Norbert Kovacs is a short story and flash fiction writer who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. He has been published in Squawk Back and has a story forthcoming in Darkrun Review.
THE ISLAND INTERIOR
After being used to separate lives before they married, Henry Reynolds, forty-eight, and Helen Strom, forty, strove a long time to become a close couple and now they gave themselves an abundance of reasons to think they had achieved it. For one, they made it a point to do things together regularly, telling themselves that many couples did not. They always sat down together for breakfast and dinner. They walked as a pair around their upper middle class neighborhood; on late afternoons and the weekend, they tended their garden sharing the tasks of planting and weeding, and remade and repaired their home as part of their own self-styled “weekend team”. They found many, simple spontaneous ways to enjoy one another, besides. On Saturdays, Henry woke in bed and talked to Helen quietly as she dozed and replied to him in lazy, half murmurs. They made a game of shuffling happily past each other in and out the bathroom door in the morning and laughing that this was “their morning routine”. On the spur of a whim, they had random dinners out when Helen or Henry felt it would be exciting. And they made interesting conversation. They discussed the direction of Helen’s corporation, their friends' lives, their colleagues, simple plans to visit a neighbor two houses down. They exchanged jokes, sometimes about a slip of the tongue, sometimes a mild embarrassment; the two found this humor a relief more than once in their else demanding lives. Sometimes, the two volunteered together to enjoy a kind of pride in altruism. They tutored the remedial students at the high school where Henry taught math and science.
Of all their bonding episodes as a couple, their favorite had been finishing the bathroom off their bedroom. Around the sides of the great hot tub, Henry smeared grout, thick and wet, in small sections as Helen set in tiles of blue and white. Henry had plastered a small section of the tub at a time to allow Helen a proper chance to cover each before the grout dried. Henry scooted or crouched to give Helen room as she set the small blue and white squares one by one into a neat pattern. He spoke to her as she worked and as he smeared the new sections on the outside of the tub. Their movement was coordinated and slow as they listened to each other, neither rushing nor feeling to rush. Helen talked about her hopes for the tub’s new facade and the fun of trying to set the tiles to stay. "Don't move!" she told them once in jest. Henry smiled listening to her. They proceeded, crisscrossing one other and asking for permission to set a tile here or to add some grout there. When they were done, the two stepped back to the bathroom door and admired their labor. Henry had thrown an arm around Helen, kissed her, and said “Beautiful.” He had meant the tub but looked at her when he said it. For a long time afterwards, he would think of the fun they had with their "tile talk."
The pair had spent three calm years of marriage together when Henry sensed Helen starting to have a problem with their state of affairs. She strained during dinner and was terse when they spoke. She lost interest in the garden that she had loved to tend, regularly buzzing over its roses and lilies. She even seemed tired when they had over their friends who used to please her. Worried, Henry tried to draw her back out by being upbeat, talkative, generous. He bought her books by an author that she had hoped to have but never had owned. He took her to the Shubert to a musical undergoing a revival; he knew the play had put her in a good mood a long time ago. Helen answered these efforts tepidly. "Maybe another night for the play," she told him when he pressed on the theatre. Thereafter his effort bore little fruit. When Henry suggested they volunteer together at his school for a pep rally, Helen accepted but her politely smiling and quiet face told him she wished to do else. She agreed to remodel another room in the house with him but excused herself halfway through the task.
The reason Helen changed became clear the night the two went to a large Christmas party hosted by one of Henry’s fellow teachers. In the weeks leading up to the event, Henry believed he and Helen might have more fun at the party if they danced as well as the others going, so he asked Helen to dance lessons. It seemed to Henry that her face sunk a little at the question but she collected herself almost at once, as if to dispel the impression, and said, "It might be fun." She even gave him what seemed a bland smile. As they practiced dutifully twice a week at a ballroom across town, Henry trusted Helen’s mood improved despite her recent glumness. The two went to the party on the night and after an apparently good time mingling with the guests, they danced and danced to the music that started on the stereo. The two moved decently and people said their dancing looked fun, which sent Henry’s happiness skywards.
Henry returned from the party feeling he must have been wrong to suppose his wife ever was dissatisfied with him, so he was surprised when after he parked in the garage she went into the house without waiting for him to exit the car. He came to her shortly after in the living room saying, “Everything went so well tonight, I’d--” But he did not finish his sentence for he discovered Helen seated on the couch with her face in her hands crying.
“It’s too much,” she said hearing him enter the room. “I can’t be happy in anything and I won’t pretend any longer that I am.”
“Helen, what are you talking about?” Henry said, drawing beside her.
“Our acting like everything has to be perfect between us. I can’t.”
“What are you saying?”
“You must know. I was just like a little doll smiling with all that over-sugared happiness at those people. I talked so much bright, fluffy nonsense. Even when we were dancing, it felt like I was giving a performance.”
“You weren’t performing, honey. We were having fun. Or we meant to.”
“Oh, we mean it all the time. When we make eager fixing the house, I feel I could crumble. We talk about hitting the newest play and I feel horrible inside. Is this any way to keep on?”
Henry found Helen was more displeased than he had guessed. He sat beside his wife on the couch and clasped her. “Then we won’t. We’ll do things differently. I promise.”
Helen did not resist his touch even as she failed to face him.
That night, Henry lay awake, fretting how to repair things with Helen, and guessed at answers, afraid not to have one.
In the morning, he proposed to Helen that they go on a vacation. It was the winter and they would enjoy going somewhere warm and sunny. He thought but did not say that Helen might forget about her ill feelings if she had a good diversion. Helen agreed to his plan and Henry arranged them a two-week vacation at a Caribbean island for January. Neither of them said a word about how the trip would fix their relationship.
Their first day on the island, Henry and Helen visited the open-air market in the town where they stayed. Festively decked, the market stood amid bright, white adobe buildings on a long, sun-flooded street. Clothing stalls blazed a rainbow of colored shirts and pants, and an aroma of spices from food vendors filled the warm air. Henry walked close beside his wife and was eager to talk about the island, the town, anything. But Helen, despite offering some words to his, never drew out his thread of conversation very much.
“How nice that there are all these people out in the market,” Henry said in a hopeful burst.
“Do you think?” Helen said dodging past a pair of folk coming toward them.
The two walked down a couple of stalls. Henry came beside her and fingered a well-polished, mahogany colored bracelet on the stall they were near. “This one looks nice.”
“Yes it is. But maybe not right for me.”
Henry was about to offer her another, one of brilliantly interfused woods, when Helen excused herself to go elsewhere. Henry let her for he was able to see where she went so could follow her if he wished. He became absorbed in a rack of postcards spotlighting the beautiful streets of the town and soon was imagining which he would visit. When he looked toward his wife next, Helen was studying the items of the stalls, her eyes quiet before the many colored figurines and strings of beads. Indeed, her face was pouting and she walked aimlessly. Henry rejoined her fearing for some reason that she might leave the market without him.
The two walked slowly together toward the market’s edge. As they reached the last stalls, a mob of elderly tourists swelled around the corner into the street. Some cruise ship had stopped there in Newport and discharged its load of American travelers for a few hours of sightseeing and souvenir buying. The swell surrounded Henry and Helen as they reached a stall near the street’s end that was selling scarves. The scarves were many colors, black, green, yellow, and pink, emblems of the warm Caribbean island the two were visiting. As if newly moved by these, Helen inched through the tourists to inspect the scarves for herself. But the many newcomers were in a frenzy of reaching and grabbing at the scarves and made it difficult for her to stand and evaluate the goods for sale. An old tourist with huge sunglasses made loud comments to the black woman selling them. Hands shoved money at the vendor and she parceled them scarves quickly. At last, Helen managed to get to the stall side and asked to have a certain black and green scarf. She extended the money for it as a blue-haired tourist shoved forward a hand with a scarf and cried, “How much is this?” Helen retreated with her new scarf to a quiet place, folded her item in quarters, and pushed it into her purse. Henry observed the whole episode from the stall side and thought their island shopping had turned out pretty bad.
The sun shone hot and a pleasant sea breeze ran along the hotel beach. Henry had come ahead of Helen and with his red and white umbrella staked a spot for them in the sand. His balding head and long, thin body under the umbrella’s shade, he waited for his wife to appear. The hotel beach belonged to a beach shared with the neighboring hotels it turned out, and many tourists were wandering in from down the shore. Their easy, buzzing chitchat and movement convinced Henry that the beach would be a pleasant, stress-free place.
Henry had lifted his head several times to check for Helen when he spotted her descending from the hotel. She was in a black bikini that made her pale, slender limbs stand out clearly; the two shapely curves of her breasts pressed snug against the fabric. When she arrived by him, Helen reached for a long towel from the bag at his side and spread it on the sand by his chair.
“Good weather for tanning,” he said.
“Yes good weather.” Helen sounded calm but sullen. She took the tanning lotion from their beach bag, squeezed some into her hand, and began the intimate process of rubbing it into her face, arms, and legs. Then, she donned a pair of sunglasses and lay out beside him quietly. As the beach warmed, Henry became encouraged in the thought of Helen being so close to him and thought to reach with his hand and touch her on the shoulder. But he considered if Helen would welcome it. I might mark her skin now she’s getting toasty, he thought. And then she might wish this moment for solitude, he added. She had seemed to want it and this might be a private experience he would be best to respect. Henry broke from this thought as a volleyball rolled to Helen’s side. A shirtless, college age man came up to fetch it but stopped a few yards away; he seemed to wait for Henry to throw the ball to him so he would not have to come any closer to the lounging pair. With a struggle, Henry got up to oblige. “You don’t have to move, Helen,” he said. He went to the other side of her and with an underhand throw, sent the volleyball up the hill toward the young man. The ball made an awkward bounce in its path that made Henry somehow self-conscious.
It was a long while after he sat down again before the idea of touching his wife returned to Henry. He decided that his touch might be nice to her, however he had believed earlier, and extended a hand toward her in fact. At that point, a clamor of voices arose behind his beach umbrella.
“Good a spot as any.”
“Lay the towels out there. Ned, please give me my water bottle from that bag.”
“Can we toss our Frisbee around here?”
“I need tanning lotion.”
A family of tourists with children had taken post and ended Henry’s hope of privacy. Henry settled his hand back on his armrest with a plop and asked his wife, “You’re not getting too warm?”
“No, I’m okay dear.” Helen turned and lay on her stomach, her face pressing flat.
That night in their hotel room, Henry said their day on the beach had been fun and that Helen had tanned well. He hoped to put his wife in a positive mood, which she had not shown much of since their vacation started.
“On Sunday,” he said, “how about going to the festival in town? There’s supposed to be a parade with marchers, musicians…”
“—and more crowds like in the market?” Helen said dully. “I'd much rather not put up with them again.” She walked from the small table where they had been sitting.
Henry was beside himself. “Helen, I didn’t mean to upset you. If the parade sounds that bad, I’d be happy going anywhere else.”
“I don’t know where else to go. Maybe we should stay in. I can catch up on my book.” She fingered the spine of a short novel lying by the bed.
“That’s not why we came on vacation, Helen.”
“I agree. So suggest what we can do.”
Henry considered for them both. “Well, we could go to Freetown across the island.”
“Would it be a long drive to Freetown?”
“I guess four or five hours.”
Helen’s voice gained a note of interest. “We’d have to cross the middle of the island on the way, wouldn’t we? On some open road bundled amid the wild palms and the wayside towns.”
“We’d have to.”
Helen went and sat on the couch. “Then let’s go to Freetown Sunday.” She turned on the TV and zoned out her spouse in the other room.
Henry was glad finally to find Helen interested in their trip.
The sun shone bright on Sunday as they hoped. Henry had rented a Jeep and the two loaded it with lunch and gear for their trip. They left Newport on the dirt road that went into the country hills. The land by the road was small farms and fields, cut with green crops. Men wearing only dark pants hoed the earth; they sweated with their toil and their muscled bodies glistened with it. Women in colored dresses carried baskets of beans and corn from the fields; they moved slowly in the hot sun. Beside the farms were the people’s crayon-color homes, small and squat, red, green, or blue with corrugated tin roofs. Clotheslines with the women’s other dresses and the men’s washed shirts hung like flags over the backyards. Henry would have commented on the busy farms. But he held silent discovering Helen look calmly and steadily toward the dark, broken forest in the hills beyond the tilled fields; why she did Henry could not guess nor felt her dreamy eyes invited him to ask. Rising into the country, the Jeep cut past many dark trees and emerged in a stretch of open land; there the light burst on them and brought Helen’s attention back into the car. A farm comprised most of the open land by the road here and at the dirt path before it, a pink-frocked woman sat in a chair by a cart loaded with watermelons and a sign that said “SALE”.
“Why don't we stop at this farm for a watermelon?” Helen said with eagerness. “It’s about lunch time anyway.”
Ready to oblige this first request since leaving town, Henry turned off the main road onto the farm path and parked. The two walked to the woman's cart and inspected the firm, round melons for sale. Helen picked up a smaller one and weighed it in her hands. “I like this one.”
“Then we’ll get it.”
“How much for this?” Helen asked the seller.
As Henry took out his wallet and handed her the money, the seller said, “We have tables over there where you can eat.” The tables were about twenty yards from the melon stand on very green grass. “You and your wife could eat and look at my farm.”
Helen turned toward the spot. “Thank you. We will.” Helen brought their melon to a table and Henry went to the Jeep and fetched their lunch, some plates, and a knife. The couple sat, Helen on the bench facing the planted fields, Henry across her and facing a few, low trees where the hill rose. Henry devoured his wrap made by the hotel staff, hungry after all his driving.
“These are pretty good,” he said. “Don’t you like yours?” Helen had taken only a bite from her sandwich.
“Sure.” But Helen’s voice was quiet and distant. Henry faced sideways and saw the wide field of the farm before her, its long, rows of green melons and the very green grass that ringed it all.
“I feel free for some reason,” Helen said suddenly addressing the land. "This place is not like home. I can imagine it might be a relief living here." Self-consciously, Henry studied his wife then the dark waving canopy of wild palms that crowded the hilltops. Helen continued, “I could love this free-ranging growth and greenness in the hills. The people must be different in this place.”
Henry puzzled over his wife’s remark. Could she feel this much over some open jungle?, he wondered. He made to lighten her mood. “Maybe we should eat that watermelon.” He fetched it from the far side of the table. Taking the sharp knife he had brought, he plunged it blade deep into the fruit and sawed through its rind. The two halves of the cut melon rolled apart on the tabletop making a small puddle of pink juice. Henry and Helen each took a half melon for their plate and began to eat it with spoons he had brought. The melon was very fresh and sweet, and Henry thought to remark on it when Helen raised her eyes from her fruit and met his.
“Thank you for buying me this," she said.
Henry smiled but felt more self-conscious than at first. He ate the rest of his melon in slow, small bites, without again lifting his face.
The two left the farm and took the road further into the hills. They passed several rolling fields with houses set far from the road and hills of open, green grass before they reached the top of the ridge. The sky opened wide and blue at the height from where the hills declined toward the other side of the island. At the crossroads they reached a sign with an arrow pointing rightward for the main road to Freetown, a hard dirt way that fused with asphalt a quarter mile down. The long, neat train of grass went beside it and the forest far down and below, even a good distance into the mountains.
“There’s our road,” he said.
“Why that one? What about the road left?”
“The road left?”
Helen pointed to the sign. Henry saw there was a left arrow he had overlooked which said “FOREST ROAD—alternate route to Freetown.” The distance given was an extra hour of driving as compared to the main route. Henry looked down the stretch of the forest road as it entered a growth of lush, fat palm trees. It would be dirt all the way to the town, he thought.
“Why don’t we go that way?” Helen said. “It leads where we want and would be more interesting than the highway.”
“It’d be longer than the highway. We’d lose time for sightseeing in town.”
“Well, is it that important that we get to the town by any time? I’d like to encounter some nature on the island instead. The forest has hugged the edge of the hills the whole way we’ve driven and I keep thinking it’s where we should go-- because we haven’t. We’ve traveled the highway, by the farms and the inside of one town already. The forest we don’t know however.”
Henry felt his plan for the day trip derailing. But he recognized that the alternative route would satisfy Helen.
“An hour more on the road won’t kill us,” he conceded.
The forest stood near the thin margin of low grass along the new road the two travelled. The great tall palms of the forest were old, their fronds grown fat and long, their bodies scaled thickly. Amid these rose tall, branched trees, thin, dark, and high, draped in massive webs of vine. Dead, grey, branchless trunks towered hard and stone like in the general green. Far beyond the road, low palms formed a dark, overlapping mat of foliage that blocked wide swaths of the forest behind it from view. Henry felt small beside the many dark, old trees, as they went wild stretch after wild stretch that had no bounds. He thought of the great space it all must represent then observed Helen studying the dark innards of the forest. She rolled down the window on her side of the Jeep and let her arm rest on the door comfortably.
Following a curve in the road, Henry broke the Jeep suddenly. Right before them loomed a curtain of vines hanging from the mahogany trees. The vines were long, green ropes covered in dark, heart shaped leaves. Their hanging down into the path seemed a strange thing, as if the dark life of the forest, contained at the roadside, had sprung at them. When the shock of the event wore off, Henry advanced the Jeep slowly. The car nudged into the vines so that they draped like loose threads over the Jeep’s hood then pulled onto the windshield. Their heart-shaped leaves showed slick as they patted the glass like small hands. At last, the leaves slipped up the windshield and the vine curtain was behind them.
“Close, weren’t they?” Henry asked.
“Yes, they were very," Helen said, somehow calm.
The two drove on silently. After another four miles spent in the dark forest, Henry emerged into an open area where the palms did not cross above them. They went only a short distance when they heard and saw a flock of rainbow colored macaws, flying overhead. The birds flashed red and blue as they flew up the road into the distance. Henry thought the birds going a long way, and imagined the great expanse of sky they must cross. He tried to picture where the birds might go.
"Maybe they are heading for the canopy where they nest."
Helen's face grew wistful. "I bet it is a good way in here."
They drove another ten minutes when they heard voices far back in the woods.
“Who could it be, here of all places?” Helen asked.
Henry pulled the Jeep to the roadside and turned off the engine. Far in the dark trees, the voices rose again. Their words did not carry to the Jeep but Henry made out at least two people calling. One who seemed a man called with a strong, deep voice. The other voice was younger and more like a boy’s or a teenager’s. As the two voices called across a wide stretch of forest, the voice of the younger became louder and Henry thought the boy must be approaching the area of woods near the Jeep. At last, two figures appeared by the dense mat of palms one hundred and fifty feet from the road. The two were a young, shirtless boy of about ten and a taller boy about fifteen in a white shirt and dirty, flayed pants. The two were carrying a plank of freshly cut wood, the teenager at the front end. The two of them were poaching Henry figured, but thought they were too young to have cut the wood themselves. However the man, who called them and was perhaps their father, might have. Henry smiled. I bet they aren't worried at all about being caught out here doing what they do, he thought. Of course, there would be no one to give them trouble anywhere close by. He realized a strange kind of pleasure to think this and imagined that, here on the jungle road, he was somehow in league with the boys and the man calling deep amid the palm darkness.
After Henry drove them another ten, very slow miles, Helen said, “Why don’t we pull over and walk some in the forest? We won’t get to walk it at all if we go straight to Freetown.”
Henry who had wished for another break from driving seconded her idea quickly. He stopped by the roadside and the two stepped from the Jeep into the rich jungle. Around them tall palms with trunks striped by aqua colored moss sported dark, overlapping leaves at the tree canopy. Waist high ferns spread broad, green fronds. Mahogany logs lay broken on the ground spilling forth dead wood pulp. Insects buzzed and sailed through the thick air. Henry saw no clear, definite path to take anywhere. "We'll have to march in here blind," he told her. They walked ahead awkwardly.
The two soon came to a leafy, thick tangle of trees with many low branches and hanging vines. Henry was considering how to make their way here when Helen said, “What’s that?” She walked up to a large patch of red peeking from a low tree branch twenty feet away with Henry following. The red turned out to be a tree bloom, much like a great medallion with its diamond shaped petals and ring of gold pistols. Taking a stand by the tree, Helen bowed her face to the flower to smell it. Henry saw her cheek light up red with the bloom’s beautiful color.
Then he lifted his face. A long, lime colored snake hanging in the branch above Helen slowly descended through the air. Henry realized what would happen and moved. He seized a hard, long stick from the ground and called to his wife, “Drop!” He brought the stick down hard as Helen faced him and fell with a scream. Henry hit the snake square on the neck and sent it twisting into the dirt, where its long S of a body landed hard and lay lifeless. Henry turned to Helen gaping at the creature.
“I had to do that,” he said. “Are you ok?”
Helen drew a breath. “I am.”
Henry helped his wife off the ground and together they walked deeper into the forest. Helen’s fright subsided as they passed tall, towering trees and heard the strong pulsing whir of insects. The two breathed more easily. Henry swelled with confidence as they of went onward through the shaded land.
Henry led Helen back to the Jeep and started again down the road. They had gone a few minutes when the road ended in a grassy patch by some low-standing trees. Henry slowed and stopped the car. A dirt-streaked sign nailed on the trees there read, “Work to continue in the spring." The sign was weathered and its painted letters faded. Henry guessed it had been there more than a year.
“We’ll have to turn around,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll make Freetown today either.” His words sounded strange to him in the still car with the trees right before the Jeep’s nose.
“Then might we hang out awhile before going back?”
Henry faced her. “Hang out?”
“Well, we could sit on the beach towel I brought and enjoy these surroundings. We don't have to go any further. Not at once.. The spot seems right, luxurious with these palms and flowers.”
Henry looked past the window outside. “Yes, it does. Maybe you're right. I’d rather not return to town at once either.”
Helen got out of the car, fetched the beach towel from the back seat and spread it on the grass beside the Jeep. Henry stepped out and the two sat on the towel with a few inches of cloth between them. Around them massed the branches of the dark leaved trees, low, dripping with ropy vines, and bushes, fat and short, that sported wide-petalled, purple flowers. Henry felt closer to Helen due to the crowding flora.
“Beautiful here, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yes it is.”
The two sat quietly beside each other. As they drank in the heat, Helen said, “I don’t know about you but I'm tired. I’m going to lie down.” She turned, put her back against the beach towel and faced the sky as Henry continued seated upright beside her. He listened to the myriad insects and the far off cries of birds and considered that no breeze came to stir the warm air. The sun was white on the palm fronds but it did not take away their dark green.
Hoping to relax like Helen, Henry stretched on the towel beside her. “I wish we could stay in this forest,” he said.
Henry rolled onto his shoulder toward his spouse. He discovered her eyes had lowered comfortably from her time lying on the blanket. She smiled at him with a sleepy expression. She appeared beautiful.
“Do you suppose anyone will come while we’re here, Henry?”
“I don't. Not a soul.”
“What might we do here?”
He brought his arm around her chest and drew her body to his. "We might discover something." He kissed her and thought, I bet this is what she had meant in getting away. He felt like the journey too.