Following is a short excerpt from a longer story, titled “Impression, …”
There were four of them, and, so the archaeologist supposed, each with their own reasons to be there. A heat haze hung over the sand, over the ocean, very balefully, it seemed, as much as that were possible. How strange, she thought, that the air itself could feel malign, oppressive, tumorous, pushing down on the beach with all the deathly weight of history. The sky was clear and grey. No wind blew.
The archaeologist’s name was Zoe. Sometimes she imagined a different life for herself. One in which she had got the things she wanted. The heat hung over the waves; the waves came in and out, sluggishly, like oil, like tar. She dug her bare toes into the sand and watched the horizon, now and again looking furtively about.
She observed the other three. She was a practised observer.
The geologist, Mark, had rolled up his trousers and waded into the ocean up to his knees. Watching the horizon, his hands in his pockets. She wondered if he was conscious of the figure he struck, there, in the water, his hands in his pockets, surveying the horizon. Was he conscious of being perceived, by her, and by the two others still on the beach? It was such a romantic’s pose. Her impression of him, so far, was that he did enjoy being seen to act; he liked to be the centre of attention, even when he was not involved.
The couple, then. They were a few metres off—he, the etymologist, Hunter; she, the entomologist, Tanishka (although she went by Tan). Hunter lay with his back in the sand, Tan leaning over him, her hand tracing circles on his bare chest. They looked into each other’s eyes and whispered and laughed. Zoe watched and overheard. Once her mother had told her off for eavesdropping; she had learned to do it more discreetly.
“… only come at night, and only once a year. I’ve seen it though,” Hunter was saying.
“Oh?” said Tan.
“They come right up into the lagoon, and burrow into the sand. You have to be very quiet or they will swim away without laying. And then—”
“And then?” asked Tan.
Zoe’s attention waned. She liked Hunter and Tan. Even if she felt they were perhaps ill-suited for each other. Hunter, she had gathered, was timid, far too timid for someone like Tan, who she imagined was more of a free spirit. He liked the strictures of words; she liked to fly away like a butterfly … although, Zoe supposed, it was perhaps reductive to think about them in terms drawn from their fields like that. Tan was good, at least, at drawing Hunter out of his shell. The few times Zoe had spoken to him one on one so far, the conversations had been impossibly monosyllabic.
She looked back at the sea. She supposed the sun would set in a few hours. They would all have to head in then, back to the resort.
Mark was still in the shallows, very quietly, definitely striking a pose. She drew her knees up and slipped her arms around the backs of her thighs, hugging her elbows. She looked beyond Mark, beyond the waves. On the horizon, a ship. Its black silhouette reminded her of a beetle. She wondered who was aboard, or if it was simply adrift, an empty carapace destined to run aground somewhere far from here.
“Hey Zoe,” called Tan.
Zoe looked over. Tan and Hunter watched her expectantly.
“What’s he thinking about?” Tan nodded in the direction of Mark.
“I’m not sure,” she said.
The sun was making her sweat. Maybe she would go indoors before it went down. Weren’t the others feeling it bitterly hot?
Tan said, “Oh actually I enjoy the heat.” She and Hunter went back to each others’ eyes. Zoe heard them talking more about Mark.
She stood abruptly, the sand falling from the folds in her clothes in rivulets. She looked down at the impression she had left in the sand, feeling faintly dizzy and disembodied from standing too fast. Because she had been sitting with her knees bent, the outlines of her ass and feet were the deepest … as if she were no more than what existed from the waist down, and not even that in its entirety. Sometimes she thought it might be possible to glean an accurate picture of herself from the impressions she left behind, in much the same way as she constructed images of the people she knew from the brief, fragmentary moments she shared with them—but then she would look down, at the small divots she had left in the sand, or at her footprints in mud or snow, or at her shadow, vague and blurred in the gathering dark, and discover that none of these things brought her closer to herself.
Later they took a trip to a famous blowhole. At the blowhole it was the four of them, and the captain-cum-tour-guide, and a family of three. All eight were clustered together on a little flat plateau of rock. There was nowhere to sit. The captain warned them to stay back, and mentioned this to the family as well, even though they were not part of the tour. He said that people had died here, getting too close to the waterspout.
It was a desolate place, Zoe thought. Jungle pressed in at their backs. Small puddles of water covered the black expanse of rock. On the far side, gargantuan waves crashed. She felt she had travelled into a time from before life emerged on earth. The waves roared and smashed against the rock … the sound crept into her bones … a strong wind swept in off the ocean and carried the spray from the waves this way and that. They would all be soaked quite soon. It was a desolate place, she thought. It was also very beautiful, she thought.
A constant spray of water came from the hole. Each time a particularly big wave came, a jet almost twenty metres high would erupt, the awful bass of it like the dying cry of some leviathan …
Now and again Mark snapped a photo on a digital camera. “Something for the wife and kids,” he said self-deprecatingly the first time he held it up to his face, but he had continued to snap photo after photo. Zoe thought it unlikely that his family needed so many photos of the same barren landscape.
Tan was standing the closest of them all, at the very edge of the plateau.
Hunter was crouched down on his haunches, a little further back from Tan, shading his eyes. It was very bright out. Zoe was glad she had remembered a hat this time. She had also made sure to wear sunblock.
After the captain warned everyone to stay back, nobody said anything for some time. They all seemed in awe of his words. Here was death, only a few metres away. It was true, lately she carried death close anyway; but here it seemed more brutal, more primaeval. Perhaps the untimely landscape made it possible to think about what it might be like, to not only die, but to have never existed in the first place …
The family seemed quite brave, Zoe thought. The mother and father both had very weather-beaten faces. They seemed like farmers maybe, or fishers. Their daughter, who must have been only six or seven, in contrast seemed starry and innocent. But still Zoe thought they all seemed equally brave. The parents did not flinch at the water crashing all over the rocks; the daughter seemed excited by it. The mother and father had perhaps unlearned fear—the daughter was yet to learn it. Zoe wondered suddenly how many years they had experienced before they came to this blowhole … what sort of things they had seen and done in that time … it seemed small, all of a sudden, astonishingly small, that an entire life might be lived only to lead here, to this tiny outcropping of rock, surrounded by ocean and plumes of salt spray.
But the daughter had lived only six or seven years. She still had an entire life ahead of her. Zoe wondered if the daughter would remember this moment in thirty years, or even in five. She wondered if the daughter would recall the four strangers who had stood on the black outcropping with her and her parents. She wanted to go over and say something to the girl, but it seemed inappropriate. Or not inappropriate. Selfish? To try to insert herself into someone else’s memory like that. And useless maybe. What was there to say, really? The prehistoric language of the waterspout … it felt impossible to say anything of importance, especially to a child, in the face of that …
“Sometimes people try to look inside the hole,” said the captain, reinforcing his previous statement about death. “It is very important not to do that.”
Mark said blowholes were formed by the conjunction of high energy waves with fractured areas of rock. Such as those formed by volcanic islands, or in tectonically active areas. Though it was unclear to whom this statement was addressed.
Zoe heard the daughter ask her parents if she could go inside the hole.
“Listen to the man,” said her father, nodding at the captain.
“I didn’t say I want to look inside it,” said the daughter. “I want to go inside it. I can close my eyes.”
“Maybe one day,” said the mother, “maybe one day you can come back. But today you should stay here.”
“That’s right,” said the captain.
“Come here,” said the mother. “Let’s ask this man to take our photo.”
The daughter nodded. “Okay.”
The mother asked Mark if he could take their picture in front of the blowhole. Then everyone made room so the family could stand with their backs to the ocean. Their bodies seemed intensely frail, outlined by the rock and the white foam. They could get destroyed so easily by these things. Their eyes shone brightly as Mark clicked the button on his camera. Zoe looked over her shoulder, at the view they must be seeing—the jungle, large and deep and green. Everything felt precarious and tilting. She imagined how she must seem to the family. From their perspective, she maybe seemed the one who was intensely frail, outlined by the large deep green jungle.
After Mark finished taking photos he asked how he should contact them later, so he could send the photos. The captain provided a scrap of paper and a pen and the father wrote down his email address for Mark. So Mark, at least, would remain in their story a little longer, she thought.
On the rocky trail which led back to the boat they all walked in single file: the captain, then Mark, then Hunter, Tan, and lastly Zoe. They had left the family behind. Zoe overheard Hunter saying to Tan that maybe they should have asked for a photo too.
“You know how I feel about photos,” said Tan.
“But something to remember the trip by,” he said.
“Don’t you trust that we’ll remember it all on our own?” And Zoe saw her very delicately turn to face him and hold his shoulder and kiss him.
When they got to the dock, Zoe wondered how the family had got to the island, and how they would leave. The only boat tied up was the one the four of them had come on.
Zoe walked down to the beach. It was after midnight. The storm she had seen gathered on the horizon earlier seemed to have dissipated without consummation, and the stars and moon were out very clearly. She was surprised to see the silhouette of someone standing, watching the waves.
They turned as she approached, and in the moonlight she saw it was Tan.
“Oh, good evening,” said Tan.
Zoe asked Tan if she also couldn’t sleep.
Tan said, “The island climate’s not really conducive to sleep for me …”
The moon was hiding behind the fronds of a palm tree. Zoe slipped her sandals off and felt the sand on her feet.
“Hunter surprises me,” she said.
“Mm,” said Tan. “He surprises me too.”
“You haven’t left the island yet.”
And in the halo of the moon, just above the palm tree, some small black spots danced, like stars, like the opposites of stars.
Tan said, “It’s a new species of hedylid … or an old one, I’m not quite sure yet. But they’ve never been spotted in the Pacific before.” The Hedyildae family, she said, was mostly confined to the continent of North America.
“That’s why you’ve stayed.” Zoe sat. Tan remained standing.
“It’s true. I’m yet to catch one. Maybe then …”
“How will you tell if it’s old or new? Will it count as a new species just because it lives in a new environment?”
Tan explained a bit about lepidoptery; taxonomy; the various societies which verified claims from researchers or hobbyists.
“It seems very strict.”
“But everyone disagrees all the time … every time a new species is discovered it can take years before there’s a general agreement, and even then …”
The black spots kept fluttering around the halo of the moon.
It seemed undeniable to Zoe that there was something unique about them. They had travelled across oceans and oceans to be here—or perhaps they hadn’t travelled, but their parents, or grandparents had. She didn’t know whether it was sensible to think about butterflies in generational terms. It seemed a long way, for creatures as small as those black spots. The blue distance of the Pacific multiplied in her head. If nothing else, she wondered, might it be possible they constituted a new species simply by virtue of their loneliness?
“Don’t be silly,” said Tan.
“So you’ll leave then? When you’ve caught one?”
“I can’t say one way or another. Who knows what might happen between now and then.”
Zoe thought about Hunter. Was he asleep? He seemed like someone who wouldn’t sleep well in new places. He didn’t travel much, for his work.
“Will Hunter be okay?” she asked. “If you go?”
“Who knows?” said Tan.
But he had been surprising, so far, Zoe thought. So maybe he was sound asleep.
Tan said she would go for a walk to try to tire herself out.
Zoe watched her shrink as she walked away along the shore.
There had been a different beach recently, in winter. She walked its length every day for a month. Most days it had been covered in snow. She had walked its length every day for a month and thought about what was missing; and then after a month it stopped being covered in snow and simply became a beach again. She stopped walking its length when that happened.
There had been something about the way the pure white came down to the water’s edge, something about the meeting of that white and the grey of the winter’s ocean. It had been bleak and lovely. The chill of it. The way you could see nothing but white and shades of grey. The way people would sometimes let their dogs run loose on it, and you could see them from far away, dashing up and down, toward the water or toward you, and then back again, and if they ran from you, you would still come across their pawprints, pressed deep into the snow with haste and energy; and if they ran up to you, you would see their breath misting in the air and mingling with the tangled clouds low on the horizon.
She wondered now, about whether nothing survived or not. Once, she had spent a month walking the length of a beach in winter. She was no longer that person. And yet. She contained that person, that person was an aspect of her. There was always the possibility she might be that person again … but even then, it would be a different beach, a different winter. As soon, she thought, as soon as you had the distance to look back on something, to look back and see your own footprints mingled with the pawprints of the dogs who still ran up and down further along the snow, as soon as you had that distance you were no longer the person you saw, back there, with the dogs, and in the snow. That person was just a fading ghost; and yet somehow, somehow, they seemed more complete than the one standing there and looking back, watching no longer the dogs, but a new species of hedylid, dancing under the moon, their black specks alone in the entire expanse of the Pacific.
As she watched, the hedylids moved out of the light of the moon. Without them, the sky was so still. The stars did not shimmer, but were cold, and dead.