"A little more of this south seas sauterne, if you please, my dear."
Maryanne had just sat down but cheerfully gets up again to serve Mr. Howell. Mr. Howell has a way of getting people to do things for him without offending them.
"Lovey, what's the matter? You've hardly touched your dinner."
Mrs. Howell stares blankly at her plate as if she is trying to remember where it came from. She puts her gloved hand next to her mouth and whispers, but we can all hear her.
"They've forgotten the salad fork again. Thurston, we really must stop coming here!"
Mr. Howell chuckles. "But Lovey, Chez Maryanne is the only place in town." He looks around at all of us to make sure we are sharing in the fun and he takes his wife's hand and squeezes it gently. Mrs. Howell seems uncertain but manages a smile.
"Really, professor! Must you read at the table?" Ginger reaches over and runs her finger across the professor's wrist. The professor reluctantly closes his book and looks up.
"I was just trying to finish this chapter before dark. Fascinating material! This particular section describes the rituals young males are put through when they come of age in the Ugumba Tribe."
Ginger laughs. She laces her fingers together and nestles her face in them and opens up her eyes. "Tell me about it!" The professor is troubled by Ginger's eyes but is always glad to talk about his books.
"Well, as you may know, the Ugumbas practice segregation by gender with great zeal; the men and women live in separate huts even after marriage. Of course as part of the marriage ritual special huts are built to provide privacy during copulation."
"Thurston, who is this man? What is he saying?"
"There, there, Lovey. These eggheads have no sense of decency. Try not to listen."
The professor pretends not to hear. "Until puberty the boys live with the other children in the women's huts. But when a boy is ready his penis is painted bright red and he is forced to stand in the center of the village while the women dance around him, pointing and laughing."
I feel the Skipper's elbow in my ribs. "Hear that, little buddy?" Everyone looks at me and even the professor laughs a little. Mr. Howell snorts. "Ghastly! Sounds like the initiation ceremony at a Yale Fraternity House."
"After this the boy is driven out of the village so that he can experience homelessness and complete solitude. During his absence the tribe holds a mock funeral, not for the boy but for themselves. They dig ceremonial graves for each other. When the boy returns he is accepted into the men's hut."
Maryanne reaches over and forces a second helping onto my plate. She is wearing her perfume again.
The skipper belches. "As usual, professor, you're ruining my appetite. For the life of me, I can't see what you find so fascinating about a bunch of ignorant savages."
"They're neither ignorant nor savage, in my opinion. As a matter of fact I think we could do with a few rituals around here!"
Maryanne puts her hands on her hips. "Oh professor, you can't be serious!"
Mr. Howell leans over and whispers to me "If he pulls out some red paint, my boy, I suggest you make a run for it."
"I'm quite serious, I assure you." The professor points his finger into the air (which means there is a speech coming). "Rituals are very important. They enable us to recognize and deal with the changes that are all around us. Without them we are adrift in a fogbank, pulled this way and that by currents we can't even see, much less measure or control. In order to understand change we must first define it. And often, in the very act of recognizing change, we find a release from the pressures that any change creates.
"Consider the importance of weddings. Or funerals, take funerals for example. Funerals are a way of recognizing death and dealing with it. Without funerals the distinctions between life and death would begin to blur and we would be left with a vague desire to mourn without knowing when to cry or why or even how. A life can have no meaning unless a border is drawn to distinguish it from the greater Life around it. Funerals make this possible. Without them we are lost. The Ugumbas know this and so should we."
I don't understand why, but the skipper is mad. "OK, professor, if any one of us dies we'll have a big ceremony and we'll even let you give the eulogy. But we're not dead yet. At least I'm not."
"Hear Hear!" says Mr. Howell and signals Maryanne for more punch.
The professor stands up. "Meaning, I suppose, that I am! Just because I'm willing to face facts. Just because I can see that, like it or not, we're starting to put down roots in this place. Just because I understand that we're never going to get rescued and we're going to spend the rest of our lives right here!"
That's it. Out in the open at last. For a second no one says anything and the professor totters and takes a step backward.
"Coconut cream pie, anyone? It's your favorite, Gilligan." Maryanne looks at me hopefully but I am busy watching the men stare at each other. Maryanne and Ginger exchange glances. Only Mrs. Howell looks away, completely fascinated by the trunk of a nearby palm tree.
Now it is the skipper's turn to stand up. "You have no right to say that, professor. You'll scare the women. Don't you worry, girls, we'll be off this island before you know it!" For a second I think Maryanne is going to push her pie in the Skipper's face, but she sets the pie down and keeps her mouth shut.
"The women have just as much right to hear this as you do, maybe more. They've got some hard decisions to make. So do we all."
"Egad," says Mr. Howell, "you eggheads turn my stomach. If you'd put half your hot air into a balloon we could have all flown home a year ago. Why don't you put that brain of yours to work on something useful, something that could get us off this rock. Or doesn't that interest you?"
When the professor gets mad, he gets quiet and now he is so quiet we can hardly hear him. "Gilligan, fetch me a shovel from the tool hut."
"Oh my," says Ginger, "this is getting interesting."
Now Mr. Howell stands up. "Digging a cemetery, professor, or has science found a new way to silence laymen?"
"Something much more practical. I'm going to start digging the new latrine. It's about time we stopped wasting energy on rafts and watchtowers, and started building some permanent structures. And a little digging will give me a chance to vent my frustrations without hitting anyone. Gilligan, get the shovel!"
"Hold it! I'm the skipper and I'm the only one who gives orders around here!"
"We're not at sea anymore, skipper. You have no authority over us. That's another thing we've got to start thinking about."
The skipper takes a step toward the professor but I throw myself between them. "Before you guys get too carried away I think you should know that I, uh, sort of lost all the shovels."
Mr. Howell bursts out laughing. "The lad's done it again! I doff my hat to you, my boy. Maybe the professor is right after all. With you on this island how can we ever get off? Everything we do crumbles at your touch. Why is that, Gilligan? Could it be that you have some reason for keeping us here, or at least some of us?" He looks at Maryanne.
"Now just a second, Howell! You can't talk to my little buddy like that! If anyone is going to yell at Gilligan it's going to be me."
Mr. Howell's eyes go black. "Ah yes, the great skipper of the S. S. Minnow. If you hadn't been blind drunk and eighty degrees off course we never would have been shipwrecked in the first place."
Everything on the island stops. Mr. Howell sits down and puts his head in his hands. We all stare at him and then at the skipper. All the blood goes out of the skipper's face and he just stands there. His little blue eyes are wet and his hands are shaking. I reach out to hold his hand but he pushes me away and, very slowly, walks into the jungle. The professor shakes his head, picks up his book, and goes back to his hut. Mr. Howell just sits there next to his wife and Ginger sits across from him, looking sadder than I've ever seen her. Maryanne and I hold hands and walk toward the lagoon.
by John Cartan