Escape artists

''Could be warm there, granted,'' Cousin Henry admits, ''better than this zero life on ice. But such a junket is impossible.'' I urge him to go, but he argues that he has too much work here to take on another assignment anywhere else, it isn't worth it to fly south for two days, and he's broke, he must look after his fragile father here, he must clean their apartment, and most of all, he doesn't want to go anywhere anyway.

He is so frighteningly short-tempered nowadays, with all his problems, and so busy that we have barely even spoken to each other on the phone. We are both frazzled and frayed.

''Want to come along?'' Cousin Henry is asking, grudgingly.

''Impossible,'' I croak, wrapping my afghan tighter around me.

However, I phone the airlines: they do have one seat left on his flight at dawn. I brew another pot of hot something and manage to postpone a dozen appointments, reorganize my household to prove my dispensability, and teach the last class of the week by letting my students do the talking. I do some fancy juggling at the bank. Then, recognizing the familiar symptoms of Nothing-To-Wear , I stop at my favorite second-hand store to exchange an old black coat for a stunning, almost-new, white dress: I shall fly south like a snowy egret.

I throw the afghan over the desk to cover the unfinished manuscripts.

At dawn I'm still scattering extra seeds for the leftover junkos, cardinals, chickadees, catbirds, jays, and whatever grackles and squirrels also cash in, when Cousin Henry crunches up the snowy road.

''Ready? . . . Aren't you packed? All those clothes? I'm taking one extra shirt, period. Plus my violin and jogging shoes, and a bathing suit, though it'll be too cold to swim. . . . Racquets? We won't have time for tennis, and it'll probably rain. . . . Oh, okay. . . . But hurry up!''

I don't protest.

The old thrill of take-off! So long since I've gone anywhere. . . . Finally we land among mangroves and palms, and step off the plane into warm sunshine. . . . How desperately we needed to get away. . . . How quickly we blossom here. . . . Bougainvillea entangles my hair. Jasmine will sprout from my fingers, hibiscus will bloom from my lips, cymbidia grow from my eyes. . . .

Cousin Henry rushes off to interview, scribble, organize, write. A piker, I saunter down the beach to organize my good intentions, scribble on the sand, write on waves, and interview the gulls.

The gulls here are not only loquacious and opinionated, but willing to be approached. New England and Chesapeake Bay gulls stay aloof and aloft, maintaining their hauteur. But these small Caribbean gulls cluster around me, giving a rare chance to study them close at every stage: pure white, white with black tail-tips, black tails with three dots of white, or four; and the young gulls, beige and grey, freckled with beige, some with grey down soft on their backs. It occurs to me they may be terns.

By the time Cousin Henry joins me, they are eating out of my fingers. By the time he joins me, his mood is jovial, expansive, and he is eating out of my hand too. And I from his.

We talk non-stop as we jog past groves of sea grapes and pines to the lighthouse. Our running does not disturb the pelican pair diving for fish, nor the cormorants perched on every pier, alert but peaceful. Our sense of peace increases with every stride of sand.

At sunset we come to a park from which the few winter picnickers are departing. Suddenly the area is alive with raccoons! A dozen black-banded faces are watching me from pine tree and trash bin, unafraid. I approach for a closer look. . . . How marvelous. . . . And while man has encroached so terribly on nature, at least these raccoons, and the gulls, have made the best of it. . . . Closer still -

''No - Come on - '' Cousin Henry calls as he edges away. ''Leave them alone!''

As a child he was bitten by a big dog, and ever since has mistrusted furry creatures, except cats. He's also afraid that if he doesn't drag me away quickly , several raccoons will nestle in my arms, like the baby lion who befriended me in the Ivory Coast.

''Come along, please!''

A coward when confronted by controversy, I follow, docile, to the darkening beach for the jog home. Tomorrow I will slip back alone to commune with raccoons. . . .

But by this time tomorrow we have jogged three miles in the opposite direction. And played three sets of tennis, swum a half-mile in water-too-cold-to-swim; he has fiddled a little on his violin, I have read a little, we have danced, plowed through three newspapers, scribbled three hours, and what Cousin Henry has written is already in print. I am only half-joking when I observe that what he has written could change the course of history.

For Cousin Henry has no idea of his own power. Having worked hard analyzing a batch of concepts to restructure several vital international policies that others will read and debate and maybe act upon, there he is, stretched out in the sun at the edge of the grove, sound asleep.

Tomorrow we must fly north again, an unnatural but seemingly necessary migration, to resume our burdens and challenges. For this brief while, at least, we have accomplished the impossible escape.

I sit on the hot sand in silence, but my voice is singing all the parts of Beethoven's Ninth at once.

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