Desertores Island Group, Archipelago of Chiloé, Chile
Nearing the turn of the Millennium…
Everything I’d assumed about the godforsaken island of Cocotúe was wrong. The minute I glimpsed the place destined to be my home for the upcoming year, I realized I’d been completely mistaken. I’d have to revise my suppositions, because this was the furthest thing from dark and depressing that I’d ever seen.
Oh, I’d known well enough that southern Chile would be lush and beautiful—if it wasn’t pouring rain. In fact, the entire six-hour voyage out to this distant edge of the Chiloé Islands had been nothing short of spectacular, and I had seen something of the world.
But I hadn’t expected it to feel like someplace out of a dream—my own best dreams. It took me off guard, since on the trip from Santiago I’d imagined a bleak sort of medieval penal colony. This was not only a picturesque seaside hamlet, it floated like a multifaceted emerald in an ethereal haze.
With the sun at my back on the deck of the passenger launch, I was struck by the jeweled light. The island seemed suspended in a glimmering ocean of deep blues and greens—lapis lazuli, aquamarine, jade. The ragged cone of an Andean volcano hovered behind, on the continent. And before me, the wide central bay of the bow-shaped island spread out like a sea of prisms.
It was low tide. A narrow black mud flat, studded with a glittering mosaic of shells, paved the edge of the bay. The briny odor of shellfish wafted on the wind. Off the port side of the launch, a robust island native knelt amid a garden of knobby wooden poles planted on the beach. The guy straightened up as the boat sputtered by and smeared his forehead with the back of his hand. The sun glanced off glossy blue-black hair.
The launch pilot made straight for the grungy dock while pewter shingles and golden thatched roofs glided by. Some houses reigned from cliffs and crags, others peeked from virgin woods. Most were small, and all were probably shabby, close-up. But they were also old-world and homey. I released a long sigh. After these last couple of years, I was so ready for a retreat from the rat race of the capital. I longed for an oasis of provincial tranquility.
So, I was fine with working in the Desertores for a school year. The farther from civilization the better, I’d told my father when he asked me to accompany him on this long-postponed research project at the end of the world. It would be a break—a change of pace—before I took up the challenge of becoming Mrs. Javier Palacios.
My dad, Dr. René Linnebrink, stood at the head of the dock. I’d recognized him the moment we swung into the bay. The shock of thick white hair leaped out from the huddle of other figures. The keen blue eyes still missed little, but his shoulders sloped these days. Poor old guy. Of course I was willing to tag along and make a little home for him in the wilderness.
And the dreary wilderness I expected had turned out to be a taste of paradise. For today at least.
I shouldered the oversized leather bag—a parting gift from my fiancé—and wobbled across the plank thrown between the launch deck and the dock. My father steadied me as I skidded in a glaze of fish scales.
“Surprise, Tina.” Dad greeted me with a hug and kiss. “Looks like Chiloé pulled out all the stops in your honor.”
“And you too, huh? Who are all these people, the community welcome wagon?”
“Mostly fishermen, mein Schatz, come to do business with the captain of the Australis. The fellow with the wagon—er, ox cart really—is the only one connected with us for the moment.”
“Do we live that far away?”
“Not at all, right on the beaten track. But I assume you brought a trunk or two, did you not? You won’t want to carry that on a twenty-minute walk. Don Tomás—” He motioned to a short, solidly-built man whose bushy mustache partially hid his impassive face. “My daughter, Cristina. The new teacher.”
“Pleased to meet you, señorita.” The man pumped my hand. Above the intimidating facial hair, his eyes were warm brown, if solemn. “Glad to have you in Cocotúe. Guess you’ll have my Elizabeth as a student. We sure hope she can graduate eighth grade this year.”
“Hello, hello, hello! Esperen!” Another man, much taller and even burlier than the others I’d seen here, hurtled toward us from the shell-lined path above the shore. “Wait, señorita. I’d like a word with you.”
“I’ll see to the trunk then.” Don Tomás scurried down the dock toward the launch as the big man puffed up to us.
Hmm, the locals always know when to beat it.
The newcomer paused to mop perspiration from his brow before offering me a damp, meaty paw and a pitted cheek. “Iván Vásquez, Señorita Linnebrink. The school director here on Cocotúe.”
“How do you do?” I swallowed back a wave of nausea. This islander didn’t even smell like wholesome fish and garlic. Body odor, mingled with cheap aftershave, reeked from him.
“Not so good, to tell the truth.”
Not so good, indeed. Flushed with the exertion of running, his heavy-jowled face was mottled like a red-pied bull. His corpulent chest still heaved beneath a tight shirt which gaped between the buttons and sported spreading sweat puddles at the armpits. Dark, greasy hair straggled around his collar.
“We’re behind in our preparations for the opening of school here tomorrow.” He didn’t blunt his accusation. “My other teachers were expected to be at work a week ago.”
“I’m sure that’s the normal procedure,” I said evenly, “but I’m also sure you know the provincial supervisor gave me permission to fulfill a previous summer contract in Santiago. I arrived here as soon as I possibly could.”
“Sí, sí, I understand. I’m certain this unfortunate start isn’t a sample of your customary work ethic.” He drew thick lips back over yellow teeth in a phony smile.
Steam rose from my blood stream. I returned the smile—just as syrupy. “Oh, I’m certain it isn’t, señor.” Any more than this unfortunate stench is a sample of your customary aroma.
He patted his breast pocket and tugged out a squashed packet of cigarettes. “Still, I can’t help but see a pattern here. Of dissidence, shall we call it? Rocking the boat, rowing in the opposite direction.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Our single teachers always board with my wife and me, you know. We find it’s helpful for orientation and, er, other practical purposes. You living with your father is a departure from our typical modus operandus here in Cocotúe, but—”
“The idea!” I felt sparks snap into my eyes. “As if I’d come the whole length of Chile to keep Papá company and then live somewhere else. If I’m not going to be with him, I can quit right now and head back to Santiago.”
“Please don’t do that, señorita.” Don Tomás was back near the ox cart, quietly laying a couple of planks as a ramp for my trunk.
My father stepped forward. His pale face pinked with annoyance, but his hand on my arm was light and cool, and so was his voice. “I am the one to blame there, Vásquez, so no need to get tied in knots about it. I invited Cristina to join me. She merely thought she could do something useful while she’s here.”
“Of course, of course.” After a second attempt, Don Iván managed to light the misshapen cigarette. Even tobacco smoke improved him in the personal fragrance department. “I’m a reasonably tolerant principal, señorita. Just promise me you won’t buck the system the entire year.”
“I assure you, I’m a very ordinary and orthodox teacher.” The invisible hair on my hackles prickled.
“You are qualified here? Are you even Chilean?”
“Of course I’m Chilean! German-Chilean, through my papa, though my mother was an American. I did some university in both the U. S. and Germany, but I finished up at the U. of Chile last year.”
He squinted. “Vaya, vaya. Very accomplished, very. You’ve certainly been around for a young lady of—what did I read?—just twenty-two.”
“Almost twenty-three.” My nerves were worn raw, ground down by his sarcasm.
“Well, I’ll need to see you in my office this evening. Go over schedules, school policies—”
“Lay off, Vásquez.” Don Tomás muttered something else unintelligible into his mustache, and then added, “Rayos, the señorita’s been traveling for two days to get here.”
Iván Vásquez belched a cloud of smoke in the direction of the ox team and nodded. “Perhaps, perhaps. I’ll let you keep your girl tonight, Linnebrink. Don’t forget she’s my teacher, not just your housekeeper, though. Haha.” He gave a queer, constipated-looking smirk and flung down his half-smoked cigarette without bothering to stamp it out. “So we’ll make it for right after school tomorrow, señorita. Linnebrink, you and I should get together and talk shop sometime too. The academic world, eh?”
I got it then. Clearly the “desert” in the Desertores referred not to a geographical area at all, but to the vacant minds. The “deserters” had to mean brain cells that had defected. Whoa. Where had I landed?