Creative Nonfiction

October 22, 2016      

The Isle of Devils by Cassandra A. Clarke

“See, sometimes,” my mom says, dragging the s sound of her words out, as if by speaking this slowly she’ll stop time from moving and lock us in this moment forever. If she could, she would. She wouldn’t ask first. She’d say, Cassandra, you’ll learn to like it. We can’t all have what we want.
      Mom, dad, and I just finished breakfast at Three Little Figs cafe. The chairs are hand carved. The tables are white and circular and wobbly. From my seat, I see the counter where baked goods bask in light; each treat contains no less than three ingredients: avocado buttercream muffin, chai muffin with coffee icing, zucchini chocolate cake with vanilla glaze. I close my eyes and pretend the smell is my mom’s baking, and she knows how to bake, and I’m licking a spoon she saved for me. But, there is no spoon. There’s no sugar. There’s only one conversation she wants to have: what to do about dad?
      I look to my mom’s lips, readying to burst with news that’ll derail me. She does that; she holds back things she wants to say until the words swell so big inside her, they must come out, and the room must break under the pressure she releases. This is why I moved away from home. This is why they visit. This is why I can’t stay home, even when I should be with my father. I fear that I too will break.
      “Can’t we just go for a walk?” I ask.
      We’re supposed to buy flowers for my apartment. Last week, I moved in with a boy I think I’ll marry. I want us to talk about him and our room’s broken closet door. I want my father to tell me what’s the difference between a flathead-screwdriver and a Philips. I want my mother to buy curtains that have too much pink. I want to do something for my home with them, so my home can have some of them inside of it. I pick up my mug so I can hold something solid. Between us, my father sits. He’s looking at us like we are the show, and he is an audience member in our family. In some ways, this is true. His brown eyes have a sheen of white film across his irises, causing him to look more hound dog than man. It’s ninety degrees out, but he insists on wearing a black wool suit jacket. On his wrists are cufflinks of colorful stones that look more moon-rock than real. He’s sipping the organic orange soda I bought him, because they didn’t serve Coke here. He still doesn’t get how a place can’t have Coke. He was alive when the soda cost a dime. His soda cost $3.99 plus tax. He’ll forget that in thirty minutes. That’s about how much time he can stay here before his dementia interrupts. It’s been this way for five years.
      “He calls me at work,” mom says. “He says, Robbie, I don’t know where I am. That’s what I have to deal with. I have to give him clues so he can figure out where he is in our home.”
      I try to not turn my head, to not see the look in my father’s eyes as he hears this, this talking about him while he’s right here. I fail.
      “I just gotta get back into my right conditioning,” my dad says. He presses a palm onto my shoulder. He repeats the sentence to me, softer. I put my palm on his, and run my pointer finger against the metal of the ring he always wears (a Gaelic coat of arms with our family’s surname on it, Clerk).
      “Oh, you’re just saying that to make her feel better,” I say, winking at him.
      He laughs, and soon will forget this. My mom rolls her eyes at me. My mom, the nurse who works in geriatrics, thinks my humor is foolish. I encourage him too much. She talks about my father like he is a patient, and expects me too to treat him as such; but, he’s still so much like the man I grew up knowing. I don’t want to talk warning signs. I don’t want to talk about what he can or can’t do. He still gets up at five in the morning to iron her scrubs. He still makes her a pot of coffee at dawn even if he can’t remember the word for it. I have seen him stand there in his PJ’s with a purple mug in hand, fighting to speak the word for the thing that he made for her in his hands. He will not give her the cup until he remembers. He will fight for that damn word for ten minutes to show her he has not given up. He fought in Korea. He tap-danced at seven, and lived out of a suitcase. He worked on American Bandstand before it was a hit TV show. He watched his father lose his family farm in Rhode Island, and learned how to work numbers so that numbers wouldn’t screw him over. He became an insurance fraud detective. He became the man who overcame the unsolvable. He learned ninjitsu. He taught me how to kick, how to punch, how to work. After eighty-one years on earth, you got a lot of life to tell. You got a lot of life to remember. But he, of course, thinks he’ll overcome time too. I want him to believe that.
      I don’t hate mom for her eyerolls, or temper, least not today. I know it’s hard. I know that she makes intricate post-it notes for him, and leaves them throughout the house like a scavenger hunt, so that when he does get lost, he can find those clues, and he’ll follow her guiding words. I know he would be lost without her. I know this makes her feel imprisoned and wanted. I know that she doesn’t like that I’m living away from home, but knows that when I do come home, she too imprisons me. She begins calling me multiple times per day, and starts forgetting her own things; so, we live best as apart.
      What I don’t know is how to be here with them, with him. What I don’t know is: how do I let go of someone who’s still here? I think having the chance to watch time slowly take him from me is a kind of gift. Some people just go. Poof! Here I am with a father who’s going. I have time. Chances. How do I act with him? How can I connect his here to my here? What are the coordinates for loss?
 

***

      In the 1600’s, people called the Bermuda Island The Isle of Devils. The island was notoriously hard to sail towards as it was surrounded by unruly reefs. Waters in this area were wild,tipping cruiseliners on their sides like toy boats. The pathway gained the name The Devil’s Triangle. Crews feared navigating these 500,000 miles of rocky tide, located between present-day Miami, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Now, we call it: The Bermuda Triangle. The U.S Navy acknowledges it on a map. Yet, this is the same point that has caused hundreds upon hundreds of lives to disappear. Plenty of theories have been proposed to explain it: Atlantis, ALIENS, Electronic Fog, Vortex Kinesis, but, no one knows why it occurs. Like Alzheimer’s disease, we can’t say what it is until it is too late. Medically speaking, I can’t actually say my father has Alzheimer’s disease until he dies. Then, they crack open up his skull with shears, and prod the gray matter with a scalpel, dissecting it, proving that he did, in fact, experience alzheimer’s. No matter how many planes fly into oblivion they can’t say it happened until they’re gone, and they can’t stop it from occurring.
      I am twenty-five. I’m not of the age where watching your father’s memory disappear is common amongst my peers. If it was, I like to think it’d be easier to discuss. It’d be easy to say: He’s just getting old, yanno? I like thinking about the Bermuda Triangle because I imagine it understands what’s happening between me and my family. One theory of the triangle is structured around Einstein’s idea of space and time. He said, if you bend space around an object, time will follow. I like to think that this point in the world time bends. I like to think about how memories are, in fact, time transporting you to a different space, unseen. I like to think my father ends up here when he’s lost. I like to think if I study all the losses the triangle has seen it can in some way prepare me for mine. Maybe loss shares a template.
 
***

      In 1918, the USS Cyclops (AC-4) lost 306 men and to the Bermuda Triangle. The ship also disappeared. Since this ship vanished during wartime, most blame it on WWI. Remains have never been found. This was strange because the ship had stored tons of magnesium explosives in its hull, yet, no big boom occurred. This loss is the biggest in all of U.S Naval history, and yet, we have no evidence to what happened. How did a ship and over three hundred men sink without being seen? Who decided it was too gone to find? How did Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt tell those family members of the crew lost that the vessel poofed? We know they are there and we think that the structural integrity of their ship was compromised, but really, we just lost them. Sorry, guys! How did the families take it?
      On board, there is a sea-hand named, Lewis Hardwick. His son, Herbert Lewis Hardwick, will lose him. After, Herbert will learn to box. He’ll become one of the elite welterweights in Murderers’ Row (a boxing club in the 1940’s-1950’s that was so prized its fighters had to have their own tournaments). He’ll be entered into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as Cocoa Kid.
      I wonder, when Herbert found out, did he believe it? When he heard the ship had sunk, but couldn’t actually be found, that his father was not here but probably not still alive, did he just say, Okay. He’s gone. If that’s true, why did he also enlist and fight in WWII? Was it for his father? When the military doctors diagnosed Herbert with dementia, did he hunger to hear his father’s voice? Did they end up in the same no-place? If I could find Herbert, spin him around in the days when he still wore boxing gloves and spit on the side of the ring, would he tell me that I’m fighting the wrong fight? Would it tell me that it’d be better for me to never stop looking for traces of my father, or to just let him go once he can’t be found anymore? Would he tell me, Some things just stay lost, kid.
 
***

      We leave the cafe. We buy flowers at a grocery store. I let my mom pick out the blue pot. My father insists on holding it, so we let him. We walk the block or two back to my place. On our walk, my father asks me who I live with now. I tell him my boyfriend’s name. He says, That’s right. He seems like a nice boy. It’s been a year now? I tell him that’s right, when in truth it has been four years. Sometimes, I too hide time from him. Sometime it seems like the kinder thing to do. I don’t know if he knows how long he disappears for, and I don’t have the heart to tell him. On the walk to new place, we have to walk a little slower. His right foot swells. He drags it like there’s an anchor in his shoe. Each time we stop, I sigh. I’m not mad at him. I’m mad at myself for walking faster than he can, for pushing time to go to my speed, not his. My mom is quiet, but her pace is quicker than mine. I slow down, and she sighs at me. It’s impossible to have us walk at the same speed. Out of the corner of my eyes, I see my father’s lips pursing into a thin line, as if he knows he’s why we have to walk slow; I don’t want him to know.
 
***

      On January 17, 1949, the BSAA Star Ariel disappeared. The plane disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and Kingston, Jamaica. Star Ariel had 7 crew members and 13 passengers. The plane was flown by Captain John Clutha McPhee. Weather conditions were excellent. The skies were so clear that the captain thought that he could fly higher, because there was no risk of storm.
      No one found the plane. The last transmission from the Captain was: “I’M CHANGING FREQUENCY TO MAX.” I imagine after he said this, he pushed a lever. He slid into his seat. He felt smooth. I imagine the sun threatening to pierce his vision, but he, a careful man, a man who matched his socks to his shirt, also wore sunglasses. He must have thought the flight was going better than planned.
      What I want to know is what happened after the plan failed? When everything did not go fine, when his entire crew and passenger list did not actually land, what did he say? Did the intercom sound calm as a lake? Did his voice become ragged and sharp as the reefs below? Did they listen?
      As the plane crashed, did he apologize for all the trouble he caused? If it didn’t actually crash, is it still hovering there, in no-place? If it could, and it is, I want to know how he deals with this. Does he blame himself for taking the plane higher to get there sooner? Is he throwing his sunglasses on the ground and crushing them because he’s an idiot? Does he think this course was to blame, that he is therefore blameless? Does he feel guilty for putting his crew through this? Does he want the passengers to jump out of the window, and leave him alone to die here? Is he pacing up and down the aisles and yelling at the one middle-aged man who is still hogging the arm-rest and doesn’t care?
      I wish I could transmit a message to the Captain. I wish he, and the crew, and the people, and the plane, are all still hanging in space. I know this is selfish, but I want it. It’s research. I get stuck in repeats of moments so often that want to know how they navigate this terrain.
      I wish that those 21 lives are stuck in one moment, on loop. I want to hear each and every version of how they deal with learning they are stuck in time! I want to take notes. I want to hear them scream so loud the windows break and air tunnels in, sweeping them out to sea. I want to hear them cry, and cling to each other. I want to hear their silence and their unknowing and receive comfort in knowing that they can feel this no-place too and have no idea what the hell to do. I want to know there are no answers, and believe it, and then apologize to everyone stuck in time, and be the person who actually finds the plane and delivers everyone back home! Then, when they realize no one they know is still alive, they can come into my kitchen. And we can map out everything they’ve missed. They will meet my dad, and see the look in his eyes, and understand the real reason I brought them back. I just wanted to find him friends that could understand him, that could talk to him about how to let go.
      Above all, I want to shake those passengers. I want them to tell me how they put up with each other. I want to know how the passengers talk to each other as the plane crashes or lingers up in the sky. I want to hear what the Captain can’t hear. I want to tell them that it’s not the Captain’s fault.
 
***

      When dementia hits, there is no one to blame. I know this. I know this as well as I know that turbulence can make you grasp onto the first solid thing in your reach. Sometimes, you hold too tight. Sometimes I wish that I could say it’s not fair that I was born to a father so old, that I was introduced into knowing a human already two-thirds past his life. I want to get an exchange rate. A refund.
      I try to tell myself that this is no one’s fault. It was the Triangle’s. It was disease. It was the thing no one can plan for or figure out. I want to know if they know that, these ghosts of triangles that have lived on and gone. I want them to wrap their lifeless limbs around my waist and tell me it’s not my father’s fault either, and, Actually, he’s still alive Cassie, so, maybe, you should open your eyes, you should go now. I want to stay with them. I want to know how do I deal with being in this no-place. In my no-place, during my father’s spells, how do I stand there witnessing it? He can disappear back to Korea, slam my mom against the wall, thinking she’s a target, or, tuck me in bed, thinking I’m a child still afraid of the dark. Me and mom become ghosts. We’re not even a good team. Under pressure, we collapse. She’ll call me an ungrateful bitch, after a bottle of wine in, when he’s asleep. I’ll say, Sure. When I leave, I can see my phone ring five, ten, twenty times. In ten minutes, I’ll have six new voicemails from her, asking me to come home, stay away and make something of myself, but, come back soon. Come back. Come back. I can hear her uncorking a bottle of wine from across the state-line and I know she is in need of me. I don’t know how to tell her it’s hard to be there to support her and watch him unravel. I can’t be caretaker for both; that pressure, that air, it becomes too thick. Once, I tried being there. Spent three months at home, and I gained the bruises and slurs to show for it.
      There is no time-card for loss. We couldn’t negotiate how to manage the work. She didn’t know how to step towards me like a mother; she’s a grieving wife. I am too daughter, too child. I can feel my cheeks burning with a hand-print she can put there just by saying my name. Cassandra. Cassandra. I can hear her voice raspy and thick with wanting, telling me again, I don’t need you, you bitch. I want to tell her, I know you need me, but, you are better when I’m not gone. I can’t gain perspective when the plane is always about to crash. Sometimes, I beg for the crash. I beg for my father’s death. I think if he dies, if he finally lets go of us, she’ll stop holding onto me for dear life, and we, we could look at each other like we’re survivors; only then, we’d know how to move forward. Only then, we’d breathe.
 
***

      As soon as we step into my new apartment, I realize I cannot find my cat. My mom hates cats, so she stays outside. She’s swearing at me, Don’t get that damn cat near me. Once, as a cruel joke, she was locked into a closet with two cats. The cats didn’t get along. She got in the way, but, as she was eleven, she thought that they were both only trying to get her, to destroy her.
      My dad, who’s afraid of no animal, who once punched a tiger shark in the nose and taught me how daddy-long-legs are actually your garden’s best friend, came inside to help me find the cat.
      “Sometimes he just hides away all day,” I say. “It’s impossible to find him if he doesn’t want to be found. Of course, all night, he’s up and yelling at everything. But when I want to find him, no dice.”
      My dad nods. “Is he under the bed?”
      I tell him I’ll look. As I go to find a flashlight, I can see my dad checking everywhere for the cat, and even places where I don’t think cats particularly like, such as: the dryer. I don’t say anything because he seems enthused to be on a search with me. I don’t know if he does know this, but I imagine that he’s thinking, How nice it is to be the one on the search, instead of the one who is lost.
      After about ten minutes of searching, we can’t find him. I tell my dad it’s okay, and let’s go get mom, and we go outside. I hug them both, and they tell me to be well. They get into their car. I turn back into my apartment, and go into my room. I expected the cat to be waiting for me, but he’s not. He’s off doing whatever it is that cats do when you actually want them to appear. I lie down on my bed, exhausted, craving sleep. Minutes later, the phone rings. It’s my mom. She tells me to stay still.
      “Oh no,” she says. “Don’t worry. It’s just, he can’t remember saying goodbye. He got out of the car and ran back because he didn’t think he said goodbye to you and didn’t want to forget that.”
      “I got it,” I say.
      “Thanks,” she says.
      “No problem,” I say.
      We communicate to each other about what my dad thinks is happening instead of what is actually happening. If I didn’t know he was coming back to say goodbye and told him that he already did, it could cause a problem. When he senses loss time he can become enraged and argumentative, tired and begin to cry; it is not unlike watching a child fall, and fall, and fall. He could become quickly overwhelmed, and his brain, his poorly calculating brain, might freeze. He might get stuck there, on loop, and it’s very, very hard to pull him back to the present; he will not go without a fight.
      I hang up the phone, and walk outside of my apartment. I sit on the curb of the sidewalk, watching as a man about 50 meters away, in a wool suit, jogs towards me. I want to run to him, but I know the distance isn’t far, and I know he will feel better if he think he made it here by himself.
 
***

      In 1955, Connemara IV, a yacht, was found south of the Bermuda Triangle, drifting, without any of its passengers. Some say that during that time of year there were three hurricanes, and this must have caused the ship to be steered off course. The people must have escaped. We don’t know if they became shark food, or drifted away on a plank only to be drowned by a tide. For all we know they all decided to jump into the ocean together into a vessel that would never make it out of the storm. Of all the tall tales of the Bermuda Triangle, I wonder about this one the most. The case of where the people go when loss is imminent. It’s true that they all could have escaped, or simply died in the waves of a hurricane. But, what if they didn’t? What if they too steered into that sweet spot where space bent and time followed and they all stepped into it? What if the ship brought them closer to a place where time moved differently and they all decided to step inside? What if they traded one storm for another unknowable storm? If they did, I wonder how much they remember of all that came before it.
 
***

      I want to know if he’ll reach a point where whatever happened before his illness becomes so far removed from him that that time no longer matters. I wonder if after a point of forgetting his place, his time, if he begins to feel less tethered to the life he lived. Although that means he loses some of the good moments, at least it means he’ll live closer to a child’s point of view–based on moment to moment thought, moment to moment pleasures, moment to moment talk–and maybe that isn’t as bad for him. Less to carry. When my father goes into the void, into the place where I cannot see him, where I cannot follow, can he still sense me close? Does he see the vivid blankness ahead of him, unmoored by the weight of the past, and think, My god, this feels incredible. Am I the one left in the storm?
 
***

      “Oh, Cass,” my father says, panting as he makes his way to me. “You wouldn’t believe this. I forgot to say goodbye. Didn’t want you to think that I forgot that. That wouldn’t have been nice.”
      “I knew you’d remember,” I tell him. “It’s okay.”
      He hugs me. I press my chin into his sweaty chest. I hug him tight, knowing that in this moment he is here. All I can do for him, and myself, is to be here for him while he stays on this plane.

img_1377About the author:

Cassandra A. Clarke received her MFA in Fiction from Emerson College. Her work has been previously published at: Electric Literature, Cartridge Lit, Entropy, Gone Lawn and other speculative places. She’s the Chief Editor of the new-weird literary magazine, Spectator & Spooks and a proud member of The Pug Squad writing collective. When not writing, Cassandra can be found training to be an instructor at her dojang, Jae H. Kim Taekwondo, in Cambridge, MA.

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