The Cay Summary
Eleven-year-old Phillip Enright lives on the Dutch island of Curacao, just off the coast of Venezuela. In 1939 his father, an expert in refineries and gasoline production, was summoned to work in Curacao for the war effort. Phillip’s mother, a nervous woman, was very unhappy about the family’s move to the island from their home in Virginia. It is now February 1942, and German submarines have just attacked the refinery on the nearby island of Aruba. Although his mother warns him to stay close to home in the aftermath of the attack, Phillip is caught up in the excitement following the event and goes down to the shore with his Dutch best friend, Henrik van Boven.
The boys first visit the old fort by the water, where they often play. They are surprised and somewhat sobered to find the facility manned by “real soldiers with rifles and machine guns” who chase them away. Phillip and Henrik then go to the Queen Emma pontoon bridge, where it is uncharacteristically quiet—the native schooners are all tied to the docks, and the Black men who work there are not laughing and shouting the way they usually do. An army officer arrives in a truck and asks the people on the bridge to leave. The boys are frightened by the eerie emptiness of the sea and return to their homes in Scharloo.
Phillip’s mother has an angry, emotional outburst when she learns that he disobeyed her and went to the shore in hopes of seeing a submarine. In contrast, when Phillip’s father returns home from work, he speaks openly and reasonably with his son about the attack and the possibility that there might be others. When Phillip asks why the men on the island do not go out and fight the enemy, his father replies gravely that they do not have the weapons with which to defend themselves.
That night, Phillip hears his parents arguing. His mother wants to take Phillip to Norfolk immediately, where she believes they will be safe, but his father insists...
(The entire section is 578 words.)
The S.S. Hato is torpedoed two days after leaving Panama. With uncharacteristic calmness, Phillip’s mother takes him out on deck; the entire back half of the ship is on fire. As Phillip and his mother are helped into a lifeboat, the Hato lurches violently, throwing everyone into the water. Phillip is hit on the head from above and loses consciousness.
Four hours later, Phillip awakens to find himself on a raft with “a huge, very old Negro,” whom he remembers seeing with a deck gang on the Hato. Phillip’s head hurts terribly, and he looks around for his mother, but he is alone except for the Negro and a large cat. Phillip asks the Negro, whom he thinks is very ugly, “Where are we? Where is my mother?” The Negro responds that he believes Phillip’s mother is safe and that they are floating “somewhar roun’ d’cays.”
Looking at the desolate sea all around, Phillip becomes violently seasick and vomits over the side of the raft. The Negro ministers to him tenderly, then rips some boards from the end of the raft and builds a shelter to shield them from the burning sun. Crawling into the shelter with Phillip, the Negro comments that they are lucky because they have a keg of water, some biscuits, chocolate, and matches.
Phillip sleeps for a while. When he awakens, his head hurts more than ever. He learns that the Negro’s name is Timothy. Although his father has taught him to address adult men as “mister,” he does not think he needs to bestow this token of respect upon Timothy because he is Black. Phillip’s mother had not liked Negroes and had always cautioned him to stay away from them because they were “different.”
Phillip realizes he is thirsty and asks Timothy for a drink of water. The old man pours him a small portion from the keg. Phillip complains that it is not enough and demands more, but Timothy refuses, telling him that they “mus’ make [their]...
(The entire section is 685 words.)
On their third day on the raft, Timothy and Phillip hear the distant sound of an aircraft. Elated, Timothy quickly fashions a torch and lights it, then he holds it aloft in hopes that the pilot will see the smoke. The plane passes close enough to the raft that Timothy can see it. Sadly, the pilot does not notice the raft or the smoke, and soon the plane is gone.
Timothy douses the torch and vows to be ready next time. He is clearly disappointed, but he consoles Phillip by telling him that they “are edgin’ into d’aircraft track” and will surely be found soon. Although he cannot see him, Phillip senses that Timothy is ceaselessly scanning the sea throughout the day. Once Phillip crawls to the edge of the raft to touch the water, and Timothy warns him to be careful because the ocean is infested with sharks.
Phillip spends some time petting Stew Cat, and Timothy comments that the cat is “not good luck,” but he then notes that to “cause d’death of a cot is veree bad luck” indeed. As they drift on the still water, Phillip asks Timothy to describe what he sees. Realizing that Phillip is asking him to be his eyes, Timothy describes the ocean and the sky and the creatures that inhabit these domains.
In the morning, Phillip is awakened abruptly when Timothy shouts that he sees an island. In “wild excitement,” Phillip jumps up and promptly falls overboard. Frantic, Timothy dives into the water after Phillip. He grabs him by the hair, throws him back onto the raft, and hoists himself to safety after him. Timothy is furious and “roar[s]” at Phillip that there are “shark all ’round...all d’time.” When he calms down, Timothy tries to impress upon his companion how close to disaster they had come, warning Phillip succinctly, “Mahn die quick out dere.”
Because of their near catastrophe, both Timothy and Phillip have forgotten about the island. When Phillip reminds him, Timothy laughs and...
(The entire section is 683 words.)
Timothy gets to work immediately, constructing a shelter out of palm fronds. After a few hours he is done and proudly helps Phillip run his hands over a sturdy hut large enough to fit both of them comfortably. Despite Phillip’s protests, Timothy then goes down to the reef to fetch some langosta. Phillip is still terrified about being left alone and thinks resentfully that his mother was right—Negroes “had their place” and were clearly “different.”
When Timothy returns, triumphantly bearing three large lobsters, Phillip refuses to speak to him. Timothy responds by telling him softly, “Young bahss, be an outrageous mahn if you like, but ’ere I’m all you got.” After they eat, Timothy seems very tired. As they settle in for the night, Phillip asks him how old he is. Timothy says that he is “more dan seventy,” and Phillip reflects that he is very old—“old enough to die there.”
In the morning, Timothy constructs a signal fire on the beach and enlists Phillip’s aid in arranging rocks to “say somethin’ on d’san’.” Although Timothy does not admit it openly, Phillip realizes that he cannot spell. Using a stick, Phillip draws out the letters H-E-L-P on the sand, and Timothy happily arranges the rocks, following the lines Phillip has made.
Later that afternoon, Timothy begins making a rope that will stretch from the hut down to the beach and fire pile. While he is engaged in this activity, he tells Phillip that he “mus’ begin to help wid d’udder wark” and shows him how to weave sleeping mats. Phillip tries at first but quickly becomes frustrated and throws the palm fibers at the old man, screaming epithets at him. Timothy slaps Phillip sharply once, then he returns quietly to his own task. After pouting, Phillip realizes that the rope Timothy is making is for him, to enable him to get around the island by himself. Something begins to change within Phillip from that moment,...
(The entire section is 672 words.)
As time passes, Phillip begins to explore the island with Timothy's help. He becomes increasingly independent as he grows familiar with his surroundings. From what he can feel and hear, he concludes that the cay must be a beautiful place and wishes he could see it. It seems to Phillip that Timothy is doing everything he can to enable him to survive on his own. They never talk about the worst-case scenario, however, and Phillip tries hard not to think about “the possibility of Timothy dying and leaving [him] alone on the cay.”
Frustrated that they have not yet been rescued, Timothy grumbles one night that the island “mus’ ’ave a jumbi.” He believes Stew Cat is the source of their bad luck, and Phillip begins...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
For each day that they have been on the cay, Timothy drops a small pebble into an old can he found. He and Phillip landed on the island on April 9, 1942, and there are now forty-eight pebbles in the can.
On this day, Timothy decides that Phillip must learn to provide fish for himself in case he, Timothy, should again be incapacitated by malaria. Timothy catches fish and langosta with a sharp stick, but Phillip’s blindness will prevent him from using this method, so he makes several fish hooks from old nails for him. Timothy has found an “outrageous good [fishing] ’ole” on the reef and has driven pieces of driftwood every two feet along the route there so Phillip will be able to feel his way along. When they...
(The entire section is 633 words.)
The first drops of rain start to fall after dark. Before long, the wind turns cool and begins blowing steadily. The surf crashes furiously, and slithering creatures, seeking higher ground, are seemingly everywhere in and around the hut.
Suddenly, there is a splintering sound, and the shelter comes apart and blows away. Phillip and Timothy drop to the ground, with Timothy covering Phillip’s body with his own. They lie flat on the sand for almost two hours, “taking the storm’s punishment, barely able to breathe in the driving rain.” The sea finally reaches the hilltop, forcing Timothy and Phillip to race to the palm.
Placing Phillip safely in front of him against the tree, Timothy loops their arms...
(The entire section is 624 words.)
Ten days after the big storm, Phillip finds that he is tired of eating fish and decides to look for scallops or langosta at the bottom of the fishing hole. Carrying a sharpened stick, he dives beneath the surface and manages to catch a langosta after only a few tries. Greedily, Phillip continues diving in search of more. On his last attempt, he discovers the opening to a deep crevice. Phillip inserts his hand to see if anything is inside and is bitten by an unidentified attacker.
Phillip is able to push himself back to the surface, but the creature’s teeth have sunk in deep, causing great pain. He later concludes that he has been bitten by a large moray eel. He never dives into the fishing hole again.
(The entire section is 692 words.)