A Novel of Suspense and Mystery
Mero Attri grunted with satisfaction as the outboard engine caught on the first pull.
He eased the boat away from the crumbling dock and waved to his two sons, who watched from the shore. The boys, five and seven, often followed him, hoping their father would take them along when he went fishing. Mero hated to refuse them anything but he now motioned them to return home.
The morning's unpredictable weather would require all his attention. There were times when, against his better judgement, he succumbed to their beseeching looks and let them clamber into the boat, but this particular morning was not one of them.
It had rained heavily during the night and now, as the first light of dawn appeared, black clouds were visible in the distance. There would be more rain before he could get his fishing lines into the water. The trade winds were blowing at fifteen or twenty knots and he fixed his attention on the whitecaps beyond the reef. Rough water, he thought, too rough to take the boys out, but good for fishing.
He steered toward the opening in the reef, feeling the surge of the tide when he was still fifty yards away. Off to his right the surf pounded on the reef, hurling foam and spray into the air. He glanced back toward Illeto's north shore and spotted his sons walking slowly toward their thatched house, barely visible behind the coconut palms lining the beach.
Tima, his wife, would be getting up about now to nurse the baby. He thought of their lovemaking during the night and smiled. After eight years, she was as passionate as she had been during their first days together. Mero knew he had been fortunate in his choice of a woman.
As Mero left the protection of the lagoon, the bow of his boat lifted into the air and then thudded into the trough between the waves. The sea was running at three to four feet, nothing his boat couldn't handle. The wooden craft, a sixteen-footer, was twelve years old, but not for a moment did Mero doubt its seaworthiness. He had purchased it from an American on Kwajalein who was being transferred back to the United States. It had taken all the money he had saved during the two years he worked at the American missile-tracking base but it was worth it. His "boum-boum," as the islanders called it because of its noisy engine, made it possible for him to go farther and faster into the deeper ocean waters. In recent years, as the Marshallese government had leased its rich fishing grounds to Asians and Americans, Mero often found it necessary to head further offshore in search of tuna. The traditional flat-bottomed Marshallese canoes were better suited for the rocky, shallow waters of the lagoon and reef, waters that no longer provided the bounty of the past.
Propelled by the seventy-five horsepower motor he had bought with the money his sister, Jotai, had given him, Mero's boat sliced easily through the waves. There wasn't much to be thankful to the Americans for, but he knew that without them he would not have his boat or the outboard. Mero's family had owned land on Kwajalein; when his mother died, his sister, in accordance with Marshallese tradition, had inherited the land. The Marshallese living on Kwajalein had been relocated by the Americans to the nearby island of Ebeye after the Second World War. There they were condemned to live in poverty, thousands crowded onto less than a square mile of living space, totally dependent on the Americans for work and sustenance. Mero's sister was more fortunate than most. The Americans paid rent to her for her land on Kwajalein and she and her brother lived on the island of Illetto, far from the squalor of Ebeye. The Americans' rent money had made it possible for him to buy his motor.
Scanning the horizon, he saw dolphins arching out of the water about a mile away. That was the area he would fish. The dark clouds were now directly above him and released a sudden downpour. Mero, his attention focused on the dolphins, ignored the warm rainwater streaming down his face and bare chest. Ten minutes later, the rain was gone and the sun appeared above the eastern horizon. Cumulus clouds scudded before the wind and, for the moment at least, there were no rain clouds visible. At this time of year the showers could appear at any time but were usually of short duration.
As Mero drew closer to the spot where he had first seen the dolphins, he was surprised to see the usually sociable creatures moving away. Ordinarily they would encircle his boat, some stationing themselves as leaders at the bow while the rest capered on all sides, leaping and plunging back into the water. He peered closely at the ocean surface looking for shark fins, but none were visible. This group may have calves, he thought. Dolphin young suckle almost hourly for the first few weeks and continue to nurse for at least a year. Since there was no apparent threat from sharks, it was the only explanation he could come up with for their strange behavior.
Mero tried to approach but the dolphins maintained their distance. He scanned the horizon, looking for anything he might have missed. His initial puzzlement was now replaced with a feeling of unease; it was as if the dolphins were trying to warn him not to come near. They must have calves, he thought, trying to reassure himself. Above him, the sky suddenly darkened again. The wind, which had increased, carried the smell of rain. He wondered why he had not noticed the sudden change. A few terns which had followed in his wake almost from the time he left shore now wheeled about and flew back in the direction from which they had come. Mero prided himself on his ability to read the vagaries of the ocean and the moods of the tropical winds. Now he felt strangely discomfited. Even as he opened the engine's throttle, trying to narrow the distance between the dolphins and himself, he wondered if he should change course, perhaps even return to shore.
But these thoughts ended abruptly as the boat was suddenly jarred by a sharp impact. Immediately, the engine stopped and the craft rocked in the waves. Mero, gathering his wits, jumped from his seat and moved quickly to the bow. He slowly leaned over the edge, the boat rising and falling beneath him. His first thought was that he had collided with a dolphin, an overly curious straggler left behind. Seeing nothing, he moved to the starboard side. Here tendrils of blood snaked past, just beneath the ocean's surface. Mero stooped to maintain his balance and sidled cautiously toward the outboard motor. Carefully placing his hands on the edge of the boat, he leaned over the stern. Blood streamed from the propeller. Something was caught in the blades.
He reached down and, in horror, pulled up a human arm. At the severed end were torn muscles and blood vessels and bone; all had been cut through by the propeller blades. Dear God, thought Mero, I've hit a swimmer. Stunned, he dropped the arm on the deck and lurched from one side of the boat to the other, searching the water for the victim.
A grey-black object floated by and Mero lunged for it, almost tipping the boat. This time he pulled up what appeared to be a dolphin head, jagged and bleeding where it, also, had encountered the propeller's blades. Mero had never seen a blowhole so close to a dolphin's snout, but that was not what seized his attention. The eyes, open and staring as if surprised by what had happened, were like no eyes he had ever seen on a fish or sea mammal: they were human. Mero gasped and violently threw the head to the deck. He slumped down on the cross seat, his bowels cramped in fright, staring wildly at the bloody parts. For the first time he noticed the hand, its fingers long and webbed with no nails visible.
Mero instantly crossed himself and then vomited over the side. When he had gained control, he forced himself to continue searching the water. But if there were any other parts, the waves had carried them away. No sharks had yet been attracted by the blood, but he knew they would not be long in coming. In the distance he could still see the dolphins, but they were no longer moving away from him.
Mero frantically pulled at the engine cord but the motor would not start. Twice he forced himself to reach into the dark water and feel around the blades to make certain that they were not jammed. Then, on the fourth try, the motor roared to life. Mero instantly swung the boat around toward the shore. The rain had stopped and the sun was well above the horizon but there would be no fishing today. He could think only of the creature he had killed.
He deliberately kept his eyes away from the remains on the deck, fixing his gaze on the approaching shoreline as he frantically forced the boat at high speed through the waves. Casting a quick glance over his shoulder, he could make out the dolphins moving toward the spot of his bloody collision. It was as if they were coming back for something. But what could this creature, this monstrosity, have to do with them?
Mero, a devout Catholic, crossed himself again. And then he remembered an incident of two months ago. It was just before the birth of his new daughter. His wife, Tima, had accompanied his sons to the boat on a morning when he promised to take the boys fishing. "Come with us," Mero said to his wife. Tima hesitated. Marshallese women only fished from shore. It was considered bad luck to go on board a fishing boat. "Come on," he said. "You don't believe those silly superstitions." A few neighbors who were on the beach ran toward them. "What are you doing?" they cried to Tima. "You mustn't go out fishing with your man." Mero had laughed at them. Taking his wife's hand he urged her into the boat. They left their neighbors pleading for them to come back. Tima, using one of Mero's best fishing poles, had even caught a tuna that day.
Now Mero remembered that day with shame. Catholic though he was, he should never have gone against the beliefs of his people.
Black rainclouds filled the sky as Mero approached the reef. Steering into the inlet, he wondered what he would tell his wife and neighbors. Tima, he knew, would be terrified. She would believe a curse had been put on them. And the neighbors, certain that the evil eye was upon Mero and Tima because of their transgression, would ostracize them. It was best, he decided, to say nothing. He cut his speed as he entered the lagoon. Keeping away from the shore, he continued eastward past his customary docking point, toward the other end of the island. There he hoped to find the one person who might be able to help him.