The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
12.1 (Winter 2012)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
In the lifeboat, they had still called each other by their proper names. Early on, a “mister” had even preceded the surname that came from most mouths. The stockbroker and his lovely wife were Mr. and Mrs. Hordern, the car salesman and his vivacious dark-eyed spouse were Mr. and Mrs. Salinas, the petty officer was Mr. Soucamp, and the boatswain’s mate was Mr. Fackel. Even the red-haired teenage girl who has been separated from her parents (and who was thus an orphan now, since the cruise ship had exploded so suddenly that only this one launch appeared to have cleared its sinking wreckage) was politely styled Miss Amanda by Lavonne, the Creole cook, and by other personnel in the boat’s bow.
The situation’s strain, however, eroded such civilized residue within a couple of weeks. The period of actual drift in the launch under a merciless tropical sun, lasting a mere six days, posed few challenges to good manners; and it might be said, as well, that the shock of having lost so many friends and comrades in a burst of fire and a rush of water enforced a zone of respect among the survivors, just as soldiers whose buddy has disappeared in a retreat will grow very quiet for a while. Hence the first sign of friction flared up relatively without warning. It came on the morning of Day Four, when the Horderns were supplementing onboard rations with delicacies from the bags they had miraculously retrieved from their stateroom.
“What’s up with this?” protested Mr. Fackel, with an edge in his voice that made most of the almost fifty castaways look up from their mesmerized stupor. “You two have your own food?”
Mr. Hordern finished chewing very slowly, as if the vague charge being flung at him required long digestion. “Why, yes… a little. Not much. She… they were going to be gifts…”
“Well, there’s no one to give them to now, is there?”
“No. That’s why we’re… that’s why we decided to…”
“To eat a fancy cake in front of the rest of us after taking your share of the rations.”
Mr. Holdern mopped the crumbs from his mouth and investigated the faces of his fellow passengers. None seemed to share in the mate’s indignation; many seemed to share slightly in his amazement. The launch, after all, had enough food in its storage lockers for about a month.
“But…” he said finally, “they’re ours. These coffee cakes—they’re all mine. I paid for them.”
“Good. Then you can eat your own grub and keep your hands off the rations.”
“But I paid for those, too—as much as anyone else did. My ticket cost as much as the Harrimons’, or the Glovers’. At least as much.”
“So you get to live longer than the rest of us because you have more money to spend—is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s enough now, Fackal,” grumbled Petty Officer Soucamp, nodding in half-sleep. “Just shut the hell up.”
“I have some chewing gum,” said a little boy of about eight or nine. “Do you want some chewing gum?”
“Keep your f—your flipping chewing gum,” glowered Fackel. “I just want my fair share. That’s all.”
And it ended there—or seemed to. Mr. Holdern diplomatically withdrew his dainty from sight after his elegant wife declined to partake of more. Yet on the morning of Day Six (before they spotted land, which dinted the western horizon only well after noon), an echo of that earlier morning’s unpleasantness briefly swept across the open boat. As if determined to assert his rights, Mr. Hordern once again produced a log of pastry after their meager collective breakfast. This time, however, he shared out servings to his immediate neighbors, dealing Mr. Fackel a glancing scowl at every offer. Some of the men around him declined, but most were happy to accept his generosity on behalf of their children or womenfolk.
Fackel watched silently with a sardonic smirk until the ritual was completed and the cake’s remaining quarter once more packed away. Then he shook his shaved head and winked at a seaman sprawling between the thwarts at his feet.
“See how they always stick together?” he murmured—a murmur quite audible on the numbed ocean’s swell. “We’re their lackeys. Their paid dogs.”
Nobody laughed at the absurd image of a paid dog. Instead, Mrs. Newton, who was licking the last taint of cinnamon from her fingertips, drawled severely, “I don’t see why he shouldn’t give it to who he wants. It’s his, and we’re his friends. At least… well, you’re certainly not his friend, are you? You’ve been very rude!”
“That’s right, miss,” smiled Fackel. “It’s very rude to point out those little things, isn’t it?”
Naturally, the sighting of land and the successful beaching of the craft in very light surf distracted everyone temporarily from the gathering clouds of rivalry and envy. There was a mood of celebration everywhere that evening. The sailors sprang with renewed will to the task of shoring up the inverted launch to make a kind of hut for the night. Lavonne managed to start a fire with the help of a savvy woodsman among the passengers, and she soon had shellfish toasting on stones (a welcome change from Spam and scarcely rehydrated beef stew). The younger passengers were able to scout inland for about a mile before twilight called them back. They found no traces of human habitation, but the island offered an easy climb, and edible fruits dangled within reach to be harvested. The children screamed and squealed around it all—the emerging shelter and the fire and the line of palm trees above the dunes—as if awakened from a dreary nightmare and set free into an idyllic playground.
Tired as they were, the castaways sat up late around the crackling fire that night, to all appearances enjoying each other’s company. There was a mumble among the sailors about creating various means to broadcast distress signals the next day, but this discussion quickly lost energy. A man they had taken to calling the Preacher (whether he was one by vocation or not, no one ever said) closed the evening with a prayer for the souls of their lost brethren and of gratitude for their deliverance from horrific dangers. Nobody seemed to mind: most bowed their heads.
Things continued in this fashion throughout the second week. The catastrophic explosion already seemed years removed—perhaps because so much urgent business was now preoccupying everyone, perhaps because no one could bear to dwell upon the calamity. The adults were soon constructing shelters of a more secure, permanent, and private nature farther inland, where they would be relatively invulnerable to a sea surge in foul weather. The best-skilled and most able-bodied men cleared spaces, prepared thatch and lumber, drove stakes, and fastened roofs with a sense of purpose that animated them from sun-up to sundown. The women established a routine for gathering food from the tropical wilderness and cleaning it for the flame or slicing it upon makeshift plates. Mr. Soucamp and a couple of crewmen found the island’s highest points and supplied them with a stock of kindling ready to be ignited if a plane were heard overhead or a prow spotted far out to sea; young teenagers with flawless eyes were divided by the petty officer into shifts of lookouts and impressed (in the most serious of adult tones) with the importance of their duty.
A few of the remaining men applied themselves to capturing an occasional pig or bird for the pot. Since the animals, which apparently had run wild on the island for some while to judge from their numbers, had no fear of upright bipeds, they were a relatively easy catch. Nevertheless, Mr. Fackel (who had begged off of house-construction duty on the ground that he had injured his back when abandoning ship) devoted an inordinate amount of time to fashioning spears, bows, and arrows. His first models were pathetic fabrications, but they improved with time.
Eventually he was able to wound an egret with enough force that it came to earth again, after fluttering away in terror, at a distance that he didn’t mind traversing. He advertised his first catch in a kind of victory dance back at the village (sore back notwithstanding), and insisted on being closely involved in its roasting for the night’s feast.
The bird’s succulent flesh, mounted on a spit, quickly dwindled over the flames as his flashing knife worked. After each expert slash, Fackel would either direct the morsel to a certain party on the sitting-logs or royally present it himself. No more than two logs of occupants—all sailors—were served when the bird remained little more than a skeleton.
The others, who had their usual plate of fruits and a bit of fish, turned mobile faces into the oscillating light. They had at first been expectant: now the trace of a festive smile died, to be replaced by a contraction of the eyes that resembled worry. The quarreling in the open boat had been stored away for a few days, but not forgotten. Within seconds, the former tension returned. All the adults, at any rate, seemed to divine what was happening, and their common silence only underscored the awareness. When Petty Officer Soucamp (who was one of the few crewmen to be overlooked) piped up in protest, his timing was too late to pass as spontaneous, and his cheeriness too thin be anything but forced.
“Hey, now, Fackel—where’s ours? There’s a good two dozen of us down this way! Why are you giving your pals such big hunks at our expense?”
Fackel said nothing until he had nestled back among his cronies in the middle of a log. “It’s mine, ain’t it? I’ll give it to whoever I want.”
The only eating done for the next minute came from his end of the fire, where the select few smacked over their egret heartily. The tearing of teeth may have concealed more than one laugh or leer.
“Actually, it’s not yours,” said Holdern’s voice very quietly at last, almost from complete shadow.
“Oh, is that so, then? And wasn’t them pastries of yours bought with your own money? Well, this here bird was killed with my own arrow.”
“An arrow you made with time borrowed from our common effort, when the rest of us were cooking and scouting and building—doing things that you have profited from, along with everyone else.”
“Well, now, Mr. Stockbroker—Mr. Hoarder—you couldn’t have made none of your money, neither, if it hadn’t of been for the rest of us buying and spending and selling, now could you? That makes you kind of a… a parasite, don’t it? A barnacle, holding the ship back while you rake in profits from her sailing. See, I’m not stupid—not nearly so stupid as you seem to think. And Mr. Suck-up there—begging your pardon, sir—Mr. Soucamp, can kiss up to you and make your apologies for you as much as he likes. But on this here island, right now, the way we are, we’re all equal. Those of you that wants to hold out on the rest of us can expect to be held out on.”
“You son of a bitch!” Mr. Soucamp had risen from his rough seat. “I’ll nail your worthless hide to the nearest tree!”
“Mr. Soucamp, please! There are children present!”
“Oh, will you, Mr. Suckup, sir?” Fackel had also risen, amid the snorts and chuckles of his band. “You and who else, Mr. Suckup, sir? Are you quite sure you have the manpower to do the job for you, Mr. Suckup, sir?”
Soucamp’s shadowy figure remained still except for a tense flexing of the fingers, closed and opened and closed again. “You jackal!” he exhaled.
So it was that the castaways began to christen each other with new names.
The consequences of The Jackal’s ill-divided egret were major, and made themselves felt within days. Some of the sailors who had been duly taking their orders from Soucamp mysteriously peeled off, whether in fear of reprisal from the officer or in the exhilaration of a newly discovered anarchy. They clung to The Jackal now—clung loosely, to be sure, for The Jackal preferred undermining authority to exercising it. Somehow or other, though, all of the group began devoting an unusual and unnecessary amount of time to carving spears, bows, and arrows. The volume of game brought back to camp in the evening certainly did not increase; if anything, it declined.
The oddity of the situation was not at all lost on The Suits (as they were called by those whom The Suits called The Rabble). In fact, a mere day after the bow-and-arrow industry began, the stockbroker, the car dealer, the accountant, the pharmacist, and those of their stripe entirely abandoned the raising and repairing of shelters and, instead, arranged a different assembly line of opposing implements. Since they had already mastered the basics of splicing axe heads to handles and of weaving branches together with tendrils, they continued to do this in ways and to degrees that had no obvious relevance to building. Within a week, every man of them—about fifteen in all, or the equal of The Rabble’s number—was supplied with a long-hafted bludgeon, its stone head more or less chipped to give an edge, and a slender, tightly thatched shield. The Rabble were so preoccupied with their own manufactures, and their day’s adventures took them so far from the campsite, that they knew absolutely nothing of the arsenal hidden within The Hoarder’s hut. The evening meals provided further cover; for The Jackal had neglected to reflect that his every day’s activities were being reported by child lookouts to their parents, and the partisans of The Suits kept fruit and fish circulating evenly around the campfire with as brave a show of good humor as possible.
Thus when the one-time sailors sauntered back noisily from the hunt one afternoon—two of them bearing a pig on a rail, the remnant dozen comparing bowstrings and arrowheads in small groups—they all stopped stunned at the sight of their three shacks lying in a demolished heap. Before any of them had a chance to voice outrage, The Suits (whose shirts were already wearing thin, and had been entirely cast off by some) appeared in a phalanx as if from nowhere. Each held a raised shield in one hand and a poised axe in the other.
The Jackal, who had been on the verge of voicing a loud obscenity (judging by the size of frown upon his face), grew strangely pale beneath his tan and imperceptibly surrendered his lead position to plant himself between two comrades.
“Been busy with them little axes, have you?” he said with an attempt at a sarcastic laugh.
“Not very busy,” responded The Hoarder, claiming the step forward that his adversary had given back. “It didn’t take us long at all. These little axes made short work of the job.”
The Jackal’s breathing visibly accelerated. “Where are we supposed to sleep, then? What if it rains? Are we just supposed to catch our death? Is that what you want—you want us all dead? Those shields… are you planning to kill us? Why? Just because we’ve been out all day catching this nice pig for the group?”
Someone laughed rudely from the other side—the accountant that they called Numbers. “For the group, huh—for the whole group? When did that start? When did you decide that you were part of the group?”
“We was only trying to make a point,” whined a sailor they called Cleats. “You others… you think you’re above us. You always have. You treat us like dirt. You’re ready to kill us, and now you’ve bollicked our houses.”
“Your houses?” smiled The Hoarder. “We made them. They were our houses. We just let you stay in them. Now we’ve changed our minds.”
During a long silence, the sailors’ gazes fell one by one upon The Jackal. He fidgeted uneasily, aware that he was expected to deliver the next words and to make them telling.
Luckily for him, the man they now called Suckup strode from the clearing’s edge, where he had been following events from among the women.
“Come one,” he said gently, placing his hand on the rail that held the pig. “Let’s get this thing skinned and over the fire—it’s not very big, but it should do us all for a couple of days. Come on, I said! The sun will be down in less than an hour.”
Some of The Rabble thereupon broke up behind The Jackal, but he remained staring at The Hoarder from beneath the brows of a hanging head.
“We can make at least one shack functional before dark,” sighed Hoarder with a distasteful twitch of the mouth. “Just remember: we can take it back down in a lot less time.”
The optimists of the group—the women, the Preacher, the car dealer Mr. Salinas (now called Salivate by the sailors, partly in mockery of his profession, more in acknowledgment of his wife’s visual impact), and also a few of the sailors themselves—thought that something had been settled that afternoon. And so it had… but not in such a way as any optimist would have liked. Relations between the two primary coteries appeared to grow genial for a few days, yet the appearance so plainly cloaked an opposing reality that only a true child or a child at heart could have failed to harbor misgivings. The Rabble kept very tightly to their three reconstructed huts during the night; and during the day, they stayed out longer than ever, bringing home less and less game at dusk. The lookouts reported to their parents seeing much rustle and bustle under the forest canopy spread at their feet—the kind of thing that would surely have scared even the tamest bird or pig away; the sailors, they claimed, often emerged in twos and threes from the scene of the racket carrying brush. Soucamp, who grew more marginal with each passing week, had taken to wandering about rather aimlessly from village to thicket to high cliff, always alone now and seldom willing to share his thoughts. Yet he did confide a useful discovery to The Suits one evening before their rivals came traipsing home: The Rabble were trying to construct their own village in a far corner of the island.
“Good riddance!” laughed Numbers, and everyone agreed with him.
They had overlooked one critical point of vulnerability, however: the lookouts. Their children.
Less than a week later, the sailors failed to return as the sun drew low to the sea’s eternally smooth rim. Before any of the villagers had a chance to celebrate, Stamps the postal worker’s boy came sprinting in from the direction of the high rocks.
“Cesar’s not there!” he shouted excitedly. “I went up to relieve him, but he’s not anywhere. No, he didn’t fall. There’s no place to fall there—Mr. Suckup showed us just where to stay. It’s not dangerous. I guess he just wandered off. But he’s not supposed to go anywhere until I show up. I yelled my lungs out. I’m surprised you guys didn’t hear me from here.”
Mr. Salinas was not unduly agitated. He shrugged, and soothed his wife with something about boys being boys. Hoarder and a few others were less pacified, however. They didn’t exchange any words where the boy’s mother—who was alarmed not only by the lookout point’s height, but by the approach of darkness—could overhear; but among themselves, they prepared to send out a search party. Hoarder devised a plan for them to obtain their weapons discreetly. As was always the case with him, he smelled Jackal behind the crisis.
On this occasion, he was not wrong. Before the party could slip out of the village, a man called Cards strolled in, waving his hands and making cheerful hails as if he feared being shot down in the dusk. His birth name—Des Cartes— had long ago been distorted by his shipmates: he had not endured, like so many others, a sea change of derogatory christening on the island in response, say, to a propensity for card games. It was often repeated with savory irony, in fact, that he had an aversion to games of chance. He had never exactly been one of The Rabble, but neither had he been entirely faithful to Soucamp. None of the castaways could readily have said just where he had passed most of his time during the months that they had now all been thrown together.
As a group formed around him, Cards began, “The boy’s okay. Not to worry, Missus. He’s with the hunting party. He took up with them on his way back in. They had a big boar—first of its kind that they’ve caught, a great big beast. Going to be a real feast tonight, I reckon. It was too heavy to carry all the way back here, so they’re all going to spend the night up the ravine. The boy’s staying as their guest. Ah, he’ll have the time of his life! He and Popper are great friends, you know. Didn’t you know that?”
The man’s tone was as calming as his words, and he possessed the kind of broad blond smile that inspires instant trust and liking. Those who had furtively gathered for the search dissolved just as furtively, without a word or look from Hoarder, and made for the campfire. Only Hoarder himself remained behind, at the newcomer’s side. Cards made no attempt to leave him.
“We have to talk,” he whispered.
On the excuse of going after some ripe gourds that Cards had spotted on the way in before the hogs could devour them by night, the two men retreated until the fire’s blaze was a near star.
“It’s Mrs. Salinas,” resumed Cards. “The men want her. Or someone else…” And he hung his head in the shadows, for the stockbroker’s own wife was the stateliest beauty on the island. “They say it’s not fair that you all have women and they don’t. They say it’s been months now, and… and that they need a woman. They figure maybe she’ll come for her son—that she’ll do what it takes. If not her, then someone else.”
“And so they are, sir. So they are. What can you expect? They’re common seamen. Rough characters. This was bound to happen, sooner or later. And, you know… in a way, you can’t really blame them. I mean, it isn’t fair, it really isn’t. In a manner of speaking. Blame God for making men to need a woman… but that’s how they are.”
“How they are? What about you? Why are you here—what do you expect to get out of this?”
“Me, sir… I just want off this island. And I know we’re never going to leave alive if things keep on this way. We’ve got to find a way to get along. Mr. Soucamp, you can see that he’s no help. This isn’t going away, sir—it isn’t. It won’t.”
“It will. I can make it.”
“Can you, sir? Are you quite sure that you can best them? Because if you try, and you fail…. Well, one thing’s for sure: there’ll be no more lookouts. Both sides will be mindful of keeping their full numbers together. And you certainly can’t send the children back up there. If they can’t get women… then…”
“God dammit! Do you mean…”
“Oh, the boy’s fine, sir. Believe me, he’s fine… for tonight. But there’ll be no more lookouts after this, and no more wandering about for the children at all. That’s your special weakness, sir—your Achilles heel. Your lot has the kids to look after. The others, they’ve got nothing like that hanging around their neck. And Jackal… he’s got his eye on that red-haired orphan girl, the one they call Rasp. Has from the beginning—doesn’t even care about the… about Mrs. Salinas. So you see how really bad this could get. And with no lookouts… well, how are we ever going to get found without lookouts?”
Hoarder’s dark figure mumbled a gruff assent, and the two rejoined the evening feast. The fire’s embers were still bright, however, when a detail of men surrounded Cards, escorted him to his hut, and bound him to a stake.
“Sorry for the discomfort,” said Hoarder’s voice. “You seem to be a halfway decent fellow. But we can’t take any chance on your skipping out before dawn.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Cards calmly. “You don’t even know where they’re camped, and you’ll never see where you’re going without a moon.”
“We’ve a pretty good idea where they are—good enough. We just have to get close, and then wait for dawn. I don’t have that bunch figured for early risers. We’ll send them all to meet their maker before a one of them gets to his feet.”
“What if you need their skills later on? “
“What skills? Goldbricks, the lot of them. The only reason they made it off the ship was because they were smoking weed under the launch’s tarp.”
“Is that you, Mr. Soucamp? Are you turning against them, too?”
“They’re mutineers. They deserve to die.”
“And now that they’ve set their sights on our women and children, they’re going to die,” growled another voice.
But the attack did not fall out as planned. Though Soucamp knew precisely how to find the rebel camp by day, navigation by night through the tropical undergrowth proved almost impossible, particularly since they were trying to proceed noiselessly. The nocturnal activity of the wild pigs somewhat covered their own thrashing, but points of reference were simply too muddled in the mist-filtered starlight. By the time dawn began to gray the treetops, they realized that the island’s central peak was not where it should have been; and by the time they had shifted themselves a mile or so farther toward the pass in the escarpment, the pigs had long since stopped rummaging and grunting. The leafy underbrush must surely have alerted The Rabble well in advance. As the invaders studied the new-made huts from behind ferns and tendrils, they could see masses beneath crude blankets woven of branches, but nothing as clear in the growing light as a protruding hand or foot.
“It’s not right,” whispered Soucamp. “Not one of those bodies has moved in ten minutes. They’ve dummied their bedrolls, is what they’ve done. It’s a trap.”
“A trap, all right,” agreed Hoarder. “They’re waiting for us to walk into the clearing so they can let loose with their arrows.”
The sun had fully rolled its way over a verdant eastern ridge, about an hour later, when Jackal’s tremulous voice echoed through the ravine.
“What are you going to do, Hoarder? It didn’t work, and we still have the boy! You know what we want. Have you got her with you?”
“Go bugger a pig, you whiney little bitch!”
“Is that you, Señor Saliva? I don’t really want your chiquita—she’s for the rest of the boys. I’ve got my eye on someone else. Or maybe we could work out a deal. What about Walrus’s widow, for starters? None of you will miss her. And Hairy-man’s certainly not doing his old lady—not with his little problem,”
“Come out,” screamed Harrimon, “and I’ve got something that’ll do your ass!”
“I want Lady Saliva—no deal without her!” boomed a very near voice, its owner stupidly giving away his prize position in a tree.
“Shut up, all of you!” shouted Hoarder. “No women, Jackal, and give us back the boy.”
“Ah, still and ever the hoarder,” mocked Jackal. “Still thinking in them same selfish terms, when sharing is the only way. How many pieces do you want the boy back in? Go ahead, lad—call to your father. Tell him, ‘Daddy, dear, they’re about to lop off me fingers!’”
Hoarder clapped a strong hand onto Mr. Salinas’s shoulder. Then he shouted again, but in lower, steadier tones.
“Jackal, you listen to me. I promise you, if that boy’s hurt, you all die. All of you. Or else we all die trying to kill all of you. But if more of us live and it comes down to five against three, then all three die. All of you. Just be sure you know what you’re buying.”
The words induced a silence of a new order. A crane could be heard from the distant marshes on the island’s southwestern drop-off, where the one steady stream petered out.
At last, with bow slung over his shoulder, a figure appeared from behind the largest hut. He leaned against a post and advertised himself in mock-bravery, for everyone knew that The Suits had only close-range weapons. It was a seaman called Sharky. His voice was much richer than Jackal’s—more quiet and business-like.
“We want something for our troubles,” he announced. “You want the boy, you can have him—shut up, Jackal! We’re not animals. But we’re not saints or virgins, neither. We can talk about the women later. The way I figure it, some of them already want to come over. I’d almost talked mine around when these sorry buggers went and pulled this stupid stunt. I’m a feminist, I am! I say let the women be their own boss and choose for themselves.”
“So what exactly is it you want?” returned Hoarder, lifting his shield defensively against the near tree as he stood up.
“Well, why don’t you help us with that? What have you got? Hairy-man’s wife was wearing a nice bit of jewelry when we was all in the launch. All of you gents have gold weddin’ rings, I notice. We won’t be on this island forever. I for one would like to leave a little richer than I came. Like the man says, you lot all got your retirement accounts and investment portfolios and such. How fair is that, when you got all the women, too? We ain’t all got to have the same stuff. It’s not possible—God didn’t make us all the same. But we can all have an equal share of stuff, now can’t we?”
The upshot of this exchange was that The Rabble became rather wealthy overnight—or over the course of a single day, to be exact. If anything, The Suits gave too readily and generously of their possessions. The womenfolk believed almost to a person that eager compliance would win their adversaries’ hearts and keep their children safe. They kept back very little. The men (or at least all who had gone on the “expedition”) were extremely reluctant to slide rings off their fingers and watches off their wrists: a few urged the position that they wipe out all of The Rabble in a surprise attack right after the exchange. The shrieks of mothers, however, and the principled disdain of the women generally for their precious stones (only Mrs. Walton—“Walrus’s widow”—insisted on keeping a gift from her deceased husband) eventually proved infectious. The Rabble were presented at midday with a heavy haul in one of Hoarder’s remaining suitcases; Cesar was released, dazed but unharmed; and Sharky actually threw in the rump of the huge boar they had brought down “in a gesture of good will,” as he grandly styled it.
Yet whatever good will may once have grown on the island was now permanently out of season. The Rabble remained in their separate encampment, while The Suits occupied the primitive village closer to the coastline. The former ate more meat than the latter but ate rather less often; the urban castaways continued to draw on their steady supply of fruits and fish. Both found ways to replenish their fresh water daily, though for The Suits, this chore was more challenging. The water detail included several older children, since the village must not be left mostly or wholly without adult males at any time. The armed escort of half a dozen men might have been sorely pressed if all the sailors had attacked at once. For weeks, however, The Rabble manifested no taste for confrontation, whether because none of them thought the possible benefits worth the risk of his life or because no good plan suggested itself. Their bows and arrows were not effective except at very close range, and the density of the underbrush would not allow them to creep up on any sort of target without giving themselves away. Most of their game, in fact, had been snared or netted.
Furthermore, the sailors were themselves distracted by the business of keeping lookout. Cards (the only one who could move freely back and forth now between the two groups) had impressed upon them the vital importance of keeping constant watch out to sea, and also explained—with comradely reproach—that they had effectively rendered it impossible for The Suits to lend a hand at the task. Besides (he added), this was certainly one chore at which sailors were infinitely more apt than land-lubbers. The reasoning behind these observations was unimpeachable: thus three members of The Rabble were now always standing watch on three of the island’s highest vantages.
As necessary as this arrangement surely was, however, it also fed into a catastrophe every bit as bad, in its scaled-down way, as the original explosion onboard the ocean liner. Cards had himself prophesied correctly during his shadowy conference with Hoarder; but perhaps he had forgotten his own clairvoyance of that moment, or perhaps there was simply no way of avoiding the danger. Inherent in the office of lookout is a clear line of sight all about one’s appointed quarter. The island’s high points offered a view not only of the smoldering, brazen sea, but also of the shoreline; and at a certain well-fitted point along the shore—since inland streams were now off limits for such functions—the women bathed every day.
Different women had different times, but each had a set time and all used the same placid cove, day after day. Unhappily, Mrs. Salinas and Hoarder’s wife had chosen the same slot, along with two younger girls—and, of course, with absolutely no males anywhere in attendance. For to have men eying their naked bodies from the shore would have created an insurmountable awkwardness in a community as small and tightly knit as theirs.
The fatal hour was at mid-morning—a warm, peaceful time preceding the sun’s merciless vault to the zenith. The orphan girl whom the sailors called Rasp was half-heartedly teaching a younger child his figures, drawing addition and subtraction problems in the sand. The uproar that invaded her daydream was reminiscent of that deadly nightmare onboard the ship. Male voices fired off in single syllables, their reports as sudden, loud, and dry as gunshots. From where she sprawled between the village and the beach, she saw bodies scurrying in what briefly seemed a chaotic fashion: male and female forms alike—every human being in the camp. Then, amid the clank and crack of heavy implements beings seized rudely and borne away at breakneck speed, the frantic mass flowed in a single direction. It was like the rush to the lifeboats, only in broad daylight—so like it that one sequence superimposed itself upon the other, and she sat spellbound long after the furious bustle dissolved into distant shouts and screams, far from her physical line of sight.
A movement right beside her broke the spell. She expected to look around and see her little pupil, but he was nowhere to be found. Instead, gnarled bare feet and a pair of pigskin leggings, and… high up, right up against the sunlight, the man they called Jackal. It was he who had dubbed her “Rasp” back in the launch, as they drifted day after day. Others thought it was because of her red hair—that he had “raspberry” in mind because of her rusty tresses and freckled complexion, which could give a deep red blush upon provocation. But he had said something to her—not to the others, only to her, one clammy night in that open boat—about a tool that grates back and forth and opens a hole. The black oval that was his face against a steel sky showed yellow teeth that glistened in their own water.
Some instinct told her that to have a chance at running, she must fix her eyes upon that face and rise very, very slowly. This she did, forcing her jaw to stay shut tight over a scream, breathing heavily through her nose. And then she bolted. She cleared the strand in no time, and could already hear the heavy leggings falling behind her. Yet once she entered the undergrowth, thorns cut her bare shins and vines held back her ankles. Now the thrash of the leggings was distinctly gaining ground. Her only chance was to find more open space. This led her to the smooth boulders and bald slopes winding up to the nearest lookout tower. Would another man be waiting up there? She had no choice but to press on. The panting behind her was growing more distant again as her nimble young body writhed up the most grudging of footholds, and she knew she was opening up a wide gap. If she arrived at the peak with a moment to spare, she could perhaps snatch just a free instant or two and adjust her flight.
The lookout point was empty—Jackal had probably left that very post. She made the ruinous mistake, however, of testing out its far side. The drop to the sea was more sloping than severe for several dozen yards—but there were no footholds near the cliff, and nothing would have awaited her at the bottom but jagged rock and thrashing surf. Already, as soon as she turned back, Jackal stood between her and an escape farther inland.
“I love to watch you when you run!” he panted. “Your legs are so long and slender… and so white. Those lovely, lovely legs!”
He needed only to push her gently. Her knees gave out at once, and she lay flat on her back. One short stride… and he stood straight over her, his bare feet separating her bare ankles.
“Not here,” she said intensely—not sobbing or shaking, but intent with a power that shocked her. “Someone could see. Please… take me behind that bush.”
He laughed noiselessly, and nodded. “Smart girl! I like a smart girl!”
There was no window of escape anywhere in the short transit, nor had she expected any. He grabbed her firmly by the shoulder before she was properly on her feet and pointed her like a spear for the shrub’s frail shadow, then thrust her gently but firmly down again, allowing her free hand and splaying legs to catch her fall. He seemed, indeed, to pause over the action of the legs.
Then he dropped the leggings to his ankles. It was then that she scissored her legs together and sent him sprawling.
The drop-off behind the bush was too mild to send him into more than a roll or two. She had never imagined that he might go all the way to the bottom, but only that his tumble would give her another chance at flight. The dead limb had simply appeared from nowhere, nonsensically. One of the boys must have dragged it there, beside the bush, to provide a raised seat. She watched the energetic stranger who had become herself heft the log, find it too heavy to lift completely, yet rotate it toward his rising figure and flip it sidewise at him. He smiled that watery smile again and reached down to fling the limb aside. As he did so, however, his leggings dropped back down to the ankles, and he lost his footing once more. This time, since his head was pointed straight down the slope, he slid easily on his bare buttocks, and his bound heels would not thrust out to slow his descent. At some point down the slope, just a few feet before he left the wispy grass and shale for thin air, the warped log sprang spectacularly aloft and came down on his skull like a club.
She eased down the bald slope at a safer point and found his body spread far below on a wet boulder, like a basking starfish. The white surf drew red ribbons from it while rushing in, but quickly purged itself in a contrary rush back out to sea. As she watched, the foam ate higher and higher around the limp corpse.
The girl’s breathing slowly subsided: she felt her pulse dropping from one second to the next. She was not going to be sick, and she was not going to break into sobs or shivers. She hadn’t done so the night she lost her parents—why should she do so now, at the death of this animal?
Instead, she allowed her peace to return in a kind of luxury. She filled her eyes with the sight of the wide ocean, turning her shoulders so that the sun hit them squarely. She found things to love and admire in the inhuman world. Though she knew that some life-or-death struggle was also raging far below, beyond sight and sound, she took no interest at all in it. Instead, as the sun began to grow very high and very hot, she lay face-down beside the bush, finding a thin gray shade for her head but continuing to bathe her spine in gentle solar waves. She decided that this would be her special place from now on—that if everyone were dead below, she would build a shelter up here, and that if a few were still alive, she would nevertheless stake her claim to this spot and surround herself with weapons or projectiles to keep others at bay. And with that thought, she dozed off.
She had not exactly meant to sleep, though she had not fought against it, either. When she awoke, afternoon was already veering into evening. She realized with sudden urgency that she absolutely had to reconnoiter below. There were children—four were under the age of ten.
She eased herself down the slope as quietly as possible. A rustle in the brush startled her, but it was only a small bird taking flight. Near the strand, she discovered a spear thrust firmly erect among the sand hills. It must have been Jackal’s. She needed both hands to dislodge it, but it traveled lightly on her shoulder as she proceeded.
Two of the young children were clinging to each other next to the village’s cold campfire, as if waiting for it to self-ignite and produce food-bearing adults. She studied their wide, silent eyes and decided against asking any questions. She ran her fingers through the hair of one and then pressed forward.
The scene in the cove might have been the main exhibit of a wax museum. At least half a dozen fallen bodies lay in various states of contortion along the damp, warm beach. A spear much like her own projected dramatically from the chest of one, but most of the others were slumped in positions that would have hidden their wounds but for welling blood stains in the sand. She was more shocked, oddly enough, to see so many bodies sitting upright yet as still as death. She almost tripped over Mrs. Hoarder. (For some reason, she tried to recollect the woman’s real name, but could no longer do so.) The sea breeze blew rich sheaves of golden hair back from the statuesque forehead—whose left side, however, was shockingly marred by a blue knob over the brow. The eyes never blinked in their study of some far horizon. The chiseled nose and chin and the parted lips completed the marble profile of a goddess. In her lap she cupped Hoarder’s head, one hand thrust into his hair and the other folded protectively over his left cheek. His pale shirt scarcely twitched in the breeze around the thick red paste that brilliantly circled his chest.
As she moved on, she noticed that Mrs. Hoarder was naked.
A ring of men slumped with little more animation near the surf. Only the man called Cards was standing. Three sailors huddled on one side, two of them looking hardly older than herself and trembling as if the offshore wind were an icy blast. On the other side, a bit stiffer—some of them raised on a knee—were five men from her camp. She didn’t even try to make them out: running her eyes over their faces produced no echoes in her memory, and she turned away as if she had seen flies working madly in a carcass.
Farther along the strand, she now heard the regular sobbing of Mrs. Salinas’s voice. She realized that she had been hearing it the whole while but had mistaken it for a sea bird. Other female forms, these clothed (she could make out the bare lower half of Mrs. Salinas), huddled around her. Through some form of identification that she couldn’t have explained, she also knew that Mr. Salinas lay dead in the group’s midst. Something about the sound of the sobs…
Away from the strand, crouched on a ridge where the tropical thicket began, sat Officer Suckup. She had at first taken him for a stone.
The waters of the cove splashed with something more than the gentle roll of surf. Gray figures appeared on the silver-gray surface. One of them lurched along heavily like a sea god emerging in ire. It was Preacher, dragging a large burden behind him. The other figure was closer to shore and never offered to lend a hand.
The ring of men turned listlessly and studied the action from their miles of inner distance. Only Cards said anything as Preacher hauled his catch fully ashore—by the leg; for he was towing a corpse.
“Jackal!” sighed Cards. “Now where did he come from?”
Preacher, saying nothing, proceeded to unlace the pigskin leggings with care.
“Ol’ Jackal always was a good hand with a needle,” piped the following figure with utterly discordant cheeriness. “Just about the only thing he were ever any good at, even a bit.”
And the figure—the sailor they called Sharky—snatched the leggings from Preacher, who had been thoroughly wringing them out, then pushed the thinner man out of his way as one might have tossed a hanger aside after lifting a pair of pants from it.
“I did more to get these skins than he ever did,” continued Sharky conversationally, to no one in particular. “But because he could stitch, he reckoned he’d have the leggins’ for himself. Said you can’t give a tenth of a pant to ten men—and I suppose he was right, as far as that goes. But he were a selfish bastard, all the same. He—”
Sharky snorted oddly, his eyes bulged like some witless sea creature’s—very like a shark’s, in fact—and a point darted out from between his bare ribs for an instant. His buttonless, flapping shirt had already caught on the spot and was sticking tightly as ragged red lines ran across it, yet still he stood. He gaped wider and wider: a flickering tongue lolled out.
Then, at last, he fell. During his headlong tumble, Preacher snatched the leggings back out of his arms. He kept them tidily separated from a tainted stake—probably a spit from the campfire—which he turned to rinse in the surf.
The young sailors cringed a little lower, and Cards watched in bewilderment. He did more than watch: he studied. His head cocked, and his eyes darted from one image to another as if assessing a column of numerals in need of adding. The body at his feet twitching in its final paroxysm… the half-clad corpse of Jackal already washing back out to sea… Preacher’s slow, steady stride inland, the stake now neatly housed in his belt like a dagger… and the girl Rasp, returning his gaze from the group’s far side. He glanced quickly over his shoulder at Jackal’s disappearing corpse and back again. The girl didn’t nod, or even hang her head.
“I’m going back up to watch,” she said. “Can you feed the children?”
His eyelids fluttered, consenting to the flicker of shame that they had sought in vain from her.
“Yes, I… yes. I can at least do that.”
A frequent contributor to these pages for years, Ivor Davies has for the first time sought a setting outside of the academic world in this issue. He confides that “Equality Island” is his answer to Occupy Wall Street, however–so the departure is more apparent than real. Mr. Davies lives in the Atlanta area with his family and teaches at several institutions.