The Poet’s Secret
that simple, remote, fleeting spectacle had captivated him. He had never seen another since, even though he had returned to the island several times. But the image he now envisioned wasn’t that fragile blossom. He couldn’t get her out of his mind. He opened his eyes.
Writing could wait.
He jumped up. His feet planted on the cool dirt floor. He pulled his notebook off the table and glanced at the hectic scribbles from the previous night. There she was, staring back from every slashing word. She even filled the spaces in between.
He yanked on a pair of shorts and stretched his torso into a threadbare T-shirt. He grabbed his scratched sunglasses, slid on sandals and ran from the hut, tracking her footsteps down the path to the seaside village. He recalled her pensive look as she turned away to leave.
His sandals clapped against the dirt. By the time he reached the village he was drenched in sweat. The villagers seemed in a hypnotic lull. The sea lazed against the shore. Beneath that calm he knew the sea floor dropped so quickly that yachts often moored barely a spit from the sand. But there wasn’t any vessel in sight.
He rambled past a dozen shanties, rickety houses stacked no more than three deep from the water, all lounging in a permanent recline in the unforgiving sun. A steel-haired woman beating a rug outside her window shook her head as he passed. He prowled streets nothing more than alleys, streets so narrow they didn’t warrant names.
He scoured the small open-air market. Weary tables clustered under spinnaker tarps overflowed with island bounty. Here he slowed. This was where he first saw her just the day before. He caught his breath and picked up a bunch of green bananas, squeezed several mangos and mulled over some guava, wondering if her fingers might have graced these same fruit. He stood in the same spot she had been when he first noticed her, next to a bushel of pomegranates. He wanted to inhabit the space she had filled. What the hell am I doing?
But the island boy had told him the blossom lasted only days.
A bone-skinny, russet-skinned woman offered him a pomegranate. She looked to be one hundred years old, but her eyes tracked him like a hawk.
“No thanks,” he said.
She broke into a gummy grin.
“You lookin’ all obzokee. Maybe you need it. This one’s sweet too bad,” she said and sucked at her gums.
“Yesterday, the woman?” he asked.
“Gone like a duppie?” the old woman asked and chuckled.
“Please,” he said. Her grin dropped away and she shook her head back and forth.
“Peong,” she said under her breath.
“Where? What’s that?” he asked.
She tapped her hand against her chest, pointed the pomegranate at him and smiled. “Your heart peong,” she said.
“If you see her, tell her Cameron was here.”
She nodded. He ran off to the cantina. He peered through a broke-open shutter. The tables were empty. The stale smell of beer wafted through the window.
Why did people come to Mataki? To disappear, or maybe to forget, he thought. Was that why she was here? He had come to find something, to remember. He had come to finish that short story about the butterfly orchid, to resurrect his voice.
His stomach began to knot. His head felt light. He started to feel sick inside. Man, pull yourself together.
He asked a fat old man who rented rooms by the day. The bald landlord swatted at sparrow-sized mosquitoes while he shook his head. He hadn’t seen her.
Cameron jogged past a young boy fishing along the beach. The boy watched him pass, squinting in the sun to reveal a missing front tooth before turning back toward the bay
to eye his line.
Cameron finally collapsed on a bench. He pushed back the sweaty strands of hair matted against his forehead. The sun had nearly reached its late morning peak. The sleepy village would soon deaden even deeper into siesta. Backtracking to the market, he bought a missile of bread, a palm-full of goat cheese and a cheap bottle of wine, all the while obsessing over how she had vanished without a trace, convinced he had blown it. He doubted sleep.
Stinking from the search, he dropped the plastic sack of food on the sand and waded into the bay. The fishing boy had pulled his line and was sitting in the shade of a drooping palm. Cameron glided between two decrepit fishing boats resting after the morning catch. The skiffs reminded him of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. With each stroke he stretched further, trying to calm himself into a rhythm, but her face remained right in front of him. He recalled Santiago’s battle with the great marlin. He thought of the old man’s perseverance. He felt capable of the same. But would he get the chance?
A navy of blue tangs parted beneath him.
It seemed useless. He swam ashore, picked up his sack and hiked back to the hut. The afternoon sun dried him. His sweat soon smelled of brine.
Several miles away a yacht’s engine rumbled.