Featured in Colorado Review
Island RuleFeatured, Fiction
Published Fall 2017
Winner of the 2017 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, selected by Richard Bausch
I tell my students: On islands, small omnivorous animals tend to get bigger while large predators tend to get smaller. Island rule, they called it for a time.
Some of them write this down. Others don’t. They sit in the arena-style lecture hall shoulder to shoulder and still. The last-row boys spit tobacco into cups and whisper about football practice.
I tell them: Take the rats of Flores. Isolated from the mainland population, they have grown up to four feet in length.
I flick my slideshow to an image of a dead rat lying sprawled on the ground like a giant cat. The students suck in a collective gasp. In its claws someone has put a coffee can to render its size indisputable. I can’t help smiling.
A boy from the third row says: Rats are smart. If they all got that big, they could take over the world.
The boy next to him says: I heard they can sniff your mucus and know if you have tuberculosis.
Ewww, a girl says, I can’t tell who. Everyone is smiling, but what are they learning? I haven’t gotten to MacArthur and his math, searching for patterns in nature with differential equations and conceptual models, or Case’s rule, that fundamental factor, the reason for any change in size of an insular species, the net energy that can be gained.
Instead we talk about the rat floods in India, only I can feel it at the back of my throat, that old story, the one I’ve been told couldn’t be true, the reason why I started studying island ecosystems in the first place.
The island I come from is thousands of miles across the Pacific, situated on the ring of fire. Its beaches are black, its volcano core still active, though it’s been decades since the last eruption. My mother’s house was built into the side of the volcano, where it was green and too thick to take anything but the machete-cut paths. We were field-workers. That is, until the men in uniform came. They didn’t take her, though my mother had made certain I knew to avoid them, to run or hide when I spotted them on the street. They will disappear a little girl like you no problem. Instead they told her she’d been selected for hotel work, an honor on our island. The next day she reported for work at the hotel casino in her tropical uniform, a flower planted in the bun at the nape of her neck, her lips painted red and shining like blood spilt in slaughter. After school, I would toil in the fields until dusk. Then I’d wait for her in the hotel’s kitchen, seated near the dessert station and starving, my fingers tingling with a thief’s impulse.
It’s a relief when I realize I’ve run overtime. I dismiss my students, reminding them about next class’s exam, and they groan and shuffle out of the lecture hall.
* * * * *
My office door is decorated with a single Far Side comic, gifted to me from a colleague, of a doctor and a duck trapped on an island. The caption reads: “So Professor Jenkins! . . . My old nemesis! . . . We meet again, but this time the advantage is mine! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
I am reading it again, not laughing like I once did, but smiling, when Claire, the department chair, passes in her many scarves and expensive orthopedic shoes, silent as a ninja. Research interests: climate dynamics of the Southern Hemisphere and Antarctic sea ice.
She calls over her shoulder: Don’t you have an exam this week?
She’s shut in her office before I catch her meaning: no students, not a one, here for my office hours, and on the week of an exam, no less.
Her office hours are always booming, but I know for a fact she offers extra credit to the kids who come with questions. I could never do that. If you don’t have questions of your own, I’m not going to bribe you. I watch the students from my window, congregating in little huddles. They laugh and smile and lean in and touch each other and bounce and run off to class, and I am exhausted just watching them. When I was a child we didn’t spend so much time tending to our friends, our social engagements, to our own happiness. At school the only subject any of us cared about was English. When we grew old enough, those of us who could stand still and smile, who could greet our foreign guests with comforting idioms in smooth English, were given jobs in the hotels and casinos. The rest of us continued our toil in the fields, too tired to tend to homework, piling into bed together at night, our wages too low to afford lives of our own, our mothers dead of disease or malnourishment or disappearance. I was lucky; I had mine longer than most. But in the boarding house, we learned to hate one another, to be mean. It is a natural reaction to close quarters.
On my desk sits the rejection letter for my research proposal, received last week from the island’s travel board. I’d been hopeful, my proposal fairly benign. I wanted merely to examine the presence of invasive species, given the island’s physical and political isolation. The us government had approved of my trip despite travel restrictions, but the island’s travel board had rejected me due to my status as one who fled. The government doesn’t take kindly to those of us who escaped. The bureaucrats who sit on the board are my age, my peers—maybe some of them even remember me, hold a grudge.
Something I know: As much as I miss the feeling of home, if I’d stayed, I’d still be in the fields, or worse.
At fourteen, I’d woken on a foreign beach just outside Auckland with a bullet lodged in my shoulder. I was taken to a hospital for treatment and tests, so small for my age they assumed I was malnourished. A nice family sponsored me, let me live in their grown child’s old bed, which still held the vapor traces of pee, their son the bed wetter. I ate meat pies flecked with sea salt in front of the television, and no one asked me who I came in with, if I wanted to call home. Better to forget. To forget, I learned, is easy for a time, to billow and spill memory, to open up and let your insides float away, to feast on things new.
And when I tried to tell my story, how it was I’d traveled all those miles across the Pacific, my sponsors pursed their lips and told my tutor to talk to me. Solemn and speckled in sunspots, he said it couldn’t be true, scientifically speaking, and I knew, of course, that he was right.
No one comes, not a single student, for the whole of my office hour. I nudge my desk, the plastic cat given to me by a Chinese student bats its paw in my direction, hefting me good luck.
* * * * *
I take a spin class at the university gym with a colleague, Samantha Hamwich, who studies the impact of border lights on the migratory patterns of songbirds. She works harder at the classes than I do; sometimes I barely break a sweat. I like to coast at my own pace and the instructor has long since given up on me. I won’t be coached into going faster or pushing harder. I drift, the pace finding me more than me finding it, my legs gliding more than pumping.
After, Samantha buys me a tuna salad sandwich and an iced tea and we take a table outside the university cafe, where she tells me she has news.
Big news, actually. I got the grant. I’ll be spending nine months in Cyprus!
No one else in the department knows she has a boyfriend there, but her papers about birds and borders have earned her public interest outside academia, even a few NPR interviews and invitations to speak at big birding conferences, and it helps that she’s beautiful and an extrovert. So the department will grant her leave for a whole academic year, nine months of beaches and great sex and, sure, some research. I’m not jealous, not really, not even as I face two semesters of a heavy teaching load, sifting papers out of old research to stay current, to keep Claire off my back.
Samantha encourages: You should do something with the Channel Islands. They’re close enough you won’t need much in the way of funding.
I nod, like it’s a good idea. And, really, it’s not a bad idea. They have that adorable kit fox and there were those pigs they slaughtered, but Samantha knows what it’s like to pick a project. Like love, it’s hard to give up on it, to move on.
She says: Well, you’ll have to do something.
I don’t think she means to sound so ominous.
* * * * *
I catch myself saying this on the way to my dinner date, arranged neatly on the internet: The island I come from is thousands of miles across the Pacific.
My Yaris is the color of sea foam, the freeway dreamy with marine layer. Though I’ve lived in San Diego for three years, it still feels like foreign territory. I can still get lost. Last week I was on the colossal spread of the I-5 when I missed my exit and got caught up in the border-crossing line. There was no way to turn around, nowhere to pull over. I had to sit in the line for three hours, missing my classes, telling the border-patrol guard my stupid story. He frowned at me for wasting his time, flagged over another guard, who lifted a cone and sent me coasting northward, away from the mass of waiting cars and Chiclet girls, women begging at closed windows and men carrying wooden crosses strung with piñatas of Donald Trump.
I’m not sure why I tell my dinner date, but I tell him, this stranger: The island I come from is thousands of miles across the Pacific. The people there, some of them anyway, they grew.
Like obese? I’ve heard of that, how the heat can make people—
I interrupt before he can say something offensive: Like giant.
He laughs uncomfortably, really going for it, because he wants to believe this is a joke, but I am not joking. We’re still waiting for our calamari appetizer, and I am maybe moving too swiftly past the bad-jokes stage of our date to the backstory stage, so I ask him if he thinks God created carnivores, and he blinks feverishly like he’s got something in his eye or forgotten his contacts before delivering an actual answer with actual details about the day of the week upon which God created predatory beasts.
I say: Huh. You saw in my profile I’m a scientist, right?
Are you kidding? I love science.
Tell me more about this science that you love.
He starts in about nature and its divinity. In fact, once he says the word divinity I’m off, sort of drifting in my head, across the ocean maybe, maybe like before, coasting on the raft Shasta made, clinging to her bloated shoulder.
When my dinner date is done telling me about the things he loves about science, I ask him, Are you religious, terrified of the answer.
I seek truth, he says, and I stay through dessert just to find out if he’s joking.
As we’re signing receipts on our split bill, he says: You’re much smaller than I anticipated.
Oh? I say, like tell me more.
Like nearly a dwarf, wouldn’t you say?
We don’t hug at the door. I say thanks, and he says, sure, have a good night, and I say, you too, and I know I’ll never see him again, whatever his name is, adrift, drifting, gone.
I coast home in my Yaris, thinking of my cousin Shasta, once so small and meek she’d hide in closets at holiday parties. There were others like her, who swelled so big they couldn’t leave the house, much less work. Our newspapers called it an epidemic, gross malformation of the body, a disease we had to combat collectively. They recommended reducing caloric intake and getting off soda and longer hours in the fields or fisheries. I would visit Shasta from the garden, window open, staring in at her marvelous heft, her many folds, the shine of her skin, too much of it to be covered despite her efforts at modesty. She’d long since grown too big to leave the room, for actual clothes. I’d watch her lift an arm, observe the way the meat shifted with the pull of gravity, and I’d cringe, worrying for her bones, wondering if she would ever walk again.
Katie M. Flynn’s stories have appeared in Carve, Hobart, Joyland Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Recently, she finished her first novel about love, revenge, and uploaded consciousness, the first chapter of which is forthcoming in Indiana Review. She lives in San Francisco and can be found on Twitter: @other_katie.