The Sea People — Euan Currie

Arnold Böcklin, In The Sea, 1883. Joseph Winterbotham Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago

The Sea People

They’re out there at all hours. Rain or shine. Mostly rain. All I can make out are dappled smudges through the bedroom window, the swaying of their paraffin lamps in the downpour, their chanting rising up on the wind before being snatched away by the next squall. 

That’s dedication. 

Richard emerges from the shower, skin a raw shade of pink, and I cover up my shoulder to prevent him touching it. For someone who claims to be so untethered, so spontaneous, he certainly loves his routine. On nights he stays with me, that involves a freezing cold shower – a lengthy, numbing deluge – before he climbs into bed and recalibrates to my body heat. I stay fully clothed to deny him this, tonight at least. 

They reckon this is it. The big one. 

He fluffs his hair with a towel and flops down next to me. Didn’t he think last year was big enough? I mean, with everything he lost…

Half this town’s been hit worse than I was. 

He’s annoyingly zen about it all, and I tell him as much. Him and his camper-van, single-handedly transforming a dilapidated plumber’s vehicle into the ultimate transient abode, circling the high ground, dreaming up his next venture, so infuriatingly glass-half-full in his outlook. His semi-regular journeys down here are, as far as I can tell, his only excursions anywhere near sea level. He prefers looking down on it all from a safe vantage point. 

The first time he mentioned the Sea People I found it hard to disentangle them from the rest of his topics of conversation, which were a web of free association between things like LA’s coolest vegan street food trucks, cryptocurrencies that were sure to go mainstream this year, or the plight of the adorable Cuban solenodon. He spoke of everything with the same mix of detached languor and obsessive focus, dropping me into the conversation with no context, no explanation, expecting me to know exactly who or what he was going on about. I didn’t mind; I liked to zone out while he droned on, a convenient hum that sometimes distracted from my own internal monologue. 

I don’t know what it was about the Sea People that made me take notice. He ended his story with his typical verbal shrug – Pretty weird, I dunno – and he seemed startled by my request for him to tell me more. Just some stuff I’ve been reading online. He fiddled with the worn arm of the chair as he spoke, his feet perched on a box of leftover latex gloves. 

Ancient Egypt, that’s where they appeared first. Wherever they came from, or went – well, that’s lost to history. There’s theories – like, were they marauders, you know, or displaced people – but nobody knows. They crop up all over the place though. Referenced in places you wouldn’t expect. This one guy, he’s mapped it all out – every time sea people or anything like that is mentioned in all these ancient texts and sources. 

After a while, Richard seemed to enjoy me showing an interest. He crossed his hands behind his head as he got to what he told me was the most crazy part, where they seemed to leak into our time, our present, not knowing their place in the archives and museums and online conspiracy doldrums. The corners of his mouth curled up as he told me he’d done his own research, following up a random post from a backpacker who claimed the Sea People story was alive and well in the communities they’d visited, going down the rabbit hole of badly auto-translated articles from South East Asian websites that seemed to corroborate the backpacker’s story. People, arriving by boat, to islands that were rapidly being lost to the rising ocean. Outstretched hands, plucking desperate people from vanishing lands. 

These places. They’re the first ones that are getting hit by changes in the weather. The water – it rises enough and they’re just gone…

I asked so many questions – wondering aloud rather than seeking information from him – that I could see his enthusiasm waning as he reached the limits of his expertise. I knew this wasn’t his comfort zone, but with some persistence on my part he soon gave himself up to wondering with me and together we let ourselves imagine these Sea People. They were outside our frame of reference but always there, roaming the two thirds of our planet that was never still, tracing a course adjacent to a history that we arrogantly thought was defined and documented, occasionally arriving into view with the full weight of an unknown, ambivalent force. 

Richard seemed like he was warning me when he backtracked with you know, no one is really sure what their intention was. Or Is. Like, are they here to conquer or to help, or whatever but it didn’t matter to me. It had been a long time since I’d let myself follow a fantastical train of thought. He came back each subsequent night, indulging me, letting me use his phone to follow the breadcrumb trail until low data warnings flashed up on the screen and he implored me to get WiFi.

By tonight, as the congregation’s chanting reached fever pitch with the lashing rain, our imaginings seem prescient and close. As I give in to Richard and lay back on the bed, his low growling shifting quickly into a disconnected drone, I focus on the damp patches that dapple the ceiling. They intrude on the house in an assortment of shapes, sizes and shades, swollen continents and outlying islets, a map of an imagined world spread out before me. As Richard grunts on top of me, I think of the Sea People, traversing swathes of black water. His head blocks my view of the ceiling map, but I can still tell that the biggest patches have grown darker even in these few short minutes. The chanting outside has descended into wailing – a feral, sorrowful sound. I think of those islands being swallowed up and I maybe even say aloud why not here, why not us

I have to shift boxes to answer the door. Surplus wipes, gloves, plastic syringes – all stacked for recycling with the best of intentions – scatter onto the floor. I kick them aside. I recognise the hooded old woman from my mother’s years spent playing nice at church coffee mornings. One of the elders. A faint smell, somewhere between vinegar and lavender, emanates from her as she reaches with clasped hands. I stuff mine in my pocket but hers remain in the air, clutching at nothing. 

A slick of rainwater spills in the open doorway, my bare toes curling as it reaches them. The woman mutters, her voice barely audible above the rattle of rain on every surface. I nod, smiling, the practiced nod that I learnt from my mother.

The woman skips the usual and how are you I usually get from anyone who knows why I came back here. The tilted head, the pained expression, the low tone imitating empathy. The woman skips it all and gets straight down to business. She rummages in her bag and thrusts a soggy leaflet in my direction. Rapturous families hold their arms aloft to a thunderous sky, the text from the other side of the sodden paper printed on their bodies. 

It is our time. You can be saved. 

I feel myself drawing back into the house, my arms wrapped vice-like around my body. It’s like the last thirty years have evaporated and I’m a little kid again, scared of the church elders and what they might do to me. The water continues to creep in, soaking the cardboard boxes all over the floor. I think about how much more hassle they’ll be to clean up now, visualising the cardboard disintegrating in my hands. The woman’s eyes roll like inscrutable black marbles, pressed deep within her skull. As I fail to fill the silence with agreement, she reverts back to ghosts and guilt.

Your mother would have wanted this. A good churchgoing woman, so she was…

Maybe she notices the sour look on my face. Instead of my mother’s soul being gratefully sucked into heaven above the rising floods, I remember her skin becoming greyer, the mechanical puff of her assisted breathing, the hospital bed that was too big to fit up the stairs. By the end, I could understand the look of disappointment that was etched on my mother’s face every passing day she spent propped up voiceless in the living room, without a knock at the door. From my chair, I would see the congregation shuffling past, occasionally stealing a glance inside, having taken to walking on the opposite side of the street once it became clear my mother might be in need of a little more than prayer. Years wasted trying to ingratiate herself, just to be ignored. I watched that realisation hit her slowly and persistently, her sadness mixing with my resentment until neither of us were sure where either began and ended. 

You can be saved. You and that man…

Ah yes, that man. Once my mother’s body had been wheeled into the hearse and the requisite period of silence had been observed, the congregation found their voices again. An assortment of wispy figures offered up their views on me and him and us and what my mother would have wanted. Questions about Richard’s van being parked outside the house again. Were we married? Engaged? Their tone said that the time for unserious action had passed. Then they’d smile. How blessed that I was going to build a proper life, as they put it. 

I want to tell this woman that I had a proper life. I had all the things in place, the building blocks at least. Then you see how quickly illness and obligation wash them away. I want to tell her that I was a proper person too, with friends, a community, a rich tapestry of experiences behind her. How whole I was in those years I spent away from this town, far from this scattering of structures at the bottom of the valley. 

They’re trying to fix the flood defences. They don’t work, they never will. You can’t hold back God’s will…

I want to tell this woman about the Sea People. I want to say yes, maybe the floods will come again, greater and more devastating than we can imagine. They will make the ones from my childhood and every year since seem like little more than puddles, and the cars we all saw carried away on the currents then will be quaint memories compared to the way this water will shift our pathetic buildings from their foundations. Maybe we won’t be saved, not by your god or heavenly angels. Or maybe our saviours have been there all along, hidden in plain sight while we were so focussed on our tiny patch of solid ground. I want to tell her that their boats are coming, to pluck me from this flood before her god gets to me. 

Before I can say any of this, other members of the congregation scuttle by the end of the path, retrieving the woman then moving on in a bumbling mass, hammering down the rest of the street, shouting deathly salvation. A man in a yellow tabard laying sandbags is spotted and harangued by the group, his hands held up in protest as they batter their makeshift placards off the concrete lip of the river, the water coursing by only a matter of feet below. 

The cabinet in the hall is still full of my mother’s never-needed supplies. Replacement tubes, gauze and useless medication, all labelled and stored neatly. I wonder how I had the time to categorise it all. The nurses’ advice was best to do it as soon as I could, get things in order because you’ll be busy they said with a crumpled sad smile. I understood soon enough, when I had to set my alarm for 5am because it was the only chance I’d have for a shower before the day evaporated into endless cups of tea that my mother drank cold through a straw, changing septic dressings and stilted attempts to manoeuvre her on and off the toilet. A slow, relentless swallowing up of time, a heavy uneventfulness that nonetheless sapped every ounce of energy. 

I often fantasise about tipping the cabinet forward until the plastic drawers slide out and spill their contents in a wave of plastic. I tell myself they should be recycled or reused. But in the fantasy it all just spills out and keeps on spilling. Every individual item is a personal insult, even though I know these components all have their role in keeping a body pumping blood and sucking air. 

I never call the specialist nurses who said they would be there for support, even afterwards. I turn that word around in my mouth – afterwards – and wish it would open itself up to reveal before, how things were when that great disruption was just a possibility on the horizon. I wish these last three years would draw back to reveal everything just as I’d left it, safely waiting for me on the other side of the curtain. 

I lay down on the bed where Richard and I had let our wonderings about the Sea People overtake our rational, adult minds and return us to places of pure imagination. It was delicious to think of the impossible, to manifest alternative worlds together.

We imagined them sourcing power from the waves, centuries before it occurred to our landbound mavericks. We imagined them drawing up nets woven from their own long hair, full of all the fruits of the ocean. We saw them silently navigating channels of water to wherever they were needed, writing their own histories and charting their own courses, following migration routes written only in their muscle memory. 

We were sure they knew we were here, cluttered together on a rocky fraction of the globe, but at some distant point they had made the decision – collectively, wisely – to stay back, to accept that despite our common origin we had reached a point of divergence, but that we would need them at an undetermined time. We imagined that time was approaching. 

You’ll be here.

I don’t know if it’s a statement or a question. Whenever I found myself leaning too heavily into the Sea People and losing the veneer of fantasy, Richard’s so keen to put the brakes on and remind me it’s just made up. A shimmer of embarrassment across his face, pitying me, shaming me. I realise he’s comfortable in his clearly delineated world. Him, his van, and me down here in the valley whenever he fancies it.

Get out for a bit if it brightens up. 

A peck on the cheek and he was out the door. A pair of his trousers hang lopsided on the back of a chair, a sign that he expects to return. 

*

I don’t know how long I’ve been laying here. It’s dark, but the sun has barely broken through the grey soup in days. At first I wish I’d replaced the batteries in the clocks, any of them – then I realise those ticking seconds are surely measured differently out on the waves. The rain is coming from all directions, every side; all of the windows are battered at once, rendering the outside world in an oozing palette of grey. 

My mother was always cold and liked the house closed, stifling. But a house needs air, it needs to breathe. The keys to these windows have long vanished so I push the bedroom window until the wooden frame crumbles and it hangs like a loose tooth. Sounds crash into the room, the congregation’s voices begging skyward, and the rain soaks my face. I tip my head backwards, feeling the water run down my neck. I swing my hair, droplets hitting the whitewashed walls. 

The map of damp patches on the ceiling now sags in places, hanging down in bulbous sacs. I hop onto the bed, full of childish excitement, and prod at one, feeling the contents slosh around inside. It doesn’t take much to pop it, sending a gush of stale fluid across my face. Despite the initial surprise, I bounce on the bed, crashing my fists into the ceiling, bursting as many of them as I can. The water wants to be inside the house. I let it in, revelling at the ways it will find to penetrate our ridiculous static structures. 

The congregation’s wailing is becoming disjointed, their deathwish salvation so hollow and unimaginative, just pale capitulation. All these fools, rushing towards extinction. Already drenched, I sprint down the stairs and out into the melee. The river crests at the very limit of the defence’s capacity, and a row of crazed churchgoers link arms to face off a maintenance van that inches towards them, orange lights spinning, the driver pounding the horn.

Down at the riverbank, I stand on the concrete barrier and feel the rush of the water at my feet. There is a lull in the congregation’s incessant noise. I beckon them to join me, then hold up my palms to the darkening sky and launch into prayers I can just about remember. It’s a poor imitation of their own frenzied chanting but I’m banking on their desire to see me – the heretic, the non-believer – utterly transformed. At first, I think they’ve seen through me, but then a few of the more able bodied ones clamber up, hauling the frail and the weary after them.

When enough of them are massed on the barricade, I leap in, screaming through freezing mouthfuls, telling them to follow, yelling that this is salvation. I manage to steady myself against the current but I know the old woman teetering on the edge won’t manage to. She drops into the water and is taken away like a paper doll. A younger man goes next, stripped to the waist with his arms aloft, and more rush after him, a tangle of limbs clawing their way towards death. As they continue to leap into the coursing river, I feel no guilt. They’d be needless weight for the Sea People’s boats, anyway. 

I cling onto the drooping branch of a willow tree, catching my breath, looking out into the mist coated distance where the rest of the world should be. As the river finally oozes out of its containment and rushes towards the naïve little buildings that line its banks, I swear I see blazing lights piercing the gloom, tall masts forging a purposeful path upstream, a row of ships sailing from the open mouth of the river, their hulls slicing through the black water and towards me.

Euan Currie is based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has published work with Bandit Fiction, Sleet Magazine, Goodnight Press and others, as well as performing work at the intersection of sound and text for many years. 

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