What You Need Will Drown You
Lydia Gregovic - Cli-Fi
It has been raining for far longer than eighteen years, but that is as long as I have known it.
I was born in the midst of a downpour, fat drops breaking through the feeble shelter constructed to protect my entrance to the world and running down my mother’s legs like sweat. There were no doctors present to ease my passage; such a word has become archaic amongst those I know anyways, occupying the same space in our minds as terms like Bigfoot, and stories of the sun. Instead, I was exiled from one dark place and came into another, my cries echoed and swallowed up by the deluge around me, my name unheard over the thunder.
My mother has never been a well-nourished woman, and the days when she had milk to give were rare. The majority of the time I satisfied my early hungers by opening my mouth and craning my neck towards the sky, plant-like, drinking water that fell endlessly from high above me. Often the rainwater would congeal on the surface of my eyes while I sipped, irises dewy as blue roses in the morning. Over time this practice washed much of the sight from them. I did not stop drinking even when I knew I was fading.
The thing about me: I am more frightened of being empty than I am of its opposite, of over-saturation. I will drown with my lips stretched wide, calling for more.
We do not discuss the beginning much anymore. Beginnings imply a cause; beginnings are made for linear people, those who live in a world with space for progression and regression. We know, logically, that there was something that came before the rain, a society governed by change rather than the dreary stasis of water hitting earth. But dwelling on such impossibilities now brings nothing but despair. Better to think it has always been this way, that the skeleton towers we dwell in were built only to be dragged out to the sea.
I was born in a town called Moss where the people live on the remnants of the dead and the only thing that grows is the water level. My family are the Lighthouse Keepers here, which earns us a level of respect from our fellow townsfolk—not because we in any way protect them from the sea’s dangers but because we alone can tell them when they will die. Our building is on the outskirts of town, on the far side of the storm wall, and every morning I climb down the rusting fire escape outside my window and measure the place where my bare foot meets ocean, how many rungs of the thin ladder remain unsubmerged. Today there are five; soon, there will be only one. On that day my mother and my sister and I will leave our top-floor refuge and travel over the wall to where the rest of Moss waits protected from the flood. We will tell them what follows behind us, and in that way finally deliver relief.
It is while performing this ritual one colorless misty morning that I see it—the ship, lingering on the horizon like a shadow behind fog. My hands slip on the rain-slick metal, a light drizzle coating my palms before I regain my grip. I lean forward and squint, willing my weak eyes to focus on the distant outline. The craft is little more than a blur against the burgeoning storm, but still, the size of it alone is enough to confirm what it is that sails my way.
An Ark. But I thought they were only legend.
I heave myself up the short distance to the fire escape landing and latch my fingers under the window frame, pushing it open. Rain tumbles in after me, puddling on the floor along with the water that drips from my clothes and hair. I am breathing hard. My chest is knotted with an emotion I do not understand.
“Close that, Evie.” My mother snaps from the next room over. I see her muddled red-haired form bent over a gray splotch I know to be our stove. “Don’t drown your sister before her proper day.”
“How long left?” She asks when I cross to her—the same question as always, because she is not immune to the allure of knowing her end, either. She doesn’t notice that I haven’t closed the window, even though her eyesight is sharper than mine.
“There’s something in the ocean. A ship.” I say. Finally, her head snaps up.
“I think it’s an Ark.”
My mother’s brow furrows, darkens. “You’re too old to be telling such stories.” She turns back to her cooking, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth in an off-handed rebuke. “Blind girl. Could barely see lightning if it struck you.”
“Ma, I see it too.” My younger sister, Lina, has her head poked out the window, and this time Mother doesn’t hesitate to leave her post. Lina and I share the same name—Evangeline—an understandable practice when you don’t expect both children to live long enough to carry it. I’ve managed to cling stubbornly to my half, but my sister wears hers better, just as she wears all the parts she took from me: my red hair, my blue eyes. Her’s even work.
My mother moves Lina aside, peering out into the downpour that surrounds us. She rears back in surprise, leans out a little further. Then she goes still.
“Oh.” She says. “Oh my.”
“Is it real?” Lina asks. I know she doesn’t mean the physical boat so much as the concept of it, of myth becoming solid before our eyes. I know she means the hope that follows in its wake.
I learned about Arks almost as early as I learned about the rain, how it has not stopped for forty years and might go on forever. The story goes that when the oceans swelled and the skies opened, there were a few vessels that sailed out to meet the storm, fleeing cities that did not yet know they were drowning. Passing through the end of their world and on safely into the next.
Folklore says the Arks haunt the deep waters of the world even now, immune to the rising tides, waiting for the day the rain stops and the land emerges clean and new. And that, if you’re special enough, if you’re pure and smart and kind, they might come and take you away with them, too. Pull you out of the water and into the light.
I never believed the tales, but I did try to be good, just in case. And now, the Ark is here.
The window slams shut. Mother turns to face the room, rain bleeding down her face. The droplets carve out the hollow spaces of her cheekbones as they slide along her skin, resting on the hungry curve of her mouth.
But underneath them she is smiling.
Hours later, I wait with the town of Moss on top of the storm wall and watch the Ark draw closer. The wall is wide enough for one person to stand comfortably on, but not two, and so all fifty of us are lined up like paper dolls across its rim, our hands clasped in a feeble defense against the pull of the hungry waves below. Those who still have rain jackets are wrapped tightly in them; as for the rest of us, we simply huddle closer to one another and try our best not to shiver.
About twenty or so feet away from the storm wall, the Ark slows its approach. This near I can see it even through the spray of rain and my own foggy vision, a behemoth of a craft, gray and sleek as a whale and at least three times as large. It cuts through the water like a creature born to the sea, without sound or ripple, and despite the fact that the vessel has no eyes I can feel its gaze on me all the same.
A strange current passes through the air—a boundless vitality, inextricably mixed with exhaustion—and for a moment I see not a ship at all but a beast at once living and burdened by its life, doomed to keep moving, moving even as the world around it has gone still.
A low bellowing sound, a groan more mammal than machine, emits from the Ark’s belly; in its hull, a small hatch pops open to make way for a mechanical gangplank that extends over the ocean towards us. People follow after it: six of them, in sets of two, each couple clad in a different color and all carrying black umbrellas over their heads. The rain makes a hollow sound when it hits the plastic, like an ‘o’ of surprise.
With a dull thunk, the gangplank makes contact with the storm wall, sending a fresh wave of murmurs coursing through the townspeople on my either side. The woman in the front-most couple, the couple wearing red, begins to speak without waiting for the clamor to die down.
“What is the name of this place?”
Her voice is smooth and directed at no one in particular, her green eyes roaming up and down our ranks as if our connected hands have merged us into one corporeal body, my flesh and that of my neighbors wound together. Silence answers the woman in response.
“We call it Moss, ma’am.” I finally say. The town relaxes in unison—they were waiting for me to speak, I realize. Me or my mother or my sister. The Lighthouse Keepers.
The red woman looks at me. I notice that her partner has green eyes also, and blonde hair identical to that of his companion. The effect of them standing side by side is somewhat uncanny, a sort of double vision. “Yes.” The woman says, simply. Then, pursing her lips: “And you, is that your natural hair color?”
I blink. “…yes, ma’am.” I reply. The woman looks pleased, her gaze moving from me to Lina, whose fingers are linked with mine. Hums, deep in her throat.
“And your sister carries the trait as well.” She says. The woman behind her, dressed in cobalt blue and with dark skin, leans forward to whisper something in her ear. The red woman cocks her head, nods. Then, snapping her attention back towards us, she raises a pale finger and points it at Lina and I.
“Our female carrier of the MCR1 gene—that which results in hair the shade as yours—has recently passed away. We will take one of you as a replacement. Whichever girl is in stronger physical condition.”
Her words spark a current in me—conflicting tides of elation and cold, a double-stranded cord twining through my center. First, a burst of joy: one of us can escape. Then, in the same breath: it will not be me.
To my left, my mother’s hand twists in mine. Her face is set in a grimace, her lips parting as if about to speak, and I have lived all these years counting out my death in metal rungs. I know my end when I see it rushing towards me.
“Ma,” I say quietly, before the words—but her eyes—have a chance to leave her tongue. “Please.”
Ma stiffens, but a second passes and then one more, and she says nothing. The red woman looks back and forth between us, observing.
“You may decide yourself who goes and who stays. But know we will confirm your choice with a medical assessment of our own, and shall the results prove unsatisfactory, we will simply exchange one girl for the other.” She proclaims in that emotionless tone, which takes nothing and gives away even less. “Please ready your selection for departure at sunrise tomorrow.”
While she is speaking, a single drop of rain drips from the woman’s umbrella onto her red dress. It sinks into the fabric as she talks, staining it the dark color of blood.
Back in our apartment, the decision comes like a switchblade: hidden until it isn’t anymore, arriving sudden and sharp. “No” my sister says, at the same time my mother counters “Lina”. I don’t say anything at all, and even though she tells me she won’t choose herself over me, would never, eventually my sister falls silent as well. That is when I know the choice has already been made.
I said earlier that I seldom think of the rain’s start anymore, and that is true; I see the past as an antique vase, pretty to look at but ill-suited for modern-day life. But when I was fourteen I found a book hidden beneath the floorboards of my room. Wafer-thin pages bound in cracked red leather, shielded from the wet and leaking walls above by layers of swollen wood. Many of the chapters ran black with mottled ink, with only a few odd lines spared from the rot that had rendered most of the book’s words unreadable:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty,
darkness was over the surface of the deep
and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
I reflected on what I read that day and the meaning of it for a long time afterwards, still often do. It is where I learned the nature of beginnings: that there is no such thing as pure creation, only a restructuring of whatever came before. But also that if the Before is weak enough, you can mold it until it forgets itself, until it believes that which is After is actually Now—Beginning.
Many dark things linger in a person’s past, but the worst of them is guilt. Beginnings, by contrast, are burdened by no precedent—not as if you have been forgiven for your prior sins—but rather like they never existed in the first place…
I wake Lina before dawn comes. She stirs blearily under my hands, her brow furrowing when she sees me. I press a finger to my lips, then motion to the still form of our mother in her bed across the room.
“I will walk you up.” I tell Lina, careful to keep my voice low. When she shakes her head in confusion, I elaborate: “I will take you to the wall. Go with you. To say goodbye.”
Understanding sparks in her eyes, followed by the prick of tears, and—easy, this is too easy. Lina opens her arms and I fall into them, wrapping her in a tight hug, her smile pressed against my shoulder. My muscles relax when I feel the curve of her grin. It means she has not seen the knife.
In the beginning.
We slip out the window and climb up the fire escape towards the top of the wall, rungs damp and rain-soaked just like they always are, but this routine is all only part of the Before and soon I will not recognize it at all. Soon none of this place will be familiar to me; not the sorrow that goes before me, not the pain that is coming soon behind.
In the beginning was the empty earth.
Lina’s hair flares bright against the clouded sky, not yet pierced by sunlight. The Ark is not here this morning and the ocean is empty; I do not know when it will return but I am certain that it watches me still, lingering behind the fog until I earn my place amongst its monochrome people. Sharp metal presses heavy against the waistband of my skirt and if only she had not come into this world and taken my place in it, if only it was she and I who could walk by twos instead of the strange red woman and her partner coming down, down, down the gangplank, then I could leave her here and let the water take her like we always thought it would.
But there is only one spot and they will send me back unless there is no one else to fill it.
Something moves in the darkness, below the surface, in the deep.
I step forward, I pull out the knife. Plunge it in and out and then she is in the water. My sister falls with the rain, but less graceful than it. I have found something she is not good at, finally.
Her body makes no sound when it hits the waves. Perhaps so much of us is made of water by now that she simply dissolved into the sea when it touched her, the way a storm gathers in the sky and then comes home again, droplets hurtling downward to join the nameless flood. The thought gives me some measure of peace.
The water rises and swallows the Spirit, and the earth is formless once more.
Lydia Gregovic works as an editorial assistant specializing in Children’s and Young Adult Fiction at a major publishing house. Her writing has previously appeard in Ellipsis Zine and Virtual Zine, as well as on platforms including Bumble and Austin Women Magazine. She lives and writes in New York City and is a graduate of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where she was awarded a Bachelor’s degree in English.
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