by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith
There were two choices: visit her relatives, or go sailing. We went with plan B.
It was summer and the sun was high. The sea was very calm. I didn’t think we were in danger of getting lost, and I didn’t think we were in danger of running into anything, either. That just shows you: even a good sailor can get fooled.
My brand new wife, Catherine Ann Ross Morningstar-Humphreys was on the upper deck, up forward on her big yellow air mattress. She was face down and tanning herself, although she was already as brown as a lightly toasted English muffin.
I was sitting in a chair with an open book lying print down across my lap. A minute ago I was holding it... reading it... but the sun was making me sleepy. I know it was silly to be dozing in the middle of the afternoon... a hundred miles from shore... but that’s what I was doing.
My head kept leaning forward... or off to the side... first leaning aft... then maybe starboard... and my eyelids kept lowering themselves like the play was long over and the cast home in their beds. Off to the side... down by the hull... I could see the dazzling sparkle of the warm water... and it was intense and hypnotic. And the boat was rocking. Slow movements. The rhythm reminding me of being held by my mother when I was just a little tyke. My mother used to rock me to get me to go to sleep.
It was quiet.
A fish jumped and broke out of the water... but that was almost an hour ago. Now I could hear the tiny slap slap slap of a seagull’s wings... maybe two hundred feet away... off to port... and he was leaving the area. So his tiny noises slowly faded to nothing. He took one last look down and, seeing nothing important, he went on his way.
The book I was holding fell to the deck. It was a paperback, The City of the Rising Sun, an adventure tale. A good book... It deserved better treatment than to be dropped on the wet deck.
Catherine — I call her Kitty — Kitty moved a little, still face down; she crossed her legs at the ankles.
Now my head was down... my chin almost touching my chest. I was snoring though I didn’t know it.
It may have been moments. It may have been as much as half an hour.
Then I heard loud gravel and annoyed fiberglass. I leaned forward and staggered out of my chair, standing up without meaning to, surprising myself by waking up while already standing. I looked up and instead of seeing a low horizon and blue water in front of me I saw what looked like a giant billboard advertising an island getaway.
A long stretch of gravel, a beach. And inland, five hundred palm trees in neat rows. And all those cawing bird noises you hear when they want to show you islands in the movies.
Catherine was standing, too. She turned back and frowned at me. “I left you in charge,” she said.
“I just wanted to take a look around.” Now she would think I’d made a very smooth landing rather than a very big blunder.
“One of us should stay on board,” she said. She sounded like the captain.
“I know that.” I sounded like a cabin boy. “You wait here. I won’t be long.”
She meant one of the pointed walking sticks we own. Or maybe the gun we keep on board. We’ve keep a gun after we heard about one of the club members getting robbed.
“I’ll be fine.” I said. But her look made me take one of the stupid wooden poles. I climbed down by the bow and splashed into surf almost up to my waist. I took the bow line with me and hitched the free end to a big rock. I started walking along the shore. I’d spend ten minutes, and then head back. That way it would look like I was really interested and hadn’t accidentally bumped up on the island.
I was splashing along. Kicking up water. Looking out at the sky and sometimes looking back at the boat. Kitty looks good, even from a distance.
What a strange island, I thought. The trees looked remarkably similar: all the same height, all the same shape, all with identical branches. I wasn’t a horti-botanist but knew that was unusual.
Something at the water’s edge caught my eye. It was all old colors and sideways motion. It was low to the sand. Moving parallel to itself, it darted behind a rock. I came at it from the side. I had my pointed stick ready. It looked at me and I looked at it. I was the more surprised.
“What in the hell..?” I’d seen more realistic looking things in Disney movies. It was a crab. I didn’t doubt that. It just wasn’t constructed very well. The legs were way too fat. The claws weren’t tapered; they looked like solid things that just happened to be split open at the end as an afterthought, like two small cylinders with wedges cut out. And the shell — the body of the crab was made in a big, flat spiral like a great big cinnamon roll.
“Catherine... come here.”
“Come here. And bring the camera!”
The fake crab started flitting away. I was using the stick to keep it from sliding out into the water. I couldn’t believe the colors. The last time I’d seen such colors — dull yet pure, simple colors — the last time was when I bought a very small, very cheap pack of modeling clay. I think I got it from a five and dime store. Not that anyone today would even know what a five and dime was. Kitty wouldn’t know. She’s my second wife, a lot younger than Elizabeth.
“You called?” she asked. She was standing next to me. Not able to trust me completely, she also, had taken a length of rope, and she tied the boat up with a second cord, and some of her own imaginative knots.
“Couldn’t find it.” She said.
More like couldn’t be bothered, I thought. Elizabeth would have known where it was. Elizabeth would have brought the camera.
“Look at this crab.”
“I’ve seen crabs.”
“Look at it.”
“That’s weird.” she said.
“It looks animated.”
“It’s moving fast ’cause it’s scared,” she said.
“I mean it looks drawn, fake, like it’s made from clay. You ever done clay? You start with slabs and coils. That’s how you make things. Coils can be a starting point. Slabs can be a starting point. That body looks like it was made from a long coil rolled around itself until it was shaped like a dinner plate.”
“I see what you mean. Stab it. We’ll take it back and show it to Kevin.”
Kevin was her ‘ex’. I’d much rather stab Kevin and show him to the crab. But I didn’t say that. “I don’t think we should hurt it.” I said.
Just then a noise interrupted us. A thud... a tumble... a rustling of palm tree leaves... and then an item slapping the ground.
“Over there.” I pointed. We walked over. We looked down.
“It’s a bird.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Where’s the feathers? The feet?”
“He’s got feet.”
“Those aren’t feet. Those are wide flat slabs of some yellow stuff with two scratches on them... scratches that are supposed to signify three claws. Just like those curved lines scratched on the blue wings are meant to be taken as feathers.”
“Is it dead?”
It answered the question, by rolling over and stretching its blue wings. With much difficulty and a lot of extra motion the thing took to the air. It flew like a dishrag in a windstorm. The wings didn’t co-operate and the tail hung down like a broken centerboard.
We watched its progress with concern. Was it going to fly straight into another obstacle?
We waited a few moments and the bird-thing again shook off a hard encounter and again it took flight.
A snake slid past on the ground. It was a big snake. Both ends had eyes. Both ends were flat like new toothpaste squeezed from a new tube. “We should be going.” I said.
“Me too.” She said.
We weren’t too surprised upon seeing, as we approached the boat, five tall, decidedly docile but sufficiently animated creatures that looked like male dolls made from clay, wandering round the rock that fastened our boat to the island. None of the five had any clothes.
“I wish you had that gun.” she said.
“Yea, verily,” I answered.
“Please don’t touch those lines!” I called out. The clay men looked around. Some of them were looking roughly in the right direction.
“Line.” One of them said. “Not to be touched.”
“That’s our boat,” Catherine said.
“By the maker..?”
“We bought it,” Catherine said.
“I come from the maker,” said one of the clay figures.
“There’s a mad scientist someplace,” I said.
“Why do they always use islands?” she asked.
“That’s pretty obvious,” I said. “What’s never obvious is what they were doing.”
I turned to one of the creatures. “Can I?” I took the creature’s hand. It was cold, a collection of small cylinders. Four fingers and a thumb, all stubby and round like the hand was made from a collection of tubes used to roll coins, maybe quarters.
I took hold of the creature’s arm. I squeezed. My grip altered the arm I was holding. The arm took my handprint and held it for a while. After a few moments the arm regained its smooth symmetry.
“Did you feel that?” I asked.
“Feel?” said the creature. The creature was looking elsewhere.
“Can you see?” I asked.
“Let there be light,” he answered.
Catherine tried to stop me, but I took my hand and touched the creature’s eye. It didn’t blink. It didn’t have eyelids. I reached slowly forward and took hold of the creature’s eye. Took it by the edge. I peeled it off. It was like picking a cold fried egg off a paper towel. The plastic man had a hole in its face. The eye centered over the hole.
“Can it see?” she asked.
“I think so, Kitty. I’ve heard Nautilus jellyfish get by with pin-hole camera eyes.”
“That Jules Verne thought of everything,” she said.
I was too busy examining the eye to catch and categorize the reference.
I put the eye back over the hole. I patted it in place.
I looked them up and down. Their feet were big, like the round boxes that oatmeal breakfast comes in. Round boxes turned over on their sides. They were without hair except for their heads, which looked like plates of short black spaghetti had been dumped on them by angry waiters. They had genitals. A little clay tube, little clay balls slapped up in the right areas. They had lips and ears and toes. They just hadn’t been made by a very good sculptor.
Overhead two birds crashed together before falling to the ground nearby.
I was still curious, but now, they were getting curious. One of them touched my eye.
“That hurt.” I said.
One of the creatures was looking at Kitty’s bottom. She was wearing her special two-piece swimsuit.
“Naked isn’t wrong,” said the nearest creature.
“Not everyone has parents willing to pay for their college,” said Kitty. I knew her history, but wasn’t sure why she was bringing it up to total strangers.
“We have to go,” I said. We edged past the gathering and scrambled on board the boat. I was working on the knots. Kitty always makes interesting knots. One of the creatures handed me something flat and wanted to be made part of the crew. I pushed him back and he fell in the water. The wind coming in at the bow helped us drift away. After a hundred yards I turned the boat and started the engines.
“What was all that?” she asked.
“Kitty, I don’t know.” I said. “Maybe when Gumby retired, he bought an island and those are his kids. Maybe George Lucas is involved. If I was free to think of any explanation, anything at all, without fear of being laughed at, I’d say those were practice. Maybe God did want to invent the world in six days so he could get in the Guinness book of World’s records. So maybe he practiced, like a few times before he started the clock.
“Only, he found out how hard it is to make everything in six days. Did you ever consider how much work it would have been to invent echo-location? To decide who gets to use it and who doesn’t? Wouldn’t it just be easier to let the creatures decide for themselves if they thought it was beneficial? Did you know there’s some birds who use it? And the hemoglobin number: have you ever thought about that?”
He looked at her.
“So He practiced. He made a few trial runs. He got bogged down in some of the details. He didn’t remember if the esophagus went in front of the windpipe or not. He didn’t know if we needed two holes in the roof of our mouths. He forgot if the mental nerve went inside the brain or if it was located somewhere in the face. He just couldn’t do it in the time allowed.
“So maybe he went with his other option. Maybe he went with plan B. Maybe he used a lot of time and good developments. Maybe he saw what goons we’d have been if he’d just fashioned us all on a busy day after he’d made the aardvarks, after he’d made the armadillos, and then the beetles and caterpillars... By the time he got to man he’d have been pretty tired. It would take one big Starbucks to get God caffeined-up for mandatory forced overtime. Maybe he did use time and processes and gradual improvements.”
“So those were just practice?”
“I think so.”
“And all these were men.” she said.
And then I got it. What the creature was saying to me at the end. He hadn’t been giving me a gift. a bribe to make him part of the crew. That wasn’t a pry bar, or boomerang, or a long shoehorn he’d been handing me. It was a rib. It was his own rib. He’d been saying... “Make me a mate.” and I thought he’d been telling me to take him on board. But he hadn’t meant “Make me a mate on your boat,” he meant “Make a mate for me.”
This after he’d seen Kitty. This after he’d seen my wife.
Kitty has that effect on men.
Even if they’re cold clay.
I threw the curved rib out into the ocean. I looked back at Catherine standing by the railing. I smiled at her and she smiled back. I turned forward and kept sailing. However made, she was pretty awesome. I was kind of glad she hadn’t been thrown together in a hurry.
Moments later, right in front of the boat, a big, Godawful, tube-scattered, dome-headed fifty-ton, all-green, made from clay imitation octopus surfaced, rolled, wiggled and dived.
A full minute afterwards, Kitty came wandering forward. “I was below and found that camera.”
“Good, we’ll use it when we get home,” I said.
“We could take pictures of your new riding mower, or some of me,” she said.
“Plan B.” I said. “I’ve always had a certain fondness for plan B.”
Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith
Proceed to Challenge 227...