Fiction by Meghan Hurley
Waves crash below his feet, the wind dusts his skin with salt. But he stays dry, sitting directly above the ocean as the tide comes in. He thinks about where he’ll be in fifteen, ten, even five years, when the tides start to climb higher.
There is a mangrove forest growing out of the side of the island. Mangrove tree roots step into the water, like thin legs ankle-deep—a group of human legs dancing as the water rises around them.
* * *
Kevin launches his wooden canoe from under the floor of his house. It’s set way back against the wall, between the stone stilts that hold the front half of the house above the ocean. He keeps it safe here, hoping it won’t wash away when the tide comes in.
“Good morning, great day for fishing!” sings his neighbor Eric from an upstairs window. Eric’s energy is a wave, bursting through his voice as it rises and falls with each syllable. “You better go quickly! Good luck!” A cyclone is coming, but Kevin wants to fish this morning before the weather traps him inside for the day.
Looking out on the ocean now, it’s hard to believe that a storm will soon drop knives on his metal roof. He paddles his canoe out to a fishing spot, a 15-minute ride if he goes fast enough, then drops the paddles and sits completely still. He waits for the ripples to settle, anticipates the distinctive sound.
He hears the breath of coral, released from the reef as a stream of effervescence that chimes as it pops the barrier between water and air. To Kevin, this is the reef talking, telling him he’s in the right place, where the fish are. He paddles a bit farther out. The water is so clear it’s like he’s floating, like at any minute he may plummet onto the coral below. The underwater city is busy and vast and Kevin can’t open his eyes wide enough to see it all. So he closes his eyes and watches with his ears.
Kevin lurches forward and his eyes open automatically, precariously rocking the canoe.
In the distance, he sees the source of the splash. A dark mass rises from the sea, a growing island in motion toward him. It’s shaded by clouds, and he can see a line where the clouds end and slanted bars of light, visible as they tear through the sky, form a cage between him and the island. It’s as if he’s looking at a painting, or through a window to an unreachable side of the world.
Figures standing halfway up a mountain are throwing spiderwebs into the ocean, letting them drag in the water, where they somehow don’t break off but just gently drift on the surface like resting wings. Smoke rises from the peak of the mountain, and Kevin almost starts paddling backward, thinking a volcano is preparing to erupt.
The rhythmic near-silence of the ocean is broken by intermittent splashes from the mountain. He has the sensation that he’s watching himself and the island while sitting on one of the few clouds in the sky. He feels uncomfortably weightless, like his canoe is spinning in the air, higher and higher, carrying him away.
Kevin looks at the water to orient himself, then stares at the dark lump. He starts to decipher a deck railing. The mountain takes form as a boat, with nets dragging instead of spiderwebs, smoke fueling its heavy motion over the lightness of water. He paddles closer, over the edge of the reef and toward water that is vibrating faster and faster, like adrenaline building in the sea. As he approaches the ship, Kevin sees the flag. The ship belongs to a country thousands of miles away. He knows it’s illegal for foreign vessels to fish in these waters, where the fish already balance between endangerment and extinction. He moves toward the ship as if pulled by a fishing line. He has to see the robbery up close.
Kevin studies the nets as they slowly sink into the water, with small holes that can catch even the youngest fish. He tries to measure the holes with his eyes, knowing they must be under the three-centimeter legal limit, but they start to blur under the rippling surface of the sea.
Then he is in motion again, his canoe slowly drifting in circles, the front moving rapidly while the back remains still. He coasts over black water. He feels like he’s floating again, but this time because he’s surrounded on all sides by a churning darkness. He looks at the sky, also darkened and getting darker. Smoke from the ship stains the clouds, facing off against the storm.
Distracted by the otherworldly ship, Kevin forgets to turn home before the start of the cyclone. He tries to continue paddling straight ahead, where he knows he can eventually find land. But the air is turning and the water is turning, and he can’t tell if he is in motion or steady in the midst of it. If he paddles straight ahead, he will either hit land or get lost in the gray mass. He grips the sides of his canoe, hard enough to splinter his hands on the wood, and leans back and listens like he’s listening to a coral reef breathing.
Amid the sound of wind and rain hitting a moving ocean, Kevin hears air curving around something solid, waves hitting an object larger and sturdier than his canoe. Without opening his eyes, he unlocks his arms from the sides of the canoe and paddles toward the strange wind. Keeping the canoe upright requires him to balance himself, to move opposite the waves.
With his eyes closed, he hears everything. The nothingness behind his eyelids is taken over by sound, the darkness filled with spinning fog. He can hear with his ears, his eyes, his hands.
The trance is broken. His eyes open automatically. It’s a boat. A big boat with a motor. The flag for an international diplomatic organization flies from a thin metal post at the center of the ship, folding and straightening frantically with the wind. A crew of six move on deck, wearing blue plastic raincoats crumpled under orange life jackets. They are looking through binoculars into the mist. Their hair is wet, and flattened onto each of their foreheads in a unique pattern that looks like the erratic motion of the wind. They each wear heavy brown boots and a tight-fitting hat with an orange and red patch sewn onto it, the distinctive uniform of the well-funded organization.
“Hey! HEY! Down here!” Kevin yells.
The crew member closest to him, whose hair is slicked back except for a short strand stuck to his forehead in an almost perfect spiral, looks down at Kevin through his binoculars. He flinches, the movement causing his spiral of hair to unravel. He drops the binoculars and sends a rope ladder down to Kevin, who grabs it with sore, splintered hands and climbs aboard the boat. Immediately someone wraps him in a blanket. One crew member, this one with hair stuck flat to his forehead in vertical, parallel strands, slides over a wooden crate for him to sit on.
“Welcome aboard. We’ll be bringing you back to shore and safety after roughly one more hour of searching. Make yourself comfortable.”
It’s a practiced routine. The crew return to their evenly spaced positions along the deck, standing sternly with binoculars ready. As the boat moves incrementally, jolting forward with the waves and then floating back on another swell, Kevin watches the mist. White specks of salt water spray into the gray air, splashing the monochrome seascape and announcing its liveliness. As he watches, something dark and pigmented begins to take form out of the gray. It’s the fishing boat.
Kevin looks around at the attentive crew, waiting for one of them to see it. They will notice that it is a foreign vessel, encroaching illegally here and emptying Kevin’s home of fish. For a moment Kevin is grateful for the cyclone. Nature exposed the thieves.
They approach the foreign boat, and there is no longer any doubt that it’s a smoke-spouting vessel and not an island. But the crew doesn’t move.
The foreign ship is jostled by waves but otherwise unharmed. The crew members on board don’t appear wet at all now. The rescue boat is barely 20 meters away from the other ship. Kevin’s lungs are filling with its smoke, his nostrils clogged with the scent of fish out of water. But still, the crew stares at the boat through their binoculars, motionless as if still staring at the perpetual fog.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” Kevin taps the arm of the woman standing closest to him. “I know you have a lot to worry about right now, but that ship there? It’s been fishing illegally off the shore of our island. It doesn’t follow the laws we have to follow, and it has equipment that helps it catch all of our fish.”
“Right there! Straight ahead!”
“I don’t see anything but clouds and water. Gray as far as the eye can see.”
Kevin looks closer. He is sure he sees the ship. It’s so close, and the spiderwebs have distinctly become nets dragging deep and far beyond it, gathering fish and anything else in their path. Kevin’s heart starts beating faster, his chest feels heavier as his frustration builds.
“Look! It’s right there! You have to stop them!” Kevin’s vision blurs, the turbulence in his chest rising and spilling out of his eyes.
No one turns to look at Kevin, but the crew starts to move. Their eyes never leave their binoculars and their binoculars never stop staring straight ahead. But their legs move, robotically, as they shift positions. Each crew member passes in front of the foreign ship in turn, watching so closely it seems like they have to have seen it. But they are expressionless and silent. One leg crosses in front of the other, slightly bent, the upper bodies completely still. It’s like a dance—a whole group of stiff human legs dancing as the angry sea is emptied to lifelessness around them.