Under the Surface
She doesn’t tell the others what she’s afraid of: a storm hitting when they’re out at sea, waves thrashing over the railing, tossing her across the deck like a stone. Meredith can swim. It’s the sky-like expansiveness of the ocean that makes her knees buckle whenever she thinks she feels the rig lilt, whenever she has to balance her weight across the breadth of her thighs, hands curled tightly around the cold steel of the railing. She wipes at tears, grateful for the wind, her alibi on this seven-day journey, 2100 miles. Because there is a probability of risk, a degree of chance that she could be lost out there forever, and she can’t bear the thought of that. And she can’t tell anyone how she feels, or why.
They’re looking for evidence. Twelve men and women, scientists and adventurists, searching for Amelia Earhart’s plane, or parts of a plane – anything that can be attributed to the pilot and her co-pilot, who went missing seventy-five years ago. The expedition seems impossible, but is grounded in so much logic that Meredith is convinced, along with everybody else, that they’ll find something: something more to add to the bits that have been gathered. Another button, another shoe.
Pacific tides carry them toward the foot-shaped atoll, a ring of coral born when a volcano was swallowed by the sea. The water along the outermost edge is dark because it’s so deep, and the masked reef is treacherous, its western slope bearing remnants of a ship, fastening them in a kind of open grave. Those on deck can see part of the engine and the keel, just enough to evoke some past accident or mistake, just enough to fill their hearts with caution as their own ship makes its way through the channel.
Crates of equipment are lined up in the storeroom, tagged and inventoried.
Hungry eyes stalk the prow.
In all, there have been six expeditions. The last one – Meredith’s first – was three years ago, and since then so much has changed: trees where there weren’t trees, swamp where there wasn’t swamp. But it’s still the island she remembers, still the puzzle and anticipation – all the hard work ahead, the unforgiving heat. A thousand ways to describe the sensation of salt. She steps down off the wooden plank that feeds them onto the shore, and she’s never felt so relieved for gravity, the muscles in her hips and legs, her feet, settling into the sand, her body bearing down on solid ground, finally in control of itself. She swears she can feel the island heave and sigh, as if it hopes they’ve forgotten, or moved on to something else. As if it’s worried they’ll find what they’re looking for. Or worse, never leave.
They hike to their station and unpack, set up camp before nightfall. Then they make their way through lush stands of palms and towering bukas, cut a path through the entangling Scaevola – ten minutes of hacking just to walk twenty feet. She can’t decide whether the island’s flora is meant to deter them or to test them, but once through that thick border of gray-green they come to the center, and there, it’s better than a dream: aquamarine water laps the shore of the lagoon in dips and curves, teases up against the flesh-like sand pocked here and there with broken shells. The very edge of the shore looks like a seam, darker and more defined. A lifted ridge where sand meets sea. One of the better places on the island, she thinks. Not overwhelmed by itself, yet.
“Paradise,” she says.
Krieg, one of the original researchers on the team, plunks down on a piece of driftwood. He wipes his face slowly with a white cloth. “You do realize it will take two of our three allotted weeks just to clear away what we think we need to clear away.”
Meredith doesn’t know him well. She shrugs politely then wades out into the tepid water with the others, who are swimming up to their waists and shoulders in sweaty tanktops and shorts. Like a bale of turtles, perfectly content. She tries, like the rest of them, not to look at him, sitting there with his fixed, unpleasant stare, cataloguing everything they need to accomplish. Equating their mission with finding a single fleck of gold on a beach that is four miles long.
Back home, Meredith teaches high school. Her students are math whizzes and science smarties, accelerated learners who struggle with abstract ideas. They ask her about geographical coordinates and submarinal land masses, about the rates of acceleration and deceleration associated with a Lockheed Electra 10E. For fun, they reconstruct possible crash scenarios and calculate velocities. They imagine what Earhart’s plane might have looked like, torn apart. She’s tried to steer them away from intellectualizing such catastrophes (“She was a person, you know…”). But they’re young, still. Their ability to experience life multi-dimensionally is limited to points and vectors, diagrams fleshed out in pixels on a screen.
Two years ago, genetic testing indicated she’d inherited a harmful mutation of the BRCA1 gene. Doctors told her the correct term was deleterious, which she told her best friend, Maxine, over coffee: “As if they’ll press a button, and that’s it: I’m gone.” She had a 60% chance of developing breast cancer, which her mother died of, as did her mother’s older sister and her aunt, years before. She took the test in 2008, shortly after she’d returned home from the island. At night, the distant traffic sounded like ocean, and her skin still had a briny glow. The genetic counselor, a grandfatherly man with mouthwash breath, said all testing indicated she was at “grave risk” for developing cancer, then went on to explain basic DNA sequencing and probability using fractions and percentages.
“I understand the math,” she said. “Tell me what my options are.”
She decided on a radical approach. They would remove the most susceptible tissue, and in the same procedure, insert saline implants to replace what had been taken out. She’d go into the hospital with her own breasts, and leave with different ones. Fake, false. Manufactured. She still can’t decide what to call them, and will never know if she’d have gotten cancer had she opted not to have the surgery. And of course, she could get cancer anyways.
Equations don’t always give you all the answers, she tells her students. They’re just one way of trying to make sense of the world.
Travis, her current boyfriend, has only ever known the new breasts. He likes to cup them in his hands, feel their buoyancy. Sometimes he presses his body up against her so tightly she thinks they’ll burst, even though she knows this is impossible.
He didn’t want her to go, couched his jealousy in light-handed remarks. “Sure, research,” he said. “I know what happens: an attractive woman, remote tropical island. Bunch of guys.”
“There are women too. It’s actually a lot of hard work.”
“And drinks in coconut shells with little umbrellas…”
Travis was in marketing. They’d met through a mutual friend, and she was immediately drawn to the idea that he didn’t know her at all. He didn’t know her genetic dilemmas or her sadness, her anxieties. The slate was, essentially, clean.
He didn’t seem to want to know, either. Any time the conversation veered towards the past – them running into an old girlfriend of his, or a scented candle conjuring up a memory of her dead mother – he would cautiously steer them away. “The past is the past,” he’d tell her. “Let’s be grateful for today.”
This was a surprising comfort. And yet, Meredith couldn’t help thinking he was hiding something, too.
She sends daily e-mails to her students from the island: “Day Two,” she gloats, “I’m flying kites.” They rig a camera to the kite line to take some low-altitude aerial photographs. The perspective, they hope, will help them organize their objectives, see parts of the island they might want to explore. The photographs might also reveal an unexpected anomaly – a clearing where there shouldn’t be a clearing, a bump where there shouldn’t be a bump. For her students, she uses the kite as a way to describe Newton’s third law, whereby every action has an equal and opposite reaction, as demonstrated by the cushion of air pressing down over the edge of the kite, while the air underneath pushes upwards, creating an exacting force.
“It flies,” she tells them, “because it can’t help not flying.”
A bit of nylon and wood. A little box that takes pictures. A little wind.
McKinnon, the technical expert who designed the camera housing, handles the remote while Krieg works the string into a tight, unworried line. Elbows relaxed at his hips, his fingers play. The kite soars upward then hovers right above them. It’s a thing to watch, the way one small slant of Krieg’s fingertip can change the course, send the kite into a whirligig or maneuver it several compass degrees. And then there’s McKinnon, controlling the opening and closing of the camera’s aperture, not even looking down at the buttons, he knows them so well. She takes notes, makes observations about wind patterns. She writes in a spiral-bound notebook with a black pen, handwriting barely legible, writing fast because she’s afraid she’ll miss something.
Before she left, Michael Klosky, a junior, gave her some of her own advice: “Be an Intelligent Observer, Ms. W.,” a phrase she uses so frequently that new students already know it, coming in. And it’s true: on this island, that’s what she is. Not a teacher. Not an archeologist. Not a scientist, even – though not many of them are. Some are entrepreneurs, contractors. There is someone here who specializes in water drainage systems. But they all know a thing or two about bones, about historically relevant artifacts, the foremost being that, as a rule, they don’t like to be found. Time passes. Tropical storms eviscerate landscapes. Tides change minute by minute, erasing and reassigning, while trees grow, brambles multiply. And coconut crabs, sometimes as large as border collies, run amok with evidence: nature always conspires to hide the truth.
Later that night by the campfire, she tells McKinnon what Michael Klosky said. They sit in canvas folding chairs stamped with the team’s logo, take sips from cold bottles of beer that have been rationed for the duration of their stay.
“Intelligent Observer,” says McKinnon, an engineer by trade. “I like that,” then shares a funny story about his four year old son: “He likes pirates, and so I told him I was looking for treasure.” He takes a map out of his pocket, a tan piece of construction paper folded into the tiniest square. “I thought I should keep it on me, in case I get lost,” he says, in mock seriousness, though they both recognize the meaning behind this gesture, and Meredith, not usually one to be sentimental, is touched. Brown crayon renders a cloud-shaped land mass, surrounded by rushed strokes of water-blue. Thick black dashes delineate paths winding in loop-de-loops, criss-crossing haphazardly across the page, and the boy’s drawn two trees, one of which holds a bird’s nest.
In the southern half of the cloud, there’s a red “X”, with a treasure box the size of a quarter. “There she is,” says Meredith. “X marks the spot. It looks strangely like the Seven Site, don’t you think?”
“What can I say? He’s the smartest four year old I know.”
The fire dances in front of them, illuminating faces on the other side. Talk settles into sleepy murmurs, and Meredith feels the warm edge of the alcohol loosening her thoughts. “I might need that map,” she says a while later, and McKinnon’s eyebrows raise. “Truth be told, I’m a little afraid of getting lost out here.”
“You are?” He doesn’t seem to believe her, or maybe the alcohol and the lack of sleep have made his reaction seem stronger than it really is. Either way, she doesn’t say more. She doesn’t tell him that she’s afraid of waking up in the middle of the ocean, or of somehow, when all is said and done, being left behind.
When she and Travis went camping, their first trip together, there was a small part of her that worried she’d wake up alone. That he’d get dragged off by a bear in the thick of night, or that he would just leave her, strand her in the woods. That she’d wake up to a cold firepit without a compass. Over breakfast, bacon and eggs he’d cooked on a propane stove, she told him, making fun of herself, and he almost spit out his coffee laughing at the absurdity.
“A bear?” he said. “Or I would just leave you? I don’t know which is worse.”
“We know each other, but we don’t know each other,” she remembers telling him.
“I’m not an asshole,” he said, then changed the subject, never bringing it up again.
McKinnon takes a last sip of beer, and when he gets up from his chair to say goodnight, orange flames reflect in the lenses of his glasses, his eyes smiling within their glowing centers. “We’ve got fancy tools for finding living, breathing people. You’d want to walk til you hit the beach, keeping Jupiter on your right. Brightest thing in the sky.”
Meredith smiles back at him, says goodnight.
The darkness thickens. One by one, figures rise up out of their chairs and leave, until eventually she’s alone. She stares into the embers, listening to birdsong, human snoring, and the nearby scratching of an island rat pulling pieces of bark right off a tree.
Excavating is a destructive process. The soil taken out can never be put back in exactly the same way, so that something overlooked will likely remain overlooked forever. Today she’s sifting. Blue tents are pitched, rope grids are in place. A trough-like table is set up, and Meredith stands there pressing dirt through a metal sieve. She’s comparing granules to other granules, pausing for anomalies – bug casings and sedimentary rock, the same question turning itself over and over in her head: Is anything there? Her belly rumbles from the tea she drank at breakfast, and her neck muscles are tight from hours spent looking down. It’s hot out here, not as hot as the belly of the jungle, but not as cool as some of the other places they’ve been. Drops of sweat slide down her sternum, down her abdomen. Her bra and inner thighs are moist.
By now, all sense of self-propriety is lost. They’re accustomed to seeing each other half-naked and drenched, and to the accompanying smells and sounds a human body must expel. It’s not the virtuousness of their goal that makes them so forgiving, or the fact that their goal is anthropological, at its roots. It’s that they’re stuck together, on an island. There is no space for vanity.
But Meredith is aware of her body all the time: what it feels like, how it moves. What people can tell about her, just by looking.
The morning of her departure, in her hotel room in Honolulu, she stood in front of the bathroom mirror. Track lights recessed into the ceiling directed beams of incandescence against her skin. White walls soaked in the rest, radiated. She could see every freckle, every pimple, every hair. What shocked her was not the presence of so many imperfections, but the two orb-like breasts that were perfectly round and smooth, perfectly situated. The fact that her clothes still fit her - her favorite tank top, her favorite bra.
Her first visit with the genetic counselor, she stared nervously at the waiting room’s blue walls. She knew the color was meant to be soothing, but to Meredith the walls felt transparent, as if suddenly she could see inside them, could see right through them: cold steel of pipes, nest of wires. Shadow boxes made of two-by-fours laid out in three foot sections. Squares abutting rectangles, a silent mapping of space.
Before she left that day, the doctor placed a round, fluid-filled pouch in her hand. The fluid was clear, its sack settling into the sunken curve of her palm. She wondered how it would feel inside her; whether she’d know the implants were there, even when she wasn’t thinking about them. Whether anyone else would be able to sense that something in her had changed.
The counselor held out a box of tissues, his hand freckled with a constellation of age spots. “Sometimes the odds are just stacked against us,” he said. “You can’t let misfortune define you.”
The first time she made love after the surgery, it wasn’t with Travis. She’d been seeing Andrew, a guidance counselor from another school, who’d wanted her to have the surgery but didn’t care whether she got the implants or not. She enjoyed the sex, or at least she told herself she did. Bent to him. Let his hands, his mouth, explore. But it was all a ruse, she knew, because her body wasn’t hers entirely. She felt like a new toy that didn’t come with instructions, and grew impatient with Andrew’s patience.
It’s lunchtime. Meredith finishes bagging and labeling the sample, then lays the sieve down on an empty tray. She brushes residual dirt from her gloves into the trough, until the surfaces of the fingertips are smooth and oily brown. When she peels the gloves off, tossing them into the receptacle, her own hands are startlingly clean, revealing a terrain of calluses and veins that bump the surface, and the pinkish lines carved into her palm look sewn.
People who used to live on the island think it’s haunted. They’ve told stories about spirits wandering, warned their children to stay away from certain places. Of course, no one lives here anymore – not enough water for the people to drink, not enough money to survive. Abandoned buildings are filled with sheet metal parts, fitted as furnishings. Once, an island woman claimed she saw a plane go down when she was a girl. And the shoes they found, and the bones since lost: why wouldn’t there be ghosts here?
Meredith wakes up one day with a fever. Her head aches, her body aches. Bed sheets cling to her sweat-drenched skin, and the slightest touch or movement is unbearable. One of her bunkmates alerts the team physician, who checks her carefully for signs of a bacterial infection. She is light-headed, barely able to focus, and he gives her liquid medicine, applies a cold compress to her forehead and to the backs of her joints. Soon she feels like she is falling, falling through impossibly thick clouds.
After a while – she doesn’t know how long – she opens her eyes. She’s lying on her cot, the apex of her tent pitched right above her. Shadows of tree branches dance against the sunlit nylon, telling her it’s late in the afternoon. She’s not alone. Someone’s in the tent with her, and she turns, lifts her head slightly, finds a figure sitting in the furthest corner in the dark. Her pain is gone, but she’s heavy and tired, too tired to talk or say hello. The silence feels kind but also sad, as though whoever it is has been waiting for a long time, and will wait even longer – though for what, Meredith doesn’t know. She hears talking outside, voices approaching. The figure doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move. Meredith shuts her eyes. She sleeps.
This time, she wakes to a dark tent. The pulsing glow of her lantern, turned low, is a whisper of light, revealing only the most crucial of things: the little table next to her cot that holds the lantern, a glass of water, her notebook. The fever has broken. She hears people outside, smells the campfire and the moist jungle. She takes a shaky sip of water.
Three years ago, she came for the adventure. She’d read an article in a teacher’s supplement about the work the team had been doing, years invested with the singular goal of solving the Amelia Earhart Mystery. The name alone hadn’t convinced her. The name Amelia Earhart evoked a photograph from her sixth grade Weekly Reader, the pilot in her flyer’s cap and goggles, gazing heroically into the distance. A symbol of female empowerment, rubbing up against an American attitude which suggested you could accomplish anything if you tried.
She thought it would be fun. An opportunity to broaden her professional achievements. On the application to volunteer for the expedition, she’d listed her vocation and described her special skills, peppered her language with wry enthusiasm. She obtained recommendations from colleagues and from her principal, wrote an essay about why she wanted to participate. What she could bring to the expedition, what she could retain for teaching purposes.
Maxine had teased her about finding a native and bringing him home.
Meredith said, “I think I need to stay away from men for a while.”
“Go,” said Maxine. “Go be the coolest teacher on the planet. Find Amelia! And bring me back a coconut.”
The sea had daunted her that first trip, angry swells lifting and dropping the rig, making her learn quickly how to maintain her balance, how to fix her stare on the thin line of horizon, like a piece of yarn pinched taut between her fingers. Her first campfire on the island, she’d been giddy. She got tipsy off one beer and started singing ‘80’s songs with a forensic anthropologist. There was a sense of discovery, a freedom, and she felt privileged to be there, working alongside so many interesting people, knowing that what they were doing would benefit her career in ways she hadn’t even thought of yet.
Everything. After the surgery, everything changed. Everything became distilled and magnified. She got the call, asking her to return, while she was out shopping. She’d been looking for a cream to diminish the scarring, something with Vitamin E and shea butter and camphor. At the cosmetic counter of a department store, surrounded by glass and shiny metallic surfaces, she listened to the project leader detail the next expedition, his voice vital, full of daring: “I haven’t given up,” he said. “Have you?”
The flap of her tent is lifted and someone peeks in.
“You’re awake,” says McKinnon, who pulls the chair up next to the cot and sits down.
“How long have I been asleep?”
“You lost a day and a half.”
“A day and a half.”
“Don’t worry. No fuselage yet. We’ll be at the Seven Site tomorrow, though. So it’s a good thing you decided to get better.”
She pushes herself up to a seated position, suddenly aware of her exposed skin, her matted hair. Her smell. She pulls the sheet up as far as she can, covering her chest, realizing the doctor must have seen her scars.
“I think I’ve been visited,” she says. “By a ghost.”
McKinnon doesn’t seem surprised. “Was he wearing a Red Sox hat, because I lost one.”
“No, she wasn’t.”
“Well, if you see her again, ask her, would you?”
Meredith nods, smiling, and McKinnon stands up to leave.
She watches him, the taut lines of his thighs, their bulge of muscle. The angle of his clavicle through the opening in his shirt. Soft hairs, blonde and gray, suggest a smattering across his chest and torso, a little layer of fur barely visible against his tanned, leathered skin. She wonders what he’s like in bed, long-legged and firm, strong but kind. She imagines he would look her in the eyes, that he would use her body the way it’s meant to be used. Like a machine, a tool.
“You okay?” he says, snatching her out of her thoughts.
“It’s the fever,” she says. “I’m feeling a little flushed, a little tired. That’s all.”
The next two days they’ll spend at the Seven Site, then they’ll pack up and go home. Their optimism has waned but not exhausted, and there is a lot left to be analyzed yet. Krieg is particularly excited about today’s excavation. One wouldn’t know this without spending consecutive days with the man, but Meredith has picked up on signs: he rubs his hands together, he paces. Offers little insights without being asked.
“The Seven Site is a good place for castaways,” he says. “You’ve got the breeze from the south, and the thin strip of beach allows easy access to both sea and lagoon. Lots of fish, lots of turtles. Food, and some reprieve from the heat.”
Meredith is on water duty. A light task today after being sick, she’s helping dole out water wherever it’s needed. Like everyone, she’s feeling sad that it’s all ending. A little frustrated that they’ve run out of time. They all talk about forming a legion of searchers, living here on the island for a year. They envision renovations of the island’s remnant buildings, talk about designing their own low-cost equipment. But then life creeps into the conversation. Families would miss them, jobs would be lost. The dust settles on their plans.
Around noon, McKinnon finds her. “Come on,” he says, “I need your help.”
They walk the half mile to the shoreline, where a helicopter is waiting for them to board. Apparently, the aerial photographs they took from the kite were good, but as they were taken from limited altitudes, some of the topographical context has been lost. “I need to get higher,” McKinnon says. “Thought maybe you’d like a ride, if you’re feeling up to it.”
“I don’t know. I’m afraid I’ll fall out!”
McKinnon tilts his head back and laughs.
“Really,” she says. Because if they crash, what would be left of her?
“If we crash – ” says McKinnon, but doesn’t finish. He must be reading the look on her face. “You have to see it,” he says. “Trust me.”
They sit across from each other, outfitted with earphones and strapped into harness belts, which McKinnon pulls nice and tight, giving her a surprising amount of relief. She feels secure, her body rigged into the tiny space like a doll. The propeller revs, cutting the air in a whir of endless circles, and when they lift off the sand the machine feels so light, Meredith’s heartbeat drops all the way to her knees.
“Hold on,” he says, and for the life of her, she does.
Palm flat against the door, one on the seat beside her. Her right index finger starts to peel at a crack in the leather, pressing deep into the cushion foam. Air slips behind her knees, and she can’t hear anything. She’s not sure which is more surprising: when the copter tilts and pivots, one side higher than the other, or the fact that she dares looking down when this happens through the open side.
By the time they land, climb back out of the helicopter and thank the pilot, close to an hour has gone by. As they make their way back to the site, Meredith feels weak and thirsty. But she’s grateful for the ride, being able to view the island that way. The bright colors, all the textures. Forgetting everything she knew about its variables and gradients and degrees. And of course, forgetting – if even for an hour – how the ocean frightens her: “I’ve never seen so many shades of blue.”
When they come to the tents, McKinnon jumps ahead to retrieve a cup of water from the barrel, and when he hands it to her, she takes a long swig.
“Something’s happening,” he says, and directs her attention toward the cluster of faces that have gathered under one of the tents, their bodies still, waiting, their voices hushed. On a dirt mound in the grid, legs splayed out in front of him with his heels dug in, Krieg in his wide-brimmed canvas hat holds a piece of glass into the sunlight with his tweezers. He studies it, turning it ever so slightly. His lips move, but he doesn’t appear to be saying anything. Others murmur and nod their heads, call out for the experts to come and see.
Meredith thinks how lucky she is, standing here, in this moment. She thinks about Travis having the wrong idea, whether or not things could ever work out between them. And why, in spite of herself, she wants them to.
There is an energy, a palpable excitement.
Nobody knows exactly what is happening, yet.
The island holds its breath.
“Ms. W.,” they say, “do we know how many degrees the reef slants, how many meters deep it runs?”
Meredith, home for two weeks now, has thought about all of these questions. She’s read biographies and watched old film clips, discovered Amelia’s poetry. She’s imagined a whole life, resurrected by archival information. Dug up her own version of the story. Pieced together what she could.
And what does she tell them? What does she tell her students?
She tells them that Amelia flew airplanes. Glided over hilltops and called out colors that crept across a sun-setting sky. She read meters and gauges, followed imaginary lines. Wrote poems about everything that she saw. She used to hop out of the cockpit, slide herself down the rounded metal of the wing and smile for the cameras. Bend her gaze then swiftly realign it, a little shy. Once, instead of giving her husband a farewell kiss, she shook his hand. He asked her to do another take, and the second time, she gave him a little peck on the lips.
She tells them how Amelia cradled bouquets of flowers, held them in her arms like babies. She never had any babies of her own, which was uncommon back then. A busy, working woman. An aviatrix. A Star. She tells them how Amelia crashed her plane on a runway one time, but survived. Hopped back out and shook it off, determined to go back and try again. She never got enough sleep and ate only what her delicate stomach could bear, but she broke records. She met presidents and heads of state, then rested in small white rooms in foreign countries, folding bedspreads crisp under the pillows in the morning.
She used to joke with her navigator. And they used to argue, debating proposed courses. And that fateful day, when the two of them were trying to work it out, this is what might have happened: Amelia might have held that radio in her fist, pressed hard on the button. She might have turned her head to look left, then down; watched the black needle shake them off course. She might have shouted at her navigator before shouting into the radio, then braced against the back of her seat. She was probably pitched and thrown against the hard, interior surfaces of her plane, shaken like a rock in a can.
Amelia might have wiped blood from her skin, drops of it might have fallen in the dirt. She might have pried meat off the smooth, blushed surface of a clamshell. Roasted turtle meat over a fire. She would have had to push the animal’s thick neck onto a sharpened stick, then woven the stick through its rubbery, flaccid body.
She might have held her head, rubbed her eyes. Licked her parched lips. Collected rainwater in a jungle leaf and drank it, then waited and waited for more. She probably vomited in some foliage, folded her arms across her stomach. She probably wiped her mouth with her hand, tried in vain to swallow.
Amelia might have fallen asleep, then. Dreamed enchanted dreams. Seen her mother’s face, her sister. Touched the ruffled white cotton of her sister’s dress, her soft hair. She might have opened her eyes at some point, pressed against the ground, then panicked and reached into her bag. Pulled out a jar and opened it, scooping the cream with her finger. Smoothed the cream over her face, her neck, her belly, her arms, her hands. She might have stumbled through the trees, then, filled the empty jar with sea water and brought it back. We think she balanced the jar into the crux of a bent metal hook, then held it over the fire, and when she did this she might have stared through invisible molecules while island birds winged above her, crying out across a blue and windless sky.
She had no way of knowing what would happen, that three-quarters of a century from then someone would find pieces of that jar, dig them out of the earth and examine them, attribute its contents to her: Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment, used during stolen moments. A female product, claiming to diminish the embarrassing spots.
She probably watched flames singe the label on the jar, watched as the glass began to molt. She probably didn’t think, at that moment, that anything she’d done had mattered, or that anything she’d done had actually mattered to her.
Frail as a kite that has been caught in a storm, tired as a torn sail.
She poured the hot water into a coconut shell, cooled it with her breath. Let the liquid trickle down her throat, sweetest thing she ever tasted. She lay down on her back and looked up at the ring of treetops surrounding a lagoon of sky, calculating the distance between herself and the place she wanted to be, knowing exactly how long it would take her to lift up, off of that island, soar back to a proper altitude, where she could look down through the clouds again, swimming in a sea of sky.
“You have to look deeper,” Meredith tells her students. “You have to always remember there’s more to the story.”
In the helicopter, close to a thousand feet above the island, Meredith looked out over the dark blue water of the ocean as it chopped across the gray belly of the reef. There she saw the shipwreck, and the sandy shoreline abutting layers of vegetation. And there, the lagoon, its warm saline center, pulsing and giving and alive.
“Is this what she saw?” Meredith shouted over the engine, and McKinnon turned from where he’d been looking, followed her gaze.
Trees furred the landscape, and the tan earth was scarred in places – little crooked lines that etched the surface, sometimes marking where hand-held tools had cut clear through. And the water, and the water pooled over ancient shifts and travesties – nothing to be afraid of, just a way of saying this happened, this happened.