Roman, Explorer

by Peter Hajinian
I am writing this in the ink of a colossal squid, my only trophy from that final trip to Elephant Island. I was sharpening knives below in the kitchen of the Nautilus, a crusty but solid deep-water keel boat I had secured out of Buenos Aires, when a screaming Joan came down from the deck. She babbled on about a toothy, suckered arm she batted away with a paddle until the paddle snapped in half.

“I guess I’m going to be the only one rowing when we get to Elephant Island,” I said, and climbed up onto deck to put the kraken out of its misery. The worst part in dispatching a colossal squid is not spearing the brain through its eye, it’s unwrapping the beast from the hull and dragging it on board. As soon as the cephalopod is dead, the once powerfully muscular body becomes like a wet sack of oily rubber that won’t let go.

“Arturo!” I shouted. “Come help me put this squid carcass into a box!”

“Why don’t you ask Joan?” Arturo shouted back from the cabin. “It’s cold! It’s raining! The deck is as slippery as hell!”  

“Because I asked you, not Joan.”

“I know when brave becomes stupid, hija de bruja!”

“Hey! Leave my mother out of this, you bastard.”

Arturo shut the cabin door, closing another window of opportunity for greatest. He was, however, a decent navigator, and despite my experience mapping the Congo River with a watch and a thermometer, it was nice to have someone else who knew how to use a sextant around.

This misadventure began one night at the Three Continents Club in Buenos Aires. The pompous Sir Frederick Nelson presented a slide show about his latest trip to the North Pole on a converted Soviet nuclear sub he took below the ice cap.

“Where’s the challenge in that?” I challenged him. He told me to save my questions for the end. I told him I had spent plenty of time in the bowels of a Soviet sub during the war, and didn’t care to spend more time looking at poor Soviet welding.

“Sir, I’m sure everyone else listening to this lecture would appreciate it if you either kept quiet or left,” Freddie Nelson said.

“How about this, Freddie. We’ll arm wrestle, and if I win, you got two minutes to wrap it up. And by wrap it up I mean you better talk about killing polar bears or something exciting. No more of this boring submarine slag.”

“And if I win?” he asked.

“You won’t,” I said, standing up. It took me a couple of seconds to decide which arm was the better of the two. In the end, the left was undefeated, so I went with it.

There’s a first time for everything, so I let them thrown me out. I should have seen this omen for the events that were about to take place, this slippage of control as a sign my once mighty grip on things had weakened. But no man, not even one with eyesight like mine, can know the future. Blinded in this way, I went across the street to the theater.  

That’s where I met Joan. She held an ornithology book open as she explained to some pretty boy about the plight of the emperor penguin.  He didn’t look impressed, but I was. The way the latin names of the genus and phylum rolled off her tongue. I knew it was love. I introduced myself an explorer. She said she wanted to help save the penguins from extinction and polar bears.

A few dates later and there she was, curly hair poking out from beneath a wet wool cap, holding onto a rail as the Nautilus pitched to and fro in the rough Southern Ocean. When she got a good enough grip with one hand, she used the other to beat me with that same ornithology book.

“What the hell was that?!” she demanded. “You said it was an easy trip from the Falklands to Elephant Island! You didn’t say anything about giant squids and rough seas!”

“Don’t worry, darling,” I said. That should have calmed her down.

“No! I’m going to worry! I’m going to keep hitting you with this book until you turn around!”

“I don’t retreat. And I don’t kill colossal squids so I can not cut them up and use every part. Go ask Arturo if he’s got a deep fryer on this thing.”

“We don’t have a deep fryer, Roman,” Joan hissed.

“Look up squid in that book, see if there are any recipes. I bet you there’s enough calamari here to last us the rest of the expedition.”

“This is a book about birds,” Joan shouted back. “It’s about conservation! Not what kind of a sauce makes goes with squid!”

“Well, at least it comes salted,” I said. It was a joke. I’ve often found humor calms women.

“That’s not funny, Roman. Now turn back around!”

“Alright Joan,” I leveled with her. If women don’t like humor, it’s best to level with them. “Let’s go look at Arturo’s map. I’ll show you exactly how close we are to Elephant Island and the penguins.”

Inside the cabin, Joan wrapped her shivering self in a wool blanket. With all the lackluster he could muster, Arturo brought her a hot cup of tea. I did a couple of push ups to get my core temperature up, and then a few more to dry out my sweater.

“Arturo, thank you for getting the map out and marking our progress,” I said, opening the meeting. “As everyone can see, we started here, and then went to the Falklands here.” Joan leaned in to watch me mark our progress with my finger.  

“Are you pausing for effect, or are you trying to remember where we went after that?” Joan asked. Arturo must have forgotten to sweeten the tea again.

“Elephant Island is 940 kilometers south of the Falklands, and 890 kilometers southeast of Cape Horn.”

“Then why did we just spend a week in the Weddell Sea?” Joan asked as she jabbed the map with her finger. “Further south and further east than Elephant Island?”

“It’s penguin mating season, and I thought we might have a chance to catch them in the act.”

Arturo picked at his sweater. Joan rolled her eyes.

“Ok, never mind,” I said. “It looks like we’re just a few kilometers from Elephant Island, so let’s go there. Then we can see the emperor penguin in its natural habitat.”

“There are no emperor penguins on Elephant Island.” Joan held up her book and pointed at a diagram of a penguin. “Just gentoo and chinstrap penguins.”

“Well, aren’t they cute!” I said.

“Yes, yes they are,” she said. “Let’s just get there. And no more side trips, no more icebergs and no more squids!”

“Good thinking. That reminds me, Arturo, do we have a deep fryer?”

# # #

If there’s anything I have learned in my years of travels and adventures, it’s that everyone is looking for something. Arturo was trying to make money off the crusty boat he inherited from his father. Joan was in it for the penguins. As for me, I enjoy the misadventures. The unexpected situations that allow one’s noble valor to shine bright.

It was on the greyest of grey mornings that we landed on Elephant Island. A grey morning is an oversized sweater we must find our way out of. Using the lone oar, I propelled the inflatable dingy toward a black rock shore.

“Look! A gentoo!” Joan shouted, pointing to three small humps on a rock. We were ten meters from shore when they turned around, showed us their black tie bodies, then disappeared into the surf.

“I knew we’d see them! They’re so beautiful!” Joan stood up.

“Yes, nature has a way with feathers. Steady now,” I held out my hand so she wouldn’t lose her balance on the rubber prow. As soon as rubber met shore, Joan leapt out and found more little gentoos, slipping in and out of the inky sea under the grey sky.

“Oooh!” Joan cooed, walking and tickling their bellies. I tell you, even for a man with my composure, those little creatures made me feel, well, like when a man sees a fat baby and realizes it’s a sign there is a God and He believes in physical comedy. It moved me, seeing Joan there, so tenderly waddling like the gentoo, trying to become one with them. Like a Jane Goodall with the balls to go somewhere treacherous. I see now my attachment to her was growing.

“Where are they going?” Joan asked.

The gentoo scurried. Some dove back into the ocean, some crouched behind rocks. Their little beaks yipping in their unintelligible bird language. Danger was afoot.

“Roman, look out!” Joan pointed behind me. I swung around, holding the paddle like a staff, and looked my foe right in the eyes. A beast only these black forbidding waters could produce. A battle hardened sea lion.

No doubt if I had been born to a different family in the animal kingdom, it would have been me. Fair and just were its features. A hulking mass of muscle, covered in scored and scarred skin. It was missing one eye, presumably lost in some gladiatorial battle with an orca whale. Probably a blue whale.

The sea lion stared back deep into my soul. No doubt it saw our connection. Two warriors on one planet, not looking for a fight, but having to fight anyway. Noble warriors of the animal kingdom. I saw the glint in its eye, and I understood. Nature has its course. And our course was to fight.

The sea lion lunged. I swung the paddle. It connected. The sea lion fell backward, then bounded right back. I dropped the paddle, and we met in mid air. Mammal to mammal, grappling for dominance. Our bodies collided, a deluge of fists and tusks striking anywhere they could. I landed on my back, leapt up, ready to strike. But something wasn’t right.

Joan screamed.

I opened my eyes, and there it was. The hand that had knocked out a Brazilian prize fighter in a bar fight in Rio. The fingers that had gouged out the eyes of a lion that had terrorized a small African village. The same palm that had high-fived Keith Richards in the hospital where I had my gall bladder removed without any anesthetic. My beloved left hook. In the mouth of my worthy opponent.

“Get out of here! Get out of here!” Joan shouted at the sea lion, waving a lit flare.

“Stop screaming!” I shouted. “This is between me and the beast!”

I grabbed the flare and cauterized my wound. Then I picked up our only oar.

“Alright you bastard! I’m getting my hand back if I have to cut it out of your stomach!”

The sea lion looked me in the eyes, then at the bloody stump of my left hand. Without any ceremony whatsoever it spat my hand out and dove back into the ocean. Moments later, the monster emerged from the waves. As it dropped slowly below into the black depths, I could have sworn I saw a glint as my eye caught his. It had won the game. For even though he didn’t kill me, he know what only a warrior could know. It was better to be dead than crippled.

I spat, picked up my hand, and looked at the hysterical Joan.

“Come on, we have no time to lose,” I said, starting up the rocks passed the penguins. “There’s a base on this island, we need to get you to safety.”

# # #

Was the pain too much? It was a lot. Was the climb difficult without the use of both hands? Luckily I know how to scale backwards. Was it strange to find a road on the bluff, and a man in a truck driving down the road? You bet your ass it was.

He was a scientist, and once we got Joan in the truck we raced down the road across the island to a few buildings huddled together against the cold. I tried to resist, but he insisted on giving me a light sedative while he stopped the bleeding. As I slid into the solvent fog, I decided it was time to sleep. I closed my eyes to the bright lights in the science station, and let the stillness behind my eyelids dowse me in slumber.
Just as slowly, I woke. I looked up to the haggard face of a scientist. Where was Joan?

“I’m sorry,” Doc solemnly intoned, “I couldn’t save your hand. I did all I could. Joan told me it was a sea lion that attacked you on the beach.”

“That was no sea lion, Doc. That was a sea monster posing as a sea lion.” I looked at my bandaged left hand, then back to Doc. “Aren’t you the scientist who picked us up in the truck?”

“It’s a small island. I’m scientist, doctor, and I even tend bar at the hostel.”

“Hostel?”

“It’s the building next door.”

“Why is there a hostel on Elephant Island?”

“Eco-tourism. First time to Antarctica?”

I followed him to the building next door. It was set up like a dive bar in a meat locker. I found Joan along with Arturo, who had landed in the bay on the north side. Arturo said he heard about the sea lion.

“I would like to buy it a drink,” he slurred. Arturo never could hold his liquor. I sat down at a table. Doc introduced me to the two people in the room I didn’t know. There was the environmentalist, Rick, who was there to fight the eco-tourism.

“Roman, Arturo has told me all about you, and I’d love to get your story to the press,” Rick said. “Did you know there were 35,000 people who visited Antarctica last year alone? After people hear about that sea lion, I bet you it’d be more like 33,750.”

And the backpacker, Neil. Aimless, wandering college kid. Joan’s age. And just as boring as that guy I saved her from in Buenos Aires. I knew from the moment I saw his idealistic blue eyes, his carelessly unshaven face, barely hidden dimples and beauty mark, that he’d be a force of laziness, cunning, and love-all-isms to deal with.

It was a strange crowd, indeed. Made even stranger by the drugs Doc gave me. What were they doing here, in this inhospitable corner of the world? How did they get past the sea beast that guarded this outpost? It didn’t matter. What they were missing was a strong leader. And even one handed, I knew I could make something out of their nothing.

“What we need to do is to act now, while the beast is still haughty!” I stood up, slamming my good hand on the table. Everyone stopped and looked at me.

“Roman,” Doc said as he polished a tumbler behind the bar. “You’re hardly in any condition to go after a sea lion. You’ve lost a lot of blood. And it’s going to be tough to track a sea lion in this weather.”

“I’m sure he’ll find a way,” Joan sighed.

“I can track anything in any weather condition,” I announced to my would be crew. “All the great hunting trips have these difficult kinds of weather conditions. But they weren’t great trips because the hunters stayed inside and played cards, or whatever dilly-dallying you like.”

“Puffins,” Neil said.

“What?”

“Puffins,” Joan said. “Neil knows so much about them. Did you know that the Faroe Islands put a puffin on a stamp in 1978? They’re so cute! I think they might even be cuter than a gentoo!”

“Now hang on a moment, a gentoo is a pretty cute creature,” I reasoned. If humoring and leveling doesn’t work with women, try reasoning.

“Yeah, but I mean,” Neil began, screwing up his face to summon all his hippie powers of persuasion. “Puffins can fly, man.”

“He has this book,” Joan lifted it from her lap. “It’s just like my book on penguins but it’s about puffins. He had to learn it from cover to cover because he works with puffins at the zoo in-”

“Enough,” I slammed my only hand on the bar. “Doc, pour me something strong. We need to track that beast before it slips off to South George. I know you’re warm and comfortable, but there comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to eschew easy for excellent. I am going out after that southern scourge. With or without any of your help.”

The drugs were wearing off, and a barrage of pins and needles assaulted my phantom left hand. I grabbed the bottle of whiskey from Doc’s hand and took a herculean swig.

“Who’s with me?”

Joan looked back to the book on puffins. Neil put his hand on her knee. Doc moved the whiskey bottle off the bar. Rick furiously wrote notes in a small notebook. So I did what von Humboldt, Magellan, and other great explorers had done.
“Arturo, I’ll double your pay.”

“Do I still get paid if you die?” the Argentine asked without excitement.

“Yes, the press is my witness,” I said, pointing at Rick.

“Then let’s do this.” Arturo stood up.  

“I’d like to volunteer, too,” Rick said.

“That’s the kind of spirit that makes the man.” I walked over and slapped him heartily on the back.

“I just want to make sure it’s done humanely,” Rick added.

“Who else is with me?” I looked at Joan. Her gaze was soaking up Neil.

“You know what, I totally came here to experience things. I’m in,” Neil tried to speak valiantly, only to sound like a fool.

“Well,” Joan said. “If you’re going I’m going too.”

“I think you should stay here Joan,” I said. “Remember the squid? I only have one hand now, and it’s already going to be busy choking the life out of that leviathan. I can’t bail you out if something goes wrong.”

“I don’t need you to take care of me,” she hissed. Her eyes burned through her glasses at me, her curls swaying at the sides of her face. “And I definitely don’t need you to tell me where I can and can’t go. And I definitely, definitely won’t be sharing a sleeping bag with you anymore.”

From over my shoulder I heard the sound of whiskey being poured.

“Well,” Doc said. “I suppose if everyone’s going, I might as well join.”

# # #

Few explorers have ever had a perfectly tight crew, and even fewer had a crew like I had. With precious little time to return to the scene of the crime before the creature left, we needed to press on. The crew, however, felt we had luxuries. Like the luxury of complaining how everything is going.

“Quiet!” I shouted. The wind had whipped up, and the grey afternoon had turned into a white out. “We haven’t even gone thirty meters and you’re already arguing about whether to take the Nautilus or pack into the back of Doc’s truck. Travel by land is obviously preferable, for even with my extensive navigation experience in this kind of weather it would be easier to rely on the feel of the tires on gravel.”

“We could use the GPS I brought,” Neil said.

“If we go by truck, I’m not sitting in the back,” Arturo said. “It’s way too cold.”

“And I can’t write in this weather, so I’ll have to sit up front with Doc and Arturo,” Rick said.

“I’m sitting up front,” I said. “I’ll need to be there so I can spot our quarry as we edge toward that coast of terror.”

“I say we take the boat,” Joan said. “It’s right there, and while it’s windy, the sea’s not nearly as bad as it was for most of the trip down here.”

“I gotta agree with that,” Doc said.

“Alright! Alright! Enough!” I stopped the madness. “I’ve decided we’ll take the ship so we can sneak up on the beast. Arturo, prepare to leave port and bring out the harpoon.”

“I don’t have a harpoon,” Arturo said.

“I’m not sure a harpoon would work, anyway,” Neil cut in. “If it’s a whale harpoon, it’s tridents would be too big. You might wound it, but you wouldn’t really kill it.”

“Yeah, we can’t have that,” Rick said. “If we’re going to kill it, it shouldn’t suffer. We need to be clean about this. Also, are you sure it’s not an endangered sea lion?”

“Silence!” I shouted. All complaining ceased, leaving only the tortured howl of the wind to fill the space between us. Without another word, I marched to the boat. Lead by example is the best way, and as I heard the grumbling behind me, I knew that my crew would follow me. It might not be to the ends of the earth yet, but it was still an early Antarctican afternoon.

The wind died to a whimper as we hoisted anchor and headed out of the arctic cove to round the island. An ominous sign. Above us the gulls danced their way to their nests high up on the rocky hills. There were no signs of life in the inky waters below us. No penguins prancing. No kraken quaking. No sign of the sea demon.

Arturo manned the rudder. Neil stood next to him with a beeping GPS machine. I told him to turn it off, it would give our position away. He tried to explain to me the importance of modern technology to these kinds of situations, and I tried to explain to him how his modern technology held no adventures worth having. Joan, who moped at his side, frowned at me. I sensed she was disappointed, but I didn’t know why. Doc gripped a lifesaver, prepared for the worst. Rick ran back and forth on the prow, peering over the side to catch the first glimpse of our prey. As I watched him skutter like a squirrel, I couldn’t help but think he’d make a good first mate. If only he’d stop noting everything he saw. A skilled adventurer can’t have his hands busy with pen and paper all the time.

“Alright, keep steady. We’re getting near the cape where the brute stalks.”

My poetry inspired them, for all eyes watched with the intensity of a thousand suns as we rounded the rock outcroppings. My gaze tore across the black pebble beach, empty except for our marooned rubber dinghy. The site of my great battle left its mark, with scattered rocks and blood stains that led up the hill to the road at the top.

And in the stillness and silence, I heard a splash off the starboard prow. I swung the harpoon around and aimed to fire.
“Wait! No!” Doc yelled. I held my fire. The freezing water bubbled and churned, and in the middle of it I saw a human hand.

Then another. Then a face. It was Rick.  Doc threw him the lifesaver. Rick grabbed it and clung. He moaned the coldest, saddest cry. Doc and Arturo hauled him up, while I scanned the edge of the boat. This would be the perfect time for the beast to strike, while we were tending to the weak.  

“Dude! Go get a blanket or something!” Neil yelled. “Yo! Roman!”

I ignored him, continuing my vigilant watch.  

“Roman! Get one of the blankets from below,” Arturo said. “He’ll catch hypothermia.”

I sprung into action. In two leaps I went below for the blanket and was back next to the shivering man, wrapping him exactly how the Sherpas taught me to fight hypothermia.

“Doc, take him below and administer to him,” I commanded. “The brute still lurks, we should be ready any moment for his attack.”

“What are you talking about dude?” Neil asked. “I just did a sweep with my fish finder, there’s nothing in these waters. We gotta get Rick back to the station.”

“Did your machine tell you to man up,” I snorted. “Because when you signed on for this mission, it was to kill a horrible creature of the sea, not tuck tail and run at the first sign of danger! All of you! You followed me into battle! This is why we have to get the beast. Not just for me, not just for my left hand, or Joan, but for Rick, too.”

Neil rolled his eyes. Arturo went back to the rudder. Doc took Rick below, but before they could get to the hatch, Neil snapped.

“You’re just a washed up old man, dude. You’re never going to catch this sea lion because it’s gone. The fish finder says it’s gone.”

All my vengeful blood lust that had built up for the beast, from the bile of my stomach to the blood vessels that throbbed in my temples, exploded. I squared up to Neil, threw the harpoon down. I would have tied one of my hands behind my back, but I was already down one.

“No man can stand that kind of challenge to his manhood,” I shouted back. My voice rang clear and strong, like the bells of a Viking church. “If you wish to fight, I shall fight you. And I shall prevail. I’ve been blessed by the Masai warriors of Africa. I’ve tracked the Yeti in the Gobi desert. While you were still in diapers I was trail blazing in the Amazon, and all you do is insult me and my honor. I used to ferry hippies like you around all the time!"

Neil was frozen in front of me, either out of fear or stupidity. It was anything but bravery.

“Roman!” Arturo shouted. “Leave the kid alone! I’m turning us around now.”

“What do you mean you used to ferry hippies like me around?” Neil asked. Then his face lit up with evil recognition. “You were a tour guide, weren’t you?”

Dear readers, every great man has a dark secret locked up in a chest, buried in an ancient tomb. When they are unearthed, as dark secrets are prone to be, one can only hope that the archeologist who stumbles upon it treats it with the dignity of pulverized, mummified remains, and sweeps it under a rug. To hear mine spoken out loud by the same breed of lout who caused it in the first place cut me deeper than that sea lion’s teeth ever could. It was true. Before I was the great explorer, I was a tour guide. I only admit it now in hopes that my admission will take away the sting.

“You totally were a tour guide,” Neil said. “What happened?”

I didn’t answer him, for it would have given him too much power to hold over me. The entire truth is a long and sordid affair that I have neither the strength nor ink to tell in full, but I will say this. I was forced to quit, because of a group of ingrates exactly like Neil. They came aboard my tour of the dangerous Everglades, extolling their oneness with the Universe, while they continually put themselves and everyone else on the trip in mortal danger. I may have acted rashly, and left them to find their own way out of the swamps, but I knew of no other way to teach them the seriousness of natural predators. My superiors refused to hear my defense, and banished me on return.

I didn’t speak another word to Neil. I merely went to the prow and stared out into the ether as Arturo brought us back around to dock at the station. In silence Joan and I parted. I could feel her disappointment turn to disgust towards me. I can only shake my head. Thanks to me she met her first gentoos. Thanks to me she met a real adventurer, and had a real adventure. I went to the ends of the earth for her, and lost a hand, and yet she abandoned me in what might have been my greatest hour of revenge. But it was for the best. I had fallen under the spell of love, the Great Weakener. To leave her like that was to tighten my grip on my resolve once again.

As I write this, I’m standing behind the counter of a small ice cream shop in Ushuaia. It’s Arturo’s shop, which he bought after he sold the Nautilus. He gave me a job, which he claims is out of pity, but I know it’s because he’s afraid of the pirates that run their stolen goods around Cape Horn. As for the others who played rolls in this misadventure, Doc is still pouring drinks at his hostel. Rick got the adventuring bug, declaring, “Now I know why we eat animals!” as he went off to seek out his next challenge. My dear Joan succumbed to the doe-eyed idiot Neil, and ran off with him to see the puffins in Iceland. Another great adventure she’ll never have, but she won’t know what she’s missing. I may have lost Joan, and my left hand, but in all true adventures I gained something new. I found my true calling, as adventurer memoirist. And so, in between making cones with an ice cream scoop attachment for my hook hand, I fill pages of pages of the greatest adventure stories ever told.
Peter Hajinian lives and writes in Minneapolis. More of his work can be seen, read, heard and watched on hajiniangrocerystore.tumblr.com.

© 2010, Peter Hajinian