The Women Men Don’t See
by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), 1973
I see her first while the Mexicana 727 is barreling down to Cozumel Island. I come out of the can and lurch into her seat, saying “Sorry,” at a double female blur. The near blur nods quietly. The younger one in the window seat goes on looking out. I continue down the aisle, registering nothing. Zero. I never would have looked at them or thought of them again.
Cozumel airport is the usual mix of panicky Yanks dressed for the sand pile and calm Mexicans dressed for lunch at the Presidente. I am a used-up Yank dressed for serious fishing; I extract my rods and duffel from the riot and hike across the field to find my charter pilot. One Captain Estéban has contracted to deliver me to the bonefish flats of Belize three hundred kilometers down the coast.
Captain Estéban turns out to be four feet nine of mahogany Maya puro. He is also in a somber Maya snit. He tells me my Cessna is grounded somewhere and his Bonanza is booked to take a party to Chetumal.
Well, Chetumal is south; can he take me along and go on to Belize after he drops them? Gloomily he concedes the possibility—if the other party permits, and if there are not too many equipajes.
The Chetumal party approaches. It’s the woman and her young companion—daughter?—neatly picking their way across the gravel and yucca apron. Their Ventura two-suiters, like themselves, are small, plain, and neutral-colored. No problem. When the captain asks if I may ride along, the mother says mildly, “Of course,” without looking at me.
I think that’s when my inner tilt-detector sends up its first faint click. How come this woman has already looked me over carefully enough to accept on her plane? I disregard it. Paranoia hasn’t been useful in my business for years, but the habit is hard to break.
As we clamber into the Bonanza, I see the girl has what could be an attractive body if there was any spark at all. There isn’t. Captain Estéban folds a serape to sit on so he can see over the cowling and runs a meticulous check-down. And then we’re up and trundling over the turquoise Jell-O of the Caribbean into a stiff south wind.
The coast on our right is the territory of Quintana Roo. If you haven’t seen Yucatán, imagine the world’s biggest absolutely flat green-gray rug. An empty-looking land. We pass the white ruin of Tulum and the gash of the road to Chichén Itzá, a half-dozen coconut plantations, and then nothing but reef and low scrub jungle all the way to the horizon, just about the way the conquistadors saw it four centuries back.
Long strings of cumulus are racing at us, shadowing the coast. I have gathered that part of our pilot’s gloom concerns the weather. A cold front is dying on the henequen fields of Mérida to the west, and the south wind has piled up a string of coastal storms: what they call lloviznas.Estéban detours methodically around a couple of small thunderheads. The Bonanza jinks, and I look back with a vague notion of reassuring the women. They are calmly intent on what can be seen of Yucatán. Well, they were offered the copilot’s view, but they turned it down. Too shy?
Another llovizna puffs up ahead. Estéban takes the Bonanza upstairs, rising in his seat to sight his course. I relax for the first time in too long, savoring the latitudes between me and my desk, the week of fishing ahead. Our captain’s classic Maya profile attracts my gaze: forehead sloping back from his predatory nose, lips and jaw stepping back below it. If his slant eyes had been any more crossed, he couldn’t have made his license. That’s a handsome combination, believe it or not. On the little Maya chicks in their minishifts with iridescent gloop on those cockeyes, it’s also highly erotic. Nothing like the oriental doll thing; these people have stone bones. Captain Estéban’s old grandmother could probably tow the Bonanza.…
I’m snapped awake by the cabin hitting my ear. Estéban is barking into his headset over a drumming racket of hail; the windows are dark gray.
One important noise is missing—the motor. I realize Estéban is fighting a dead plane. Thirty-six hundred; we’ve lost two thousand feet!
He slaps tank switches as the storm throws us around; I catch something about gasolina in a snarl that shows his big teeth. The Bonanza reels down. As he reaches for an overhead toggle, I see the fuel gauges are high. Maybe a clogged gravity feed line; I’ve heard of dirty gas down here. He drops the set; it’s a million to one nobody can read us through the storm at this range anyway. Twenty-five hundred—going down.
His electric feed pump seems to have cut in: the motor explodes—quits—explodes—and quits again for good. We are suddenly out of the bottom of the clouds. Below us is a long white line almost hidden by rain: the reef. But there isn’t any beach behind it, only a big meandering bay with a few mangrove flats—and it’s coming up at us fast.
This is going to be bad, I tell myself with great unoriginality. The women behind me haven’t made a sound. I look back and see they’ve braced down with their coats by their heads. With a stalling speed around eighty, all this isn’t much use, but I wedge myself in.
Estéban yells some more into his set, flying a falling plane. He is doing one jesus job, too—as the water rushes up at us he dives into a hair-raising turn and hangs us into the wind—with a long pale ridge of sandbar in front of our nose.
Where in hell he found it I never know. The Bonanza mushes down, and we belly-hit with a tremendous tearing crash—bounce—hit again—and everything slews wildly as we flat-spin into the mangroves at the end of the bar. Crash! Clang! The plane is wrapping itself into a mound of strangler fig with one wing up. The crashing quits with us all in one piece. And no fire. Fantastic.
Captain Estéban pries open his door, which is now in the roof. Behind me a woman is repeating quietly, “Mother. Mother.” I climb up the floor and find the girl trying to free herself from her mother’s embrace. The woman’s eyes are closed. Then she opens them and suddenly lets go, sane as soap. Estéban starts hauling them out. I grab the Bonanza’s aid kit and scramble out after them into brilliant sun and wind. The storm that hit us is already vanishing up the coast.
“Great landing, Captain.”
“Oh, yes! It was beautiful.” The women are shaky, but no hysteria. Estéban is surveying the scenery with the expression his ancestors used on the Spaniards.
If you’ve been in one of those things, you know the slow-motion inanity that goes on. Euphoria, first. We straggle down the fig tree and out onto the sandbar in the roaring hot wind, noting without alarm that there’s nothing but miles of crystalline water on all sides. It’s only a foot or so deep, and the bottom is the olive color of silt. The distant shore around us is all flat mangrove swamp, totally uninhabitable.
“Bahía Espíritu Santo.” Estéban confirms my guess that we’re down in that huge water wilderness. I always wanted to fish it.
“What’s all that smoke?” The girl is pointing at the plumes blowing around the horizon.
“Alligator hunters,” says Estéban. Maya poachers have left burn-offs in the swamps. It occurs to me that any signal fires we make aren’t going to be too conspicuous. And I now note that our plane is well-buried in the mound of fig. Hard to see it from the air.
Just as the question of how the hell we get out of here surfaces in my mind, the older woman asks composedly, “If they didn’t hear you, Captain, when will they start looking for us? Tomorrow?”
“Correct,” Estéban agrees dourly. I recall that air-sea rescue is fairly informal here. Like, keep an eye open for Mario, his mother says he hasn’t been home all week.
It dawns on me we may be here quite some while.
Furthermore, the diesel-truck noise on our left is the Caribbean piling back into the mouth of the bay. The wind is pushing it at us, and the bare bottoms on the mangroves show that our bar is covered at high tide. I recall seeing a full moon this morning in—believe it, St. Louis—which means maximal tides. Well, we can climb up in the plane. But what about drinking water?
There’s a small splat! behind me. The older woman has sampled the bay. She shakes her head, smiling ruefully. It’s the first real expression on either of them; I take it as the signal for introductions. When I say I’m Don Fenton from St. Louis, she tells me their name is Parsons, from Bethesda, Maryland. She says it so nicely I don’t at first notice we aren’t being given first names. We all compliment Captain Estéban again.
His left eye is swelled shut, an inconvenience beneath his attention as a Maya, but Mrs. Parsons spots the way he’s bracing his elbow in his ribs.
“You’re hurt, Captain.”
“Roto—I think is broken.” He’s embarrassed at being in pain. We get him to peel off his Jaime shirt, revealing a nasty bruise in his superb dark-bay torso.
“Is there tape in that kit, Mr. Fenton? I’ve had a little first-aid training.”
She begins to deal competently and very impersonally with the tape. Miss Parsons and I wander to the end of the bar and have a conversation which I am later to recall acutely.
“Roseate spoonbills,” I tell her as three pink birds flap away.
“They’re beautiful,” she says in her tiny voice. They both have tiny voices. “He’s a Mayan Indian, isn’t he? The pilot, I mean.”
“Right. The real thing, straight out of the Bonampak murals. Have you seen Chichén and Uxmal?”
“Yes. We were in Mérida. We’re going to Tikal in Guatemala.… I mean, we were.”
“You’ll get there.” It occurs to me the girl needs cheering up. “Have they told you that Maya mothers used to tie a board on the infant’s forehead to get that slant? They also hung a ball of tallow over its nose to make the eyes cross. It was considered aristocratic.”
She smiles and takes another peek at Estéban. “People seem different in Yucatán,” she says thoughtfully. “Not like the Indians around Mexico City. More, I don’t know, independent.”
“Comes from never having been conquered. Mayas got massacred and chased a lot, but nobody ever really flattened them. I bet you didn’t know that the last Mexican-Maya war ended with a negotiated truce in nineteen thirty-five?”
“No!” Then she says seriously, “I like that.”
“So do I.”
“The water is really rising very fast,” says Mrs. Parsons gently from behind us.
It is, and so is another llovizna. We climb back into the Bonanza. I try to rig my parka for a rain catcher, which blows loose as the storm hits fast and furious. We sort a couple of malt bars and my bottle of Jack Daniel’s out of the jumble in the cabin and make ourselves reasonably comfortable. The Parsons take a sip of whiskey each, Estéban and I considerably more. The Bonanza begins to bump soggily. Estéban makes an ancient one-eyed Mayan face at the water seeping into his cabin and goes to sleep. We all nap.
When the water goes down, the euphoria has gone with it, and we’re very, very thirsty. It’s also damn near sunset. I get to work with a bait-casting rod and some treble hooks and manage to foul-hook four small mullets. Estéban and the women tie the Bonanza’s midget life raft out in the mangroves to catch rain. The wind is parching hot. No planes go by.
Finally another shower comes over and yields us six ounces of water apiece. When the sunset envelops the world in golden smoke, we squat on the sandbar to eat wet raw mullet and Instant Breakfast crumbs. The women are now in shorts, neat but definitely not sexy.
“I never realized how refreshing raw fish is,” Mrs. Parsons says pleasantly. Her daughter chuckles, also pleasantly. She’s on Mamma’s far side away from Estéban and me. I have Mrs. Parsons figured now; Mother Hen protecting only chick from male predators. That’s all right with me. I came here to fish.
But something is irritating me. The damn women haven’t complained once, you understand. Not a peep, not a quaver, no personal manifestations whatever. They’re like something out of a manual.
“You really seem at home in the wilderness, Mrs. Parsons. You do much camping?”
“Oh, goodness no.” Diffident laugh. “Not since my girl scout days. Oh, look—are those man-of-war birds?”
Answer a question with a question. I wait while the frigate birds sail nobly into the sunset.
“Bethesda … Would I be wrong in guessing you work for Uncle Sam?”
“Why, yes. You must be very familiar with Washington, Mr. Fenton. Does your work bring you there often?”
Anywhere but on our sandbar the little ploy would have worked. My hunter’s gene twitches.
“Which agency are you with?”
She gives up gracefully. “Oh, just GSA records. I’m a librarian.”
Of course. I know her now, all the Mrs. Parsonses in records divisions, accounting sections, research branches, personnel and administration offices. Tell Mrs. Parsons we need a recap on the external service contracts for fiscal ’73. So Yucatán is on the tours now? Pity … I offer her the tired little joke. “You know where the bodies are buried.”
She smiles deprecatingly and stands up. “It does get dark quickly, doesn’t it?”
Time to get back into the plane.
A flock of ibis are circling us, evidently accustomed to roosting in our fig tree. Estéban produces a machete and a Mayan string hammock. He proceeds to sling it between tree and plane, refusing help. His machete stroke is noticeably tentative.
The Parsons are taking a pee behind the tail vane. I hear one of them slip and squeal faintly. When they come back over the hull, Mrs. Parsons asks, “Might we sleep in the hammock, Captain?”
Estéban splits an unbelieving grin. I protest about rain and mosquitoes.
“Oh, we have insect repellent and we do enjoy fresh air.”
The air is rushing by about force five and colder by the minute.
“We have our raincoats,” the girl adds cheerfully.
Well, okay, ladies. We dangerous males retire inside the damp cabin. Through the wind I hear the women laugh softly now and then, apparently cozy in their chilly ibis roost. A private insanity, I decide. I know myself for the least threatening of men; my noncharisma has been in fact an asset jobwise, over the years. Are they having fantasies about Estéban? Or maybe they really are fresh-air nuts.… Sleep comes for me in invisible diesels roaring by on the reef outside.
· · · · ·
We emerge dry-mouthed into a vast windy salmon sunrise. A diamond chip of sun breaks out of the sea and promptly submerges in cloud. I go to work with the rod and some mullet bait while two showers detour around us. Breakfast is a strip of wet barracuda apiece.
The Parsons continue stoic and helpful. Under Estéban’s direction they set up a section of cowling for a gasoline flare in case we hear a plane, but nothing goes over except one unseen jet droning toward Panama. The wind howls, hot and dry and full of coral dust. So are we.
“They look first in sea,” Estéban remarks. His aristocratic frontal slope is beaded with sweat; Mrs. Parsons watches him concernedly. I watch the cloud blanket tearing by above, getting higher and dryer and thicker. While that lasts nobody is going to find us, and the water business is now unfunny.
Finally I borrow Estéban’s machete and hack a long light pole. “There’s a stream coming in back there, I saw it from the plane. Can’t be more than two, three miles.”
“I’m afraid the raft’s torn.” Mrs. Parsons shows me the cracks in the orange plastic; irritatingly, it’s a Delaware label.
“All right,” I hear myself announce. “The tide’s going down. If we cut the good end off that air tube, I can haul water back in it. I’ve waded flats before.”
Even to me it sounds crazy.
“Stay by plane,” Estéban says. He’s right, of course. He’s also clearly running a fever. I look at the overcast and taste grit and old barracuda. The hell with the manual.
When I start cutting up the raft, Estéban tells me to take the serape. “You stay one night.” He’s right about that, too; I’ll have to wait out the tide.
“I’ll come with you,” says Mrs. Parsons calmly.
I simply stare at her. What new madness has got into Mother Hen? Does she imagine Estéban is too battered to be functional? While I’m being astounded, my eyes take in the fact that Mrs. Parsons is now quite rosy around the knees, with her hair loose and a sunburn starting on her nose. A trim, in fact a very neat, shading-forty.
“Look, that stuff is horrible going. Mud up to your ears and water over your head.”
“I’m really quite fit and I swim a great deal. I’ll try to keep up. Two would be much safer, Mr. Fenton, and we can bring more water.”
She’s serious. Well, I’m about as fit as a marshmallow at this time of winter, and I can’t pretend I’m depressed by the idea of company. So be it.
“Let me show Miss Parsons how to work this rod.”
Miss Parsons is even rosier and more windblown, and she’s not clumsy with my tackle. A good girl, Miss Parsons, in her nothing way. We cut another staff and get some gear together. At the last minute Estéban shows how sick he feels: he offers me the machete. I thank him, but no; I’m used to my Wirkkala knife. We tie some air into the plastic tube for a float and set out along the sandiest-looking line.
Estéban raises one dark palm. “Buen viaje.” Miss Parsons has hugged her mother and gone to cast from the mangrove. She waves. We wave.
An hour later we’re barely out of waving distance. The going is purely god-awful. The sand keeps dissolving into silt you can’t walk on or swim through, and the bottom is spiked with dead mangrove spears. We flounder from one pothole to the next, scaring up rays and turtles and hoping to god we don’t kick a moray eel. Where we’re not soaked in slime, we’re desiccated, and we smell like the Old Cretaceous.
Mrs. Parsons keeps up doggedly. I only have to pull her out once. When I do so, I notice the sandbar is now out of sight.
Finally we reach the gap in the mangrove line I thought was the creek. It turns out to open into another arm of the bay, with more mangroves ahead. And the tide is coming in.
“I’ve had the world’s lousiest idea.”
Mrs. Parsons only says mildly, “It’s so different from the view from the plane.”
I revise my opinion of the girl scouts, and we plow on past the mangroves toward the smoky haze that has to be shore. The sun is setting in our faces, making it hard to see. Ibis and herons fly up around us, and once a big hermit spooks ahead, his fin cutting a rooster tail. We fall into more potholes. The flashlights get soaked. I am having fantasies of the mangrove as universal obstacle; it’s hard to recall I ever walked down a street, for instance, without stumbling over or under or through mangrove roots. And the sun is dropping down, down.
Suddenly we hit a ledge and fall over it into a cold flow.
“The stream! It’s fresh water!”
We guzzle and garble and douse our heads; it’s the best drink I remember. “Oh my, oh my—!” Mrs. Parsons is laughing right out loud.
“That dark place over to the right looks like real land.”
We flounder across the flow and follow a hard shelf, which turns into solid bank and rises over our heads. Shortly there’s a break beside a clump of spiny bromels, and we scramble up and flop down at the top, dripping and stinking. Out of sheer reflex my arm goes around my companion’s shoulder—but Mrs. Parsons isn’t there; she’s up on her knees peering at the burnt-over plain around us.
“It’s so good to see land one can walk on!” The tone is too innocent. Noli me tangere.
“Don’t try it.” I’m exasperated; the muddy little woman, what does she think? “That ground out there is a crush of ashes over muck, and it’s full of stubs. You can go in over your knees.”
“It seems firm here.”
“We’re in an alligator nursery. That was the slide we came up. Don’t worry, by now the old lady’s doubtless on her way to be made into handbags.”
“What a shame.”
“I better set a line down in the stream while I can still see.”
I slide back down and rig a string of hooks that may get us breakfast. When I get back Mrs. Parsons is wringing muck out of the serape.
“I’m glad you warned me, Mr. Fenton. It istreacherous.”
“Yeah.” I’m over my irritation; god knows I don’t want to tangere Mrs. Parsons, even if I weren’t beat down to mush. “In its quiet way, Yucatán is a tough place to get around in. You can see why the Mayas built roads. Speaking of which—look!”
The last of the sunset is silhouetting a small square shape a couple of kilometers inland; a Maya ruina with a fig tree growing out of it.
“Lot of those around. People think they were guard towers.”
“What a deserted-feeling land.”
“Let’s hope it’s deserted by mosquitoes.”
We slump down in the ‘gator nursery and share the last malt bar, watching the stars slide in and out of the blowing clouds. The bugs aren’t too bad; maybe the burn did them in. And it isn’t hot anymore, either—in fact, it’s not even warm, wet as we are. Mrs. Parsons continues tranquilly interested in Yucatán and unmistakably uninterested in togetherness.
Just as I’m beginning to get aggressive notions about how we’re going to spend the night if she expects me to give her the serape, she stands up, scuffs at a couple of hummocks, and says, “I expect this is as good a place as any, isn’t it, Mr. Fenton?”
With which she spreads out the raft bag for a pillow and lies down on her side in the dirt with exactly half the serape over her and the other corner folded neatly open. Her small back is toward me.
The demonstration is so convincing that I’m halfway under my share of serape before the preposterousness of it stops me.
“By the way. My name is Don.”
“Oh, of course.” Her voice is graciousness itself. “I’m Ruth.”
I get in not quite touching her, and we lie there like two fish on a plate, exposed to the stars and smelling the smoke in the wind and feeling things underneath us. It is absolutely the most intimately awkward moment I’ve had in years.
The woman doesn’t mean one thing to me, but the obtrusive recessiveness of her, the defiance of her little rump eight inches from my fly—for two pesos I’d have those shorts down and introduce myself. If I were twenty years younger. If I wasn’t so bushed.… But the twenty years and the exhaustion are there, and it comes to me wryly that Mrs. Ruth Parsons has judged things to a nicety. If I were twenty years younger, she wouldn’t be here. Like the butterfish that float around a sated barracuda, only to vanish away the instant his intent changes, Mrs. Parsons knows her little shorts are safe. Those firmly filled little shorts, so close …
A warm nerve stirs in my groin—and just as it does I become aware of a silent emptiness beside me. Mrs. Parsons is imperceptibly inching away. Did my breathing change? Whatever, I’m perfectly sure that if my hand reached, she’d be elsewhere—probably announcing her intention to take a dip. The twenty years bring a chuckle to my throat, and I relax.
“Good night, Ruth.”
“Good night, Don.”
And believe it or not, we sleep, while the armadas of the wind roar overhead.
· · · · ·
Light wakes me—a cold white glare.
My first thought is ‘gator hunters. Best to manifest ourselves as turistas as fast as possible. I scramble up, noting that Ruth has dived under the bromel clump.
“Quién estás? Al socorro! Help, Señores!”
No answer except the light goes out, leaving me blind.
I yell some more in a couple of languages. It stays dark. There’s a vague scrabbling, whistling sound somewhere in the burn-off. Liking everything less by the minute, I try a speech about our plane having crashed and we need help.
A very narrow pencil of light flicks over us and snaps off.
“Eh-ep,” says a blurry voice, and something metallic twitters. They for sure aren’t locals. I’m getting unpleasant ideas.
Something goes crackle-crackle whish-whish, and all sounds fade away.
“What the holy hell!” I stumble toward where they were.
“Look.” Ruth whispers behind me. “Over by the ruin.”
I look and catch a multiple flicker which winks out fast.
And I take two more blind strides. My leg goes down through the crust, and a spike spears me just where you stick the knife in to unjoint a drumstick. By the pain that goes through my bladder I recognize that my trick kneecap has caught it.
For instant basket-case you can’t beat kneecaps. First you discover your knee doesn’t bend anymore, so you try putting some weight on it, and a bayonet goes up your spine and unhinges your jaw. Little grains of gristle have got into the sensitive bearing surface. The knee tries to buckle and can’t, and mercifully you fall down.
Ruth helps me back to the serape.
“What a fool, what a god-forgotten imbecile—”
“Not at all, Don. It was perfectly natural.” We strike matches; her fingers push mine aside, exploring. “I think it’s in place, but it’s swelling fast. I’ll lay a wet handkerchief on it. We’ll have to wait for morning to check the cut. Were they poachers, do you think?”
“Probably,” I lie. What I think they were is smugglers.
She comes back with a soaked bandanna and drapes it on. “We must have frightened them. That light … it seemed so bright.”
“Some hunting party. People do crazy things around here.”
“Perhaps they’ll come back in the morning.”
Ruth pulls up the wet serape, and we say good-night again. Neither of us is mentioning how we’re going to get back to the plane without help.
I lie staring south where Alpha Centauri is blinking in and out of the overcast and cursing myself for the sweet mess I’ve made. My first idea is giving way to an even less pleasing one.
Smuggling, around here, is a couple of guys in an outboard meeting a shrimp boat by the reef. They don’t light up the sky or have some kind of swamp buggy that goes whoosh. Plus a big camp … paramilitary-type equipment?
I’ve seen a report of Guévarista infiltrators operating on the British Honduran border, which is about a hundred kilometers—sixty miles—south of here. Right under those clouds. If that’s what looked us over, I’ll be more than happy if they don’t come back.…
· · · · ·
I wake up in pelting rain, alone. My first move confirms that my leg is as expected—a giant misplaced erection bulging out of my shorts. I raise up painfully to see Ruth standing by the bromels, looking over the bay. Solid wet nimbus is pouring out of the south.
“No planes today.”
“Oh, good morning, Don. Should we look at that cut now?”
“It’s minimal.” In fact the skin is hardly broken, and no deep puncture. Totally out of proportion to the havoc inside.
“Well, they have water to drink,” Ruth says tranquilly. “Maybe those hunters will come back. I’ll go see if we have a fish—that is, can I help you in any way, Don?”
Very tactful. I emit an ungracious negative, and she goes off about her private concerns.
They certainly are private, too; when I recover from my own sanitary efforts, she’s still away. Finally I hear splashing.
“It’s a big fish!” More splashing. Then she climbs up the bank with a three-pound mangrove snapper—and something else.
It isn’t until after the messy work of filleting the fish that I begin to notice.
She’s making a smudge of chaff and twigs to singe the fillets, small hands very quick, tension in that female upper lip. The rain has eased off for the moment; we’re sluicing wet but warm enough. Ruth brings me my fish on a mangrove skewer and sits back on her heels with an odd breathy sigh.
“Aren’t you joining me?”
“Oh, of course.” She gets a strip and picks at it, saying quickly, “We either have too much salt or too little, don’t we? I should fetch some brine.” Her eyes are roving from nothing to noplace.
“Good thought.” I hear another sigh and decide the girl scouts need as assist. “Your daughter mentioned you’ve come from Mérida. Have you seen much of Mexico?”
“Not really. Last year we went to Mazatlán and Cuernavaca.…” She puts the fish down, frowning.
“And you’re going to see Tikal. Going to Bonampak too?”
“No.” Suddenly she jumps up brushing rain off her face. “I’ll bring you some water, Don.”
She ducks down the slide, and after a fair while comes back with a full bromel stalk.
“Thanks.” She’s standing above me, staring restlessly round the horizon.
“Ruth, I hate to say it, but those guys are not coming back and it’s probably just as well. Whatever they were up to, we looked like trouble. The most they’ll do is tell someone we’re here. That’ll take a day or two to get around, we’ll be back at the plane by then.”
“I’m sure you’re right, Don.” She wanders over to the smudge fire.
“And quit fretting about your daughter. She’s a big girl.”
“Oh, I’m sure Althea’s all right.… They have plenty of water now.” Her fingers drum on her thigh. It’s raining again.
“Come on, Ruth. Sit down. Tell me about Althea. Is she still in college?”
She gives that sighing little laugh and sits. “Althea got her degree last year. She’s in computer programming.”
“Good for her. And what about you, what do you do in GSA records?”
“I’m in Foreign Procurement Archives.” She smiles mechanically, but her breathing is shallow. “It’s very interesting.”
“I know a Jack Wittig in Contracts, maybe you know him?”
It sounds pretty absurd, there in the ‘gator slide.
“Oh, I’ve met Mr. Wittig. I’m sure he wouldn’t remember me.”
“I’m not very memorable.”
Her voice is factual. She’s perfectly right, of course. Who was that woman, Mrs. Jannings, Janny, who coped with my per diem for years? Competent, agreeable, impersonal. She had a sick father or something. But dammit, Ruth is a lot younger and better-looking. Comparatively speaking.
“Maybe Mrs. Parsons doesn’t want to be memorable.”
She makes a vague sound, and I suddenly realize Ruth isn’t listening to me at all. Her hands are clenched around her knees, she’s staring inland at the ruin.
“Ruth, I tell you our friends with the light are in the next country by now. Forget it, we don’t need them.”
Her eyes come back to me as if she’d forgotten I was there, and she nods slowly. It seems to be too much effort to speak. Suddenly she cocks her head and jumps up again.
“I’ll go look at the line, Don. I thought I heard something—” She’s gone like a rabbit.
While she’s away I try getting up onto my good leg and the staff. The pain is sickening; knees seem to have some kind of hot line to the stomach. I take a couple of hops to test whether the Demerol I have in my belt would get me walking. As I do so, Ruth comes up the bank with a fish flapping in her hands.
“Oh, no, Don! No!” She actually clasps the snapper to her breast.
“The water will take some of my weight. I’d like to give it a try.”
“You mustn’t!” Ruth says quite violently and instantly modulates down. “Look at the bay, Don. One can’t see a thing.”
I teeter there, tasting bile and looking at the mingled curtains of sun and rain driving across the water. She’s right, thank god. Even with two good legs we could get into trouble out there.
“I guess one more night won’t kill us.”
I let her collapse me back onto the gritty plastic, and she positively bustles around, finding me a chunk to lean on, stretching the serape on both staffs to keep rain off me, bringing another drink, grubbing for dry tinder.
“I’ll make us a real bonfire as soon as it lets up, Don. They’ll see our smoke, they’ll know we’re all right. We just have to wait.” Cheery smile. “Is there any way we can make you more comfortable?”
Holy Saint Sterculius: playing house in a mud puddle. For a fatuous moment I wonder if Mrs. Parsons has designs on me. And then she lets out another sigh and sinks back onto her heels with that listening look. Unconsciously her rump wiggles a little. My ear picks up the operative word: wait.
Ruth Parsons is waiting. In fact, she acts as if she’s waiting so hard it’s killing her. For what? For someone to get us out of here, what else? … But why was she so horrified when I got up to try to leave? Why all this tension?
My paranoia stirs. I grab it by the collar and start idly checking back. Up to when whoever it was showed up last night, Mrs. Parsons was, I guess, normal. Calm and sensible, anyway. Now she’s humming like a high wire. And she seems to want to stay here and wait. Just as an intellectual pastime, why?
Could she have intended to come here? No way. Where she planned to be was Chetumal, which is on the border. Come to think, Chetumal is an odd way round to Tikal. Let’s say the scenario was that she’s meeting somebody in Chetumal. Somebody who’s part of an organization. So now her contact in Chetumal knows she’s overdue. And when those types appeared last night, something suggests to her that they’re part of the same organization. And she hopes they’ll put one and one together and come back for her?
“May I have the knife, Don? I’ll clean the fish.”
Rather slowly I pass the knife, kicking my subconscious. Such a decent ordinary little woman, a good girl scout. My trouble is that I’ve bumped into too many professional agilities under the careful stereotypes. I’m not very memorable.…
What’s in Foreign Procurement Archives? Wittig handles classified contracts. Lots of money stuff; foreign currency negotiations, commodity price schedules, some industrial technology. Or—just as a hypothesis—it could be as simple as a wad of bills back in that modest beige Ventura, to be exchanged for a packet from, say, Costa Rica. If she were a courier, they’d want to get at the plane. And then what about me and maybe Estéban? Even hypothetically, not good.
I watch her hacking at the fish, forehead knotted with effort, teeth in her lip. Mrs. Ruth Parsons of Bethesda, this thrumming, private woman. How crazy can I get? They’ll see our smoke.…
“Here’s your knife, Don. I washed it. Does the leg hurt very badly?”
I blink away the fantasies and see a scared little woman in a mangrove swamp.
“Sit down, rest. You’ve been going all out.”
She sits obediently, like a kid in a dentist chair.
“You’re stewing about Althea. And she’s probably worried about you. We’ll get back tomorrow under our own steam, Ruth.”
“Honestly I’m not worried at all, Don.” The smile fades; she nibbles her lip, frowning out at the bay.
“You know, Ruth, you surprised me when you offered to come along. Not that I don’t appreciate it. But I rather thought you’d be concerned about leaving Althea alone with our good pilot. Or was it only me?”
This gets her attention at last.
“I believe Captain Estéban is a very fine type of man.”
The words surprise me a little. Isn’t the correct line more like “I trust Althea,” or even, indignantly, “Althea is a good girl”?
“He’s a man. Althea seemed to think he was interesting.”
She goes on staring at the bay. And then I notice her tongue flick out and lick that prehensile upper lip. There’s a flush that isn’t sunburn around her ears and throat too, and one hand is gently rubbing her thigh. What’s she seeing, out there in the flats?
Captain Estéban’s mahogany arms clasping Miss Althea Parsons’s pearly body. Captain Estéban’s archaic nostrils snuffling in Miss Parsons’s tender neck. Captain’s Estéban’s copper buttocks pumping into Althea’s creamy upturned bottom.… The hammock, very bouncy. Mayas know all about it.
Well, well. So Mother Hen has her little quirks.
I feel fairly silly and more than a little irritated.Now I find out.… But even vicarious lust has much to recommend it, here in the mud and rain. I settle back, recalling that Miss Althea the computer programmer had waved good-bye very composedly. Was she sending her mother to flounder across the bay with me so she can get programmed in Maya? The memory of Honduran mahogany logs drifting in and out of the opalescent sand comes to me. Just as I am about to suggest that Mrs. Parsons might care to share my rain shelter, she remarks serenely, “The Mayas seem to be a very fine type of people. I believe you said so to Althea.”
The implications fall on me with the rain. Type. As in breeding, bloodline, sire. Am I supposed to have certified Estéban not only as a stud but as a genetic donor?
“Ruth, are you telling me you’re prepared to accept a half-Indian grandchild?”
“Why, Don, that’s up to Althea, you know.”
Looking at the mother, I guess it is. Oh, for mahogany gonads.
Ruth has gone back to listening to the wind, but I’m not about to let her off that easy. Not after all that noli me tangere jazz.
“What will Althea’s father think?”
Her face snaps around at me, genuinely startled.
“Althea’s father?” Complicated semismile. “He won’t mind.
“He’ll accept it too, eh?” I see her shake her head as if a fly were bothering her, and add with a cripple’s malice: “Your husband must be a very fine type of man.”
Ruth looks at me, pushing her wet hair back abruptly. I have the impression that mousy Mrs. Parsons is roaring out of control, but her voice is quiet.
“There isn’t any Mr. Parsons, Don. There never was. Althea’s father was a Danish medical student.… I believe he has gained considerable prominence.”
“Oh.” Something warns me not to say I’m sorry. “You mean he doesn’t know about Althea?”
“No.” She smiles, her eyes bright and cuckoo.
“Seems like rather a rough deal for her.”
“I grew up quite happily under the same circumstances.”
Bang, I’m dead. Well, well, well. A mad image blooms in my mind: generations of solitary Parsons women selecting sires, making impregnation trips. Well, I hear the world is moving their way.
“I better look at the fish line.”
She leaves. The glow fades. No. Just no, no contact. Good-bye, Captain Estéban. My leg is very uncomfortable. The hell with Mrs. Parsons’ long-distance orgasm.
We don’t talk much after that, which seems to suit Ruth. The odd day drags by. Squall after squall blows over us. Ruth singes up some more fillets; but the rain drowns her smudge; it seems to pour hardest just as the sun’s about to show.
Finally she comes to sit under my sagging serape, but there’s no warmth there. I doze, aware of her getting up now and then to look around. My subconscious notes that she’s still twitchy. I tell my subconscious to knock it off.
Presently I wake up to find her penciling on the water-soaked pages of a little notepad.
“What’s that, a shopping list for alligators?”
Automatic polite laugh. “Oh, just an address. In case we—I’m being silly, Don.”
“Hey,” I sit up, wincing. “Ruth, quit fretting. I mean it. We’ll all be out of this soon. You’ll have a great story to tell.”
She doesn’t look up. “Yes … I guess we will.”
“Come on, we’re doing fine. There isn’t any real danger here, you know. Unless you’re allergic to fish?”
Another good-little-girl laugh, but there’s a shiver in it.
“Sometimes I think I’d like to go … really far away.”
To keep her talking I say the first thing in my head.
“Tell me, Ruth. I’m curious why you would settle for that kind of lonely life, there in Washington? I mean, a woman like you—”
“Should get married?” She gives a shaky sigh, pushing the notebook back in her wet pocket.
“Why not? It’s the normal source of companionship. Don’t tell me you’re trying to be some kind of professional man-hater.”
“Lesbian, you mean?” Her laugh sounds better. “With my security rating? No, I’m not.”
“Well, then. Whatever trauma you went through, these things don’t last forever. You can’t hate all men.”
The smile is back. “Oh, there wasn’t any trauma, Don, and I don’t hate men. That would be as silly as—as hating the weather.” She glances wryly at the blowing rain.
“I think you have a grudge. You’re even spooky of me.”
Smooth as mouse bite she says, “I’d love to hear about your family, Don?”
Touché. I give her the edited version of how I don’t have one anymore, and she says she’s sorry, how sad. And we chat about what a good life a single person really has, and how she and her friends enjoy plays and concerts and travel, and one of them is head cashier for Ringling Brothers, how about that?
But it’s coming out jerkier and jerkier like a bad tape, with her eyes going round the horizon in the pauses and her face listening for something that isn’t my voice. What’s wrong with her? Well, what’s wrong with any furtively unconventional middle-aged woman with an empty bed? And a security clearance. An old habit of mind remarks unkindly that Mrs. Parsons represents what is known as the classic penetration target.
“—so much more opportunity now.” Her voice trails off.
“Hurrah for women’s lib, eh?”
“The lib?” Impatiently she leans forward and tugs the serape straight. “Oh, that’s doomed.”
The apocalyptic word jars my attention.
“What do you mean, doomed?”
She glances at me as if I weren’t hanging straight either and says vaguely, “Oh …”
“Come on, why doomed? Didn’t they get that equal rights bill?”
Long hesitation. When she speaks again her voice is different.
“Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”
Now all this is delivered in a gray tone of total conviction. The last time I heard that tone, the speaker was explaining why he had to keep his file drawers full of dead pigeons.
“Oh, come on. You and your friends are the backbone of the system; if you quit, the country would come to a screeching halt before lunch.”
No answering smile.
“That’s fantasy.” Her voice is still quiet. “Women don’t work that way. We’re a—a toothless world.” She looks around as if she wanted to stop talking. “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.”
“Sounds like a guerrilla operation.” I’m not really joking, here in the ‘gator den. In fact, I’m wondering if I spent too much thought on mahogany logs.
“Guerrillas have something to hope for.” Suddenly she switches on a jolly smile. “Think of us as opossums, Don. Did you know there are opossums living all over? Even in New York City.”
I smile back with my neck prickling. I thought I was the paranoid one.
“Men and women aren’t different species, Ruth. Women do everything men do.”
“Do they?” Our eyes meet, but she seems to be seeing ghosts between us in the rain. She mutters something that could be “My Lai” and looks away. “All the endless wars …” Her voice is a whisper. “All the huge authoritarian organizations for doing unreal things. Men live to struggle against each other; we’re just part of the battlefield. It’ll never change unless you change the whole world. I dream sometimes of—of going away—” She checks and abruptly changes voice. “Forgive me, Don, it’s so stupid saying all this.”
“Men hate wars too, Ruth,” I say as gently as I can.
“I know.” She shrugs and climbs to her feet. “But that’s your problem, isn’t it?”
End of communication. Mrs. Ruth Parsons isn’t even living in the same world with me.
I watch her move around restlessly, head turning toward the ruins. Alienation like that can add up to dead pigeons, which would be GSA’s problem. It could also lead to believing some joker who’s promising to change the whole world. Which could just probably be my problem if one of them was over in that camp last night, where she keeps looking. Guerrillas have something to hope for … ?
Nonsense. I try another position and see that the sky seems to be clearing as the sun sets. The wind is quieting down at last too. Insane to think this little woman is acting out some fantasy in this swamp. But that equipment last night was no fantasy; if those lads have some connection with her, I’ll be in the way. You couldn’t find a handier spot to dispose of the body.… Maybe some Guévarista is a fine type of man?
Absurd. Sure … The only thing more absurd would be to come through the wars and get myself terminated by a mad librarian’s boyfriend on a fishing trip.
A fish flops in the stream below us. Ruth spins around so fast she hits the serape. “I better start the fire,” she says, her eyes still on the plain and her head cocked, listening.
All right, let’s test.
It rocks her. She freezes, and her eyes come swiveling around to me like a film take captioned FRIGHT. I can see her decide to smile.
“Oh, one never can tell!” She laughs weirdly, the eyes not changed. “I’ll get the—the kindling.” She fairly scuttles into the brush.
Nobody, paranoid or not, could call that a normal reaction.
Ruth Parsons is either psycho or she’s expecting something to happen—and it has nothing to do with me: I scared her pissless.
Well, she could be nuts. And I could be wrong, but there are some mistakes you only make once.
Reluctantly I unzip my body belt, telling myself that if I think what I think, my only course is to take something for my leg and get as far as possible from Mrs. Ruth Parsons before whoever she’s waiting for arrives.
In my belt also is a .32-caliber asset Ruth doesn’t know about—and it’s going to stay there. My longevity program leaves the shoot-outs to TV and stresses being somewhere else when the roof falls in. I can spend a perfectly safe and also perfectly horrible night out in one of those mangrove flats.… Am I insane?
At this moment Ruth stands up and stares blatantly inland with her hand shading her eyes. Then she tucks something into her pocket, buttons up, and tightens her belt.
That does it.
I dry-swallow two 100-mg tabs, which should get me ambulatory and still leave me wits to hide. Give it a few minutes. I make sure my compass and some hooks are in my own pocket and sit waiting while Ruth fusses with her smudge fire, sneaking looks away when she thinks I’m not watching.
The flat world around us is turning into an unearthly amber and violet light show as the first numbness sweeps into my leg. Ruth has crawled under the bromels for more dry stuff; I can see her foot. Okay. I reach for my staff.
Suddenly the foot jerks, and Ruth yells—or rather, her throat makes that Uh-uh-hhh that means pure horror. The foot disappears in a rattle of bromel stalks.
I lunge upright on the crutch and look over the bank at a frozen scene.
Ruth is crouching sideways on the ledge, clutching her stomach. They are about a yard below, floating on the river in a skiff. While I was making up my stupid mind, her friends have glided right under my ass. There are three of them.
They are tall and white. I try to see them as men in some kind of white jumpsuits. The one nearest the bank is stretching out a long white arm toward Ruth. She jerks and scuttles farther away.
The arm stretches after her. It stretches and stretches. It stretches two yards and stays hanging in the air. Small black things are wiggling from its tip.
I look where their faces should be and see black hollow dishes with vertical stripes. The stripes move slowly.…
There is no more possibility of their being human—or anything else I’ve ever seen. What has Ruth conjured up?
The scene is totally silent. I blink, blink—this cannot be real. The two in the far end of the skiff are writhing those arms around an apparatus on a tripod. A weapon? Suddenly I hear the same blurry voice I heard in the night.
“Guh-give,” it groans. “G-give …”
Dear god, it’s real, whatever it is. I’m terrified. My mind is trying not to form a word.
And Ruth—Jesus, of course—Ruth is terrified too; she’s edging along the bank away from them, gaping at the monsters in the skiff, who are obviously nobody’s friends. She’s hugging something to her body. Why doesn’t she get over the bank and circle back behind me?
“G-g-give.” That wheeze is coming from the tripod. “Pee-eeze give.” The skiff is moving upstream below Ruth, following her. The arm undulates out at her again, its black digits looping. Ruth scrambles to the top of the bank.
“Ruth!” My voice cracks. “Ruth, get over here behind me!”
She doesn’t look at me, only keeps sidling farther away. My terror detonates into anger.
“Come back here!” With my free hand I’m working the .32 out of my belt. The sun has gone down.
She doesn’t turn but straightens up warily, still hugging the thing. I see her mouth working. Is she actually trying to talk to them?
“Please …” She swallows. “Please speak to me. I need your help.”
At this moment the nearest white monster whips into a great S-curve and sails right onto the bank at her, eight feet of snowy rippling horror.
And I shoot Ruth.
I don’t know that for a minute—I’ve yanked the gun up so fast that my staff slips and dumps me as I fire. I stagger up, hearing Ruth scream, “No! No! No!”
The creature is back down by his boat, and Ruth is still farther away, clutching herself. Blood is running down her elbow.
“Stop it, Don! They aren’t attacking you!”
“For god’s sake! Don’t be a fool, I can’t help you if you won’t get away from them!”
No reply. Nobody moves. No sound except the drone of a jet passing far above. In the darkening stream below me the three white figures shift uneasily; I get the impression of radar dishes focusing. The word spells itself in my head: aliens.
What do I do, call the President? Capture them single-handed with my peashooter? … I’m alone in the arse end of nowhere with one leg and my brain cuddled in meperidine hydrochloride.
“Prrr-eese,” their machine blurs again. “Wa-wat hep …”
“Our plane fell down,” Ruth says in a very distinct, eerie voice. She points up at the jet, out toward the bay. “My—my child is there. Please take us there in your boat.”
Dear god. While she’s gesturing, I get a look at the thing she’s hugging in her wounded arm. It’s metallic, like a big glimmering distributor head. What—?
Wait a minute. This morning: when she was gone so long, she could have found that thing. Something they left behind. Or dropped. And she hid it, not telling me. That’s why she kept going under that bromel clump—she was peeking at it. Waiting. And the owners came back and caught her. They want it. She’s trying to bargain, by god.
“—Water,” Ruth is pointing again. “Take us. Me. And him.”
The black faces turn toward me, blind and horrible. Later on I may be grateful for that “us.” Not now.
“Throw your gun away, Don. They’ll take us back.” Her voice is weak.
“Like hell I will. You—who are you? What are you doing here?”
“Oh, god, does it matter? He’s frightened,” she cries to them. “Can you understand?”
She’s as alien as they, there in the twilight. The beings in the skiff are twittering among themselves. Their box starts to moan.
“Ss-stu-dens,” I make out. “S-stu-ding … not—huh-arm-ing … w-we … buh …” It fades into garble and then says, “G-give … we …g-go.…”
Peace-loving cultural-exchange students—on the interstellar level now. Oh, no.
“Bring that thing here, Ruth—right now!”
But she’s starting down the bank toward them saying, “Take me.”
“Wait! You need a tourniquet on that arm.”
“I know. Please put the gun down, Don.”
She’s actually at the skiff, right by them. They aren’t moving.
“Jesus Christ.” Slowly, reluctantly, I drop the .32. When I start down the slide, I find I’m floating; adrenaline and Demerol are a bad mix.
The skiff comes gliding toward me, Ruth in the bow clutching the thing and her arm. The aliens stay in the stern behind their tripod, away from me. I note the skiff is camouflaged tan and green. The world around us is deep shadowy blue.
“Don, bring the water bag!”
As I’m dragging down the plastic bag, it occurs to me that Ruth really is cracking up, the water isn’t needed now. But my own brain seems to have gone into overload. All I can focus on is a long white rubbery arm with black worms clutching the far end of the orange tube, helping me fill it. This isn’t happening.
“Can you get in, Don?” As I hoist my numb legs up, two long white pipes reach for me. No, you don’t. I kick and tumble in beside Ruth. She moves away.
A creaky hum starts up, it’s coming from a wedge in the center of the skiff. And we’re in motion, sliding toward dark mangrove files.
I stare mindlessly at the wedge. Alien technological secrets? I can’t see any, the power source is under that triangular cover, about two feet long. The gadgets on the tripod are equally cryptic, except that one has a big lens. Their light?
As we hit the open bay, the hum rises and we start planing faster and faster still. Thirty knots? Hard to judge in the dark. Their hull seems to be a modified trihedral much like ours, with a remarkable absence of slap. Say twenty-two feet. Schemes of capturing it swirl in my mind. I’ll need Estéban.
Suddenly a huge flood of white light fans out over us from the tripod, blotting out the aliens in the stern. I see Ruth pulling at a belt around her arm, still hugging the gizmo.
“I’ll tie that for you.”
“It’s all right.”
The alien device is twinkling or phosphorescing slightly. I lean over to look, whispering, “Give that to me, I’ll pass it to Estéban.”
“No!” She scoots away, almost over the side. “It’s theirs, they need it!”
“What? Are you crazy?” I’m so taken aback by this idiocy I literally stammer. “We have to, we—”
“They haven’t hurt us. I’m sure they could.” Her eyes are watching me with feral intensity; in the light her face has a lunatic look. Numb as I am, I realize that the wretched woman is poised to throw herself over the side if I move. With the alien thing.
“I think they’re gentle,” she mutters.
“For Christ’s sake, Ruth, they’re aliens!”
“I’m used to it,” she says absently. “There’s the island! Stop! Stop here!”
The skiff slows, turning. A mound of foliage is tiny in the light. Metal glints—the plane.
“Althea! Althea! Are you all right?”
Yells, movement on the plane. The water is high, we’re floating over the bar. The aliens are keeping us in the lead with the light hiding them. I see one pale figure splashing toward us and a dark one behind, coming more slowly. Estéban must be puzzled by that light.
“Mr. Fenton is hurt, Althea. These people brought us back with the water. Are you all right?”
“A-okay.” Althea flounders up, peering excitedly. “You all right? Whew, that light!” Automatically I start handing her the idiotic water bag.
“Leave that for the captain,” Ruth says sharply. “Althea, can you climb in the boat? Quickly, it’s important.”
“No, no!” I protest, but the skiff tilts as Althea swarms in. The aliens twitter, and their voice box starts groaning. “Gu-give … now … give …”
“Qué llega?” Estéban’s face appears beside me, squinting fiercely into the light.
“Grab it, get it from her—that thing she has—” but Ruth’s voice rides over mine. “Captain, lift Mr. Fenton out of the boat. He’s hurt his leg. Hurry, please.”
“Goddamn it, wait!” I shout, but an arm has grabbed my middle. When a Maya boosts you, you go. I hear Althea saying, “Mother, your arm!” and fall onto Estéban. We stagger around in the water up to my waist; I can’t feel my feet at all.
When I get steady, the boat is yards away. The two women are head-to-head, murmuring.
“Get them!” I tug loose from Estéban and flounder forward. Ruth stands up in the boat facing the invisible aliens.
“Take us with you. Please. We want to go with you, away from here.”
“Ruth! Estéban, get that boat!” I lunge and lose my feet again. The aliens are chirruping madly behind their light.
“Please take us. We don’t mind what your planet is like; we’ll learn—we’ll do anything! We won’t cause any trouble. Please. Oh, please.” The skiff is drifting farther away.
“Ruth! Althea! Are you crazy? Wait—” But I can only shuffle nightmarelike in the ooze, hearing that damn voice box wheeze, “N-not come … more … not come …” Althea’s face turns to it, openmouthed grin.
“Yes, we understand,” Ruth cries. “We don’t want to come back. Please take us with you!”
I shout and Estéban splashes past me shouting too, something about radio.
“Yes-s-s,” groans the voice.
Ruth sits down suddenly, clutching Althea. At that moment Estéban grabs the edge of the skiff beside her.
“Hold them, Estéban! Don’t let her go.”
He gives me one slit-eyed glance over his shoulder, and I recognize his total uninvolvement. He’s had a good look at that camouflage paint and the absence of fishing gear. I make a desperate rush and slip again. When I come up Ruth is saying, “We’re going with these people, Captain. Please take your money out of my purse, it’s in the plane. And give this to Mr. Fenton.”
She passes him something small; the notebook. He takes it slowly.
He has released the skiff.
“Thank you so much,” Ruth says as they float apart. Her voice is shaky; she raises it. “There won’t be any trouble, Don. Please send this cable. It’s to a friend of mine, she’ll take care of everything.” Then she adds the craziest touch of the entire night. “She’s a grand person; she’s director of nursing training at N.I.H.”
As the skiff drifts, I hear Althea add something that sounds like “Right on.”
Sweet Jesus … Next minute the humming has started; the light is receding fast. The last I see of Mrs. Ruth Parsons and Miss Althea Parsons is two small shadows against that light, like two opossums. The light snaps off, the hum deepens—and they’re going, going, gone away.
In the dark water beside me Estéban is instructing everybody in general to chingarse themselves.
“Friends, or something,” I tell him lamely. “She seemed to want to go with them.”
He is pointedly silent, hauling me back to the plane. He knows what could be around here better than I do, and Mayas have their own longevity program. His condition seems improved. As we get in I notice the hammock has been repositioned.
In the night—of which I remember little—the wind changes. And at seven-thirty next morning a Cessna buzzes the sandbar under cloudless skies.
By noon we’re back in Cozumel. Captain Estéban accepts his fees and departs laconically for his insurance wars. I leave the Parsons’ bags with the Caribe agent, who couldn’t care less. The cable goes to a Mrs. Priscilla Hayes Smith, also of Bethesda. I take myself to a medico and by three P.M. I’m sitting on the Cabañas terrace with a fat leg and a double margarita, trying to believe the whole thing.
The cable said, Althea and I taking extraordinary opportunity for travel. Gone several years. Please take charge our affairs. Love, Ruth.
She’d written it that afternoon, you understand.
I order another double, wishing to hell I’d gotten a good look at that gizmo. Did it have a label, Made by Betelgeusians? No matter how weird it was, how could a person be crazy enough to imagine—?
Not only that but to hope, to plan? If I could only go away.… That’s what she was doing, all day. Waiting, hoping, figuring how to get Althea. To go sight unseen to an alien world …
With the third margarita I try a joke about alienated women, but my heart’s not in it. And I’m certain there won’t be any bother, any trouble at all. Two human women, one of them possibly pregnant, have departed for, I guess, the stars; and the fabric of society will never show a ripple. I brood: do all Mrs. Parsons’s friends hold themselves in readiness for any eventuality, including leaving Earth? And will Mrs. Parsons somehow one day contrive to send for Mrs. Priscilla Hayes Smith, that grand person?
I can only send for another cold one, musing on Althea. What suns will Captain Estéban’s sloe-eyed offspring, if any, look upon? “Get in, Althea, we’re taking off for Orion.” “A-okay, Mother.” Is that some system of upbringing? We survive by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.… I’m used to aliens.… She’d meant every word. Insane. How could a woman choose to live among unknown monsters, to say good-bye to her home, her world?
As the margaritas take hold, the whole mad scenario melts down to the image of those two small shapes sitting side by side in the receding alien glare.
Two of our opossums are missing.