By Peter Barlow
The panga stopped fifteen feet short of the beach. The driver killed the motor and turned to Eric. "¿Es esto un lugar bueno?"
Eric nodded. He knew the driver would have taken him across to another beach if he'd asked but the five hundred yards in distance wouldn't have mattered any. He swung his legs over the side of the panga and jumped down into the foot-deep water. The water felt nice around his toes. The driver grunted as he lifted one of Eric's two wet bags and handed it down to him. "Espero que embalara suficientes cosas," the driver said.
Eric slung it over one shoulder with a little difficulty and pulled the second one over after it. The sudden added weight nearly put him on his knees. He reached up to shake the driver's hand. "¿Tres días?" The driver nodded. Eric went around the front of the panga and gave it a push backward. The panga's small outboard motor came to life, and the driver turned it around and headed back for the yacht that had dropped them both off. Eric watched it go for a moment before turning back to the beach.
Eric looked up and down the beach for a moment. He'd hoped to be greeted by a colony of sunning sea lions but there were none to be found. Perhaps they were on another beach or— He looked at his watch: 3.15. They were out feeding and playing. Later, toward dusk, they would come back in and lay out for the evening and sleep. This would be a good place for some sunset pictures, he thought. Facing west, the sea lions in silhouette… perfect. He walked to the back of the beach and dropped the wet bags at a place where there would be just enough space to pitch the tent between two clumps of scrub. He turned back in time to see the yacht start moving. In two minutes it was gone around the edge of the island. There was nothing but ocean now in front of him clear to Indonesia. The surf crashed in and out, in and out.
Eric yawned. He'd spent the last two days flying, Detroit to Miami to Guayaquil to Baltra Island, three thousand miles in a straight line, and though he'd already been in the islands a full day jet lag was starting to assert itself. He pulled the tent from one of the wet bags and twenty minutes later was asleep inside it.
He was woken by a bark. It didn't register at first what he'd heard. His dream had provided an interesting framework: He'd been sitting at his mother's bedside in the hospital, watching her life drift away like so many unfinished sentences, and the heart monitor which had been beeping away like it usually did barked like a sea lion instead. It was on the second one that Eric woke up. He looked around his tent in confusion. No, no sea lions in here. A quick glance at his watch showed he had been asleep for an hour. There was plenty of sunlight left, and pictures to be taken.
It was as he was unzipping the tent to go outside that he heard the bark again, several in a row, searching, insistent, plaintive. He slid out and looked around for the source. In the time he was asleep, the beach had filled itself with sea lions. They lay on the sand, enjoying the late afternoon sun in clumps of threes and fours and fives. He watched one for a moment as it rolled from one side to the other, its now-exposed flank half-covered in caked-on sand. The business voice in his head reminded him that this was what he was here for, this wildlife in front of him acting naturally as anything, but the barking noise coming from nearby silenced it.
A moment later he spotted the source: a sea lion pup crawling in his general direction along the beach. Every six or seven feet it would stop and look around for a moment before continuing, barking all the while. It's looking for its mother, he thought. It's gotten separated. Eric knew enough to know this wasn't a good thing. Alone, with no mother to feed and protect it, a sea pup didn't have a very good chance of survival. As he watched, the sea pup went over to one group of four adults and tried nestling up to one. The barking stopped for a moment, then the adult shifted and growled and the pup scampered away, rejected.
It made its way past Eric, not even noticing him, and tried again to cuddle up to two other groups of adults, rebuffed both times. It was as it was coming back toward him that Eric noticed what was really wrong with it: a large gash was open just above its right rear flank, and while it wasn't bleeding, the wound was deep enough that the pup couldn't use either of its back flippers. That was what had seemed wrong; it had essentially been dragging itself along. And that was probably why the other adults were rejecting it: not only was it not their child, but it was injured to boot.
Eric sighed and watched as it made its way back up the beach, eventually disappearing behind some scrub and moving out of earshot a moment later. There was nothing he could do for the pup. It was illegal to touch the wildlife within the park, or to alter the natural course of events in any way. But even if I was able, he thought, what could I really do? He wasn't a vet or even remotely qualified to try and heal the pup, and he was quite frankly afraid of the consequences if he tried. This opportunity he'd been granted was a rare privilege. Screwing it up in the slightest was not an option. He took a moment to look over the sleeping sea lions to find a few that looked particularly photogenic, and raised his camera.
The elevator doors opened onto a waiting area. Convenient, Eric thought. Don't have to go searching around for your loved ones. His brother Todd was in a chair next to some windows looking out onto an overcast sky. As Eric walked over Todd stood up, and they shared a brief embrace before taking opposing chairs. "Sorry I couldn't get here sooner. Flight was delayed. How is she?"
Todd shook his head. "She was awake last time I was in there. Grandma and Grandpa are in there now."
Eric looked out at the sky, hoping that the clouds would provide some sort of comfort. "Spoken to the doctor?"
"He came out a minute after Grandma and Grandpa went in." He took a moment, cleared his throat, hung his head. "Tonight, sometime, he thinks. Middle of the night at the latest."
"How did we go from six months to a year two days ago, to six weeks last night, to— to—?" Eric shook his head and flung his arms outward and let them fall on the armrests.
"Mom— wasn't being entirely truthful with us. The six month diagnosis was three months ago."
Eric's sigh was nearly tangible.
"Well, you know Mom. Deflects all the time. Doesn't want anyone to worry about her."
"Yeah, but still—"
Todd shrugged. "Nobody knew. You, me, Grandma, Grandpa. Nobody."
"How'd they react when they found out?"
"About as well as you'd expect." Someone spoke over the intercom for a moment, looking for a doctor. "When are you leaving again?"
"Week from tomorrow, probably. I can push it back a week if I have to, take care of whatever has to happen here." Eric paused for a moment. "That seems callous of me."
"No. Or at least I don't think so. Maybe getting back to work might be for the best."
"I can delay it, you know, if you need any help arranging things."
"Doesn't look like I will. Mom left a fairly comprehensive list in a file on her computer, places where arrangements have already been made, people who need to be called. She's been planning this for a while, apparently." Todd took in and let out a deep breath. "You should go. Really. Mom would want you too."
Eric nodded. When he'd gotten the contract to do the Galápagos National Park calendar, the first person he'd called was his mother. Her words of praise still echoed in his head when he thought about it. They were deafening now. Images of the family visit to the Galápagos filled his dreams for nights on end. He'd been looking for a reason to go back for a long while and here was one that had the bonus of being on someone else's dime.
Todd looked at his watch. "Damn, I've gotta go. There's some things at the restaurant that need dealing with. I shouldn't be but an hour. Call me if anything happens."
Eric looked up at his brother and said okay, and a minute later he had the waiting area to himself.
Somewhere, behind one of these walls, my mother is dying, he thought. He looked at each of the three walls in turn as if expecting to be able to discern where exactly she was by some divine inspiration. After a moment of this, he went back to looking at the grey clouds outside and thinking about his forthcoming trip to the Galapagos. It still felt kind of odd and somehow heartless to be dashing off almost as soon as the funeral was over. And yes, maybe getting right back to work was for the best. Maybe. But then he'd never lost a parent before. His father didn't count; he'd gotten in the car one morning when Eric was two and Todd was five and not been heard of since, and how could he mourn a man he didn't remember?
A few minutes later, his grandparents came through a door and greeted him. "Todd left a while ago," Eric said while getting what passed for a bear hug from his grandmother. "Something he had to take care of at the restaurant. He'll be back after a bit, he said."
"Your mother was asking after you," his grandfather said. There was no judgment in his voice. "She's the second door on the right. We haven't eaten, so—"
"Go on. I'd like some time alone with her."
His grandmother nodded and sobbed, and his grandfather led her off toward the elevators. Eric went through the door they'd just come through and went to the room they'd indicated. His mother was lying in the only bed in the room, her eyes closed. A nurse was standing next to the bed, fiddling with some tubes. "Family?"
"Son," Eric said. "Younger son."
The nurse nodded. "She drifted off a few minutes ago. She's been in and out all afternoon. I'll be back in a while to check on her again."
With the nurse gone the room was quiet. The monitor above her bed showed that her heart was still beating, but slowly. Her bed sheets shifted slightly at each inhale and exhale. Without those two things it would be difficult to tell from a distance if she was still alive. An oxygen tube was attached to her nose and another one—for water? feeding?—was in her mouth.
He took the seat next to the bed and looked at her. She had on a scarf to hide her scalp. Her hair was long since gone, the first casualty of multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. This was not the woman he remembered. That one was stronger, resilient, upright. That one would tell you what she thought, not to hurt but merely to state her opinion. Looking at his mother in this condition was hard, almost insulting.
A few minutes after he sat down, it occurred to Eric that maybe he should do something. Hold her hand, perhaps? That's what other people seemed to do in this situation: sit at the bedside, hold hands, and look concerned. Well, he was concerned, so all that seemed perfectly manageable. Eric reached out and put his hand on top of his mother's. A few seconds later her eyes opened. He smiled but it felt weak and insincere, and it didn't reach his eyes. He wanted to say something but all of the words he could think of seemed inadequate.
"Eric," she said, her words slightly garbled by the tube in her throat.
There was a long pause as she inhaled and exhaled a couple of times. "I'm going to die. How do you feel about that?"
He blinked a couple of times, and the tears started down his cheeks. "Not good, Mom."
The amazing thing about being on the equator was that the sun rose and set at the same time every day. Eric knew the sun would go down at six, leaving him in darkness until six the next morning. But there were hardly ever clouds in the sky over the islands, rain virtually unknown. Even the oldest people in the islands, as the Park Director had told him in Puerto Ayora his one night there before coming to Fernandina, could not remember the last thunderstorm, could remember volcanic eruptions much easier. The result was clear nighttime skies and, on nights like this one with a full moon, near perfect illumination. Out here on the island, the lack of light pollution made it that much easier.
Eric had set up a small gas stove a few feet in front of his tent. He'd had a negative experience a few years earlier doing a safari shoot where the guide's idea of a "filling, tasty" meal were some MRE's left over from the Reagan administration and ever since then, on nights when he knew in advance that room service was not an option, Eric made sure to have a heat source, something to boil water in, and attempts at reasonably good meals. Tonight's dinner was a rice and bean concoction he'd been experimenting with. It was filling and tasty, if not completely satisfying. Tonight, for no particular reason, what he really wanted was baked macaroni and cheese.
In the hour and a half of daylight that he had left after his nap he snapped off something like three hundred shots. He spent about half the time with the sea lions, all of whom seemed thoroughly disinterested in the guy with the camera. After that he followed the shore south for a few hundred yards and found a colony of marine iguanas sunning themselves on an outcropping of hardened lava. He was looking forward to reviewing the shots later that night on his laptop; he was fairly certain there was one of an iguana spitting salt water from its nose, and that would look good for a main picture for a month. Eric didn't see the injured sea lion pup during that time but it wasn't far from his thoughts. A couple of times he lowered the camera from his face and looked around, expecting to see the pup appear from behind a bush. Or maybe not; the iguana colony was a solid 250 yards away from his tent, and the pup wouldn't drag himself that far.
Eric finished his meal and walked over to the surf to rinse out the small pot he'd cooked it in, winding his way between sleeping sea lions. As he was walking back, a glint under a piece of scrub twenty feet from his tent caught his eye. A trick of the light, he thought. Something somebody dropped found its way under the brush. It was as he unzipped the flap to his tent that he heard the bark, softer than earlier but every bit as insistent. He turned and looked at the bush again. There was nothing for a few seconds, so he finished unzipping the tent. Again the bark came. Eric took out his flashlight and aimed it at the bush. The source of the glint became clear: it was the injured sea lion pup from earlier, the light bouncing from its eyes. The two stared at each other for a long moment before the pup crawled out from under the brush and into the campsite. It stopped a couple of feet from the stove, barked again, and rested.
Eric tilted his head sideways, pursed his lips, and turned the flashlight off. In the clear moonlight he didn't need it to see the pup anymore. "Well, hello there," he said to the pup. He knew the pup couldn't respond, and he felt a tad foolish talking to an animal, but he thought he saw the pup look in his direction so he kept on. "Never did find your mother, I take it. Well, no, obviously you didn't. Otherwise you'd be with her."
Eric sat on the ground, directly opposite the pup, and frowned.
"So what got you? What—what happened to your hindquarters there? Did you scratch it on something? There's coral in these waters and that stuff's pretty sharp. I knew a fella once cut himself pretty bad on some coral while he was out scuba diving. Or did one of your siblings do that to you, roughhousing? Maybe one of them pushed you into the coral? Or is that from your mother, trying to calm you down?"
The pup looked at him, turned its head to the side, then put its head back down on the sand.
"It was a shark, wasn't it?" The area around the Galapagos was home to the white-tipped shark. Six feet long from tip to tip, snorkelers looked on them with awe and comfort, knowing they could tell people they'd swum with sharks when in reality the sharks weren't any longer than the average man and wouldn't have been able to do much damage to a human. A small sea lion pup, though, would probably resemble lunch. "You swam too close to it, didn't you?"
The pup looked at him again, head slightly raised, and then it didn't.
"And somehow you've been separated from your family. Only makes it worse." Eric sniffed then opened a thermos and poured himself some coffee. "Or did they abandon you? Did they think you were done for, or tainted, or—?" He swirled the coffee around in the plastic lid that doubled as a cup. "Doesn't really matter, does it?"
The bark from the pup was not strong. It was more of a plea than anything else.
"You're going to die. You know that, don't you?"
The surf crashed in and out, in and out.
Eric took another sip of coffee. "Yeah, I expect you do." He swirled what was left around the bottom of the cup. "You're welcome to hang around if you want." He snorted. "Like that'd be up to me anyway. Can't stop you from staying or going. Can't even touch you. But I know if I was you I wouldn't want to be alone. No, sir, I wouldn't." He spread his arms expansively. "Mi camping está su camping. That's what I'm saying."
The pup looked nonplussed.
"And maybe," Eric said, "your mother will turn up. I'll stay up with you, too, if that's what you'd like. Would you like that?"
The pup lifted its head for a moment, looked at him, and put it back down.
"Of course I will." He drank the last of his coffee and stared out at the water. "As long as you need me."
Eric wasn't dreaming of anything when the hand on his shoulder woke him up. It took him a second to recognize his surroundings but he was used to that. Years of travelling for his photography had taken him pretty far afield, to some places that seemed like living daydreams and to others that formed the basis of every nightmare. It wasn't until he looked to his left and saw his mother in the hospital bed that he remembered where he was and why.
He turned to look at the person speaking. An older woman in pink floral scrubs was looking at him through bifocals.
"Visiting hours are over. You'll have to go."
"I'm her son."
The nurse nodded and removed her hand. "I believe it. You've got her nose and chin."
Eric rubbed his eyes. "What time is it?"
"Twelve thirty. Give or take a minute."
He was a little surprised he wasn't wide awake. Two days earlier he'd been in Moscow, snapping off photos for a new fashion line, when the phone call came to tell him just how bad off his mother was. He hopped the first place he could and flew back to Detroit, forty-eight hundred miles in a straight line, but his body should have still been on Moscow time.
"I can get you a blanket and pillow," the nurse said. "I know the chairs here aren't all that comfortable."
"I'd appreciate that. Thank you."
Eric turned back toward his mother as the nurse left the room. The monitor over her bed showed a constant but slow heartbeat and blood pressure on the low end of things, but to look at her it was hard to tell she was still alive. Her breathing was shallow and it seemed an hour between breaths. She was asleep or unconscious, Eric couldn't tell which. He wondered, idly, what she was thinking or dreaming about just then, if anything, and if she'd be able to tell him what that was when she woke up again. If she does at all, he thought.
He felt another hand on his shoulder. This time it belonged to Todd. "Sorry I took so long," Todd said. "Problem with that place is that they can't seem to make any decisions for themselves, so when I turn up I get asked every damn thing they've been wondering for however long. I like being needed, but there's a limit to that."
Eric nodded. "It's alright. You haven't missed anything."
Todd took the seat at the foot of the hospital bed and looked at the monitor. "No change, I take it."
"No." Eric relaxed back into his chair. "The nurses keep asking me whether or not I'm family."
"Well, you haven't been around but today. I've been in and out of here for the last few days visiting, so most of them have seen me by now. You, not so much." Neither one said anything for a moment, while the monitor chirped softly in the background. "How long since the doctor was in?"
Eric looked at his watch. "A couple hours. Prognosis didn't change any."
"I don't like this."
"I don't like it much either, not being able to do much of anything but sit and wait and watch. And I hate it that there's nothing I could do anyway."
Todd looked at his mother, and then at the monitor again, and said nothing.
"She told me she was dying." Eric clasped his hands in his lap and looked down at them. "Asked how I felt about that. I told her not good. I think she wanted to say something else but she was hardly awake, so."
Neither brother said anything, each one avoiding the other's gaze.
"She bought me my first camera. Believed in me when everybody else in the family thought I was nuts to try and make it as a photographer."
"I know." Todd sighed and looked at his brother. "I know."
"I could make a list a mile long of all the things I want to tell her before she goes, of all the things I should have said. I would rather the last thing she heard me say is that I love her and I wish she wouldn't go."
"And it just burns me that I can't. That I'm on this incredible hot streak with my work and it doesn't mean a damn thing. I'd trade it all in. I'd let it all burn if it would buy me another sunrise with her so I could say it, say everything I want to, listen to her talk to me again." He took a deep breath. "I want to punch something."
"It won't help."
Eric looked at the monitor, and then at his mother. "She's not going to wake up, is she?"
A long pause, then, "No."
At about ten Eric pulled out his laptop from the second wet bag, uploaded the pictures from his camera, and started going through them, deleting the blurry ones and starting to correct some of the better ones. He marked the few he thought would be ideal for the calendar: a nice shot of three sea lions grouped together on the beach, sand caked to the back of the one nearest the camera; a group of flightless cormorants that just happened to line themselves up in such a way as to resemble a group of bowling pins; a Galapagos penguin that he hadn't expected to see on this island; and the shot he really wanted of a marine iguana spitting salt out of its nostrils directly into the camera as part of a defense mechanism. The exercise felt empty, though. He tried not to look at the pup if he didn't have to. Every few minutes he did glance over to see if there were signs of life. The pup for its part shifted positions a few times during the night but otherwise slept.
After a few hours, he closed the laptop and stared at the pup. "Still with me?"
The pup did nothing, but he saw it inhale and exhale.
"Good." He put the laptop on the blanket next to him. "Sort of a déjà vu element to this, you know? My mother was in the hospital last week. Cancer. Started as breast cancer, spread to her shoulder, her back, her brain. Of course we didn't know the middle bits, that it had spread. Didn't find that out until the day she went into the hospital. Nothing anybody could have done for her by then. Nothing I could have done for her anyway, except pray and wish her well. Doesn't seem quite enough, you know?
"So I sat there at her bedside last week, watching her. All night. I might have slept an hour or so, I don't know. Anyway, I was sitting there, hoping she'd wake up again, hoping I could get in one last conversation with her, tell her all the things I never got a chance to say."
The pup may have shifted a little. In the half-shadow it was sitting in Eric couldn't tell.
"What are you thinking? What—what would you have told your mother right now if she were here? Okay, yeah, a few barks, but what would that mean?"
He looked up at the stars. Even the dimmest ones were visible in the clear night sky with no light pollution to mask them.
"She didn't make it either. To dawn. Missed by about half an hour. Had an eastern facing window, blinds open, ready to greet the new day. She would have liked that. Would have liked to have seen the sun again."
Eric found Orion in the sky, the three stars in a line that make up his belt, the one part of the constellation he could identify.
"Where are you tonight, Mom? Where are you when I need you?"
The pup shifted a little but stayed silent.
"Listen," he said, looking back at the pup, "I'm sure she'll come. She'll find you. She misses you too." He didn't have any real conviction in his words, but in the pup's place he would have wanted to hear them. "Give her time. When the sun comes up she'll start looking again, and she'll find you."
The surf crashed in and out, in and out.
"You'll have plenty of days together. I can feel it." But he could feel himself drifting off to sleep even as he said it, and a few minutes later both of them were gone completely.
"I feel so bad for Eric."
The sun had been up for half an hour. Phone calls to all the relatives had been made. Several of them were in the waiting room, some flitting from group to group as if at a cocktail party. One of them—Eric knew precisely which—said that sentence which drifted across the air to where he and Todd sat on a sofa, ignored by everyone, and then followed it up: "He lost the only real parent he's ever known."
Eric sighed. "I'm grieving," he said at the voice. "I'm not fucking deaf."
"Relax," Todd said. "Let it go. It isn't— important just now. They've lost someone too. They've lost a sister, an aunt,—" He looked across to where their grandparents sat, their grandmother stone faced and done crying, their grandfather weeping the first tears either one of them had ever seen on him. "—a daughter."
"Yeah, but look at the rest of them. They're not even sad." Someone chuckled in one corner of the room but it stopped almost as soon as it started. "Do they even understand what's happened?"
Todd shrugged. A low murmur filled the area as conversations carried on, all of them steadfastly avoiding the brothers. "We all grieve differently. It's both universal and unique unto the individual."
Eric looked down at the carpet, a beige sisal worn nearly bare by countless people in the same position he and everyone else found themselves in now. Todd said something then but Eric wasn't paying attention. It took a jab in the ribs to bring him out of his idle staring.
"I said we should eat something soon," Todd said. "It's been a long night."
"Supposed to be a gorgeous day. First day of spring and all."
Eric looked at the window. Someone had drawn a translucent visor but sunlight still filled the waiting area. "Why do I find no solace in that?" The two of them sat there, Eric looking out the window, Todd examining the drop ceiling, for another minute before Eric spoke again. "So what's the next step?"
"Funeral home's been on standby for a few days now, and she bought the spot where her urn's going to go months ago."
"We'll do the proper placement of the urn after you get back from the Galápagos. There's an engraving she wanted to go on the side of the box that hasn't been taken care of yet." Todd ran a hand through his hair. "I'm assuming you're still going."
"It's either that or hang around here being miserable. And like you said, Mom would want me to go."
Another two relations got off the elevator and were greeted by some other relations. Three minutes later the newest arrivals had made no effort to speak to the brothers.
Eric stood up. "I can't take this anymore. I'm going for coffee."
Todd rose. "Think I'll join you."
They went to the elevator, 35 feet in a straight line, unstopped by anyone, and pressed the down button. "Think we'll be missed?" Todd said as they stepped on and hit the button for two floors down.
As the doors slid shut, Eric shook his head.
Eric woke up with a jerk and started spitting sand out. It wasn't the first time he'd fallen asleep on a beach, or even outside of a tent he'd erected, but the waking up was seldom pleasant. Things had a way of getting into his mouth and nose, and more than once the inability to breathe because of that was what woke him. As he cleaned the sand from his eyes, he thought about the dream he'd just had, reliving the long night from the week before. It had haunted his waking moments ever since. That it had crossed over into his sleeping hours disturbed him.
The funeral happened two days before he got on the plane for Ecuador, four from this morning. It had been stately and dignified, mostly, until the floor was given over to the grievers to offer their remembrances of his mother. What was offered wasn't so much reminiscences but stories that related to the deceased tangentially at best by people that didn't look sad at all. The lone exception was Todd, who spoke for ten minutes about growing up with her guidance and support. Eric declined the opportunity to speak, and skipped the after-party entirely.
The pup was still where it had been when he fell asleep. That was a bad sign and he knew it. He checked his watch: 7.30. The sun had been up for an hour and a half, another bad sign. He looked over toward the main beach: empty. All of the sea lions were in the water, feeding, playing, learning.
Eric crawled across to where the pup lay. It was still breathing, but barely. "You made it," he said. "You saw the sun come up."
The pup blinked up at him and then closed its eyes.
Eric stood and walked out to the beach. There were no sea lions at all, none. Not even the young had stayed behind. He watched for a minute, hoping to see one emerge from the surf, but none did. He turned and went back to the campsite. The pup had gone. Tracks from where it had been overnight led back to the bush he'd found it under the evening before. Eric peeked beneath the brush and saw the pup, its eyes closed, its body still.
He sat down in the sand, facing the bush, and felt a tear come to his eye. "You didn't deserve this," he said. "You didn't deserve to die alone. Someone should be here to mourn you."
The surf crashed in and out, in and out.
"I will."QLRS Vol. 15 No. 2 Apr 2016