Dolphins had been riding in the bow waves of the Pamela Jane all morning. They were plump and shiny and they played like children and spoke to each other in their strangely human language of squeaks and whistles. Usually Maya loved when dolphins swam with the boat, but today she barely noticed them. She was sitting on the bow, leaning against the cabin wall, out of sight of the main deck, which is where she went when she wanted to be alone. When she heard her mother calling her she frowned more deeply and tucked her legs up so that she couldn’t be seen.
She didn’t answer.
The warm Atlantic rushed blue and strong over the hull of the Pamela Jane and stretched flatly to the horizon where white clouds bloomed. Maya’s parents had collected the last of the algae samples they needed early that morning and within a few hours they would be sailing into port at St. Alban’s, where they would drop off the samples at the Marine Station. Her mother’s voice grew muffled as she went into the cabin, and then her footsteps thumped on the steps as she came back on deck. Her shadow appeared over Maya a few moments later.
"Didn’t you hear me calling you?"
"Sorry," Maya said. She rested her chin on her knees and trained her gaze on the horizon. The boat rose and fell gently on the swells. Her mother refolded her scarf and tied it over her hair and sat down beside her.
"What is it?" she asked.
Maya felt tears rise to her eyes again but she blinked them away and glared out at the sea.
"You know what it is," she whispered. "I don’t want to live on the boat anymore."
Suddenly Maya felt more angry than sad. Frowning, she picked ruthlessly at a scab on her ankle. "Everyone’s always on top of me," she said. "I don’t have any privacy."
Her mother considered.
"It’s a big ocean," she said. "It’s lucky that we’re all together on it."
"I don’t want to be on the ocean," said Maya. "I want to be on land. I want to live at Granny Pearl’s and go to school. I want to be like everyone else. I want to know people my own age. I want friends."
Here Maya felt tears welling again.
"You have Simon."
Maya scowled. "He doesn’t count."
She picked at her ankle and didn’t look at her mother. It wasn’t Simon’s fault. He was perfectly happy. He was always sweet and cheerful and even if he was annoying sometimes, people always liked to have him around because he was so good- natured. Maya didn’t want to be so unpleasant all the time. She loved her family. It just seemed like she couldn’t help her bad mood these days. She felt her mother watching her.
The boat eased on the waves. A nurse shark that had been following the boat for a couple of days reappeared and Maya watched it, just a few feet below the surface off the lee of the boat. It must have scared off the dolphins and now the sea was quiet except for the sound of the water breaking against the Pamela Jane’s hull.
"I’ll talk to your father," her mother said finally. "Meanwhile, we’ll be in Bermuda in a week. Try to enjoy that thought, okay? We can talk about all this when we get there."She leaned forward onto one knee and kissed Maya’s head.
"It will all be all right," she said.
She left and Maya was by herself with the lonely clatter of the halyards on the mast.
Maya’s parents, marine biologists Marisol and Peter Nelson, had one quick stop to make at the Marine Station in St. Alban’s to drop off samples of sea creatures they had collected, and then they would be on their way for their summer visit to Granny Pearl in Bermuda.
Granny Pearl was Peter’s mother. She lived in a little blue cottage that faced out to sea. She had soft brown skin and gentle wrinkles. She smelled like warm soil and ginger and sundried laundry. Sugar snap peas grew in her garden, as well as cassava, parsley, and odd- shaped green squash. She kept a patch of milkweed for the monarch butterflies. She had a great love of bats and would often sit out on her porch on summer evenings, watching their soft black flickers across the heavy night sky. On the stone railing of her porch she kept a conch shell that she would lift to the children’s ears so that they could hear the soft sigh of the ocean inside the shell. Do you hear? she would whisper. When you’re out on the ocean, this is how I know where you are.
It was to the cove at Granny Pearl’s house that the Pamela Jane had first drifted, abandoned, back before Maya had even been born. Granny Pearl had looked out through the kitchen window and had seen the crewless schooner coming into the cove as if she knew exactly where she was going. She had been encrusted in strange, jewel-like barnacles, her sails had been ghostly tatters, and her cabin had been almost entirely empty, scoured bare by the wind and waves. When Maya’s parents plied the barnacles free from the wood, they found the boat’s name written on the bow: Pamela Jane. The only thing left in her cabin was a book with blank ivory pages and a red leather cover, which Maya’s parents found in a drawer sealed shut by humidity. They posted notices in shipping journals all over the world, but when no one had claimed the Pamela, the Nelsons had freshened her paint and refitted her sails and she had belonged to them ever since. They had even installed a very small laboratory in her cabin where they could store samples they took from the sea. Maya was thirteen and she had lived on the Pamela Jane her whole life, first with just her parents and then with her brother, Simon, who was nine now, and later their baby sister, Penny, who was eight months old. Their parents were marine biologists who worked for the Marine Stations. For a long time Maya had believed that there was nothing better than life on the open ocean, sailing from port to port on the warm trade winds that blew across the Atlantic Ocean.
She had seen silver- flippered seals that barked like happydogs, fleets of menacing purple Portuguese men- o’-war balloons blown along by northerly winds, and magnificent swordfish that leaped out of the sea and sailed clean over the deck of the Pamela Jane. Simon had once even touched the barnacled side of a whale. His father had lifted him over the edge of the starboard railing as the great gray flank surfaced and rolled back under. The creature’s unfathomable eye, big as an oil well, had looked right at Simon. Like most people who lived on the sea, they knew the map of the stars by heart and could navigate by them at night. Often Maya and her mother would lie on their backs on the deck under the big velvety sky, and her mother would point out the constellations: Andromeda, Lyra, Orion, and the most graceful of them all, Cassiopeia, her arms jointed like an insect’s against the night sky. On stormy nights they watched Saint Elmo’s fire dancing high on the mast, leaping between the lines.
Each year they followed the Gulf Stream from the coast of South America into the Caribbean and up to Bermuda and then back down again. The children’s parents tracked the breeding seasons of schools of parrot fish and amber jacks, recorded algae levels on the equator, studied the migration patterns of Capricorn whales, and many other mysterious things. They made stops at ports along the way. Each port was different. In Tulomso there were giant sea- pumpkins that grew along the beaches, in Port Cardina great albatrosses with snowy white beards nested in the cliffs, and in the waters around St. Malan’s glowworms rose to the surface in whirling lights on the third night after each full moon. Near Trinidad and Tobago were massive oil tankers whose horns had great deep bellows. They would call to each other as they passed in the shipping lanes. The Pamela Jane would chase playful schools of whales to farther Patagonia at the south of the continent, where Maya and Simon could see haunting white ice floes bobbing in the distance, vapors of steam dancing around them before they would turn, the Pamela Jane rushing back to warmer waters.
Since they were always moving from port to port, Maya and Simon didn’t go to school like most children did. But every morning their mother gave them lessons, on the deck when the weather was good, and down in the cabin when it was foul. The pages of their schoolbooks were damp and curled from the sea air. Maya had always been proud that she and Simon knew things that land children didn’t: how to tell the difference between a jack nose and a barracuda, how to tell how quickly a squall on the horizon would strike, if at all, and how to rig a fifty- two- foot schooner. They could read the machinery of the GPS, the boat’s navigation system, which told them what their latitude and longitude was, and the radar, which told them what vessels were near them, and if there was bad weather up ahead. They could each cook a meal on a gyroscopic stove in the galley, which was what the kitchen on a boat is called. Simon was an expert in knots and could tie fisherman’s bends, spider hitches, surgeon’s loops, and blood- knot line joiners, along with hundreds of others. He had read a book on it and now knew more knots than their father. There were even a few that he was sure he had invented himself.
But lately the magic had gone out of life on the sea for Maya. She didn’t know how it had happened, but sometime in the past year living on the Pamela Jane had become unbearable. The journeys between landfalls stretched out dully. Simon goon her nerves constantly. And even with her family around her, she found that sometimes she was so lonely she would cry by herself on her top bunk in the cabin. She longed to be in one place, in a proper house that wasn’t always floating from one place to the next, with a backyard instead of a deck and windows instead of portholes. She was tired of five of them being crammed into such a tiny space together, and it had only gotten worse since Penny had come along almost a year ago. Maya and Simon shared a narrow bunk bed in the room that doubled as the family’s living room, and Penny slept there, too, in a hanging cot in the middle of the room that swayed as the boat moved through the water and rocked her to sleep. Maya had no space to call her own. If she went up to the stern, someone was there, if she snuck back down into the cabin, someone undoubtedly would come barging through shouting, "Maya, Maya, where are you, Maya?"
Their stops in ports were no better. There were no other boat children her age. She was too old to play games on the dock with the little kids but too young to go to the cabanas along the beaches where calypso music played and local teenagers hung out. "Far too young," said her father. While her parents were busy at the Marine Station in each port, Maya could easily have disobeyed them and gone inside the cabanas, of course. And it wasn’t that she wouldn’t have disobeyed them—it was that she was too shy. She was scared that she’d go inside and have no one to talk to and everyone would see that she was there alone. That would have been mortifying—too mortifying to risk. Simon, if he’d had any interest, would have been able to walk right in and make friends with everyone there. Simon, their mother said, could talk the ear off a snail. Simon was the one people liked. Sometimes the Nelsons would cross paths with people they had met for just an afternoon two years ago, and the people would still remember a conversation they’d had with Simon. Their mother said he was special that way. But Simon didn’t care about the cabanas. He was still happy to run around on the beach and the docks and could spend hours talking to crusty old sailors or young biologists from the Marine Stations. Once these things had made Maya perfectly happy, too. But somehow, she didn’t know how or why or even when it had begun to happen, the joy was gone.
For months now she had been begging her parents to let her stay behind when they left this time. She had even written them letters: Dear Mami and Papi, I think the time has come for me to go to school like a normal person my age. I’m sure that Granny Pearl will be happy to have me live with her. . . .And finally, finally, they had relented, and said that they would talk with Granny Pearl when they reached Bermuda. But Maya was still nervous. If they didn’t sort everything out soon she would miss the start of the school year and she’d have to stay on the boat for another year. Another whole year—Maya couldn’t bear to think about it.
Someone else, again! Maya felt a shadow fall across her again. Her family couldn’t give her any space—they even had to put their shadows on her! She opened her eyes and saw Simon standing over her.
"What?" she asked sharply.
"Papi’s going to tell me the story about the island," he said.
"If you want to come hear."
"That’s okay," Maya said. "Thanks. I’ll stay here."
"Later, do you want to play cards?"
"I don’t know," she said. "I’m busy thinking right now.
Sometimes I just need time to think. By myself."
"What are you thinking about?"
"About being somewhere where everyone can’t bother me every two minutes," Maya muttered.
"Later on, we could trade shells," offered Simon. "I could give you the milk moon snail of mine that you wanted. Or the red triton."
Maya sighed. Simon was nine. He was at that age when sometimes he acted grown- up and sometimes he was as irritating as a seven- year- old.
"I’m not talking anymore," said Maya, closing her eyes. "I’m just thinking."
"But . . ." began Simon.
"Shhh!" said Maya loudly. "Thinking!"
Simon lingered a minute more and then she heard him trudging back to the main deck. As soon as he was gone she felt a pang of remorse. It wasn’t Simon’s fault that things weren’t how they used to be. A moment later, her father’s voice drifted to her on the breeze.
"A long time ago, near the equator, there was a mysterious sea. Storms brewed around its edges and no boats could sail into it. In the middle of this sea was an island. Since no boats could reach it or leave from it, it was entirely cut off from the Outside World. Different life- forms sprang up and flourished. Fish the color of jewels flashed through the waters. There were villages built in the tops of ancient trees and mythical creatures and the strangest plants you’ve ever seen. It was an incredible place."
"And there was a giant," Simon interrupted.
"There were lots of giants," their father said.
"And they sang."
"Yes, all the giants were singers."
"What was the island called?" asked Simon.
"It had a lot of different names," said their father. "So I couldn’t really tell you for sure."
"And how big was it?" Simon asked.
"It could be as big or as small as you wanted," their father replied. "It always seemed to be changing sizes, you see."
"No way," said Simon. "That couldn’t happen."
"That’s where you’re wrong," said their father. "Almost anything can happen."
Maya sighed. She had heard it all before.
Maya went down into the cabin and, checking the passageway quickly to make sure that no one saw her, slipped into the tiny laboratory where her parents kept the marine samples. Shades were drawn over the portholes and the room was dim. Saltwater tanks lined the walls. If they hadn’t been covered with black canvas, Maya would have seen dozens of odd sea creatures drifting inside them: pale sea horses, crustaceans with dappled shells, alien moon jellies pulsing toward the surface. One tank was anchored to the table in the middle of the room where the microscopes were, and this was the one Maya approached.
She had been there earlier when her father had drawn what was inside it up from the sea. She slid the canvas aside and slowly raised the lid; it opened up like the top of treasure chest. Suddenly brilliant, blue- tinged rays of light shutout from the tank.
It took Maya’s eyes a moment to adjust. The light dimmed little and she watched as the tiny octopus floated slowly through the water. It was as clear as glass, with fine neon filaments. It’s so weird, she thought. All the sea creatures her parents collected these days were peculiar. It was as small as Maya’s thumb, but the power of the light it emitted was astonishing. Looking into the tank was like standing in a window with moonlight flooding in. Maya’s thoughts wandered back to the problem of life on the boat. She sniffled and a tear fell into the tank. The tiny octopus recoiled, its neon tentacles collapsing. A moment later it rose to the surface as if it was curious. Maya saw its eyes, luminous, with inky violet pupils, looking up at her. She sniffled again and wiped the back of her hand over her cheek.
Maya heard footsteps in the hall pass the laboratory door. She knew in a moment someone would be back that way and would pop their head in and find her. Quickly she drew down the lid of the tank and the light in the laboratory dimmed. She lingered a moment, a few rays of the octopus’s light shooting through the gap and dancing on the wall behind her. Then she closed the lid firmly. She slipped quickly back to the passageway, pulling the door shut behind her. She ran up the stairs and onto the deck.
The dolphins and nurse shark were gone now and the Pamela Jane’s white sails were blinding in the sun. Her father was standing at the wheel, writing in the ship’s log. She wanted to talk to him about school and Granny Pearl, and about the curious, glowing octopus, too, but she would have to wait. The logbook was full of boring stuff—their coordinates, the wind direction and speed, the weather conditions, sightings of other ships, and notes about unusual things, such as the large cargo ship buoy that they had had to tack to avoid earlier that morning. Her father recorded these things diligently at regular intervals each day. The idea was that if anything unforeseen happened out at sea, such as a storm that blew them off course, or if the mechanical navigation equipment broke for any reason and they were lost, they could consult the ship’s log. From the facts that had been recorded in it, they could piece together a good estimate of where they were and where they needed to go. Basically, a ship’s log is to help you find your way if you got lost, their father always said. Every seafaring vessel had one. He had taught both Maya and Simon how to use the information that was in it. Simon knew far more about the particulars of it than she did.
Usually their parents used the same pale blue canvas books that they bought each year in port, but a few months ago they had run out of pages in an old book while out at sea. Her father began to use the book that had been on the Pamela Jane since they had found her. Kept for sentimental reasons, for a long time it had sat forgotten on a top shelf among volumes about coral reefs and intertidal zone crustaceans and other similar titles in the cabin. It was impressive, large, and old- looking, its red leather cover decorated with a fine gold pattern, parts of which had been rubbed away.
Simon had caught something in a net and was examining it in a bucket of seawater, which he now lugged over to them."Hey, look what I found," he said. Inside was a small creature with soft purple spines. When he reached his hand into the bucket it shrank away from him. "What is it?" he asked their father.
"It’s a purple Maginot," said their father, closing the logbook. "And you should probably leave it be. They don’t like company much."
"Ouch!" Simon cried, snatching his hand out of the water. "It stung me. It has prickles."
"Told you," said their father. "They’re quite antisocial."
"It reminds me of Maya," said Simon. "They should call it a Maya Maginot."
Maya saw her father look away so that she wouldn’t see him smile.
"Why don’t we give your sister a break, and why don’t you set that thing free back in the ocean?" he said to Simon, squeezing Maya’s shoulder. "St. Alban’s is right up ahead, anyway—see?"
"I see it!" Simon shouted, pointing to a green speck in the distance. "We’re there!"
As they watched, the green speck grew palm trees and sandy beaches and houses. The warm air rushed over the Pamela Jane, filling her sails, and the water broke icy- white around her bow.
"This is a short visit, right?" Maya grumbled.
"Yes," her father said. "We’ll be in and out within a few hours. We just need to drop off the samples."
Usually Maya loved stopping at St. Alban’s. The head marine biologist, Dr. Fitzsimmons, was an old friend of her parents, from the days when they had all been students together at the Oceanic Institute. He had a tufty red beard and weak blue eyes and freckles that blended together across his cheeks. Whenever they had a few days in St. Alban’s, the Nelsons would go to dinner at the home he shared with his wife, who made an excellent mussel pie and always made sure there was plenty of hot water so that the Nelsons could take proper showers. Maya loved to sit at a real table in a real house that didn’t rock and sway. On the bookshelves were rows of marine science journals that her parents and Dr. Fitzsimmons had published articles in. And the St. Alban’s laboratory was superb, with state- of- the- art equipment and friendly junior marine biologists who worked for Dr. Fitzsimmons. Recently Dr. Fitzsimmons had been hired by the Red Coral Project, which was studying the effects of pollution on certain types of coral. He had brought the Nelsons on board and they had been collecting samples for the project for nearly a year now. In the beginning everything had seemed like business as usual, but in the past months they had been discovering unusual, glowing sea creatures like the octopus.
Dr. Fitzsimmons was waiting for them on the dock when they arrived. He waved to them and offered them all a hand onto the dock. As usual, Maya was the first one off the boat, and she realized instantly that Dr. Fitzsimmons didn’t seem like himself. Usually a friendly, furry man, he seemed strangely nervous, and when he pulled her up he grasped her arm roughly and barely seemed to see her.
A man who Maya had never seen before was standing behind him, off to the side. He didn’t seem to notice her either, so she was able to take a long, curious look at him. He wore an eggplant- colored wool hat, even though the sun was out, and it was pulled down over his craggy brow, which jutted out over a pair of very deep- set amber eyes. Wiry white hair sprouted from his chin and his ears. His nose was purplish and it had bulbous growths all over it that reminded her of the eyes on a potato. He was not looking at her, but was staring so intensely at the boat behind her that Maya felt as if she was in a cold shadow. Then Simon scrambled up behind her and then her whole family was there and the dock was suddenly noisy and full of people. Her father handed up the tanks with the marine samples. In one of them the moon octopus was in his small dark cage, sloshing gently from side to side. Her father hoisted himself onto the dock after them.
"Wait until you see these," he said to Dr. Fitzsimmons. Then he caught sight of the stranger.
"Let me introduce you to Dr. Izquierdo," said Dr. Fitzsimmons."Dr. Hábil Izquierdo. He’s working on the Red Coral Project, too. Dr. Izquierdo, these are the Nelsons, Dr. Nelson and Dr. Nelson and Maya and Simon and Penelope."
But the stranger barely seemed to notice them. Instead he was staring at the Pamela Jane, rocking gently on her moorings behind them. His eyes traveled over her sunny yellow hull, crisply furled white sails, freshly scrubbed deck, and neatly coiled lines."She has good speed for a boat her size," he said. "How many feet is she?"
"Fifty- two," said Maya’s father.
"And a half," added the stranger, almost to himself.
"Yes," said Maya’s father, surprised. "You have a good eye. She’s actually fifty- two and a half feet from bow to stern."
"Still a beauty," said the stranger, again almost to himself. Then abruptly he turned and began walking past all of the moored boats toward the end of the dock. Maya noticed that one of his shoes made a peculiar clicking sound on the dock.
"All right," said Dr. Fitzsimmons quickly. "Why don’t we get these samples up to the lab?" He helped Maya’s father carry the tanks of samples and they started up the hill to the Marine Station.
"Strange old guy," said Maya’s father.
"He was a weirdo," said Simon.
"Simon," said their mother warningly.
"He is different," said Dr. Fitzsimmons. "I’ll grant you that. The Red Coral people sent him over for a few days. But now tell me . . ." And he changed the subject.
Maya glanced back over her shoulder but the man was gone and the dock was empty.
By the time they reached the Marine Station she had forgotten about the odd visitor. Her parents left her to watch Penny outside in the garden while they went into the lab with Dr.
Fitzsimmons. A lazy breeze rustled through the big poinciana tree and red petals fluttered loose. Simon wandered off to talk to a student biologist who was feeding the turtles in the outdoor aquarium. Maya sat there with Penny in her lap, her thoughts drifting off to Bermuda and the friends she would make at her new school, if only she was allowed to go. What Maya really wanted, though, was just one friend, better than all the others. A best friend. Maya had imagined this friend for so long now that she felt she knew her very well. She imagined them eating lunch together at school every day and taking the bus home together(because, of course, her best friend would live on the same road as Granny Pearl), and having long conversations about everything under the sun while they sat on Granny Pearl’s porch in the evenings. It was going to be wonderful, Maya had no doubt.
Through the open window of the laboratory she could see her parents and Dr. Fitzsimmons talking. Their conversation drifted out to her.
"Because of the presence of the cobalt moravia, we believe that it’s coming from deep in an equatorial jungle," her father was saying. "It’s most likely that the mineral is being carried downriver and that’s how it’s entering the sea. . . ."
"Peter," said Dr. Fitzsimmons. "The Project wants this to stop here. You’ve already gone far, far beyond what you were hired to do. You aren’t authorized to undertake in de pen dent research in this area. I’ve been instructed to warn you that . . ."
At this point Dr. Fitzsimmons walked across the room and closed the window and the rest of the conversation was lost to Maya. She felt a brief moment of alarm—what on earth were
they talking about? But then Penny pulled a daisy out of the ground and began chewing it and Maya had to take it away from her, and by the time she had taken all the bits out of Penny’s clenched fists, her parents were walking out of the laboratory with Dr. Fitzsimmons.
The adults made idle conversation as Dr. Fitzsimmons walked with them back down to the Pamela Jane, but Maya thought it seemed strained. Simon ran ahead of everyone. He reached the boat first and leaped on board and ran down into the cabin. His bloodcurdling shout a few moments later made Maya’s heart leap into her throat.
In a few strides Maya’s father was down on the dock, just as Simon emerged in a hurry back onto the deck. Dr. Izquierdo appeared quickly behind him.
"What’s going on?" asked Maya’s father angrily.
"I was just taking a look," growled Dr. Izquierdo.
"You could have asked to come aboard," said Maya’s father, an edge to his voice. "I’d have been happy to show you around."
"He was trying to take the logbook," said Simon.
"I was only looking at it," said Dr. Izquierdo, glowering.
Simon was holding tightly on to the logbook, its strong red cover shining.
Dr. Izquierdo looked shiftily down the length of the dock. His hooded eyes were barely visible. He’s not a marine biologist at all, Maya thought suddenly. He did not apologize, but instead his face grew stormy. He looked sullenly at Dr. Fitzsimmons before turning and walking briskly toward the steps leading up the hill to the Marine Station. A hollow echo bounced
off the stone dock with every other step he took.
"I’m sorry about that," said Dr. Fitzsimmons as they watched Dr. Izquierdo, his figure receding as he went up the stairs on the hillside.
"Well . . . no harm done," said Maya’s father. Maya could tell he was still annoyed but was trying to be polite.
As they stood there, a breeze came off the sea and at once the day turned cool. Maya glanced out over the water. The wind had stirred up white horses at the mouth of the harbor, and the water had become a chalky turquoise color. The Pamela Jane shifted on her moorings and her timbers creaked."Please, don’t worry about it," said Maya’s mother to Dr. Fitzsimmons. "It’s not your fault he went onto the boat. No harm done, like Peter said. We should get going now, but next time we’ll be able to stay longer and see you and Emily properly. And maybe we can talk more about the project then."
The Nelsons climbed aboard the Pamela Jane then and a few minutes later they were motoring away through the harbor, out toward the open sea. Maya and Simon stood at the stern to wave to Dr. Fitzsimmons. He was still standing on the dock, growing smaller as they drew farther away. Maya scanned the hillside above the harbor and caught sight of the figure in the eggplant- colored hat. He had paused on the road to the Marine Station and he, too, was watching them as they sailed away. Suddenly a shiver ran through her and she felt afraid. Dr. Fitzsimmons seemed forlorn and vulnerable thereon the dock. Then both figures shrank and were lost to sight as the Pamela Jane reached open water.
Excerpted from The Lost Island of Tamarind by Nadia Aguiar
Copyright 2008 by Nadia Aguiar
Published in September 2008 by Feiwal And Friends
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.