Authors: Jodi Picoult
“You go, buddy,” I murmur, and I turn away to give them privacy.
In the other enclosures are hundreds of tortoises of varying sizes. They look, heaped, like a collection of army helmets. Some sleep, some are surprisingly limber. Others seem world-weary, as they crawl out of a puddle electric green with algae, or maneuver stalks of food into their mouths. Even the smallest ones remind me of old men, with the wrinkled skin of their throats and bald pates.
In one of the enclosures, a few of the tortoises are chewing on apples. The apples are small and green and seem to have fallen from a tree beyond the concrete pen. I watch the reptiles use their powerful jaws to grind.
My stomach rumbles, and I glance at the tree.
I’m not the kind of person who eats berries off random trees; I’m a New Yorker, for God’s sake, and most of nature looks like a hazard to me. But if the tortoises are eating these, then they have to be safe, right?
I can’t quite reach the fruit. The branches that hang into the pen have already been stripped by the greedy tortoises, so I find myself climbing onto the little wall to grasp an apple.
I turn, almost toppling into the tortoise pen with surprise. The dark has settled like a net, casting shadows, so I can’t see who’s calling to me. I hesitate, and then turn back to the apple tree.
My fingers have just brushed against the skin of the apple when I am yanked off the wall and lose my balance, then find myself sprawled on the dusty ground with a man looming over me. He is yelling in Spanish, and I cannot see his face in the dark. He leans down and grabs my wrist.
I wonder why I assumed it was safe to wander an unfamiliar island by myself.
I wonder if I escaped a pandemic at home only to get attacked here.
I start fighting. When I land a good punch in his ribs, he grunts, and holds me tighter.
“Don’t hurt me,” I cry out. “Please.”
He twists my wrist, and for the first time I feel the burn in my fingertips where they brushed against the skin of the apple. They are blistered and red.
“Too late,” he says in perfect English. “You already did that yourself.”
I scramble to my feet, cradling my hand. My fingertips throb.
“They’re poisonous to the touch,” the man says. “The apples.”
“I didn’t know.”
“You should have,” he mutters. “There are signs everywhere.”
Poison apples, like a fairy tale. Except my prince is stuck in a hospital in New York City and the evil witch is a six-foot-tall galapagueño with anger management issues. I look at the tortoises, still blissfully feasting, and he follows my gaze. “You’re not a tortoise,” he says, as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking.
By now my skin feels like it’s on fire. “How poisonous?” I ask, starting to panic. Do I need to go to the hospital?
there even a hospital?
He takes my hand and peers down at my fingers. He has dark hair and darker eyes and he is wearing running shorts and a sweaty tank. “It’ll go away, the burn, the blisters. Soak in cold water if you have to.” Then his eyes narrow on my breasts. I yank my hand away and fold my arms over my chest. “Where did you get that?”
“I borrowed it,” I say. “My luggage got lost.”
His scowl carves deeper lines in his face. “You’re on vacation,” he mutters. “Of
He says this like it is a great personal affront to him that I, an outsider, am on Isabela. For a country whose main source of revenue is tourism, this doesn’t exactly feel like a warm welcome.
“I hate to break this to you, but everything on the island is closed for two weeks, including this place.”
here,” I point out.
“I live here, and I’m on my way home. Like you should be. Or haven’t you heard there’s a pandemic?”
At that, I bristle. “Actually, yes, I have heard. My boyfriend is on the front lines treating it.”
“So you decided to bring the virus here.”
As if I am Typhoid Mary. As if I am intentionally trying to hurt people, instead of attempting to stay safe.
he mutters. “Who cares what happens, as long as you get your vacation.”
My eyes widen. He might have kept me from eating something poisonous, but he’s still a complete asshole. “As a matter of fact, I don’t have Covid. But you know, just to make sure, we can socially distance right now by putting the entire island between us.”
I pivot and march away from him. My blistered hand, dangling at my side, has its own heartbeat. I refuse to turn around to see if he’s watching me leave, or if he’s continued toward his home. I don’t stop moving until I reach the entrance of the center. Just beside the sign I saw when I first arrived is another sign, this one with a picture of an apple and a red X covering it.
CUIDADO! LOS MANZANILLOS SON NATIVOS DE LAS GALÁPAGOS. SOLAMENTE LAS TORTUGAS GIGANTES SON CAPACES DE DIGERIR ESTAS MANZANITAS VENENOSAS
And then in perfectly clear English:
CAREFUL! MANCHINEEL TREES ARE NATIVE TO GALÁPAGOS. ONLY GIANT TORTOISES CAN DIGEST THESE POISONOUS LITTLE APPLES.
I hear a muffled snort and look up to see him standing ten feet away from me, arms crossed. Then he heads off deeper into the island, until the dark swallows him whole.
By the time I return to the apartment, it’s night. Unlike in the city, where there’s always a glow from a billboard or a storefront, here the dark is comprehensive. I navigate by the moonlight, which is bouncing on the ocean like a skipping stone. When I reach the stretch of beach in front of the apartment, I take off my sneakers and wade in ankle deep, bending to hold my singed fingers in the cold surf. My stomach growls.
I retreat to the little knee wall that divides the yard from the beach and pull out my phone. It sits in my palm, bright as a star, fruitlessly searching for a signal.
I miss you,
I type in a text thread to Finn, and then erase the letters one by one. Somehow, it’s worse trying and failing to send a text than to never send it at all.
If Finn were here, we would have laughed the whole way back to our hotel room, bonding over poisoned apples and rude locals.
If Finn were here, he would have given me half of the KIND bar he always carries on a plane, just in case.
If Finn were here, maybe I’d be engaged, and getting ready to start the rest of the life I’ve planned.
But Finn isn’t here.
The whole point of traveling with someone from home is to remind you where you came from, to have a reason to leave when you begin to lose yourself in the lights of Paris or the majesty of a safari and think,
What if I just stay?
But given that I don’t have a hotel room and I’m starving and I have blisters on my hand from a killer native tree, there isn’t much that makes me want to remain on Isabela. Except for the fact that I literally can’t leave.
I am so out of my comfort zone that all I want to do is curl up in a fetal position and cry. I slip through the sliding glass door and turn on a light. On the kitchen table, beside the conch shell, is a plate covered by a tea towel. Even from across the room, I can smell something delicious. When I pull off the towel, the table rocks unevenly. On the plate is a quesadilla of sorts, stuffed with cheese, onions, tomatoes. I eat all six slices standing up.
I take the box of G2 Tours postcards and set them on the kitchen counter. Pulling one from the stack, I use a pen from my tote and write a message. GRACIAS, I scrawl, and sign my name, and then trudge barefoot up to the front entrance of the home. It’s dark inside, so I slip the message under the front door.
It’s possible that for every angry asshole on this island, there’s someone like Abuela.
Back in my apartment, I write a second postcard—this one to Finn—before I pull off my clothes and slip into bed and fall asleep to the bated breath of the overhead fan.
It feels really old school to be writing a postcard, but even if this island is a technology desert, the mail is supposed to work, right? First, I should tell you that I’m fine—there’s no evidence of the virus anywhere here. The ferries stopped running for two weeks, presumably to keep it that way. It’s not going to be the vacation I expected—tourism (and everything else commercial) is shut down here. But I’m renting a room from a nice old lady and what’s cooler than living as a local, right?! I’m just going to have to explore Isabela on my own, but that means I’ll be an expert when you and I take a trip back here.
It is dramatically gorgeous here—I keep thinking that a painting wouldn’t do it justice, because you’d never capture the black of the rocks that glint in the sun, or the turquoise of the water. It feels kind of…rugged and unfinished. There are iguanas just hanging out everywhere, like they own the place. I’m pretty sure there are more of them than there are human residents.
Speaking of residents—I hope you’re okay. I hate not being able to hear your voice. Yes, even when you’re singing off key in the shower.
From preschool, at my first easel, it was clear that I had some kind of gift for art. My father was the one who worked on paintings—from ceiling frescoes to giant canvases, doing conservation—but he would have been the first to tell you that he was not a creator, but a re-creator. When I was a freshman at Williams and one of my paintings was chosen to be part of a student exhibition, my father proudly came to the opening, wearing the only suit he owned.
My mother did not attend. She was embedded in Somalia, chronicling their civil war.
My father spent twenty minutes absorbing my piece. He stared at it as though he had been told that the world was about to go black and white, and this was his last chance to see color. Several times I saw his hand twitch as he reached toward the frame, and then settle at his side again. Finally, he turned to me.
You have your mother’s eye,
The next semester, instead of signing up for more art studio classes, I filled my time with art history and media and business courses. I did not want to spend my life being compared to my mother, because I was determined to be nothing like her. If that meant finding a different branch of the art world to perch on, so be it.
I wasn’t surprised to be selected for a summer internship at Sotheby’s when I was a rising senior, because I had structured my entire college career around being accepted to their program. On my first day, I was shuttled into a large room full of equally bright-eyed summer interns. I sat down beside a Black man who—unlike the rest of us, in our conservative blazers and tailored trousers—was wearing a purple silk shirt and a midi skirt printed with enormous roses. He caught me staring, and I jerked my head toward the front of the room, where the directors of the different departments were lining up, calling out interns’ names.
“If I didn’t want people looking,” he whispered, “I wouldn’t have worn it. McQueen.”
I held out my hand. “Diana.”
“Oh, honey,” he said. “No. The designer of the skirt is Alexander McQueen.” He reached out his own hand—beringed, with silver polish on his nails. “
Rodney.” Then he cataloged me from my neat part to my sensible heels. “Middlebury?”
“Hmm,” he replied, as if I might be wrong about my own college. “First rodeo?”
“Second,” Rodney said. “I was here last summer, too. They work you like a three-legged husky at the Iditarod, but I’ve heard Christie’s is worse.” He raised a brow. “You know how this goes, right?”
I shook my head.
“It’s like Harry Potter’s sorting hat. They call out your name, and your department. No trades.” He leaned closer. “I’m a design major at RISD and last year I got placed in
. Wine. What the hell do I know about wine? And no, before you ask, you don’t get to drink it.”
“Impressionism,” I told him. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Rodney smirked. “Then you’ll probably wind up in Space Exploration.”
“Musical Instruments.” I grinned.
He reached into a satchel and pulled out a foil-wrapped package. “Here,” he said, breaking off a piece of cake. “Drown your sorrows preemptively.”
“Cake makes everything better,” I said, taking a healthy bite.
“So do hash brownies.”
I choked, and Rodney whacked me on the back.
I heard, and I popped up out of my chair. “Here!” I called.
I looked down at Rodney, who pushed the rest of the brownie into my hand. “Could have been Rugs and Carpets,” he murmured. “Chow down.”
As it turned out, I did not finish the hash brownie, even as I sat at the front desk, where I had been assigned to answer phones and direct visitors to floors of a company I didn’t yet know. I routed calls and read obituaries in
The New York Times,
circling in red pen the obits of rich people who might have estates to be auctioned. Then, one afternoon, a man who was nearly as wide as he was tall strode up to the desk holding a frame wrapped in linen. “I need to see Eva St. Clerck,” he announced.
“I can make you an appointment,” I offered.
“I don’t think you understand,” he said. “This is a Van Gogh.”
He began to unwrap his frame, and I held my breath, anticipating the signature broken brushstrokes and thick blocks of color. Instead, I found myself staring at a watercolor.
Van Gogh did paint over a hundred watercolors. But I didn’t see the explosion of color that might have confirmed the origin of the piece for me, and it wasn’t signed.
Of course, it also wasn’t my department—or my job—to assess it.
But what if?
What if this is my big break, and I’m the standout intern who identifies a diamond-in-the-rough Van Gogh and becomes a legend at Sotheby’s?
“Just a moment,” I said.
With my hand wrapped around the receiver, I called Eva St. Clerck, who was a senior specialist in Imp Mod back then. I introduced myself and had barely begun to explain when she said, “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” and hung up the phone.
Two minutes later, she was striding out of the elevator bank. “Mr. Duncan,” Eva said, her words frosting over. “As I told you last week and the week before that and the week before
we do not believe that this is an original—”
“She said otherwise,” the man said, jabbing a finger at me.
My eyes widened. “I did
Eva said, “is a nobody. She is not qualified to assess a ham sandwich, much less a piece of art.”
I blinked. This was the woman I’d hoped to work for that summer; maybe I had dodged a bullet.
Suddenly a hand grabbed my arm. “Get up.” I was so caught up in the drama unfolding before me that I hadn’t even noticed my
boss approaching from the other direction. Jeremiah was a senior specialist in Private Collections, and he had been tasked with finding things for me to do, like play receptionist at the front desk. “We need you now.”
“But the desk—”
“I don’t care.” Jeremiah pulled me away, talking as he led me down a rabbit warren of hallways. “The Vanderbilts are deciding between us and Christie’s to sell their estate. It’s all hands on deck.”