Excerpt from In a Dim Age of Water
Song for the Rainy Season
Hidden, oh hidden
in the high fog
the house we live in,
beneath the magnetic rock,
owls, and the lint
of the waterfalls cling,
In a dim age
the brook sings loud
from a rib cage
of giant fern; vapor
climbs up the thick growth
effortlessly, turns back,
holding them both,
house and rock,
in a private cloud.
At night, on the roof,
blind drops crawl
and the ordinary brown
owl gives us proof
he can count:
five times—always five—
he stamps and takes off
after the fat frogs that,
shrilling for love,
clamber and mount.
House, open house
to the white dew
and the milk-white sunrise
kind to the eyes,
of silver fish, mouse,
big moths; with a wall
for the mildew's
darkened and tarnished
by the warm touch
of the warm breath,
rejoice! For a later
era will differ.
(O difference that kills
or intimidates, much
of all our small shadowy
life!) Without water
the great rock will stare
no longer wearing
rainbows or rain,
the forgiving air
and the high fog gone;
the owls will move on
and the several
in the steady sun
— Elizabeth Bishop
During the first year my husband and I spent trying to conceive a baby, my sister took me for a long underwater swim. The doctors wouldn't prescribe me fertility medication until we'd been barren for a year, and even then, they said, the pills could make me swell up like a mushroom, bulbous and white. My skin might turn tacky, my hair might grow brittle, and my gums might bleed. Even then, I might not grow a child. My sister said there was a sea witch I should see.
"Like the Little Mermaid?” I asked.
"Don't be stupid,” my sister said.
We put on underwater suits, smooth as silk and strong as lavastone, and my sister set her boys up in front of the screen. They watched a documentary about long-extinct land animals — lions, tigers, bears — so my sister could feel like she was showing them something educational. Then, my sister opened a hatch in her dome. We had to swim out into the water quickly so her dome wouldn't flood. A muddy circle bloomed underneath the hatch where previous excursions into the water had left a rotten wet patch where nothing could grow.
The first thing that struck me about the sea was the silence. Maybe leviathan and fish hear sound waves that move through water, but I heard nothing but the seashell whoosh of my own blood. I followed my sister in the gray blue twilight of the waves. Weightless, we watched shadows swim past us. The deeper into the ocean we went, the larger the shadows, until I remembered the whispers of humans who'd shed their legs and grown tails. Merpeople — carnivorous and quick. I thought I saw a slim, muscular shadow undulating in the corners of my eyes. Something that used to have to legs, breasts, dry hair, that was now the sleek cruelty of a dolphin. But, because of our suits, there was no way for me to tell my sister — that alpha, that fearless woman — that I was afraid, so we swam in darkening silence.
Finally, we reached an isolated dome. Its glass was cloudy with salt and it looked ancient — the kind of dome that was built first, the kind of dome that collapsed after the first deluge right after I graduated college. I remember that first great flood. I huddled under a rubber blanket with my soon-to-be-husband on the roof of our apartment building. The waves rose over the orange sulfur streetlamps below. Most of our neighbors drowned.
My sister opened the sea witch's dome. She had the code and the upper body strength to work the old fashioned crank mechanism. Fear hummed inside of me, mixed into me like salt in the sea. When we collapsed under the sudden gravity of the sea witch's dome, I gulped the recirculated air as if I'd made it back to dry land. The shadows still swam around us, but now there was a cloudy barrier between us and whatever toothed creature moved beyond the glass.
"Welcome!” the sea witch called.
She was a tall and luminous woman — the kind I was used to seeing in advertisements on my screen. Her skin shone dewy, without the pallor that underwater living imposed on most people. Her hair grew like seaweed, kinky and iridescent, down to her waist. She wore tinkling bells on her wrists and ankles, which put me in mind of the collars the above-ground cats of my childhood used to wear to warn birds that they were coming. Around us, the air was alive with the buzzing of insects. I thought I smelled the golden sweetness of honey, the pollen-waft of trilling wings.
The sea witch ushered us into her home, a quaint cottage that looked deliberately constructed to bring back memories of childhood fairytales. Famine, gingerbread, children wearing German braids. Red capes, wolves, listen-to-your-mother. My sister and I sat on cushions under a skylight in the sea witch's living room while she lit incense and hummed a little to herself.
"You're trying to have a baby,” the sea witch said.
"For almost a year now,” I said.
The sea witch made a clucking noise with her tongue like a chicken, and she looked at me with a deep well of pity in her eyes. Behind her, shining purple amethyst geodes caught the blue water light.
"It's the lack of sun,” she said. "A wet world is a decaying world. All we can sprout are fungus and wood eating beetles.”
"My sister has three sons,” I said.
The sea witch smiled at my sister — sharp as a knife.
"Your sister tells me that you still live above ground,” the sea witch said.
"So, you are trying to hold on to something after it has died?”
I thought about my house, narrow and creaking, echoes of my dead mother slamming every door. Was there ever warmth there? Did the water bloat it like a corpse?
"Maybe,” I said.
The sea witch reached into a pocket of her voluminous dress and handed me an egg. It was warm to the touch.
"Write your wish on this,” the sea witch said, "and bury it in a patch of soil. It will grow what you need.”
My sister frowned. Certainly, she'd been expecting something a little more grounded from the sea witch — something that had more obvious potential for success. The small brown egg fascinated me. I hadn't held one in a very long time. I wondered where the sea witch kept her chickens, how she'd gotten chickens, and how she'd transported them under the sea. Would a child hatch from it in the wet soil of my backyard?
"Thank you,” I said.
"All that for nothing," my sister said, once we, heaving our sea-filled lungs, stripped off our sea suits on the shore of my hill. We'd already checked in on her boys who were still watching the big screen out of the corners of their eyes while growling and hissing at one another on all fours.
"I'm a bear,” my oldest nephew said.
"The bears are dead,” the littlest boy replied.
"We should do what she said. Come on,” I said, and we walked up the hill to my narrow rotting house. My husband crouched in the living room, a little torch in his hand, killing the many-legged insects that swarmed in the warmer months to feast on the algae and lichen that grew on our stone walls. When he worked, his face became a concentrated point of effort. He smelled mammalian — sweat, dirt, skin — and his voice rumbled low and soft so he wouldn't spook the plants.
"Is that an egg?” he asked, hopefully, as we walked by.
"Not for eating,” I said.
I grabbed a marker from a kitchen drawer and wrote A CHILD on the egg's shell. My sister and I walked out into the drizzle and found a spot in the yard that felt a little firmer than the others.
"Maybe it'll work?” I asked.
My sister shrugged. She'd read about the sea witch on her small screen at night. Some dome women swore by her and her wisdom, but I could tell that my sister was unimpressed. I dug a hole and planted my wish in the soil. I half thought a child would sprout right then, fresh and green. We stood there and waited, but nothing happened.
"Maybe it takes a while for something to grow?”
Cheri asked me to throw her baby shower because my hilltop house almost never floods. Even through the constant rain, as the mud and silty water reaches its icy fingers up, up, up, my house remains above the water line. My house is bigger than Cheri's solar sailboat, but less intimidating than my sister's immaculate underwater dome. I inherited the high ground. I did nothing to earn it.
While waiting for the dome ladies to show up for the shower, I arranged canapes. Rich lady food for my sister's friends. Women whose coats are made of sealskin and sharkskin and the skin of animals our grandmothers knew but whose names we've forgotten. I invited them because they were sure to buy expensive presents for Cheri, and they accepted because my house is the only above-water house they've ever heard of. A curiosity. Cheri's baby is a boy.
Hours ago, I shuffled my husband out of the house for the day. There was a time, before the flooding, when our friends tried to make baby showers an all-gender experience. Husbands and IPAs in the scorching sun. Bar-be-ques before it got skin-blisteringly hot. I'm thirty-two, but I remember that first crop of babies, a bumper crop in our early twenties, being born under the intense heat of our infinite sun.
Now, I send my husband to meet up with the other husbands and boyfriends on their kayaks. They're going to paddle out under the never-ending gray of the clouded sky, drink beer out of dissolvable sugar bottles and then throw the empty containers into the rainwater sea. Their eyes will adjust to the permanent semi-darkness, the wet quality of light that makes everything look washed-out and drawn. Sometimes, a fish or a seal, a shark or a leviathan will swim over to lick the sugar puddle as it floats by the men. They will watch it with saucer eyes and be grateful it's not a pod of merpeople: pointed teeth, clever eyes.
Dome women like to flock together indoors in the rain. The rain swamped us, drowned us, and separated the genders out again. The dome ladies are very feminine under their glass — like orchids or flytraps. I resent this gender stratification to some extent, but I'm glad I don't have to pretend to care about underwater football. I don't have to watch the deep diving finals. I do have to throw baby showers and create intricate amuse bouches for women who live under domes. In college, I thought we would burn down the gender binary — that we'd be the generation to put aside notions of a woman's place and a man's place. Yet, I'm inside arranging little morsels on a tray and my husband is in a kayak under the close gray sky. Clothing is more androgynous now than it was when the temperatures never stopped rising, though. It's all the layers and waterproofing.
My inherited high ground house is narrow and tall. I set up the baby shower on the first floor, but we can climb if the water gets too high. I arranged blue donuts on trays. I also bought blueberry bagels, purplish like bruises, and bowls of underwater berries — gelatinous, sugary, and the appropriate color. Boys are blue like the water and sweet like dissolved sugar bottles. Boys row their kayaks under the clouds and scoop up seaweed with their oars and write love poems on the backs of their hands in indelible ink. Romantic tattoos took off once the rain started. The men used to be manly about their ink — dragons, knives, screaming masks. After the rain, the manliness blurred and faded and the men started writing love songs on the insides of their arms, their eyelids, the curling cartilage of their ears. You're like the sun, they said. They loved to compare us to the heat they once knew, the sweat, the fire. Things we never saw anymore. Feelings we almost forgot.
"I've got some balloons,” my sister said, stomping her way into my tall narrow high ground house. She's older than I am, but she didn't want to inherit the long skinny windows, the teetering staircases built when people were smaller. She lives in a spectacular underwater dome with her third husband. Husband number three is richer than husbands one and two, and my sister's dome is deeper underwater than all of her friends' domes. She wins. The light in my sister's home shifts with the water and is a dreamy blue green white that makes everyone look sexy. My sister collects old glass bottles — not sugar bottles — and lines them up on her windowsills. She creates water inside the water — more reflecting light.
"Great,” I said, but I didn't feel great.
My sister stood next to me in the skinny galley kitchen and we blew air into the blue balloons with our mouths. Our faces turned red. The balloons sagged towards the floor. My sister birthed three boys — three wild, flipping, water creatures. Born after the rain, they had hair like oil slicks, eyes like sea glass, skin like the belly of a fish. I have freckles and moles — remnants of the sun, spots where my skin absorbed too much. My sister had all of the evidence of her previous life sanded off of her body years ago. She is marble-smooth like a statue or a vase. It is impossible to tell how old she is just by looking.
"These look a little sad,” my sister said, kicking the balloon on the ground. This set off a reaction and all of the balloons wiggled on the floor like a flock of waterlogged pigeons. When I was little, we had a lot of birds in the front yard. My mother put out a bird feeder and the lady next door put out a bigger bird feeder and my mother never forgave her. I spent hours at the kitchen window watching the songbirds flit — flashes of yellow, red, blue. In my wet patch of backyard, the pigeons preen bioluminescent mold into their feathers. In the daytime, they're the dun color of new ashes. I throw them the seeds of underwater plants. At night, they glow green like lightning bugs.
"It's okay,” I said, "we can tape them to the wall.”
My sister and I spent the next ten minutes taping sagging blue balloons into the words: "CONGRATS CHERI” on the wall of my living room. The letters leaned crooked and the effect was a little manic, but no one could say we didn't try.
My sister and I knew Cheri for two decades before she got knocked up. Her father was the first of our neighbors to build a dome. There used to be other houses up and down the hill. Our parents used to socialize in climate-controlled patios, grilling sausages and peppers and talking about the sun. Wait until the waters rise, Cheri's father said. No one believed that the clouds would ever come. Our parents thought Cheri's father was a fearmonger, a hysteric. How could something so scorching and permanent as our fiery sun disappear? Once the waters rose, just like he said they would, Cheri's father ate an entire orange bottle of sleeping pills and never woke up.
Cheri is exactly my age — we were born on the same day — and she has been married for six weeks. She met her husband, Guy, on a sailboat after she quit her dome-building job and volunteered for an experimental solar project. The sailboat used the wind to move as far out onto the water as it could go. Giant solar panels extended from the sailboat's sides and sucked up what weak light there was to be had under the clouds — reflected by all that water. Cheri and her husband fucked every day underneath the solar panels they were supposed to be tending. He moved like an eel, she told me when she got back. She showed us bite marks all along her collarbones like the tracks of a shorebird in sand. Cheri was pregnant when they got married.
"I'm a whale!” she laughed when she announced the good news in the backyard under her dead father's dome. The first dome built in our neighborhood. She rubbed the small pooch of her belly as happiness danced in her sea blue eyes.
Her husband is a tall, gray man in sharkskin. He doesn't talk much, but Cheri says she likes that about him. He has pointy teeth, but not natural ones like the merpeople. He filed them into points.
"Did we get cupcakes?” my sister asked.
She says ‘we' even though she means ‘me.'
"I got a cake,” I said, "it's in the fridge.”
Cheri's cake is in the shape of a seahorse — traditional. Seahorse fathers carried the babies, and we all wished our water-logged husbands and their sugar-bottled beer could carry the babies for us, let them slip out into their kayaks, while we busy ourselves building a warm dry nest at home. Well, I don't wish that. Every night, my husband slips a needle into the soft skin of my ass and thighs. ‘Sorry' he whispers, every time. Then, he fucks me as those magic chemicals, those baby-making juices, run through my blood. Most people have a harder time getting pregnant now, my doctors said. Something about the sun. Something about the sea. Cheri is the rare exception — maybe it was all the fucking underneath the solar panels — all the reflected light.
We haven't given up hope of a baby, my husband and I. I have a room picked out on the very top floor of our skinny narrow house. I want to decorate it with sunflowers. Cheri's nursery is Octopus' Garden themed. Don't fight the water, she told me, and I nodded. When she got pregnant, Cheri started making pronouncements like she'd suddenly become a wise woman. She got pregnant faster than anyone else, so maybe she was wise. Maybe Cheri and her body knew something that we didn't. I'm going to fight the water, though. I'm going to put yellow — the color of our vanished sun — all over my baby's room.
"Cute,” my sister said when she pulled the sea horse cake out of the refrigerator. My sister didn't have any baby showers for her three boys. She did the injections and the waiting and she was so afraid that the boys would die if she acknowledged them in her belly that she wouldn't let us talk about them until they were born. Then, she relaxed and let me buy her a box of donuts and a wooden train.
"This is all so fucking stupid,” I said on an out breath.
"Hah,” my sister said. She stacked the blue cups and the blue plates next to the seahorse cake. She wasn't going to fight me about baby showers being stupid. Everyone knew that baby showers and engagement parties, gender-reveal parties, rehearsal dinners, weddings, and children's birthdays were stupid. Everyone secretly thought that the winter holidays and spring holidays and fall pumpkin spice months were stupid when there was nothing now but rain and cloud and water lapping at the bottom of the hill, but what are we going to do? Rip ourselves from our traditions? Then what would we have?
I've got music,” my sister said. She pulled up her curated baby shower playlist on my screen. My sister is great at playlists. She makes dome ladies cry with the way she arranges other people's songs. All of the artists she likes are dead. My students are listening to shit that sounds strange to me — underwater caverns and the braying of glowing pigeons. That's how I know I'm old.
holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins University. She won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, and her novella, Catastrophe
, is available from the Texas Review Press. A chapbook of her flash fiction is forthcoming from Variant Lit. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two cats. Find her at deirdredanklin.com