Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 13

We shall not meet again; over the wave
Our ways divide, and yours is straight and endless,
But mine is short and crooked to the grave:
But what of these dark crowds amid whose flow
I battle like a rock, aloof and friendless,
And not their generations vague and endless
The waves, the strides, the feet on which I go?.
—Roy Campbell, “Tristan da Cunha”

I spread my legs out, bracing them against either side of the boat to keep Kemma from falling out, then used my free hand to start chest compressions. It was a difficult angle, but I did the best I could for about a minute. Still nothing. I adjusted myself so I could get to her mouth but lost my grip on the boat as we came down a large wave. She slid forward and banged her head against the front of the boat.

Her face was perfectly tranquil despite the chaos around us, and I wondered if I should just leave her to die. It was a morbid thought, but given our apparent destiny, reviving her would only give her a few additional days, followed by a significantly less comfortable death than this one. I could just roll her overboard and she could skip all that misery.

The idea only lasted a moment, though. I knew I couldn’t do it, mostly for selfish reasons. I didn’t want to go to that terrible fate alone. I wanted someone with me. I hated myself for that need, but I couldn’t change it.

I pulled her back into position, pinched her nose closed, then put my mouth over hers and pushed several breaths into her lungs, trying to fill them up. Then I went back to chest compressions, straddling her and using both hands. It was like riding a mechanical bull in slow motion as we rocked up and down the swells. I kept pushing and releasing until at one point I heard a sickening crack and realized I’d broken one of her ribs. I froze, not sure whether to keep going.

A split-second later she sputtered back to life, coughing up water and gasping frantically. She spent the next several minutes trying to clear her airways—a difficult task with the air around us being almost as wet as the water below us.

I lay down next to her and waited for her to collect herself. She eventually turned her head toward me. “Was I dead?” she croaked.

I nodded. “Yeah, basically.”

“Ohhh, it hurts.”

“I broke your rib. Sorry.”

“I think I wasn’t ready to see my next life yet.”

I put my arm over her and grabbed one of the hand straps, locking her down so she couldn’t slip away again. “Yeah, me neither.”

The storm rampaged wildly for another hour or two, during which we did nothing except shiver and hold tight to the straps. Over time, the weather mercifully settled back into choppy waves and drizzling rain. By then, we were in complete darkness, with the thick clouds blocking even the moon and stars.

Once Kemma felt up to it, we climbed out of the boat into the waves, re-capsized it to get rid of the water, and carefully righted it again with less water inside. We climbed back in. We wouldn’t be anywhere close to being dry, but at least we didn’t have to try to sleep in six inches of frigid seawater.

After we got back in, we clung onto each other for hours, coughing and shaking. I drifted in and out of consciousness, never quite sure of the difference between dreaming and hallucinating. Maybe the difference didn’t matter anymore. My whole life—the entire world, in fact—had been reduced down to three things: being cold, being wet, and being mortally attached to this woman lying next to me. There just wasn’t anything else.

The weather cleared late the next day. We had licked every drop of rainwater off the resin-covered deck. We didn’t talk much anymore. There were only so many things you could do on a boat with no sail, and it didn’t take long for those to be simply understood by motion and expression: catch fish, stretch legs, sleep, keep watch for landmarks. We were simply drifting until we died. What was there to talk about?

On the seventh day of being lost at sea, I was finally so thirsty I ate a fish’s eyes and even sucked its spinal fluid. It was disgusting, but I didn’t really divide the world into like and dislike anymore. There was only need.

It was difficult to catch anything now. We were lethargic, dizzy, and confused. I told Kemma that if I died first, I wouldn’t be upset if she ate me. She said she’d been planning on it, and that she’d eat my thighs first.

• • • •

It took me a while to remember the word.

It was difficult to think.

What was it?

It took a long time, but it eventually came to me.


That was the word.

There was a red-and-white buoy floating in the ocean.

It was the first manmade object we’d seen in a week. I didn’t know what it meant, but I’d never been so happy to see anything in my entire life. We looked around for signs of where it might have come from, but it was still overcast and sprinkling rain, which limited our visibility to just a few miles.

We leaned over the sides of the boat and paddled furiously toward it. I took the remaining rope attached to our bow and leashed us to it so we couldn’t drift away. Kemma and I both knew without speaking this would be our home until the weather cleared.

I saw a passing sea turtle a few hours later, and I jumped into the water to intercept it. He was a pain in the ass to catch, almost getting away from us several times. It took us half an hour to get him up into the boat. We eventually got him to stick his head out to snap at a piece of wood we’d pried from the base of the broken mast. When he did, I stomped him. I hated the sensation as well as the knowledge of what I was doing, but it was necessary. Kemma and I then sat facing each other and pulled the top shell from the bottom. Once it was open, we tore the animal apart and ate its raw flesh, then got on our knees and licked the hull clean of its blood.

Reinvigorated with hope and nutrients, we eventually began speaking again. We talked about Erku, the one soul shared by all people, and tried to figure out where we might have been in that grander life cycle. She explained that angry or violent people were young Erku, weak people were middle-aged Erku, and the calmest and wisest and toughest people were the old Erku. She said I was definitely a middle-aged Erku incarnation, although she acknowledged I was perhaps a bit older than she’d earlier thought. I took that as a compliment.

We talked for hours until Kemma suddenly shushed me, and we both listened. There was a new sound, a sharp mechanical rumble in the distance. Once we realized we weren’t imagining it, we squinted at the hazy horizon, trying to find its source. The noise grew until finally a hint of an orange shape emerged in the distance.

It was a boat.

A large boat.

With people on it.

We screamed and waved our arms, even though they were already headed in our direction. Their vessel, about 25 feet long, gradually came to a slow stop alongside us. Three burly men wearing bright green waders stood at the side, wide-eyed as they took in what must have been a shocking sight.

“Where you done come from, then?” one of them asked in an unusual English accent.

“Gough Island,” I said, realizing I hadn’t put much thought into a cover story. “We worked at the weather station. We got lost.”

He nodded toward Kemma. “Pardon me for saying, but I never seen a scientist what dressed like the two of you.”

“It’s a long story,” I said.

“Oh, I believe you,” the captain said. “I do believe you.”

They pulled us aboard their boat and introduced themselves as lobster fisherman: Rob, Little Rob, and Harold. We’d happened across the last trap in their line, about twenty miles offshore of Tristan da Cunha.

While Harold and Little Rob—who was not little at all—pulled up the buoy and the trap attached to it, Rob sat us down with a blanket and gave Kemma his jacket. “We’ll get you back to the settlement soon enough,” he said, “then figure out how to get you back to Gough. We’ve got the h'Agulhas offshore still, but she’s heading back for Cape Town.”

I perked up. “Wait, did you say Agulhas?”

“Oh, yes. Normally she go the other way around, from Tristan to Gough, but she did it backwards this time. Don’t know why.”

“When’s it leaving?” I asked.

“She leave tomorrow, maybe day after. You’re not wanting to go back to Gough, then?” Rob asked, handing us an old canteen.

I’d never heard an accent like his before: non-rhotic with some T-lenition and H-insertion, somewhat resembling Australian or South African English, but with some unique vowel treatments.

I took a long drink, not sure how to respond. I swallowed and handed the canteen to Kemma. “Well, it’s, uh…we’re still figuring all that out. Something happened, and I need to call back to the United States for help.”

“Our people can get to Gough faster than yours. What happened over there?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

He looked over at Kemma. “You don’t say much, miss. Somebody’s hurt?”

Kemma glanced at me, waiting for me to get her out of responding, but I couldn’t come up with anything. She looked back at Rob. “We just need to call some people,” she said with her best attempt at an American accent.

“Simple enough,” he said. He looked over at Little Rob and Harold, who were still on the other side of the boat, pulling up the trap cable attached to the buoy. “As soon as we got that trap aboard, we turn back for the harbor. I got a phone at my house.”

“I can’t tell you how much we appreciate it,” I said. “We really didn’t think we were going to make it. I can’t believe we found that buoy.”

“It’s a miracle y’all are both h’alive,” he said, nodding. He was quiet for a moment, then looked at Kemma, then back at me. “I have to h’ask you something, though.”

“Okay,” I said with more than a little reluctance.

He leaned toward me and spoke quietly. “I hear rumors of other people living on Gough. People say I gone paranoid, so I never talk about it no more, but I done heard and seen things. And now here y’all is, and I can tell from your words you’re a Yank well enough, but then we got this young woman here, and she look different, and you're both dress different, and she got a different h’accent on her, and that’s no kind of boat I ever seen. It all makes me to wonder.”

“What rumors have you heard?” I asked, trying to deflect the question.

He ignored me and turned to Kemma. “What your name is, miss? Where you’re from?”

I gave Kemma an I-think-we-have-to-tell-him look. She shook her head. I widened my eyes, insisting. She shook her head again, glaring this time.

I thought about it for a moment and decided I was right and Kemma was wrong. I put my hand on Rob’s shoulder. “Captain, how are you with secrets?”

• • • •

The one town on Tristan da Cunha, poetically named Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, sat on a sloping, grassy ledge at the base of a towering volcanic peak. It was made up mostly of long white buildings with bright red, green, and yellow roofs, and the whole settlement was maybe half a mile across at its widest point.

I could hardly believe it was a real town, with real English-speaking people. Two hundred and sixty-six of them, Rob said. We were still squarely in the middle of the South Atlantic, 1,700 miles from the nearest continent, but it felt like I’d finally made it back to the real world. I knew that was a terribly Eurocentric thing for an anthropologist to think, but I thought it all the same.

The harbor was a gnarled, rugged-looking thing, an irregular outcropping lined with hundreds of massive concrete jacks tangled into each other. Rob explained they were breakwaters that helped prevent the harbor from eroding. It made practical sense, but still definitely conveyed the impression that we might be entering the gates of Hell.

We climbed off the boat to the dock, and Little Rob and Harold stayed behind to unload the lobster while Rob quickly escorted us to his nearby house. He didn’t want anyone to see us, warning us that we’d be the center of the entire village’s attention as soon as they found out about us.

He was thrilled to learn that the stories about Gough Island were true, and he was excited to give certain people a large serving of “I told you so,” but I reminded him that it was a very sensitive time, and he couldn’t bring it up just yet. Kemma glared at me a few times when Rob seemed like he was about to burst, and I wondered if telling him had been yet another in the long line of bad decisions I’d made.

Rob’s house was a small structure not far from the harbor. We walked up a barely paved road nestled between low stone walls, passed through a wooden gate, and stepped quickly inside the small building. He lived alone, his wife having died of pneumonia two years ago. They’d had a little boy, but he’d given him up to his brother’s family down the road. He lived alone now.

He got his wood stove going and boiled a pot of water for us, which he poured into a large tin wash tub in a side room, heating the water that had been sitting in it already. He gave us wash rags and a bar of soap, and each a change of his clothes. He excused himself, and Kemma and I undressed, squatted next to the tub, and began scrubbing ourselves. Kemma was particularly careful around the bruises that had formed where I’d broken her rib.

I had actually completely forgotten what warmth felt like. As I dragged the washcloth along my skin, cutting through salt and blood stains, I felt my pores opening and my muscles loosening. I vowed never to be without warm water again.

The rough working clothes Rob gave us weren’t a perfect fit, but they were clean and warm and that was good enough for now. I had overalls, and Kemma wore jeans and a blouse that had belonged to Rob’s wife. It was interesting seeing her in Western-style clothing. I could see her looking completely natural on a university campus.

After we dressed, we sat down at a rickety wooden table where Rob had set out cups of tea.

He nodded toward Kemma. “You’re a pretty one when you clean up.”

Kemma smiled politely. “Thank you.”

“Are you two…?” He waved his finger between us.

“We’re married,” I said quickly. Kemma smiled, then stared down at her tea.

Rob leaned back and laughed. “Ah, that’s a shame. A new woman on this h’island is big news, very big news. Maybe I should go out there to Gough and get me one, too.” He laughed. “Or bring back a dozen and make myself a rich man here!”

Kemma finished her drink and set it abruptly down on the table. “Let’s make the call,” she said.

Rob picked up his phone from the kitchen counter and placed it on the table in front of us. I picked up the handset. There was a dial tone.

“Why do you wait?” Kemma eventually asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t actually know who to call. The numbers were in my notebook.”

“Call anyone.”

“Shhh….” I closed my eyes. I was trying to recall my mother’s cell number. I’d never needed to remember it because it was always in my phone. Four two seven…something…. I smacked the table. “Do you have a phone book?” I asked Rob.

“A what?”

“Never mind.”

“The h’Administrator, he’d know who to ring in London,” Rob said. “Maybe the h'American embassy or something.”

“Administrator of what?”

“He’s the government here. Rotten little man. He’s the little puppet of the territory governor, who lives over on Saint Helena.”

“You really want me to talk to him, don’t you?”

“I’d love to see his face when he finds out I done been telling the truth this whole time. But you can wait ‘til morning and go to the café if you want. They have the h’internet there.”

Kemma looked at me with wide eyes. Hours mattered.

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s go see the Administrator.”

• • • •

Tristan’s Administrator, Alistair Winthrop, was a tall, ruddy man with curly brown hair and a somber demeanor. He sat pressing his fingertips together and staring at his desk as I told him that Kemma and I were meteorologists from Gough, and that there was a life-threatening emergency that I couldn’t share because it was highly confidential. I explained that we’d escaped and needed to reach Undersecretary Lehrman at the U.S. State Department—the only mission contact whose name I could actually remember—right away.

Winthrop was silent for several seconds, then nodded to himself. “You’ve been through quite a bit, you two. Let’s get you sorted out right away. We have a government phone list down at Connor’s office. We’ll go down there and ring them up, and then find you a warm bed for the night.”

Rob looked puzzled. “Why’s it in Connor’s office?”

Winthrop grabbed a flashlight and motioned for us to follow him. “It wound up there last time we used it, I believe. Come on, then, let’s go find out.”

We left the residence and the three of us followed Winthrop along the side of the road for a block and a half until we came to a small building with a single window. He knocked, and a burly man opened the door, his smile turning to a confused frown when he saw me and Kemma. “What’s all this then?” he asked.

Winthrop greeted the man, then leaned forward and whispered into his ear, then he stepped back and invited us inside.

As soon as the door closed behind us, the man grabbed Kemma by the shoulders and shoved her through another doorway. Someone punched me in the back of the head, and I fell forward onto the floor.

I tried to yell but couldn’t. The room spun.

There was a scuffle behind me. I turned my head and I saw the man punching Rob and shoving him through the same door.

Winthrop and the other man grabbed my legs and pulled me through the doorway, then jumped out and closed it behind them.

We were trapped in a small room.

“Haven’t really used that cell in decades,” the man said from the other side of the door. “Should hold, though.”

I sat up slowly, my head throbbing. “What the hell just happened?”

“Connor Patterson’s the constable here on Tristan,” Rob said. “And we just got thrown in jail. Couldn’t tell you why, though.”

I looked around at what appeared to be a relatively ordinary windowless room, furnished only with a single antique-looking cot. The door had a thick sliding panel at eye level, probably for checking in on us or passing food.

Winthrop and Patterson exchanged words on the other side of the wall. I pressed my ear against the door and listened as Winthrop called his contact at XCG and left a message saying he’d captured two refugees from Gough and a sympathizing Tristanian and wanted to know if they should kill us.

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