Border Wars

North Bay Road (Part 3)

Third in a climatic trilogy about the drowning of Miami.
Part 1: Finnegan’s Wake
Part 2: Urban Salvage

They sat on the fan deck drinking mimosas. It was only an hour after sunrise. The sun was still low but heat danced on the surface of the water like a mirage, water above and water below.

“Beautiful,” Jalen said.

The yacht Tatooine lay at anchor in what had been Biscayne Bay. The bay was unrecognizable except for the black towers rising from the sea. Storms and sea salt had pitted exposed concrete and steel and broken the glass from windows. Black mold covered the surfaces above high water, barnacles and sea stars and scuttling crabs below.

The sun burned in a cloudless sky. The flat water reflected the sun like polished glass. Humidity added weight to any movement, even breathing.

“It would be more beautiful it wasn’t so oppressively hot,” Rifkin said. He laid the champagne flute, beaded with condensation, against his forehead. “Why can’t we admire it with air conditioning?”

“If you’re going to complain,” Jalen said, “go inside. I’m enjoying myself.”

“I’m not complaining. I’m just stating a fact. It’s damned hot.”

“Of course it’s hot. It’s hot everywhere.”

“Couldn’t we have come at a more seasonable time of year? Maybe winter. Or fall.”

She bristled, then took a deep breath. “There is no other time of the year. There’s only a narrow window between storm seasons. We discussed this. If we want to dive the ruins, it has to be now.”

“And why do we want to dive the ruins again?”

“Now you’re just being petulant. Besides, I thought you wanted to create a performance piece. Some nonsense about the kraken rising from the sunken ruins of civilization.” She knew she was being cruel. She didn’t care.

“It’s not nonsense, it’s just impractical. To be credible, it would be too big to fit any museum space. And besides, it’s too hot to think of art,” he said.


The sloth lumbered around the performance space criticizing, in a heavy Spanish accent, the species responsible for its extinction.


“I’ve wanted to visit my great-grandfather’s house since I was a child,” she said.

Jalen Páez came from old South American money, one branch rooted in Venezuela, the other in Brazil. Both had profited from years of inequity and withdrawn with their wealth to the U.S. when their own countries became too heated.

She finished her mimosa and set it on the mahogany table. An autobot promptly removed the empty glass, wiped the sweat stain from the wood, and purposefully set a full flute on a coaster. She ignored the implied criticism. “I never knew much about my father’s family. They were almost wiped out during the Venezuelan rebellion.”

“My dear, you’ll need to be more specific,” Rifkin said. “Rebellions, revolutions, coups—they’re endemic to South America.”

“Don’t be an ass. You’ve heard this story before.”

“And I never tire of it. It’s like a child’s fairy tale. You know how it ends but you want to hear it over again. And again. And again.”

“You didn’t have to come.”

“No, I didn’t. But the alternative was to remain in Manhattan. People were being so pissy about the scene at the MOMA.”

Rifkin Po was an artist working at the intersection of performance art and artificial intelligence. His last installation at the Museum of Modern Art had been a giant sloth extinct for 10,000 years. The sloth lumbered around the performance space criticizing, in a heavy Spanish accent, the species responsible for its extinction.

Over the brief period of the installation’s exhibition, the sloth—named Megatheria—became increasingly irate. Its criticism escalated to invective. There was no separation between art and observer at the museum. Megatheria wandered freely through the crowds. A bitter sloth the size of a rhinoceros alarmed the staff. When Megatheria began making fake dung from found objects and throwing it at visitors, they tried to contain the exhibit behind velvet ropes. Megatheria used the rope to hang itself from the rafters. It was never really alive so it couldn’t really die but neither could it speak with the velvet rope crushing its larynx. It hung for several days, slowly turning at the end of the rope, glaring balefully and croaking at museum patrons. The art critics were unkind.

It had been Rifkin’s first very public failure. He hadn’t taken it well. She could have consoled him. She didn’t. “The captain believes they may have located the block on North Bay Road where my grandfather lived. We’re going to dive the site this afternoon. You can go or stay, whichever, just quit being so depressing.”

The glass door slid open automatically and one of the camera crew walked onto the fan deck. “I hope I’m not intruding.” Jalen couldn’t remember whether it was Blick, Snick or Whick. Rifkin had named them after the dwarves in the silent film version of Snow White published in 1916. They were making a documentary on Rifkin’s life. He had agreed to take them along before the spectacular failure of his giant sloth. “Is this still a good time to film?” he said.

“Can we do it inside?” Rifkin said.

Whick, she thought. Blick was the cameraman, Snick the soundman, and Whick the mouthpiece.

“Sure,” Whick said.

“Then it’s the perfect time.”


As the world became more heated and the deserts marched north and drought led to famine and famine sparked wars, neither of them felt much of the world’s pain.


A few minutes later, after she had finished her mimosa, Jalen followed them out of curiosity. Snick was fussing with something that looked like a wooly caterpillar, a cozy that fit over his microphone. Blick was taking notes on a tablet. Whick was spread out on the couch like it was his own living room.

“Something I don’t understand,” he said casually to Rifkin. “So much of your work is an indictment of western civilization, its avarice and greed, but you live in Manhattan, an island of privilege guarded with deadly force. How do you reconcile the contradiction?”

Jalen looked closely at the man. He seemed so casual and nonchalant but his question was sharply pointed.

“I’m an artist,” Rifkin said, “not a bleeding heart. You think my art would be more authentic if I was starving in a garret or a cold water flat?”

Rifkin’s life had always been privileged like her own. As the world became more heated and the deserts marched north and drought led to famine and famine sparked wars, neither of them felt much of the world’s pain, protected by the walls around Manhattan, living in an armored high-rise, defended from the rising sea and the riots and the storms.

Rifkin took the bait. He didn’t see the cameraman—Blick, no, Snick—put down the tablet and pick up his camera. The other one—Blick? What did it matter?—subtly extended the boom mic in Rifkin’s direction.

“I didn’t make the world we live in,” Rifkin said. “I do what I can but, let’s face it, I’m not going to change the world, either. There’s only so much food and clean water and power left. It’s not enough for everybody. Some have more, some less. I’m not going to surrender my share to satisfy someone else’s sense of fair play.”

“Isn’t that the attitude that got us here in the first place?” Whick’s eyes were half closed as if thinking about something else. Jalen suspected he was much more attentive than he appeared. He was baiting Rifkin.

“What got us here was a genetic flaw,” Rifkin said, rising to the bait, “a lack of self-discipline. We shit in our own bed. We bred like field mice, ate everything, and now we’re starving. Simple, brutal math.”

“So, you’re saying all this was inevitable?” Whick waved his hand in an encompassing gesture.

“All this? You mean the Tatooine with all its firepower and sophistication? Or the ruins beneath us?”

“Yes. Both.”

“Inevitable as a Greek tragedy. It was never going to be a happy ending. Our insatiable curiosity and casual violence helped us survive the African savannah but it doesn’t scale. We’re still the same vicious apes that first descended from the trees. We’re still using automated drones and nuclear bombs like stone clubs. Art isn’t going to change who we are. It just makes who we are more obvious.”

“Then what’s the point of it?” Whick sat up on the couch and leaned forward. He wasn’t pretending indifference anymore.

Rifkin leaned back, self-satisfied. He didn’t even know he’d been trapped. She loved him, she thought, but sometimes he was such a bumpkin. “Something to do,” he said. “Another way to keep score.” He thought he had won. He turned as Snick removed the camera from his shoulder. “What, you were filming? I didn’t approve that.”

“Just some b-roll footage,” Whick said. “Filler.”

Jalen didn’t know much about film making but she knew you didn’t record sound for b-roll.


Worldcenter was a presumptuous name even for Miami. It was constructed as the convulsive gesture of a dying city.


She left her empty flute on a glass table and went in search of Captain Fairchild. She found him on the bridge looking at a display of weather systems cartwheeling across the Caribbean.

“I hope the weather isn’t going to spoil my vacation, Captain.”

“Not likely, Ms. Páez.” Fairchild wore a uniform jacket of Navy blue with gold stripes on the sleeves, starched shirt and black tie. She had never seen him outside in the heat. His white hair was precisely cut. He was the manicured impression of authority. “The window is still open, at least for several days,” he said.

“Excellent.” She paused. “Something Rifkin said piqued my curiosity. I didn’t pay much attention to the yacht’s charter, Rifkin did all of that, so I’ve never reviewed your security arrangements. Do we have time for a tour?”

“Of course.” The captain seemed to inflate like a frigate bird in mating display. “I’d be delighted.”

He led her down several narrow ladders somewhere deep in the 80-meter yacht and opened a metal door. “This is the CIC—the Combat Information Center. It’s the beating heart of our defensive systems. And this is Mulvaney, our weapons specialist.”

Mulvaney was rising from a swivel chair in the center of circular banks of screens rising in several tiers. The monitors were thin and translucent. The images seemed to float in the air.

“Please, keep your seat,” she said.

“Every inch of the water surrounding Tatooine can be observed from here,” Fairchild said, “and every inch defended with deadly force. Mulvaney is jacked into the weapons network, two miniguns mounted above the flying bridge. Wherever he looks, the guns track. One man can pretty much defend the entire boat, stem to stern.” He was obviously proud of his deadly toy, like a child with a pet scorpion.

“It’s called the Basilisk,” Mulvaney said. “The miniguns on either side can put a round every square inch out to 1,000 yards. Beyond that it’s less accurate but still messy.”

“What happens if you’re looking here,” Jalen nodded toward the screen showing the yacht’s bow, “and the threat comes from there,” she pointed toward the screen showing the stern.

“When the system goes to full engagement, the guns become semi-autonomous,” Mulvaney said.

“Semi-autonomous? You mean, they choose who to kill?”

“Within limits, yeah,” Mulvaney said. “Even if I was taken out, the Tatooine could defend herself.”

“And how do the guns determine who is a risk?” she said.

“Facial recognition,” the captain said, taking back control of the conversation. “Behavioral patterns, detection of lethal weapons or explosive signatures, proximity. The system goes to its highest defensive posture when it registers damage to the vessel or crew.”

Jalen raised an eyebrow. “The crew, but not the passengers?”

“From the Basilisk’s perspective, everyone is crew. Everyone authorized to be onboard. Everyone else is a potential threat.”

“I hadn’t realized the Tatooine was so…” she hesitated, choosing her words cautiously, “self-contained.” It seemed a better word than militarized.

“Ms. Páez, we specialize in adventure tourism. You pay us to take you places where other people don’t go…for a reason. You also pay us to bring you back safely. We take your security seriously. All my crew are combat veterans. So is the Tatooine.”

“You mean this boat has been attacked?”

“We’re a brightly polished target,” Fairchild said. “The people living on the fringes have never seen such wealth and probably never will again. So yes, we’ve been attacked but never taken.”

“I’m sorry, captain. I didn’t mean to sound critical.”

“Ma’am, you’ve paid for the privilege.” He didn’t smile.

She didn’t know whether she was reassured or alarmed. “Thank you, Mr. Mulvaney. Captain, are we still on for the dive this afternoon?”

“We are but if you’re up for a dive this morning, I thought we might take advantage of the weather. There’s something you might like to see. A drift dive through the Worldcenter.”

Jalen caught her breath involuntarily. She was not often surprised. “I thought that was too dangerous.”

“Normally I would agree. The currents are usually treacherous and the Worldcenter itself is unstable but this is an unusual opportunity. We have slack water in an hour turning to ebb. The current is unusually weak. The weather is holding and visibility is excellent. We can drop you and your guides up-current, track your drift with GPS, and pick you up on the far side. We’ll be in communication at all times. Anything gets hinky and we can retrieve you immediately.”

“Yes,” Jalen said, I’d love to.” She hoped she didn’t sound as smitten as a school girl. “When can we go?”

“I’ll have a boat put in the water. Whenever you’re ready.”


Millions of people once lived here, walked these flooded streets, laughed and loved and argued bitterly in these empty rooms. How could so much be lost so quickly?


Jalen breezed through the main saloon but failed to get Rifkin’s attention. He was gesturing broadly for the camera like an actor onstage. She left him recording for posterity and quickly changed. The rigid inflatable that took her to the ruined city was large enough to accommodate twice the size of their party—coxswain, a crew member armed with an assault rifle, and her two guides, one armed with a spear gun, the other a bang stick. It was surprising how simple underwater weapons remained, a piece of metal sprung like a bow and a shotgun shell detonated by contact.

Worldcenter was a presumptuous name even for Miami. It was constructed as the convulsive gesture of a dying city. The architects knew the city couldn’t be defended against the rising sea level. Even a wall around Miami like the one encircling Manhattan was useless. The city was built on porous limestone, the bones of ancient reefs. The flood tide bubbled up through the ground. But the city was financed by a Ponzi scheme. Miami depended upon real estate, resort, and business taxes for funding. The moment investor confidence in the city’s future faltered, the house of cards collapsed.

The boat traveled across the bay on a plane and then slowed as it steered through the massive towers rising on either side of what had once been 10th Street. It seemed to Jalen they had entered a place old and weighted with arcane significance like Stonehenge or a Neolithic tomb. They motored past the Paramount Hotel that seemed as tall as the Tower of Babel. It measured 700 feet when it was first built, less since the upper façade had blown off. A low ground swell surged into the open atrium and broke against interior walls with a sound like a slow drum beating inside of a mountain. The rags left of curtains still hung in some of the broken windows and fluttered in time with the drumming like a dying breath.

The divemaster looked vaguely like a young Sterling Hayden. (Jalen was a fan of Doctor Strangelove.) He shouted over the sound of the outboards. “We were here a few years ago when a heavy sea was running. There was so much pressure built by the waves inside the building that spray burst out the windows. Made your ears pop. We tried to get a look inside but the surge almost sucked us in.”

The divemaster—his name was Redford—plotted their dive with grease pencil on an old street map encased in plastic. “We’ll start the dive here,” he circled the intersection of 1st and 9th Streets, “and enter the mall here. The current is slack right now but it always accelerates between these tall buildings. Just flow with it. We’ll be right behind you and the guys in the boat will be right behind us.”

“How are they going to do that?” she said.

“There are bugs built into the gear. They can follow each of us wherever we go. And we’ll be able to talk to them and each other with the mics built into the masks. No worries.”

She had several worries despite Redford’s reassurance. Pieces of the façade were missing from the massive towers they would pass between. What if a piece of concrete fell on her? Or if she got tangled in the city’s wreckage and couldn’t free herself? Or a shark attacked?

Redford apparently saw the fear on her face. “It’s cool,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “We’ve done this before. We got your back.”

It was presumptuous to touch her but reassuring.

The coxswain slowed the boat and the crewman tied the bow line to a piece of angle iron that broke the surface. Redford helped her with her gear. He gave the universal hand signal, thumb and forefinger enclosing a circle—Are you OK? She replied with the same, held the mask to her face and rolled backward off the side of the inflatable.

The warm water embraced her like a womb. She hung from a line trailed from the inflatable like a flag in a light breeze. Thirty feet below her the rusted remains of a city bus lay on its side, crusted with barnacles, sea anemones and ochre stars. A small jewfish swam out of a broken window, looked at her, and swam back into the bus.

The visibility was outstanding, like swimming in a sea of glass. She released her hold on the line, turn turtle, and allowed herself to sink deeper. The towers rose on either side from deep shadow into fierce sunlight. The foot of the towers looked organic, fecund, encrusted with life, but above the surface, in the relentless sunlight, they looked like broken weapons turned against the sky. She felt like she was falling, light as snow, into the underworld.

“Ma’am, you alright?” Redford’s voice was distant and mechanical. She righted herself. He was beside her.

“I’m fine. Where do we go from here?”

“This way,” he said, leading her through shoals of clown fish and angel fish. A big grouper lurked in the shadow of some concrete rubble like a cartoon character. Anemones waved their tentacles.

She felt like an archeologist among the ruins of a dead civilization. Millions of people once lived here, walked these flooded streets, laughed and loved and argued bitterly in these empty rooms. How could so much be lost so quickly?

They emerged from the shadows of the Paramount and floated above what had once been gardens that adjoined the mall. Eel grass and shoal grass grew with abandon where bermudagrass had once been trimmed with military precision.

They entered the mall. The sharp edges of terraces and store fronts were softened by marine growth. The architecture seemed in the process of transforming, morphing into something organic, abandoning its provenance, becoming something other. She was startled by a mannequin still standing behind a broken display window, clothed with sea squirts and filter feeders that wrapped around its body like a boa, fanning the water with the illusion of movement.

She let the current carry her past the remnants of expensive boutiques and specialty shops and sidewalk cafes that had eventually become bodegas and cribs and storefronts for drug dealers as the ocean advanced and the wealth retreated. It felt like she was fixed in place and the world accelerated past her. A school of angel fish darted back and forth, frightened by the shadow of a six-foot barracuda that passed overhead. The mall narrowed, constrained by two large buildings that flanked either side, and the current began to quicken.

“Hold on,” she heard Redford say. “This is an E-ticket ride. See you on the other side.”

His voice was disembodied. She turned to locate him at the same time the current became more turbulent, accelerating like water through the nozzle of a garden hose. She was caught off guard and began to tumble. She struggled to right herself and overcompensated, tumbling in the opposite direction. She was cartwheeling ass over teakettle, out of control, hardly aware of the dark shadows racing past on either side. Her breathing became ragged. Her stomach muscles constricted, her heart raced. She kicked hard and twisted. Something large flashed past her. A manta ray? A shark? She fought to get her mind and body under control. Something gripped her wrist. She jerked reflexively. It was Redford.

“Looked like you were enjoying yourself too much,” he said.

It felt like her breath was whistling in her lungs. She didn’t dare more than a single word. “Asshole.”

The current went slack as it spilled them into an open expanse that led to the edge of the sunken shore and the bay. She settled into an upright position.

“One more surprise for you,” he said, holding her by the wrist, pivoting her until the object filled her vision.

“My God, what is it?” It was a massive black monolith, an octagon. There were inscriptions on the two sides she could see. “I’ve never read anything about this in the histories,” she said.

“No idea,” he said. “It might have been placed here just before the city was submerged or just after. Either way, you gotta wonder why anyone would create a monument that nobody sees.”

“What language is that?”

“Swahili and Hindi. Least, that’s what I’m told. I don’t speak either. There’s also Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish and English on the other sides. They hedged their bet who might survive to read it.”

She swam around the edges of the black sculpture until she recognized a few words of English not covered with algae. She rubbed the stone with her gloved hand. A cloud of micro-organisms slowly dispersed.

“Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason,” she read aloud. It was number four. “Really, no one knows where this came from, who put it here?”

“Someone knows, I guess,” Redford said, “but they’re not talking.”

She cleared the face of the stone further down. “Avoid petty laws and useless officials.”

“Amen to that,” Redford said.

She read the last commandment. “Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.” She paused. “Important enough they repeated it. I’m afraid we still screwed that pooch.”

“That’s the end of the tour,” Redford said lightly. She could hear the smile in his voice. “Hoped you enjoyed yourself. Remember to tip your deckhands.”


People don’t take kindly to immigrants anymore. You shelter in place or not at all.


When she returned to their stateroom, Rifkin asked, “Did you enjoy your excursion?” He was sprawled across the bed wearing only a Speedo.

“It was marvelous,” she said, “and horrible. It’s as if the earth is erasing us.”

“Not entirely. We have our own geologic epoch. The Anthropocene. That’s some kind of immortality.”

“Why are you always so glib?”

He lifted his head. “Me? I’m a sane man well-adjusted to an insane society. And the filming went well today, thanks for asking.” His head fell back on the bed, seemingly exhausted by the effort.

“You know that documentary isn’t going to end well for you, don’t you?” she said.

“Don’t be absurd. They love me,” he said.

“You’re delusional.”

“Like I said, well-adjusted.” He stood and smoothed his clothes. “When you’re out of the shower, join me on the upper deck for a rum and tonic. Thank God they have a competent bar on this boat.”

She showered the salt water from her body and the wriggly little worms that were the larval stage of some lifeform that had found safe haven beneath her swim suit. She found Rifkin lounging in the pool. Sweat beaded on the glass in his hand and on his forehead. The autobot took her order and returned with a Mojito.

“What is that?” she said, pointing into the distance.

“My dear, are you really going to make me get out of the pool?” Rifkin said. “It’s hot.”

“It looks like a stain on the water,” she said a few minutes later, “but it’s getting closer. I think they’re boats. I’m going to ask the captain.”

“Really? Just leave it alone and it will go away.”

Captain Fairchild was on the lower bridge with a pair of binoculars aimed at the approaching boats.

“Who are they?” she asked.

“Drifters,” he said. “Migrants with no place to go.”

“Where did they come from?” she asked.

“There are tussocks of land still above water,” the captain said. “Hardly big enough to call islands. They’re regularly overtopped by storms. These people keep moving. They’re homeless. They live more on the water than the land.” He passed her the binoculars.

“They look so gaunt,” she said, “like Auschwitz survivors.”

“It’s not a good life,” Fairchild said, “but it’s the only one they’ve got. People don’t take kindly to immigrants anymore. You shelter in place or not at all.”

“Can we give them any food?” Living within the armored defenses of Manhattan, she had never seen hungry people before. On the video feeds, certainly, news footage of riots and restive natives, but that was like watching a documentary of baboons in the Drakensberg Mountains. They didn’t seem human.

“That would be unwise,” the captain said. “It would appear to them a sign of weakness, appeasement. If they think we’re vulnerable, they’ll become aggressive like sharks tasting blood in the water.”

“Really, captain. You’re being melodramatic. How harmful could these people be? They hardly have strength to raise a paddle. And they have children with them.” She saw a gaunt boy with hollow eyes sitting in an aluminum canoe between a bearded man and a woman who looked like she was fleeing the Dust Bowl.

“With respect, ma’am, these people have nothing and no hope of anything more. We have everything. The math doesn’t work in our favor.”

“What if we trade them for food? We wouldn’t seem weak.”

“They have nothing of value.”

“Don’t be dense, captain. It’s just a pretense.”

“The safety of this boat and everyone onboard is my responsibility. I don’t want these refugees inside our perimeter.”

“A few at a time,” she said. “The children first. What harm can they do? I insist.”

“I’m the captain. I’m the final authority on this…”

“True, Captain Fairchild.” she interrupted. “But I’m paying the bills. The children first.” She turned and walked away.

Rifkin stood beside Jalen as the first skiff came alongside. He was still wearing nothing but his Speedo. “Is this necessary?” he said. “It won’t make a difference. It’s an empty gesture.”

“It’s not a gesture.” she said, “They’re people. It will make a difference to them.”

“They’re not our people.”

“Really, Rifkin. You’ve been living in Manhattan too long.”

“You were living there with me, as I recall.”

There was a little girl in a wooden sailing skiff. Her skin was tanned like shoe leather. She waved at Jalen and smiled. She was missing several teeth. She was the first onboard. She was shy and hid behind her father, a man who looked anemic despite his dark tan. Kneeling, Jalen tried to coax her with an orange.

The captain’s handheld radio crackled. “Captain, we’ve got several of the buggers getting close on starboard side.” It was Mulvaney.

“Keep them at a distance,” the captain ordered.

“You want me to sink one as an example?” Mulvaney said.

“Keep it in your pants, Mulvaney. Just train your guns on them.”

The little girl wasn’t convinced. She had probably never seen an orange before. Jalen peeled it and ate a segment. She licked her lips. The little girl took a step forward.

“They’re not impressed, captain,” Mulvaney radioed. “They’ll be beneath my angle of depression in a minute.”

“Fire a few rounds above their heads. That should get their attention.”

The little girl extended a dirty hand. She touched the orange tentatively. Jalen held her hand, drawing her closer. The starboard minigun spit out a hundred rounds in less than two seconds. The little girl pulled back. Jalen held her. The little girl reacted instinctively, slashing with her free hand. Jalen dropped the orange on the deck. Blood spurted from a wound in her wrist. The little girl was holding a bone blade sharpened to a point.

“Captain, they’re on the aft deck,” someone shouted from the radio. “Bastards must have been underwater.”

“Weapons hot,” the captain shouted into his radio. “All targets.” He grabbed Jalen and pulled her away. Rifkin stood stunned, immobilized by the sudden change in roles. The girl’s father reached behind him and pulled a rusted blade from his rope belt. He plunged the blade into Rifkin’s throat. When he withdrew the blade, Rifkin’s heart pumped blood in a jet that splattered the man’s face. The man licked his lips.

The miniguns opened fire. Water erupted in jets like choreographed fountains. Wood and metal, flesh and bone were shredded by the impact. The small boats instantly decomposed into debris floating in a spreading red stain. The sound of small arms fire came from the aft deck.

The girl’s father moved quickly toward them. The captain roughly flung Jalen behind him. In the same movement, he drew a Glock from a shoulder holster beneath his uniform jacket. There was only an arm’s reach between them when he shot the man in his blood-stained face. Then he shot the little girl.

Rifkin was slumped on the deck, his back propped against the side of the cabin. He held his hands to his throat. The blood welled between his fingers and drained down his naked chest. He looked toward Jalen and tried to speak but only gurgled. His hands fell to his side. Blood trickled from the wound.

One of the boat people stepped into view from the aft deck. He was carrying an assault rifle issued to the crew. Another followed close behind. The captain fired before the man could bring his weapon to bear. The shots struck him center mass. He fell back onto the man behind who scooped up the dead man’s weapon and used his body as a shield. Captain Fairchild pulled the trigger until the hammer fell on an empty chamber. There was nowhere for them to go, nothing to hide behind. The man stood and raised the rifle. He looked as gaunt as death. Jalen braced for the pain.

The man’s head exploded in a cloud of blood and bone. He tumbled sideways. One of the camera crew appeared. It was the sound man, Blick. He was holding his rifle like a soldier. Of course, Jalen thought. Almost everyone who wasn’t rich had once been a soldier. Blick gave Fairchild a thumb’s up. The captain nodded.

“Report,” the captain barked into the radio.

There was a long pause. “Four dead, two wounded, one badly,” someone said. Jalen didn’t recognize the voice.

“Who is this?” the captain said.

“Withnal.” Withnal was the cook.

“Where’s the mate?”

“The mate’s dead. And Redford and Crookshank and the guy leading the film crew.”

“Damn. What about the boat?”

“The decks are cleared. You can see what’s left in the water. Mulvaney did a man’s job today.”

Jalen looked at the floating wreckage, pieces of boats shredded by the minigun but no bodies. No survivors, no one lifting their hand for help, no one struggling to stay afloat. They were all gone, slowly settling to the bottom of the bay. The little boy and his gaunt mother, his father, everyone except the bodies staining the teak decks with their blood. And poor Rifkin, propped against the bulkhead, a perplexed expression on this face, always the victim.

“My God,” Jalen said, still holding the wound in her wrist. “They’re all dead.”

“What did you expect,” the captain said. “They were starving. We have food.”

“I didn’t expect this.”

“You should have,” he said and turned away.

 

 

Finnegan’s Wake

North Bay Road (Part 1)

First is a trilogy of stories about the drowning of Miami.

Part 2: Urban Salvage
Part 3: Border Wars


It was a good life until the snake arrived…


Mrs. Schwartz, the widow who lived across the street, was standing in her front yard wearing a broad straw hat and white pant suit, one hand resting on her hip, the other cooling herself in the summer heat with a Japanese hand fan, the image of a plantation owner bossing the laborers re-sodding her lawn. She looked up and saw Finnegan. He touched the brim of his old Fedora, a slouching salute, and she snapped the fan closed with a flick of her wrist in acknowledgement. It sounded like a small-caliber handgun.

“Not there,” Finnegan heard her nasal voice. She sighted down the barrel of her fan. “Over there,” she barked at one of the laborers. “How many times do I have to tell you?”

He waited beside the mailbox for Henry Walpole. Walpole was the neighborhood’s mailman. He wore regulation postal shorts, blue with a dark stripe down the side, short sleeve shirt, Birkenstocks with black socks and a Pith helmet.

“Henry.”

“Mr. Finnegan.”

Walpole delivered the mail to the locked metal box sitting on a metal pole set in concrete. Always. He wouldn’t deliver the mail directly despite the fact that Finnegan was standing beside the mailbox. Walpole opened the locked box with his universal key, looked inside to verify there were no incendiary devices, deposited the mail and locked the box.

“SOP,” Walpole once said when Finnegan asked him. “Standard operating procedure. Like chain of custody. Ensures the security of the U.S. Mail.” Walpole was a pompous prick.

Finnegan retrieved the mail, sorted through the envelopes, glanced at Walpole trudging down the street, bent beneath the weight of his mail sack, then hurried back to the house. He could feel Mrs. Schwartz’s acid gaze between his shoulder blades.

Jose Finnegan was the son of an Irish emigrant and a Nicaraguan mother. He lived alone in a small cottage in a riotous garden designed by the famous Raymond Jungles—Live Oaks and Cypress trees, Sabal palms and pachira aquatic, bromeliads and epiphytes and water gardens. The grounds keeper’s cottage was hidden from the main house by dense foliage. He kept the grounds, cleaned the pool, collected the mail, guarded the empty house, ate his meals alone—a single beer with dinner—and occasionally visited the whores of Little Havana. He never brought a woman home.

The main house was modest by the extravagant standards of North Bay Road, Miami Beach—five bedrooms and floor space just shy of 8,000 square feet, not counting garages, keeper’s cottage, and outbuildings—with a stunning view of the Sunset Isles and the city across Biscayne Bay.

The house was mostly empty. When an arrival was impending, Finnegan was informed by Franklin Durango, personal secretary to Hector Guzmán. Senor Guzmán was the Venezuelan industrialist who name the place Paraiso Fiscal. He never spoke directly to Finnegan.

When informed of an arrival, Finnegan contacted the concierge service. The maids removed the white sheets from the furniture, polished the marble and hardwoods, and washed the linens. The concierge stocked the bar and refrigerator. The great man came with his entourage and filled the night with music and laughter, angry shouts and breaking glass, then left again with empty champagne bottles drowned at the bottom of the infinite pool and spent condoms drooping from palm leaves beneath the bedroom windows.

He learned of the snake’s arrival the day of the flood. The flood didn’t fall from the sky but rose from the sewers.

He woke from an afternoon nap to the sound of dripping water, a persistent and singular drip. The room was dark, the curtains drawn,  and the sound echoed like water in a cave. He laid in bed, listening. He could think of no good reason water was dripping indoors, only bad ones. He swung his feet out of bed and stepped into a pool of water.

Water was standing several inches on the tile floor. Lukewarm water. He dipped his finger and tasted it. Salt water. It smelled like a mangrove swamp.

He reached for the light switch beside the bed but thought better of it. Electricity in a house flooded with salt water was problematic.

Instead he waded through the darkness dressed in shorts and t-shirt, from the bedroom to the kitchen where the afternoon light was also flooding in. A pair of rubber sandals bobbed beside the door.

Through the French doors he could see the back of the property, the pool, dock, and across the water to the Sunset Islands. The pool was no longer there, or the dock, and the Sunset Islands seem to ride low in the water, awash, like half-tide rocks. Small waves propagated across the yard and broke against the trunks of Sabal palms and Cypress trees.


“This morning I saw an octopus in my parking garage.”


There were no clouds, no rain, no storm. The ocean had simply risen up, he thought, or the land sunk beneath the weight of humanity. He remembered a news report on Channel 6 about abnormally high tides. King tides they called them.

“Mierda,” Finnegan said to himself.

He retrieved his floating sandals and pushed the French doors open against the resisting water. Ripples radiated among the plants. He felt for the paving stones with his feet, hidden by sluggish brown water. Something slithered against his ankle. He jerked impulsively.

“Madre de Dios.”

What might have risen with the sea to swim among the jasmine and dwarf oyster and sunshine mimosa? Salt water snakes? Were there such a thing? Certainly there were barracuda. A barracuda had leaped out of the ocean and bit a woman standing in the cockpit of a boat. Severed an artery in her groin. He read it in the Miami Times. Were barracuda swimming in the garden? He pressed his thighs together.

He grabbed a garden rake he had left leaning against the cottage wall and used the handle like a walking stick, prodding the dark water in front of him. There was a swirl of water beneath the hanging peperomia. He raised the rake like a baseball bat, waiting, but nothing leaped out of the water.

Down the driveway to the street, he felt again like a child playing in the flooded gutters of Managua. Mrs. Schwartz was standing in her front yard, surveying her drowned sod like bodies on a battlefield, her eyes red and swollen, mourning her new lawn.

For a moment he felt a common bond with his neighbor, a common sense of loss and realization that the world had become a different, more dangerous place, then her face turned hard as schist, chipped into sharp edges by rage. She raised her manicured fist at the sky and screamed “Damn you, Henry Hidalgo!” flinging spittle like diamonds in the sunlight. Mrs. Schwartz seemed to hold the mayor of Miami Beach personally responsible for the rising sea level. She looked furtively up and down the street, then turned her back on her lawn. She didn’t see him. He didn’t say anything. It was like he had seen her with her knickers around her knees.

Henry Walpole was wading down the sidewalk leaving a wake. He was wearing rubber boots, not the usual Birkenstocks. He was walking cautiously, careful not to step off the curb into deep water. It sounded like his boots were full of water. He squelched with each step.

“Neither rain nor snow nor rising tide, heh, Henry?” Finnegan called out.

“That’s not actually the motto of the U.S. Postal Service,” Walpole said. “It was a translation of Herodotus inscribed on a New York post office building. Not even an accurate translation. The original referred to the angarium. That’s the ancient Persian system of mounted postal carriers. It existed before the birth of Christ. ‘Stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.’ That’s the actual translation.”

Pompous prick.

Walpole unlocked the mail box, deposited a few pieces of mail—mostly advertising circulars, it looked to Finnegan—and then locked it again, testing the lock to make sure the mail was safe.

“Persian?” Finnegan said. “Maybe the Post Office should issue you a horse. Or a boat.”

Walpole looked at his rubber boots, then leaned against the mailbox. His façade seemed to crumble like old concrete. He shook his head. “This morning I saw an octopus in my parking garage.”

“An octopus?” Finnegan unlocked the mailbox and removed the advertising.

“It must have come up through the storm drains. They were shooting up like fountains. I swear there were clown fish hiding under an Audi. All those cars sitting in salt water above their floor boards. You know what salt does to steel?”

“Nothing good,” Finnegan suggested.

“You see the cars from New York with body rot? Looks like leprosy? That’s what.”

Finnegan had never seen a leper but he understood Walpole’s anxiety. His cell phone rang. It was Franklin Durango. “Excuse me. I have to take this.”

He turned toward the house. Henry Walpole continued to slog down North Bay Road, bent beneath his responsibilities.


“You don’t just put a giant anaconda on a leash and let it wander around the yard.”


“Finnegan,” Durango said, “I have instructions for you. From Senor Guzmán. You’re to pick up a crate at the Port of Miami.”

“A crate of what?”””

“It’s rather exotic. From the Amazon.” There was a theatric pause. “An anaconda.”

“Anaconda?” Finnegan hesitated. “A snake?”

“Yes, exactly. An anaconda. As I said, it’s rare and prohibitively expensive. Take care of it.”

“I don’t know anything about snakes,” Finnegan protested. He didn’t want to know anything, either. He had a healthy aversion to snakes. Those that didn’t poison could still bite. Or crush.

“I’m sure you’ll learn. Google it. Senior Guzmán’s interest probably won’t last long but neither will your employment if the snake isn’t in good health when he arrives.”

He opened his mouth to protest, then closed it. There was no shortage of people eager to do his job. “When will he arrive?”

“The snake?”

“Senor Guzmán.”

“A few weeks. Maybe a month. The current political unrest demands a certain fluidity. Probably best to expect little warning.”

“And a snake.”

“Yes, exactly. A snake. An expensive snake. There may be more.”

“More snakes?”

“Or not.” Durango gave him the name of the shipping agent and the arrival date. It was only a week away. “You’ll need to have the habitat ready.”

“The habitat?”

“You don’t just put a giant anaconda on a leash and let it wander around the yard. It needs a habitat.”

“A giant?” He felt the panic rising from his stomach like burning bile. “What kind of habitat does a giant anaconda need?”

“I don’t know. That’s what Google is for. Exercise initiative but make sure the snake is happy when Senor Guzmán arrives.”

Finnegan wondered how he could recognize a happy anaconda. Probably the bulge in its belly.

“The lower garden flooded. And my cottage. And the street,” he told Durango.

“Is there a storm?”

“No. High tide.”

“High tide? How high? Never mind. Was the house damaged?”

“No, but the plants…the salt water will have killed many of them.”

“Buy new plants.”

“The ocean will rise again and kill the new plants. We’ll need to plant a mangrove swamp.”

“Then keep it from rising.”

“How do you suggest I keep the ocean from rising? Hold it back with my hands?”

“Build a higher sea wall. Really, Finnegan, do I have to think of everything?”

Finnegan took a deep breath. It felt like he was explaining celestial mechanics to a child. “It doesn’t help if we build a higher wall and our neighbors don’t. It will flood our grounds just the same. And a sea wall won’t keep the water out of the street. The ocean is higher than the storm drains.”

“Tell the mayor to raise the level of the street. Senor Guzmán pays enough property taxes to pave the streets with gold. Have the city council pass an ordinance requiring a minimal height for sea walls. Really, it isn’t rocket science.”

“No, Mr. Durango, it isn’t rocket science.” There was an optimal solution in rocket science.


There was a black ribbon in the center of eyes brown as fetid swamp water. It was like looking through a crack into the heart of darkness.


He ignored the first advice he read on the web. Only expert snake wranglers should attempt a big anaconda. The second was the snake needed a dark place to hide and a pool to lounge in. Maybe a floating cozy for a fruity drink with an umbrella?

Some of his research was disconcerting. An anacondas had teeth like crampons that could hold its prey in place while slowly crushing every bone in the hapless beast’s body. The result was a bunch of broken bits, like peanut brittle, in a bag of loose skin. Easier to swallow you, my precious.

The snake could also excrete musk from its asshole—the more authoritative sites politely called it a cloaca—and fling it with disturbing accuracy according to Froglet, an active member of the snake forum at mysmelly.com.

It reminded Finnegan of the gorilla at the San Diego Zoo, an old silverback that amused itself by flinging poo at zoo visitors. It passed the day. The zoo keepers installed a clear Plexiglas barrier to protect the paying customers. The gorilla adapted. It sat casually on its concrete hill and shat casually into its cupped palm, then as casually lofted an overhand lob that landed among the crowds with the devastating accuracy of a 60 millimeter mortar. Perversely, the crowds increased.

He removed the garden tools from the tool shed, painted the windows black, and bought from Wal-Mart a plastic kiddie pool imprinted with copyrighted images from Disney’s The Littlest Mermaid. He built a scaffold that looked like a gallows without the hangman’s noose so the snake could lurk above the pool, ready to fall on Scuttle or Flotsam and Jetsam and wring the life out of them should ever become more than stencils.

The tool shed was hot and humid as a rainforest. Even his socks were wet with sweat when he finished. He wasn’t likely to need a heat lamp unless the snake lasted to winter.

When the call came from Franklin Durango, the tool shed was a serpentarium and his cottage was full of gardening tools.


At first the woman who sold him the chickens thought he was gathering eggs. By the third chicken she suspected he was Santeria.


The offices of Tekel-Sprinker Shipping Agents located on Dodge Island, an address on Antarctica Way. The irony of the street name in the sweltering summer heat didn’t amuse him. He had to wait 45 minutes in a room where the air conditioning wheezed like an old man in a hospice bed. They said they were processing his paperwork.

A fat man with a greasy sheen finally entered the waiting room. “Thank you for your patience, Mr.,” he consulted the paperwork on his clipboard, “Finnegan? Jose Finnegan? Interesting name. We had to confirm your identity with the shipper, you understand. These types of transactions require a certain propriety.” Finnegan suspected that propriety didn’t include the U.S. Customs Service. “Everything’s in order. Your shipment will be available at Loading Dock B. It’s just around the corner. Have a nice day.”

Finnegan never knew whether he was Tekel or Sprinker.

A man with a stained baseball cap with the slogan “All good things smell like fish” delivered the crate to his Jeep Wrangler with a forklift. There was barely enough room to wedge it in the cargo compartment with the back seat pushed forward.

“How am I supposed to get this out of the car?” Finnegan asked. It wasn’t a rhetorical question.

The stevedore shrugged. It eloquently, and insultingly, communicated: Not my problem.

“How big is this thing?” Finnegan asked, trying to see into an air hole drilled into the wooden crate. “How much does it weigh?” It was dark inside the crate and smelled foul in the heat. “Good god, is it dead? It smells like it’s dead.”

The man who loved the smell of fish handed him a bill of lading to sign, then wheeled away, the tines of his forklift barely missing Finnegan’s shins.


“Senior Guzmán knows this thing isn’t a pet? I think it could crush a Volkswagen.”


It didn’t smell any better on the MacArthur Causeway. He drove home with the windows open and the air conditioning at full volume. He couldn’t get the crate out of the Jeep however much he pushed and heaved. He tied one end of a line around it, anchored the other to a tree, and drove away. The crate dropped on the driveway with a crash. When he loaded it on a hand truck, the crate rocked, the snake obviously annoyed at the rough handling. Definitely not dead. Less the weight of the wooden crate, he guessed the snake must weigh 50, maybe 75 pounds. An angry, 75 pound snake. Was the tool shed adequate?

It took some maneuvering to get the crate through the shed door. He banged against the door jamb several times. The crate rocked as the irritated snake shifted its weight. He set the crate on the floor beside the kiddie pool, pried the nails from one side with a crowbar, and levered it open a crack. He peered cautiously through the crack, the crow bar raised like a weapon. It was too dark to see anything. He widened the crack and looked again, posed with the crowbar, ready to fight or flee. He never saw the flick of the anaconda’s tail that flung musk in his face. He staggered, gagged, almost retched. It smelled like road kill baking in the Florida heat.

The crate fell open as the snake placed its weight against it. The broad, flat head emerged and looked at him with cold-blooded disdain. There was a black ribbon in the center of eyes brown as fetid swamp water. It was like looking through a crack into the heart of darkness. The body uncoiled from the crate. It took some time. The snake was in no hurry. Its mid-section was as thick as his thigh.

“Holy Mother!” he whispered to himself, closed the shed door and braced it with a kitchen chair.

The consensus of the web’s wisdom was warm-blooded prey. Not dead. Certainly not frozen. The snake was so big mice and rats seemed hopelessly insufficient. He bought live chickens from a supplier in Hialeah. At first the woman who sold him the chickens thought he was gathering eggs. By the third chicken she suspected he was Santeria. When the chickens seemed hardly a bulge in the snake’s belly, he went further afield to find a goat at a sketchy farm in Homestead that also sold hogs. It seemed a likely disposal site for a serial killer.

The man who sold him the goat was missing front teeth and had a swastika tattooed on his wrist. When he learned Finnegan was feeding a snake—a big snake—he offered to sell him an alligator. Apparently pitting alligators against snakes was a thing in South Florida, like bear and bull-baiting in Elizabethan England. Fortunately, Senor Guzmán had expressed no interest in alligators.

He led the goat to his car with a frayed leash of orange polypropylene rope. The goat didn’t smell any better than the snake. It was a long ride home with the windows open and the air conditioning hopelessly trying to hold back the heat that flooded the car like a tide.

He tried to smuggle the goat on the property unobserved—Dade county had restrictive laws about dogs and maybe goats and certainly giant anacondas—but it was impossible to keep the goat quiet. It bleated like it was being led to its death. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the curtain in Mrs. Schwartz’s front window fall back into place. Her front lawn was neatly bisected by the high tide line: green above, brown below.

It was even worse when he stood in front of the tool shed door. The goat caught the snake’s scent, rank even outside of the shed, and bleated more desperately.

He shoved the goat into the shed and closed the door behind it. Afterwards he remembered the polypropylene leash but refused to go back for it.

The goat bleated all afternoon. He could hear it wherever he worked on the grounds. He stuffed cotton balls in his ears to deaden the sound. It helped but not much. Around dusk the bleating ended abruptly. The silence was a condemnation.

He crossed himself. “I’m going to hell for this.” The death of a goat seemed a more venial sin than a chicken.

The goat remained a bulge in the snake’s belly for a week as it lay torpid in the kiddie pool. A happy anaconda. Finnegan cleaned up balls of snake poo embedded with orange polypropylene fibers. The political unrest in Venezuela preoccupied Senor Guzmán for more than a month. It was the end of August before Finnegan received a call from Franklin Durango.

“We will arrive next week,” Durango said brusquely. “I’ve confirmed there are no unusual tides expected. The senor must not be inconvenienced.”

“The house will be ready,” Finnegan said.

“I hope the snake is in good health.”

“Senor Guzmán knows this thing isn’t a pet? I think it could crush a Volkswagen.”

“What Senor Guzmán knows…or doesn’t know…isn’t your concern. You’re paid to follow orders.”

Finnegan wondered what had crawled up Durango’s ass. He suspected things weren’t going well in the home country.

The house was ready three days before Senor Guzmán’s scheduled arrival and two days before Mirabelle. Mirabelle was a Category 2 hurricane pulling a train of hurricanes—Nigel and Ophelia—across the Caribbean. It had only brushed Puerto Rico and the islands of Hispaniola, following the Mona Passage on its way into the Atlantic, but already killed 34 people, mostly on the denuded slopes of the Dominican Republic where mudslides crushed entire villages.

Mirabelle was a thousand miles from Miami when it entered the Atlantic. The ocean that stored humanity’s waste heat for a hundred years fed the hurricane. It rapidly gained ferocity and wind speeds of 115 miles per hour—a strong Category 3. It was forecast to stay offshore, steered by a high pressure system sweeping east across the Great Plains. Mirabelle would likely have minimal impact on Miami, mostly rain, and make landfall somewhere near Boston later in the week.

Finnegan paid little attention to Mirabelle as he scrubbed the tool shed, keeping a wary eye on the snake, draped around the scaffold above the kiddie pool. He hadn’t given it a pet name—too cold blooded and predatory. Even in the conversations inside his head he referred to it as the thing in the tool shed.

The snake followed his movements with calculating eyes. He wondered what it saw with those eyes. The world filtered into simple categories, probably: food, fight, or fuck. Pretty much the same as human beings but without the histrionics of apes.

“Behave yourself until Senor Guzmán leaves and I’ll bring you another goat.” Could you cajole an anaconda? He felt culpable, complicit, like a village elder offering the Aztec overlords a child sacrifice. The snake looked at him dispassionately, licking the air with its tongue.


Senor Guzmán wasn’t dead yet but when he died, Finnegan hoped he would be condemned to a hell full of wealthy Palm Beach pricks in tennis costumes.


While Finnegan was preoccupied cleaning the snake pit, Mirabelle recurved, hung a hard left, and charged toward Miami like a violated warthog. Throughout the afternoon it gathered speed, closing the distance. Throughout the afternoon the tone of television reporters and meteorologists became more strident. The affluent residents of the city scurried frantically, emptied the store shelves of batteries and bottled water, nailed plywood over windows or abandoned their homes to join long lines of traffic that clogged the two routes out of town. The poor people hunkered down. They had nowhere to go and not much to lose and no option but to shelter in place.

When Finnegan stepped out of the tool shed, his clothes sodden with sweat, the air was still and the sky a sulphurous yellow. Bands of clouds streamed from the northwest. He could taste the metal fillings in his teeth. The air was so heavy with humidity it was hard to breath.

He walked through the kitchen of his cottage into the bedroom, his steps squelching with the sweat pooled in his shoes, stripped of his wet clothes and threw them in the corner. He turned on the television and muted it, then showered. When he returned from the bathroom, his cellphone was vibrating on the nightstand where he had left it in the morning and a man on the television in shirt sleeves and tie was gesturing wildly in front of a weather map. He turned up the sound.

“…mandatory evacuations. If you haven’t evacuated from those areas—almost everyplace along the coast of Dade County—you’re probably safer staying where you are. The roads are gridlocked. Hurricane Mirabelle is approaching at over 60 miles per hour. The outer rain bands are already over Fort Lauderdale and headed south. Within the next hour we can expect the wind to increase to 30 or 40 miles per hour, and in four hours, the full strength of the hurricane. Currently Mirabelle is a strong Category 3, bordering on Category 4, with sustained winds of 120 miles per hour.”

His cellphone vibrated off the edge of the nightstand and fell to the tiled floor, angry as a sidewinder in a frying pan. There was an instant message from Dade County Emergency Management with a long list of communities under mandatory evacuation. Miami Beach was one of them.

“Shit.”

He filled his bathtub with water and took inventory. Enough canned goods to last a week and a Coleman stove with bottled gas to cook them. He brought bottled water from the main house. By the time he taped the cottage windows with duct tape it was raining. Palms were bent by the freshening wind. Palm fronds were flying through the air like shrapnel. The rain tasted of salt from waves breaking against the sea wall. He walked the grounds one  last time, buffeted by the wind, his wet clothes luffing like a sail, then abandoned the tastefully designed landscaping to the storm.

The last thing he saw before closing the door was a string of waterspouts spinning through the yellow light above the ocean.

By five o’clock it was dark as night. He sat beside the TV, reassured by the voice of the weather forecasters, until the electricity failed. Then he listened to the portable radio until the voice of the announcer was lost in the background static. He was conservative with the batteries in his flashlight but occasionally needed reassurance that he was still surrounded by familiar things and hadn’t been spirited to hell in the darkness.

For several hours the wind increased. He heard trees fall and strike the ground like a hammer on anvil. The wind beneath the eves sounded alive, a vast creature tortured to madness. Something crashed nearby. Wood splintered.

At 2:37 a.m. the windows blew in, one quickly following another like an artillery salvo. He retreated to the bathroom and shoved towels under the door to keep the water out. Fifteen minutes later the bathroom door blew in and knocked him off his feet. Water rapidly flooded the room. Bleeding from a shallow head wound where the door had struck him, hunched to protect himself from debris, he waded from the cottage toward the main house, through the water and the darkness and the wind, the beam of his flashlight almost drowned by the rain.

The flood was rising fast. The water already reached his thigh. A strong current rushed down the driveway as the bay rushed to fill the street. It was difficult to keep his footing. A child’s tricycle, tumbling in the current, knocked him from his feet. He lost his flashlight. The storm pummeled him from every direction. He stumbled like a blind fighter. A searing flash of lighting exposed the scene with the harsh clarity of an x-ray, stripping flesh from bone. In that one moment of unforgiving light it seemed that the world had been unmade and gravity annulled. The air was full of heavy things that should properly be pinned to the earth, not flying about like witches on the summer solstice.

The current carried him down the driveway to the front of the house. He stood waist-deep in water, braced against the current that dragged him toward the street. He saw Mrs. Schwartz’ house across a field of breaking waves. He hoped she had evacuated while there was still time. There was no one who could help her now.

He reached the front door at the same time the rising water climbed the steps. The door was locked. His key was somewhere in the cottage or carried out to sea. Senor Guzmán insisted on hiding a spare key in the potted palm beside the door. In case he ever came home without his pants, Franklin Durango claimed. The palm was still there, at least the stems. The potting soil was mostly mud. He found the key after several minutes filtering the mud through his fingers.

When he turned the handle, the door opened violently, pulling him into the foyer. He slid across the marble floor like a flat stone skipped across the water.

The windows were shattered, the drapes whipping in the wind like the rags of a banshee, and broken glass underfoot. A flash of lighting revealed Senor Guzmán’s portrait still hanging in the foyer, his dark skin in dire contrast to the white sweater, white shirt, and white pants of his tennis costume. To the best of Finnegan’s knowledge, lighting wasn’t characteristic of hurricanes and Senor Guzmán didn’t play tennis. The portrait looked like the man’s ghost pinned to the wall. Senor Guzmán wasn’t dead yet but when he died, Finnegan hoped he would be condemned to a hell full of wealthy Palm Beach pricks in tennis costumes. Serve him right.

He felt his way blindly along the walls of the foyer and the formal dining room toward the kitchen and the pantry where the flashlights were stored. He walked on broken glass. In the hard light of a billion volts the glass looked like gilded splinters.

The house shook as something crashed against a windward wall with the force of artillery fire. Finnegan crossed himself. He wasn’t a religious man, despite his mother’s early insistence, but the force of the storm seemed vast, inhuman, even godly. It was easier for him to believe in hell than heaven but it wouldn’t hurt to hedge his bets.

The water was already rising to his shins by the time he found a flashlight. In the commercial kitchen cupboard doors were banging in the wind that entered one broken window and left by another. Pots and pans and Tupperware were sailing on an inland sea. He shuffled his way to the locked liquor cabinet in the library, barging through the buoyant debris of a wealthy man’s life. Without remorse he broke the glass and stole a bottle of Cragganmore Single Malt that was older than he was.

He took his stand on the second floor landing of the grand staircase. More exactly, he took his seat, the bottle of Scotch cradled between his crossed legs, his body sheltering it from flying debris. He took a deep swig and swirled the whisky in his mouth as his hair whipped in the wind. For a $500 dollar bottle of Scotch, it tasted a lot like a bottle of Johnny Walker he could buy at Sobe Liquors down the street. Except Sobe wasn’t down the street any longer. Down river or down lake, maybe. Or nowhere at all anymore.

He had no idea of the time. Maybe near dawn, maybe the middle of the night. He turned his flashlight on occasionally, checking the rise of the water up each step of the staircase. He didn’t know which was more disturbing, the sound of the house being torn apart in the darkness or its confirmation in the light. He used the light sparingly, conserving its batteries. He could have taken more from the pantry but the thought of mixing batteries and salt water in his pockets was disconcerting. Now the pantry was probably underwater.

There was a sound like 12-penny nails being pulled from hardwood by bloody fingers. Part of the roof—the southern part above the guest rooms—carried away in the storm. He took another deep swallow of Scotch, surprised the bottle was half empty. 

How remarkable. All of Senor Guzmán’s power and wealth, his authority and arrogance, dismembered one shingle at a time, turned into molding drywall, shattered glass, rusted metal, rotting cloth. Nothing the great man could build couldn’t be destroyed, slowly or all at once. There was probably not much difference between them, Finnegan thought. In Guzmán’s place, he would probably be just as arrogant, just as willfully mindless. Except that he was here, in the center of a murderous storm, and Guzmán wasn’t. He took bitter solace that the storm would eventually find Guzmán. When had he stopped calling him Senor?

He turned on the flashlight. Confused seas roiled across the ground floor, the harrowing wind wildly shifting, driving waves in every direction, colliding and crashing in gouts of white water lopped off by the wind. In that field of broken water—a storm in miniature, a tempest in a teacup—a child’s rubber duck floated defiantly, tossed and drop kicked and bitch slapped by waves, bouncing like an old pickup down a washboard road, sometimes submerged but always rising with irrepressible buoyancy. In the chaos intersected by the flashlight’s narrow beam, the rubber duck seemed less like a child’s harmless toy and more like an evil clown mocking him, a bright yellow reminder of his own mortality, a memento mori with a beak. The water was at the last step before the landing.

He took the Cragganmore and retreated to the master bedroom, dodging overturned furniture and ruined drapes flogged by the wind. The canopy above the enormous bed was shredded. The heavy bed cloths levitated. The wind outside the broken windows sounded like a tortured animal a hundred miles wide. Its agony extended beyond human hearing. He heard it with the marrow of his bones and the roots of his teeth. The sheer volume made coherent thought impossible. Each thought severed from the one preceding and the one following, like isolated victims in a storm.

He retreated to the walk-in closet and shouldered the door shut against the wind. Guzmán’s closet was almost as big as the grounds keeper’s cottage. There were racks and shelves rising to the ceiling, a chandelier, even a pair of overstuffed leather chairs. A hat tree made of mahogany shaped like a clinging vine coiled from floor to ceiling. Montecristi Panama hats hung from the tree like blossoms. He sat in one of the leather chairs, took another pull from the bottle of Scotch, then lunged for the corner and vomited on a pair of Dolce & Gabbana oxfords.

He woke disoriented, uncertain of the time, the place. The smell of something rancid hung in the humid air, his skin glued to the leather chair by his sweat. It was dark. Of course. He was in a closet. Sheltering from the storm. Had it passed? It was quiet in the closet. How long had he passed out?

He groped for the flashlight on his knees and put his hand in something pasty. The smell confirmed it was his own vomit. He cleaned his hand as best he could on the hardwood floor and eventually found the flashlight at the base of the hat tree.

He opened the closet door tentatively, leading with the flashlight as if something might leap from his dark imagination. The room was oddly still. Only a few drapes remained like shredded sails hanging from their yards. Through the empty windows he could see moonlight reflected on Biscayne Bay except it was no longer the bay of memory. It seemed to go on forever. He couldn’t see the far shore or even the near shore. The Sunset and Venetian Islands were gone. The moon polished empty water that washed against the high-rises of Edgewater on the mainland.

The air was still. Not even a whisper disturbed the moonlit night. He leaned out a window and could almost touch the still water surrounding the house. He was on an island, a rock half awash in an ocean that had risen with a vengeance. He could see a few stripped palm trunks like sticks emerging from the water and everywhere drifting debris. Some of it looked human.

The sky directly above was clear but the moon sailed above a wrack of clouds to the west. The clouds wrapped the horizon like a curtain. The eye wall. He could see lightning writhing among the clouds. There was the sound of distant thunder like an artillery battle fought beyond the horizon. He was in the eye of the hurricane. It wasn’t over. Not nearly.

He retreated into the darkness of the room. He sat heavily on the edge of the bed, rested elbows on knees and head in hands. Not over, not nearly. He doubted the house could withstand the far side of the storm. He had no chance of surviving in the water with the wreckage of houses—beams and rafters and entire roofs grinding in the flood like a logjam. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do, and the liquor cabinet was 15 feet underwater.

It felt like someone struck him with a 2X4. He fell to the floor, struggled to rise, pressed down by a heavy weight. There was a sharp pain in his shoulder. He tried to wriggle free of the weight but he was held fast. He flailed about but found nothing to strike. Something thick and sinuous held him. It felt like a strong man had wrapped his arms around his chest and was crushing him. Looters, he thought. Maybe they weren’t waiting for the storm to end.

He tried to roll over and break the man’s grip. The pressure didn’t slacken. It was like the man was rolling with him, glued to him. The pressure on chest made it hard to breath. Whoever had him in a bear hug was as strong as a circus freak.

He struggled to his knees but was unable to stand. The weight of the freakish strong man held him down. He reached behind to claw the man’s face or tear off his ear but could find nothing to claw or tear. There was a bright arc of lightning to the west and an immediate clap of thunder. In the searing light he found himself staring into a pair of alien eyes above his shoulder, a familiar thread of darkness in pools of fetid water. The damned snake. It had its fangs embedded in his shoulder.

In a flash of intuition, like being kicked in the head, he realized he was caught in the coils of the anaconda. It had climbed to high ground, same as him. The highest ground for a snake was Guzmán’s four poster. It must have slithered up the bed post like the gallows in the tool shed. When he sat on the bed he was right beneath it, another goat on an orange leash. It wasn’t the storm that would kill him but a rich man’s reptile.

He tried to rip the snake’s head from his shoulder but the fangs sank deeper, grating on bone. His whole body was a cloud of pain. He could feel things popping and tearing inside.

He heard a distant sound approaching like a freight train. The storm was returning. It was getting dark again. He couldn’t tell whether the moon was obscured by clouds or his brain was starved of oxygen. In his blindness he could see he wasn’t going to survive the night. In the belly of a snake or the belly of a storm, he thought, we all end up as food.

An unlikely peace settled on him. He could no longer feel the snake’s fangs buried in his shoulder or the crushing pressure on his chest. It felt like he was floating in a dark sea, weightless, fearless, without hope or despair. He thought he should be struggling for his life, clawing toward the light, fighting for breath but it didn’t seem to matter much anymore. There was nothing more he need do, nothing else he need accomplish. For the first time in his life he was completely present, completely in the moment, the last moment. “What a relief,” he thought and then he became the darkness.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

Everywhere I turn there seems evidence of passionate dysfunction and rapacious greed. Drug manufacturers profiting from death and addiction, politicians selling their vote for privilege and re-election, oil companies trading humanity’s future for quarterly earnings, and desperate people drowning in despair as our days darken. It seems the dire warnings of Revelations have come true, the perfect apocalypse—wars and rumors of war, fire and flood, drought and famine and the leadership of fools. The earth trembles beneath the weight of humanity and we can’t seem to help ourselves or each other.

There is too much noise, too much urgency, much of it artificial, much of it marketing. I’ve begun to distance myself from it. I’m no longer following Trump’s twitter feed. I’m no longer starting my day with coffee and CNN. I’ve unsubscribed from the newsletters of all those good folk urging immediate action for one worthy cause after another, one dire emergency after another.

Maybe I’m guilty of isolating myself. Maybe I should be more committed to fighting in the streets but the fight seems never ending and never successful. The new boss is always the same as the old boss. Maybe those old Roman stoics were right.

Then what is the answer?—Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know the great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history…for contemplation or in fact…
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.

The Answer, Robinson Jeffers

Urban Salvage

North Bay Road (Part 2)

The second story in a climatic trilogy about the drowning of Miami.
Part 1: Finnegan’s Wake
Part 3: Border Wars


There were rumors that salt water crocodiles had returned to Miami, rumors the crocs were big as his kayak. Probably just rumors.


Favio Bayliss crouched on the landing of the grand staircase, watching the dark water below. He held the speargun loosely in his hands. He had made the gun himself, the stock from a mahogany handrail salvaged from Saint Patrick’s, surgical tubing from Mt. Sinai Hospital, monofilament line from a Weed Wacker salvaged from the flooded inventory of South Beach Hardgoods, and a trigger made from the alligator clamp of a truck’s jumper cables. The gun was heavy and awkward and lethal as sin.

He was waiting for the flash of the yellow fin of a Crevalle jack he had seen feeding in the foyer earlier. The vertical bands on the side of the fish indicated a juvenile. Too hungry and inexperienced to keep to open water, the young Crevalle was hunting for anything digestible in the ruined mansion. Favio knew the feeling. His gut rumbled with hunger. He hadn’t eaten since the day before. His last meal was a Hostess Twinkie he kept for emergency rations.

There was a swirl of water the color of rot, and, rising to the bait, the blunt head of the Crevalle broke the surface. He fired instinctively, his aim guided by the long practice of necessity. The surgical tubing, freed from the jaws of the alligator clamp, launched the metal spear. The line hissed as it unreeled. The spear caught the Crevalle just below the dorsal fin and flipped it on its side, skittering across the surface of the water. He dropped the gun on the marble landing and quickly hauled the line, hand over hand, before some passing barracuda took notice of the convulsing fish. Or something worse. There were rumors that salt water crocodiles had returned to Miami, rumors the crocs were big as his kayak. Probably just rumors.

He slapped the head of the fish against the marble staircase to kill it quickly, then gutted it and threw the offal out a broken window. There was a splash. Whatever was attracted to blood and guts best stay outside.

He made a fire on the landing from the wood of what might have been a Chippendale side chair—or a cheap knock-off. Hard to say with these Miami millionaires. Sometimes appearance was the only value. It all burned the same.

He roasted the Crevalle over the fire and burned his fingers trying to eat it before it cooled. He was ravenous. There wasn’t enough of the Crevalle to fill his belly but it dulled the edge of his hunger enough for him to think.

The house on North Bay Road was the third he had salvaged on the block. Normally he wouldn’t return more than twice to the same site—recognizable patterns were dangerous—but this block on North Bay had been productive after a long, lean time. It was getting harder to find anything of value and harder to keep what you found. He couldn’t afford to waste the opportunity but he had to be smart about the risk.

He had searched the rooms above high water. There was no evidence anyone had been there for years. Shattered windows, overturned furniture, pictures torn from walls and scattered like playing cards by the wind. Rat tracks scratched in the muck and dust. Rorschach blots of mold on the wall.

The heavy lifters had missed this place. They would have stripped everything above high water—the sideboards and cadenzas and especially the big four-poster in the master bedroom—and hauled if off in barges. Rot and mold and time had whittled the wood like termites. What was left was only good for firewood.

The furniture only made it more melancholy. It filled the house with ghosts, the faint resonance of life in the midst of death. He kept looking over his shoulder. An empty house made no pretense of being anything other than empty.

He had tested the mattress of the four-poster, still good despite the smell of mold. He wouldn’t have to sleep on the hardwood floor that night. Another day and he’d be gone.


He was safe, safe as a man could be in a town where murder was more common than rape and revenge cheaper than justice.


He doused his cooking fire with a hatful of salt water, then checked the solar collector he had mounted in a broken window. The Sunflower cost him what he might make in a good month of salvaging. It was worth it. The collector was heliophilic. It tracked the sun across the sky. It was efficient even in cloud cover, enough to power the drone and his tablet but small enough to mostly pass unnoticed. Mostly. It was now pointed above the ruined towers of Edgewater across the bay. Another hour and it would be dark.

Night came to Miami without lingering. The sun fell like a stone. He didn’t want to be mucking about after dark in an empty house with a flashlight. The pinpoint of light in so much darkness drew attention. The kind of people who were looking weren’t the kind he wanted to meet.

He hauled his Army-issued duffel bag from the kayak up the stairs to the bedroom. It was the only thing that remained of his Army enlistment besides a strong aversion to arbitrary discipline and foreign wars. He stowed the duffel beside the door where he could find it quickly in the dark.

He stripped what remained of the sheets from the four-poster and bounced on the mattress. Dust rose in a choking cloud. When he stopped sneezing he lay in bed listening to everyday sounds—water lapping, gulls raucously squabbling, distant surf—and the enveloping silence. Somewhere to the south, maybe Hialeah, there was an explosion, too distant to be threatening. He was safe, safe as a man could be in a town where murder was more common than rape and revenge cheaper than justice. He sprawled across the bed and fell asleep.

He woke in darkness, instantly alert and wet with sweat. The humid heat pressed against him like a blanket. He lay motionless. Something scratched and skittered beneath the bed. He waited but heard nothing more alarming—no footsteps, creaking hinges or heavy breathing.

He got out of bed and shined the flashlight beneath the four-poster. Beady red eyes shined back in the light and something else, something white and unexpected. It took a moment to recognize what he saw, the head of an enormous snake. He gasped involuntarily and his heart raced, pumping adrenalin through his body. His muscles tensed, ready to flee, before he realized it was only the skeleton of an enormous snake. The rats had made a job of it long ago. Only the bones were left.

What was a snake the size of a Fiat doing under the bed? He shook his head. It was a question he’d never answer. There were far more questions than answers in the ruined city. Mysteries were as common as rubble. Miami Beach had died more suddenly than anyone expected, anyone but the most dire climatologists who sounded like crackpots on street corners preaching the end of the world. Sometimes the crackpots were right.

He returned to bed but slept fitfully, dreaming of dragons that slithered through the sky like snakes leaving a trail of slimy fire. He woke just before dawn when the songbirds began to sing. There was nothing to eat. He would have to return to the mainland, sell the junk he had salvaged, and refit. It was his last day on North Bay Road.


The houses rich people built had become replacement habitat for the hardbottom reef their consumptive culture had largely destroyed. Payback’s a bitch.


On the stairway landing he assembled his gear, removed the battery from the charging bay wired to the Sunflower and inserted it into Bloat, his underwater drone. Bloat was wired to his tablet. It had limited range and the umbilical cord was always getting fouled on one thing or another but Favio didn’t do deep water salvage, nothing he couldn’t pick free-diving, and Bloat was all he could afford. In the hierarchy of the wetlands, a bone picker was only slightly higher than a rag picker; rag pickers didn’t actually pick rags.

He steered Bloat through what might have been a formal dining room, overturned chairs and a table encrusted with sea anemones and gorgonians. Even with shafts of sunlight streaming through broken windows and the drone’s own headlights, the camera could penetrate only a few feet through water dark as a Louisiana swamp. He largely groped his way using Bloat’s sonar.

Bloat had no arms, no hands or opposable fingers. It was only good at finding something of potential value. Retrieving it required holding his breath. He was good at holding his breath—he thought of it as his superpower—but free diving in a drowned house was dangerous. If something went wrong there was no easy way out, no rocketing ascent toward the surface.

Most of the time he found only junk. The bones of Miami Beach were largely picked clean. Sometimes he found junk people would pay for.

A Gulf toadfish swam into Bloat’s light, looked speculatively at the drone, then turned and leisurely swam in another direction. Ironic. The houses rich people built had become replacement habitat for the hardbottom reef their consumptive culture had largely destroyed. Payback’s a bitch.

He followed an exterior wall to a door that entered the kitchen. The door was torn from its hinges and lay beneath an inch of silt. The prop wash from the drone’s impellers stirred the silt into a cloud. He steered blindly through the cloud, the sonar signal diffracted by the silt, until Bloat emerged into slightly less turbid water and promptly ran into a cupboard made of glass. Despite successive storms and the rising sea, the glass had survived, smeared with grime but intact. Behind the glass he glimpsed delicate bowls and plates. Where there were China place settings there was likely silver flatware and silver still had value.

“Bingo!”

He parked the drone in front of the China cabinet, put on his mask and fins and entered the dark water carrying a mesh bag. The warm water encompassed him like an amniotic sac. He followed Bloat’s umbilical cord, hand over hand, until the vaulted ceiling of the dining room ended at the kitchen wall. He hyperventilated, took a last breath, and dove.

There was an inescapable eeriness swimming through dark rooms where people once lived, bumping into things that emerged suddenly from the gloom. Pickers from the early years told stories about corpses drifting through flooded rooms like ghosts, eyeless, the soft parts eaten first, strips of flesh hanging like rags from exposed bones. They were the same guys who told stories about big bull sharks swimming down 17th Street. Favio had never seen a drowned body. The dead had all become food before he began picking but he couldn’t entirely escape the irrational fear that whispered in the back of his head. There were enough ordinary things to fear, he reminded himself, like losing his way until his lungs burned and he had to breathe water to douse the fire. Or getting jacked by a gang of neighborhood kids armed with zip guns and paddle boards. Or getting ganked by rifters while crossing open water. There were a lot of ways to die in the failed state of Florida but they all left you just as dead.


Someone was watching. Someone was always watching. Eventually it would be the wrong someone.


It took three breaths to find the flatware. The drawers were swollen and stubborn. He had to brace his fins against the cabinet for leverage. It was awkward and consumed air. An elver—an immature Moray eel—swam out of one of them and into his dive light. His startled exclamation rose in bubbles through the fetid water.

When he found what he was looking for, the silverware was no longer silver but black from contact with salt water. It took another six breaths to bag the flatware, a blackened serving tray, a soup tureen and a chaffing dish. He spent the next hour polishing his loot with baking soda and an old rag. It didn’t look good but good enough to convince a buyer it was actually silver.

It wasn’t much; it had to be enough. He needed food and fresh water that didn’t taste like warm piss. He needed to leave North Bay Road. Someone was watching. Someone was always watching. Eventually it would be the wrong someone.

He stowed his gear and loot in the fishing kayak and lashed it in place with clothesline cord. It was still hours before sunset. It would be safer to travel at night but his stomach was cramping with hunger. He needed food despite the risk.

He skirted the edge of the submerged shoreline, what had once been Sunset Lake but was now indistinguishable from the rest of Biscayne Bay. The sun beat down like a hammer on an anvil. Clouds roiled offshore, promising rain later in the day. Rain would be welcomed, washing the salt off his body. The tips of his fingers were peeling and his crotch itched.

It would be hours before he could fence his loot, find something to eat at the floating market, and paddle home to his sleeping platform in Parking Lot #33 on First Street. The parking garages, open to the sea breeze, had proved the only buildings habitable in the city without electricity.

He turned west at the Icon Condo tower where the foot of the MacArthur Causeway once came ashore. The only part of the Causeway still above water was the ship channel. It had become a bridge between bodies of water, stained with guano, a nesting place for royal terns, ring-billed gulls, and brown pelicans. An old woman once lived there in a shack made from scrap. She used to stand on the crest of the bridge and scream obscenities at him when he paddled past. Not just him. She was crazy as a loon but long since gone.

The open water of Biscayne Bay made him edgy. There were still a few rifters on the bay, hoodlums riding jet skis looking for a quick kill, fewer now that gas was as rare as fresh water. It only took a few. He kept watch in every direction. The sun was a physical weight that pressed down on his head and shoulders. It polished the surface of the water like the chrome on a ’51 Buick. Ruined towers ringed the bay like monuments of a dead civilization, elaborate structures built at enormous cost for some purpose now lost to the past like the statues of Easter Island or the temples of Teotihuacan. He kept paddling.


There wasn’t much world trade left in Miami unless you tortured the definition to include piracy.


The World Trade Center rose like an island fortress. It was all that was left of Dodge Island still above water. The cruise ship docks had all drowned or been broken up by storms. A few Haitian freighters and a Panamanian container ship lay at anchor in the bay surrounding the island. Smoke blackened the Panamanian ship’s superstructure. Probably a fire on the bridge. Favio doubted she had entered Puntland willingly.

Tekel-Sprinker still kept their offices in the Trade Center, one of the few places on the waterfront with electricity. It was their private electricity powered by their private generators. Bone pickers like Favio didn’t get to enjoy the air conditioning. That was reserved for upper floor management.

There wasn’t much world trade left in Miami unless you tortured the definition to include piracy. Shipping in the Florida Straits funneled between Cuba and Florida like grain through a goose. There was no economical alternative for ships steaming between the northern United States and the Gulf of Mexico. Fewer ships now made the passage but those few still passed perilously close to Miami. The pirates were so audacious that Miami became known as Puntland after the famous pirates of the Somali coast.

Tekel-Sprinker had their fingerprints on everything shipped in or out of the city, legal or not.

The landing for the Trade Center was the roof of the old McRoberts Maritime Security building. Several intimidating men with bulging biceps and automatic weapons sat on folding beach chairs in six inches of water. They searched Favio and his kayak before he loaded his silverware into a shopping cart and pushed it into Tekel-Sprinker’s loading bay, once the third floor of the Trade Center. The cart’s front wheel, almost immobile with rust, screeched like a skinned cat. The cart kept bolting from side to side.

Spates was in his cage. He called it an office but it was really only a metal cage with a potted palm.

Spates was Tekel-Sprinker’s junk man. People with found objects to sell dealt exclusively with him. Liver spots discolored his skin.

“Mr. Bayliss,” he said when Favio forced his rebellious cart to Spate’s cage. “Your hygiene hasn’t improved since our last meeting. As a personal favor, would you mind standing downwind?”

There was no wind. The heat was immobile. Spates bargained with insults as a technique. Favio ignored it.


Junior waved the gun like a stage prop. “You mistake me. This is not an offer you can refuse.”


“What cheap knockoffs have you brought this time?”

“No fakes,” Favio said. “The real thing, far as I can tell.”

“The real thing?” Spates’ tone was caustic. “Perhaps you’ll let me be the judge of that.” He picked up a thin metal bar from a bench in the cage, lifted the soup tureen from the cart, and struck it lightly. The tureen chimed briefly.

“I told you,” Favio said.

“Poor quality,” Spates said. “It may have some value, less than what you imagine.”

“How much less?”

“Let’s not hasty, Mr. Bayliss. First we apply science.”

Spates turned the tureen upside down on his bench. He wiped clean a spot on the bottom of the tureen, then held a small plastic bottle directly above it. A single drop fell. There was a corrosive smell and the drop bubbled on the surface of the dish. The acid turned reddish-brown. Spates quickly wiped it off with a rag.

“Like I said, the real thing,” Favio said.

“Well, it’s not entirely…” The sound of gun fire interrupted him. Favio recognized automatic weapons, a shot-gun, at least one hand gun, probably .45 caliber. He remembered the sounds of war. They were coming closer.

“What the hell,” Spates said. Favio was already looking for some place to hide. The gun fire ended abruptly. The acrid smell of gun powder hung in the humid air. Someone cried out in pain. Their pain ended with a single shot.

A big black man with a stainless steel .45 and tribal tattoos walked into the bay followed by a motley gang of black, white and brown thugs, all heavily armed.

Spates turned toward the black man. “Who the hell are you?”

“I am Junior Joseph,” the man said with an enormous grin. He sounded vaguely Haitian. He had a gold front tooth. His arm moved with the grace and speed of a sidewinder’s strike. The sound of the gun thundered in the enclosed space. A hole appeared in Spates’ forehead. Spates mostly looked surprised and then fell like a tree, slowly at first then all at once, scattering bits of metal and overturning the potted palm. “I am the new proprietor of Tekel-Sprinker. Thank you for your service.”

Junior gestured with the smoking gun to his mob, sending them toward the stairways at either end of the floor. The men dispersed at a run. He seemed to notice Favio for the first time. “And who are you? Another employee?”

Favio was still holding the shopping cart handle, his knuckles white with tension. He shook his head, afraid to trust his voice. He heard the sound of gunfire from the floors above.

“No, not an employee,” Junior said as if it were a guessing game. “A bone picker by the look of you. Do you have a name, bone picker?”

“Favio.” His voice was dry and raspy. “Favio Bayliss.”

“Favio Bayliss. Do you have some allegiance to this man?” He gestured with the pistol toward Spates lying on the concrete floor in a litter of parts and potting soil, a perplexed expression on his dead face.

Favio shook his head. “No, just business.”

“Excellent. It seems I have an opening in the ranks since Fatty Wallace just took a round in the chest. Congratulations. You’re now a member of the Zoe Pound pirate gang.”

Favio raised his hands and backed away. “No disrespect but I’m no pirate. I’ll just take my boat and be gone.”

The grin and the gold tooth returned. Junior waved the gun like a stage prop. “You mistake me. This is not an offer you can refuse.”

“I don’t know anything about pirating.”

“You’ll learn quickly. Or you won’t. Either way works for me.”


“You’re just a target, a diversion. Do a little song and dance. Distract them.”


The gunfire had ended. Several gang members returned. “Are we finished?” Junior said. A man with a scar like a lightning bolt across his face signaled thumbs up. “Excellent,” Junior said. “Meet our new crew member, Favio. Favio will be taking Fatty’s place.”

The other members of Zoe Pound looked like they would as soon disembowel Favio and read omens from his steaming intestines.

“Do you have anything to eat?” Favio asked. “I’m starving.”

Junior Joseph laughed. It sounded like distant thunder. “See! He’s already developed a pirate’s appetite.” He pulled a hand-held radio from his back pocket. “Winston, this is Junior. Winston, do you hear me?”

There was a garbled reply. Favio understood none of it.

“Yes, I said I would. The Trade Center is ours.” More garble and static. “No, not bad. We lost Fatty Wallace.” Garble, static. “Well, no, it wasn’t a great loss. I’ve already replaced him.” There was a long episode of garble. “Now? You need to send someone, then. We can’t just leave this place unguarded.” Animated garble. “Alright, we’re on our way. Just send someone.”

Junior turned toward his crew. “Gentlemen, leave the bodies. Someone else will clean up. We have another job. A fat ship full of grain. You can stay drunk for a month on the prize money and buy all the whores in Little Havana.” There were shouts from the crew. “Zipper, take our new recruit in your boat. Teach him everything he needs to know.”

Zipper was the man with the scarred face. When he opened his mouth Favio could see several blackened teeth. “Only thing he needs to know is stay in front of me.”

“Well, there you have it,” Junior said. “Training complete. Let’s make some money.”

It was a motley fleet of three open boats, a mosquito fleet on an ocean flat as a painting. They made good speed, thirty knots, Favio guessed. Less than an hour and they were probably 20 miles offshore. The eastern sky was dark with an approaching thunderstorm. Lightning writhed in the darkness and rain draped beneath the clouds like the tendrils of a Portuguese man-of-war. Storms were typical in the afternoon. The day would turn as dark as pitch, pierced by searing light as bright as the sun and rattled by thunder so loud people ducked. Then, in less than an hour, the storm would move on, the sun emerge with a vengeance and steam rise from the ground.

Favio was in an old fishing skiff made of dense fiberglass, chipped and scarred and stained in places, dark stains that might be blood, and driven by two enormous Mercury outboards.

Zipper handed him an AK-47. “You’re first onboard,” he shouted.

The weapon felt light. Favio released the banana clip. There were no rounds in the magazine.

Zipper laughed. “You thought we’d give you a loaded gun? You’re just a target, a diversion. Do a little song and dance. Distract them.”

The fleet was rapidly approaching an old tramp steamer. She was a break-bulk carrier with her own cranes on deck for managing in third world ports without cargo handling facilities. She was steering south, maybe for New Orleans or Galveston. Favio guessed she was the Rose of Sharon. It was difficult to read the name on her stern, weathered and obscured by rust. The entire hull was streaked with rust like wounds.

“Try to leave some of the crew alive this time, boys,” Zipper shouted. “We could use the recruits.”

Favio heard an odd popping sound above the noise of the outboards. Water began spouting near the first boat approaching the ship.

“Damn, they got a cannon,” someone said.

The crew onboard the ship were finding their range, walking the rounds toward their target. The pirate boat began jigging their course but turned right into the line of fire. Several rounds struck with a thud like a mallet hammering a side of frozen beef. The boat fell off plane and began turning in slow circles. Favio couldn’t see anyone moving onboard.

“Forget the recruits,” Zipper shouted. “Kill ‘em all.”


There was no one else when he reached the deck. No one living.


Junior Joseph’s boat was the first to come alongside amid a staccato of small arms fire. He closed at a shallow angle to get beneath the heavy gun’s arc of fire. His boat bounced off the ship’s hull and then clung to it like a limpet. Favio could see grappling hooks flung over the ship’s rail. The first man to reach the deck took the blast of a shotgun. He looked like a mule kicked him in the chest. His body sailed through the air and splashed into the sea. No one turned to look.

“Get us closer,” Zipper shouted to the helmsman. He stood in the bow, one foot braced on the bulkhead, the bowline wrapped around his wrist, and took aim with an AR-15. He fired short bursts on automatic. The ejected rounds bounced around the bottom of the boat. Even with the boat’s motion, he was deadly accurate. Favio saw blood spray from several of the ship’s defenders. Junior’s crew made it to the deck. His boat, emptied, drifted astern of the freighter. Favio realized there would be no retreat.

The sea erupted alongside. Salt water fell like rain. Zipper turned his rifle on the big gun mounted on the superstructure and shouted to the helmsman. “Board.”

More rounds plowed the water nearby. Favio tried to make himself small, curling like a pill bug. When he looked up, the hull of the freighter loomed above. Zipper laid the hot barrel of his rifle against Favio’s cheek. “Rise and climb,” the pirate grinned, “or die here.”

Favio gripped the line hanging from the grapple.

“Don’t forget your gun,” Zipper said. “Wouldn’t want you naked.” He laughed. Favio wondered whether the black teeth were intentional, part of his mystique. The smile collapsed. “You’re dead if you’re not first onboard.” Favio slung the rifle around his shoulder and began to climb.

His useless weapon kept sliding between him and the ship’s hull, entangling his legs. He lost his footing and almost fell. When he looked down Zipper was pointing his AR-15 at him. Favio kept climbing.

There was no one else when he reached the deck. No one living. There were a few bodies—he couldn’t tell whether they were pirates or the ship’s crew. The deck was slick with blood and oil. The battle had moved aft. He could hear small arms fire muted by the steel walls of the ship’s superstructure. It sounded like rocks rattling around in a tin can.

Nearby a shotgun lay on the deck in a dead man’s hand. Favio pried the gun free. It was an old Remington pump. The gripe was sticky with blood. Favio intended to shoot Zipper as his head appeared above the ship’s bulwarks. He didn’t much care what happened after that.

A man’s hand gripped the rail. Favio tucked the stock of the shotgun between his arm and ribs, ready to fire. He saw sudden movement at the edge of his vision.  He turned instinctively. A man was charging across the deck with a machete raised above his head, one side of his face covered with blood.

Favio didn’t think. He fired. The shotgun blast knocked the man off his feet. The machete struck the steel deck like a chime. Even dead the man didn’t release his grip on the weapon. He looked small and dark and needlessly dead.

When Favio turned away from the body Zipper was standing behind him. Zipper’s assault rifle was casually pointed at him.

“Make a pirate out of you yet,” Zipper said. His grin was full of black teeth. “Now get aft.” He motioned with the barrel of his rifle. “There’s more where he came from.”

Several bullets ricocheted off the deck nearby. Someone was firing from the wing of the bridge. Favio ran, bent over, trying to make himself a smaller target. He hid behind a ventilation cowl. Zipper calmly walked forward, standing erect, firing short bursts every other step. Favio bolted forward, more frightened of Zipper than of the ship’s crew trying to kill him, and slid behind a cargo crane.

Zipper continued to advance mechanically like a toy soldier—step, step, fire—step, step, fire. Ejected shell casings bounced on the steel deck. Bullets ricocheted off steel bulkheads. The humid air smelled of burning insulation. The sky darkened as the storm approached from the east. Favio couldn’t tell whether the booming sound was thunder or shotguns fired inside the steel superstructure.

There was the smell of ozone in the air. The day was darkening. Gusts of wind swept the deck and the ship began to roll in the swell pushed ahead of the storm.

He kept moving aft ahead of Zipper’s advance. Finally there was nowhere to go but up the ladder that led to the bridge. He began to climb.

The adrenalin in his blood made him feel like a puppet on crack. His movements were abrupt and disjointed. His head felt wooden and his eyesight narrowed. Things on the edge of his vision receded into darkness.

A bullet punched a hole in the railing beside his hand. Metal fragments bloodied his palm. He threw himself across the landing, his back against the steel wall, and tried to see the shooter. Zipper was climbing the stairs methodically, aiming above. “Get moving, asshole, or you won’t have to worry about someone else shooting you.”

Favio bolted up the ladder to the next deck. He left a blood smear on the handrail. He pressed himself against the bulkhead, waiting for the impact of the bullet that would kill him. There was none. Zipper’s head appeared above the deck.

It happened again and again, Zipper methodically climbing the ladder, deck by deck, Favio hiding, then running like a rabbit across a field shadowed by a hawk. Eventually there was nowhere left to climb.

The starboard wing of the ship’s bridge was empty except for a body collapsed against the railing. Blood and rust stained the metal grating. The wind was stronger and the eastern sky black with the storm’s approach. He could feel the deck rise and fall beneath his feet as the ship pitched and yawed in the gathering seas.

The door to the bridge was open. “Favio Bayliss, you’ve survived.” Junior Joseph was on the bridge with another man, someone Favio hadn’t seen before. “Come in, come in,” Junior boomed, waving with his big pistol. “This is the captain. He doesn’t want to go to Puntland.”


He shot the man in the throat intentionally, Favio thought, just to watch him die slowly.


“It’s suicide to turn west,” the captain said. Probably Filipino, Favio guessed. “Can’t you see the storm? We need to gain sea room.”

“The captain thinks to terrify me with a thunderstorm,” Junior said to Favio. “As if thunderstorms weren’t as common as whores in Palmetto Bay.”

“This isn’t just another thunderstorm,” the captain said. He stuttered. “It’s…it’s…. We were expecting to be clear of the Bahamas before…” There was a wet stain on his pant’s leg. It looked like he had pissed himself. “Then you attacked us. We need to steer into it. East.”

“What do you think, Zipper?” Junior said. Zipper was standing in the door. “Is he telling the truth?”

“Bullshit,” Zipper said.

“Zipper doesn’t believe you, captain,” Junior said. “We are not children you can frighten with stories of storms. Favio, take the helm.”

“What helm?” Favio said. There was nothing that looked remotely like a wheel.

“That thing there.” Junior waved his pistol as a joystick in the middle of the bridge. “It’s like a video game.”

Favio walked across the bridge and staggered as the ship pitched into a trough. The storm was pushing waves against the ship’s side. Spray from breaking waves washed the blood from the decks.

“You fool,” the captain said. “You’ll kill us all.”

“Maybe,” Joseph said, “but I’ll certainly kill you.” The shot was deafening in the enclosed space. At that distance Junior couldn’t miss but it wasn’t a clean kill. He shot the man in the throat intentionally, Favio thought, just to watch him die slowly. The captain collapsed on the deck. His breath gurgled in his ruined thought. The captain’s eyes looked frightened and then they dimmed. His expression became rigid as his life drained on the deck.

“Great,” Zipper said. “Now who’s going to run this boat?”

Junior looked away from the captain’s body and shrugged. “If he can do it, I can. Favio, takes us to Miami.”

“With this thing?” Favio said, gingerly touching the joystick.

“Yes, with that thing. You’re not a little girl. Grab it like it’s your dick.”

Favio pushed the joystick hard over. The ship began turning, slowly at first but gathering momentum. The deck canted beneath their feet. A coffee cup slid of the chart table and broke. The ship continued to lean into the turn. Anything that wasn’t anchored came adrift. It was impossible to see any distance through the rain driving horizontally against the windows. Another of Junior’s crew appeared at the door to the bridge, his face taut and his body wet with rain. “What the hell?”

“All is under control,” Junior said, braced against a radar console. “A little less manly, Favio.”

Favio released his grip on the stick. It bounced back, erect. “Where are we going? I can’t see a thing.”

The deck slowly righted and ship steadied on course.

“Do we have someone in the gang who knows about ships?” Junior asked Zipper.

“Not anyone left alive,” Zipper said.

“Just steer east,” Junior told Favio. “This will blow over soon and we’ll see where we are.”

“Likely on the reef at Key Largo,” Favio said.

“If you want to keep your teeth, I’d advise you to shut your mouth,” Junior said.

The ship pitched and yawed in the following sea. Favio struggled to keep her on course. The compass card swung wildly beneath the glass. Deep in the hull the massive diesel engine kept rhythm like the beat of a drum and the wind howled in the rigging. Lightning snaked across the sky. One bolt struck the sea nearby and flung a plume of water into the sky like a depth charge. The hull shook with the immediate impact of thunder.

The storm strengthened. Lightning became almost continuous. The burning light revealed waves half the height of the cargo cranes rushing past, the wind blowing spume from their crests. The ship described a corkscrew course. The other member of the Zoe Pound gang on the bridge—Favio didn’t know his name—bent over and vomited in a corner.

“This doesn’t look like it’s going to blow over anytime soon,” Zipper said.

“You want to be the boss?” Junior said, waving his pistol in Zipper’s direction.

Zipper threw up his hands and shook his head.

Favio had never been far from shore and never in a storm. It was hard to keep his feet. The sound of the wind made it hard to think and the lightning burned his eyes.

The wind backed and veered briefly, long enough to hold the rain in suspension. In the searing light of a lightning strike he could see, for a moment, beyond the length of the deck. A hole had formed in the ocean ahead of the ship The ship’s bow balanced on the edge of the trough. He couldn’t see the bottom of it, only darkness.

“Jesus,” he whispered.

The Rose of Sharon pitched over the edge. The deck canted beneath their feet—5, 10, 15 degrees. The ship kept driving forward, driving down. At 20 degrees of pitch Zipper lost his footing and slid across the bridge, fetching up in a litter of broken crockery, equipment manuals, and comic books. At 30 degrees Junior slid heavily into the console beside Favio. “What’s happening?”

“The captain was right,” Favio said without looking aside. “You’ve killed us all.”

At 40 degrees the bow slammed into the bottom of the trough. The impact drove Favio’s face into the console and broke his nose. Still on his feet, gripping the useless joystick, blood rained down on the instrument panel. Above the sound of the storm he heard tortured metal and collapsing bulkheads. He could see the deck forward of the cargo cranes begin to crease and then crumple. The ship’s momentum drove it relentlessly forward. The deck collapsed like an aluminum can.

A wall of water taller than the ship’s superstructure raced down the deck. It struck the bridge with the force of a freight train. The windows exploded. It was the last thing Favio saw. Lying in the darkness, blinded and in pain, he thought—the last thing he thought—”We’ve made the world in our own image, endlessly violent.” The last thing he felt was hunger.

Gravity

You might reasonably expect a satellite to orbit the earth in a trajectory smooth as a ball bearing in its race. Reasonable but wrong. It’s more like an Old Ford on a country road, bouncing and rattling over gravitational potholes.

The gravitational topography of the planet is less like a cue ball, more like a golf ball with all its bumps and dimples. You’ll remember your high school physics lessons on gravitation. Large objects exert gravitational force at a distance. The more dense the object, the greater the force. Massive mountain chains like the Rockies, Himalaya, and Andes create positive gravitational anomalies—areas of increased gravitational force. Negative anomalies are associated with declivities like the Mariana Trench, a rift in the sea floor of the Pacific Ocean 6.8 miles deep.

As a satellite approaches the Andes it’s pulled subtly closer to the earth. When it approaches the Mariana Islands and the adjacent sea floor trench, it bobs slightly higher. The effect is local and canceled when the satellite reenters the normal gravitational field. It’s rather like bouncing down the washboard surface of a dirt road.

The gravitational force exerted by the Andes isn’t limited to circling satellites. The roots of the Andes Mountains are washed by the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific itself is pulled toward the mountains like a massive standing wave.

It’s not only massive piles of rock that creates gravitational anomalies. The Greenland ice sheet is almost 1,500 miles long and 680 miles wide. It covers roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland—660,235 square miles. It’s typically over a mile thick and almost 2 miles at its deepest—683,751 cubic miles of ice.  And it’s the second largest body of ice on the planet.

That much ice warps the surrounding ocean, pulling it like taffy. The impact of melting Greenland ice on sea level has been recognized for some time but the effect of its reduced gravitational field has only recently been acknowledged. It further complicates a complex picture.

If all the Greenland ice sheet were to melt it’s estimated the global sea level might rise as much 23 feet but it would have little impact on sea level in the Arctic ocean. That’s counter-intuitive. The reason? Rise in sea level expected from melting ice would be countered by the fall in seal level resulting from reduced gravity. Northern Europe might be spared. New York would not.

The gravitational influence of the Greenland ice is limited to the Arctic Ocean. Melting of the northern ice would contribute to the volume of the oceans globally, increasing sea level worldwide, but that rise in the Arctic would be offset by the declining sea level resulting from reduced gravity. Areas beyond the northern ice’s gravitational influence such as the Eastern Seaboard of the US would suffer the unmitigated rise in sea level.

Western Europe isn’t without risk. If the Antarctic ice sheet melts, the sea level will likely fall in the Southern Ocean but rise dramatically in the North Atlantic.

And, of course, the change in the gravitational field would affect the Earth’s rotational momentum, but that’s a nightmare for another day.

earth orbit photo

Dire Thoughts

We may be witnessing the collapse of the United States like the collapse of a massive star into a black hole. Nothing lives forever and the headlong acceleration of a nation’s lifespan might be as much effected by technology as industry and society. How could we expect otherwise? We invent our tools with no regard except efficiency;  afterwards, our tools invent us.

We have reshaped the world in our own image not by intent but by happenstance. Because we could. We are spectacular opportunists focused on our feet without restraint or responsibility for the future. We have created a world so densely populated and interconnected one part can’t stand without the whole but then we act as if separate and alone.

We will not go gently into that good night, or alone. The extinction event we’ve triggered will ensure that. It’s not the first time or the last that death has descended on the planet like a starless night. Life will continue in some form or other. Maybe not our form.

We are not wholly responsible for our failure. It wasn’t a moral choice we could make unencumbered by our evolutionary history. We have succeeded beyond comparison because of our brilliant flaws. Those flaws may eventually prove fatal but is our failing also our fault? Could we have done otherwise?

Perhaps we’re just one possibility in a continuum where every possibility must eventually be explored and every road travelled to the end. We play our part in a script written by our genes. In the fullness of time, every drama is a tragedy and every life “lopped at the ends by death and conception.”

Perhaps the inevitability absolves us of personal guilt or fear of punishment by some petulant god with the moral compass of a six-year-old child but still we carry the awful burden of watching so much beauty vanish from the earth, knowing we were the agent of indifferent chance. Still we keenly feel the loss of possibilities, the loss of beauty, that our collapse portends. In the past and maybe again in the future an asteroid or a massive volcano might shroud the sun and plunge the earth into ruin but this night was our doing. This was our hand turned against ourselves and every other thing living on this planet.

Another form of intelligence will emerge with time and chance. Perhaps the crows. They’re an old species. They’ve watched humanity’s bloody rise and fall. They’ve fed in the fields where we raged. Perhaps they’ve learned restraint. Perhaps living in the air provides a broader perspective than living in the dirt.

Perhaps. But then the play begins again. The fault is in our stars.

Totality

We drove, hours before sunrise, south on the interstate to a vineyard near Sweetwater, a small town in Tennessee. Only 6,500 people live in Sweetwater. The town braced for more than 50,000 expected to arrive with the sun.

We arrived in the dark, cars parked on the edge of a narrow lane leading to the vineyard. Strangers chatted quietly in the dark. There was a hushed reverence like the foyer of a funeral. When the gates opened we drove into a field of freshly mowed grass, aligned in rows like an audience at a drive-in movie waiting for the show to begin, camp chairs arranged beneath a canopy, sheltered from the rising sun. A truck from New York was parked on one side, a truck from Virginia on the other. The sound of the Grateful Dead drifted across the field. Ramble on Rose.

The grass ain’t greener
The wine ain’t sweeter
Either side of the hill.

On the other side of the tarmacked road were fields of Muscadine vines. Muscadine grapes are native to the southeastern states. They can be made into a wine that has “…a hill-billy-red-neck-cheap-wine-get-drunk persona.” The primary flavors are ripe banana, bruised apple, lime peel, cranberry, and rubber cement. It’s not what most people expect from a wine.

There was subdued feeling to the crowd, a reticence unexpected from so many people gathered in an open field with coolers of beer and wine. Conversations were mostly muted. It seemed like a crowd at a camp meeting waiting for the revival tent to open. Even the people waiting an hour in line for the single outhouse waited patiently, introducing themselves to nearby strangers, sharing their names and their history—where they had begun their journey to arrive in an empty field near a small Tennessee town waiting an hour to pee. The sense of anticipation was as vibrant at the chorus of summer cicadas in the surrounding woods.

Cicadas are the loudest insects in the world. Some species can produce a song (of sorts) in excess of 120 decibels. They huddle together to amplify their sounds. At close range it can be painful for humans and distracting for birds. Even cicadas protect themselves by voluntarily becoming deaf to their own music.

These were the dog-day cicadas, the ones that sing in the heat of each summer, not those that rise in biblical numbers from the cool spring soil every 13 or 17 years. Those emerge in such a glut that predators are satiated before the brood is threatened. It’s survival of the most extravagant. They live only for a few weeks and only for a single purpose—to mate. Mating occurs in ‘chorus’ trees. A chorus of trees is an intriguing image. I might think differently after living through an awakening of a great brood of cicadas.

Each species of cicada has a unique song. Some species sound like Edison electrocuting an elephant to demonstrate the evils of alternating current, others like first contact recorded by the SETI network.

The last emergence of the Great Eastern Brood in Tennessee was 2004. The 17-year reawakening is expected in 2024. It’s likely to coincide with the next total solar eclipse crossing the United States, Texas to Maine, in April, 2024. The experience of a great brood of periodic cicadas strumming the trees like a bull fiddle while the sun turns black as death might be too apocalyptic for my taste.

Jerry Garcia’s voice drifted from the New Yorker’s truck.

Cold iron shackles, ball and chain
Listen to the whistle of the evenin’ train
You know you bound to wind up dead
If you don’t get back to Tennessee Jed

There were no competing radios playing country music or even rock and roll. It seemed there was a silent consensus. The Grateful Dead was the proper soundtrack for a solar eclipse.

Drink all day and rock all night
The law come to get you if you don’t walk right
Got a letter this morning, baby all it read
You better head back to Tennessee Jed

The Virginians came back from the vineyard and shared a bottle of Hiwassee, a white wine made from a red grape. The tasting notes for Muscadine wines suggest they’re best drunk young. You could hardly find a younger bottle than the one we drank.

It’s an acquired taste, I’m told, a taste I haven’t yet acquired.

I run into Charlie Fog
Blacked my eye and he kicked my dog
My doggie turned to me and he said
Let’s head back to Tennessee Jed

The high notes of Garcia’s guitar climbed toward a dimming sun, entwined like a Muscadine vine with the rhythmic strumming of the cicadas.

Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be
Baby won’t you carry me back to Tennessee

We drank the last of the Hiwassee and opened another. The Virginians seemed keen on reducing the number of bottles they carried home.

The heat of the sun pressed down on the field like a weight. It beat down the grass and bent the shoulders of anyone without shade. Deciduous trees cast crescents of light among the shadows on the tarmac, leaves focusing the eclipsed sunlight like pinhole cameras.

As the moon’s shadow progressed across the sun, the day cooled slightly but the light didn’t dim. You couldn’t tell the difference in the daylight unless you looked at the sun through dark glasses. But when the last of the sun fell beneath the moon’s shadow, the world was transformed.

Anne Dillard wrote in her essay Total Eclipse, “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.” You can remain largely insensitive to a partial eclipse but you can’t ignore the full monty.

The life of the sun’s light is deeply embedded in our language and ourselves. Its corollary—darkness as death—is an equally unexamined truth. We were gathered in the open field with the Grateful Dead to celebrate an old ritual, standing witness to the death and rebirth of the sun, same as the druids among their standing stones or the Aztec on their bloody temples. It’s a ritual older than civilization, older than husbandry or cultivated wheat or religion, perhaps older than language. It wasn’t always anticipated. For millennia it was an unexpected ritual that overtook us on the savannah or hunting in the forest but always it was the direct experience of god when god was still recognized as sun, moon and earth. Always it was a metaphor for death and rebirth and the vague promise that we also might be reborn.

Science has disabused us of religious metaphors and celestial mechanics offers us no hope of immortality. Even the sun and the earth will die in the cold grip of entropy. But science has failed to steal from us, like a cat steals an infant’s breath, the sense of wonder we feel when the sun goes dark mid-day and the earth falls silent and birds return to their roosts and predators wake from hungry sleep. It’s a moment of such exception, a special dispensation from the normal, that the experience breaches our hardened defenses, our practiced disdain, and reaches some place inside ourselves where the numinous still lurks like some hibernating beast in a darkened cave. It doesn’t matter what you believe or what you don’t; the black sun is a visceral experience.

Wind

Like wind – In it, with it, of it. Of it just like a sail, so light and strong that, even when it is bent flat, it gathers all the power of the wind without hampering its course.
Like light – In light, lit through by light, transformed into light. Like the lens which disappears in the light it focuses.
Like wind. Like light.
Just this – on these expanses, on these heights.
―Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, 1963

Efficiency

The first people who lived on Puget Sound lived lightly on the edge of the land, mostly on the coast. They didn’t travel far from the shore where mountains were piled like shards of flint and old growth forests layered the ground with the bones of trees once 200 feet tall, where narrow valleys carved by the sharp edge of ice through winters that lasted a thousand years were a succession of bogs and swamps and wet grass meadows, where streams were a clutter of sloughs and islands and beaver ponds and driftwood snags and rivers were blocked with driftwood dams so massively built they persisted for hundreds of years.

The first people lived lightly and within their means. Those who followed, the ones who ‘settled’ the land as if it were unruly and needed restraint, didn’t see the land as it was but as it might be. They saw the opportunity of shaping the land in their own image, optimizing it for their own use. It was their manifest destiny, their biblical imperative.

First were the loggers who felled the old growth forests moving inland from the water’s edge. They cleared the beaver ponds from streams and built splash dams to raise the water level, floating downed trees to the saw mills. Then came the men who sweated and sawed and dynamited the logjams to allow steamboats and rafts to navigate the rivers. South on the Willamette above Corvallis, Oregon more than 5,500 driftwood logs were pulled from a 50-mile length of river. The driftwood measured 5 to 9 feet in diameter, 90 to 120 feet in length, and maybe 500 to 700 pounds per foot dry weight.

The streams and rivers of Puget Sound were eventually straightened, diked, and disciplined.

On the Skagit River in Washington driftwood was piled like windfall 3/4 mile long and 1/4 mile wide. The Stillaguamish River was blocked by six logjams from the head of tidewater for 17 miles upriver. Dead trees were so large, so numerous, and so deeply embedded in the river bottom that a steam snag boat hammered and hauled and labored for 6 months to open a channel only 100 feet wide.

The streams and rivers of Puget Sound were eventually straightened, diked, and disciplined. The wetlands were drained by the farmers that followed. Less than 10% of the historic wetlands and floodplains of Puget Sound remain. By most contemporary opinions it was a good thing. Fallow land was made productive. Forests were harvested like crops. Isolated communities were connected by river traffic. But all the wood removed from the water that seemed such a nuisance at the time had served a purpose that wasn’t recognized for another hundred years.

When water approaches an obstruction in the current like a driftwood dam it begins to well from hydraulic back pressure. The raised water tops the river banks and onto the floodplain, creating side channels and backwaters, habitat for fish. It spills over the obstruction forming a plunge pool. The deeper pool allows fish to remain cool in the heat of summer and protects them from predators. Numerous species of salmon and trout live in the same pool, each occupying different layers defined by water temperature and granularity of sediment, accommodating different species of fish or even the same species in different sages of its life-cycle. Where the current rushes around the edge of the driftwood a stream of vortexes form at the boundary of still water like pinwheels on parade, providing nutrients for the inhabitants of the pool. The driftwood dam raises the water level in the river, especially during times of low water when fish are stressed and struggle to survive.

…the salmon were once so common that, after spawning, their bodies were pitched into carts and plowed into fields as fertilizer.

None of this was known a hundred years ago. Even the wildlife managers responsible for the health of salmon and trout populations cleared deadwood from rivers and streams, genuinely convinced they were helping with upstream migrations and breeding, unaware that they were tampering with the deposition of sediment and the spawning grounds of the very species they were trying to promote.

On the Ozette River west of the Olympic Mountains the salmon were once so common that, after spawning, their bodies were pitched into carts and plowed into fields as fertilizer. After 26 large log jams were removed from the river the salmon populations crashed. Some will likely never recover.

Simplicity isn’t always a solution. Mirroring Einstein, a thing should be as complex as necessary, and no more.

Life is messy. Trying to clean it up, remove the clutter, straighten what’s crooked, smooth what’s rugged and irregular isn’t likely to make it better, even for ourselves. Optimizing the land for our own use above all others has reduced the land’s resilience and replaced it with a system that’s robust but fragile. We squeeze from the land every bit of efficiency possible, much like we do our companies and ourselves. The danger of such extreme efficiency is its proximity to disaster. It only takes a slight push from a highly optimized system to push it over the edge into chaos.

Birdsong

There is a bird that sings at the edge of night when the sky is first faintly colored by light. It sings among the tall trees—cedar and fir—beside the driveway. It sings alone, before the rest of the world wakes and begins making noise, while I’m sitting in meditation beside the Christmas three that should have been boxed and stored in the garage months ago.

I don’t know the name of the bird or it’s life history, whether it’s programmed to sing in solitude, whether its behavior is soldered in place like a circuit board. I suspect something different or there would be more birds singing in chorus. Certainly it’s not the only one of its kind in these woods.

It matters less to me why it’s singing—attracting a mate or marking its territory—than its choice to forgo silence. Perhaps there’s a competitive advantage in announcing itself first  but there’s also a distinct risk. These woods are hunted by owls, foxes, coyotes and bobcats. Occasionally cougar follow the wooded ravines into our neighborhood and wander the backyards and unlit streets. Broadcasting its position to every predator pressed by hunger to still hunt at the end of night is a bold move for a small bird. I wonder how often boldness profits birds of its kind? That may speak to why it sings alone.

Silence would be safer. Silence would be the norm. There’s safety in normality. It’s the reason hunted creatures flock and school and herd together. Statistically, anonymity safeguards. It takes something approaching courage to stand alone when you’re potentially a predator’s meal—or whatever passes for courage among birds.

I’m at risk myself of anthropomorphism, projecting human concepts on the non-human, but the greater risk might be the opposite, assuming ourselves separate and apart from the rest of life, removed from the reality of a small bird singing alone at the edge of night. I don’t know if there’s a word for that, something more pompous and scientific-sounding than simple arrogance.

We carry the genetic memory of troupes of apes who descended from trees to the savannah, becoming more predator than prey but still comforted by anonymity. The ancient resentment of the hunted may bare relevance on why we’ve become such ruthless and undiscerning predators. But to stand alone and sing, surrounded by silence and risk, is admirable among both birds and people.

Postscript: The Christmas tree remains three months after the winter solstice as a symbol, I suppose; evergreen branches and bright lights to ward off the darkness of my wife’s cancer. It’s a promise of renewal after loss. It will remain lit every day until her chemotherapy and radiation treatments end in another four months. It may be an ancient pagan symbol but this one is made of metal and powered by electricity.

"To see! To see! -that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity."