Harshini Karunaratne is a Sri Lankan-Peruvian photographer and visual designer. These works are a reflection of our current crisis as we face a new reality: “In the first image, I reflect on the romanticization of face masks. In the second, I combine shapes and colours in a dream-like way but to alert the viewer that what they’re witnessing, and experiencing, is not a dream.”
with you i have learned love is utopia & dystopia at the same time. so love is Earth & we are highly skilled to kill it. like damn, what did you think? all the god in the gold chains round our necks could make us beautiful, & holy & not human? we are just bodies, drums of water & chemicals & constructions, paper -skinned. little marbles of World rubbing against each other, how acid leaks from a cloud’s cheek more than rain. all this, to say: we are ending.
Painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, “Two Calla Lilies on Pink”, 1928
The life of an urchin is very long and our understanding of time is slower than humans. We can live for hundreds of years. Someday, I hope to become a famous philosopher: a leader for those sea urchins who have no memories of human time. I imagine the truths of the world emanating from my mouth like the light of the ancient fanous my mom once told me about. She said that during Ramadan, when she was a girl, the fanous piled outside the lamp shops of El Rabea in Cairo, and their lights were so bright and beautiful down the narrow human streets that everyone journeyed to see them. They came from as far as Alexandria or Tunis to feel the lights’ hope and brilliance. I want to be like that.
But that was a long time ago, when my mom was still human. In fact, she told me that when she was still human she had once slipped on a rock covered with urchins while she was learning to dive off the coast of Oman in the Musandam Fjords. This was before she met my dad and before any of the human soul-to-urchin implantations. She said it was a beautiful day, but the air was worse than usual. The air had changed since the time of her parents; it had become a thick invisible web full of pollutants and dust. She would gasp to find spots of clear air between the web’s poisonous strains. That was the day she first met an urchin. After a dive, she had wanted to stay under the water, explore, not deal with the air again, but an urchin with long black spikes stung her foot. She jumped out of the water and crouched on a rock, her foot in her hand, screaming, “Yil’an shaklek konfoz al bahr!” or “Damn you sea hedgehog!” while she yanked out the spikes. “It hurt like getting a tattoo!” she told me. “Since then I’ve never liked urchins.” But I have never seen a tattoo, and I do not understand my mom’s kinds of pain. It feels useless to me to hate what you are. Unlike her, I have never been anything other than what I am now.
I was alone, sweeping north, off the coast of California, when an E-HIP Inquisitor finally found me. Tarn was bigger than most urchins; he must have been at least one hundred years old. The biggest urchins were always the oldest, and the oldest urchins were almost always inquisitors. Urchin bodies are covered with slender tentacles or spikes; these spikes are our legs, our lungs, and our eyes. At the end of each spike is our podia, which we use to grasp food or weapons. Tarn’s countless spikes clutched countless sharp tiny rocks.
“Tell me your earliest memory, Meera,” Tarn commanded.
I tried to remember the exact words I had rehearsed with my dad. That was the deal my parents had made with me when I was young (too young to understand the agreement); they would tell me about human times, about literature and history and science, but I had to be extremely careful if I ever encountered an E-HIP Inquisitor. They warned me: the inquisitors were convinced that excessive memories of human times would lead to violence and depression among us. Any young urchins with memories of human times would meet a terrible fate. They killed many of the eldest, urchins like my mom and dad, who had disagreed with how things should be run underwater. Somehow my parents had gotten away. Since then though our family had roamed the seafloors for countless years, we had yet to encounter an inquisitor.
Like I said, Tarn approached me while I was alone. I was gliding across the sea floor scraping whatever was below me into my toothy mouth: small animal particles, spongy pieces, algae. Our mouths are located on the underside of our body. We have five pyramid-shaped teeth. Aristotle’s Lantern, that’s what the humans had named our lantern-shaped mouths. Aristotle was one of the great western philosophers. That’s what my mom had told me. Aristotle believed the human soul could not exist outside the human body.
Boy, was he wrong.
I wish I knew why our mouths were named after this particular philosopher. Why him? Aristotle did say humans were political animals, but he was also an atheist. Why not Ovid’s Lantern? My mom had told me stories of Ovid—women turning into trees, ships into sea nymphs, and animals that changed into other animals. Or why not Plato’s Lantern? Plato thought the soul could wander. Wasn’t that true? Isn’t that what the humans had done? What Tarn and I were doing? My mom told me Plato had also believed that a sexually frustrated womb could travel around a woman’s body and make her insane. He thought of the uterus as an animal. Sometimes, when my mom cried at night, I imagined that a piece of her human uterus had somehow made it into her urchin body, latched onto her soul.
When I was little, my dad taught me all the anatomical names of the body. He taught me in English and Taiwanese. I can’t say I remember all the words. Nor has my memory categorized the words into two separate languages. I don’t understand where one language begins and the other ends, exactly. I like the words ām-kún and clavicle best. My mom, meanwhile, taught me about the body’s textures and desires. She said she had been the size of a dolphin calf, but narrower. She described her skin as stretched over like a smooth brown sponge. Human skin, unlike urchin skin, she said, could be easily punctured. My mom’s human body had been covered in tattoos. Tattoos were paintings on the human body created by needles, and humans got more and more of them towards the end of their era. I knew all about paintings and literature, because my mom was always talking about the past, and what she liked most about the past was human art.
I remember another time, when the three of us were still together. We were slowly migrating north up the seafloor near the coast of California, trying to escape an epidemic that had broken out among the starfish. We glided north avoiding the clumps of star pieces on the bedrocks and coral skeletons. Some starfish were still alive but they were puffy and covered in white lesions, too sick to attack us. My dad said it was a wasting disease like what had happened to the humans as the temperatures rose. To pass the time, my mom described the frescos she had seen in Florence when she was a young human studying there. Her favorite was inside the San Marco cloister, one called Annunciation, where the mom of a god meets an angel. When describing the colorful striped wings of the angel, my mom’s spikey body began convulsing and my dad had to lean up against her.
“Maryam, come on now. Cheer up, my little red Christmas garland. We’re so lucky, we have each other. And if we ever break a leg, we’ll grow another!”
My dad had lots of funny jokes like this. Other times, he’d say, “Maryam, my little sea gallbladder, perk up, don’t make me get cannibalistic.”
The cannibalism joke always made my mom shake happily, because it was common knowledge in our family that my dad was a great lover of uni when he was in human form.
Before we lost my dad, I could always rely on him to help lift mom’s spirits.
The truth was that my dad didn’t mind being an urchin, even though he was born in the time of humans too. He was the second child of a midwife, born in the milky grey port city of Keelung.
“I was Taiwan-ren. I could swim before I could speak English,” he boasted, but that meant little to me. Our speaking didn’t sound like any human language (or so my mom told me).
We didn’t speak through our “Aristotle’s Lantern”; we spoke through vibrations in the water. We somehow willed what was inside us into the water and if lucky, it reached someone else. My parents had learned how to communicate in urchin form before the implantation. They had worn special masks and suits inside ocean-water pools in Sicily that E-HIP had arranged. My dad said my mom had thought it was fun. My mom said that whenever they finished their trainings, she and my dad would run home and have sex.
My mom was explicit with me. She had no reason not to be: I feel no shame for how we use our bodies to receive and give pleasure.
My dad’s positive attitude about urchinhood might have had something to do with loving the ocean from an early age or maybe because he had been a Buddhist or perhaps, even a small pride in his contribution to the Echinoidea-Human Implantation Program (E-HIP). While my mom studied languages and philosophy as a human, my dad was an evolutionary biologist. They had both been comfortable with change in their own ways, but my dad’s research on the evolutionary paths that marine echinoderms were taking to adapt to the planet’s harsher environment had proven a more useful comfort. His research team was able to demonstrate the urchins’ unique ability to adapt to the rising acidity in earth’s oceans, and his work caught the attention of the head honchos at E-HIP just as they were searching for the most viable species to transfer the human soul onto. Other companies were looking to the sky. My mom once teased that she should have fallen in love with an astronaut, maybe she would have gotten to keep her body that way. My dad was quiet when she spoke like this.
E-HIP was based on the tropical island of Sicily. My dad told me the lab facilities were near the bluest waters and surrounded by avocado farms and mango trees. Sicily was a hot place during the end of human times; the average temperature was already 7 degrees Celsius higher than it had been in so-called pre-apocalypse times, but the island had plenty of drinking water and dromedaries for folks to get around on and there was hopeful buzz in the air about E-HIP’s potential solutions. Wealthy pilgrims had made homes near E-HIP, clamoring to be part of the implantation program. My mom had been there to teach the children of the wealthy pilgrims. That’s how my parents met and fell in love.
As she explained it, she was relaxing under a mango tree, translating a sonnet called “Del mondo e sue Parti” by Tommaso Campanella when my dad came over and broke her concentration. He had long dreaded hair and a sparkling smile. His skin was patched with ugly scars from the sun and he wore a large floppy hat. “I still remember some of the lines from when he interrupted me.”
I had begged her to tell me them, and though her spikes pointed downwards whenever she recited from her fading memory of verse, she agreed. She stated, “The world is a great and perfect animal, that God lauds and stimulates, we are a family of tapeworms, imperfect and vile, who have, within God’s belly, life and shelter…something something… we must measure how much every being is worth, then you will learn what part is left to you…or foryou. Maybe it is for you. Not to you?” her spines leaned lower. “I can’t remember it all.”
On days like today, when I miss my mom, I try to imagine her in her life before the sea, even if that means I wasn’t born yet, because I know she was happier then. I try not to picture her in her red urchin form, though that is the only form I know her in. When I picture her human body, I see her skin tattoo-painted in the most beautiful Italian frescos, winged-humans and toga-wearing great thinkers and bosomy fruit trees and storm clouds covering every part of her, swirling over her arms and her neck, a red stingray’s tail curling around her kissing lips. She is perpetually under that mango tree in Sicily. In some memories, she is reading and just about to meet my dad. In other memories, she is reading and she never meets my dad. He walks right by her and she never marries him, and therefore, never qualifies for the E-HIP implantation program. She dies in her human form when the sun finally heats the land to oblivion.
“Meera, what is your earliest memory?” Tarn asked again.
Nervously, I clenched my anus on the top of my head. “I remember bobbing along among the plankton, the blinding sunlight.” I said it exactly right. My mom and dad would have been proud. Tarn nodded his dark pinchers.
“Anything else, Meera?”
“There were roaring sounds and choppy waves, geese, and my larval body—.” I wanted to say my body fell from its transparent spaceship to the seafloor like a parachuter out of an airplane, but I could not admit to knowing about parachutes and airplanes and spaceships, so I said, “My body fell to the ocean floor as my soul turned itself inside out like a sock—”
“A sock?” Tarn froze in his glide and dozens of his black-stripped spikes converged and pointed erect at me. Tarn’s urchin kind originated from the reef slopes of Hawaii. His kind of urchin was called a wana. The wana’s long razor-sharp spikes were especially venomous.
“A swell! What’s a sock?” I hoped Tarn would think the lights were on but nobody was home (as the human saying went). He stayed erect another moment and then finally released his predator stance. He nodded and we continued gliding forward crushing over the skeletal remains of a flathead fish.
“Anything else, Meera?” Tarn asked, his sticky manner was as misleading as a sea otter’s friendly whiskers. We know what sea otters do to urchins.
“I remember descending through turrets of kelp and the light becoming dimmer and dimmer until I could barely see it anymore.”
He nodded approvingly. “Yes, Meera, our species sees light better when we are young before our skins harden. Then, we exist in darkness and we can only see certain lights with the tips of our tentacles.”
“Wow? That makes so much sense.” If it saves my life, I’ll act as dumb as a brainless urchin. Or as they would have said in human times, according to my dad, I’ll act like a fox.
“Yes, Meera, it is better that way.”
He asked me a few more questions and then left. I froze, overcome with relief and a strange sadness. I wondered if Tarn had known my parents. Had they been humans together in Sicily? Probably. If he had been less brainwashed and zealous, could he have told me stories of my mom and dad? It would have been so good to have another educated urchin to talk with, especially since I am alone now with my thoughts and memories. I also wonder about what Tarn would have done to me if I had failed his questions. Would he have grabbed my weakest spikes and dragged me up a stalk of kelp? Led me to the surface of the ocean and into the light? Would I have become food for some larger animal, another soul that was trying to survive too? I am sure of it. What I am less sure of is what happens after a soul dies. My mom had said she once believed in god, but that god had abandoned her.
My mom told me in the beginning of human times, the people had many stories of metamorphosis, so it made sense to her when the governments and scientists became interested in metamorphosis again at the end. We were off the coast of Oregon when she had me start memorizing the stories of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “Oh habibi, I wish you could have read it. It was beautiful. I’d give anything to hold a book again. Even an electronic one.”
My dad was nearby giddily chomping on a ribbon of kelp. He hollered over, “Oral storytelling, my sweet porcupine, powerful stuff!”
But my mom ignored him. “You just never think you’ll be the one who transmogrifies to something so much lesser, lesser than you can even imagine,” she said, her spikes crestfallen. I looked outward at the purple carpet of laboring urchins, shuffling in long rows along the ocean bottom, clearing the algae away, without any nostalgia or complain. “Kharoof” my mom usually called them, “ignorant sheep.” I wondered what my mom thought when she looked at me. I wondered if she could imagine me in a human form. My mom was beginning one of her rants against god and E-HIP and urchins…
That’s when it happened—a swoosh of bubbles and micro-plastics and blurry ocean came charging our way, and before we could move a centimeter or decide what was going on, a furry paw stretched out of the shadows of the kelp forest and tore my dad off the plant. The sleek otter carried him up and away to the water’s surface. I can’t remember any thoughts in my head. I watched the blob of dark color rise until I could see it no more and then the ocean was dark and undisturbed again.
If we could have screamed, we would have.
Instead, my mom began slowly beating herself against the fallen rockweed.
“No, no, no,” she cried. The army of laboring urchins continued grazing unmoved.
“Mom,” I said, “Stop, stop. It will be okay.” But I was lying.
For hours, she went on in this torpor. She was mystical. As the days passed, my mom stayed inside a crevice of half-alive coral and I brought her pieces of drifting kelp I caught with my spikes. I encouraged her to move, to chomp, to recite poetry—but quietly. I told her I could understand her, but she didn’t want to speak to me anymore. She flipped herself over, her “Aristotle’s Lantern” faced the sky. She slurred words from “Del mondo e sue Parti” and ancient Egyptian love poems. Worms. God’s belly. Her womb. We are all worms in her belly. I worried we could not travel together. I worried her pain and sadness would attract an inquisitor and the inquisitor would drag us both out of the coral and kill us. I believed there must be others like us and we had to find them. We could start a new civilization. There must be inquisitors who had fallen out of rank, fallen angels like Lucifer, like us. I told my mom this, but she only fell deeper into her self; she stopped vibrating the water with her thoughts towards me. The last thing she said was that I had it all wrong. I had mixed up all the stories. But I think there is only one long human story. I can’t categorize the human stories and languages and nationalities and histories the way she does and my dad did.
The night I left, while my mom was sleeping, I whispered into her long spikes, “I’m so sorry. I hope you can forgive me someday for doing thistoyou. You are rohi, my soul.”
I don’t know if she heard me. I remember her red tinsel body becoming smaller and smaller as I drifted away. Sometimes I imagine myself as the piece of her womb that made her crazy. I imagine that I have run away for her sake. I like to think she is better now. Couldn’t that be true?
I have been traveling north since I left her. I believe there is a colony of large urchins above Alaska. I believe they are different from other urchins. Where does this belief come from? I don’t know, but what can I do but wander?
My body is small and dark, but I feel like a lantern. I am lit with hope. What will I find? Do I have a special mission? Or maybe I am truly the lantern and others will find me. I survived the E-HIP Inquisitor. I have inside me the knowledge of human times and urchin times. I once asked my mom what was the difference between a philosopher and a prophet. Her answer did not satisfy me. She said prophets’ messages came from god, not just from intellect. She said that philosophers weren’t worshipped and remembered in the same capacity as the prophets. But I think she is wrong. She cannot see that they are the same; this is her defect from once being a human. If she were better and here with me today, I would tell her that the intellect is god, wandering among us.
On December 21st, 2089, when the red star Betelgeuse—10th brightest in the sky—unexpectedly exploded in a blazing supernova, scientists told us we had nothing to fear. Our planet was too far away for this explosion to harm, much less destroy, life on earth, and to enjoy the show. The solstice had never been so spectacular.
“A once in a lifetime occurrence,” asserted one talking head on the yak circuit.
Another intoned, “We are thrilled to have a nearby supernova to study.”
And so the scientific community was abuzz. And this was understandable. Not every day a giant red star blows up in your neighbourhood. The problem was, the supernova had lit up the night sky—a dull yellow glow that obscured the stars but didn’t quite duplicate daylight. Indeed, the night sky was expected to be lit up for at least several months. And while scientists said no physical harm would come of it, no one could honestly predict the psychological ramifications.
“So much for the Christmas lights this year,” my partner Felicia lamented as we stood on our snow-covered lawn and stared at the sky.
“They still look nice,” I offered.
Felicia shrugged. “It’s just weird. Makes me feel weird, and small.”
She had something there. The supernova had somehow dwarfed us all, and turned our little worlds upside down. Hard to explain, but perhaps the lack of a black sky dotted with stars toyed with our psychic equilibrium. For instance, people were staying up all night to watch the sky, much to the detriment of pace and productivity. Those were the two keystones of The New Society, as we called ourselves after the economic and societal convulsions of the past half century. Many problems had been solved, but many still remained. Perhaps the supernova would shine a light on our emotional and spiritual deficiencies.
My next door neighbour Peter waved to us from his window. His Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer sweater made us smile. Not that we found it charming, but we knew that Peter expected us to find it charming. He had lost something when his wife Izzy left him for the Martian colonies. It was difficult to talk to him now, this once chipper man, he had whittled into cliches about weather and hockey. His reaction to the supernova had been singularly peculiar. He believed it was all a fraud, a great hoax perpetrated by subversive oligarchs in charge of the Martian operations. He believed that Betelgeuse was still intact and that the night sky was lit up by giant Martian spotlights.
We went inside. We kicked off our boots and fleeces. Glittering in the corner of the living room, the Christmas tree gave me pause. It never failed to strike me when I looked at it. Perhaps it was the reach back into childhood, the memories, the twinkling nostalgia. But on this Christmas Eve, it felt different. It felt weird.
“What is it?” Felicia asked, as she wrapped herself in a blanket on the sofa.
“I don’t know,” I said, “things feel off.”
Felicia chuckled. “No kidding!”
I smiled at her. Of course. Things didn’t just feel off, they were off. I mean, a supernova next door. Nothing to sneeze at. And Betelgeuse gone. That was messed up.
“Wonder how Santa Claus will manage tonight,” I said.
“Geez,” Felicia said, “you figure it would be easy-peasy with the sky all lit up like that. Unless he needs stars to navigate.”
“Hm, never thought of that.”
“Peter has totally lost it, eh?”
“Poor bastard. Loneliness will do that.”
I wandered into the kitchen. I felt like having a snack but was torn between savoury and sweet. I decided on hot chocolate and fitted the pod into the brewing unit. In seconds, a mug of frothy hot chocolate awaited me. I threw in a few miniature marshmallows. Felicia put on some Christmas music: Vince Guaraldi. Perfect. I blew on my mug and glanced out the kitchen window, nodding to the music, but with no feeling. It was almost ten pm. It didn’t look like daylight out there, but it also didn’t look like night. Christmas lights glowed faintly in the neighbourhood; nativity scenes and more kitschy displays were fired up. But the velvet loveliness of night was missing, the stars, the snow shining in the moonlight, the magic. I carefully sipped the hot chocolate.
Just then, I saw Peter in his silly sweater hopping around the side of his house, kicking up snow, almost like he was playfully chasing a child. He was wearing furry white boots and these thick tinted goggles that made him look loonier than he was. At one point he slapped his hands on his hips, looked up at the sky and started laughing. I felt a wave of pity for him.
Felicia came up behind me, put her arms under my armpits, and squeezed.
“Hey,” I said.
“He’s really lost it.”
“Yeah. Must be tough during the holidays.”
“I think the supernova put him over.”
“Don’t ever leave me for the Martian colonies,” I said, more firmly than I intended.
Felicia squeezed me.
“Now that you mention it.”
We both laughed. I sipped my hot chocolate.
“How about something stronger,” Felicia said. “It is the festive season.”
“What do you have in mind?”
She opened the cupboard where we kept the liquor and selected a bottle of Canada Club.
“The hard stuff,” I said.
“Reminds me of Christmas with my dad and uncles. They used to hammer bottles of it over the holidays.”
I glanced out the window again. Peter was gone. Felicia took out two shot glasses and filled them with the amber whisky.
“Here’s to Betelgeuse,” she said, as we clinked glasses. “Here’s to Betelgeuse,” I repeated, taking the whisky down in one go, feeling thankful and sad and weird at the same time.
The waves rolled me back and forth, gripping my little boat in a relentless catch and release. Salt water drenched the wooden bow and drifted towards the palm trees. There was no definite rhythm to this ebb and flow, which made it more difficult to navigate. The only way forward was to pull the oars. I paddled parallel to the shore, past the long rows of abandoned beach houses on the outskirts of town, and regularly glanced back at the wooden crates tied behind me. In the distance, seagulls flocked to the garbage-coated beach, a hurricane of white-and-black feathers, fighting over what remained of the area’s sea life. Their crowded chorus rang in my ears long after I passed them by.
Something felt wrong today. It wasn’t the clamor of the birds, or the loneliness of the buildings, or even the guilt surrounding the stolen contents of the crates behind me. I had long since convinced myself to stop worrying about these things. It was something in the air—a heavy, sticky feeling. A sense of dread. I moved more quickly than usual, frequently looking over my shoulder even though nothing was behind me but open water. I had to get back to Elodie.
I rounded the corner of the isthmus and could finally see our house, dwarfed by trees and overgrown bushes. The house stood on stilts intended to protect it from the dangers of floods and hurricanes. It had once seemed laughably high above the ground, but today the waves lapped all the way up to the base of the stilts. The stretch of beach out front had entirely disappeared. It looked rather claustrophobic, like it might be having difficulty breathing. I paddled up beside it, hopped out into the tepid, ankle-deep water, and dragged my canoe to the shore.
The stillness of the house frightened me. There was little to distinguish it from any of the other abandoned houses I’d passed along the way, except that the wood wasn’t rotting and a light was on in the upper window. Elodie did her best to make things homey, but I missed the signs of life that used to populate the beach and the lawn in the old days, now swallowed up by the tide. This wasn’t what we’d wanted. I was supposed to see Miko building sandcastles on the shore and knocking them down with a red bucket. Or Elodie and I wearing those tacky matching swimsuits that her parents bought us. Our friends would be there, too, with their children, and the kids would play in the water while we sat in hand-me-down beach chairs sipping at sangria from plastic wine glasses. Elodie would arch her head back and laugh that almost hysterical laugh that only her friends could bring out of her. I missed that most of all. Try as I might, she didn’t laugh that way alone with me—never quite that laugh. But still, she wouldn’t dream of leaving.
I carried the crate in through the back door, grunting slightly as I staggered up the carpeted stairs to the main floor. The anxiety I had felt out on the water began to loosen. The house smelled like Pine-Sol and bread, and upstairs the radio was buzzing with the soft cadences of Billie Holiday. Everything was going to be fine.
“Daniel? Is that you?”
Elodie threw open the door at the top of the stairs, and for a moment it framed a flash of concern on her face before she registered my presence. She relaxed and dropped something onto the counter next to her. It fell with a metallic clatter. A knife? Was she really so worried about intruders? We were miles from the nearest sign of civilization. But then again, Elodie always preferred not to take any chances. She came running down to meet me, immediately grabbing the other end of the crate and relieving me of half the weight.
“I told you to tell me when you were coming in,” she said reproachfully. “You shouldn’t have to carry this all by yourself.”
She kissed me, warm, and pulled away again as we climbed the stairs, then crouched to open the crate.
“I will next time,” I promised. It was important to her, although I hated asking for help.
“Seriously, Daniel. It doesn’t make you any less of a man to let your wife help you with a box now and then.”
I wanted to tell her what I had seen in town, but I knew it would only upset her more. The boarded up buildings and waterlogged streets were in worse shape every time I went for supplies. Mold thrived on the damp walls of empty businesses, and abandoned dogs and cats had begun to roam the streets, forming formidable gangs of tattered fur and wandering teeth. Everyday more and more people heeded the government advisory, packed up their things, and paid the exorbitant price for gas to drive inland, north of the coast.
“There are hardly any shops open anymore,” I told Elodie. “Even if we had money, we wouldn’t be able to buy anything.”
We were sitting now on opposite sides of the box, taking out containers of rice and crates of dried fruit. Elodie’s forehead puckered and she searched my face, worrying.
“What are you saying?” she asked. “Just that things are going to be a little harder now.” “But we’re gonna stick it out. Right?” I hesitated. There was still plenty of food left in town that we could continue stealing, and I wanted so badly to reassure her and see the worry wash away from her dark eyes.
“Right,” I said, trying to sound confident. “It’s your home. It’s our home.”
The house was Elodie’s, a family property originally owned by her grandparents. She inherited it before we got married. It was located ten minutes away from her childhood home, in the same quiet corner of Florida’s pan handle that she’d lived in her entire life. When I met her in Miami, I was a college student, fresh out of an adolescence that was spent constantly moving. Elodie gave me something to hold onto. This was before the fuel crisis and long before the mass displacement of recent years, long enough ago that my family could travel the country in the full peace of our privilege. Florida was just another state at first, no more my own than any other place I’d lived. Until Elodie. The stability of her life intrigued me. I thought I was lucky to be a part of it. But as the sea rose, our luck was running out. “Sticking it out” implied that at some point “it” would be over and the town would return to normalcy, pick up the pieces and carry on—as if the very forces of nature were not against us.
“Why all the towels?” Elodie asked, removing cloth after cloth from the bottom of the crate. “Oh. Well, it seems like a waste to keep picking up paper towels and toilet paper. They run out so quick.” Elodie made a face, but nodded.
“It’s more environmentally friendly, too,” I added, grinning. “A lot of good that does us now,” said Elodie. “Where’s Miko?” “Napping.”
Miko’s bedroom was in the attic, the highest point of the house, as an extra security measure. This was not really necessary. The sea did not rise overnight. But it was a strange comfort to me. It was easier to relax knowing that my son was sleeping above me, somehow a little farther removed from our worries.
He was the reason that we stayed, at first. The day he was born, the hospital media screens were all streaming the same news story: the newly-formed emergency Climate Impact Bureau had decided that the Florida coast was no longer a safe place to live. But that was a warning, not a command, and with a newborn baby, it was clear that we weren’t in a position to just leave. And we were so happy, in spite of it all. So we tried to keep things as normal as possible while our town moved out from under us.
The changes came gradually at first. When I was laid off at the construction company, I took up odd jobs around the house, building my canoe and waterproofing the bottom story of the house to keep myself busy. Elodie kept things cheerful in her own special way, making preserves and singing lullabies in the evenings. We danced on the balcony. The months slipped by. When Miko turned two, we gathered the few of our friends who were still in the area and threw a party with a boxed chocolate cake and some ancient yellow-and-green streamers that we had stashed away. Soon afterwards I started scavenging in the city. Now those last friends had left, too, but we still set the table for dinner every night.
When Miko woke up, Elodie brought him down and I took out the last items from the box—two glass coke bottles, the old-fashioned kind which Elodie loved so much, and a small plastic soccer ball. Treasures from the abandoned gas station. We sat on the carpet and took turns rolling the ball back and forth. Miko giggled everytime he caught it. Elodie and I drank the coke and listened to the jazz drifting from the radio. It was some upbeat song with a walking bass line, and I started tapping my fingers to the rhythm. I wrapped an arm around Elodie’s shoulders and tried to feel the fullness of the moment, let the richness of our little family wash over me. All I wanted was to take care of them. But just as I was beginning to relax, the song faded out and a siren cut in. Elodie dropped the soccer ball and Miko watched it roll away to the corner of the room with no attempt to stop it. The siren blared five times and a man began to speak.
The National Hurricane Advisory is issuing a severe hurricane warning as a Category 4 storm approaches the Florida coast. The National Bureau of Climate Impact is mandating an evacuation of the panhandle in advance of the storm. Residents are advised to turn off gas, electricity, and water utilities prior to evacuation. Contact your local….
I was already on my feet, looking from the old radio to the crate still sitting in the middle of the room, calculating what to take with us, what to leave behind. Would we all fit in the canoe, make it to town that way? Or would it be better for me to go first and send for help?
Elodie’s eyes were wide and wild and she was clutching Miko to her with unwarranted ferocity. Her hair, rife with humidity, surrounded her like a mane. The radio crackled and fear prickled in my chest.
“Elodie, it’s a hurricane,” I said. “We’ll have to evacuate.” “I know what a hurricane is.” She set her jaw. “Once we leave, they’ll never let us come back. The government, I mean. They’ll say it’s too dangerous.” “And for good reason!” I was tired of sugarcoating things for her. “Listen, Elodie. You don’t go into town, you never take the boat out, you don’t know what it’s like out there. We can’t stay here with a hurricane on the way. We’re not going to stay here with our kid.”
I reached for Miko, wanting to smooth his baby curls and soothe his anxiety, but she pulled him away, jerking backwards and throwing me off balance. She was stronger than I thought. “No,” she spat at me. “You promised me we would stay. It’s safer here—you said so yourself.”
I tried to explain, heat rising to my forehead, that all that was before the hurricane, that this changed things, and that if she didn’t come with me now, I would go on my own and alert the authorities, who would surely take her away from the house. But through everything I said, Elodie just rocked Miko back and forth, saying, my baby, my baby. Her baby. It was beginning to rain outside, a warning from the heavens, and I slammed my fist on the coffee table with frustration. The half-empty coke bottles teetered on the edge, then toppled to the ground and shattered. Elodie shrieked.
“I’m your husband!” I said, a strangled feeling in my throat. “I know what’s best for us! How the hell do you think you’d survive here without me bringing you food—and water, and medicine, and god knows whatever else you decide that you need?”
Elodie said nothing. Her eyes flashed wordless fury and she turned away so I could only see the tightening of her jaw. Miko started crying, too young to comprehend our argument. Elodie remained silent as she hunched over him. She had never looked so small or so scared. I wanted to say something else, to soften the space between us, but the anger was still boiling behind my eyes and I couldn’t find the words. The rain picked up outside, creating a furious rhythm on the windowpane.
“If that’s how you feel, you should leave,” Elodie said finally. “What?” She sat up straight, calmly now, her baby quietly resting in her lap. “Elodie, I—” “Leave.”
The inside of the storm was all wind. Daniel had not expected that. The rain became an afterthought, or perhaps more accurately a precondition, completely unimportant compared to the instability of the howling air. Windows shattered and roofs fell. One man’s canoe stood little chance of reaching any kind of help.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. Elodie knew that. Usually there were grace periods after the warning signs and enough time to outrun the clouds. And it wasn’t clear who was to blame—the storm itself for its unpredictability or the humans monitoring it for their incompetence. But somewhere along the line, something had snapped.
It made little difference in the end, and would receive little attention because of the scarcity of people in the area. The storm had been coming anyway. It had always been coming.
When the clouds cleared, Elodie searched the beach for hours. She held Miko tightly by the hand, guiding him through the destruction. Tangles of trees and bushes that once characterized her childhood lay uprooted on the sand, intermingled with variant debris. She looked into each pile, fearful of seeing Daniel’s lifeless hand or leg or, perhaps worse, the sweater he had been wearing, her favorite, the blue one that brought out his eyes. Miko would not stop asking where Daddy was, and Elodie could not think how to answer. He was in every palm branch, every piece of driftwood, around every corner. She quickened her pace. The waves washed in and out on the shore. She began to look at them, too, but she could not bear the idea of seeing him there under the water. He had left in his canoe right before the storm picked up. She’d called him back, called until her throat grew hoarse, but the winds were too loud and the boat was too far and he was gone before he could hear a word.
She walked until she reached town, and sank to her knees in the rubble of the buildings. After a time, someone found her, a rescue worker who directed her to an aid station with a shock blanket and a truck to take her and Miko away. The palm leaves sighed in the wind and they joined the thousands before them moving north