After the Deluge
The first of the buildings fell today. The salt had eaten away at the foundations, the water churned and crashed into the walls, until it buckled under the weight of sixteen storeys of concrete and collapsed. We don't see it happen, but we hear the groaning, the almighty crack, and we walk down and hang from the fourth floor windows and snatch at the fruits that rush down from the ruins before they're swept out to sea.
Sarah has a real find. We walk back into the living room and I smack the thick layer of dust off the table with a cushion, and she puts down the small, coconut-green fruits.
“Guavas!”, she says, wiping her arm off on her dress. “Now we can have guavas. I'm so happy. Let's go plant these now.”
“I haven't had these in forever”, I say. A roach skitters past, and I stomp on it. The air in the room is heavy, it smells like dust, and like rot, and like everything else it smells like the sea. I'm concerned for a second. The same ocean would be rotting our walls, the same salt rusting away the iron that held us upright, and it was only a matter of time before we crashed down too. I'd thought it wouldn't be for a long time yet, but everyone thinks that. You learn to ignore the worry, like you learn to ignore the constant rolling roar of the sea, and the thick wet weight of the air that leaves you slick with sweat.
“How do you reckon M and L are doing now?” Sarah says.
“I'm sure they're doing alright”, I say. I'm not sure.
“Yeah.” She's not sure either, they may be alright, or they may be floating and bobbing on the waves miles out in the middle of the ocean, and the fish may be pecking at their eyes and the fish may be pecking at her belly.
Leaving the buildings isn't easy. You need ropes and hooks and guts, the water chops and snarls below you, sharks circle, and at night pale pink lights pace over the water. None of us even know for sure if there's somehow past the buildings where you can be picked up and flown to the continent. We've heard of it, but that's no guarantee it exists. That isn't why we stay; the buildings are our home, and no great imperial cities in the continents will ever change that, not when they did this to us in the first place.
Rashida told us how the grand cities have not buildings but towers, hundreds of storeys high, shining like jagged shards in the sun. They'd be around for hundreds of years, and the voices of children would bounce off their stairwells and the feet of children would thump on their roofs long after we've all drowned. The water keeps rising, and the pillars below us keep crumbling. M had to leave. There's an old, old folk tale Rashida told us: a sea-demon would rise every month on the full moon and demand the sacrifice of a daughter from the island. Every month the families would draw lots and send off a daughter to wait in the palace by the sea, and every month they'd find her dead body, untouched but for the scrapes of dried salt over her elbows and behind her knees. One month, a Moroccan explorer and Sufi mystic was travelling through the island when he heard about the sea-demon. He volunteered to put on a woman's dress and wait in the palace in a daughter's stead, and as the demon rose out the sea, he read passages of scripture, sealed the demon in a bottle, and cast it out to sea.
The explorer ended up settling in the island, the royals became his disciples, and the island learnt at his feet. When he died, he was buried in a grand tomb of blue and white marble. The tomb is submerged below the waves now, and inside his coffin his remains would be floating in sea-water.
We knock gently at Rashida's door and wait for her to croak out a welcome. She lives on the seventh floor, right below us on the eighth, where we can climb out onto the roof from right across our door. Rashida always wears a bottle-bright dress in green or red, with fine filigree around the neck and sleeves. They were what islanders used to wear decades ago, and Rashida is a traditionalist. She's woven filigree into all Sarah's dresses too.
Sarah sits down on the floor in front of Rashida and places the three guavas on her lap. Rashida smiles, and strokes Sarah's hair. Her face is like paper crumpled up and smoothed out again, and the frame of shadows around her wrinkles flicker and dance in at the corners around her eyes and lips. Rashida is from the last generation before the waters rose, the generation that straddled the centuries before the world arrived and these years after the sea pushed the world back away. We know all we know of the world and all we know of the islands through Rashida. Rashida was young before the days when the global Internet linked up to our islands; she remembered how we used to be, how we had been for centuries before. Rashida told us of the holidays when she hid up in trees and threw bags of colourful paint-water at revellers, until her cousin pulled her down and burst a bright red stain onto her dress. She told us of how the fishermen came back an hour before sunset and the children looked for dried-out coconut husks to fill the stone pits as the women rubbed chilli salt into the freshly-caught fish that shone silver and slick in the light of the setting sun, and of sitting on slanting shelves of sand that eased into the sea, watching the sun sink and the ocean suck up all the fire from the sky and glow golden, watching the fish on spears grilling above the glowing red coconut-coals, the silver skins turning a coralline pink with charred edges, breathing in spicy smoke mixed with the salt in the air and the salt on the men’s bodies.
And then with the new millennium came the world, beamed to us through satellites like the ones we can still see in the night sky from the glinting of their wings, and we beamed back, and then the tourists came to marvel at our seas and to sun themselves on the sandy slopes that are now deep below the surface, somewhere off behind where the buildings end, and the fishermen packed up the fish to ship to far-away countries where the buildings were a dozen times as tall and still touched the earth.
In Rashida’s teens nobody bothered with bags of paint-water. Nobody wore filigreed dresses; they weren’t fashionable and such a concept as fashion mattered, for a brief time. She went to rock shows, because there were rock bands now, and stores with guitars, and stores with screens and machines you could plug into the Internet and talk to anyone around the world, and watch anything that happened anywhere else, and for a while the world was the biggest it ever was, and our islands the smallest. But she’d barely reached her twenties before the sea began to lap first at the streets, then the doorways of houses, the stages of rock venues. Everyone wealthy left. Everyone left turned to anger, and then to reclamation, and as the waters rose and spilled in through the boarded windows of museums and libraries islanders broke in, took back the copper plates and old books, took back their stories and their history. They threw their guitars into the rising oceans, threw everything foreign into the sea.
The dragonflies came back after twenty years gone, and they’re still here. The scorpions came back after forty years, and they’re still here. They dart between the leaves and crouch between the plant-pots on our roofs.
One night everyone woke up to find they were trapped in their homes on the fourth and fifth and sixth floors of their buildings. We were starting over, in atolls of concrete islands jutting out of the sea. The memories of the world faded and we went back to being islanders.
Sarah nudges Rashida. “Look what we’ve got”, she says.
Rashida holds a guava up to her foggy eyes, presses it with her fingers, nods, and smiles at us. “I haven’t had these in forever”, she says.
Sarah laughs. “That’s what he said, too.”
“This is good”, Rashida says. “Will you grow them?”
I bring Rashida a knife from the sink, and she expertly cuts up the guava into slices, looking straight ahead all the while, scooping out the lines of seeds and putting them by her feet. The smell fills the room as she cuts and the first whiff hits me with how new it smells, a heady mix of flowers and sugar and musk and dusk and the colour pink, and then I take another breath and I’m hit again, this time with a flooding recognition that hurls me back into a time when the walls weren’t moulting scales of paint and there were more of us in the building, to sitting at the end of a full dinner table, content and happy and full-bellied, biting into dessert. I realize that the air feels different now that it did then. There’s only the three of us in the building now.
Rashida hands each of us a slice, and then bites into one herself. A rivulet of juice snakes through the wrinkles down the corner of her mouth. I sit down next to Sarah, and she reaches out a hand and clasps mine. We look at each other, and at our slices of fruit, pulpy and the pale green-white colour of plantain slices, and at the sticky syrup on our fingers. She sinks her teeth in slowly and closes her eyes as a smile spreads across her lips. I laugh at her pleasure in the moment and she laughs back, and sultrily closes her mouth over another bite of fruit, slowly, so her lips glisten with the juice that dewed on the surface of the guava.
When we’re done Rashida pulls out a tome from by her bed and opens it to a bookmark, to a spell she’s done for us many times by now. It’s old magic, from handwritten books by island mystics of a generation before her, who learnt it from a generation before them, and so on to the first Sufi travellers who perhaps learnt them from desert mystics, or perhaps came across them in fits of divine inspiration as they prayed, or crafted it themselves after decades of learning all there was to know in the world, but it doesn’t matter where it began because now it keeps us alive and here, in our homes.
The spell Rashida is writing down on a scroll of paper is for fertility. We wrap it around the seeds before we put them into the soil and it keeps them growing. Before Rashida re-learnt our ancestral magic the adults that came before us had tried to make fertilizer out of fruit peels and fish bones and the waste they’d otherwise let float away with the waves, but there was never enough for the trees to keep growing. Rashida filigreed their dresses, pulled out the stitches on their pants and sewed them into sarongs. She would not go gently into the angry sea. So Rashida learnt old magic off old books, magic that had been common before the world came to us, magic like the Sufi had used to cast out those that tried to take from us. And we stayed here, defiantly ourselves, refusing to be assimilated into empire.
“I should start teaching you these things”, Rashida tells Sarah, as she hands over the spell. “I’m not going to live forever, you know.”
Sarah’s face drops, as if she’d never considered the possibility.
“Yeah, of course”, she says. “You should. I should learn these things.”
When we leave, Sarah closes the door behind her and sits down on the floor and pulls me down to her. She wiggles over and lays her head down on my lap, face buried into my stomach, and she lies still for a while as I stroke her hair.
Planting has been our little ritual, ever since the others left. Rashida’s too old to climb up here so Sarah and I are the only ones that ever go up to the roof anymore, and that means we’re the ones who plant the seeds and tend to the saplings, weigh down the pots so the growing trees don’t topple them over. Tonight she’s kneeling over a pot, scratching a line into the soil and smoothing the thin scroll over the bottom, pressing the seeds into the paper, smoothing the earth back over. I pour water over her clasped hands and into the soil as she reads the words Rashida’s taught up, and the water slides in through her fingers and over the sides of her hands and sinks into the soil.
“In the name of the most merciful, come forth with life”, she says, and closes her eyes for a few long moments.
“Is it done?”
“I think it’s done.”
We go sit down at the end of the roof, the rustling, whistling canopy to our backs, looking out over the city. Moonlight bathed everything in silvery-blue. Shadows pooled under windows, in the spaces between buildings, around the trees on the rooftops below us. The buildings themselves look translucent, like they’re made up of moonlight and shadow. Each of the masses rising up out of the water is dead still except for the shimmering shadows of the trees, but the ocean below is a whirl of activity, choppy and roaring and foaming at the teeth. Off in the west, a couple of djinn float over the water with their long red dresses and jet-black hair falling down to their ankles. One leads a child by the hand, a child as pale as any of them but who, instead of a smooth glide, bobs along like a bird. Slices of grey cut through the water in restless circles. Dragonflies dart and dip feet above the surface.
Sarah rests her head on my shoulder. She still smells of guava, the juice from the seeds on her hands, and she smells of mossy earth and sweat.
“Today was a good day”, she says.
We sit there in silence, breathing each other in, and listen to the crashing of the waves.
“Do you think they see us from there?”
I look up at the sky, at the endless scatter of stars and the line of soft bruises that flare out across the night sky.
She points at a bright white spot arcing over us. I know they’re satellites, but I’m not really sure what they do.
“I don’t know”, I say, “but if they do I’m glad they leave us alone, for once.”
I pull her in closer.
“Hey”, she says.
“How long do you think we have? Before-“
“This building isn’t falling anytime soon”, I say. The ocean below us has started to glow an electric green. A surfacing is coming. Rashida told us they’ve been part of life in the islands for centuries, that fishermen traveling from island to island would get trapped in a surfacing and feel like they’d been traveling for days, but then it’d fade, and only a few hours would have passed. When the sea took us back, surfacing came to us, along with the returning scorpions and dragonflies and djinn.
“Yeah, but what do you mean by soon?”, she says. “Because it’ll be in our lifetimes, definitely, even if it’s not the next few years. We’re the last generation of islanders. Definitely.”
The water begins to churn, and the wind picks up. Thick shadows hover under the surface of the green, outlines soft under the glow.
“I don’t want us to end with us. I mean- you don’t either, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you see a future for us? When it’s just us here. Are we going to- like M and L, are we going to ever, you know, have a family. Go on. We can’t stay here forever. A child can’t grow up here, we can’t have a family here.”
The wind slows to a stop, and the air is still. The rustling of the leaves falls silent. The roaring of the waves quiet down to a murmur.
“I know you hate the idea of ever leaving”, she says. “And I do too. And of all the ways to see a world end, staying here with you, just the two of us, until this building collapses into the sea is a good one, but we want a family someday, don’t we?”
Shrouded figures rise to the surface and float, facedown, on the still water.
“We’ve got a few days before sunrise now”, she says, and kisses me. Her lips still taste sweet, and her mouth is hot against mine. “Just think about it, okay?”
Everything is slowing to a stop and the world is as silent as death, and I can hear her heart beating through her chest, hear her breath in and out. I hold her, and we stare out into the dark.
Zayaan Ali is a grad student living in Canada. His stories have been published in Peril and Lip magazine. He was born in the Maldives, which will be lost to the rising sea within his lifetime.