Voice from the Void

A whisper emanates from the dark



By Jennifer Walker

“I’ll have a Coke please,” Claire shouted over the plane’s engine. Judgment, the kind usually reserved for war crime tribunals, radiated from the woman in the window seat, but by the time Claire helped pass across her club soda she was working hard to look compassionate. Claire focused on the hand-off to avoid all the facial gymnastics.

“Thank you so much,” the woman said. “What a bumpy ride. And so loud!”

Claire stared at her open tray table and nodded. They were only an hour and a half in on a trans-Atlantic flight and there was no way she was going to encourage any extended conversation. Especially with someone scowling at the poor plastic cup of soda trembling on her tray. She picked it up and tried to manage a swallow in between jolts. Of course, some sloshed out of her mouth.

“Oops! Here, take a napkin,” the woman said. “It’s okay, I’ve got an extra. Really.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem. This turbulence is really crazy, right? I can’t believe they’re even doing the beverage cart right now. Whoa! That was a big drop.”

Claire kept the woman’s extra napkin clenched in her fist while her own, unused, slid around her tray. She took more careful sips of soda. She held the cup above her tray with her arm out straight and gave it laser focus, all to distract from the heart-skipping terror of the bucking flight. She’d flown across the Atlantic many times, especially while at Le Cordon Bleu, and knew the turbulence would be short-lived. The woman next to her, unfortunately, was not. She kept letting out a little half-laugh half-yelp each time the plane bounced through the air.

“You know,” the woman leaned over close to Claire. “It’s none of my business but I just have to tell you. That’s just about the worst thing you could possibly put in your body. And I know what I’m talking about. I’m a fitness and nutrition expert. I train a lot of important people in the DC area. You’d know their names. This stuff,” she jabbed her finger at the cup gripped in Claire’s hand, “it’s literally killing us. It’s the whole reason there’s such an obesity epidemic in America. Sodas! They are the WORST! Look how many kids are getting diabetes. Look at how fat everyone’s getting. It’s a national crisis!”

The woman was probably in her mid-40’s, about ten years older than Claire, and looked it. The hollows in her cheeks, temples, and eye sockets weren’t helped by her orange foundation or spiky false lashes. Her thinning, dyed blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail so tight it trapped her eyebrows in surprise. She was skinny, a fact made indisputable by her extremely form-fitting clothes. Claire kept quiet but she put the soda down in the circular indentation on her tray. It had become impossible to enjoy.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “I just feel like it’s my duty to educate people—wherever I go. I mean, I just can’t turn this knowledge off. Your body is truly a temple. You have to respect it and fuel it with only the very best choices. It should actually be a crime to drink sodas. It should be illegal like heroin or meth. Seriously. I mean, it’s worse than those! Think about how many people die from reversible diseases every day. We’re just killing ourselves—”

Just then the plane made a sickening lurch. Claire’s Coke flew into the air and the dark, dazzling liquid hung above the women like an evil cloud. Next the plane tipped forward and Claire had the horrifying impression she’d just jumped off an impossibly tall cliff with absolutely no plan. She never saw that Coke again. In fact, she didn’t see anything at all for a time because, as the plane dove out of the sky, she completely blacked out.

When she came to she was only aware of a gentle rocking motion, like the lazy swing of a hammock. Then she felt the warmth of the sun and fully expected to find herself relaxing in some idyllic summer scene. So it took a lot of blinking, and even some eye-rubbing, to actually take in where she was. First there was the warm, turquoise water around her. Then she felt the hard cube of metal her body was draped over. Next she saw, not more than fifty yards away, the white sand shoreline which wave after unobtrusive wave pushed her towards. That’s when she remembered she’d just been on a plane.

With a burst of latent fear she kicked with all her might toward the small island. Through the clear water all manner of colorful fish darted by looking delighted to finally have something to break up the monotony of their gorgeous, isolated lives. Huge schools were already feeding on dark lumps breaking the water’s surface that Claire brushed past. It was only much later, well after she’d found the sand under her feet and dragged herself up onto the beach, she’d realize these lumps were the various remains of her fellow passengers. But Claire noticed almost nothing now, not the feeding frenzies, not the wreckage floating around her. All she could see was that strip of sand bobbing up and down and widening with every stroke. As she swam for her life, reflexively pulling her arms through the water and gulping down air just as she learned at summer camp, the sea embraced its new acquisitions. Even then tiny creatures, not visible to the naked eye, were finding their way to the fuselage and the wing sections deeply embedded in the ocean floor, and they were already starting to weave their marine fabric that would one day cover the dull metal with colors and textures of psychedelic brilliance.

Claire was too overwhelmed to cry when she reached the shore. She was too overwhelmed to feel anything except the burn of salt water in her eyes and the unrelenting heat of the sun. She crawled away from it into the tree line like an insect scampering from a foot. She didn’t take the time to assess her surroundings until her back was firmly against a towering palm tree. So there was no time to hide when she saw the club soda woman.

She was no more than ten feet in front of Claire, dragging herself towards the tree line like a dying soldier trying to make it through enemy fire. She looked terrible. One side of her face was bloody and her clothes were torn to shreds. She looked up, saw Claire, and made a small sound like a puppy. And because it was impossible not to, Claire used the last ounce of her strength to pull the woman out of the sun.

Days might have passed with Claire and the woman together under the palm. Or it might have just been hours. At some point Claire realized how thirsty she was. The woman was asleep so Claire walked down the beach and started to investigate all the washed-up wreckage. She found the metal container she’d been floating on which turned out to be the drinks and snack cart. The sun was on its way down so it was comfortable enough now to sit in the sand next to it. She watched the clouds turn pink and orange as she drank bottle after bottle of water. Before it got too dark she found the drawer with pretzels and cookies and ripped open packages with abandon, shoving handfuls of crumbly snacks into her mouth. Then she remembered the woman.

She went to stuff her pockets with water and pretzels but realized her pants had been badly torn and only one pocket was intact. She stuffed that and then took a moment in the gloom to inspect her body. Aside from one long scrape down her outer thigh and calf, where her pants were torn, she couldn’t find any other damage. As she gingerly probed everywhere on her body her fingers could reach she surprisingly realized that, aside from a profound tiredness and hunger the snacks had not yet touched, she really felt alright.

By the time she trudged back up the beach to the palm tree she could barely make out the woman’s prone body. She could have been dead. But then she stirred. “Here,” Claire dropped some water and pretzel packets on the ground in between them. “The drink cart’s here.” It felt weird to talk and the soft sounds of the surf behind Claire seemed to swallow her words. The woman moaned and then sat up. In the darkness Claire could still see where her face was darker from the blood.

“Oh,” the woman said and picked up a bottle. She seemed to be peering at it closely, turning it over to try and read the label. “It’s just water, right? Not that flavored water or a Smart Water, right? Because I don’t drink that. I can’t put that into my body.”

“It’s just water.”
“Okay. Well. I hate to drink bottled water because of all those plastic chemicals that get into your body. You know they actually mess with your hormones? But, I guess, in this situation, it has to be okay. Right? I mean, what choice do we have?”

The woman looked up at Claire waiting for an answer. Claire took a long, slow sip from a can of Coke she’d just opened. Then she said, “Absolutely none.”

The woman’s name was Dani, short for Danielle. She introduced herself that night as they huddled under the palm tree in the starlight. At first she refused to eat the pretzels or the digestive cookies Claire had brought for them. Dani was under the impression they would be rescued any minute and she was not going to compromise all the years, decades even, of hard work she’d put into her body. But by morning she gave in and had a packet of pretzels.

“You know,” she said, “this is the first processed carb I’ve had in like 12 years. I just have no idea what this is going to do to my body.”

“How do you feel?” Claire asked. She was concerned about the wound on Dani’s head. It was so covered with dried blood it was hard to tell what was going on.

“Well,” Dani chewed slowly and cocked her bloody head, “actually, I absolutely hate to say this, but these taste so delicious! And so far,” she touched her belly, “no bloating—”

“I mean your head. How’s your head?”

“Oh,” Dani touched her head and felt the blood. She paled. “Ouch! Ooh! I think maybe I got a bad cut, ouch! Or something.”

They walked to the water and washed off Dani’s face and head using a piece of her frayed leggings. It turned out only to be a small cut on her scalp, already scabbed over. Claire was disappointed. She’d expected something bigger, more dramatic, like a jagged wound with exposed skull or maybe even a gaping gash filled with bits of glass or metal. She’d forgotten that even small scalp lacerations bleed profusely. After all the blood was gone they collected more snacks and beverages from the cart.

“Ah! Orange juice! I haven’t had actual, you know, 100% juice in years. Way too much sugar. But I guess now, I mean, what choice do we have! Oh! Cranberry cocktail. Yuck! All that high fructose corn syrup. But still, you know, I’m not sure if we can say no, you know? And in this hot sun this juice is not gonna last forever!”

“Yeah, but go easy,” Claire said. “This stuff might have to last us a long time. Who knows when, or even if, we’ll be rescued.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course we’ll be rescued. They’re out there right now looking for us. It could be any minute now!”

But it wasn’t. The days dragged on. The snack cart dwindled. One night they got soaked with rain. The next morning Claire shook Dani awake. “We need to build a shelter and we need to start collecting rainwater,” Claire said. Dani sat up and wiped away the ants crawling over her cookie crumb sprinkled face. “We can’t just keep counting on getting rescued. We’ve got to start taking measures to survive on our own here. I want you to start collecting all these downed palm fronds—make a big pile over here. And also start collecting all the coconuts you can find, all of them. Put them in a big pile over here. We can crack them open with a rock and drink the water and eat the meat. We can use the empty hulls as bowls to collect rainwater. While you do that I’m going to walk around the island to see what’s here and how big it is. For all we know maybe people even live here somewhere.”

But they didn’t. It took all of forty minutes for Claire to walk the entire perimeter of the island. It was completely flat, ringed by pristine white sand beaches, and filled throughout the interior with one dense coconut grove. After a day of scouting around Claire found nothing else on the island except for a handful of iguanas sunning themselves on some rocks.

The washed-up wreckage yielded more. She found a chunk of metal cabinets filled with the first-class entrees and dinnerware. Most of the food had spoiled but she collected what she could—sugar, salt, pepper, tabasco, salad dressing, nuts, and a sundry of higher-end snacks, as well as intact plates, glasses, bowls, and silverware—and put it all into a small carry-on she found. She rummaged through other washed-up luggage and picked out hats, clothing, and toiletries they could use. These went into the carry-on as well. She found a metal dome, aluminum maybe, roughly the size of a cooking pot. This she fit under one arm. Lastly she found the greatest treasure of the day inside a battered piece of luggage she didn’t even recognize as her own until she pried it open. Her chef’s knife.

Dani had made a huge pile of palm fronds and an even larger pile of coconuts in the time Claire was gone. Her face was flushed with exertion and pride.

“This is awesome,” Claire conceded, dropping the carry-on and pot behind her.

“What’d you find?”

“Just stuff from the plane. The island is super small. You can walk to the other side in like fifteen minutes. Here, let’s put up some kind of shelter for tonight. Grab that big branch over there, yeah, that one, and kind of stick the end into the ground over here where it’s softer. Like this, on an angle. Exactly. Yeah, and let the frond part, like this, rest up against the tree. Yep, just like that. Perfect. Yeah, take that other one—”

“Where’d you learn to do this?” Dani thrust herself into the work with gusto.

“At camp.”

“Like summer camp? They taught you how to do shit like this at camp?”

Claire’s grandparents were Lithuanian Jews who’d survived the Holocaust by hiding out in the forest. A couple they’d survived with started the summer camp deep in the Adirondacks in the 1950’s. Claire’s father and then Claire spent every childhood summer there from the time they were eight until they were seventeen. It was just like any other summer camp. There were rustic cabins with bunk beds; there was a large, open building with long wooden tables for mealtimes; there was a lake with fishing and kayaking and a section roped off for swim instruction; there were cleared fields for capture the flag, baseball, and soccer; there were tennis courts and a gymnastics pavilion. There was even an outdoor amphitheater cut into a curved hillside for theatrical productions. And it also had something else. Over all the woven lanyards and the practiced serves and the captured flags and the bunk cheers there was always the constant refrain: survive, survive, survive. It wrapped itself so tightly around the campers’ consciousnessno one questioned the hours spent learning to identify edible mushrooms, or build fires, or trap, skin and cook small animals. Claire had loved it.

“Yeah, summer camp. Hand me that one. Over there. Yeah, that—”

“Are you like a nature guide now or Park Ranger or something?”

“Nope. Get that one a little deeper in the ground. Like that. Perfect. No, I’m a chef.”

“A chef! That’s great. Where do you cook? In a restaurant?”

“Get that a little straighter so it rests against…yeah, that’s perfect. Uh, I have a restaurant.”

“Cool! Where? In DC?”

“Just outside. Takoma Park. Bring those two in a little closer. See how I’m angling these two over here. Yeah, yeah, like that—”

“Wait, in Takoma Park? What restaurant? I love Takoma Park!”

“Watch, watch it! Lift that side—okay, that’s better. Yeah, it’s called Bavaria. Whoa! Don’t drop that—”

“What! You’re the chef at Bavaria?”

“Watch out! The others are going to fall over!”

The women struggled in silence for a few moments trying to save their fledgling shelter. When all the palm fronds had been more securely situated Dani stepped back and stared at Claire with her hands on her hips. “Why didn’t you say you’re the chef at Bavaria? You’re Claire Schwartz! You’re like a super famous star chef! I’ve been trying to get a reservation at Bavaria forever. The Post called it like the number one restaurant in the mid-Atlantic, maybe the whole East Coast! I can’t fucking believe this!”

“Hey, could you hand me that shorter one over there?”

“I’m serious! I can’t believe I’m literally stranded on a— literal—desert island with Claire Schwartz! I absolutely love everything about your restaurant. Okay, okay. Which one? Oh, this one?”

“Yeah, and take that other one and put it here.”

“Okay, but seriously. I love your whole farm-to-table thing, and how you’re so strict about serving only pastured, GMO-free, antibiotic-free meat. That’s so essential! And how you butcher all your meats in-house, and ferment all your own organic sauerkraut. I read a whole article about it. I’m a huge fan of fermented foods. I try to eat something fermented at least once a day. This one? Here.”

Somehow they got through the shelter building even with Dani’s endless, fawning prattle. Claire knew it would work for a little while but eventually they would have to build something more permanent. As the shadows lengthened Claire showed Dani all the finds from her beachcombing. Dani ooh’ed and aah’ed about each item like they were presents at a bridal shower. Then Claire showed Dani how to crack open a coconut with a rock and the women got busy opening coconuts until it was too dark to see. That night Claire made their first real meal: fresh young coconut meat sprinkled with a salted peanut crumble over strips of grass-fed beef jerky. Even in the muted starlight under their palm frond lean-to Claire could tell Dani was ecstatic.

“Oh my god!” she said. “I swear this is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. The salty crunch of the peanuts with the cool, almost gelatinous texture of the coconut with the chewy, spicy beef. Together it’s just divine! And you know what? There’s not a processed carb in sight.”

To Claire’s surprise Dani turned out to be a survivalist prodigy. She was up right at sunrise eager to complete any task Claire had for the day. In no time they built a substantial rock-walled shelter with a thatch roof. Dani made a crushed shell-lined latrine in one day and walked the length of the island countless times carrying large boulders they chiseled down to makeshift furniture. She never complained about the heat, or muscle fatigue, or the blisters she got all over her palms. “This is really living,” she’d say to Claire. “This is exactly the lifestyle I’m always telling my clients we’re meant to be doing. Physical exertion sun-up to sundown. You know, nobody would have any problem with their weight if they could live like us. Hey! Watch your back when you lift that. Lift with your legs like this.”

Claire spent most of her days procuring their food. She found a bush that grew along the shoreline with leaves like open fans that produced a delicious purple berry. When they ripened she cooked them with sugar in her plane-part pot over a fire she started with one of the many lighters she recovered during luggage scavenging. Then she put up the jam in dozens of washed out face cream jars courtesy of an Avon lady’s bag. She hunted iguana by knocking them out of trees with large rocks and chasing them into deep holes they struggled to climb out of. She fished on calm days from a small raft of seat cushions Dani had strapped together with dental floss, spearing barracuda and sometimes grouper with a stick whittled to a deadly point. Out of other sticks she built a drying rack so she could preserve strips of iguana or fish. Their meals became more elaborate as they acquired more to eat. Coconut remained a staple.

“You know what?” Dani said to Claire one night as they ate coconut encrusted grouper with jam caramelized walnuts on a bed of charred, spiced popcorn rice. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt this good about eating. I mean, I’ve always loved to eat but I’ve never, until right now, just been able to eat without feeling guilty or just bad about it. And I’ve done like, believe me, every diet known to man. Whole 30, paleo, primal, keto, Atkins—oh god, remember Atkins? —what else, oh yeah, vegetarian, vegan, raw, pescatarian. I was even a fruitarian for a while! That was awful. I’m telling you, I’ve never been able to just simply enjoy my food like I can now! Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I have a star chef cooking for me. But it’s not just that, you know? For the first time, really, in my entire life, I feel like I earned this food. I deserve it. It just feels so, I don’t know. Liberating! And this grouper is to die for!”

“Thank you,” Claire said.

“I’m serious. No, seriously. Thank you Claire.” Dani drew a large circle with her fork in the moonlight starting at Claire and then pointing to their rock house, the stone patio they were dining on, their rock chairs and stacked luggage table, and ending at the glimmering sea pulsing against the shoreline. “This is positively perfect. I literally could not ask for a better life.”

“We still might get rescued,” Claire said. They’d heard a plane somewhere high up in the clouds a few days ago and they’d just begun experimenting with metal sheeting from the wreck that appeared to float if buoyed underneath by life vests while trying to make a larger raft.

Dani shrugged. “Maybe,” she said. “I mean yes, of course we’ll get rescued. Eventually. But I’m just really appreciating how amazing all this is. And, you know, if we’re never rescued then I’m just happy to finally feel like I’m truly living my life to its fullest.” She was silent for a moment. She pushed a walnut around her plate. “But you know. It wouldn’t be so bad to get rescued. Then we’d be able to tell the world about what we made here and how great it is. I’d definitely write a book. Not a diet book. A lifestyle book. I’d call it something like…hmmm…maybe…wait, wait, I got it. Ready? Okay—Stranded: The Lifestyle Change That’s Guaranteed to Save Your Life. What’d you think? I love it!”

“It’s great,” Claire said.

“I know! Ooh! Now I definitely want to be rescued. I can see the cover. Us on a desert island like this one. Oh, you’re definitely going to have to contribute. You can do so many great recipes and I’ll come up with all the exercises to mimic stuff we have to do every day. Oh my god! It’s going to be huge! You might have to change the name of your restaurant. No, no, you’ll have to open a second one. The Stranded restaurant. Let’s open it in New York. Or LA. We’ll see which has the hotter market.”

Claire watched Dani excitedly chatter on and wondered if she was going to finish the grouper on her plate that she so richly deserved. She hoped so. Dani was looking healthier and younger every day. Her skin was less wrinkled, the hollows in her temples and cheeks were gone, her undyed brown-grey hair was fuller and glossy. With no mirrors, and wearing clothes Claire strategically picked out, there was no way Dani could know she’d put on at least fifteen pounds since the crash. Some of it was muscle from all the hard labor, and her arms, thighs, and buttocks were beautifully toned. But the rest was a perfectly proportioned layer of fat from all the calorie rich food Claire cooked.

“Oh, I meant to ask you earlier,” Dani said several weeks later over a dinner of grilled Caribbean lobster finished with sea salt and a spiced coconut oil drizzle nestled on a mash of wasabi peas soaked in coconut milk. They were dining out on the patio again under a full moon that had climbed out of the sea like a gigantic egg yolk. Now high in the sky it was a blazing white disk so bright their seated shadows were sharp against the sand. “Why did you make the drying rack so much bigger? I mean, whatever you need to do is totally cool. I’ve just never seen you use the whole thing as it is.”

“What? Oh, the rack?” Claire shrugged. “I, uh, saw a whole bunch of iguanas the other day, really big ones, and I think I’m going to need more space after I catch them to be sure I can dry them all out.”

“Really? That’s great! I feel like we haven’t had iguana in forever. I just thought maybe we’d hunted them all out.”

They had. Claire’d seen her last iguana over a month ago and the grouper and barracuda were dwindling down too. It’s what she’d expected. She ran an efficient kitchen. Under her almost no food went to waste. She could size up a pantry in no time and always knew what and when to reorder. That first circuit around the island so many months ago had told her there would never be enough food to sustain two people, no matter how she stretched it. So she’d made a calculation. In time the fish and iguana population might rebound, or she might be rescued, or she might finally finish building a sea-worthy raft. She just needed to buy herself that time.

“All finished?” Claire asked and waited for Dani to scrape her plate clean. “Okay,” Dani said and then held up a calloused hand as Claire stood up to get the dessert. “Wait. Can we do dessert like we’re on one of those celebrity chef contests. Like I’ll be one of the judges and you’ll be, of course, star chef Claire Schwartz. And you have to present it to me with the whole explanation and everything.”

“Okay. Tonight judges—”

“Wait, wait. I’m going to be…who’s that gorgeous Indian woman—”

“Padma Lakshmi.”

“Yes! I’m Padma. What do you think? I’ll part my hair in the middle like this. Do I look like her?”

“Wow. You’re a dead ringer.”

“Okay, okay. Start again.”

“Tonight judges I’ve prepared for you dessert fritters of fresh young coconut encased in house made coconut flakes and almond flour finished with a Coke-a-Cola drizzle—”

“What! Where’d you get the Coke?” Dani’s Padma pout was gone.

Claire wondered if she’d miscalculated. “I saved a bunch. Actually, I’ve been using Coke in a lot of dishes lately. It’s a great flavor enhancer. I really thought, given our situation, you wouldn’t mind.” Claire considered using Coke as one of her greatest innovations. Like other chefs she’d finished meat before with unusual things like beer mash, or fermented rice, but as far as she knew no one had ever finished meat before with Coke.

Dani nodded slowly, her face working. “You know what? You’re totally right. I feel better than I ever have in my entire life. Food is food, right? Time to let go of all the hang-ups. Finally be completely free! Let’s try this sucker.” She picked up a fritter and bit off half. As she chewed she relaxed into sheer bliss. “God damn Claire. I seriously think this is the best thing you’ve ever made.”

Claire gazed lovingly at Dani, taking in every contour of the strong, plush body she’d so carefully crafted. “Thank you Dani,” she said. “I haven’t tried it yet, but, I think you might be right.”