One of the most exciting news stories this week, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that they found Amelia Earhart. But it turns out, she was never really lost. Amelia’s disappearance is the stuff of legend and conspiracy theories. She and her navigator disappeared on their round the world flight in 1939 when they vanished over the Pacific.
Since then, along with the usual abducted-by-aliens stories, there’s been serious consideration given to them being captured and executed by the Japanese, running out of fuel and ending up at the bottom of the ocean, and one where she was secretly repatriated to New Jersey and lived under an assumed name. That last one seems the wackiest to me.
In 1940, human bones were found on Nikumaroro Island, along with artifacts known to be used by her. However, the person who examined the bones concluded they were that of a male. Then someone went and lost the bones and that was that, until this week.
While the bones are gone, the measurements and notes taken of them survive, and a forensic pathologist has compared these measurements to Amelia’s known measurements and concluded with 99% certainty that they are Amelia’s. This means that she crash landed on Nikumaroro and died before she could be rescued.
I’ve written a story about Amelia with this scenario (except without her dying). In my version, she crashes, but lives out her life with a castaway islander woman. You can read it (along with 14 other sensual lesbian stories) in First: Sensual Lesbian Stories of New Beginnings, edited by me.
Here’s an excerpt:
When the fuel finally runs out the engines splutter and fall into silence. Now there’s only the thud of her heart in her ears, the quiet sky and its heavy-bellied white clouds. The increasing panic that had consumed her as she’d tried and failed to contact the ship that was supposed to guide her in to land vanishes. Amelia is calm now, with a clear-headed detachment. She’s an experienced pilot and she knows how the Electra will glide, how it will swoop over the winds of the Pacific, descending, descending, until she bellies down in the ocean. Next to her, Fred, the navigator whispers “Oh my God, oh sweet Jesus, save our souls” over and over, and one part of her mind thinks how predictable he is, turning religious as the plane and the sky part company and the possibility of death arises.
“Stop that,” she snaps. “Look for land. Howland Island should be here, according to you.”
He stares at her with wide frantic eyes, and she thinks, not for the first time, that the two of them are mismatched as pilot and navigator. She doesn’t even like him much: his inane conversation irks her, as does his habit of releasing gas, blaming the altitude of flight. The thought flashes through her mind that if the Electra crashes into the ocean she might die next to this buffoon, instead of with her husband, or one of her lovers. She shuts that thought out and scans the water. Howland Island is small and flat to the ocean. They could be almost on top of it and not know.
Fred is now reciting the Lord’s Prayer. She flicks him an irritated glance. His eyes are closed. She shouts at him to open his goddamed eyes and look for land, and he might manage to put off meeting his maker for a while longer. He does as he’s told, and they both search the ocean as the plane sinks lower, floating though the layers of wind and air currents; the sea below and Fred’s heaven above.
They both see the island at the same moment. It’s small, a tiny droplet of land in the expanse of water. It’s dead ahead, and they are too high, it’s too close, and she has no hope of banking or circling back to it. She has to put the plane down sharply and hope there is somewhere forgiving for the plane’s resting place. Amelia adjusts the controls, the little plane shudders, responds, noses down at a steeper angle. Too sharp, she knows, but this is their only option. Her fingers sure on the wheel. She can do it, she knows that. She sees dense green vegetation, and a flock of birds that come bursting out, startled by the silver plane above them that must look like some giant bird of prey.
There is somewhere to land. A lagoon—softest blue, shimmering aquamarine—ringed by jungle, a narrow collar of land around this jewel. She can see the lagoon is shallow—there’s the lazy flap of a ray in the clear water—and she levels out the Electra so that its belly is nearly skimming the water. Fred is tight-knuckled beside her; no doubt he thinks he procured this miraculous island by the power of his prayer.
They are going to make it, she thinks. They’re going too fast, but the water will slow them. She puts the plane’s belly down. It hits the surface with a slap that jolts them in their seats. She sees white sand, and fish glimmering like precious stones. And just as she thinks it’s okay, they’ve made it, the plane wobbles, a wingtip catches, and the Electra cartwheels. It’s life in slow motion in the minutes before death. There is sky, water, sky, and things that she thought were stowed so securely in the cockpit come raining down around them. There is the flash of bright aluminum, a shower of ocean, the sound of Fred screaming, abruptly silenced. Then the plane is resting right side up, and they’re close enough to shore to see there are palm trees, dense vegetation, and a clatter of birds. She realizes her feet are wet—a side panel has been torn away and the Electra is sinking.
She’s dazed, her head is throbbing, and there’s blood on her thigh seeping through a gash in her flying suit. Amelia knows there’s something she should do, but she can’t get her mind to work and she can’t remember what it is. But then she smells shit and looks across at Fred, at the angle of his neck so abruptly tilted, and the wires uncross in her head, and she knows she has to get out of the plane. She must save herself because it’s too late for Fred.
Her body seems to work, although her left wrist hurts, and she has a headache that pounds like the big bass drum in the band that played her off in Miami on this around the world trip. She was to be the first woman to fly around the world, and the first person to take the longest equatorial route—those honors will go to someone new and fresh now. She unbuckles the lap strap awkwardly with her good hand, grabs the emergency kit stowed behind the seat, water bottles, her sextant, and her case of personal items. The water is up to her knees, coming in faster, and she doesn’t know whether the lagoon is deep enough that the plane will sink completely. She shoves the hatch with her shoulder, and the bloom of pain in the joint brings tears to her already salty eyes. Another fierce push, and her shoulder screams in protest but the hatch opens and she tumbles out into the water. She can’t feel the bottom underneath her feet and she starts swimming awkwardly with her good arm, holding the emergency kit above her head until it penetrates her fogged brain that it’s wrapped in oiled cloth and should be waterproof.
The shore isn’t far away, but time feels warped, fractured, distorted, and she could be swimming for minutes or an hour. She doesn’t look back at the plane until her feet catch on the sandy lagoon floor and she drags herself up the beach and turns. The plane is listing to one side, a wing and the top of the cockpit show above the water. She doesn’t mourn Fred, doesn’t know if she can, as it was his error, his insistence on this bearing for Howland Island that has brought her to this. But she sits on the sharp coral sand, clasps her knees, and stares out at the Electra. It doesn’t sink any lower, so she may be able to swim out another day and see what she can salvage. Fred’s body too. She owes him a burial, but that is all for later.
She’s thinking about later, she realizes, now that death is not so imminent, she’s thinking of survival. Food, water, fire. A signal fire. There will be search parties for she is Amelia Earhart: America’s greatest heroine, the dashing aviatrix, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, the first woman to fly above 18,000 feet, the first person to fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland. But not the first woman to fly around the world.
The dense humidity is making her headache worse. She rises to her feet and staggers in a weaving line to where the rainforest touches the sand. Before she sits, she checks herself over, running shaking hands over her body. A sore wrist (not broken), throbbing shoulder (not dislocated) a swollen knee. A pounding head and an overwhelming need to lie in the shade and sleep. She takes a careful scanty sip of water and succumbs, wondering as she does if she will wake again.
She wakes in the dark and lies still listening to the crack of branches and scuffling noises in the rainforest behind her. There are stars, great swathes of them, the same stars she’s seen a thousand times from the cockpit. Her mouth is dry and tastes of salt and her short hair feels stiff under the flying helmet.
She wonders if the search parties have found the Electra yet—although how could they? She doesn’t know where she is, just that it’s not Howland Island and they will surely be searching around there first. Tomorrow she will light a signal fire, find food, water… She sleeps again before she can finish the thought.
The morning is bright, and she wakes blinking and disorientated. Her body hurts, each joint as stiff as rheumatism. She remembers, and bows her head in memory of Fred, of the plane, of the failed around the world attempt.
When she raises her head again, she sees someone standing, straight and tall and slender as a young palm tree. She blinks, sure she must have imagined the person, but they are still there. It is a woman, young and naked, with dusky skin and long hair tangled in a snarl over her breasts.
She rises and stands still, her palms open, facing outward to show she means no harm. “Hello,” she says and her voice is a rusty croak, thick with sorrow and pain. She waits for the woman to come forward, but she remains in the same place, poised like a deer for flight.
“My name is Amelia,” she says, although she guesses she won’t be understood.
The other woman treads a cautious path forward. She carries a green coconut. She puts it down on the sand, and retreats step by step. Amelia sidles forward, takes the nut and steps back again. It’s a stately, wary dance. “Thank you,” she says.
She thinks of the coconut water inside and salivates. Her fingers fumble in the emergency kit for the knife she knows is there—surely she can slice her way through. But her wrist hurts and she drops the knife, cursing as it slips from her hand into the sand.
The other woman comes forward; there’s more confidence in her step, as if she’s assessed Amelia to be no threat, this fumbling person with strange clothes, and short hair like a man’s. She has her own knife, and in quick, deft strokes she slices into the coconut and offers it to Amelia. Amelia takes it and gulps, aware of her parched and salty mouth, of her shaking hands. She drinks it down and her stomach rebels and it comes straight back up, in a gush of stomach acid. She sinks to the ground again, defeat and pain the twin razors in her head. But she is Amelia Earhart, and she will not be broken or beaten. There must be people here on this island, and they do not mean to harm her, not if this woman is anything to go by. She can rest and then rescue will come.
But there are no others. When she is able to walk, the woman takes her to her camp. It’s at the edge of the rainforest, overlooking the lagoon. There’s a smoldering campfire, a rudimentary shelter of woven palm leaves, a pile of mollusks’ shells, split open and discarded, and a couple of sea turtle shells. There are some rudimentary spears, and a tattered net, oft repaired. It has the look of habitation, of a life spent here in the shade of trees, eking an existence.
Amelia looks around. “Are you alone?” she asks, although she already knows the answer. Her hand sweeps out. “Where are the others?”
The woman bows her head and kneels by the fire, coaxing it into life with a handful of dry leaf matter. Then she rises and goes to the remains of a canoe. It’s battered and starting to rot in places. The woman removes the palm leaves laid carefully over the top and Amelia sees that the canoe that once kept water out now keeps water in. The woman scoops a careful handful of water to her mouth and gestures for Amelia to do the same. She does so, careful not to drink so much that her stomach rebels again. She looks around the makeshift camp, and realizes that this woman has been alone here for a long time.
Sorrow overwhelms her. She who is so strong, so capable, so beloved by many, sinks to her knees in the damp and musty leaf litter, puts her face in her hands and cries. There are tears for Fred, for the Electra, for her husband no doubt frantic in America as news of her disappearance reaches him. There are tears too for her dream, cut short, cut down, the around the world flight that will not be hers to claim. But then she stops crying, and straightens her shoulders. She ignores the throbs of pain from around her body, and rises. There is no salvation yet. But rescue will come and she will return.
The days drift by in a silent dream. Amelia and her companion communicate by gestures, although they now have names. “Amelia,” she says, pointing to herself. “Amelia.” But the syllables are strange, and her companion manages “Meelie”, which Amelia likes as it sounds the same as her childhood nickname, and this strange and fractured interlude is like a childhood game of explorers, played with her sister. Likewise, Amelia cannot understand her companion’s name. She settles on “Lae”, because it sounds a bit like the port in New Guinea she’d last taken off from, and saying that name often in a day keeps her focused.
She learns by sign language that Lae had gone fishing one day from her island home, a long, long way away. She’d dropped her paddle when startled by a shark under the canoe, and had been unable to retrieve it. She had drifted for a long, long time, the canoe taken by the currents. Lae had nearly died, the sun hot, with no water. She’d managed to catch fish in her net—the same net that now hung tattered but usable in their camp—and this had sustained her until the canoe washed up here, many days—weeks?—later.
At first, Amelia keeps stubbornly to her flight clothes. Wearing them is who she is, and rescue will come any day now. Any day. But she watches Lae running naked and unashamed along the shores of the lagoon, fishing from the shore with her tattered net, gutting a sea turtle and then walking thigh deep into the lagoon to clean herself. She sees Lae’s menstrual blood running down her thighs, and the care with which she washes herself on those days. There are sharks in the lagoon; she sees their fins cleaving the water.
She learns that the lagoon has one opening to the sea. At low tide, she can walk across the bar and see the Electra sitting above the water. At high tide, the bar is submerged and the fish come into the warm and shallow lagoon from the sea. Then, only the cockpit and one wingtip of her plane are visible.
Amelia builds a signal fire on the western shore, figuring this is where help will come from. She goes there several times a day, standing in her stained and sweat-crusted flying suit, scanning the horizon for a ship. But none ever comes. At night, she plots her location by the stars and realizes that Fred had been wrong, so very wrong, and they are nowhere near Howland Island, but much further south, maybe three or four hundred miles. Rescue, when it comes, will be a while longer.
She learns which shellfish are good to eat, and which fish are toxic. She learns to cast the net, to gut a sea turtle, and how to catch rainwater in the infrequent rains that fall. She learns how to defend against the giant coconut crabs, and she learns too how delicious they are to eat. As the weeks wear on, she discards her flying suit, piece by piece, the helmet first, her shoes last, until she too is naked and brown on the island.
Excerpted from “Amelia” by Cheyenne Blue, from the anthology in First: Sensual Lesbian Stories of New Beginnings, edited by Cheyenne Blue.