THE AMERICAN OCEAN
Our island was under siege from the sea. Now it is sunk, held down by the weight of water, muck and gravity. We fled. We were forced to surrender. And now we are refugees.
My husband is a fisherman. This morning, while he was out at sea, a storm blew in and surprised him and me. They had called the clouds a drizzle with a gentle breeze, but they were wrong. The sky turned dark, while the wind went cold and the clouds dashed toward the island like a swarm of black flies. He pulled everything out of the water and set off for home, but it took him hours.
By the time he reached us, it was mid-morning and the children and I were on the roof of our house. It was raining. We had just watched our 12-year-old dog slip into the water and drown. We were soaked, salty and sobbing. We climbed into the boat and without a word, he drove to where the harbor once held the water in her arms and docks in her dirt, where my parent’s house once stood surrounded by dune grass, seabirds and sand. We searched for the small cape on the short stilts with the weathered windows, but there was only water. Near the sinking lighthouse, I hollered and wailed until my throat burned and my tongue tasted like pennies. I couldn’t keep the agony inside of me. It was too big, bigger than the wind, bigger than the clouds so full of rain, bigger than the whole wet world. My grief frightened the children as they gathered around me, a bony, goose-pimpled blanket, and wept with me, soaking my hair, shorts and shoulders with their stringy snot and tears. We left. It was no longer raining, but the water was still rising.
We are going southeast now. We don’t have fuel for a long journey, nor much food or clothing. It all happened so quickly. Yet we knew this day would come. The scientists warned us. And we tried. We island dwellers created a green industry. We had solar fields and wind turbines and those of us who could afford it even had electric cars and traded in summer motor boats for sails, surfboards, rowboats and bicycles. We were making progress. We surpassed our goals and inspired many other communities and countries, but it didn’t save our island. The experts had all agreed that we had at least twenty-five years before the big melt, but it appears, we only had three.
Our littlest one is three years old. He’s been clinging to me ever since I carried him to the roof in my arms and tied his body to my torso with a towel. Our middle child is seven. She is strong and shy with large grey eyes. Our eldest is fourteen. I had her when I was seventeen. She’s a thinker and a voracious reader, just like my mother, her grandmother.
We survived because of the tall stilts. The ocean washed over the town last year, pulling away any sense of control we thought we had. And when the insurance company sent us our check, we spent it all and more on rebuilding, but I wouldn’t build on the ground, never so low and close to the uncertain sea again. So we built the new house high up on stilts. I love that house. I loved that house. It was raw, still unpainted in places, but sweet and often smelled of sawdust, cod, boiled crab and wild berry pie. It was new and clean. It was home.
Tonight, the children lie together on the boat’s bench cushions, while my husband and I stay up late, holding each other like soft metal spoons. He is brown from thirty-three summer suns, strong and bold with a quick wit and an enormous amount of optimism, but this is tragedy like we’ve never experienced before. This is catastrophic trauma. And it makes us speechless and sleepless.
“We are refugees.” I say.
“Yes.” He confirms.
A little later, we play opposite parts.
“We are refugees.” He says.
“Yes.” I say.
After a few days at sea, we meet the infamous wall. It is massive, like an anchored ship that never ends.
It spoils the raw fish in my gut. I heard it was a thousand feet high just as I had heard that it was made of steel, stone, cement, broken vehicles and junk yard scrap. I am surprised by how rude the structure feels, ungracious in its mere existence. It is flat gray with glass and metal glinting in the sunlight. We float beside it for miles. Embedded in the cement wall are cars, boulders, 18-wheeler trucks, tractors, trains, tires, airplane parts, refrigerators, stoves and washing machines. It was built during the seven-year drought, which followed the last devastating flood. Now the wall only stands approximately ten feet above sea level.
“I think we should live up on the wall.” My husband declares one day, while we sit on the boat, sharing cold slimy cod.
“What if the water rises?” I ask.
“We keep the boat close. Get back on it when we need.”
The truth is, the boat isn’t going to last much longer, let alone another serious storm, but we don’t want to say that part out loud.
We are the first family on the wall, for as far as we can see. We move into a sideways train car. We have to bash a window to get inside, but it is warmer and more spacious than the boat. The wall sways ever so slightly with the tide. It creaks and whistles with the wind. We build a rain barrel and a fire pit out of scrap metal and start cooking our catches. We teach the girls how to fish. We cook and eat (nearly) everything we pull up. One morning, we watch a pod of orca whales glide by. And every day, birds of all kinds: hawks, crows, little song birds, seagulls, eagles and geese stand atop the wall to rest, sleep and eat. We try, but fail to capture any of these birds.
Every day and every night, we look down to the foreign country behind the wall and we see dry land. We stand at the height of the tallest skyscrapers and look down to roads still busy with cars, apartment buildings with electricity, office buildings with window blinds, bridges, and tree-covered hills. Airplanes and helicopters pass overhead sometimes, but they don’t stop. They don’t land on the wall or let down ladders — no matter how desperately we run and wave and jump.
After some time, another boat arrives with a skeletal woman in a torn dress and long black hair, golden skin and big brown eyes. Her motor boat is nearly out of gas. She’s been looking for land or a way through the wall. We feed her fish and she gives us a bag of dry black beans. Later, another fisherman and his teenage son arrive. They are from further south. They have a tent and sleep atop the wall. Then two middle aged men in a rickety raft join us. They call themselves brothers until they feel safe enough to say that they are not brothers, but lovers. They are from our northern country. They sleep in a car on the side of the wall. There is a woman and her 10-year-old son from the north. They walk to the train after crashing into the wall, killing the son’s father, her husband and destroying their sailboat. They break into another train car and make it their home, sleeping in seats that no longer recline. A cruise ship arrives. Then three more ships full of passengers and crew — all homeless, hungry refugees from countries now under water. Submarines arrive full of soldiers — hollow cheeked, grieving, pale, worried, weary men and women. Everyone needs drinking water. We trade fish for wheat and rainwater for cans of pineapple rings.
Many return to their boats and ships and subs to sleep in their bunks every night. To sleep with their blankets and pillows and the trinkets they managed to carry with them while running from the flood. But when the captains all declare that they can no longer use fuel for carrying people to and from the wall, most everyone moves to the wall. They don’t want to be out at sea when the border eventually opens and the country allows refugees to enter.
We build rain catchers and cast fishing lines and nets. We pry planks from the broken wooden boats for firewood. At night, we sit around our fires talking about the food we miss and the people we miss and the beds, beaches, books, beer, coffee, cheese, cookies, dirt and trees we miss. Many of us are sunburned and skinny. Everyone is thirsty. Some days, dread spreads among us, for tears and fears are quite contagious. Other days, we manage to distract ourselves with play and the work of survival. When the sea is calm and the sun is hot, we gather at the rusted red fire engine on the sea’s side of the wall. Half of the truck is embedded in the cement. We climb down to it and from its roof, we cannon ball and dive into the deep dark water below. No one has swimsuits. We swim in clothing or underwear. A few swim in the nude; no one seems to mind. My husband made a rope ladder by the fire truck for climbing out of boats and the water. It has become our dock and harbor.
The day we run out of drinking water, I weep and lick the teardrops from my chin and cheeks. We pray for rain. We sing for rain. We dance for rain. Late in the afternoon, the sky takes pity.
“Look Mumma!” My son says pointing.
Storm clouds begin blowing in from the south. When they reach us, they are so full and so low that rain pours from the sky as if from pitchers and hoses and sink spouts, wetting our cracked skin, and filling our cups and bowls and hands. We open our mouths and wait while water drips down our tongues, throats and nostrils. It takes hours for the sky to empty. We fill our bellies at foggy puddles, then take turns urinating behind the sails we have strung up along the edge of the wall.
The day after the rain, tanks and trucks and jeeps arrive on the ground below. We stop, watch and wait. We wait for water, wait for food, wait for empathy.
A man is lifted in a crane to speak with us. “YOU CAN’T BE HERE! YOU NEED TO LEAVE!” He shouts through a megaphone.
“Where do we go?” A voice near me shouts back, unheard.
“YOU ARE TRESPASSING AND YOU NEED TO LEAVE!”
A massive herd of hopeless, tottering souls, we stand at the edge of the thousand foot wall, addled and staring. We aren’t people to them, but silhouetted specks upon their border wall. We are strangers and foreigners and they don’t want us here. Just then, the wind gusts and swirls, causing the sea to flip and flop in an instant tempest. The water looks impatient, crowded, like a wild beast banging on the bars of a small cage, but instead of fur or feathers or flecks of slobber filling the air, hard, cold seawater soars, slaps and soaks us. We start walking north. What else can we do? We are trapped.
We walk up the center of our cement road. My husband and I hold the children between us. Soon, a second soldier arrives. They have orders to build the wall higher, he says. They need us to leave immediately. They won’t be taking in any refugees. There is hardly enough resources for the citizens. There is no hope for us, he implies. He sounds sad, but maybe he’s just embarrassed and afraid his orders will turn us into a mob of sorrow and rage. Then, just as the day before, the sky fills with robust rain clouds. The soldier says they don’t have time. They need to build the wall higher now to protect what little land the earth has left. On the ground, flatbed trucks line up carrying enormous bricks of cement and scrap. I look north and south. There are refugees for miles. The rain starts to fall. No refugees run or rush, for we all know that when the wall is wet, the wall is slick.
We can perish or we can protest. We watch one woman choose to perish. She walks to the edge of the wall. She doesn’t jump, but waits for the wind to whisk her away. I will see her flapping yellow tee shirt and her long black braid for the rest of my life. I knew her. She had lost everyone she loved. She was so skinny and yet so heavy and now she is gone. She didn’t speak my language, but she was a woman I knew.
While the cranes rise above us, the rest of us lie down. The wind blows over the wall and through the wall. The cranes pause, straining. Soldiers stand on the lifted bricks, clinging to chains and their big black guns. They fire shots into the air. I bury my face into my baby boy’s hair. It is wet with rain, but still smells of the sea. The wall scratches the side of my scalp. I shut my eyes and sing the only song I can think of.
“My Bonnie lies over the ocean,
my Bonnie lies over the sea,
My Bonnie lies over the ocean,
O bring back my Bonnie to me.”
“JUMP OR YOU WILL BE SHOT!”
“O blow ye winds over the ocean,
O blow ye winds over the sea.
O blow ye winds over the ocean,
And bring back my Bonnie to me.”
A spray of bullets strikes the wall. I don’t know if anyone is hit, but we hear screaming. I hold my children so tightly I fear I am bruising them. The shots cause a car to loosen from the wall and fall. It feels like a scab ripping off in the shower. The shots cease. The car, once a bed for two lovers, lands in an explosion far below.
“Last night as I lay on my pillow,
Last night as I lay on my bed,
Last night as I lay on my pillow,
I dreamed that my Bonnie was dead.”
The crane operators are ordered to lay their bricks. As the first brick lowers over the refugees, bodies scatter. We all stand as the rain turns torrential. Two sailors from the south leap onto the brick as it settles, but they are shot and their bodies fall through the air and disappear into the water. The soldiers shout to back up, their guns pointing at us, the mob of sorrow and rage. I just keep singing.
“The winds have blown over the ocean,
The winds have blown over the sea,
The winds have blown over the ocean,
And brought back my Bonnie to me.”
As the second brick is lowered, the wind blows so hard that everyone crouches or sits. As we bend over, a bolt of lightning strikes the closest crane. Both men standing atop the brick, clinging to the chains, along with the crane’s operator, are electrocuted. The body of the operator drops and flops onto the controls, causing the crane to lower and land with such a force that our harbor, the rusted red fire engine, is knocked from the wall. Thunder booms as water surges through the gash, creating a tremendous waterfall. Many refugees run out of the way, but several are sucked through the spout and shot out into the air, falling with the seawater to the land far below. Our gasps, shrieks and wails are smothered by the wind, water and thunder. I pray that they die in the air and that it feels like flight, like freedom, and not like falling or suffocation or bone breaking or drowning. The water roars and tears through the breach in the wall. It uproots boulders, a train car, the wing of an airplane and a refrigerator. When a dumpster, several feet deep, is dislodged, the wall cracks and splits down as deep as we can see. The other cranes retreat to the ground, but when the dumpster flies through the air and the ocean erupts, water sweeps it all away. We lie on our bellies at the edge of the wall and watch as the speck becomes a sea. It takes days for this country to drown like all the other countries of our poisoned planet, but then it too is under siege from the sea, sunk, held down by the weight of water, muck and gravity.
The water of the world rushes to resettle. Eventually, global sea levels sink, dropping and eventually remaining below the last recorded levels, which were marked before the full melt and flood. Every other island, country and continent reappear — muddy and salty, with beached sea creatures and slimy seaweed, uninhabitable houses, landslides and a devastating loss of human and animal life, but soon the sun sends hope in growth, in hidden seeds and sprouting weeds. Food is found, grown, and caught, killed and cooked. Rainwater is collected and distributed. All along the northern and southern walls, pulley systems are set up for parachutes. Refugees are strapped in and sent floating down to the wet land below where they are no longer refugees or immigrants, but post-flood pioneers.
It takes weeks before we are leaping and weeping at the sight of our waterlogged landscape. When finally I float down and sink my feet into the cold mud of my homeland, I unhitch the parachute and knot it to the pulley. Then, with my boy on my back, I run up out of the mud to the dry dirt. My girls and my husband follow, but I am the fastest. I sit my son at the edge of the short scratchy dune grass. Then I collapse beside him and close my eyes. It will be winter soon, but I won’t worry about that today. Today is for sleeping and smiling. Today is for hope.
Within the wall, the old rich country lies far below what we now call The American Ocean, except for the mountain tops, which are islands now. Animals and birds and a few small tribes of people live there, foraging and hunting. The tops of the tallest skyscrapers stick out of the water too, while waves crash against spires and glass windows and walls of steel and stone. In the writing of our world history, America is never forgotten. Every 4th of July, we fill the sky with firecrackers in its honor and drink to the land and its people for their sacrifice. For this wall, we tell ourselves, this magnificently massive wall of cement and ramshackle vehicles and scrap metal, once built to protect the country from rising sea levels, now protects all of us, the whole world, by holding our surplus seawater in its large salty swimming pool. And for that, we are grateful.