A short story about birds, boats, and fictive pleasure.
Seabirds of various sorts loll about in the grass. A brown bird sings some kind of song. There’s no need for me to know what they are. Indiscriminacy is very much part of the point.
I’m not angry. I’m not even disappointed. These things happen. When you’ve been around as long as I have you understand that this only ends one way. The word ‘eventually’ is a great comfort. If what must happen sometimes takes a little longer, if occasionally there are setbacks, delays, reversals, well – time is something I have.
The sunlight is white and soft. There’s a violent northerly wind ripping through the grass (I suppose it’s some sort of grass). A white bird bobs in the air above my head as if on a length of elastic. I ought to be going. In the distance I can see a man in a grey hat and vivid red down jacket patrolling the seal-strewn strand. There’s nothing for me to do here now. My boat is concealed in a cove a little way behind me. I’ll return to it once it’s safe for me to stand. The man in the red jacket shouts to a man in a blue jacket. The man in the blue jacket gives, I think, a thumbs-up (the distance and his heavy gloves make it hard to be sure).
It has taken them 200 years to undo what I did. They don’t have any idea how quickly and how easily I can do it again. I say this without pleasure. When you’ve been around as long as I have you say most things without pleasure.
Sometimes there is a certain dry and clerical satisfaction in knowing that the work has been done. There can be a moment’s excitement in the danger of discovery or denunciation. That might be called pleasure, if all you knew about pleasure was what you had read about it in a book.
I miss the warm places. Cairo. Thrilled, mad, uprising Dubai. The fronded shadows on the sands of Savave. The close black canals beneath Babylon. But then, when I am in the warm places, I miss the cold places. This relates (obliquely) to my being always somewhat foreign. At Spitsbergen I was too swarthy, at Madagasikara too pale; at Aitutaki I was too tall and narrow, and they called me pūnu, the spoon.
There has been so much to remember it’s a wonder I remember anything.
Two dogs or perhaps three bark at one another, a half-mile away. They belong to the men in the jackets. I have nothing against dogs, especially.
Here they blame whalers and sealers for what happened, all those years ago, in this place, to this place. They blame the great black boats of Greenwich and Rotherhithe, steeped in salt and pitch and blood, hauling south to the 54th parallel, and the men aboard, whoever they were (there is an admirable indiscriminacy to this blame) – they were cruel, is what they were, cruel and narrow-eyed, sunburnt and shivering in rotted woollens, but more than that they were reckless. And now there are bare white whalebones on the beaches here, which might have stood for something, might have served as a lesson, once.
This is what happens when I am trapped in my foxhole by men in bright jackets with dogs and imaging technology. I grow reflective. I am often alone (depending on how we define ‘alone’: perhaps I am always alone) but it’s the futility of my waiting here, and not my solitude, that I despise, that brings me to mulling and musing and hopeless turnings-over.
Spume blown from the wave-tops comes skipping across the grass. The bent blades of the grass ripple beneath my still shadow.
It was, of course, the whalers and the sealers that were to blame for what happened. Or in any case, I could not have done it without them.
When the men and the dogs are gone I return, in the teeth of the wind, to the cove and to my boat. It will be an awkward journey among these rearing grey waves to my arranged liaison with a croaker ship out of Montevideo but if it can be done, and it can, then I shall do it. It isn’t a boast to say that no more able sailor than I ever filled sail. It is simply a fact that no-one else has had my practice.
Perhaps one day we might blame the croaker fishermen. They are Catholics, these men, mostly young, somewhat battered, impious and unserious but still Catholics. You can tell when they swear. The Catholics have been blamed before.
I spoke with one of them, barely 20, bearded, black; we loafed at the aft gunwale with bottles of Chilean beer as the grunting ship battered a way northeast into the wind, after the shoals. I didn’t catch his name, or if I did I have forgotten it. He told me of the places he had seen, Tuamoto and Maupiti, Rapa Nui, Rodrigues, the great ports of Callao, of Mahajanga, the great distances, the bold voyages, the willing women in every place – on and on he went, all the time affecting world-weariness. I didn’t say much. I could have said, I’ve seen those places, muchacho, and more: do you know Gangga Negara, do you know Canopus, do you know Ma-i, and the women there? No: they are all consumed by sea or rainforest or insatiable desert (he wouldn’t have known this; I think he would have bluffed and said man, the chicks in Canopus! and kissed his coarse fingertips). I might have asked him if he knew the places he had seen as I knew them – had he piloted a laden boat through the stinking low-ceilinged sewers of Callao, hung with flowering waterweed? – but of course he wouldn’t have. He would have thought I was a crackpot. Instead I listened and sipped my beer and watched steel-grey porpoises rolling in our wake. What am I? I’m not sure I remember. I remember what I have done because it is what I do. Perhaps what I have done is what I am.
I find temporary lodgings in a Buenos Aires apartment, sub-let by a Somali seafood importer. While, early in the muggy evening, I read a book on the balcony, he watches YouTube on a cracked smartphone. That’s how I come to hear a voice from many years ago.
The voice of a Levantine, quiet and sticky with insinuation. The Jordanian Arabic is formal and educated.
‘The Zionist entity,’ the voice says – a man’s voice, of course – ‘gathered all the rats carrying the Bubonic plague in Norway, and released them in all the Egyptian provinces, near Sinai. According to several Egyptian sources, this operation took place in 1967.’
I can’t now remember when we first blamed the Jews. It was a very long time ago. I think perhaps they were held responsible for the first rats of Alexandria – a wonderfully old memory, that one. When rats came to the Nile island of Elephantine they pulled down the Jewish temple. It was not entirely because of rats that Aragonese Malta expelled its Jews but it was partly because of the rats.
So many memories.
The Somali snorts and says, هراء, bullshit. Swipes at his screen with a forefinger. I have nothing particularly against the Jews. I had not imagined the old lie was still at work. I sit back in my chair on the Buenos Aires balcony. There’s a smell of blossom and a smell of oil. A variegation of red and off-white lights smears the city horizon. I have nothing particularly against anyone. Tomorrow I sail for Maldonado; from there, to Porto Alegre, where in the swarming port I will stock my barrels and fit out a ship. Tonight, when the Somali Abshir has gone to bed, I will consult my charts. The truth is that these days I hardly need the charts; I know the places, all the places, every place, by heart. Anacapa. Motuora. Tokelau. Trindade. Marchena. I’ve been there before. Only the choosing is still to be done.
The jewelled coast of the New World slips out of sight. It is just dawn. The men work briskly, and by and large in silence, doing whatever menial tasks of seamanship have to be done. Hoists and cranes make seabird noises. We carry crates of cargo for Conakry.
I watch the sun rise from a place in the shade. I am thinking of great debarkations. There have been such a lot.
The small bodies boil from beneath the barrel lid. It’s as though I’ve opened a sluice. Perhaps they spill into white Pacific surf; perhaps they career forwards into the darkness of a sewer pipe, hard little feet muttering on wet iron. By any conventional yardstick the smells of blood and urine are not pleasant. I speak quiet benedictions over them – buen biåhe, góða ferð, go well, manuia oe – but I know they don’t need them. They thrive regardless.
It’s a monstrous levelling.
They are not prepared, these small worlds, for the rats. Or, from another perspective – the rats’ perspective – they are perfectly prepared. They are pliant and giving. The birds and their defenceless nests. The soft-bodied fruits, the soft-skinned trees. The slow crabs. They submit silently. The rats, like the night, come to cover everything.
In a town – in the rich shadows of a sewer, a slum runoff, a subway, a canal tunnel – I might be challenged. I say that I am the ratcatcher. And where is the fellow who usually catches the rats? He is, I say, ill, with the mortality, the flux, the griping, the pox, the pest, the plague; he is too bentbacked to work, or too morose, or too drunk, or too old; he has the egba ogwu, or is dropsical, or is stricken with Ôï濕, or katiani, or Saint Vitus’s dance, or the sweating sickness, or the English disease; he has run away with a woman, or a man; he has been sent to the war; he never returned from the war.
If the ratcatchers knew of me (they speak of me, but they do not know of me) they would perhaps presume to consider themselves my enemy. Ah, now. Who can fathom the vaingloriousness of ratcatchers?
The ardent sun of the mid-Atlantic is high in the sky when, with the help of a puzzled deckhand from Verónica, I am lowered with my boat into the leaping sea. There is an island a little way north of the eighth parallel, south-east of Ascension (little Ascension, the land of the swarming black rat – oh, I remember little Ascension). It is not well known except, rather recently, among ornithologists. I have read that noddies, boobies, terns and boatswain-birds make their nests on the beaches there, in their thousands – perhaps in their tens of thousands. Because, of course, they cannot gather on Ascension any more.
The cloud-grey wake of the cargo ship sloshes and diminishes under my bows. I stare into the sun, taste the wind and set my sails. What feels like melancholy is often only boredom. The reverse, I concede, may also be true.
The middle air is ablaze with the cries of the birds.
Who, I wonder, will be blamed? The breakers hoist my little boat and its scrabbling barrels closer to the beach. Who do we hate? This is how we find the answer. The cargo ship, perhaps, with its canned beef and plastic sacks of soybean for Conakry, embodying reckless gain, rapacious capital. Perhaps in reference works of the future it will be stated that the rats were brought to this innocent island on a cargo ship from South America. Which will be quite true, of course. Under ‘Boatswain-birds, Extinction of’, we might read of this.
At one time – a strange word to me, this, ‘time’ – I used to bring with me the lie as well as the rats. A muttered word in a souk, a pub, a café: did you hear, friend, of what came ashore from the ships of the Levantines? Did you hear of the precious gift the Dutchmen brought to our land? Or as it might be the Arabs or the Spaniards, the English or the Japanese, the Mohammedans or the Jews. I swear I saw them with my own eyes, I would say, scampering down the docklines.
I’ve wondered – on long journeys through the slow winds of the horse latitudes – whether I am necessary to the rats. I know I am not necessary to the lies. A rat, if it is to produce more rats, at least requires another rat (though once it has one, yes, it is prodigious indeed). Lies generate spontaneously in the mouths of men, as, it was once said, do fleas from dust, and worms from meat. A woman selling kingfish on a pier will say, did you hear they were brought by the gipsies?, when I had not thought, it had never occurred to me, to blame the gipsies; a man in a tea bar will confide that, according to a fellow who knows a fellow, they came to us in cargo from Malaya, when I know, I remember, that I poled my flat-bottomed boat into the town’s monsoon drain before dawn one morning in the early winter, and there executed my commission (I remember whispering, swarm over, life).
Why do I do what I do? There was, as I say, a commission; there were instructions, orders, bills of lading, terms of exchange. There was, I’m sure, a reward – a reward was promised. There were reasons. I was given reasons.
The rats scrabble against the walls of the metal drums in which they are sealed (salvaged from a Maldonado brewer, these drums, and reeking of spent yeast). The birds leap and scream. I sit among it all, beside the drums, beneath the birds, and foresee a great silence.
The men in bright down jackets, the men with barking dogs: they may come here, one day, and do their good and clever work; there may, a little while after, be press releases, conference papers, submissions to journals of ecology, declaring the island once more rat-free. Rat-free! Give me liberty, or give me death! This or that tern or noddy or booby bird will again know peace – peace to scrape its wretched nest in the basalt and raise its wretched young. They may do it next year or in 100 years. They may do it tomorrow, for all that I care.
I draw a line on the black rock with the tip of my crowbar. They will ask: why was this cargo for Conakry from Porto Alegre not regulated, inspected, certified, double-checked for rats, and what’s more for the zebra mussel, for the balsam glandulifera, for the signal crawfish? Or they will say: of course there are rats at Porto Alegre, at Florianópolis, at Pelotas, and other such dirty places – why cannot we raise our own soybeans, and can our own beef? They will, I mean, blame either this, or that, or some other thing, some other people.
Who was first blamed, that first time? Perhaps the people first blamed God. Perhaps they had to be persuaded – or seduced – into blaming one another. I don’t suppose the people they ended up blaming, that first time, are around anymore. I suppose they are gone and long-forgotten. Certainly I have forgotten them – except that, somewhere in the farthest fathoms of my memory, there may be a few words of whatever language they spoke, for I have always, I think, had a facility with the languages of others. Sometimes I wonder what my own language was, and who taught it to me.
I beat my crowbar three times against the drum nearest to me and the birds erupt in a great spout of noise and white wings. The airholes in the drum exhale a bitter breath of rat fear.
I might cut the boat adrift. I might replace the drums in the boat and cut the boat adrift.
There would be consequences, I suppose. I had a contract. I have a commission. I regard the horizon, a soft ribbon of milk and blue broken only by the lumpen dun hummock of Ascension. The sea is rising. I can see it rising, feel it rising beneath my boat when I sail, just as I have felt the warming of the water and the air against my skin. There are storms where there were seldom storms before (we were capsized, not long ago, off Enewetak, and almost lost, my rats and I). It might all portend something or nothing. Perhaps it is someone’s work, begun long ago. Perhaps they too have forgotten the reason. I wonder if they have received their reward.
I breathe and taste particulates of bunker fuel. My little boat rears, as if restless, in the breakers.
Hello!, someone says.
It’s a woman, approaching with care through the nests of the noddies and terns.
I tell her I’m here with the team from the Centre for Remote Environments at the University of Antsiranana. I tell her we were shipped in ahead of schedule because of something to do with the tides or currents (I feign laughing ignorance). She must, I say, be part of Manjit’s team from the UFPE. I tell her that we’ll be beginning the monitoring survey in a day or two, once Mike and Fernanda arrive with their postdocs – I wonder aloud, laughing again, how in hell Mike got his funding bid past Trevor and Anoop. I say I haven’t met up with the old gang since South Georgia. I tell her, in short, that I am a ratcatcher.
She does not seem altogether interested. She lifts her sunglasses from her eyes and gestures at the boat, now drunken on the rocks, and at the old beer barrels. ‘I found them here,’ I say. ‘Peculiar, don’t you think?’
The woman shrugs. As I look up at her the snow of white birds seems to take shape around her like a solar corona surrounds the moon at the totality of an eclipse (I think momentarily of the eclipses the rats and I have seen – the small darknesses we have watched fall).
There are no native people on this island (if there were, be sure that they would have rats enough already). I cannot guess where this woman is from, except that she is not from here.
We speak a little about the birds – their abundance, their prolificacy when left to their own devices. She seems fond of them and seems to know them well, Anous minutus, Phaethon lepturus, Fregata aquila (how her Latin takes me back! – for so long I have had nothing on my tongue but that old curse, rattus rattus). She is wearing white clothes in some loose fabric and a snugly wrapped headscarf of the same unforgiving white.
Above the surf and the birds I do not suppose she can hear the scratching of the rats. It will be growing uncomfortably warm within the dank barrels. I don’t doubt that there will have been many deaths already, but what am I to do?
‘How long,’ she asks, ‘do you expect to be here?’
I say, ‘Oh, I shall only be here until the job is done’, and she nods, lowering her sunglasses again and looking out at the ocean. White spume freckles the back of her hand.
And at once, here, beneath the shimmering sun of the eighth parallel, I am seized by an impulse to tell this woman of my business – that is, of my life, if it can be rightly called a life – of my commission, my duty, the rats, the conquests, Hawadax, Reiono, young Manhattan, Manoël, the Mascareignes, dear Ascension, all the ruin wrought.
It must be something like a criminal’s longing for confession, what I feel, although of course I have committed no crime. I swallow what is in my throat and instead I say to this woman: ‘What do you know, ma’am, about the blue lorikeet, Vini peruviana, of Makatea, southwest of Rangiroa? Or of Ptilonopus coralensis, the atoll fruit dove of Vahanga? Or of the little bird of Fanning Island they called ‘bokikokiko’, binomially, if I remember right, Acrocephalus aequinoctialis, subspecies pistor?’
She turns her sunglasses on me and replies: ‘I’m no expert, you understand, but aren’t they all extinct?’
I nod, because indeed they are. Gone like the cities of Akhetaten, Ctesiphon, Tmutarakan, Amaya (and all their rats) from the face of this earth.
‘I wonder,’ I say, ‘how they came to perish? By whose hand they died.’
‘Fucked if I know,’ the woman says. She takes a pebble from the shingle shore and with a whip sends it skipping across the breaker-tops. ‘I don’t mean to sound cynical but does it matter? A half-dozen species more or less, here or there. Who’s counting?’
‘Surely someone is counting.’
‘Everything dies. Does it matter how? Does it matter what? This or that species. It’s starting to look like splitting hairs. Do you know what I mean?’
‘I suppose you mean that these extinctions –’
‘They look petty, right now. Provincial? The idea just seems… a little archaic.’ She smiles, as if embarrassed. ‘Or maybe I’m just crazy, I don’t know.’
Now I have to stand and move a few paces away from the barrels. I find that the noise of claws on the barrel walls is more than I can abide.
‘Would you like to take a walk?’ the woman asks me, somewhat abruptly. She points inland. An unimpressive eminence – a heap, more than a hill – rises there. I had not paid any attention to it before now. ‘I mean, if you want to stretch your legs.’
I seldom rove far inland. By necessity I’m a creature of the edge, the littoral. The outflow, the slum, the streets downwind.
I make a weak gesture toward the boat, the barrels.
‘If someone still wants them, I’m sure they know where to find them.’ She puts a foot on one of the barrels and rocks it gently back and forth. She seems somehow to not hear the screaming. ‘Who the hell is smuggling Uruguayan beer, anyway?’
I don’t say anything. She turns and begins to walk up the beach, and the birds leap from the touch of her shadow. When she looks back at me, over her shoulder, I find myself following her.
As I slowly tread the curve of this slumping earth, upward in this woman’s wake toward the higher ground, I myself look back only once or twice, at the beach, and at my boat, which now stirs on the running waves of an inturning tide. The tides, I tell myself, are often unpredictable on these eccentric islands, south of the southern equatorial.
The shadows of birds mill on the pale ground (some sort of rock, I don’t know its name). We have not climbed far – we have not climbed high – but it feels to me that we have advanced perceptibly toward the sun. I look back a final time, at the shore, sea, boat and barrels. The barrels now roll and pitch in bone-white surf. Of course I had punched holes, for ventilation, in the metal.
Fine salt spray blown from the wavetops finds us even up here – for how else do I explain my wet cheeks? There will be more days, of course (how many more? – perhaps a handful, perhaps an infinity), more rats. I shall sail again, I shall, I shall fulfil my commission. It is absurd but it is sacred (I have made it sacred). There are new lands. There are always new lands, or old lands to make new.
‘Come on,’ the woman says – to herself, I think, or in any case not to me.
It occurs to me that I could not rightly say what language we have been speaking (save for our Linnaean Latin).
She says it again, though she is so far ahead of me now that I hardly hear her: ‘Come on,’ impatiently, angrily, but somehow with love, as the tide continues somehow to come in, as the sun continues somehow to rise.