The dinghy moored itself at the shoreline of the tiny bright island without sound or ceremony. The boy simply stepped out, shook his wet head like a puppy in suburban sprinklers, and sat in the white sand to remove his sodden loafers. The journey had begun in the still-dark morning, amongst ill-tempered waves, but it had become quite pleasant by the time the dingy approached the isle.
When he looked in either direction, the boy could see the beach curve a few hundred meters along. It was unlike the seemingly endless Coast he’d visited earlier that summer, and he surmised that the island was very small. He had read a great many books, which had contributed to his problems, and surveyed a number of maps within those books, but could not readily identify the isle. The ship had been headed toward Saint Lucia, so he imagined he must be somewhere between Guadeloupe and La Desirade. Between Mary and Desire he was, as many a solitary young man might find himself. He retrieved the pillowcase from his vessel and placed its contents in a neat row aligned with his shoes: one corkscrew with a small folding knife meant for cutting a bottle’s foil, two glass bottles of spring water, a half-full canister of vitamin pills, a peanut tin containing three matchbooks embossed with Stella Maris (the ship’s name), a large spool of twine taken from the galley, and a silver comb engraved with the initials S.T.A. There was also a navy-and-cream-stripe wool blanket, too large to fit in the pillowcase, which he dutifully unfolded and spread to dry with the other items. Also, two oars.
His bare feet were as pale as the sand itself, but the heat radiated up through his soles and rose and dispersed through him like a nip of brandy. It was a sensation he’d encountered in his youth as part of a dietary reliance on discarded pearl onions, maraschino cherries, and pitted olives. At age six, however, he’d read that the most efficient daily diet consisted of eight open-faced peanut butter sandwiches, four glasses of whole milk, and a vitamin pill. And, the busy cook had happily supplied his request for this menu for the past five years. This solution may have come a year too late as, before age five, his temples turned silver-gray. This could have been attributed to undue stress or genetics, but most likely resulted from mineral deficiency associated with eating cocktail picks. Though the premature gray was an uncanny coincidence to the boy’s given name, Sterling, it was his new distinguished appearance which gave way to the nickname “Senator.” It was an adorable moniker for an earnest tot. Now 11, still earnest, he was through with it.
Now, until and unless he encountered someone else, he could choose any name or none for himself and the archipelago. Beyond the beach, the sea was an impossible blue. Inland, the flora and fauna were a riot of color. His mind tried to reconcile the delicate botanical plates from his library with the abundant fluttering and fragrant species. Having drunk a half-bottle of spring water and taken his daily vitamin, he removed his Topsiders from the line of items, reshod, and proceeded to explore. He recognized a large number of birds, including herons, sugarbirds, colibris, yellow-bellied bananaquit, and a rare type of wren he believed was last documented in 1914. Butterflies, beetles, and tiny lizards emerged at the lightest touch of a waxy leaf or bold bloom. The deeper into the tropical brush he walked, the steeper the climb seemed to be. The boy considered that the island might be an active volcano – though exquisite, uninhabited for good reason. He followed the sounds of the Coereba flaveola (banaquit), which were taking joy in piercing citrus fruit with their slender, curved bills, and discovered another delight: a waterfall which tumbled and effervesced through the lush vegetation all the way to the smallest of sandy coves where it rejoined the sea. He cupped his hands and drank. Then, following the satisfied local birds, he selected several of the remarkably-hued fruits and perched on a rock to eat.
Having left his foil-cutter on the sand, he passed on the spiky jackfruit and chataigne, on the thick-skinned barbadine and melon, choosing instead fruits he could score with his thumbnail. A fallen squat banana proved to be the consistency of his missing peanut butter. It was sufficient, he thought, if not exotic. The boy bit into what appeared to be an apple, though a bit more heart-shaped and ruddy pink, to find the flesh as sweet and smooth as custard – for he had on occasion eaten holiday meals with his parents when home. There grew fruits he’d known only as highball garnishes: coconut, mango, and lime; those from Christmas stockings: tangerines, plump apricots, and pomegranates; and more from the plates of the leather-bound volumes: star-shaped carambola hanging among fragrant blossoms, the reptile-like spiny pale-green sour sop, and the preferable artichoke-shaped sweet sop which was plump with pudding-sweet pulp and little black seeds. He recalled the inked cross-section of these, the archival paper and precise labels, and felt his first pang of longing for the library. There were several thousand leather-bound volumes still unread.
Around age four he’d begun at the shelves in the east corner and even then had found no rhyme nor reason to their cataloguing. He harbored a suspicion that the books had not only been purchased by pound or by linear meter, but also that they were shelved only by the color of their leather covers. This gave the boy the distinct advantage of learning about a wide range of subjects without ever exhausting one. For Keats in cordovan binding was in a different section than Keats in cobalt, and the Native Plants of the Caribbean held no close geography to any other volume regarding that part of the world. His father took his brandy and selected pages of the daily in the library, but with the exception of his mother’s holiday obligation to Dickens – a gilded red cover on the second shelf near the window seat – he had read in comfortable solitude. At parties, he was expected to recite “Ode to Melancholy” or “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” or to provide some other small act of prodigy. Neither his parents had seemed to care that the French word for pomegranate was “grenade” due to the fruit’s jeweled seeds resemblance to shrapnel. His silvered-hair and small stature transformed the recitation of facts just such as this into a party trick.
The boy clambered back to the beach where his possessions remained aligned and untouched. He placed the corkscrew in his trouser pocket and proceeded to unwind the spool of twine, tie a triple line between two date trees, and halve the wool blanket over the line to create a simple tent. A mongoose family scaled the date tree, curious and watchful. The boy named the large one Rico, the smaller two Archer and Victor, for it was his island and things could have names or not at his own discretion.
At dusk, he built a fire with the fallen fronds. At night, the sky and sea were each so clear it was impossible to see where one ended and the other began. The boy did not see this effect. After much rowing and exploring and exuberant consumption of fruit, he’d finally succumbed to sleep. He was awoken many hours later, arms sore but otherwise hale, by the scurry of a great magenta crab across one bare foot. The isle was full of wonders fatal and benign. While his bibliologic voracity provided him with an advantage on most things animal, mineral, and vegetable, there were certain attractions unique to the island, items which most certainly had not been catalogued. An ornamental tree, nine meters high, was rich with ruby fruit which burst open on its own accord when ripe to reveal three large seeds and creamy yellow pulp. He could not know that these were also rife with toxicity if eaten before full maturity. And, there were unfamiliar fishes in the cove, swimming so slowly and in such proximity to the surface as to be suicidal. These were sleek at first glance, but cached four rows of exquisite teeth. Briefly, the boy himself considered what he did not know, and decided there was no other way to study it than by the practical application.
The boy breakfasted on sea grapes and sorrel and a type of purple-red plum. He chewed thoughtfully on a length of sugar cane he’d found in a small thatch of the stuff on the northerly side. The sugar sustained his climb to the center of the island, where he choose the highest tree at its highest point and scaled it like a slender mongoose. At first, the ocean appeared brilliant and uninterrupted all around him. And then, on the edge of his field of vision, the archipelagic reality began to emerge. Other green islands were visible, other boats nearing their shores, white and geometric against the undulating blue.
This is my island, he insisted with the dramatic conviction of the young. I’ll live here forever. And on this point he was true.
For although one of the white ships was indeed his Stella Maris, its occupants had already ceased searching for their missing passenger. In the clear waters of Marie-Galante had been found a capsized dinghy and the body of a young man with unmistakable temples of grey. His parents, having not understood Senator much in the decade or so they’d shared, could not possibly conceive of his eternal adventures enjoying the fruits of an island of his own.
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