A light breeze ruffles my hair in the early morning as the sun begins to shine on the puddles left by last night’s submersion. Grandma Synne and I are on our way to the weekly town hall meeting in the Solaquarian Pavilion. It’s our favorite day of the week. As we get closer, our paths begin to intersect with some of those of our fellow factory workers: Xihe and her mothers Xiaohui and Kui; Aedre and her niece Chelsea; Aberforth and his brother Clifford.
After we take our seats next to Aberforth and Clifford, the cleric of Sol and Aqua begins to speak. Grandma Synne’s eyes shine in adoration as the cleric tells us how in the beginning, there was the sun and the ocean.
“The sun planted the seed of life and the ocean parted its waters to allow that life to flourish. It is our duty as Solaquarians to create gifts to thank our benefactors. Their punishments via seasickness and sun blisters symbolize their displeasure with those who fail to comply,” she explains to us in her melodic voice, a verbatim repetition of last week’s service.
Before my mother died in childbirth, it was Grandma Synne who said these words in the town halls. After her loss, Grandma Synne decided to devote her time to me.
Once the cleric finishes the sacred part of the town hall meeting, the factory boss explains to us the other important information for this week: work quotas and meal cards.
Kui and Xihe came to the town hall without Xiaohui this week. Kui discovered the sun blisters that Xiaohui had been hiding on her feet and had to quarantine her. Grandma Synne tsks and tells Kui that it was bound to happen sooner or later, because Xiaohui always “slacked a little on the job.” Grandma Synne then points to the sun and sea in the sign of the Solaquarian and swears she will work her hardest forever. No sun blisters will ever hurt her. She’s better than that.
Or she was a few years ago. In recent years, she has been getting old and the sea god blesses those who are too old to work anymore with seasickness. It starts with oceanic hallucinations and ends with a death where the chosen one dissolves into a puddle of water. It’s not a painful death; the sea god slowly welcomes those who worked their hardest their whole lives and can do so no longer to the final destination.
The first time Grandma Synne saw a fish floating in the sky, she claimed it was a cloud. I knew it was a hallucination, but I went along. As she began to see more and more “clouds” in the sky, I knew that the end was inevitable. Eventually she stopped going to the factory and town hall with me. The sea has taken away her eyes and heart, making her an empty shadow of her former vivacious self, a bowl of water only filled by cerulean dreams. She used to be all I have. But now, even when we are both together at home, I alone.
Grandmother Synne’s funeral is as empty as the miniature skiff my written memories of her lie in. Last night, she had her final hallucination. She didn’t fight the surreal current of her ocean, but allowed it to pull her into its subaquarian depths. The great angler-fish, harbinger of death, awaited her in the darkness; she saw the light and was swallowed whole. In my reality, her skin, already translucent from months of suffering, burst like a bubble, allowing her liquefied organs to flow onto the ground. Now the house below is truly empty.
Back in the present, purpleness begins to fall as the watery tide rises. Custom dictates I leave now, go back to my airtight abode and wait until dawn when the water recedes, but I want to see what becomes of the skiff. Which will consume it first, the funerary flames, or the tide? As the skiff turns black, the waves begin to crawl over it, extinguishing the flames. I need to rush back inside now and bolt the door, or else be drowned in the onslaught.
This week’s town hall meeting has a special treat. A reformed Lunatic has come to tell us his tale of woe. He tells us that the Lunatics hold their meetings in a den of vice and worship that myth called the moon. He joined them in despair when his brother died of sun blisters. He left when they asked him to howl at the moon with them in some ritual. He warns us against considering them an alternative lifestyle.
After he finishes his story, the boss pats him on the back and tells us to get back to work. There’s nothing more to see today. The man never shows up at any of our town halls again.
Xihe and I have been getting closer and closer lately. Her other mother, Kui, also died of sun blisters. Kui had spent all her time taking care of Xiaohui when she should have been working at the factory. This displeased the sun god. He gave Kui the same punishment as he gave her wife. Xihe still wakes up sometimes in the middle of the night, thinking she hears her mothers’ cries of pain, even though they are long dead. I can easily sympathize. There is still a stain in the carpet where Grandma Synne transcended reality.
We often have long conversations that taper off into sighs. She’s just as unhappy with life as I am, but neither of us can afford to slack off. We don’t want to die writhing in pain. Better to exit this world from another than be tortured out of this mortal coil.
I often stay the night at Xihe’s home; when I’m there, the stain is no longer continuously at the forefront of my mind. My presence acts similarly for Xihe. For her I am the silencer of the painful cries.
“When I was a child,” Xihe begins in the start of a monologue, “Xiaohui was a funerary skiff maker. She was very good. Nonetheless, she still made a mistake on occasion. Once she brought back one of these mistakes. When I was younger, and we were all still together, we used to tether it to the roof and rise with the tide to go moon watching.“
I interrupt her in a shocked voice, spitting out the word “heretic.” She looks at me with tired eyes and goes back to her story.
“There’s nothing really here left for us besides ourselves. We can’t postpone the inevitable anyway. No matter what, we will either die by sun blisters or seasickness. Let’s take the chance to see a different life while we still can. I want to leave tonight.”
“Have you even considered the consequences? Have you considered that this could be the catalyst and we could still get sun blisters? Where will we go?” I query.
Xihe continues to push forward, “You won’t be happy without me here,” she says, “I’ve packed everything. It’s not as if the outcome can be any worse than if we stay. The reformed Lunatic said the Lunatics are a crazy cult, but I’d rather be with a crazy cult than stuck here, waiting for death.”
I consider it. I don’t want to be alone again, but won’t the gods hate me if I leave? The cleric in Grandma Synne would have wanted me to stay. She would have said that Xihe is a lost cause. She would caution me to stay away so I am not soiled by Xihe’s heresy, but Grandma Synne is dead. She worked and worked and worked for the gods, and they killed her for it.
“How do we even get there?” I ask apprehensively.
Xihe responds, “Aedre heard from one of her gambling friends that we only need to follow the moon to find them.”
It seems like an eternity, but the water eventually stopped rising and flattened into a smooth mirror. A pock-marked white face glares down at us. But, unlike the sun, its light is bearable.
Xihe points to it, exclaiming, “Náttsól, look, that’s the moon! If we follow, maybe it will grace us with a better life.” The paddles sink in and out of the water, propelling us towards our future.
A fleet of moon-white boats bobs out on a jetty in the distance. Is this the Lunatic stronghold? A lady dressed in costly moonstones and white gauze walks down the jetty to greet us. How did she even know we were coming?
“It’s been a while since we’ve seen anyone from Solaquarian. You must be weary. Would you like to rest here and get some food?” she says in a dulcet voice.
Neither Xihe nor I move. We did not come this far just to be stopped. “How do we know we can trust you? Who are you, even?” Xihe asks her.
The woman gives her a sweet, caring smile. “The Lunatic movement was created to rescue Solaquarians from the tyranny of the Solaquarian state. We bring refugees to a safe place where sun blisters and seasickness will no longer be problems. The Light of Lady Moon will guide you to a more peaceful tomorrow.”
We decided to accept her help, and now we are on a train racing towards Lunar, the Lunatic factory where we will be rehabilitated. There are a few other passengers on board. One is Aedre from Solaquarian. I guess she also took her gambling buddy’s instructions to heart. The rest of the passengers appear to be hardened Lunatics. They are dressed the same as us, albeit their clothes are white and silver, not blue and gold. One of them is jibbering in a corner, his pretty clothes flecked with spittle. I turn to the Lunatic nearest to him and pose the obvious question: “What is wrong with him?”
The man responds hesitantly, in a whisper, “Moon madness. I think it comes from the bread they give us in the factories. I’ve stopped eating the bread and that’s why they’re transferring me to another factory.”
I then ask the man, “What happened once you stopped eating the bread? ”
“I became more awake and alert. I was able to fill my quota even faster than before. I thought that’s what Lady Moon wanted me to do, but apparently not.”
I continue to press forward, asking more “What’s life in your factories like?”
“In the factories I worked in we made different clothing in varying hues. It wasn’t for us, but I don’t think it was for Lady Moon though,” he replies.
I thank him for his answers and turn to Xihe. I look at her imploringly and plead: “Xihe, I don’t think this would give us a better life, I think it would just be a different variation of the life we just left. Let’s go.”
We jump off the train and hit the ground running. We sprint as hard, far and fast as we can until we are a far enough distance from the train, that we will safe from the Lunatics.
We stay a night in the jungle and wake up at dawn. We walk for days until we reach a huge electric city. Hopefully we will be safe here. Maybe we can have a happy life.
Our clothes look quite different from everyone else’s here. They are dressed in rainbow clothes and inked skin. The food is different too, it’s so salty, so spicy and so sweet. It is found in tiny shops and spilling out of standing posts instead of in town halls. Even the language is different; everything is different. So much waste, so much smell, so much heresy. There are no town halls with the whole community, no cohesiveness; it’s just too abrasive.
Xihe and I beg on their streets. We are without jobs. We are useless, and people scorn us in their harsh tongues. But, no sun blisters come. At night, there is no watery tide coming to kill and entrap us for our crimes. There is the scorching sun and chilly moon, but they are not mystical. No matter how much I pray, they do not turn back into gods.
A stranger in a blue suit with jangling gold jewelry stops in front of Xihe’s and my begging bowl and drops in some change and a food ration card. Those are useless here. I turn to Xihe, who has picked up a bit of the language and culture of this place, and ask, “How does she have that?”
The blue woman stoops towards us, a gleam in her eye and in our tongue asks us, “Are you Solaquarian?”
I was against it, but Xihe made the decision to trust her. The woman, whose name is Sarakit, takes us to a glass room in a high building with many polished furnishings. She jabbers with the man at the front desk, and he presses a green button to let us in. We go up an elevator and into an office with an androgynous person in a pinstriped suit. The woman turns to her boss and begins to talk excitedly. Xihe translates for me as best she can. The boss’s name is named Lam. Lam is working on some sort of project to take down Solaquarian, which they refer to as a company that lies and treats their workers badly. Xihe and I are perfect examples of Solaquarian’s cruelty to its workers and can be used in Lam’s project against them. But this would not be a job without incentive. Sarakit says that if we help her and Lam, they will help us better habilitate to this society.
Sarakit has been teaching us new words in her country’s language, in preparation for our court case. She also has been explaining how Solaquarian manipulated us.
“The sun blisters and seasickness were caused by poison, drugs, hallucinogens and psychological factors employed by Solaquarian to keep you in line. The water tide went up each night to make sure you couldn’t escape. The Sun and Ocean gods were just constructs to increase your willingness to work. The gods were man-made constructs,” she says in a blasé voice.
The last fact is especially hard for me to grasp. I’ve been suspecting it for a long time, but to hear it aloud just makes it more solid. I feel I’ve been hit by a truck.
Lam won his case and Solaquarian paid us a pittance for the lifetime of suffering they caused us and our families. Xihe and I share an apartment in the seedier part of town. Xihe is working as a clerk in a legal office and I work on an assembly line at an automobile corporation. My job is fine. I have no wish to go higher in society. But for Xihe this new life is a chance to become more accomplished, to get to a higher class and better life. She’s spending more and more time with her legal friends and less with me. I’m not cultured enough for her.
It’s at the factory that I discovered aquamorph, the drug they used to use to make people seasick in Solaquarian. Some of my coworkers come from similar backgrounds and use it to get a taste of home. It’s just a little papery sheet that I dissolve under my tongue, nothing drastic. With its help I can see the fish in the sea, just like Grandma Synne did. All the troubles of daily life float away in the wake of my silver scaled adventures. I feel like the oceanic god.
I’m not eating or sleeping; all I do is swim. The clownfish and anemones are my friends. Maybe someday I’ll meet the great Anglerfish, and this will last forever. Work is a boring but necessary routine I need to do in order to be in the sea. Xihe doesn’t approve. She’s spending more and more time away.
Eventually the tension just explodes. Her discontent with me has been boiling for a while now. She finally cracks, “You disgust me! You’re doing the same drug that killed Synne! The same drug that Solaquarian used to oppress us! I bought this apartment with my own money. I’m trying to have a better life! But you don’t care about that, do you? Even though we left Solaquarian your life hasn’t even changed. You are still working in a factory and even taking the same drugs that Solaquarian used to use! Get out!”
There’s nothing I can really say to refute that. I’m just getting in her way. I pack up all my belongings and leave. It’s back to the streets for me. But this time, I’m alone. It’s just me, the aquamorph and the sea.
The sun is a burning orb in the sky. I wish it would smite me. I used the last of my final paycheck to buy more aquamorph. I try to use it sparingly. But, with so little, I am unable to go to the oceanic world. My skin is quite translucent, however. Maybe if I wait a little longer, the great Anglerfish will come to this world to get me. I close my eyes. I hope it comes soon.
When I open my eyes, I see a man in white standing over me. This is not the sea. This is the hospital.
“We’ve cleaned you up. You were passed out on the street. Due to penal code 476zy, we did not require your consent to forcibly treat you so that your body is unable to process any intake of aquamorph from now on. We have also checked your DNA and notified your nearest relatives, asking them to pick you up,” the man says in an authoritative voice.
I begin to fade out of consciousness again. If I’m unable to go to the sea, what’s the point of living anymore?
I’ve slowed down, but the world has sped up. I’m no longer in the hospital. The doctors and nurses are no longer taking care of me, instead this task is undertaken by a pale white-haired woman and a blond youth. For some reason, I trust them. I don’t think they mean me any harm. The youth takes me to the seaside everyday, the weather here is more crisp somehow, less humid. His name is Ágúst and the older woman’s name is Skúla. Sometimes we are joined by a middle-aged blond woman, Ágúst’s mother, who walks me through the tide pools. Everything’s so peaceful. The language here is different from that of where I previously lived, it’s more familiar. The phrases they say are the same as those Grandma Synne used to say. They even look like her. I look like them.
When I’m in a stable condition, Skúla tells me that she is Grandma Synne’s younger sister.
“When Synne was young, she loved the sun and sea, just like you do.” she begins to say in a fraying tone, “That didn’t change when she moved to South Asia to be closer to her husband’s family. She worked in a science lab there, working on machines to purify ocean water with solar power. She used to write letters to me, to update me on how her life was going. But as time went by, she became more and more involved in this new religion, called Solaquarian. Her last letter said she was moving into their compound to fulfill her dreams. Her husband’s family later contacted me that she and her son had disappeared.” She pauses, tears running down her cheeks. “When I heard from those same authorities, 50 years later, that Synne’s granddaughter had been found passed out on the street, I immediately said I would take you in. I already lost Synne once, I don’t want to lose her again.”
I move over to her, to comfort her. “Thank you for everything you have done for me. I won’t leave you. I will do my very best to get better.” For the first time in my life, I will be taking an active role in my self betterment. I will try my hardest to succeed and thrive. I don’t want Skúla to be hurt yet again.
It’s been hard, but I think I’ve got a handle on life now. I’ve been attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings for a few months now. The first few times I went, I walked in and walked out. But I eventually got a sponsor who is guiding me through their twelve step program. My sponsor has helped me immensely on coming to terms with myself and my past. A week ago I sent a letter to Xihe to thank her for everything she did for me and apologize for my past actions. She has her faults as well, but I need to clean up my side of the fence.
Xihe’s reply is long and heartfelt. A week after she kicked me out, she felt remorse and started to search the streets for me. When she heard I had been taken to the hospital she went there immediately and discovered that I was already gone. Ever since then, she has been worrying for me. I was her only tie back to her old life and suddenly I was gone. At first it was liberating for her, to finally be free of her past. But then it wasn’t. She didn’t quit her job or anything drastic, but she was very stressed about what might’ve happened to me. She thought I was dead and she blamed herself for it.
We are going to meet again though. In May there’s going to be a meetup in Singapore for those whose lives were once controlled by Solaquarian. Hopefully our meeting there will give her some comfort and closure.
When I get out of the airport, a young black haired woman with a sharp nose runs out the chattering crowd and embraces me. Xihe looks the same as ever. We chat a little about life and then take a taxi to the hotel.
Once we are in the hotel room, she begins to explain what her part in the meetup is. She was the one who starting contacting everyone and putting it together. She started it in the hopes that, if I was alive, I would come. The public purpose of the meetup was for the former Solaquarians to get together to share their story and make sure their turmoils are not forgotten by the world.
As a group last night, the Solaquarians decided that I should be their first speaker. I thought the first speaker should be Xihe, but the assembled Solaquarians thought that sharing my life story and views first would be more effective, as my piety, life and past addiction better reflect the lives of the majority. Also, for those still stuck in one of the in-between stages, my story would be an inspiration.
When I finally ascend the stage, I am alone. I introduce myself and open my mouth, this is my life, I can do this. I squeeze the first word out and the rest soon follow. “It began many years ago, I remember it like yesterday. A light breeze was ruffling my hair in the early morning as the sun began to shine on the puddles left by the previous night’s submersion….”
After I finish my tale, I search the crowd; Aberforth is cheering, Chelsea is cheering and Clifford is cheering. In the wings, Xihe is crying.