The Sea and the Sky

When I was a child, my father used to tell me that we were made of the sea. Everything good in our lives came from the ocean. She fed us. She protected us. Sometimes she showed us her anger, but in that she made us strong and resilient. Even our bodies and spirits, he said, were made of the sea. Without the sea, our world would not be what it is: home. I think I finally understand.

Dawn on the ocean front is like nothing else. There is always something special about the endless sheet of water, about the perfectly straight line of the sea’s horizon. In the mornings, as the sun peaks over that flat line, its rays shatter against the sea’s uneven surface, littering the ocean with millions of diamonds of light. I never tire of it. I try and never miss a sunrise.

As the sun’s early light begins to warm my body, I wade into the warm waters with my net. It is silent out. Even the birds are quiet, what birds are left these days. The ocean makes no more sound than the gentle hiss of the waterline moving back and forth on the sand. In the distance, down the beach, I can see others preparing for the day. I can see other men with their nets, other men loading their boats and preparing to get out onto the water. It is this peaceful scene, the morning light warm in color on the people and the sand and the palms and the water, that brings me back every day more than does the fishing. Still, as my father said, fishing is who we are, and I go out day after day no matter what my real job is and no matter what the others say. The men down the beach, they understand me.

The net spreads open in the air with the grace of a bird and lands on the surface almost gently, the weights on the outer edge all sinking down at the same time. I have thrown the net many, many times, and something in the movement calms me, calms my mind. I pull the net in slowly, the captured fish, what few of them are caught in the net, thrashing. I transfer these few to the basket floating next to me and throw the net again, enjoying the sight of the web like ropes spreading out. I do this for an hour.

On the beach, on a thatched mat, I dump out the fish I have caught. When my father was a young man, he used to say, he could come home with a hundred fish after an easy morning. I look down at my dozen or so and have to throw out half for the signs of contamination they show. The fish that are left are small and underfed. They are not worth the effort, but I will take them home anyway. Even a small connection to the sea is something.

I walk back up the beach past the ruined building foundations half-buried in the sand, their exposed concrete green and black with the ocean’s touch. At the top of the beach, I turn to look at the ocean like I do every day. And like I do every day, I allow myself to see what I ignore every morning while I am in the sea. I see the broken buildings jutting up from the ocean like the jagged teeth of an ancient and dead monster. And in a way, I think, they are the leftovers of a monster, of the leviathan that has eaten my world.

I can smell breakfast even before I am on our street. In truth, the entire neighborhood, now waking slowly in the morning light, the noises of families coming from open windows and doors, smells of coffee and food, but I like to think I can pick out my wife’s cooking in particular. Perhaps it is a fantasy, but it is one I hold onto.  It makes the walk home, bag of fish over my shoulder and net and mat under my arm, more enjoyable for me. Already, there are children playing outside. Some who know me call out and wave. I wave back as something grips my chest, some feeling I know but try to push back.

My wife is in the kitchen when I get home. Our house is small and new, one of the eco-houses built after the sea rose and pushed everyone back inland. It was made when the area crawled with people working for NGOs, all here to try and help us the best they could. I was a child then. I remember seeing the tears in my father’s eyes as we finally had to leave our old home, the one he had built right there on the beach so he could always be close to the sea, as the water came up under the doors and into the house. Even then I felt like I could understand his loss, though I did not then understand his anger. I thought, at the time, he was angry at the people trying to help us, people who had been kind to us. I did not yet understand why the people were here and the pride my father felt for the life he had built. For me, that understanding would come later, after the people who tried to help us left to try and help others in other places similarly afflicted.

I kiss my wife on the cheek and dump the fish into the sink. She looks over at me and sucks at her teeth as I begin to clean them.

“Less less all time,” she says.

“Less and less,” I agree.

She tells me while we are eating and drinking our coffee at the table.

“The doctor… call,” she says, struggling to find the right word. “She wish see us.”

My wife is learning English, so we have been speaking it in the house to help her learn. The only work available these days are from American companies, and they prefer we speak their language. She is still struggling with the articles and verb tenses.

“Alright,” I say, trying to hide the fear and excitement I feel. “Can we go after I am home from work?”

“I tell her same thing. She say ok.”

We don’t say any more about the subject. We simply can’t. Or, probably truer, I can’t. I can’t even look my wife in the eye for the rest of breakfast. I know it is not her fault, that we have to go through with this if we want to know what is wrong. But that knowledge will make it real, and I won’t be able to hope anymore. The kettle begins to whistle. My wife can sense my unease, so she makes me another cup of coffee, this time grinding the good beans instead of using the instant powder while I gather my things and dress for work. I take my coffee to go.

From my house, you can see the cable rising up into the sky and beyond, thick at the bottom and then nothing more than a strand of hair and then gone in the distance. The foundation is a massive structure of steel and concrete that anchors the cable to the earth, and that too is visible from my home. We do not live far, but we are also not close. This morning, I am ahead of schedule, having left my wife a little early so as to avoid the things I do not want to discuss, so I decide to walk to work. I am looking at the cars already travelling up and down the cable when I hear a voice come from an alley to my left. A man appears from the shadow between two small buildings.

“You there,” he says in English. “You work for the company?”

At first, I wonder how he knows this about me, and then I remember I am wearing my uniform. Besides, everyone works for the company in these parts of the country. There is no other work. I nod.

“Are you tired of being a slave yet?” he asks. “Are you tired of aiding the rape of our country?”

A weariness descends upon me, and I turn my head and keep walking without answering. I know these types, these anti-company people. They have always been here, and they always will be here, and they will never change. Only the target of their anger changes. It is not that they are wrong; of course I wish I could do something else for my money. Of course I wish the wealth of the land beneath my feet stayed here in my country instead of being sent to richer countries far away or up the cable and into space. But these people, people like this man with his bug-eyed stare and angry mouth, they do not understand. I just want to live my life. There are not many other choices left to those of us that wish to stay here. There have not been for a long time now.

“Let me know when you are tired of helping them,” he calls after me as I walk away from him. “There are more and more of us all the time.”

He is right about that. At the entrance to the compound that houses the cable, that holds it to the ground and to the land that feeds the stations above, there are more men and women protesting than I have seen in a long time. They hold up signs with slogans like “Hasta la victoria siempre” and “Veneceremos” and even one that says “Yankees Go Home,” which makes me laugh in spite of myself. Less funny is how they spit at us, how they yell at us, how they look at us, their eyes both angry and sad in a way that seems to pierce deep into me. I try to not look at them as I pass through the gates.               

My job is not difficult, but it does require some education. I went to one of the schools the company opened here in the city after the government schools shuttered. That is where I learned English and math. Before the schools, the people here, people like my father, did what they could: fishing and farming and sometimes even picking things from the trash piles. That was when the company brought in foreigners to do the work, first men and women from their own country and then, when that became too expensive, people from other poor countries. But those people soon unionized, so the company fired them, built schools, and began to hire from the local population. We dare not make the same mistake.

My days are all the same, which is not to say that they are bad. I operate one of the cars that travel up and down the cable, bringing up and down supplies and waste. It is not engaging. At this point, I can do my work, checking in shipments and using the computer to calculate weights and speeds, without thinking. But the car has windows, and, as I travel up the cable, the earth recedes from me, and I can see more and more of my home and of the ocean until the horizon begins to curve and the buildings begin to look like toys and the streets like veins, and then I am so far away that the details are lost, and I am in space and my eyes draw upwards.

In some ways, I hate what I do, though my feelings have never been distinct. It is more of an unease that creeps into my mind when I see my planet so far beneath me, and, surrounded by the boxes and boxes of products and resources that fill the storage space of my cable car, I feel more than know how small the world truly is. But in other ways, I have learned much. This very lesson of the smallness of the earth is in itself a great gift. And even though we have lost the night sky to the lights of our growing city, I now have a new awe to touch every day. There is tension in my heart all the time.

That night, my wife and I go to the doctor’s office. I feel sick on the drive without exactly knowing why, and I snap at my wife when she asks if I would like her to drive.

“No,” I say, except in our language. “Just let me have some peace, woman.”

She does not answer, but she lays a hand on my arm comfortingly. I do not look at her, ashamed at the anger I feel rising in my chest. It is not until later that I better understand myself and my actions towards her, her kindness to me. I do not deserve her love, but I am thankful for her.

I can tell the news is bad immediately when the assistant lets us into the doctor’s room. I can tell the news is worse than I expected when the doctor will not meet my eye, when she instead looks and talks directly to my wife.

“You cannot have children,” the doctor says after a moment of awkward silence, though what she really says is, “No puedes tener hijos.” I have translated our words so you may understand, as this part of my story is important and necessary.

My wife immediately begins to weep, and I know it is because she believes it is her that is the problem. I do not speak, because I know already what is coming. The doctor reaches out and rests a hand on my wife’s shoulder. It is now that she looks at me.

“What is wrong with me?” my wife asks between sobs. “Why can I not have children?”

“It is not you,” the doctor says, still looking at me. “Your husband is sterile. His sperm cannot fertilize.”

It hurts less to hear it than I thought it would, and, in that moment, a part of me felt as if it had known the entire time. My wife stops crying and looks up at me.

“My love,” she says and reaches a hand towards me. I grasp her hand.

“Why?” is all I can manage and keep my voice in control.

“I do not know exactly,” the doctor says. “You are not the only one, and there are some theories. I think it is likely the fish.”

“The fish?” I say.

“The fish. You know they are contaminated, but we do not exactly know the effects of the contamination on people yet.”

“I throw back the contaminated ones.”

“Even the ones that do not look bad may be. It may also be the water.”

“Why do we know nothing of this?”

“There is still much to learn before we can be certain.”

There is more talking, more tears. At some point, I too begin to cry. The doctor speaks of options, there do not appear to be many, but I do not hear her. I am dizzy and have difficulty paying attention. I do not remember the drive home, nor do I remember eating dinner. All I remember is weeping in the night while my wife held me in her arms, her tears wetting my hair, as I apologized over and over and over. Soon, our sorrow exhausts us, and I sink into a deep sleep.

It is the next day I go looking for the man who had called to me from the alley. I wake up early, like always, and leave my wife asleep, taking a moment to look at her beautiful shape under the thin, white sheets of our bed, but I do not go to the ocean. I go directly to the alley where I had seen the man the day before and wait. I do not have to wait long.

“You come to see me?” I hear his voice over my shoulder, coming from the alley, now behind me, again. “Have you changed your mind so quickly?”

“They have taken everything from me,” I say.

“They take from us in many ways,” he says. “You are not alone.”

“What have you lost?” I say, suddenly angry at the sympathy and understanding I hear in his voice.

“My son,” the man says. “Do you know why they built the space elevator here?”

Still angry, I do not answer and only glare at him.

“Less regulation. Cheaper labor. My only son died working to build it. They did not do enough to protect him.”

In that moment, my anger breaks over me like a wave and I am left in the wash of my feelings.

“I cannot have children. The pollution…” I cannot finish.

“You are not alone,” he says after a silent moment. “Come with me.”

That is how I met the others. And that is how I ended up in the position I am in today.

I wish my father were alive. I want to hear him tell me stories of the land, like he used to when I was a child, before I became a man and forgot them and began to think I knew better. I want to hear about the ocean before most of the fish left and before reefs died. I want to hear about the village before it was a city and the beach before the water levels rose and destroyed our old home. I want to know what the world was like before we did what we have done to it. I want to tell these stories to the children I will never have of a world they will never see.

A week later, the box they give me is heavy but small and easy to hide and not so heavy as to be noticed in the calculations. I hide it in a corner behind some normal cargo and go about the opening duties of my shift. I try not to look towards the box, but all the time I feel it pulling my eyes as if it has its own gravity. The others told me to send the box up the cable and stay on the land, that the altimeter inside would do the rest. Take your wife far and to shelter, they said. You’ll have an hour before the cable comes down, and when it does…

But I will not do that. My father is dead. My ocean and land are dying. My sperm might as well be dead and my wife’s future with it. She will not understand, but I know, I know, that, when all is said and done, she will feel ashamed of the relief that will fill her heart. She will eventually find a good man that can give her what she most wants in this life. What I cannot. Perhaps somebody will find this recording; I will leave it where it may be noticed. Maybe that person will tell others. Maybe others will choose to fight in their own ways. Maybe things will change.

Photo by Michael & Diane Weidner on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Carlos R. Tkacz

Carlos R. Tkacz is a teacher and PhD candidate in Literature at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada. His writing has appeared in Kyanite Press, on Shit You Should Care About, Project Magazine and has self-published three novels with over twenty thousand total downloads.