Paddling in the Sound

Not long after the election, when the left had failed

to reassure the broken hearted,

and the broken hearted had elected a lunatic

out of spite, I kayaked out to where the light

had never been torn,

to watch the darkness gathering

in the mountains’ seams.

 

Cool rain on flat seas, ducks ahead of me,

white trails of their wings beating water

as they fled. Fresh scent of snow in the wind.

 

A loon in the distance

began to call again and again,

a soliloquy from the sea’s grey throat,

each note going deeper into

where a certainty had once lived in my heart.

 

The longing in the loon’s call—a knife

cutting through rain, leaving nothing behind it

but more longing, more rain.

The Invasion of Yonkers: People and Plants

The city of Yonkers is being invaded in many different ways at once.

Among the types of invasive plants that plague Westchester county are Kudzu, Mile-a-Minute, Oriental Bittersweet, Porcelain Berry, Multiflora Rose, Purple Loosestrife and Japanese Knotweed. Each has a distinct personality; they can be identified by leaf shape, size, color and the aggression and speed with which they spread. One learns to hate certain species more than others. I’ve spent countless hours removing Multiflora thorns from my fingertips. My muscles have become stiff from cutting vines that have grown thicker than a baby’s arm. My skin is raised and itchy from contact with poison ivy and oak. My back is sore from pulling weeds rooted so deeply that the earth puts up a fight releasing them.

A species is classified as invasive when it is not only foreign but has no local predators, meaning that it can spread prolifically without being eaten, siphoning resources like space, light, and water from native plant life. Many of these species were brought from Asia by European traders as decorative additions to gardens or church hats. Others came in the hulls of ships along with food and other supplies. Others came as seeds nestled in the hair of slaves. Whatever their origin, they now grow unperturbed along the Saw Mill River and its surrounding trails and forests.

I work with high school students in Yonkers on vine removal and ecology education. We must be careful; my supervisors remind me to stay away from words like “alien” or “invader” because they may be triggering to immigrant students and their families. Instead we are encouraged to use the terms “native” and “non-native”. My boss suggests going as far as referring to them within the framework of “colonizers” vs “natives”.

The Yonkers city government cannot afford to take on the removal of invasive plants, so it is up to volunteer groups to resist their spread. At volunteer events, I explain that a tree covered in vines may appear to be alive due to the green tendrils that wrap endlessly around its branches, while underneath the thing has been dead for quite some time. This is dangerous because it leaves the tree unstable. Dead branches can fall unexpectedly at any time.

There are very few green spaces left in Yonkers. The small community gardens that litter South West Yonkers are built on city property and are liable to be taken back for “development”. Half of these plots are in the process of being converted into luxury condos.

There is no point protesting the uprooting of the gardens in Yonkers. Their removal became inevitable when a new kind of invaders began growing downtown. They take the form of real estate developers and artists escaping the rising price of living in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Like a vine climbing a tree, they tear down affordable housing projects and uproot community gardens to make room for juice bars and upscale art galleries. We are reminded each day that this land does not belong to the community and never will. Every attempt at purchasing the land has been shot down, even when the asking value is met. We are forced to face the reality that money makes money and community gardens do not.

 

There is still trash in the river, protest over the removal of trees, miles of invasive plants that grow faster than we can cut them, and rising property taxes as a result of cleaning up the city that belongs to the community who can no longer afford to live there. We spend the day digging up the garden on Buena Vista Avenue that is older than any of us to make room for a parking lot; it can get discouraging. Buena Vista literally means “good view”, and we all recognize the irony when the new apartment complexes have been blocking the view of the Hudson for months.

To be young and of color, a child of an immigrant, is to be a product of “outreach”, surrounded by community, on land you do not own, in a city full of abandoned spaces still teeming with life. Having been touched by white systems if not white people—until they leave their hometowns—the kids I work with are happy simply with opportunity, the opportunity to fail, even. Failure rarely has anything to do with their own shortcomings but centuries and tons and miles of circumstance. I know they will blame themselves anyway, and work hard like our parents and grandparents and great grandparents, all while praying that they never end up like them. When the parents ask, “Why are you doing this again?” we are reminded that our parents did not “come to this country to have you picking fruit”.

Humans are the deadliest of invasive species, our vines growing ever upward, blocking precious sunlight.

We must become environmentalists. It is our obligation.

I’m talking about a second definition of environmentalism as well as the first: not only concern about and action aimed at protecting the environment, but the theory that environment, as opposed to heredity, has the primary influence on the development of a person or group.1

 

I understand wanting to leave when it feels like there is less and less space for the community to occupy; when they tell you your music is too loud; no, you cannot skate here; your art is vandalism; it’s past curfew; this is city property; no loitering; this area is under surveillance by camera.

In a city of immigrants, some documented, some not, the issue of invasion is blurry. Who is the invader on land that belongs to the Lene Lenape tribe, whose presence can be felt if not seen? None of us are native to this land. Whether we immigrated from overseas and beyond borders or were brought here against our will, we are all here now.

 

A community deserves land for themselves that cannot be taken away, occupied or invaded. A place to grow for the sake of growing rather than the sake of profit. A place with enough space, sunlight and water to thrive. But right now, the city of Yonkers is being invaded, and it doesn’t look like we are going to be able to stop it.

 

Along any highway in Westchester county, the invasion is evident. If you take the time to look, nearly every surface is covered in the relentless vines. They elicit a visceral reaction from me now, a feeling of rage and anxiety that lives in my chest. Deep down I believe that the task of removing them is impossible, but I will never say this aloud. Invasive removal has become a kind of therapy to work out a whole list of anxieties I cannot speak aloud for fear that speaking them into existence will make them real, that my community and communities like it do not stand a chance of thriving under these conditions. Still, I go out each week and work, little by little, in the hopes that I am very wrong.

Fuck You Pay Me

In Indonesia the IAP was shelling Jakarta, in China the PLA Navy was scouring the Eastern seaboard for survivors, in the UK Londoners were lining up at WFP stations for groceries, and, just twenty miles from Felix and Anya, in Muscatine the combined forces of the Louisa, Muscatine, Scott, and Cedar County police departments were performing rescue missions and responding to bouts of looting throughout the flooded riverfront of the city—but in Greatland, Iowa, it was a quiet first day of winter break.

Felix and Anya sat on the bench swing at Washington Park, a treeless half-block of muddy grass with a small playground complex, not far from their high school. They were holding each other’s cold-numbed hands, Felix stamping against the ground occasionally to swing the bench.

“I found a personal accountancy AI calibrated for the Midwest,” Anya said, “if you want to check that out?”

“I thought you said personal accountancy was impossible to calculate.”

“I don’t think I said that,” Anya murmured.

“Yes you did, because I was asking you about these credit tallies people use when they go looting.” Felix turned F’s gaze on Anya.

“Oh. Um. I think I didn’t say that. But I might’ve said it’s . . . well, it would be nearly impossible to make one that was global, but regional ones are easier. There’s one for England, I know, people have used it to make credit tallies.”

“Sure, let’s do it then. I bet your credit’s a lot higher than mine. My parents and parents’ parents and parensparensparens are European as shit.”

Anya pulled her hand away to take out her cellphone, an old utilitarian thing that she had never gotten an upgrade for as long as Felix had known her. “Okay, here,” she said, handing F her phone. The website had just a few text fields on it—place of residence, ethnicity, and class—but as Felix answered them, they branched out into further questions of religion, great grandparents’ nationality, gender, assigned gender, time of immigration, and many fields where F had to write “IDK” and move on. When F tapped the “Submit” button, the phone looked like it was crashing, but then a results screen came up. “Nine hundred and forty-eight dollars!” Felix yelled. “Holy shit! If that’s what I’m owed, I can’t imagine what your credit is!”

“Yeah, neat huh?” Anya said, taking her phone back. “I’m thinking of pulling some old census data to a make a mod that can handle inputs about Iowa counties—get more specific on it, you know?”

As she started to tuck the phone into her pocket, Felix cut in, “Wait, you’re not going to see what you’re owed? Come on, you’ve got to—I bet it’s a shitload.”

“I mean, but. I know that. I kind of already know. N’COBRA developed an AI to calculate reparations, and you can just split that number by the number of people in the US descended from slaves.”

“But this is for you—you personally. Come on, for me, I want to know.”

“Okay,” she took out her phone again, and smirked.

“What? What’s funny?”

“It does kind of seem fun.”

“It is fun!” Felix gave them a good swing, and stared out at the slushy ground while Anya entered her info. A truck, a gas guzzler, rumbled past them, and Felix shouted, “Fuck you!”

“Felix,” Anya cautioned.

“Who the hell is still driving cars—and a gas car especially. Must be some POFA asshole, if they can afford to fuel that thing.”

“Okay, just . . . .” Anya started, but then stopped and pursed her lips.

“What, what is it?”

That smirk broke out again, and she turned the phone screen to Felix: $104,667.

“Holy shit! That’s enough for . . . that’s enough for . . . .”

“A full ride to Iowa State,” Anya said.

“What?” Felix asked. “But you’ve—”

“I’ve got the Future Scientists scholarships. Yeah, yeah. I just mean, if that money got frozen, or something, like they did with the scholarships for everyone who’s a junior now . . . just a possibility, you know?”

Of course F knew. They both knew. And they both knew that Felix’s legacy scholarship wasn’t state-funded, so no one was going to pull that money to deal with the recession, and they both knew that if Future Scientists got cancelled, Felix would still be at Iowa State next year, while Anya—

“Yeah.” Felix nodded and tried to not think about it, putting F’s arm around Anya. F gave them a push, and the chains of the swing squawked as they rocked gently.

“Hey, Felix—”

“What if we looted something,” Felix said.

“What?”

“Between the two of us we have more than enough credit to justify it.”

“Real funny.”

“I’ve been reading articles about it, it’s really pretty easy in places like this. Plenty of big empty mansions out in the country, rich owners gone away for winter break . . . .”

“You’re not being serious, um, right?”

“Well it’s a fun idea, isn’t—” Felix stopped when F heard a rumbling behind them and turned. It was that same fairly new, dark blue Ford that had gone by earlier. “The fuck are they doing? Just cruising around for the fun of it?” Felix bent down to scoop up some mud.

“F,” Anya said, “F, hey . . . .”

The car turned left, passing right in front of them, and Felix jumped up and hurled the mudball as hard as F could. It hit the back windshield with a whap like a thunder crack, reverberating in the empty block. Felix shouted, “You piece of—” but F’s breath caught when the back lights flared red and the truck shrieked to a halt. “Shit!” F pivoted back to Anya and shouted, “Run!” Anya dashed for her bike, and Felix for F’s, not looking behind. Without meaning to they both pushed off in opposite directions, but F couldn’t turn back now. The streets were deserted, grimy with salt, mud, and puddled potholes, so F blasted through four-way stops, turning left and right and right and left, trying to lose F’s self in the waffle-iron residential blocks of the town.

A thin drizzle was passing over Greatland just a few days before Christmas when Felix texted Anya, Hey you should come over. Parents are out trying to sell the car. Felix set F’s phone aside on the couch and turned back to the YT News special F was watching. It was about the origins of the accounting AIs, how they’d been an open source reference tool for the UN climate change program before becoming the core of a global political movement. After a while, Felix paused the video and picked up F’s phone again—no response. F started to text her, but as soon as F did, there was a little knock at the front door.

Felix answered the door to find Anya outside, her bike chained to the railing of the little staircase leading up to the prefab.

“Hey,” she said. She looked beautiful, flushed from the ride over, a warm little glow of light against the suburban wasteland and sky of shadows.

“Hey,” Felix said, and hugged her. “Come in!” F stepped back, then closed the door behind her. “So, I was—”

“Actually, Felix . . . I kind of, need to—I should’ve told you right away the other day, but it’s hard, and I just . . . .” Anya paused for a while, and bit at her lip. “The state legislature voted last week to—they’re pulling funds for Future Scientists. All funds. And my parents—well we don’t know what’s—”

“So you, you can’t go to Iowa?” Felix asked.

Anya shifted her feet around. “The law could be reversed, but . . . but . . . .”

Felix felt tears boiling up around F’s eyes. “That’s bullshit! For years, people like that have been fucking over people like you, and now that the consequences of greed have caught up with them, they’re still just taking care of their own first!”

Anya hesitantly held out her arms, “Um,” then she stepped forward and hugged F. She was a little taller than Felix, and F pushed F’s face into the crumply synthetic material of her winter coat. Going off to college without Anya. Freshman sophomore junior senior year without Anya. And Anya, brilliant Anya, smarter than anyone F knew Anya, consigned to some community college. “It’s so unfucking fucking fucking fair!” Felix slurred into her shoulder.

“I know,” she murmured. “I’m. I’m really grateful for everything I have, but—I really wanted to go to a university.” She shivered against Felix and hugged F tighter. F hugged her tighter back. “I—” she started, then choked and fell silent.

The world was stupid and mean and—

“Oh!” Felix pushed back from her. “I forgot, what I wanted to talk to you about!” F sniffed, and grinned. “I found a place we can loot!”

“What? Felix . . . .” Anya rubbed at her eyes.

“All the more reason to loot it now, right?” Sniff.

“But . . . no, there’s no way . . . looting that much money, that would be traced, or, or, if we stole stuff and pawned it, it’d be really suspicious, and—”

“There are safe ways to do it though—online, you—”

“I don’t think so.”

“Really, you just use proxies and bots to—”

“But I don’t think I’m comfortable with—”

“Then fine, don’t pawn anything. We can just go, and steal stuff you like—get you a new laptop, so you can finally start designing your own AI instead of just making mods, yeah?” And maybe you’ll change your mind when you see what riches these people are hoarding, and decide to go all the way, so you can go to ISU . . . .”

Anya looked almost as distressed as she had right before telling F her scholarship was gone.

“Look at me and tell me you don’t deserve a better computer—to have the tools you actually need to do your work,” Felix said, the tears spilling out again. “Look at me and honestly tell me that, and if you can, then . . . .”

Anya stared into F’s eyes for a while, and her face slowly relaxed. Then, “Can we do it safely?”

Felix had found the house on Red Door, a bnb-like website with stricter membership requirements, aimed at wealthier travelers and homeowners—definitely people with debt, not credit. The place was un-booked (surprise, no one wanted to go to Greatland Iowa for their holiday break), and had been available since the fifteenth. It was out in the countryside, a twenty-minute bike ride from Felix’s house.

By the time they turned off the highway, it’d stopped raining and the sun had set. The drive led them through a thicket of trees into a postage-stamp clearing surrounded by forestry. At the center stood a two-story house with an excessively furnished front porch and a stretch of chain link fence visible toward the back.

“What if that’s for a dog?” Anya pointed at the fence.

“If there was a dog it would’ve been mentioned on Red Door,” F murmured. “Your mask is slipping some.” F pinched the fabric and stretched it up over the bridge of her nose. They both wore scarves wound tight around their faces just below their eyes and skull caps above, in case of security cams.

“Alright,” Felix said, taking out F’s phone, “I’m gonna call you now.”

F walked their bikes over to the side of a long shed catty-corner to the house, then propped F’s phone on the handlebars so the camera pointed out to the road.

Anya took out her phone. “So if I see someone drive through here on this call, what do we do?”

“We hide in the trees and wait them out,” Felix said. “Private security is not going to want to find us, you know? They’ll get here, look around the house, and assume we ran away. They’re not in the business of catching people, just chasing them off.”

“What about police?”

“Police are all in Muscatine helping with the flood, they don’t have time for anything happening in pissant little Greatland.” F made for the house. “Now come on, let’s do this.”

They’d cased the place on Google Maps and seen, in a summer picture, little plants set out on the shallow incline of the porch roof. If someone could move plants in and out through the windows, a person could probably make it through too. They’d also discovered that one wall of the porch consisted of a lattice choked with vines, which made for an easy climb up to the awning.

“Look, this is the one,” Felix whispered, motioning Anya over to one of the second story windows. Behind the glass, they could see the plants set out on the windowsill. Although it was a pain to remove the screen with their gloves on, the window wasn’t actually locked or bolted into place, and it slid up easily.

“Careful with the plants, Felix,” Anya said, as Felix squirmed past them.

“No names, Bug,” Felix hissed back at her, and as she came in behind F, F went and looked for the light. “You in?” Felix asked.

“Yeah,” Anya said, and hearing the window sliding shut, Felix hit the switch.

The room was a bathroom, with two sinks and a closet twice the size of Felix’s own, but just for towels. The shower/bathtub overflowed with products—conditioner, dry scalp conditioner, scented shampoo, bodywash, a chunky bar of soap, washcloths, a luffa, a glass jar of bath salts—and the counter of the bathroom held even more—shaving cream, razors, more bars of soap, combs, hairbrushes, nail scissors, deodorants, perfume, eyeliner, lip gloss, foundation and setting powder (none the right shade for Anya or Felix), mouthwash, toothpaste, an army of orange prescription bottles. Just as stunning as the quantity and variety of the stuff, all of them were name brand. These people were debtors for sure.

As they progressed through an upstairs hallway, then down a flight of stairs to the living room, they followed the same routine. Turn on the lights, survey the area, check in with each other to see if either of them wanted something, then turn off the lights and move on. Felix didn’t take much, but Anya wasn’t taking anything. “Are you sure?” Felix asked. “Something small?” They both wore backpacks that they could stuff a lot of things into. “No,” she said, “I don’t want their stuff. I’m just looking for a laptop.” And on they went.

The house was overstuffed, top to bottom. Even the fridge and pantry were well-stocked, with more animal products in one place than Felix had ever seen outside a supermarket. F used Anya’s phone to check the price of a block of cheddar cheese, $31.50. F marked it down on F’s tally and took it, instantly tearing open the packaging and taking a big bite. Felix hadn’t had dairy cheese since F was six, before the carbon taxes made it too expensive, and it was creamy beyond anything Felix could remember. Rich and dense like a potato, sweet, and salty and fatty like peanut butter. F offered the block to Anya. “Want some?”

“No, I’m vegan. Aren’t you vegan?”

“Everyone’s vegan,” Felix said, taking another bite, really chewing on it.

“So why are you eating that?”

“It’s not like I’m buying it,” F said. “And it’s delicious. Why not enjoy the fruits of their greed?” Felix wrapped up the cheese and stuck it into F’s backpack, quickly following it with a box of cookies that ran about $29, a loaf of sourdough ($19), a jar of blackberry jam ($15), a half-used bag of Sumatra coffee (half of $44—$22), and a small travel mug ($31).

When they reached the home office Anya finally stopped checking her phone every two minutes to pore over the enormous desk at the end of the room, which held two monitors and an enormous computer tower.

F smiled under F’s scarf, then turned to the wall opposite the desk where three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stood. After Felix had raided them, F powered on the computer to calculate how much credit F had left. F didn’t want to bother Anya asking her for her phone, as she was now sitting cross-legged on the floor, bent over a Tupperware box full of electronic paraphernalia with that I-am-now-just-in-my-own-world-and-I-don’t-care-how-I-look-to-anyone-else concentration that Felix had always found so adorable in her. $563.32—that was how much F was still owed. F was about to shut down the computer when a folder on the desktop caught F’s eye.

“Oh my god,” Anya whispered, as Felix opened the folder, titled “spreadsheets.”

“What?” F looked over, and saw her holding a small, slender laptop.

“This is so new . . . this is just a year old . . . it’s a Ryder Mini, it’s . . . .” And now, even though her mouth was completely obscured, Felix knew that Anya was smiling.

“How much is it?”

“About five thousand dollars,” she said.

“Take it, Bug!”

Anya slung her backpack around the front of her and slipped the laptop inside. “What are you doing?”

Felix’s eyes roamed across the screen. “These are quarterly reports, for this family’s farm—we could feed this into that personal AI and figure out how much these people owe—we’d know exactly how much you can take from them—it’s probably enough to pay for college.”

“Well, probably,” Anya murmured. “But . . . .”

“I’m doing it.” Felix opened the web browser and rattled off a search query.

“Fe—I mean, just, those, the AI don’t handle businesses very well. They’re not optimized for them.”

“Really? Because the site has an option for ‘business’ in this dropdown.” Felix selected this option, and then rather than filling out any forms, clicked “Upload Data.”

“Huh,” Anya said. “Must be a more recent build . . . .”

Felix selected all the folders F’d looked at, plus several more that F hadn’t, but which seemed relevant. The AI was smart, it could sort out what was and wasn’t important for itself. They both watched as a progress bar appeared on the screen and crawled from 5% to 23% to 29% to 44%, much faster than it would’ve done on Anya’s computer or Felix’s. In less than a minute, the bar was up to 99%, and then the page reloaded and the number appeared: $4,344,505.

“What the fuck?” Felix said. “Whoa, what?”

“See, that’s what I’m saying, I don’t know how accurate—”

“Would it be this inaccurate? Really? There’s something in that data, this family’s done some shit, Anya.”

“That’s . . . this number is . . . .”

“Slaveholding, or maybe they’re descended from some old shitty European dynasty, or—”

“That’s not in the data!” Anya snapped. “There’s no tab that records the number of slaves this family’s ancestors had—and we’re in Iowa, these people are probably descended from protestant Germans, not slaveholders or monarchs.”

“Then they’re paying people below minimum wage, or using some massively pollutant farming process,” Felix said. “Either way, their shit is ours for the taking. This room is a great place to start, you tell me, what’s valuable in here?”

“F, if that’s their debt, I, I don’t know how much we can trust my credit.”

“What? Of course we can, it’s consistent with other reparations AI.”

“Well, you know, that’s an average, it’s not like every black person is, has some legacy of deprivations, or—”

“Of course not, but you—your dad’s dad’s dad’s dad was a slave, right? We can say that with certainty.”

“But my mom’s white, and I’ve—I can’t deny the benefits of that, or—”

“That is ridiculous, and you know it.” Felix picked up an external drive, and unzipped Anya’s pack to put it in.

“Stop!” she yelled, spinning away. “I’m saying, I don’t feel like I’ve had some horrible life of being withheld from opportunities, I, I feel incredibly grateful for everything I’ve got, especially considering what my dad went through, and I don’t feel like a hundred thousand dollars has been robbed from me.”

“You don’t have to feel it.” Felix shoved the drive into F’s own pack and started grabbing other electronics. “The computer is telling you.” F picked up a phone, then realized it was Anya’s, which she had left on the desk—but in the moment F picked it up, F saw a shape moving out of frame, toward the house. “Shit! Come on, grab everything as quickly as possible!”

“What, F, is there—” Her voice choked up.

“Yeah, let’s go!” F flipped off the lights. “Listen, do these rich assholes deserve these electronics more than you deserve college?”

“I—No,” she hissed, and she pushed past F and plunged her hands into the box of electronics, fishing out sleek black and gray apparatuses and placing them on the desk by the light of the monitor. Felix helped her, filling up F’s own pack as well as hers.

“Wait, F,” Anya whispered, staring at the computer monitor.

“What, you want to take that?”

“This isn’t the Midwest AI, this is global.” Anya looked at F. “This isn’t what they owe to the creditors of the Midwest, or America, it’s what they owe to the world.”

“But that’s—”

“Why it’s so high—someone must’ve cracked it in the past few days, figured out how to—”

An enormous crashing sound as the front door exploded open, and something came skittering down the hall, knocking off the walls and into the office. The doorknob.

“Whoever is in there,” a voice boomed from the doorway, “get the fuck out, and leave your shit!” Not private security. A looter.

There were two exits to the office—one to the front hallway, one to the dining room. If Felix remembered correctly, from the dining room they could get to the backyard—but they’d have to move quick.

“F, look,” Anya pointed to the monitor, which displayed the homepage for the site that Felix had breezed past when F was uploading the data. Anya’s finger was pressed to a text box which read,

$36,433

Average debt of a lower-class US citizen

“I’ll give you till ten to come over here and surrender whatever you’ve taken!” The voice yelled.

“I’ve got a plan,” Felix hissed. “Out the back.”

“One! Two!”

Anya stuck close as they crept through the dining room.

“Three! Four!”

“I hate this,” she moaned.

“Five! Six!”

Felix used every shouted number as a chance to open the creaking door further.

“Seven! Eight!”

Across the threshold now . . . .

“Nine! Ten!”

And it was closed. They heard stomping inside and quickly scurried off the back porch to crouch beside some hedges. The rain had come back—no, it was snow this time.

“Okay,” Anya said, “what now?”

“Now we sneak around to our bikes and GTFO.”

“Wait, that was your plan? Are you serious? No, no, then we should just give the stuff back—”

“Keep your voice down,” Felix snapped, and F headed toward the edge of the house.

From inside they heard the looter shout something, and they froze at the corner of the house for a while before continuing on to the chain link fence, which enclosed the backyard. “Let’s go over the fence one at a time,” F said, “so we don’t make too much noise.” Felix fit one foot into a hole and, pushing off of it, for the first time that night felt the enormous weight of F’s pack. The chains jangled, and F climbed as quickly as possible, easing F’s body down to the other side. F could see the bikes from here just yards away, Felix could see F and Anya riding away on them, Felix could see huge sums rolling into Anya’s bank account and Felix could see her graduating with F.

“Jesus this is heavy,” Anya said, reaching the top of the fence. She sat there, straddling the metal pole running across the top. “I won’t be able to bike up and down hills with all this on my back.”

There was more shouting in the house. “You can and will,” Felix said, “now get down from there!”

Anya pulled down her scarf, one hand still clasping the fence for balance. “I can’t, Felix . . . I, you saw what that site said—none of this is ours. I mean, if we really want to be accountableist, we should donate our own things to, to displaced Indonesians—or to Puerto Ricans, or—”

“We’re just kids!” Felix said. “We can do all that later, once we’ve gotten an education and have jobs that—”

“I know you want us to go the same university, but—”

“That’s not what this is about!” Felix shouted, then instantly clapped a hand over F’s mouth. In the silence, Anya began slipping off her pack with her free hand.

Felix reached up to snatch it, but Anya twisted away. “If you let go of that,” Felix said, “you’re letting go of everything that’s been stripped away from your ancestors for generations—you’re letting go of—” F swiped at it again.

“You don’t get to steal on behalf of my ancestors!” Anya hissed. The pack now hung by just one strap, which she reached for.

I’m not stealing it, it’s not mine, it’s for you, when you come to your senses!” Just as Anya took hold of the strap Felix jumped up to grab it. F caught onto her scarf instead and without a thought yanked as hard as possible, sending scarf, Anya, and backpack tumbling over the fence and slamming into the hard cold ground.

Felix stared in horror. “Oh my—Anya, Bug, I didn’t—I’m sorry, I—”

Anya pushed herself up. “Fucking take it, asshole,” she said, shoving the pack into F’s hands. “I don’t want it.”

“But the laptop—”

“Fuck the laptop. Slave labor pollutant bullshit anyway.” She walked past F, then froze.

“Hand it over!”

F turned and saw the looter heading toward them. As they got closer, Felix could see a handgun tucked into the waistband of their jeans. “My buddy in the car heard you idiots. What’d you think, I came alone?” Though their face was covered by a ski mask, they sounded young, maybe early twenties.

“What’s, what’s your credit tally?” Felix asked, voice shaking. “Why do you deserve this more than her?” The looter stopped a few yards away from them, and Anya backed up to stand in front of Felix. “She needs this money for college.”

“College? Fuck off,” the looter said. “Give me the bags.”

Felix chucked over F’s own bag, still holding onto Anya’s pack. “You’d just take a girl’s education from her? She deserves a—”

“Kid, unless she’s a Rohingya or some shit, she doesn’t deserve dick. Looting isn’t about deserving, it’s about wanting. If you prefer to use a credit tally, whatever. But my credit tally’s only twenty-k. Fuck that. I want a car, I want a treadmill, I want some weed and I want a flat screen and a VR system and I want a big motherfuckin’ hamburger, and I want that goddamn backpack, now.” The looter’s hand had come to rest on their handgun. Felix held out Anya’s bag, and the looter took it. “Community college is cheap enough anyway, she’ll be fine.” They then grabbed Felix’s bag off the ground.

“Don’t take that,” Anya spoke up. “There’s a few electronics on top, you can take those, but the rest is just books and some food.”

The looter, putting on Anya’s backpack, unzipped Felix’s and upended it, shaking it out vigorously. After a moment’s consideration of the pile of takings, they cast the empty bag aside and stood back up. “I don’t want any of that shit.” They turned and headed back to the house.

“Do you treat most looters like this?” Felix asked. “Why can’t we work together? We’re on the same side!”

“Yeah kid,” the looter called back. “We’re the debtors.” They disappeared from sight then, but F heard a car door slam, and after a while the front door of the house opening and closing.

Felix picked up F’s backpack as Anya walked away toward the bikes, and F looked at all the items scattered in the snow and dead leaves. Books and electronics that weren’t F’s. What the fuck was F doing with someone else’s food?

F arranged the petty plunder in a neat stack by the side of the house, using the heavier items to weigh down the flimsier ones. F put on the empty backpack and walked to the bikes, spying someone inside the looter’s car who watched F back. When Felix had biked out to the edge of the property, F was surprised to almost come crashing into Anya, who was standing on the edge of the highway beside her bike.

Felix pulled down F’s scarf. “You deserve the world,” F said to her. “You deserve everything, nothing could be enough.”

Anya didn’t respond.

“You’ll still do great, even without going to a big university. I’m the one who’s going to be struggling, without, without . . . .” A cold wind whipped through F. “I’m so sorry. I know an apology isn’t enough, I owe you so much more—”

“Can I have my phone?” Anya said.

“Your . . . .”

“When you saw the car come in, you took my phone,” Anya said.

“I . . . .” Felix felt F’s stomach roll. “I put it in your bag. I can, I’ll go back and—”

“No,” Anya said, “don’t be reckless.”

“Then—then you can have my phone, please, let me—”

No. Just text my phone, letting the looters know I’d like it back. And give them your number so they can work it out with you. It’s a cheap phone. They won’t mind not keeping it, and if they do it won’t be expensive to replace.”

“Oh—okay.” Felix nodded, and Anya got on her bike and kicked back the stand.

“Hey, what’s the credit tally needed for snow?” she said, then pushed off down the road.

For the first time, Felix realized, truly took account of the fact, that it was snowing. It was snowing, in Iowa, in December no less. F couldn’t remember the last time that’d happened—maybe before F was born.

The credit tally needed for snow. More than Greatland deserved. More than Middle America, agricultural heart of a miserly old debtor empire, deserved. More than Felix deserved, too, idiot. But it was falling on F, anyway.

Kestrel in an Apocalyptic Landscape

Kestrel: (from French crécerelle, derivative from crécelle, i.e. ratchet)

 

Also known as windhover because he can hover, even in still air, but when he

hovers he usually faces toward a breeze, no matter how slight.

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote

 

Dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding / of the rolling level underneath him steady air . . . .

 

Say that aloud: in his riding / of the rolling level underneath him steady air . . . .

 

rolling level underneath him steady             five troches that roll along

like a wave, cresting and falling, cresting and falling   and land         lightly             on air

 

In some future time and place a kestrel perches on a leafless branch on a leafless tree, waits

for something to stir. The landscape is open, naked, brown as his dominant plumage (but oh

the blue-gray of his wings, the black streak descending from his eye like a tear).

 

With a push he sends himself into the rolling level underneath him steady air. All is silent

except for the clack of his feathers as he holds himself upright facing into a breeze,

tailfeathers spread, wingfeathers spread, head bent like a penitent to scan the ground.

 

Scorpion.

 

He tilts and sleekens and spills himself down, talons thrusting, strikes.

 

Dead insect in claw he lifts and flaps back to his tree, to the hollow space in its trunk, where

she waits for him with the new one, first to emerge from the clutch, and only.

 

He drops his gift and she shares it with the hatchling.

Song of the Suburbs

Our houses are decaying    plants wait to take control         no they don’t wait     they ceaseless

send their rootlings along the soil’s pathways     wheedling      their limbs unwind               across

blank         space                      filling up with light                 blocking the light

 

Meanwhile in the East        snow presses its heavy breast     against the eaves of a ranch house

the gutters tear away         sheets of packed ice lance   to the ground         watch out!

 

Our neighborhoods erode       woodpeckers drill utility poles

      kerkerkerkerkerkerkerkerker       how do they move their heads

so fast we wonder      but they do           holes accumulate

      a lacework        someday they’ll topple          and then            

kablammo         no more power  

 

Oak roots down below         thrust up        concrete sidewalks         bust up        Maintenance!       Maintenance!

someone call the city          the sidewalk’s all ajumble

 

And the freeways oh the freeways are a mess

       just look at all the new holes      every time it rains

             the veritable earth      dropping    out      pulling     away           the asphalt     withdrawing

        Never mind never mind          we’ll shelter in our houses         until we can no more

The Mortmain

Henryk Król was washing dishes, looking out at the setting-sun light shuddering through the trees—considering, without real conviction, whether the trees should be trimmed to let more light through; whether he had any right to trim the trees, as after years of residence he was still unsure where his yard ended and the forest began—when the boy knocked on the edge of his screen door and came into the kitchen a moment later. Henryk had fallen out of the habit of locking his door during the day; here, it was unnecessary. And locking your door at night was only because of the animals, raccoons with their thieving ways and curious deer, occasionally a bear. Not boys with bare feet.

“What happened to your shoes?” Henryk asked. Even little boys did not run around barefoot like they used to. And this boy existed in the grey area between boy and man, slight enough to be a teenager, wiry and solemn enough to be a young man. He wore ripped trousers and a grey hoodie worn so thin in patches Henryk could glimpse his ribs; no shirt, no shoes. The boy seemed unreal, like a preview of his usual unsettling dreams.

“Nothing,” the boy said. “Are you the surgeon?”

Henryk dried his hands, keeping the boy in the corner of his eye. “I was a surgeon. Why do you ask?”

The boy tugged his hoodie off, scattering pine needles across the floor. The scent of the forest moved into the kitchen. Using his skinny hands to frame the area, he indicated a patch of skin on his stomach that looked exactly the same as the rest. “There’s something hurting me,” he said flatly. “It needs to be taken out.”

Henryk moved slowly as he picked the hoodie up and handed it back to the boy, who took it reluctantly. He felt like he was in a room with a wild animal. Didn’t want to spook it. “What is your name?”

The boy glanced over his shoulder. “Mort.”

A blatant falsehood: the forest behind him was the Mortmain Forest. Henryk let it slide. “Mort, I am several years retired. Also, you must be examined before you have surgery. Have you been examined?”

Mort scowled. “I don’t need it. I know what’s wrong.”

“How?”

“I feel it.” He touched the place again, gently. “I know when something’s wrong. I just can’t fix it.” He looked at Henryk imperiously. “Aren’t you supposed to help people?”

“I am supposed to help my patients. There is a process to becoming a patient. I would not want to hurt anyone by rushing into something.”

Mort’s scowl deepened. “Didn’t you take an oath?”

“The Hippocratic? That would have been foolish of me. It prohibits the use of a knife, among other outdated stipulations.”

I solemnly pledge to consecrate my life to the service of humanity. That one.”

Henryk looked at Mort with new interest. “The Declaration of Geneva. It’s less well-known.”

Mort didn’t provide an explanation, just gestured at his stomach, get-to-it-then. Henryk sighed. “It still does not mean I must tend anyone who comes to me. You may need help, but unless you are examined I cannot tell whether you need the help of a surgeon or . . . another sort of doctor.”

With an angry huff of breath, Mort pulled the hoodie back on. “I don’t need another doctor. I need your help.”

“You don’t know—”

“I know what I need.” Mort turned and went out, looking back as the screen door shivered in its frame. “I’ll be back,” he said. “You’ll change your mind.”

“Unless you come back with paperwork from a doctor, I shall not.”

“You have to,” Mort said. The hoarseness of his voice made it either a threat or a statement of desperation. He turned, then, and half-ran into the trees. Henryk watched until night swelled up—as it seemed to in these parts, rising up from the ground like mist—and made every tree a shadow in the dark.

Henryk often questioned why he lived by the Mortmain. The trees were lovely, if old and tangled, but he preferred cities. The convenience, the bustle of life, never being quite alone. His husband—Simon—had liked the forest. Bought this house. Maybe some lingering superstition had drawn Henryk out here; his mother always said ghosts haunted the places they loved the most.

No ghosts out here, unless Mort was one. Seeking eternal help for a hernia that had killed him in the days before medicine advanced. He looked nothing like Simon—Simon had been taller, dark-skinned and vibrant. No better word to describe how alive he felt to Henryk, right up until he wasn’t.

Late afternoon, a day later, Henryk walked to the nearby town. He argued with himself, like always, over how whether he should get a car. He had learned to drive once, and he chose to believe that, like riding a bicycle, it was muscle memory. But the process of buying one, the noise and intensity and all the myriad little things that had been added to cars since he had last owned one—it daunted him. Better to walk, until he could no longer.

He asked the young woman at the grocery store if she knew anyone who looked like Mort. She shook her head. “Could be a couple different boys from around here. Probably someone messing around, trying to scare you.”

“Then they did not succeed.”

She laughed. Henryk was reminded, uncomfortably, that he had become what certain young women see as a cute old man. Soft-voiced and nonthreatening and slow, with a funny accent.

Do you know what I did when I was your age? He wanted to say. I crossed an ocean, moved to a different country—this unfriendly country—to be with the man I loved. I never thought I would grow old, but I have. Alone. It’s not amusing.

He smiled, with effort, instead. Time would talk to the girl in his stead, say things more eloquently than he ever could.

“Hey,” she said, sliding him his bags, “you need any help with those?”

“I will be fine.”

“The development’s not happening on your side of the forest, is it? Things are getting pretty hairy around there.”

“This is the first I have heard of it.”

She leaned her elbows on the counter and pointed out the window. “If you go up to the corner of Pine and Elm, you can see the smoke and dust. The government cut a deal with some company that wants to take a slice off the Mortmain and put something in—probably a luxury hotel or something stupid like that.”

“That’s terrible.”

The girl nodded. “And that’s not even the weird part. The weird part is, something’s been coming out of the woods at night and messing with the machines. Overturning them, scratching them up—huge machines! One guy tried to get a look at it—I dunno what problem they had with their cameras—and now he’s in the hospital.”

“Perhaps a bear?”

“It’d have to be a hell of a bear. My aunt says it’s karma. She was protesting down there before they shooed everyone off because of the whatever-it-is.” The girl sighed. “They’re probably gonna get a permit to shoot it, because God forbid the wildlife trespass on the bit of the forest they want to wreck.”

Henryk looked her over again, taking in her carved-wood earrings, the environmental pin on her apron. “You would prefer the creature chase them away, I imagine.”

“Who wouldn’t?” She shook her head. “But it seems like every forest’s being torn apart these days. If it isn’t us, it’s beetles, rot . . . .”

“Always something.”

She rubbed the pin with a tip of her finger, as if it were a magic charm. “That’s life, I guess.”

Mort was sitting on the steps when Henryk came up to the house, a still, dark figure in the twilight. He wore shoes this time—sneakers, the logo long peeled away, splitting at one seam—without socks, and the same grey hoodie and trousers.

“I can’t give you what you want,” Henryk said.

Without answering, Mort came forward and took a grocery bag. Henryk yielded it with only slight reluctance; his arms ached. Mort hefted it like a dead leaf. When he opened the door—which Henryk could not recall if he’d locked—and went into the kitchen, he didn’t bother to turn on the lights. He moved in the dark like he knew the place.

They put things away together, silently. Mort still smelled like pine and oak, but with a sour whiff of oil and smoke. His hands were striped with dirt. When they finished, Henryk pointed down the hall. “The bathroom is down there. You may use the shower if you wish.”

He watched Mort leave the room, wondering if he lived in the forest. Judging by the degraded state of his clothes, maybe he was a runaway; Henryk could, with some work, imagine a teenager being too stubborn to return to civilization even if they needed clothes or medical help. Perhaps he had fled an abusive home. Or maybe that was the wrong train of thought; maybe he had come to the Mortmain to join the protesters and chosen to go into the woods he loved instead of going back home when they were dispersed.

He made tea.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Mort said from the doorway.

Henryk had seen a lot of things in his life; he only blinked before saying, “I believe you forgot your clothes.”

Mort rolled his eyes, as if Henryk was changing the subject for foolish reasons, and wandered back down the hall. He left a pattern of water on the floor behind him, footprints that didn’t look quite right. When he returned he wore only his pants and shoes; his hoodie, ripped down a seam, was draped over his arm. On the lower left side of his stomach, there was a small dark spot.

“What is that?”

Mort glared at him. “The same thing it was yesterday.”

“The skin was unmarked yesterday.” Henryk beckoned him closer and examined the spot. Discolored skin, no break. “This may simply be a bruise. They sometimes look unusual.”

Mort sighed. “It’s underneath. It’s just starting to show now.”

“Mort,” Henryk said, keeping his tone casual, “do you have a family?”

“Yes. I haven’t seen my parents in a long time, but my younger brother lives with me.”

“Are you old enough to be living alone?”

“I’m plenty old.”

“You ripped your hoodie. Do you have anything else?”

Mort shrugged.

He was taller and a little thinner than Henryk, but one of Henryk’s old shirts fit him well enough. Henryk expected him to protest, but he accepted it—and the trousers Henryk offered—with a confused air. Like he couldn’t understand why Henryk would turn down his request and then give him something he hadn’t asked for. “Won’t you just trust me and take it out?” he asked one more time.

Henryk said, “Go to the doctor down in the town—do you need his address?”

Mort shook his head. “That’s too far,” he said, and wouldn’t explain what he meant.

Henryk dreamed strange dreams that night; different from his usual stressed, repetitive dreams about strangers telling him Simon had died; or his whole life unwinding like a spool of thread until he was back in his childhood home, where nobody knew him. Simon came and sat on his bed, looking younger. He thanked Henryk for burying him in the woods—which was wrong; Henryk had seen him buried under a tree in the city cemetery. He tried to say this, but his tongue was dark and swollen, and when he pressed a hand to his ribs, his flesh gave way like overripe fruit. Simon frowned, the same sweet, concerned look Henryk had seen so many times, and said, “Honey, I think you’re sick.” He smelled oil and smoke.

When he woke, sweaty and short of breath, his stomach ached. He went out to sit on his steps, although it was pitch-black. The night air was sweet and cool; his shivering abated after a few minutes. Far away, he heard a machine start up and then die again. Start up, and die. The third time it choked and sputtered to a stop like an animal with its throat opened, and after that there were only the small noises of the woods.

Online, Henryk only found an article or two about the permission given to pass a road through and build something on “the edge” of the Mortmain; after some time he finally found an informal news outlet covering the protesters and “the large animal” that had disturbed the proceedings. That article questioned the government’s authority to give permission for the land to be used; the true ownership of the Mortmain seemed murky.

He had to go into town to hear that one of the machines had been flipped over and split like a cracked nut the night before. The people in charge had chased onlookers away but it only took one or two for the whole town to know. The man in the hospital had woken up and told a nurse that a “monster” had thrown him into a tree. On the local news station, a spokesperson for the project assured everyone it was probably a bear. “Clearly aggressive,” he said. “Probably sick with something. But there’s no need to worry, we’ll get it sorted out.”

At some point during the day, the feeling of Simon’s presence settled in behind him like a shadow. Henryk did his best to ignore it, then did his best to confront it. His mirror showed him nothing but himself, on the tired side of sixty-five but alive, relatively healthy. Not dying, not rotting, not haunted. He focused on the silent air behind his shoulder, tried to picture Simon there.

“Why now?” he asked.

There was nothing but silence and an answer from his own memories. Simon coming home waxy with hunger and weariness, red-eyed from smoke, bruised and battered. Simon going out again; every person counts, Henryk, we have to make our voices heard. Have to show them they can’t get away with this. There had always been another march he wanted to join, another group he wanted to support, another injustice to protest. Right up until he couldn’t.

“But there is nothing I can do,” Henryk told the mirror.

This time, the silence sounded like Mort.

That night, Mort did not come.

The next day, Mort did not come.

The third day, in the morning, Henryk was washing his coffee cup when a tree crashed somewhere outside, and shots rang out. He dropped the cup, it shattered into pieces in the blood-warm water, and he moved outside like a sleepwalker.

Somehow he expected to step into the past. Into a memory he did not have, because he had not been there the day Simon and his friends had been stopped by the police. He hadn’t witnessed the questions, if there had been any, or the word or motion that had made one man pull his trigger—the “accidental” shot that had clipped one of Simon’s more important arteries.

The past did not wait outside, nor even down the path. Instead, he smelled smoke and blood, and just beyond the first bend towards the town, saw a few men standing around a great humped form bigger than a bear. Bigger than two. The men were murmuring to each other, white-faced. The gunshots he had heard were only the latest; small dark holes spilling rusty trails of blood covered the beast’s side and head. As he drew closer, still moving as if hypnotized, he saw that the creature had brown fur and clawed feet, but its lolling head was like that of a malformed deer. Three eyes glistened up at the sky, sightless and beginning to cloud over.

He wondered if it had a small dark spot on its lower left stomach.

And before the men could look up and see him, he ran.

Back at his house, the shock and exertion struck him like a brick to the stomach. He leant against the door, holding his side, holding himself together, and wheezed with humorless laughter. Simon had always teased him about being a surgeon who did not look after his own body. Told him he’d regret it when he was old. Henryk had always agreed, but he had never got around to eating the right things or taking up jogging. Sleeping regular hours had never been anything but a pipe dream.

He thought maybe he should move back to the city, take a fitness class so he could better run away from dead monsters and the fools that shot them. With every ragged breath, he lost a bit of hope that this could be a dream. The dead . . . thing, whatever it was, whoever it was, remained seared into his mind.

On the news, later, they said they’d shot a large bear.

That night, Henryk heard breathing outside, almost lost in the wind; heavy, thick breathing like an animal in pain. Unsettled, he ventured out onto the porch. Something moved by the trees: to his unadjusted eyes, a formless shadow.

The breathing went low, gulping. The way you cry after you have cried for hours, when you’d stop if you knew how, because your eyes are sore and your throat gluey. Henryk blinked a few times, made out the shape of the shadow. “Mort?”

He barely expected an answer—part of him was sure Mort had been shot that morning—but the shadow raised its head. A moment later he made out Mort’s reddened eyes, the downwards slash of his mouth. He took a deep breath, then winced, and Henryk’s eyes went down to where Mort’s hand was firmly clamped over his left side. Something wet seeped through the fabric of his shirt, and an oily, rotten-fruit odour filled the air.

“Today,” Mort said, “they killed my younger brother.”

Henryk took a step forward. “Come inside.”

Mort made as if to move forward, then flinched back, catching at a branch to steady himself. “Can’t.” His voice was a croak.

“Mort,” Henryk said, desperate, “I don’t understand any of this. I can’t help you if I don’t understand.”

Mort was already turning, shuffling back into the woods. “Don’t have . . . to understand,” he said, almost inaudible. “Just . . . .”

Henryk wondered how he had ever thought Mort was young; he could recognize how another old man moved even in the dark at the edge of the forest. He stood gripping the railing until his knuckles began to ache, while the forest murmured and moaned and foreboding built within him like in one of his old dreams. When he moved, he went to find a knife.

He stood in the kitchen, staring at his knife block with the beginnings of despair. A thought struck him. A minute’s search and he’d located the scalpel he’d used as a letter opener, back when he got mail that wasn’t financial. The blade was dull, but it would have to do. The wind was picking up outside and there was a stink in it, apparent even through the windows.

Wrapping a scarf over his nose and mouth, he walked out into the woods.

He did not move into the trees so much as the trees seemed to leap forward and surround him, bending their heavy heads together, muttering at him in languages he couldn’t understand. Six yards into the forest he found Mort’s sneakers, decayed. Two yards more and Henryk glimpsed the shirt he’d lent Mort, now wet and torn, pierced by the limb of a tree. Mold-white liquid spattered the leaves underneath it, and the slow drip of it stayed with him until he could no longer see the world outside the forest.

A few yards ahead, a shadow rose up. “Hurry,” it said. For a moment, moonlight slid over the face of a woman: a face he’d seen on Missing posters in town five years gone. Her voice dry wood creaking, beetles gnawing. Her eyes wet and round, black, like a deer’s. “You have to go further in.”

“Which way?”

A half-decayed arm rose, then the body fell like a card castle. Henryk moved on, skirting the corpse. He wondered how many had gone missing in these woods, when the boy that the Mortmain had possessed had died here, and for a moment a hysterical laugh pressed at the back of his throat. It seemed impossible that something was killing this hungry, killing creature. That it was asking for help.

The wind cut through the heavy branches, making them groan, and stray raindrops pattered down. The clouds above looked heavy and wrong; he thought of acid rain, and quickened his pace. Further in; that was always the way, wasn’t it? There must be, somewhere, people who kept things neat and separate. Went to work and volunteered a handful of hours a week and got drunk with their friends, the mythic work-life balance. Simon and Henryk, though, had gotten along because they were all or nothing. Nothing Henryk wouldn’t do for Simon except give up surgery, the hard hours and the harder work. Nothing, vice versa, except Simon had his causes—all of them, because—well, he’d always joked it was because God had given him a heaping armful of it to deal with. Couldn’t just be black. Couldn’t just be queer. Couldn’t just be a tree-hugger. I’m just living, he’d say. Just trying to live with what I am and what I need. A job and love and air to breathe.

He had none of those now, and Henryk only had air; some days he felt as dead above the earth as Simon was dead beneath it. Not tonight. Tonight the air was electric and raw and rank with illness: the illness in Mort’s belly, and in the woods, and echoing, hollow and rotten, in Henryk’s own body. He might be dying, but he wasn’t dead yet.

The same could be said for Mort.

Henryk found him after he’d walked long enough to wonder if he’d come out the other side of the woods. He came out in a clearing instead, where Mort lay curled on the ground. He shucked his coat and unwound his scarf, despite the smell, and knelt down at Mort’s side. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw animals among the trees: silent grey squirrels and dark birds he couldn’t name. A few deer, too, and a great hulk that might have been a bear. It felt like an old operating theater, with an audience following his every movement.

“Said it would get worse,” Mort said, his breathing labored. Henryk would have deserved it if the sentence was angry, smug, but it wasn’t; it was simply resigned.

Henryk almost said, I’m sorry, but that would do nothing. “I’m here,” he said gently. “I’m here now. You need to move your hands.”

Mort’s hands were clamped, bloodless, over the purpled skin of his stomach. There was an unpleasant sheen of wetness, as if something was sweating out through the injured skin. The skin itself looked bruised from the inside. Henryk thought about wasps that laid their young in other creatures, alien implanted things that ate their hosts, and his stomach turned over. He swallowed, didn’t let it show. “Please,” he said. “I’ll help you.”

Mort breathed hard, his eyes finally moving to fix on Henryk. He was not young, but for a moment his power and arrogance gleamed through, showed like a challenge in his eyes, and Henryk knew why he’d seemed young.

Henryk took out his scalpel, and Mort drew his stiff fingers away from the infected center of the wound.

The skin was so thin and degraded it parted like wet paper under the scalpel’s edge, curling away from the seeping dark. Something moved deep within the opening, burying itself under flesh—earth?—and Henryk knew what he needed to do. Mort’s wide, white-ringed eyes were fixed on him, desperate, the challenge gone out like a flame. Henryk smiled at him, gently.

“It will be all right,” he said. “Close your eyes.”

The animals around them stirred restlessly, but Mort nodded and did as he was told.

Henryk plunged his hand into the opening.

His vision split: in one thin, half-transparent panel of reality he pushed his hand into the dry stomach cavity of a corpse, crouching in an empty clearing as the rain started coming down. In another he dug into the wet, dark earth and the trees thrashed around him as if they were in pain. In another he parted the hairy skin of a monster shivering and trying to keep its limbs still against the ground, and reached in among its organs. In another he knelt over the whole town, trying not to crush the buildings with his knees as he pressed his fingertips into the edge of the forest, and a man ran over one of his fingers, his feet tickling like an ant’s legs. In another, in another, in another—in half a dozen of his shattered visions Simon stood behind him among the trees. He was dead, he was not, there was blood on his pristine brown shirt, he smiled without smiling. But all of him stepped forward to put his hands on Henryk’s shoulders.

“You got this, honey,” he said, with one voice.

Henryk closed his eyes, shutting out all he saw, and focused on what was under his hand. Earth and flesh mingled, coexisting somehow—and a furtive, ugly movement underneath a lip of organ. Prying the opening wider, he reached in with his other hand and lifted a bit of Mort’s intestine. The thing hidden under it tried to retreat, but he caught it in his free hand; it stung, struggling against his palm. His hand began to go numb.

“Well done,” Simon said, so quiet Henryk could have imagined it.

When he opened his eyes, Simon was gone. He knelt in a small, natural clearing as the rain began to fall, and only one grey squirrel remained of the animal audience. The white tail of a departing deer whisked away into the darkness. His scalpel was rusted in his hand, as if it had lain out in the woods for years. There was a sunken place in the ground in front of him, almost six feet long.

“Mort?” he asked. There was no reply. But he felt something jerk hard in his right hand, though it was numb and purpled with bruises and clenched so tight he could barely open it. When he did, something greyish and small dropped to the ground and began to trundle away like a beetle.

He stepped on it. Smoke rose from the crushed remains, but the rain put out the tiny smoldering, and the foul smell faded from the air.

Henryk walked home, slow with pain, through the scents of petrichor and lightning, and when he got there he sat on the front steps listening to the woods. Through the rain he couldn’t see the thick smoke and the dust coming off the worksite—the place the worksite had been, because somehow he knew it had become a raw crater, a deep wound, but clean, ready to heal. The poison had been drawn out. His hand was numb. He thought, with tired amusement, of going to the doctor he’d urged Mort to visit in town. In the morning, though.

For now, he breathed the wet, clean air and felt the smoke, out in the distance, and the many-eyed creature that moved unsteadily through the forest, its belly healing, the human skin it had worn cast aside. Somewhere out in the woods, their dearest ones were buried side by side; somewhere out in the woods, the beetles ate and axes fell. But here, the Mortmain crooned to itself, like a cat purring or a child singing to soothe themselves when there was nobody to hold them after a hard surgery, and Henryk closed his eyes, pressed his good hand over his stomach and felt the rain washing away the sickness, unsure where he ended and the forest began.

Flowers for the Living, Flowers for the Dead

Strange how even in the dark, the eyes find shape.

“The walls are made of flowers,” Amelie says, nestled against me. “White flowers, bigger than I can hold.”

“White as clouds,” I say. “Bright and soft.” Our voices are muted. Collapsed into the space we occupy, just as the space has collapsed into us.

“They smell . . . they smell like butter.”

I try to remember the smell of flowers. Of petals. Of wind. “Yes,” I say, finally giving up. “Like butter. Like butter and rain.”

A minute passes. An hour. A month. A day. Time has little meaning in the land of the dead.

Amelie shifts beside me. But not too much. There’s so little space, so much of it filled.

“Mama, I feel rain. It must be pouring outside.”

There is no outside. Not anymore. “Yes, pouring like a molten kettle.”

“It’s hot. So hot it sizzles when it strikes the mud.”

“So hot when it strikes, the mud turns to stone.”

“So hot,” she says, whispering, “it makes the world turn.”

I pause. “So hot, it makes the world burn.”

More silence. Hours. Seconds. Millennia.

“The flowers are gone,” Amelie says. Somber now. “They’ve burned with everything else, haven’t they?”

I find her hand in the darkness. Squeeze. “It’s okay, baby. We’ll just plant more.”

The world outside is burning. But here in the land of the dead nothing burns.

“I’m hungry,” Amelie says.

My abdomen is a creaking hollow. My chest, my skull. “The dead can’t be hungry, baby.”

Shapes flicker in the darkness. Rabbits. Dogs. The flamingo I saw once when I was nine.

“But I am hungry,” Amelie says.

“Shh.” I pull her against me.

She’s cold—but I suppose you can’t be dead and not be cold as well. Still. I didn’t expect her to be this cold.

“Here,” I say, setting my hand in hers, “have some bread.”

Even dead, it’s hard not to feel when she begins to chew.

In the dark, the shapes are always changing. They are also always the same.

“Do you think it’s over?” Amelie asks. “Do you think it’s safe again?”

How long has it been? Time dances in the land of the dead, like angels on the head of a pin. But however long it’s been, it will never be enough. The world can’t burn forever, but it can burn longer than us.

“Come here,” I say, and take Amelie into my arms. I curl around her in the dark, like the shell of an egg. I should hurt, but here in the land of the dead there is no pain. Or hunger.

Or sorrow.

Amelie’s hand grazes my cheek. “It’s raining again,” she says. Wipes a droplet free.

“Yes,” I say, and squeeze her tight. Like I’ll never let her go. “It’s always raining here, in the land of the dead.”

And on the walls, again, the flowers grow.

More Sea Than Tar

My father thinks it’s a good idea to row through these floods. To move a paddle and be above the water, finally in control of our bodies—that is to say, not drown.

But sooner or later, we’re all going to fall, because we can only stand so tall before we’re sinking: to our legs, to our knees, to our torsos, to our heads. Till there’s nothing left and we breathe in particle dust and water that draws too much like ogbono soup. Water that’s mixed with the leaves and the soil and the garbage I didn’t throw away properly. Water that isn’t water.

So I can indulge this feeling my father has. I can understand these spur-of-the-moment decisions when we’ve been waiting so long for the promise of dry land and all the water wants to do is rise.

He’s always been the person with big ideas, weird reasoning. The person who suggests this over family dinner with a fire in his eyes, demands it while he paces around the room, hooked on the lust of his dreams.

“No,” my brother says, pulling him back down to earth. Joseph, who helps provide for the family with Mummy, who’s friends with important people. “Why would we do that?”

To our feet, to our ankles, to our ribs, to our throats . . . .

Haven’t you ever wanted an adventure out on the open sea?” My father laughs, pacing around the room. We move with him, our steps familiar as we trail the blue carpet back and forth. That’s how we make the food digest.

“It’s not an open sea,” my mother adds before going back to her food. She never takes sides on these ideas, just points out the most clear information.

“Figuratively,” my father counters, shooting her a deadpan look before returning to my brother, who folds his arms and raises an eyebrow.

“Okay, okay,” my father laughs, taking a deep breath. “Facts. You just want facts. We can’t drive a car in these times. Even using those suction shoes that help you stay on walls are dangerous if you lose enough friction or don’t come into contact with any buildings or places you can stick yourself to. With my idea we can actually start to get more work done again, you know. Look at us, not knowing much about what goes on outside this community . . . . We can’t live this way.”

“Mummy,” Joseph asks. “What do you think about all of this?”

“I think your father already has the canoe,” she says, leaving her plate of unfinished food on the table, then walking up to her room.

“And,” my father continues. “Once I start making money again, we could get a small ship or . . . you know, something more feasible.”

I shrug. The rain outside makes my body run cold; I can actually hear the floods swishing all around us through our thin walls.

Thin enough for the ceiling to give out above where I stand, water splashing through. It soaks me so much that my clothes are see-through, stuck on me while my teeth chatter. Joseph runs into the kitchen to get a bucket and a mop. He cleans up and I go to my room to change into a fresh pair of clothes.

The rush of water persists and the container under the hole is half full in the minute I take to dry off and come back.

“Get up early tomorrow so we can go in the morning,” my father says, scrolling through his phone, relaxing in the comfiest chair.

“Go?” I stutter, running the towel through my hair.

“Out in the open,” he says, smiling with plaque-filled teeth. “I heard no objections.”

I give no protests. I say no words, because when I look at all the holes in the house where the water comes through, I think that everything is falling apart, and I don’t have an answer for that.

Before we go out, my mother gives us three things: coats, umbrellas, and boots. When she’s not looking, I trade my umbrella for a spoon. Life’s more interesting that way.

Spoons are great. I used to be obsessed with them a few years back, playing with them in all their shapes and sizes. They can be drums and help dig the soil, little wheelbarrows for transporting goods. Spoons can be everything, and they remind me of a time of no fear, only adventure. Which is what I want. What I need.

We stuff all our things in huge hiking backpacks, keeping our hands free to lift the huge canoe above our heads. I hide the spoon in my pocket.

“You won’t come with us?” my father whines, frown lines unnatural to his face.

“No. My mother pushes the coat to his chest with such force that it’s like she hates his presence. She walks upstairs and slams the door shut. My father fumbles around like he doesn’t know what to do anymore.

“She’s probably in a bad mood,” Joseph says, nudging Daddy.

“Every damn day,” he mutters as he opens the door for us.

Floods of water come screaming through, thick and muddy.

Outside, each step is a promise of going under, the disappearance of our bodies under muddy reflections. Each step brings back the memory of exploring the shallow far ends of our community three months ago and seeing bloated dead bodies floating in the stagnancy. Each step is running, running while the water draws me back into its thickness, running before we’ve even started—

I go too fast. I slip on ground that’s barely solid. My head hits the water hard, breaking the surface, the impact reverberating in my skull as I go deep down under.

I can’t breathe. When I open my mouth, I get the rancid taste of sickness, of cholera and dysentery, of swallowing bugs and mosquitoes. My lungs are filling up. I can’t scream but only fall deeper into the dreariness, like weights are on my feet. My eyes widen; I can’t blink in this space, can’t do anything but die.

Strong hands pull me back to the surface and I breathe. And breathe. My chest relaxes and I vomit all the water that tried to enter me. All the disease and sickness that ever touched my tongue, the pollution and sand and ugh. I still don’t feel right. I still can’t live right.

“What the hell just happened?” My father shouts. He grabs my shoulders.

Don’t touch me, I want to say, because my knees feel weak and his body weight only feels like it’s pushing me down, taking me back to the deep.

“This was a bad idea,” Joseph spits, shaking his head, “I think we did our best, but it’s not going to work. We’re already seeing bad signs.”

“Nooo,” my father says, holding me tighter, smiling at me, pushing the canoe to my chest like he’s made my answer for me. “Just some bad balance. Uti, you still want to do it, right?”

“Sure,” I say, but my brother isn’t convinced, so I smile. I don’t believe myself either, but I’ve lost my sense of adventure, my sense of wonder, and I need that back. I need this idea of fantasy, that none of this will break me, because I can’t deal with it anymore. There’s nothing left to sustain me but the heartbeat in my chest, so painful and incredibly fast, palpitations upon palpitations, and I need more.

Joseph shakes his head, then tugs my arm. “We should probably go back. I’m doing pretty well with this online business of mine, and we can just keep receiving our packages and paying our bills and—”

“And I’m doing nothing!” my father screams. The canoe falls out of his hands, its full weight going into mine.

My brother grunts, arms folded, his face turned away from us. It’s eerie to watch him go limp, face slack and full of disappointment, eyes accusing. In that moment, he is exactly Mummy, and he knows my father can’t handle that.

“What?” My father starts, his face folding into lines and lines of anger, veins of temper and pain. “Is it just four years in Alaska to study IT on scholarship that made you start challenging—”

I let the canoe fall so it smacks the surface of the water. It’s enough to get their attention. I consider that a victory and raise my spoon to the sky like the hero I’m not, my legs shaking. “How about an adventure, guys?”

A world of obstacles lies ahead of us. Soon, we’re paddling out of our neighborhood, into the depths of other roads we wouldn’t dare step foot in on a normal day.

Into the mutation.

My brother starts whispering to me, clearly pissed off as he paddles. “I just think it’s silly how he just led us here to sort of soothe his bruised ego and fragile mascu—”

“Let’s keep going.” I cut him off with a smile, rowing faster, and shift away from him. I don’t want to deal with any more drama.

We enter this new place, and the smell that quickly fills our noses is a welcome, for you have been gone so long, stayed within safe parameters, and now you are out in the big open world; the stink becomes part of us within minutes. Makes our insides feel like they’re rotting and falling apart.

But in all good adventures, it is important to leave your comfort zone, so I remind myself that this is all a journey, and in the end we go back home.

I’m grateful that I can return to a community that’s not full of diseased sea creatures stalking for prey, that I stay in a place with reasonable communication and transportation services, so we can always get our food packages, pay our bills, and call our relatives. What we have right now is pretty good, is stable, is worth everything.

Other humans pass by, all of us vulnerable without solid ground.

My father, Joseph and I don’t talk. We are studying this new environment, expanding our understanding with every direction we look in.

This new community is smelly yet vibrant, loud and exciting. It’s what I’ve never seen before: vendors carrying goods on their heads with water up to their chests, chasing boats. Garbage floating around in neat little piles—some people managing to rest on top of them, the world’s pollution the newest source of transportation. People breezing by on larger vehicles than ours while afrobeats, loud and violently Nigerian, play in the background. People jumping into the water with ropes tied around their waists, latched to their boats as they repeatedly bring up trash. People splash in the water as they swim through the filth and garbage, covered in boils and scars, disease and infection.

That was once me swimming, a long time ago. With innocence and purity, during floods not as bad, my little hands trailing the depths of our community, and then outside our area, with glee on my face. Carefree. Before our family locked ourselves in one place. I remember that time and I think, who was that? Not me.

But I hope to be what I once was again.

I spot a crocodile dancing in the depths, its shadow eventually rising from the surface of the water, covered in greasy film and toxic waste. Rubbish that has . . . congealed and grafted to the animal’s skin—oh my goodness—like an infection sewn and healed onto the body. Like an operation done to make all living things abominations.

It passes by me with what looks like hunger in its eyes, and I know that somebody is going to die today. Someone is going to fall into its mutated jaws, and I pray it won’t be me because I’ve already had my dance with death today and I don’t plan on another.

To our toes, to our waists, to our shoulders, to our eyes . . . .

“Uti, you just might want to paddle away from the gutters,” says Dad.

“Huh?” I snap out of my trance, for now.

Joseph points to the lopsided car submerged between what was once a road and the verge. People are diving around it, picking it apart.

Humans are vultures, I think, the way we decompose dead machines by taking them to bits, leaving the useless parts for the earth.

We do recycling and environmental sanitation in our community every Saturday, our part in helping to fix the world. Our elected community official praises us and tells us that by sometime in the next decade, all the trash in our area will be gone.

We may not have that long.

Till our eyes can only blink in mucus and particle dust . . . .

“Why not go near the gutters?” Joseph asks. “It’s out of most people’s way.”

“The trash used to go in there a lot when there was land, so that it created a blockage. Plus, what lurks in there can easily kill us all,” says my father.

We look down and catch the shadows we haven’t noticed before. The shadows of animals merged with glass and plastic, mosquitos breeding, insects mutated by industrial waste and chemical reactions.

My brother nods like he’s actually impressed. “That’s some good looking out.”

My father rubs his hands and licks his lips, staring out into the wasteland in front of us. “This is what I’m talking about! We’re finally out of that community. We were hermits and now we’re reintegrating back into society. So, who’s ready to get to business?”

“This boat is really . . . primitive.” Joseph hits the side of the canoe and the wood groans, reminding me of the pitiful nature of our vehicle compared to the jet skis and mechanized boats, the advanced water craft that we don’t have. All the things better suited to our survival. That we lack.

“Our days are numbered,” I say.

They give me a concerned look, the we need to talk about how you’ve become so obsessed with death look.

But I don’t want to discuss that, so I change the subject. “Yeah, let’s trade.”

We get home and go our separate ways. My brother goes to work. I play chess on our spotty internet service, holding the router above my head so I can stay connected to my online opponent. They win.

I trail the slow internet. I know exactly what I want to look at.

Drowning. Horror movies where people just keep getting eaten by sharks and animals.

I’d like to want to survive, but I’ve almost given up. If I can just desensitize myself enough, maybe it will feel less painful when the inevitable happens.

No. No. I hate the way I’m thinking so I shut my laptop to try and force myself to engage. I sneak into Mum’s room but she’s too engrossed in a stuttering program about unhappy marriages. She doesn’t turn my way, her headphones blocking me out. I close the door.

I don’t actually need to deal with that. I know I’m supposed to be there for my parents, but I can’t. I need to focus on trying to stop spiralling.

So I run towards my brother’s room, desperate, thinking, where’s my adventure? Where’s the story? Where is the actual damn plot to this movie that is my life. Because all I’ve been doing is running around, watching walls collapse, waiting to die.

I burst into my brother’s room, drenched in sweat and breathing fast. “What are you doing?” I say.

He looks at me. “Are you all right?”

“What’s that on your table?” I say. I read the brochures and blueprints on his desk. “Underwater living facilities? Oxygen suits? Enhanced deep sea living experience? Decontamination pods?”

He smiles at me and his eyes catch the light. He looks so like our father that I want to listen to what he has to say, because he’s never looked this passionate about anything.

“We’re looking at a hopeful future,” he says. “Better opportunities, a higher standard of living; a life underwater, free of pollution—very far away from here.”

“In how long?” I ask, not expecting much because it’s always an estimate, always ‘in a decade’ and ‘in the near future’ and ‘many years later’. Hope is never now.

“Soon. Eventually. And I can’t tell you much because it’s just a lot of discussing with friends who are under strict NDAs, but, yeah, they might have a space for us. It’s been in the works for years. I think we’ll be fine.”

I’m lost for words but what kills the silence is the bleep in both our pockets. A text from Dad.

“We’re going out in search of meat tomorrow,” I read.

Joseph laughs. “Figures he’d try to opt out of this vegan lifestyle as fast as possible. He’s looking towards the now, survival . . . which is a perspective, I guess.”

Animal products haven’t been transporting well, and prices have risen with the water levels, so we don’t ask for them anymore. We tried fishing once but it didn’t work; the fish that do come into our area are mutated. We won’t eat them, won’t try, no matter how adventurous Daddy is.

But since we’re journeying, going out in search of things, I dream of bacon and fat running over juicy slabs of beef, the sound meat makes when it hits the pot.

We row towards the markets and vendors we saw yesterday, in the mutated areas.

We, a modest family without a proper seafaring craft, row towards a market seller, using our paddles to shove aside sticks and huge piles of rocks.

“Wetin you get?” My father starts, way too excited not to use pidgin. In our community, it’s generally frowned upon, so my father only uses it when chatting with maids from the village.

The woman pauses, hands on her lips. “We get um . . . croc, jellyfish, fish worm, bongafish, catfish—”

“Catfish!” Daddy replies too quickly, reaching into his pocket, then looking uncomfortable.

“I’ll pay,” Joseph offers, pursing his lips as he fishes for his wallet.

“I didn’t ask you to.” My father’s voice is cold. “We just want to examine the goods. Madam, let me see what you’ve got.”

The woman hands over a piece of sliced catfish that’s an unhealthy brown colour. It rolls in my father’s hands, covered in a sticky slime. Greenish-black dots grow inside its mouth. We try to peel them off but they grow back again.

Bile rises in my throat and I almost gag.

“No, na,” my father hands it back to her. “Not this one. Normal catfish wey no get all this . . . yama-yama.”

“Yama-yama? Contamination?” The woman feigns surprise, like she’s never heard that word when hello? It’s all around us. “I no sell that kind product. This one, na me spice am self. I just had to preserve am well for customer.”

“Thank you,” my father says, irritated, and throws it back to her. He whispers to us as we leave: “All we have to do is network and we’ll find someone that knows where to get good products. Someone . . . like those two!”

He points at a man and a woman collecting trash from the water, digging deep and organizing it into neat piles on their boats. The ropes around their waists are attached to the boats. My father nods in approval.

We row up to them.

Daddy puts on a smile and runs a hand through his hair. “Can you imagine? I tried to buy things from that woman and she tried to convince me that yama-yama was normal.”

“They never admit it,” the woman replies. “One time, you could even see all the glass and stone buried inside the fish the woman was trying to sell me, and when I showed it to her, she just doubled down and said ‘all na spice.’”

“Well,” the man joins in, “Nigerian hawkers are the best lawyers you could ever have.”

They share a laugh while Joseph and I share a look, shrugging and folding our arms as we watch this unfold.

The man stretches out a hand to our father. “I’m Mr. Abalaka.”

The woman goes in for a hug. “And I’m Mrs. Eneyo.”

My father smiles. “I’m David. And these are my sons, Joseph and Uti.”

We wave and greet, just enough for it not to feel uncomfortable.

Joseph shakes their hands, craning his neck to look into their boat. “That’s a lot of equipment you have there.”

I take a good look too. There are many weapons in their boat: spears, guns, nets, traps. I’m actually comfortable seeing all of that, because to me it screams protection, and survival.

“So, what do you guys do?” my father asks, his eyes wide like he’s taking notes.

“Oh, you know,” Mrs. Eneyo replies, her pleasant demeanor fading. “A lot of side-work. Helping to clear up this place, fishing work. Just . . . anything to live.”

“We take our jobs very seriously,” Mr. Abalaka adds.

“Oh yes,” my father says. “You know, my wife does actually grow some food using spores and artificial nutrients, so we could get some for you.”

Mrs. Eneyo frowns. “We already do that, but with yams and carrots and cassava, so unless you have anything else?”

“Um,” my father says, trying to recall. “I think we also have garden eggs.”

Mrs. Eneyo makes a face “Hmmm, I’m not—”

“But we can try them!” says Mr. Abalaka.

“Well, how much are they?” Mrs. Eneyo says, exasperated.

“Oh no,” my father says, laughing, settling into a comfortable position. “No price. We’d just like a job so we can have enough money to get something like that boat of yours.”

“This beauty?” Mr. Abalaka chuckles, patting his vessel tenderly. “We just like it because it runs on trash juice.”

“Unfortunately,” Mrs. Eneyo says, steering the conversation back to the point, “we don’t really know of anything at the moment. Nothing’s available. Sorry. But we could get you some fish. The good kind.”

“That would be great,” my father says. They exchange contact information. The three of them laugh and joke some more while Joseph and I sit quietly in the boat like the good children that we are, trying not to disturb them.

Eventually, they leave.

“That was fun,” Joseph yawns, stretching his arms in the air.

My father nods, distracted. He taps our arms. “Better stretch those arms well, because we’re following them.”

“Why?” I groan, rubbing my lucky spoon, feeling around its edges.

“I want to see who they give all that trash to—see if we can get some of that hustle too,” says my father.

“It’s always nice to know that trust is the one thing you can look forward to in today’s society,” Joseph says, his voice dry, his expression deadpan, but Dad ignores him.

“Probably looking out for themselves, those two, and that’s what we have to do too. Uncontaminated fish for garden eggs isn’t a fair trade, and we don’t even know if they’re going to use that as some sort of leverage later on. The way I see it, we need to get jobs so we can have good money to negotiate with. This is how we do things.”

“They could easily spot us,” Joseph sighs, grabbing a paddle.

“That is why, today, we learn of other routes,” my father says, chest out and proud. He looks happier than I’ve ever seen him, a pirate in open air.

This is the adventure I’ve been looking for, and I’m grateful that I’m here conspiring with my father, too tired to think about drowning.

To our surprise, we don’t get caught. My father makes us wait until the man and woman are some distance ahead, and then we follow slowly. We watch as they haul trash and animals into their boat.

It’s impressive.

We crack jokes and I laugh, forgetting my thoughts of death, feeling the wind in my hair, having a good time.

It’s getting dark as Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eneyo stop in front of a large house on stilts, wooden and sturdy despite its rotting wood. It is painted a welcoming colour of blue and green, faded and moldy.

They get out of the boat and exchange their trash and game with a woman for stacks of money. My father’s eyes widen when he sees it and he smiles like a hyena.

Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno shake hands with the woman and get back into their boat.

We duck. Are they turning back, coming our way?

Luckily we don’t have to deal with that stress because the two of them head further down the road in the opposite direction.

We wait thirty minutes in the dark. I doze and dream of legs that stop kicking, of going underwater . . . .

I wake up. My father and Joseph are asleep. I tap my father’s shoulder and he jolts awake.

“Can we go and meet the woman they were talking to?” I ask.

“Sure, sure,” says my father, still sleepy. “Paddle! Let’s get this over with.”

I wake Joseph up and we paddle slowly towards the house. My father gets out of the boat and knocks on the door.

Nobody answers.

Dad knocks again, harder.

An old woman storms out, her grey hair in curls, her dark skin covered in powder. She is wearing a long shirt and screaming at us in a heavy Yoruba dialect, each word thick and vicious like a curse.

“Ma,” my father says, trying to placate her, but he backs away when she tries to slap him. “Please, we just came here looking for work. Any job, please, we’ll do it.”

The woman pauses for a second, thinks. “I only have two workers. They’re good, sturdy—”

“But not enough,” says my father, smiling, trying to sell her on the idea of us.

“The problem is that they keep on getting rid of everyone I hire.” She sighs, putting her hands to her chin. “You see, when I hire new people, the price goes down and their pay goes down, so . . . .”

“I understand,” my father says, and sighs. “Sharing won’t kill them.”

“Okay, look,” the woman says, yawning. “Whatever. They’ve proven themselves to be worthy of all I’ve given them, but I could be making a much bigger profit with more people. And my own employers will like having more of all these goods. So, I’ll tell you what: I won’t say anything about you guys to them. As long as you don’t get discovered, you have the job.”

“We won’t accept the offer, but thanks anyway,” Joseph spits, but Daddy only looks more decided.

“We accept,” he says, and he and our new employer exchange numbers.

We row some way in silence. Joseph and Dad’s faces are red and flushed.

“You know,” my father starts, “our house is falling apart. We have a chance here. And we’re doing so good here, that I think this could be our new life: downsized, out in the open air, near the sea—”

It’s not a sea,” Joseph corrects him, rowing faster. I can practically see the smoke rising from him, but I don’t say anything. Nothing I do will distract him.

“Metaphorically,” my father adds quietly.

“Leave me out of it,” hisses Joseph, “because my part in this adventure is done.”

Our mother is waiting for us at home. I’ve missed the classes she usually teaches me, maths and science and geometry, but I think Dad should get the crap for that. My arms ache.

Dad starts telling Mummy that she needs to increase her plant portions for her new customers, Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno.

I follow Joseph to his room. He paces around, knocking into things. When he’s stressed and angry, he cries. The tears don’t stop running.

“If I could leave today, I would,” he says. “The underwater program’s not ready yet, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and watch our father make a fool of himself every day.”

I stay silent. My brother looks at me. Too closely, like he’s searching my soul. And I flinch, because I don’t want him discovering all the baggage inside me.

“Do you actually still want to go with Dad?”

“It’s an adventure,” I say quietly, trying to make myself believe it.

“B . . . but . . . what is wrong with you? He’s out of control. Why are you even thinking like this?”

“This house is falling apart,” I reply, my voice barely a whisper.

“We’re going to leave,” he yells. “We’re hoping for a better future.”

“Hope is never now,” I mutter under my breath.

Maybe it’s better to just float into oblivion, to row above the water till the moment I go under. Till the moment I’m nothing but fodder and infection, another rotting body in the stagnancy.

I can hear my father shouting at my mother in his room. I go out into the passage and he storms out, practically hyperventilating.

“What’s going on?” I ask, and it feels like I’m the adult and he’s the child.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

I try again.

“Your mother doesn’t want to join us in the canoes. And your brother thinks he’s too good for us. But we, we are the ones who survive, who go the distance, who have adventures. Right?”

“Right,” I say, my voice hollow.

“I’m going to sleep on the couch,” he says. He goes downstairs.

I go into his room to find my mother. Her face is expressionless. “Is everything all right?” I say.

She gets out of bed. She drinks from the bottle of water at her bedside. “Do you know why I don’t like to say anything to your father’s ideas? He just . . . has this way of making people be the bad guy, the nag, and he sort of punishes us for it and enjoys doing so, being that person. And now that I’m silent, he hates it, because I’m refusing to engage, not playing my role. I was a little worried you were too much like him when you were growing up,” she continues. “I was afraid I was going to have two of him in the house. I almost considered leaving. But you’ve made a personality for yourself and . . . I don’t always understand you, Uti, but I think you’ll be fine.”

It’s late and I go to bed, but I can’t fall asleep in this house of broken relationships.

For a few days, I don’t join my father when he goes out in the boat. I need to process things.

When I rejoin him, my father holds me close and brings out something from his hiking bag. I shriek when I see the gun.

“It’s good,” he tells me, but his eyes look fearful. “For protection. This one can take more bullets than you’d expect. And—” He flicks a button. “It has a silencer. A silent killer. This is for some cold-blooded killing.”

“Hi there!” A voice calls out to us.

“Hide the gun,” I say. An unpleasant chill runs down my spine.

I turn to see Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno waving at us, a little distance away, a big bubble floating in their hands full of . . . fish. Corporate companies hand out free samples of these easily disposable bubbles for storing things. We row towards them, and I feel an unbearable tension in my heart, yet my father’s happy expression forces me to plaster a thick, fake smile on my face.

We come up alongside them, and before they say anything, they pop the bubble and the fish falls into our boat. Fresh-looking, uncontaminated, pure fish.

“Oh, wow, that was fast,” my father says, too quickly, scratching his head, nervous. “We haven’t got the eggs yet.”

“Oh, hey, no, we’re not pressuring you; take your time,” Mr. Abalaka says. He laughs and waves a hand at us.

“As long as you bring it,” Mrs. Eyeno adds.

We are silent.

“How’s work?” My father asks.

I feel like shrivelling up into a ball.

“It’s good,” they say, simultaneously.

I force a chuckle, trying to look relaxed.

“We’re actually hoping for a promotion for all the good work we’ve been doing,” Mr. Abalaka says.

My father and I share a look.

“Yeah, you know, at the end of the month,” Mrs. Eyeno says, sorting a piece of trash.

“Wow, that’s fascinating,” I say. “But I actually think it’s time for us to go. Right, Daddy?”

“Absolutely. Yeah, thank you for the fish; good looking pieces of meat. We’ll get those garden eggs to you soon.”

We watch them row away, and we’re finally able to breathe.

My father looks at me and nods in approval. “Listen, that was great. Especially as I just got a text from our employer asking us to catch a crocodile. We’ll just have to stay out of their way till it’s time for us to meet the boss tomorrow.”

“Won’t they also be dropping off their goods then?”

“Oh no. Our employer changed their drop-off date. She said they were suspicious, but she thinks it’s fine because they won’t find out.”

I nod, putting all my effort into rowing the boat single-handed as we go around the markets looking for parasitic feed and hunting equipment. While my father prices and bargains, I rub my spoon. It feels like my last claim to innocence.

“Are you ready?” My father asks me, and I shrug.

We row towards the nearest gutters. I feel so different from who I was when we started doing this, now that we are throwing caution to the wind.

“So, you’ll do the luring and I’ll kill,” my father tells me, handing me a pair of high-tech binoculars. I aim them at the shadows that swim in the water, trying to identify a crocodile.

I lower the baited trap into the water. I try to breathe and relax.

“Now,” my father says, “we wai—”

The crocodile jumps aboard, snapping and angry, and almost submerges our boat. The wire trap pokes into its skin as it roars, its breath disgusting, its large teeth reaching for me. Large pieces of glass stab into the beast’s head and broken cans stick out of its body like piercings. Nylon bags are draped over this creature that is trying to eat me, and I scream and scream. I feel like my heart has stopped. Memories of my hollow existence overwhelm me as I wait for the moment I have been dreading.

Death is coming.

My father shoots it in the head, his hand steady. The crocodile jerks, spurting blood, then lies still. Daddy looks rattled, terrified, and I am a bloody mess. “We did it,” my father says.

Immediately when we get home, I storm into my brother’s room, leaving my father to hide the crocodile’s body in the garage, letting Joseph see me in all my wretchedness.

Joseph leaps up and reaches for me and wraps me in his arms. “Oh my God! What the hell happened?”

“He’s out of control,” I say. I can’t stop crying. I’m a snotty mess.

“Now will you listen to me?” says Joseph.

“No,” I say, pushing him away. “We need to help Dad. You, especially, have to be there to ground him and make sure this doesn’t happen again. We need you. Come back.”

He says nothing. I hear no objections. I believe it’s agreement.

The next morning, I worry my brother won’t show up as I wait downstairs. But Joseph does come, and I feel like I can do it knowing that he’s with me.

He and Daddy look at each other, the silence between them distressing.

But my father gives a nod of approval and we set out relaxed.

My brother lays down the law and gets Dad to put the gun away, telling him we should just concentrate on the trash after all the trouble he caused yesterday. Joseph still doesn’t look too happy, but at least my father stays silent.

Instead, Dad spends the time trying to call our employer, who isn’t picking up. The boss communicates on her terms, not ours.

I tap my brother’s shoulder just as he’s about to dive into the water again, a rope around his waist. “Aren’t you going to let me—”

“No,” he says sternly. “You’re not doing anything after what happened yesterday. Just secure the rope to the boat.”

I attach the rope in silence and just wish for this day to be over.

Hours pass.

At last, the day ends. My brother and I row over to the house on stilts, our arms sore. We wait while my father knocks repeatedly. I notice a boat sticking out slightly at the back of the house. I rub my eyes.

Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno open the door. Their clothes are covered in blood, their hands hidden.

We freeze.

We stare until if feels as if the silence is going to kill us.

“What-t-t are you doing here?” My father stutters, doing his best to smile.

“We thought we’d rest in our new home and wait for the people who caused our schedule to change,” Mrs. Eyeno spits, then smiles.

“We got that promotion we were talking about,” Mr. Abalaka says.

My father nods, looking petrified. Joseph slowly reaches for the paddle.

“You know,” my father says, his voice too desperate as he reaches for the gun bag, “this is all a big misunderstanding.”

“Right,” they say.

They’re quick. Mrs. Eyeno has a pistol. A bullet to the head and Joseph collapses into the water. I scream as my father grabs his gun. Mr. Abalaka’s spear stabs into his gut before he can fire. He follows Joseph into the water.

Into the water, into the water; everything dead and into the water. Water red with blood.

I scramble and I scream. I piss my pants. I think, death comes, as they approach the boat. I’m so full of grief and anger and terror.

They are going to kill me. Am I prepared?

To our legs, to our bones, to our muscles, to our eyes . . . .

I reach into my pocket. I pull back my arm and stab the spoon into Mr. Abalaka’s eye.

He screams and drops his spear. Mrs Eyeno tries to stop the blood.

I jump into the water and start swimming away. I swim so hard in all the mutation and infection, all the things that have tried to drown me, all the things that have tried to kill me.

I can’t breathe right. I can’t live right. My brother and father, gone into the water.

But I can’t drown. I can’t fall, I can’t stop myself escaping.

Because I need to get back to my community, I need to tell my mother about Joseph’s dreams of underwater living, about his hopeful future that better come quickly because I’m done waiting.

I’m alone in this vast, polluted space, but I know which direction to go in. I’ll find my way home.

Displaced Water

Somewhere from the diagrammatic stolon

of overgrown seagrasses, a voice carries

to the surface—to live radical compassion,

not just speak of it. The spiders still have not forgiven

me. The fish kill cited in the civil suit just a bead

in the course of stories scrolling by in my palm

like air pockets in rain—over 600,000 displaced

in Sri Lanka, two hundred dead and counting.

This is late May, 2017 AD. Flashbacks

of headlines some years back—

that heatwave which claimed some 2,000

in India but can this be more than read, felt

as the steadfast lamprey must feel, mooring

the stones of its own deathbed in the cool

lunar hollows? How it must feel, to prescribe

a burn, to watch the Oroville overflow with

predictions, the denial, no more water

in the pail! No more moon in the water!

What blame can be placed on the government

now? Someone says relief and means it.

Suppose blood could be set afire

with a simple question. Suppose we could

touch through the screen. Suppose speeding,

solitary, down the breathing highways

at the center of me, a course burns

its engine towards a future where hope

has long gone become obsolete.