The Poisoned Island
Near the foot of great Tahiti Nui, in the shadow of the dead volcano and beneath the hungry eyes of ancient gods, the young Englishman chased his princess through the forest, despite the best efforts of the forest to stop him. The dipping branches of trees slapped his face and arms. Damp leaves, drenched in the mountain’s tears, were heavy on his face, like wet green clothes hung out to dry. The sun had come up after the rainstorm and joined the gods to watch the proceedings. The air was warm and liquid.
The Englishman’s breath was loud but steady in his ears, strengthened by countless rope exercises on the deck of his ship, just one of the many ways he’d filled the endless empty days of his voyage. His bare feet, strong and leathery after weeks on the island, felt solid and sure on the slippery earth. He had stopped concerning himself with the crawling and slithering creatures underfoot.
The princess (favored by the gods) said nothing as she ran,
and neither did he. Both of them breathed and breathed and breathed, their lungs in counterpoint, three of her inhalations to two of his, her waltz to his march. On every third breath, she exhaled a little sigh, and the gods sighed with her.
The chase was in its final stages. It hadn’t started in this grim silence punctuated by sighs. When she had first leapt up and started to run from him she’d squealed the same delightful girlish squeal he’d heard so many times before. She’d bubbled with laughter and he did, too, as he’d set off after her. The other Englishmen and the island women seated around the tents had laughed along with them, the men cheering heartily as he crashed into the green wall of trees to follow his escaping quarry. Her laughter had seemed to fill the forest, as if the island itself was joining in on this tremendously spirited romp. Above them rose mighty Tahiti Nui, its smoke long extinguished but its memories as enduring as the sea.
She’d shouted to him a few times as the chase began, and he’d recognized several words in the local tongue, with which he’d made pleasing progress. You cannot, he thought he’d heard. I am fast he was sure about. And No no no was as clear as day, and he’d laughed at that again, laughed at her games and her delightfully arch modesty. He knew it to be a masque. Was it not just what those charming London courtesans had said on that cherished fishing trip with his Lord S—. They too had lifted their skirts and run away, ankles dappled with mud, eyes sparkling and full of hidden knowledge, the game all part of the essential transaction.
In any case, this coquettish flight was certainly not in keeping with the island’s delicate intimacies. He was sure of that.
They ran like that for some time, laughing and shouting at each other, but at some point the nature of the chase had changed. Her laughter had died. His continued for a while,
but it became forced and then it too ebbed away, replaced by the grim metronomic breathing, the liquid trees, the slapping, muddy feet, the little royal sighs of the princess. Then they were only running, breathing together, the wet sound of their bodies crashing through the undergrowth silencing the forest creatures around them.
And as the Englishman ran, his certainty grew.
No more. No more of this. No more teasing and cajoling. The other women of this island have given themselves freely and often, both to me and to my men. They have moaned and sighed and stroked and played, while this one has shared only caresses and the occasional chaste kiss. She knows I want her. I believe she wants me. What is this escape but the need to find seclusion and privacy for our final consummation? She wishes to be hidden from the eyes of her retinue. Well, let her have her ways. And let me have mine.
His self-assurance grew. So did his desire. He felt he could chase her all the way to Venus.
The ground began to climb, and even with his heart pumping in his chest and the sweat bursting through his skin he knew where they were. They were running south, into the heart of the island, where water cascaded down into pools and birds circled. The trees would start growing ever thicker as they climbed away from the human places and into the green jungle, the place where only priests and their adherents ever went. The place where, the Englishman had been told, the Arreoy sanctified themselves with the blood of babies.
Her breath, he could hear, was beginning to sound ragged, and almost without thinking he slowed down. His arousal was by now at a delicious plateau. There would be no refusal. But the pursuit was pleasant and he wanted it to last.
A sound of water close by. They were near one of the many
falls. Up ahead he heard a shriek and then a splash, and then he was into the water, and he had her.
She wriggled and scratched like a fish with claws, and for a moment his certainty faltered. Why so steadfast? Does she not indeed want this? Perhaps whatever faith she has precludes it? He considered this for a moment, even as he held her around her middle and felt the sharp angular rocks at his feet, one of them biting into his ankle and tearing the skin. He felt his blood in the water and the water in his blood, and he laughed and shouted because of the magnificent feeling of being alive that now encased him. Like a bear with a salmon he climbed up the other bank and onto the shoreline, where she collapsed onto the ground and he began to unbutton his fine Covent Garden breeches, stained green and brown with his time on the island.
She said nothing for a moment, watching him. Her fine colorful robe, the mark of her nobility, was wet against her skin, and her dark shining hair was flat against her head. The flowers with which she’d decorated herself were gone, washed away down the mountainside by the stream. Her skin—my God, her skin—glowed like butter before a fire, wet and bright and alive. He congratulated himself on his refusal to accept no as her answer. Every pore of her, every fiber of her hair, every shining droplet of water on her hot, soft skin, spoke of desire. But then, as he stepped out of his breeches and prepared to lie on top of her, she spoke, in his own tongue.
“No, Joseph. No.”
The words were flat and shockingly tuneless, with none of the melody of the local tongue in them. He noticed her breathing, how it was still dancing along in three-quarter time with that persistent little sigh. There was, for that moment, no doubting the woman’s meaning. For a second time he
hesitated, and his rational self seemed to emerge from the wet trees to find him there, his fine breeches round his ankles and his gentleman’s cock high in the air. That self shouted at him, pleaded with him, and its voice was the voice of his mother. He could almost smell her old perfume, and hear her high, tissue-thin voice, and it told him to stop, now, stop, before everything changed forever.
But there was never a chance of that. This was a man of action, of determination, and most of all of will. This was, above all, a young man whose appetite for women was already the subject of scandalized rumor in the drawing rooms of England. He roared like a bear again, laughing delightedly at the princess lying on the ground (who must, after all, desire him, for she did not struggle, only breathed that odd little rhythm), and he fell on and into her.
* * *
She had made no new sound as he’d taken her, other than that precise little pattern of breathing and sighing. When he rolled away from her she did not move. Her eyes looked to the sky. Her chest rose and fell. He stroked her face, smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead, frowned in irritation and mild concern at her silence, and then he slept and dreamed. In the years that followed and across the thousands of nights in which she haunted him it became impossible for him to unpick the real from the dream.
In his dream she stood and walked away from him, her damp robes falling to the ground, her black hair unrolling down her back as she went. His dream self woke up and followed her close behind, respectfully this time, although even here the desire was still present, impossible to ignore. It was
as if their previous relationship of visitor and monarch had been restored. She walked along the side of the pool, then she climbed—or rather, in this dream state, she seemed to float—up the rocks which lined the waterfall. He clambered after her, heavy and clumsy and lumpen (he would grow heavier and clumsier the older he got, the years fattening him as his belly grew as enormous as his reputation, but the dream would stay with him). By the time he reached the top she was already disappearing into the trees. He followed her once more, occasionally glimpsing her as he struggled to keep up.
And then, she began to sing.
He recognized neither the words nor the melody, and he’d made a careful study of the islanders’ music. What she sang sounded different from anything he’d heard, a complicated mélange of tones and whistles, and after a moment birds began to sing in the trees around them. And here was something to thrill the heart of a voyaging explorer: the birds were singing along with her. They harmonized, they made counterpoint, they embarked on thrilling little rills which ran through and around and into the princess’s own song, like crystal water flowing into a blue pool.
He came upon the hilltop clearing suddenly, emerging from the green just as she stopped singing and the birds, one by one, ceased their accompaniment. He picked up his pace now, some new urgency coming over him, but she stopped, finally and completely, her glorious back to him.
There was a crackling wooden sound then, and the ground around her came to life. Tendrils of green burst upwards and wrapped themselves around her feet, her calves, her thighs. Her hair burst open with green light and fire, and her back began to elongate and spread itself up towards the fresh sunlight. Her fingers twisted into twigs which curled out
from the branches of her arms. Shiny ovate leaves appeared all around these branches and twigs and then, with a final crunch of wood and bark, her shape disappeared within the new yet ancient body of a small, elegant tree, perhaps fifteen feet high, its canopy a neat, shining triangle which caught the brilliant sun and reflected it in a symphony of green, her legs fused into a single straight trunk.
He woke up beside that Pacific waterfall. Only Tahiti Nui, its gods, and the sun remained to watch him as he stood and dressed. The princess was gone.