SEVEN PEOPLE OF the island drowned that summer, but Isaac was not among them. The others were seized by a wave as they fished, or lost as they swam out to sun themselves on an islet of slate, or sucked down by a current that didn’t belong there, where the water lapped at a well-known rounded boulder.
I SAY ROMERO should’ve taken a lesson from the mud crabs. They’re spread out by the thousands when the tide gives them leeway in the mangroves, and if a man walks among them in the slop, all the crabs inside a four-step radius dodge into their holes. You take another step, and the next circle scats and dives. They’re out again as soon as you pass, swiveling those eyes on little stalks. Wary. Smart.
GERRIT WAS ALREADY griping to himself about the icy darkness he was rolling toward, his truck loaded with flowers, of all things. They’d been flown in from Bolivia and stacked in his trailer for the three-day haul from his Rotterdam base to Moscow, where somebody would cough up the money to buy them. Gerrit couldn’t see how it all added up, delicate flowers traveling so far across the surface of the earth, but maybe the dark and forlorn Russian winter made such things of beauty even more valuable.
AT FIRST TEVI did not understand. “All your mothers must come to the session next Thursday,” said Madame in her sharpest voice. “All your mothers. And tell them to wear tights and something tight-fitting on top. No exceptions.”
ONE REASON I swim is the sense of freedom I feel in the water. This sensation of unboundedness, of unrestrained fluidity, is even more pronounced when at the water’s edge lies a fenced-in land of captivity. The Yalu River separates the hermit kingdom of North Korea from China, and it was in the Yalu that I swam, just upstream of the crane-sprouting Chinese city of Dandong, on a clear October morning.
I'LL CHANGE HER name to Ms. Wang, so she won’t risk retribution from the government. On an overcast November day, Ms. Wang, early forties, guided me through one of the historically important cities of central China. She was poised, professional, competent, but slightly pre-programmed in her commentaries about the landmarks of the ancient city. She was much more fluid of thought and speech when I asked if her family had been affected by the Cultural Revolution.
AN HOUR PAST midday, an outdoor assembly of Laotians and I move like a herd to escape the smoke from a bonfire. We are on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, a wat, and the bonfire is a funeral pyre. Women and men cover their mouths with cloth, their faces suggesting that more than being worried about smoke in their lungs, they fear inhaling the emissions, and maybe the spirit, of the corpse. Ashes rain down on us, speckling everyone’s black hair with flecks of white.
TINA WAS LOSING what little patience she had left. Her boss kept pushing back the date for her to fly across the Persian Gulf to Kish, in Iran, to renew her work visa. First it was to be December 18th. Then the 22nd. She was coming up on six months now, six long months tending bar in Dubai, living in a shared plaster house surrounded by bulldozed roads and newly made curbs.
“SO YOU THINK you’ve got immortality wired,” said Sasha, always the skeptic except when she was in bed. “And you don’t even believe in souls.”
“Not that kind,” said Justin. “I’ve got more practical ideas, more ambitious. I just wish I’d figured it out sooner, how to capture me for eternity before now. I mean, my soul will be missing its first 24 years.”
“OKAY, DOUBLE THE nutrient beta concentration, switch to zilex psychotropic cocktail, then give a three-phase radiation pulse—no more than thirty seconds.” Heath barked the commands impatiently. He was way, way behind schedule on this batch of floating heads. “And get the fruit fly guy in here again—the drosophila whiz. Tell him to meet me in my office, pronto.”
“That’s the problem, Kyle.” Duke leaned back and scratched a flaking age spot on his broad cranium. “I can see the shaking in my hand. That’s easy, no hiding it. But you can’t use your own brain to make sure your brain’s working right. It’ll always tell you everything’s just fine even when you look around and don’t know what the hell you’re doing on that street corner. That’s why I’m talking to you, why I wanted to be friends with you. Yeah, you’re a good guy but you’re also young. Got a sharp mind as far as I can tell. Hell, Kyle, I don’t even care that you’re into men.”
“DO YOU KNOW there’s zero ambient light down at seven hundred feet? I’ve got an external lamp on the hatch that I can rotate from inside. Hard to find a lamp that can take that kind of pressure. Had to make the servo rig for it myself.” Fish looked up to see if the sunburned tourist with the buoy-shaped belly was still listening. The two faux-blondes next to them at the bar had no interest in the minutiae of flow meters and ballast valves, and Fish had seen the way they rolled their eyes.