Time as a Helix of Islands and Tides
R. Paul Cooper
History ferments and rusts on the shores of the present. A tide of rubbish across the archipelago. Smashed engines, wrecked machinery, gobs of plastic and rare metal, carcasses brined in foreign DNA, shipwrecks from submerged cultures. No sense asking where it all come from. Nostalgia’s a riptide yanks you into the past. Futures lie inward and inland along a twisting helix.
“Éy laba!” voices called from up the beach.
It wasn’t like Arkad couldn’t hear them. He just ignored them. He was ap jonglé apré the nature of time, how it moved forward inshore, moved backward outshore. The rakontè had been telling him all about it, and he had been trying to work it out in Mérikin in his journal. That was the one thing no Mérikin could understand, the rakontè had told him, the one reason the archipelago remained free after the finfifon, the end of the world. The visitors Mérikin refused to accept the changes to the nature of time. All they saw were geographic changes, topological shifts, changed terrains. Arkad figured if he could work it out in Mérikin, he might get the visitors to understand. If they could understand, well—mé la! He’d be giving them a future.
Goosebumps raced across his skin as he imagined the possible connections.
“No gin in djòb!” the voices called again. Yes, yes, he thought, we got a job to do.
“M’ap travayé isit!” he called back in return. He was working. Jonglé—to think—was to work. That’s what he couldn’t get the rest to understand. The others never seemed to feel alienated from the djòb in the way Arkad did, so much so that he wondered if something was wrong with him, if by studying Mérikin he had somehow introduced disarray into his worldview. Everyone else accepted the djòb of the present as vital to the future, to the reconciliation of past and future, but in the present, well—Arkad stopped himself. Everybody had a djòb and that djòb wasn’t jonglé. It was to collect whatever washed up. Recycle it, assimilate it. No getting around it. The djòb could be grueling, but divided evenly among them, it wasn’t so bad, even Arkad had to admit that. After a full tide cycle, he’d go back to a future, they all would, and they’d all be where they belonged.
They yelled again, “Gro dolo ka manjé twa!”
A big wave gone swallow you up. In his head, when he translated it to Mérikin, it didn’t feel right. There was no context for it. A people lost in time, a people with no sense of time, no sense at all that time had been sifted right out from under their feet. How could they ever understand a phrase meant to be a reminder of the dangers of time travel?
Not that it mattered. It’d been ages since anyone’d seen a visitor. He’d have to go far into the past to find one, out there somewhere beyond the horizon, where sky and sea twist and futures are not promised. Realizing he’d been pulled out with the receding tide, Arkad joined the others at the djòb of the present.
The tide finished flowing out and back, exuding debris. No matter how much they cleaned, the djòb crew knew they’d just be back at it again the next day, but that was the djòb. That was the present. The present. Arkad was ap jonglé again, he couldn’t help himself. The cluttered pelagic zone where futures and past meet hypnotized him, because between the nadir of low tide and the peak of high, that’s where the present existed. The sea always changes the present, adds to it, takes away, speeds up, slows. The present’s kòm ça, subject to the whims of the sea. It could rise up and flood the whole archipelago, the sea, it wouldn’t be the first time that’s for sure, rise up so high it put every future at risk.
Dozers shoved large mounds of trash to the sorting and loading areas. The work crews followed behind them, picking up those things that escaped the dozer’s blade. Nothing was too insignificant to be reclaimed. Chunks of wood were carved into handles, toys, dowels, and lucky charms. Every bit of string, nylon, polyester, cotton, hemp, woven into a new thread combining all of them, braided into cords as intertwined as the archipelago and tides. Every seashell and stone crushed for the minerals within, every bit of glass tumbled into bead; every bit of old bolt and nut, every brass valve and iron nail—all of it smelted and cast to yield something new. Incessant streams of Legos gifted to the children, endless plastic bottles repurposed in countless ways, and never-ending waves of silicon chips antero-fitted to future work.
The dozers didn’t chug diesel or spew fumes. They weren’t those ancient machines described in books or video files, the ones that hastened the finfifon. No, the clank of the blade, the whine of the hydraulics, the soft crush of rubber treads on wet sand, all of it was conducted through a bio-electric alternating current, the dozer itself half-alive in the botanical sense. The silent motor driving it burst intermittent discharge from the rear exhaust—a surge of electricity that was ultimately harmless but sure to pilé anyone who stood too close. They called it the shar fifolé because like the mysterious lights of fable that drew people into bogs and fens, the discharge bewildered those caught up in it.
The small danger of the discharge was worth it. Arkad couldn’t imagine doing this work without machinery. That’s how they’d done after the finfifon. By hand. Such back-breaking work, everybody toiling in the present with no sense whatsoever of a future. Even without the machines, somehow, they built a future. Arkad was grateful for that, wé, but he wasn’t sure he could be as strong as the ancestors. A life without a future? If Arkad didn’t have a future, if all he had was the endless present on the beach, then he might as well just swim out into the past and be done with it all. Futures though, futures made the djòb worth it.
At present, things weren’t so exciting. The work crew ambled, barely paid attention, chatted, shoveled and raked.
Rédyo was ap parlé. His real name was Marcel but they called him Rédyo ‘cause he was always ap parlé. He never shut up.
“Mo ka gouvèné shar-çala myé ki tou-l-monn!”
Arkad agreed. The whole crew did. Félicité, the crew lead, and the twins, Ofélie and Urbin. Rédyo could operate the shar fifolé better than anybody. They’d never question the ability behind his bragging, but he was prone to make a traka, a fuss, a problem. Especially when he thought he’d been insulted. When he got like that, well, he’d pretty much get on a tirade tested everybody’s patience.
“Ça sipozé dèt mwin la! Félix, li pa bon!” Rédyo spit at the surf.
Rédyo wore a pair of white rubber boots and loosely fitting denim shorts that looked as if he had found them on the beach just that morning, but no shirt. He was what they called morani; in the sunlight, his yellow skin, splashed with bronze freckles, burned golden, and the tips of his tightly coiled hair glowed blond.
He bellowed, “Di li désenn shar-la!”
When Rédyo’s temper grabbed hold of him wasn’t nothing nobody could do to get him to calm down. He was hollering for Félix to stop work and come down off the machine but wasn’t nobody going to stop just for Rédyo, which only made him mad-mad. Big mad. What could he do, fight tou-l-monn? Wasn’t no use fighting. Everybody had voted, the decision had been made. He’d have to fight every crew on the beach.
Félicité yelled at him. “Nèg! Kit tô traka! To fé gran traka, mé nouzòt té voté pou Félix. To fou!”
“Vouzòt..!?” raged Rédyo.
Ofélie and Urbin scrambled to put Félicité between them and Rédyo’s rage. Arkad watched but did not react; he had seen such rages before. But Ofélie and Urbin were new to the djòb, just a couple of kids on the shore of life, a couple of twins, byin-briké, almost blan, with deep dark freckles and red curly hair twisted into dreads that drew attention toupatou—everywhere. They came from one of the other islands, Arkad could never remember which one, but they’d come on over at adulthood, as was the custom: float the tides of the past until you find a future where you belong. Arkad himself had drifted across several futures before choosing to stay on Grantil-la. The big island. It was the only place he could study Mérikin.
Félicité threw an elbow into Rédyo’s chest, staggering him. She wasn’t big but she was stout. She had a mess of piti back home and sure wasn’t gone let no pa bon intimidate her. That’s why they voted her lead of the work crew. Managing children had prepared her to manage men like Rédyo.
He came at her again and she threw that elbow across his chest again, but this time he pushed forward. She slipped in the sand, caught her footing, shoved back, bucked him without so much as disturbing a thread of her cotton tiyon.
“Kout mwin!” she yelled.
Arkad said nothing. Rédyo needed to hear the truth. He was pa bon to work with.
She lit into him now. “Wé! To ka gouvèné shar-la, mé lasmènn pasé to fé li vini bourbé!”
Last week Rédyo got the dozer stuck in wet sand. It took them nearly all day to get the dozer unstuck, and when they returned the next day, the tide of rubbish seemed twice as high. As the day went on, rumor started that Rédyo had been drunk, using the private cab of the dozer to hide his drinking. Rédyo denied it. A vote was called. Arkad and Félicité defended him because they knew he hadn’t been drinking. They worked too closely for him to hide that. But they had to admit he’d demonstrated a pattern of instability. Wasn’t the first time he’d derailed the djòb. Everybody was quick to remind them about some incident or another. They had to cede. It was only right to give someone else a shot.
“To va wa!” retorted Rédyo. “Li va krazé!”
The shar fifolé stopped. From the cab, Félix yelled, “Éy laba!”
“To wa?” Rédyo asked Félicité. “Li pa bon-pa bon!”
Félicité ignored him, ran toward where Félix pointed.
“Li mòr!” Félix yelled. “Li mòr!”
Dead, someone was dead on the beach. Arkad followed Félicité, the twins trailing after him. Rédyo shouted at the other crews to send help.
Arkad knew instantly she was Mérikin. It was the clothes—her trousers, her blouse and boots, all stitched from materials in pre-cut patterns, not the pieced together, patch-work clothing of the isles—but it didn’t take a student of fashion to see she didn’t belong. Li blan. The whitest person Arkad had ever seen.
They dragged her limp up the beach. She lived, half-drowned. No one could blame Félix mistaking her for dead. Someone got an IV in her arm. Someone else radioed in the emergency. They didn’t have the medical supplies to help someone so bad off, but they could stabilize her and get her on a bato out of there.
In a spasm, she clutched the people helping her, clawing their flesh. “Please” she gurgled. “Please. The future—”
She was unconscious again
“Ki li di?” asked the djòb supervisor.
“Mo pa konné,” responded one of the medics, shaking her head.
“Lavnir!” shouted Arkad. He couldn’t believe he shouted that, it just came blurting out.
The djòb supervisor turned to him. “Ki to di?”
“Li…. Li Mérikin.”
The supervisor glared a moment then said, “Kouri vek li.”
Arkad would be going with the visitor Mérikin. Adrenaline slapped his nervous system. This was it, the moment he had been studying for—would she wake? She had said the future? Had he translated that right? What did future and past mean to a people who could not understand islands or tides?
As Arkad waited for the bato to the future, Rédyo sauntered over to mock Arkad. He asked, “Tô rèv vini vré, hin?”
Wé, yeah, Arkad’s dream had come true.
Arkad rode on the tail fin of the bato, facing rear-ward and dangling his feet just above the water. The bato was an antero-fitted Lafitte skiff. On the bow of the boat was a solar panel that produced more electricity than the bato would ever need; the charge from the panels initiated a corkscrew drive propeller that ran lengthwise the underside of the boat. As water moved through the corkscrew, the internal design produced a hydrostatic tumble that moved the bato forward at a perpetual, reliable rate. It didn’t move fast, but what it lacked in speed it made up for in tenacity. If the bato ceased to move, it required another solar charge to re-initiate the drive train. If the solar panels failed, the bato could be ‘row-cranked’ by several people with oars. The bato wasn’t much use on the sea, not slow like it was, but it was perfectly suited to the brackish canals and bayous that meandered across Grantil-la.
Everybody in the archipelago had a boat of some kind because it was the best way to get around. Never got stuck, not like vehicles with tracks or wheels, all of which soon became marsh junk. Even the djòb dozers couldn’t force their way through the muck. They stayed on the beach, would probably never come off, unloading them there on the beach had taken hundreds of people, several barges, and a tugboat pilfered from the past. Most boats though, most were works of the present. An old watering trough might be modified into a flat-bottom skiff or plastic barrels strapped together as a base for a bricolage houseboat—old plastic, tin, wood. Dugouts were carved from massive driftwood trunks, fitted with outriggers and quilted sails of silk and polyester. Everyone owned a piròg of some kind, canoes made of wood, fiberglass, or aluminum.
Many boats were engaged in the shevrèt harvest, a small crustacean that, when dried in the sun, transformed into a durable staple throughout the archipelago. Far across the barrier islands, massive sand dunes that protected the mainland from storm surges, the wind pulled sailing vessels broadside, trawl net stretched into a point forming a triangle. At any moment it appeared the tension might give and the ship capsize, but the sailors maintained the rigging upright in spite of common sense and physics. Other ships anchored along the bayou, waiting for the tides to return; when they did, they’d unfurl their nets to open with the moving tide, catching whatever the tide brought their way. Other boats were yet larger, entire extended families born and dying on the water, possessing whatever nets, winches, or accoutrements they might need to harvest whatever jardinaj—game, fish, vegetables, fruit—might be in season.
They passed a series of such family boats making their way to sea, most of them overloaded with volunteers to help in the labor of harvest. The children on board waved at Arkad and Arkad waved back; the few who saw the fenm-blan pointed and shouted but were soon down the bayou and out of sight. If Arkad had to guess, they were after plakmìnn in the northern islands. It was a native fruit, small in size and astringent when unripe. Whether dried, fermented, or baked into breads and custards, the fruit made its way annually into homes throughout the archipelago. Such was their custom, follow the rhythm of the jardinaj.
Extended family boats were popular throughout the archipelago. Arkad had stayed on one when he first left the island of his birth, and he would’ve stayed there, too, if he’d never visited Grantil-la and seen the library there. He’d never been so amazed by anything, he never imagined so much knowledge even existed. What would the visitor think of their grand island? From what Arkad’d read, they held on to the past in ways that crippled them to live in the present, much less the future. What would she think about the future? How would she process it? What words would she use?
Would she even wake up?
Arkad jumped to his feet and turned around to rest on the roof of the bato. From there he could see Vil-la as they approached. The City. That’s what they called it. To Arkad, it was the most amazing place he could imagine. A community efficient enough to support thousands of people. From this distance, he could see the spires of Pidwil-la, cranes and a tower crowned in ivy and thorn. An ancient platform with a drill at its core, the heart of the city, the only reason the city survived. It was a shame the visitor wasn’t awake. Would she have loved this view? Would it make her feel the same way it made him feel the first time he saw it? Caught up in the thought, awe nearly swept him overboard.
The visitor awakened. They sent for Arkad.
When Arkad entered her room, she stared out the window watching the setting sun. She’d been given one of the best rooms at lopital, a derelict marine research station antero-fitted to the community’s health needs. The upper decks of the former research station granted an unblocked view of the grand lagoon at the heart of Grantil-la. In the center of the lagoon hunkered Pidwil-la. Other than the ancient behemoth, nothing marked the terrain as inhabited by humans. Everywhere a patient looked, they were given unbroken vistas of brown, white, green, and blue.
“Hello,” Arkad said. She startled, grasped her chest. “My goodness! I did not expect anyone here to speak English, you scared me so! You do speak English, correct?”
Arkad startled in return, but he did not show it. She spoke so quickly he was not sure he understood every word. But now it was his turn to speak. His first time speaking to a native speaker.
“My name is Arkad Toulous. What is yours?”
“I am Cheryl. Dr. Cheryl Kennedy. It’s very nice to meet you, Arkad. Since you do seem to speak English, could you ask them where my things have gone? Could you facilitate that?”
Arkad tumbled the words in his head. Facilitate. “Facilitate?” he asked.
“Um,” she replied. “Help. Could you help me find my bag?”
“Yes, of course,” he said. He paged the orderly.
After a brief exchange—“… zafèr-yé?”—and a few moments hunting down the location of her things, the orderly returned with a bag. In the interim, Arkad had learned that Dr. Cheryl was indeed Mérikin. She was a scientist, and she had heard there was much to learn in the archipelago. Arkad supposed that was true. Mostly he was trying to work out how to ask her about her experience of time and the city.
She pulled a small device out of the bag, flashed it at Arkad and said, “Would you humor me? Indulge me? It’s just that, I heard you speaking to the orderly just now, and I think it would be wonderful if you could speak in your own tongue. This little device,”—she flashed it again— “this should make our conversation more pleasant. You won’t have to work so hard to translate, and I can hear your native language. I’ve really never heard anything quite like it.”
She placed the device in her ear.
“Now,” she said, “I should be able to understand you just fine.”
Arkad wasn’t sure how that was going to work, and besides, he wanted to speak Mérikin “I would rather speak… English at you. To you. It is not often I practice.”
“Nonsense,” she insisted. “Please, speak your own tongue. You will find it so much easier. None of those pesky prepositions. They can be tricky, no?”
Arkad agreed they could be tricky, and since it seemed she would not relent, he spoke to her in Kouri-Vini.
“To linm nô Vil? To té wa Pidwil-la, hin? Ça vayan, non?”
“Wait, hold on,” she said.
She removed the earpiece, fiddled with it, replaced it.
“Ok,” she said. “Repeat that.”
Arkad sighed. He’d rather ask in Mérikin, but he repeated himself in Kouri-Vini.
“No,” she replied. “Something is not working. I understand some of those words, but the rest come out as nonsense. This database has not been updated in decades. Blasted thing is virtually useless.”
“Is okay,” Arkad responded, though she wasn’t really talking to him. “I speak English well, but I do not have much opportunity for—to practice. It is—has been a long time since we had visitors Mérikin. I asked, ‘Do you like our city? Did you see… Pidwil-la? What do you think? Um… çé bon… good—great, no?”
“Great?” she repeated. “This is a swamp overrun by feral— A real city— I could show you a real city. Does this place not have old records? Photos?”
Feral was a word he did not know. Slowly, he responded, “We have many photos,” he replied. “I know cities like those. They are of the past.”
“No, they exist here and now,” she said. “Where do you think I grew up? In a city like those from your photos. A little different, sure, farther inland than ancient cities like New York, but still a city, you know, concrete, asphalt, glass. If you like that rusting rig out in the middle of the lagoon, then you will love Buffalo!”
He mentally tumbled all the words he didn’t know—concrete, asphalt, rig, Buffalo—but all that came out his mouth was, “Rig?”
“Yeah, that old oil rig out there in the middle of the lagoon. Where did you all even find that thing?”
“Pidwil-la. Bouki tricked Torti. It is the heart of the community.”
“That? That’s the heart of your community? Hardly anything runs on oil. Just old military stuff. Are you telling me you guys are burning oil out here?”
“Oil? For to cook?”
“No, petroleum. Gasoline.”
Arkad was shocked. “This is a future,” he reminded her.
“It’s not much of one if that’s fueling it.”
The nurse came in, suggested the patient should rest. Arkad was grateful for the interruption.
“I will return tomorrow,” Arkad said. “We will visit the rakontè. He will answer your questions. Good night.”
He was up half the night ap jonglé the cruelty of her words. The rakontè was right when he said visitors Mérikin couldn’t understand how time had changed. There it was, a glittering future, but she could not see it. All she had for it was contempt. He wondered what all he might’ve said wrong, what all he might’ve misunderstood. She didn’t seem curious about the city. She didn’t ask any questions. And that earpiece she tried to use, it was a translator, but the databases were out of date, was that what she had said? Did the visitors Mérikin think language was stored in a library? Language was alive, flowing around and through past, present, and future. It was the thread that bound the braid. No, just like the earpiece, she assumed she already knew the archipelago, an assumption that garbled all transmissions. She heard the past but could not hear the future. Maybe that was it, maybe that was why the visitors Mérikin could not sense the changes to time, their language stuck in the past, the thread unbound, the braid unraveled.
The next morning, over breakfast, Arkad worked out how to tell her about the city in Mérikin, making notes in his study journal. He would take her to see the rakontè. If Arkad couldn’t do it, the rakontè would make her see, get her to listen. He was sure of it.
When he arrived in her room, she sat in the chair looking out the window at Pidwil-la. That was a good start, he thought, to behold the sun rising over the city.
“Good morning, Dr. Cheryl,” he greeted.
“Good morning, Arkad. I fear I was in a terrible mood last night. I hope you understand. Please. Sit. Let’s talk a while before I meet this rakon… tuh?”
“Rakontè,” he said, seating himself. Pidwil-la filled the distant horizon.
“Yes,” she replied. “The rakontè. What should I ask him, this… rakontè of yours?”
He found the visitor much more relaxed than he had the previous night, which relaxed him in turn. He took a moment to study her features while he gathered his thoughts. Straight dark hair was common throughout the archipelago, but it was never so coarse as her salt-blown hair, which she wore pulled tight in a ponytail. Her eyes were like halfmoons rising over the sea, glimpsed through the green and brown canopy below. He’d seen such hazel before, but never had he seen it contrast so starkly with a person’s skin, where lingered fine faint freckles beneath a pink patina of sunburn.
“You should ask her,” replied Arkad, “to tell you the story of how Bouki tricked Torti to put Pidwil-la there.”
“You want me to ask about that old rig? Why?”
“The story will teach you.”
“Why don’t you just tell me?”
“I can’t tell it right. The rakontè tells it right.”
“If I cannot understand you, then how am I to understand this rakontè? Won’t you just have to translate for her anyway?”
She was right. Arkad would have to translate anyway. But he wasn’t accustomed to telling the stories. Every child knew them, but to tell them, that took training. No, that was a job only the rakontè could do.
“Yes, but, we must wait,” he replied. “The stories must be told just right or they do not work.”
“Tell me more about this city of yours. I have been watching from the window all morning, and there seems to be no action at all. In most cities there would be deliveries, people going to work, neighborhoods, noises and actions, and really, I must ask—where is everybody?”
“What do you mean? There are thousands of people who stay here.”
“That’s what I mean. I have been observing all morning from this window, and I have seen hardly anyone. A few boats full of people traveled the canal that way,” she pointed out to sea, “but where is everyone else?”
“Many were on the beach where you were found. I was there. We were at the djòb. Everyone must work a cycle at the djòb.”
“Sounds like conscripted labor,” she said, but Arkad wasn’t familiar with the word ‘conscripted.’
“It is necessary work, yes,” he replied. “Everyone must do what is necessary. Everyone must work a tidal cycle at seasonal harvest. Everyone must work a tidal cycle in the floating gardens. Everyone must work a tidal cycle on a neighboring island. With the rest of our time, we do what we will. I study Mérikin—English.”
“Still sounds like forced labor to me,” she said. “Where are these floating gardens you mentioned?”
“Out there,” Arkad said, pointing toward Pidwil-la. “On the rig?” she asked incredulously.
“No, on the water, the gardens float. You see an… oil rig. That oil rig sits in the middle of a lagoon. On that lagoon we build floating gardens crossed by canals. What you see as… as jungle and wilderness, I see as a… a neighborhood. It is alive. People live there but do not kill trees and grass for… buildings.”
“You still rely on that rig for power!” she accused.
“Speaking of which,” she continued, “you say that oil rig is the heart of your community, but it does not even appear active. Is it active? It’s all overgrown with vegetation.”
“It is active. It functions. When we need it. We must not exhaust energy.”
“Is it not the energy source?”
Her question confused Arkad. “No, no,” he replied. “We use wind and sun for power. Sometimes we use steam. But mostly we live without power. Those few places that need power, we have found alternative solutions. Like this place, our hospital. We had a great scientist here once, right after the finfifon. Mòro was his name. He figured out how to integrate plant biology and machinery. It saved us.”
“Wait—are you saying this place is powered by… botanical cyborgism?”
Arkad was not familiar with those words. He replied, “Machines and plants are integrated. Is that… ?”
“Cyborgism? Yes, that’s cyborgism. I had no clue such technology existed… I left to find out if the rumors of a scientist working to merge human and animal DNA were true… this technology may just be better.”
“This technology is the best,” Arkad agreed, though he wasn’t sure what she meant by DNA.
“Yes,” she replied, “Yes, I think you may be right, Arkad.”
She confused him yet again. Could she not see the proof for herself?
“But,” she continued, “if you do not use that oil rig for power, what do you use it for?”
Cries from below interrupted him.
Cheryl stood and went to the window. Arkad followed.
“Who are they?” she asked.
A crowd massed below, the largest gathering of people Arkad had ever seen outside of the Shevrèt festival or the Dolo festival. They seemed angry. Almost a mob. Arkad had never seen a mob before. “Arkad,” she said gently. “Would you be so kind as to find out what is going on?”
He returned as quickly as he left.
“Well?” she asked impatiently. “Why has this mob gathered? Have they come to take me away?”
“Take you away?” he responded. “No, they have many questions for you. I learned, this morning, Mérikin ships, on the horizon. Those on the beach radioed the news. I think… they think you have led them here. They want to know why you have come, why so many of you. They wish to speak to you. You need only speak with them. Look, they are peaceful.”
Arkad gestured for Cheryl to look out the window. As he did, a drone buzzed past. Cheryl dove to the floor. Arkad watched the drone search the crowd. Cheryl beckoned him to the floor, all color drained from her face.
“A recon drone,” she pleaded. “I do not think it saw me, but we need to go. Now. If they find me they will kill me.”
Arkad did not know the words ‘recon’ or ‘drone’ but he understood the flying machine and the desperation of her tone. “Kill you? Who would kill you?”
“America… is not the place you think. The zealots have control. They promised a return to the way things had been. And they delivered. You would never understand what it is like to be a woman there. And a scientist. Worst of all, a rogue scientist.”
“Yes. My experiments are illegal. I made incredible breakthroughs into the human genome, and what would they do with it!?”
He wanted to ask what “genome” meant, but she pressed on in her rage. “They would destroy it! The damned fools. And they would destroy me!”
“Please, please, please,” she begged, “for the sake of the future, help me!”
Arkad did not quite understand why she felt a sudden impulse to protect the future when this whole time she did not seem to like it very much. Thinking perhaps that by talking to her and explaining their way of life he had helped her understand the nature of time, he agreed to help her escape.
He led her through a series of hallways and staircases to a dockside entrance. Once, they had to cut back and go the long way to avoid a group of nurses, which forced them to crab crawl beneath a series of windows facing the mob. Soon they had made their way to the bato, and, finding that everyone had gone to join or watch the mob, Arkad pushed off and they were gone. Arkad would bring the bato back, he’d already decided that. He could never steal from the community. But if taking this scientist away led the visitors Mérikin away too, épi, well, the crime of theft would be more than worth it.
They’d managed to escape without pursuit. The bato might be too slow to travel at sea, but in the windless bends and oxbows of the bayous, no other vehicle could maintain pace. Arkad steered the bato inland, deeper into the future, but in the archipelagos, it was only a matter of time before the future took you right back out again to the past. It would be night before they reached the far shore.
They didn’t talk much. When they did talk, it was about plants and animals. She marveled to see ‘unrecorded’ species.
“What is that?” she’d ask.
“Shawi,” he’d respond.
She’d scrawl it down in a notebook.
After a while, boredom made room for curiosity.
“You still never told me why that rusty rig is the heart of your community.”
“No,” he replied. “I hoped the rakontè would tell you.”
“What does it do if not pump oil?”
Arkad sighed. “You should hear the story told right. I wish I could tell it right. I will try.”
He breathed deeply before continuing.
“Ga. After the finfifon, after the end, all the animals suffered. There was no water. They gathered on Grantil-la, where they implored Bouki to help them. At first Bouki wasn’t sure, but he needed water, too. What could he do but agree? He went out to the sea where he saw Torti swimming around. Bouki sipped the water but it was bitter. He spit it out and Torti laughed at him. I forget—I forget what Bouki tells Torti, the rakontè knows all the words—but Torti wasn’t happy in the ocean. It was full of… gasoline. It was poisoned. So Bouki told him that if he brought him Pidwil-la, he would show him to a freshwater lagoon. Torti put Pidwil-la on his back and carried it over here, and you got to understand, it was hard work for Torti to get across all that land, and Bouki was lying anyway, so when Torti got tired of treading and realized Bouki was lying, Torti him makes this big speech—look, the rakontè can tell it right, not me, and the speech is important… after his speech, he dug into the ground and made the lagoon. He sleeps below it still. Ever since then, Pidwil-la pumps freshwater.”
“That is why,” he continued, “we have the yearly Dolo festival. We regulate the water and celebrate Torti’s sacrifice. That is why it is the heart of our community.”
She said nothing in response. In silence they continued until they reached the beach on the far side of the island. She pointed at the horizon and said, “There! Do you see it?”
Arkad strained his eyes; in the distance, he could see the drone. “Will it come this way?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “they will send the ships.”
They hurried to find an outrigger sailboat not currently in use. Arkad helped her prepare it. He gave her what water he could scavenge from the bato.
“The inland water is shallow,” Arkad told her. “This boat will go where they cannot.”
She asked, “Will you come with me?”
“Where? No. No,” he repeated, convincing himself.
“Give me a head start before you tell the Americans—Mérikins—which way I went?”
“Mérikin-yé,” he corrected. “Tell me one thing. What was your research?”
“I was trying to create the next stage in humanity.”
“It has happened,” he replied.
She laughed anxiously, thinking he had asked a question. “It was horrific. So many abominations I birthed only to watch die….”
“That is of the past,” he said. “Will you go into a future?”
“The future is the only direction any of us can go.”
Arkad hoped she’d begun to understand the nature of time. Now he wasn’t sure.
“Goodbye, Dr. Cheryl Kennedy,” he said.
“Goodbye, Arkad. Thank you.”
She embraced him.
She boarded the boat. He pushed her off and watched until she set rig and disappeared on the wind. He really wished she had listened to the rakontè. The way Arkad told the story, it wasn’t good. He butchered the whole thing. If it had been a better telling, maybe she would have understood.
Alone on the bato back to Vil-la, Arkad realized he’d begun his apprenticeship as a rakontè. The remaining visitors Mérikin would want to know what Dr. Cheryl had said, which direction she went, but who knew? Maybe some of them would want to hear the rakontè tell stories. To be a good rakontè, he’d have to learn the stories right. The visitors deserved to hear them in their own language. They deserved to know. After all, their futures depended on the islands and tides.
R. Paul Cooper (he/him) is a Louisiana Creole and a defender of Louisiana’s heritage languages. A Senior Lecturer at Texas A&M, he teaches as part of their minor in science fiction and fantasy and writes poetry, fiction, and scholarship. His scholarship appears in Extrapolation and The Journal of Literary Multilingualism, his French-language novel Le Drac de la Louisiane will be released by Éditions Tintamarre in late 2023, and he is the 2023 winner of the Louisa Lamotte Prize for Best Marvelous Tale in Louisiana Creole.