(Part of a series.)
Two kilometres offshore of Cuerpo, a fly-ravaged and sun-baked town on the jungle-fringed shore of the Yucatan peninsula, the trees of Isla de Huesos twist and turn in north-easterly winds, their canopies nod and shake, shed leaves forming thick carpets. Snakes crawl among the leaf clutter, stalk mammals, small birds, the occasional lizard. The island is a kilometre long and half as wide. Coroneted by sand, from the air it looks paradisial; from the sea, a safe harbour; from the land, benign. Beaches create golden auras in the blue sea. Finches, refugees from the mainland, squabble over fruit in the branches. Beetles burrow into the wood; their larvae prized by the rare crow species nesting on the island. The sun bleaches dead wood, the wind scores it, the sea cakes it in salt and, on some high tides, steals up onto the beach to carry a bone-like branch with its passenger insects, small crabs, pollen, and seeds, out into its immenseness.
In 1792, a small handmade boat, logs lashed together with rags and rope, carrying six escaped slaves from Haiti washed up here. Or so the story goes. The slaves, having travelled for a month without fresh water, racked with hunger and thirst, sighted trees – they mistook the island for the mainland. Beaching their boat on the eastern side of the island, they staggered into the interior. Myth has it that the island was then lush with jungle. Towering trees, girdled with lianas, hung heavy with parrots, plumage the colour of the rainbow, their voices mimicking the winds, living off the bounteous fruit stretching up into the cloud base. The giant leaves of the trees held fresh water, a buffet of discarded seeds covered the forest floor. The slaves, driven near to insanity by hallucinations, could not believe their senses. As one would snatch up a fruit, another would fall upon him in fear that the food would run out; one would take a leaf and tip it toward his cracked and bleeding lips, while another would dash it from him, spilling the cool liquid. The seven fought – as much as their weakness allowed. They brained each other with fallen branches, smashed skulls with silver-veined stones. At the end of the day, one remained. He looked around at his fellows – survivors of shackles, beatings, rapes, and white men – now dead by their own hands. He took a drink from a cup-shaped leaf – curled at the base, spiralled in the water, unseen by the wretched man, was a millipede, its body oozing a poison that within an hour, and because of the man's decrepit state, would kill him. The legend is that the bodies of the men decayed and leached into the soil destroying the island's forests. The winds no longer brought the rains and the island slowly died, the great trees shrinking, shrivelling until visitors mistook them for the bones of the dead slaves. The parrots replaced by dun-grey finches, the green and gold beetles supplanted by black scarabs, and the coral snakes eaten by serpents the colour of dull tin.
Where the beach meets the undergrowth, under those white and twisted branches, picked over by crabs, covered in bird excrement, red, peeling, and naked beneath the harsh sun, is the unconscious body of Edward Brady.
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