Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Night Island

Mary Helen Specht

That was what they should have called it, thought Isabella, as she trudged behind Billy along the beach, phosphorescent plankton throwing off light in response to each footstep. Night for the color of the sand. Night for the hours they were awake there.

Halfway to the mangroves, their flashlights, covered in red contact paper, caught something hulking and round being battered by the waves. It was the first leatherback of the night, and Isabella touched Billy’s arm. Nearby they found a fallen tree trunk to sit on and wait. The barrel-shaped turtle painstakingly mounted the beach, inching her way against waves washing back out to sea, reeling her flippers through the sand as though she were doing the butterfly stroke. It might take an hour or more before she’d traversed far enough inland to begin digging the hole where she would lay her eggs.

Isabella and Billy watched in silence from the log; to speak or move would be to risk frightening the animal and sending her back into the water, her duty unfinished. Isabella loved this part best, the stillness and quiet, her leg pressed up against his. She felt a camaraderie with the mother turtles they saw each night, and in the hours of walking and waiting, she liked to imagine her own belly full of babies and to wonder if—one day—they would look like her or like him.

After living her entire life on this sprinkling of small islands off the Atlantic coast of Panama, Isabella was ready for something different. Despite what her mother said, she knew Billy would make her happy in Texas. His visa ran out in a week, but she would follow him to the States as soon as the turtle birthing season was finished. After all, she was the reason he’d stayed, canceled the rest of his flight training hours, and continued to volunteer on this island where the sandflies were ruthless and the days spent in scorched sleep.

As the turtle finally began to dig in the sand, Billy turned to her and grinned his lopsided grin. They approached the animal, flashlights aimed away. Leatherbacks fell into a birthing trance at this point and could not sense the presence of other creatures. Billy straddled the animal’s rubbery back in order to measure her shell at the widest point and then her head. Isabella jotted down the numbers in a notebook.

It was time for the most difficult task. They lay on their stomachs on opposite sides of the turtle, holding a black plastic bag over the hole in order to catch the eggs as they dropped. Billy’s eyes were trained on the turtle’s underbelly, and it was during these moments Isabella felt most alone; by his total concentration on the animal, he pressed his absence through her.

First, a few small ones spurted out, the size of human eyeballs, soft yet sturdy like peeled hard-boiled eggs, and then came the larger ones, tennis-ball sized, in groups of two and three, seconds passing between drops. There were usually upward of a hundred in all. Isabella and Billy counted them in a whisper, their hands straining under the weight of the bag. When the turtle was done and began to wiggle away, they heaved the bag up onto the sand and carried it over to their backpacks propped against the log.

What Isabella didn’t know was that as they walked back to the hatchery to dig a new hole for the eggs, out of the reach of poachers, the mother turtle would slowly emerge from her birthing trance and spend almost an hour covering the empty hole with her flippers, circling it in ever wider rings so as to camouflage its location from predators. She would do all this in the dark of night, carefully and with love, a farewell to the vacant nest that was to her still rich with possibility.