The Island of Lost Horses

 

The Diary of Beatriz Ortega

12th April, 2014

I am writing this as fast as I can. The doors on the Phaedra don’t lock, and Mom could walk in anymoment. I have no privacy. I am the only twelve year- old girl I know who has to share a room with her mom.

I have pointed out how unfair it is, the way the jellyfish equipment takes up the whole front of the boat, but Mom won’t listen. Typical – the jellyfish get their own room and I don’t.

I’m not trying to make excuses for my handwriting or anything, but if it is all scrawly that’s because my arm’s so trembly I can hardly hold the pen. I think it’s from gripping on to the tractor for so long. The entire way home I had to cling to the wheel arch, sitting up there behind Annie like a parrot perched on a pirate’s shoulder. The way she drove along those rutted jungle tracks, I was petrified I was going to lose hold and fall beneath the wheels.

By the time we reached the bay and I could see the Phaedra, my body had been shaken up like a can of fizzy drink.

There was no sign of Mom as the tractor lumbered over the dunes and down the beach towards the sea. I was kind of relieved, to tell the truth. The whole time at Annie’s house I had been desperate to get back to the boat, but now that I was home I felt sick at the thought of facing Mom. She would be furious with me. I had been gone for two whole days…

 

 The Guardian of the Words

Annie jolted to a stop and I lost my grip on the wheel arch and fell to the sand, collapsing like jelly out of a mould, my legs giving way beneath me.

“Bee-a-trizz!” Annie leapt down from the tractor and hooked her arms under my armpits to lift me to my feet again.

“For heaven’s sake, child!” She was really strong for a little old lady. She held me like a rag doll, so that my feet dragged through the sand and my face was buried against her chest. I could smell the cotton of her dress and see where the blue floral pattern had gone all yellowed with sweat.

Annie carried me up the beach to the tidemark where the sand was dry and I lay there for a while with my eyes shut, taking deep breaths, trying to make the sick, dizzy feeling go away.

That was when I heard the Zodiac coming. I recognised the familiar whine of its outboard motor and the slap-slap the rubber inflatable made as it smacked across the waves. I opened my eyes and there was Mom steering the Zodiac to shore. She gestured frantically to me and I gave her a feeble wave in return. I felt like I was going to throw up. “Wait here, Bee-a-trizz.” Annie headed down to the water to help bring the Zodiac in. She stood knee-deep in the waves, holding it steady, and Mom jumped out and left her there as she ran up the beach to me.

“Beatriz!” She dropped to her knees beside me. “Oh my God, Bee!”

“Hi, Mom,” I managed a weak smile. When she touched my face her hand felt like ice against my skin.

“Beatriz, you’re burning up!”

“I’m OK,” I insisted. “I just got a little sunburnt.” “OK?” Mom looked horrified. “We have to get you to a hospital…”

“No.” I pushed myself up off the sand. The world was spinning around me. “I’m fine. Honest…”

“De child be al’right.”

It was Annie.

“I’m sorry?” Mom said, clearly shocked at the declaration from this stranger. “Are you a doctor?”

“Bee-a-trizz don’ be wantin’ no doctors,” Annie replied. “Child had de fever real bad, so I keep her to sleep at ma crib til day-clean. De fever broke, so she be al’right now…”

“At your place? She’s been missing for two days…”

Mom’s voice was tense. Here we go, I thought. Mom was going to grill Annie until she got the whole story. She was going to hear all about the horse and the mud flats and Annie finding me…

But Annie’s attention had been caught by the Phaedra, moored about forty metres offshore. She gave a flick of her head, gesturing at the boat with her lips, using them the same way other people used their hands to point at stuff.

“You all alone on dat tink?”

Mom’s eyes flitted briefly to the boat, then back to Annie. I could see that she was suddenly aware that we were in the middle of nowhere with no one else around except this weird old lady with her tractor.

“Yes,” Mom said warily. “I mean, alone with Beatriz – the two of us.”

Annie frowned. “You takin’ a vacation?”

My mom shook her head. “I’m a marine biologist. I’m working on a research paper for Florida University, studying the migratory patterns of sea thimble jellyfish…”

Annie grunted. She had lost interest and began to walk back to her tractor.

“Wait!” Mom said. “I mean… Thank you. For bringing Beatriz back. I have been worried sick…”

“De child be al’right. No need for worryin’,” Annie said. She clambered back up on to the tractor seat, yanking at her skirt to get comfortable. Then she turned the key in the ignition and stuck her bare foot down hard on the tractor pedal. The rattle and burr of the engine instantly killed any hopes Mom might have had for further conversation.

Annie shoved her straw hat down hard on her dreadlocks. “De island be a dangerous place,” she said. She was gazing over at the dunes where we had come from, taking in the far distant end of the island where the mud flats lay. “Very dangerous. You best be careful…”

Then, the tractor rumbled forward and Annie swung the steering wheel, turning the tractor so close to me, I thought she might run over my toes with those giant tyres. Then she raised her hand to flick me a goodbye wave and set off, the tyres digging zigzag patterns into the smooth white sand.

Annie’s battered straw hat was the last thing I saw as she crested the dunes and sank out of sight.

“That woman is flat-out crazy.”

My mom, making her usual proclamations.

“Annie’s not crazy,” I countered. “She’s my friend…” Although that really wasn’t true, was it? Annie gave me the creeps. The whole time I had been at her place I had wanted to leave. But I would never admit that to Mom.

“You stayed at her house?” Mom launched into it. “What were you thinking? Why didn’t you call me?”

I pulled my phone out of my pocket. It was sandy and crusted with salt, its insides totally soaked.

“It died,” I said. And the thought briefly flashed into my mind, should I tell Mom what had happened to me? No. I stopped myself.

If she knows what happened then she won’t let you go back there – and you must go back. You have to see your horse again…

“Mom?” I took a deep breath. “Can we go back to the boat, please? I think I’m going to throw up…” I managed to control the nausea, even with the Zodiac bouncing and skittering across the waves. I sat in the prow on the bench seat, focusing hard on the horizon, which is what you do to stop feeling seasick.

When we reached the Phaedra, Mom tied off the inflatable while I dragged myself up the ladder and on to the deck. I was still a bit shaky and I stumbled and fell forward, grabbing the side of the boat to stay upright.

“Are you sure you don’t need a doctor?” Mom asked. It was a silly question. Even if I did need a doctor where would we find one in a wilderness reserve on the outer edge of the Bahamas?

“I just need to lie down,” I insisted.

“Do you want me to make you something to eat?” Mom offered.

I shook my head gently. “No thanks, Mom. I just need to sleep.”

I made my way past the steering cabin and the kitchen on the upper deck, gripping the railings the whole way, and then down the narrow stairs that led to our room.

Below deck there are two rooms. The room at the front of the boat is where the jellyfish tanks and monitors and equipment are kept. And the other room is for me and Mom. On my side the walls are covered with horse pictures. The best one is of Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum jumping her horse Shutterfly over this huge water jump at the Olympics.

I flopped down face first on my bunk mattress, my sunburn throbbing, body aching. Then I thought about the diary and I forced myself to sit up again. I had dumped my backpack on the floor and I reached out and grasped it, dragging it closer so I could unzip it. The ancient diary was right at the top where I had packed it, bound up in filthy, grey cloth.

I noticed as I unwrapped it that the rags were trimmed with tattered lace and there was even a collar with a buttonhole. I guessed the cloth had once been an old-fashioned shirt, but it was so decayed it was hard to imagine anyone ever wearing it.

I put the cloth aside and held the diary in my hands, my fingers tracing the stiff cracks in the leather, the letters stamped on the front.

I was about to open it to the page where I had last finished reading when there were footsteps on the stairs.

“Bee?” I hurriedly wrapped the diary in its cloth and shoved it back inside the backpack. My heart was pounding. I waited a beat, expecting the door to open.

“Yeah?”

“I’m going to cook some pasta. You want some?”

“Uhh,” I hesitated, “no thanks, Mom. I’m not hungry.”

“OK.”

I waited for a heartbeat or two and then I heard her go back up the stairs. I was about to reach over and take the ancient diary out of the backpack again when a thought occurred to me.

I got up from my bunk and pulled open the drawer underneath where my books were kept. I had to dig through the pile, and for a moment I thought maybe it wasn’t even there. But here it was, right at the very bottom. It was smaller than I remembered it, with a blue cover and pale yellow lined pages. I opened my ‘Year 5’ diary and was relieved to find that, as I remembered, most of it was blank.

My handwriting hadn’t changed much over the past three years since I wrote these entries.

The diary had been a school assignment and our teacher Mrs Moskowitz graded it. We were supposed to write our feelings but I never did. Even though Mom and Dad were fighting. This was just before they broke up, before we left Florida.

I didn’t mention anything about horses either. I was worried that someone might grab the diary off me in class and read it out loud and I already got teased about being a ‘horsey girl’.

Most of the entries were about what I ate for lunch and who I sat next to in class and stuff. On the last page I had written all about how Kristen Adams and I were the bestest friends in the whole of Year 5. I winced a bit when I read that. Some BFF. She hadn’t returned my emails for at least two years.

Anyway, once I’d read that page I ripped them all out – the ones with writing on them. I tore them carefully so as not to disturb the blank pages and I balled up the used ones and tossed them aside on my bed. Then I propped myself up on my pillows and smoothed down the first clear page. It felt good to have that empty page looking back at me – waiting for me to put something on it.

I thought back to when Annie had given me Felipa’s diary. She had acted really serious about it, handing it to me like it was a big deal. “Bee-a-trizz,” she said. “You be de guardian of de words now.” At the time I thought she meant that because Felipa’s diary was written in Spanish and so I could understand it, I should look after it. But now I realised that maybe Annie meant something more than that. She said I was the guardian of the words. So maybe my own words mattered too? After everything that had happened to me over the past two days, out on the mud flats and at Annie’s house, I finally had something important to write. I had my own story to tell.

It wouldn’t be like the old pages that I had torn away. It would be true this time, like diaries are meant to be, but it would be amazing too. And it would begin with the day that I found my horse. Running wild in the most impossible place you could imagine. Here, on this tiny island, a million miles from anywhere, on the outer edge of the Caribbean.