Cornelia in the Water

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Content Warnings

We eat persimmons on the ruins of the provincial legislature.

Our daughter swims toward us, dipping below the surface, and for a minute all we see of her are two small horns slicing the waves. She comes from the shallows and over to the stones where we sit, our feet dangling. We eat persimmons and look out across the water to the towers of the drowned city.

I turn to her father and remember the night I arrived; when I was afraid to look at him as he stepped out of the shadows, and I looked instead up at the trees and the bowl of the sky.

The day after I turned seventeen, my father and I came out of the clouds and I saw the islands. Real islands, thousands of them, dots of bristly green fading to the horizon. I wanted to cup them in my hands. His voice came in, excited to show me each thing, give me this landscape like a gift he’d invented for me. I remember it from the old news clips, he said. These weren’t islands, this wasn’t the sea. Way back when there was nothing but snow here, Barbiedoll, waving his arm at the expanse, snow, slush, black ice. Tractor-trailers jackknifed in the ditch, pile-ups everywhere, probably on that very highway, pointing to a distant spire of asphalt jutting from the water. Pile-ups, Barbiedoll, pile-ups! A fine spray shot from his mouth and hit the helicopter window. Honestly, you would not believe it. Sideways snow, whiteouts. He looked at me to convince himself that I would not believe the whiteouts. Look at it down there, Barbiedoll, he went, feast your eyes, now waving both arms. Fantastic, he said. A tropical paradise, he said. He squeezed my shoulders. Fantastic again, just to drive the point home. This was the arctic circle, and we were in it.

It’s like an oven on these islands, he said happily, as the heat wrapped around me like a tongue. All I’d ever known were the cold breezes of the compound, icy sips of air that drifted through the rooms. Mother’s flinty fingers pulling down the blinds, sun flecking the upper canopy. Don’t touch the front gate or you’ll char your hands, and I didn’t go near the gate ever, although I was a bad daughter in every other way. Mother ticked-off and too tight in her thought-corsets, clacking across the compound in those high-heeled shoes, you, girl, you can’t even put together a decent breakfast or choose the right color wallpaper.

Take her with you, she said to Dad. We were looking at the northern archipelago on his screen. Give me a break.

My father and I passed over a town half-buried in water, over green that flowed like a river below our feet. Look, said Dad, the islands, thousands of them. This is my lab, Barbiedoll. All this. So much to study, you have no idea.

To me, the Arctic Circle didn’t look like a lab. A lab was Dad’s labyrinth of white basement rooms at the far end of the compound. White lights, white coats, people with masks, and those things like turkey basters in their hands, sucking bird flu or the red plague or pale blood from one tray of vials and squirting them into another.

And there were the other things. Better not to think about them in their cages and water-baths that he let me see only I never should have, I was only little then. It’s okay, I remember him saying, they won’t hurt you. Now here he was practically saying it again. The islanders they’re different from us, but don’t worry.

Will we be okay?

Yes, we’ll be okay, he said and laughed. The islanders were harmless, knew their place. They won’t hurt you. Nothing’s gonna happen.

Under the high bowl of stars the helicopter touched down, the bushes and grasses went sideways in its wake, and through the screen of trees I saw a long low house that went on forever. I stepped out, looked up at the sky, heard the sea tonguing the shore.

Our names were called from the doorway. It was Uncle Winch the lab surgeon, Uncle Winch who smelled of mice and electrical currents, Uncle Winch who practically jumped off the wide porch, Brothers in arms, he yelled, Barbiedoll, partners in crime, their arms around each other.

I looked past Uncle Winch and Dad. I saw the people, the not properly human people, standing in the shadows.

The islanders. The harmless islanders.

Nothing’s gonna happen.

They stood there like stone.

Here, Cornelia, said Uncle Winch, show this tired girl to her bed, nudging a woman forward. Beside her, a man held a dog by its collar. This is Galileo, said Uncle Winch, and here’s the night dog. The dog was a tight bristling shadow with yellow teeth.

Galileo came forward to take my suitcase and my gun box, and was his skin really blue, the blue of water, or was it the moonlight, or were my eyes playing tricks on me? He bent to my luggage, and it was then that I saw on his head the two horns. I reached back for Dad’s hand, but he’d taken over the dog. It was whining, belly on the floor, good boy, said Dad, good boy.

But Galileo’s horns. The low arc of his horns in the air. Galileo’s hands like human hands lifting my cases. The blue fingers on the leather.

Good boy, again.

Cornelia, said Uncle Winch, and Cornelia moved into the light of the porch. I saw her long dress and smeared apron, knife in one hand, Cornelia standing as if interrupted in the kitchen. I didn’t want to look at her head. I looked instead at the animal that was neither snake nor fish that hung from her other hand. I remember trying to look everywhere but at her horns and bluish skin.

There was a boy, too, about my age. I didn’t look at him. I looked everywhere else, at the trees, at the stars cupping the sky.

Dad, I said, but Dad just squeezed my shoulders, everything’s good, he whispered, you’ve seen worse, and I watched him go off with Uncle Winch. Cornelia led me through rooms and gardens and at the far end, she opened a door. This is yours, she said in a voice, a human voice, low as a whisper. Galileo slid my suitcase and the gun box inside. I was alone in the darkness, afraid to lie down, afraid to sleep. The moon cast a shard of light across the white sheets of the bed.

Dad, I called when I heard him, finally, at his door across the hall.

Nothing to worry about, he said lightly, they know their place. He sounded a bit drunk. Oh, he said, I nearly forgot. I’m calling your mother. Their voices came across the hall and into my room. They were arguing about me. Mother’s voice was teary and shaking but it got choked off.

I shut my door and lay on the bed, looking out at the branches that lifted and fell in the wind. I heard Dad release the dog. It went padding through the hallways and through the gardens, and sometimes it snuffled or whined, or seemed to stop and listen, then move on.

Morning.

In the kitchen, Cornelia was skinning the snake-fish. It was as long as my arm.

What’s that?

An eel, she said. The eel-word filled my mouth, slippery, with a sickening taste. I slid past her horns and concentrated instead on her eyes, which shone when the boy came in the door. His skin was a lighter blue than hers, and his horns were young. He had a beautiful smile. I made myself look at his horns and then at hers.

My boy, said Cornelia, showing him off to me, her hand in his hair. He’s come for his traps, she said, putting a piece of bread and a yellow fruit into a worn plastic bag. I watched him go down the path to the shore, juggling the plastic bag and an armful of wire mesh boxes. He climbed into a rowboat and fixed the oars in the locks, rowed along the shoreline till he disappeared.

He came back at night. I didn’t see him but heard the oars slipping through the water and the boat knocking against the stones. Then his footsteps on the path. Mother? Are you there? Cornelia was serving dinner in the dining room and went back into the kitchen when she heard his voice. I listened to them through Uncle Winch talking to Dad. I learned, from my listening, that the boy’s name was ManRay, and that it was eels he caught in the traps that he dropped wetly in the kitchen, and he stayed out all day with nobody looking over his shoulder. Like a boy from the compound, except for the blue skin and the horns. There’s nothing wrong with the horns, I told myself.

Salt fields, Dad was saying.

Uncle Winch picked some gristle from between his teeth. Seawater’s moving in faster than expected. We’ll decide which ones to keep. Then we separate them, move them further out.

Dad put down his knife and fork. And if they resist?

No problem, we need only a few, some good ones off-island, all docile. We have time, said Uncle Winch.

Fantastic, said Dad.

On the second morning, I heard Dad fiddling around in the supply room, shutting the door, locking it, calling, Barbiedoll you up yet? He was in work clothes, his gloves and face shield hanging from his waist. We went down the hallway, through the gardens, to the dining room. Coffee? he said to Uncle Winch. Uncle Winch, too, was dressed for work. They stood at the window, watching for the helicopter, drinking their coffee. Seven gastromorphs on island three, Dad said, frowning at his cellphone, blood-clotting factors normal.

Good, said Uncle Winch.

Wait, still reading from the cellphone, three females, one immature, the shell still soft. Oh. A problem. Blood-borne pathogens, maybe? Let’s get out there and have a look-see. The helicopter landed and sent the grasses sideways. I stood there and watched them leave.

We’ll move them right away, said Uncle Winch as they climbed inside. Island three, he said to the pilot.

I went into the kitchen.

Cornelia was bent over a chopping block on the counter.

Can I sit here?

She put a dish of yellow fruit on the table, mangos, she said, holding one out to me, and went back to her slicing and cutting. I put the mango down, not knowing how to eat it. The kitchen was filled with the sound of her knife against the wood.

Here’s my boy, she said, looking up.

ManRay was in the door with his empty traps. He looked at the floor and spoke. Want to come with me tomorrow, he said, out in my boat? His voice was shy. Too shy to say those words. He put down his traps and stood across from me, leaning against the wall.

I’ve never been in a boat. I could hardly hear myself. I’ve never gone outside. Except to come here. He looked at me, polite. Worse than any mockery. I lived in a compound, I said.

Compound? said ManRay.

I did go out later, with my rifle. I got some empty tin cans from a pile behind one of the sheds and set them up on a half-collapsed roof. I couldn’t concentrate very well because of being in the open air, unprotected. It was dark when Dad and Uncle Winch got back.

Dinner was eels braided on top of onions in a kind of pie, and Dad kept smacking his lips. Fantastic, he said, what a cook, and gave Cornelia a thumbs up. After dinner, we played cards in his room late into the night, and then he called Mother on his screen. More fertile ones than we’d thought, four so far, he said cheerfully, and some of the young just coming out of their shells. Three, though, clotting factors not so good.

Too bad, said Mother about the clotting factors. Her image was blurry. She kept interrupting with her plans for braised 3D pork bellies.

In the morning after the helicopter left, Cornelia went down to the shore. I saw her from the window. She waded into the water, her blue body dipping in and out of the waves. She swam till she was only a speck in the distance, and came back later, up through the mangroves, her skin dripping in the heat. She waved when she saw me.

I met ManRay at the water, and he held the boat steady while I climbed in. He saw how scared I was. I sat down, gripping the seat. He pushed off. We were still by the shore when he said I could put my hand over the side. See how shallow it is.

I can’t, I said. He put his own hand in, grazing the small stones.

We waited. Later, good, he told me, watching my fingers touch themselves to the water. Do you feel it? he said. It’s the skin of the world. I watched the drops fall from my hand. It’s beautiful, he said and made a splash with his oar. He started to row, slowly. Are you okay?

Yes. I turned to watch our island disappear behind the one we were circling.

Here’s the reef. Look, said ManRay, look down. Under the surface were the roofs of houses. That’s where they put the old people after they moved them here. And the house with the tv antenna, that was my great-grandparents’ house. But there was no tv. They didn’t want us to have a tv.

They? Who are they?

The ones who sent us.

What’s a tv?

Like a screen, he said, but it can’t hear you walking around.

We rowed out toward a further island. I saw, as we grew closer, that it wasn’t an island, but trees, persimmon trees, he said, that grew in the earth along a high mound of pink stones. That was the provincial legislature, he said.

When we got back home I said thank you. I don’t know what made me do it but I reached over to him and touched his arm. I didn’t want to ask what is a provincial legislature, for fear of looking stupid.

I get back early and where are you? Nowhere.

I was sitting down at the mangroves by the water, I lied, and fell asleep.

You’re off the hook this time Barbiedoll, Dad laughing but ticked off underneath, tomorrow we go island-hopping for the rest of the week, you and me, getting away. I thought of getting away with Dad, whatever that looked like. I thought of gliding out over the water with ManRay, of the oars clinking in their locks. Of the houses under the surface, and his arms holding the boat as I stepped back onto shore.

I want to stay here.

Dad laughed. After all my great plans, he said, to show you the islands?

I invented. I’m doing target practice.

Okay. Okay.

We didn’t talk much at dinner. I saw Cornelia move back and forth across the kitchen. ManRay came in the door with his traps full and squirming, and our eyes met. Later in Dad’s room, we called Mother. No, I’m not doing better today, she said between coughs. But you, daughter. She reached out to touch her screen. Mind yourself. Her eyes were swollen and her handkerchief spotted with red. She bent and spat into the bowl on the floor. There, she said. Her blood wasn’t stable, but whose was? I felt so sorry for her.

We rowed out every day past the provincial legislature to where the land ended and the real waters began, with the drowned towers off in the distance.

He taught me to swim, holding his hand under my stomach till the day he took his hand away and I floated like a leaf on the water.

We dived off his boat to graze the tv antenna, swim down over the house, through the slippery green rooms. I found a box stuck under a windowsill. We surfaced and looked inside. ManRay lifted out a peeling photograph, a man and woman without horns. My great-grandparents, he said.

We faced each other, treading water.

Why do you have these? I touched his horns.

They’re from the experiments.

Experiments?

The ones they did on my great-grandparents. They were gestating new strains at the lab, he said, they did that every few years. His great-grandparents were no longer needed. They got shipped out here. I didn’t know what gestating meant. I was confused by his explanation. They really keep you in the dark back at that compound of yours, he said, don’t they.

I thought about the compound. Not dark. Clean white light everywhere. A bright place, too bright to think, but darkness around the edges of everything. We pulled ourselves up over the sides of the boat and slithered in, waving our legs for balance. We rowed together back to the shore, his hands on one oar, mine on the other.

That room, he said. The one with the photograph. My mother was born in that room.

After his island-hopping, which Dad said was really fantastic, he and Uncle Winch stayed home. One night at dinner, which was shrimps with grapefruits and forest honey, he said, Cornelia, you’ve outdone yourself. I raise my glass to you, and he lifted his glass in a salute. After the shrimps came mango ice cream, from mangos picked off the tree behind the shed. I’m in heaven, said Dad. My wife’s gonna be jealous. Cornelia looked at the floor. The nerve he had, following her with his eyes, saying not bad, watching her walk her slow walk into the kitchen. Almost like a real human, if you don’t look at the horns. Later in the living room, he went, I’m just kidding around, what’s the big deal? Somebody like her, it’s okay. She’s just a chimera. His cigar went out and he lit it again. They aren’t like us.

I said: you wouldn’t know.

I’d made him mad, I could tell by the way he turned his back and went quiet. They have their uses, was what he said.

Then I crossed the line. Uses? I said. I’m in heaven? I said. My wife’s gonna be jealous? I said. Like that? He got up from his chair, and out flew his hand. He slapped me. I took my rifle and slammed out of the house. I went down to the mangroves at the shore, shot out over the water. It didn’t matter where I was aiming. Any place would do. He yelled for me to get back inside. I didn’t. I stayed there listening to the waves and then I kept shooting. He came down and found me, yanked the rifle from my hands, pulled me to him and cried. He said things to me, things I forgot as I stood cold and angry inside his arms.

The next day my aim got sharper, everything inside me swimming to my trigger finger, and crack, the ricochet off my shoulder, the rush of the bullet to its target. I went out in the mornings and stayed till nightfall, and even though it was just my grandfather’s old rifle with terrible sights, at the end of the week before dark I brought down a petrel skimming out over the bay.

At dawn, the helicopter angled up away from the house, and I saw Dad’s arm, tiny now, waving at me. Before the sun climbed over the islands, ManRay and I rowed out and lowered the eel traps into shallow water. We ate mangos and swam all day, collecting the traps as the night air gathered. We loaded them into the boat and carried them through the mangroves and up the hill to Cornelia in the kitchen. I didn’t want to touch the eels. You have to get over your initial repulsion, she said, which is nothing more than fear, and she placed a small eel in my palm. The next day she taught me to make a rich broth from the bones, to roll out a crust and fill it with the wild onions, to braid the eels into a lacy shawl, and bake it all in her dish, feeding the cookstove five sticks of wood at a time. We sat around the table, Cornelia, ManRay and Galileo and me, and we devoured the whole pie. Then we played cards and drank some of Galileo’s sugarcane wine.

Cornelia was in the water. She’d taken the rowboat into the bay. I watched her throw down the anchor, a rope tied around a rock. She seemed to be over the houses, then dived. She stayed down for a long time. Later she came up, left the boat anchored there, and headed out in the direction of the provincial legislature. I heard the distant splash at each lift and kick of her feet.

Dad never went into the kitchen, but now there he was. Standing across from Cornelia, facing her, saying something about the next meal. I have a fish here, they gave it to me yesterday at island six. He put the fish on the table.

Cornelia took the fish and turned it over in her hands. I can grill this, she said. With persimmons and sorrel and wild garlic.

Good, said Dad, fantastic. Then he told her: I need to do some tests.

A current of air, a troublesome current, went out from Dad to Cornelia.

Yes? said Dad, looking up and seeing me, frowning, what is it?

The nights got darker and thicker, the bowl of stars lowering itself over the gardens that ran through the house. The sheet stuck to my body in the narrow bed and the air didn’t move. It filled the room like a jelly. Dad grew quiet.

A cage settled over the days. Nothing to eat, Cornelia, only coffee this morning please, and no, Winch, I won’t go out, I’m waiting for messages. Finally, one morning, Dad appeared at breakfast after days of frowning at the screen in his room. He told Uncle Winch the order had come through. We got the go-ahead. We’re on.

Cornelia was heading out from shore. Why didn’t I use my phone to take a picture of her as she swam? Or a movie? You never think of it at the time. Preserve it now, while it’s still here, this moment, so you can look back and back and back and see the lift and fall of her arms, the carving of the water, the picture organized into shapes and colours, into Cornelia flattened on a screen for me to remember.

I woke from the silence. No night dog padding through the gardens. It was inside Dad’s room, whining softly. I opened my door and stepped out into the hall. The moon shone through the pines. Halfway through the dining room, in a pool of shadow, I was stopped by what I saw. Dad in the kitchen, seated at the table. He looked like he was trying to leap out of his body.

Here, he said. Bring it here. The ripest one.

A hand appeared. Cornelia’s hand. I’d never noticed how slender and pointed her fingers were. They held a mango.

Closer, Dad said, give it to me, and Cornelia approached him, put the mango into his hand. Cut it, he said. Her hand lifted the knife from the table, held it over the mango, over his hand holding the mango. She cradled his hand in hers, pushing up to support the cutting, worked the knife around and under the skin, sliced the pieces off the seed bulk, the knife never touching his hand.

He ate till the mango was finished, sat back and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. I could hear him chewing, and then he swallowed, never taking his eyes from Cornelia and the knife. Her hand held it steady. Moved it closer. He spoke. I’m your monster. Aren’t I. Your monster.

He got to his feet and came toward the door. I think he might have been drunk. I couldn’t let him see me. He almost touched me as he passed. I watched him go unevenly through the rooms and the halls, through the gardens and then came the opening and closing of his bedroom door. I watched Cornelia in the kitchen. Back and forth went her hand with the cloth across the table, back and forth. She picked up the kitchen knife and stood looking down at it, running her forefinger along the blade.

In the morning she was in the water, and swam away from me till she disappeared around the curve of the shore. I don’t know when she came back, but when I went to the kitchen, she was sitting at the table. The knife lay on the cutting board. There were no persimmons, no oranges in the bowl. No wild sorrel draining in the sink. No fish laid out ready to scale and clean.

They want to operate on my mother.

What do you mean, operate?

I could hardly hear him. His voice was shaking. They said they want to remove her horns.

How do you know this?

Galileo heard.

Get her out of here, I said.

Yes. We leave in the morning.

Leave tonight.

There was a leak in the boat. Galileo was fixing the leak, but it had to dry. They’d go around dawn.

Dad, I said at his door, why are you taking Cornelia’s horns.

We have to monitor the blood supply, check for clotting factors, possible pathogens. Her horns are key to this.

Did she agree?

She’s an ideal candidate.

Did she agree?

His voice exploded. What do you think I am? he yelled. Yes, she agreed.

How do you know when a person’s lying? There’s nothing specific that they do, you just know. Words spilled out of his mouth. New stage in the research, pathogens in the blood, trauma, genetic considerations. Infinite variables. Bleeders, Barbiedoll, we’re all bleeders, do you want to end up like your mother. Verge of a breakthrough. What it means you have no idea. A simple operation, an hour at the most. Horn tissue contains the answer. Then two small bandages where Cornelia’s horns had been. Blood and tissues flown to the lab for testing. Breakthrough, he said again.

I woke when the night was no longer night, waiting for the clink of the oars in the locks, the boat being pushed out into the water. There was nothing but the lapping of the waves. They must have gone. I sank back into my bed. The dog was prowling. I heard its shaggy breath at my door, its feet padding through the halls and through the gardens of the house. Don’t sleep don’t sleep.

No coffee on the dining room table, no smell of oranges or scrambled eggs in the kitchen. Voices somewhere down beyond the mangroves: men and women in their boats crowding along the shore.

What’s going on? There was a rich ugly smell like at the butcher’s and it was coming from the kitchen.

Get out, yelled Uncle Winch, who held a sheet blooming with blood. He was trying to stuff it into the kitchen stove, but it wouldn’t fit and made a red trail across the linoleum. And beyond him, Dad with my rifle, yelling into his cellphone, Where is the Goddamn helicopter?

What was this laid out on the floor? On a pool red and sticky as paint? Lift the sheet, lift the sheet but too scared. Lift the sheet. Her head was turned toward me, reddish trails like dried streambeds from her nostrils, ears, eyes, mouth, from the pores of her skin. And bruises on her arms. She must have fought. Eyes wide and staring at nothing. Two black pools in her head where her horns had been.

This wasn’t real. It could never be real. It was one of those made-up horrors they tagged from your compound life and put on the screen to terrify you, get you begging for them to make it go away, make everything tidy, everything quiet and grey again. Here was the helicopter thwack thwack against the trees and the grasses, move, move, Dad shouted, waving the rifle, shoving me out the door, and the men and women from the fishing boats were coming up through the mangroves. Somebody threw a rock and Dad went sideways. As he fell he slid me the rifle. Barbiedoll! Shoot!

My father. My father who’d rocked me on his knee. Who ran the cool cloth across my forehead when I was sick, pushed me on the swing in the compound yard, put me on his shoulders and I was bigger than the sky.

Shoot, he yelled.

My father who took me to work with him and let me pour the yellow liquid into the blue liquid and watch the emerald green smoke burst out like a small volcano. Who showed me the veins of leaves under his microscope, the lace of a fly’s wing, mosquito larvae in a drop of water. Who let me feed the creatures in their cages, even the big ones who looked like people but he said they weren’t, they were more pig than human. Or the ones who were part woman part mouse part scorpion part snail and some kind of blood bacteria and I had no idea at that age what was a bacteria an animal or a plant or something else but I forgot what he told me, rushing me past the blood-harvesting room where they lay, asleep and draining, in rows. Or the little ones in the special place at the back, part child part blue-violet wavelength with virus protein, dolphin dna, notes of snail dna, them with their soft shells and swimmy bodies, and then the shells dropped off and blue legs appeared, and little horns sprouted on their heads, and even though they spoke and said please and thank you they weren’t real people, never think they are real people at all.

Shoot, he yelled again. The women were over Uncle Winch. Cornelia’s kitchen knife lay red at his side. ManRay was there, right in front of me, and Dad yelled pull the goddamn trigger. ManRay was looking at me and trying to say something, and I pulled the trigger.

Somewhere something was burning. It must have been the helicopter because I saw its smoky mangle jutting above the trees.

I’m sorry. Did I actually say that? I’m sorry? What do those words even mean? Where do you find the right words for the thing that pulls you apart from yourself? I looked at the rifle and at him lying there on the ground, and he seemed so quiet, as if nothing had happened at all. Nothing. The fingers of his left hand were moving slightly. I couldn’t stop looking at his fingers. Wake up, I said, and started to shake him, Dad, wake up. Galileo pulled me off. I’m sorry, I said to my father.

Galileo’s arms were around me. ManRay’s arms were around me.

We buried my father in the high ground, covering the grave with palm leaves. There was no ceremony. No words of remembrance. What should I remember? I tried to call Mother but she’d been shut down. Function temporarily deleted, the screen said. I sat there and cried. Not for what was, but for what could have been.

The islanders washed Cornelia’s body. They covered her with the flowers and leaves of the shore, laid her in the water, and we floated her to the deep of the bay above the drowned houses, lowering her to the roof, their old roof with the tv antenna nearly touching the surface, swimming her into the bedroom of her people.

That night ManRay and I rowed out to the pink granite stones of the provincial legislature, slept under the sky, eating eels, shrimps, and persimmons ripened in the shadow of the stones. It was there, a year later, that our girl was born. We called her Cornelia. Her horns were velvety buds, and her shell, before it sloughed off, was tightly bound like transparent ribbons of seaweed.

We come out here all the time to swim. She’s still the deepest blue, our Cornelia, the blue of the saltwater she was born in. Cornelia, swimming toward me, climbs out to the shore and we sit on the stones of the provincial legislature, dangle our feet over the side. We eat persimmons and look across at the towers of the drowned city.