By Lawrence Lenhart
Repossession: an introduction to Reanna Solomon (Nauru), from Apocryphal Biographies of Small Island States: ‘OCEANIA’
Approaching the country’s only traffic light, Ruben slackens his grip on the throttle, and slackens it some more. The scooter slows. It stops. In a line of traffic now, Ruben sees how late it’s gotten—how the sky has pinkened, how the sun is setting. Leaning on his left heel, Ruben unzips his windbreaker and places a hand on his beating heart. When he was young, he’d watch his father pet his own chest like this when stressed, some kind of psychosomatic defibrillation. Ruben switches off the scooter’s 50-cc engine and stretches his spine before returning his hand to chest. He looks all around him. Island Ring Road belts the whole of Nauru. It is a racetrack with one intersection, the airport’s runway.
A Boeing 737 goes through its pre-flight procedures. Ruben oscillates his finger through his chest hair as if fast-forwarding the plane’s motions. He is in a single-file jam of scooters, motorbikes, pushbikes, and somewhere in the center of the throng, he thinks he sees a car. The rubber of his scooter’s front tire is pressed against the rubber of the back tire ahead of him. It’s Ruben’s way of letting the couple know that he is not on a leisure ride like them. He has no tolerance for their sunset circuit of the island. Ruben is in a hurry. He is searching for his daughter who’s been missing for almost five hours. Iquen had been hiding earlier in the day, and Ruben was seeking. When he looked for her beneath the thatch sheets in the yard, one of her favorite hiding spots, he spotted weevil damage, so he took the sheets into the house and was reminded of another chore. It wasn’t until over an hour later when Naossan asked him where their daughter was that Ruben figured she was still hiding. When they noticed her pushbike was missing from the side of the house, they began to panic.
Ruben can tell by the way the plane looks like a photograph that there is delay in the cockpit. Fuel pump: off. Flight controls: free. Instruments and radios: checked and set. Landing gear position lights: checked. Altimeter: set. Directional gyro: set. Fuel gauges: checked. Trim: set. Propeller: exercised. Magnetos: checked. Engine idle: checked. Flaps: as required. Seat belts and shoulder harnesses: fastened. Parking brake: off. What’s next, boys? What are we forgetting?
Ruben counts 20 windows. He has never been on a Boeing. Neither had his father, and definitely not his mother, he doesn’t think. Ruben lets himself imagine, for a moment, that his daughter has stowed away on this flight to Brisbane. He stares at the sealed cargo door and kick-starts his scooter again. Behind him, someone yelps. Casually angling the stem of his rear-view mirror, Ruben sees two women behind him. They’re sharing a pushbike. The one sitting sidesaddle is examining the oil splatter on her ankle. Realizing this ejection is from his unfixable exhaust pipe, Ruben nearly dismounts the scooter to offer her his hand towel. He even considers wiping her ankle clean. As he bunches the towel in his hand, though, the cloth already soaking with his sweat, he walks the scooter forward, weaving it to the front of the jam, past the patient others until there is nothing between him and the Boeing. That’s what happens when you insist on being a traffic jammer, he thinks after the women have disappeared from the glass entirely.
“Ruben. Omo yemerro.” A man steps in front of him.
Ruben clears his throat and says something too soft to be heard. He kills the engine and repeats himself while smiling. “Omo yemmero, Ryke.”
Ryke smiles as well. He is not on a scooter, motorbike, or pushbike. Ruben looks down at Ryke’s flip-flops, at the succession of holes he’s drilled into the foam for the replacement of the plug.
“Ryke Solomon,” Ruben says again, forking out both arms so as to hug the older man. Ruben hasn’t really hugged anyone since his father’s passing. The airplane rolls forward on the runway, and for a few seconds, it’s like Ruben is John from Sons and Daughters when he discovers Martin Healy is his real father. Ryke lets himself be vigorously hugged. Scooters and motorbikes ignite. One operator persistently stomps on their kick-start lever. The rumble is too loud for either Ruben or Ryke to be audible to the other, so they stand inches apart for the time being, politely smiling. Ruben reaches for his clutch. He thinks he might just depart, un-potentiate this chance meeting, minimize it to a set of hellos and goodbyes. Ruben checks his rear-view to see who will get splattered this time. In his downward periphery, though, he sees Ryke’s flip-flopped feet. Ryke is involuntarily stretching the tendons, cascading all ten dirty toes. Ruben cranes for the nearby ear and shouts, “Can I drive you somewhere, Ryke?”
Ryke doesn’t even answer. He simply climbs behind Ruben, once his future son-in-law, and squeezes his thighs against Ruben’s hips.
Ruben leans back and says to Ryke, “I’m looking for my daughter, for Iquen. She’s been missing.”
Ryke leans forward, “I’ve just said goodbye to mine.” He reaches for Ruben’s right forearm—gripping it, lifting it, shaking it so the wrist waves to the Brisbane-bound Boeing now lifting toward the sky.
“Reanna?” Ruben clarifies which of Ryke’s daughters is on the plane. He feels the stubble of Ryke’s chin piercing through his windbreaker, nodding into his back. Even after Ryke releases his marionettist’s grip on Ruben’s forearm, Ruben is still waving at the plane, at Reanna, his grade school crush now in the wool of clouds. It’s like he’s waving goodbye to a version of himself.
When the traffic light returns to green, Ruben’s scooter becomes an obstruction. The throng splits to bypass him. Some motorists press on their 9-volt electric horns. Even the pushbikes are passing. Ruben locks eyes with the woman he had splattered. He wishes she’d signal her forgiveness—a dimple, a wink. Against his will, Ruben glances to her ankles, now spotless. She stares at him stoically.
“We’ll find your daughter,” Ryke says while patting Ruben’s shoulder blades. “There’s nowhere much to go.”
As Ruben twists the throttle, crossing over the runway, perpendicular with the Brisbane plane, he notices the sky has graded to vermillion, like the flowering shrub in his yard. He has shown Iquen how to look through its translucent petals, to give midday a sunset illusion. He wonders if his wife, Naossan, has yet checked the shrub. Ruben wonders if Naossan or he will ever go to Brisbane.
Ruben parks his scooter on the coral cliffs of Anabar Beach and apologizes to Ryke. “Sorry. I should check the atsi. She might have—she loves to watch the birds.”
Ryke shrugs, following Ruben toward the onshore roosts and nets. “I don’t have anywhere to be.”
A young boy stands in the shoal as a dozen men shout redundant phrases in his direction. The nylon fishing line is tied around the boy’s wrist as he swings a loop through the slate sky, a wagging lasso awaiting its target.
“They’re coming,” a shirtless islander commands from just behind the boy. He is the loudest of the coaches. Hunched now, looking through the loop, toward the horizon, the shirtless man says, “The eap and the itsi. Don’t confuse them. Don’t do that.”
The boy’s shoulders tense as the young lure with holed wings flies directly overhead, escorting an untamed frigate bird to shore. Just as the eap is landing on its roost, being fed bits of tuna and barracuda for a job well done, the itsi arrives too. The boy bobbles the abio and grazes the itsi’s wing tips. The leaded weight splashes in the breakers, and the itsi flies away, towards Baiti’s shore. The coaches are disappointed, but the boy insists his efforts are meritorious. He grazed the wing. He grazed the wing. He reminds them twice.
“The whole sky was wing when it flew over. It’s the largest wingspan in the world,” the shirtless man says. “You graze a noddy’s wing, and we’ll cede the whole atsi to you.”
“Careful, Adonis. It could happen,” a man says. He cups his lips and whistles like a noddy.
Adonis grins at his friend as he approaches the boy who is respooling the abio for another try. Adonis play-smacks the back of the boy’s head.
Standing a small distance away, Ruben says to Ryke, “Iquen’s not here.”
Ryke nods, and Ruben pivots toward the cliff, ready to vacate the shore.
But Ryke moves toward the group. “Adonis!” he yells. “The boy is skillful. Is he yours?”
The shirtless man sees Ryke and cries out, “Solomon! Welcome back to our atsi. Of course he isn’t mine.”
As they embrace one another, the coaches all converge on Ryke to say hello. Only Ruben and the etea keeper are outside of their huddle. The young eap is perched on the keeper’s shoulder, still beaking at fish guts. Ruben infers from the chatter that Ryke once worked with these men in the sulfate mines.
“You haven’t seen a little girl, have you?” Ryke asks the men. “This size,” he says as he chops at his right hip. The men shake their heads.
“Actually,” Ruben says, now taking a step towards the throng, “this size.” He looks at Ryke as he holds a hand out at the level of his ribs.
Ryke nods. “Oh, oh. Of course. She’s grown.”
Adonis sits on a crusty rock, shaking his head. “Nope. Nope. Don’t think we have.” Adonis removes a syringe and insulin bottle from his pocket. He shakes the insulin, and the men criticize his technique.
“You’re supposed to roll it, not shake it,” they concur.
Adonis looks up at them as he continues wobbling the bottle, a flagrant continuation of the offending technique. “Oh yeah?” he says. “Who gives a shit?”
Adonis removes the needle cap and injects the bottle with air. With one hand on the plastic wings, the other on the plunger, he draws insulin into the barrel.
“I used to work with these guys,” Ryke confirms unnecessarily.
Someone reminds Adonis to check for air bubbles.
“Thank you, nurse. Will somebody please stuff this one in the eoror?”
Adonis pinches his fatty abdomen and pricks himself with the syringe. He emits a sexual groan as the insulin enters him. The men laugh until Adonis pitches the syringe into the shoal.
“Come on, Adonis!” one shouts.
“Go get it,” another insists.
“What? My physician told me to shake the bottle and throw the needle into the ocean. Not yours?” Adonis, realizing he’s gone too far, stands from the rock and waddles toward the water.
“Who is this, Ryke?” a man asks, pointing to Ruben.
“This is Ruben. He’s looking for his daughter. And,” Ryke raises a finger, “he used to date my daughter.”
They all laugh. A few crack the tabs on stubbies of Victoria Bitter.
“Yes. Reanna used to call on him.”
They laugh some more.
Ruben squirms, turns and looks at the man with the eap on his shoulder. The eap’s wings are outstretched as if it will take off with the man in her talons.
“Can you imagine? Were you her boyfriend or her barbell?”
“Actually, she wasn’t always so strong,” Ruben corrects this jackass.
“Oh, but I think Reanna was always stronger than you, no?” Now Ryke was teasing him too. The men all laugh.
“How is Reanna?” Adonis asks Ryke, having returned with the salty syringe. He caps it and puts it into his pocket demonstratively.
“Reanna is en route right now,” Ryke says, sailing his hand through the air. “She’s going to train with Australia’s Olympic team.”
“With the men? Right, Ryke?”
Ryke winks in the direction of the voice. “We’ll be missing her this season.”
“Why don’t you go with her then?” Adonis asks. “Get off the island a little while?
“Ah-ah-ahh. I see. You’re still waiting for a call from RONPhos. Am I right? You must have heard, though: the secondary mining is going to be over as soon as it’s begun. There’s so little of it left.”
The men around Adonis are all nodding or looking to the ground. Ruben looks groundward as well.
Ruben’s father had worked in the sulfate mines for three decades, operating dozers, track-hoes, and front-end loaders. After the majority of Topside’s sulfate had been strip-mined and exported to Australia for fertilizer, reducing central Nauru to a stubby stone forest, unemployment became widespread. ‘It took the birds 7000 years to form the plateau, and just 70 years for us to take it all away,’ Ruben’s father used to tell Ruben on those idle mornings after he was forced into early retirement.
Ruben was hardly listening to the men who joked and tossed their stubby cans into the sand. He had a sudden vision of Iquen squatting between the sulfate plinths, hiding in the Topside’s new accretion.
Even after Ruben’s father retired, he still returned daily to the mines out of habit. After lunch, he’d trek through the vacant site, slaloming the sulfate pinnacles, sometimes taking Ruben with him. ‘This is all bird poop?’ Ruben would ask. And his father nodded. ‘Guano,’ he said. Then he’d hoist Ruben into the cab of the backhoe and train him—after pretending to turn a key in the ignition—how to operate the levers for the bucket and dipper, boom and swing. His father would push at his knuckles, showing him how to swing the cylinder smoothly.
“The only way we get our jobs back is if we catch every frigate bird that flies over Anibare Bay and we get them to shit us a new country, ”Adonis says.
“If we get the birds to shit us a new island, no way I’ll mine it,” a man contests.
“You’re going to need more abios and less coaches to achieve that,” Ruben jokes. But nobody laughs, not even the boy. Ruben stares at the boy, waiting for redemption, but the boy just looks down at his abio. Ruben reaches inside his windbreaker and feels for his heart.
“Did you see the pamphlet today?” a man asks Ryke. “We were just talking about it before you came.”
Ryke shakes his head. “It’s a lot of nonsense, I’m sure. Can I try your abio?” Ryke asks the boy, extending his hand. The boy unties the nylon from his wrist and passes it to Ryke.
“Ryke, I really need to find Iquen now. It’s going to be all dark very soon.”
“Yes,” Ryke says. “Go ahead. I’m sure she will be found. There’s nowhere much to go anyhow. One of these will get me home,” Ryke says waving to the coaches. A few nod affirmatively.
Ruben leaves the atsi, climbing the cliff to his scooter. Once it’s started, Ruben looks back at the oil spilt on the hard-packed san. The eap is sent out to sea. She ascends to the height of the cliff. The coaches tilt back their heads. Ruben looks straight ahead. He can see through the puncture in her wing, a bullet of bright gray light passing through her charcoal flight feathers. He leaves Anabar Beach, speeding Island Ring Road toward his kit home, hoping to find Naossan brushing Iquen’s hair on the front step.
Ruben rattles the shrub outside the house before entering. “Iquen?” he whispers to the branches.
Inside the house, he calls for his wife. “Naossan!”
“Ruben!” she calls back.
“Did you find her?” they both ask simultaneously.
“Take me to my brother’s,” Noassan says.
Ruben’s brother-in-law comes to the door, has a look at Ruben, and laughs. “That is the nicest shirt I think I’ve ever seen,” he says.
Ruben and his bother-in-law are wearing identical floral shirts, both purchased and given by Naossan.
“We can’t find Iquen,” Naossan tells her brother.
“Hm,” he says. “She can’t be too far.”
“She’s been gone almost seven hours.”
“Hm,” he says again. “Still, she’s probably—”
“She’s on the new pushbike her uncle gave her.”
“Uh-oh,” Ruben’s brother-in-law says. “Did you check the atsi?”
“I did,” Ruben says.
“You did?” Naossan asks.
“Who all was down there?” Ruben’s brother-in-law asks, smirking.
“Iquen is missing,” Naossan repeats as she passes through the door.
“I didn’t know many of them,” Ruben says, following his wife into the house. “Adonis, Mathew, Squire, Ryke.”
“Ryke Solomon?” Naossan asks. She has a white-knuckled grip on the frame of her brother’s favorite chair. “And Reanna? Did you see Reanna?”
His brother-in-law raises his eyebrows.
“Reanna was not there.”
“You’re lying,” Naossan says.
Ruben sees the 737’s windows dotting the length of the runway. He sees his hand waving goodbye to her.
“She wasn’t,” Ruben repeats.
Naossan walks to the back of the house, to a table piled with fake passports. “You haven’t seen Iquen all today? You haven’t heard anything?”
Ruben’s brother-in-law’s eyes drift toward the roof’s crossbeams as he considers the day’s events. He starts shaking his head slowly. Before he completely lowers his eyes again, Naossan has already left through the back door into the steep backyard.
“Have you seentoday’s pamphlet, Ruben?”
Ruben looks at his brother-in-law. He nearly repeats after his wife (‘Iquen is missing’), but he doesn’t. He is peeved that his brother-in-law presumes Naossan is more committed to the task of finding Iquen than he is. Ruben wonders if Naossan presumes this too. Again, he considers saying those words, reasserting the reason for his visit. Ruben moves toward the backdoor. He looks through the latched-open window and sees Naossan moving through the dark, sidling up next to an oil drum, overturning it with some strain. Of course Iquen isn’t hiding under the drum.
“Rene wrote that we should repossess our sulfate. That we should repossess every lawn and farm that has been grown with Nauruan fertilizer.”
Ruben cannot see his wife’s silhouette anymore. She has ventured to the back of the yard now, into total darkness. “Rene is a problem starter, not a problem solver,” Ruben says, moving toward the door.
“He even wrote that we should create a task force that goes to all the cities to repossess Nauruan coral from their home aquariums. We would just reach right into the Sydneysiders’ and Melburnians’ and Brisbanities’ aquariums, and say, ‘Sorry fishies,’ and ‘Thank you very much.’” Ruben’s brother-in-law is cracking himself up. He repeats it as if it was all his idea to begin with. Ruben only now notices the stubbies crushed and scattered on the floor. Maintaining eye contact with his brother-in-law, opening the door and stepping into the night, Ruben finally wills himself to say it.
“Iquen is missing you know.”
Ruben follows the motions beyond the line of eucalyptus trees. He scuttles toward his wife and is clipped by a frangipani shrub. He feels the scratches wet on his wrist. Naossan sees him and points at their daughter’s pushbike, leaning against eucalyptus bark. They are searching for Iquen together, moving beyond Naossan’s brother’s property to the next, which belongs to the former police chief’s. Naossan moves immediately toward the shed, flinging open its doors, dragging out an old engine, two pitchforks, and a wheelbarrow. Ruben approaches a car covered in tarp.
“Would you help me?” Naossan whispers.
Ruben takes a step towards her, but then returns to the car. He is not simply ogling the car. The green tarp, which covers the car, is swaying and crinkling, but there is no wind. None at all.
“Naossan!” he calls to his wife. Naossan moves in his direction, tripping over the pitchforks and collapsing to the ground. She stands and moves carefully toward the car.
Naossan stands beside Ruben. Ruben points to the car’s only visible part, the front wheel twisting left and right, softly sweeping across the grass’s sheen. Naossan is beaming. Ruben yanks the tarp off. A brick weight lands between he and Naossan. It is an ancient, oxidizing Ferrari, half-buffed with paint bubbling around the prancing horse logo. Iquen sees her parents and lets go of the wheel. She slouches in the seat, becomes invisible again.
“Iquen!” Naossan whispers through the Ferrari’s glass.
Iquen slouches even further. From the yard, Ruben and Naossan can hear her push the lock. Ruben steps forward and peers into the window. His breath fogs the glass, which he wipes away immediately. Iquen is ducked beneath the steering column, peering between the wheel’s spokes.
“Iquen,” Ruben says, again fogging the window.
He smiles at her and she smiles back. Ruben peeks behind him, at Naossan whose arms are crossed.
“Iquen.” He says her name again. He wipes away the fog once more and tosses an imaginary abio into the air, aiming for Iquen as if she is a frigate bird. They’ve been doing this pantomime for years. When Ruben yanks the air, Iquen pretends to be snatched. She overacts her capture. A tongue flops out the side of her mouth. Ruben points to the lock, and Iquen glances at the passenger door. For a moment, she considers the logistics of her escape. When she seems to be certain that she could escape if she wanted to, Iquen slides open the lock. She extends a hand, and Ruben takes it, holds it, squeezes it, and squeezes it some more.
Lawrence Lenhart holds an MFA from The University of Arizona. His first essay collection is The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19). His prose appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a professor of fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.
Photograph by Hadi Zaher from Melbourne, Australia (Island Ring Road | Nauru) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.