H L Nelson
Before the great flood, I was a religious scholar. I knew about catastrophes, about human frailty, about God's tests. Now we are floating, as we do every day. Myself and seven children, in this rickety boat. I've lost two since it began. They became sick after the flood. After temperatures increased and water covered the city, the country. Sick after the orphanage was full of water, after the water rose above its roof and I saw them all, perched there, and took them with me.
Scientists had predicted it would take a hundred years before everything was underwater. They were mistaken. Our entire country was inundated within six months. The two sick children retched blood at the end. I couldn't tell what was wrong. I wrapped them in blankets and floated their bodies into the sea while the other children wept. Now, four more are sick. I don't trust this sickness. And I don't know what to do.
Every day now, we float around the village. I fashion fishing poles so we can catch fish that have survived the acidic water. At first, we saw large fish, eels, crabs bobbing on the water's surface. I didn't want the children to eat dead meat and I didn't trust the cause of death, so we let those float by, be picked off by stronger fish. Now, the fish are so small and few, the children cry from hunger. I do my best, but my best is not good enough. Their hunger tests my faith. I feel if we can't get into the Ark soon, I will lose everything.
Sometimes the children look toward the Ark and ask questions.
"Baba Nan, why do only rich people live in the Ark?" Lukas, the youngest, asked after it was built. He was leaning on me in the boat that night, the stars' light dim, compared to the light emanating from the Ark. Lukas was always the last to be rocked asleep by our small boat, the children lying on top of each other in the bottom.
I stroked his dark hair. "This is not for us to know, my Lukie. What we can know is like looking at the night sky." I motioned up. "We cannot see the stars themselves, only their light, sent out long ago. We must be satisfied with this light, without seeing the stars themselves." He seemed okay with my answer, but then, a spasm of coughs wracked his body. He covered his mouth so he wouldn't wake the others. Such a conscientious child. He pulled his hand away when it passed and showed me his palm. It was covered in blood.
The older children were becoming sullen. I saw them stare at the Ark, their eyes dark with desire, with hatred. It took all my strength to keep their hopes up, to keep light in their hearts. In my heart.
I found us a spot on top of a former grain silo. Soon, others joined us, but there were too many. And several were sick. Some from dehydration. Most, though, had begun to retch blood, and the whites of their eyes became red. As if there was so much uncontained blood in their bodies, it was beginning to soak into their eyesockets. I did what I could for them, but I'm no nurse, and they made me uneasy. I was almost convinced it might be transmittable. I had the children to look after. We left the silo.
When the floods started, all of the country's available funds were sunk into the Ark. It was backed by banks, by the rich. They devised a "lottery" to make it fair for poor singles, couples, and families. Everyone who could do so bought tickets, for all members of their families. But only the rich were let in. And their servants. Those were the lucky poor. I was there when they embarked, at night, to keep the rioting at bay. I saw. So many well-dressed people: adults, children, elderly, even exotic pets were let in. They were so quiet, as if they feared us outsiders. When the big porthole was closed and sealed, I could see party lights inside. They were leaving us to die.
The Ark has been floating ever since. It's anchored by massive steel-reinforced ropes, but is a boat and can move if they want it to. The outer dome is translucent, to let in light like a terrarium, and the inside edges are all tropical forest, for miles. I think about this forest. I start to hatch a plan.
The people outside the Ark are so sick, weak, and hopeless, that the Ark hasn't had a breach in over a year. Rudrik, a former carpenter who helped everyone build their boats, found a way in last year. He told me in confidence that there's a porthole. A maintenance porthole on the underside. His memory had deteriorated, so that's all he could tell me. They have stopped policing at night. I tell the children I will help them. That I have a plan. I tuck them in at night, put the oldest in charge, and I swim.
It took me a month of swimming around the edges, diving underwater, feeling the underside. Then rising to the surface, and back down, searching. I was beginning to think he was mistaken. Then I found it. A hatch, on the underside. I knew it was the one Rudrik told me about.
It looked like the rest of the barnacle and algae-covered surface, but I could feel the seams through the algae, could feel the large latch, which I pried open. There was a wheel inside. It took many tries, all of my strength and breath. And the thought of freedom, of stability, for myself and the children, to turn that wheel and open the hatch. But I did it, lungs bursting in need of oxygen. Once in, I gasped for air, each breath sending a searing pain through my chest. I barely had the strength to climb the ladder, through a tube and into a maintenance room. From there, it was up through another hatch, which led to a hallway. This hallway led to other hallways.
For weeks, every night, I've been roaming through these hallways. And climbing up, creeping through the forests around the edges of the dome. There are creeks, fish, birds. Even caves, hills, and trees large enough to tunnel into. Fresh water, clean air. It feels like healing. I haven't seen another human, and I've experienced peace there, like my childhood in the hills outside the city. Inside the dome at night, when you look up, you can see starlight through the sky-sphere. It's brighter than ours.
I will bring the children here. We will live in the forest. The fresh air, streams, and starlight will heal the children. Will heal me. Once we're in and the children are safe, I may come back. I may tell the others about the hatch. I may.
H. L. Nelson
is Founding Editor/Executive Director of Cease, Cows mag and a former sidewalk
mannequin. (Yes, that happened.) Pub credits: PANK, Hobart, Connotation Press, Red Fez, Bartleby Snopes, blah blah blah.
She is working on an anthology, which includes stories by Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, xTx, and other fierce women writers.
h. l.'s MFA is currently kicking her ass. Tell her what you're wearing: firstname.lastname@example.org.