Corn in a storm

In the Teeth of the Gale

In Fiction by

I pressed the last hydrocorn shoot into its eyelet and secured the completed tray to the floating platform. Standing up, I swelled with pride looking at the swaying corn, and its canopy of oversized leaves. I marvelled at the ingenuity that turned the fragile corn of old into a crop that not only survived in the salty ocean, it thrived.

Squinting against the glare reflected off the water, I stretched my back, grown stiff from hunching over the trays. At twelve, I’m tall for my age, Mama says. Yet when the corn dances in the breeze, it looks like thirty-foot skyscrapers on the verge of toppling over my head.

“Agwambo, hurry. Baba’s almost here!” My sister Baraka was five, nimble as a seagull, and twice as fearless. She roamed barefoot on the interconnected platforms that formed our farmstead, jumping over the gaps and ducking under pipes and machinery, like some pint-sized giggling ninja. I ran after her through the corn.

Mama and Bibi were waiting by the narrow tongue stabbing into the vast ocean, connecting the dock to the farm’s platform. Bibi hung onto Mama’s arm for support. She was born during the Troubles. As billions perished, she found a way to survive, riding the rising waters. The price was the hunch of her back, brittle bones, and milky eyes. Despite it all, nothing could bar her from her son’s every homecoming.

The speck of the seaplane grew as it drew nearer, its solar-powered turbines wheezing in the breeze. Its belly bulged, like a giant pelican swooping down on a subsurface feast. Baba was gone on his routes for days at a time, moving goods between far-flung floating homesteads and the giant factory barges that crisscrossed between them. Even as far away as dry land.

Mama says there was a time when most people lived on land, before the oceans swelled and merged. No one could afford land now. Except for rich white folks, dry on their mountain tops.

I don’t know why anyone would want to live on land, away from the breezes, infinite horizon, and yes, even the hurricanes. The only thing I envied about the land dwellers were the animals they kept.

Baraka slipped from Mama’s hand and ran towards the moored plane. She reached it as Baba unloaded supplies, and a mysterious bundle. He flung a sack over one shoulder, and scooped Baraka up into the nook of his free arm.

“Baba got us a puppy!” Baraka’s piercing shriek made my eyes water.

Mama’s eyes lingered on my stunned disbelief for a moment, before she glowered at Baba. “I asked for a sewing machine to clothe your children. Instead you brought me a dog?”

“It’s for Agwambo,” Baba said. He winked at me and planted a kiss on her cheek. He handed me the puppy and leaned in low for Bibi to pat his head.

“What about me?” Baraka squirmed free and ran towards the puppy. It was black and white, with brown and beige spots, and tiny. Its paws were soft, its nose wet, and its tongue unexpectedly dry when it licked me. It was the oddest thing I had ever seen, and it was beautiful.

“Dogs eat meat, what do you propose we feed it, Baraka?” Mama teased. Her chagrin was as short-lived as clear skies. Baraka squealed with delighted horror, as she tugged on my shirt. I sat on my haunches and let her pet the puppy. He licked her face enthusiastically in return.

“Dogs eat whatever you give them.” Bibi shuffled back towards the homestead. “They’re survivors, like us.”

“It’ll be plenty happy with table scraps,” Baba reassured her, before turning to me. “You’ll need to come up with a name for it.”

In Bibi’s tales, names weren’t given, they were revealed. Her stories spoke of heroes and kings of old, but I didn’t see a reason why it should be any different for a puppy. I knew it would let me know what its true name was, in time.

• • •

When the hurricane claxon sounded, I was in the basement, hauling a sack of corn meal up to the kitchen for Mama. The watertight compartment under the farmhouse provided floatation support, dry storage, and—when one of the hurricanes that roamed the ocean got close enough to be a bother—shelter.

I dropped the sack and ran up the steps to a rapidly darkening sky. Roiling charcoal clouds raced towards us. Lightning lit the horizon with a curtain of purple-blue bolts.

Mama was helping Bibi towards the basement. My grandmother was not one to take reminders of her infirmity with grace. She yanked her arm free of Mama’s hold. “I told you I’m fine, now leave me be.”

“How will Baba land in this weather?” I asked.

“He’ll probably wait it out somewhere safe,” Mama reassured me, but the worry etched on her face told me she didn’t believe it herself.

“Your father knows what he’s doing,” Bibi chimed in. “Worry about your little sister. I haven’t seen her since breakfast.”

That’s what Baraka did: roam.

Mama called her name a few times, but even without howling winds, the farmstead was too large for Mama’s voice to reach its every corner.

“I’ll find her.” I ran off before Mama could object. Despite her protests, Bibi needed help getting down the steep steps to the basement, and I’d rather Mama did that than me.

Running barefoot on the wet, foam-like, interconnected panels that formed the farm’s platform was nothing new to me, but with wind gusts as forceful as whale blow, and just as unpredictable, I kept slipping, struggling to keep my footing.

“Baraka,” I bellowed at the top of my lungs. Perhaps she was lost among the corn. I refused to entertain the possibility she’d gone overboard, into the choppy, roiling water.

I alternated between calling her name, parting corn clusters in the hope of finding her cowering safely between the stalks, and peering into the churning, frothy water, wondering if I’d be able to tell if she floated by.

Then I heard the puppy. It had managed a bark or two before, but now all it could do was whimper. Consumed with finding Baraka, I hadn’t thought of the puppy at all. Shame descended upon me thicker than the rain now hammering the platform. I was not yet used to having a puppy. It’s only been two weeks, I told myself.

Suddenly, the platform heaved, rising in the air, before crashing down into a void as the wave passed, sinking as deeply as it had risen. I hit the foam face first, but had no time to collect myself before a torrent washed over me, carrying me towards the water.

I scrambled for purchase, grasping at anything within reach. I blinked salt water from my eyes, sliding, the platform’s edge rushing towards me, when another lurch of the platform sent me careening backwards towards the corn, having come within arm’s reach of the edge.

I grabbed the corn stalks, wedging myself between them, as the pitching and flooding continued. With reason returning, panic set in. If I had come that close to being swept away, what chance did a little girl and a puppy stand of avoiding that same fate?

“Baraka,” I screamed over the howling storm and thunder. “Baraka!”

In response, I only heard whimpering. I pressed towards it. Sound in a storm plays tricks on you. It’s as if the air itself bends and curls, and with it the sound. At first it sounded like it came from the left, then from the right, then behind. I called until I was hoarse. Straining and listening for the whimpers, I saw my quarry.

The puppy had its jaw locked on Baraka’s arm. I don’t remember how I closed the distance between us, swinging from one clump of stalks to the next, like chimps swung between branches in the vanished Earth of old.

The puppy had wedged itself inside a cluster of stalks, sitting on its haunches. Through a narrow gap in the thicket, it clenched the sleeve of a limp Baraka. No wonder whimpers were all I heard. It was all it could do with its mouth closed.

As soon as I reached Baraka, the puppy let go and began barking. I checked her pulse. She was alive. A dark gash marred her forehead, but the rain kept washing away the blood as it oozed from the wound.

I threw her over my shoulder, holding onto the corn with the other hand. The puppy’s barks took on a frenetic tempo, an urgency borne of desperation, when it realized I was going to leave it behind.

With only two arms, I could pick between holding onto Baraka, hauling the puppy under an arm, and hanging onto the corn, but not all three.

Even as the storm gathered force, and its electric tentacles grew nearer, I stood frozen in place, struggling with a logistical problem for which there were no solutions.

“I’m sorry little one.” I stared at the pup’s large black eyes. “I’m not sure whether you should try and follow, or stay put between the stalks until the storm is past. I know I don’t have any right to ask this of you, but please forgive me. I can’t leave my only sister behind, and I risk us all if I try to take you too.”

With tears mixing with the salty spray and sweat on my face, I spared the puppy of my dreams one last glance, and set off, determined not to look behind. It didn’t follow. Its voice cut through the explosive tumult of the storm, neither barking nor whimpering now, but moaning. Long, desolate, soulful howls over which my guilt overlaid disappointment, and accusations of neglect and abandonment.

A minute or two later—for it’s impossible to tell time in the middle of a hurricane—a deeper darkness fell over me. Instead of terror, I felt only exhaustion. It’s as if we’re capable of only so much emotion at one time, and when those reserves run dry, so does our capacity to feel anything at all.

“Agwambo, is that you?” It was Baba. Tall and strong Baba. Safe and protective Baba.

“Baraka is unconscious, and I had to leave the puppy behind, and he’s scared, and—”

“Is it far?” Baba interrupted my ravings, even as he took Baraka off my shoulder and into his arms.

His question demanded no answer. I ran back, scooped up the puppy, and followed Baba’s receding form. When I reached him, I grabbed the end of his shirt, like I used to when I was younger, much younger.

• • •

Huddled with the others in the basement, I complained, loudly. What good were hurricane warnings when they sounded just as the hurricane itself came bearing down on you?

Bibi huffed. “Children shouldn’t be burdened by the cares of their elders. The day comes soon enough when they inherit them.”

“That’s the attitude that got us into this mess, Mama,” Baba said in hushed tones. Baraka rested on his lap, in dry clothes with her wound dressed. “Let them think as they wish, and lead where they may. Who knows, it might be to our salvation.”

Bibi sucked her lips, and turned towards the door, listening keenly to the raging storm.

“I know what its name is,” I announced. Sensing my attention, the puppy raised its head and licked me. “Finding it out there renewed my hope, when it had been nearly spent. Everyone, meet Tumaini.”

 

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Copyright © 2019 Ramez Yoakeim.
Image credit: DepositPhotos


Ramez YoakeimRamez’s academic research once involved engineering perfectly believable details out of nothing. Fiction seemed like the obvious next step. At one time or another an engineer, educator, and serial entrepreneur, these days Ramez devotes himself to charting humanity’s future, one tale at a time. Find out more about Ramez and his work at yoakeim.com.