J O R G E C A S U S O
Like the others who survived the flood, Gabriel leads a dull existence in a world covered with water. His memories have been erased by mind drugs, and the images projected in windows are the only reality he knows. When he is summoned to visit his mother who has been abandoned with the other elders, a world that has been lost begins to emerge.
BEFORE THE FLOOD
Few remember what it was like before the flood. My mother, like the other elders who survived, has no memories left. I suspect that is due to the medications they are given in the nursing homes on the water where the elders have all been moved. They occupy rooms in old art deco hotels, the lobbies docking stations for the small boats that occasionally disembark a visitor, most likely a relative come to check how long it would be before they would inherit the estate that could emerge if the waters ever recede.
But I know none of these things that day when I hitch my boat to a piling, remove the full-body suit that protects travelers from the radioactive waters and secure my harpoon on the deck. We all carry harpoons when we cross the waters. The fish, their heads often protruding from their bellies or spines, their eyes swollen shut, are enormous. Further inland, in the swamps closer to what could be dry land, a fierce new breed of reptile has spawned. Few venture into the swamps.
I drift to a rope ladder that hangs from the edge of a narrow wooden pier and secure my boat. Then slowly, I climb, holding tight with one hand as I lift my leg, which has been lame for as long as I can remember, and with the other hand carefully place it on the next rung. By the time I reach the top, I can see the fish with their swollen eyes gathering around the hull.
The planks sag and creak as I limp toward a winding staircase at the far end of the lobby, which is mostly submerged in a tide that never rises or falls. There is no moon, or sun, and the small, high windows look out on a red sky that never changes.
At the top of the stairs, I check in. As always, the man in white who cares for the elders exchanges a brief but courteous greeting. It is not until later that I learn his name is James and that I am called Gabriel. I prefer the names to the numerals dispensed by the Governors. Unlike those born after the flood, we who survived all once had names.
James is soft-spoken, and his face is a dark mask that never reveals his emotions. In a world freed from imperfections, I am grateful he has not reacted to my unusual appearance, my head too large for my body, my eyes and mouth too large for my head, my misshapen leg forcing a limp when I walk.
James is responsible for the upkeep of the building. Compared to the pristine tower that houses my compartment in the Occupied Zone, with its misted scents and clean contours, the sunken structure reeks of age and decay. The walls are worn, and the chairs creak when they are sat upon, like the doors when they are opened.
The old building needs as much care as the elders, the pipes leaking, stains forming in the corners. Despite daily cleaning, the spaces are cluttered with latches and pipes and lamps that give no light. For all the mopping and bandaging, it is a constant battle to keep the outside world from seeping in.
James opens the registry. The pages are blurred as if they have been turned for as long as it has taken the building itself to wear down. But who could read the register, and who would bother if they could, is unclear.
Before my first visit, I had never seen a registry, much less what James calls pages--thin leaves with strange black markings forming words that sound inside the mind without being heard. It is a secret form of communication known only to the Governors. Before the flood, everyone could read these pages. James has shown me one found with the elders' belongings, but none can remember now how to decipher the message it contains.
The registry is filled with these markings. Many are repeated. Perhaps they are names left on pages that are darker and more worn. The recent markings I recognize. They are the numbers used to mark the days and hours, the numbers we input during our shift in the hive. They are numbers that mark our identity. Mine is the only one repeated on the final page.
Like the other compartments that line the long, narrow hallway, my mother's room is empty except for the camera in the corner that captures everything and the large virtual window that looks out on a row of swaying palms. Every compartment, including my own, has such windows, the images varying according to a predetermined program or the whim of the Governors' agents in charge of the designated zones. In the case of the old hotel, which seems of little interest to the Governors, the images loop into an endless summer day that always begins in the late afternoon and ends shortly after sunset.
I approach the bed and touch my mother's arm. It feels thin and frail beneath the sheets. She turns away from the window, and I can see the eyes searching. She seems to know the man who is now holding her hand, but she doesn’t know how he ended up here.
Before my mother speaks, I know what she will say. Always, it is the same.
"I know you," she says and never finishes the thought.
Ask her what she just ate, and my mother draws a blank, but she vaguely recalls the distant past, especially the numbers—the address of her childhood home, the date of her birth, the number of the telephone line--but nothing much else. The bigger picture, the outlines of the world before the flood, or the years that followed, these, like her name, seem lost to her.
This time she says nothing. I hold her hand and stare out the window. The same magnificent sun hangs above the horizon, but there is no water, only the row of trees and the same cars cruising over and over again in the golden light.
“I miss the rain,” my mother says, and at first I fail to understand what she means. It never rains. Never has. In fact, the word is archaic. Although there is water everywhere, the sky never produces rain.
“There is nothing like the rain,” she says, looking up at me, and it is clear that for the first time she is remembering.
You could lie at night, she says, and listen to the sound of the drops tapping on the glass or sweeping through the trees. It is good to be inside when it rains, especially when you are alone or with someone who cares for you. She tells me that there are different kinds of rain and that each has a name -- drizzles and showers and downpours. But the rain, she says, is also frightening, especially the storms, when it seems the sky has cracked and all the water it holds comes spilling out.
She turns back toward the window. “That's not right,” she says. “The cars and the streets, they are no longer there.”
“Of course they are,” I assure her.
“No, that was before the flood,” she says. “That is not a window.”
It is the first time I have heard about the flood, and I attribute it to another hallucination, like the rain, brought on by the mind drugs she has been prescribed. I assure her that it certainly is a window and that soon night will fall, and the lights she so enjoys seeing on the boulevard will soon come on.
“That is not a window,” she says again and turns away.
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