Scorpion Archipelago October 29th 1997
What it brought was warm sunshine, and though there was not the level of humidity one would find in a jungle, it became oppressive once they were under the blanket of the forest. Despite the early night and fresh air, most of them felt weary, their dreams having been invaded, on a subliminal level at least, by the watchful darkness.
Jane spoke between hacks of the machete. “I can see…why you wanted…us to…have these,” she said to her father as she fought her way through an obstinate thicket, then paused for breath and gestured with the blade. “When you said forest I envisaged a clear floor, but I’ve never seen such a twisted, gnarled, knotted place. It’s like Fangorn or Mirkwood.”
“Where?” said Catalina.
Jane raised her eyebrows in mock exasperation. “Oh, the youth of today. Haven’t you ever read Tolkien?”
Catalina moved to metaphorical safer ground. “The trees haven’t grown that tall, I guess because of the wind, cold and darkness at certain times of the year. But they seem to have compensated by spreading and growing thick. And if there were any volcanic activity in this island’s history it would be very fertile here with the potassium and other minerals. Look just how profuse these ferns are.”
“Of course the sixty-four thousand dollar question,” said Pete, keeping his voice low, “is whether we know we’re heading in the right direction.”
“I’m sure the Professor knows what he’s doing,” said Jim.
You would. “Uh huh.” He hacked with feeling at a bramble.
“Well, we’ve found signs of human life, plus what we think was some sort of harbour. It makes sense to head straight inland from there.”
“Yes, but aren’t you all overlooking one thing? If this were a harbour, surely there’d be dwellings around it. I mean, I’ve not yet seen a harbour that wasn’t surrounded by human habitation.”
“Maybe,” conceded Jim, “but if there were an underwater earthquake followed by a tsunami hitting the coast, it might have swept everything before it. Buildings further up might well have survived. But also, people always build on higher ground if they can, for any number of reasons.”
Jane’s little glance of approval at Jim didn’t go unnoticed, and that same glance took in the way his sweat-soaked shirt stretched across his back. She wondered what the hell was going on with her, having worked with any number of well-muscled teams of perspiring men before. Even her husband wasn’t in the worst shape, thanks to his various leisure activities. But just now she’d imagined her nails raking down Jim’s back. Sure she was attracted to him; had been from the moment she had set eyes on him. But her desires seemed to have attained some lycanthropic, feral quality that was straining to escape. Had it been a peculiar foretaste of this, a few nights before, when she stood in her bedroom assessing her figure? Was something at play here over which she had no control?
They were starting to tire and struggle as they pushed their way uphill, picking or hacking the best path they could through the tangle of tortured roots, brambles, ferns, bushes and low-hanging branches of this eclectic forest, slithering up the damp slope while the soil sucked at their walking boots; there seemed to have been plenty of rain in the recent past, which had worked its way down the mountainside. Moss was everywhere, slimy beneath their hands as they slipped and used tree trunks or boulders for support; it hung from branches and rocks like the embodiment of a green pestilence. The only flowers they saw were pitcher plants, and when Catalina looked into the first few they came across, there were no insects captured inside. “Is there no life in this pissing place?” she muttered. The lack of breeze beneath the canopy added to their general discomfort, as if even the elements had died. The aura of lifelessness was rendered all the more obscene by the contrasting abundance of undergrowth. There seemed to be an underlying sound of water running, but it might have been a trick of the sodden landscape. Otherwise there was only silence. Jane spoke for all of them, even the Professor, when she stopped again and said:
“Why anyone would see this land and choose to settle here is beyond me.”
“Maybe it looked different then,” ventured Jim.
Catalina chipped in: “No, I think we can assume a forest like this would have greeted the first settlers.
They stopped again for some water, grateful to remove the rucksacks, which had dragged them down into the cloying mud, and used them as seats in the absence of any dry spots.
Catalina, hands resting on her knees, looked up and around. “Nothing,” she said.
“Mmm?” Cobus looked at her then followed her gaze. “Ja, man, that’s what I was saying last night – there’s nothing. No bird song; no insects buzzing; no nothing.”
“It doesn’t feel right, does it?”
Jane heard this and looked in her father’s direction, to see what impact the comments might be having on him. What she saw worried her. He had been quiet all morning; said more or less nothing, rather like on the flight. In fact, since he had spent most of the morning at the back of the group she might almost forgotten he was there, were it not for the ever-present filial bond. Now he looked drained and did not appear to be taking part in any discussion or making any observations. Was time catching up with him at last? Was this one expedition too far? She moved over and sat next to him. “Are you okay, father?”
“Not really, no.”
She put her hand on his arm. “What’s the matter?”
He took a deep breathe. “Janey, I’m getting this peculiar feeling I shouldn’t be here. None of us should.”
She tried to sound reassuring, though it was tough in the face of such an abstract observation from her pragmatic father. “Oh, that’s just this place,” she said, looking up at the trees. “Do you remember what the Romans said about the Teutoburg Forest? It played with their minds.”
“I remember what happened to Varus.” Jane realised the slaughter of three crack legions by barbarians was the last thing her father needed to be reminded of right now. He made a tired gesture in the direction of the students. “They’re right – this place does have a peculiar feel to it. It’s dead, but somehow…alive at the same time. Perhaps it’s alive with the dead. Who knows how many souls were lost here.”
He talked over her. “Suddenly – no that’s a lie; it’s not the first time – I’m wondering why I’m here. Have I just been a foolish old man with an obsession, determined to prove myself right? Has my vanity put us all in danger?” He turned to his daughter. “Why exactly have I brought us to this God-forsaken place?”
“Oh father.” She put an arm around him. “You are feeling down, aren’t you? We’ve been in more forsaken places than this.”
“Maybe you have, my girl, but I’m used to the ocean, which is alive, and moving, and breathing.”
“And pitiless,” she countered. “What about those shipwrecks you’ve encountered?”
He smiled, his mind’s eye moving beneath the waves. “Full of fish, barnacles, anemones; life.”
“And death on occasion, father… and death.”
“At least there I can see the dead.”
“Well I am feeling very much alive.” She spared her father the details of her disinterred libido, which had been buried deeper and for longer than King Tut.
“And I, for the first time, am feeling very much my age.” She’d known it. “This forest feels suffocating, like one of your tombs. Jane.” He looked at her with a frankness that brooked no flippant response. “Am I just an old fool who’s brought us to the edge of the abyss?”
“No. Look, to return your analogy, you found the needle down in the bay. We’re just following the thread.”
“As long as it doesn’t lead us into the labyrinth instead of out of it.”
She took his hand and smiled. “Well, the Minotaur is something I don’t believe in. But if there’s something to find here, we’ll find it.”
But not that day. They strained, sweated, hacked and scrambled their way through an untold area of forest and returned to the camp late afternoon when fatigue overtook them, despite the energy bars.
Before hitting camp again, however, there was one moment of rare pleasure and relief when, believing they could hear water moving, they cleared a path through the trees and discovered a delightful pool into which tumbled a sparkling cascade of water. The beauty of the scene was enhanced by a more practical consideration. They had been wondering where they were going to find more drinking water, and somewhere to wash away the sweat and dirt of the day’s labours, before stale body odour became an addition to the pleasures of the trip. This al fresco shower, just a quarter of a mile or so from the camp, was the one blessing the island granted them that day.
They were standing near the base of the little waterfall, and everyone dipped their hats in the stream before putting them on again and gasping at the cold that gripped their veins.
“It’ll take a brave person to jump in there,” said Cobus.
“Och, ye’ve not spent enough time in Scotland, ye jessie,” said Robbie. “Ye should try a dip in the North Sea.”
Jane stooped to take a handful of water and in doing so she slipped on one of the moss-covered rocks. Jim was a couple of feet ahead of her, having moved in closer to take some pictures, and caught her as she stumbled towards the water. As he helped her straighten up his face registered surprise and puzzlement.
“Thank you,” said Jane, “I’m such a klutz.” She retreated to the safety of the flatter ground.
Despite that discovery, it was a subdued party that set about its various tasks in the camp in the early evening light. Jane was pleased to see that the three students sat by the Professor. They had a thousand questions for the man who had mapped most of the world’s oceans during his life. Pete had wandered off and stood with his feet cooling in the surf, enjoying a cigarette and, Jane noticed, taking nips from the hipflask he had brought with him.
Jim seemed restless. “Hey, so no-one wonders where I’ve gone,” he said, “I’m just going to wander along the shoreline a bit; see if there’s any good photo-opportunities. And who knows, there might be another totem, or an easier route up onto the tops. If I’m not back in a couple of hours feel free to come and look for me. I’ll certainly be back for dinner.” He smiled. There was a general acknowledgement and he headed off along the edge of the bay.
Jane came and stood by Pete. “Not quite what you’re used to, is it?”
He took a long draw on his cigarette and looked sidelong at her. “Nor you, I wouldn’t have thought.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised. People think that X marks the spot in archaeology, but it rarely does. Swap thick, impenetrable forest for endless square miles of sand. And deserts shift over the course of time. There’s a lot of monotonous, back-breaking toil. It’s not all doorways with curses above them – just a lot of cursing – nor Howard Carter’s wonderful things glittering in your lamplight for the first time in millennia.”
Pete glanced back over his shoulder and drew on his cigarette again. “Old man seems a bit down. Do you think he’s realised how fruitless this might be?”
Jane sighed in irritation. “You know, everyone seems to have forgotten – and I include my father in this – that we’ve already made the most fantastic discovery; that obelisk there. No one knew there was life here. That’s an absolute sign of it. It’s wonderfully exciting.”
“Yes,” said Pete in a voice that conveyed only ennui, “I’m sure it is.”
“Okay, it’s not sky-diving from twenty thousand feet, or climbing free-form, but if something had been a puzzle to you for forty years you’d be thrilled at a glimpse of the solution.”
“Sounds like my life, old girl. That’s been longer than forty years and it’s certainly been a puzzle.” He grinned and despite herself, Jane did too; his dry wit, when not being directed with sarcasm, could still make her laugh. Then he looked at her. “Maybe I’ll find some answers while I’m here.” He pitched his dog-end away. “Look, all I’m saying is he doesn’t look very excited. Perhaps it’s dawned on him that, whatever’s happened here, this is a place of death. The only puzzle or secret as far as I’m concerned” he looked around, “is what the hell made anyone want to live here?” There was a brief silence. “Anyway, he’s not as excited to be here as some people.”
“What do you mean?”
He looked long at her. Jane knew her sunburnt skin wouldn’t hide the blush she felt rising. “You ask me that a lot. But this time you know damn well what I mean. You’ve been like a hormonal teenager ever since Jim and his amazing zoom lens turned up.”
“Well, I’m…it’s exciting to meet somebody so famous in his field.”
“And in his barn and his hayloft, I imagine.”
“You’re impossible.” She tried to fake some jollity. “Judging people by your own standards.”
“Maybe.” There was a peremptory note to the word. He looked at her. “Anyway, I’m dog tired.” He tapped his hipflask. “I think the old Glenfiddich has mellowed me out a bit.” He leaned forward before she could prepare and kissed her on the lips, his mouth was hard against hers, like he meant it. “We must do this again sometime; talk. And if there’s anything else you want to do again…” he pointed to his tent, “…just come and open my fastening.” He flicked the brim of his walking hat and went on his way; an urban cowboy in a wild place.
Jane looked around and saw the students watching her. Catalina looked intrigued. Doubtless she was watching with a woman’s eyes and knew exactly what was going on. That was something Jane would have to deal with.
It wasn’t long before she could hear Pete snoring from the tent he had chosen to pitch a short distance away from everyone.
A few minutes later she said to the others: “I’m going back to that pool to wash and freshen up.”
“You be safe,” warned the Professor. “Do you want someone to come with you?”
“No, that’s the last thing I want,” she laughed at the thought, “as I’m going to strip off.”
Cobus wanted to make a crude comment, but held back. He was still in awe of these people. Jane grabbed her field toiletry bag, which was pink and frilly as a deliberate concession to her femininity during all those times when she was surrounded by colleagues and circumstances that led her to doubt it. She also took a change of clothes; the red plaid shirt and Levis she had purchased during the stopover in Singapore and worn during the flight to Sydney to try to – appeal to Jim? – feel civilised.
It took her about fifteen minutes along the now comparatively clear path they had hacked. When she reached the pool, with its collection of strange weathered rock attendants, she was quick to strip and dive in. The icy water shocked her to the core, but she persevered, washed in a hurry and then – a strange action given the isolation in which she found herself – tied a towel around her.
Her timing could not have been better. Moments later, Jim stepped into the clearing. She turned to face him.
“Ah, you came,” she said in a voice that quivered with the force of the pulse in her throat.
“Yes. What’s going on, Jane?” From his pocket he produced the folded-up piece of paper that she had pressed into his hand when she stumbled earlier in this very spot. He read: “I must see you. Be at the lake an hour after we return to camp.” What’s it all about?”
“This.” She stepped forward and kissed him with pure hunger. Then she backed away, breathing hard. “I’m sorry; I don’t know what’s come over me.”
His breathing was also heavyow. “There’s a very crude joke there.”
“Hah!” With that she pressed herself against him again. He pulled the towel from her and his hands moved up, finding her breasts.
They found the rest of each other pretty soon after that, with no questioning of whether they should. The intensity of the sex astonished them both. Afterwards Jane stood with her head resting on his chest. “I don’t know what’s happened to me since I met you.”
“You archaeologists,” said Jim, “always unearthing things you don’t fully understand.”
She laughed. “What I do know is that I’ve wanted you from the moment I met you, but the feeling has grown every hour since, till it’s almost out of my control.”
“You’re a very attractive woman, Jane, but you’re married, so I never really thought much more about it. But when you kissed me just now, it seemed absolutely right to seize the moment. I can’t explain it any better than that. And it’s taken my breath away to discover how much I must have been suppressing my desire for you.” He looked around. “Perhaps it’s an affirmation of life in a lifeless place.”
“For this island, read my marriage. Perhaps that’s why I did what I did a couple of nights back.”
“What was that?”
She looked down. “I’m ashamed to admit I had sex with Pete.” Now she looked up at him again. “But I imagined it was you. You’d filled me with such desire that I had to have you then, even when I couldn’t.” She circled her nails playfully on his chest and looked him in the eyes. “So does all that mean you wouldn’t want me as much if we were back in England?”
His eyes gave the lie to his words and she slapped him playfully on the chest. Then her lips curled in a lob-sided, arch smile. “Well then, we don’t have much time to experience everything there is; and what might have been.” She kissed his chest, and then he felt the tip of her nose moving lower.
They arrived back at camp from their separate directions. Not everyone was fooled.