped down on the black rocks and sand. Which, in a way, was the case. It didn’t belong here. None of them did. The island needed to be left alone. He felt it clearly as he looked around by the light of the moon and the dancing sun he mother was carrying. The island needed time to heal its wounds.
She took his temperature, scowling at the instrument when it refused to show anything out of the ordinary and then watched over him as he drank deeply from the water bottle. She rehydrated some soup over a primus stove.
“Don’t you dare do that again, young man,” she said, not looking at him as she cleaned up after their silent meal.
“No one get hurt,” he said to her stiff back. “I’m all right and—”
“You could have been. Hurt. Injured. Lost…”
“Hard to get lost here, no?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Mum, you’re over-reacting. Psssh!” he said, lifting his hands. “Don’t blow a gasket.”
She turned and looked at him. His cheeks and nose shone red in the light from the lanterns, but she wasn’t sure if it was the day’s sun, the emotion, of the warmth of the meal.
“Anyway, I’ve gotta go back tomorrow. Find the camera. Find that cave again. It could be a major discovery,” he beamed.
“More likely hallucinations. Delirium. Brought on by the sun.”
“Nah, it’s real. I’ll show you.”
“Whatever you do, take a radio with you. And…”
He looked at his mother, resisting the temptation to roll his eyes and make things worse.
“…drink lots of water. That’s real. That’s serious.” She paused. “I’m going to sleep. I’ve had enough for one day.”
The next day she got up early to attack the paperwork she had neglected that last evening. Writing up the previous day’s activity, transcribing her notes and expanding comments. She compressed the files and two lines of apology for the delay. Then she queued up the message to go out over the tenuous satellite link later in the day.
She dusted down her laptop with a soft flat paintbrush she’d brought along specially for the purpose. The gritty sand here killed the computing equipment in no time, already she could feel certain keys crunch as she typed, and the abrasion and the intense UV light inevitably turned the screens milky white. Of course, they couldn’t afford the military grade equipment that, supposedly, resisted everything.
She heated water for breakfast, then sat down on the edge of the veranda with a mug of tea and some muesli, watching the sea and the sky change from mother of pearl through a range of pastel colours that seemed almost fluorescent at times while the light breeze wafted by with the perfumes of the ocean. She breathed deeply, thankful to be there, drinking it all in.
He woke to find her gone, the sun darting its rays through cracks in the shack and touching the pile of goods — torch, walkie-talkie, water… — on the table next to the slate with her message.
‘Take care. Get back earlier today. Your turn to cook. X. Mum.’
He rubbed his eyes then stuffed everything into his backpack and set off down the beach, chewing on a protein bar for breakfast, stopping only to pee into the ocean. A bevy of sea birds stood ankle deep in the water, their backs turned to him. He ran at them hoping to send them scattering and cawing into the air but only one or two bothered to turn a beak in his direction before turning back to gaze on the breakers further out. And when he swooped back again, kicking water, splashing them and shouting, only one bird condescended to shuffle aside as if they were ignoring him, or worse still, shutting him out altogether.
He turned and began retracing his steps from the day before.
She set her equipment down under the shelter. She set up the satellite connection and opened the laptop. It was a habit, a ritual even: she always started and ended her day by watching the turtles slow progress across the ocean.
Windows opened on the computer as it made the connected in, sent off her mail, downloaded any waiting messages and scraped the latest tracking data from the lab’s servers. If Alejandro was there he might even notice the lights blinking on one of the lab computers as she grabbed the packets of data.
She looked at her chronograph, at the second set of hands that were still on ‘lab time’ as she called it. It was mid-afternoon back home she noted. Alejandro was probably there.
The map opened automatically on the laptop’s screen, rectangles flapping down into place. And then it stopped, a message flashing at the top of the window.
She looked over.
‘ERROR: NO DATA’, read the message.
“Damn!” she muttered. The data file must have got corrupted. She switched windows and hunted for the downloaded file. When she opened it, it was empty, just like the mapping application had said. No data.
She opened a chat window.
Slowly it came to life, taking its time to display anything because of the tremendous lag on the satellite link. Eventually she saw Alejandro’s name light up in her contact list.
’> Theres a problem wth turtle data,’ she typed.
’> Hi,’ came the reply, appearing slowly, one letter after the other. > no problm. just no data.’
She had started to reply when the message continued: ‘> read yor mail.’
In her e-mail she saw the message from Alejandro. Angry with herself for not thinking to look there first, she clicked and read.
The tracking data from the GPS units on the turtles had stopped arriving about 8 hours ago. As it was highly improbable that all the devices had failed at exactly the same time, they had, at first, supposed a problem in the network, and then the satellite relaying the information. While they weren’t completely sure, the technicians working on the ocean surveillance satellite they had piggybacked their data on said they were 98% sure everything was fine. They’d need another 12 hours to give a total all clear.
Alejandro had then checked weather reports and examined pictures and maps from various sources to be sure there wasn’t a freak storm or bad weather blocking the signals. But on that front, everything was clear too.
He was even trying to get someone near the area to do flyover and some more detailed arial photos, or beg some time on an observational satellite, all the time updating the estimate path of the bale of turtles. This zone was getting progressively larger and larger as time passed.
There was a later mail explaining that he’d managed to recover some images — from friends of friends, and calling in some favours — of the zone, and even now he had interns and a postdoc pouring over the data, particularly anything in the infrareds, looking for a cloud of dots that could be their turtles. But as time passed, hopes were fading. It was becoming more and more likely they had disappeared elsewhere. But where? What had happened to disturb a habit that was thousands of years old.
Chatting over the laggy satellite link, they decide that she’d continue the preparations. Some of them were sure to turn up.
She switched off the laptop and looked at the empty beach, at the empty shell over by the rocks, at the empty sky without even a mare’s tail of clouds to break the oppressive blue.
She pulled her cap off and ran her fingers through her hair.
He found the camera. It had taken a dent where he’d dropped it and was covered in grit. He put it into his bag. He’d get his mum to help clean it up, she probably had the right sort of kit for it. She always did. It was infuriating in some ways, reassuring in others.
He walked up the beach, looking for yesterday’s footprints and the rockface where he’d first seen the trickle of water. But there was nothing. Where he felt the cave should be was a chaos of rocks collapsed into a short gully up to the barren plateau above.
He swigged water from the bottle and continued searching until mid-afternoon when suddenly tired and frustrated he headed back to camp.
She couldn’t bring herself to believe that the turtles could disappear just like that. She was sure that in a couple of days she would greet them as they emerged from the salt sea waves, scratching and pulling their way up the moonlit beach. There would be some mindless technical explanation for the signals’ disappearance, there had to be. A defect in the casings, a dud lot of batteries. Those were the sort of bone-headed, predictable things that just happened. Because of budgets, like for the laptops. Because of human error, because however much everyone believed in Science as some abstract ideal, it was just another human activity with limits and compromises and errors and all that that implied.
She brushed down the camera for him, wiped it clean with anti-static swabs and downloaded the murky grey, out-of-focus images to the computer where he perused them in frustration, playing with balance and contrast and levels and trying to find some sense in the blurring and the artifacts.
The next few days passed as if the island had shrunk to pen them in. She took her daily walks to the beach like a prisoner getting a few hours of sunlight out in the yard, walking a path rendered invisible through its familiarity. He stayed around the camp and sulked and read. They managed a walk over to one of the bogs but when they got there there was nothing to see, just squishy patches of spongy soil. So much so, she had to tell him they’d arrived or he’d have kept on walking, right on to the end of the land.
One night a shower broke the monotony and they revelled in the new sound of water rattling on the roof and walls, then hurried out to pull everything under shelter and throw plastic sheeting over the boxes under the leaks. But it passed as quickly as it arrived and the sun the next morning burned the puddles into vapour almost before they were up and about until the shower seemed nothing but an agitated dream.
The night the turtles were due came as a welcome interruption, a relief.
He helped carry boxes, setting up projectors and the cameras, plugging and testing and sweating from the exertion. He pulled on sweaters and oilskins as the sky darkened with heavy clouds puffing up over the horizon. The moon was full but wouldn’t rise until later, said his mother, checking figures off of charts.
They sat with Thermoses of hot soup, tea and chocolate and waited up in the small shelter. Alejandro was present via the chat window. He’d told them earlier that all technical problems had finally been ruled out for the turtles’ disappearance. And a week of pouring over satellite imagery hadn’t revealed anything promising. Maybe he wasn’t joking when he’d said he wasn’t sure if the lab would still be there when she got back. After all, what good was a lab if the subject of your principal study had just vanished off the face of the Earth, mid-ocean. She forced a half smile and proposed they turn their attention to unexplained marine disappearances and localised extinction events. Especially in the area around the Bermudas.
At just after three in the morning he left her to go back to the camp and get some sleep.
The turtles didn’t come. Not that year. Not the year after that.
Three days later, when they’d finished packing, Peter arrived in his boat to take everything away.
She was white-lipped, squeezing the rail tight as she looked back at the barren black island and it seemed to slip back under the waves as they got further and further away until finally it disappeared from view. And still she looked. But whether it was for the island or the turtles he didn’t know.
“Years later I remember reading a story, probably one of those urban legends, but that doesn’t really matter. It was about an incident that took place just before the major blackout on the American East Coast in 1965. This electricity failure left most major cities there without any power for hours in a very cold November. In this story a kid kicked a lamppost. And the lights went out. Even though it was later determined exactly how the power lines failed, this kid couldn’t get over the feeling of guilt that it was his kick that had caused the blackout.
“And I knew just how he felt.
“I couldn’t get over the feeling that what I’d seen in that cave, whatever it was, was somehow responsible for the turtles disappearing like that. Sure there were crazy theories — fishing trawlers, military manœuvres, a gas bubble or a giant wave — Mum even investigated some. But I felt that the island had waited all that time to tell its story, and once that was done. Pff! Everything was over. Now they could all move on and get on with something else.
“But I’ve still got those photos, and some days when I look at them, and just let my mind wander, I catch glimpses of what I saw. And then I put them away and think how crazy I must be getting…”
I have no idea where this story came from even though I do like it.
Anyway, it is the last story for a little while. Please see this journal entry for more information. And thanks for reading and being part of the journey.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 France License.
Last edited: Thursday, November 26th, 2009blog comments powered by Disqus