“You ain’t going anywhere, today. We ain’t.”
“There’s no flights going to New York.”
“Nix, man. No place. No where. No York, No Newark. No Wark. No… Body.”
I shifted to the other desk.
“What about you?” Still no.
I ventured over to HeronAir.
“You guys going?”
“No can do, Sir. No flights. In or out.” They packed the remainder of their things away and closed down the computers.
This was puzzling and annoying in the extreme.
Something had happened. Between the time the great majority of the extended families and friends of the wedding party and I had left Miami International and arrived here, an event of some as-yet unknown but clear importance had occurred in the world.
Incidentally, I am supposed to be the bridegroom, as you may have surmised.
House of Orange Airport, or, HOOA, as I came to learn it was called, would be my home over the next three weeks. In my case, it was the House of Yellow, for I was in truth experiencing the most lily-livered, polar of cold feet. The small island airport concourse was nearly empty, and everyone was tightlipped and nervous.
No friendly Antillean smiles on from the natives. In fact, hardly any natives. Just us, the recently arrived.
I already knew Blue West Indies and BNNA weren’t going. No charters, nothing. No word as to why, yet.
This was bad. You see, I suddenly knew, with all certainty, that I needed to leave, the island. The whole engagement. The matrimonial rites. Right away, now. Yes, I know I had just gotten there. I had come to realize, in the two-and-a-half hours in the air between my arrival at Miami to my connection here, that I couldn’t do it. And now, logically, I knew I needed to leave.
You see, of all possible times for a Groom (your current Narrator) to get cold feet, “The Last Minute” is rated among the worst. Yes, at the apex-crisis moment of the blessed events, the culmination of “The Engagement,” when the high fever’s breaking, the worst possible thing is to pull the high-energy maneuver of the last-minute bailout. The Bachelor ejects clear of the incoming flights.
Both sides of the family, braving weather, economic downturn and now the actual danger of locking into a pressurized high-altitude jet with 300 other souls, any one of whom, or any number of whom may be… Well, they could all arrive to enjoy the most engaging possible result of all: the mystery, heartbreak, drama of a called-off engagement.
Both sides, finally funneled into the happy Caribbean catch basin of St Cyril, flown together for this happy event, a stewing squabble of aunts, of generations-long festering filial enmities suddenly forced into the open by the collision of new nieces, grandchildren, toddlers. Into this traveling imbroglio of embrace, sound, textures, odors of motion-sick infants and variably-leaking toddler grandchildren, a six-year-old nephew in shorts and a blue blazer, a stripe of dried vomit or toothpaste crossing his lapels, hearing-impaired cousins, perpetually buzzed college buddies, and the strange demographic of the actual bridal party, Uncle Cliff with his conspiracies, the bride’s brother Todd civilly detesting his father. My dad and mom chose not to come, disliking this arrangement from the outset. Happily, however, my sister and brother were among us, the now-stranded, and that meant my sister’s two kids, and my brother’s son, energetic delights to my eye, always in evidence–and everyewhere.
The kids couldn’t have been happier. When they learned that we’d be stuck here awhile, they rejoiced, but tried to hide it, sensing the discontent of the older people around them. The eldest, Otto, my brother’s boy, 11 years old, remarked sagely, “If you’re going to be stranded, Paradise isn’t a bad place for it,” and nobly sought to entertain the adults, many of whom were adapting badly to their new lifestyle.
Otto’s cousins, Melba, 9, and Dale, 6, readily assented, particularly when they learned that their school schedule might not resume for a little while.
I spent as much time as I could observing the little ones as they played on the gentle sand of the quarantined beach, delighting in their simple happiness. I am also a robust swimmer, and was thus lifeguard. The ten kids from our wedding party merged easily with the other children, caught here, from distant shores or natives to the island. I watched fast friendships form between kids as they darted into and out of the water, oftentimes with sea fauna, shells and skeletal remains of various kingdomsexplored the rock walls at the far ends of our beachhead, named by the locals Bardow Beach.
Every one of the travelers to the wedding with him his or her tale of personal odyssey, of battling through
Extending its Wintry
Grand Rapids to
Grand Central Station
delayed or cancelled flights, lost bags, obscure connections made by moving north then counterclockwise against the storm (Uncle Louis’s JFK-Minneapolis-Albuquerque-Miami being the most Homeric), voyages of adventure replete with inevitable missing medications and all the innumerable plaguing details of what should, at its heart, be a simple and profound ceremony of Love.
And, speaking of “plaguing,” the possibility of an actual plague.
Or pandemic, as the medicos like to put it.
To cold-foot it out now, would be to face the embarrassment of the stories to be told of me in future, even the deathless resentments of those I’d invited hence!
I wanted to leave! Better: Just disappear. Maybe have to head in-country and defect to the Cyrilian Montagnards, the French-African-Caribbeans who allegedly dwelt in the dews and vales and atop Mount Huyghens, claiming allegiance to neither of the island’s two putative owners, the Dutch and the Russians, but to a mythical character known by various names like Wilhelm the Short, Francisco Montana, Joe Montana, and others, depending on the whimsy of the storyteller. Now in the news was someone calling himself–or herself–“XGringo”.
I looked over at Bill, already in position at a table at the airport cantina, a Red Stripe in his hand and a smile on his lips. He was a man prepared for the long wait, who sat a wheelchair lightly as anyone you’ve seen. He looked at me and mouthed, “Want One?”
I just as silently replied, “Coke.” Bill rolled his eyes. He wouldn’t bother budging his Brompton chair for something so inane. He found my new (two-year) sobriety something of a bother. We’d run together hard at school and then after, until he’d been sent overseas…
… And in the meantime, I’d given up drinking, for the time being. While he gave up walking, for good.
Anyway, he’d somehow already latched onto some weed. In the airport. Or he’d brought some. I could tell he was coasting from the happy forgetfulness of his smile, the same one I saw in school when everything lay ahead of us. I could see that he was exulting in the sensations of being on the Island, even if he was at the airport. Truth was, it was pleasantly warm, and lightly fragrant of… well, some kind of tropical blossom I didn’t know the name of, yet.
I sat next to him and asked for a coke from the waitress, a pretty, caramel-complexioned island girl of perhaps 21 years.
“She’s pretty,” said Bill.
“I can’t do this, man. We’ve got to leave.”
“Don’t think you’re going to be able to do that.”
“I can, Bill. I must.”
No,” he continued. “No one can.” He nodded towards the “Departures” screen hanging above the wide interior space of the terminal.
And no one permitted to leave the airport, it seemed, to judge from the heavyset, white-shirted men now visible in twos and threes near the exits. Strong looking men with ebon skin, perhaps a tad overfed on starchy carbohydrates but nonetheless formidable.
It was low-key, but it was clear we were boxed in here.
“Besides,” Bill carried on, as though reading exactly my earlier thoughts, and embellishing them, “And we shall speak of this moment of stark, pants-wetting cowardice on your part no more. You are Chief Wetsaddle of the Panic Indians. Your yellowed hepatic organ is your guide, not the stout heart of the Hussar or the Tsar’s Uhlans. You are Declan the Non-Valiant, tasting of death a thousand times.”
“Well, I…” I tried to interject.
“Your escape now would be a worst-case of this type of retreat. In the face of a Simple Love Rite that has, in the hands of your Intended’s, in Martha’s hands, become an intricated, Curtis-LeMay-scale logistical undertaking, you are quailing, quake-bottomed. She is staging a 3,000-plane raid, bringing the full weight of relatives and friends over this peaceful island, creating a perfect masterpiece of self-sustaining energy, in much the same way the Eighth Air Force and the RAF created perfect storms of oxygen-sucking fire in Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden. You are fleeing like a terrified child.”
“This ‘Engagement’ so complete that your before life will be razed, scarce one brick left connected with another, an unleashing of an immense, suffocating firestorm sparked by white phosphorous descending on the ‘kindling’ roofs of our minds, this firestorm will clear the area of all things living.”
He continued his reverie.
“A wedding so masterfully undertaken and executed to exceed all other weddings, to smash the target to the last perfume bottle, to raze it, a marital masterpiece of planning and logistics, of B-17s and -24s rumbling on the tarmacs of thirty-five different airbases, topped off and loaded, the fighter escorts already launched ahead to clear the skies of enemy interceptors… and then… to have the Top Man call it off, on a whim! Eisenhower or Churchill would have carried on, my Feeble Comrade.”
“You hate weddings, don’t you?”
At times like this, you remember that Bill’s been sitting in that chair for six years now, and it’s scary to think what-all he may have been thinking during that time. It occurs to me that the words “Marital” and “Martial” are quite close. I remark on this to Bill.
“Nice pick up on that MARITAL/MARTIAL thing. The Marital Arts.”
Bill smoothly came back on-topic, all professional, sharp appraisal. I imagined this might have been his demeanor back when he earned a living as a Marine intelligence officer.
“All scenarios are bad. Bad timing. Regrettable. Expensive. The worst time. Except…” Bill paused, looking at me like I was supposed to deliver a scripted line.
I started nodding…
“Except for after, ‘I Do’.”
“That’s right,” said Bill. “Let’s get out of here. Or try, anyway. Wheel me.”
We sought a small plane. A canoe. Anything to abet the prospect of escaping St Cyril Island quickly. pleaded infirmity, health crisis. Offered money. I even offered some gold (I always carry a little when traveling). I wheeled Bill around attempting to be casual, yet my heart was thumping. I sought escape.
I could not go through with this.
But, as nothing could be done about it for the nonce, and as nothing has been said, yet, save to Bill, I had not officially precipitated a crisis, yet. Martha and her maids busied themselves at the other end of the single bar in the pavilion, occasionally squealing with what one could tell, even from a distance, was off-color humor.
They paid us but little mind as I wheeled Bill around.
Cedar Rapids? Yes? Havana? Yes? No.
Because of the storm?
Don’t know, man.
I left Bill and approached the man with the shoulderboards, with whom I had established a cordiality over the last few hours. Little did I know that this familiarity would be enforced over the next three weeks of his, and our, enclosure in quarantine.
“Excuse me, Sir?”
He inclined his face to me. It was clear from his eyes that I was not the first of the day’s inquirers, and that, perhaps, I had overestimated our familiarity. He seemed not to recognize me. He answered the question without my asking, his eyes a little hard.
“I don’t know. Ask your Navy.”
I stepped out into the noon white sunlight and onto the observation deck of the tiny airfield, with its windsock and absurd runway leading into the sea. It occurred to me I had never encountered a silent airport before, of any size. This one was silent.
“You sure that’s mine?”
At one end of runway, the jet-exhaust enthusiasts stood, waiting, hoping at least one more plane would take off.
These folks were a constantly refreshed, merry-making band of tourists and locals who enjoyed pitting themselves against the heated hurricane of jumbo jet exhaust as the big birds throttled up to clear the highland ridges of the island’s Grande mountains, particularly the three spikes of its highest peak, at 1,900 meters, of what the Slavs call Mt Triglava and the Dutch, Mt Huyghens.
These fun-seekers sought to be blown into the surf by 747’s or 380’s turning tail and burning rubber into the wind at this end of the runway. All would emerge from the hot stinging granularity of blown sand hatless, with sandblasted idiot grins from ear to ear. Great fun. Jumbo fun.
No roar. No planes to cheer coming from the opposite direction, on final approach, so close you could almost jump and grab a wheel.
Just dead quiet. Almost dead. A helicopter purred in the distance, from the sea.
On the horizon I descried the masts and antennas and profile of a stealthy-looking, low-riding warship beneath the deep shadows thrown by the snow-white mountains of cloud towering, checkerboarding the deep blue Caribbean sky. Abreast them, farther out against the placid tropic horizon, a still larger ship loomed in the haze, standing sentinel.
The official, an older man with tight curls of thinning gray hair against almond skin, joined me in my observations. He now recognized me from my earlier attempts to get off the island, and the familiarity between us returned. He was almost paternal.
“Yours was the last plane in.”
He looked out to the horizon.
“Something about the World Health Organization.”
Damn. I thought I knew what that meant, but, given what was to come, no idea. The “Eurasian Contagion.” 70-75% mortality. Had it mutated again?
“There will be an announcement from Geneva,” he consulted his watch, a well-traveled military model with a woven band, “In forty-five minutes.”
I eyed the sparsely attended airport bar with its BBC-locked TV, then the guards at the exits. They were locals, carrying intricately crafted weapons from Austria, I wagered. My correspondent seemed to possess the most stripes on his tunic. He was unarmed. I would have to find a seat at that bar, soon.
I regarded the ships cluttering the ocean. A couple big, low-lying gunboats. Additionally, three towering cruise ships stood at anchor, three miles out. Beautiful catamarans and high-masted yachts could also be seen, just at the territorial limits.
The uniformed man indicated. “That biggest cruise ship is the Absurdidam, out of Den Haag.”
I looked at the elder officer. He had a scarcely detectable smile on his face.
“Well-said,” I smiled. I surveyed the tonnage visible on the sea. “That’s a lot of expensive hardware out there,” I commented, motioning towards the navy ships.
“Poor people,” he exhaled, eyes on the towering cruise liners. “I’m sure the throngs around the buffets are quite unmanageable by now.”
I laughed at the image and the dryness of the man’s unexpected humor.
The cruiseliners each flew the yellow flag with the black circle in the center. The “Quarantine” flag. Some of their passengers must be showing symptoms. Yikes.
Our attention was arrested by a hatch opening iris-like in the hull of the larger naval ship. Out of this orifice spat a twin-engined racing boat painted in a garish white and black checkerboard pattern that reminded one of…
… A target? The boat began a series of evasive maneuvers. It began to run towards the nearest cruise ship, the horizontal high-rise of what my counterpart had amusingly christened the Absurdidam.
I had secured the monocular I happen to carry everywhere and took a look at craft as it sped away. With the 4-power magnification, I could see her stern as she charged away from us on the island at speed. I detected no one manning the boat.
“She’s unmanned,” I reported.
The craft cut through the light swells like a cigarette boat, all engine.
The crowd on the shore took note with a murmur.
The strangely painted black-and-white boat executed a sudden 18o, her two powerful outboards biting deep into the water and she sprang towards us.
At that moment, a big jet helicopter, like a fat fly, fairly jumped off into the haze from the nearer destroyer and started speeding in our general direction. The mottled sunlight of the cloud-flecked, humid sky sprinkled off the optics and matted window-glass of the pursuing helicopter.
Several seconds after that, the actual noise of all this overtook us, and the helicopter buzzing noise sharpened and deepened, the late-arriving report of its launch and acceleration… towards the speedboat. From the time delay between the action and the sound, I guessed the distance to the ship at perhaps three miles.
The chopper was coming closer, low, fast, feathering the sea below, inclining beneath its powerful rotor, cloud shadows alternately darkening and lightening its fuselage.
The aircraft enthusiasts on the shoreline began to guardedly rejoice. It wasn’t a jumbo jet, but, hey, a Navy warbird? Not too shabby!
I scanned it with my $29 telescope. No roundels. No identifying stenciled “USN” or tail numbers. Odd. An unidentified navy.
Looks like one of “Ours,” I thought. Looks like one of “Theirs.” I countered. Whose ships are those?
I scanned the ships, painted in their high-seas camouflage, all broken planes and false shadows in deep Caribbean tones. A beautiful sight, really. Plenty of flags, signal flags, but no national flag. Odd. Odd. Odd.
“You sure that’s My Navy? You know whose island this is.”
The old man caught his breath. “Half this island, you mean?”
He grew cold. Stiffly, he announced, “Forever, Young Man. I will not volunteer it to them.”
Thus reminded of my place in the older man’s strict, seemingly Confucian-Green-Mountain-Boy universe, I fell respectfully silent, and observed the chase.
The target boat still came our way, in a sharply zigzagging course. About a thousand yards out.
The boat reminded me of something you might have seen in old newsreels of White Sands Proving Ground, when the Army tested captured V2’s and its new WAC-Corporal single-stage liquid-fuel rockets. They were fiendishly temperamental, poisonous contraptions, prone to launch-site explosions or hilarious-seeming guidance failures, except this wasn’t a rocket, but a speedboat, painted the opposite of the navy ships, in an anti-camouflage pattern, in a black-and-white checkerboard format, designed to make its structure and attitude distinguishable by powerful lenses and tracking systems at great distances…
Or, say, from a nearby beach.
The gunship fired for one second with the 20mm chain-gun.
Because of the roughly one-kilometer distance between us and the action, there was still a brief time lag between the flash and the report. Before we heard the colossal shredding noise of 100 shells tearing the air, the target boat had already disappeared in a great flume of foaming sea and lofted bark. Then came the ripping noise and immense splashing sound. We all jumped at the frightful noise.
The crowd went wild, raising drinks and arms like concertgoers, girls whirling and screaming, guys roaring out with drunken enthusiasm.
The blue-toned gunship came closer, revealing its lighter-hued underbelly and bristling automatic cannons, stirring anxiety in some and enthusiasm in others. The electronically-sighted weapons panned the beach, silent, its instruments animal-like in their darting, reactive movements.
“Awesome,” boomed an immense, bearded man tented in a huge Bob Marley tee-shirt that failed to conceal the entirety of his abdomen and navel, loose-fitting gym shorts and leather sandals.
The helicopter wheeled perpendicular to us, and hovered. One could see the occupants, clad in combat biochemical hazard suits.
They definitely wanted us to see them, and to see them dressed so.
The crowd quieted.
“It’s a no-fly zone, you see, Sir. A no-fly zone.”
“A no-boat zone, too, I’d say. The name’s Del.”
“And I, young man, am Brigadier Phyfe.”
Friends call me “Del.” And I guess we hope it will continue to be a “No Fly Zone” on our little Caribbean paradise! Or, more particularly, a “No Mosquito Zone.” For now, the mosquito and its viral cargo are not here. St Cyril Island, all 37 square miles of temperate mountain, dry highland and the handsomest beaches this side of paradise. Deep sea fishing, the finest langouste sauce in the hemisphere, free of the virus.
No “Eurasian Contagion,” as the news source dubbed it. La Peste Eurasienne. Three weeks did I and Brigadier Phyfe, and Martha, and Bill and the families wait, at the airport, in reasonable comfort, lightly windblown behind the razor wire, as our new hosts waited to see whether we, in our turns, had become hosts to the new scourge.
With my frustrated efforts to escape wedded bliss passing unnoticed in the “Femaelstrom” of the for-now frustrated nuptial ceremony, I waited for the possibility of my own infection to pass, along with all of those in my wedding party, the other passengers on the last few flights and the airline terminal staff, any who might have been exposed to this last contact with the wider world. Martha and I were still due to be wed, but the incredible events surrounding the WHO’s announcement of a world pandemic and air-travel ban had quite disordered our arrangements. Reverend Hoskins, for example, hadn’t made it. His plane languished at Hartsfield, in Atlanta.
Martha sensed something was up with me, however. Like all of the feminine race, her quivering antennae she sensed the change at the hormonal level. Question: If we weren’t necessary for each other’s sexual pleasure and for reproduction, don’t you think we would have killed each other off, by now?
The island authorities, represented by Brigadier Phyfe and Dr Angela Westcott. Westcott, a prim physician of perhaps 70 summers, explained the situation nicely to us, and the necessity of waiting through a quarantine period in one of the world’s premier tourist destinations began to sink in to us. Her own story was one of bad luck, as one of the Island’s administrators, sheNot an altogether bad arrangement, and, seen from most perspectives, a most fortunate, Gracious turn of fate, allowing us to be the last to arrive here.
Now we had to watch for symptoms.
From the perspective of my bride-to-be, however, it must have seemed like a punishment designed purposely and purposefully to ruin her life.
In short, there was no perspective.
I had, meanwhile, created a library of internee books and was doing a lot of pushups.
Martha was inconsolable. And unbearable.
All the qualities I loved about her, her sharp mind and sense of humor, her long legs and slightly knock-knees, the finely wrought features of her face, her slightly elongated nose and unusually large eyes set in blue-veined alabaster, framed by her long, dark hair. Everything I loved about her turned against me behind the quarantine wire.
Nevertheless, I tried to perpetuate the fiction that this was a momentary setback, and would be remedied once the situation stabilized a bit. I figured it was better to introduce the idea of a nuptial postponement in stages, later, after the crisis. Much later. But the effect of carrying on the fantasy wore on me over the three weeks.
I consoled myself with the thought that even though I was confined in this small, increasingly noisome and close terminal, I would likely emerge into the somewhat larger constraints of the island, yet still bound, like all of us, everywhere, onto this larger island, this shared time in the prison, called Earth.
Nature has pinned us each to the map with an admonitory plague. We’ve lost our wings. Here we stay.
But not even Nature could suppress Martha’s mom, May-June.
May-June was on the verge of being thrice-divorced and forever about, in the ears, buzzing on, a pesky, ill-timed, a persistent Scheherazade of misfortunate tales, insults small and large, unhappy endings, and unraveled glories. Men were drawn to her, and collectively, they would never be good enough for her. Individually, they might suffice for a time, but none, as yet, came close to her first idealized love, her late father, the legendary lecturer Albert Morgenstern. May-June was an engine of misery, and a durable, fuel-efficient one: at age 48, her passage had already managed to mar, mangle or otherwise distort the affairs of a total of six families (if you include the in-laws of all sides), a reality complicated by her undeniable and persistent beauty and charm. And her new boyfriend, Gavrilo Stoyadinovich, the biker-professor from the Slavic Languages and Literature Department, who hadn’t been invited.
May-June was accompanied by her current and third husband, Nathaniel, a professor of Classics at Caliyuga University, a man whose high-domed head bore on its intelligent features a look of perpetual surprise.
The cause of the surprise was May-June, in my opinion. I’d taken his course as an undergraduate and he’d seemed much more confident, then. Now he looked astonished. Astonished that May-June could behave so… brazenly? Unashamedly? Innocently? Stupidly? As a scholar, he naturally sought to understand the first causes of May-June’s insatiate appetites and often inexplicable actions. She had amassed $12,000 in parking tickets.
Despite his considerable reputation as a researcher, historian, and an explicator of the seeming unchangeable face of human nature and behavior, the necessary entanglements of loving May-June had caught him entirely by surprise. She was forever about, a pesky, ill-timed, persistent Scheherazade of intricacies, quarrels, depressing observations, and spent most of the three weeks of our quarantine lamenting her separation from her two toy poodles, the absence of her current boyfriend, and the inconceivable inconvenience of the situation.
By some great omission of mind, some hubris, Nathaniel perhaps forgot to see in his own affairs the traceries of tales told across eons. He failed to seek classical parallels or echoes in his affairs. Which, as it turned out, might have served as a warning.
For example a quick re-read of The Odyssey might have been most illuminating, before he came to the island.
I generally just toed the warm sand on the isolated beach adjacent the hangar we sheltered in, and tried as much as possible to stay out of people’s way. Martha’s way. May-June’s way
The internet was out, so I busied myself setting up a small library of the books everybody had, as well as the odd (but awesome) menagerie from the now-defunct kiosk at the airport. Herbert S. Zim’s The Stars and Planets, a kid’s astronomy book from… 1967? Cry, the Beloved Country by Paton. Chinua Achebe. Moby-Dick. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. Childhood’s End. Poe. J.G. Ballard. Greene. 20 sets of dominoes. 50 sets of playing cards. Insects of the West Indies.
May-June’s stress at being absent the social circle of her Santa Barbara neighbors was soon alleviated by her discovery, by chance of fate, of Dame Gwendolyne Centermass and her retinue, led by Lady Estradalina Greyscale, who had soon established themselves as the indispensible social hub of Saint Cyril, but, like May-June, were unavoidably detained, having just returned from a shopping trip to Paris.
I was pleased that Fate had placed me here, in a place of immunity, and/or non-immunity, even if it were in the company of my soon to be ex-almost-in-laws. There was a lot of Heineken around, too, and, as it turned out, robust green buds of a local herb, which we procured from local teenagers wearing surgical masks, who made the exchange through the airport fence. So time wore with reasonable mellowness on our internment.
Martha’s dad, Talbot Haines, a financier of some repute back in New York, and I established a mutually amusing game of, “May-June’s Looking for You,” whenever we encountered each other in our mutual quest for invisibility. May-June would approach like a storm cloud, ultimately cornering one or both of her ex-husbands (for her second husband, whom she might find over a quiet game of dominoes or cards he’d be playing, say, with my dad, or her second husband, Talbot, or me, and launch into a sequence of criticisms of, well, everything she could observe or plumb from the labyrinthine squabble of her mind.
The same fugitive status applied to May-June’s second husband, Nick Nicholsky, a retired Chicago policeman. He tried to keep away from the moving fray of his ex-wife, too, but there wasn’t much hiding to be done in the breezy, high-ceilinged layout of the terminal and hangar that was our accommodations. Only the birds came and went freely.
I tried very hard to convince myself that Martha wouldn’t turn out like May-June, but could not avoid the thought that here, under the coal-into-diamonds pressure of the deteriorating situation, that Martha was turning into the very image of her dear, distraught Mama. Her critical faculties, and criticisms, focused more and more on me.
My fast-tanning feet grew colder still. But still I waited on calling it all off.
I just needed the quarantine to end, and to put a little space between us.
Good luck with that.
I didn’t remember exactly how the Russians and the Dutch came into joint possession of St. Cyril Island, just as I couldn’t rightly recall how, exactly, or when, the Russian Antilles ever came to be, but here we are.
So to correct things things, I picked up a copy of Stephen Green’s masterful The Antilles After Napoleon (1930), which, despite its title also includes a tidy history of the island prior to the accession of the brilliant Corsican. France ceded its half of the island to the Russians at the Treaty of Paris in 1815.
The sand of the beach is orange, warm and crumbly soft, like walking upon a surface of freshly baked scones.
The sea about St Cyril, is, in its turns of blue, sea-green and aqua, mesmerizing, jewel-like, truly indescribable, shades from Iznik tile, fit to tint a sultan’s seraglio. Seen in a certain way, almost too much beauty for the eye.
Who could not be tempted by a sea such as this?
The ever-envious Tsar, unsatisfied with a mere sixth of the world’s surface, was smitten by tales of tropic paradise. His desire for a warm-water mooring was shared by every Tsar since Peter. Such hothouse dreams of the eastern Caribbean warmed the eternal night of icy St Petersburg.
Is this a dream, do you ask, of something so tempting even history couldn’t resist a rewrite? To lash Alexander’s Cossacks to the maritime might of industrious Holland to create the world’s first global superpower?
That Clio allows it, this once, this alteration of the fabric she herself embroidered, to permit this wholesale reweave of 200 years of already elapsed history, well, it is precedent-setting, to say the least. Yes, unprecedented. Or precedent-upsetting. That the Muse of History allows it invites our gratitude to her unfathomable ways. Perhaps the Fates decreed it should be so. For it is said that not even the Gods can alter fate.
But enough of my musing on the Muses and Gods and such others of the other-worldly brood whom we may have stirred with our arrogant and unapologetic explorations of realms and thoughts that perhaps we, mere mortals, should have left unexperienced.
Let’s admit our own memories of the Caribbean, or West Indies, or Netherlands Antilles, or whatever you please to call them. Please, allow your warm memories of Caribbean languor to flood this tale with your own personal colors, to this, the story of the events that transpired on story of St Cyril Island. Let open the gates of memory to welcome vistas of green-blue, wine-enhanced seas, electric blue fish, a sun pouring forth a better sunlight, warming waters of womb-buoyancy, and music, sweet upon cool evening breezes. Stars incandescent in a sky of the deepest black. Let’s hear memory ring clear through your waxen portals, washing through your otolaryngeal tract, irrigated in seawater from the big waves generated this sunny morn by last night’s thunderstorm, a physical memory that will sound with a paper-bag-like rattle of your eardrums long after your return to the Mainland.
Now, let’s to the story of Bud Stillwell and friends, and what happened at Sabrina’s. Then we’ll angle over to the action in Pushkino, I promise you, the renamed capital of Russian Saint Cyril Island, or Ostrov Vasiliа Blazhennego, How out-of-place its onion-domed churches kissed by gentle-waving palm fronds, 0verlooking the naval base of Vladimorsk.
It’s my story, actually, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, here in my brig at Novorossiya, a converted cattle pen named, in a typical Russian approach to humor, Le Fort au Veau.
Through my cell wall, 150 miles over the western horizon, is Cuba, strategic neighbor and ally of the People’s Republic of St Cyril Island, this unapologetically Soviet bastion in a post-Soviet world.
It is similar to the world conjured by Aksyonov in his Island of Crimea, though instead of defeated White Russian officers inhabiting a Hong Kong-like Crimea, we have in this case the representatives of the former Soviet Empire fleeing to the islands of the Caribbean, in much the same way as the Nazi and Fascist war criminals earlier escaped their penalties; the SS-Men, Arrowcross, Ustashe, so many of that hellish non-rainbow of black shirts carried to sanctuaries in North and South America and the Antilles along “Ratlines,” sneaking aboard ships and aircraft masquerading as Roman Catholic clerics, Argentine businessmen, Swiss.
Along roughly similar lines came the blood-soaked horde from behind the former Iron Curtain, “Biznismin” dressed like lounging track athletes with a propensity for gold chains, open-necked shirts, a loosely-retained fully-automatic pistol and open-toed shower slippers. These former careerists of the Soviet apparatus departed Odessa and Sevastapol, Yalta and Varna, Constanța and Burgas for points west, along the Riviera, alighting in Majorca and the Azores, further west to the Indies. Thus arrived the secret-police diaspora, KGB Men, German Stasi, Polish SB, DS-linked Bulgarians, Czechoslovak StB, Budapest’s ÁVH, Romanian Securitate, Yugoslav UDBA, Albanian DSS, and fellow thought-police of every national stripe, all seeking job security and fortune in Cuba, Grenada, Haiti, St Cyril Island, and many other scattered isles and islets that offered ample coastline and scant interest in one’s origins.
Now they lay here, waiting, in position, for what would become the most valuable real estate on God’s green earth.
For while the world burned with fever, and basked in invisible contagion, St Cyril had been exempted from the runaway contagion descended on the rest of the globe.
In this wayward, windward place, the fires of revolution could still be smelt, smoldering beneath the humid jungle canopy. Now, the great nations and economic powers of the world had begun to arrive as well, seeking toeholds for the incalculably rich. The navies and special-forces cadres in their employ were attracted here, where darkness owned the spaces between villages and settlements, where minds long isolated could be fortified with political philosophy, bribes, and promises. Beneath lowering tropic trees in places irregular and charged with superstition and ignorance, here, the true believers, the true heirs to Lenin, Dzherzhinsky and Stalin worked their most effective work, exciting the jealousies of underfed minds, unschooled brains to be honed covetous with Marx’s powerful half-truths about history and the human condition.
And in truth, weren’t these half-truths almost enough to qualify as truths? To provide the justification for everything that ensued? Once the old restraints have been lifted, once the previous ownership structure has been cleared away, doesn’t a new, transformative world beckon?
Mustn’t the previous social structure give way to the New? Provide the needed succor for this new Creation, the albumin to feed this new life within the egg?
Is it possible that such a true settling of scores can only be settled according to a political practices as anthropophagic as the original denizens of this isle, the Arawaks?
Could it be the old conspiracy theory? The one about the wholesale expropriation of our common planetary birthright by a near-undetectable world overclass united along some impossibly arcane ancestral tree?
These theories, half-baked but oddly plausible, accorded well with the facts of the day and satisfied, a little, every man’s desire to see the pattern of his suffering.
Did not this “One-Percent” control more than half the world’s wealth?
And thus the old bloody Bolshevik agenda reappears. The easy rationale for violence, that somehow, these inheritors of everything need to be taken down. This disguises the brutality of theft and murder as a necessity, exploiting the exploiters, “Scramble Eggs to Make an Omelet” or a “Needed Earthquake in the Economic Sphere,” as the Party poets might put it in a headline. The seeming necessity of an explosive, even geological redistribution of capital, akin to the great waves and winds that sometimes swept the island, merciless, heedlessly destructive, capricious, murderous. This all gave this time its dangerous cast.
Yes, on scattered inlets and bays, from Manhattan Island to Briscoe Cay on the nether tip of St Cyril’s, the new red-tinged appetites were whetted, and the mental gymnasts trained to belabor us with Nuclear Winter, then Global Warming, then Climate Change. Then, Pandemic. Performing acrobat’s flips of logic, these self-appointed geniuses plotted the ultimate in environmental and socio-economic acts of revolution.
And then, someone flipped the switch.
I tried to sleep.
The waves, propelled by the southwest wind, traffic the beach, arriving with a car-like whooshing noise, breaking first on the southern end of the sands, then rolling, over the next several seconds, onto the rest of the northwest running beach.
Yes, the hotbed of pro-Bolshevik intrigue was the Caribbean Sea.
Here a plan was forming. Hatching. Frothing.For the Black Sea.
Like the Japanese soldiers lost for decades on forgotten spits of the Pacific, so these Party stalwarts awaited their orders to renew the onslaught. Only they weren’t as lonely and isolated as the Jap holdouts were. They knew the intimate support of their comrades, the fellow-traveling, frightful band of social statisticians infesting the universities and media outlets of the traditional Main Enemy, America. These would-be revolutionaries, these armchair guerillas swum in a sea of ignorance, buoyed by the manipulable appetites of the many.
Many had found their way to the Caribbean port of St Cyril quite legitimately. One such was Herbert Hoyt Eisnein, who retired here after a career studying planetary hydrodynamics, the science of jetstreams and gulfstreams, and koniology, the study of the behavior of particulates in the atmosphere. Such quests had brought him many times to regions scattered around the world, from the steaming summit of Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines, to the sandstorms of Tunisia bearing surprisingly hardy and toxic bacteria and viruses borne by the hamsen wind, and, early in his career, to the Pacific Testing Range and the Edge of Space: to take measurements of high-altitude explosions from Lear jets risking flameout beyond their service ceilings, weightless parabolas and roaring, high-speed cameras, and then, suddenly, That Light. Even with cabin windows shaded, even with the welder’s goggles, it was the brightest thing any of them had ever experienced, a light that seemed to illumine from within.
At other times, Eisnein would visit observatories on Andean mountains to study anomalies in the absorption spectra of the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. He would go on to leading the koniology and meteorology research teams of the Rigel and Canopus deep-space probes to the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. A board member of long standing with several top cybernetics and genetics firms, Eisnein now spent his days closeted in his St Cyril villa, midway up the southwestern-facing slope of Mt Ida, afforded a resplendent sunset daily over Placid Bay. He, under normal conditions, would have been “gilding” this evening light-show of iridescent pastels with a scotch and filtered Speyside waters, cannabis from a co-op a little further upslope, and a new, long-acting anti-anxiety compound he’d helped to midwife to Stage Two testing at Pi Pharmaceutical: suitable for administration to healthy humans. He was not healthy, but his mind raged on, alive with fearful prophecies, so he thus prescribed himself an ample dose, QD, once a day.
In the darkness, one of his orangutans, Gaucho, from the sound of it, let go with a love croon for Lyla, his inamorata, caged separately. It startled the accomplished man.
For Eisnein was sore afraid.
And he was sore, physically. His legs swollen and weakened by an edema of unknown origin, he also suffered with extreme photosensitivity, not from a parasite, nor from bacterium nor virus, but by some mechanism of unknown pathology that all but locked him indoors during the long days when the island gleamed at her alluring best. Intoxicating long sunlit hours that cheered lizard and human sun-worshipper alike, now forbidden to him, whose skin would begin reacting to the sun after just a few minutes’ exposure.
A piteous state, given St Cyril’s justly famous allurements, from its tropic orange beaches to its temperate highlands. An entirely nude western coastline conveyed the Dutch “Anything Goes” atmosphere, a thoughtless, throwaway chic. On the Russian, formerly Soviet, side, St Cyril (or, as the Russians called it, Svyati Kiril) retained its native charm and beauty despite the ferroconcrete excesses that now crumbled under the intoxicating Antillean sun and the brief, drenching thunderstorms that washed the isle each afternoon.
Beautiful, flowery days, alive with languid tropic butterflies of iridescent greens and blues, red parrots squawking, electric-blue and neon yellow fish. Iguanas, drawn to the heated tarmac of the island’s “Ring Road,” often found in the sun-heated macadam the road to Iguana Paradise beneath less-yielding, weighty Michelins.
These days yielded to faultless starry nights, when Herbert Eisnein would emerge from behind the horizontal slats of his hurricane-proof enclosure into the cool velvet of the island night, and these were his cherished moments, when he could behold the entire constellation of the Scorpion and its red supergiant heart, Antares, the anti-Mars, a ruby jewel set in the river of the Milky Way. On moonless nights, its stream could be seen as plainly as any earthly road, and upon it, bright planets traveled.
At least, these had been his cherished moments.
But Dr Eisnein was now afraid even of venturing out into the cool beneath the tropic night sky.
His fears had dawned on him during one of those early research flights, and came from his researches aboard one of those high-flying Air Force jets. It was an insight only tangentially related to the detonation of what had been codenamed “Starfish Prime,” the high-altitude burst above Christmas Island in the Pacific.
For the retired Dr Eisnein possessed many eminent credentials, but had begun as an epidemiologist. Inspired by the witty writings of Nobel Laureate Hans Zinnser and his epochal “biography” of pandemic contagion, Rats, Lice and History, soon others were whispering Eisnein’s name for the same prize.
And now he was sore in legs and spirit and sore afraid. An anti-mosquito candle offered the only light in his room. Every night, behind the tightly slatted and fine meshed windows, with the air conditioning purring at a chilling 65, he would comb the shortwave bands, listening, waiting, for the news he most feared to hear. Three big-screen TVs played silent news and three computer screens were arrayed before him, in his bed. He was a wraith cocooned within his ghostly mosquito netting. He no longer ventured into the enveloping dark of the benign night. The last, increasingly panicked messages he had read served him enough notice. The Milky Way was for him the road not taken.
Many others were stuck on St Cyril’s as well, but unlike Dr Eisnein, who had chosen his exile here, these were caught, as it were, in the amber of history: the pandemic had spared the island, thus far, and for obvious reasons, the elders of both the Dutch and Russian side agreed on a sort of reverse quarantine, and declared the air and coastal waters a no-go zone for all traffic. A forbidden zone of three miles’ limit. And at that invisible line, a significant percentage of the world’s navies now patrolled.
The last to arrive on the island itself, like Deke and his wedding party, were quarantined for three weeks, then, showing no symptoms, were allowed to forage for themselves on St Cyril’s.
All had come for reasons as multivariant as the human condition allows, distributed evenly over a cross-section of 20- to 25,000 of the island’s inhabitants. Many had been born, here.
At one time or another, most everyone would pass through historic Sabrina’s Seafood Chophouse, at the very shoals that grounded the Sabrina. Here, on the most historic spot on St Cyril Island, directly on the Dutch-Russian borderline, had been erected, upon the ruins of the old fortress, a bar and grill. It had stood since beyond living memory, now known for its satellite link to Major League Baseball, substantial and rewarding meals, and the juiciest academic and NGO gossip this side of East 42nd Street. It was part Cheers and part Panmunjom.
HMS Sabrina wrecked here those many years ago, caught where the Atlantic almost succeeds in splitting the island with its thrust toward the Caribbean. Sabrina made the first navigational error in the island’s recorded history, turning into what appears to be the navigable mouth of the Rio Bogo, on the floor of the valley between the fjord-like massif of Mt Huygens, whose plateau leads into the dense temperate forest of the highlands of the Grande Range that dominates the southern half of the roughly pyramidal island, and Mt Ida. Here the English crew thought they’d found a shortcut, but instead found themselves aground, and then found a slave mutiny on their hands, and here, somewhere, they lay, murdered by the self-liberating slaves in 1647.
The mainly Gambian transportees, having dispatched the crew to a man, armed themselves with what weapons and stores could be salvaged from the wreck, then made into the hills, finding there a pathetic remnant of the cannibalistic Arawak tribe, the sole survivors of the once West-Indies-wide civilization that had supplied a major part of their successors’ diet, the Caribs, for whom the island archipelago earned one of its names.
Reformed of their man-eating ways, the surviving Arawaks joined with the escaped Gambians and made this stronghold at the base of Mt Huygens.
More Europeans arrived, naturally. And the rebellious slaves were slaughtered, almost to a man.