Cook Loses His Heart
to the Native Girls
by Craig Cormick
They are three days out from the floating island when Captain Cook feels the Endeavour lose pressure in one of its thrusters. “They’re cooked!” the engineers mumble to each other. It’s a secret word of theirs that means “completely stuffed.” Driven beyond a safe limit. They dutifully tell the Captain that they will need to return to the island to undertake maintenance work.
Cook considers this as he paces back and forth impatiently on the bridge. They had stayed over-long on the floating island already, he feels, charting its movements, recording the natives’ language and customs, and receiving special hospitality from its women. It would put them further behind schedule, but he cannot see what else he should do. He has not planned for this and dislikes the thought of having to write it up in the ship’s log. For most captains it is a chore; for him it is an act of writing his own destiny.
He orders the ship to turn about and, as they slowly power off towards the east, a second moon rises in the sky above the horizon.
“What do you make of that?” Cook asks Solander, the ship’s astronomer, who is seated by one of the computers on the bridge.
Solander looks up and nods his head slowly. “Ah, I was wondering when we would see that,” he says. “Did you know the natives on the floating island divide their seasons of the year around three cycles of the moons? There are the seasons of no moon, the seasons of one moon and this season of two moons.”
“Do they observe them differently?” Cook asks.
“I’m not sure yet,” says Solander. “I have many hours of recordings to feed through the translation program, and it’s proving slow going. It’s a very complex language.”
“Not all communication is done by language,” says Banks, stepping up onto the bridge. Cook sees Solander roll his eyes. He knows that he considers Banks a dilettante. A lackey of the company, who has more interest in the mating rituals of the natives than the plant specimens he’s meant to be studying.
“New drugs. New chemicals. New gene sequences,” he had often said to Solander in the early days of the voyage, building up his significance. But he rarely came back to the ship with plant specimens, despite the long periods he spent ashore on the floating island.
* * *
When they had arrived there, sailing out of the rising sun, the natives were lined up on the shore of the island, as if they had been expecting them. The crew stood on the outer decks of the Endeavour and watched the natives swim out to them and throw exotic fruits onto the deck, waving to them.
“Prepare a shore party,” Cook had told Banks, “Report back in one hour.” As it was, he was gone over half the day, and Cook was just about to send a party of marines to find him when they saw him returning to the boat. He had one of the natives with him, a young woman, who looked about her in great incredulity at everything and everybody.
“It’s amazing,” Banks had told Cook. “This is an untouched paradise like the ancients wrote about. The people live in total harmony with their environment. They are strict vegetarians, though there is a creature like a wild boar that lives in the jungle. They want for nothing. The island provides them with everything they need!”
Then he introduced the girl. “I believe her name is Mina. She asked to come and see the ship.”
Cook wondered whether she had actually asked, or whether Banks had decided she had asked, regardless of what language or hand signs she had been making to him. “Well, let her inspect the ship,” Cook had said, “but then take her back to the island afterwards.” He examined the deep gold of her skin that seemed to glisten in the sunlight.
As Banks took her arm to lead her away, Solander saw she seemed more interested in their captain than their ship.
In the morning, more natives were gathered on the shore, and a large catamaran canoe came out to the Endeavour. It stopped just off their bow and the natives on board stood up and raised their paddles in the air. Dolphins leapt out of the water behind them. Mina stood amongst them and pointed to Cook.
“What do they want?” Cook asked.
“I think they want you,” Solander said.
Cook had been rowed ashore, sitting high atop the catamaran as the natives sang out to him and waved from the shallows. He could see dolphins swimming around them in the clear waters of the lagoon. Upon the island young girls laid fronds under his feet for him to walk upon and led him up to the hut of the chieftains, who were sitting in a circle within, waiting to receive him.
They sat him at the head of the circle and had fruits bought to him. Had young girls sit on either side of him. They wore dolphin-shaped symbols around their necks, he saw, and some wore necklaces of dolphin teeth. They told him long and intricate stories that he could not understand, and he had marvelled at how like them these people were.
They had stayed for ten days and had exchanged gifts, learned a little of each other’s language and customs. Then Cook had ordered the Endeavour to be made ready to depart, and the natives lined up on the shores to bid them farewell.
Men and women had dived into the water to swim out some way waving after them. Even Cook had waved back to them.
* * *
“What more can you tell me about their customs?” Cook asks Solander, after two days of limping back towards the island on half-thrusters.
“They appear to have a hierarchical tribal structure. Everything is accorded a ranking in their understanding of life: from fish down to pieces of fruit. And each has its own story that tells how it must be eaten.”
And Cook remembers a strange red fruit the natives had offered him. Bare-breasted young women offered them up to his lips. The juices running down their arms and sides. They had shown him just how he should hold each piece and eat them. And he remembers Banks’ stories about how particular the women were about how they should mate, as if each had a different position that was hers only.
Banks has been pestering Solander to tell him if there are any stories of himself that the natives have told, but Solander always tells him that he has not found any mention of them yet.
He tells Cook, however, that there is a story of a great mariner coming to them out of the east. He tells him that they seem to place a great importance on the direction of the sunrise and the sunset, and he has also found many references to the times of light and the times of darkness.
Cook ponders this for some moments and then says, “I wonder if they will tell new stories because of our visit?”
They arrive at the island late in the afternoon, and Cook and Banks go to the deck to look for the natives. But there are none to be seen. Cook taps his fingers idly on the railing, looking across the lagoon to the deserted huts. “Send a shore party,” he says.
“I’ll lead them,” volunteers Banks a little too quickly.
“No,” says Cook sharply. “Let’s send a junior officer this time.” He has not slept well the past few nights, dreaming of a strange darkness, and is more short-tempered than usual.
Two marines and the junior officer take the launch and speed across the low waves of the lagoon to the shore. Cook and Banks watch them make their way up into the darkness of the trees and disappear. They wait for over an hour, with Cook annoying the engineers by watching over their shoulders as they begin work on the thrusters. But the shore party does not return.
“Prepare another shore party,” Cook says to Banks, impatient to know what has happened. Impatient with those who cannot follow simple orders. “And I’m going, too.”
Their dinghy cuts across the water quickly, and Banks notices fins cutting through the water around them. He narrows his eyes at them a little, for they are shark fins.
Upon the shore, Cook stands where he had stood six scant days before and calls out in the natives’ tongue, one of the few words he knows, the word of greeting. It is made like a long low chanting sound. He calls twice, but there is no reply.
He looks at Banks who shrugs his shoulders. They walk a little further towards the village, and Banks points out a face in one of the hut’s doorways. It is a young woman. Her face is dark and confused-looking. Fearful even.
Cook walks up past the cooking fires and calls out again. He notices bones of animals scattered around in the ash of the fires.
Solander, on board the Endeavour, is working through the translations, trying to piece one particular story together. He is filled with a great urgency to understand it. The different moons mark something greater than a change of season. As best he can understand it, the two moons are the time of the shark. And that is a time of darkness.
Cook and Banks have found about a dozen natives, hiding in the huts. To Cook they seem different: their skin darker, their eyes red and angry. He perceives a distasteful odour that he had never noticed before.
He is about to mention it to Banks when he recognizes one of the young women. He calls her name. It is Mina! Banks reaches out and catches her by the wrist. But she turns and quickly bites him on the arm, then turns and runs into the jungle. Cook and Banks are stunned. She was wearing the figure not of a dolphin but of a shark around her neck.
Banks sees there is blood seeping through his shirt sleeve. He wonders what Solander will say when he’s told of this.
But Solander has already read it. He’s found a story about their coming to the island from the east during the time of light, and the natives greet them and exchange gifts and join flesh with them. Cook is clearly referred to as the great mariner, who the natives have waited for, for many many generations, telling the story of how he will arrive during the time of light.
Banks tells the marines to cover the Captain as he must go back to the dinghy for the medicine kit. He suddenly thinks of infection. Exotic diseases. Incurable strains.
And Solander reads that they return from the west, during the time of darkness. The time of the shark. And the joining of flesh is marked by a bite.
Cook watches Banks’ frightened retreat and then steps into the chieftains’ hut. He is surprised to see about a dozen men sitting around the fire. They are the chieftains of the island, he sees, but they, too, look different somehow. He greets them with the low moaning chant. His one word. But they don’t return it, nor even his stare, looking around themselves awkwardly.
And then Cook sees the bones in the cooking fire. Sees the remains of a large carcass upon the embers. He remembers Banks’ words that they didn’t eat meat. He sees other bones scattered about on the floor. Too large for a boar.
Solander is racing through the story now, trying to make sense of it. Going too quickly for every small detail. There is something about killing and eating in the time of the shark. Something about darkness. Something about the darkest of times. Something about death and rebirth.
“Back to the dinghy,” Cook orders the marines in an urgent tone, but he is slow to follow them. He backs out of the chieftains’ hut looking at everything at once. The darkness of their faces; the sharks’ teeth they wear around their necks; the colour and texture of their skin; the gills high upon their necks.
And then he is outside the hut and finds he is suddenly surrounded by natives. Dark and solemn. More alien than he has ever felt them to be.
He hears Banks call out to him. He turns his head and sees how far he and the marines are from him. Their guns waver uncertainly, and Cook signals for them not to shoot, sure it will only make things worse. He looks at the distance and thinks he can make it.
And then Solander understands it. The natives will surround Cook and knock him to the ground. They will club him to death.
Cook moves slowly through the natives, not showing any emotion.
They will split his skull open and let the blood leak out into the sand. Then the women will roast his body over the fire until it is ready to eat.
Five more steps and he’ll be clear, Cook sees. He moves more carefully.
Some of his body they will share amongst the tribe. Some they will throw to the sharks in the lagoon as a sacrifice. And some, Cook’s heart and liver, they will bring out to the ship wrapped in fronds, so that they can be taken away and restored for Cook, when he will one day come back to them, out of the east once more during the time of light.
He’s going to make it, Cook sees. And then he turns his head and catches Banks’ eyes. Lets him see that he is showing no fear. Lets him know that it is the way one charts the best course out of danger and writes one’s own destiny. But he sees Banks’ eyes fill with a sudden horror.
And Solander will forbid the ship’s crew to fire upon the natives, and will tell them that they will tell the story of the great mariner again and again until he returns one day out of the east.
And the engineers, who always interpret the world through the working of machines, will stare at the remains of their Captain as if they could somehow reassemble him into something almost like a mortal man.
Copyright © 2015 by Craig Cormick