We were vacationing in the islands, trusting the fresh sea winds to bring life to stale hopes. We sat half-naked on limestone dust as soft as flour, and sifted it through our fingers. We’d made love as many times as there were shells strewn on the sand. It had brought back our glory days, when I was strong and confident, she sleek and clever. In our quiet cove under coconut palms, with the sly serenade of tropical wavelets tickling our feet, the heat fanned no flames, only set them flickering and uncertain, my small supply of virility too quickly exhausted, too slowly replenished. After only two days, happy banter ebbed with the sea, swirling away with manta rays and parrot fish to leave only silence and doubt and desperate measures.
She’d cut my hair only two weeks since, in the shabby Nairobi hotel that marked the start of our adventure of rediscovery. “To make the local girls jealous,” she’d said at the time.
“Sure, why not?” I searched for a joke to match her mood. “Transform me to a handsome itinerant, searching out island rhythms.”
“I’ll show you island rhythms,” she said, brushing one small, bikini-clad breast against my shoulder. “After your haircut.”
In a chair on the porch of our bayside hotel cottage, I was hers to direct, to shape. “You’re feeding stereotypes,” I called as she gathered her tools. “Woman caring for man.”
“As are you,” she said. “Cave man with no couth.” She pointed with her chin. “Wet your hair and come back.”
A quick rinse later, I sat on the porch, cool water dripping down my thin, bare chest as she busied herself with scissor and comb. Little scraps of washed-out gold lay in shoals on my slightly sunburnt belly, and fell in clusters on her rich mahogany arms.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said at last.
She folded my ear a little harder than I liked, and I winced at the thought of cartilage crumpling.
“I was talking with Angele, earlier.” Angele and Pierre were the Rwandan couple to the left, our only neighbours aside from the Ukrainians who fought all night and spent their days in separate silence. I could see Yuri now, still out in his kayak in the bay, matching the hours of peace to the hours of light.
“Find anything out?” Angele was far younger than Pierre, and Rwandans were unlikely tourists so far from the mainland.
“She’s his assistant, and they’re on a study trip, investigating local government structures.”
“Oh, come on.” I took advantage of a break in the snipping to look around at Del. “Surely you don’t believe that.” We heard them having sex often enough, with a frequency and duration that gave us both food for thought.
“That’s her story. He’s the Deputy Minister, apparently.” She stepped behind me and pushed my head forward. “Anyway, that’s not the point. Angele said there’s a guide who does a nice tour of local historical spots.” She traded her scissors for a safety razor and scraped my tender, salt-crusted skin. “I thought we might check it out tomorrow.”
Island history was low on my list of interests, but keeping Del happy was high. “Sure. Why not?”
“Apparently the hotel can set it up. If you don’t want to, though, maybe we can go kayaking tomorrow.” She stepped back to assess her handiwork. “Or you can go with Yuri.”
I smiled as dashingly as I could. “I don’t know. Historical tour with beautiful brunette all to myself, or vigorous exercise with bulky Ukrainian gangster. Hard choice.”
“I’m serious,” she said. “If you don’t want to come…” I could see that it was important to her, that she was trying as hard as I to avoid those awkward silences, the long moments of broken conversation between bouts of sex.
“I do,” I assured her with a kiss on the hand. “And thanks for the haircut. What did you say happens afterward?” I drew her down toward me and kissed her sun-flaked lips before taking her inside to make her happy.
In the morning, we rose early for a quick swim in the shallow bay, threading through the beds of seaweed, trying to avoid encountering the little sharks more frightened than we, and the stingrays hiding under the sand. A game of tag turned quickly into a clinging, fumbling roll, and we sped back to shore and bed. Sex was best early in the day, when it was still fresh, when our hopes sprang newborn from dreams of glad repletion.
After she came, we lay for a while together, my hand still trapped in the warmth between her legs, my face resting on her shoulder.
“So,” I said when she sighed and stirred at last. “How do we find this guide lady?” I’d thought of pretending ignorance, letting her, sated, ignore the plan. But she’d been sated other mornings also, as well as I could manage.
She smiled and rolled to face me. “I’m so glad you remembered.” She laid an arm on my chest. “I know it’s not really your thing, but I thought …” She’d apparently thought something too dangerous to name, and changed it mid-sentence. “You know. New places, new things.”
“Old historical sites.” It was a joke, though, and we showered together, soaping each other in silent search of a resurgence that didn’t arrive.
“Just as well,” she said, rinsing. “I told the hotel we’d meet her at ten.” I looked at my watch. We had just enough time to dress. I carefully didn’t consider when she might have had time to arrange the meeting.
At the oversized thatched hut that served as reception, our guide was waiting. She was small and a pleasant light brown, with tightly curled grey hair, and faintly Asian eyes that widened when she saw us. Better prospects than she’d envisioned, perhaps.
“Bonjour,” I said in my best rusty French. “Parlez-vous anglais?”
“Of course, monsieur. I am an accredited guide. Your French is excellent, but we can speak English if you prefer.”
“Of course we’ll speak English,” Del decided. “He’s just showing off.” She extended a hand. “My name is Del.”
“Mine is Carinne. And this must be Sam.” Her right eye, on the far side from Del, winked at me. “You see? I do my research as well. The owner here is an old friend.”
We spent the morning touring plain, whitewashed churches and research stations, squat municipal buildings and decrepit statues. Despite Carinne’s best efforts, I was bored, and I doubt Del was more enthralled, but we persevered until the tour ended on a narrow tarmac street with open air cafés and restaurants to one side, fine white sand to the other.
“Here I leave you,” declared Carinne. “At the best restaurant for you on the island.” She gestured to one of the indistinguishable restaurants, its white plastic tables stained and scored by years of careless diners.
“Thank you, Carinne. It’s very kind, but … we’re vegetarians. Very strict.” Seaside places, in my experience, serve fish, fish, and more fish.
“I told you, Mr. Sam. I do my research. The proprietor here serves the best vegetarian meals in town.” That twinkle again. “Perhaps the only ones. He is my good friend, and you may trust him. Now come,” she ushered us through a gap in the low whitewashed wall. “Jean! Les étrangers ont arrives. Apporte les aliments exotiques.” She smiled at me.
“But you must join us, Carinne,” said Del.
“No, Ms. Del. I cannot. It is very kind, of course, but …”
“Never mind that,” Del insisted. Why not? I thought. Carinne had done her best, and I didn’t grudge her a little extra. It might help us avoid the awkwardness of a tip, and I gave Del silent credit for the idea.
The food was excellent — grilled vegetables, a salad of seaweed and beans, and a spicy curry of coconut milk and nuts poured over rice. Jean, the rail-thin black proprietor and cook, bustled merrily back and forth with dishes, pickles, and drinks, until at last Del insisted he join us as well.
We told abbreviated versions of our lives, and listened to their talk of island scandal, until, bellies bulging, we sat back, vainly trying to find room for delicious little cups of some white jelly, with bits of mango. It tasted of coconut and mint.
“So,” asked Jean at last. “How was your tour?”
I tried desperately to remember the names of even one of the sites.
Del, more self-assured, said “The churches were lovely.”
“Bah,” said Jean. “The usual spots. Is this the best you can do, Carinne?”
She shrugged. “This is the tour. I am sorry if it is not interesting.”
“Not at all,” I said hurriedly.
Jean cut me off. “No one is interested in these things.”
“It was very interesting,” I insisted. “The botanical research station, for example, where they’re growing the, um, …”
“Coco de mer,” offered Del. The nut looked somewhat like a woman’s buttocks from one side, and the other side looked even less like a woman’s front.
Jean sniffed. “For tourists. They love it. The nut has no uses, otherwise.”
“It makes good bowls,” offered Carinne. “And the jelly from young nuts is very good.” She gestured at the dessert bowls before us.
“And it’s an aphrodisiac,” Jean admitted.
“Where can we get more?” I jumped in, joking.
“Very rare,” Carinne said, shaking her head. “Jean has been generous with you.”
“I give my guests what they need,” he said. Did I imagine a sympathetic glance in my direction? “What about you?” He caught Carinne’s eye and held it.
“Me.” It was clear that she knew what he meant.
“Yes, you. Why not show them something really interesting, for once?” The weight of a hidden message was not lost on any of us.
Carinne considered, looking from me to Del to the dessert with a troubled brow.
“Why not, Carinne?” Del asked. “Is there more to show us? Please do.”
“Are you sure?” She looked searchingly into Del’s eyes. “Perhaps. But you,” she turned her keen gaze to me. “What is it you long for?”
“Something new,” I said glibly. “Or old.” In truth, another day of boring monuments was not my idea of a holiday, but clearly the mystery had caught Del’s interest, and for that, I was willing to spend a few more dull hours growing blisters. Plus, we might end up here for lunch again, and that seemed an excellent idea.
Carinne bit her lip, but Jean nodded, and she gave in. “Very well. Tomorrow afternoon, then. There is a temple. It is very old, very broken. You may not find it interesting.”
A temple, at least, would be a break from cinder block administrative buildings, and equally stolid churches.
“It sounds lovely,” said Del. “Tomorrow, then,”
Del and I left Carinne at the restaurant, and walked slowly, happily down the narrow streets to our hotel. We were silent, mostly, but we held hands, and for the first time in a while, it felt good.
That night, it felt more than good. I managed twice times, three times — a record! Then four and five, before we sank exhausted into sleep. In the morning, we were sore but willing, and after slow, tender lovemaking, we spent the early day drowsing and snuggling as we hadn’t done for months. After a perfunctory lunch, we moved to the open air bar, and sat drinking cool, fresh juice until Carinne arrived.
“You are ready?” she asked.
“Ready,” Del declared for the two of us.
“Ready,” I echoed, remembering the night. “Ready. And maybe dinner at Jean’s, eh?”
Carinne shook her head, serious. “Perhaps. But too much coco de mer… It is not good for everyone. Maybe not for you.” Was my inadequacy so clearly on display for all to see? I bridled, but Carinne put her hand on my arm. “It is no bad thing,” she said. “The more one takes, the higher the price.” I was unsure if she referred to the law of supply and demand, or some metaphysical mumbo jumbo, but her eyes were kind, and I chose to let it go.
“Let’s be off, then,” I said to cover my irritation. “Ruined temples, here we come.”
We set out on foot, up the main road into the coastal hills. I insisted on carrying Carinne’s bag full of supplies, and she handed it over with a shrug — a peace offering of sorts, perhaps; a nod to my virility.
We turned off the road to a broad path, then a narrow one, then a faint trail in the jungle. Around us, lianas hung from jellyfish trees and palms.
“Look,” said Del, pointing to the side. “Coco de mer.” Indeed, they grew more frequent the further we went, until we stood in a veritable forest of palms.
“So much for rarity,” I said. “Maybe we can point Jean to this place.” Del reached back to squeeze my hand.
Soon after, the trail debouched into a small clearing with a short drop to the beach one side, and rock on the other. On the inland side, a single stained stone pillar poked drunkenly toward the sky.
“Temple, I’m guessing,” I offered, to fill the silence. It didn’t look like much. There was the one pillar, a few tumbled blocks, and a curtain of vines. There was no sign of a portico or roof; just the remains of these stones.
“Is there an inside?” Del asked. Without waiting for an answer, she strode over to the ruins.
Beside the single pillar, vines hid not rock, but a dank, dismal emptiness. It smelled of urine, dust, and guano.
“After you,” I motioned to Carinne, before remembering that if there were torches to be found, they must be in her pack, still tight against my back. Del had already plunged into the darkness, though, and Carinne stepped in after her.
“Give me your hand,” she said, reaching forward for Del’s and back for mine. I took it, not wanting to let them head off without me into the dark. There was a small delay as she pushed ahead of Del, and we all traded hands.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw that the entry was lined with rough stone slabs, and looked up with trepidation to see the same just over my head. “Is it safe?” I asked, scuffing the toe of my shoe into the silt of the floor.
“Safe?” asked Carinne, starting forward again. “I think we are past safe.”
“What? What the…?”
“Oh, man up, Sam. It’s just a little darkness.”
I bit down on my response and shuffled forward, my shoes sliding past unknown objects as we twisted and turned into a tunnel. Probably the bones of small animals. Or of unmanly men, frightened of the dark.
“Oh,” exclaimed Del from before me. A moment later, I could see a faint grey glow from walls that seemed to stretch far higher than before. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “Like pearls.”
“Very dirty pearls,” I said, telling myself to enjoy her pleasure, but unable to make myself do it.
In the dim light, I could see her shake her head at this evidence of philistine character, but she said nothing.
The glow grew stronger, and I could see that it came from a coarse white coating high on the walls.
“Like mother of pearl,” Del said, though I could see no such resemblance.
Now that there was light, however faint, I could see that the walls had changed from stone slabs to raw stone, scraped and broken in places to widen the passage. Stalactites dripped down from the ceiling, or formed veins down the walls. It formed a sort of natural temple in itself, and I wondered why it wasn’t better known. It was certainly a better tourist attraction than the dumpy town hall.
At the far end of this natural hall, we entered another tunnel. It was short; after only two quick turns, we emerged into the blinding outdoor light. My eyes slowly, painfully adjusted, to see a lush, green paradise of fruit and flowers. I felt a sense of discontinuity, as if I’d stepped into an entirely different world. Not dark and close, like the thick palms of the outer island, this land was light and open, with lawns of moss, and benches of smooth stone shaded by broad yellow blossoms on tall, pale stalks.
Half-hidden by leaves, like a mixer at god’s nudist colony, group upon group of beautiful people. Young, old, fat, thin, pale, dark, but all with an ineffable sense of grace, an almost tangible aura of perfection. They were people you just wanted to be with, full of smiles and warmth and a twinkle in the eyes.
Del was already among them, chatting, shaking hands, being hugged — a friend among old friends she’d only just met. I watched with stupefaction as she passed among them, casually shedding bits of clothing as she went. A hat here, a shoe here, handing off her blouse as if it were the most natural thing in the world. By the time she was naked, she was hidden by the crowd. I yearned to go to her, half envious, half jealous, held back by fear and, I slowly realized, by Carinne’s hand in mine. Slowly, unwillingly, I looked toward her.
Our guide stood just inside the cave. In contrast to perfection, she seemed a crumpled gargoyle of nut-brown parchment and angled bone. With one gnarled clutch of twigs, she held close to the rough stone of the rock face, as if mooring herself against a winter storm. Her fragile form seemed now a caricature of delicacy, a mockery of beauty drawn by the cruelest of artists, a satirist of poise and elegance.
“Stay,” she said, pulling on my hand with her own frail fingers. “Stay. This is not for you.”
I stared at her, uncomprehending. Here was Eden recreated, Shangri-La amidst the ocean, Arcadia discovered and Pan no doubt among the crowd. Making love to my own love, no doubt.
“Let her go,” Carinne said. “She will come back.”
I shook my head and pulled away, stepped out into the warm and gentle sun.
“Stay,” she called again, her voice thin and harsh and bereft of all command. “You will regret it.”
It could have been Cassandra’s catchphrase, for all the attention anyone has ever paid those words. I turned away to follow Del, to join or rescue her.
I stepped toward the nearest of the golden people, a short, plump man with skin so black it shone like obsidian, and a woman blonde as gold and twice as bright. They smiled and took me in their arms. I felt a man among men, with hands as strong as oak and capable of any task. We walked arm in arm among the crowd. I spoke with the flowing eloquence of my best moments, said the right things at the right times, never stumbled, never lost for words. The men looked up to me, respected me. The women pressed against me, fluttered their eyes, laughed at my jokes, rejoined with cutting repartee always clever, never cruel. We competed amongst each other, and I won as many matches as I lost, all in good grace, all in good spirits. When we made love, it was a natural consequence, the graceful conclusion of one impish contest or another. When it was over, there were no hidden glances, no bitter, unsatisfied looks, only utter contentment, and a fluid shift to other topics, other activities. We talked, we laughed, we sang. We ate fruit sweet and tart and refreshing all at once, drank the milk of coconuts, or water as pure as the sky was blue. It lasted forever.
In every tale, forever has an end, the moment when the infinity of now becomes contained, forced back from eternity by the boundaries of tomorrow and of yesterday.
One day, or night, or dawn, as we composed eddas on the stars and moon and sun, a woman curled in between a male form and a female one, lay across a lap, soft breasts against soft thigh. She looked at me with warm eyes of jade, and smiled. I lost my place, but the crowd carried on, taking my long verse for its own, continuing and reshaping it, making my stumble into a victory.
“Hello Sam,” she said.
“Del.” I knew her now, and though she shone with the grace of all these other gods, she was the same.
“Are you happy, Sam?” She reached out and stroked my hair. “At last?”
And though I had sung of happiness moments before, of a sudden I was not. I was cold and stiff and dry, and fear pressed in on me.
“Let’s go home,” she said. As if home were more than bills and work and strain and a squalid flat.
I heard her cry behind me as I ran, the click of my bones setting the metre for the sound of my name, repeated over and over in diminishing echoes. I plunged through a crowd of strangers, in search of contentment. I lost myself in women, holding them in brief, brutish spasms that left me drained and empty, left them frowning as they turned away in search of other partners. The men took me in, shook my hands with grips that made me wince, talked in codes I was always slow to decode, turned me away for better companions. I slaked my thirst with water that tasted of silt, ate green fruit already riddled with rot. At last I slept.
When I woke, my thoughts were slow and painful, and my mouth tasted of decay. I stretched in painful jerks. Beneath me, sharp corners of flint gouged loose skin, sent flurries of gravel down to the muddy rill below. Above me on either side stretched crags of stone hung with scraggly bushes. And when I rose, not far away, Carinne and Del watching with compassion and contempt.
I gathered my clothing, torn and scattered among the jagged boulders of the ravine, fished one shoe from a puddle, the other from a thornbush. As I dressed, the women chatted quietly until at last I stood before them, the barest semblance of a man.
We spoke little as we traversed the tunnels, Carinne’s torch leading the way. She carried her own pack. I took Del’s hand in the grand central chamber, and she let it hang there, limp and distant until we came once more to the dark, salty night of the exit. There, she squeezed once and let go. We walked home in silence, letting Carinne go her way with no more than a nod.
We kept apart for the remaining days of our vacation. Some days, I went out with Yuri and his kayaks. Some days Del did. On those days I sat alone on our little porch, overlooking the sea. Yuri’s pretty brunette came by once or twice, but when I didn’t respond, she left me alone. Pierre and I talked, sometimes, but I knew little about African politics, and he had little else to say.
I went back to the temple, of course. When Del was out, or early in the morning, or late at night. You know what I found. Sometimes nothing. Sometimes the cave had no exit, sometimes no entrance. Sometimes it was a den of dust and dry bone. Once it was full of island hooligans who beat me and robbed me and threw me to the beach below the cliff. When I crawled home at last, Del said nothing, only bandaged my wounds with quick efficiency, and went to take tea with Angele.
I spoke with Carinne one more time, at Jean’s little restaurant. She just shook her head. “It was for Del,” she said. “It was suited to her. A dream and a release. For people like you it is only danger and obsession and ruin.”
I told Del those words, and she shrugged. “You hold too closely, Sam. You’re a man of infatuations.” She took my hand gently, looked me in the eye as she cut her losses. “Be happy, Sam. Next time.”
After we left the islands, we didn’t see each other again. She took her things from my flat, and I didn’t search her out. I had moments of sorrow, moments of rage, of violence. The other tenants, cowards all, asked that my lease not be renewed. I left the landlord my wreck of a home, and moved.
Here in the north, the waves are tall and cruel, and the beach is cold black grit. Hard work has made me strong, too strong. I lay my head upon the sand, and it mingles with my long, graying hair. When I comb it out, the sand forms stiff, crumbling patterns on my hearth, mountains and canyons of piled, isolated grains, touching but ever separate. I throw them in the fire, but they never melt into glass. Tomorrow, though, I will turn up the heat. I will comb my hair and wear my best clean clothes. I will go to the town, and sit in the library or the teahouse or the pub, and I will try to make a friend. If the gods are with me, I will see whether strength can build as well as destroy.