Cane Island

Fiction
Paul Silverman


The Cane Palace brochure said nothing about swarms of Portuguese Man of War in the waters of their very expensive private beach. Yet there was the official sign, posted not ten feet from where Ray Ryan was interrogating the towel boy on what the sign actually meant. “Your sign says Portuguese Man of War hazard December through May,” Ray said. “So what are those people doing out there?”

The towel boy kept on folding, kept on setting out the bottles of Cane Palace water and the little paper cups of complimentary sunscreen. He looked odd performing these fey activities, because he was cut like a linebacker. Ray read his behavior as sullen, as though he didn’t consider Ray’s question worth answering. “Your sign,” Ray said, pointing. “What does it mean? Is it correct?”

“The sign is correct,” the towel boy said, his native island face blank as the sand.

“Right now,” Ray said. “Are there jellyfish out there or not?”

The towel boy’s shrug was unreadable, and so was his answer: “I don’t know.”

After lunch, Ray marched back to the beach. And what he saw made him boil. So many guests dunking, dipping, dogpaddling, standing waist-high and shooting the shit, the cove could have been a public bath in Tokyo. By now the towel boy had been joined by his buds, four fellow islanders. They were smartly turned out in crisp khaki shorts and cucumber green polos with the Cane Island logo, the ever-present sugar plant. Together, they seemed like a clique of junior bodybuilders, or bodyguards for some Asian film star. Two of them had Tarzan manes. Their tattoos were cryptic in that South Pacific way, endlessly winding and tangling, like tentacles sent from the bottom of the sea to guard the warrior muscles.

*

Next morning, Ray marched up to the lobby desk, hot to find a hike with enough ups and downs to maybe keep the waistline from swelling yet another belt-hole. Behind the desk was a girl attired in the female version of what the buff beach attendants wore: the crisp khaki, the cucumber green, the sugar cane graphic that was pasted on everything from cocktail napkins to cabana umbrellas. She was an island girl who registered indifference, or diffidence, or whatever it was that hit Ray like dry ice, in the very act of smiling for him.

While she fished around for a trail map, Ray looked around at the murals all over the big room, centuries-old depictions of the early South Pacific war parties who’d fought their way onto Cane Island and populated it to this day. The murals showed how they’d paddled their outriggers an astounding distance, some twenty-five-hundred miles of ocean, coming from God knows where. Yet at journey’s end they still had the strength to spill onto the shore and hack the existing inhabitants to pieces. Fierce as these originals were, they fell like swatted flies at the onset of the nineteenth century, when the Western sugar tycoons rolled in. The natives were crushed and chained, and their machete skills were turned, under the lash, to the usual Caucasian-glorifying pursuits, top-most of which was building the plantation manor house known as Cane Palace. Back then it was the domain of hard white-faced masters, but now it was the domain of soft white-faced guests. Tippers extraordinaire. The present Cane Palace, touted in high roller magazines like The Robb Report, was a five-star resort owned by Swiss luxury hoteliers, but largely staffed with island folk. “Swiss-trained and efficient as a Swiss clock,” The Robb Report crooned.

The desk girl unfolded a piece of glossy paper and spread it on the counter, which was an enormous plank of hand-hewn jungle-wood, black as the lava that lined the seacoast. Before she said even a word Ray saw there were only three trails mapped out, all highlighted in cucumber green. One was hardly more than a walk beside the beach that had the towel boy and the Man of War sign. Another followed the cart paths on and around the pristine golf course. And a third snaked along the ocean on the side of the property that seemed to have no Cane Palace beaches, pools, bungalows or facilities of any kind. “What about that one?” Ray said, emphatically pressing his finger on the map. Either the girl didn’t hear his question or she ignored it, responding in a kind of teleprompter voice that seemed flat and faraway, the kind of voice Ray usually heard when he had a computer problem back home. It was as if she were a headset-wearing tech support person talking from India or the Pacific Rim, way at the other end of some vast fiber-optic sprawl. The only difference being that her inscrutable face was right there, two feet in front of his face.

A half-hour later that was the very trail he was out on, the un-recommended number three, scaling the wave-battered lava chunks in his new hiking sandals, a bottle of Cane Palace water stuffed in his shorts pocket. The more the desk girl had discouraged it, the more he hankered to spite her and go. In her tech-support voice she droned on, like some robot-concierge, trying to get him to choose the beach or golf course trails because they had shade trees and were prettier walks. “That’s the problem,” he snapped back. “They’re walks, and I don’t want a walk. I’m fat. I want a hike.”

“The trail is all overgrown,” she said. “No one goes there much.”

“Sounds promising,” Ray said.

*

Based on the beach experience, the first thing he had expected to find on the un-recommended trail was a herd of other hikers. But as Ray approached the top of the first rise he felt a rush of solitude, the sense he was as alone as a man on the moon—and the crazy shapes of the lava made him feel like he was on some moon.

Decidely un-lunar, however, was the gathering heat. The morning sun was on the move along with him, and it was rising faster than his fat hiker’s feet. But this was good, he told himself. Double action on the blubber roll: if the trail couldn’t walk it off, the sky would broil it off. Ray sucked from his water bottle and tried a little foot-hand rock scramble when he found a monster root humped across the trail. He palmed the spur jutting out of a black crag and began to hoist himself. But the spur bit his palm like pins and needles—a far cry from familiar New Hampshire granite, this spiky lava—and he let go fast and swung his thigh over the root instead.

The effort was worth it. He stood on a promontory that gave him a jeweler’s view of the rocky inlet below, shimmering pure turquoise. According to the map, this was one of several such formations on the lava trail: steep ascent followed by steep descent, each sequence ending in a bauble of surf and shore. Now that he was at the top he began picking his way towards the bottom, and the heat came right along with him. Half-way down he stopped and mopped, and took a long look at the crescent of rock-beach below. All the stones were white or off-white, all except one that was bigger than the rest, and greenish. Next he looked up at the lava cliffsides, and saw some of those same beach stones, the whitest ones, arrayed in a spooky design, like a Halloween thing. It was a giant stick figure with the jitters, arms and legs flying every whichway. How they ever got the white stones to stick there against the sheer black walls baffled him, but there they were, bright against dark and gravity-defying—a bunch of crazy bones doing a dance for the sea.

Ray slugged more water and resumed his descent. He kept going until he was off the cinders of the path and onto the glinting beach, wondering whether his toes would fry if the sandals slipped off. Something flashed up from the past, a story he’d heard in the Arizona desert about vultures—that they vomit on their feet to cool themselves off. That was when he got a good look at the large greenish stone and saw it was no stone at all.

It was something out of the pages of National Geographic, a honker of a sea turtle, green and horned and still as a boulder. And for a sea turtle it was quite some ways from the sea, well above the ragged edge of dried gunk that Ray reckoned was the high-tide mark. The last time he had been so close to a turtle this size was in the Boston Aquarium, ages ago, when he pressed his face to the glass and stared at it floating his way, beak on beak. By Ray’s estimation these were rare creatures, ancient and endangered, and to him the lunker at his feet was either dead or dying in the sun, by now as hopeless as a roast in an oven. He gave it a wake-up shove with his foot, then a rap with the plastic water bottle. No response, not a flicker, and suddenly he had a new plan for the morning. He seriously wondered where his surge of resolve came from—maybe from the heat broiling his brain, somehow beaming its rays through all the sarcastic crud to strike some buried lobe that governed empathy and pity. He turned on his heels and took off with newfound zeal. He clambered up the side of the lava, re-entered the resort grounds and stormed into the lobby.

*

“What are you going to do about it?” he demanded of the desk girl, the same one he had locked horns with over the map. “Maybe the thing isn’t dead. But it sure can’t get back to the water by itself, not from where it’s stuck now…”

For a response, she gave him even colder treatment than the turtle had. The voice of a droid, flat as a scripted courtesy speech on some digital loop. “That location is off property. I’ll report it to the maintenance people, but they aren’t allowed—”

He set his two rotund forearms on the thick black plank and pushed his face at her, bull-like. “The thing is probably a hundred-and-fifty years old. Are you going to let it just cook there?”

Finally she gave him a burst of eye contact, but hardly the happy kind. “If the sea turtle is as old as you say, it didn’t get there by being stupid. It’s probably napping.”

Ray could hear his voice swelling, and he could see other heads start to turn. “I kicked it,” he said. “If you were napping and I kicked you what would you…”

She broke eye contact and lowered her head, so he was aiming his words at nothing but the jet black hair of her head. When her island face came up it was different, flashing something he had never seen from a concierge type. There was a warning in it, and a silence so venomous he considered backing off. But by then the big door had opened and the man with the look that said European-in-charge pushed himself into the fray.

He had one of those walrus mustaches that make you think of the Hindenburg era, and a cracker suit to boot, linen white as coconut meat. He seemed twice as large as the girl as he loomed over her, as though he were capable of biting off half her head. Instead he crisply banished her to the office he had emerged from, his raised arm sharp as a Rolex hour-hand striking nine o’clock.

He addressed Ray in the manner of a general in the Swiss civilian army, using sharp politeness as a kind of invisible pistol. “We are all servants here, including me. She should not have talked to you that way.”

“How could you hear how she talked to me? Your door was shut.”

The look he gave Ray said don’t ask and don’t think. And don’t try to do my job for me. It was a look so dictatorial Ray actually felt, of all things, a flutter of concern for the girl. In it was an unpleasant picture from days gone by: the shod foot of the planter crunching the island person’s neck.

“I hope she still has a job here,” he said. “People do have disagreements.”

But when all was said and done this was a polite lie, and Ray knew it. The truth was, having the girl shitcanned was appealing—you can’t lie to your own self—and, in the best of all possible worlds, maybe towel boy could get the gate right along with her.

But his comment about the girl’s job evoked no more than a cool managerial nod, neutral as Switzerland. “Nobody on their vacation should be fretting about the life and death of giant turtles. Why don’t you leave that to us, Mr. Ryan. And meanwhile…”

He reached into the white suit jacket, pulled out a gold pen and scribbled a note on stationery embossed with the sugar plant logo. He slid it into an envelope and pushed it across the black plank to Ray. “Drinks all day are with our compliments. Enjoy.”

*

Ray carried the envelope to lunch, where he vacuumed up a shrimp salad, washed it down with Long Island Tea twice, canceled a 3:18 tee time and marched back for another bout with the lava trail. Ray was too curious not to—but the cynic in him said the beached turtle would be no better off than before—and by now the beast was likely fouling the air like any dead fish left out in the sun.

The high afternoon sun was on fire, and the dancing bone-stones looked even more bleached against the dark cliff-side. Down below, the beach rocks were wall-to-wall as before—but something was missing. The turtle. Ray searched up and down, scouring both the beach and the shallows of the surf, but nothing resembling a greenish hump remained. He felt a rush of self-importance. Based on the evidence, he had gotten Cane Palace off its ass—and they had either pushed the turtle back in the ocean, if it was alive, or carted it off if it was dead. At any rate, one thing was clear: he could resume his fat-melting regimen. Which he did, huffing in the sun, and soon he reached the top of the next black and jagged rise.

He looked down to the new cove below, expecting to find another crescent of white beach rocks. Instead he saw green, green, green. Humps everywhere. Fifteen, twenty of them. Out of the water, burning in the sun. Was it a plague of turtles? Were they all dead or dying? He double-timed it down the thin, spiky trail, nearly stumbling twice, ripshit at himself for making yahoo assumptions, for being such a tourist. Turtles! For all he knew they could fly or disappear into the earth. Maybe, just maybe, they could squirt on SPF50 every day and waddle onto the shore to sunbathe, just like a Cane Palace guest.

Ray went up to the closest behemoth and, just like before, was about to knock on its shell with his plastic water bottle. But a human voice interrupted him, female and spear-sharp, yelling what sounded so primal it seemed beyond language. He turned and saw, mid-way up the cliffs, the desk girl, and she was descending fast, as if the lava offered her all kinds of footholds he hadn’t even noticed. Gone was the decorous khaki and green career apparel she wore in the lobby, gone was the polite arrangement of her long black hair. She had on one of those sequined surf shop tank tops and frayed jean shorts and everywhere, even in her flyaway hair, she flashed pieces of shiny stuff that could have been razor blades or bone shards. From her tone and the way she moved his way, Ray concluded two things: yes, she had been fired. And, two, she was out to get him for it.

He took the measure of her—a girl, for Christ’s sake—and decided to confront her head-on with the best stuff he had, words from the heart, or at least from the voice-box that was fueled by the heart. He was on the workers’ side always, he had been all his life, not a doubt about it; he came up hard, working in the underbelly of old factories, peeling asbestos from the pipes. Never in his life would he try to get an island girl canned, and he had specifically asked the Swiss boss to…

The words were bubbling up, his apology and defense, and Ray lurched over the rocks and around the boulder-backs of the turtles to get within earshot of the girl. He shoved a hand in his shorts to check for the wad of bills—he would peel off half of them it that’s what it took, to show her that she mattered, that he gave a shit about her life and her future.

But then there was the blur from another part of the cliff, and it told him he had more than the girl to contend with. Two of the beach attendants, the Polynesian Tarzans from the day with the towels and the jellyfish, they were scrambling down too. What they both looked like, the raging hair, the tattooed chests that seemed war-painted, the glint of blades—to Ray they were leaping out of the warrior art he had seen in the lobby. And seeing them lope towards him, making that same unearthly whoop as the girl, made him change course, swivel into reverse, lose his footing and fall hard on the hot white stones.

The way Ray landed, his face came up inches from the head of one of the turtles, so close to the side of the beak he could smell the salt on it. As he tried to get to his feet he saw a big wrinkled eyelid move, saw it open and shut, just once. It was like the world’s oldest man winking at him, giving him the one-eyed chuckle, thinking about the wild old days when the beach was red with blood.
pencil

Paul Silverman’s stories have appeared in The South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Eureka Literary Magazine, Minnetonka Review, Worcester Review, Alimentum, Coe Review, Jabberwock Review, Hobart Online, Pindeldyboz, Smokelong Quarterly, The Pedestal, Adirondack Review, Dogmatika, Summerset Review, VerbSap, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon and many others. He’s been a Spotlight Author in Eclectica, which nominated his story, “The Home Front,” for Best of the Net. He has three Pushcart nominations and was shortlisted twice for The Million Writers Award. E-mail: psilverman[at]verizon.net