Beauty Queens


“I’m weightless, Annie,” she whispered into the syrup-thick air.

At the cliff’s top she saw the small campfire and the man in the sleeping bag. He was sheltered by the ledge. Her breath caught. He was gorgeous. She crept closer. Firelight sent shadow fingers to caress his tattooed face as Mary Lou wished she could. Nobody looked like that in Nebraska. Nearby was a backpack with his name: Tane Ngata. Department of Ornithology.

She wanted to wake him and ask if he knew a way off the island, but she couldn’t let him see her like this. She was no patient princess waiting to be plucked and taken off to a castle. No. She was naked. Exposed. Her body full of want and need. Desire. He was like the sleeping prince in a fairy tale, and she had the urge to kiss him. But the prince would never want a cursed girl like her. Still, in her wild-girl state, she could not resist the smell of him, and so she inched carefully forward, put her face to his neck and inhaled.

The prince startled awake. Frightened, Mary Lou scampered back into the jungle. Her foot came down on a rope. With a sharp jerk, the net trap scooped her up and slammed her against the side of a tree. Her shoulder burned with pain and she cried out.

“Hello?” someone called. The prince with the backpack approached. He carried a kerosene lamp.

Mary Lou tried to remain silent, but her shoulder hurt and a small hiss escaped. The prince looked up to see her still swinging from the tree.

“Got yourself caught up there, eh?”

She said nothing in response.

“No worries. I’ll get you down.”

He put the lamp on the ground, and with a knife in his teeth, he shimmied up the tree till he was just above her. Another acrobat. What was it with her family and flying men? She shivered a bit at the sight of the knife.

“Give me your hand,” he said. She was too afraid to touch him. “All right. That’s cool. Try to relax everything in case I drop the rope.”

Mary Lou felt a surge of panic. She thrust her hand at him. He held on to her, and with his other hand, he cut through the rope. There was a drop and Mary Lou dangled above the ground.

“It’s all right, mate. I’ve got you,” the prince said.

His hand was sure, but Mary Lou was afraid. With a thump, she dropped to the ground, wincing in pain, then scurried to hide her nakedness behind a bush.

The prince climbed down. He looked worried. “You okay?” He waited for a response. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen a big bird, wing-span of a small plane, likes shiny things?”

Mary Lou held her breath and counted her heartbeats.

“Yeah, me neither. That’s a taro plant, that big, elephant-eared thing you’re crouching behind. If you cook it, it’s delicious. If you eat it raw, it’ll kill you. Kind of a dodgy plant when you think about it, yeah?”

He laughed, and it warmed her. “By the way, it’s about three o’clock. If you were wondering.” Pause. “Probably not. I like these hours. Feels like you could live inside your dreams, have a walkabout. You know?” Pause. “Yeah. All right, mate. I’m gonna get some sleep. Big day tomorrow. Taking my boat round the north side —”

“You have a boat? Are you a pirate?” Mary Lou started to step out, remembered her state, and ducked back behind the taro plant.

“Yeah. I mean, no. I mean, yeah, got a boat — well, it’s a dinghy, light craft. And no, I’m not a pirate. I’m an ornithologist. Student, really. At university, second year. I’m looking for a rare bird, the Venusian raptorus. Are you a pirate?”

“I might be,” Mary Lou said. A new confidence surged in her. She liked this funny prince.

“Cool. Say something piratey.”

“Like what?”

“Don’t know. You’re the possible pirate, aren’t you, mate?”

Back at the swimming hole in Nebraska, Mary Lou had pretended that she was a pirate queen. Now, she wished she were one. She wished she were anything but a cursed wild girl, a beast. How she wanted to thank this prince with a kiss. But he would see the way she was, her carnality and need, and he would shrink back in disgust like Billy. It would never work out.

“You sure you’re okay?”

She didn’t answer him, and he looked disappointed. Mary Lou bit her lip. “Be safe. Be good,” her mother had said. But she didn’t want to follow her mother’s advice and sleepwalk through the days. Was it really so terrible to be a wild girl? Could it be any worse than lying about yourself?

She peeked her head above the top of the plant. “I’m not a pirate. I’m a wild girl from a cursed line of women. I paw at the ground and run under the moon. I like the feel of my own body. I’m not a slut or a nympho or someone who’s just asking for it. And if I talk too loud it’s just that I’m trying to be heard.”