It was shortly after a protracted dinner when I went up on deck, and the tropical twilight was playing its usual tricks with the senses. In the wake of sunset, our bow cut smoothly through shimmering pools the color of blood, and the sky was streaked in a glowing backdrop of reds and blues. A myriad shades of green and yellow from the jungle on the port-side river bank would have enhanced the primal palette if the hues had been visible, but already dusk had reduced the trees to a tracery of dark, forbidding branches.
In the three days since the S.S. Estrella had left the blustery Caribbean for this freshwater artery through the continental rainforest, I had grown to anticipate the dramatic shifts in nature, which came with the sun going down.
As I leaned on the guard rail listening to my fellow passengers chattering over cocktails in the bar below, I lit my pipe and puffed energetically. It was as much to keep away the mosquitoes as anything. All the same, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of guilt. If Maryanne had been there, of course, I would no more have smoked than chewed bubble gum—both dirty and needless habits in her estimation. But that was the point. She wasn’t there, would never be there again. And that was why I was there, trying to reconcile myself to the still-dolorous absence of my late wife.
Rarely did I go long without wondering what she would have thought about some situation or overheard remark, or something I had read in the newspapers. And then, almost invariably, I would conclude such ponderings were futile and lapse into momentary depression. Was the past made obsolete by her absence, or was it the present? I could never decide.
It had been 10 months since the cancer had finally taken her, and although I had not set out on this voyage to forget, I had hoped that the change of scene would restore some meaning to a life that had become flat and colorless and oh so drawn-out. Friends had encouraged me to book passage, and one acquaintance—decidedly more distant now than before—had blithely remarked: “Maybe you’ll meet someone.”
But meeting someone was not something you just went out and did, at my time of life anyway. There were only so many meetings that could be had in one lifetime, and they couldn’t be ordered up like some kind of gourmet room service. No, you couldn’t expect to find a Maryanne every time you needed one. There was a touch of the unpredictable, the uncanny even, about such trysts.
There would be no more “meetings” of that kind in my life. I was prepared for the lot of the aloof and solitary widower.
Lost as I was in my own thoughts, the greeting startled me. I turned around quickly to see a man of my own age stroll across the deck towards a row of chairs. In what was left of natural light I could make out little of his features. But he was clean-shaven, balding, and his clothes were neat and clearly chosen with the tropics in mind.
“How are you?” I asked, following that with an exchange of pleasantries that led, after a few minutes, to us sitting together, both smoking—he a cigarette of some variety—and gazing wistfully over the breadth of the river into whatever lay smothered in the leafy wilderness beyond.
David Westbrook—for that’s what he gave as his name—seemed transfixed by the slightest detail of our surroundings. A passing dugout canoe—no more than an ephemeral shadow to me—prompted an entertaining monologue. He discoursed about the people thereabouts and their lifestyles on the banks of that broad body of water, which had its origins tumbling from distant peaks, had swirled through dense jungle until, long before merging with the brine, it had become almost as vast as the ocean beyond.
“See how calm the river is,” Westbrook said, peering at eddying currents caught in light from the portholes below us. “You wouldn’t think would you that such a smooth surface could be torn up by storm waves the height of an upended canoe. But I tell you those canoes, hardwood though they are, can be swept up like driftwood if they’re caught out by a storm. Even the local Indians read the weather wrong sometimes.”
There was a pause, and then a stoic muttering: “You never know what tricks the world will play, and that’s a fact.”
Anyone but an idiot would have guessed by this time that Westbrook had more than a guidebook acquaintance with the region, and so I took him up on what seemed to me like an invitation for further enquiries. He smiled as I asked, with one of those enigmatic, lop-sided smiles that people reserve for the more plaintive memories in their lives.
“It’s been many years,” he began, meandering towards the heart of his story. With allusions and hints he teased me, until I grasped the notion that our inland destination—the river port for which we were heading—had been the setting for a pivotal rendezvous in Westbrook’s youth.
“It was one of those things that emerge unexpectedly, like a whale breeching right next to you,” he confirmed. “But once it’s happened, your life is never the same again. You look back and see no logic in it, nothing that could prepare you, and yet the effect is intense and overpowering.”
Even before he announced the fact, I knew he was talking about a woman. But, at the same time, I felt sure his philosophizing went deeper than that. For what he described was not simply yearning for a particular woman, and certainly it was not restricted to the animal passions of a fleeting tropical romance. The woman, one surmised, was part of a matrix encompassing the course of time and the experience of place.
“Of course, everything about the circumstances was ludicrous,” Westbrook conceded, voicing a spiral of thoughts that must have been chasing its own tail in his mind for years.
“We were both married at the time, and even the fact that we met seemed totally improbable. I was only here for a brief business trip—I was in mining back then—and she was taking a tour, bound for the waterfalls upriver.
“A visit to the falls was quite an adventure in itself in those days, and it took a woman with a little pluck to do it. She was the kind though who would take on something just to be able to say she’d done it. So she’d convinced some magazine editor to give her a few rolls of film and, I s’pose, a tenuous undertaking to print whatever she wrote—and that was enough for her. Left her husband to his office for a few weeks and set her sails.
“Well, as it turned out we had a mutual acquaintance on board, a fella named Gary something or other, a distant colleague of mine who was a friend of her husband.
“It was a fluke that he was on that same trip as me. Oh, he had some trivial company business to attend to, but it could just as easily have been dealt with a month earlier or a few weeks later. I doubt if we had exchanged more than a couple of words before meeting on board the Estrella and, you know, I don’t think we ever did more than nod to each other after that.
“Still, I can see that voyage in my mind, steaming upriver as we’re doing now, as if it were yesterday … That’s a cliché, isn’t it?”
I nodded and, not really knowing whether he heard me or not, tried to accentuate the nod with a sympathetic chuckle. Oblivious to my responses, he continued to talk in a low, resigned drawl.
“Well, it’s true all the same. One evening we were having a couple of drinks and Gary mentioned her name. ‘Do you know Hermione Sessions?’ he said, and I could feel my heart thump as if he’d just accused me of murder. Doesn’t make any sense, does it, but that name—Hermione—made my pulse race. It seemed like a codeword I’d been waiting for all my life.”
“Well, it’s an unusual name,” I ventured, trying to lighten the mood as I added, “Maybe you had a subconscious fixation on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.”
“Well, I was young and perhaps a little green, it’s true,” Westbrook continued without acknowledging my attempt at humor. “But for a name to mean so much, even before we had met, it’s uncanny.”
“Well, what happened when you did meet?” I asked. He grinned vacantly while he mused over it, and then replied as if the answer was well practiced—and yet still an enigma to him.
“It was as if the sound of her name, and its effect on me, had taken visible form. Never have I felt so transfixed by someone.”
In the murky light from the bar I could see the welling enthusiasm in Westbrook’s eyes as he searched for analogies. After a pause, he settled on one.
“Have you ever been terrified?” he demanded. “I mean really scared out of your wits. You know how you feel carried along by events? Well that was how it was with me, and I think with her too. I had never heard of her before, let alone met her, and there we were feeling this mesmerizing draw towards each other. Not sexual so much, although—on my part at least—that was there, but more an attraction as—I don’t know—people, souls or something.”
He groped awkwardly for the words, hoping perhaps to dramatize a script that must have been rehearsed in his mind a thousand times.
“We recognized something in each other,” he concluded, “and there was no denying it.”
Westbrook paused, coughed, and then went down below to refresh our glasses, heedless to my curiosity about the rest of his tale. In that anticipation I was not alone. A knot or two of our fellow passengers had gathered in the shadows of the sun deck, doing little to camouflage an obvious interest in Westbrook’s reminiscences. One couple, in particular, betrayed more than passing interest. Or should I say that half of it did. The two muttered fiercely, the man in favor of withdrawal while the lady insisted even more firmly on hearing out the matter.
“Annie, it’s not our business,” the man drawled, attempting to yoke his companion with a chubby arm harnessed to her shoulders.
“I just feel damned uncomfortable listening in like this,” he protested in a barely restrained whisper.
“We’re not doing any harm,” Annie countered, emphasizing her view with a tinkle of bracelets and a shake of the head that sent both her luxuriant ponytail and her man’s chubby arm flying from her shoulders.
On Westbrook’s return, I decided to press our narrator towards a finale—as much for Annie’s sake, I told myself, as for my own.
“Well, what did you do about this?”
“What could I do? As I told you, we both had other commitments, and Gary was not likely to turn a blind eye. In any case, it wasn’t that sort of a feeling, don’t you see? It wasn’t a quick fling we were after.”
“And that’s how it was when we docked at the ciudad ahead,” said Westbrook, gesturing upstream towards our port of call. “I don’t think we spent more than a few minutes alone together before she had to rush off with her tour group. I didn’t know what to say, but since then of course I’ve gone over and over it.
“What should I have done? Should I have followed my heart and perhaps broken up two families in its wake? I don’t know. All I do know is that this life remains incomplete for me. There’s something back there I never resolved, and probably never can.”
I left Westbrook scanning the darkness, for after such a soliloquy any response from me seemed superfluous. To tell the truth, I wanted to distance myself from his wistful memories, as if they might catch and hold me like a sandbank beneath strong currents snags a vessel’s prow and turns it from its course.
In my bunk I listened to the reassuring swirl of water as it passed our stern. Sleep was too long in coming.
By early morning, a smattering of assorted river craft heralded the approach to our destination, which was named after some once vigorous, now semi-mythical military hero of that region.
Westbrook’s entry for breakfast gave me my first chance to assess him in daylight. As he strode across the dining room there was none of the maudlin introspection that had been his keynote in the gloom of the previous night. He had what in a younger man might be called an athletic build, and his expression seemed outgoing and full of anticipation.
Despite hair that was grey and thinning and a weathering in his face, he didn’t look his age, which, from a couple of remarks he had made about his schooldays, I had taken to be in the mid-sixties. Perhaps there was a naivety in him too, which had helped arrest the aging process. One hardly expected a man with his years and experience to be quite so candid about his feelings to relative strangers.
For a minute he scanned the room. From a table to his left Annie, recognizable by her ponytail, smiled invitingly, then winced and scowled in response to some unseen action under the table by her male companion. I gestured to a chair at my table, and Westbrook didn’t need to be prompted again.
“I’m ravenous,” he said, peering for a waiter as he sat.
“Big day today,” he continued, adding, as if it were a revelation, “Going ashore.”
“I see. Well, tell me, what’s on the itinerary?” I asked.
“Oh, my company used to have an agent here,” Westbrook answered. “Thought I’d look him up. We developed quite a friendship over the years. All through correspondence of course. But still I thought it would be fun to meet him.”
“Is there much to see here? Touristy stuff, I mean.”
“God no,” Westbrook chuckled. “You might just as well stay on board as go downtown if you don’t know anyone here.”
“Well, what about those waterfalls you mentioned last night?” I ventured. “Are they worth seeing? The flight over the jungle’s pretty hair-raising, I’m told.”
Almost immediately I wished I hadn’t broached the subject. Westbrook’s expression was transformed. He became sullen, and his focus dropped to the table. After some hesitation, he spoke.
“Ah, forgive me, the truth is I’m one of those people who can’t stand flying,” he said at last. His voice had picked up a tremor, and on the other side of the room I noticed Annie had seen the change in Westbrook’s manner and was straining to account for it.
“I really should go, shouldn’t I?” he continued. “I know I should. Believe me, I’ve been thinking about little else. She went, and so should I. But I get sick just thinking about a flight like that.”
“No reason to go at all if …” I began, but he was oblivious to platitudes.
“You see, I should have been on that trip with her. With Hermione, I mean. I was supposed to go. But when I saw the tiny plane we were to fly on, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t make myself.
“I knew from some of the company’s pilots that we were going to have to fly through some rough terrain. Huge mesas stick out of the jungle, and to get near the falls we’d have to virtually skim the sides of them. Miscalculate the turbulence and you’re dead.
“Well, I just could never face her again after that. I read her magazine story of course, and that made it worse. How could I talk to her about destiny and the courage of the moment after watching her soaring away, with me standing by the airstrip like a dodo.”
“Look,” I said, unsure whether to opt for a fraternal or a paternal tone, “fear of flying is not something you choose to have or not to have. It’s a medical condition. You’re either born with it or you aren’t.”
Whether that was true I didn’t know, but it was the first thing that occurred to me as I reached for a word or two of consolation. At any rate, it seemed to have an effect, or maybe it was merely that enough time had passed for Westbrook to pull himself together.
“Yes, yes, you’re probably right,” he nodded, a little self-assurance returning to his voice. “I’ll find my correspondent, and perhaps some reminiscing will help me take my mind off it.”
The sun was an unadulterated scarlet and about to slip nonchalantly behind the forest when I heard the chatter of returning tour groups.
“I can’t believe it!” exclaimed a voice I recognized, accompanied by a jangle of designer jewelry. The response was in a gruffer, male tone.
“Look, we shouldn’t get so involved. It’s not our problem.”
Annie came into view and, spotting me, hurried in my direction, addressing me breathlessly from the middle of the room.
“That man you were talking to last night …”
“Mr. Westbrook, you mean,” I said.
“Yes, well, you’ll never believe this. He’s dead.”
There was a pause while Annie watched, rather morbidly I thought, for my reaction. I waited for an explanation.
“We met him downtown, you see,” she continued, taking one seat while her male appendage, still lamely protesting her involvement, took another. “In fact, he came bounding towards us as soon as he saw us. We were just about to get on the tour bus to the airport, so we could take the scenic flight to the falls. Anyway, he was shouting something about changing his mind, and the next we knew he’d twisted his ankle in one of those infernal holes in the road. He sprawled headlong in front of a truck. There was a terrible thud and a squeal of brakes, but the poor man didn’t stand a chance.”
There was no drama in the sky as I climbed the steps to the upper deck. The sun had disappeared without a performance, and the overlap between day and night was abrupt and eventless.
After the post-mortem prattle in the bar, the evening overture from the vast, anonymous jungle was a balm. Mourning my late acquaintance would have been appropriate no doubt, but instead it was Maryanne who occupied my thoughts. How baffled she would have been by Westbrook and his ill-fated effort to atone for persistent memories. Her life had always been so neat and rational. You simply dealt with what was at hand, coping with things as they came along until you could cope no longer.
About the Author
A.L. Means grew up in Britain and has lived in the Phoenix, Arizona, area for 30 years. He has written in various forms since a tender age, and has spent much of his working life as a journalist.