On the 1127th day, we lost Manhattan. We knew it was coming with the way that the clouds overtook the sky in the days before; each looking more ferocious and angry than the last. The lightning hit the Empire State Building first and, well, after that no one had a chance. The entire city was up to four feet in water at that time. Even the High Homes went with the storm. We try to be good citizens and watch the newscast that night, but after a while it becomes repetitive. We saw the same carnage in Wichita last week and no one will ever forget Tampa Bay.
It’s better not to think about it, Hilda says. She holds one child in her arms constantly, giving her a freakishly well-defined right bicep. We can’t change it, so why worry?
Today she holds Brady; a pudgy little three-year-old. He’s the youngest of six. She used to have seven, but one night Sophie went downstairs when everyone else was sleeping and got sucked into the current. They never found her body.
We keep our front doors open. We used to close them and lock them at night, but it became too difficult to open them in the daytime. The water is too strong for us to pull the doors by ourselves. Our neighborhoods are safe enough and the only things worth stealing are in the High Homes, where they don’t have to worry about still water or moving water. So here in our neighborhoods, we do the simple thing and just keep the doors open all night. There’s no threat of burglary and there’s a weak current that runs through the city. No one wants still water in their house first thing in the morning.
On the 1230th day, we turn on the evening newscast. A man we have seen one hundred times tells us about the health of the Administration. He shows us a screen with different colors on it, each a different cloud formation. Then we see a different screen with a map of the world. There are fewer countries than we remember; or maybe our country has just grown bigger; or maybe we imagined how many countries there were before; or maybe there’s been another war and the countries have changed; or maybe a big whale came up from the sea and swallowed one or two or three of them. We are glad there are no whales in our neighborhood.
The children remember better than we do what it was like before. They remember time in playdates and morning snacks. They remember when they played in the streets until it was dark and when their snacks didn’t have scales or pieces of kelp attached to them.
There are more children now than before. One child drowns in a neighborhood and everyone decides they must have another of their own; a better chance than the poor mother of the dead. We carry our children always, except for when they go to school, and even then we worry. What if the school window has a crack in it and it leaks? What if the teacher loses sight of them for even a moment? The children are only in school for two hours each day now. They have their fundamental classes: reading, writing, and math. Art and music they do at home, and religious studies are saved for Sunday evenings. We see them off in the morning and practice breathing for the next hours until they return to us.
The evening newscast is short tonight. The man we have seen one hundred and one times speaks about the health of the Administration, shows us the cloud map, and then the globe. Then he turns to the camera and says,
Now, for a moment of quiet reflection.
It’s not quiet, though. As the faces of the citizens of Manhattan are projected onto the screen, the Star Spangled Banner begins to play. It’s being played by a full band and it repeats each time it gets close to the end, so that at the end, the lyrics would be, Oh say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave, O’er the land of the brave and the home of the OH SAY CAN YOU SEE. The song was modified a while ago so that the word “brave” is there twice now; once after “land of” and then again after “home of." We don’t remember what was there before, but we think it fits just as well.
The wives put their children to bed while the husbands go outside to set traps for the seagulls. They taste much better than fish; even with the taste of oil.
A power cord came down on 15th street today. It’s one of the highest places in the city and there wasn’t much water around, so no one was hurt. When it was obvious that it wasn’t going to spark, people began racing to the power cord and trying to strip the rubber from it. Dawn claims she got a whole two feet of it and then someone ripped it out of her hands, but no one really believes her. We know that Alice managed to get enough to fashion two very small soles for her daughter’s shoes. Now, if there is a storm, at least she has some protection.
In the evening, we meet for our monthly neighborhood association meeting. We’re supposed to talk about downed power cords, new invasive species that we’ve noticed, and finalize our emergency preparation plan. The seagulls have always been a problem, but now there’s a bigger one that we call Brutus. He’s loud, abrasive, and an asshole. We delegate the task of catching and relocating Brutus the seagull to Janet.
Our emergency preparation plan has been a work in progress since before the water came. When it did, the Administration sent us new guidelines to adapt, but they’re not disaster specific:
- 1) Emergency Preparation Plan must account for all lives.
- 2) Emergency Preparation Plan must include contributions from all members of the Neighborhood Association.
- 3) Emergency Preparation Plan must utilize resources available to said neighborhood and cannot take resources from nearby neighborhoods.
- 4) Emergency Preparation Plan must elect one of the Neighborhood Association members to serve as Emergency Preparation Plan Captain.
- a. Emergency Preparation Plan Captain must submit final list of protocol to the Administration within two days of finalizing said protocol.
a. Emergency Preparation Plan Assistant to the Captain must submit detailed minutes to the Administration, as well as an attendance sheet and rating system for each member and his or her contribution.
We elect Martha as our Emergency Preparation Plan Captain and Hilda as our Emergency Preparation Plan Assistant to the Captain. They each make elaborate speeches, trying to win our votes, even though they’re the only contenders. When we’re done voting, we make a big deal about what a hard decision it was. Martha sweats. Hilda bites her nails. When we tell them they won, they both cry and we swear them into office by placing each of their hands on a laminated copy of the bible.
When the water first started coming, we wrote letters, noting the problem we were having and asking for disaster relief. Our neighborhood association was one of the most active ones in the country; we were guaranteed responses and thought of ourselves as State activists. We wrote to the Administration, to the High Men and the High Women. Our children wrote letters to God and we tipped the mailmen to take them. Our letters were different, but the responses we got were always the same.
To Our Dearest Neighborhood Association,
How thoughtful of you to write. More citizens should strive to be like you. We appreciate the concern with which you raise this issue, but we don’t have any water over here. You’re so lucky to be rid of this awful drought! Go forth and continue your good works to strengthen the integrity and unity of our State.
Thank you for your correspondence,
We stopped writing.
There’s someone new on the television tonight. It’s a man who says that he remembers when we could still see the ground. He has an accent like he’s from the other side of here. He’s not from around our neighborhood, nor from a different reef (citizens’ humor), so he must have come by boat. It’s hard to get a plane now. Most of the runways have been claimed by seals who use the wings of the 747s to bask on.
The man on the television says that he knows how to fix all of this. He doesn’t say what this is.
Even so, we like him. He’s a talker. There’s not much to talk about these days unless you’re warning someone that they’re about to step on an eel. The husbands like that he’s not another damn fisherman who thinks he knows everything. The wives like that he looks like the kind of guy who would stalk and hunt a seagull for you when you’re tired of clam. Both the husbands and wives like his rubber boots.
Only the people in the High Houses can afford rubber. The rest of us put plastic bags around our shoes before we go outside and hold them up or fasten them to just below our knees. One time, a fish swam into Dawn’s plastic wrap. They had it for dinner even though street fish usually taste awful. It tasted awful.
We see the man on the television the next night, too. He talks loudly and wears a white rubber robe this time. Behind him is a flag- our flag. It doesn’t fly anymore because they were worried that it would get too wet if water touched it; and then what would people think? Now, there are two flags that are still flying and they’re both outside of the High White House. The flag behind the television man is laminated.
He says a lot of things and we worry that the Administration will cut him off, but then he stops talking, the Star Spangled laminated (citizens’ humor) Banner plays and he smiles. Maybe he can help us after all.
Did you see the man last night? Hilda asks. We have just said goodbye to our children outside of the school and are wading through the water, going back home.
We say that we did.
And what did you think?
We tell her that he talks a lot. We tell her that the husbands like that he’s not another damn fisherman who thinks he knows everything and the wives like that he looks like the kind of guy who would stalk and hunt a seagull for you when you’re tired of clam. And we all like his rubber boots.
Hilda sighs for a long time and then she smiles. Do you think we’ll see him again? she asks.
She hasn’t smiled like this for a long time. She stopped smiling the night that little Sophie got swept away in the current and her husband suggested that they have another one.
Maybe, we say. We like him.
Martha’s baby is being christened today. When we realized the water was here to stay, people started joking that we could christen our babies with a mackerel or a tuna. They’re all around us and much easier to see than God. The Administration wouldn’t like that, though. Martha doesn’t either.
It’s the water and the word, she insists. Not the mackerel and the word.
We still think it’s funny.
For the christening, we go into one of the High churches. Our neighborhood one has water up to the knees, but it’s a special occasion so we get to go to a different one. Martha’s holds the baby next to the baptismal font while her husband, Tom, holds the candle. They each recite the Lords’ Prayer as the pastor instructs. We watch Martha’s arms.
Her house is nearly all underwater now; even the upstairs has flooding. The crib is almost submerged and Tom’s working on building a taller one, but it really won’t make that much of a difference since they live at the bottom of such a big hill. We wonder how long she’s been holding the baby.
When the baptism is over, the pastor tips the baptismal font out at the back of the church and the holy water goes back out to the street through a grate underneath the stained glass window with the Virgin Mary.
I remember when we didn’t have all this water, Hilda says. We should shush her, but Martha hasn’t arrived at the Neighborhood Association yet and there’s really nothing else to do but listen. There were trees everywhere, she says.
There are trees now, we say.
Yes, but you could see the bottom of the trees.
You can see the bottom of the trees now, we say.
Yes, but you could see the bottom of the trees without fish swimming around them.
We like the fish, we say.
Hilda rolls her eyes at us, as Brady squirms in her arms and plays with the necklace around her neck. I remember when the children could play on the ground, she says.
We don’t say anything.
The man is back on the television. This time he is in front of the High white house, his arms stretched out, like he’s trying to reach both sides of the world at the same time. He’s shouting, but it’s not the mean kind of shouting. It’s the kind that makes us want to get up and cheer. There are other people on the screen, too. We recognize some of them from other channels, like the Real NEWS channel and Friends of the Administration and Daily Dose of Truth. They’re High men who have High wives all dressed in fancy rubber coats and rubber boots and rubber suits.
One of the wives is wearing the most beautiful dress. It’s a solid gray rubber with a red line going down the left side and a blue line going down the right. She squeaks when she moves, but she doesn’t move much, just to adjust her rubber hat. None of the women have large or veiny arms. Instead, they’re small and dainty and pretty. The neighborhood women look at their huge, worn out arms. They look at their husbands and they want to yell at them. They don’t.
The man on the television is talking about all the people he knows and all the places he’s been. He says that across the world there is much more land and much less water. This is because other countries have worked hard to get rid of their water and their problems. We just have to work harder.
He stops talking then and looks straight into the camera. He says, Give me your thoughts, please, and we try. Then he leads us into a prayer, but it’s not the one that we usually mutter under our breaths. It’s not dear god, please keep the water from rising or dear god, please let John find something other than kelp for dinner tonight. This time, the prayer is, lord, thank you for making us great. We don’t like the prayer, but we still say it.
Today we are writing letters again during our neighborhood association meeting. We don’t ask for anything or demand anything. Instead, we are writing to thank the news network for showing us the television man. We write things like it’s my new favorite program and he makes me feel safe. Our newly elected captain, Martha, says that it’s a great way to show gratitude and it will help the news network do their job even better.
Dawn is ecstatic. Rose is giddy. The Administration reads our letters carefully and if there's an especially good one, they sometimes read it on the nightly newscast. The only person who isn’t happy is Hilda.
Why are we writing about how nice the man on the television is when the water is still here? she says.
He can’t get rid of the water, we say.
Then who can?
We don’t have an answer.
The rain comes a week later. It’s soft at first and then harder. We hear it during the night and stand at our staircases, watching the current wake. There is a special newscast in the morning with a representative from the Administration and the television man. They’re both wearing nice, rubber suits. The television man smiles; the representative does not.
This is not a storm, the representative says, and we don’t see it becoming one. To be safe, we advise that you all stay in your homes today until the rain stops. Beside him, the television man nods in agreement.
The rain does not stop.
Janet has caught the seagull! She laid traps for him and he finally stumbled into one. Her husband cooked him for dinner and everyone nearby came over to her house and ooh-ed and ahh-ed at Brutus, the seagull, laying on a table with an assortment of decorative cherries and blueberries in his beak. We add a piece of white chocolate so it looks like he’s eating our flag; a non-laminated version, that is (citizens’ humor). During the neighborhood association meeting, Janet gets a special mention and she stands up and takes a bow. We all clap.
The man on the television is back. He stands in front of the High White House with representatives from the Administration and tells us that he will put a stop to this rain. It has been nearly three weeks now with no stop to it, and the thunder is growing louder each night. We write down the date and time that he tells us, and go to bed.
When the water’s gone, we will be able to use the grain fields again! the farmers say.
We start listing off baked goods we can make. Cakes, bread, cookies, pasta. We’ve missed pasta.
Fishcakes! Janet shouts, and we laugh.
One week later, we gather to watch the man on the television. Martha has brought a bottle of perfume from her closet. It has been in the highest box and no water has gotten near it. She sprays it on and tells us, I want to smell good when they get rid of the water. I don’t want to smell like fish anymore. It smells like pickles, but we don’t say anything.
The man on the television is in the Old Capitol, standing in front of a large statue of the founder of the Administration. The statue is at the bottom of a hill, between two large buildings, and we watch as the man steps in front of the statue. The water is up to his knees, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He looks up at the sky as the rain continues to pour. He starts to sing; first songs that boast a laminated patriotism and then old religious songs which we recognize from our churches. We hum along to the song, then sing it under our breaths, and then we stand up and shout it out as loudly as we can.
When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
when I was sinking down, sinking down;
when I was sinking down beneath God's righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul.
The rain is coming down harder and it begins to raise.
His rubber boots have filled with water now and, even though he has more protective layers, we can see small cracks where his armor is leaking. He continues to sing and the crowd nearby cheers for him. The water reaches his neck and he looks into the camera and says,
This water is a sign, friends!
Those of us watching the television cheer.
We have brought this upon ourselves!
We nod with guilt.
Now, will you please join me, and pray with me that our God would be merciful on us? Pray with me that he will send us sunlight! Pray with me that we will be better!
Is that all he can do? Rose asks.
Martha glares at the screen, but says nothing. Hilda blinks back tears.
The water reaches his mouth and his voice becomes tiny bubbles that rise to the top. We watch for another minute until the bubbles disappear and the crowd watching from the buildings go home. We turn off the television, the wives put their children to bed and the husbands go out to hunt seagulls.
Caitlin Upshall is an author from Washington State and a recent graduate from Western Washington University. Her work has appeared in The Yellow Chair Review. An avid writer and lifelong reader, she tries to carve out an hour each day to write, and is successful at doing this about five percent of the time. When she's not writing, she enjoys hiking, traveling, cooking, eating, singing out of tune karaoke, loitering around local graveyards, and reading about the Great Emu War.