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CARIBBEAN KISS
Edwin P. Cutler
spaceship79@hotmail.com
May 2003


     An old wooden sailboat dipped its prow in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea and crept along the coast of the island at an unhurried pace. It was September, the peak of hurricane season, but the sun, still asleep behind the lush rain forest mountains, promised another lovely day. From the chimneys of houses along the shore, lazy smoke rose in sinuous vapors only to be ushered out over waters gently rippled by a soft breeze. Beyond the headland, native fishermen, in their tiny boats, cast baited hooks into schools of fish hoping to provide breakfast for families on shore.
     Stacy Biddle lifted a coil of rope from the dock and heaved it over his shoulder. As he started up the path to the harbor master's office, he met a young lady, a guest at Island Life coming toward him, and tipped his hat.
     "Good morning," she said, adding, "Isn't it lovely here?" Before he could reply, she whispered, "It's like being part of a picture."
     "That frames it nicely." He chuckled and watched as she turned toward the beach.
     Overhead, he heard the palm trees whispering good morning to their neighbors and looked up through their shady fronds to where the Island Life club house sat on the crest of the promontory. The arched openings of the dining room looked out over the Caribbean with a timeless dignity. The slope, a hillside adorned with a lacework of terraces, was painted down to the sea by a profusion of flowers: bougainvillea, oleanders, and flame of the forest, flowers he had never seen in New England.
     When the young lady slipped into the warm water for her morning swim, Stacy shifted the weight on his shoulder and, starting on up the path, whispered to a pair of cooing doves, "I never dreamed a tropical island could be so beautiful."
     Girls, women, faces flashed across his mind, images from days gone by. In school he had built idealistic dream-castles around a girl named Ida. She had a knee-bender smile and became his Ida Ideal. But just the other day, Melissa Cummings at the bank had smiled and asked, "In what name shall your account be opened?" and watched when he took the form from her and wrote Claremont U. Biddle in neatly printed letters.
     "Stacy?" She tried to find a diminutive to match.
     "The U is for Ustatius."
     "Oh, my. You must come from an old New England family," Melissa said. Stacy had always taken his heritage for granted, but this young lady made it seem rather special, and she soon knew a lot about him.
     Farther up the path, through a window of the harbormaster's office, an octagonal building of rought-cut stone, typical of the West Indies islands, he saw his boss, Henry Bouchard, focusing a pair of binoculars out a window.
     "Good morning, Hank. What do you see?"
     "Good morning, Stacy. Your eyes are better than mine. Is that a sailboat out there? And does it have two masts? It's the height of the hurricane season and they're a week overdue."
     Dropping the coil of anchor rope on the stone-paved floor, Stacy took the glasses and knelt at the window to prop his elbows on the sill.
     "Who's overdue?" he asked focusing on a speck that sat far away on the horizon.
     "The owners of this place, Franklin Ruddings and his wife, Amanda."
     "It's a sailboat all right, but it's so far away I can only see one mast. It may be a sloop."
     Henry sat back dejected, and his swivel chair squeaked a woeful note. "Damn, Stacy, I wanted it to be them."
     "Why are you worried, doesn't sailing depend on which way the wind blows?"
     "Yes. But since Franklin married Amanda, he seems to enjoy being less predictable than the weather."
     "How long have they been away?"
     "Three weeks. They left the first of September, just after the Europeans swarmed down here for their August vacations. There weren't any hurricanes brooding in the Atlantic so they cast off for a two-week sail down the Windward Islands to Grenada. Should have been back by now."
     Stacy lifted the glasses and looked again. "Ah, the sun just cleared the mountains, and I see two masts. It's a ketch and the sails are a reddish glow."
     "Red sails. The Romarin has tanbark sails." Henry exhaled and rubbed his tired eyes.
     To remind his boss there was work to be done, Stacy said, "I came to ask permission to replace the anchor line on the Integrity. The one hundred feet of chain is all right but the rope portion is fraying in places."
     "Of course." Henry waved a suntanned hand dismissing him. "Check out what you need with Isabelle."
     "Thank you, sir." Stacy stepped out to find the sun warming the morning, a sun that rises rapidly near the equator, blazes straight up into the tropic sky. No long twilights down here.
     He put on his Polaroid sunglasses and tugged his wide brimmed hat to shade his eyes. Happy to be working on the charter boats and grateful for the things he was learning from Hank, he whistled his way back down the path to the dock. Remembering he was part of a picture, he slowed his pace, and chuckled, "I don't want to smear the paint."
     Stacy was twenty-two and a greenhorn just out of college. But he had a dream; he wanted to sail out of sight of land and steer by the stars. Looking down on the island from the plane he was sure he had come to the right place, for far below St. Lucia shimmered like a green jewel set in a blue sea that stretched beyond his imagination.
     His conventional, straight laced parents had been more than a little upset when he insisted that after graduation he take off a year to work and sail in the Caribbean. They worried they had spawned a dreamer that would be wasting his education by not immediately taking a position in the engineering field of his degree.
     His father had asked, "Island Life, is that an insurance company? Will you sell insurance from island to island?"
     Beyond his naive approach to this adventure -- Just get a passport, buy a ticket, and off you go to islands in the sun -- he was not aware that he was to write a page in the history of these same islands, become a legend -- the unsinkable sailor.
    
     As Stacy disappeared down the path, Henry looked through the binoculars and assured himself it was the Romarin and they would soon be safely home. Satisfied, the swivel chair sang a musical note as he turned to look at the fleet of boats that were his responsibility. Though it was hurricane season, there were a few brave souls who wanted to take advantage of the lighter winds, and two of the captains were readying their boats to carry these guests of Island Life out onto the tranquil Caribbean for a day of fun in the sun.
     The gentle warmth and soft whisper of the wind reminded him of the tranquility of his days since Franklin Ruddings hired him to manage the boats. He sat back and swiveled his chair again, this time to watch the old sailboat, a 12 ton Hillyard built in 1938, come around the headland and turn up into the protected waters of Rodney Bay.
     When the boat came sharply up into the wind and stalled, he saw Franklin leave the helm and go forward where he released the foresail and drug it down onto the deck, then he hauled the main down. After lashing these two sails to keep them from blowing about, he went aft and dropped the mizzen sail.
     When the red sails, glowing like flames in the morning sun, were finally doused, the proud little ketch was left bare poled. With her masts tilting balefully from side, she rolled ominously on the heaving swell giving Henry an uneasy feeling. Biting his lip, he asked the Bougainvillea framing his window, "Where's Amanda? Has she been drinking again?"
     But even as he asked, Franklin's hat blew off and yellow hair streamed a golden plume in the morning sun. "Amanda?"
     Henry leaned his slender six-foot frame out the window as if shortening the distance a few feet would help him see more clearly.
     "But where's Franklin?"
     Reaching back for the binoculars, he focused them on the drifting boat and watched her climb down into the cockpit. He saw her pull the levers to start the antiquated two-cylinder diesel engine, and the stalled boat crept ahead.
     Scanning with the binoculars for signs of Franklin, Henry watched her con the old, slow Romarin through the dredged channel into the quiet waters of the lagoon.
     When he walked out onto the dock, Brooks, the Bequian who for years had tended the classic ketch as if she were his own pride and joy, was there to help with lines. Stacy joined them, and the three men, each with his own thoughts, stood watching the 36 foot boat come creeping toward them.
     Brooks saw the varnished wood and the polished bronze, while Hank saw a pale statue clinging to the wheel.
     At first, Stacy saw the sweep of the spars and compared them to the rigging of the newer, taller, racier sailboats. But as the boat drew closer, he saw the wife of the owner of Island Life, Amanda Ruddings, and gasped, "But she's so young! I thought she must be an older woman, maybe even a grandmother."
     Too late, Amanda dropped a hand and listlessly pulled the knob to release the compression on the diesel engine. Even after its thumping, bumping shudders faded into the surrounding hills, the boat came gurgling toward them -- much too fast.
     Hank bellowed, "Fend her off, fend her off!" and the three men grabbing pulpits, lifelines, and shrouds heaved at the boat to slow it down. But twelve tons is hard to slow much less stop, so, with rubrails smoking and wharf piles groaning, the old boat ground its way along the dock.
     When they finally brought its wild charge to a halt, Hank yelled, "Hold her off. I'll get the dock lines."
     He jumped on board and stepped nimbly along the deck. Opening the forward hatch, he pulled out two coils of rope and tossed the lines to the waiting men.
     Leaving them to tie the boat to the dock, he turned to the girl who sat at the helm, her hands gripping the wooden spokes. "Amanda?" he breathed and climbed down into the cockpit, wondering at her mesmerized stare.
     With a gush of tears she grabbed him and hugged herself into his protective arms.
     "Where's Franklin?" He looked down the companionway expecting her husband, the owner of Island Life, to appear.
     "He's gone..." she wailed and clung tighter to her surrogate father.
     "Where did he go?" Hank knew Franklin liked to travel.
     "They... they ate him!" she blubbered.
     "Ate? Who ate what? You aren't making sense." Hank tried to lift her face to see into her eyes.
     "The sharks..." She twisted out of his arms and grabbing a cockpit cushion threw it over the side.
     "Amanda." Hank grabbed her lest she jump in too.
     "He fell in... I tried to save him." She pointed at the cushion bobbing in the water.
     "Franklin fell overboard?" Hank was incredulous.
     "They were tearing at him." She cried out, "They grabbed his arms and legs and wagged their heads."
     "Amanda! Calm down." He tried.
     "When his screaming faded, I knew it was over. Hank, they... they were so quick, there was no time to help him".
     "You said he fell in?" Henry asked.
     She choked a sob. "He was forward, before the mast, shooting at them."
     "Shooting? Who was he shooting at?"
     "Nobody. We were all alone out there and Franklin was on the foredeck shooting at sharks."
     "Shooting at sharks?"
     "He was teasing them. He shot one several times and shouted back to me, `I've started a cannibalistic feeding frenzy amongst the bloody sharks!'"
     "Damn," Henry cursed.
     "I heard him yell, `Once they get the smell of blood, they'll eat anything.'
     "Oh, Hank! He was dancing around like a happy kid. But he must have tripped on something. I saw him fall and before I could get up there to help him, he slipped under the lifeline and dropped into the sea."
     "Overboard?" Henry Bouchard muttered the word every seaman dreads to hear.
     "I threw cushions and stuff over the side, but they were after him. He was in the water with the sharks, yelling for help. As the boat sailed past, I heard him screaming."
     "You poor girl," Hank said and reached to take her into his arms.
     "He... since we were married...." She cuddled close as seeking protection.
     When her voice faded, Stacy, gripped by her story, moved closer and heard her whimper, "Since we were married, I have seen him take a wanton pleasure in teasing animals into frenzies."
     Clinging to Hank, she muffled her sobs in his soft shirt. "I called for help on the VHF, but there was no one in radio range. We must have been too far from the islands. No one answered. I was alone on an empty sea. In every direction the ocean stretched to the edge of the earth."
     "You went back to be sure?" Hank asked, knowing it was useless.
     "I tried to do what you taught me. I started the engine and motor-sailed upwind, zigzagging back and forth, back and forth, like you taught me to look for him." She moaned and shuddered as if chilled. "But I'd seen the sharks, and after hours of searching it grew dark, so I turned off the engine and hove-to, left the Romarin to take care of herself and went below to wait until morning to look again.
     "But his frantic calls for help kept ringing in my ears and waves slapped at the hull as if his ghost was trying to climb back in the boat. Finally, I got up and looked around with a spot light. There was nothing, so I sat in the dark watching the stars turn slowly in the sky. Hank, the night's forever when you're out there alone.
     "In the morning, when I was certain he was gone, that there couldn't possibly be a body floating in that lonely sea, I said a prayer for him and, letting the sails fill, started home -- alone."
     Antoinette, the Italian woman who supervised the waitresses and had assumed the role of surrogate mother to the Island Life mistress, came trotting down the dock. The coils of her black ringlets framed her face, her worried expression already perceiving a tragedy.
     "Is everything all right?" she asked, climbing aboard, and, as Hank had done, looked down the companionway and asked, "Where's Mr. Ruddings?"
     Hank put a hand on her arm and tugged her to a seat beside Amanda. "Annie, Franklin fell overboard. He was lost at sea."
     "Unnnnn?!" The sensitive woman contorted and, climbing the cockpit coaming, vomited into the quiet waters of the lagoon.
     Provoked by Annie's anguish, Amanda's sobs became a desperate plea that sent a chill up Stacy's spine.
     To Stacy she sounded desperate as well as bereaved when she wailed, "Oh, Hank, Franklin's gone! What'll I do? What'll I do?" Her cries were as if she had lost more than a loved one, had lost someone she needed for her very existence.
     Henry Bouchard, knowing there was no way to bring the man back, looked to Brooks and Stacy and echoed, "What.... what can we do?"
     Brooks shrugged and walked to a far pier where he looked down into the water with unseeing eyes.
     Stacy bit his lip to stem a flood of emotion. He braced his shoulders and offered, "Why don't we take the ladies up to Mrs. Ruddings apartment?"
     "Yes. Yes, of course." Henry, given a plan of action, came alive. "Annie, see she gets a hot bath and some warm soup."
     "Mrs. Ruddings, my name is Stacy Biddle. Let me help you ashore." Stacy offered his hand.
     "Who? Oh, thank you, Mr. Biddle." She fastened her fingers to his hand in a vice-like grip.
     When he led her from the shade of the bimini, the sun brightened her sandy hair to shades of gold and he couldn't help but notice a fullness of bosom, a slimness of waist and a flare of hips to shapely legs as she climbed over the lifeline to the dock.
     No, he assured himself, she is not a grandmother, and led the lady he had heard called The Island Life Princess up one of several paths that climb the hillside of terraced flower gardens bursting with an abundance of blossoms unaware their master was to walk this way no more.
     As the little procession worked its way up the hill, Richard Wronkle stepped out onto the veranda and looked down into the lagoon. Watching them lead Amanda up the hill, he gloated, "Franklin's little lush."
     Like most beneficents who are given something to help them along, he hated his cousin Franklin, the man who rescued him from the police in England and gave him a job when he was destitute. Franklin possessed the money, esteem, power and, of course, the beautiful woman -- all those things that from his deprived youth, Wronkle had craved.
     Musing in perfidious greed, he thought again, Franklin doesn't know how to wring the most money from the tourists, and he even lets the local islanders profit from Island Life. If I had my way, we'd expand, double or triple our profits. At least I got him to let me put the fence up to keep the damn locals off our beach unless they actually work here.
     Seeing them step from the flowered path onto the clubhouse terrace, he hissed, "Mr. Henry Bouchard, uselessly naive and idealistic, has taken Amanda under his wing. You'd think she was his own daughter, the way he tries to protect her and covers up when she misbehaves."
     Antoinette waved to Hank and Stacy indicating everything would be taken care of and led Amanda along the terrace that overlooked the sea. When they disappeared into Franklin's apartment at the far end of the clubhouse, Henry walked to the balustrade and gazed sadly out over the blue waters of the Caribbean.
     Wronkle, his curiosity piqued, stepped after him and asked, "Where's Franklin?"
     Henry choked. "Richard, I'm afraid your cousin fell overboard. He was lost at sea."
     "Lost at sea? You mean he's dead?"
     "Yes, Franklin Ruddings is no more."
     As the tradewinds carried his words away, Henry's thoughts returned to the tragedy that had taken place out there beyond the curve of the earth. With Franklin gone, he wondered what was to become of Island Life. Even though it surely belonged to Amanda now, Henry had always thought of her as outside the business. As wife of the owner, she had never been required to demonstrate responsibility. And now with her drinking, he knew she didn't have the fortitude and stamina to keep a thriving organization like Island Life going.
     "But who will take the helm and run this place?" he asked the unforgiving sea.
     The first person that came to mind was standing close behind him, Richard Wronkle, the cousin Franklin hired to run the resort side of the business. The revolting idea gave Henry a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. In less than a year Wronkle had given the resort a bad name by precipitating a scandal that sent salacious rumors leaping from the pages of newspapers in the United States.
     "Who?" he wondered again and turned to look down at a few guests starting their day with a swim off the beach.
     Turning to Stacy, he asked, "Are the boats stocked and ready to go to sea?"
     "Yes, Sir. But I'll go down and check them out," Stacy Biddle assured his mentor and started down the Primrose path dreaming of a lovely lady who by rank and wealth was far beyond his grasp. But then he smiled, Melissa at the bank has promised to have dinner with me.
     Walking out onto the dock, scenes of the calamity flashed through his mind, and he wondered how a man could slip and hit his head on the deck then fall overboard. He winced at the gruesome shark scene and shrugged, I guess the rich and famous have their share of disasters.
     Must have been careless, he concluded and worked his way through the hustle and bustle on the dock. He quietly explained to each Captain that Franklin Ruddings had been lost at sea. "Keep it quiet. Mr. Bouchard will announce the tragedy tonight at dinner."
     "Yes. As you say, Stacy," they each agreed and cast off for a day of sailing on the sunlit waters of the peaceful Caribbean Sea.
     Meanwhile up on the terrace Henry Bouchard, troubled by the bleak future of Island Life, asked himself, "How did I manage before Stacy came to work here?"
    

 

 

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