Love Letters to Earth

by Henry Quicke









The Ailats live on a small, flat island, pretty but not breathtaking, green but not lush, pleasant but not too popular with tourists, owing to the eccentricities of the inhabitants.  In the days when travel guides bothered to mention the island, they called the Ailats “erratic and possibly schizophrenic.”  One guide related a typical experience for tourists: “One tranquil afternoon on the wide but seaweed-strewn beach, a friendly waiter ambushed us with a pair of strawberry daiquiris he explained were compliments of the hotel manager.  We twisted our gaze to the pool area and espied the white-suited manager waving jovially and beaming our way.  The waiter refused his tip with a shy smile.  As we sipped our delightful red concoctions, the beach seemed to us suddenly cleaner, the brown sea suddenly bluer, and the dark clouds on the horizon but a minor annoyance.  We debated an extra star for the hotel and began to revise upward our luke-warm write-up of the island itself.  Then, before we knew it, the threatening clouds were upon us and the thunderous deluge struck us before we’d quite hunched up the beach, trying as we were to protect our half-finished drinks from the slings and arrows of tropical weather.  To our astonishment, we reached the glass doorway just in time to behold the manager locking us out with a twist of his pudgy fingers.  He scowled, called us ‘colonialist exploiters,’ and spat disgustingly at the glass as we pounded and pleaded.  When at last he opened the door, it was only to grab our daiquiris, throw the liquid in our faces, and retrieve the tall glasses for himself.  To add insult, our formerly friendly waiter then crept up behind us, stole our beach bag, and ran off with all of our money.  Needless to say, if our editors granted us the discretion to use negative stars, this island would receive five of them....”

The one hotel is now abandoned and the tourist industry virtually extinct, but the Ailats live comfortably, pulling fish and mollusks from the sea, vegetables from their gardens, and fruit from the abundant trees, trading with neighboring islands for other necessities, and governing themselves with a small assembly that meets only in times of crisis.

One such crisis was a recent drought.  The drought did little to affect the Ailats’ food supply--some vegetable gardens might have dried up, but the sea never failed in its generosity.  Nor did it affect their water supply--the freshwater wells flowed on demand.  But the unchanging weather did affect the Ailats psychologically.  During this time, the temperature fluctuated little.  The sun shone relentlessly all day long, and at night the billion-eyed sky gazed untwinklingly.  The breeze drifted offshore and back but never turned gusty.  Distant storms remained as aloof as passing ships.  Meanwhile, the many and varied personalities of the Ailats shrank toward a single, sluggish monotony.

Normally, the Ailats’ personalities are as restless as their weather.  In fact, every Ailat has a personality that fluctuates in exact proportion to the changing weather, which is why the travel writers were treated so differently in the storm than they were in the sun, and why the drought caused an island-wide malaise.

Consider, for instance, an Ailat woman whose personality is dominated by thrift.  That means that, depending on weather conditions, the woman will be either more or less thrifty.  On a calm, sunny day that woman may be disinclined to make any purchases and may plant a garden to cut back on her food costs.  If the wind picks up and a few clouds move in, the same woman may decide to visit the local store and purchase some seedlings to save herself some time and effort in her garden.  If a thunderstorm moves in, she may decide to scrap the garden idea for a while; she might even spend half her savings on a catered dinner party.  In a hurricane, the woman would take all of her money and throw it into the angry sea.  Or consider a man whose personality is dominated by sociability.  On a calm day, that man will be outgoing, gentle, talkative, eager to please.  When the wind stirs and clouds form on the horizon, you might overhear him make a joke at his friend’s expense.  In a storm, he may grow anxious to leave “these obnoxious idiots” at a party and retreat to his home.  In a hurricane, he may brave the winds and the flooding to break down the door of his best friend’s house and spit in his friend’s face.

To the Ailats, storm-time and calm-time are the point and counterpoint of life’s argument.  In storm-time, a shy person will become bold, a depressed person will grow elated, a timid lover will become passionate, a bore will become charismatic, an honest person will become a liar.  And of course these things work in reverse.  A person who is mean-spirited or wasteful in calm-time becomes friendly or miserly in storms.

Knowing this allows the Ailats to predict their own and others’ behavior in ways that psychologists and politicians only dream of.  Say, for instance, a woman is attracted to a man who shies away from her during calm-time.  She knows that during storm-time, she can brave the wind and rain and visit his house, and he’ll be waiting for her.  With the storm raging around them, they’ll make love passionately —on his bed, in his kitchen, perhaps even bursting through the front door and out into the rain, rolling in the mud if necessary, the lightning splitting trees all around them.  The man wouldn’t care--he’s become a passionate lover who desires her more than anything.  In the morning, when the world is still and calm-time has returned, the man will insist that the woman leave him alone and will beg off the foolish promises he made the night before.  As the woman leaves, she’ll notice a line of clouds on the eastern horizon, and she’ll know to expect those same promises again tonight.

The island of the Ailats lies directly in one of the favorite paths of hurricanes.  Every few years, they are struck by all the chaotic and destructive forces of nature.  As with other islands, the Ailats suffer incredible damage and loss of life, but for the Ailats, the destructive force of the wind and water is aggravated by the personality extremes reached at the height of the storm.  Those who in calm-time are introverted, shy, timid, reserved, cautious, bashful, skittish, wary, or fearful will rush out into the hurricane, emboldened by storm-time.  They stand on the beach and shout obscenities at the approaching storm.  They take suicidal dives into the rabid waves.  Meanwhile, the formerly thrifty are tossing their money into the sea, the formerly honest are looting the few small stores on the island, and the formerly friendly are beating their best friends with sticks.  And then there are the passionate lovers, spilling out of their shuddering houses to make love in the flood waters, their tangled bodies flowing out to sea, the waves crushing them closer together, their lungs filling with seawater, but their lovemaking enduring to the last beats of their waterlogged hearts.

In the recent drought, the Ailats felt trapped.  After a while, the constant sun felt like a jailer, the gentle breeze like a short chain.  They were prisoners of stale weather.

The democratic assembly met in the crumbling dining room of the old hotel.  Debates ensued.  Some suggested that they call in the U.S. Weather Service to seed some clouds.  Others wondered aloud if storm-time could be simulated with giant fans and automatic sprinklers.  A few militant members proposed an invasion of a neighboring island known for attracting furious storms.  Initially, the debaters spoke without much conviction.  Like prisoners confined too long without stimulation, they found thinking, believing, and acting difficult and pointless.

Slowly, however, and without their notice, the tensions and energies escalated.  Opposing sides diverged radically, irreparable rifts formed in coalitions, tempers flared, speakers pounded their podiums as the sweat rolled off their foreheads and across their cheeks, a fistfight sparked a melee.  Some tried to quell the violence, pleading for simple acts of politeness and decency, reaching out to shake the hands that had just struck them, hugging those whose venomous words were meant to harm, patting the backs of those who choked on their own anger.  As the melee spread, the pacifists redoubled their efforts such that their aggressive hugs were indistinguishable from the wrestling of the fighters.  Tables and chairs were splintered both in anger and admiration.

At last someone paused long enough to glance out the row of oversized windows.  “It’s storm-time!” came the shout, and all heads turned to the dark, ragged clouds, the driving rain, the demonic breakers, the waterspouts drilling the roiling sea.  Then the assembly poured out into the tropical storm, joined up with the rest of the half-crazy islanders, and the melee continued its reckless tumult.

The Ailats looked rapturous in their abandon, like captives just released or lovers reunited, even when they bashed each other’s heads or kicked senselessly and angrily at the breaking waves that swept them away.  They didn’t care; the storm had made them whole again.