“[T]here was something of the women molded into the great, stalwart frame of Hollingsworth; nor was he ashamed of it; as men often are of what is best in them.”
― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance
The thing most people remember about Jane Gwen is her lush and copious laugh. Some might fixate on her cascade of chestnut hair or the long legs beneath the wispy sarong she wears in the field—easier for periodic bug checks. Really, Gwen! A force of nature—a gale force Gwen, we used to joke. Turbulent, sea swelling. But her laugh. How to describe? I’ll try by describing one quintessential evening in Key West. It was the usual sort of place: big bungalow with a deep porch overlooking mangroves, a dozen researchers from around the world. Everyone had spent the bulk of the day out on the water, deep in mucky tidal marsh or soggy maritime forest, arriving back at the station at sunset to mix enormous quantities of guacamole and margaritas, to fry up fresh corn tortillas and reheat the beans and rice cooked for breakfast. The requisite conga line slithered around the dining room table to Jimmy Buffet’s “Volcano.” Then we ate and ate and fell onto the front porch in any number of fat little groups.
The lamp light from inside the house cast a weak glow on the porch but had no effect on the jungle pitch. Soon a lovely calm fell upon the merrymakers, and there was only the drone of tropical nightlife: frogs whining and chucking, bats swooping, bugs humming, the constant crunch and patter of all the common nocturnal beasties.
Gwen and two others moved off the porch, down the stairs into the ill-lit margins and tangled velvet pitch. They were playing kick the coconut. They kept hitting each other’s shins and tripping over roots. And then it began—Gwen’s laugh, swinging and soaring into the lush, balmy night. It was like Tarzan’s verdant yodel, only wilder and more heart stirring. Gwen’s laughter impaled my imagination, sending me flying along the tropical vines with each of her exquisitely heaved guffaws.
She left the next morning for her usual stint at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. I watched from the porch as she and a friend walked down the trail to their vehicle. The island green swallowed them up quickly and the rumble of the waves abnegated their voices—or nearly. I did catch the rise and whirl of her laughter flying back to me. Not, of course, just to me, but to all wild and expanding tropical climes.
I didn’t speak to Gwen again that season, although I heard gossip, which coalesced around a liaison she had formed with one of the true giants of the maritime research world, a scientist of awesome reputation, with amazing longevity and the most virile of vitae. His name was Angus McCaber, also known as the Orangutan. He had been, in his prime, brute force incarnate, hacking and whacking his way through the tangled confusion of tropical forest and topical significance, his specialty the mixing of contrary deities, river and ocean. He had appeared upon the pages of National Geographic, Smithsonian, and People, not to mention countless celluloid footage for CBC, ITT, and the BBC. Now in his sixties, McCaber directed his estuary empire from an island in the Charlotte Harbor of southwest Florida. His academic progeny peopled the research stations throughout the tropics, but then so did the romantic conquests of his primal years. News of the coming together of Angus McCaber and Jane Gwen was greeted throughout our world with widened eyes and dropped jaws. So perfect, so delectable, as if Burrough’s jungle he had finally met Haggard’s jungle she. This was not just a battle of the sexes but of generations. He was the embodiment of one, she the hope of another. Would she be the one to break his radical stallion’s will? Or would he be the one to still forever her wild and untethered laugh. All that summer shorelines shimmered and shook in breathless anticipation.
Waiting. No word.
I did cross paths with them briefly in Costa Rica late in the season. I was headed back for the beginning of the fall semester and saw Angus McCaber and Jane Gwen boarding a small plane. I spotted them before they spotted me. I hid among the mangos of a fruit stand at the edge of the tarmac so that I could observe their uninhibited interactions. They were waiting as the pilot ran through the final checklist. Gwen, standing behind Angus at one point, slipped her hands underneath his untucked, baggy tropical shirt, her fingers fluttering briefly in the gray fur that spilled over his shirt lapels. He turned, suddenly, surprising her, and me, and drew us in, tight against his massive body. She seemed to swoon in his arms. Who wouldn’t?
When I returned to the tropics the following spring, there was no news of Angus and Gwen. Most dismissed the very idea as idle gossip. I knew differently. I knew the effect of Gwen’s laughter on a man’s soul, of Angus’s animal attraction. I remembered too well their passionate embrace on the tarmac. A part of me had climbed aboard that plane too, headed into the heart of some tangled, tropical pulse.
I ran into Angus in Panama City start of the next field season. He was there for a conference and collecting. I was getting ready to meet up with Gwen in La Selva. Gwen joined me there every year to help with the first census of a group of lichen. We would have plenty of time to explore the truth about her and Angus. Plenty of time between tracing lichen moves and hacking through rainforest trails to hear her tall tales, to elicit her soaring, swinging laughter, to reclaim the bits of my heart her ramblings rescued. Running into Angus along the crowded main drag of Panama City, I wanted not to mention Gwen, but Angus McCaber always could mangle my resolve.
“Miles!” he cried with a naughty grin when I told him where I was headed. “La Selva. Not sure I’ll make it out this year. I need to get back to the Pine Islands. But tell the crew hi for me.”
I nodded, smiled coyly as I added in spite of my initial resolve not to, “Gwen too? You know she’ll be joining me.”
“Jane Gwen. Really?” He seemed to ask reluctantly, the full-blown sails of his usual fast-frigate ways slowing, faltering.
Yes, I said to myself, yes, by god, she’s blown him clear off course, shown him up for the weather-worn old tub he is. I could hardly contain the pleasure in my voice. “Of course.”
“Give her a big wet one for me, will ya, Miles?”
Then he leaned into me as if to give me her due. I teetered, I’m afraid, and he bellowed, his pensive face erupting into a tentative grin.
I thought I saw the truth behind Angus’s bravado. I saw the spent sails, the wind-wrecked masts, the warping rudders. She’d tossed him about plenty, my gale force Gwen. Demagnetized his old compass and sent it spinning. I felt some small measure of pity for Angus. Amazing!
Gwen and I met up at La Selva. The census obsessed us for the first two days. The weather was on our side for a change and we were able to reach every site with little event. The last night of our trek, strung up in our separate hammocks, listening to the light rain hitting the tarp we shared, I decided that it was time to pass Angus’s message along, albeit in my own inimitable fashion. The light from our kerosene camp stove was low, casting whimsical patterns, turning our faces into shadows, our words into faces. She was telling me some story of her misspent youth, stories of soldiers and teenage angst and revolutionary desires. I turned to watch her face in the camp light. She had taken her thick, wire-rimmed glasses off and her eyes were big and black and defenseless, at once catlike and childlike, dangerous and demur. How best, I prayed, to bring Angus before us? Here, in the dark, when we were so close and comfortable, hidden, together. I reached carefully into her hammock and found her hand pressed up against her thigh, and something else I’d been hoping for too: her water bottle. I raised it quickly, clicking the top open with my thumb and squirting her full in the face.
“Wha-wha-what the hell?”
“From Angus,” I said quietly. “He told me to plant a wet one on you.”
“Angus!? Angus this.”
Then she gave my hammock a spin that sent me face first onto the damp forest floor.
“Now, what about Angus?”
“He doesn’t seem the same, Gwen,” I began, as I carefully climbed back into my hammock. “Oh, yes his closing remark was typical, full of hot air and machismo but before, when he first asked about you . . . his face seemed pained, reluctant.”
“Broken, bent, missing some vital part.”
“Angus? Angus McCaber . . . missing . . . broken?”
She sank and turned away from the light of the camp stove and into the moist, cooling night air. I could sense that her thoughts were agitated, her emotions wavering, like the flickering firelight. I heard her sighed mea culpa, as her hand shot for a moment to her chest, to catch her breath or calm her troubled heart.
“So it’s back to the grind tomorrow,” I offered as if I hadn’t heard her plaintive sigh. “Back to Florida. Pine Island field station out on Demere Key. I’ve got some patches of lichen I’m mapping along the Matlacha Pass. Might as well use their digitizer to put all my plottings in the computer. Come help if you want. You could check on Angus, out on his island. Anyway, I could pay you for a week of work.”
“Sure, Miles. I should. I really should.”
I responded with a smile and a renewed sense of hope, thinking, yes indeed, soon we will both return to him. Who knows what we’ll find?
On the third morning after our return to Demere Key and Pine Island, Gwen left to visit Angus. She was staying with me and I woke to her awkward attempt to muffle the coffee grinder with one of my alpaca sweaters. I heard her sneak out soon after. McCaber was a notorious early riser. Chances were that she would find him at this early hour sunning outside his cabin on North Captiva.
She took the station’s skiff over to the island. I followed quietly, some distance back, in my motorized dinghy. I could see the weight and worry of her task in the odd anglings of her shoulders, in her long gazes out over the water. Open runs of water, thick maritime forest trails, currents changing and tricky, any of these would have been less of a threat to Gwen than facing the Angus she feared having left behind.
She reached his pier well ahead of me and started up the path to his compound. I tied up too but took a steeper, quicker path to a clearing behind the house. There I spotted Angus sitting atop a small table, his broad back to the morning sun, stocky legs akimbo, hunched over, reading a journal and occasionally sipping from an enormous, steaming bowl. Quickly I searched out the best climbing palm and made my way up into its protective, leaning canopy. I had a perfect view. The birds were going nuts by now, warning Angus of an unexpected presence on his island. He had just climbed off his table and was standing, naked and furry and bulky, a strangely tantalizing combination of primate and aging Apollo. His eyes scanned the trees. I wanted him to look up and see me. I wanted him to set me free. That’s when Gwen climbed onto the clearing and their eyes met.
Angus covered his eyes, squinting, as if to reassure himself that it was truly Gwen approaching through the intense morning light and not some mythical spirit. And then he looked away, back to the house. Ready to run so soon, Angus? I wondered. Ready to run and hide? He looked back to Gwen again and managed a smile. His smile brought tears to my eyes. She must have felt such relief and release at the sight of him.
“How are you Angus? You look fit,” I heard her say. And then she offered a small, inhibited laugh – not her rightful laugh at all, weighed down as it was by the harm she feared she’d done him.
Her care brought another brief smile to Angus’s clearly troubled face. He looked again to his hut and back to Gwen with an even weaker, pained smile.
Run away, Angus McCaber, I whispered from my lofty viewing place. Try now to run from the truth, from all those you’ve caught and tossed aside, from the undeniable verdict that stands before you. You are no longer the god you once thought yourself to be. She has had you, McCaber, finished with you, and comes back now only because of me. Me. This, poor McCaber, is little more than a sympathy call. A visitation of pathos and pity. And your fear of her, of her rejection, of her limber embraces, your fear fills your face, beats hard against your boastful barreled chest. Soon it will be all that fills your arms at night, that lies next to you in bed. Oh those arms, that bed! Fear, McCaber, fear and loss and dulling memories are all that will remain for you, while around your crumbling flesh the loves you’ve tossed aside will rise triumphant into the new night.
By god, I was in a frenzy. Who wouldn’t be? For below in capsule all the great stories were playing out before me. Passion facing pain. Force facing form. Old facing new. I was breathless with anticipation, trembling in my own impassioned empathy. And then the palm beneath me, the vegetation all around came alive. Every bird on the island echoed in kind. Below Angus and Gwen looked up into the trees, each taking a step closer to the other, in sympathy, in cautious care for what might be lingering in the jungle shadows. Then a most unexpected call rang out across the morning air.
Gwen, Angus, and I turned toward the sound. There it was, sounding from the door of Angus’s hut. The voice took form, a form I knew, that everyone clearly knew. It was Brigit Norton, tall, lean, blonde, gorgeous, and naked as a drenched anhinga.
“Ah-ah-ah-gus. Ooh. Aha. Jane Gwen? Gwenie! How are ya, girl?”
Our gaze, that of Angus, Brigit, and me, turned to Gwen, who took a step backward, and then another, gaining perspective, absorbing the view. The emotions that ran across her face, so fast and furious, the full spectrum, lit up her eyes and charged her face with a bright, white aurora of wonderment. And then it began, somewhere down deep in the earth, or perhaps slowly condensing in the heavy morning dew: Gwen’s laugh. It began to fill the clearing, wrapping around Angus’s embarrassment and breezing through Brigit’s bare aplomb. Gwen’s laughter spun around the clearing and in one great wave blew up into the surrounding jungle green and out over the bare hillside to the blue of the ocean. And soon everyone was laughing her laugh, Angus, Brigit, me, every bird and beast, the vines, the trees, the earth and air, the sun itself: all shaking with untamed laughter, all going effervescent in an ecstasy of Gwen-filled grace.
Up in my tree I was weak with surprise, lightheaded and suddenly free, and before I knew it I was falling head first from my perch toward the hard ground below. I swear, however, that for a second or two Gwen’s laughter bore me up and I floated like a rare butterfly, just shorn of its old, confining cocoon, full flutter amidst the glorious green.
The next thing I remember, Angus was carrying me to his cabin, his embrace every bit as devastating as I’d imagined. I slid my arms around his thick neck and opened my eyes long enough to see Brigit and Gwen laughing up ahead, hand in hand, glancing back at me from time to time, smiling sweetly and laughing all the more.
I suspect I should have been mortified, but I confess I was not. The coast, the islands, the tropics taught me long ago not to exaggerate or avoid my own excesses. And what is one man’s exaggeration worth in a place that holds the grand flights and displays of cormorants and ibis, white and brown pelicans, great blues, tricolors and greens, wood storks, marbled godwits, stilts and terns and bitterns, swallow-tail kites, rosy hued spoonbills and rare souls like Angus McCaber and Jane Gwen and Brigit Norton and—if I may be so bold—the colorful displays of my own transformative flights? I was not much broken in spite of my fall, and I and the others spent the day in glorious revelry.
Gwen knew first, of course, as you may already have guessed, the true source of my tropical spill and the need for this confessional retelling. It was, after all, her laughter that finally set me free. I can feel the heat of blush upon my face as I come to the close, can hear the sanctifying peal of Gwen’s laughter as I read aloud to her my final words:
I—I myself—was in love—with—ANGUS!