It was a few summers ago, give or take, when Erlon first met Dr. Ayala on the beach. It had been one of their few trips that year since Anette had been in the midst of a demanding project at work, but that weekend she’d left the bulk of it to her student aid and taken a leisure day with him. They had brought two chairs, an umbrella and cooler, and a couple of books, and had been walking westward in search of a good spot when Anette had recognized her colleague and his wife.
As she had chatted up the wife Erlon had made small talk with Ayala himself, a professor from the Geology department, and soon they were walking together up the shore as Ayala pointed out the features of the landscape Erlon had never even thought might have names: berm, trow, shell hash, swale, overwash fan, hammock… The man’s enthusiasm and gregarious nature had been infectious, and even now Anette would laugh at Erlon for remembering such jargon. But his memory for such things had always been sharp.
It was Ayala he thought of now, a few days after finding the oval shapes on the satellite map. If anyone could tell him what they were—where the circular lake in his dreams might actually be—it was the geologist.
He felt nervous entering the science building, five minutes late for his appointment. He tried not to think about it as he took in the halls and high ceiling. One of the newer buildings on campus, it was a stark contrast to the others: a three story brick structure with tall glass doors. The only other time he’d been here was to see a Tyrannosaur skeleton in the atrium, though now that was gone. Instead three pterosaurs were hung in various poses from the ceiling. He eyed them as he climbed the stairwell to the second story where the Geology offices were found.
Ayala’s eyes lit up when Erlon appeared in his doorway. He stood abruptly and knocked his chair backward, waving Erlon in with an energy he could not even pretend to match. “Sit! Sit! It’s good to see you again! Are you keeping busy at the…uh…” He gestured as if he could summon the memory of what Erlon did for a living.
“Yes! Yes! How’s that going for you?”
Erlon met the other man’s gaze. His interest seemed genuine, not merely a formality, and he wasn’t prepared for that. “Uh, well, actually busy. We’ve got a special coming up in a bit under a month now. County treasurer.”
He mentally kicked himself as soon as he said it, knowing full well how boring it sounded. Ayala, though, nodded with relish. It felt strange, how personable he was to someone who was barely an acquaintance.
“Well—I want to thank you, Dr. Ayala, for seeing—”
“Norm! Call me Norm! Or Norman. I honestly don’t care much either way. But absolutely, I’m happy to talk. You said you had a geological question on the phone, right? This should be interesting.”
Erlon looked him over again, studied the man. He wore a grey golf shirt and khakis which would have looked shabby and drab on anyone else, but somehow added to the overall active effect Ayala gave off. He had the air of a mind racing several thoughts ahead of what his words could speak, all of which gave him an immense happiness he could barely keep buttoned beneath a professional exterior.
“Okay,” said Erlon. “Okay.” He pulled the folded satellite map printout from his pocket, spread it in front of the desk between a stack of books and a piece of shale with fossilized ferns.
Ayala leaned forward. “Oh. Yes. Carolina bays. Very interesting stuff. This is what you wanted to know?”
Erlon nodded. “What are they? And…how can I find one? But one with water, like a lake. And maybe a bit more…round?”
He winced inwardly, but Ayala gave no impression that he found the question silly. He nodded and smiled with relish. “Well, we know what it is, but not how it is. Carolina bays are all up and down the East coast, all of them oval-shaped and in that same orientation. Lots of different sizes, too, up to six miles long. Some have water in them, a lot of them don’t, and it seems to be a seasonal thing. They’ll flood in the spring and then dry out in the fall. Others are just bogs or pocosins.”
“Pocosins,” Erlon repeated, frowning and pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Mm-hm. Uh…now, as for a lake? There’s Lake Waccamaw in North Carolina, that’s probably the most well-known of the bays that’s a lake proper. A couple others probably, but none I know off the top of my head, not around here.”
“Oh.” Something heavy fell within Erlon’s chest.
“The interesting thing about Carolina bays,” Norman caught Erlon’s eyes, “is that there’s no accepted theory as to why they formed. Several hypotheses, but none of them explains every feature. They’re still something of a geological mystery.”
Erlon took that in. He felt that it meant something, but he had no idea what.
“Something on your mind?” Norman gave a slight smile at Erlon’s silence.
He shook his head. “Anything else you can tell me? Anything?”
“Mm! I could go into quite a lot of detail, but not much else a layman would appreciate.”
“Well, go on, if you don’t mind. I’d still like to hear it.”
Norman grinned and launched into a monologue, scattered with jargon Erlon didn’t recognize and reasoning he couldn’t quite follow. Though he did his best, and kept up with more than the geologist thought he did. Ayala was right. None of it helped him. Regardless, he enjoyed hearing someone talk about something they deeply understood.
“Oh!” Norm, winding down. “The bays shelter several endangered species that grow there, I didn’t mention that. Bobcats and ospreys. Bears sometimes. A couple of plants—pink tickseed and the other one I can’t remember, looks like queen anne’s lace. I’ll remember it as soon as you leave, I’m sure.” He chuckled. “So why the interest in the bays? You go out hiking, just stumbled on one or something?”
“Yeah.” Erlon squinted, suppressing an ironic grin. “Something like that.”
* * *
Walking south through campus, he barely noticed the sweet, heavy scent of jasmine waft from overgrown vines along the iron fences, or the barking of dogs from inside the courtyard. His feet were on autopilot, traveling paths he had walked many times while visiting Anette at her office, bringing her coffee. The meeting with Norman Ayala, educational as it was, had shed little light on his dreams or the place where they occurred.
He sighed. Something in him had loosened, beginning to give up on the whole thing. Maybe he would never find the true Carolina bay from the dreams. Maybe there wasn’t a true Carolina bay to begin with. Maybe the dreams meant nothing at all. His memories of Tannile were just memories, dredged up for no reason after all this time. He would never find justice for her, for himself. He felt immeasurably tired.
It was a dream, after all. The talking tree had been right: it was a real place, or a real kind of place at least. But it was also just a dream.
Erlon bought two lattes from a street café and turned west toward the English office, a two story building painted drab mauve. Just by the door a wide oak half encroached into the red brick sidewalk typical of campus streets. Like most offices on campus, and quite unlike the science building, it was a converted old single house, narrow on the street and lined on one side with stacked piazzas. He opened the front door and climbed the narrow rickety stairs, each step wakening layers of dust caked into the carpet. The place felt homey, though in a remote, inaccessible way. He breathed the faint musty smell, rounded the landing and knocked at Anette’s door.
He cracked the door open and leaned in, seeing her face light up. “Erlon!” she said. “And you brought coffee! What a surprise!”
He smiled. “I took the day off work. Needed a break. Thought I’d pop in, say hi, like old times.”
“Well, it sure does bring me back. Sit down, baby. Take a load off.”
She brought one of the extra chairs around to her side of the desk and he eased in, groaning as he sat. “You busy today?”
“As much as ever, but I’m getting a handle on it. I was thinking Italian for dinner tonight? How’s that sound?”
“Sounds good.” He leaned forward, touching her neck. His hand fell to her shoulder and he put pressure in his fingers, burrowing into her upper back.
“That feels good. Whoo, I didn’t realize how tense I was.”
He stood and walked behind her and they both fell silent as he massaged through her purple and saffron blouse. The sun slanted in through the window, casting a long narrow rectangle of sun on the rug and the wood floor beneath, a quality of light that felt nostalgic somehow. Erlon felt a sudden need to speak, but thought of nothing he could say.
A short rap at the door startled him as a young woman appeared, one of the newer assistant professors. “Anette, sorry to bug you—oh! Hello! Sorry, I didn’t realize…”
“It’s okay, Liz,” Anette rose. “This is my husband, Erlon. Just dropped in to bring me coffee. What do you need?”
“Well, it’s Carla,” the woman gave a nervous shrug. “Her printer—you know she is. Won’t let me touch it, says you’re the only one who can make it work.”
Anette rolled her eyes and turned to Erlon. “Sorry, baby, this’ll just take a second. I’ll be right back.”
“It’s fine,” he said, sitting as the other two left the office.
He glanced around, scanning his wife’s bookshelves. There were a few titles he knew, but most went well over his head. Books like Twilight on the South Carolina Rice Fields, The Sound of Freedom and Protest in the South Carolina Sea Islands, or Folk Culture in Modern African-American Fiction. There were times when Anette brought home such books to read and he felt tempted to pick them up himself, but knew if he did he would fall deep into a rabbit hole, all his time sunk into learning what Anette had already devoted decades of study to. Compared to her knowledge, his own curiosity felt silly.
He pried his eyes away. They fell on the desk in front of him, the middle drawer cracked open a few inches. He wasn’t trying to be nosy, but there it was. Right in front of him.
He couldn’t see much, just a manilla folder and a sticky inscribed with a hasty note. Anyone else who’d been left alone in his wife’s office could probably not read her scrawl, but Erlon could. Three words that made his skin crawl:
“Shem and Tannile????”
Erlon stood. He opened the drawer, removed the folder, dipped his head closer to read. There were entire documents about life on the island, things adjacent to what he had told her about his sister’s story. His parents. And Shem. The sticky note was attached to a property deed, the address highlighted in yellow.
He heard footsteps in the hallway and put the folder back, shutting the drawer again to the slightly open position he hoped it had been in before. The footsteps passed the door. He breathed. Erlon sat again, tapped his fingers on his knees. He didn’t want to pry, didn’t want to be that kind of husband… But it was his life in that folder, after all.
Should he say something when she returned? Or pretend he hadn’t seen anything? Erlon shook his head. Part of him wanted to speak, to demand an explanation.
He thought about his own hidden research, though. He hadn’t told her he had visited Ayala, and probably wouldn’t. He couldn’t explain the dreams, nor did he want to talk about them. It seemed hypocritical to hide his own things while prying into hers, even if hers involved his own sister. And if there was anything Anette resented most, it was a hypocrite.
His stomach clenched a little. A moment or two passed, and Anette appeared in the doorway again, sinking down into the other chair next to him. “This place is a circus,” she said, brushing a stray loc from her forehead.
“Rough day, huh?” He smiled.
“Listen.” She sighed deeply, and Erlon almost spoke. But she winked at him, and the words vanished from his throat, and he was silent.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it, then,” he stood, brushing her shoulder blade gently. “See you tonight.”
“Thanks, baby. I loved the coffee. That was super thoughtful.”
He left the office, breathing in the fresh air as he stepped outside and walked back toward the street where he’d parked. In his pocket he clenched the sticky note he’d taken from his wife’s desk drawer, marked with an address and his sister’s name.