Body Parts in Paradise

After the second heart attack, I wondered if being a vegan was such a good idea. My father had suffered similar blows in his mid-life years, but had recovered to face mountains of medical bills and annoying inquiries about his health from friends. What to do? What any normal, middle-aged white male with questionable health, limited funds and an aversion to hospitals might consider — sell everything, move to the tropics and settle down with an island girl.

This has been tried before, of course: white men landing on Pacific atolls or islands, looking for paradise.

Captain Cook, the tall, handsome and greatest explorer in British, if not world, history, died on the Big Island of Hawaii trying to settle a quarrel. Apparently some natives had stolen one of his boats. The Polynesian custom under these circumstances was to take hostages until the purloined property was returned.  The hostages were then released and everyone had a party. Cook must have wanted that boat very badly, as he went straight for Kalaniʻōpuʻu,  the King of Hawaii. One of the island chiefs, whose name I cannot pronounce (Kalanimanokahoowaha) followed Cook into the surf and returned the insult with an axe to the head.

What happened to the body is the interesting part of the story. The Hawaiians saw Cook as a great hero, possibly an incarnation of the fertility and rain god Lono. His intestines, heart and organs were cut out, and the body baked until only the bones were left, which were placed in a special creche reserved for the gods. The British, with their usual irreverence for things not-British, didn’t think that was enough, so they sent the crew back to beg for  whatever of Cook’s remains they could find and dumped them in the ocean. Actually, that’s a little unfair as the ceremony was called a “burial at sea”. A mere 200 years later, the Brits constructed a memorial in Westminster Abbey out of colored marbles for Cook and two other of England’s great explorers, measuring a paltry 2’6″ X 3’6″  and placed his seconds pendulum on the High Altar.  The British do a lot of things just for ceremony, and then disregard them. Next time I go the Westminster, I’ll look to see if the pendulum is still there.

It’s all a little hard to take for a vegan to take. We are averse to even thinking about body parts, but our reverence for the sanctity of the skin makes us great lovers and masseurs. Find some palm or coconut oil, build a fire from palm branches and lumps of lava, add a ukulele or two, and we are happy all night. The island girl and I have one child and another on the way. Her belly is so beautiful it makes me cry. We struggle to find a name we could agree on, because, as you know already, Hawaiian names can be be very, very, very long. (485)


The Art of Friction

Not many people walk the edges of The River these days. A man has brought down his black labrador and releases the leash. The dog runs and sniffs, and sniffs and runs, his tail wagging and steam gathering about his head. We don’t usually get warm, green days like this in January, but it is an exceptional winter. People are calling it “the coldest summer” they ever knew, and fly off to Aspen to feel what real winter is like.

A photographer walks in the opposite direction, his camera out, unafraid that biting cold winds will chill his battery into a lifeless lump of lead. He likes dogs, apparently, and the two meet as if old friends. I doubt it, but from where I stand, meeting anyone might be an opportunity to celebrate the  life we animals share. I’m in the middle of this footbridge for  few minutes, I tell myself, so I can see what is happening to other people, and to dogs. No one wants to be here more than a few minutes, but there is something pure here and the bracing air convinces me.

From what I have seen of dogs, they thrive in colder climates. No one who has spent time in India or most of Asia can doubt this. Where people meditate a lot, it seems, it is canine heaven. On warm days, they lay prostrate everywhere, unimpressed by turning prayer wheels or the heels of monks. They have never found a way to fleece tourists of tidbits, or else they would have clamoured for scraps like American dogs. Here they run about for any excuse, while their owners hurry back to their SUVs and heated seats.

When you are not looking for anything, most things happen, I’ve found. The man rubs his hands and whistles. The dog looks up and hopes. The man calls his name and starts to walk back the way he came, and the black’s hopes of a day at The River disappear like the steam from his panting tongue. Then I heard it.

The bridge was perhaps a body’s length above water. A skim of inch-thick clear ice had settled on the surface some time back and never broken, at least not this year. But I heard the sudden crack and looked down and under. It was impossible, so I knelt and peered through a gap in the bridge boards. A man in green parka and red scarf was lying face up under the ice, his puffy cream face and wide eyes peering into this world, like a poor, lost child at a restaurant window on Christmas Eve. Poor devil, I thought, he must have fallen in a few weeks ago and drowned. His body had turned lifeless in a few minutes, maybe a mile away or more, but stored a few calories for one unexpected moment here, five weeks later, when it released its last gram of heat and ascended like a gunshot out of The River. (498)

Fish Out of Water

Here they lay, like fresh fish on the counter, fins flopped and flesh exposed, silently glistening with naturals oils and saltwater, awaiting the pleasure of the chef . Words must be caught, severed from their natural life, and then prepared for consumption with sharp tools and seasonings. Sometimes they completely disappear, like the words “later today,” with which I originally finished the first sentence of this paragraph. But, Lo! they reappeared in the third sentence, like a fish that kicks one more time after you thought it was already dead.

Doesn’t it seem odd that, unless we want to bore everyone, meta-words need metaphors and other fancy things, like prepared foods need salt and spices. There I go again. It seems inevitable. Even words about words need to dip down into themselves like–here comes the simile–the way a whale breaches in order to blow and inhale before descending into its natural watery elements again. Did that work? Maybe, except I confused the directions up and down. Oh well, that’s what happens.

There are two famous phrases that come to mind about all this. “…like fish in the ocean” points at the fact that the little scaly ones inhabit a world in which they never know that another world–the world of land creatures, mountains and trees–even exists. Yet when we discover “a fish out of water,” it is not a compliment to someone’s double consciousness. We mean that they seem lost or unable to adapt to their surroundings. Fish out of water die quickly, so we return to the benefits of being “like a fish in the ocean.”

So in is out and out is in. It all depends on the faith and fate of the writer, doesn’t it?

I remember my first fishing trip with my father and brother. We camped near the small town of Marlo on the eastern coast of Victoria and headed for the pier. I threw in my line and caught a bream–by the gills, it turned out. I felt that strange sense of unworthy delight when luck or fate seems to have given you something you want, but not the way you want it. Its a feeling I’ve had many times since.

Now I’m in my fifties. I’ve lived half my life outside my native home of Australia, and I’ve fished in many oceans. Each time I visit a new culture, I brace myself for that familiar feeling. I’m out of my natural habitat, like the speckled mackerel I once saw gasping on the pier in Naples, Florida. Sometimes fish wait until they die in the ocean, and wait to be washed on the shore.

I dont know if I’ll be caught by the gills, snapped up by a passing shark, or gently waved onto a sandy stretch in the Caribbean. Maybe I’ll end up on some restaurant table, my single eye piercing the ceiling, as a literary critic adjusts his napkin, reaches for the fresh lemon, squeezes, and poises his fork. (496)