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High Tide

Dr. Charles and I had found the tribe on a relatively small tropical island. It was fairly close to a larger, modern island, so we just used a motorboat to move between the islands when we had to. At first, we moved back and forth rather frequently, but as we came to know the natives we gradually stayed for longer and longer periods of time. By the time we were able to converse with the natives, we were staying on the island for periods up to a month.

We didn't want to contaminate their culture -- after all, if we did we wouldn't have anything to study -- so we kept most of our high-tech equipment on the boat. Unfortunately, there was only one harbor on the island; the rest was surrounded by a reef that was safe to cross over at high tide, but would rip the bottom off the boat at low tide. The unfortunate part was that the tribe lived almost as far from this harbor as they could -- pure coincidence, of course, it just happened that way. As a result, any time we wanted the equipment in the boat we faced a tough, two-hour hike. There was a good spot for the boat near the village, but we could only get to it by crossing the reef, which we were nervous about.

One day at the village, Dr. Charles decided to bring the boat closer. He knew the reef had to be crossed at high tide, but he didn't want to hike to the boat and check the tide charts and maybe sit around for six hours. So he decided to ask the Shaman when the next high tide would be. After living on an island for so long, the natives were acquainted with the periodic rise and fall of the ocean waters. Their explanation for them was fairly simple: their god, who carried their island on his back and prevented it from sinking like a rock, occasionally got tired and let the island rest a little lower on his shoulders which made the waters seem to rise.

Through my translation, the Shaman told Dr. Charles when high tide would be -- for a pre-industrial society, they had an amazing grasp of time -- and Dr. Charles set out to bring the boat around. A few hours later, I went out to the shore to watch him pull in. He zipped into sight from around the curve of the island, started heading for our pre-selected spot, and then there was a horrible crunching noise and the boat stopped short. It had hit the reef.

Later it came to me: the natives had based their concept of tide on the movement of the island. When they said high tide they meant that their god was strong and the island was high. The water, then, relative to the island would be low -- which we call low tide. After I heard their legend, I had translated "movement of the island" as "tide," not realizing the different use of high and low, so in a way Dr. Charles' death is my fault. I'd apologize, but of course it's too late now.


This one literally came to me as I was nodding off. Of course, I was trying to come up with a story at the time. Why? Ellen, my sister, had joined our school's literary magazine and needed some number of donations and asked me to write something. So, I sat around trying to think up something and went to bed and an idea came to me. After some rewrites, it became what you see above.

This story has the distinction of being one of two things I've written that's actually been published. The other is a "haiku" (in quotes because I doubt it qualifies) that was published anonymously:

Beatles for Nike
Vader for Energizer
Who else endorses?

I confess surprise they published that, as it doesn't involve death in any conceivable way -- which seems to be a requirement for most of the stuff they publish. It was listed as "Untitled" by Anonymous although I called it the "Advertiser's Haiku" and attributed it to me.

David Menendez

David Menendez, zednenem@alumni.psu.edu