The Emigration of Salt
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Does nothing on this godforsaken island work properly?”
Oona stepped back from the blank screen, shaking her head. After a moment of consideration, she did what she’d learned thirty-plus years ago as an apprentice electrician: she slapped the panel with an open palm, and swore. The monitor rocked, as if by laughter, until swaying to a silent stop.
Wiping away the salty dribble of sweat and haze wetting her brow, she ran through likely faults, then snapped the test set off her belt to check the monitor’s power supply. Dead. Completely dead.
Despite the ping of satisfaction at assessing the most likely cause correctly, she cursed again. Couldn’t be easy.
Oona shouldered her pack against the jostling wind, her rising frustration, and the creeping fatigue of the forty-minute hike to the tower. The taskforce uniform beneath her poncho was saturated with sweat, despite the calendar reading December. At a shade over fifty, she remembered a bracing day at the Cliffs of Moher years earlier, when the winter wind was brisk and the air clear for miles. Like winter was meant to be. But meant-to-be had eroded with the rising sea, shifted with the climate, collapsed into unrecognizable rubble under the waves.
She looked up, seeking solace in the high clouds that broke and raced like salmon thrusting upstream, sending shards of light through the dew-grown fog. Their weaving dance unclenched her jaw, smoothing the crease in her brow.
She’d taken this job for a little nostalgia, to escape the constant crisis atmosphere back in Kildare at the TEAE headquarters. The Tascfhórsa Eigeandála Aontaithe na hÉireann (or United Irish Emergency Task Force) was over a decade old, and as the name suggested, existed in a state of perpetual emergency. Always strained to the point of breaking, the taskforce was often the only thread holding the island together in the post-Climate Catastrophe world.
Islands, she corrected herself, plural. Now, finally, after nearly one hundred and fifty years of partition, and over five hundred of colonization, Ireland was free. But it wasn’t one united country, really, it was a federation of over seventy islands banded together in the rising seas. Now it was like an archipelago that had been thrown into a sack and shaken about, with one great island settled at the bottom. The Irish Sack of Potatoes was, in fact, the less-than-affectionate name people had taken to calling the affiliation.
Originally meant to manage resources and infrastructure during resettlement, the TEAE had inevitably been drawn into the squabbling and pissing contests between the different counties and islands. And factions, and even now, religions. A constant headache.
Oona let her focus drift from the twisting clouds to the landscape around her. After years of hurricanes and a bathwater-warm ocean, the Cliffs were transformed. Letting her feet follow her gaze, she strode through a break in the flagstone wall until she reached the naked cliff edge. Oona dropped her pack and laid down on her belly, allowing her head to droop over the torn fringe of sod. Resting. What she should have done first, instead of charging at the monitor panel, a bit of a frayed wire herself.
Far below, the dark ocean churned, and she recalled in childhood being able to see the small beaches where the cliffs rooted their feet in the earth. Now they waded knee-deep in the rising sea, the froth dressing their shins and thighs as waves dashed boldly up, then withdrew.
The hulking profiles of the cliffs filed back into the fog, wearing new silhouettes carved by recent violence. Stone-shattering storms. New precipices torn into existence. Ancient layers of shale sharpened by fresh assaults, knife-featured infant faces exposed to the sea.
Thrill and apprehension coiled together in her chest as if geologic time had leap-frogged ahead, bashing away human scales of expectation, and she could find no firm footing in the resulting cascade.
A surge of vertigo sent her shimmying back from the edge. She closed her eyes and let her forehead sink into the bristles of grass.
She breathed in the damp scent of home, the alloyed mineral and rot of the soil, the sour tang of grass. This is what she’d returned for, not wrangling with bad equipment. The job was far below her pay grade in reality: run a report on groundwater salinization and bring it back to Kildare. She knew every piece of equipment, every monitor, every trunk, every transformer in the system by type if not by personal acquaintance. This didn’t even require a permanent fix—just give the monitor enough juice to get an accurate test result. She could make that monitor work, she knew. She could make it sing. Easy.
Easier than her regular job, racing all over the newly spotty map of Ireland, directing emergency work gangs to patch and resuscitate a failing electrical grid. Most days just running to stay still. Status quo had become victory. In this work, there was no future, only the perpetual pounding of now now now. As foreman, she was often the anvil that hammer landed on.
But in her heart of hearts, she was just another tech. After finishing a marathon, round-the-clock grid upgrade in Wicklow, she’d spotted this assignment on the roster, and assigned herself. Doing a little regular work with nothing but her hands and her tools sounded like a holiday. And nothing was more regular, more expected in this line of work, than faulty equipment and unplanned repairs. All part of the nostalgia when she thought about it that way.
She had to laugh at herself that life had come to this: as close as she could get to a day off from work was more work. Lighter work, but still. Her parents had taught her to do the good that was in front of her, to do the right thing. That’s what you were put on God’s green earth to do, after all. And there was no end to the right things that needed doing at the TEAE.
Beneath the veneer of frustration over the dead panel she knew there’d be the satisfaction of a simple solution. Some bit of wire, or a component needing replacement. Unlike in her real work, where every day was another crisis, another shortage.
And water was chief among them. Half of her jobs now involved upgrading the grid for pumping stations. But in the last year, the island’s sedimentary bedrock had begun absorbing saltwater, and freshwater supplies were shrinking too fast. All the projection charts showed the rain reclamation and current urban desalination efforts by the national Water Admin couldn’t meet the needs in the densely populated southern and eastern cities. Ireland could not survive.
Not alone. Without aid.
Strangled by thirst back into the yoke of foreign involvement. Aid being just a pretty name for domination.
Not the same, she knew, this salt-soaked famine and the last. Ireland was occupied by water, not armies. But the effect was the same: so many fleeing, so much heartbreak. Everyday she fought to make what little they had stretch just a little further in the name of independence.
Her young coworkers disagreed. The old grid serving cities wasn’t the only alternative. Foreign technology democratically deployed, they argued, could stabilize the country. Self-sufficient communities based on mutual aid running their own reclamation efforts would be more efficient than the zombie system they resuscitated daily. Technological exchange wasn’t the old world’s system of loans and debt, they believed.
The older techs and administrators, deep in their cynicism, said there was nothing to fear because Ireland had nothing left to take. But, they rebutted, Ireland needed to stand on its own two feet, finally. She tended to agree.
These young people made her laugh, with their co-ops and collectives, preaching decentralization and quoting James Connolly’s belief in international solidarity. But at least they walked the walk, spending every spare minute on experimental tech from the Baltic Commonwealth and New Mumbai. Not crying into their pints like some techs, who were always looking for someone to blame.
She turned onto her back, happy to be alone in the briny air, far away from all of them. Oona dropped the tension out of her shoulders and jaw, and just let the land hold her up, let the cliffs rise out of the earth and press her skyward while the burdens of leadership fell away. Sometimes it was good to be the dumb grunt. She just had to deliver the data. She could relax and enjoy the view.
She’d seen the radar map, but the pixelated whorls couldn’t do justice to the show above her. Dense sheets of gray tattered and torn, exposing blue pools above. The gulls diving cliffside serenaded her, and occasionally rose overhead, wings stilled to catch the wind. Floating bone white on slate, fleeting ebony and yellow flecks in the fog. Her breath came in easy tides under the swirling mosaic.
After several silent minutes, she flipped onto her side in the grass, combing her fingers through the twisting blades. They were thinner, stiffer than in her childhood. She knew this from the task force’s botanists’ reports, but she would have seen it anyway. All the flora was changing to keep up with the new climate: shedding rain faster, waterproofing seed husks against rot. Or dying off. So many indigenous species had become extinct in the initial wave of climate catastrophe: the local orchids and gentians had drowned, or succumbed to constant disruption of weather patterns.
Feeling herself slipping toward maudlin, she pushed herself up and grabbed her pack. She was a woman with a job, after all. Walking crossways to the wind, she returned to the monitor mounted next to O’Brien’s Tower. Her eyes scanned east past the collapsed visitor center; she was disappointed to see none of the familiar shapes from her youth in the dim distant heath. No nubbly white humps of grazing sheep, no crook-legged saunter of the feral donkeys that were usually good for some entertainment. American tourists had thought they were props for their selfies, but one nip from the sharp-toothed jokers taught you otherwise. Gone now, tourists and donkeys both.
She returned to her task and traced the powerline for the monitor up the tower wall, to the solar unit on the roof. She spotted the problem immediately: under the stone molding about 25 feet above her, a small community of swallows had made their homes. Mud and grass nests were clumped like soap bubbles along the underside, covering the path of the wiring. Less than ideal if she had to re-run the line.
Even from the ground she could see the brief glints where the barbs of their little beaks had stripped away the insulation, exposing the raw wire. That and the salt air equaled an open, or maybe a short circuit. Hands on hips, she dropped her head and shook it. Probably another dozen nests on the roof around the panel.
Never as easy as you wanted it to be.
The cozy, mild irritation about the job was rising to the level of a stiff chafe. Resolved to not be impeded by birds, she pulled a key from the retractable lead on her belt and let herself into the tower. She dragged her pack to the foot of the tight stairwell corkscrewing to the roof, and hesitated: run up without it and find out she needed it; or drag the thirty-five pounds up now, probably unnecessarily? She split the difference, slinging her ohm meter over her shoulder and grabbing the portable solar panel..
Opening the access door, she was blasted by the salt wind. She let the gust batter her back until she was pressed into the old stone crenellation. The loose gray threads of her ponytail frantically danced around her face. She swiped them back, peering into the faded watercolor mist of the landscape; decades before she had sworn to her Da that she’d seen the mountains of Kerry past the sun-glazed fields.
She tucked away the worn-out boast and turned to her work, spotting the solar panel. As predicted, every swallow west of Ennis had made camp around the device. She looked at the cluster of domed constructions, lovingly woven into the shelter of the power assembly. Given the constant warmth of the coast, they could be full of eggs; each pocket filled with a percolating future.
If she wanted to run a whole new line, it would mean ripping most of the nests out.
She huffed in irritation imagining the squawking community as she worked. Pecked to death by tiny beaks was not how she wanted to go. She simply couldn’t be bothered.
So she unfolded the mini solar panel on top of the dead glass of the permanent unit, dropping the leads over the side. Two passes with vinyl tape and it sat steady on the inactive unit. She could cut and splice the power line below; it wouldn’t be pretty but it would work.
She was satisfied with the temporary solution, and applauded herself both on the elegance of her bootleg arrangement, and bringing only what she needed to the roof. A small victory, not hiking the pack up the steep steel stairs. She savored the satisfaction of a mundane accomplishment. It was trivial, like a few grains of imported cane sugar on her tongue, but just as sweet.
Back on the ground with the splice completed, she leaned against the old stone edifice, face out to the sea. It would take a few minutes for the solar unit to pull enough light for the monitor to run the report. She stared at the distant horizon where the dark gnashing navy of the waves dissolved into the gray blur of the churning sky. To the north, bright pennies of light dropped through the clouds, flashing momentarily on the waves before disappearing, sinking like treasure in the frothy chop.
Despite the lulling roll of the tide, the report tugged at her attention. If the water test results came back clean, she knew, the debate would start in earnest about resettling more of the population in The West. This area was still sparsely populated, lacking the infrastructure of the southern and eastern islands.
Most of Ireland’s population was crowded onto Great Munster Island, which stretched from Killarney to Kildare, with fingers reaching into the Celtic Sea at Cork, Clonmel, and Kilkenny. Riverside cities had washed away, dissolved like sand castles into the hungry sea, their inhabitants chased uphill into sprawling refugee villages. Conurbanization the civil engineers called it. Slums was a better description for a lot of what she saw.
The story of emigration was a familiar one, if this telling was a bit damper than previous generations’. Even if the saltwater penetration here was just slower, it would buy them time. In a few years, there would be full-scale, national water reclamation in Ireland. Salinization would be a crisis of the past. No more over-salted Potatoes in the Sack, as the saying went. If, God and contractors willing, the urban reclamation plants were on line, on schedule.
Oona heard the monitor tone, signaling that it had powered up and was ready to run the report. She clomped up the metal steps to retrieve the temp panel.
Before stepping out into the wind, Oona brushed her hair back, refastening it into a bun. What would the next crisis be, she wondered, twisting the errant strands under the elastic. The habitual crease between her eyes returned as the list wrote itself: another spike in food import tariffs, an increase in heavy metals in the fish, or individual isles declaring sovereignty? Munster was the obvious threat there, but human illogic knew no bounds.
Like people demanding the TEAE restore 24 hour household electricity ASAP; as if unlimited wifi could reverse their creeping insecurity. Too many survivors in her generation longed for a return of the trivial consumer culture of their youth, bristling under the strictures of plant-based diets and travel restrictions. And always behind these gripes: the telecommunication contractors, the private transportation lobbies, the food importers.
Even her brother, needling her to use her emergency TEAE satellite link to watch some European rugby final while she was away. Ten-plus years after the world started falling apart, people still didn’t appreciate how much work it took to just hold it together. They didn’t grasp—didn’t want to grasp—how fragile it all still was.
One step onto the roof and her grumpy interior monologue dropped off, like muting a call from a crotchety aunt. The clouds had split gloriously open, spilling a radiant spectrum across Oileán Clare. She eagerly wedged herself between the stones to watch the light push back the gauzy cloak of fog. Words, worry, and responsibility left her. All that remained was awe in what she witnessed.
The land. The flaming greens flared with edges of ochre and yellow, like trapped suns burning through an emerald carpet. In the distance, the thick grasses wavered, feathered with fertile hues, ducking gusts and bouncing back up, alive with the pounding energy of the earth below. Oona watched the stripes of sunlight cascading, brightening and darkening the fields as ribbons torn from the cloudbank fast-forwarded over her head like some time-elapse video from her youth.
And through it all darted the swallows, their iridescent black backs deflecting the arrows of light.
The lifting mist revealed a squat structure shingled with bright black sequins of solar panels. She identified it as the puffin hatchery that had been on the map she’d downloaded for the hike up. A co-op of conservationists were attempting to maintain some of the native bird population who had been driven off the cliffs by high winds. The low building pulled a dusty memory to Oona’s mind of glittering formal dress in the back of her mother’s closet. A kind of utilitarian beauty she could appreciate.
She’d never actually seen one of the self-sufficient communities; rushing around, sticking her fingers in every leak in the dike had kept her too occupied for years. She was surprised by how large it was, encompassing several buildings and the patchwork of greens that indicated cultivation. She couldn’t make out where it ended and the undeveloped land started; they all blended together. She recognized greenhouses, and what had to be a rain catching system, pale in shades of silver and gray. The northern side of the complex was built right into the hillside and thatched with the same grass, a living sod roof. She was surprised by the elegant design: a marriage of ancient and modern. Probably even growing some fancy hybrid potatoes, she thought with a chuckle. If her coworkers had their way, co-ops like this would cover the islands, with their foreign tech and high ideals.
A cluster of swallows scrambled past, mobbing some bigger bird. She watched as their hooked wings caught the disturbed air, wheeling them about as they rode the currents, triumphant over the interlocutor. With the bigger bird chased away, they dodged and dove, snatching sustenance from the wind, finding success where none seemed available.
The swallows were thriving, having replaced the tourists on the tower roof, finding a new niche where one hadn’t existed before. Not the strong that survived, Oona observed, but the flexible that persevered.
She turned back to recover the panel, considering the consequences of a report of fresh water. A pump station would need more than on-site solar could provide. The grid would have to be redesigned; private developer money would be an inevitability. The contractors and private developers were ready to seize any opportunity to demand more from the TEAE, and the only reason the West hadn’t been overrun was the lack of infrastructure. But the contractors were salivating at the chance to build that infrastructure, to build new cities around potable water.
Proximity to a clean water source was a marker of security. Of wealth. Images of the Scottish Highlands, playground of land speculators and developers, with the highest population density in Western Europe, seeped into her mind. A hive of “sustainable luxury” carved into the landscape, surrounded by resettlement camps. Luxury surrounded by fences. Glistening like the yolk of a smashed egg, surrounded by fractured slums.
She finished slicing through the tape and winding up the leads. She felt the prickling of her pride, considering the alternative. Shouldn’t Ireland stand on its own two feet? One nation, finally? But she knew the gossip back in Kildare, about the budget overruns and missed deadlines on every project, especially desalinization. And the voices on the video conferences justifying the delays and demanding more money rang with the brogue of old Dublin, not the Gujarati accent of the young activists.
As the clouds closed their fingers around the sun, she saw the last reflected rays, bouncing up off the glittering conservatory, bright like a party dress in the grass.
Couldn’t be easy. No simple jobs any more. Not even for a grunt like her.
Far below, the monitor signaled its progress, the flat mechanical tone challenging the birds’ bright round voices. The joy of their calls was shrill against the fading light on the land, overriding the dull noise of the machine.
When she reached it, it would have numbers, data, answers. She could simply download the report, and let other people decide. That was the job she’d taken, and she’d never not done her job.
Oona gazed one last time over the new shape of her old home, the birds boomeranging through the air, the darkening landscape still glinting in the occasional streak of sun.
We don’t have nothing, she thought, silently rebutting her bitter old colleagues. We have this. It has always been about this; every generation has fought and died for it. The land. Our land.
She looked up to the borderless sky, shared by all life. One sun, one moon, one small planet in the great sea of empty space. So few resources, it was true. But still, much was possible, even now. Adaptation.
But unlike the sparrows, she could see other futures that included more than her own brief survival. Maybe sovereignty and isolation were not the same thing, she considered, or did not have to be. Maybe real sovereignty meant stewardship, not just exploitation by our own hands.
Back on the tower floor, Oona shouldered her pack and her newfound certainty, which felt oddly like hope. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was right. There was a vast difference between the two, as she well knew.
She walked to the panel and saw the familiar interface. She knew what needed to be altered, and how. She might not have her coworkers’ youth and idealism, but she had something else. She knew every inch of every trunk, every transformer in the dying grid. Her hands moved with easy confidence, her face set in resolution, the slightest smile tugging at her raw bitten lips. She made the monitor sing the song she needed Kildare to hear, notes of birdsong and banging waves accompanying the data.
Report downloaded, she slapped the cover shut, returning the screen to black.
Amy Nagopaleen (she/her) writes fiction from Queens, NY, where she has been a union and social justice activist for over twenty years. When not making up stories fueled by coffee and weird experiences at work, she is drawing pictures, parenting, and complaining about capitalism. Her writing can be found in Newtown Literary, Pen+Brush in Print, The Wondrous Real, and forthcoming from PseudoPod and Fusion Fragment.
You can find her on Twitter @amynagopaleen.