“Her Own Private Atoll” by Timothy Ryan

Jasmine Lord

The moment that eventually sent Delaney back to the Maldives for the first time in forty years was hearing his name uttered in passing in a café overlooking the dun expanse of Puget Sound at the edge of First Avenue. It was one of those bizarre moments of universal congruence that repeatedly touched her over the years. It must be more common to everyone these days, she figured, but when it happened it was no less eerie or affecting. The arc of her life meant she experienced this a lot more than most people her age.

Like the time she was backpacking through southern Europe just out of college. She got off a train on the outskirts of Athens, trudged up the hill, and walked into the first puke-green-painted fleabag hotel she found. An American girl her age was behind the desk. In a matter of moments the girl recognized Del as having lived around the corner from her in Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, when they were both seven years old.

Or two decades later when she found herself twenty kilometers into the Sahara Desert beyond Cairo, underground in a pyramid in Saqqara that predated Cheops. She turned around and was face-to-face with Louise Lawrence, her art history professor at the University of Washington graduate school from twelve years before.

But the moment in Seattle beat all.

“Aden,” said the voice.

She turned.

Two older men and a middle-aged woman, all dressed last-decade contemporary in jeans and hats and light sun-shirts, were seated behind her. “Aden,” said one of the men again, the word buried in a string of unfamiliar but Cyrillic-sounding words.

It was a typical hot autumn day, the rain drizzling as she remembered it always did when she was in grad school, but people on the street outside the window plodded by as if pushing through a curtain of fog. She leaned over and said, “Excuse me, but are you talking about—Yemen?”

The larger of the two men, balding, with a Patek Philippe PD on his wrist, turned to her with a smile and said, “Beg your pardon?”

“Yemen—Aden, the old capital.”

His smile was fleeting, barely that, and he leaned away, holding the back of his hand to his mouth. “Oh, no, sorry, not a city. Just a person. A person I knew.”

“Named Aden?”

“Yes, he—”

“In the Maldives?”

The man, seemingly uncomfortable in his bulk, turned toward her and his face grew swiftly twisted in puzzlement and concern. He glanced at his friends at the table and back to Del.

“Yes—”

“Was he a sailor? Was it forty-some years ago?”

“Yes, yes, how did you—”

On that humid day in Seattle she was finally done with Van, and she had lived most of her life for those moments—on your own, with no direction home because there was none but where your own compass dictated, and she reveled in the moment of a white wine in New York, sitting down with snake-charmers in Marrakesh, some hot satay at a roadside warung in Yogyakarta with a long-sought-after anthropologist—that kind of byte was what her whole life had been about.

“He—” The taut skin of the man’s forehead wrinkled in confusion, his prodigious white eyebrows rippling, his head whipping between Del and his friends. And then he seemed simply sad. “He killed my family.”

“What?”

“He killed my family!” His breath drew in suddenly like a drowning victim’s.

“How do you know that? Maybe he—”

“I know, they got him out of Sarajevo—” Gesturing now, turning around in his black wrought-iron chair to face Del.

“Maybe we’re talking about different people,” Del said smoothly, trying to shield herself from the sudden heat, to dampen down and pour water on this unforgivable fire.

“No, he sold names, he sold information, he sold—”

“I don’t think we’re talking about the same person.”

“I tracked Aden down, I tracked him down and I finally—”

“You—you tracked—” She stopped suddenly and said, “It was a mistake.” And Del turned away, reaching for her glass.

“But you said—”

“I said it was a mistake. I’m sorry, I made a mistake.”

Delaney wonders if she’ll find the exact spot. After all this time, even with the latest wrinkles downloaded from the Multi-LiDAR website (“We’ve got you down to the centimeter!”), it was iffy. Especially with the tides shifting sand and rock and debris hundreds of meters within the lagoons in a matter of months. Besides, the guys she’s hired don’t consult LiDAR anyway. They read the ocean day to day, but they do check the weather on their Omnet watches before they go out.

So Del figures she’ll have to look around for a while, and since that’ll cost, she goes cheap. Plus with the divorce from Van there are still a lot of expenses to cover.

She takes a slow old boat instead of a hovercraft out some two hours from Malé. The besieged capital of the submerged Maldives, it is now a city built up precariously on the ruins of oil tanks and docking derricks, apartment blocks and concrete breakwaters. And of course tons and tons of dead coral brought in from the outer islands. Skeletons of vast living networks of creatures that don’t exist anymore protect the last redoubt of a drowned nation.

The tip of the gold dome of the Grand Mosque is barely visible from the deck as Del motors by. She remembers forty-five years ago staring at its gleam across the water, rising in the morning like a tiny sun as the plane touched down.

Now the minaret tip peeks above the barriers of fast-and slow-poured rock and fauna like some ancient archeological treasure in an equatorial Netherlands.

The only city of an archipelago of stunning atolls even twenty years ago, Malé is now the ruler of nothing but shifting sea-lanes and container ship speed-bumps. Nearly two thousand islands were simply swallowed by the slow sparkling green, the seductive blue. Subsumed in its way like Jerusalem, Córdoba, Tenochtitlan, Venice, Rotterdam, Abu Simbal, the Narmada Valley, the villages of the Three Gorges, but somehow purer. Like these, a relentless inundation of cultures, rapacious mercantilism, capitalism, consumption, all squatting, fulminating, shitting gloriously one upon the other.

She recognizes the pretense of purity because Bolifushi Island and all the thousands of others were submerged not by some avaricious culture, it seemed, but by nature. Of course it was a nature after all ruled by the culture of gasoline and meat.

A slow boat. Del looks around, pulling in the sea air, feeling like she’s breathing for the first time. Going slow is a switch.

Her whole life, including what now appears to have been the reckless marriage to Van—his steadiness, his gravity seemed like the perfect antidote to her constant ricochet from place to place—was now revealed as reaction, running, bouncing off walls. And after a certain point when Van objected to the constant travel, her taking a job wherever the money was good and the situation dodgy—when he said, “Aren’t I enough for you, here, now? Isn’t being in one place, with me, enough?”—she knew she would have to refuse to be here and now.

“Where are you from?” people always ask on meeting her. They couldn’t place her accent. “The States,” Del sometimes says. “Where in the States?” they ask.

Where in the States where in the States and she always hesitates, because she has no easy answer. Even “the States” isn’t really true. She possesses three passports perpetually stuffed with extra pages looking like those broken-backed paperback beach novels she remembers from her youth. Her life has been one momentary link after another in a paper chain that has bound her to nothing of permanence.

One year she may be a translator in Pakistan.

The next a copywriter in Singapore.

Then a program officer for an environmental NGO in Nairobi.

A high-profile concierge in Taiwan.

Single, visiting San Francisco, calling on Uncle Joe in the Castro District whose significant other is a chronic but terminal virus. “Kind of like all of us,” Joe would say.

In trouble in Istanbul.

Married again and in Morocco with Van.

On a slow boat in the Maldives going to a place that doesn’t exist anymore.

The truth is she hasn’t lived in the States for twenty years and visits it like she’s on a foreign tour of duty—gear up, read the websites, figure out the curious accents, the local argot, watch your back.

“Nowhere,” she usually answers, “nowhere in particular.” Or: “How much time do you have?”

The men, dark lean and gangly, all slightly suspicious and hungry and sullen aboard the blue dhoni which is top-heavy with solar panels, hang back at the stern. They tend the sputtering engines sweating black oil and look across a featureless horizon. Casually steering with their feet the elaborate tiller which sweeps up like a bird’s rigid, faded plumage, it is a shape unchanged since she was here as a girl decades ago in the last century.

The water is still clear, true and too abundant. In the bright, cloudless morning the depths are deeper than the sky. In the afternoon the ripples still fleck the eye with silver and gold and a mysterious gray. Fish leap. The heart flutters with the feel of—new experience?

Not here. It’s not new experience she’s after.

But there—and there and there as she never remembered it—the boat draws through long streaks of metallic rainbow sluicing across the water. Sunlight pouring down on the slicks gives off glittery, silky pink and black and hot lizard green like the liquid sidewalk in front of a gas station on a simmering summer day.

The boat comes into the shallows now, approaching the presumed location; the water glows a cleaner luminescent emerald than anything she’s seen in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean since she was fourteen years old here on that brief family vacation. A pure gem color, like startled eyes.

“We are here,” says the guide Hassan rather too eagerly. “I know you must know it.”

“Let’s sail around,” Del says in Hindi, looking down, waving a finger in the air rather leisurely.

Del hired him, one of the young wiry fellows frequenting the locks by the airport, because he speaks English, Spanish, German, Hindi, and Sinhala. Very few people come here from Sri Lanka or anywhere anymore unless they’re submariner anthropologists. Sri Lanka’s own beaches are long gone; it’s all about water and raw stone now, creating new stretches of pulverized rock decades in the future. Given her life of moving from place to place, she’s always grateful to be able to switch gears and channels. And maybe she just wanted some company. And maybe Hassan is one of those touts who’s both knowledgeable and sexy.

The boat slows and slews about lazily in the waves. Del scrutinizes her own Rolex and glances skeptically at the dhoni’s decrepit satellite locater screen.

“You don’t worry, we are here,” says Hassan, blowing cigarette smoke into the obliterating breeze. In one hand he holds the locator monitor, tapping it with a tobacco-stained finger. He offers Del a Player’s. Del shakes her head.

Peering down now, Del and the crew see broken white walls, the roofless rooms. It’s like looking into a sunken dollhouse but as in a half-apprehended dream of a strange, buried world with sand drifting up walls and into windows. The empty desert wreck of lives from the last century beneath rippling water.

“This way, pull it this way,” she says and points off to her right. She wants to circumambulate the ruins, like walking around a Buddhist dagoba. The dhoni circles around the submerged building, a scrap of paper bobbing on an indifferent wind.

“They were some big rooms off the west side of the island,” she says to Hassan. “We were five, with three kids. Me and my two brothers.” She grimaced and uttered a somewhat nervous half-laugh. “Seemed like more.”

The air is wild now. Her shoulder-length blonde hair gone gray and shining, like silvery streams the color of herring, tangles on the breeze, drifting in stray annoyances into her nose and mouth. She brushes the strands away impatiently. Remembering how her hair hurt, lashing and whipping her face as a teenager when her parents took the speedboat back from the island to the airport. Had to catch that plane.

The dhoni rocks and leans to the right. Still they stay clear of the bright white ruins rippling just beneath them.

“Your lost Atlantis, no?” says Hassan, winking.

Del looks up beneath the wide brim of her hat and snorts, “I wish.” And then catches herself, takes a sharp breath. Attitude has been the standard operating procedure for so long, but now she’s here, looking for the first and last true moment. She sighs and says nothing else.

“Hum ap ke sath chelenge kya?” says Hassan, leaning toward her. He’s already picked up that her Hindi and Urdu are better than her Sinhalese. “Or maybe just I come down with you?”

Looking at the raw guys loitering at the stern, leaning against the dark, peeling blue paint and two boys dropping anchor over the bow, Del says, “No. Not necessary. Muje ke sath ap ja rahe hain nahi. Just me. Thik hai with you?”

“Yeah, okay. You should have rent scuba gear,” says Hassan, sitting down on a bench along the rail, lighting a new cigarette off the old butt. “You stay under longer.”

“I don’t want to stay under longer.”

Del pulls off her shorts and leaves on her T-shirt which says “Melanoma Maniacs—Property of University of Melbourne” stenciled across the front. She fetches from her bag the snorkel gear and fins.

“We fish tonight?”

“Maybe. No. I don’t think so.” Putting on the flippers, pulling on the mask.

“You only come here? How about out to the shipwrecks where the sharks still come?”

“I’ve had enough of sharks.”

“You a funny lady,” Hassan says, sucking noisily on his cigarette. His clean, white teeth flash in a grimace of smoke, quickly merging into a grin.

“No,” says Del, “I’m not.” Seating the mask, she pulls stray hair out of the seal on her forehead and awkwardly walks to the edge of the boat.

“Remember,” she says, voice whistling in the snorkel tube. “You guys stick around. Your agency only gets paid through my OmNet chip.”

“Have it your way,” says Hassan, smiling behind his cigarette. “Marlboro King.”

She pitches backward. Once in the water she feels both the dense tension that brought her here and the comfort of being buoyed in the relentless, warm claustrophobia of the waves washing across everything now that everything is submerged.

Cruising less than a meter above the buildings, she sees that some of the roofs are still intact, others washed bare. Only some of the hardy fish that are left—angelfish, bluefin, vermillion rock cod, some baby sharks—zigzag through doors and over balconies, darting in sunlight and shadow. Nothing can seem as clean and new as it was then because the predators and the anemones have moved in, accreting a life of their own. Because she’s in her late fifties and alone again.

She remembers that they kept the rooms so cold. She and her brother Derrick and the baby Durrell loved the cocooning heat they’d grown into in Sri Lanka, but her parents always kept the air-conditioning in the hotels on high.

So Del sought escape to the beach below, the white sand, the tiny hermit crabs, the endless landscape of a pristine emerald expanse.

Turning left, she follows the line of ruined rooms along what had been the sterile beach about thirty feet down until she comes to the “pro shop.” This is it: This is what she’s here to see.

She hears the dhoni motor up slowly above and behind her. She has to come up to clear her mask.

This is where she met Aden. At first she thought maybe he was German; she couldn’t place his accent. But a few moments after he ambled out of the little office in his Speedo with his coppery burnished body and the taut muscles and the almost silky sun-bleached hair flecking his chest and running down past his belly button, she stopped listening closely to his accent.

They chatted, about what now she can’t remember. But she was alone with him and looking at him in the iridescent joy of the morning sunlight and the gentle water lapping at her heels as she stood at the water’s edge.

Then her family came. They all got on a small catamaran—Delaney, Mom, Dad, Derrick and Durrell—and Aden took them out.

“We go to a new island,” he said. The day was perfect: hot, languid sun sandwiched between the sea and the sky’s infinity of blues.

She’s never seen such a perfect day again.

As they bobbed across the ocean, Aden sat there casually on the catamaran’s nylon deck, steering the tiller, one hand draped over a raised knee. His casual beauty thrilled her. At first she wished her father would just shut up because the talk was distracting.

But as Aden talked she could feel this…romantic, cosmopolitan, world-weary ache welling up in her as she listened to his story. Or at least what she thought such a world-weary ache must feel like. And it just added to the burning in her throat and her gut and the delicious lemony touch of the sun’s tongue on her skin.

For the first time amid all the scrum and tangle of her teenage existence here was a pristine moment. She was precocious enough on one level to automatically attribute it to the biochemistry of pheromones. But that thought quickly dissolved in a moment of golden epiphany that seemed, inexplicably, to go on and on.

Some muted hint of this is what Del feels again now as she surfaces, treading water, looking down, gazing at the fish swimming through the watery ghost town of her past. Blurry, fuzzy, but she recognizes it.

And that’s good enough for her. It’s what she thinks she’s come here for.

“So I have to leave the country once in a year,” Aden said to her father. The stubble on his jaw was like sun-flecked sand. “I sometimes sail with someone on a boat. Last year I went to Sri Lanka. The year before, I went to India. Then I can come back to Maldives. I start a new contract and get a new visa.”

Her father seized on the idea of crewing on a sailboat around the Indian Ocean and asked Aden a bunch of technical details which she knew he would never remember. Her father was too enthusiastic, lacking much athleticism or excitement in his own life. Aden was patient and clear. Del was embarrassed and wished her father would simply shut up.

But then Aden talked some more. He talked about home.

“That’s why I am here,” he said. “I had to leave. I got false passport and some friends, they smuggled me from Sarajevo.” And then Del’s ache really stabbed at her man oh man.

His gray eyes reminded Del of smooth, luminous stones on the beaches of the Pacific Northwest after a cold rain.

“My mother and my sister are still there. I don’t know if they are still alive. I send them money but I don’t know if they get it. I try to keep working here.”

“The war in Bosnia is really terrible,” said Del’s father. “The ethnic cleansing—what a euphemism, genocide is what it is” and blah blah blah just shut up Dad, shut up, shut up! Let him talk!

“It was one country. Everybody living together,” said Aden. “No hate like this was on the surface.” And then: “Wait now. We are coming.”

Aden landed Del and her family on the proverbial desert island of every cartoon, in the center of a coral atoll maybe a few hundred meters across. There was a mound of blond sand just above the gentle waves about fifteen meters long and thirty meters wide, with nothing on it.

“This is a new island,” said Aden. “It came only about six months ago.”

“How did it get here?” Del asked, distracted.

“The tides,” said Aden, turning his dark liquid eyes on her. “The water pushes and pulls the sand, and it piles up in one place.”

Not the story of my life, thinks Del as she hovers above the old pro-shop ruins. And thinks about swimming out toward that dead little smothered island, maybe three miles away and forty years deep.

They stayed on the atoll for a few hours, snorkeling along the edge of the reef, Aden tossing the young boys in the air, dunking them in the water.

How Del wished Aden would pick her up. Then Del’s most burning memory: She joined in the play, splashed her brothers and splashed him, and once he grabbed her head and dunked her.

Later Del snorkeled out over the edge of the reef and saw so many fish and so many colors she could never name them all.

Then about two o’clock, when her mother inevitably warned them about the sun and skin cancer and all the usual stuff, they left the tiny pristine island and sailed back to Bolifushi.

The boys were exhausted. As Aden tacked the catamaran back and forth against the dying wind. Durrell and Derrick lay down and slept as if they were stranded on that island. Her mother and father were distracted, gazing at the horizon, sniffing for some cooling breeze. Del moved under the shade of the sail, saying she wanted to be out of the sun. But it put her closer to Aden, and she could smell his warmth, the drying sea salt, and occasionally brush his leg with the back of her hand as the catamaran rolled and dipped. Dried salt in his curly hair caught the fragile, ticklish backs of her fingers like a jeweled ring snagging lightly on clothing.

Late that night, the restlessness and cranky whining of her youngest brother in their common room kept her awake and fiercely irritated. Slipping out of the hotel, she went down to the beach where she and the boys had made a sand castle to hold all the hermit crabs they had found, at least forty of them. Now they were all gone.

Nudging the dry, dissolving walls with her toes, she heard voices echoing in that strange, baffled way among the palms and mangrove trees and buildings which makes it difficult to understand where the sounds are really coming from.

They weren’t party noises; the evening disco was long over and the young couples from the Italian tour group had gone off to their rooms. It was easy for Del to be lost in the darkness as she moved silently along the shore toward the pro shop. She could tell the voices were angry and one was Aden’s.

Crouching silently behind a tangled mangrove matrix, she watched the scene.

Two men faced off with Aden, and they were all arguing. The lone security light over the pro shop door scissored the shadows of their violent gestures across the sand.

One man stepped forward. He leaned in threateningly, looked as if he might head-butt Aden. Then he raised a hand quickly—did he have a gun?—but Aden smacked it back against the man’s ear. The man staggered, and Aden pushed him. He fell onto the ground.

The other man leaned forward, throwing a punch at Aden. Aden ducked and hit back with a heavy blow to the stomach. The fellow crumpled over just as his partner again stood up. Aden then pulled out something—Del wasn’t sure what, but it looked like a fish-gutting knife, and held it in front of him.

The first man stopped and stepped back. Aden yelled something at them and kicked the second man, who was still on the ground, in the face. The first man screamed something at Aden, his finger pointed like a dagger, repeatedly, close, right at Aden’s face.

Then the scene was over. The two men faded back into the blackness.

Del heard nothing but the blood in her ears. She felt frightened and excited. She had seen Aden deal with two thugs, maybe drug dealers, maybe gangsters, and bravely run them off. Clearly Aden lived a life of adventure.

She reseats her mask and spits out her snorkel, takes a deep breath and swims down into the ruins of the pro shop searching for souvenirs, memorabilia, detritus, anything.

She pulls out drawers against the resistance of young barnacles accreting around the edges and actually finds a few knives and screwdrivers, but really, there’s nothing there.

She looks up, and a shadow covers the small hole in the roof. It’s completely dark as the dhoni passes over her. Suddenly she’s disoriented. Her lungs are excited, growing tight. She casts around her, now looking for a way out.

Whirling about, she makes for a window she’s not sure she’ll make it through and collides with Hassan, who’s dived in after her. He grabs her arm, but she shakes it loose. He tries again, and she pushes him away. The boat has moved off, and light returns. Hassan pulls her through the door, and both of them then rise quickly to the surface.

Bursting through, she scissors her flippers to keep her above the waves as she gasps for breath.

“I thought you were trapped!” yells Hassan as his mates help him up on the boat.

The boys on the dhoni grab her arms; she doesn’t answer, just shakes her head, lungs heaving, legs kicking.

“You okay? You okay?” Hassan is leaning over her as she lies on the deck.

Del nods.

“Remember, your OmNet chip!” Hassan laughs and then coughs.

And Del laughs nervously, chokes and coughs too.

When she was fifteen, sixteen, she’d hoped she would see Aden coming to Sri Lanka some time on a boat. She would see him walking on the streets of Colombo. At the vegetable stands at the Colpetty Market or sunning himself at a beach hotel down south in Hambantota.

Or maybe he would come knocking on their front gate, kick off his sandals, and walk across their broad, white terrazzo floor, an old friend.

Once when she was in her late twenties working as a translator in Cairo during the Arab Spring she thought she’d seen him in one of the risings in Tahrir Square, but she lost him in the melee.

As much as she hoped then, she realized it was not him.

Now, sitting on the deck of the dhoni and refusing another cigarette, breathing hard, in one last place she would never return to, she was actually glad she had not seen him in either Cairo or Colombo.

Because even though she now thinks she knows who was guilty, she has no idea whom to blame. And she realizes that the meaning she’d been chasing for years can never be salvaged from her depths.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

TimothyRyan_300Timothy Ryan’s fiction has appeared in FolioSTORGYHere Comes EveryoneThe Write Launch, Fine Madness, and the Clinton Street Quarterly. His novel The Sisters: A Fable of Globalization is now available. Nonfiction includes pieces in Harper’s, Foreign Policy, Reuters, The Far Eastern Economic Review, High Times, and the Huffington Post. His science fiction graphic novel AE-35 was inked by Neal Adams and published by Continuity Associates in New York. He is currently the Asia director for the Solidarity Center in Washington, DC and the chairperson for the Global March Against Child Labour, founded by friend, colleague, and Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi. He is a member in good standing of the National Writers Union.