Co­conut

The Iowa Review - - ROBIN HEMLEY -

On this is­land of a mil­lion birds and twice that many fish and ten times that many in­sects, all those who had sur­vived this far to make land­fall, from the cap­tain him­self to the young stow­away from Al­mada, gave thanks. The sailors’ legs were a bit wob­bly from the long voy­age as they knelt on the rocky shore, but they tried to stand again with as­sur­ance, in case they were be­ing watched from the fo­liage, more im­pen­e­tra­ble than the cap­tain’s beard. The stow­away ran ahead with­out heed, and the cap­tain, curs­ing, called him back, threat­en­ing him with tor­tures, both com­mon and in­vented, on the spot: dashed against the rocks, fed to the hairy mon­ster named Coco (though the boy was prob­a­bly too old to be­lieve in such tales meant to make chil­dren be­have), left on the is­land with­out food, shel­ter, or wa­ter, planted up­side down in a field of onions, or fried and served to the crew with a piece of cheese. The men, stand­ing about as though they had bal­last for brains, laughed at the cap­tain’s tooth­less curses. He let them have their fun. Laugh­ter had been in short sup­ply of late. Soon enough, the last of them were roaming the is­land. The boy came trot­ting back even­tu­ally with what looked like three brown heads in his arms. “Look,” the boy told the cap­tain and Duarte, the purser, the only two on the beach not off hunt­ing. “It’s the face of Coco.” The heads were the size of a can­non­ball, each and hairy and brown, with three in­den­ta­tions like a face. Duarte tugged at his mus­tache and curled his lips. “I’ve never seen any­thing like them. Throw them away, boy. They’re dis­gust­ing.” But the cap­tain, who had more ex­pe­ri­ence with the world’s odd­i­ties, mo­tioned the boy to give him one of the heads. The cap­tain shook it and rapped it with his knuck­les. “I be­lieve it’s hol­low.” He threw it with all his strength against the rocks and it burst open. The three gath­ered around and ex­am­ined the bright white flesh in­side, at first pok­ing it with stones but then grow­ing bolder and pick­ing up pieces. The boy, who was stripped to the waist, red with the sun, and cov­ered by in­sect bites, took a nib­ble and smiled. Duarte turned and nearly vom­ited, as though the boy had taken a bite from some­one’s brains. “Don’t be such a child,” the cap­tain said. “They’re clearly nuts of some kind. But I wouldn’t eat any­thing that looked so fear­some. It’s

bound to kill you.” Hold­ing the shard of nut from which he’d bit­ten, his hand shook. “I feel fine,” the boy said. “Feel­ing fine is the first sign,” the cap­tain said, smil­ing se­cretly at Duarte, who looked as fright­ened as the boy. At sea again, the boy took ill four days later. Dur­ing the worst of it, he screamed that Coco was pur­su­ing him, his cries fill­ing the holds from port to stern and putting the men in a fear­ful mood. The cap­tain, a man of de­lib­er­a­tion, doubted Coco’s nuts had given the boy the fever, but he or­dered them thrown over­board any­way (the men had col­lected dozens), to calm the crew and soothe the boy, whose hand he held as he took his last breath. With bal­last at­tached, the boy’s body dove to the bot­tom of sea, as though play­ing one last dar­ing game, while all those who had grown fond of him in their short time to­gether prayed, mostly in si­lence, un­til Duarte shouted, “Look.” The small head of Coco bobbed alone, not far from the ship, a green branch float­ing be­side it like a fallen flag or an of­fer­ing of peace from the world of mon­sters.

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