Authors: Gregg Hurwitz
faint cry carried into the house, distracting Ramon Lopez Estrada from the plate of fried pork. He froze, fork raised halfway to his mouth. The noise had probably come from the livestock pens at the edge of his property, across the rows of crops. It was slightly different than the usual, restless mooing of the cows--it was more like a frightened whinny. Dismissing it to the wind, he took a bite and loaded up another generous forkful. He ate hungrily; he'd worked on his farm from sunup until dusk, clearing another section of forest to free the volcanic soil for crops.
Soil was a rarity in Galapagos, islands formed of basaltic lava. It took hundreds of years for the barren rock to soften, turning to brick-red clay as its iron oxidized, then to topsoil as roots and rain intervened. Over millennia, dense Scalesia pedunculata forests emerged and flourished, the trees stretching as high as twenty meters in the air. Only the most elevated regions of the highest islands had undergone the process in its entirety, catching clouds that passed aloof and withholding over the scorched lowlands.
Floreana, her belly rounded beneath her apron, stopped behind Ramon and rubbed his aching shoulders. She paused to pluck a twig from his hair and tickled his cheek with it until he lovingly shooed her away.
They'd had one child already, a boy whom Ramon had sent to Puerto Ayora to find work and play. Ramon had chosen his boy's happiness over his own need for a second pair of hands around the farm, permitting him to discover life in the small port town on Santa Cruz. However, that meant more time for Ramon in the fields, clearing the forest, building pens for his livestock, planting his crops with a meticulousness based on the seasons and his own islander's sense.
Because of the earthquakes, the supply ship had stopped passing by last month. Without any gasoline or oil, the town had slowed down, like a wind-up toy losing steam. The chainsaws no longer roared in the mornings, the gas stoves were used only as countertops, the houses fell dark after dusk--even Ramon's prize tiller sat in the field collecting rust while he worked the ground with a spading fork.
Sangre de Dios had been a sparsely populated island to begin with, and the new conditions had driven the other farming families away. Though few had admitted it, many had also fled because of the strange things that had been happening around the island. Dogs and goats missing, changes in the behavior of the wildlife. The girls who used to live one farm over told stories about the tree monster with glistening fangs. And then Marco's little girl had gone missing. After a week of frantic searching, they'd given her up for dead, and Marco had taken his family and moved to the continent.
Ramon and Floreana were now living on a deserted island.In their haste to leave, one of the families had stolen their boat. But it didn't matter--Floreana was too pregnant to travel anywhere until she delivered, and an oil tanker still passed by the island every other month.
Ramon finished his meal and pulled his wife into his lap. He groaned, pretending to be crushed by her weight. She laughed and pointed to her stomach. "This is your fault, you know," she said. Her voice was high and lively; she spoke a rapid, chattering Spanish with the accent of the Oriente, though she's been born in Galapagos. She'd been named for the island of her birth.
Ramon raised a hand to her cheek and leaned forward to kiss her, but Floreana playfully pushed him away, wiping a smudge of aji from his lip with her thumb and clearing his plate. She pointed to the stack of logs in the corner of the humble box of a house. Built of porous concrete blocks cemented with a thick, messy mortar, the walls were cracked and skewed by the numerous earthquakes that wracked the small island. A cooking fire danced in the hearth, which was little more than two absent blocks backed with plywood and opened to the Pacific air above.
Ramon groaned, lowering his head to the table with a thump. His fork and knife jangled. With a sigh, he rose and crossed to the fireplace. Picking up the ax, he twirled it as he stood a log on end on the dirt floor. Suddenly, a loud bleating split the air. Floreana dropped the plate, which shattered across the counter, and the ax slipped through Ramon's hand, giving his index finger a deep nick. The bleating rounded out into a moan, and Ramon realized it was an animal bellowing in pain. The cry, an intensified version of the one he'd heard minutes before, was rife with panic. Instinctively, Floreana circled the table toward her husband, her eyes on the small hole of the window.
The sound was coming from the livestock pens, across the rows of crops. Ramon squeezed his wife reassuringly, but his hand was trembling. He stepped for the door, ax swinging by his side, blood curling around his finger and dripping to the floor.
The nights were growing warmer and the air outside was thick and moist. The garua was settling into the peaks of the forest, crowning it with ribbons of mist. The cry came again, this time with more urgency, and Ramon imagined he felt it rattling through his bones. He passed through the low castor oil plants, the wide-leafed flowering guavas, the tall stands of platanos. Beside him hung the bunches of fruit, hard-sheathed and ridged. He thought of the panicked looks in the eyes of his neighbors who had fled, the foolish stories that had been told around the village. The tall tales seemed more real in the darkness.
The cry elevated into an almost human scream, undulating unnaturally, like the wail of a child seized and shaken. Its pitch, except when wrenched high with pain, was low and broad, issuing from some large creature. There was more bleating, more sounds of struggle. Though the air was cool, Ramon felt his shirt clinging to his body, moist and limp. He tightened his grip on the ax, thinking of his over-under shot-gun in the small house and cursing the ammunition shortage, and reached a hand out cautiously to part the fronds.
Something lay up ahead, wheezing in the tall grass of the western-most livestock pen. A large creature, lost in the shadows, the darkness, and Ramon's own intoxicating fear, was retreating slowly to the brink of the forest. At least three meters tall, it seemed to walk upright like a man, the grass shushing around its swollen body. Unhurried, it reached the edge of the Scalesia forest and faded from sight.
A renewed cry brought Ramon's attention back to the injured beast. It was one of Ramon's favorites, a thick brown-and-white spotted cow. He stepped forward, trying to focus on her, but his mind was slow and unresponsive, having followed the thick majestic creature through the mist and into the forest.
The cow bleated again, but its cries had none of the fearful edge of before. Its side was raked open in two diagonal strips, the torn flesh revealing a crushed tangle of ribs and tissue. Her breath rattled through the holes, fluttering the fur surrounding the gashes. Her hind leg was snapped back under her body, and her head rested at a painful angle to her neck, as if she'd been raised and dropped, or thrown a short distance in frustration.
As if something had bitten off more than it could chew.
Ramon lowered the ax to his side, breathing hard. There were no bears here, no large cats or crocodiles. As far as he knew, the largest natural predator in the entire archipelago was the Galapagos hawk.
The cow moaned and Ramon crouched over her, caressing her flank. Her mouth was sprayed with froth. He noticed that the back of her neck had been attacked, scraped or gnawed through to the thick plate of the scapula. The flesh was ribboned across the wound, glistening with blood and a foreign, clear, viscid liquid that looked like saliva. Ramon reached out and touched the wound, drawing his hand back sharply as pain shot through the cut on his index finger. He wiped the excess blood on his jeans and instinctively put his finger in his mouth to clear the wound. He spit into the grass, a red-lined glob thick with mucus, and rose.
The cow rustled in the grass, her head trembling above the ground. Ramon picked up the ax, again cursing the fact that there were no shells for his shotgun. With a nervous glance at the band of forest into which the large creature had vanished, he raised the ax back over one shoulder and swung downward at the cow's neck.
ameron leaned forward, resting her elbows on the steering wheel of her Cherokee. The horn blasted, startling her back in her seat, and several of the children on the playground turned and glanced in her direction. She waved, but none waved back.
The timing was less than perfect.
Though not beautiful, Cameron had neat, pretty features. Her blond hair was badly cut--thirteen dollars at SuperCuts--yet it somehow added to her casual good looks. It was short, up off her shoulders in the back and blunt along the sides. She was solid through the hips and broad across the shoulders. She was not a petite woman.
In the twenty minutes she had been watching, children had overrun the small playground. She found something vulgar in their exuberance--the exaggerated swinging of their arms, the open screaming mouths, the tint of their rosy cheeks. A stocky girl tripped a smaller boy, and he went down with a yelp. He stood, bawling, the knees of his jeans marked with dirt.
Cameron noticed that she was nervously jiggling her hand, so she set it on her knee. She examined her fingers, thick and strong like a man's, free of jewelry, the nails cut short. She kept her wedding ring as a pendant on her necklace. The ring, a handsomely sized sapphire surrounded with diamond chips, served both as an engagement and wedding ring. It had cost Justin approximately twenty percent of his life savings. At first, Cameron had valiantly tried to wear the ring on her finger, but it was a constant hazard, catching in trigger guards and rip cords. She had finally given up, as Justin later had on his wedding ring, which he kept around his watchband. Moving the ring to her necklace, Cameron had resigned herself to yet another abnormality in her abnormal life.
The chanting of girls jumping rope called Cameron's attention back to the playground. The thin girl in the middle was beautiful, with curly hair bouncing across her perfectly smooth cheeks. She held her flowered dress down when she jumped, Marilyn Monroe style. When she was finished, a boy ran by and goosed her. She ignored him brilliantly, and he lingered in the shadows by the handball wall, sheepish and sullen.
For the first seventeen years of Cameron's life, every part of her had felt large and unwieldy--her solid breasts, her size-ten feet, her stomach ridged with muscle from as early as she could remember. She'd always felt thick and horsey next to other girls. Her strong hands and broad shoulders seemed all the more undainty beside their thin elegant fingers, their frail necks and girl-skinny arms. In high school, other girls always seemed busy with makeup and dating and first kisses. Cameron, on the other hand, never even bothered to get up when the phone rang. Until she met Justin, she'd been convinced she was meant to spend her life alone.
She shook off her thoughts and checked her watch. She'd have to be home soon for dinner. In the four years of their marriage, Cameron and Justin had seen less and less of each other. The timing of their tours was almost always unfortunate; one of them would leave a few days after the other returned home. And those days together were hardly blissful--last time she'd arrived home with her back thrown out and twenty-one stitches laced up her forearm, and she'd spent the hard-won three days with her husband eating microwave popcorn and watching a James Bond marathon on TV.
She and Justin had fallen in love the quiet, old-fashioned way, with unspoken assurances and soft yieldings of vulnerabilities. Cameron had sworn always to recognize their relationship as a necessity and an enchantment; together, they had sworn to always put each other first. Because of that, they'd recently resolved to restructure their lives so that they could spend more time together. They'd dropped from active duty, choosing to remain on call as reserves. The transition from full-time soldier to weekend warrior was not an easy one, and they were still trying to adjust to their new lives. The time requirements were not taxing--one weekend a month to maintain proficiency, two weeks a year active duty.