The island was lush and green. Leaves glistened like silk; trees were heavy with fruit, bushes covered in luscious berries. Butterflies, silver-winged, cherry red, amber-hued, flitted past. Mira stared at them, hypnotized by their grace. The sun warmed her frozen bones. She was dripping wet, pickled in brine, dizzy from having been tossed around by the waves. How long had she been adrift? How long since the typhoon had swallowed the city whole?
Nothing had warned them of impending doom. The day had dawned like any other Monday. She had scrambled out of bed (late, no time for breakfast, just a mug of coffee; dark, strong, a shot of electric current in her veins). Her parents were early risers. Her mother was in the living room, her nose buried in the newspaper. Her father was watering his beloved plants lined up in a row on the balcony like obedient children. She ran past her parents (late for work, no time for chit chat), shouted out a hurried goodbye, and turned the key in the ignition. Her car purred like a well-fed cat. The wheels slid over the gravelly driveway without making a sound.
That morning, like every other morning, she was stuck in traffic hell. Cars, jammed bumper to bumper, clogged the streets. The air was dense with smog and exhaust smoke. Grey particles drifted in the air like pollen from a grove of ashen trees. She slipped on a mask over her nose and took a deep breath. The government had made a desperate try to turn things around by passing an odd/even driving rule a few months back. Cars with odd license numbers could be out on the streets only on odd numbered days of the week (and vice versa). Car sales had shot up overnight. Most people in the city now owned two cars – an odd numbered one and an even numbered one. That way, you could drive all week without having to cough up a fine.
A crisis was brewing when she got to work. The city reporter had called in sick. He refused to give details over the phone, making his illness sound like a scam worthy of a page one expose.
The second casualty on the roster was the legal reporter whose daughter had rolled out of her crib at night and hurt her head. He had to stay home and take care of the child. There was no one to bail him out – no nanny (too expensive), no wife (so pissed off she had moved to LA after the divorce to make sure he was continents away). The bureau chief ordered Mira to take over the legal beat for the day. It didn’t matter that she had no interest or expertise in court proceedings.
“Go,” said the fire-breathing chief. “Get me a bloody story”. She ran down five flights of stairs, hopped into her car, and dove right back into the heart of traffic hell.
She was inching along a mid-town street when she heard a distant boom. It sounded like thunder but she sensed it was something else – an alien, ominous rumble rising from deep under the ground, sending shivers through skyscrapers, causing cracks to appear on their gleaming walls. The sound grew louder and louder and her car shuddered. Glass shattered, window panes hung loose, raining shards on the street. Panicked screams filled the air. People hopped out of their cars. Everyone was running towards safety. Nobody knew where to find it. She joined the crowd and was swept away by its collective momentum. Fear slowed her down but the crowd kept her moving. On and on they went till somebody yelled, “watch out. It’s water”. She thought she had misheard the man. She couldn’t connect the slick streets of mid-town with water in any way. Her brain was still trying to process the warning when the giant waves came rolling up from behind and swept them all away.
Skyscrapers, high rises, malls, multiplexes, hospitals and hotels, homes, offices, markets, memorials, colleges, universities –all drowned in the deluge. People like puny ants bobbed on the water, clutching at each other, clinging to passing debris to stay afloat. She kept swimming even after her arms and legs went numb. The waves were tall and rough, and they flung her around like a rag doll. Strangers kept floating past her – some trying hard to hang on just like her, others sinking, dying before her eyes. She felt a tiredness that cut to the bone. Her breathing slowed down. Her heart crushed her chest like a stone. She closed her eyes and let the waves take her. They scooped her up and spat her out, they swept her ahead and tossed her around, and later, a lifetime later when she opened her eyes, she found herself on a lush, green island where butterflies with gossamer wings rested on the trees.
It was a small place, the island. She could walk from one end of it to the other without tiring. Trees cast cool, green shadows everywhere. The grass was a soft carpet under her feet. She had no way to tell the time or to know what day of the week it was. The waves had swallowed her watch and phone. Their hunger was insatiable. They had snatched away her parents, friends, the place she called home. She was alone in the world. All alone. The island was deserted and the sea stretched before her, the waves deceptively calm, lapping against the shore like docile creatures. She took her eyes off the glistening water. The sea’s stillness scared her because she had drowned in the depths of its rage. She slept in the open for the first two nights. Canopy of stars above, the sea humming softly in her ears. She found the cave on the third morning when she was walking around the island in search of food (fallen fruit, berries, a plant with juicy, edible leaves whose name she didn’t know). The mouth of the cave was covered with vines. They hung over it like a thick curtain. She parted them and stepped in. It was snug and cozy inside. Slivers of sunshine trickled in through thin cracks on the roof. She stood on tip toe and touched the roof. Her fingers brushed against a cobweb, soft and delicate.
The sound of his voice was such a shock that she lost her balance, stumbled. She choked when she turned around to face him. She couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Sorry,” the man said, stepping out of the shadows.
“Didn’t mean to startle you”
“How long have you been here?” she asked, finding her voice.
“Three days…I think. I slept through them”
“Me too. I’m so tired”
“Fighting the waves wiped us out. Are we the only ones who made it?” “The sea is a monster”
“Or is it us? Did we build too many skyscrapers and wipe out forests to make space for them? Why did we ignore the warning signs? Because we were too greedy to slow down”
“Are you an activist? You sound like one”
“I’m a big fan of common sense. If that makes me an activist, call me one”
“I am a ceramic artist and I teach at an art school. Not sure I should talk in the present tense though. I used to teach kids. I used to have a job before the sea rolled in and wrecked our world”
“What are we doing here? Are we the only ones left?”
“May be there are others” “Here? On this island”
He folded his bony arms against his chest. His face was pale and his chin was covered with stubble. “There could be other islands. Other survivors out there,” he said, pointing at the sea. She listened to the hum of the waves and wondered what secrets they hid.
“I’m not good at guessing things but I think you are a lawyer,” he said, smiling a shy smile.
“You sound like one”
“Journalist. I used to be one till disaster struck”
“It’s all gone, isn’t it?” he asked, looking up at her helplessly. “The city, our friends, our families”
She reached out and touched his arm. They stood next to each other, overwhelmed by the enormity of their loss. Grief turned their tongues leaden. They had no words left. They hardly dared to breathe.
It was tough to say when exactly they started to call the cave home. In the beginning it was just “the cave” – “I’m off for a walk and I’ll meet you at the cave,” “I’ll come find you at the cave,” “I’ll be napping in the cave.” When the days grew shorter and the nights colder, he asked her if she would like to sleep in the cave. “There’s room,” he said. “You’ll be comfortable. It’s chilly out there at night”
She liked the note of hesitation in his voice. He wasn’t taking her answer for granted. He hoped she would say yes but he wasn’t putting any pressure on her to agree. Her presence in the cave would make him happy – this much he made clear. But the choice was hers. He wasn’t a fool to think that he could make up her mind for her.
She missed the stars when she slept in the cave. She had grown used to their presence, their benign twinkle lighting up the night. They calmed her down when she woke from her nightmares. It was different in the cave. The darkness made her uncomfortable. If she had a bad dream (she had many, most of them about the sea), she couldn’t go back to sleep. She would lay there, restless and tired, waiting for the sun to burst through the horizon. Neel was right though. The nights were cold and she was better off in the cave than in the open. She would freeze if she slept under the sky.
One night, when she woke from a nightmare, she found Neel sitting right next to her. “You had a bad dream,” he said. “You were screaming in your sleep”
“I thought I was drowning”
“We’re on dry land,” he said, stroking her hair.
She rested her palm against his cheek. His beard had grown since they got here. His pale skin had soaked up the sun and browned like a biscuit.
“Where is everybody?” she asked, dazed by sleep.
“It’s just the two of us. You and me,” he whispered, leaning in to kiss her on the mouth.
When the nights grew even colder they lit a fire to keep themselves warm in their new home. Neel was good with his hands – a genius at crafting things from scraps. He made them a fireplace, stitched together blankets of dry leaves. He carved out wooden bowls and spoons, fashioned fishing rods from twigs. They fished in the shallow pools on the island and roasted their catch over the fire. There was enough fish in the sea and fruit on the island to feed them for a lifetime.
Mira planted some seeds close to the cave and soon they had a small “kitchen garden” sprouting right next to their home. Neel had decorated the cave’s walls with his paintings (crushed berry juice made colorful paints). Mira scribbled a caption under each of them with her pen (dried twig, a sharpened nib, dipped in paint). The painting and the caption together made a whole. Without one, the other was incomplete. At nights, the paintings glowed like living things in the light of the fire. Mira and Neel huddled under a blanket and watched the shadows dance on the walls. Outside, the sea hummed a quiet tune. The breeze brushed past the trees. A moon drifted in the sky spilling milky light on the waves.
Spring was a riot of colours. Riches of fruit and flowers and berries. An endless carnival of emerald green. Butterflies in every shade of the rainbow flew past them. Mira and Neel feasted their eyes on the parade. They felt drunk with spring. The summer was mild, the days warm but never hot, the nights crisp and cool. Their “kitchen garden” thrived in the summer months. They plucked vegetables off the vines and dried them in the sun. Mira pickled fish and vegetables and Neel bottled them. He had built a kiln behind the cave to make glazed vessels, sealed containers, plates and bowls – a pottery range of their own. They bathed in the sea in the evenings when the water cooled down and slept on the beach at nights. The sand made a smooth bed. Mira liked to sink into its silky embrace with Neel’s arms wrapped tightly around her.
She knew the island like the lines on the palm of the hand. Every nook and corner, every tree and herb and bush; the shallow pools, the rocky edges where shore and sea met like lovers who cannot bear a moment’s separation. She had discovered (by accident, trial and error, serendipity) that some herbs on the island had healing powers and others were toxic. She knew which plant could cure a cough and which berry gave you a stomach ache. She identified the trees which bore the tastiest fruit and she could tell when exactly they were fit for plucking.
It was in the last week of summer that the boat crept up on them. Mira and Neel were asleep at home when it reached the island. Mira heard the whir of its motor but she dismissed it as a dream. She didn’t give the sound a second thought or step out on to the beach to check. If she had, she would have seen a sleek boat docking there and two “scouts” stepping out of it. Dressed in black shirts and black blazers, and sporting the same grim expression, the two men could pass off as identical twins. What Mira hated most about them was their stares. Their eyes were cold and dead and not a flicker of emotion affected them.
How they found the cave she didn’t know. They may have been carrying a gadget – a sophisticated tracker of some kind – to help them detect human presence. Mira’s heart skipped a beat when the two walked into the cave. “We are scouts,” they said, without wasting time on a preamble. “We’ve been sent to find survivors and take you to safety”
“Who sent you?” Mira asked. “Where will you take us?”
“The Big Three sent us,” they said as if it was a self-explanatory fact.
“Who?” Neel asked, holding on to Mira’s arm. She was sure that the men repulsed him.
They walked and talked like synchronised machines. They were hardly human.
“The Big Three can see the future,” the scouts said. “They had the foresight to build a city under water because they knew this day would come. They want all of you to come live there. It is the safest place on earth; a fortress protected by state of the art technology. Nothing – flood or fire or earthquake – can breach the city’s defenses”
“The Big Three? Who are these people?”
“Visionaries. Businessmen who know how to run things efficiently. You will be proud to be their citizens. You won’t have anything to complain about”
“Their citizens?” Mira choked on the words. They left a bitter aftertaste in her mouth.
“You’re being given a second chance here,” the scouts hissed at her. “You are going to live in a city run by men of vision. They won’t let you make any mistakes. They will make sure you stay safe”
“What do you mean?”
“Every citizen is given a chip to plant in her/his body. The chip will guide you; ensure you make the right choices. We’ve made some terrible choices before and paid the price for it,” one of the scouts said, pointing at the sea. “There is no room for bad decisions in the city of the future.
That risk has been eliminated”
Mira and Neel were quiet. The scouts squinted at them like they were specimens under a microscope. “The two of us will be spending the night on our boat,” the scouts said, backing out of the cave.
“We leave the island in the morning”
“Have you found any other survivors?” Neel asked.
“Have they all moved to the new city?”
“They are welcome to join us here,” Mira said.
“We have enough for everyone”
“Only a fool would say no to this offer,” the scouts said, ignoring them.
“What do you have here? A cave and a few rocks? Fish to feed on?”
“Have the Big Three planted their chips in you?” Mira asked. “That must be strange, letting them do all your thinking!”
“Our boat leaves at sunrise,” the scouts chanted in their dull voices. “Join us or don’t. It’s your choice”
Mira and Neel watched the two walk away. They marched down the beach and headed towards the boat, which was idling on the water. Mira felt out of breath. The scouts had sucked the air out of the cave and made their home feel like a claustrophobic place. “Strange creatures,” she said, rolling her eyes at Neel. “How did they find us?”
“I don’t know”
“Why are they hanging around? I wish they’d leave right away” “They’re giving us the night to think things over”
“The Big Three will be the voice in our heads – telling us how to live our lives, controlling every move we make. Visionaries! They are maniacs. Their city is a prison and they are the thought police”
Neel was quiet. She peered into his face but she couldn’t read what was written there. His silence scared her. “Are you quiet because you agree with me or do you have doubts?” she asked.
“Talk to me, please. Tell me what you’re thinking”
He looked like he had drifted to a faraway place even if he was standing in front of her.
“No,” he said without blinking. “I don’t have any doubts. Let’s forget the scouts and their state of the art city and go back to sleep”
She kissed him on the mouth when they got into bed. His lips were soft and sweet and his beard tickled her neck and made her smile. “Good night,” he whispered, hiding his face in her hair. His arms were wrapped around her waist and she felt snug and warm in his embrace.
Hours later, she woke from a nightmare, covered in sweat. Her throat felt raw. She must have been screaming in her sleep. She reached out for Neel in the dark and realised that he was gone. “Neel,” she called out his name twice.
“Neel. Are you here?” No answer. Not a sound. Darkness fell like a heavy shutter over her eyes. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She hugged her knees to her chest and curled up into a ball. Neel’s betrayal was more than she could bear. A wound that would never heal. A ghost that would haunt her forever.
Sleep was kind to her. She slipped into its embrace and let it dull the pain. Sleep promised her a few hours of oblivion and she was grateful for such mercies. She would wake again and mourn her loss in the morning.
It was glorious dawn when she opened her eyes – a spectacular sunrise, the sky aflame with colors, clouds tinted pink, blazing orange and red. A breeze teased the sea. The waves rose and fell softly like a baby’s breath. She felt hollow as if someone had scooped her insides out. She stared at the mouth of the cave, bleary-eyed. Her head hurt. Her heart crushed her chest like a stone. “Good morning,” Neel said, parting the vines at the mouth of the cave and stepping in. He was carrying a bunch of flowers, freshly plucked, their green stems wet with dew.
“For you,” he said, holding them out to her.
She didn’t move or say a word. The shock of his absence in the night had turned her to stone.
“They’re beautiful,” he said, placing the flowers on her lap.
“I found a whole patch covered with flowers. There must have bloomed overnight. I’ll show you the spot. We’ll walk down there together”
Mira reached out for the flowers. Their sweet perfume filled the air. They looked so pristine, so pure. She buried her face in their soft petals and breathed in their scent.
“The boat is gone,” Neel said. “The scouts have left” “You didn’t make it to the dream city then?”
He knelt down by her side and drew her close. “This is home,” he said. “This is where we belong”
Vineetha Mokkil is a writer and reviewer currently based in New Delhi, India. She is the author of the collection, “A Happy Place and other stories” (HarperCollins, 2014). Her stories have appeared in publications including The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Asian Cha, and The Missing Slate. She writes a monthly column on fiction writing for Litro magazine, USA.