Fiction · 03/17/2021

Mills Creek

On the limestone platform jutting into the Great Sound social distancing was unfeasible, but Qisha felt obligated to stay within earshot. Dr. Brillard would perhaps care to know the names of the islands across the water, hardly more than bits of rock, or what lay beyond on the rugged horizon where the Cathedral and BELCO’s smokestack snaggletoothed. Brillard dug out that map of his, probably found for free at the airport, the archipelago neatly folded like an ornamental hankie. He compared the map to something Qisha couldn’t see in his red book.

Time was when Qisha could afford to turn away the Brillards of the world in accordance with her gut feelings. She thought it unlikely that this Brillard was a real doctor. When they’d left the ruins of Fort Scaur that morning, heading to Paget Marsh only to backtrack to Scaur an hour later, she’d had to remind him to mask up before getting in her car. He’d grumbled, “You people tout yourselves as virus-free.”

Brillard looked from the map to his book and back.

Lately any kind of wait was Qisha’s highway to despair. “Can I help?” she said, already contemplating tears. She tried remembering sleep, instead remembered an impenetrable wall where sleep should be. With the sun bouncing off the sea into her eyes, the sensation of pushing that wall with all her might rebounded in her body. Brillard, saying nothing, frowned at his ridiculously small book.

He turned, crossed the Railway Trail into the bush. Qisha followed him up the hill, snatching at snippets of shade under loquat trees. In the parking lot near the summit, she felt she should pretend to be herself and said, “What’s neat about right here is you can look that way and see the North Atlantic. Turn around and take two steps, and you’re looking at the South Atlantic. From either side, you could walk across the country in about ten minutes.”

Brillard stood beside the car, engrossed in the book, a red notebook smaller than a pack of cards. He held it so nobody could see beyond the covers. Qisha began, with a twinge of misery, to think she’d said all that already, the traversing-the-country bit, perhaps even that very morning — the first time Brillard thought his book insisted on Fort Scaur. He exchanged the book for the map in his shirt pocket, looked northeast past the islands to the smokestacks on the peninsula curling into the Great Sound.

“Bermuda is the only atoll in the Atlantic,” Qisha said desperately.

Her insomnia was as old as the pandemic. She could only seem to nod off in the bathroom. Outside the bathroom, in the lower apartment where she lived with her parents, grandparents, and nephews, there was ever a querulous queue.

Brillard said, “You know, I think I’ve figured it out. They used this place as a kind of crow’s nest.”

“Fort Scaur didn’t exist in 1524. The first settlers came in 1609,” said Qisha.

Brillard, made inscrutable by Ray-Bans, just looked at her.

He said, “It’s all clear to me now.” He tapped the book in his shirt with his finger as if insisting he spoke from the heart. “We need to look that way.”

That way, northeast-ish. A sweep of his pale hand covered everything from Southampton to Pembroke. Including Paget Marsh, where they’d gone between Scaur and Scaur.

Qisha said, “Where’d you say that book came from?”

“I didn’t,” said Brillard. “We’ll dig here.”

Qisha looked at the map, the little knot of white and yellow squiggles under his finger.

“This time I’m positive,” said Brillard.

“That’s the middle of Hamilton,” said Qisha.

“Where the creek is.”

“Hamilton is the capital city of Bermuda,” said Qisha patiently.

“It says right here. Mill Creek.”

“It’s not what you’re thinking. Not a creek like in the States where the buffalo roam and stuff. Just a narrow place where the tide comes in, surrounded by concrete.”

Brillard, disgruntled, whipped out the red book. From another of his pockets emerged a French dictionary.

“It says,” said Brillard, not offering a peek, “‘Where the water moves through the land.’”

Not his own great-uncle, Qisha thought. Somebody else’s. A ferry captain who tried his best but died of boredom before he could empty out his pockets. Being possessed of actual lives, the descendants hired Brillard. Or, Qisha thought, “Doctor” Brillard stole the book from the real shrink’s bottom drawer just before they let him out. She considered making a gift of Brillard’s pocket library to the Atlantic Ocean.

She said, “Mills Creek floods pretty much annually. Only takes a couple raindrops.”

“It says Mill, not Mills. Maybe you — ”

“For Bermudians that’s Mills Creek. Doesn’t matter what’s on the maps. People go there to buy light bulbs and air conditioners.”

Brillard frowned. “So daytime’s out.”

“You can’t dig up Mills Creek.” Qisha felt tears of exhaustion coming on and said, “All right, that’s it. Go rent yourself a scooter.”

“Wait. I’ll double your fee.”

“We drive on the left-hand side. Don’t forget.” She unlocked her car.

“I’ll never find it in the dark. I need a lookout. I’ll triple your fee. Triple plus a cut!”

So there she was at Mills Creek after midnight, her little car, hardly bigger than a golf cart, crammed with duffel bags, shovels, and buckets, a chisel, sledgehammer, bolt cutter, chainsaw, jackhammer. In front of the B&B where she’d found Brillard dressed in black, looking like he’d robbed a home-improvement store, she’d had to fold down her back seats. The car groaned when Brillard stuffed it with his belly and long legs.

Qisha didn’t like that. She felt strongly about her little car. Her landlord, who lived in the upper apartment with his wife, allowed Qisha to register the car at his address. Qisha couldn’t do her job without a car. The lower apartment had her parents’ car and couldn’t legally have another. The landlord and his wife had motorbikes. The law said you could have a car and motorbikes. Qisha did a fair job of leading on the landlord without his wife’s knowledge. Sooner or later, however, the situation would become impossible.

Qisha sat in her car with a huge coffee, fearful of succumbing to the sleep she so longed for. Behind her were the pharmaceutical warehouse, light-bulb store, Bermuda Air Conditioning, FedEx warehouse, pet supplies, office supplies. The car faced a boatyard with the headlights on. Night plunged Mills Creek into full dark.

She’d refused to follow Brillard into the boatyard. Of the boats, suspended over concrete on hydraulic lifts, she could see only shadows. The dark shapes seemed to be remnants of a giant, crumbling skeleton excavated and imported from another world. Between hulking silhouettes came occasional twinkles from across the inlet. Houses or moorings, she assumed, Mills Creek being far from her usual circuits.

She wasn’t afraid. She was used to dreading night as the longest hour of the day, the one interminable hour, the impossible wait for herself to do as she’d been born knowing how to do but had forgotten. An impossible state, straining to relax while yearning for a paradox — for sleep itself, where everything there is isn’t there. There her lack of money didn’t matter. There was no pandemic, jam-packed apartment, or eager landlord. Sleep was like another world, like sneaking away, achieving the impossible.

But, Qisha thought, Brillard skulking amongst beached boats with a conspicuous flashlight was itself pretty impossible. Likewise the happenstance that the boatyard was unattended. Not to mention her headlights aiding and abetting as she drove at a crawl behind Brillard, who swept the length of Mill Creek Road with some sort of metal detector.

On reconsideration, maybe it wasn’t a metal detector. It had a flattish, circular head and a long handle. But if it was a metal detector, how could it not have been excited by the chain-link fence at the light-bulb place? How was it that not a single screw or soda can had fallen on Mill Creek Road to trigger a false alarm? Maybe Brillard’s detector was after something else.

Or, Qisha thought with a gleam of hope, the man and his detector were a dream, there was no Brillard! Yet she was so awake her blood was ringing in her ears. She was trembling and knew it wasn’t just exhaustion, she was giddy with excitement because what if… If her whole world was about to change, what would be a not-just-metal detector’s song of triumph?

Qisha opened her eyes. She couldn’t see Brillard.

His flashlight swimming through the dark — she couldn’t see it, got out of the car. She went as far as the headlights reached.

She’d lost track of Brillard.

Chill panic and a wash of thoughts: get out of here, he’s crazy, deny everything. But there, a silhouette — he’d just slipped behind a boat. But was it — only a partial silhouette?

It was Brillard in the water. Down the little slope where they took boats in and out, Brillard had gone into the water. He and his thing-detector with the same creeping steps and sweeping gestures inching out to sea as if he couldn’t even feel the water…

“Good evening.”

Qisha almost jumped out of her skin. She thought, Brillard! In two places at once! His ghost behind her, talking out of the darkness, his body moving like a zombie to dispose of itself quietly at sea. But Brillard would never say good evening. Bermudians said good evening. And the accent was local.

The man stood just beyond the headlights’ reach. He carried a small flashlight, something round under his arm. Round like a head. He randomly jerked about as a dog on a leash tried to take him somewhere interesting.

The water was at Brillard’s knees. Qisha said, “Do Geiger counters have long handles?” Then, she realized she had spoken aloud.

“I don’t know,” said the stranger. “You think that’s what he’s doing?”

“Who, him? Nah, he’s a tourist.”

Brillard, waist-deep in the water, seemed to pause.

Qisha said, “I do private tours.”

“At Mills Creek?” said the man she couldn’t see.

Giddiness got the better of her. The thought of “triple plus a cut” and what Brillard must have anticipated. She said, “He’s found pirate treasure. Well, he thinks he’s about to find it. Like, any minute.”

“Really? Which pirates?”

“French. 1524.”

The stranger in the dark sounded doubtful. “I’ve never heard of French pirates in Bermuda. Weren’t there only birds here in 1524?”

Qisha had said the same thing to Brillard, almost word for word in fact, but was reluctant to admit it now. Instead she approached the dog, who wasn’t large but strong. The man almost fell over as the dog leapt at Qisha as if to dive into her arms.

“Well, hello there. What’s your name?”

“Get down. Come here. Maisie. Or Misty. I’m not sure,” said the man. “Technically she’s not my dog. She’s my neighbor’s. Misty, I said get down!”

The dog was fuzzy with a rectangular face. Having licked Qisha all over, including the floral-printed antivirus mask handmade by her nanna, Maisie or Misty smothered the neighbor with affection.

Brillard still stood in the same place. Whether he looked down into the water, across the inlet to the lights, or out to sea at the vacuum of the night Qisha couldn’t tell.

“Actually,” said Misty’s neighbor, “I’m looking for something too. I mean, since you’re a guide and all. Maisie, just — ”

The dog, looking at him, launched a tirade of barking.

“I need a hiding place,” he said.

“For yourself?!”

“No, no. A book. So it’s got to be somewhere dry.”

Qisha edged a smidgen closer to her car.

“I just got married,” said the man, while Maisie continued barking. “My wife, she’s really serious about God and keeping up with the times. She says overthinking abstract things is an abuse of privilege. She says real people, the down-to-earth, just have faith and that’s it.”

He waited. Qisha said, “Okay,” with her hand on the door handle.

“But see, my wife gave me this book. My first wife. A Compendium of Speculative Realist Philosophies. You know it?”

“No.”

Brillard hadn’t moved. Waist-deep in the water, he was like an incomplete statue.

“It says we have to think abstract sometimes because abstractions are the basis of our thinking about tangible things like people, society, and the planet. It says the only Absolute is the happenstance that things can always be otherwise. But I also like my wife. My new wife.”

He waited. Qisha said, “Okay.”

“We live round the corner off of Fairyland Road. Never thought I’d get to live in a neighborhood like Fairylands. Misty, down. Shut up. Calm down.”

Qisha didn’t ask what had become of the first wife.

“I want the book where I can get at it. But I can’t keep it in the house. My wife doesn’t want anything around that’d remind me of my other wife. Misty, Maisie, whatever, shut it!”

The dog was barking and gamboling. Brillard appeared to be turning into architecture. His wide, almost rectangular silhouette was almost like a portal hovering over the water. Misty maybe sensed Qisha glancing at Brillard. The dog tried to drag her neighbor to the dark water.

“So I need to hide the urn too,” said the neighbor.

Not a head under his arm, then. Qisha looked at the man from Fairylands. Like Brillard, he wore a real surgical mask.

“My wife doesn’t approve of cremation.”

Qisha didn’t wonder which wife he meant. Drowning his excuses was the aching yawn of the endless hour, which Qisha sometimes spent in her illicit car. Fear of discovery by the landlord deadened all hope of peace. Fear of the pandemic, the demise of cruise ships, the absence of any tourists except a handful of airline passengers, and recurring premonitions of destitution canceled every hope of quiet.

She said, “My rates aren’t cheap. Not for something like that.”

“Understood. Misty, stop!” He gave the leash a savage tug and continued. “The thing is — ”

Misty pounced on him. In play or revenge, Qisha couldn’t tell. The neighbor staggered, the book and urn fell clattering, the lid flew off the urn. The dog grabbed it by its gaping lip and ran, took off between the shackled boats towards the water and impossible freedom. She nearly bowled over Brillard in her excitement, presenting him the urn with pride as if she’d dug it out of the ground.

+++

Mandy-Suzanne Wong, a Bermudian writer of fiction and essays, is the author of Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House), Awabi (Digging Press), Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth Station), and Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, forthcoming 2021). Her novel The Box is forthcoming from Graywolf Press (2023). She has published in Arcturus, Black Warrior Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Entropy, The Spectacle, Permafrost, Quail Bell, and elsewhere. Her work has been a Foreword INDIES finalist, Permafrost Book Prize finalist, PEN Open Book Award nominee, and Best of the Net nominee. www.mandysuzannewong.com