Podcast Episode 9: Gills

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Thank you very much for listening.

Hey, it’s me, your sometime host, Michael J. DeLuca. I’m going to read you a short story, “Gills” by Nicholas Clute, from Reckoning 6. If you’d like to read along with me, you can, it’s free online at reckoning.press/gills. The author’s extremely succinct bio goes like this.

[Bio below.]

First I’m going to tell you a little about why I love this story. In it, you will meet two brothers, Allas and Young. Their relationship, the bickering, loving, supportive, competitive relatability of it, is what drew me through from beginning to end. I’ve got younger sisters who I desperately want to make it through this crisis, and the next one, and the one after that. Whenever I get to the end of a submission and find myself surprised it went so quickly, that’s a pretty good sign I’m going to want to publish it. This was like that. It’s 4,200 words and it felt like half that. We all thought it worked particularly well juxtaposed with Nicasio Reed’s story “Babang Luksa”, which is also about family amid risen seas and I encourage you to check out.

The other thing about “Gills” is the surreality, for which I am a sucker. This is a post-collapse future that’s just weird enough I can inhabit it without dragging along all the dread and anticipatory grief and guilt I’ll be bringing with me to the real future. And it’s such a relief!

Here’s hoping it does the same for you.

“Gills” by Nicholas Clute

Gills

“You hear about those people putting gills in their necks?”

“Yeah.”

“It won’t let you live underwater, y’know, like a fish, but it gives you a bit of time. Lets you stay down longer.”

“Yeah.”

“Man, I’d kill for some gills sometimes. Remember when I got my arm stuck? I could’ve had time to get free on my own, wouldn’t have gone loopy. Wouldn’t have needed you there.”

“They let you talk underwater too?”

“Shut up, man, just keep rowing.”

Two brothers of unequal age sat across from each other in a small wooden boat. Young was just a boy, fragile, and animated. Allas was quiet, his body sunburned and broad. They paddled across the choppy bay from Oakland to the remains of San Francisco. It was difficult, rowing into the wind.

“It also shows you’re a diver, y’know?” Young continued. “Like, everyone knows you don’t just muck around the swamps for pitch, you dive. If I had cash I’d get gills. I’ll probably get a tattoo instead, on my neck like the real thing. You thought about getting a tattoo?”

“I don’t need to show off like that.”

“Whatever, man, I know plenty of people who got them.”

“Like who?” asked Allas.

“Jere does.”

“Him? You know why he has money, right?”

“So what? He’s living big.”

Allas laughed. “What’s he doing running around with you then?”

“Fuck you, we go way back.” Young scowled. “One day, I’ll live big.”

Allas pulled up the oars for a moment, seawater sparkling as it dripped down their length and dropped into the boat. The beige hills of Oakland rose above the bay, throwing shadows in the morning light. Heat was already radiating off the water, and he could feel the wind blowing them backwards. “Hey, you know I was joking.”

“Whatever. I’m not gonna keep diving for this shit forever.”

Young stood up, snatched the oars, and pushed Allas aside to take his seat rowing. He nearly upset the boat in the process. They continued in silence. The windswept archipelago grew nearer, and they could make out shattered cars, tangled telephone wires, and the rust-streaked decay of abandoned buildings. It was beautiful in a brutal way, those scraps of the city not yet claimed by the rising tide.

“What’ll you do when you’re rich?” Allas asked. They stood and swapped oars again.

“I dunno, man, I’ma leave this shitty work, leave Oakland, y’know? Get myself a place up high, that looks over the Bay, looks over the City,” Young waved his hands at everything that lay in front of him, excited. “Maybe somewhere towers don’t block the sunset. Somewhere I can relax in a big ass bed and look down at everyone below me.”

Allas clenched his jaw. He and Pa would always be afterthoughts. Even in Young’s dreams, family was ballast that held him down.

“The normal spot or somewhere new?” Allas asked.

Young pulled a coin from the bag at his waist. “Tops is our normal place,” he said, tossing it up, then snatching it out of the air. He opened his hand, revealing a worn face. “Tops.”

They rowed around the largest island, toward their lucky bay, but there was another boat there already. It was small, delicate, with thin sides and shiny paint. Nothing like their peeling craft. A man in a black wetsuit fiddled with an oxygen tank, preparing to dive.

“Hiya!” Young chirped. “Can we share the water?”

There was no response. Allas rowed closer.

“Hey mister, do you mind . . . .” But the diver cut Young off.

“You don’t have an anchor, do you? Get the hell outta here, you’re gonna crash into me.”

Allas turned their boat so he faced the diver.

“There’s plenty of water here for all of us,” he said, gesturing at the placid bay. “We’ll be careful . . . .” But the diver started shouting.

“Did you hear me, jackass? Are you dumb, or am I gonna have to make you go?”

The man reached behind the gunwale and lifted up a sleek speargun. Allas pulled their boat away as fast as he could; a hiss passed their bow as the spear splashed nearby. The most direct retreat led them closer to the unprotected mouth of the bay.

“Hey, hey we’re getting near the open . . . .” Young said, anxious.

“Not now.”

They rowed into the hot wind. Salt spray scratched their throats and whipped their eyes, but Allas kept a course around the outer point. Soon they found themselves in a narrow passage between two jagged rock islands that only gave minimal protection.

“Current’s too strong to float,” he said. “We’ll have to paddle the boat in place.”

“Is it worth it?” replied Young, unsure.

“You know the deal.”

Young nodded, reassuring himself. “Tops we leave.” He flipped the coin; a sudden gust of wind took the coin, and his brother lunged to save it from going overboard.

Allas opened his hand. “I’ll dive first.”

He pulled off his shirt, flexed his broad shoulders, and strapped a short knife to his ankle. He breathed deep, exhaling more fully each time. Releasing air, he began to hum, a noise that was halfway between a meditative mantra and a death rattle.

He was a good diver—even without oxygen tanks, he could stay underwater for five minutes, almost six if he didn’t exert himself. He stood up, eyes placid, bumped his brother’s fist, and then backflipped into the water with a smooth motion. Young hooted at the spectacle, pulling on the oars to fight the wind.

The water was cool but not unpleasant. Allas swam deeper, getting his bearings: a decrepit slide and jungle gym poked through ribbons of kelp down below. Buildings shouldn’t be too far away. He kicked until he saw a wide boulevard, lined with the sagging shells of once ornate buildings, their trim rotted by salt water.

All of this was a bad sign; it usually grew along old industrial areas where it could leach contaminants, not the residential parts of town. He surfaced.

“I dunno if it’s any good here, we’re in the fancy part. There’s a playground,” said Allas.

“I’ll try some side streets, look for a warehouse.”

They swapped places and Young dove down. Allas rowed to keep the boat between the only landmarks he could see, the crumbling spire of the cathedral on the east island and an old power pole atop jagged cliffs to the west.

Young was down for a long time. Just as Allas began to worry, his brother surfaced, hands filled with a silver sludge, flecked with turquoise. Glitterpitch.

“Damn, is that real?”

The power plants paid handsomely for the stuff, a fissile biomaterial with a twelve-syllable name. But to divers, it was sticky silver gunk they called glitterpitch. Nobody knew exactly how or where it grew. Most people tramped through the marshes of Oakland, gleaning bits of it at a time.

There had to be something wrong—the pitch Young gathered looked pure, and he held more in his hands than they could hope to collect in a day, even a week.

“Go down, it’s crazy,” Young gasped. “It’s blooming.”

Allas looked at him with a blank expression, unclear.

“Behind the buildings east of the big street. Third one down has a busted roof, it’s all up in there.”

Allas pulled his brother into the boat, and helped scrape the silver mess into a tub. They’d never needed this much space for the pitch, they would have to be creative to bring it all back. He took a deep breath and dove down again.

Passing the playground and the boulevard, Allas kicked along the surface of the streets, looking for the signs of pitch. He swam upwards, over the roofs of the buildings, until he saw a great skylight, shattered long ago. The kelp-rimed opening led into a dim grotto. He pushed himself through, down to the remains of the third floor.

He was overwhelmed by uncanny as he swam around a living room forty feet underwater. A family of crabs had taken residence in one corner, and a built-in bench by the ruined bay window was covered in oyster shells. Allas sat down, staring at the room.

People had lived here, never knowing their house would one day be submerged. What had it been like, living through the rise? Waves lapping the street and steps, wetting the books propped under the kitchen table to keep it level, washing away the patched quilts on their bed. Slowly but forever rising, squeezing everything away.

It was okay, though, the sea was done rising. He and his brother and their father were safe enough in their house across the bay and up the hills. The house that was so unlike the one he sat in now; for one, their house wasn’t covered in glitterpitch, soft, oily silver mounds shimmering with turquoise. Its glimmer danced as you looked at it, twirling in the light as if it were alive.

How long had he been down? He was getting loopy, he realized with a start. He jammed fistfuls of glitterpitch into a pocket, and pushed off toward the surface, tendrils of turquoise and silver spiraling off his bare feet.

It took him several minutes to regain his breath once he was back, Young pounding his back.

“There’s . . . . There’s so much. Where did it come from? There’s no . . . . The growth?”

His brother understood. “It’s just going crazy there, what’s it feeding on?”

“Maybe we’ve got it wrong,” Allas said, recovering. “Maybe polluted places don’t grow it best, maybe they just grow it slowest. We find it there before it burns out and dissipates.”

They were eager to harvest. Young clipped a small bag to his waist before diving in. Most days he filled it with shellfish, knick knacks, remnants of the old city he found along the seafloor: detritus. Today, they would fill all the space they could afford.

Allas stayed in the boat, struggling to keep it still. The winds whistled through the strait, making it almost as much work above as it was below. At least up here he could breathe.

His brother surfaced a few meters away, and Allas rowed over. Helping him over the side of the boat, his jaw dropped. He knew the bloom was large, but Young’s thin body was covered in silver pitch. It coated his long dark eyelashes, clung to his short fingernails; every inch of the boy’s skin was plastered, and lugubrious drips of opalescent oil slowly slid down his face. He didn’t even bother to scrape off the precious sludge, simply upending his bag into the tub. It contained no sand or silt, no fish bones or rubble. They were splattered in wealth.

The brothers dove, frantic at first, but as the day wore on they slowed to take their time. The sun shone down, kissing their arms and legs as they took their turns, diving and rowing.

“What are we gonna do with all of it?” Young asked as they ate lunch. “What do you think it’s worth? It’s gotta be worth more ’cause it’s pure?”

“I don’t know.”

“Y’know, I’m gonna do it. I’ma get those gills.”

“Yeah?”

“We get rich from diving, I wanna do something that honors that, y’know?”

Allas laughed and nodded, tilting his head back and closing his eyes. He stretched an arm out, trails of silver swirling off where his knuckles brushed the water.

“I’ll get nicer shoes too,” Young continued. “Something that lasts longer than the shit I got back home. I’m sick of feeling every goddamn step I take, y’know?”

Allas’ smile faltered. Young hadn’t been able to dive with him until recently. After their father’s accident, he’d been the only one making money for the family. It had never been enough. Even with both boys diving, they barely scraped by.

“And I’ma buy us another boat,” continued Young, not noticing his brother’s melancholy. “A bigger one so we can pay people to dive for us. Think about that, being a captain, being in charge. I’ll get one of those fancy boats you can sleep on.

“But you know what, I think I’ma do something none of us ever done, I’m gonna go all the way up north, see what that’s like. They don’t have to buy water, I hear. Crazy. I hear it gets cold up there, that it actually rains. I don’t know anyone who’s been to another country.”

Allas sighed quietly. Their dreams had just become reality, and he still wasn’t a part of his brother’s future.

“What’ll you do?” Young asked, suddenly looking back.

“I’ve never really thought about it,” said Allas. “Yeah, I guess we would start a fleet.”

The small boy nodded eagerly, drinking in the future with abandon.

“And I think I’d get us a new house, something bigger and more comfortable. Not too far away from the neighborhood, I know Dad likes it there. But somewhere we don’t need bars on the windows. Somewhere with a deck. We could sit out back, watch the sun set, and just be happy there. Be a family.”

He never allowed himself to dream like this, and was unsettled by how easily these plans poured from his mouth. Now that they were rich.

Allas continued, “Even if it takes all the money we get from this, we’ll get Dad some new legs, y’know? I haven’t seen him run in years. He used to love that, the days he didn’t dive he’d wake up early and just run. Up and down the hills, along the shore as the sun came up. Before the city was awake, he’d always say. He used to do that to clear his head. Before . . . you know, before all that he used to love running. We can get him fixed now.”

“Man, why don’t you ever want anything for yourself?” Young’s smooth face had darkened into ugly resentment. “It’s always what you’d do for me, for Dad. It’s never about you.”

Allas considered this for a moment. “I want you to be happy, Dad to be happy. I dunno, that’s what I want.” He sat up, pulled the oars a few strokes to reposition them, then laid them back down.

“I just wanted to have this one day to feel good, y’know,” said Young, raising his voice. “To have some actual happy thoughts about the future. This is the first time I haven’t had to spin bullshit, make everything seem okay.

“You’re always so fucking happy all the time, so good at putting on the right face, saying the right thing, doing the right thing. It’s so goddamn exhausting, and I’m tired. I’m tired of you being perfect, always being the role model and me being the fuckup. No, don’t act like I don’t know. I see how y’all look at me.”

“Hey, I didn’t mean . . . .”

“You didn’t mean what?” Young cut in. “To always be right? To always be better? You could be going places with your life, but you’re gonna help the family, no matter what it costs you.

“Fuck. I wish I was you. What is it I’m missing? I can’t even be mad at you because you’re always doing the right thing. Won’t you just get pissed or be selfish, just once? For me?”

They sat in silence. A new wind blew, sudden chill biting at their arms. Allas reached for the oars, but his brother pushed him back, firm, aggressive.

“Fuck, off, I can do this. You paddled us out here. Like always.”

Young piloted them back into the middle of the channel and they finished their lunch to make room for more pitch. Eventually Young broke the silence.

“Look, this sucks. I don’t have a reason to hate you. You’re everything to me. I can’t hate you, so I need to figure out how to not hate myself, I guess.”

Tears cut streaks through the salt and pitch that stained Young’s face.

“It’s not easy,” said Allas, his voice breaking. “It’s not. And I’m not perfect, no matter what you think. You’re good at forgetting when I mess up. You’re real good at that.

“You’re not a screwup, man. You’re young, you’re learning. You don’t know how proud of you Dad and I are. We don’t tell you that enough.”

Young wiped his face, smearing his tears.

“You’re right to dream bigger than me,” said Allas. “There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big, but you gotta dream big enough for the both of us. Because you know I’m no good at it.”

They both sat there for a minute, eyes cast downward.

“I’m gonna go down again.” Young said, sniffing. “Get the rest of what’s there.”

He reached for Allas’ shoulder, gentle and firm; the two shared their gaze for a moment, then Young dove overboard, leaving him rocking and alone adrift with the wind.

They scooped up treasure and kept their boat from the rocks. The sun lowered in the sky, and they filled their boat with pitch. Young was underwater when Allas saw the new shiny boat round the corner, the solo diver headed towards them. They kept their distance and continued to dive.

Young’s head broke the surface in a frenzy.

“He’s stuck, he’s down there, he got stuck!” Young wheezed, sucking air into his lungs.

“What are you talking about?”

“The other guy, the other diver. He was trying to find our bloom, and he got stuck in a car down there!”

“Can you help him?”

“I tried, I need your help!”

“We’ll crash!” said Allas, motioning to the cliffs.

Young let out a pained cry, and dove below the surface.

Allas rowed the boat in a circle, nervous thoughts racing through his head. What could he do? Leave the boat to crash, all for a man who had tried to kill them earlier?

Young’s head broke the waves again, more frantic than before.

“His leg’s stuck, man, he’s drowning! I need you, now!”

“What am I supposed to do?” Allas shouted.

Young stared at him, saying nothing, then dove down again. His silence was worse than words. Their earlier conversation echoed in his head.

You’re always doing the right thing.

Allas let out an anguished yell and dove into the waves.

Below the surface, the afternoon sun had turned the old city into a forest of cerulean shadow. He kicked down to the street level and looked for his brother. Near the building with their bloom he spotted his brother swimming in circles around the pitted carcass of a car, a flood of bubbles erupting from the far side.

The diver had somehow trapped his leg in the door and severed a breathing line on the jagged metal. The man was trapped and drowning. Allas motioned to the diver to relax, and to his brother to help him. The diver made incomprehensible signals, grabbing at Allas’ shoulders as if he were drunk. They needed to act fast.

On the sidewalk, there was a long metal tube covered in barnacles; the fallen remnant of a street sign. It took them both, but they swam the pole over to the car and pried it against the door. The jaws snapped open, and the diver’s leg was freed. Both brothers pushed off toward the surface, but the man was not following. He stayed near the car, hips and legs flailing.

Allas motioned for his brother to ascend, and then dove back down, wrapping his long arms around the diver. The man wouldn’t budge, his weight belt caught on something. Frantic, Allas pulled the knife from his ankle and cut any strap he could grasp, slashing the man free. The diver thrashed, and they slammed into a raw metal edge of the car; a bloom of red erupted from the boy’s arm. It would be okay, he thought, the diver was loose. He held him tight, and together they swam toward the dark reflection of the surface.

Allas tried to pull himself upward, but his arm refused commands, floating by his side. He kicked harder, the soles of his feet tickled by the rush of air escaping the diver’s tank they’d left down below. It was strange, he realized, that he should feel like this, his lungs on fire for want of air when he was surrounded by perfect, breathable bubbles. He opened his mouth, reaching to swallow one, but it darted out of his reach and upward. He kept going, following that bubble’s rise, but the surface seemed so far away, and he was very tired of swimming. How long had he been underwater? The math was simple: several years of diving, twenty dives a day (usually), five minutes a dive (give or take), that makes almost a thousand days spent underwater. No, five hundred. Wait, hours, not days. Divide that by twenty-four . . . . How old was he now, had he spent most of his life underwater? Surrounded by water, at least. It followed him wherever he went, from the steam lifting off his coffee each morning to the clouds that passed overhead, their moisture just out of reach. When he was young his mother used to take him to the docks to watch the great tankers pull into harbor, metal-bellied leviathans, each unloading over a trillion liters of Chinese freshwater into the city tanks so that Oakland could drink and bathe and grow plants on their balconies and rooftops and community gardens, trillions of liters of water from each of the ships and yet they were nothing but drops compared to the vastness of ocean upon which he floated. His head swam with numbers, mathematics looping through his mind and tumbling around him as a million porcelain bubbles passed before his eyes. He hadn’t thought of his mom in a long time.

They shattered the mirrored surface and he released his grip on the diver. His head was above water, but he could not inhale. His small, fragile brother swam over to him, shouting or maybe mumbling, but he did not notice because he was calmly drifting on his back, captivated by the sky which was painted in streaks, orange and purple blending together at the margins, the colors pulsing with the slowing beat of his heart. It was peaceful, the world a beautiful blur whose edges faded to blank perfection.

With a sudden rush, purple clouds and orange sunset snapped into focus. He gasped. He could hear his own breath, his heart pounding in his ears, his brother shouting at him. The volume of the world had been turned back up and it was excruciating.

“He’s breathing, it’s okay man, we’re okay,” Young was shouting, holding the other diver in a rescue position while treading water. He jerked his head to the island to the east, where the remains of a road slumped into the sea. “We just gotta get to that little beach over there, okay?” Allas assented without words.

As they dragged themselves onto the small patch of ground, he looked back at the channel. The boats had crashed; their small and sturdy craft sliced through the thin skin of the other, and both were leaking. Clinging together like doomed lovers, the boats turned languid circles, drifting inexorably across the channel toward the jagged cliffs.

Young laid the diver down on the gravel and began to run back into the water, but with his good arm Allas pulled him out of the surf and into a tight embrace. They struggled at first, but exhausted and injured, they soon held each other still.

The brothers stood there, warm wind drying the water on their faces, as they watched the boats throw themselves against the rocks. The hulls were soon splintered and ripped, and from those gashes bled oily silver mud, turquoise flecks glowing in the setting sun.

The nicer boat lay strewn across the rocks like discarded rubbish. Their small craft, everything they had in this world, bobbed on the surface for a moment that seemed to last forever, then slipped below the seafoam.

They carried the limp diver along a road up the island, shattered asphalt biting their bare feet. Atop were the remains of an old cathedral, a great grey shell that once loomed over the city. It was ruined, but it would shelter them for the night. They shuffled through a great arched doorway and laid the diver to recover on the low stone altar.

The brothers sat in the second row of cold pews. Behind them the sun burned away as always, from yellow to peach to twilight. Before them was a hole in the structure, yawning nothing where the sacristy once stood. They watched their shadows lengthen, blend into dusk as the sun passed away. Through the void in the church was the city, their city, individual lights winking on as night approached. Wind whistled through the husk of this sacred place. Young turned to his brother, who was leaned forward as if in prayer.

“They’ll come looking for him, right?”

Allas did not answer.

“And they’ll pick us up too. And then we’ll find that again, won’t we? I bet we can. Now we know how it blooms, we can find another, right? I know we will. We can come out here again, real soon. Once your arm’s better.”

Allas sat there with his eyes closed, head resting on the pew in front of them, arm limp at his side. It did not hurt. It did not feel much at all.

He looked at the diver drying upon the altar. A small beacon strapped to his ankle was blinking, a slow pulse of reassurance. Rescue would come, eventually. Allas turned to his brother, the small boy whose eyes burned fierce with hope.

Allas nodded once, then nodded again, and put his good arm around Young, pulling him close. “Yeah. We’ll find it again.”

Young leaned into his brother’s shoulder, relaxing into that steadfast warmth. They sat there for a long time, together, while around them the day evaporated and quietly condensed into night.