The Water and the Wall

The wall looms outside Amanda’s window, its overlapping concrete segments curving into the distance like a vast serpent. It rises to the height of a four-story building and stretches to the north and south until it merges with the horizon. Three years ago when she first arrived at the refugee camp, before the water came, she couldn’t stop touching the wall. Nobody touches the wall anymore. The water’s too deep now, but at the beginning she and the other refugees pressed against the wall as if their longing could bore a hole through it. Several times a day she leaned her forehead against the pebbled concrete and listened to what sounded like the quiver of a thousand hearts imprisoned inside the wall, but was only the wind rustling in the salt marsh that used to surround the camp. The refugee camp is not a place for listening to hearts, hers or anyone else’s. Every time she touched the wall she felt herself shrink into someone harder and smaller. Because of her daughter, Tiana, she stopped touching the wall. She taught herself to look at the water and sky instead, but in her dreams the wall abrades her cheeks and drips with the tears she doesn’t cry when she’s awake.

Today for the first time in many months she looks at the wall. In an hour she’ll meet with the camp commander for a re-entry review. The last time a refugee was approved for re-entry was thirteen months ago. It’s a day when she needs to be as impervious to hope as a pebble. A crusted border of silver salt ripples across the wall just above the water line. She licks her chapped lips. In the shadow of the wall the water looks purple, like the skin of a plum. Tiana’s seven years old and has never felt a ripe plum split open beneath her teeth. Sorrow curls around Amanda’s tongue, then slides down her throat, lodging in the fluttering tissue of her lungs.

Four feet below her the water laps dark and hungry at the side of the dormitory. The cot frame creaks as Tiana crawls over and lays her head on Amanda’s thigh. Since the water rose, forcing residents to double up in the small dorm rooms, Amanda and Tiana have been sharing one narrow cot. She pulls Tiana’s thumb out of her mouth, then laces her fingers into Tiana’s small, damp ones.

“Momma.” Tiana’s chin digs into Amanda’s thigh. “Don’t look at the wall.”

The wall undulates under Amanda’s fixed gaze. It’s an optical illusion that their roommate, Layla, has told her about. Stare at the wall long enough and it starts to pulsate like a breathing animal. She imagines it writhing away into the water, imagines the water rushing into the space where the wall stood, spreading across the land to find a river that can return it to where it belongs. Tiana’s hands on her face turn her away from the wall.

“Tell me a story,” Tiana says. She pats Amanda’s cheeks, the urgency of her touch so near to a slap. “Tell me about the water. Tell me about how it’s going to wash away the wall.”

Long before their arrival at the camp, the ocean began nibbling the marsh that encircled the refugee compound, but five months ago it stopped nibbling and gulped. Two inches of amber water like under-brewed Lipton’s tea seeped out of the ground overnight. In the morning ground that had been only spongy and damp before revealed itself as glassy and opaque beneath the rising sun. The smell of ozone, like lightning, filled the air, rising off the water. Since then the water’s grown steadily deeper.

She touches the tangled, salty loops of Tiana’s hair. “Today isn’t a day for stories.”

“Under the water everything’s more beautiful,” Tiana prompts her. “Tell me about the kelp forests and the fish playing hide and seek.”

Every night Tiana swims through Amanda’s dreams, backstroking through a midnight expanse of water and sky, diving into pools of starlight, seaweed entwined in her hair. Every night Amanda clings to the wall. Slender ghost sharks, dark veins pulsing beneath their pale skin, nudge her legs in a languid invitation as she presses herself against the wall. Every night Tiana smiles as she slips beneath the water to join the sharks, disappearing into the depths of the ocean. Night after night Amanda wakes with the taste of saltwater on her lips and a throat raw with suppressed tears.

She’s relieved when the door opens, jarring the side of the cot where she and Tiana sit. In the hours since breakfast, Layla’s managed to find fingernail polish. Her glossy fuchsia nails gleam against the chipped paint on the doorframe.

“You’re not dressed.” Layla frowns at Amanda’s jeans. “I told you to borrow my dress.”

Layla has a knack for camp life. Illicit rations of cooking oil keep her face and hands soft. Her purse bulges with fistfuls of butterscotch candies and packs of spearmint gum. When the most recent platoon of soldiers started their tour of duty a few months ago they brought boxes of donated clothing. Layla plucked a silky, flowered sundress, store tags still attached, from the piles of plaid blazers and pilled sweaters. Because it was Layla, none of the other women challenged her right to claim it.

“Won’t fit me,” Amanda says. The seat of her jeans is almost worn through, but they’re hers from before. When she bought them, her life hadn’t yet cracked apart, split by the fissure that swallowed the dusty earth of her home.

“Oh, stop.” Layla grabs the dress from a box beneath her cot and drapes it around Amanda. Pink hydrangeas bloom on a creamy background. Cool silk slides across her bare arms. Tiana crawls into her lap and lays her cheek against a cluster of hydrangeas.

“You belong on the other side of the wall,” Layla says. “You deserve to be there.”

“None of us belong.” Her voice grates like the cries of the gulls that roost on the dormitory roof. “We’re the leftovers, the ones they don’t know what to do with. We’ll be here until the water covers us, washing our bones clean.”

Layla lifts Tiana from Amanda’s lap. “Honey, go find some of the other kids.”

The sharp angles of Tiana’s elbows and the fragility of her neck evoke the long-legged egrets that bobbed through the marsh before the water rose; beautiful creatures that alit in Amanda’s life, then disappeared too soon. When Tiana leaves the room without looking back at her, it feels like water rising over her head.

Layla settles onto the cot next to Amanda. “Soon they’ll have to let us all in, whether or not our applications are approved. They won’t keep us here. Have a little faith.”

“Faith in what? Humanity?” Amanda leans out the window and inhales until salt coats the inside of her mouth with the regretful, unripe taste of green olives. Above the water the stucco corner of the building is already crumbling. This is a building with light switches in rooms without light fixtures, electrical outlets that fizz with sparks, and floors that slant to meet the walls at drunken angles. Everything about it betrays its hasty construction by the lowest bidder.

“Yeah, humanity.” Layla loops her arms around Amanda. “What else is there for us to believe in?”

Little in Amanda’s life has encouraged her to believe that relying on the good will of others is a sound survival strategy, but the yeasty warmth of Layla’s body pressed against her back makes her want to try.

“A little hope won’t kill you.” Layla’s hand on her cheek turns her away from the window.

She lets herself rest her head on Layla’s shoulder. “You really think they’re going to approve all of us for re-entry?” she asks, eyes closed so she can’t see the wall.

An hour later the flowered dress swirls around her legs as she climbs out the window that’s become a door. When the water first started to rise, the soldiers bolted metal walkways to the sides of the buildings just below the second-story windows, joining the dormitories and headquarters together with a safe, dry path. Now the water has crept over the walkways.

She holds the window frame for balance as she steps into the water. For a moment its buoyancy resists her weight. When she was Tiana’s age she spent a summer watching Jesus bugs skate across the pond behind her foster family’s house. Every time she steps into the water, its hypersalinity encourages a sharp instant of belief that this time she will skim untouched across the surface, just like the Jesus bugs of her childhood. She cannot rid herself of the painful irrationality of hope.

The water closes over her foot and creeps up her ankle. The commander will tell her that her application has been approved. Or he’ll tell her it doesn’t matter—he’s taking everyone to the other side of the wall because the water has risen too high. Or the rising water will float everyone over the wall like a theme park ride, the kind that comes with life jackets and a safety guarantee. The water is only water, the wall only a surmountable obstacle. She and Tiana will find a life on the other side of the wall, emerging from this place unscathed, as if it never happened.

She splashes through the water. At the other end of the walkway she climbs through the window to emerge in the officers’ mess hall. They, too, have been forced to double up and repurpose rooms as the water has risen. A few security officers seated around a folding table in the middle of the room glance up, then return to their card game. The damp hem of the dress wilts against her legs.

“Commander’s that way,” one of them says, hooking a thumb toward the back of the room.

She finds the camp commander in a small room off the mess hall. It might once have been a supply closet, but now it’s an office. When she knocks on the open door, he rises into a polite crouch beneath the sloping ceiling. She recognizes him as the officer who smokes cigarettes on the headquarters dock at dawn.

“Call me Jake,” he says as he shakes her hand. His shirt cuff rides up to display the salt rash on his wrist.

She holds his hand a little too long, grips it a little too tightly. “Was my application approved?”

“Have a seat,” he says.

He’s still standing, his knees bent and his shoulders stooped to accommodate the low ceiling. His crew-cut bristles like the sea urchins that cluster beneath the docks. Her knees bump his desk as she sits in the rusted folding chair. What does it matter whether he’s friendly or not? The decision on her application has already been made by someone on the other side of the wall, someone who can’t see the sun blisters on her daughter’s legs, someone who doesn’t care that Tiana knows flowers only as a pattern on a hand-me-down dress and has never tasted a plum.

“It’s better if you just tell me. This is my seventh re-entry application.”

The skin around his eyes looks soft and bruised. He folds himself into his chair like his joints hurt, but she can’t feel sorry for a man who has the right to leave this place.

“Please just tell me,” she says, but she already knows. She rubs her fingers across the dress, tries to remember Layla’s warmth and certainty, but even Layla hasn’t managed to talk anyone into taking her to the other side of the wall.

“You know, there are a lot of complicating factors for refugee re-entry.” He opens the file and touches the letter on top. “A lot of records were destroyed.”

She reaches across the desk and takes the letter from him. “We regret to inform you” it begins. She makes her eyes scan across the page so that it will look like she’s reading it, but the words have dissolved into indecipherable black marks. The damp paper curves into waves beneath her fingers.

“You can re-apply,” he says. Dark, untrimmed hair lines the insides of his nostrils. He touches the papers on his desk with broad, nicotine-yellow fingertips. “Form F-9V12 lets you request—”

“A comprehensive review by a citizens committee. I know. I’ve submitted that form before. Twice.”

Sometimes it would be easier to believe that there’s nothing on the other side of the wall, that the refugees and the soldiers that guard them are the only people left in the world, but then every three months the USS North slips across the waves and a new platoon of soldiers steps off still smelling of hamburgers and gasoline. The way they stare at the wall and the endless water tells her that the world she used to know still exists in places, it’s just that she’s no longer a part of it.

“You can’t keep us here. The water’s still rising.”

A plain silver band encircles his ring finger. Somewhere on the other side of the wall there’s a person he loves. The knowledge makes him seem approachable, as if all she needs to do is find the right words to make him understand.

“There’s so few of us left here. What could it matter if you took us back with you? How are a handful of women and children a threat to anyone?”

“The US doesn’t have unlimited resources. Times are hard for everyone. We have to make sure that the people in our country have a right to be there.” He taps the file in front of him. “You don’t have birth certificates for you or your daughter.” He says it kindly, but the message is clear. He’s a rule follower and she doesn’t fit his rules.

“Everything of mine is missing. The places I’ve lived, the place where my daughter was born—they don’t exist anymore.” The town where she gave birth to Tiana was one of the first to disappear into the earth. She saw pictures on the news of the jagged chasm where the hospital used to be, the air thick with dust.

“You’ve provided no contact information for any established citizens who can sponsor you. Nobody’s come forward to corroborate your application.”

“It’s always just been Tiana and me.” Layla’s the closest she’s come to having family in a long time. “Resubmit the application as it is. No changes. I have nothing to add.”

Jake reaches for the ink pad and stamp at the corner of his desk. The creases of his shirt are wilting in the damp air. He rolls the stamp in red ink, presses it to the top page of her application, then holds up the paper so she can see that he’s stamped it “urgent.”

“It’s the best I can do,” he says.

“My daughter’s been at this camp for almost half of her life. Tiana’s seven. Her whole life is in a single building. And the water keeps rising.” Her belief in the possibility of him ushering everyone in the camp onto the deck of the supply boat is so strong that it feels like a memory of something that’s already happened. She can see herself sitting on the deck, Tiana at her side, the boat churning along in the lee of the wall until they come to a place where there’s no more wall.

Jake thumps his stamp in the red ink again and inks the duplicate copy of her application. “I have a daughter, too. Emily. She’s four years old.”

She imagines a preschooler with his long jaw and thick eyebrows, living the life she’d wanted for her own daughter. “You could take us all with you at the end of your rotation. Every person in this camp. Load us onto your troop ship and drop us off on the other side of the wall.”

“Look, there are problems on the other side of the wall, too.” His voice is gentle. “The storms are bad everywhere. There are worse places than this camp, you know. At least here you’re fed. Looked after. At taxpayer expense.”

Salt burns her foot where her wet sneaker has chafed the skin. Even in this windowless closet, she can feel the looming presence of the wall. When Jake’s rotation ends in a few months, he’ll wear the same unconscious look of relief on his face that all the soldiers do when they leave. She closes her eyes to help herself remember how to talk to someone who has the right to leave this place, but the wall is there behind her eyelids.

When she opens her eyes, Jake’s wrestling with a desk drawer swollen in its frame. He takes out a chocolate bar wrapped in foil and pushes it across the desk toward her.

“Here,” he says, “for your daughter.”

She doesn’t want it. How many chocolate bars will he hand out so that he can travel home at the end of his tour of duty and kiss his wife and daughter, believing that he’s a good person?

“Go on, take it.” He tosses the chocolate bar into her lap.

If she’s nice enough, maybe he’ll change his mind. She hates the part of herself that believes this might be true, the part of herself that’s afraid to be angry. “My daughter loves chocolate,” she says. “Thank you.”

“Mine too,” he says. She can see that he believes in her gratitude. The floor rocks, as if the building is shifting on its foundation. A pen slides across his desk and he catches it before it falls to the floor.

“Nothing to worry about,” he says. “Just a little subsidence.”

She puts the chocolate into her pocket. It’s only a few ounces, but it weights her steps as she leaves his office, reminding her of all the things she can’t give her daughter: ice cream cones and playgrounds, air that doesn’t taste of salt, a future. Her legs feel almost too heavy to lift her over the windowsill and into the water.

Clusters of bivalves encrust the sides of the ramp. A trace of algae furs the metal panels beneath her feet. Quarter-sized jellyfish float in the dark water, trailing poisonous tentacles. The wall looms above her. High tide is still half an hour away, but already the water covers the tide line on the wall.

After the water swallowed the first floor of the refugees’ dormitory with its common area and kitchen facilities, the soldiers knocked out the walls between three bedrooms on the second floor. It’s a place to feel less alone. Even though her borrowed dress is soaked to mid-thigh, Amanda goes there instead of her bedroom.

The sound of Layla’s voice floats through the open window. Amanda climbs out onto the dock that runs the length of the building. On the ocean side of the dormitory the wall’s just a shadow unless you crane your neck to see it rising into the sky above the dormitory. Layla’s telling a story to some of the other women, hands gesturing. Their laughter blends with the squalling of the birds wheeling above them. None of them notice Amanda standing by the window.

Tiana’s alone at the other end of the dock, stretched out on her belly. As Amanda walks over, Tiana wriggles forward, cantilevering herself over the water. She’s humming the lullaby that Amanda sang her to sleep with when she was a baby. The water creeps up her wrists to her elbows, then higher. Amanda watches the water engulf Tiana’s arms. A school of silver fish no bigger than a thumbnail eddies around the dock like chain mail flashing in the sunlight, then disappears beneath. Tiana lowers her face until the water touches her lips. Her hair floats in mermaid tendrils on the surface of the water.

“Don’t,” Amanda says, her voice squeezed thin with fear. The air tastes like tears.

“Look, Momma.” Tiana touches a barnacle clinging beneath the water line. It closes at her touch, tightening into a gray rosebud. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?”

The words release Amanda from her paralysis. She falls to her knees and snatches Tiana into her arms. “It’s not pretty,” she says before she slaps her hard enough to leave a white handprint across her cheek.

It’s the first time she’s ever hit her daughter.

Startled tears turn Tiana’s eyes glassy. Her fingers drip seawater onto her shirt as she puts her thumb in her mouth.

“It’s not pretty,” Amanda repeats. The second time she hits Tiana she’s had time to think about what she’s doing and she does it anyway. The second time she hits her it’s because even the sting of her hand on her daughter’s cheek won’t change anything, but there’s nothing else she can do. The force of her slap knocks Tiana off her lap onto the dock. She’s horrified by what she’s done and she wants to hit her again, and then Layla’s there.

“Shhh,” Layla says. She puts her arms around Amanda and Amanda realizes that Layla’s crying. Her own face is dry. “Shhh,” Layla says again as she reaches to gather Tiana into her embrace. “Your momma didn’t mean to hit you.” Maybe Layla even believes that, but Amanda knows what she’s done and knows exactly how much she meant it. When Layla explores the welt on Tiana’s face with careful fingers, Amanda’s as aware of the texture of her daughter’s skin, the heat of bruised flesh, as if it were her own fingers.

“It’s going to be okay,” Layla says, but she’s crying hard enough to hiccup. “We’ll all get to the other side of the wall. Soon.”

Amanda’s anger is like lemon juice on metal, corrosive and sharp. She pulls away from Layla. The chocolate bar in her pocket bumps her upper thigh.

“Look what I’ve got for you,” she says. She holds the chocolate up in front of Tiana’s face. Tiana’s eyelids have swollen from the tears she’s holding back. She’s sucking her thumb, wet hair plastered to her neck.

“You love chocolate,” Amanda coaxes, hating herself. After a moment Tiana reaches for the chocolate. Amanda wants to tell her not to take it, but she drops the chocolate into Tiana’s hand.

The dock bobs up and down with a rhythm like a heartbeat. Where the shadow of the wall ends, the water sparkles like an ad for a Caribbean vacation. When they first arrived at the camp, a strip of yellowing grass edged the sidewalk between the buildings. After the water rose, refracted sunlight transformed the grass into glowing gold beneath the water. The saltwater killed the grass within a few days, but first it made the dying grass beautiful.

That night after Layla has fallen asleep and Tiana has been still for so long on their shared cot that Amanda believes she’s the only one in the room still awake, Tiana turns and burrows her face into Amanda’s neck. “I saved you some,” Tiana whispers.

Foil rustles and then Tiana presses a square of chocolate into Amanda’s hand. Sorrow wells up in her as vast and inescapable as the water that’s swallowing their refugee camp. “You have it, sweetie. The chocolate’s for you.” She finds Tiana’s hand in the darkness and wraps her fingers around the chocolate.

“I didn’t mean to make you mad,” Tiana says. “I only wanted to see what the world looked like under the water.”

“Under the water everything’s more beautiful,” Amanda whispers. “Right beneath us in the hall where you used to run, glittering blue mackerel swarm. The water foams white with the flicker of their tails. If you touched one, its scales would feel like velvet.”

Tiana sighs and snuggles closer. The building rocks with the lullaby of the ocean.

“Pink and purple anemones lodge in the crevices of abandoned furniture.” Amanda lays her cheek against Tiana’s hair and inhales the smell of brine clinging to the curls. “Hermit crabs with legs the color of rubies scuttle across the bathroom tiles. A spiny pufferfish peeks out of the cupboard where you played hide and seek. Silver air bubbles cling to its spikes like beads on a wedding dress.”

It’s a bedtime story without a happy ending. “Do you still have that chocolate?” Amanda asks. She opens her mouth and lets Tiana feed her the square of chocolate. It melts on her tongue, chalky and bitter beneath the sweetness. She can’t make herself swallow. The chocolate pools in the back of her mouth. The wall is only a darker part of the night outside her window.

Tiana’s breath is even, her body heavy and relaxed. Finally Amanda does the thing that she’s known she will have to do since the moment she opened her mouth and allowed Tiana to place the chocolate on her tongue. When she can no longer bear the feel of it in her mouth, when the bitterness has overwhelmed any residual sweetness, she swallows, because there is no other possible choice.

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E. M. Wright

E. M. Wright’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Berkeley Fiction Review, The South Carolina Review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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