A Picnic with Darwin.
I tried to make myself scarce, scurrying across the deck to make for the kitchens. There would be work there for sure and the cook would not allow anyone to prevent his galley from perfection. It was too late that it occurred to me I was heading in the most convenient direction possible to be chosen. It was the first mate spied me. He had been gunning for me since before we docked at Montevideo and I had walked in on him drunk with quartermaster. They were singing and in a state of undress, now his only wish was for me to disappear and be away from speaking his name to the crew. The truth be that I had never said to another soul what I had seen. I had heard stories before of men taking to one another in strange ways on voyages and it had kept me laying awake at night. Now I saw him smile at placing me in a position of dissatisfaction.
“Mister Isaacs! We have a task for you. Hold boy!”
After receiving specific instructions on Darwin’s preferred meal, (and spending a few moments below cursing the day I had ever walked in on that infernal officer,) I made my way to cook. In the middle of preparing the evening meal for the officers, he was angry enough to start throwing insults my way. I took stock of them, if only to learn new ways in which I would be able to insult those I had power over one day and smiled as best I could at the colourful torrent. Cook was not a bad man, just a fat man with little energy for anything beyond his duties. Fitzroy liked him and his imaginative talents at the table, but his opinions had sometimes cost him dearly. Only two weeks ago his comments in front of an officer had him reprimanded severely and deprived of his drinking rations. This added to the venom that he poured my way.
The food was packed a little too quickly. The meat I saw did not look in its prime and in the afternoon heat, I knew it would not stay good for long. I would have to run as if the devil were at my heels to feed Darwin without poisoning him. Cooks wry smile said it all as he slammed the food into the wicker basket for me to carry. I took it without a word back. Turning away before my face could betray the sneer of resentment I held. I was up on the deck and into the boat before I could properly take size of the challenge I had been set. Feed Darwin before the meat went bad, travel slow enough not to anger Martens, bring them back in time for the evening meal with the captain, not so soon as to be seen as a challenge to the officers and midshipmen, not so late as to be seen as dereliction of duty by Fitzroy and to give ammunition to my nemesis. Today was a challenge. As I sat in the boat watching the men row, I closed my eyes and dreamed of Rio. Girls on the harbour wall. Music in the streets. Fresh sweet fruits I never knew the names of.
The sand in the bay looked soft and white like sugar but it burned my feet through the flimsy sandals as I ran to the rocks. The basket was heavier than I had expected and I was also carrying a satchel of brushes and inks. Martens struggled to carry the easel, the sand making every step an exaggeration. By the time we reached to ragged basalt rocks that marked the end of the beach, I was breathing heavy and sweating like a heathen. Luck was on my side. Martens was not too far behind me and from here I could make out the path DeLanda had taken. Sea birds called to us as we rounded the rocky headland to see footprints in the mud. It was deep and sticky and we edged around it following the path marked out. No wonder DeLanda was exhausted. Even in the sea wind, the heat was unbearable. Flies darted around our heads, harrying Martens in his white trousers and thick shirt. I paid them no attention but they slowed him to a stop at one point. I spent precious minutes shading the basket from the sun and the flies while he dabbed at his neck with a handkerchief. His eyes were beginning to reveal that my pace was too much, so I feigned fatigue and waited until he was ready. I hoped heavily that the meat would be fine.
By the time Martens was ready to move on it was rapidly approaching half past one. Darwin could have stopped anywhere on this coastline, he could still be moving. Why they couldn’t have taken a boat to meet him he couldn’t understand? Perhaps it was Fitzroy’s way of discouraging too many of these forays into the islands. As we moved tentatively across the flats, I noticed that there were cliffs ahead. Boobies swooped and circled the topmost parts of the cliffs, which meant more discomfort. They hated intruders and would dive at us as we approached. By the look on Martens face, I could see he was thinking the same thing. We both started to look for a way inland to get over or around the back of the cliffs and avoid them.
Martens had spotted what looked like a small cave entrance on the down slope of the cliffs. We headed inland towards it and luck brought us to an archway which led through and behind the cliff tops. As we emerged there was a calmness about the valley and more luck again, perched on a large boulder was Darwin. Martens said it first, the thanks offered to the lord, so I smiled and nodded. He now took back his position of authority which he had seemingly deferred to me during our romp across the flats. We walked slowly now. Here in the shade, the air was cooler. There were no birds, only Lizards, insects and flowers. Still the air was thick with moisture making our clothes sticky and uncomfortable. This seemed not to affect our host. He sat unaffected by our arrival watching something in the pools at his feet.
Martens spoke woodenly and without conviction, “Master Fitzroy sends his compliments and something for your sustenance Master Darwin. He invites you again to join him at the captain’s table tonight. Will I send a reply?” I tried to mask the hopelessness of the situation as best I could. I was no diplomat, no negotiator. I was 18 years and no more. How would I know how to stir a man from his work whose only interest was the bugs that skated on the surface of a pool? I looked down at them while Darwin struggled with the words, forming his own response and trying not to take his mind from the sketch he was drawing. “Martens, do you notice anything about the flies in this pond? Come closer man and have a look. Do you notice how their wings are shorter than the ones we found in the southern valley?”
I sighed. I knew this was the way. Martens would not broach the question again. I would be expected to wait patiently until they were both finished talking. I took to unwrapping the food I had brought. It only then occurred that I had eaten nothing since before the sun had risen. I had been hungry before and unless offered I could not take anything. Still judging from the silver tinge of the salted beef packed by cook, I was really not that interested. Perhaps there would be a slice of cornbread left over. Laying it out on the rocks, I stood back and waited for the two men to return to the world. They were craning over the pool from the rock, neither aware of the food I had left.
After a quarter-hour, they finally stepped down from the rocks and began to share the food. As I suspected, they passed on the meat, instead taking all the cheese and bread. At finish Martens tossed me an apple and thanked me for the service although I had heard Darwin grumble about the meat. Martens bid me clear away the things now and be quiet as they talked. They walked leisurely back to the pool where Martens began to set up his easel. Darwin was an intense man, always gesticulating his arms and pulling excited expressions. Martens would listen with his hands behind his back, nodding at times and then return to his work. I finished my apple and threw the remains of the meal back into the basket, leaving the beef among the grasses for some creature to find later. As there was no need for me at present, I took a stroll around the small valley, deciding to explore the other pools.
There were over twenty different pools in the valley, all caused, (I suspected,) by some kind of melting of the land at some point. Each one carried a slightly different hint of green and blue, but none of them gave any indication of depth. I noticed a large pool at the end of the valley, on the far side were strange lizards bathing in the rays of sunlight that crept over the jagged walls of the valley. Soon the sun would drop and the air would start to cool. On the boat I knew a man could catch a chill in the sea air, but I had never spent an evening here on land. Lizards swam in the waters of the pool and dried themselves on the rocks at the far side valley wall. I could not walk or climb to them. It was my idea to distract the men with a specimen perhaps unseen and insist that they return it to the boat. I could stress that Darwin was not the designated Naturalist on this voyage forcing his hand but making life difficult in the future. Be damned with these infernal ships politics, all I wanted was to return to the boat and work until the next port.
I removed my sandals and rolled up my trousers. I could see that there was a lip of rock just beneath the water and holding to the rocks on the side, I might make my way across. The pool was greener than the others I had seen and yet it seemed more inviting in this heat. I stepped out and found the water immediately cool and soothing. My feet were refreshed and my troubles relaxed. Carefully, in no panic, I made my way to the far side of the rocks. The lizards were not bothered by my approach. They lay still in the sun, still as stone, grinning in their lizard way. Nearly upon them, I took care to move slowly. There were a choice of three that I could reach and one in particular had caught my eye. It was the spitting image of cook. What a laugh I could cause at his expense and sweet revenge for speaking to me that way. The ugly brute would make a fine skin to trade elsewhere if it were of no interest to the men of science.
It eyed me lazily as I approached it. I had caught pigeons on the streets of Plymouth when I was younger in exactly the same way. Leave them enough doubt and they will watch you to see if you are a threat. Move too quick and they run. Move too slow and they lose interest and fly away. Move just right and they cannot decide, so they just sit and watch until it is too late. Now I was that ten-year old again. Clinging to the rocks with one hand and leaning out across the pool, I raised my left arm slowly out of its line of sight. Still raising my arm, I looked into the Lizards eyes, it turned its head slowly to meet my gaze. It was incredible the likeness to cook. The same squint on one side. The grin that never left even when he was bellowing at you. I was encapsulated in its glare as I slowly placed my hand upon its back.
The name had not been shouted from the men at the far side of the valley but the creature in front of me. It called my name into my face. It glared at me as cook would glare at me and barked my name so sharply that my whole body flinched in panic. Letting go of the rocks, I felt my whole body fall backwards into the air behind me, knowing there was nothing to catch my fall except the water of the pool. I crashed into the water, my call for help stifled by the liquid that filled my mouth. Under the surface, I watched as the bodies of the Lizards swam above me idly making their way down to me. There were tiny hands around me, I could feel them on my clothing pulling gently at me, pulling me down. Exploding through the surface above me came the Lizard, cooks double, still grinning and looking down at me. It dived at me and watched as I sank down. As much as I could struggle, the hands pulled me down, held me tight.
The water was so cooling, so soothing in the heat. I did not seem to mind the tiny teeth that sank into my arms, numbing my body of its desperate pleading for air. Tiny hands wrapped around me, holding me and brushing through my hair. I remembered the girls in Rio. The rum houses by the docks where the women danced, the rooms where I had become a man. I heard the music as I sank and watched the green light from the surface move away from me and looked into the eyes of cook. Now everything was fading away. Everything was becoming darkness. The green light shrank above me and the tiny hands held me tight, refusing to let me go and the girls in Rio were singing songs about boys in the night…
Fitzroy’s Journal 3rd October 1835.
After several days of searching it is my solemn duty to record deck hand Isaacs has been declared missing presumed dead. We have scoured the islands for evidence of his body and can find nothing. On discussion with the ship’s Geologist and Draughtsman who were the last to see the man we can only assume that, having left his duties to the men, he climbed the cliff faces in search of eggs and fell to his death in the waves. The expedition will continue and Isaacs’ wages and belongings have been stowed to be returned to England on completion of the voyage. My condolences will be sent to his Mother and Father in Plymouth on our next port of call.
Additional: Cook Clovis has taken with gout and has been confined to quarters. He will be laid off at next port and new appointment will be made. The men will no longer have the free reign of the rum. Too much has come from easy access and I want no more of it.
This entry was posted on 11/06/2013 by Supernova1987. It was filed under Animals, Contemplation, History, Journeys, Science, Shorts and was tagged with Animals, History, Journeys, Science, Short Stories.