The professor is the only one of us on the island who lives alone. Lately he's been keeping to himself even more than usual and at night a strange yellow-green glow comes from inside his hut. He's got a big table in there that's always crowded with homemade beakers filled with bubbling chemicals. The professor can do more things with bamboo than any man I've ever met.
Sometimes I help him with his experiments. He and I both like bugs and some days we spend hours on end just watching them. The professor watches everything, including us, and writes it all down in a journal. He has a shelf full of textbooks and I think he loves those books even more than Mr. Howell loves his money.
I knock on his door and poke my head in. The professor is pouring over his biology book and his hands are cupped over his eyes. When he looks up at me he seems old and tired. Before, whenever I interrupted his reading like this, he would just glance at me and go back to his book. But this time he sits back in his chair and looks right at me, like he is making a measurement of some kind.
"Come in, Gilligan. Sit down."
I sit down and fidget in the chair. "The skipper said I should talk to you."
"Yes I know. He dropped by earlier this morning. He seems to think you are in need of some prophylactics."
"I don't know about that, professor. I think the skipper just wanted me to have some rubbers."
"So he sent you down the local drugstore, eh? Five degrees on two continents, top of my class at Cal Tech, and here I am dispensing an endless stream of condoms, diaphragms, preparation H, and barbiturates. I was a teacher, a scientist. But this island has a way of forcing us all to confront more basic problems."
The professor pulls a tray out of his drawer and I see that it is filled with rubbers. He had molded them himself out of some gucky stuff he makes from different plants on the island. A lot of work had gone into them and it's clear that he had been making them for some time. He lifts one of them from the tray with one hand and waves a pin with the other.
"This is what you're after. You come to me because you don't want anyone to get pregnant and you trust me to take care of it for you. It never occurs to you that I might want the girls to get pregnant. Which one is it by the way?"
"It's not anyone yet. I just thought I should be prepared."
The professor pauses and looks at me again. He is quiet for a moment as if waiting for the results of some new computation.
"Commendable. You know, Gilligan, condoms are a wise precaution even if your intended partner is not one of the girls."
"I just mean that there's no reason to assume, a priori, that you are interested only in the opposite sex. The skipper's views in this area are quite narrow, but perhaps you are young enough to consider a wider realm of possibilities. In other cultures this would be perfectly natural. And on this island we are free to define our own culture, are we not?"
"I guess. But -"
"What I'm saying, Gilligan, is that it's OK if you like boys. Do you like boys?"
"I like girls."
"I like Maryanne. That's why the skipper sent me here."
"Of course. Maryanne is the girl for you. I only wanted to be sure." The professor frowns. "Did you notice the perfume she was wearing last night?"
"I think everyone noticed."
"I made it. Strangely effective, I think. Maryanne is the only choice for a boy like you. That should have been obvious." His voice trails off and he suddenly looks quite sad. But then he remembers the pin he is holding and starts to wave it again.
"So. You have finally become interested in Maryanne. You wish to explore these feelings. Perhaps you even have reason to believe that she returns your feelings, or is at least impelled by her natural instincts to permit some experimentation. Foreseeing the possibility of a sexual union, you worry that she will become pregnant. And as this is something unknown to you, your instinct is to shrink from it. So you come to me in hopes I can use technology to soften the hard rule of nature. Is that it?"
I decide to nod yes.
"Now, Gilligan. Let us suppose for a moment that we are never going to be rescued. We've never really talked about that before, but just suppose. Suppose there's only one man on the island who can see the truth. And in the midst of his despair he sees the possibility for a new beginning. He sees a line of descendants prospering in a society that from its very inception is free of superstition. All he needs is the raw material, the children. And suppose that this same man has complete control of all contraceptive devices on the island. He can make them permeable to spermatozoa, he can make them dissolve at a certain temperature, in fact so complete is the trust of his fellow inhabitants that he could simply prick the membranes with a pin and no one would be the wiser until it was too late. At first they would complain, but better this way than to deny the truth until the women can no longer bear children.
"Of course he is aware of the medical risk. Even if that risk is worth taking he knows it might be a grave crime to bring children onto so small an island. Perhaps his descendants would curse him. He is not trained to make decisions like this. He tries to talk with the women. But suppose this man is terribly alone. Suppose no one will listen to him and like Cassandra he is doomed to suffer the rebukes of those who cannot see what he sees. Suppose the only people who can understand him are the authors of the books he reads, each author dead now, each book a graveyard he wanders in so deeply that he becomes a ghost himself, writing words that no man will ever read. Unless there are children."
By now the professor is pacing back and forth and the same yellow-green light that comes out of his hut is now coming out of his eyes. We are all used to these speeches of his and none of us understand them, but I like to watch his face and the way his eyes search in all directions.
"I'm sorry, Gilligan. You don't understand any of this, do you?"
"I understand that you always come through when we need you. If there's anything I can ever do for you, professor, you just name it. We are all your friends."
by John Cartan