dislocation story. I sensed they were gay, mutually proprietary, but why
does that matter? Katie and Stewart, young Americans, were bound for
Savaii, the other big island, for a week in a beachside bungalow. They
“became friends” on the boat of a mutual friend who was sailing from
Mexico across the South Pacific. Nights I could hear them giggling in
the room below mine.
Andreas joins me for breakfast. A German accountant just turned
fifty, he’s been roaming from island to island. He’s lonely. We talked for
hours after dinner last night—shared our enthusiasm for Stefan Zweig’s
stories and our dismay at deteriorating coral atolls and the reared ugly
heads of white nationalists. “Trump,” he said. “How could anyone possibly?” I wished I had an answer. Andreas volunteers to monitor elections
in countries struggling to become democracies. Angular, with thinning
blond hair, open, awkward, kind, he reminds me of a close friend who
died of cancer. Today he’ll check out some waterfalls and the Stevenson
homestead. I wish I could join him.
After breakfast I hang out with the birds around the balcony. Cardinal myzomelas—the males scarlet and black, females drabber—are busy
little acrobats with bills curved for sipping nectar. Buff-banded rails
stalk the lawns and scoot across roads. Most rails are scarce and secretive, loathe to leave cover, like agoraphobic chickens, but these birds are
all over the island, and some contingency of circumstance and evolution
has turned them into take-the-dare streakers. A week ago the birds of
Samoa seemed as exotic as the epiphytes bursting from massive banyan
trees in the Vaisigano Valley. Now they’re my neighbors, as regular in
their habits as the woodpeckers in our yard.
On our last morning of the tour, our group had stood with our guide,
Adam, on a forest overlook at the Shrine of the Three Hearts. We’d
found all but one endemic bird on Upolu, and we lingered with the long-shot hope that we’d hear a manumea, or tooth-billed pigeon, a legendary
creature, restricted to upland forests, rarely seen, its habits uncertain. It’s
rumored to moo like a baritone cow. I listen for mooing now.
At the airport I felt relieved, self-congratulatory. I’d made it through
the tour. In three weeks, in four countries, I’d missed only a few birds. I
was just sitting there, maybe turning my head but not twisting my body,
and then I was screaming in a world of pain, shouts around me.
“What should I do?” Adam asked me.
“Get an ambulance.”