Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip….
This is the tale of Juana Maria Nicolas. Known to history as “The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island,” Juana Maria is believed to have been the last surviving member of an indigenous people, the Nicoleño. In 1835, after her island and people were devastated by otter trappers, a nearby mission staged a “rescue operation,” bringing the surviving Nicoleño people to the mainland. Somehow, however, Juana Maria got left behind, and most of the “rescued” Nicoleño fell victim to European disease. In 1853, a return expedition discovered Juana Maria, who had survived alone on the island for 18 years. She died seven weeks after being brought to the mainland.
This is also the tale of Marguerite de la Rocque. A French noblewoman, 19-year-old Marguerite was accompanying her brother or uncle to the New World when he discovered that she’d taken a lover; her disapproving relative marooned her and her lover on the so-called “Isle of Demons.” It wasn’t long before Marguerite’s lover, and her maidservant, had succumbed to the dangers of the island. Marguerite’s child, born on the island, also died in infancy. She was rescued after several years of solitary survival.
Finally, this is the tale of Philip Ashton, an American captured by the notorious pirate Edward Low. When the pirates lay anchor at an island in the Honduras, Ashton managed to escape his captors, hiding in the jungle until they gave up the search and abandoned him to his fate. He survived for 18 months before being rescued.
Imagine for a moment that these three castaways, all immortalized in literary history but separated by oceans and time, had somehow wound up on the same deserted island. The three of them meet by chance and decide to make a go of it. After taking care of the essentials, like shelter and food, they’ll need to scour the island for anything that might be useful in signaling passing ships, while blazing a trail to the summit at the heart of the island, its highest and most visible point. If they don’t accomplish both goals quickly, they’re here for a long, long time. They’ll have to make the best of things; it’s an uphill climb.
Of course, it would be foolish to believe they’ll all be remembered equally by history. Even if they do manage to survive and signal for rescue, only one castaway’s name will be immortalized: the one who has the greatest story to tell.
The True Story of Philip Ashton – Week 1
The winds were strong today. When the tides receded, we found that some cargo and planks from the shipwreck had washed ashore. I sifted through these remains to discover what might be salvageable, while the Frenchwoman wrote in her diary and the Indian foraged for food. As agreed upon, we each took what we could carry back to the campsite, the first claim going to he who scouted the salvage. Naturally, I claimed the rifle, while the Indian was entranced by a shiny mirror (it could prove useful in signaling ships) and the Frenchwoman abandoned some useful items–canned goods and a pocketwatch–in favor of the captain’s Bible. None of us is ready to invite damnation on top of our already unbearable predicament; had I been forced to choose, I would have done the same, though truth be told, I put more stock in the utility of guns and ammunition than the Holy Book.
After returning to camp, I discovered that the rifle had only one round of usable ammunition, the rest having been ruined by seawater. I had hoped to use it for hunting, but it seems it will serve better as a tool of persuasion.
I spent the remainder of the morning planning our first expedition into the unexplored reaches of the island, upon which the others accompanied me, the duty of tending camp appearing thoroughly unglamorous in comparison. No sooner had I stepped foot outside camp than I stumbled on an outcrop of rocks, injuring my ankle–punishment, no doubt, for leaving the Bible to the Frenchwoman. The Indian discovered a message in a bottle, left by another who shared our sad lot. It spoke of a turtle-shaped rock marking a path in the interior. The Frenchwoman discovered some berries. Risking a taste, she found them both nutritious and delicious. Additionally, I found some vines, which may be twisted into rope, and the Indian found a fallen tree that can be used for firewood. Exhausted from our initial exploration, I returned to camp to nurse my ankle, the others following.
The Indian knows how to prepare the food she foraged so as to make it last. We ate only what we needed to, shivering in the cold. Soon, we must prepare a campfire.
Juana Maria Nicolas, an Oral History – Week 2
I am slowly becoming familiar with the surrounding island. Just today, I discovered a copse of small trees, brought them back to the camp for kindling. I also found a small, burrowing insect that can be eaten. I have chosen not to share this knowledge with the others. When food becomes scarce, it will be useful to have a source of sustenance all to myself. The weather has worsened, but more crates arrived on the shore.
I built a simple shelter this morning. The lazy one known as Marguerite rendered no assistance, leaving the man Philip to pick up her slack. We will be able to recover our energy a little more efficiently now. Marguerite investigated the crates, choosing some woodworking tools for herself; Philip took a lighter, while I claimed the captain’s log, which will help us identify when and where ships are most likely to pass the island. We left behind some rope, some remains of the hull.
I began to record my thoughts and experiences, so that they may be remembered after we are rescued. Using his lighter, Philip built us a campfire, then he and Marguerite left on another expedition. They discovered a display of shrunken heads, a grisly warning from the natives. Philip, taking heed, turned back, but the foolish woman pressed on. Among other discoveries, she has found a beach inhabited by giant tortoises, which are excellent when cooked, as well as a coconut palm; she returned with a coconut under her arm, but has hidden it somewhere for herself. Ignoring another warning from the natives, she finally turned back when she stumbled on the grisly corpses of the ship’s crew. None of us will rest easy until we have given them a proper burial.
We have eaten the last of the food I foraged last week, but at least the fire warms us.
Excerpt from the Diary of Marguerite de la Rocque – Week 3
The headland is far, and we have yet to see a single ship pass us by; although we will still do what we can and must, our initial optimism is gone. The weather has improved, though, and yet more cargo has washed ashore.
If I am to maintain my advantage over the others, I must continue exploring. I spent the morning planning an expedition, while the indigene poked through the salvage. The sneaky wench has claimed the last bottle of ink, leaving the rest of us no tools with which to record our trials. For my part, I chose an excellent bottle of rum, while Philip claimed a pistol, which turned out to be as water-clogged as his rifle. We left behind a compass and a treatise on the wild tribes of this region. I spent the remains of the day gathering my strength for the expedition (the shade provided by the lean-to is a welcome boon), and Philip went fishing, catching just enough to feed the two of us; the indigene will have to fend for herself.
The others insisted that they accompany me on the expedition. I found another potential food source in some fruit-bearing shrubs, while poor Philip injured himself again. He has started cursing the island, and I fear he will soon lose all hope. While we were exploring, the indigene noticed the sky beginning to darken, and within minutes the sun had been blotted out completely. It was so dark that we were forced to wait out the eclipse, rather than risk Philip sustaining another injury. When the light returned, I was momentarily overjoyed to discover a ship docking at a nearby cove, but it quickly became clear that they were slavers, and not particularly friendly. Philip, sensing trouble, turned back, while I and the indigene wordlessly agreed to raid the slaver for supplies. On our way down to the cove, Juana Maria discovered some crabs, and was nimble enough to capture three of them. We launched a raid on the slave ship, pillaging some of their food stock and making off with some timber from their hull. Returning to camp, we noticed some caves in the cliff, but neither of us had the energy left over to explore them.
Philip and I dined on fish heated over the fire, while the indigene enjoyed her crab meat.
Week 4 (Ashton)
Things are not always bad. I woke up today feeling oddly revived. Marguerite was less fortunate; the uninterred bodies of the crew are beginning to weigh on her soul. While she made preparations for their burial, I went fishing. Marguerite and I have a scheme going to catch one of the many squids we have observed appearing during high tide and use its juices to end Juana Maria’s ink monopoly. However, Poseidon did not favor me today, and my jabs at the shallows were ultimately fruitless.
More cargo washed ashore while I rested from my exertions. I need to take time now and again, or my injuries will never heal. Juana Maria wrote more in her journal while I napped–I often wonder what she says about the two of us in that book of hers. Later, we all helped bury the bodies, with Marguerite giving a little speech over their grave site.
Among the cargo, I discovered a barrel of gunpowder, miraculously dry. I am keeping it for an emergency. Juana brought back some sort of botanical treatise, and Marguerite found a fishing net. Hopefully, the oceans will be more generous from now on.
In the evening, Marguerite left on another solitary expedition. She seems determined to reach the headland before any of the rest of us. Over the campfire, while she and Juana Maria partook of their private reserves and I tried to ignore my grumbling belly, she told me of her adventures: a little further inland from our last exploration, she discovered a mutilated animal carcass surrounded by feline paw prints. She could have brought the animal back as food, but she chose to “retain her dignity,” as she puts it. She did the same with a hive of edible insects; in her place, my stomach rumbling as it does, I doubt I would have turned up my nose. Finally, she came upon the skeletonized remains of a person clutching a faded map with a large red “X” covering a location in the interior. Continuing forward, she breached the jungle that marks the border to the island’s interior region. There, a crewmember lay dying, too weak even to stand. Marguerite shared some of her food, and with his last ounce of strength he warned her of a spot ahead where the trail abruptly ends. Marguerite stayed with the man until his breathing ceased.
Week 5 (Juana Maria)
The others are conspiring against me. While I spent the morning planning an expedition, Marguerite used her new net (I knew I should have claimed it before she could) to catch some sea creatures, from which Philip extracted a natural ink. It does not matter–while they were otherwise occupied, I was first to the beach to examine the salvage. Half-buried in the sand, I found a small box of gold and jewels. I am sure I hid them before the others could see. Marguerite lay claim to a machete, which will make exploring the island easier, and Philip took a snuffbox full of seeds. We could have used them to plant a vegetable garden, from which everybody could prosper, but Philip is greedy; he plans to eat them raw.
Marguerite accompanied me on the expedition, while Philip spent the afternoon resting in our shelter. While we were exploring, the weather improved enough that Marguerite felt confident she could follow the skeleton’s map. It turned out to mark the spot of a chest of assorted treasure–since this was not salvage, I persuaded Marguerite that we should leave the chest alone until we are rescued, and split it equally among us at that point, but I am certain she pocketed some when I was not looking. We also discovered the remains of a raft–rather than expend any energy repairing it, we have decided to chop it up to feed our ever-hungry campfire. At this point, Marguerite decided to head back to camp, but I opted to keep exploring–there might be more treasure, or better, to find. This turned out to be a mistake, as I misplaced the trail and was soon hopelessly lost. I did not return to camp that night, and am writing this on leaves after having foraged for my dinner and huddled in a rotted stump for warmth. I know that Philip has his seeds to eat, but I think that Marguerite was so concerned with producing ink that she forgot to catch any fish for her supper. I hope she starves.
Week 6 (Marguerite)
I spent the early hours scouting the area around the camp, finding a small cache of edible berries. Then, before Philip awoke, I dipped into the pirate treasure, adding some golden coins to my private stash. I don’t think anybody has noticed yet.
I am so hungry. The weather has worsened.
The indigene has still not returned from her exploration. I hope that she was mauled by a jaguar. Philip spent the morning, and a considerable amount of energy, hunting for the gold and jewels the indigene recovered from the beach, but wherever she has hidden it, he could find no trace. He then wrote, rather sullenly, in his journal.
Using the tools I salvaged from the ship’s remains, I improved our shelter, adding a full roof and three walls, just in time for Juana to come wandering into camp and collapse on the pile of soft leaves we use for a bed. Apparently, using her botanical treatise, she has discovered a new species of plant…bully for her. I kicked her out of the shelter before dark, spending a few fretful hours at rest.
We all ate from our personal supplies. Nobody forages anymore. I shall never forgive Philip for refusing to share his seeds.
This is not the end of the castaways’ tale…station a lookout for Part 2: Greed, coming next week.