My short story “The Wallace Line” was a finalist for the 2013 Nelson Algren Short Story Award. Given annually for over twenty years, the Nelson Algren Award is named for the iconic Chicago writer best known for his novel The Man With the Golden Arm.
I grew up outside of Chicago and so being a finalist in this contest was a great thrill. And I learned so much through the editing process – my work has never been so closely and carefully examined before.
The end result of all this effort was a beautiful booklet that appeared in the Tribune’s Printers Row.
In “The Wallace Line,” a fundraising trip to Komodo goes horribly wrong. The inspiration for the story comes from my work for The Nature Conservancy. How do you market conservation? What stories do you tell? And how true do they have to be?
A friend of mine called the story, “a dark take on a fluffy feel-good enterprise.”
I really can’t improve upon that.
THE WALLACE LINE
By Joe Flood
Nelson Algren Short Story Award Finalist
Harold marveled at how quickly it had all gone to hell.
The approach to the beach had been perfect, as Anak expertly guided the longboat over the swell. Behind them, the sun climbed above the tranquil waters of the Flores Sea. Ahead, the pink sands of Komodo were radiant in the morning light. A warm breeze blew across the boat. January in Indonesia, when it was hot but not too hot, and while the east coast of America was locked in ice.
A moment you could not forget, and would be forever grateful to receive. As had been planned. These expeditions were carefully organized for maximum effect. The trip had been in the works for nearly a year. Countless emails had been exchanged; permits obtained; supplies purchased; forms filled out on onionskin paper wilting in the heat of Jakarta; signatures obtained by directors, department Heads, deputies and other interested parties (with the occasional bit of friendly bribery to grease the way: an iPhone, a bottle of bourbon, the promise to write a letter of recommendation for a nephew.)
The climax, the finale, was this grand arrival onto the mysterious island of Komodo, a lost world, a paradise that remained undiscovered by white men until 1910. One of 17,000 islands in Indonesia, this particular speck of land was the most unique of all, for it was home to dragons.
Komodo dragons. A billionaire had flown halfway around the world to see them, and Harold was there to provide him a show he would not forget.
It was all choreographed, a bit of theater that Harold still enjoyed a year into the job. The methods had been refined over a decade. For example, the arrival at dawn. They had a permit and could visit anytime. But morning had the best light, the most conducive to photographs, especially of the elderly. Wrinkled skin glowed in the warm morning. And the pink beaches were at their most enchanting as the sun’s rays reached across the dark waters and set them afire.
The longboat was called a jukung, a traditional Balinese fishing vessel with a small sail. The fifteen-foot vessel had been constructed from a single Champlung tree, on a date considered auspicious by the ancient calendar of the Balinese people. The boat had been hand-built by its captain, Anak Agung, over a period of weeks. He had made the requisite offerings of rice, flowers and fruit. A priest had blessed the jukung before it slid into the water.
Narrow at the helm, it wasn’t the most comfortable vessel. It skimmed across the water at high speed, with bamboo floats to keep the boat stable. This was no Disney ride, this was the real thing with actual danger and no life vests at the ready. Three people in the craft and you felt vulnerable, as the sea lapped up and spray splashed across your face. More modern and comfortable boats were available. But they weren’t authentic. This journey required a wooden boat with a billowing sail and an Indonesian at the helm.
Anak was that Indonesian. Though he would certainly never refer to himself as a citizen of a country that was merely a patina of government laid across an ungovernable collection of islands. He was Bali and high-caste, descended from the gods, or so his grandfather told him. His family were the traditional rulers of the island. They had endured the Dutch and would be here long after the political construct of Indonesia had failed.
Komodo meant nothing to him. When they took donors around the island, Anak stayed in the boat and played solitaire on his mobile phone. He looked at the dragons with a disinterested stare, keeping an eye on them like a Texan might stare at his cattle. The dragons were his property; they represented dollars but he had no love for them, these ugly beasts that brought Westerners halfway around the world.
Money was what Harold was pursuing as well. Anak was paid a couple hundred dollars a month to guide visitors to the island. A nice supplement to his income from fishing. But Harold was fishing for something much bigger. He was in charge of high-value donors for The Nature Conservancy. He was to cultivate the wealthy, charm them and ultimately separate them from as much money as possible. Donate a million dollars, or promise to, and you got Harold as your friend, at least until the check was signed. He had a spreadsheet full of financial targets to meet if he was to remain in this paradise.
Bobbing offshore, a hundred yards from the crashing surf. The sun was now well above the horizon. Harold was sweating. Anak wouldn’t look at him. This descendent of the gods was softly praying, furiously trying to atone for this karmic disaster, whose price he would be paying for lifetimes.
Harold held the satellite phone in both hands. He couldn’t call. He wouldn’t call. But he had to. One call and it would all be over, this blessed life a world away from his past.
A grunt came from the island. A noisy grunt and then a scuffle, the sound of armored flesh on flesh, of scaled beasts snapping at each other, contesting for the last chunk of meat. Their saliva was rich with disease. Even if you survived an attack, you would die within days from infection. The dragons knew this, imprinted on their reptilian brains from millions of years of hunting and killing.
Silverman had been no nimble deer. The native deer, scrawny half-grown creatures, were light of foot and capable of eluding the lumbering dragons across open terrain. The dragons were quick, but only for the first twenty feet. Then they tired. They were creatures designed for ambush, a sudden movement out of dark copse catching the unaware. They’d bite you and let you die, slowly, painfully from disease as they circled close, waiting for you to stop moving.
They rarely attacked humans, some unseen force or half-remembered injunction keeping them away from the dangerous primates.
Folklore spoke of this. The Balinese were well familiar with the animals and unafraid of them. Even children would play on the same beach where Komodo dragons lounged. They knew that the dragons weren’t dangerous, unless you got too close to them when they were hungry.
After all, the Komodo dragon was the top of the food chain on the island. It feared nothing. It was the apex predator. But it didn’t eat or hurt humans, except in very rare cases. They satisfied themselves with ambushing the native deer.
The beasts were so secure, so imperious, that the first Dutch visitors easily shot a dozen of them within minutes of stepping off their boat. The lizards seemed only dimly aware of these white apes among them as they slept off their breakfast. The dragons were stuffed and sent back to Holland. The legend was true, though these dragons didn’t breathe fire and weighed no more than a hundred pounds. Naturalists followed and had been observing the dragons for more than a century. The dragons were well-studied. The pattern was known. And now it had all been upended.
Dragons had attacked and killed a human. And a very important human.
Precautions had been taken. The protocol had been followed. It had been established a decade earlier by the park rangers, a series of steps that were to be followed in preparation for VIP visitors. While the local children walked down the beach within yards of the dragons, The Nature Conservancy wasn’t willing to take that risk with affluent Westerners. The dragons would be fed prior to the visit of a potential donor, to ensure that the reptiles were satiated and docile. Dead goats would be dumped on the beach a few hours before the VIP visit. The dragons preferred their meat a little rotten. The flyspecked carcasses would be left for them to noisily gorge upon, a midnight feast fit only for a creature from a different geological era. Hours later, Harold and Anak would arrive, ferrying the VIP to this beautiful island and the strangely quiescent dragons.
The photos were excellent. Harold had taken many of them himself. They were the stuff of marketing brochures and full-page magazine features. The soft morning light, the pink sands and some wealthy person knee-deep in the warm surf. Behind them, on the beach, the nearly lifeless bodies of a dozen dragons, sleepily observing this strange scene, their acidic digestive tracts working their way through flesh and bone.
“Are they tame?” a wealthy Californian once asked him. She was covered in gold, her wealth of questionable provenance, from a mortgage company being sued by a dozen state governments.
“They’re wild,” Harold had asserted, as the woman leaned down to examine the slumbering creatures.
“Are they even alive?” the woman responded, turning toward him.
A noisy grunt made her jump. She clung to him.
“Oh my god! I thought I was done for!”
She shook in his arms, her body jittery with adrenalin.
“Very much alive. Which is why they need to be protected,” Harold said, always ready to make the sale.
But the woman had called out to her husband and was recounting the scare. The man wanted to hear the dragons grunt again but the creatures were unwilling. He had to be talked out of poking one with a stick.
Harold never got any money out of the Californians. They promised, of course, but never put pen to paper to finalize their donation. Various reasons were cited — their tax situation, legal concerns, inheritance issues — but in the end The Nature Conservancy got nothing. This was not uncommon. You had to cultivate a dozen millionaires to get one to open their wallet. But it was still worthwhile — one big donation would keep Komodo Park running for years. And keep Harold in this paradise.
Anak was crying. Harold heard him softly sobbing in the boat, his back to him. He swore that he had dropped off the goats at midnight, like he had done countless times before. In the morning, the goats were gone. And so were the dragons, at least at first. This wasn’t unusual. The animals moved in a slow, meandering herd, making a royal progress around the island, from trees to beach to low hills and back again. If you were downwind, they weren’t difficult to find — they had a stench of rotting meat about them. You could also trace their mammoth droppings to find them or just look to see where the brush had been knocked down. Easy to find and easy to avoid.
When Anak had slid the boat onto the sand, trade winds at his back, the beach was empty. Harold had jumped out and into the warm waters. After securing the jukung with Anak, he had helped Silverman out of the boat. The old man had knee problems and could barely walk.
“But I’m a gamer,” the man had told him the night before, his blue eyes twinkling.
Harold guided Silverman out of the ankle-deep water and onto the sand. The septuagenarian was breathing hard already. But his face was bright. He was smiling. Happy, as he looked around the island, after the two-hour trip in a longboat.
“Where are they?”
“They’re close,” Harold said.
Where were they? Harold hadn’t yet developed the tracking capabilities of Anak but he sniffed the air. The wind was blowing off the ocean so he could smell nothing. Anak gave him a nod, pointing toward the north end of the beach. It was where he had left off the goats; they wouldn’t be far.
“This way,” Harold said, heading toward the trees.
The old man didn’t want to take Harold’s arm. The ladies all loved to lean on his muscled, brown frame. But Silverman was determined to do this on his own. He walked with a peculiar crab motion, one leg after another ahead of his body, ambulating up the beach. Breathing hard, but making a steady pace across the soft sand.
Ahead, Harold could see where the dragons had been — there were trenches in the beach and massive droppings. Behind them, the forest that The Nature Conservancy had replanted after the Balinese had harvested it. The palm trees made an excellent backdrop for photos.
Looking back, Harold could see that Anak was already on his phone, ready for another round of video poker. Past him, he could just make out the water tower from the local village. The children had been warned to stay away this morning. A VIP was coming and the illusion of danger was ruined if kids played amid Komodo dragons. The tableau must be pristine — a deserted island, prehistoric animals and you.
Silverman had somehow gotten ahead of him. It was a surprising burst of speed from the 76 year-old.
“There!” the man shouted, over the roar of the surf.
Harold grinned, as if this was the first time he had ever seen Komodo dragons. They were there. He glimpsed scaly skin, dead eyes and the flicker of tongues amid the palm trees. About a dozen of them, Harold guessed. It would be difficult to get pictures, he realized. In the trees, they tended to blend in, their green skin disappearing amid the undergrowth. He pulled open the camera bag and brought out the big Canon.
I looked down for just a second — he could hear himself saying this. Testimony, in a court, a legal proceeding, an inquisition, somewhere not far in his future. I looked down for just a second …
It was true. He looked down to take the lens cap off the camera. He then raised the viewfinder to his eye, to catch Silverman’s magical encounter with a Komodo dragon.
He snapped a photo but something was wrong. The dragons were too close. They were out of the trees now — how was that possible? A couple seconds and they were on the sand within feet of Silverman. They weren’t quiescent, sated, full. They were moving, active, eyes open and tongues flicking. And jaws open hungrily.
A couple more frames went by, Harold’s index finger working faster than his mind. He took pictures because he always took pictures. They would be printed on archival paper and framed. Then presented to the VIP as Harold made his final sales pitch. They were memories of a special moment, one only a tiny fraction of the world ever got to experience — an encounter with the wild, with these creatures that should’ve died out in the last Ice Age.
But they were alive and here. And rushing toward Silverman’s legs. They scampered forward, clawed feet kicking up pink sand.
Silverman smiled and then the smile faded as he looked over his shoulder at Harold. On his face was concern, alarm, wondering if this was how things were supposed to be.
They were not and the camera was down and Harold was running toward Silverman.
A dragon clamped down on the man’s bony shin. Another grabbed the other leg. They pulled and twisted, their sharp teeth shredding flesh. Blood dripped down their jaws as Silverman screamed in pain, still standing. A third dragon jumped up on the backs of the others and onto the old man’s chest. He went down onto the sand as the dragon’s jaws reached for his neck.
“Oh God, help me!”
Harold gave one of the dragons a kick but they were devouring Silverman alive. And more dragons were coming, scampering out of the forest, drawn by the scent of blood. In his sandals, Harold kicked at scaly and impervious flesh.
The dragon squatting on Silverman ripped his throat out. The man gurgled blood, this lungs still working, as the life ebbed out of him on this sun-blessed beach.
Harold heard a grunt and saw a dragon snap at his legs. Poisonous venom dripped out of the beast’s jaws. He leaped backward, pursued by dragons. They pushed forward, lunging at him, as Harold retreated.
The dragons were ripping Silverman apart. His last glimpse of the man was of him buried in a swarm of dragons.
Harold ran for the boat, dragons lumbering after him.
Only now did the Balinese look up from his phone. It didn’t make any sense. Why was Harold running? Where did the old man go? What were the dragons eating?
The creatures that didn’t get a bite of Silverman were moving down the beach, a wave of green.
“Go! Go!” Harold cried, his face contorted by panic.
Anak responded in Balinese, not that the American noticed. The foreigner was trying to extricate the jukung from the sand. Something was wrong — the dragons were coming. They were coming after them.
They pushed the boat into the water. Anak pulled down the sail and fired up the outboard motor. He forced his way through the waves and out to sea.
A hundred yards offshore, Harold tried to catch his breath. He was hyperventilating, gasping in the warm morning air. Anak stood in the jukung, trying to understand what had just occurred. He saw the last scramble for the remains of Silverman. Then the dragons withdrew, back into the palm forest, their point made. Anak slumped down, defeated, the weight of the catastrophe pushing him to the floor of the boat.
After a few seconds, he was crying, soft sobs lost amid the crash of waves.
Harold told himself to slow down. Breathe. Breathe slowly. He concentrated on his breath, on the meditation classes he took that would now be over, ended once The Nature Conservancy learned of this tragedy. A big donor. Dead. He would be recalled to Arlington. And then fired. Without a doubt — how could they employ him as a Donor Manager who got donors killed?
His termination would be just the start of his decline. The news would come out — it would have to be reported. His name — Harold Alexander — would be prominent in every news story. It was the perfect “news of the weird” story to amuse cynical urban dwellers, a horrific and ironic tale to enjoy while riding the subway — Komodo dragons eat a millionaire. Schaudenfreude, writ large, as readers imagined a member of the 1% experiencing a violent demise.
Several paragraphs down, he would be mentioned, a vital element of the story. “Silverman was on a trip organized by Harold Alexander, a manager with The Nature Conservancy.”
He would be unemployable. A quick Google search would bring up hundreds of variants of this story, published in mainstream and alternative papers across the country. His name would be linked forever with Silverman and his death. He would never work again; his career, over. His destiny would be the streets, degradation and death.
Anak had turned away from the beach. Still sitting on the floor of the boat, he stared at the sunrise, tears lubricating his gaunt cheeks.
Harold controlled his breath. He dared to look at the island. Where Silverman had been, there was nothing, just divots and disturbed sand indicating the wild scramble of dragons. Not a scrap remained — they had consumed everything, even the man’s bones, clothes and cell phone. Nothing was left. Silverman was being digested in the acidic stomachs of dragons.
That little man, gone, thought Harold. The island was beautiful, the sunrise perfect, he and Anak were alive and in the boat, but the Florida millionaire was no longer with them. He had been erased, cleanly, from the scene as if he had never been.
But he had been very much alive, at one time. Harold had evidence of it, on his digital camera. Not just the images of his death, but photos from his last days in Bali, when Harold had made his pitch. He had shown the man The Nature Conservancy offices and presented on the unique ecosystem of Komodo. A PowerPoint presentation on a warm afternoon with winds blowing through screens, a world away from cold America. An environment warmer, wetter and more exotic than even Florida, filled with gentle Buddhists and an ancient culture. All soon to be taken from him.
Silverman had been convinced. He didn’t need the presentation. Halfway through, he stopped Harold.
“Enough,” he said, waving one hand, dismissing the slides. “You got me already.”
The next morning, they went over the Wallace Line, the invisible barrier between the species of Asia and Australia. It was nothing but a line on the map. They went over it just before dawn, as the jukung approached Komodo.
And now, Anak prayed as the boat heated up under the morning sun. Harold had the satellite phone in his hands, ready to make the call back to Arlington and end his career.
Something was digging into his shoulder. Then he remembered he still had the camera around his neck. There were flecks of blood on the strap, a sad reminder of the late Mr. Silverman. He scrolled through the pictures. He had gotten a couple of nice ones of him back in Bali, the silver-haired man posed in the Water Palace of Ubud, his blue eyes open in the soft light of the central courtyard. There were photos of the Barong dance, the never-ending battle between good and evil. It was hot and the performance went on too long for the septuagenarian — he seemed to be fading away in the photos, lost in a swirl of dancing brown skin and gold-flecked costumes. The next day, Silverman recovered. Harold got pictures of green rice paddies stretching toward gentle mountains, with the Floridian barefoot among the farmers. He was up to his ankles in mud but happy, a broad smile across his face.
Then the wind-borne journey this morning, the jukung pushing toward Komodo, Silverman’s gray hair blown back by the sea breeze. A beautiful photo, with his eyes sparkling in anticipation.
After that, Harold couldn’t look at any more photos because of what came next: the dragons emerging from the trees. Coming too close. The look of panic in Silverman’s eyes. Then, horror.
Harold took the camera and dropped it over the side. Its loud splash made Anak turn. He looked quizzically at Harold.
“I don’t want this,” Harold said. “Any of this. Understand?”
The two men stared at each other, as the boat bobbed gently in the morning sea. After a moment, Anak silently nodded.
Harold suddenly felt free again. All of this would disappear. This morning never happened. It would be erased, scraped clean.
Anak pulled the seacock. Warm water began gurgling into the jukung. He rocked the boat to let in the sea.
Harold began throwing things overboard — a cooler full of drinks, chairs and cushions, the satellite phone.
With a snap, Anak broke off the bamboo float. He pulled down the sail. The vessel was slowly settling into the water.
It was an accident. A rogue wave. The boat capsized and the old man drowned, despite their heroic efforts to save him. Heroic, he repeated to himself, practicing the story.
Harold could keep his dream. Silverman, a man who had achieved his dream, the dream of meeting dragons, would understand. He was sure of it. The old man’s money would protect Komodo, like he wanted, and save Harold as well.
The water reached his knees. Anak waited with him, the two of them facing each other. The Balinese understood. The world was full of tragedy. The old man’s death belonged to both of them. They would pay, in this lifetime and the next. It was unavoidable. The bill would have to be settled, the universe made whole. Blood for blood. But Anak would put off the inevitable for as long as possible, lest pain be visited upon his own innocent family. Admitting the deed now would lead to loss of position, and poverty, with his wife and children forced to labor in rice fields. No, he would bear the burden in secrecy, the shame hidden away, with the penalty inevitable. He would suffer, as life intended.
The boat settled into the water, Harold and Anak floating free. They kicked and swam for the shore, pushing hard for the island of Komodo.
If you liked this, be sure to check out my novels Murder in Ocean Hall and Don’t Mess Up My Block.