Wednesday, October 16, 1985

The Milford Track

Written for Travel & Leisure, 1985

There were forty of us on the steamer, heaving through the restless chop on the vast, glittering lake. Around us were mountains of every denomination—low forested hills, slate-grey slabs, mystic snowy peaks. Travelers of every denomination, too: an Australian sheep farmer, a jazzercise instructor, a New Zealand mother and zoologist daughter, an elderly Dutch international banker and his wife, a young California fisherwoman, a set of Connecticut investors, two physical therapists, a North Carolina airline pilot, a Japanese student, a New York school bus driver. The overweight, the hip, the reluctant, the trim.

We were crossing Lake Te Anu, the great waterway of New Zealand’s South Island. We were all signed up to walk the fabled Milford Track; we had knapsacks stowed inside, keeping dry; and for four more days we would be a part of each other’s experience of “the finest walk in the world.”

The Track—a thirty-three mile walk through staggering, uninhabited country—has been attracting trampers, as they’re called in New Zealand, for over a century. Few of us were experienced at this sort of hiking; in a sense, our inexperience had led us here. Our average age was nearly forty-five, and some were not keeping their doubts to themselves. “Weather’s packin’ it in. mate,” said a burly Australian. “Well, fun and games might as well get started right off, eh?”

Just getting south to Te Anu had been a decisive journey into the serene wildness of Fiordland, an area that from the air looks Himalayan. A propeller plane took us south out of Christchurch, through blustery clouds, to pause at Mt. Cook—its heights hidden by fog—and Queenstown, where the valleys and lake were green and clear.

Te Anu turned out to be a bundle of camping-equipment stores and a handful of motels beside the lake. At our briefing session the outline of our five-day journey was made clearer. Day 1 would take us north up the lake, where we’d be dropped for a 3/4 mile walk to Glade House, our first night’s rest. Day 2 would follow the Clinton River for about ten miles to Pompalona. Day 3 would be the hardest—up a mountain, over Mackinnon Pass, and down again to Quintin. Day 4 would be a fourteen-mile push to Sandfly Point, where another steamer would take us across Milford Sound to the Milford Hotel. Day 5 would be simply spent on a boat, seeing the sound and unknotting our muscles.

On that preparatory day at Te Anu, though we could see frowning clouds and muttering rain hurrying to meet us, our spirits rose at the thought of being so out of touch with the rest of the world for several days. On advice to travel as lightly as possible, we unpacked and repacked our knapsacks several times until the photographer’s heaviest lenses thoughtfully found their way into the writer’s load, and generally tried to reassure ourselves that all would go well.

It wasn’t just the walk—it was the prospect of spending several days in such proximity to strangers, and strange strangers at that. Australians and New Zealanders are to Americans approximately what Americans are to the rest of the world: too big to ignore, too incomprehensible to deal with. The prospect of so quickly making friends seemed improbable.

By morning the clouds had lifted and the lake and its mountains were chipped clean in the crystal light. At noon a bus took us out of town to board the steamer Tawera, which has been doing this run for nearly a century. “All fresh water beneath us, y’see,” the captain said. “That’s why she’s held up so long.” He showed me some old photographs of men and women dressed to the nines on a shore that looked remarkably unchanged from where we’d boarded. “There they are, waiting just like you were. Her name, Tawera, is the Maori word for Venus—the morning star, you might say.”

Below us the pure, glacial water dropped away for 800 feet. Those at the bow were getting soaked by spray. I moved back and a woman from the North Island said with concern, “I do wonder if this weather’s going to hold.” She sighed. “In this country you never can tell for more than a half hour at a time.” The passage through the mountains grew narrow, and the Tawera crept alongside thickly forested cliffs where the beeches grew right out of the dark, toiling water.

As we neared the true beginning of the Track, there were more easy introductions among the group. “I’m Vern, and I’m from nuclear-free Auckland,” commented one man amiably, referring to the latest U.S. dip into the shallows of international affairs. We landed on a beach of heavy rocks, by a dilapidated wharf. “Time for the repellent already,” said a stockbroker’s wife, slapping it on hastily. But the sandflies were mild, and didn’t keep up if you walked—so we walked.

A trail led off into green woods. Fifteen minutes’ tramp, our knapsacks adjusting themselves, brought us to Glade House. Hot tea and biscuits awaited, and Phil and Betty Turnbull, a white-haired couple who have run the place for sixteen years now. It had a gingerbread quality, and a long social room with fireplace, untuned upright piano, dining tables already set for an early dinner, and old pictures of Glade House from the Twenties. Most of our group stood around and made nervous jokes about how easy that kilometer had been, then set off to explore.

Along the narrow Clinton River the water was pebbly, and a breeze was moving its hand swiftly across the surface. The woods were thick, the writhing trees covered in hanging mosses (“old man’s beard”) and green velvet. There were groves of wrecked trees—chaotic driftwood ruins. Ferns were everywhere, the ground spongy underfoot (“It must rain a lot here,” said somebody sourly) so it was like walking on pillows. Sandflies were carrying on their usual dive-bombing attacks. Above us a furrowed cloud bank hung over the hairy scalps of the mountains. Rain tomorrow, I thought; rain and more rain.

Dinner at Glade House turned out to be roast beef, accompanied by a snapping fire and cards afterward, followed by a ceremony of introduction from all hands. Usually such rites have about as much appeal as the Academy Awards, but the act of trying to mark one’s home town with a pin on a wall map, and the Turnbulls’ geniality, made this the first step in the gathering circles of friendship that would grow at an astonishing rate. The map sprouted tight clusters of pins from New Zealand, the U.S.A., Japan, and Australia; a pin from New Caledonia, and from Poland too. There were a few words from tomorrow’s guide,  who’d be bringing up the rear. “Lights out at ten,” warned Phil Turnbull. (“After that,” murmured an Irishman, “it’s braille until morning.”) “We have a tradition here. Those in the upper bunks, the younger, serve tea in the morning to those elder statesmen in the lower.”

In the cozy men’s dormitory room somebody to the southwest of me began snoring with incredible vigor sometime after eleven. In frustration I got up around midnight to watch the steady rain, and rustlings in other bunks convinced me I was not alone. After another hour five of us took our pillows and, this being the wilderness, quietly smothered the snorer, and afterward we all slept soundly.

In the morning the wet light made all seem new: a world of moss and ferns, and trees of millennial height reaching up to grey and sickly clouds, mournful with falling mists. And, now, it began to rain in earnest.

Watching the group in their yellow slickers heading off in twos and threes over a wood-and-wire hanging bridge, Phil Turnbull said to me, “They look like taxis in New York, don’t they? Heading down Fifth Avenue in the rain.”

All morning we followed the course of the widening Clinton River. It kept raining, and the passive river was turned into a turbulent flood. The Track was flat and impossible to lose. We passed torrential rapids, crossed wood bridges past splayed ferns and fungi and undulating  meadows of silken grass. Underfoot, the Track was by turns gravelly rocks or glorious mud. The river kept winding. The rain made myriads of rivulets—spilling waterfalls far above us—tumble down the cliff face through trees. Clouds hung round the crags, and brought back a bit of melodious Tennyson from childhood—The cloud may stoop from heaven and take the shape / From fold to fold, of mountain and of cape. . . . 

We passed through heavenly glades, the fallen logs like an elegant woman’s crossed legs, and through the Black Forest, which should be renamed Rackham’s Forest, after the illustrator Arthur Rackham—for it looks just like one of his creations, a fabled wood in a child’s storybook, with braided limbs and demons and dryads in the trees’ bodies, cunningly dappled light, and a wicked river coarsely grumbling just out of sight.

Then, just as we came to Six-Mile Hut for lunch, early in the afternoon (for we’d taken our time, and fallen far behind), we came upon one of the most wonderfully eerie places on earth. It was the creation of an inspired 1982 avalanche, when hundreds of tons of trees and mountainside came crashing down, and carved out a beach and shallow basin across the Clinton River. A wedge of trees had been smashed flat, the land cleared for a quarter mile, and the mountainside was bare as if someone had ripped its surface violently away. Above, the clouds were lifting over snowy converging passes—though it was summer where we stood, even with a breeze.

On the beach of the basin the sight was even more astonishing, for the raging river had been made into a calm lake, with strange grappling leafless trees rising from the water’s edge of the lunar landscape. Around us a hundred waterfalls busily fingered their way down, and behind us blue skies made the grey mountains look lordly and remote. It was an incredibly complicated place—as if a dozen separate landscapes had decided to converge in this alien site to send the human spirit into a dazed confusion.

All ways meet here
No beginning, no end 
Only the constant becoming 

I wrote, in a paralysis of haiku. The place made one think of the world after everybody else was gone from it. A slightly forlorn beach, impassable mountains, a quiet river dozing, a few waterfalls twirling and pirouetting down into powdery mists. The sun glittered across the stunted trees standing in the crater like bonsais, and the mountains behind looked like beds for giants. We had the place to ourselves, and were glad we’d let the others go on ahead. The sky, reflected in little sandy pools, was bearing fog toward us rapidly. Exalted shafts of sunlight flashed around the passes and were gone in cloud.

At tiny Six-Mile Hut we sipped hot tea and devoured the lunches we’d carried on our backs. The rain stopped abruptly, and in two minutes it became a lovely day. All morning the birds—fan-tail, robin, yellow parakeet—had been the tamest I’d ever seen, alighting on branches at eye level for casual chats or occasionally gossiping from a camera tripod. Now a couple of wekas (pronounced like the basket)—fat brown birds the size of small cats, rather dumpy and matronly—came wandering over and waited patiently for scraps of food or abandoned notebook pages.

That afternoon, covering the four miles to Pompolona, we followed the river. Thus far we’d prided ourselves on keeping our boots dry, nimbly skipping over puddles or sidestepping rain pools like seasoned adventurers. But now our efforts became ludicrous. We came to several places where there was no choice but to slosh calf-deep through flooded streams on the Track. (“Ah. that’s nothing, mate,” a guide told me later. “Coulda been seven feet deep. No problem at all.”) And, inevitably, a half-hearted drizzle began.

None of this mattered, nor the chiding weight on our backs. All was compensated by passing through more different landscapes than I’d have thought possible. In a hundred yards we went from sheer rock, carved in slices like steaks, into deep Amazonian rain forest; then past shaded meadows of profuse ferns, through dense decadent Southern woods, and along the shore of a hidden lake, Alpine passes above us, amid cliffs sprouting waterfalls like a great leaky boat. It was nearly a parody of the travel agent’s dream—a dozen entirely different places in three minutes—and it made you wonder at the simple miracle of this beautiful planet, left to its own devices, working its poetry of constant surprise.

Pompolona that night was different from Glade House: only two years new, a connected system of little chalets with four bunks in each. It would be difficult to imagine a more efficient setup than the New Zealanders have, everyone carrying their own bed sheet for the three nights of the trek, and finding pillows, blankets and towels at each hut. Supper was waiting, and the forty of us were beginning to divide up into natural groups. There were jokes about the rain-flooded path (“The finest swim in the world,” muttered a lithographer) and we put our clothes in the drying shed, a heated metal hut that could drain the most waterlogged boots overnight and shrink anything else in several hours. The talk naturally turned to recent films; somebody mentioned Amadeus. An Aussie girl across the table looked up at the name and said, “Eye sore that. Funny bloke, wadn’t he? Mose-art.”

Lights out again at ten; and that night we found we were sharing our comfortable chalet with the two remaining snorers who, in tandem, sounded like most of the percussion section of the London Symphony Orchestra. Fortunately we were far from civilization, and with Darwinian justice the two offenders were easily dispatched. In the morning there was more breakfast for everyone.

We were all off early, knowing this would be the most grueling day since it meant going up to the Mackinnon Pass (3,835 ft.)—slung like a saddle between Mt. Balleon and Mt. Hart at 7,000 feet—then traversing the pass and heading steeply down the other side, a drop of 3,000 feet over three miles. At first we were rising gradually. The Track took us across a swinging bridge, through bowers of mossy hanging trees so thick that the light seemed deliberately secretive. Beyond the foliage came the murmur of rushing water. Across another bridge, we found ourselves on the floor of a gigantic valley. The cliffs rose steeply—so huge one attributed their size to nearness rather than height, until we saw the buzzing speck of a helicopter taking supplies up to Pass Hut, a smudge atop the mountains. We were climbing there? Surely not.

“My right leg would be more comfortable,” said the jazzercise instructor, “if it were over my shoulder.”

It was strange to be tramping in short sleeves near snowy mountains. The Track, now rocks, began to climb more steeply, and kept this up for a couple of strenuous miles, hugging the side of the mountain. The cliff was more exposed, the trees thinned and gave way to low bushes and flowers—mountain daisies, edelweiss, Mt. Cook lilies, and bursts of yellow known as Maori onions. It was like being suddenly transported to Switzerland.

“Four more zigs to go,” panted a plump American wife. The Japanese was far ahead.

It was a tiring climb, and the narrow track kept doubling back around the brow of the mountain. At the top was a cairn with a cross on it, and a plaque in honor of Quintin Mackinnon, who discovered the pass in 1888. Looking back, you could see all the way up the Clinton Valley—a succession of parading mountains in a defiant row, and the great swath of the narrow river. It seemed both too large and too small a distance to have come in a day and a half. The entire walk was this paradoxical: something seen packed in miniature, yet immeasurably vast to the mind.

At the top of the saddle it was warmer than in the shade far below, but only a long stone’s throw away was a glacier, and thick collars of snow just waiting for us to walk under them. It seemed unbelievable that such a short stretch could contain so many vagaries of landscape: that they should be modeled to such a gigantic scale made me feel I was crossing an entire continent, and on flat feet.

All through the trek I’d been referring to the account of Ella Adams, who made the journey at age eleven, in 1889. She’d done it with her father, the chief surveyor, in the opposite direction. They camped somewhere between the pass and Pompolona, “and all night long were kept awake with avalanches falling. Just over the pass above the heavy bush we went through acres of the large flowered houhere or ribbonwood—it was like a cherry orchard in spring.” She’d had a lake on the pass named after her. “Looking down the thousands of feet into the valley we had left was awe-inspiring. The only way I could look was to lie down flat and pull myself to the edge of the cliff and get my father to hold my ankles.” Little Ella had made easy friends, too, a century ago. “The native birds were so tame that the little robins would come and perch on our toes and hats while we had our meals, ready for my crumbs.”

It was extraordinarily peaceful up on the pass, and this belied the fact that violence had created it. The late William Anderson, who knew the Track for nearly forty years, wrote, “In our short lives we see mountain scenery as changeless, but here on the Track are plain signs of a constant movement in the longer and shorter cycles of destruction and regeneration. Here, too, we can read the longer chapter, beginning with marks left behind from the moving glacier, followed by the mighty forces of earthquake, avalanche, and flood.”

Up this high the grass round the rocks was like a well-trimmed lawn, and narrow slopes fell away to crags and sheer drops. Tucked behind an overlay of creases in the saddle, we came to Pass Hut, and company, and simmering tomato soup.

Over lunch we talked with a blonde warden, formerly a guide, named Margaret. She’d spent five months a year along the Track for seven years now, and her skin had the clean glow of someone so accustomed to pure air and mountain vistas that she’d taken on their light. She said, “You know, there are two types of hikers up here. The ones who do it the more comfortable way, like you—and it still isn’t all that easy—and then the independent walkers, who carry everything themselves. They’re the ones who think that if you haven’t done it the hard way you haven’t done it. I’m not putting them down, but it seems to me Fiordland is here for people to enjoy, and they should do it however they feel best, without trying to prove something. There’s always a rougher way.” She laughed; she’d climbed many of the surrounding peaks, like most of the guides, and she didn’t have to prove her own capability to herself.

On the blackboard, over a sign-in book, was written 3°c at 10 a.m. Weather fine today and Friday. Sign here for Prosperity. It sounded much more friendly than “posterity”.

Up on the Pass is where the weather can play the most havoc. Blizzard conditions are not unknown even in summer (January, February, March), and can come up very suddenly. Now we were enjoying a chill, breezy sunlight; and we realized that after our exhaustion at reaching the top had faded, an exhilaration had taken over which was not to leave for several days. It may have had to do with height, or a small sense of personal achievement; but I think it has more to do with the release of a corner of one’s spirit that happens only in such a place, under such circumstances, like light flooding an unopened closet.

Around Pass Hut the kea parrots, with their ululating cries, were swooping and waddling around, as hungry for lunch as we. These great green parrots, with their peculiar garbled language, were the true keepers of the Pass, and they had an enormous sense of mischief. They’d woken us at Pompolona amid a violent rainstorm by methodically dropping rocks on the roof, then cackling and shrieking over the rain. The keas on the Pass were even craftier. They were so used to trampers that they’d invented complicated team efforts at stealing one’s most valuable possession on these heights—lunch.

We watched a pair of keas, with infinite guile, con somebody in our group into giving up his food. One kea slyly ambled over, happy to pose for a photo; the tramper hastily fumbled at his camera, switched lenses; the kea continued to cooperate. But the beak is quicker than the eye, and while the tramper set his exposure and happily clicked away, the kea’s partner sneaked up and pinched the coveted sandwich from the tramper’s jacket pocket, and both flew contentedly off.

The route down took us two and a half hours, and was the toughest part of the Track. At first, on the mountainside, all was open, and we could see steeply down to the tiny matchbox of Quintin, our night’s hostel, with its visible airstrip. The Track wound down and soon took shelter in trees, and switched direction every three or four steps, descending rapidly. Underfoot were sizeable rocks and thick roots, and though it wasn’t slippery or dangerous, it was depleting. We’d heard that somebody had run the entire Track several years ago in seven hours—which seemed unbelievable, especially considering this part. Roaring and rushing beside us, and sometimes beneath, were great step-waterfalls, going down the mountain with such ease and speed they made us feel earthbound and slow.

“What’s the name of that bird?” asked one woman, pointing up. “Ralph,” said her husband shortly. “We saw his cousin Gilbert yesterday, remember?”

We were all trying to save energy, and despite the increasing pressure in our boots, once we reached Quintin and replenished ourselves with tea and biscuits. we all set off without knapsacks for another hour and a half’s tramp to see Sutherland Falls—at 1,904 ft., one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. The trail, lined with fuchsia, rummaged around in deep woods and followed a sound that, as we neared, resembled a squadron of jets simultaneously breaking the sound barrier. It was so loud that it pummeled thought and replaced it with sheer nervous excitement, for the light was waning in the trees and we saw dimly ahead only enormous quantities of mist and spray filling the air, blown through trees toward us.

Then the trees broke, and we were at the waterfall’s feet. It was like a massive fireworks display put on entirely by water, the jets exploding off the cliff in all directions with a main tubular mass coming down in three great leaps, hurrying to overtake each other so as to be the first to come crashing down in the swirling cauldron of a lake. Around us the air seemed composed wholly of water. We’d been seeing waterfalls ad infinitum; each was beginning to look like the last; but Sutherland Falls brought on an ancient wonder, and I decided that the drama and beauty of a great waterfall comes from its mingled qualities of extreme life and extreme death, so much water plummeting to such a calamitous end.

Later, when we flew over Fiordland in a single-prop plane, Sutherland Falls from above was almost more awesome, since we saw that it’s caused by a huge, flat lake on top of the mountain. From that height it looks like water being poured slowly from a jug.

At Quintin that night, flush with our coming success, the group took on a new unity. It was not the sense of achievement as much as the anticipation of completing the Track, seeing what it all added up to. “I believe I could do this for the rest of my life,” said the airline pilot to me, and everybody seemed in high spirits, full of resolve. That night we were suddenly conscious we were friends—it was something intangible but clearly felt in the room. People who’d said nothing to each other for three days were now chattering away. At such times people are more themselves than usual. There was wine with dinner, the promise of a first-rate meal tomorrow night, and we all felt ourselves unfolding like mountain flowers. Everything in our world today seems to take us further away from each other, and we knew we’d been part of one of the few experiences you can have (and in four days) that gathers you together.

I sat down by the potbellied stove, warmed by wine and fire, and started reading the Quintin Visitors’ Book. The entries, I thought, must be valid for nearly any group. “My shoulders are screaming,” read one. “I came, I saw, I marveled.” “Glub-glub. Mighty wet going.” “What marvelous fools we all are.” “101 waterfalls, and 44 people of the world have come a little closer.” “Your grand memento, Quintin, will take pride of place anywhere I may live.” And one New Zealander’s long entry began: “This is the end of the trail for the 6th successive year. I failed to complete a personal challenge I made with the Sutherland Falls. Am glad I failed. These falls are so beautiful and magnificent in all their fury that no man on earth is entitled to win every round.” And the most frequent entry of all was, “I shall return.”

That last day of tramping had the air of hurry, anticlimax, and summary. We left Quintin early, having sent our knapsacks on in the little supply plane, and unencumbered we walked more as a group than we had earlier. The track wound through mild woods, and all our sores—sore feet, sore backs—asserted themselves. “My feet feel like hamburger,” said a girl in ad sales cheerfully. An elderly woman moaned, “I’m a broken-down racehorse. Don’t let ’em shoot me.” But she kept moving.

We were headed for a mid-morning break at Boatshed, which sits placidly just up a lawn from a lake. By the time I got there tea was well under way, and several fishermen in our group, frustrated by the first day’s rough weather, were recklessly catching trout after trout and throwing them back.

“Want them?” said a grinning, mustached Track veteran named Peter. He looks after Boatshed, and has the amiable, weathered look a giant is supposed to have, brought down to normal size, “Not on your life. We caught sixty here one day.”

In the rafters above us was a dusty collection of old liquor bottles from more than a half-century past. One with skull-and-crossbones stood beside a bottle of Napoleon brandy. I named every drink I could think of and let Peter point out a version in the rafters. “Vat 69? Ah, the Pope’s phone number.”

A blackboard read:
Welcome To Boatshed! 
1) You only have 8 1/3 miles to go! 
2) Boat leaves Sandfly at 4 p.m. 
3) Mackay Falls and Bell Rock 3/4 miles
4) Giant’s Gate Falls (lunch) approx. 5 miles, you should leave there no later than 2:15 p.m.

Bell Rock, by a sloughing falls, was a giant dark rock hollowed out by eons of rubbing by a rock and the river, and several of us crawled under and stood up within it. But we had to hurry on; and my only complaint about the Track would be the suggestion that this final day be divided into two, not for ease but for enjoyment.

I passed a beefy Australian beside his wife. relying her bootlaces. He looked up, gave me a grin. “Road repairs. Lucky we didn’t blow a tire.”

At the falls where we stopped for lunch beneath a wood-and-wire bridge, many of us took off our shoes and froze our feet in the transparent, icy water in brilliant sunshine. Farther on, going over a rough section of twisted roots and packed rocks, I fell into step with a western Australian who had a thatch of sandy hair, a scarecrow body, and a boy’s tentative smile. I knew he was a chiropractor, and I saw he was heading smoothly along in sneakers. “Oh, these,” he said mildly. “Well, y’see—I didn’t wear any shoes ’tall till I was seventeen or nineteen or thirabaouts. Grew up on a sheep farm. Lots of sheep. So me feet is still pretty tough.”

We talked about his profession, and the Track. Would he want to do it again? “Oh, sure, yeah. Y’see, the problem with growing up is your profession, no matter what it is, takes you far away from who you really are. ’Cause you didn’t start out to be jist one thing. You can’t help but get involved, and then maybe y’start t’think you aren’t yourself any longer. Always that danger. So y’need to do something like this every now and again to bring yourself back to shake hands with yourself.” He smiled. “When I was a boy, though, I would’a done this in bare feet and thought nothin’.” Then he said something mysterious. “We got to be sure to meet the gardener at Milford. I heard about him. He’s not like us.”

We were passing through glades of golden light by brimming Lake Ada, and we parted, each to find his own spot to memorize; there were only two miles to go. I stood and listened to bird calls and thought how fortunate I was to have had this time. Most landscapes exist ultimately not as locations, but as states of mind—and it is as these that they move  in memory. Sequestered on the Milford Track, I’d felt utterly separate and at ease, as if I’d left my life behind with the boat where the trail began near Glade House. And soon I was to pick it up again.

Abruptly the Track began to take on a conclusive ease. Before any of us were prepared, we were out of the trees and onto a spit of land, a lake, a deck, a boat—and crossing Milford Sound for fifteen minutes, in the great pyramidal shadow of Mitre Peak, so perfectly poised it looks as if a society of photographers has put it there.

Dinner that night was festive and clamorous, everybody receiving certificates of achievement, making speeches, baiting the waitresses who considerately put up with this ruckus six nights a week. Finally we collected in the bar; tomorrow there would be a calm boat trip up the length of Milford Sound. But tonight there was a postscript: the gardener.

His name was Jeff O’Brien, he was compact and deeply tanned, with inquisitive eyes and a mustache. Had he climbed most of the peaks? Of course. He’d spent two years living by his wits and guts in Africa—“Y’keep moving or you die”—and as one of the finest young marathoners in the world at seventeen, now, a decade later, he’d taken it up again, winning the famous marathon across Antarctica last year. And, two weeks earlier, he’d set out to run the Milford Track, just for the fun of it. He’d carried a knapsack with a wool vest and a track suit, a big bundle of chocolate, and a camera. He’d called back to Milford from huts along the way, just to verify his time, which was slipping by. For he’d run the entire Track in five hours.

“I was getting a buzz off the scenery,” he said with a grin.“It’s easier than running in Antarctica, I’ll tell you that, mate. It was my day off and a fine one, so I went for it. Had tea and scones at Quintin. It was pretty cold up on the Pass—only twenty-foot visibility. The guys in the hut thought I was up a tree.”

He’d “drilled the old record into the dirt”—but I thought he must have the Track in his mind as I couldn’t, as a continuous iambic line. It didn’t matter—everybody’s Track was different. William Anderson had written several years ago, “I have heard many a tramper say, ‘Now I have seen the Track I am satisfied. I wouldn’t want to go over it again.’ These people, mostly fully appreciative of what they have seen, yet view it as a beautifully illustrated book but printed in an unknown foreign tongue. To see the Track is one thing, to know it another.”

To which I would add—and I am sure Jeff O’Brien would concur—the only way to do the Milford Track is to do it again.

One memory stayed with me and wouldn’t quit. It was in that last stretch, as the trees began to thin and I was looking out over the wriggling lake. An older New Zealand woman, a little dreamily, ambled up and said softly, “Are you a poet? I just had a beautiful thought, and I want you to write it down for me. I was thinking about how all the streams rush down the mountain. But they don’t collect. Not anywhere.” Then she was gone, heading down the Track—as we, not yet realizing it ourselves, were rushing on, with more around us than we could possibly collect—and it was all gone before we knew it.

Thursday, May 30, 1985

Rarotonga and Aitutaki

I wrote this in the spring of 1985, for Travel & Leisure, on my first trip to the South Pacific. They published it a year later. 

The afternoon I arrived, the island of Rarotonga was in turmoil.  The Prime Minister’s son was mowing the lawn near the wharf.  An elderly woman, dignified in her bright red pareu, was explaining to the officer on duty at the tiny police station that her sewing machine, which she’d brought with her, was broken and the only man who knew how to fix it was away.  And a Cook Islander who answered to several names was preparing, with a partner, to attempt the first swim around all of Rarotonga—a long day’s swim, out beyond the encircling reef, though the island is only 26 miles around.

Maps of the South Pacific make a mockery of distance.  The Cook Islands, in Polynesia, are fifteen dissimilar plops of land scattered over an area of ocean roughly equal to Western Europe.   On the map they are crumbs, and Rarotonga is the largest.  Mercifully, they are still little known, largely because we tend to glance westward through the dark tunnel of Tahiti.

At first the island evoked Caribbean memories:  the spinal backs of the mountains, the clash of colliding greens, the flowering chaos of palms and banana trees.  Most of these islands have great shallow lagoons, and it looked from the air as if someone had lassoed Rarotonga with two pale-white ropes—one a continuous beach, the other the reef a half-mile out.

But here the air was perfumed, fervent with inexhaustible blossoms—hibiscus in yellows and pinks and scarlets and purples, set against a backdrop of limber palms swaying in their elegant, maybe-yes maybe-no way.  A few people were hanging around on the single road along the coast, waiting to see what might happen; perhaps nothing would happen.  The women beautiful in a new way, with flowers in their long dark hair.

Rarotonga is not a quick study.  Few islands are:  their insularity is their deceptive paradox.  Some unfortunate people must pass through for a couple of days and see little besides a few lovely beaches, curved like razor shells, and a tiny town with a library and post office and several shops and a few outdoor sheds with gossiping women selling fresh fish and paw-paw.

But after a few days you find yourself deeper in the local dream.  People seem to know you on the road, and wave, or invite you over; a stranger may give you a grin and call out, in a staccato sing-song, “Well, did you find any birds in your nest last night?”—and he is referring to those of more human and unpredictable plumage.

The island seems designed for a motorbike.  My first morning I rented one and tried to get the little town of Avarua clear in my mind.  Nearly the first place that caught my eye was a ramshackle bar that looked more like a trading house out of Stevenson or Melville, with a sign that read:  Banana Court.  I’d already heard wild tales of horse-race betting and weekend crowds—“Turn yourself banana at the Banana Court” seemed to be everyone’s motto—but the place looked deserted.  Of course, it was mid-week.

Along the grassy waterfront, by a cemetery that held the customers of a quack Czech doctor who’d discovered a cure for cancer several years ago before being run off the island, the ocean was pummeling a wharf where an island boat was moored.  It might be out for weeks and weeks at a time, visiting the northern Cooks, taking supplies, mail, picking up copra and pearls.  Rarotonga, with a population of about 10,000, is by far the largest of the Cooks.  Palmerston has about fifty inhabitants, Suwarrow none at all at the moment, Rakahanga and Penrhyn in the low hundreds.

Half of all Cook Islanders live and work in New Zealand, and the islands were a protectorate from 1901 until 1965, when they achieved independence, though associative ties are maintained and at voting time in each there is much back-and-forthing.  But in a jet age where most of the world provincially pretends to be local with the rest, it is a delight to be with people content to be local with themselves.  The Polynesian history of cannibals, missionaries, great chiefs warring against neighboring islands in long canoes, is as recent as the turn of the 19th century.  It was a relief, too, to be in a place so different in atmosphere from the half-made West Indian societies that were formed and scarred by colonialism, and to be among islanders who were not suspicious, or tense, or greedy, but charming in a healthy climate.

Circling the island I rode past low houses along a road fringed with palms, the sea peeping among them to my left.  On Rarotonga no houses are permitted higher than the highest palm on the property.  This, together with the obvious attention people lavish on their gardens, gives the island an extremely tidy quality—though the interior has that extraordinary foliage, nourishing yet exhausting to the eye, that is like an explosion of energy in the heart of the tropics.

In front of many houses were carefully-tended graves, for there are few cemeteries on the island and people feel great ties to their ancestors.  This is in part because they live only on ancestors’ land.  “Land isn’t an asset, it’s a liability,” someone told me, and he was serious, I think.  Under Rarotongan law (established by the missionaries in the early 1800s) land can only be inherited or leased.  It may not be sold or bought.

I passed a rugby field with young men and boys in uniform idly assembled, choosing sides.  Between villages there might be several miles of wild palms and splashed light on the sea.  Children everywhere ran to wave.  The few village stores were closed in the heat of the day, with mail taped to the wooden doors.  A beach of strange coral, some horses wandering.  A few shipwrecked clouds hovering outside the reef.  A long and deserted beach of impeccable white sand.  I kept stopping.

That reef had already insinuated its rhythms into my blood, and that night it would enter my dreams.  It is a reef of many voices—it can murmur to you, or mutter away to itself, or pound melodramatically, or make a sibilant whisper like someone calling you from a great distance.

It was always an imposing sight:  the deeper waters breaking apart and crashing on the coral, and if there was a breeze, being dissipated into a blown magnificent powder.  Over a couple of weeks that reef came to symbolize what the island provided—protection from the churning waters without, a transparent lagoon of calm within.

I passed Matavera Village, where men were whitewashing a stone church and women were laying out food for when the work was done.  I went swimming at Muri Beach—a long, idyllic horseshoe inlet that, with its motus (islets) just within the lagoon, must be one of the loveliest beaches in the South Seas.  Past Ngatangiaa Village there were children just off shore, whooping as they paddled a canoe the shape of a folded hat, though it was home-made from the corrugated steel used generically as roofing throughout the tropics.

At my hotel there was a garland of fresh hibiscus blossoms on my pillow, and breezes from the beach nudged the petals, and brought hints of the island’s music—“the strange silences and the strange noises”—that would occupy my dreams.

And then the strangest music of all reached me—of furious drumming, and calls, echoing from somewhere around the low hotel.  It had a clamorous, celebratory fervor, and it would last for a minute, then stop.  I followed that beautiful sound.

It was a rehearsal upstairs for the evening’s show.  The Cook Islanders are often acknowledged as the best dancers in Polynesia, and what I saw over dinner smashed flat everything I’d seen elsewhere.  The stage went dark; a flurry of yells and drumbeats began, suddenly punctuated and arrested; and there in a flood of light stood several rows of men and women, three deep, in grass skirts or fronds, the men naked above the waist, the women in bikini tops, all wreathed in smiles.  Then the drumming began again, at first slow and measured, then gathering uncontainable energy.  Accompanying it would be singing from a chorus of men and women about the drummers, several guitars and local ukuleles hidden there somewhere, all answered and echoed by the dancers onstage.

How to convey the sweetness, the joy of that sound, the grinning beauty of the dancers?  The women with pareus wrapped around them, their bodies like supple fruit, emphasizing every nuance of the beat; the men doing a dance like a sailor’s hornpipe run riot, their hands making an A-OK gesture, then leaping bandy-legged into the air, forefingers upraised as their hips wagged against the beat, arguing with it.  The women shaking straw pom-pom plumes, or slowly ushering time sideways with their flowering hands; or reaching lightly upward to grasp the moon and the sun, to name the stars.  The men with flattened hands pushing the air down to the ground, the women with hips revolving now at incredible speed, nearer and nearer the stamping men, as the drumbeats urge and cajole and stampede—until in a final frenzy the whole event stops, hangs in the balance, and the lights go down.  When they come up again the stage is empty.

The group was the Te Ivi Maori, the “Bones of Our Ancestors.”  I thought the solo dance of one woman the most beautiful.  It was almost as if she were swimming underwater, her hands forming delicate and complicated shapes, like fish wriggling in the shallow air, her lips mouthing words of the love chant silently, her fingers fanning by her ears or at her hip while the other hand softly pushed at invisible deep-sea currents and her hips swayed lazily, with ultimate nuance of meaning and without the slightest coyness—nothing promised that would not be given.

In the deepening twilight I will lead you
To a lonely secret place.
There no man’s eye will see you;
We shall flee through curtaining clouds
And nest in the farthest heavens.

On Rarotonga you sleep as if drugged and awaken early, and after several days you realize you are moving to a clock whose gears you do not quite understand.  I was there, too, to make a literary pilgrimage in honor of a writer, forgotten now, named Robert Dean Frisbie, who died in 1948.  Michener echoed the feelings of many when he wrote, “Frisbie was the most graceful, poetic and sensitive writer ever to have reported on the islands,”  and Frisbie’s words became like a background chant to my stay.  “An island attracts one strangely and inexplicably,” he wrote.  “The charm may be engendered by the knowledge that here is something one might acquire in its entirety.”

A skinny, humorous intellectual, Frisbie served in WWI, then came out to the South Seas.  Tiring of Tahiti, he’d lived on Rarotonga, then set himself up on the remote northern island of Puka-Puka (also known as Danger Island then) and become the first trader and storekeeper—a good way to learn about the locals’ character.  A ship stopped twice a year.  Here Frisbie wrote, and married a Puka-Pukan girl and had four children, whom the islanders called “cowboys.”

In The Book of Puka-Puka Frisbie wrote, “Without a thought for the white man’s code of ethics, I have been happy, enjoying a felicity unknown in right-thinking realms.”  He described how natives “sink into trances with perfect ease, bolt upright, eyes open, completely unconscious of the world about them,” and he learned how, too.  He had no illusions about the Polynesians, seeing them as full of fantasy and short of memory, except for their own long poems.  (These poems, mostly erotic, always sung by the men, constitute an entire Homeric tradition.)

One day at the Avaruna library, reading through Frisbie, I was startled when the librarian volunteered the information that he was buried about fifty feet from where I was sitting—in the corner of the little graveyard of the church across the road.  The headstone rested in the shade of a small paw-paw tree, and it marked the grave of someone who’d come out to these islands filled with a vision that he’d realized, that most men only dream about; and before alcohol took over he’d gotten it down on paper.  “I hunted long for this sanctuary,” he wrote.  “Now that I have found it, I have no intention, and certainly no desire, ever to leave it again.”

He’d caught the most profound time of the day on the island.  “Of a sudden I understood:  all this land and sea, dormant by day, had awakened at dusk, refreshed, hungry....”  Every day, as evening came on not with the usual tropical abruptness but with a slowness and strength that was almost carnal, I saw the most tender sights: a mother sitting on a tumble of rocks by the beach, nursing one baby while her young son played beside her and their father fished in the shallows, a quartet so inviolate  that no stranger could fracture it.  Or a cluster of friends playing tennis over a tattered, makeshift net strung across their lawn, thirty feet from the sea—perhaps the grass court with the best view in the world.  Or the two girls in blue and green pareus ambling down the road, chattering like magpies, with that lazy, timeless walk so hypnotic in its grace:

I shall wind the beautiful cloth about my beautiful body;
I shall be stared at in the inland groves;
Oh! I shall be a power in the islands!

One night I went to a fashion show, with designs by a young local woman who’d studied in New Zealand.  The models, all Cook Islanders, would’ve stunned a Manhattan fashion expert.  These women—the tallest and most arresting turned out to be thirteen—have a beauty that seems wholly innocent and wholly erotic at the same time.  It is certainly without effort, and it is obvious why so many Western men, confronted with this heady mixture, have taken the easy way out and stayed on with women who smell of fresh flowers and spurn ornament and makeup alike.

Nor was this all a visitor’s imagination.  Sex is the most frequent source of jokes, and a constant topic that lurks not far below the surface of any conversation.  “So, Anthony, did you catch any foxes last night?  Did you set your traps right?” asked the girl who brought me my tea every morning.  She was not being flirtatious, just friendly—she simply wondered what luck I was having.

The surprise of the myth of South Seas beauty is how far the reality exceeds all expectations.  Partly it is because the Maoris’ lives still seem so perfectly suited to their environment that no split, no tension is felt—if a woman needs a new blossom for her hair she only has to reach out her arm for one.  Deeply staring dark eyes, a face wholly without worry, ready to open into a laugh or an enticing smile in an instant; skin like avocado; dark, lustrous hair; and a musical walk that seems ready to become dance at any moment, and every dance is a soliloquy of all those things the body says better than fumbling words.

At the fashion show I spoke with a luminous Scotswoman in her sixties named Margot Johnson.  She’d lived on Rarotonga for thirty years.  She had the easy glow of the women here, and a bit of the local reserve—not shyness so much as a  lack of self-announcement.  I asked if she considered herself a Rarotongan.

“I don’t have that privilege.  But this is one of the few places where you can find Polynesia the way it’s supposed to be.  The people here have all the qualities the Polynesians are supposed to have.”  She laughed gaily.  “I’d say if you don’t have a good time here it’s your own fault.  Get out.”

In several bars I met her inverse: the Westerner who had “found” himself in the islands and drifted off into alcoholism, or ranting about local politics, or his own private affairs and grand intentions.  Good meat for the novelist; and there were also those men, many elderly, who’d settled down with local women in a kind of passive semi-retirement.  Margot told me, “Once they get used to a Polynesian woman they never go back.”

One day, riding up a path into the hills, I came upon one of the swimmers, Papa Teuruaa, who was to attempt the record.  I guessed he was about thirty, and he had a broad, beaming face.  He suggested I accompany him to see his house, which he’d just built, so I left my bike and walked on, down a path that wound among people’s fruit trees and palms growing in varying degrees of wildness or array.

“See, we have no private property here,”  said Teuruaa softly.  “You got a piece of land, it belongs already to your children—they divide it one day, when you die.  So many Cook Islanders go to New Zealand to work that there’s still enough land.  I got a lot back here, you see, going all the way back to that mountain looks like someone on their back with their chin up.”  He saw I was sweating and he said, “You need a drink.  Maybe I do, too.”

He gave a whistle and a teenage boy appeared from among some palms.  Teuruaa gave a large grin and suggested the boy climb a tree for us.  He said, “You see, I used to be the best on the island, but now he is.  Right?  Right?”

Teuruaa went to a hibiscus and tore down a stalk as long as a man’s leg.  He skinned it patiently, not tearing it, and he twisted the vine-skin round and round itself until it was like rope.  He then made a figure 8, tied the ends, and handed it to the boy who took it wordlessly, placed it against the bark of a coconut palm.  With his feet in the loops of the 8 like stirrups, he leap-frogged up the tree in no time, the gadget taking all the punishment.

I said I thought this was a pretty sophisticated way to get coconuts.  “Yah, makes it much easier,” said Teuruaa, and in a moment we were backing away to avoid falling coconuts.  We walked away with armfuls.

One morning I flew to Aitutaki, the nearest island—an hour’s flight in a Piper, 140 miles to the northeast.  Embraced by a lagoon with twenty-four motus, it is as close as you can come to a desert island with all the comforts.  My room was a thatched beach cottage on stilts, on a strip of beach that jutted into the lagoon.  Lion-bark trees stood straight up, like plants in a vase, with their bizarre root systems like a child’s stick-drawing.  The water was the most transparent I’ve ever seen, the color of diluted lime juice at depths of thirty feet and like wavering glass elsewhere, with universities of tiny fish darting along.  White birds followed, their shadows intense on the sand.  Breezes blew through the little cottage, and someone with a fine sense of  humor had added a nice touch—a blanket in the corner.  The sense of tropical grandeur, of total isolation, with an island of scrub pines and palms riding on the near horizon, were like a balm to the citified mind.  I read Frisbie and envied him and wished I could stay and stay.

On Aitututaki there is one of everything.  One air-strip, surely the most deserted in the world.  One wreck.  One day a month when a bank manager and his staff fly over from Raro, so that everyone can do all their bank work that one day.  One house with the front end of a WWII bomber parked out front, for during the war the island was a crucial air link up the island chain.  Americans are remembered fondly—we helped dredge the harbor.

In Aitutaki’s main town, smaller than any village on Raro but for its great wharf and banana-packing plant, I ran into an American grad student named Bill Baringer.  He’d been here for two weeks, off a boat, and he said with a laugh of disbelief, “You just can’t pay to eat here.  They won’t let you.  When my boat left the people literally stocked it with food—everyone brought all they could carry down to the dock to give to my friends.  All for free.  My bunk was covered with bananas.”

We were watching, on the wharf, a man mending a tipped-up boat while his little son watched patiently.  I asked if there was anyone I should be sure to meet.  Bill pointed to the slouched stone house beside the small Catholic church.  “Father George,” he said.

That august gentleman greeted me as if I were expected.  In a blue-and-white island shirt and worn pants, Father George looked at home.  Originally from Holland, where he’d been active in the underground during the war, he’d come out to the Cooks in 1947, then in his mid-thirties, and been the priest on Rarotonga until 1977, when he was sent here.

His rooms were a muddle of papers, old National Geographics, jigsaw puzzles, maps, postcards, plates, out-of-date Dutch airmail newspapers, fans, and slippers.  In a narrow hallway he’d set up footstool and armchair, because the hallway caught all the different breezes.  In his long study were shelve of weary books and a vast collection of seashells gleaming in a glass case.  On the walls were great tortoise shells and inscribed amateur watercolors.  A Rachmaninoff piano concerto was beginning its tender deliberations.

“I collect boats, what do you think of that?”  said Father George, in a thick Dutch accent.  He had the cherishing smile of a little boy whose pleasure is infectious.  I thought he would show me some boat-models, but instead he brought out a dozen gigantic logbooks dating back to 1965.  These books are famous throughout the South Pacific, for they constitute the best record of all the many yachts that have sailed the islands in the last twenty years.  That was how Bill Baringer knew the priest; he’d come to inscribe a page of one book, paste in a photo or paint a picture of his boat, write in a crew list, commentary, narration of past and present voyages.

“I have one after the next, you see?” said Father George.  “Many, many more than a thousand.  Look at all these beautiful boats.  Some of these modest people, sailing the world.  One man was a British knight.  I ask him about that honor.  He said, ‘They give those things away for emptying garbage cans.’”  He laughed.  “I will stay here for good if I can.  You have seen my flowers out back?  And my mango tree.  I am behind in my reading.  You would like to hear the other side of the Rachmaninoff?  He plays it very well, someone sent me that, very kind of them.  Don’t tell me you want to hear what I did in the war, perhaps I tell you.  You can come back for a visit in the morning?  I can show you my shells, then.”

His life seemed one of great sweetness and practical contribution, and I left him waving from his porch, his cat crawling around his ankles.  Farther down the road I had an extended talk with Aunt Dora Harrington—the whole island calls her that—who said, “Look there.  That goat’s eating my fence.  One of my relations’ goats, I bet you.”

That night, after a dinner of parrotfish, there was a sudden pelting rain, and the next day I flew through mountains of cloud that made mushy shadows across great tracts of crinkled ocean.

On a Friday night I saw the Banana Court in action.  It was like being at an extremely well-mannered and pleasant riot.  A heaving, packed dance floor had a disco band at one end.  It was full of papa’as  (foreigners) dancing with locals.  There were surrounding tables, so you could drink and watch and try not to go deaf with a grin on your face.  There was a bar that on Saturday would close just before midnight, when the Sabbath officially begins.  Side rooms had trees growing in them and a second bar and weary couples watching newcomers pay the dollar admission.  Elders sat on the porch and watched who left with whom, for this was fox-hunting night, as they say, and the energy given off at the Banana Court seemed to be an attempt to compensate for everyone’s ease the rest of the week.

Like everything else in the Cooks, there was a little air of competition.  Another disco opened in mid-week when these two were quiet.  It seems a diplomatic approach to business, and it certainly eliminated fears that the action might be somewhere else.  At the Banana Court, there was no doubt that most of the action for about 850,000 square miles was right here.

No one can begin to understand Rarotonga unless they attend a church service.  I went to the beautiful white-and-blue church at Titikaveka, the oldest on the island, built between 1830 and 1841, soon after the first missionaries, led by John Williams, appeared.  (The Bounty mutineers, searching for a remote home, were probably the first Europeans to see Rarotonga, in 1789.)  It’d taken the missionaries—Mother Hubbards—only seven years to do away with the local religion, and now the most popular sect is Cook Islands Christian Church, a kind of amalgam.  At Titikaveka there is a service at dawn in Maori, at 10 a.m. in English, and another Maori service at 5 in the afternoon.  Maori is taught in Sunday school, so the children don’t forget the mother tongue.

Sunday school was in session outdoors by the beach, the little boys and girls singing Happy Birthday to one of their number.  Bells began to ring emphatically.  Girls in white dresses stood in the shadows of the trees.  Men leaned against a stone wall.  A blind woman of Chinese descent softly strummed a ukulele and sang to herself “a little song as silly as it was beautiful.”  Her son was playing with her woven straw pocketbook.  A dog came trotting eagerly over.  The road was lined with scrub pines, and they made the brilliant morning cool.

By a great knotted tree with a magisterial spread, I talked to an elderly man in a blue jacket who was the bell-ringer.  I asked about the tree.  “Utu is our word for it,”  he said after a gentle handshake.  “Barringtonia is yours.”  He pointed to the plump, canvassy fruit.  “The children use them for balls.  But the insides are very powerful, and in the old days our women would grind it into a powder.  Then the men would spread it on the sea, and it would stun the fish.  Bring them to the surface.”  He blinked at the memory.  “The old chiefs used to meet under that tree.  That’s why the church was built by it.  A utu tree can have its insides rot, but the outside keeps growing.”

People were gathering and starting to go in.  The visitors like myself sat in the central pews, and there was a good number of us, even a young Polish couple holding hands and an American lady who’d had the bad taste to wear a pareu.  By stained-glass windows the Cook Island women, in long dresses, with their lively faces, all wore straw hats and fanned themselves with leaves, while the men sat more complacently with folded arms.  The children filed in last, to the right, and the choir in blue and white robes as if they were graduating.  Twenty fans revolved on wooden posts that went up to the high-vaulted ceiling, like looking down into the belly of a ship.

The service was given by the preacher first in Maori, then in English.  The translation was almost unnecessary: the holy words of every language sound holy to any ears.  After the psalm the preacher took up Maori again, and the phrases “seven-a-side” and “unfortunately” surfaced in English, as well as “under attack.”  He was talking about a loss of the Titikaveka rugby team, and I noticed sports trophies on a table at the back.

And then the service concluded with the most extraordinary singing I ever heard.  The men in the choir began, a simple chant that was almost African in its urgent enthusiasm, the women joining in a different meter altogether—the call and response of the tropics, a chant of insistent joy and constant impulse, full of complex cross-rhythms, with inner shouts and high-pitched calls, the congregation echoing.  Some people rattled their keys in time.  The choir swayed, and then it all ended abruptly on a long, sustained call that filled the rafters—and the music vanished, in sudden silence, to wherever it is that music goes.

There was a final song, “Nothing Is Impossible,” that sounded like it came from Broadway, and apologies from the preacher that the congregation wouldn’t be able to accompany the visitors across the road for tea and biscuits and fruit, because they had to hold a church meeting “and the sooner we are starting, the sooner we are finishing.”

Along the beach later that day, I watched a white tern wandering in a low whirling wind that came off the mountains like a cello’s calm voice.  Out to sea in the far distance were clouds like war-smoke, clouds of battle.  The ancient Polynesians, navigating vast distances, had known there were islands over the horizon by the kinds of clouds that always hung in place, or by the lagoons reflected in the sky, or by the dented profiles of wave-crests downwind.

There are many theories that hold that it was the Cook Islanders who reached and populated New Zealand first.  These voyages were one of the great human accomplishments; and if little else, as civilization measures achievement, has come from this part of the world, it must be blamed on the place itself, the lack of balance between challenge and response.  For though the most remote islands may pose their lonely questions of survival, what deeper challenge is there in paradise?  What can the response be, but to succumb?

My last evening I had the privilege of attending an umu kai—from the Maori for ground and oven. It was held as dusk descended along the beautiful beach at Muri.  There were perhaps sixty people in all, but in the gloom, as stars appeared over the softly clattering sea, it was difficult to tell faces except in the torchlight.  Traditional foods, such as taro and kumara, and fruit, pork, and raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk, were laid out, with a dozen varieties of vegetable extras, and our plates were great pandanus leaves in hand-baskets woven especially for the occasion.  The reef sounded like a locomotive.

I was surprised by the formality of the occasion, which was to honor the two swimmers.  The few papa’a guests served themselves first, then the men, the women, and the children, who were extremely well-behaved.  An umu kai is often held to accompany a haircutting ceremony.  Around Raro you may see a boy, even up to the age of twenty, with unshorn hair neatly braided or tied back.  When his family feels the time is right, his hair will be tied into many knots, each with a ribbon, one for each guest at the feast, who will be expected to place money in the ribbon.  Then the boy’s hair is cut, the money falls to the ground and is his, and the guests enjoy the umu kai while the boy symbolically becomes a man.

Night had brought on a black sky of vast depth and uncontrolled grandeur, infested with so many stars that for once the word ‘universe’ had meaning.  It didn’t take us long to eat, and looking up, I was beginning to find my way around these new constellations—there hung the Southern Cross, there familiar Orion, in the wrong place—and I was already regretting leaving.  And then came the speeches.

Each began with a Kia Orana, the welcome to guests.  Some speeches were in English, some in Maori, some translated phrase by phrase.  They all spoke of the swimmers’ achievements—how they’d been beaten back at first by rough seas, defeated by a New Zealand swimmer who appeared suddenly, then managed to break her record the next week by ten minutes.  The speeches were improvised with such ease, such a sure sense of humor, such natural eloquence, that one speech seemed to make way for the next, and they opened to embrace local politics and private ribbing.  An old man began by saying, “You young men plan to swim from Tahiti to Moorea and back, but have you considered which is the best way?  Is it the women of Moorea who won’t want you to turn around, or those in Tahiti?”  Then he spoke of the early Maori, who certainly had swum around the island; and there were murmured assents of respect for an ancestral history too recent to be legend and too dim to be fact.

After the speeches I wandered down the beach.  Under the moon and stars the shallows at Muri were luminous, lit from within, and out at the purple depths I could see the path of the Milky Way across the water, a trail of oceanic stars.  A breeze was unconcernedly playing with the tops of the palms.  It was easy to summon up those early voyagers—it was only the present here that did not seem quite real.  And I saw, silhouetted by moonlight, that old man, the last to speak, standing at the water’s edge, and a passage in Frisbie came back to haunt me.

“The old man looks long across the lagoon and reminisces on his past futile days.  Then he wades in until the water comes to his shoulders.  He swims with long strokes until he is a mile or more from shore, and quite exhausted, and realizes that now it is absolutely impossible for him to return to shore.  He rolls over on his back and stares heaven-ward, then he looks to land, and suddenly he smells the fragrant mountain wind, sees the moonlight throwing the shadows of articulated ridges across the water.  He for the first time in his life realizes that there is beauty.”

He stood there a long time, and I did not disturb him.  My own expected departure was so vivid in my mind it was like an image of oncoming illness.  I thought of that thunderous light as you approach Avarua along the coast, the mountain flinging its arm around the little harbor; I thought of the women’s lilting songs.  I thought of the ei, the long necklace of tiny shells I would be given tomorrow at this time—they say that if you wear it until you reach your next destination, you will return to the island.  I thought: One day I will come back here, to this many-minded moonlight, this silken water.

I was right.  Two weeks later, I did.

Wednesday, February 13, 1985

A Foreign Correspondence

This was the fifth short story I wrote as an adult, the second sold, the first actually published (I think). It appeared in a literary quarterly put out by Long Island University, Confrontation, the winter 1985 issue. I wrote it a couple of years earlier, a direct result of my sojourn with the Caribs on the island of Dominica in spring 1982. My name appeared on the cover along with that of luminaries like Josef Skvorecky. It would've seemed inconceivable then that it would take me another eleven years to get out my first novel, which was all I really cared about. I received a whopping $25 for the story. This was peanuts, even back then. My old-fashioned literary agent, the Harold Ober Agency, kept an old-fashioned 10%. The story was dedicated to the photographer Alen MacWeeney. 

Lafferty was a man possessed by islands. From what I knew, his life had been a pattern of them, and he was sixty-two when we met, and three years from death. He was born in England and defended that island, as a pilot in the RAF, during the war. Afterward he settled in Ceylon with his first wife, Mary, for seven years, until her death. Those years with her on that lush island were, he always said, the happiest time of his life—until he moved to Dominica. Where he died.

He used to show me faded photographs from the Ceylon years that he kept pressed in a large book about railways. They were all in black-and-white, and had been taken by his wife, a good amateur photographer. They showed a different man than the one I knew: a healthy, tanned, handsome Lafferty in front of a wide tropical porch half-hidden by luxuriant foliage.

He would shake his head with the weight of the memory and say to me in his quiet tones, "The palm trees there just explode around you, man. They literally seem to explode. And the women are all beautiful—there's a place for a young man like you. They're so beautiful you can't believe it. That's Ceylon, all right.”

And after Mary's death he settled in Manhattan, which he said was a continent disguised as an island. We met there. We were neighbors on the tenth floor of an apartment building in the East Fifties. We were both traveling salesmen, I for a nationwide cargo company, he for an international box manufacturer. Often we didn't see each other for weeks at a time, but he always left me notes detailing his movements—and I did the same, and we managed to see to each other's mail and rent checks. We had the mutual trust, I always felt, of two strangers striking up a conversation at an airport, finding they are in the same profession, and taking turns minding the other’s luggage.

This went on for almost two years. I knew Lafferty was not happy man, and this kept me away; I didn't want to get too involved, much as his travels interested me. He seemed to have few friends, other than an old crony or two from the war passing through town from time to time. And he was thirty-five years older than I; my company would be of little use or interest to him at his age, or so I imagined. It never occurred to me that he might need me.

He had that heavy-weather look of an aging overweight British traveler, with a broad diligent face, carefully tonsured grey hair that whitened in the time I knew him, and eyes the deep grey of an overcast sky. I measured the success or failure of his business trips by the weather reports in those eyes, and by the pace of the rocking gait he'd developed—the straining ease of an athlete who’d ceased to care about his body years ago.

“Off to C.A., old boy,” he’d say—Central America—or “south to the Caribbees.” He was always heading off to somewhere poor and tropical to examine his firm’s box factories. The banana republics, especially, bought thousands of his boxes to transport millions of their bananas. He always came back looking like a damp washcloth wrung out by a circus strong-man.

More often than not, my route took me into what Lafferty called "the flat ass of Kansas.”

Sometimes I tried to sit Lafferty down and get him talking about those places I knew I'd never visit, but he could be difficult to question directly, and that kept me away too. Travel had not turned him into a monologist, unfortunately for me.

Once he said, “You’d be surprised at the coastal life in Honduras." Then he changed the subject to which dry-cleaners I recommended. You see why I kept my distance.

More often his talk would turn to Ceylon (he refused to call it Sri Lanka) and Mary. They’d had no children, but I suspected that had been by mutual consent. She sounded as if she, too, had had the selfishness of the solitary traveler. Lafferty said he wanted to see about getting a book of her photographs published, but I don't think the idea went any farther than me. How could it? He had neither the time nor the energy. He was too old to be traveling through these rough places, he perpetually seemed exhausted, and yet I thought that if he stopped moving he would die. His only pleasure seemed to be the classical music he played at high volume—the loud music of memory. His wife had been a good pianist.

And then he saw the wild green island of Dominica, in the Caribbean, for the first time; he fell in love there, miraculously; he left New York, unexpectedly; and on that island he achieved a new happiness, finally, for a year. And then he died.

I am, I think, the only person who knows the entire story. It happened almost by accident. Lafferty's firm sent him through the Antilles to see about expanding operations. I visited him across the hall the night before he left. He wasn't looking forward to the trip. He hated tourists and tourist islands especially, and he would be stopping at Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Antigua for starters. He didn't mention Dominica that night. Few people have heard of it, and it gets confused with the Dominican Republic, an insult to both.

I watched Lafferty pack. You can learn a lot about a person by watching them stuff a suitcase. Lafferty packed slowly, and he never had to shift anything about. And there was never an item left over. It was as if he had no regrets, everything was at last in order. The only choices involved were what cassettes to bring with him. He had a traveling case that held twenty-five, and ten of those were always the Schnabel recordings of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. They must have reminded him of his wife as much as her photographs did.

He was among his islands for nearly three weeks. During that time I was in south Texas, North Dakota, Detroit, Cleveland, and Denver; I was rained out of San Francisco and my plane diverted down the coast. All that time I thought of Lafferty in the Caribbean, mopping his brow with one of the many folded handkerchiefs I'd watched him pack and changing his suit twice a day in the heat.

The night I returned he was not in, there was no note under my door signifying he'd returned, and I fell asleep on my sofa with the television blaring. I was awakened at midnight by someone rapping on my door loudly. All my lights were on: no wonder.

“Are you there, man?" I heard Lafferty give up and the door across the hall shut.

I was still dressed, so I turned off the set, splashed cold water on my face and went over to his place. The door was open on the second knock.

"Glad to see you, man, marvelous!” He blinked at me, ushered me into his favorite armchair, got me a drink, got himself a drink. Then he started pacing. I'd never seen him pace, he looked like a huge animal about to stampede—and all the time chattering away like a squirrel. His yellow shirt sleeves rolled up, and showed off a deep tan; his eyes looked almost blue. His suitcases stood side-by-side in his kitchen. He looked healthier than I've ever seen him look. He belonged among islands.

"You look great," I said.

“I feel bloody marvelous,” he said. “You look whacked. When did you blast in?"

“This evening. I fell asleep on my couch."

He shook his head. "You ought to invest in pajamas." He was still standing. He seemed to have energy to burn.

“You look like you got more sunlight than I did," I said.

He grinned. “Never thought a place would seduce me again. Thought I was immune to it in my old age. Guadeloupe and Martinique, you can't put a pin between the tourists. Antigua would make you cry, what they have done to the place in the last three years. And the Dutch islands—trust the Dutch to import boredom from back home and find a way to sell it! But Dominica—”

And then he stopped talking and just grinned at me.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

He looked like he'd just discovered electricity and couldn't wait to tell everyone. He said, "You can't imagine this place, man. It's like some vision out of the dim-and-distant. You feel paralytically drunk, almost, at the sight of it. It's paradise. No hotels. No tourists. The rum is cheaper than the ice. Little villages. Mild, sweet air. Steaming jungle. Mountains. Friendly people. The Caribs—”

“Who are the Caribs?”

My ignorance startled him. “My God, man, don't they teach you anything in this country? The Caribs were the warrior race of the Caribbean—you get the name. They were the cannibals, way back, before—”

“Before the Europeans annihilated them, I suppose,” I said. I was too tired for his English I’ve-been-to-school nonsense.

“That’s right,” he said pleasantly. “Well, a few of them are left on Dominica. Won't eat you. They're on the Atlantic side of the island, rough seas, steep coast, no one to bother them. They look a bit like Gauguin or Rousseau, but smaller, like the Amazon Indians. Beautiful little people. Beautiful place.”

He smiled a bent smile that made him look like an exotic old lantern, peculiar and rusted but lit brightly from within. “Anyway.” His shoulders slumped. "I'm almost embarrassed to tell you the worst. I fell for one of them. Yes, at my age, how about that?”

He was embarrassed, all right, but he was glowing.

“One of the Caribs? Honestly? How old is she?”

I had quickly imagined, cruelly, a withered old crone, a witch.

He put up a hand, to halt my evil thoughts; but he had misinterpreted the look on my face. “She's seventeen. But it's not what you think. Different society than ours, that sort of thing. Most of them are mothers twice over by her age."

"Is she?"

"Well, no.”

"What's her name?"

He started pacing again. "Miranda, of all things. They all have beautiful old French and British names. Felicia. Theresa. Andrea. Abelard. Juan Louis du something-or-other.”

“So you had an affair with her? Did she drag you into her hut?”

He couldn't face me. He thought I was making fun of him. He said in a hurt voice, "Why, yes, perhaps you could say that. I did stay in her hut. My work around the islands was done, I thought I'd go see what the last early race of the Caribbean looked like—”

“Did you bring back any souvenirs?" I asked.

I must admit I was thinking of syphilis.

He jerked his head in the direction of his suitcase. “I've got some film to be developed. I bought a little Instamatic in the town, Roseau, to have mementos." He flushed; he must've been thinking of his late wife, and her many photographs. What would she have said? “Say, I wondered where you take your film to be developed. Thought I'd nip out in the morning."

"There's a place on the corner.” I stood up and clapped him on the shoulder. “Congratulations, you rascal! Who'd have guessed all this a month ago?"

He blushed.

I put my empty glass in his sink, and at the door we shook hands heartily. He'd been frightened I would think him foolish, yet I was perhaps the only person he could tell. He shrugged, a grizzled schoolboy.

"Thanks, man, thanks. That's right, who would've guessed it?" He shook his head in happy disbelief.

“Okay, now what happens?" I said.

"Not much. Don't suppose I'll hear from her for a couple of weeks—she said she'd write me. I wonder how well she writes. Probably very simple. Well, that's all the same. Probably never see her again. Can't imagine the firm sending me back anytime soon."

He was talking more than he ever had, out of nerves. I said, “Well, you've given me inspiration for sweet dreams. Thanks."

He chuckled; I'd given him a lift by admitting a smidgen of jealousy for him.

“They’re my dreams,” he said wryly. “Keep your hands off ‘em.”

I was about to turn off my light when I heard a soft rapping at my door. I got up out of bed, thinking: Lord, getting laid has given this man a new lease on life.

The door was chained. I opened it the two inches the chain would allow.

Lafferty was all sotto voce. “Good!” he whispered. “Caught you in the nick. Say, man, I was just wondering—how long d’you think it'll take those photographs to be ready?”

The first letter came not (as Lafferty predicted) two weeks later but a month later. He was in the Canadian Northwest at the time. The envelope was a small light-blue fragile airmail one. The stamp showed a plump fruit, a soursop. It looked like a green, prickly heart. The handwriting was the slow inky hand of a careful child. She had written his address on the wrong side of the envelope, over the flap. There was no return address, but the circular postmark, blurred, said “Dominica, W. I.”

I was tempted to steam the envelope open: who wouldn't have been tempted? And the envelope was so manhandled already Lafferty wouldn't have been able to tell. But I was so sure he’d show me the letter I didn't bother. He’d gotten his photos back, I guessed, but whether they hadn't come out or whether he didn't want to show them to me, not having heard from her—it might look as if he were overly anxious to prove to me that his Miranda did indeed exist—I couldn't tell.

I did wonder whether the scents of his dream island would be preserved within the envelope. Would he open it and catch, for just an instant, all the mingled odors of that tall, sunlit coast of palms?

When Lafferty returned and I handed him his mail with her letter on top, he certainly didn't think about any preserved scents of Caribbean shores. He nearly tore the thing to bits opening it. Then he pulled the letter out delicately, like a surgeon removing a still-pulsing organ, and unfolded the cheap paper on my coffee table, as if afraid to touch it after his early haste. He read through it hurriedly, his face gleaming from the rain outside. When he got through he glanced up at me wordlessly.

Then he read it through again, slowly, savoring the words.

Finally he handed it over.

“She loves me,” he said, and stood up, and began pacing while I read. "Look at it."

"Of course she does," I said. "We knew that all the time." She had laid it out like a proper letter:

St. Cyr
Commonwealth of 
Dominica 28th
March 1982

hello my sweet Robert
with you in N York.  how is life moving on
hope everything is allright with you. 
all so you are not ill. you would like to here about me. well i am fing for the time being. am, alright. bout only woun thing I can not take out my mind on you. I hope you will not get vex about that. Well Robert I hope you had woun good time in my country I was sorry when you lafet on Sunday and was sad too.  I could not beliv it anyway I know it was ture. the night I went to bed I could not selp at all. I was thinking about you all the time oh Robert I will nevar for get you. every day am thinking about you how good you were too me. every day I wishe you are at my siad or in my arm bout you are not than when I think about that I cry. hope one day it will come true again. if you are ill some wheres i fel ill to. anyway I hope you will be seing me next month on 18th of May o.k. I just hoping that day to come then i'll be seeing again. oh Robert I need you I want you I want to see you now
hope this is all for now
my sweet. until I
    here from you
       love from me
writ me soon
Remmber Miranda

He watched my face as I read. When I finished he said, "What do you think of that?"

"What happens on the eighteenth of May?"

He shrugged. "Her birthday’s in July. I can't think what it could be. Maybe it's just a day." His grin returned. “She really misses me."

"Are you going to write back?" I asked. I thought: Who's kidding whom?

He glared at me. "Of course. How could I not answer a letter like this?”

"But you're never going to see her again. Your firm won't send you back to Dominica, there's not enough business to warrant it, you told me so yourself."

His mouth twisted into a grimace. “I'll be in the area again. I can island-hop on my own time. And the future’s a hidden proposition. You know that. I might see her in May after all."

He stared at me distantly, then looked past me. He must have been thinking that I could not imagine what he had seen, what she had done for him. But I could see; I saw even behind his eyes. Yet I could not guess how he would act on his vision.

I went away that week, up to Boston to visit my folks, and when I returned the mystery of the photographs was solved. Lafferty was getting particular. He'd sent the entire two rolls of film to some lab in upstate Connecticut to be printed on special high-texture paper in hand-colored enlargements. It had cost him about $200, I guessed. He handed me a glass of scotch, set me down, and proudly deposited in my lap a leatherette book with the inscription PHOTOS. Beneath that he'd taped an index card to the leatherette with his own inscription: Caribs.

"Let's see what this lady looks like," I said. I was surprised he hadn't written Miranda.

I flipped through the photographs. Lafferty was an inept photographer, but I still got an idea of the place—rain forest, hillside sloping to a loud sea, profuse explosions of palms and banana trees, copper-colored men with muscular arms folded, smiling shyly at the camera—and the same girl in all the pictures.

"That cheap camera doesn't do her justice," said Lafferty.

Her hair was long and straight and black, her eyes almond-shaped, her cheekbones strong; I guessed her face would fatten soon enough, judging by the older women in some of the other photos. But for now she was rather beautiful, in a quiet way, and her eyes were filled with doubt and adoration. She did indeed look rather like an Amazon Indian girl, suddenly kindled with hope.

I flipped back through the photographs a second time while I tried to think of what to say. The images disturbed me. They might have been out of some back issue of National Geographic except they had none of that magazine’s professional disinterest. They were like family snapshots, but from whose family? I couldn't help imagining Lafferty standing on some rough path, fiddling with his new camera, asking Miranda to look over there or for her friends to move in a little closer. And there was a desperation about the photographs: through sheer numbers Lafferty was trying to cheat forgetfulness. It was as if he wanted to reconstruct every inch and instant of his visit. There was even a photograph of Miranda bathing nude in the stream, and that embarrassed me, as it could not have embarrassed her: she was staring directly at the camera.

I flipped through again, trying to appear fascinated. How could these people, this girl in particular, have clasped Lafferty so closely? They were from another planet. What could they, or she, begin to guess at of the England of his youth, the RAF, Ceylon, East Fifty-Second Street? What could they guess at of the airmail editions of the London Sunday Observer piled at Lafferty's bedside, waiting to be read?

He must have known, surely, that he was joking, in the most profound sense. The gap between him and Miranda was immeasurably vast, and not to be bridged by the loins.

And yet now, with hindsight, I see that this distance was what attracted Lafferty. I was inclined, then, to underestimate the human need to forget most of one’s life.

“Congratulations." I handed him back the photograph album. "She's a beauty, all right." 

"You know," he said, "I bet she'd enjoy some of these. They don't have cameras, you know.”

"Send her some copies. I'm sure she'd like to know how she looks in your eyes."

"Oh, she knows that already," he said. "I made that clear in my letter. She should have gotten it by now."

Her reply this time was prompt; it reached Lafferty the first week in May. It was much to the point, and rather brave, I thought, for a seventeen-year-old.

St. Cyr
Dominica W. I. 27
April 1982

hello my sweet Robert 
how is life in New York 
hope everything is all righth with you. You know about me life is just cool in one way. but not so much cool in a nother way. 
any way  I think in the years to come it will be all right. The latter you wrote me on the 8th of April took me free week. I was so happy to hair from you. I was so happy. I no there is somebody care for me in this world you told me about your birthday. I now sweet it was on 18th of May so when it comes happy birthday my sweet hart loving Robert al the bast to you long life and happiness to you. Wish only I was a brid and I had tow wings then I could fly and met you. bout I canit do that.  all my love to you. I will be saing a beautiful postcard to you. hope you will be very happy with it. oh Robert every day I am wondring about you. I wished I could see you again. if only I could come to New York then all stop wondring about you. Plase my love tel me.  I am baging you halp me tel me how I can get my visa. Plase my love donit let me down. Robert I was in Roseau last week.  I phon to see if I could here you. I phon two time I could not here anything I was so mad.  if only I had my visa then I would cross the brige and come and met my Robert. but it was impossible. 
oh Robert I recive the beautiful dress and robe you send. thank you for care for me evry night when I take off that dress I think it is you taking it off Miranda. one of my sister tel me you shud have sent me a blue dress all so it made me so mad I could kill her. any way Robert dont give a blue dress to anyone else. Robert you are so beautiful I love you very much. Please I am baging you again to send me one beautiful ring for me ok sweet. whan you are sending it. my briday will be the 8 of July I will be 18 years old.
  ontill I hair form you
love pace and happiness
from me me me. writ me soon

I thought: This poor man. This poor man.

He said, “You know, the firm wants me back in Antigua next month. It’s only twenty-five minutes away in one of those tiny planes.”

Two weeks later, he knocked on my door and said, "It's all settled, man. Made my reservations today. I'll be with her for my sixty-third, can you believe it?”

I thought how unlike him it was to be talking so openly about his birthday—and at his age. He felt young again, and yet I did not feel happy for him. I felt his heart would be broken on this trip.

Perhaps I only felt that Miranda might not seem so enchanted this time. Or that she might feel betrayed when Lafferty didn't bring her the visa she wanted. Or the ring. There was no question of the visa. When I asked Lafferty directly, he said, "I can't let her save her money for two years to get here and find she can't get work. She'd be lost, swept up on the streets. She lives in paradise and doesn't know it."

I thought he was right; I thought that in any case if he took her a visa she would ask him for the money for a plane ticket as well. And as for the ring—

"Wake up, man!"

He was banging on my door on a rainy morning in late May. I hadn't known he was back. There was an urgent joy to his rapping, a thrill in his usually quiet voice. He was beaming when I pulled the door open, and he was wearing a grey summer suit that was soaked. He had just gotten off the plane, he'd been traveling all through the night, it was autumn here compared to the tropics he'd left, and yet he had the carefree air of a man about to set off on a long, patient journey.

I knew then that he was lost.

"Welcome back."

"Not for long," he said, grinning. But his eyes were greyer than I’d ever seen them, and I thought they were begging me to talk him out of it.

I knew in an instant what he was going to do. It was so unlikely I had feared he might do it.

"I'm retiring early," he murmured, looking around my apartment as if he were seeing it for the last time. He was, it turned out, thinking already of what he might give me from his apartment’s walls: souvenirs of travels he'd never make again. “I’ve decided to marry her.” He smiled sheepishly and scratched his cheek.

I felt, suddenly, very old. I said, “You’re a trickster, I don’t know if she’s going to be able to handle you.” I put out my hand. “Congratulations.”

He said, “You’re supposed to congratulate the bride.” He paused while our hands were locked; he didn’t want to let go yet. “I hope you’ll make it down sometime, let me show you around. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up there yourself.”

He let go my hand. Ten days later he was back on Dominica, and that Sunday he was a married man.

I heard from him almost immediately, in a letter written on the same cheap paper Miranda had used. He was doing everything rapidly these days; he’d gone through his apartment like a whirlwind over the weekend, throwing out and giving away and packing what little was left. He’d cabled his firm about his plans and arranged for his pension to be sent directly to what was probably the only bank on Dominica.

"They won't complain about me stepping off,” he said. "You see, man, I could've done this any time in the last decade, if I'd had any sense.” He grinned. "I think I'll be quite content without the usual pomp and circumstance, don't you agree?"

What he meant, I found out later from his New York doctor, was that he had a fluttering heart: he could go at any time. But he was an old RAF man—he never let on to me, lest I think that had anything to do with his decision. Miranda knew, though.

And for all my initial doubts, his letter was the letter of a happy man:

St. Cyr, Salybia, Dominica
7 June 1982

My dear friend:
I shall do my best to keep any faintly superior edge out of my tone-of-voice in this letter, but I’d better say right away I'm glad to be here and not there! If you could see what I see right now (and every morning at this time)—not one but several beautiful girls washing themselves and splashing each other and giggling at me from a stream about twenty yards away from where I'm sitting in the sweetest sunlight you ever saw. It makes a man reconsider his options—I see now I must have been stark staring mad to have stood the fight for so long. No more!
It's going to be pretty hot today, as usual, but the breezes blow almost constantly around this coast and the heat doesn't bother you, it just gets baked in. Not like New York. I wish I could bottle these breezes and mail them to you.
I hope you are enjoying my trusty old armchair.
I have just spent a very enjoyable morning (I stopped writing this to have a lunch of fresh mango) beside the Catholic church—one has to take the bad with the good—watching six young Carib men playing one hell of a game of cricket, with homemade bats and balls. They really are first-class. I saw them play when I visited before. They have done me the honor of asking me, as a once-exceptional bowler in the very dim and distant, to coach them. I agreed like a shot. At this time next year, I predict, our Salybia team will be the equal, no the better, of any on the island.
I've got the Beethoven Op. 111 playing on the machine, which reminds me—can you send me a dozen packages of those long-lasting batteries from the camera store on 54th? The batteries they sell in Roseau wear out in an afternoon.
You'll be happy to know my two trunks arrived at last, having come here by way of Guatemala. It's peculiar to see some of those photographs up on the bare wood walls, that used to hang over my television. Miranda has insisted on putting up the one of me in uniform on the airfield—it amuses me now. What a fat little of anything that young man knew!
I hope the various airlines are treating you nicely these days. You must try ours someday — L.I.A.T. stands for “Leave Island Any Time.”
Anyway, I would be bloody glad to hear from you. And thanks for forwarding those Observers; they’ve got the address change right now. Cheerio.

I sent him his batteries, I wrote him the most interesting letter I could think up. I missed him. Perhaps he missed me a little. I got a letter from him early each month, and then he missed one; but he sounded ecstatic. The cricket, especially, was going well. Then I received a Christmas card from him and Miranda, that showed a snow-white Christmas. She scrawled "Bast Wishes for a holyday seson.” I wondered which of them had chosen the card—perhaps he had; it was just his sense of humor—and at how such a card was available in the Caribbean at all, the ludicrous winter scene without local references of any sort.

And then I didn't hear a word for several months. I was traveling a great deal: late winter was always the busiest time of year for me. I thought he was too happy to write; we'd never been that close, after all. I didn't suspect for an instant that his health might be failing.

Then, in early April, I got this:

Well, well, well my dear friend. I hope you're feeling more energetic than I. Of  course I am being very well looked after here but I think this heat will prove too much for me, after all.
One sees the most peculiar things here. Just yesterday I noticed on some of the stones in the path leading past the school to the sea, some of the children had scrawled in chalk the words "I love." No object. Just two words.
I've decided not to renew my Observer subscription. Useless to pretend, that sort of thing. The books they review and the plays they attend and concerts and the politics just don't mean much anymore. Thank God.
Let me hear from you and let me know how you're doing. My Miranda tells me I am going to be a father shortly! I didn't expect any of this.
All the best, old boy

I wrote him immediately, suggesting he go somewhere cool for the summer if the heat was too much for him there. I even offered him my apartment with its air-conditioning; but I knew he wouldn't leave her to have the baby by herself.

I'd been right: he needed to keep moving, or he would die.

The next letter, the last, was from her.

St. Cyr
Commonwealth of
Dominica 12th
June 1982

hello in N York
Robert tel me you were his bast frend. I have sad news for you about my sweet Robert. Wel I donit know how to writ you this but he die almost one month pass. just after he have his briday he was 64 years old was his hart was bad
I miss him so much he was so sweet to me as long he was here I no somebody care for me in this world. now no one here to care for me and Victoria our gril. she only see her father one week and no more.
one thing I am asking you is this if you are Roberts frend you can cross that brige and see Miranda and Victoria. maybe you can send me a ring all so ok quick. tel me plese when quick you will be here with the ring. when you are sending it. my briday will be the 8 of July I will be 19 years old. plese all so those music taps Robert bring are all broke now so can you bring more with the ring when you come ok.
plese wright soon here we are sad sad since we bury him near sea so he can slep quiet all night all day
Waiting here to hair from you
Roberts frend you must be sad sad now all so

She signed it “Miranda Lafferty.” But she spelled my name correctly. I am a coward; I couldn’t bring myself to answer her letter.

I sent his daughter a stuffed teddy bear with a red and white Santa Claus hat at Christmas. And I changed jobs. I stopped traveling.