The woman pulled the wide brim of her hat low over her eyes to block the glare of the sun bouncing off the smooth surface of the sea just yards from the table where she and her husband sat, waiting for their drinks.
“The drive from Lima wasn’t so bad, was it?” she asked. The sun turned the sea silver, like the surface of a mirror. A flock of Peruvian pelicans swept in low over the sea, wings outstretched, holding formation like a flight of warplanes coming out of the sun.
“No, it was not so bad,” her husband replied. His hat shaded his eyes. He peered at the sea with indifference. He found it boring, uninteresting. He wanted a drink and looked around for a waiter. “The road is pretty good. It’s a good road.”
“I didn’t think the drive was too bad,” his wife replied. “Long, but not tedious.” She squinted her eyes against the sun reflecting off the sea. “Of course, you were the one driving. I’m glad you didn’t think it was bad.”
“How would you know? You slept most of the way.”
“Yes, I did. It is such a boring drive. Sleeping makes it bearable. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the drive.”
“It was all right,” the man said.
The pelicans made a wide loop and still holding formation, flew back toward the man and woman, crossing their front with wings outstretched, gliding above the sea’s smooth surface.
The waiter appeared and put their drinks, picso sours, on the table.
“Mmm,” the woman said after picking up her glass and taking a sip. “It’s good.”
“Yes,” the man said. “It’s a good drink.” He looked at the sea. The sun was low in the sky. The sea shimmered in the afternoon light. The man squinted his eyes against the glare but did not turn away from it.
“What shall we do here?’ the woman asked.
“I thought you wanted to see the Islas Ballestas.”
“No, you said you wanted to see them.”
“I never said I wanted to see them. I mentioned them but I don’t remember saying I wanted to see them.”
“I remember you saying you did.”
“Well, if you remember it, I must have said it. I don’t know why. I have no interest in seeing them.”
The woman took another drink. “Islas Ballestas. What a strange name for a group of islands. What does it mean? It must mean something.” She looked at the sea and took another drink.
“It means crossbows in Spanish,” the man replied. “I don’t know why the islands have that name.”
“It is such a strange name. Everything about this place is strange. Even the drinks.” She held up her pisco sour glass. “Why would anyone name islands after crossbows?”
“I don’t want to see them,” the man said. “You have to stay on the tour boat. Landing on the islands is forbidden. You have to stay on the boat and look at them from the sea. I don’t want to do that.” The man drained his glass and looked for the waiter. “Do you want to sit in an open boat for two hours looking at a pile of rocks surrounded by the sea?”
“No. It doesn’t sound very exciting. I don’t want to do that.” She finished her drink. “Order more drinks.”
The waiter took their order and went away.
“The tour boats are crowded. You sit next to people you don’t know for two hours. You can’t even get up and walk around. I saw pictures of the boats. They look awful. I don’t want to spend any time like that.”
“Then let’s not go,” said the woman.
“The islands are barren. Nothing grows on them. There is nothing to see except some arches cut into them by the sea. And maybe some animals. Sea lions and birds. Of course, the boats are open. There’s no sense in going in an enclosed boat. You can’t see anything from an enclosed boat.”
“Let’s not go see them, then,” said the woman. “There must be something else to see. Something not so tedious and uninteresting.” They were interrupted by the waiter bringing their drinks
A middle-aged couple came onto the terrace and sat at the table next to the table where the man and woman sat.
“Hello,” said the newcomers. “You’re Americans, aren’t you? We’re the Andersons, Jill and Ron, from Billings, Montana. We haven’t seen you at the hotel. Have you just arrived?”
“Yes,” the woman said. “We arrived this afternoon.”
“You are visiting, then,” said Mr. Anderson.
“We drove down from Lima,” said the man.
“Oh, Lima. I’m sure that’s an interesting city. It’s so big,” said Mrs. Anderson. “Our guide book said one third of Peru’s population lives in Lima. Nine million people.” The woman looked pleased with what she said about nine million people in Lima, as if reciting a well-known fact made her important and elevated her social standing.
“Yes, it’s a big city,” the woman said.
“It must be horribly crowded,” Mrs. Anderson said.
The woman didn’t say anything. Her husband looked at the sea and another flock of Peruvian pelicans flying in formation low over the water.
“We’ve been here, in Paracas, for two days,” Mrs. Anderson said. “This is the most fascinating place. There is so much to see.” The waiter brought their drinks and went away.
“Have you taken the boat tour to the islands?” asked Mr. Anderson. He smiled at them then looked toward the sea.
“No,” the man said.
“Oh,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Well, we enjoyed seeing them ever so much. The arches are spectacular, and very photogenic, if you are a photographer. Are you a photographer?” she asked the man.
The Andersons finished their drinks. Mr. Anderson signaled the waiter for another round.
“There are colonies of sea lions. Everybody on our boat was taking pictures of them. It was very exciting,” said Mrs. Anderson.
“Yes,” said the woman.
Jill Anderson smiled at the woman. “You absolutely must see the local museum. Are you going to see the local museum?”
“You must not miss it. The displays are fascinating. You should see them. There are human skulls that are cone shaped. They are over a thousand years old. Can you imagine?” Mrs. Anderson’s eye opened wide. “Cone-shaped heads. Now that is something to see. And there are holes in the skulls. Yes, holes have been cut through the bone. Square holes, not round ones.” Mrs. Anderson blinked. “That must have hurt.”
Mr. Anderson said, “You bet. Even bumping your head hurts. The pain of having a hole cut in your skull must have been brutal. With primitive tools, too. And they didn’t have anesthetics either.” He took a drink of pisco sour. “I don’t know how anybody could stand that. The pain, I mean.”
“Seeing those holes made my skin crawl.” Mrs. Anderson shuddered and said, “Ugh.”
The woman and her husband looked at the sea and didn’t say anything.
“Those holes. That’s called trepanation,” said Mr. Anderson. He nodded his head and waited for the man or the woman to comment on his knowledge. When they remained silent, Mr. Anderson continued. “See, it was fashionable to have a misshapen skull. They did that by tying boards to the front and the back of the heads of newborn babies. That’s how the skulls were deformed. The bones were soft, you know. But when the skull was deformed the brain was deformed, too. That caused mental disturbances. Which is expected, of course. You can’t deform the brain and not have consequences. People went crazy and acted as if they were possessed by demons. Medicine men cut holes in the skulls to let the demons out.”
Mr. Anderson smiled, proud of his knowledge and pleased he was able to pass it on to the two Americans sitting at the next table.
“I think they were shamans, dear, not medicine men.”
“Whatever.” Mr. Anderson waved his hand dismissively and took a sip of pisco. “Anthropologists think that’s why the holes were cut,” Ron Anderson said. “To let the demons out. To us, it’s a strange thing, naturally.” He took another swallow of pisco. “Nobody believes in demons anymore.”
“It’s still horrible, whatever it’s called,” said Mrs. Anderson.
The man and the woman remained silent. They looked out to sea and saw the pelicans flying by again, low over the water, searching, hunting.
The Andersons got up. “Maybe we will see you at dinner tonight. We’re leaving in the morning,” said Mrs. Anderson.
After the Andersons left the woman said, “I don’t know why people are like that.” She finished her drink and said to her husband, “I want another.”
“Like what?” The man signaled the waiter for another round of drinks.
“Always butting in. They could see we were enjoying ourselves, sitting here in the sun, looking at the sea, not talking. They spoiled it. Why did they intrude? Why did they do that?”
The man laughed. “I don’t know. Do you want to ask them? We will see them at dinner.”
The pelicans made another pass, flying close to the sea’s surface. The man and woman got up and went into the hotel.
“It’s no good anymore,” the woman said as they went in.
Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, lives in Tucson. His short fiction has appeared in The Literary Hatchet, The Umbrella Factory Magazine, CommuterLit, Lunate Fiction, Spelk, Fleas on the Dog, Corner Bar Magazine, Literally Stories, and elsewhere.