This story is by Wen Condorchua and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There is nothing worse than waiting for Time. Time stretches over the monotony of this island like a blanket in summer, coddling and quieting instincts to get up and out, to change, to make progress. Beating primordial muscle twitch into atrophy. You might consider some matter all day here and find by the end that the rolling of the thought has amassed into nothing usable and that the best thing to do is discard it like the rest of your yesterdays; and yet, as habit is strengthened by repetition, you doom yourself to a dream-like rehearsal of this act, hoping at any moment for some lucidity like the first glimpse of daylight out of a long and dreary sleep.
The elements do not wait for Time. The sun, wind, the salty ocean sprays, the oppressive forces of the natural world seem to move in spite of time. They are, in fact, the fastest moving thing on any island.
But the day finally came when Theresa decided to unpack the memorabilia of the little house. It was one of the first things she’d noticed when she’d moved in — the bare suspensions exposing dusty rafters chock full of bins, boxes, old fixtures and unused appliances. She reckoned the excess must have been moved up there before the family began renting to make this plastic sheet-roofed shack more livable. But really this lofted jetsam could have been the only pre-existing storage the house offered and so might have always lived there, and who knows how many tenants ago, as it made up about half of the total possessions within the shelter. In any case, Theresa’s first interest was the black thin-leathered briefcase, whose stout brass handles and lack of a lock made it all the more enticing. She had imagined her way into believing the case contained a musical instrument and was excited to add it to the scarcity of amusements to distract from the drudging of Island Time.
It turned out to be a travelling case, one meant for mobile business dealings but which, Theresa observed, had only made it as far as this loft, relinquished to safeguarding collegiate drafts on HOSPITALITY AND HUMAN RESOURCES and a stack of business cards. On each card someone had drawn a miniature beach scene in colored marker: a single palm tree on a sandy shore edge with one seagull hovering over three blue ripples. The epitome of a souvenir-grade paradise. The center title had been printed in Times New Roman and read:
LUÍS ROGELIO MIGUEL MADURO
Theresa compared her view of the sea from the little skeleton house. She wondered how many more years the man would have been able to draw his view of Mixtu’ux until the makeshift emblem became another exotic ruin of memory, to be stuck away, preserved in time.
Mixtu’ux was the capital port of Huanal, the largest speck among a smattering of atolls in southeastern Mexico, and as such had become the flagship city for the entire island system. A few centuries ago the Huanal people had been making good living off coconut palms until a Category 5 hurricane wiped out the arable supply, along with over one-third of the Huanal population. Many of the surviving families evacuated, and the event instigated a diaspora that left a sudden cultural and economic vacuum in the once-prospering Mixtu’ux. Every Mixtu’uxeño born is born with this specific emptiness, the Huanal people say. They use a word to describe this emptiness, which is somewhere between an emotion and a state of being but most closely approximates the English verb, “to shiver”. The same word is used to explain newborn deaths, which the Huanal have a significantly higher rate of among both the atolls and western Caribbean islands. When a stillbirth occurs, the doctor will declare: “The child shivered too much.”
It is important to the Huanal that the word not be written, only spoken of and used by their own and some atoll peoples. The Huanal explain that when the last Mixtu’uxeño has freed themself from the burden of their emptiness, the word only they know will die with them. An extinction of longing.
In 2010 the military base was installed in Mixtu’ux to help the island manage sea borders with Belize. As one of the only ventures in town, the build was drawn out over several years and subsequently brought new opportunity to many locals, so that it was fair to say that nearly every man in Mixtu’ux worked for the military, either directly and indirectly.
As she continued to explore its contents, Theresa found within the briefcase a letter addressed to Luís R. M. Maduro from his commanding branch office. Although brief, the letter had been marked and highlighted in several places. The letter itself notified one PO2 Officer Maduro that his request for transfer to the new post in Chetumal had been granted.
This had been his chance, Theresa realized. The Mixtu’uxeño had been preparing for escape.
But there was nothing after that. No trophies to show he’d made it – no receipt of first sale; no business cards from useful connections made along the way; no photos with new friends in new places; no letters in envelopes from the family asking about his health and blessing his future and prosperity by the grace of God.
Theresa turned over every piece of paper, carefully sifting through licensing documents and military correspondences until she came to a stack of stiff white pages. Nothing, she thought.
But as she lifted the briefcase, something slid its way out from beneath the blank pages and knocked lightly against the attaché lining.
The head of a monochrome-black alley cat was winking at her from a thin cardstock, a single martini in its cartoonish grip. The paper coaster was only minorly wilted, whether by the heat or the condensation rolling off the wide rocks glass it had footed, Theresa wasn’t certain. She diverted the hedonic feline gaze, flipping the coaster over to find an unintelligible signature and a date written in black fountain ink: 19/07/2018.
So it had been three years, Theresa thought. Three, from today. Feliz aniversario, mi extraño, Theresa said to herself.
She replaced the coaster, the business cards, and the papers and gently closed the briefcase. Not bothering to put it up just yet, Theresa left the salvaged hopes of a man, half-empty and unanswered, on the floor and walked out onto the front porch. Outside she was met with a wall of heat and hanging dust so thick it made seeing the ocean beyond it appear like a mirage. The white light of the sun was searing the horizon through like a rip in infinity.
The floorboard creaked and dipped slightly where she stood. The deck was only a few slats wide and was raised off the earth just high enough that you’d have to gather yourself and give a bit of a jump to come down from it without catching a leg behind. Standing there staring into that white light made Theresa feel as though she were standing on a plank. Like she was hovering right over that bright infinite space and could just skip off and fall into the unknown of some idyllic future. Maybe that’s how Luís the Mixtu’uxeño did it. Did he even remember?
Theresa continued to stare into the haze on the horizon as the light dimmed. She watched the seagulls catch the slipstream and hover in place, effortlessly as they always did, as though frozen in time. One of these days Theresa would fly, too.