The Air Will Catch Us

My granddaughter Nisha bounces on the tips of her toes, with flutter kicks in between, a hummingbird barely touching the sidewalk. I adjust the rebreather plugged into my nostrils and push myself forward. Keeping up with her has gotten harder, not just because of my age. Walking is different now. The air resists my habitual gait. Little hops lift me into the thickened atmosphere that slows my return to Earth. It’s undignified, but it’s past time I got used to this. I’m not that old. I bob along after her.

“Not too far,” I call. Talking is different too. It takes more effort, timing it with the rebreather. The sounds distort, vowels overwhelming consonants in the heavy air. I have to listen carefully to understand people. Nisha, considerate of my limitations, gives me a thumbs-up. The playground is close, but I grew up not trusting the world. I’ve watched it change along apocalyptic predictions, down to the air getting hotter, wetter, and thicker every year. And stranger changes, that no one predicted, overwrote the science I learned in school. It’s literally a different world than the one I grew up in. I won’t trust it with Nisha, unsupervised. While my son and daughter-in-law are at work, the responsibility is mine.

Plots of kudzu line the sidewalk, taller than Nisha. She turns the corner. I quicken my bobs, sucking air through the rebreather with the hollow sound of a patient in a hospital. The kudzu of my childhood was engineered into a kind of terrestrial kelp, with broad leaves undulating in the thickened breeze. Tiny creatures like fish dart among the fronds. The kudzu still tries to spread over everything, but it traps pollutants in nodules that bud like cancer along its stalks. Rebreathers kept the cancer from my generation’s bodies. Kudzu keeps it from Nisha’s. Maybe I don’t need a rebreather now, but I’m susceptible to pneumonia and a panicked sense of drowning when the viscous air enters my lungs. My son calls the dry, thin product of the device “nostalgic air.” He doesn’t care for it.

Privately, I spend some time every day inhaling the unfiltered atmosphere, training myself not to choke. Sometimes I succeed. It’s a trust fall into the world. I’m trying.

The playground’s plastic and metal equipment is not much different from my own childhood’s. Nisha has a routine. Even before greeting her friends, she scrambles up a ladder and crawls the monkey bars, skipping every other bar. From the last bar she launches herself into space. The air will catch her. I don’t wait underneath like I used to, but I don’t sit down on a bench until she lands on the web of ropes and climbs to a platform.

“You have kids here?” the young mom next to me asks kindly. An unused rebreather is clipped to her shoulder. The kids don’t need them, their parents have them “just in case,” and their grandparents suck on them like life support. Fashion across the generations.

“Granddaughter,” I say, gesturing to Nisha.

“Those two are mine,” she says, pointing at a pair of boys, a few years older than Nisha, doing their best to hurl each other, and all comers, off the highest platform. “We used to go to a different park, but this one’s actually closer.”

I correctly guess they go to Nisha’s school, and we talk about homework, teachers, and activities. She’s patient as I time my words with the rebreather.

I hear shouting from the playground equipment as if through water. A boy sails over a platform’s railing. I can’t tell if he was thrown by my bench-mate’s boys or jettisoned himself. All the adults watch. None rise to their feet. Kids fly now, but I’m the only one still with a helicopter instinct. I grip the bench and keep my seat. The hiss of my rebreather is fast and shallow. The air will catch him. It’s like a prayer. The boy somersaults in slow motion, somehow landing on his feet. He bounces and is airborne again, climbing the ropes onto the platforms.

“I’ll never get used to that,” I say.

“My mother says one never stops worrying.”

Her mother says that. I suppose it’s true. Maybe every generation looks askance at the wonders of the next, afraid to trust them.

I’m embarrassed and irritated by the sound of my breathing. I’m no invalid. As casually as I can manage, I pull the rebreather from my nostrils. I inhale a thick, wet deluge, and manage not to cough. My chest expands. I’m not drowning. I let it out, and bring it back.

Nisha isn’t roughhousing. She’s talking with girls her age, their voices distorted by the atmospheric soup. But at any moment they could fling themselves from a ladder.

Would you jump off a roof if your friends did? My parents asked me that.

I would if it looked fun, I didn’t dare reply.

How the world has changed.

And it does look fun.

I’m on my feet. I don’t remember rising. I step onto the ladder rung and pull myself up. This movement is familiar, easier than walking. I’m not as strong anymore, but now I’m buoyant. The strange science that resists me walking also holds me up. The young parents watch with amusement, not worry. They’ve learned to trust the world. Can I?

I crawl the bars like my granddaughter, every other one, building momentum in slow motion. I grip the last bar with both hands and kick as though swimming, which I haven’t done in years. My body remembers.

I launch myself into space.

Swimming Whole

First Jeff Martin bought the narrow strip of land between the river and Banks Road from the town, then he spider-webbed caution tape between the trees and nailed posted signs to their bark. The swimming hole where so many of us had spent our childhood summers was no longer ours. And this with each year hotter than the last.

Martin, who also owned The Weekly Gazette, the Dollar Store on the edge of town, and a quarter of the rental properties, bought and moved into the Carter Mansion across the street from our swimming hole after the last owner died. As big as it was, it wouldn’t pass as a mansion nowadays, but the historical plaque in front of it named it the original home of the town founder. A draw, no doubt, for Martin, who fancied himself a self-made man in the way the wealthy who grew up just shy of wealthy tend to do. He didn’t live there one full summer before he convinced the town council that the strip of land—the only spot with passable access down the river-cut gorge—was nothing more than a waste of taxpayer money.

Why pay to have it mown, when he could send his landscape crew over? (And seeing as he was doing the town this favor, really, the property ought to be tax-exempt, didn’t they agree?) Like most things Jeff Martin said and did, it had the sound of a gift bestowed. Like everything he said and did, the beneficiary was definitively him.

How many generations had we kept that spot a secret from the June-to-August tourists who crowded the lake beach and left their soda cans, candy wrappers, and busted flipflops wherever they landed?

The sale went through with only the tiniest announcement buried in the back pages of the Gazette. The caution tape and posted signs were the first any of us heard of it.

Laughing, nervously, we ducked under the tape and made our way down to the hole where we’d swam all our lives. The cops arrived and bull-horned over the river that we were trespassing and had five minutes to vacate or risk arrest.

Men who had grown up there swimming with us turned their faces away when we reminded them of the summers we’d shared. They were just doing their jobs, they said.

The river still belonged to the town and some of us could make it down the opposite river bank, but it was a steep climb and likely to land you splayed and broken on the slate shelf that decked the river, worn smooth by spring and fall floods.

A group of us showed up at the next council meeting and took turns airing our grievances during the public comment portion until we were told our time was up. Two members of the council agreed that something should be done. Three members and the Mayor, who could regularly be found golfing with Jeff Martin during the week when the rest of us were at work, said this was a matter of private property now. They’d followed all required procedures in the sale and if we’d had a problem with it we should have spoken up then.

Three Sundays in a row we protested, crowded by the side of the road with our clever signs and a spirit of camaraderie. The Gazette reporter showed up. Took pictures and asked us questions, scribbling in her notebook as we answered, but we never did see a story in the paper.

Our numbers dwindled until it was just me, a handful of folks who protested everything, and the cops telling us once again it was time to move along.

No matter where I was or what I was doing, the swimming hole and Jeff Martin were there in the back of my mind throbbing like a hammer-hit thumb.

It wasn’t right.

And there was nothing I could do about it.

My husband, Andy, told me I needed to let it go. We, of all people—two men whose right to love each other out in public hadn’t been recognized even half our lives—should know there are bigger worries in the world than the local swimming hole. Racism, sexism, all the isms, and a climate crisis to boot. I shouldn’t hold it against the folks who had lost interest, preoccupied with the business of living.

I went to the river, picked my way down the steep side as the sun set and looked for the ghosts of summers past. I imagined myself teaching the child we thought we might adopt how to swim, tossing them over my shoulders, clapping at their underwater somersaults. Giving them the things my father had given me.

Sitting there, head in my hands, I worried Andy was right—this powerless feeling would consume me if I let it and there were far worse wrongs to confront. Better to change myself than give in to the growing resentment of people who didn’t care enough to take back what had been given away out from under them.

A voice startled me out of my ruminations.

“Why so down, friend?”

A three-quarters moon had risen over the placid river, lighting the snaking lines of current, wet stone bank, and the leaves of trees lining the top of the gorge on either side. I couldn’t spot a soul. A splash in the river caught my attention, and there, in the middle, a salmon the size of a two-year-old swam a lazy circle and asked the question again.

Of course I’d heard of this fish. You can’t walk a block in this town without meeting someone who knows someone who almost hooked it, or heard it speak, or watched it leap fifty feet in the air in acrobatic delight. Even my father believed it was as old as the town.

So here was my madness, finally emerging. Well, what can you do but answer when a fish asks a question twice?

I told it my troubles. Explained about Jeff Martin and the town council and the aching maw in my chest for all the friends and neighbors content to let another piece of what should be ours be pirated off by a handful of people.

The fish dipped under the water and I thought I had bored it, but then its head reappeared. “You’re a good egg, friend,” it said, “so I’m going to do you a solid. A good egg for a good egg.” It laughed at its joke in a voice like a hard summer rain. It rolled over, water shimmering off its moon-silvered scales, and popped a small shining orb out of its vent. With a flick of its tail, it lobbed the egg over to me. It glowed orange in my hand, no bigger than a pea. “In three days, when the moon is full, make a wish and eat that.” The salmon swam a circle and again came to a stop. “All the usual reminders about being careful what you wish for. You only get the one.” And with that it swam off.

I carried the egg home, cradled in my palm, and not knowing what else to do with it, I filled a glass with water and dropped it in.

I told Andy my story and he peered at the little glob at the bottom of the glass. He put the back of his hand up to my forehead. I shrugged him off.

“I’m feeling fine.”

“Okay,” he said in that way that meant if you say so, and asked me what I was going to wish for. I shrugged again and he left me in the kitchen, watching the egg do nothing.

Over the next three days I imagined all manner of wicked ends for Jeff Martin as I worked. If not death, then public humiliations that left him impoverished. In my kinder moods, I considered wishing him a change of heart. A Scroogening. But wasn’t there always another Jeff Martin, waiting to take his place?

I thought of personal gain—a windfall of money that would set Andy and I up for life. But then I would be the Jeff Martin, wouldn’t I?

On the third night, when the moon rose full and gleaming, I stood on our front lawn and wished the wish of my heart: that good people believed they could make a difference if they tried. I drank the glass of water, the glowing egg sliding over my tongue and down my throat.

I slipped into bed and apologized to Andy for not wishing something for us.

He laughed, “don’t be a fool,” and kissed me until we were peeling each other’s sweats off in the dark.

In the morning, I walked down to the diner for a cup of coffee before work, hoping to find the world changed.

But it was just as it had been the morning before. The Gazette followed a developer looking to tear down waterfront buildings and put up luxury condos along the lake. Old white men grumbled at the counter about immigrants taking away jobs, and when I got to work the foreman told our crew we’d have to put in extra hours to make sure the plumbing was roughed in on schedule, but we’d be shorted hours next week so the company didn’t have to pay overtime.

Frustrated and exhausted, I got home no longer furious only with Jeff Martin and the people who wouldn’t stand up to him, but with myself, for having hoped. Color drained out of the world. Everywhere I looked were signs of the inevitability of everything crumbling to shit.

Andy tried to cheer me, but most evenings ended with me scrolling through the news, finding proof of all the terrible things in the world and the myriad ways people make each other suffer. I had been earnest and optimistic and what had it gotten me? Nothing but a broken heart.

My neighbors were right. Better to tend to your own affairs and hope the burning world arrived at your doorstep last.

Three weeks into my festering, I arrived home to find Andy sitting at the kitchen table, a stack of papers in front of him. I eyed them as I bent to kiss him and he nodded for me to sit down. He handed a page over to me, a yellow stick-on arrow pointing to a signature line, “Sign there.”


“Just sign.”

He was trying to play it serious, like he was in the law office where he worked as a paralegal and I was some client in a suit and tie. But you don’t spend fifteen years with a person and not know when they’re buzzing to tell you something, so I played along.

I signed three different papers before he hit me with the sidelong smile—his charming snaggletooth crooked and jaunty—that first caught my attention all those years ago. He unfolded a surveyor’s map, smoothed it across the table. There was Jeff Martin’s house, devil horns drawn out of the roof and a fish penciled in the swimming hole. I followed Andy’s finger down to a spot marked with an X.

“About seventy feet south of the swimming hole, the Jenkin’s property line starts.” He pointed to a spot where the river swung a wide arc away from Valley Road and back towards Banks Road before tumbling down a series of small waterfalls out into the inlet and beyond that, the lake. “Liza has agreed to deed access rights for this portion of land,” he circled a rectangle formed by dotted lines, “to the Friends of the River. A nonprofit of which you and I are the founding members. It’s steep, but you can build a good set of stairs that would do the trick and then it’s just a matter of walking up the bank,” his finger trailed back up to the swimming hole.

The world was still on fire, the wealthy were still fucking over as many people as they could, and all manner of horrible shit still needed to be torn down. But look at this man and how he loved me.

I started on the stairs that weekend, clearing a path through the brush and saplings from the street to the cliff edge. About an hour into my work Liza Jenkin’s daughter, home from college, arrived with a tool belt slung over her shoulder and a cooler of cold drinks. By lunch, three more neighbors had come to lend a hand.

We worked every Saturday for a month, our numbers growing so large that half of us were just standing around offering encouragement and memories of summers past (somebody’s story of a talking fish got us all sharing our own).

Where one person’s knowledge faltered—the sturdiest way to anchor the stairs to the rock face, where to get the best price on this material or that—another stood up and offered what they could.

When it was finished we made our way up to the swimming hole, laughing and whooping, our voices amplified off the gorge walls. We cannonballed, or waded in, or sat on the rock-shelf and dangled our toes, and no matter how many police cars Martin called they couldn’t stop our jubilee.

From the River to the Sea

Marcia Mejia and her Indigenous community, the Eperara Nation, live along the banks of the Naya River in Colombia. Her settlement of Joaquincito sits right at the delta where the Naya reaches the Pacific Ocean. The Naya was a major site of conflict during the 50-year-long Colombian civil war. The Eperara, together with 64 Afro-descendant communities along the river, have defended their holy waterway and suffered terribly as narco-empires continue to fight for control of this strategic waterway.


Marcia stamps her flip-flop on the dirty floor.

“I can’t leave you, not with a whole two hours to go until the bus,” she says in a low voice.

“Go, go,” I say. “Go. I’ll be fine. Be careful on the street.”

We drop my bags on the sagging, tipping plastic seats in the terminal. We hug again. I brush back her straight black hair.

“You haven’t had supper,” she says.


I try not to cry. I’m old enough to be her mother, but I feel like her sister. She matters to me. I feel helpless, unable to do anything more to keep us close. She is so small, invisible to the rest of the world, so vulnerable. Steady, persistent, unstoppable, like a sturdy—but threatened—tree holding out her branches wide to protect her community: Joaquincito, of the Eperara Nation, on the mouth of the Naya River, on the Pacific Coast of Colombia.

The Eperara have lived on this river for time out of mind. But the enemies they face are monstrous, more dangerous perhaps than ever before: internal and foreign beasts crouching at the door. Waiting. Who will move in? Who has more power? Bigger guns? Who can twist things around, play the game—cocaine, mining companies, massive hydro-electric dams—make a pile, shit on the people and the earth, piss in the river, and move on?

“Go,” I urge gently. “I’ve got food. Plantain chips and lemonade made with panela. Besides, you guys have been feeding me too much for days. I already didn’t fit into the canoa!” We both laugh.

“Okay, Emi,” she says. She turns and walks away. Her orange wrap-skirt glows in the gloom. Somehow the bus station manages to be both fluorescent bright and deeply dingy at the same time. She’s gone.

I take a deep breath. Alone at last. Time to think about where my heart has been and gone these past five days. I look around for my salt-crusted chips. Eat a few. I’m not that hungry. These have been days of fish, glorious starchy vegetables of different hues and sizes, and fruit I never knew existed.

Then, wait! The flash of orange is coming back! Marcia. Her face is crumpled.

“I can’t leave you here alone. So long ‘til the bus.”

“It’s good, really. Go. Go,” I say.

“Okay, I’m leaving, Emi,” says Marcia again, resigned. The orange in her beaded necklace, her orange skirt, her determined eyes set in her round face are all so dear to me. One final, final hug, and she’s gone, becoming a carrot-colored dot, disappearing into the darkness. Just as she leaves, the evening rains call to the earth; the world outside is erased. Walls of water form, seeming to run both up and down.

I squeeze my eyes tight in prayer. Surround her with an impenetrable circle of protection. Make her invisible to the killers. Keep her safe. It’s August, 2018. These are hard days for Colombian community leaders, especially for women and men from the Indigenous and Afro-descendant—Black—communities. More than 342 people have been killed in the past year-and-a-half, since the 2016 signing of the peace accords between the government and the guerrillas of the Rebel Armed Forces.

I had met Marcia three years earlier, at an international gathering in Brazil, Fe y Territorios, Faith and Territories. It was a busy, frantic conference, with hundreds of participants, but somehow Marcia connected with me. She sought me out time and again. We sat and chatted.

“You have to come see me someday, in my community,” she said. I agreed, casually. I am the co-president of SICSAL, an international Christian human rights organization. Although we work in 28 countries, we are small and don’t have a lot of funds. I had no idea when I would ever make it to Colombia.

Marcia and I weren’t in touch regularly, but every once and a while, she would have access to the internet, and a note would pop up on my screen. Usually the same thing: How are you? When are you coming to see me?

Hi, I would answer. Nice to hear from you. Not sure.

But then, three years later, I did end up in Colombia, at another international conference, this time in Medellin. Marcia was supposed to come to the meeting but problems on the river took over: the boat couldn’t get out. The level of violence on the river was very high. I had to admit, I didn’t actually know where Marcia lived. Somewhere on a river delta, somewhere in Colombia. I didn’t know how, exactly, to get to her.

Fortunately, I have friends.

La Comisión (the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace) makes the connections for me and sends me off on the night bus to Buenaventura. My companions are Nidiria, a poet, and her friend Yamali, young leaders from the Women’s Committee of the Naya River Delta. They were both at the conference with me, showing up every day with one fabulous colorful outfit after another, purchased down in the city center during our breaks. At the conference they were clear: they had the right, as women, as young people, as the descendants of enslaved Africans, to live full lives, safely, in their homes, in their communities. Travelling with them, I feel like a young adventurer, invulnerable yet with a shake of danger.

The women shepherd me from the conference grounds, in the green sanctuary of the Mother Laura Convent on the outskirts of Medellin, through the long thin windy road down to the coast, through the sketchy, rough streets of Buenaventura to the safe house of the local Comisión leaders: Enrique and Maru—María Eugenia. The Comisión—on the frontline of energetic insistence on human rights for all—is a particular target for violence. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ordered the Colombian government to provide for the safety of Comisión leaders. We arrive at an anonymous-looking house. An armoured car is parked in front. An unsmiling guard stands stiffly; presumably he has a legal gun to protect us.

We arrive to a household waking up. Maru is making eggs, tossing her mop of curls as she stirs vigorously. She looks around to laugh hello and—snap—turns back to flip the arepas, fried cornmeal triangles. Enrique pours coffee. And, surprise! There are three human rights leaders here from the Washington Office on Latin America: Adam, Gimena and Alex. They are going upriver this very morning, all the way to Las Conchas. We can all go together, they say. I have no idea where Las Conchas is, but it’s somewhere on Marcia’s river, so—let’s go!

The dock reeks. Things have died here and just been left to rot. An old wooden boat sits submerged up to its deck in water. Alongside it, men load two fiberglass hulls, which look sturdy enough. A group awaits, and then we’re on board. The two boats sag full, about 10 or 12 people per vessel: four of us gringos, and the Comisión folks, my friends Nidiria and Yamali, going home. Most travellers are community members returning up the river, including baby Kaila and her mom, from Las Conchas. Kaila had been sick, and they brought her out to see a doctor. Now she sleeps right snug beside me, in her mother’s arms, covered in a pink fuzzy sweater for the wind and the spray that will come. We slip on life jackets. Soon we putt-putt into the harbour. We slide past small shacks built up perilously over the river. Girls scrub clothes in the oily water, glancing up to see us just with the corner of an eye. We glide through the green and brown water and then into a mangrove swamp.

Now the boats move fast. They flit across the narrow waterways, choosing first the left branch, then the right from an impossible puzzle of choices. The boatsmen slip their caps over backwards and shout to each other with joy. It’s like they’re playing tag. The engine drones. The hum is so steady that I am almost asleep, head nodding down. Then—slap—we’re in open ocean. Blue, white and grey. The silver curve of an ancient coin, across which are days and days of sea, until there are at last some distant, wistful islands. The sunlight is deceptively thin, but strong enough to burn Alex to a crisp in half an hour. I had remembered before we left and slipped on a light, long-sleeved shirt underneath my life jacket, despite the coastal heat.

Nudging, roaring, surging and soothing, the boatsmen know how to ride through the swells. Then at last we turn into the mangroves again. Nidiria calls loud and happy from the front, “Emi, THIS is the Naya!”

The Naya is a short river, only 120 kilometres long. It begins its life in the foothills of the soaring Andes and snake-winds its way down and across the jungle lowlands, becoming a fat and brown river at its mouth, thick with spindly mangroves, where it finally meets the Pacific Ocean. Indigenous peoples have lived along the rich banks of the Naya since before memory can tell. But life changed drastically when, in 1526, Spaniards arrived in the area.

That year, Sebastián de Belalcázar, a Castilian donkey thief, set out to pillage the hot lowlands of the Pacific littoral, founding the city of Cali, all the while slaughtering Indigenous people and fighting internecine battles with his fellow invaders. In the mountains beyond, rumours ran wild about rivers of gold and fabled cities paved with the shiny stuff. The Pizarro brothers had actually found stacks of treasure and went promptly to work destroying the great Inca Empire. Belalcázar, though, would find no such treasure.

Reported to be a particularly vicious man, Belalcázar was even called to account by the Spanish authorities for slaughtering all the women and children of a particular village while the men were absent. He died in 1555, while awaiting extradition to Spain, where he was to be tried for the murder of a fellow Spaniard. (The statue of Belalcázar in Cali was torn down in 2021 by Indigenous community members, as was one in Popayan a year earlier.)

There were no pots of gold to be had in the lowlands among the fishers and the gatherers, so Europeans set about creating sugar plantations. As the Indigenous communities were all but extinguished, the Spaniards began trafficking boatloads of Africans to slave in the fields. The slave trade began in 1518. Over the next three hundred-plus years an estimated 1.1 million Africans were forced through its hideous capital: Cartagena de Indias, on the Colombian Caribbean coast. Slavery was abolished in Colombia in 1852.

Today, along the Naya river, there are sixty-four Afro-Columbian communities, while the upriver and downriver Eperara peoples each have a reserve.

We buzz along the lower reaches of the river and, after about half an hour, pull up to a collection of wooden houses built on stilts. We land at a shaky ladder leading up to the Casa Grande, bigger by far than the small, personal homes. The Casa Grande is the sacred gathering space of Joaquincito, the home of the downriver Eperara people.

There she is! Marcia is waving madly and coming down the ladder. Everyone from the village is in the Casa Grande, waiting to meet me. Enrique and Maru are talking with Marcia, explaining that we’re not staying, that I’m not staying, but that they’ll drop me off the next day. “Do you want to come?” they ask her. “We’re going to Las Conchas. You should come, but hurry, get your stuff.”

Marcia disappears, then returns with a little pink backpack and a girl, maybe about nine years old. They jump in the back. We beam with joy at one another. We did it! We’re together at last. There is no time to say anything, and we’re off. Up the river, buzz, buzz.

The green walls of the jungle close in around us, hiding who knows what. The trees seem endless, eternal. Looks like the jungle won here. But then we zip around a corner and there’s a big town: Puerto Merizalde, named after its founding bishop, who dreamed of building a bustling metropolis in the jungle. We move along the wooden houses stacked right over the river until—there He is! Standing high on top of a massive cathedral in the river town that had failed to become a city, right on the dome reaching out to his people: a grandiose white Jesus, hands extended in blessing. We float along under his outstretched arms.

On the other side of town, we dock and climb out onto a soggy wooden platform. We’re stopping for lunch. At last Marcia and I hug each other. I meet Yasmin, her daughter. We head up arm in arm to a table to my first fish of the Rio Naya. We eat with satisfaction, and we catch up. Things are not well at all on the river. Peace accords have meant nothing. I listen, shake my head. Four community leaders dead in the last few months. Everything a great unknown. Solemnly we board the boats again to travel to the next stop upstream. Yamali stays here, but Nadiria will travel with us up to Las Conchas.


We’re heading further inland. After about an hour, we arrive at the Humanitarian Zone of San Francisco, where we will exchange our ocean-going boat for a river boat that will make it easier to journey farther up the shallow river through the ever-thickening, verdant jungle.

The region around the Naya River has a particularly troubled history, explains Enrique from the Comisión, with input from the WOLA experts, Adam and Gimena. In the past thirty years or so the Naya’s relatively short length, from the thick coca leaf sites up in the highlands, along the back and forth of the main branches of the river, to the lonely and unguarded Pacific coast, has become a key route for the moving of drugs and arms. There are big bucks to be made by the Colombian military (the largest in Latin America) and the shady paramilitary bands (which have direct links to the official military, but operate with impunity). These latter are responsible for the greatest number of human rights abuses. Last of all, but thick in the game, are Colombia’s two guerrilla organizations: the Rebel Armed Forces (FARC) and the much smaller yet still fierce National Liberation Army (ELN). Everyone wants a piece of this rich pie.

During Holy Week, 2001, one of the worst massacres of Colombia’s more than 50-year-long civil war occurred along the Naya River. Between April 11th and 12th, paramilitaries from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia brutally murdered and mutilated an estimated 70 people up and down the Naya. Thousands more fled into hiding along tributary rivers, to Puerto Merizalde, and all the way down the river and along the ocean into the city of Buenaventura.

After a number of years of displacement, communities started to return and rebuild. An important tool for peacemaking was granted to them when the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ordered precautionary measures for the communities, and a number of “humanitarian zones” were declared. These were to be areas exclusively for civilians, entirely free from all weapons. No armed players from any side of the war would be allowed into the Zones. The communities would patrol themselves, and the Naya Community Council would oversee the civilian network.

By the time we arrive at the San Francisco Humanitarian Zone, I’m feeling a bit queasy. Maybe it’s the food, the sun, or the sway of the boat. I breathe deeply. We all pile out. Good thing Maru told us to wear our flip-flops. We disembark straight into the shallow water, and the riverbed is muddy and rocky. We are met by community leaders at the river’s edge. The village reaches right down to the water. Old cement block buildings, once painted but now crumbly and worn, stand close together. Neighbors look out and shout out to us. We stop at one place and another. Everyone knows Enrique and Maru, and there’s laughing and teasing. At one place we are given a shot glass to share. I take a wee sip. Holy Beasts! There is a coal of fire in my mouth, in my throat, in my esophagus, in my gut. Oh, I remember this. Isabelino, an Afro-Colombian leader who I met in Brazil, had some. It is a sacred drink, made with herbs, but also with a high alcohol content. My stomachache eases. That’s good news!

Then, out of nowhere, a helicopter thunders overhead. It lands on the other side of the village. The army. We go closer to observe. Soldier after soldier, each shouldering a bundle, marches down from behind a hill, turns left and disappears. We watch them warily from a distance, then go down to the next street. The leaders tell us what is going on. The soldiers have set up camp, smack at the edge of the village, on a jutting bit of land sticking into the curve of the river.

Adam, who carries himself with calm and confidence, consults with the villagers. Leaving them behind, we gringos move forward to check in with the military camp. An infantry specialist comes out to see us, a little surprised. Adam and Gimena converse with him, and Alex and I fall back. Soldiers should not be here, while we have every right. We are invited guests and, of course, we are unarmed. Quietly I take out my phone and snap a few shots. The soldiers have brought in heaps of provisions, what look like sacks of sugar or rice. Everyone is polite if tense.

I get the story in pieces. Officially, it seems, the military came to search for evidence concerning the four community leaders—three brothers and a cousin—who were kidnapped, disappeared and in the end murdered in April and May. Adam raises his eyebrows.

Later, I get a few more pieces of the puzzle. Valle de Cauca, a distant, forgotten corner of Colombia, became a central battleground and hiding place for the fighters in the civil war. It was mostly controlled by FARC guerrillas. After the 2016 peace accords went into effect, the FARC disbanded, moving into controlled de-escalation communities. But along the Naya, this left a vacuum of power, and of course the movement of drugs continues. There is a lot of money involved. Adam says that he has heard that ordinary soldiers request to be sent to this region. This is the place to make money. That may be the real reason the army is here. And behind the army, the paramilitary waits.

Finally, we are back at the boat, a new one able to go further up the river. I climb in beside Marcia’s daughter, Yasmin, in the front row, the bumpiest place. The green jungle walls climb higher and higher on either side of us, as the river gets both shallower and narrower. A couple of lime-green iguanas scuttle into the brush. There’s no more sun to burn us—it’s rumbling and cloudy up in the darkening heavens. Occasional single wooden houses jut up on stilts, and every once in a while, another Humanitarian Zone, with its big vinyl sign declaring it to be a weapons-free area, exclusively for civilian use. There are children running along the shore, people in impossibly skinny dugout canoes, standing or sitting, and others leaning on the window frames of the houses. Everyone waves, on the water and on the land.

The boat sways and swoops. On one riverbend intersection we come across, incredibly, my friend Isabelino, who had given me a sip of the sacred drink when we were in Brazil. We wave and laugh, and then our boats charge off like horses to gallop in opposite directions. The boat drones. I’m not sure we’ll ever get there. We haven’t seen houses for a while, when on one swoop we hear a sickening scrape and thud. Then the engine dies. Our boat turns lazily in the current and starts floating aimlessly downstream. Where will we stop? Sometimes it’s better not to ask anything and just encomendarse (hand yourself over) to God.

Our able boatman manages to get us into one quiet lull on the river’s edge and then another. Going backwards, we come to a house high on the riverbank. He calls up. A gruff answer comes down. Then a man appears with a rifle of some sort. Shouting, suspicion back and forth. It looks like he won’t help. Are we going to have to float down further? But then, it seems, peace has been made. The man on the shore disappears, comes back and down to our boat. He has a thin white wire. The motor is raised out of the water. I hold my breath and look around. Everyone seems relaxed. Then we all cheer as the engine putt putts. We’re off again.

The going is tenuous, with the driver occasionally killing the motor. We are too heavy, and the river too shallow. Once or twice, we get out of the boat and walk along a sandbar. At one point, Alex, who’s a big man, falls into the river while exiting the boat. But there’s not one complaint, just a smiling resignation at riding the rest of the way in his wet jeans.

Rain rushes down. Tarps appear from the boat’s storage, and we wrap them around ourselves. I tuck the end in around Yasmin. She’s shivering. I take off my sunscreen shirt and wrap it around her, and then the tarp, and then my arm holding it all in place. Then it happens: I love her. This little girl, who has the bravest mother: Marcia, who has traveled to Spain and to the States, who has seen and touched and laughed at snow, who has macheted her way through every rock planted on her path, a rural Colombian Indigenous woman with no recognized rights. Her sheer will is making things happen.

At every bend in the river Enrique drapes himself off the bow of the boat, holding tight to an oar, and measures for depth. For a long time, it is announced that Las Conchas is 15 minutes away, just around the next corner, until, at last, half of us are dumped onto a sandbar while the boat makes its final push to the community. Then comes back for the others. It is dark, and the rain is torrential. We were supposed to arrive at noon, and now it’s seven in the evening. In all the boat trip took almost nine hours.

We shake our feathers out in a dry little house on stilts. Baby Kaila, who didn’t cry once during the trip, and her mother are welcomed joyously, and Kaila disappears into the arms of one auntie and then another, and then through a series of cousins, or sisters and brothers. Her mother rests after the long ride. Nidiria sits and laughs with her old friends. The WOLA people talk softly with our hosts.

At last we make our way in the dark, in the rain, up a walkway that has become a stream, to a school. We sit at the small desks, and the room fills up. Someone jerry-rigs a lightbulb and a microphone to a cord which goes out the window to a generator somewhere. More neighbours come. The room is packed. People stand thick along the outside of the barred windows.

Before we talk, a smaller group of men and women gather in front of the classroom, to drum, to sing. How could I ever describe this sound, not even music, exactly? How could I, with my thin-white-Nordic blood, ever say anything at all about what this drumming and singing means? Something so ancient, so holy, so filled with sorrow and resistance, struggle and survival of 15-20 generations from the capture of their ancestors in Africa. If this isn’t Resurrection, I don’t know what is. The shaking, the lament, the song of determination fills the room, fills the hearts and souls of everyone present, pressing us all into a bonded commitment, a kind of vow that can never be broken. When they finish at long last, I don’t know what else needs to be said. The woman leading the singing says one thing: “This is a song of gratitude, and welcome. Thank you.” I lower my head. My eyes burn.

But of course, there is more to be said. One person after another speaks a part of the story. Adam types away on his computer, which came upriver sealed in a freezer-size Ziploc bag.

On April 17th, three men, brothers Hermes Angulo Zamora and Obdulio Angulo Zamora and their cousin, Simeón Olave Angulo, disappeared from somewhere along the river. After they failed to return, community members searched up and down the waterways. They reported the disappearance to government officials in Buenaventura. Tensions continued to climb. A third brother, Iber Angulo Zamora, was increasingly threatened. Support was again demanded from the departmental capital.

At last, on May 5th, a commission from the Human Rights Ombudsman office came to escort Iber out of the region. On the water they were confronted by armed men in a boat, who pulled Iber into their possession and sped away. Later, the four disappeared men were found executed.

Fears are high that the army is using these murders as an excuse to move in and take over the region. And right behind them, the paramilitaries. The river is, some community leaders say, already surrounded by the army, who have no regard for the communities’ ways of practicing vigilance. Nidiria points out that for more than 300 years Afro-descendant communities have defended and conserved the river and the earth. There is hope for increased unity between Afro and Indigenous people of the Naya.

There is some debate around small-time coca farmers, up and down the river. These farmers have never become wealthy but have served as a source for the raw coca leaves. Coca farmers are trapped. They have few other options. The government promised to help with new crops, and thousands of farmers signed contracts stating that they will no longer plant coca. But as usual, those getting shafted are the already poor. There has been no meaningful support for the transition, and in the meantime, the power struggle to control the coca trade ratchets up, with farmers trapped in the middle.

The discussion carries on for hours. Lollipops and chocolate cookies are distributed at some point. Finally the gathering comes to an end. I sit up quickly when Enrique asks if I might pray with the community.

“Of course,” I say. How to pray here in this place, with these people, what can I possibly say? Thank God for the Holy Spirit who always gives the words to speak. I think, well, why not start the prayer like I start every prayer. Not sure if it will work here.

“El Señor sea con ustedes,” I say.

“Y con tu espíritu,” comes thundering back, more people than I can count.

And so, in the dim flickering light, in the pouring rain, in a schoolhouse in Las Conchas I close my eyes and we pray.


It rains all night in Las Conchas. There’s not a sound in the little dry house, except for a dog—there’s always a dog. Bark. Bark. Bark. But I sleep completely senseless, wiped out from so much travelling, listening, until the first roosters crack the morning chorus.

We are up with the first light. We eat soda crackers and drink hot, sweet coffee. Then we go back down the river, so much faster than the day before. The shallow areas from yesterday have filled in with last night’s rain. It’s still blustery and even cold, especially in the fast boat. Marcia and I make a Yasmin sandwich, and we wrap ourselves all up in tarps. There are children in school uniforms in the thin canoas, standing up and pushing along the river’s edge. Today’s the first day of school, after holidays, and they are heading to the nearest classroom. Yasmin whispers to me, “We have school today too.” I have no idea how far we still have to go downriver. Go, boat, go!

We arrive in San Francisco. No sign of the soldiers. We change boats and float down past the giant Jesus frozen in eternal blessing.

Before long we spy Joaquincito. It’s still morning, about 9 o’clock. Marcia, Yasmin and I disembark, climb the wooden stairs. The WOLA folks and the Comisión people wave and push off. About a month, Adam yells over the motor, until they’ll have their official WOLA report on the Naya River. We duck under the low roof and step in—suddenly we’re in the Casa Grande. It is dark, cool. I imagine it full of people for ceremonies and meetings.

So, here I am. Now what? Surrender, open, trust, love. Plutarco comes out to greet us. He’s the head of the community. Later I find out he’s Marcia’s older brother and the community health promoter.

Joaquincito is the Resguardo, the reserve of the Eperara community of the lower Naya River. There are about a hundred Indigenous nations all over Colombia, settled from the lowland rivers that head west to the Pacific, or north to the Caribbean, or east to join the great Amazon, to the highlands that meet the mountains and the edge of the Andes. In Joaquincito there are 42 households, mostly Indigenous, with just a few Afro or Mestizo families blended in. Along the river there are far more Afro-descendant settlements, 30 times as many as Indigenous communities.

Marcia leads me to the other side of the Casa Grande, through a wooden kitchen with a fire pit rigged up on cement blocks with a sand base. There’s the biggest cooking pot I’ve ever seen—upside down now. That must feed everybody.

“We just had a big feast,” says Marcia. “Five days ago.”

We shimmy down a treacherously (for me) damp wooden ladder, across some soft planks, then up onto a long, cement platform, about three feet above the wet ground.

“That’s the bridge,” says Marcia. “We fought years for that. Blood was spilt for it.” The bridge stretches out along the front of the houses. Each house reaches the bridge with a simple plank. Drainage canals carve into the land, which is often underwater depending on the level of the river, which floods with heavy rain and the sway of the ocean’s tide.

We go down two, three, four houses to Plutarco’s place.

“We’ll stay next door, with my mother,” says Marcia. “But it’s more comfortable here.” We slip inside. “I’ll get breakfast.”

I meet Plutarco’s wife, Paula. There are piles of kids, Plutarco and Paula’s children, Paula Andrea, Paulo Andres, Junior and little Ingrid. And Marcia’s son, Alejandro. Then comes Marcia’s mother up the plank, carrying two full, sloshing pails of water from the river. She nods a greeting to me and snaps a few words in Siapidara.

I sit in a chair at a small table. Marcia has disappeared through a door and left me with the kids. They are taking turns swinging in a hammock. Ingrid, who is one and a bit, stares at me with a look of suspicion as she moves from sister’s hip to cousin’s arms, then back again. Who’s this woman, say her fierce undisguised eyes.

Marcia comes back in a bit with a plate piled with food—just for me. Yikes. Four boiled green bananas, a hill of rice and a piece of rich pink pork. “That’s from the feast,” she says. “My brother smoked it. It takes a long time, but it lasts then for a good while, about a week.” Of course. There’s no refrigeration here, only electricity once in a while with an expensive generator.

Dear Lord, I’m in Rio Naya bacon heaven! Who knew that pork could be this delicious? Greasy and meaty and smoky. The green bananas are starchy and bland, perfect with a piece of bacon embedded.

While I’m finishing up a great fuss is going on in the house across from me—later I find out it’s the general store, which enjoys the only constant electricity, provided by a large solar panel. We head out to see. José de la Cruz has hunted an animal in the night, and now it’s coming to be weighed, and sold, I presume. I ask what it is, and get “rabbit” and “wild pig” as answers. The beast is now headless, so I can’t really tell. Not by looking at its little trotters. A sharp thin knife carves it into pieces.

After this, Marcia calls me to go back to the Casa Grande. There’s going to be a community meeting—a chance for me to get to know more people. We gather in the cool dark space. We sit on wide platform benches, men, many women, and many more children. Plutarco greets me officially. I say thank you, and then I listen.

Arturo, the school teacher, speaks first: “We are one of 102 different nations in what is now called Colombia. After the Spanish invasion we were called savages, then we were called, pejoratively, “minors” or infants. In 1991 there were reforms to the national law and we were recognized as nations, and the Afro-descendant communities were as well. We lived in peace. Then in 2001 we suffered the terrible internal displacement. We fled to Buenaventura, to other rivers, and no one helped us. We returned, and we know our rights, but so far that is just on paper. In 1989 the limits of our Reserve were defined, then in 2005 they were extended. There has been some disagreement with the Afro-community, but there has been a lot of work on building unity. The government owes us a lot, and we have received barely anything. Now, for example, they are saying something ridiculous: We own the land, as Indigenous people, but the government owns what’s under the land. That makes no sense to us.”

Oh dear, I think. The mining companies are already hovering here. Possibly Canadian. Beware.

Then Inez speaks: “I am the head of the Women’s Association. We have had a lot of troubles. The government promised us support, but nothing at all has arrived. Then there were the fumigations. We lost everything: even our seeds. We had yams and yucca, sugarcane and plantains. We lost most of it. The earth no longer yields much. We’ve had to go further and further into the forest, away from the village.”

Norberta speaks: “We don’t want mining or any such thing. We haven’t asked for much, but we haven’t received anything at all. We need a health centre, a school, decent housing. We’ve had no support since the displacement in 2001. We have insisted that there be dialogue. We are tired after 52 years of war. Our young people don’t want war. We live in paradise here. We have taken care of this place, we have looked after our own. They don’t want to admit that the military are here, and the paramilitaries, but we know that they are around. This is a Reserve, not a Humanitarian Zone like they have up the river. But this is a weapons-free zone too. Twice the army has arrived in the community, and twice the community has chased them off. All the Naya River has been in resistance. We have been fighting for 527 years, with our own culture, language and art. The last straw was the fumigations in 2012 and 2013.”

Cecilia agrees: “Everything was lost. The earth herself got sick. Our food supplies have diminished. Our pineapple, for example. And we live in fear. We built our Sacred Big House in 1991, and we have been saying forever: Mother Earth is not to be destroyed, not our forests. This is the very heart, soul, strength of the Earth. We are the only Indigenous community on the lower Naya, and we have been fighting militarization and big companies. And now they are threatening to fumigate again.”

The meeting goes on until many have spoken. I feel like I’m starting to get a sense of the story. Just a taste.

Marcia invites me to go back to the house. They are going to carry on in meeting. I am exhausted. I need a nap. I think fondly of the hammock as I negotiate my way up the slippery plank to Plutarco’s house. But what do I find? Ingrid is sleeping in the hammock, across its soft width, a perfect little bundle. I am embarrassed at how grouchy I feel: here I am uncomfortable and tired—and jealous of a baby!

Marcia is away in the Casa Grande for a long time. I’m glad she doesn’t feel like she has to entertain me constantly. I sit and read my book by the Andean theologian Victor Bascopé, the man who showed me how to make coca leaf tea and how to chew coca leaves when I was in Ecuador. He had told me about how hard it was to research the detailed story of the invasion of the Spaniards. The murder of so many leaders, both named and those now forgotten, and so many others. The treasures that were stolen, and much, much worse, the theft, destruction, attempted annihilation of Andean cosmology.

“When I look at the rocks making up the walls and churches and colonial buildings I just cry,” says Victor. “Each stone is an ancestor.”

I am reading about the nosebleed-high Andes, and I am here in the warm always-wet lowlands. The people and stories are linked, though not the same, of course. The invasion narratives of the Spanish, the Portuguese, the English and the French have common threads. For King, for Queen, for Church.

At last, Marcia’s back from the meeting. They aren’t going to Buenaventura tomorrow after all. Not until Wednesday. I can go with them. Marcia’s worried that I haven’t had lunch. I’m stuffed, I reassure her. She’s trying so hard to help me, to guess what I need. I am still figuring out how to be here. Mostly I try not to be a nuisance. Whatever may be uncomfortable or different or not the way I would do it. Forget it! Receive everything. I am filled with gratitude.

We go to the sacred river. Yasmin comes, and little Paula joins us. Everyone jumps into the river. Even though we’re in the warm equatorial waters, I have to ease myself in, down the worn ladder. The water is brown and slow and cool. Once I’m in, the river seems wide and endless. We splash and play. Marcia washes herself, and then a tub of clothes, while sitting on a low wooden step. The girls pretend to be sharks, and they do cartwheels from the soft bank into the water. They are like baby otters, twisting and splashing and smiling. They find a canoa, and they paddle around and around. They convince me to get in, and around we go, laughing without walls of any kind.

This river is holy. It is the artery of the whole body, the means by which people here live. It is where they bathe and wash and pull water for everyday things. It is their means of travel and their source of fish. The river changes, with the tides and the cycles of the moon and the rains.

“Naya Tooja.” Sacred River Naya, Marcia whispers. “Cho nara weda tooja beda.” No human hand could have ever made this river. No human hands dug the channels or made the turns. We float, and more than that: we are carried.


It rains all night again, and I sleep in Marcia’s bed—without Marcia—with the mosquito netting all tucked in around in the absolute dark, in the absolute silence, but for the roosters that set one another off, then call down the row at three, four, five in the morning. By five or six o’clock, I know, everyone will be getting up. There was one single shattering of thunder last night—I didn’t see the schism of lightning. It was after we were in bed around nine and it seemed to crack the wooden houses with the power of its sound. Yasmin began to cry. Her mother’s soft words pulled her back into sleep, to comfort, to shelter.

Again, I wonder what I can do, what I can say? It takes so much energy to host me, to welcome me, to worry about me, to make space for me. Would it be better if I did something in a different way? Why am I here? Of course, I am not the Great White Saviour. But is there some part of me that wants to be? I have nothing to offer but my self. Marcia is clear, and she has shared with others: Emilie doesn’t come to bring projects or money.

Yet there is something about me being here—for me, and for the community. What does it mean that someone sees, someone notices, someone listens? For them and for me. I lie and think and toss a little. The rain comes down in steady soft waves along the roof. In a while, it is not quite as dark as it used to be.

At last it is five or so, and we get up. The day starts. Children are sleepy, still staying close to home, and to mothers. The women go into the wet side of the house. I am starting to figure it out. The front of the house is the ‘dry’ part. Here people sleep, sometimes in a separate room walled off, and in the back is where the cooking and washing happens, in a room still up on stilts. The back food-area is divided too, the preparing side and the washing part—where dishes and fish, root vegetables and even babies are rinsed and scrubbed—and then out on the very edge a fire on a bed of sand and stone. The back area opens to the sides and the bright green everywhere of growing things. This room is where the action is, at least in the daytime. Grandmas and mothers and aunties and kids gather here. Another hammock and a few small stools are occupied, so I sit on the floor. I like it better here than on my own on the other side of the wooden wall, where I spent the afternoon reading yesterday. Plutarco comes in with a mess of fish, and Marcia’s peeling green bananas. For now, we drink sweet hot coffee and eat soda crackers while the fish get cleaned.

I’m starting to understand food here now too. All meals seem to be a starch and a protein. Starches so far have been yucca, taro, purple yams, and green banana. The first three, and the last too sometimes, are prepared boiled. Twice we have the bananas fried, once whole, and once squashed into disks, patacones. The proteins we eat are best bacon ever, eggs, lots of fish, boiled or fried, beans, and once, chicken—but we’ll get to that part later. Everything is so good. Then there’s the fruit: sugarcane (peeled, sucked and chewed, spitting the hard, twiggy part out), green coconuts (drinking the fresh water first, then eating the thin, slippery bits inside after cracking open with a machete), guanabana, grenadilla, cherimoya, pitaya (weird yellow blobby thing with black spots, mushy white and melting inside), lulo (only for juice), papaya, maracuya (passion fruit? eat together with crunchy seeds), bacao which I thought was cacao, and is indeed a relative (very strong smell and taste, bitter crossed with sour, inedible for me—I give it to happy, receiving children), bananas and plantains, which I only see cooked and green, and my favourite: zapote—pumpkin orange, sweet and slimy, with two fat, long, slippery brown seeds. The zapote is given to me as I walk along the raised cement platform by a young man rushing by with two of them. He stops and turns when he sees me, and hands me one of his treasures.

The fruit is all gift. People come by the house to deliver or call me into their house across the wooden plank. I receive everything, try everything, like everything (except the bacao).

Doña Cecilia particularly likes to come by. She talks to me, and she asks me questions. She invites me to her house. “My house is really clean,” she says, and she shows me around the yard, back a bit from the cement platform and along another platform, this one made of wood. Her yard is a little bit drier—at least for now—as it is farther from the slow, mud-brown river that rises up every twenty days or so and floods under the closer houses. She shows me where she has a raised compost pile. She shows me her flowers, her fruit trees and her medicinal herbs—she and her husband, Bejerano, are healers. “This one is for stomach upset, this for headache, this for (mal de) ojo, this for sadness.” She takes me—and a whole handful of children—up a narrow path that leads even farther away from the river. We should have gumboots, she says, eyeing my flip-flops skeptically. We wander up the squashy path until it is apparent that it just won’t work. The earth is too soft. I am ankle deep in mud. Further up, she points, we have our plantings, the yams, and papas chinas (taro). She tells me more about how terrible it has been since the fumigations.

The Colombian government, with the full support of the USA and its ‘war on drugs,’ has engaged in extensive spraying for years. The chemical defoliant, glyphosate—the main toxic component in Monsanto’s Roundup—was repeatedly sprayed in aerial raids on coca plants and—according to residents of the Naya River basin—everything else: food crops, houses, animals and even people. In 2015 the government promised to stop fumigations by airplane after the World Health Organization declared that glyphosate was a proven carcinogen. However, the threat of resumed spraying remains, the latest possibility being drones to deliver the poison.

“So many things have just dried up,” says Doña Cecilia, sadly. “No pineapple at all. Nothing is growing in some areas.” People have told me of strange diseases not known in these regions before. Marcia’s mother had to endure the choppy boat ride to Buenaventura and have a large tumour removed from her neck.

Don Bejerano shows me his carvings: a sweet little turtle, a bird, and a gorgeous walking stick carved with a couple of birds, and just below the handle, a man, holding a staff of his own and a mochila, a woven bag.

Doña Cecilia worries at the fire and brings me my first fried fish of the day—crispy with salt sizzled right through. I pick at it and eat it delicately, saving on the side bones thinner than a needle. Her grandson comes by, and Doña Cecilia sends him up a palm tree to get us a couple of fresh coconuts. He sheds his shoes and shimmies up fast, but stops about two-thirds of the way up. He yells something down to his grandma, then scoots down quickly.

“There’s a new wasp’s nest up there!” they explain to me, laughing. We’ll have to wait for our drinks.

As we share stories—I tell them about my red-headed grandson and my black shaggy dog—I can feel the threads begin to connect us. Doña Cecilia tells me about her son, who died, about how heartbreaking and constant is her desolation. Once, she says, a long time ago, she tried to live somewhere else; her husband is from the Chocó region, but she could never get used to not being on the Naya. She tells me her story of the displacement in 2001.

It was further up the river, in the Afro communities where the worst violence took place. By various estimates, between 40 and 130 civilians were killed over a few days, many brutally. Bodies were dissected with a chainsaw. Quickly, the information flew down the river: leave, now, get out. Most everyone did. It was a massive exodus of boats, big and small. Some went into the town of Puerto Merizalde to stay with family, many went into hiding along quieter branches of the river. And others went all the way to Buenaventura. The whole river was drained of people. Doña Cecilia says that at first they refused to go. But at last Doña Cecilia, Don Bejerano, and their children climbed onto a boat. They made it downriver, to a branch along the mangroves where they hid for five days.

Then they decided to go back, no matter what. Five families returned to Joaquincito together. They stayed in one house, afraid of the paramilitaries, who were hunting up and down the river. They stayed and ate what they could.

“The worst thing was listening to the dogs and the chickens die. We had nothing to feed them, and almost everyone had gone. They didn’t have time to take their animals. The animals cried and cried from the pangs of hunger, and finally they died. The Sisters (from the order of Mother Laura) heard we were starving and brought us a little bit of food, dried rice and beans. We held out for a few weeks, but in the end, we had to travel down to the city, to Buenaventura, where for two years we lived as refugees.”

We sit quietly together. I am thinking about the recent murders on the river, the ongoing deaths, the attacks on leaders of all social organizations. Back at the conference in Medellin, we named and prayed for the over three hundred Colombian community leaders murdered since the signing of the Peace Accords, two years ago.

We sit and then I go back with the flock of children to Plutarco’s house. We eat more fried fish, soft and salty, which never seems to be too filling. Marcia’s sister-in-law drops by, with a young woman—her daughter-in-law—and her brand-new baby grandson. We chat, and I hold the baby, and then, when it seems polite, hand him back to his mother. The women consult for a while in Siapidara. I smile nicely. Marcia comes up to me and asks me quietly, “They want you to baptize the baby.”

My heart thuds. What to do? How can I be both pastoral and stay within the bounds of acceptable church practice? I know I can do the former and don’t always trust myself with the latter.

The only important question in this instant is: What would be of assistance to this family? What do they need? I don’t worry about correctness within the church, but do I care about being honest with this family. Baptism is a mark of belonging. Of course, all creation, and every creature, especially this perfect little one with dark hair and black eyes, lying in my arms, is loved, adored, treasured by his family—and by the One who made us all. Baptism is a way we humans turn and shout yes back to God.

There is no priest or pastor who ever visits this community. And me? I am, now, a friend. I say yes, let’s bless the baby! Let’s get some water. They bring me clean water, from the big jugs of filtered water left for me by the prepared WOLA people. We pour a bowlful. We gather around, the children and the women. I hold little Liam Mejia. We pray together. May the Creator of Heaven and Earth ever hold you close, little one. May you flourish in love, in this place. May you grow to the fullness of your life. May you play in this river for many, many years. May the fruit be abundant. May the pineapples return.

In my heart I pray that the wolves of greed and violence that surround this community may be held at bay. I pray that the Naya won’t be invisible to the world. That the Afro communities standing for their right to live, to flourish, may be allowed to exist as signs of the bursting through of justice. And that the Indigenous communities may be left to practice their knowledge, their time-out-of-mind knowing of things that matter. So many things that we have forgotten. And I pray that we—the rich, the north—can turn our hearts away from greed and towards love for all creation.

Liam is asleep. He moves and stretches a little as the water pours off of his head, onto the wooden floor, through the cracks, and back to the water below.

Earlier in the day, as I peered out of the wooden morning window and out along the cement walkway, I saw a woman carrying two unfortunate upside-down chickens. They seemed to have given up, no squawking was happening as their tails pointed to the sky. Uh no, I thought. Too much. Has Marcia asked for them to be brought to me here? I am being a nuisance. I nodded as the woman approached, then sighed in relief as she walked by our plank, down one, two, three doors, and up to another house.

But now, after our blessing, I’m told that there is a chicken soup coming back to Plutarco’s house. The chickens were killed to celebrate this impromptu baptism. I am served a big bowl. Liam sleeps and we eat.

Later I spy his mother with a whole group of young women and men out on a raised platform playing soccer with a squashed, wet ball. Every few minutes the ball flies off into the mud and the water on the ground. Then it starts raining. No one stops playing, laughing, shouting, and the game goes on until the sun hovers over the western bank of the river.

Just before it sinks into the jungle trees, Marcia and I go along the cement platform, then along the wooden walkway to the holy river, to her most holy river, her cho nara weda tooja beda, her ancestral river, made by no human hands. Here we sit and dangle our feet into the warm water. Tomorrow, before dawn, we will be going out to the open sea, through waves rolling bigger than our boat, to Buenaventura—one of the most dangerous cities in Colombia—she with Plutarco to settle things, to fight with the state, me to catch a bus back to the Convent of Mother Laura in Medellin, and a plane back to Canada. We feel sad already. I will go with my heart made bigger, my life somehow different. Marcia—who knows why she reached out to me, what she saw, what she sees?

It doesn’t matter. This is how two women become friends.


This essay was written in 2019-2021. Since my visit I have had steady, if laconic, exchanges with Marcia. Sea changes have happened in her life, and in Colombia. In January 2020 Marcia welcomed a new baby, with her husband, Colombian Indigenous activist, Wilson Poirama. In June 2022, Marcia began advanced studies at the Pontifical University in Medellin.

Marcia writes, “Agradecer primero a mi dios por darme una oportunidad de vivir y también a mis amigo internacinale que me ayudaron para mí salud y esa es la razón de vivir en este planeta tierra, agradecer a mi esposo wilson poirama por apoyar mis metas, mis carrera profesional, en todas mis proyecion, tambien familiares como hermano, hermanas, mi madre querida, mis hijos gracias a todos asi puedo avanzar nueva mente encontrar en la universidad”

Translation: “First of all, I would like to thank my god for giving me an opportunity to live and also my international friends who helped me with my health (crisis), and that is the reason for living on this planet Earth; I would like to thank my husband Wilson Poirama for supporting my goals, my professional career, in all my plans, also relatives like my brother, sisters, my dear mother, my children; thanks to all so I can advance again in the university.”

There are hopeful changes at the national level as well. In August 2022, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla and the ex-mayor of Bogotá and, thrillingly, Francia Márquez were inaugurated as President and Vice-President of Colombia. Márquez, an Afro-descendant woman from Cauca, a renowned and beloved community leader and anti-mining activist, has invited her countrypeople to join her in living a “vida sabrosa”, a life with flavor, a life with dignity, joy and power. Popular movements are gathering strength.

Adam and Gimena from the Washington Office on Latin America have kept their eyes on the Colombian story, especially watching and reporting on the risks and triumphs of local community leaders. Here is their fine article summarizing the current context.

I plan to visit Marcia in March 2023, as part of the gathering of the Óscar Romero International Christian Network in Solidarity with the Peoples of Latin America (SICSAL).

A River Dance: Cauvery in Crisis

In my childhood, I remember whispering the names under my breath, determined to ward off my family’s amusement by pronouncing them precisely: Tiruchirappalli and Thanjavur, Dindigul and Erode, Coimbatore and Chidambaram. These were the cities of my summer vacations, where I visited relatives, temples, and sights throughout the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Occasionally in view as we traveled by car and train was Cauvery, South India’s third-largest river, bisecting Tamil Nadu roughly west to east. My father would point out her drying riverbeds and then explain water cycles and drought and the timing of monsoons. After sweltering hours on the road, I wasn’t particularly receptive to his facts and figures. Nevertheless, I listened groggily as he reminisced about the Cauvery of his own childhood, her waters ample and clear, and as he worried for her future.

Now, decades later, Cauvery’s crisis conditions have accelerated from pressing to dire. With so many Indian cities losing groundwater at an alarming rate—and indeed, predicted to lose it entirely at any moment—their governments increasingly turn to Cauvery’s river water, extracting it with pumps, collecting it in tanks, and then transporting it to clamoring crowds.

As groundwater drains, the water table falls below river levels—which means Cauvery now feeds the groundwater, too, like a mother pouring her attention wherever she’s called. But as climate change alters monsoon patterns, Cauvery herself is barely fed and never replenished.

As I hear of the worsening droughts, of the increasing desperation and displacement, it’s particularly harrowing to learn which cities in the Cauvery basin are approaching Day Zero, when all the taps run dry. Some are those I visited throughout my childhood, the cities where family members live at the front lines.

A wide rectangular room anchored my grandparents’ home in the city of Karur and accommodated most household activities, even eating and sleeping. As a child, a major source of my amusement was cartwheeling from one end of this room to the other, where the narrow passage to the kitchen and bathroom commenced.

At that entryway stood a tiny sink with an equally miniscule faucet—everyone’s first stop for morning ablutions, specifically, toothbrushing. I still remember my mother’s scolding when I accidentally let the water run while brushing, as well my relatives’ look of shock at my wanton disregard. I learned that two or three quick fistfuls of water from the tap were considered sufficient for a rinse and eventually mastered those motions. But my irritation—and shame—lingered.

At the time, I didn’t consider the possible reasons for the tight management and careful husbanding of household water—I only felt the inconvenience. I struggled to get my long hair fully washed with the allotted two buckets of bath water. Sitting on a short stool, I used a small chombu to pour the water over my head; it took me a week or so to get the knack of maximizing its coverage.

During summers of drought, I sometimes had to draw my bathwater from a storage well at the side of the bathroom. During those droughts, the thick wall of this storage well was lined with larger chombus, used to catch extra water whenever the taps were running. That captured water would be used later for washing clothes or cleaning the household.

Even in a clean and well-maintained home like my grandparents’, the stored water containers attracted the dengue-spreading Aedes mosquito species, which hospitalized me at age seven. The stored water itself also presented challenges, often tasting a bit strange and even altering the flavor of the food cooked in it.

My grandparents’ home was comfortably outfitted by community standards, with an attached groundwater well, some pipes, and a few sinks. Unlike other families, we did not have to fetch water from elsewhere. With attentive management, there was enough with which to cook, wash, and to transport in stainless steel thermoses when we traveled—after, of course, it had been thoroughly boiled, filtered, and cooled.

At a certain point during my summer vacations, one vision sustained me: returning home to America, filling a tall glass with ice, then adding water straight from the tap. I dreamed of that brimming liquid and my first frosty gulp and the sweet taste.

Just a few more weeks, I’d tell myself.

As a child learning Bharath Natyam, a classical dance form native to South India, I was discouraged at times by the notoriously rigorous physical training. I knew, though, if I bided my time, I’d eventually cross the bridge from nritta (physical steps) to nrithya (facial expressions), and finally, to what I longed for: natya (drama). At its heart, Bharath Natyam is a storytelling tradition, and I longed to be the one dancing those stories.

The stories were those I’d learned from my parents and grandparents, from books and Sunday School lessons—compelling tales of sages, warriors, kings. Later, in high school and college, I enjoyed researching these stories further, digging into their philosophical and spiritual dimensions, and then watching as expert dancers communicated those more esoteric aspects.

For example, a physically skilled dancer might accurately execute Shiva’s signature tandava dance—but could she demonstrate how it symbolized the ever-pulsing circle of creation and destruction? An expressive dancer might easily portray a woman’s assiduous search for her beloved—but could she evoke the soul’s longing to merge with Oneness?

When I could see and understand what a dancer truly meant to convey, it felt exciting and revelatory, like a flash of light.

At a 2019 Isha Foundation fundraiser for Cauvery Calling, a massive river revitalization effort, I watched a set of dances relating well-known tales of the woman named Cauvery, the wife of a renowned sage, who accepted the task of irrigating South India. At one point during the evening, the featured dancer told the story of another river, the Ganga, whose connection to India’s history and mythology is as deeply rooted as Cauvery’s. Though I’d heard many versions of Ganga’s story, my skin prickled at this particular interpretation of the old tale:

Humanity needed Ganga’s sacred waters on the Earth, and she was ordered to descend there from heaven. Angered by the order, Ganga planned to sweep the Earth away in a furious torrent. Appealed to for assistance, Shiva, the divine ascetic and yogi, caught Ganga as she descended in the thickly matted locks of his hair, where she remains now, eternally entangled. She is released only gradually, reliably, and sustainably for humanity’s survival.

Locks. Entanglement. Sustainable release. In the context of the event and the information being shared there, I understood what the dancer wanted to tell me.

I saw that flash of light.

In the last few generations, forests flanking Indian rivers have been cleared for a variety of reasons, for example to follow non-traditional agricultural methods. For millennia, those forests produced thick, interlocking networks of roots and topsoil, which trapped water in the earth. That water was released gradually, feeding the river continuously and sustainably. The dense tree cover resulted in transpiration, drawing rainfall, and acting as another source of water for the river. The river never dried, and, due to the tightly-woven root networks, the monsoons couldn’t wash away all of the nutrient-rich topsoil.

Encoded in the dance was this age-old wisdom. Shiva’s locks represent the underground root-soil networks. Ganga’s capture represents the sustainable release of water and preservation of topsoil. This is a story of the structures and cycles holding the water in our rivers. It’s a story of the natural world in balance.

It is estimated that Indian land has supported agriculture for at least 10,000 years. However, over only the last few generations, the availability and nutritional value of its soil has plummeted due to climate change factors and the recent “Green Revolution” that encouraged farmers to abandon traditional crops, deploy chemical fertilizers, and plant high-yield seeds.

Lacking adequate water and nutrient-rich soil to produce crops, and now trapped in debt and despair, Indian farmers are committing suicide at a shocking rate—some sources estimate 60,000 suicides over the last three decades. This desperation has prompted responsive measures such as the Cauvery Calling campaign, an alliance of scientists, universities, associations, and government bodies.

Soil health is deeply connected to river health, and as such, soil depletion results in river depletion. Cauvery Calling is implementing a large-scale intervention, planting a kilometer-width of trees on both sides of the Cauvery, over her full length, in order to build up organic material in the soil, increase water percolation into the river, and promote water retention within the river. Farmers enrolled in the program are gradually diversifying to fruit tree-based agriculture and are receiving educational and moral support during the entire period of transition.

There is an old saying in the Tamil language: even if the rains fail, Cauvery will never fail. Sayings like these are now subject to question. Within a few generations, 10,000 years of traditional agriculture have come undone. Within a few generations, rivers that flowed for millennia have drained, and the forests that sustained nutrient-rich topsoil have been depleted.

It is now predicted that 25 percent of India will turn to desert. I find it unimaginable that this land I visited regularly, bursting with plants and insects, exploding with color and fragrance, overflowing with fruits and flowers, could lose its ability to support life—unimaginable that its teeming soil could turn to sand.

As this desertification advances, I wonder whether the erstwhile profession of water divination—the detection of drinkable water by examining local vegetation—might revive. The ancient sage Sarasvata composed a geo-botanical guide to prospect for groundwater based upon micro-environmental ecology, noting how, for example, the presence of a date palm near jujube and piu trees pointed to water, as did certain ficus varietals in proximity to one another. Later, in the 6th century C.E., Varahamihira built upon this work, listing 120 plants serving as groundwater indicators. Though such guides may possess less relevance due to irreparably damaged and altered landscapes, I suspect that the people drawn to this profession, being instinctively tuned to the natural world, will adapt.

I met such a figure recently, not in India, but in Santa Cruz, California. She was not a water diviner, but rather a forager who searched for edible foods among the grasses, weeds, and trees in the area.

When my husband and I began our hike with her, I found it difficult to concentrate, thinking of the wildfires that had raged in the area during the previous week, imagining another spark reigniting the landscape. But I slowly tuned in as the forager shared how to identify edible plants and explained which leaves and nuts and berries we could touch and eat. Each time, before placing an item in her mouth, she closed her eyes for a moment in gratitude to the land around her, the source of the food she consumed.

Though we hiked in a parched and dusty area, at one point we crossed into a clearing, its air fresh and cool. A pond rippled at our feet, inviting us to bend and touch the ground, to place our hands in the water.

I wished I could send myself backward in time to stop the car in India that held my child-self. I wished I could place her hands in the water, too. I’d ask her to feel Cauvery nourish the land, to look deeply into her waters.

I’d beg that child to ignore her various inconveniences. I’d ask her to stop worrying about pronunciations, to stop reciting city names, and instead to list all that the flowing water fed: Soil and Clouds, Leaves and Roots, Bodies and Cells.

Though I wouldn’t want to spoil her moment of communion, I’d feel obligated to warn her of the times to come, and to urge her to fight for the water, for her life, for the earth.


1. Das, Krishna N. and Shyamantha Asoken. “A Quarter of India’s Land Is Turning into Desert”. Nature Publishing Group. 18 June 2014.

2. Isha Foundation. “Cauvery Calling”.

3. Kumar-Rao, Arati. “India’s water crisis could be helped by better building, planning”. National Geographic Society. 15 July 2019.

4. Safi, Michael. “Suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers linked to climate change, study claims”. Guardian Media Group. 31 July 2017.

5. Salopek, Paul. “India is in a historic water crisis. Will diverting 30 rivers solve it?” National Geographic Society. 6 March 2019.

6. Zwerdling, Daniel. “‘Green Revolution’ trapping its farmers in debt.” Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 14 April 2009.

Facebook Event: Run into the Category 5 Winds of a Woman Pretending to be a Hurricane

Line up your cars, drive to the storm post-evacuation

7 pm. September 10th. The Keys.


Grab your guitar and serenade the hurricane with Wonderwall

8 p.m. September 10th. Daytona Beach.


Buy the hurricane a drink; ask if she’s from Tennessee.

9 p.m. September 10th. Miami-Dade.


Give the hurricane your number and ask her for sexts.

9:15 p.m. Haha, then what? 🙂


Ask permission to touch her cheekbones, trigger

eye socket replacement, kick sand in her hair when

she says no.

10 p.m. Location TBD.


Mock her double eyewall, drink laughter like salt water.

11 p.m. Downtown Orlando, in a building.


Fold her in half, make her an oblong joke, don’t take

her serious.

Midnight. All 67 counties in the state.


Discover her foundations are thicker than your tongue.

Get mad she knows her strength.

1 a.m. The Panhandle.


Bury mines along the beach. She’s just a storm. Who


2:00 a.m. Tampa Bay Area.


She won’t feel anything as she tastes rooftops and gets

shingles and plywood stuck between her teeth

3:00 a.m. Polk County.


She won’t feel anything. A storm’s pain doesn’t matter.

4:00 a.m. Downtown Tallahassee.


Watch as she writhes on the ground, trying to organize

while men in weather coats probe her with cameras.

5:00 a.m. The Calm Before.


Massage her scalp, soft like baby hairs as she digs

her nails into your power lines. She steals all your power

because you’ve stripped her winds, naked.

 ! Your event cannot have too many characters !


You refused to be pragmatic then beat the clouds for

their destruction.

6:00 a.m. The State Border. All Clear.

A Predatory Transience

This is your reservation reminder from Palmetto Kayak Adventure Tours. Your four-hour self-guided tour is scheduled for today, 1–5pm. Reply 1 to confirm, 2 to cancel. Hope to see you soon!


The text is waiting when I wake up. White letters stark against the black text box. I don’t bother looking at the number. I’ve made no such reservation, nor the one for Lowcountry Marsh Tours that I was sent on last year, or Saltmarsh Wanderings the year before that. The origin of the texts remains untraceable, and I’ve had some smart people looking.

The first time, I thought I’d won a giveaway. I like to ramble down to Charleston and the Sea Islands a few times a year, spend half a day out on the water laughing with the gulls and crying in wonder at the rays and dolphins. A giveaway wasn’t too far-fetched. It wasn’t until I got where I was going that I knew why I was there. Now it’s an affirmation of faith, a call and response between me and the sea.

I text back to confirm and dress for the day. Water leggings, sports bra, and a long-sleeved sun shirt; baseball cap from a school in the northern part of the state. I’m what they call a local tourist, not quite a local, definitely not one of the out-of-state offenses the Sun Belt is forced to rely upon for revenue. Still, it’s an hour drive down to Folly Island and I have time to sit in the quiet truck and talk to myself, make sure this is what I want to do. What I still want to do. It’s not new to me. Ten years since that first text and I’ve taken over a dozen of these impromptu trips, trusting that I’m doing my small part to leave the marsh—maybe the world—better than I found it.

My friends marvel at my impulsiveness. My bravery. My joie de vivre. They can’t imagine going anywhere on their own, much less out onto the water, but I’m rarely more than a few hundred yards from shore and 80% of the water I’m on isn’t even over my head. It’s not like I’m out free climbing red rocks without a safety partner.

“Ms. McDonald?”

I’m never what they’re expecting and today less so. It’s a perfect November day and the weather is beautiful—bright blue sky, sun blade-sharp as it glints off the dark water—but there’s a storm off the coast and the breeze is fierce. I’ll be paddling into a 15mph wind and spend most of the paddle out against the tide. I don’t look like the athletic type.

Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

“Like the farmer,” I confirm with a very realistic moo-moo here. Sometimes the joke lands, sometimes it doesn’t, but the couple behind the counter is closer to my age, granola crunchy sapphics from the upstate who made their way south in the nineties and found Charleston more hospitable. Angela’s name tag boasts a rainbow flag pin not too different than the one she’s just noticed on my hat. She grins back and I add, “That’s me.”

“Gonna be a rough afternoon out there,” she warns, but she takes my credit card anyway. “But if you stick to the edges, you’ll be alright. Should be able to get a little paddling in before the wind gets worse.”

I’ve paid for four hours. I’m not coming in until it’s storming or dark, but I’m used to people underestimating me. When I was younger, when I had more to prove, it used to infuriate me. Somewhere around thirty, I realized it was a gift. By the time I turned forty, it was a miracle.

No one expects much of a round, middle-aged white woman. They suspect her even less.

Angela and I make small talk as I sign the necessary waivers and give them my emergency contacts. Her wife, Kathy, tells me to be careful. They seem a little reluctant to send me out until I show them my waterproof phone in its floaty bag. They ask if I have water and I show them my favorite insulated steel flask. It’s so big it has its own sling across my back and holds enough water for most of the day. If I have to I can use it as a bludgeoning weapon.

They don’t need to know that last part.

“There’s an old boat they beached on this little creek,” Angie says, handing me a laminated map of the King Flats Creek and its tiny tributaries. Some of the brackish waterways are so small they only really exist at high tide. “It’s full of crabs.”

“I’ll be sure to check it out.”

It’s all very up and up. They give me back my card and I head out to the landing. The salt in the air is holy, by day’s end I’ll be dusted and glittering like a sea pixie, anointed.

The Folly kid waiting with my bright red kayak is too young to be a burned-out hippy, but he’s burned out just the same. A full-time resident of the island, with long, salt-dried, sun-bleached hair that might have once been brown, skin burned and bronzed like the bottom of a biscuit. I couldn’t guess at his age; his face and hands are weathered from outdoor life. What brain cells he has left know more about the tides and marsh than I ever will.

But it doesn’t call to him.

“You’re a local right?” he asks, hope drawing a frown between his warm, brown eyes.

“Local tourist,” I admit with a smile that always disarms. “From swamp country, an hour or so north.”

We have our own tourist problem, though it’s migratory. Every spring, they come for the lakes and the golf-course weather. If there’s a polo-shirt, cleat-wearing version of me wildflower-bombing thousands of acres of pesticide-soaked bentgrass, I don’t need to know about it, but I wish her well.

“Ah.” Folly kid nods in almost approval, like he knows a little of what I’m thinking. Maybe he does. He takes a deep breath and I find myself inhaling with him, a slow toke of pungent pluff mud air. “Bit different down here.”

He likes me, feels safe around me just like most wild creatures. He smells a little sweet, like good pot and seawater. Nothing worse to him than the necessary evil of tourists.

“It is,” I agree. “But it’s nice to get out on someone else’s water every now and then.”

I’m not arrogant enough to think myself at home here. This isn’t my land. It’s not even the land of my people. Some of my people stole it from the Kussoe centuries ago. I’m an interloper. An occasional predator necessary to the ecosystem, but neither resident nor invasive.

He nods again, sagely, points with his chin at the rough, rippling water. “Too salty here for snakes or alligators.”

It’s mostly true. They’re what biologists call transient species. Animals who only spend part of their lives in the marsh. Alligators are as rare as I am; the daily commuters are dolphins, rays, and small sharks. Each drawn into the intertidal area by the promise of calm water and good hunting.

Local tourists, like me.

“It’ll be a little rough getting across,” he says. He’s worried about the currents too. The river is wide here, a dark reflection of autumn sky. Clouds may gather like omens a few miles southeast, but the way the weather wavers, it’s unlikely I’ll see rain.

I zip on my life vest just to make him feel better and assure him that I have been kayaking before. He gives me the same speech he gives everyone, marks a couple of points of interest on the map with a wet fingertip, including the crab boat.

“Just stick to the edge,” he says, finally. “Tide’ll be with you on the way back, make the return a whole lot easier.”

He pushes my boat half out into the water, and waits for me to get settled. I take my time, storing my water bottle out of the way, clipping my floaty-bag to a bungee by my seat. I have a multi-tool in my waist pouch and a mesh bag for litter. There’s always something out there that shouldn’t be.


It’s been a rough two years, pandemic and all that, and this is my first trip beyond my own swamp in eighteen months. I brace myself, mentally and physically, for the send-off. I’m not a small woman, and part of me still expects to be too big, too heavy for something as simple and finite as the laws of buoyancy. I don’t know why—except cultural conditioning—it’s not like I’m close to the kayak’s weight limit, but it’s hard being a woman who takes up space.

Fat. I know we’re supposed to be reclaiming that word, giving it the neutral value it’s supposed to have, but it’s never been neutral to me. Maybe if I were a whale or a seal or a manatee. Maybe if fat was something you had instead of something you are.

I tug on my gloves and pick up my paddle. “Ready.”

On the water, I’m just another round marine creature. I’m heavy, but I’m strong. My body has never failed to do what I want or need it to. That’s all the water cares about. If it cares at all. Bigger and stronger than I get lost beneath its surface every day. Having come back from drowning twice as a child, I’m acutely aware of this. I still get a cold skitter down my spine whenever I cross deep, dark water. Doesn’t matter how many times I manage it safely. There’s only one wrong breath between us and oblivion.

The Folly kid was right; it’s rough crossing the widest part of the river. It’s deep water, permanent. I look both ways before I start to cross, a mostly useless habit out here. The big boats stick to the center, and most run a low wake, but not all. It’s not like a kayaker is fast enough to get out of the way. We rely on common courtesy, the laws—both written and not—of water etiquette.

Across the water, miles of Spartina grass wave, green and gilded and filled with the surf-sounding tumble of a brisk sea wind. The water along the edge is calm as promised, and I’m halfway across when an offshore fishing boat goes zipping by too fast. Post-911 country music blares, louder than the breeze, and the tattered nylon buzz of an American flag hangs past respectful retirement on the Master Baiter’s stern. I raise my paddle and let the waves push me roughly toward the bank. Assholes. Serve them right if it’s them that I’m here for, but there’s no use worrying about that yet.

The kayak bottoms out, a soft bump then a harsh grate as the tough plastic scrapes against oyster shells clustered in the shallows. I wait for the water to calm again, for the smell of diesel exhaust to sweep past me and vanish, before I push back off, paddle digging into the muddy bank. A handful of long-legged oystercatchers dash along beside me, footprints disappearing in the damp sand, bright red bills flashing amid grey-shelled oysters. They’re not bothered by the assholes; maybe I shouldn’t be either.

Not yet.

My paddling form is terrible, clunky. Doesn’t matter how often I come. My arms are short or I’m clumsy. Maybe both. I don’t know. I just know practice hasn’t cured me. But the wildlife never seems to mind. I know it’s partly because they’re accustomed to worse than me, but I like to think they know I’m no threat to them, that they welcome me among them. I paddle ahead of the birds and grab my phone, snap photos as the wind pushes me back. A scoop of pelicans swoop low in front of me and I get their pictures as well before I lose too much momentum. Then it’s back to balancing, staying close enough to the bank that I don’t have to fight the wind, but not so close that I’m bottoming out every dozen yards.

I might not be getting my steps in, but I’m getting my workout. At least I’m not sweaty. Soaked through from wind and sub-par paddling form, but not sweaty. I love being out here. Surrounded by water, sky, and marsh. The entire day is blue-white and golden, a perfect mid-seventies. Overhead a red-tailed hawk circles. Tiny birds dart through the cordgrass, marsh wrens and saltmarsh sparrows, nibbling on grass seeds and insects.

Every time I check my map or stop for water, I drift back. I’ve kayaked before but nothing like this. The marsh is usually peaceful as a warm bath, and I’ve never really bemoaned my poor paddling form, but I’m regretting it today, even as I’m grateful to have remembered my gloves. My first time out I went home with blisters and that was on water as smooth as glass.

The grass opens up on my left, the small tributary with the promised crab boat. It’s not quite the halfway point of my four hours, but I’m tired enough to take the respite. The wind doesn’t roar here, it sighs, and so do I, letting as much of the last year go as I can. I take a selfie with a great blue heron who seems utterly unconcerned with my presence, post it and a few other pictures to the ‘gram. Establishing a timeline. An alibi.

Perfect fall day on the water!


As promised, just around a bend, a derelict fishing boat has been overturned and run aground. Repurposed as a crab habitat, its sun-scoured, barnacle-covered surface swarms with orange-fisted fiddler crabs, claws raised in warning as my shadow falls too close. I salute the intrepid arthropods and paddle past, bank my kayak and take a few more photos, then a water break in the quiet. The sun is nap-warm and my arms are just starting to get tired. I toy with the idea of hiding here for what little is left of the afternoon, but there’s work waiting for me.

A chip wrapper flashes silver from the bank. Beside it lies a plastic milk jug and a tangled knot of fishing line the size of my fist. The fishing line is the worst, but that silver flashes like a lure to more than me out here. I use my paddle to drag the rubbish to the edge of my kayak, throw one leg off the other side to balance as I lean down to pick it up. The water’s cold this late in the season, and even knowing the bottom is only inches beneath my dangling foot, I feel the silty truth of my own vulnerability. I distract myself with a few curses for all litterbugs and head back out.

The tide turns as I reach the widest part of the creek. It’s deep water here, and the storm current is strong, pushing me back the way I’ve come even as the leaving tide pulls me forward. I fight along with the water, because it’s not in me not to, because there is a single crystalline moment when it’s just me and the water and the wind and I am both insignificantly small and cosmically stubborn. Immortal, ephemeral. My entire being surrendering to the frantic pursuit of perseverance, ultimately going nowhere.

I hate it, but I am still paddling.

I have a moment to doubt, a moment to wonder if the marsh really chose me or if my descent into madness was the inevitable product of growing up in a late-stage capitalist hellscape, consuming too many Disney Princess movies and 90s environmentalist cartoons. What makes me any different than the white kids deep-diving into far-right radicalism on Youtube?

An hour before sunset, the marsh grass shadows stretch long, dark reflections in the unquiet water. The Atlantic is just a song away; the salt in the air thickens. Last time I was here, my sister and I turned back about a quarter-mile before King Flats merges with Folly and Oak Island creeks, but I’ve never been this far out alone. A pair of osprey crisscross above me, hunting cries all but lost in the wind, and even though I’m expecting them, I startle when the first bonnethead shark bumps the bottom of my boat.

“You’re late,” I accuse, as if there is any timeline but that of the marsh.

The second little shark swipes the side of my kayak, movements reminiscent of herding dogs. Soon there are a dozen swimming close to the surface, avoiding my paddle with enviable agility. Bonnethead sharks aren’t big enough to threaten people, even if they wanted to, which they don’t. They’re the smallest of the hammerheads—in hammer and in length—tending around three to four feet long and traveling in schools of twelve to fifteen. Omnivores, if you can imagine. They’re the only sharks we know of whose diet consists equally of plants. They forage into the marsh because they like swimming along the bottom of shallow water, grazing on sea lettuce and crustaceans.

I take a deep breath, my doubts sinking to the bottom like so much detritus. It won’t be long now. Longest it’s ever taken from pick up to target is ten minutes. I lift my paddle from the water and let the bonnetheads bump and nudge and push the nose of my kayak in the direction they want me going. Nothing about my escort is natural. They’re not false-smiling bottle-nosed dolphins charming boaters with swim-bys and strand feedings.

Whatever time is left, I spend preparing: turning off my phone, making sure it’s safely secured in the kayak. I take a few gulps of water. No matter how often we do this my throat always gets dry. My shirt is salt-crusted, lips wind-chapped. I’d be sunburned if I didn’t insist on an unreasonable SPF. I check the fit of my gloves, flex salt from the creases. My arms feel like jelly and my feet have pressed to the pegs for so long, I can’t tell what my legs are doing. That’s pretty normal, especially after a long time sitting in the boat. When I finally get back to the landing, Folly kid will tell me to go slow getting up and he’ll hover, not wanting a customer to land on their ass.

A curved fin breaks the water beside me, and my heart leaps free of its fears as a pair of dolphins breach gently, grey sides slick with watercolor sunset. They cross in front of my kayak and then something heavier than a bonnethead bumps beneath my seat. What makes me different from those radicalized kids? They do. An unnatural alliance. Sharks, dolphins, and the raptors overhead. Disparate species gathering together, water and wildlife willing me on their way.

Whatever my reluctance, it’s lost in exaltation. We make the last deep bend of King Flats Creek. Ahead is Folly Creek, then a half-mile farther the Atlantic. The Master Baiter is anchored in the confluence of the three creeks, and yes, I’m glad it’s them. The water is dark, filled with the sky’s reflection, but there’s something floating like oil just below all that sky. As I draw closer to the boat, I can see that it’s blood.

It’s legal to chum in South Carolina; it’s a standard fishing practice. There are certain restrictions around certain beaches, but I’ve never bothered learning them. I don’t care about what’s legal, I only care about what’s right. Here, in this quiet sanctuary, it is defilement. Sacrilege. I pick up my paddle, stick one end forward on my right and cut hard to port.

They’re “shark fishing.” The kind of nonsense that leaves hooks in mouths and bullet wound scars on heads, backs, and sides. We’re supposed to leave nothing behind, but some people think that the only way to be remembered is to leave a scar upon the earth. They’re always the same. White men with too much or too little money. Ignorant of all but their own entitlement. I don’t need to have the first fin brought to my attention, but whatever brought me out here wants to be sure of my investment, I guess. One of the dolphins swims up alongside, eye lifted out of the water, a dark certainty in the meeting of our gaze. The fin in her mouth is small, cut clean, not torn or ripped like any non-human might manage.

The Master Baiter looms with laughter and loud music. Three figures move along the deck, but they haven’t noticed me. It’s impossible to hear the gunshots over the wind, but the creatures around my boat recoil with every shot, and the kayak seems to reverberate with fear and anger and my own trembling rage. When my bow brushes the side of the boat, the sharks and dolphins dive. I don’t see the darker shadow that follows, but I can feel it, a low quiet rising from the deep water like a promise.

They’re too busy taking turns shooting into the water to notice me. I grab a line and tether my kayak to the ladder on the side of the boat. By the time they realize they’re not alone, I’m onboard, leaning back against the rail, situation and targets assessed.

Early twenties. Gym muscles and soft hands. Beach blonde hair growing out from hundred-dollar haircuts. Perfect teeth, expensive sunglasses. They’re not kids; they’re grown-ass men languishing too long under the protective banner of boys. Their parents have summer homes in places like Beaufort and Isle of Palms and Frogmore Isle, but they like to come to the marshes and cosplay the local rednecks in cut-up Dirty Crab t-shirts of buxom cartoon girls covered in double entendres.

“I called ahoy,” I lie with a nod back to my kayak. The boat smells like beer and blood and fish guts and there’s a red, white, and jingoist anthem twanging from the stereo. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but cruelty has its own cadence. There’s no doubt about why I’m here. “Water was getting rough. Y’all mind if I tie up for a few minutes, get my second wind?”

They glance back and forth between each other. The one holding the gun—it’s a 9mm Glock; I can’t even—tucks it into the back waistband of jeans he bought already ripped to hell.

“Naw.” His accent is bad, either a part of the south I’m not from or something he picked up on those faux southern reality shows, the ones that wouldn’t know a real southern accent if it blessed their fucking hearts. “We’re just doing a little fishing.”

He pulls at the brim of his trucker hat. I can’t tell if he’s trying to tip it at me politely or if he’s just nervous. I can’t see his eyes, but I don’t need to. He realizes he’s caught. He just doesn’t know what net he’s in.

“Water’s rough for fishing,” I say as his buddies fall back to flank him. They’re just out of arm’s reach, but that’s okay. I’ve nearly got my legs back.

The other two aren’t nervous. They’ve done nothing wrong and they’re used to being the most important people in any given room. The guy with the gun, well, he’s a little squirmy, wondering how much I saw, how much trouble I can get him in. He’s been in trouble for stupid shit before. I don’t know this for certain, but I recognize the type. Daddy’s important or wants to be; Junior keeps costing him money and reputation with the cover-ups.

“S’posed to calm down this evening,” says one of Junior’s buddies. He’s got blood and offal on the hem of his t-shirt, and I avoid looking at the mess on deck. It’s clear they’ve never cleaned a fish before; they’re not fishing for food or even sport. They just want to kill something. “Hoping to get a good haul tonight.”

Junior can’t decide what to do with his hands. He crosses his arms in front of his chest. Uncrosses them. I don’t say anything about the gun; I already know it’s mine. Just as soon as he turns his back to me. Whether that’s before or after one of his buddies hits the water is all that remains to be seen.

I just want to kill something too.

“Not really the ideal spot for shark fishing,” I say lightly. They could shrug it off if they wanted to, but they’re not the type to take criticism from a woman who isn’t their momma or their unfortunate girlfriend.

“It is if you put enough bait out.” Junior laughs, and I decide I’m going to leave him for last.

I don’t answer. Instead, I make a show of stretching. When a fat woman does anything active, people tend to look away or stare in judgment. They turn back to the rail, and I’m instantly forgotten as the third one leans too far over, reaching down toward the water.

“Chad, on your right!” Bloody Hem says excitedly.

I get close enough to see that he has a bangstick partially submerged. I’ve never seen one in action—they’re used by divers and spear-fishers as shark deterrents—and I doubt this is anything like the right way, but I’ve seen the effects of them, photographs of three-inch deep holes in the broad beautiful heads of bull sharks somehow still swimming.

Chad leans farther out, stretching, stretching . . . stretching.

It doesn’t take much. The idiot isn’t even flat-footed. He’s on his toes, leaning out as far as he can and still keep his weapon in the water. His buddies are cheering him on. When he tips face-first into the water, it takes them entirely too long to realize I pushed him. Hell, if I hadn’t grabbed Junior’s gun—easily, far too easily—they might have kept laughing, assuming Chad was shit-faced enough to lose his balance.

But I have Junior’s gun.

“What the fuck, bitch?!”

The violence simmers up on an outraged shout that is always just beneath the surface with these kinds of men. Junior takes a step towards me and I shake my head once. He should be grateful I’m not stuck using my vacuum flask.

“Shh . . . .” I don’t know if they can hear me over the wind, over the country music twanging beneath cries of the gathering gulls, but they still, gazes darting to each other like frightened baitfish.

It’s been years since I held a handgun. I’ve always preferred revolvers, at least until the gun nuts ruined that for the rest of us. I have a rifle and a shotgun at home. One for hunting, the other for scaring off coyotes or any other uninviteds too close to my house. The 9mm feels like a toy, but Bloody Hem and Junior are taking me seriously now that I have it leveled at them. I wonder how many bullets are left in the clip.

“You can’t steal my boat.” Junior has misread the situation.

I can’t help but laugh. Confusion reddens their faces.

“I don’t want your boat.” I make eye contact with Bloody Hem through his polarized shades, point toward the water with the gun, then back at him. “Go on. You can take your chances in the water or don’t. But I’ma see how many bullets you have left in three . . . two . . . .”

They stare at me in disbelief, but they jump before I get to one. I’m actually a little surprised, though I shouldn’t be. Courage is in short supply among this particular demographic. They don’t know what to do when they aren’t the ones holding the gun.

Twin splashes quickly become desperate thrashing. Just off the bow, the water writhes and churns with blood and unidentifiable voids. When I see a terrified face too close to the surface, I lean out and down, close enough that skill hardly matters. Close enough that the Glock could have been a bangstick. I put a bullet between Chad’s wide blue eyes. Now he’s bait. If there’s an afterlife or a next life or purgatory, maybe someone can teach him about irony and just deserts.

Bloody Hem screams something watery and incoherent, but he’s no fool. He’s swimming hard for the ladder at the boat’s stern. He doesn’t see the unnaturally large bull shark gliding behind him, Junior’s arm hanging out one side of her beautiful mouth.

But I do.

She’s not a real shark. With very rare exceptions, even the biggest and hungriest sharks want little to do with us. She’s something else, both more and less than the reality of a bull shark. She’s vengeance and requiem, the physical manifestation of the marsh’s need.

Junior surfaces behind her with a scream, his remaining hand clutching the bloody stump of his arm. Bloody Hem looks back and sees . . . well, he’s not sure what he sees. He’s not the kind to recognize his own end, but I make sure Junior sees me raise the gun. His buddy falls back, eyes round and mouth gaping, blood spreading bright across Dirty Crab’s Bait Shack.

Junior doesn’t suffer nearly as long as I want him to, but I need to head home. I put the last bullet in his back and toss the gun overboard. When the scavengers come to feast, I slip down the ladder, feet just above the autumn sea, waiting. The bonnet­heads and dolphins return, the little sharks feasting on the small bits of fresh bait. There’s a flash of metal at the corner of one gaping mouth, impossible to ignore. I slip out of my life jacket and into the bloody water. It’s chilly, not enough to be dangerous, but it’s not a pleasant swim. The earth is warming and so the waters are cooling from polar icecap melt. Another month and the bonnetheads may well be swimming south to warmer waters. It’s now or spring, if I even see the same ones again.

I’m never sure; I don’t always join them. Baiting is bad, even for the best reasons, like data collecting and scientific observation and what I’m doing now: pulling hooks out of lips and fishing lines off of tails with my multi-tool. The last thing wild creatures need is to get too accustomed to humans, but the reality is, they’re already tangling with us on the regular. Doing nothing feels like violence.

I tug loose one last hook from the mouth of a large female, fumble my multi-tool back into my pack with cold fingers and the jerky movements of prey that she’s polite enough to ignore. When I’m done, she glides around me, silking past me like a cat. Once, twice, three times. She presses her head up against my empty hand, shark-skin benediction scratching lightly at my glove. I would linger if I could, but this is her home, not mine. Maybe one day I’ll be another wild creature and not just their agent, but not today.

I climb back out and into my kayak, teeth chattering and shivering in the breeze. The dolphins bump me away, escort me through water painted mango-bright with Lowcountry sunset. Is that water-color reflection stained brighter red than the clouds? I can’t say, but it feels like it should be. Red skies and warnings and all of that.

When I turn my phone back on, there is a text waiting.


Thank you for adventuring with us today! We hope to see you again, but not soon.

After encountering the grey whales in El Burbujon, Laguna Ojo de Liebre

When I say I miss being with the whales,

what I mean is sitting on the panga

in a lagoon in the blue middle of nowhere.


Nothing to do but be this body,

let the other bodies come, rise

from stillness to rest beneath my palm,

the ache to take up space—


live as exclamation,

breach-bloomed in this world.


When I say I miss being with the whales,

I want water

the holiest kind of love.


What I mean is my mother carried me

into the sea, her round belly, joyful

breath giving my lungs their rhythm,

my first cry of grief

to feel myself,

an underwater creature, released

to sudden cold.


When I say I miss being with the whales,

what I mean is, who wouldn’t rather rhapsody

than longing, want the place that dreamed

them wild than the weight of the return.


Listen, some praises are ineffable.

And I may be the mermaid I say I am.


But I-less are the words

that bend us to all we cherish,

what we must bless and save.

Why We Bury Our Dead at Sea

“Does the defendant admit posting this message after the sinking of the ship Deep Power?” The prosecution lawyer looked up from his papers, directly at Kaveri. “I quote: ‘A hundred oilers nowhere near make up for even a single whale fall, but I guess it’s a start, el-oh-el’.”

My cousin, blank-faced in the dock, said, “Yes.”

The tight bun she’d made of her plaited hair was coming undone. I wanted to go to her and re-tie it. I gripped my thighs with aching fingers and waited.

It wasn’t truly an oil ship—I don’t know if any ultra-deepwater drilling ships still operate—but trawling for rare earth elements was hardly different, in her mind.

I was scared they’d ask if she believed what she wrote.

Instead, the lawyer said, “Can you elaborate on your meaning?” He must have been hired locally by the company. I can’t distinguish subtle regional variations, but knew his accent was a New Zealand one.

“Entire deep sea ecosystems were created and thrived on the nutrition from dead whales that sank to the seafloor, but in the absence of whales, I guess humans will do.”

The judge frowned.

No one I care about was particularly sad when the Deep Power sank. So much we loved was already lost beneath the sea—we had no sympathy to spare. But all of us, except Kaveri, had kept those thoughts to ourselves.

She looked thinner, as worn as her patched-up secondhand clothes, standing there alone. Her friends hadn’t come to support her. I didn’t blame them. We knew as soon as she was questioned that this would, at the very least, jeopardise her—our—climate residency. Then, the previous month, her charges were read out in this same courtroom—a rearranged hall in the International Seabed Authority’s local premises. The list started with something like ‘anti-green energy propaganda’ and ended with blowing a hole in a ship carrying ninety-seven crew members. No one wanted to risk being associated with that.

A little money did quietly appear in our bank account, enough to talk to a lawyer. They told me it was Kaveri’s bad luck that the ship hadn’t sunk in Aotearoa waters; the International Seabed Authority had its own way of handling trials, and national courts wouldn’t want to touch this case. I’d be permitted to attest to Kaveri’s good character if called as a witness, but unless they found new fragmented evidence six thousand metres underwater to prove she was involved, the outcome would largely depend on a judge’s assessment of her social media statements.

The company representative, when his turn came, spent a long minute staring at his papers. He addressed the entire courtroom, eyes darting often towards the lone reporter and their camera. “We have a chance to break free from petroleum—from a world dependent on burning the carcasses of millions-of-years-dead organisms to pollute the air—and to avert future wars centred on the resources of vulnerable nations already devastated by the effects of climate change.” He held his hands out, palms up, and lowered his voice. “The seafloor is common property; we could all be richer for sharing its wealth. Deep Power, and its crew, stood for that promise. We all believed the time of conflict minerals was past. And now, these . . . eco-terrorists have devastated that—”

He was cut off by the judge, who reminded him that no eco-terrorism had yet been proven.

I wondered if others in the courtroom saw through his evangelism, or if I was the only one on Kaveri’s side.

An old neighbour rows me back to the house, anchoring upriver at the rusted post that used to be a front gate. He says he’ll be back in a few hours and leaves me to pick through the remnants of our long-lost lives.

The blue-inked label on the cassette is an illegible smudge. Even if it hadn’t been water damaged, we must have re-recorded over it dozens of times. Nevertheless, it takes me back twenty years to that morning when I stood beneath screeching gulls, nose wrinkled as I pressed buttons at random on the video camera inherited from our great-grandmother.

That memory is so clear. It cools my heart to find something that cuts through the blur of the trial last month—the thin grey carpet, pens tapping against polished-wood tables, and stuffy summer air.

We’d collected the camera the day before, from the antique shop that repaired it and found us an old tape. My little cousin was determined to film her own documentary for school and apparently my new cellphone was an environmental travesty.

“Can we do this quickly? It stinks like rotting sewage!”

“It’s RICH NUTRIENTS that go into the OCEAN,” Kaveri replied. “Anyway, I’m ready. It’s you that should hurry up.”

“If only Chinnamma and Chiththappa had named you for a deity instead of this damned river, we might be singing at the temple right now!”

She danced barefoot, between lumpy tree-roots that bent upwards seeking air through mud. Waggled thin fingers overhead, as if to mimic their reach. “There’s a red light when you start recording.”

I finally found it.

She put on her best television voice. She’d been watching old clips of some famous British naturalist. “These ancient mangroves may not seem much at first glance, but—”

Her next words were about carbon fixing and nutrients flushed into the coastal ocean. The beauty of the mangroves. I noticed that her leggings were covered in mud, and somehow she’d managed to smear it on her hair. I contemplated how to prevent her dirtying the car: whether we should just leave it there and trek home through the muck, or find clean water to rinse off. I thought of how we could have gone to a zoo to film lions from a pristine concrete walkway, or visited beautiful plants in the botanical gardens full of fragrances that aimed to please the human nose. By the time we’d found crabs and oysters, or whatever she was looking for, and she’d told the camera how mangroves slowed climate change and protected us from storm surges, gloopy sediment clung to my legs too, and we had run out of tape.

“Ah well, the marks are just for the essay,” she said, trailing a toe through silt sodden with the rising tide. I wondered why she’d needed me at all, but only briefly. The smell had faded into the background as we searched for animal tracks and flicked through her plant book, and I overflowed with love for her, and the joys she always introduced me to.


“Ivvalavumthana?” says the neighbour, studying the plastic cassette in my hand. He scuffs bare feet through what used to be our garden. “Isn’t there anything else?”

We both look downhill at the boat. I always hoped we would return, once I’d saved enough for the voyage, thinking we’d benefit from closure after the way we fled during the worst of the storms. I should be grateful to find anything left here to say a proper farewell to. But seeing the house only reminds me I’ve lost two homes now.

I shake my head. “Found everything salvageable. Some knick-knacks upstairs.” I tap the suitcase beside me. “Old books.”

Not the photo albums, the letters, the remnants of my family. Not her.

I keep clutching the tape.

The smell from that day down in the mangroves seems to have suffused the air here too, although nowadays it could well be from rotting sewage. Still, when I inhale, it brings with it the recollection of something else Kaveri said: “Mangroves are the lungs of the ocean.” She breathes so much life into this world.

I think of those roots straining for oxygen above the incoming tide. When the waters recede, what’s left are memories, coated in sediment and bad smells. The richness is always washed into the sea.

At Kaveri’s questioning, she said whatever came to mind, as she always had.

She talked about her work. Yes, they had seen the Deep Power and yes, she had gone for a dive nearby because she’d never seen a deep-sea miner before and yes, she was an environmentalist or she wouldn’t be volunteering to reseed coral reefs while her cousin paid the bills, would she? The prosecution lawyer asked what she knew about deep-sea mining. She talked about creatures that grew on metallic nodules that grew in the depths of the ocean. About noises and echolocation and plumes of sediment that clouded the water for kilometres. About how everything that happened on this planet was connected.

“I didn’t know the ship that sank was the same one I saw until I was ordered to come in for questioning.”

The lawyer pursed his lips before asking what I’d dreaded. Did she believe what she had written?

She folded her arms. For the first time, her voice quivered. “If things had been different, we could have still had whales.”

When I was sworn in, the judge kept telling me to talk louder. The sound sank into the humidity. It reminded me of early days here, when people kept telling me to speak up or repeat myself, correcting the way I pronounced words I’d known my whole life.

I told the court how our family had raised my cousin to care about everyone around her.

“So you agree she has a single-minded focus on wildlife preservation?”

“No, not wildlife—humans too. We’re not separate. There’s no ‘them’ and ‘us’,” I said, hands clasped tight. This couldn’t be helping her case. “Kaveri said it already. We’re part of the same ecosystem. It’s better for everyone when it’s in balance.”

She looked up at me then, eyes bright.

I told them about the river she was named for and its delta in which we grew up; the city lost to the sea centuries ago; the family we lost in the storms. “Kaveri knows loss. She wouldn’t inflict it on anyone. Even when she was a little kid, she just wanted to show the world the beauty of what was left. She used to have me film her own documentaries . . . . I wish I could show you. I had them on my phone but everything’s gone. When we came here, we had nothing except my job offer.” My shoulders ached. I seemed to have swallowed a whole lot of air, making my stomach churn. “And Kaveri wouldn’t have knowingly put our residency application at risk either. She made a thoughtless comment, and maybe she doesn’t understand how it looks, but she didn’t mean to hurt anyone, and she definitely had nothing to do with the ship sinking.”

She gazed fixedly past me at the white-painted walls.

Now everyone knew who I was, I sat at the back of the public gallery, as far as possible from relatives and friends of the crew. The reporter, adjusting their camera, was the only person with a smile for me; Kaveri didn’t turn back in my direction. And, in the end, my attempt to emphasise her naivete made little difference.

“I didn’t do it,” she said. “And I don’t celebrate death; I only celebrate that it happened where it did. The oceans we came from are our mother. We have taken life from her and left her starving, we’ve made it impossible for our siblings to live. I hope eventually we will crawl into the oceans, and re-evolve to replace what we stole. But since this cannot happen for millennia, and since this is all we can do now, why not celebrate any chance to give back? When I die, I want my body to feed the abyssal depths. Bury me in the sea, too.”


She was sent back to her cell and they wouldn’t let me talk to her. They said judgement was reserved. It could be months before a verdict. I had to take the train back up north to wait for news.

Our residency application was declined a week later.

That night, the wind blew strong and the bay glimmered in blue light. A crowd stretched along the sand flats, well after midnight, taking photos. I left off packing to join them. It seemed a good omen: microscopic life, thriving. A respite from my despair.

Several hundred long-finned pilot whales—Kaveri would remind me they’re dolphins, really—stranded in the morning, the deep red tide of the water that brought them mirroring the brightness of pōhutukawa blossom against dark leaves and blue sky.

We cooled them with towels soaked in toxic seawater, into which we’d refloat survivors when the tide returned.

Sea-salt and sweat-salt stuck to our t-shirts. Others took breaks to lather on sunscreen. The waves lapped higher.

As our dolphin gave a weak tail-flick, the person working beside me said, “I wish we could have helped. If nothing else, maybe they’ll fall to the seafloor?”

“I was thinking the same. My cousin said . . . .”

“We’ve got it from here,” said a rescue officer, approaching. “Thanks.”

The two of us turned to wade back.

“You’re Kaveri’s cousin, eh?”

“Were you at the trial?” I stopped, a low wave sloshing at my shins.

“My friend sent me the last video.” They splashed up next to me, pushing cracked sunglasses onto their forehead. “He’s been on her side from the start. I’m sorry, must be rough waiting. Though . . . she’s right, isn’t she? About giving back?”

Unwilling to dump the ruined tape, I take it back to where I’m staying, in the spare room of a stranger’s house near the Kaveri River delta. Here, I eke out what remains of our savings, seeking work that might offer me a visa back to Aotearoa. This is a new kind of loneliness—albeit an incomplete one, because every day, I receive more messages:

“I saw her testimony. I’m writing it in my will.”

“My sister runs a charter boat company and found a funeral director to team up with. They’re booked solid.”

“I’d like to interview you about Kaveri’s trial.”

“I’ve been sending that court video to everyone I know, it’s incredible.”

“Would you be able to put us in touch with your cousin?”

I can’t, because Kaveri is languishing in custody still waiting for the verdict. In the meantime, the company has launched a new forensic investigation.

But now, out here—all over the planet—we bury our dead at sea.

Lies You’ve Told About the Pacific Garbage Patch

The trash patch did not break us up. The trash patch (or vortex, I should say; it isn’t stationary, it is not an island) did not poison the way I look at you or turn your words to stinging flies. We did not get physical; we did not even throw anything. There is a whole toxic ecosystem built around the microscopic plastic particles—a spread of microorganisms feed on the waste. You live on the other side of the gulf. One potential lie is that the bacteria clean it up. One potential lie is that they spread the poisons. One definite lie is that the trash patch is okay. When the medical examiner cuts me open, my stomach will be full of soda rings, plastic threads, and shopping bags, and I will have starved to death. I don’t want to spread the poison. Let the mess stop here with me and you. It is time to call it. One lie about the pacific garbage patch is that it is the only garbage patch in our oceans. It is not. At 5,000 square kilometers, it is simply the biggest.

The Bright in the Gyre

Near the end of the last year of her projected life expectancy, Cora knows she shouldn’t be spending any moment on frivolities. Her store of oxygen tanks is depleting. Her body begins wheezing halfway up the stairs to her apartment. Every last breath in her body needs to be spent on work, on microscopes and slideshows and documentation and the full spectrum of mycelium she’s endeavored so hard to engineer.

But instead of thinking about any of this, she, like everyone else, is riveted to her newsfeed. She clings to every eddy of information.

The satellites spot them first at night: lights where there should be none, sparse enough to be mistaken for dead pixels in the ocean’s inky gut. Before long, the lights splatter into a constellation orbiting 32°N and 145°W, and those who know the significance of that migratory path are summoned to interviews that flood every social media feed.


There’s speculation, amazement, alarm. Journalists and researchers and influencers livestream their journeys by sea and sky toward the light, cameras panning across the ocean’s seemingly endless blue, and then its seemingly endless heaving crust of bags, bottles, rope. Even that far out from the coast, the currents gleam in rainbow neons from runoff. Telephoto lenses show a reusable straw jabbing skyward like an arm waving for rescue. Snap-lid plastic tubs bob like polygonal turtle shells, one of which is lifted and upturned by a reporter with a waterplane, revealing barnacles fisted underneath, alive, floating: foreshadowing.

“There are people living out here,” says the only influencer Cora follows, a girl who speaks in awe through a branded lavender nasal cannula. Self-consciously, Cora adjusts her own, and takes a steadying breath as she zooms her phone camera in on grainy, irregular silhouettes in the ocean’s distance.

Over the next weeks, the extent of the floater colony becomes clear. Boats of all models slung to rafts slung to bridges slung to shelters of all sizes, constructed of plastic bottles stuffed with salt-crusted litter and compressed into bricks. A panoply of desalination vats and solar panels bob alongside, dappled with flags, indicating the floaters’ various origins. They range from disillusioned tech heirs to typhooned refugees floated out to sea alongside the ruins of sub-sea-level cities. At night, the Gyre rekindles the ocean’s horizon, radiating gold and crimson from headlights and lanterns and bulbs on hefty rubber wire.


The monitor in the lab breakroom remains fixed on Gyre newstreams, for hatewatching.

Cora’s project manager: “Do they really think they can stay out there forever?”

One of the marketing people: “Living the material-free, zero-waste lifestyle on a luxury yacht—”

An intern, laughing, eager to fit in: All that garbage they say they hate so much—where do they think all of it is coming from, now?”

Cora feels the words whirl in her belly, coalescing into a hard, sharp knot. It swells. It hurts.

I don’t know, she wants to say. When a storm washed me out to sea as a child, I think I would have been alright ending up there.

She shuts her eyes.

Focus. Her air is too precious to waste on arguments. She adjusts her cannula, tries to calm down, stares at the news. Overhead, an influencer grimaces and laughs as she rates the output of the Gyre’s pelagic forage: slurry stewed with amphipods netted and flash-sanitized from beneath the ocean’s crusty skin, snails chopped raw with microgreens raised in a greenhousing boat, fish dried on solar-heated racks.

“Cora,” someone calls. It’s her boss. “Let’s do our dry run.”

A withdrawal. In the hallway, Cora’s boss starts talking in Tagalog.

“You’ve been spending a lot of time on Gyre news,” he says, “Cora, you need to focus on here and now,” and this time, she can’t help her protest.

“But—solar panels—mariculture—housing—”

There’s even more she wants to say: Anyone that makes it out there gets space, and everyone there is sifting the ocean clean, and it’s not just the rich, there are people like me, or people who just didn’t want to pay rent, and scientists, everyone who left the field because they couldn’t find investors but finally have the dedicated community, and actual applications—

But she can’t continue. Those first words were her limit, the only sounds that her deepest breath can inflate. She gags and coughs, and her boss lays a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.

“They’ve—done more good—than we have—in years,” Cora forces herself to spit out, and he frowns.

“Our work comes to fruition today, Cora. You’re willing to throw it all away because of a handful of—sea hippies? Cora,” he says finally, “focus,” and it’s these final words that sink into her like lead, sealing her mouth tight behind them.


So close to the end, she can’t risk being pulled off this project. The path has been so hard—convincing her boss to have a spot on his team—begging allowance to work from home during flareups—nodding her head in every meeting, holding her head up over office gossip about the tank she rolls with her on bad days. She has no illusions; even with her GPA and degrees and circlet of prestigious scholarships, she’s the kind of person a lab of this caliber and venture backing took only to improve their diversity numbers. It was challenging work—and, Luis scoffed, relentless—but her best chance at getting what she really wanted.

I want to do something with my life, she wrote on her cover letter. I want to be the last to suffer this way. I want to die in peace.

She got the job.

They review the presentation one last time; and then, later that afternoon, in front of the board of directors, Cora’s boss recites points from their slideshow flawlessly. Mycolution’s arsenal of fungi is ready for deployment. Exhaustive experiments and projections show their full set of offerings is capable of digesting over eighty percent of humanity’s most non-degradable waste products, reducing even the most ancient plastics to harmless, reasonably edible mushrooms. Observers can even see the mycelium working: engineered luminescence indicates where hyphae have detected, and are digesting, plastic-based nutrients. Cora displays the diorama on the conference table, three acrylic boxes filled with her best specimen, tweaked and optimized. Each box contains different debris collected from the beach, left with the mycelium for half a year. Someone turns off the lights, for better visibility. Threading through the waste in each box is a lacework of vivid, fervent violet.

This is by far the most impressive demonstration their lab has ever been able to yield—but no one is interested. Cora’s chest tightens as one of the board interrupts the presentation halfway through and spends the remainder of the time on interrogation. The developed fungi varieties are fine, but how would the mycelium be transported to landfills? How could companies select the proper species to digest each dump’s specific stew of pesticides and nurdles and retired polyester clothing? What appeal was there for a company to wait decades before they could advertise having made any meaningful dent on the planet’s health? The costs in time and money and effort were high—there weren’t any subsidies for technology this new—and what would be the psychological cost, of bringing back to public consciousness the existence of a bunch of evacuated wastelands that public relations companies had already successfully hidden from view?

Cora gapes. Are they . . . serious? Just because problems are hidden or take a long time to resolve don’t mean they aren’t affecting anyone. It’s exactly because of companies making decisions like this that she has had to spend her life like this, not just in pain, but just trying to—clean up

Focus, she tells herself, focus, be calm, focus, but her head is heating, and her chest is tightening, and all at once she dissolves, into coughing so harsh that she loses her balance—pitches into a wall—gasps, her breathing awful, inoutinoutinoutinoutinout.

In the end, her boss looks relieved at her struggling. It’s the perfect excuse to end the meeting.

The next day, she can’t even get up from bed. Her head spins. She fumbles herself together just enough message her boss that she’s too sick to come in, and accepts his immediate return voice call.

“I know you’re discouraged,” he says. “But the mycelium aren’t completely shelved. Let’s do the marketing research, find the money, and try again.”

I’ve already done the research, Cora types back. Her eyes are sore with it, with not sleeping, not resting. Everything they mentioned, the zero-waste certifications, the focus group branding. It takes a lot of time. More than I have left.

“None of us will ever see the fruit of our labor,” her boss argues. “All of this work is always for a future we’ll never see.” But he knows what she really means, and adds: “I don’t want to hear you sound so hopeless. This place has good coverage. You’ll live as long as anyone else. Just rest, and come back when you’re feeling better, alright?”

The way he says it, he’s forgotten that this is the only day of paid-time-off she reserves for herself shamelessly every year. She was supposed to spend her birthday in celebration of the project taking off; and in relaxation, one final breather before she dedicated herself to assembling all her documentation for whoever would inherit her work. She isn’t supposed to be shuddering nauseous on her couch—dizzy with reviewing PDFs about market and government certifications—nearly collapsing after opening the door for Luis, who arrives with birthday cake. She tries to hold herself together when the candles light, but her tears spatter on the icing. Her body squeaks, struggling to refill after she fails to blow out every candle.

I think, Cora wants to say, that this is it—but she can’t say it, her body judders, inoutinoutinoutinout, and Luis hugs her, holds her face to their chest. They understand.

In the end, Luis’s mother also hadn’t been able to blow out her candles. It all happened fast, after that.

“All I—want—is one more—year,” Cora sobs between breaths. “Just to—to know—that I—”

Luis’s arms around her tighten.

“Cora,” they say. “You’ve done all that you could. Please—please—just let go of the work. If this is really . . . you know I’ll be with you, until the end. But if this is really it . . . I can’t bear to see you spend your last days like this. You’ve done enough.”

No. She hadn’t managed even close to enough. But any protest Cora might have then is interrupted by her buzzing phone. A news alert, for the Gyre: another interview, about water purification methods they’re experimenting with. And their new coordinates, near mainland. The alert displays above her boss’s last message, a reiteration: Come back tomorrow when you’re feeling better.

Luis sees the message. “Don’t,” they say. Their voice is low with contempt. “Let’s just enjoy the time we have left. They don’t deserve your labor, much less you.”

They don’t, Cora agrees with a shake of her head. Still, she keeps looking at her phone. Her hand, shaking on her oxygen tubing, fists.

“Luis,” she says. “You—mean it? With me—until—the end?”

Luis meets her gaze, trying to understand the turn of her voice. Slowly, they nod.

“Okay,” Cora says. “Then—I think—I’ll go back.”

Just one last time.

She met Luis in the university hospital as a teen, back when no one knew the name of what was killing her. She was an orphan, a refugee of Tropical Storm Bagwis, jobless, a student. For her, and for Luis’s mother, the stipend given in exchange for their cooperation was better than nothing, and adhering to experiment protocols was well worth the hope they might one day breathe freely, rather than only in spurts, at times sucking for air like fish out of water.

Doctors barraged them with tests, and chased the symptoms around and down to their roots: the blood vessels that branched and withered over and over again in their lungs, like the boughs of trees in manic seasons. That wild growth and anti-growth was thanks to a frantic pendulum of hormones; and that was thanks to the chemicals leeched into their bloodstreams by plastics, apparently ingested in fatal levels by both Cora and Luis’s mother. They were too numerous and minuscule to extract or neutralize. Luis, who always hated seafood even when it was fried anonymously into bacalaitos, remained unaffected, though it wasn’t obvious from how they cried and hugged their mother and Cora both upon official diagnosis.

The news coined their own name for it, vulgar and catchy: trash lung. An islander’s affliction, carried by superstorm exiles along with whatever baggies of memory cards and soggy photo prints they could keep hold of, adrift, before being scooped up by rescue boats. It felt unfair that the city was where things were safe to eat, with its meat trucked in from toxic mass production facilities. It felt criminal that Cora’s poison was bangús she chose from the market alongside her mother, fried and eaten with rice, plain and simple and miasmatic with microplastics and pollution finer than fish bones, and sticking deeper in the throat.

The injustice was obvious. Luis’s mother died; and Cora picked them up from their grief, cooked food, helped parse out all the bills, now in Luis’s name. It was like the sickness had simply happened, with no one to blame: no paper trails, no culprits, and no cures. When Cora asked, the doctors told her that the funding had dried up.

“And what about us?” Cora demanded. “All us research subjects? And what about everyone else in the world that has this?”

I know you’re discouraged, was all they said. Let’s just find the money, and try again.

They told her that she had a while yet—at least until age twenty-eight. She waited, and then she didn’t. She wasn’t going to die having done nothing. She’d heard of a lab, run by someone from her same hometown, who was trying to use the earth to purify the water.

Presently, Luis searches the chat forums while she makes her final preparations.

And I found someone, they message. On a Gyre forum. Their boat can take us out to the coordinates the Gyre announced they’d be at in a week. I got the time off. Do you think you have that amount of time?

Yes, Cora responds.

There’s a pause. Luis says, And you’re sure you want to do this?

Yes, Cora repeats.

And to her own body she begs: Seven more days. That’s it.

All I want is seven more days.

All her life, she’s had to balance so much: insurance, co-pays, tuition, grants, rent, oxygen. So it’s a blessing, really, that none of that matters at all, anymore. Her life has only one last to-do item.

She heads back to work—after hours, after packing her things, and after connecting herself to a fresh tank. Despite her conviction, her hands shake. The substrate drawers rattle as she opens them—in her anxiety, she accidentally opens one against her tank roller, causing it to clank against a cabinet—and when she finally rights it, and starts to palm a bit of spore-laden substrate into a spare vial, the vial slips, and when she tries to catch it her wild hand instead smashes it.

The sound pierces, echoes. Her breathing goes into overdrive, and then stops: Inout—in. In the silence, even the sound of her blood dripping from her palm sounds like a drum. But no one comes when she tamps the soil and spores into the vials with her bleeding hand. No one comes when she slips the vials into her pockets, sock-padded to quiet the clinking. No one comes when she heads out the door. Luis picks her up at the lab’s back door, and inside the car is Peregrin, a tanned white woman with a catamaran and a wealth of optimism, who on short notice agreed to delay her departure just another day. They make introductions. At the moorage, Peregrin points at the water, which is scaly with wrappers and plastic bottles and gleams magenta in the moonlight.

“So you’ve got mushrooms that can eat this stuff?”

“Wait,” Luis says. Cora is wheezing already, with the effort of walking across the pier. In the catamaran, Peregrin helps her into a seat, and by the time they’ve made it out of the sound, Cora’s pained but steady breathing is deafened by the groan of the boat, the hiss of seafoam on the windows.

Inside her single bag is two changes of clothing, her laptop, and binder-sized substrate trays, with humidifier layers and battery-powered warming elements. Each tray is speckled with various kinds of plastic waste, and labeled according to which mycelium can digest it. It’s equipment from home, things she used in the past to continue research over the weekend. She takes a deep breath.

“Yes—they can—eat it,” Cora answers finally. “Let me—show you.”

The soil in the vials is studded with spores and fluffy hyphae that, once the lights are off, glow: purple, tangerine, cyan, neon jade. On some vials spores luminesce in whorl-shapes, stamped by Cora’s thumb. On others, there are smears blood.

Cora,” Luis gasps. “When did you cut yourself?”

“It’s nothing.” Her palm is still bleeding, even stinging, sharply—but a brief glance shows her no shards of vial glass, just a little dirt.

“It’s not nothing! Cora—”

Cora frowns at them. This is the least of my worries. But she accepts antibiotics and a bandage that Peregrin procures from a cabinet, and then returns to work, upending the vials and stirs the spores into the trays. Peregrin peers over Cora’s shoulders, impressed.

“That’s it? That dirt?”

Cora nods.

“That is so fucking cool, Cora,” Peregrin laughs. “This stuff definitely deserves to be out in the Gyre, rather than in corporate purgatory. You’re a goddamn hero. Honestly, I’m honored y’all chose me to help you. Count me in until the end.”

Thanks for helping, Cora writes. And then, not wanting to get distracted: As long these mycelium have nutrients, they’re fine anywhere. A toxic dump. An ocean.

That night, she focuses, and writes everything she can remember about mycelium, about hyphae, about enzymes, polymers, monomers. About detergents and fuel and polystyrene. About how the eventual luminescent caps can be eaten, with no adverse affect whatsoever. It’s useful—it deserves a life out there. She stays up the whole night, drawing diagrams, arranging files.

All I want, she thinks the next morning, is six more days.

“How about taking a break?” Luis asks, halfway through the next day, when she asks them to roll down another tank from her meager storage. “Just for an afternoon? Just for an hour? Just for the sunset?”

No, Cora writes. I have to focus.

So close to the end, she can’t risk this falling through the cracks, can’t risk the last moment of her life being filled with regret. Peregrin brings cut apples as Cora is writing about optimal temperature ranges. Luis brings another air tank as Cora is writing about instructions for how to mix new substrate. Cora writes and writes, and when she starts slowing down on facts, she starts adding dreams, describing training the mycelium’s fibrous body into brick-shaped molds, describing a glowing city fruiting on the ocean, stretching, chewing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch up and spitting it out as homes, or at least as floating mycelium reefs.

To actually construct something out of material like that would take years, if not decades, of course—and who knows how it would all fare long-term, in the harsh salt and sun of the Gyre—but she can see it all so clearly, which is a blessing, because if any of this ever became reality, it would be long after her death.

Which is fine, she thinks firmly, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, and she steels herself as she feels her body constrict again—inoutinoutinout.

At the end of Luis’s mother’s life, these attacks had come on so fast and close together that she’d deflated in the space of a week. Gasping, eyes watering, Cora pinches her cut thumb, comforted by the simple sharp pain of it.

All I want is five more days.

By the time the boat noses through water cloudy with polyethylene bags, Cora feels a stab of relief—We must be close! But this delight breaks as the day proceeds and the seamless blue of their journey turns murky, then blistered, with debris. A two-second dip of Peregrin’s landing net yields handfuls of waste: salt-blunted chips of white and gray and blue plastic, flakes of wave-softened styrofoam. She upends it all onto the deck, and three of them pick through it, with gloves, and morbid curiosity. For a moment Cora raises her hand and wills her fingers to drift and rest, prophetic, on something scattered by a lola or even older ancestor: maybe a family photograph storm-flung by some miracle, through decades and miles, to her possession, an omen, a sign that someone approves of how she’s chosen to live and die. But most of the stuff is slimy knots of trawling net, and tatters of fluorescent fishing rope: castoff sloughed off secretly, before it could be counted by an expense report.

Luis is somberly silent. Peregrin wipes her eyes.

“It’s different,” she murmurs. “When you see it in person.”

Cora nods, not wanting to waste air on a useless, depressed Yes. The sight of all this garbage, scabbed over the ocean and never healing, congeals in her like she sometimes imagines the plastic inside her does: not ruining her through some haywire of hormones but with something even more basic, as if the blame for her weakening body rests on crackling film and crumbling egg crates lodged between every capillary, too deep for fingers or fine instruments to wedge out. Thinking about it, she feels her chest tighten again, with a kind of claustrophobia—she scratches her skin, as if she could claw the poison inside her out—her cut palm catches on something, and bleeds anew, and the color is so wildly bright and spills so fast and for a moment she feels her chest going again, inoutinoutinoutin

When she returns to consciousness, it’s in panic.

Luis, she tries to scream, and she feels her hand, gripped. Luis is in chair beside her hammock; Peregrin is standing over, as well. Both are teary.

“Hey, girl,” Peregrin says. “How are you?”

Fine, Cora mouths. She reaches her arm out, toward her laptop, but Luis takes her hand, and squeezes it.

“Cora,” they say, “I think you’ve done enough,” and for the first time, Cora can’t find the energy to argue. She slumps.

“There are nurses in the Gyre,” Peregrin whispers. “Doctors too, maybe. You think maybe one of them could help her? I don’t know, I mean—if they could even buy her just another month, or—”

“Maybe,” Luis says, and then turns back to Cora, making a smile. “Just four more days. Hang in there, Cora. This—this isn’t how you’re supposed to go. Don’t you . . . do you want to see the Gyre? Isn’t that worth staying here for, just a glimpse of it? You have to see it. You have to see where your work will go. Don’t you?”

Their eyes are red.

I’ll try, Cora mouths, because she knows they’d only protest if she said, I’m sorry you have to watch this happen all over again. You don’t deserve this.

Luis brushes her hair. “You’ve done enough,” they say, “just rest now, just sleep,” and for the first time, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

Maybe Luis is right.

I’ve done everything I needed.

I’ve done everything I could.

I can die now, in peace—

But in the days and hours before her death, robbed of the lush distraction of work, all she can think about is how hard it is to breathe. How cold she feels, even with Peregrin’s hand-knit shawl. How her whole body aches, especially her cut hand, even her whole arm. How Luis’s mother, in her deathbed, had painkillers, and movies, and short books—but all Cora has is an ache deeper than the one in her chest, something hard and huge in her belly, something that says, This can’t happen.

I can’t die yet. I still wantall I want—

Is . . . to . . . to see the Gyre.


Just three more days. To know the mycelium made it, and then, Cora swears, I’ll die, I know it, it’ll be fine, I’ll go without complaint, and so for the first time Cora listens exactly to what Luis says, stays wrapped in the hammock, drinks Peregrin’s bone broth, tries to ignore Peregrin and Luis whispering around her in anxiety, and Cora wishes, hopes, begs.

All I want is three more days.


One, please, one.

“Cora,” Luis calls, and Peregrin says, “Cora, sweetheart, wake up, we’re all docked and locked in, I’ve got your air, let’s go,” and together they heft her out of the hammock, out of the boat, and she thrashes, violently, but Luis says, “It’s alright, Cora, I packed the mycelium up, just like you wrote, they’re here, look,” and it’s true: the trays are stacked and labeled neatly, and now there’s someone here, and they’re taking the mycelium, legs wide and careful to keep balance because, yes, they’re all on a bridge, which is floating on the water, swaying gently. All around her are lights, and boats, rising and shining in the night.

She made it.

This is it.

I got it, everything I wanted.

I can—finally I can—

But peace, a comforting blanket of triumph and private fulfillment she always imagined, doesn’t come. Instead her lungs are burning, and her body is heaving. People are around her, lifting her up, and she hears Luis’s voice, “Please, Cora, please, hang in there,” and somehow her feet move beneath her, bringing her forward, forward, with some wild animal hope, as if there might really be someplace left still for her to go, and that place turns out to be a boat heady with the smell of sanitizer. Cora gasps hideously as she is released into a cot; Luis grips her hand as someone approaches, a nurse, maybe, with a stethoscope, and Cora inhales, and inhales, and inhales, ineffectually, and knows, suddenly, that this is really, actually it. Her final moments will be spent like this, in pain, in furious misery and marrow longing and nothing at all of being glad that she did something useful with her life. Somewhere in the burning of her body, her mind is even hotter, incendiary.

I want—all I want—is—

Not just one more day.

She wants days, months, years, more, everything: her whole life, all the years she should have had left, stolen from her because she was cheaper than the unspeakable complexities of a corporation cleaning up after itself. Their extravagance stole her hometown, her body, and her future, and left her not even this last minute on earth that she could spend in anything other than excruciation.

The nurse grips Cora’s shoulders.

“You’re having a panic attack,” they say. Their voice is firm: “Close your eyes. Listen. Breathe with me, using your diaphragm, right here,” and Cora almost tries to use her precious little wisp of air to shout, You don’t know what you’re talking about, but she sees it now, finally, in the blur of her tears, the nurse’s nasal cannula, and her tank, too, and Cora mashes her palms against her eyes, aligns her breathing to the nurse’s slow count: inoutinoutin . . . out . . . in . . . out.

“See?” the nurse says, smiling warmly, and Cora—inhales. Deeply—fully. She trembles, not from exhaustion now, or cold, but startled awe. As the world starts to re-align around her, she spots Luis, and gapes.

“Look,” she gasps, purely from disbelief, and Luis says, “No. You look.”

“At what?” Cora asks. She looks at the nurse, at the faces of the others in the room, coming into focus again, all staring, at her. Peregrin is covering her mouth. Cora looks down, and notices it, finally, under her collar. Trembling, she rips off her shawl, her sweater, her shirt.

Her skin is glowing. Threading through her palm, her forearm, and up across her entire chest is a lacework of vivid, fervent violet.