The Lonely Maiden
Kalani wished that other islanders had responded to the ocean’s rise in the same way she had. She had chosen a difficult path, but there had been no easy one available. She had argued that it would have to be her way, or departing the islands, or extinction. Almost all the others had chosen departure, and the reports that had come back from the mainland United States and Canada and Japan and Indonesia and Australia and New Zealand had been discouraging.
Many of the islanders had not understood the forces that were conspiring to make life hard for immigrants. It would probably have been too simple to point out that on a planet whose land masses were shrinking, people who had land that still seemed relatively safe would not want to share it with desperate islanders. But Kalani had understood. She had warned her family and friends that in those other places their lives would not be good. They had laughed.
“A poor life is still a life, Kalani,” they would say. “And you will have no life at all.”
Now, having achieved what they had insisted was impossible, she had a life. Her life was lonely because she had no permanent companion to share it with her. She would occasionally experience human companionship, but only briefly. However, that was her choice. The brevity of these encounters gave her satisfaction because she did not wish to be long in the company of these men and women. They were the kinds of people whose heedless actions had destroyed her island and forced her family and friends to move away, leaving her alone.
It had been a man of that kind who had given her the idea to react to the rise of the ocean in her own way. She had been waiting tables at one of the oceanside restaurants favored by tourists. The three men had seemed like the arrogant types who often spoke suggestively to her. But they had been with their wives, who kept them in check. While they talked about the forthcoming destruction of Kalani’s island as if it were a joke, she fixed a vacant smile on her face and never looked in their eyes. She ignored their conversation as much as she could. That became harder as they drank too much and became loud.
But she listened when one of the men, on his third or fourth drink, said something about polar bears. Kalani adored polar bears and hoped one day to visit where they lived. She thought, sadly, that this would probably never happen because the polar bears were running out of time like her island was. However, the loud drunken man believed otherwise.
“They’ve been seen swimming in the ocean fifty miles offshore,” he said. “That tells me they’re adapting to the changing conditions.”
His wife and the other women and other men laughed at him.
“That tells me you’re going to have some drowned polar bears,” one of the men said.
The loud drunken man did not like being laughed at.
“Life finds a way,” he pouted.
His wife and the other women and other men laughed again. His wife laughed the hardest.
“Michael has seen Jurassic Park too many times,” she said.
Kalani saw the man signal that he wanted another drink. He was disgusting. She wondered if she ought to ask her manager to tell him he’d had enough. But she also wondered if he might be right about the polar bears.
She wondered, too, about the man who had befriended an octopus and been in a movie about their friendship. That was a true story, not like Jurassic Park. He had wanted to feel comfortable in the environment of the sea creatures, so he had become accustomed to swimming without a wetsuit, with the water temperature in the forties. He had also trained himself to hold his breath for a long time. But Kalani had been a fine swimmer since childhood. She could already hold her breath for a long time—for longer than the man who had befriended the octopus could, she thought. Besides, he had needed to get used to the chilly water off the southern tip of Africa. Here, off the coast of her island, the water was warm. Kalani thought that since she would not need to concern herself with temperature, she could focus on holding her breath for even longer. She wondered what her limit might be. If it were true that life finds a way, her limit might exceed what anyone had dared to imagine.
She started to pass every stray moment in the ocean. At the restaurant where she waited tables she would show up for work wearing her swimsuit under her clothes. The restaurant’s proximity to the water was convenient. Day or night, within moments after the end of her shift she would be swimming, day by day ever deeper and ever longer underwater because she was determined to reach her goal. Who could say that the loud drunken man had been wrong about the polar bears? And Kalani had decided that if the polar bears could adapt, so could she.
She did not reveal her intention to family and friends right away. She anticipated disbelief. But the announcement by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that their island was at risk of becoming uninhabitable within two years coincided with an astounding success on her part: one afternoon she stayed underwater for thirty minutes. She came up only because she did not want to be late for the dinner her mother was preparing.
She contained her excitement until the end of the meal. While helping her mother serve desert, she described her accomplishment. She added that she thought it would not be long before her physiology began to change. Her parents and siblings greeted her announcement with the incredulity she had expected.
“You mean you’re going to grow gills?” her older brother said.
“That’s exactly what I mean,” Kalani said.
The family laughed. They saw she was serious and stopped laughing. They looked at one another and laughed some more. She waited for the second wave of hilarity to break.
“You can laugh now,” she said. “But when the people in Los Angeles or Sydney or Tokyo are spitting on you and telling you to go back where you came from, I’ll be the one who’s laughing. Because I’ll still be here, enjoying this beautiful ocean.”
Her parents cautioned her brothers and sisters against telling anyone that Kalani had gone crazy. It would bring shame upon the family, they said. Her siblings did not listen. Soon, everyone on the island had taken to mocking the girl who was going to turn into a fish.
Kalani seized on every insult as a pretext to make her case. She mentioned the ancient Viking civilization that had flourished on Greenland. Some people had heard about it and some had not. But whether or not they had heard she explained that conditions on Greenland were such that consuming a sustainable diet would have required putting fish at the heart of that diet. For whatever reason, the Vikings had turned up their noses at the Northern Atlantic’s inexhaustible supply of fish. In consequence, their civilization died.
The Vikings died because they had failed to adapt, Kalani said. Now everyone on the island except for her was refusing to adapt.
Kalani’s older brother, who had scorned her intention to grow gills, also scorned their father because he did not understand that no one read newspapers anymore. But reading the paper had been their father’s lifelong habit. Therefore “the old man,” as Kalani’s brother called him, often bought the Los Angeles Times. He would look for stories about his former home. Of course, there was no news because there was no longer such an island. His son complained about the waste of money on a newspaper “when with the kinds of shit jobs we can get in this country it’s all we can do to put food on the table.” The old man persisted anyway.
One day an item in the International section caught his eye. According to the story picked up from Reuters, in the middle of the South Pacific a pleasure vessel had come across two bodies bound to one another by seaweed. They were kept afloat by life jackets that they were not wearing. The life jackets had been tied to them. A U.S. Navy helicopter responded to the pleasure vessel’s call and made contact some nautical miles south of where the island of Typee had been located until its inundation two years before. Naval forensics experts believed that the bodies had been forcibly drowned hours before their discovery. Law enforcement speculated that the killer or killers had tied the life jackets to the bodies wishing that they should be found.
The bodies matched the descriptions of Raymond Taylor, 34, of Christchurch, New Zealand, and Olivia Law, 31, of Dumfries, Scotland. On the day of their discovery they had been reported missing from another pleasure vessel, owned by Ms. Law’s brother, Edmund. It was Edmund Law’s account of the events preceding the disappearance of his sister and her male companion that held the attention of Kalani’s father.
Mr. Law admitted that he and his sister and Mr. Taylor had been drinking. He admitted that his own alcohol consumption may have exceeded that of either of his passengers even though skippering the vessel had been his responsibility. He recalled that during a period when he had let the vessel drift because of the ocean’s calm, they were startled to hear a human voice call out to them. They looked over the starboard side. Mr. Law was convinced that what they saw must have been connected to the deaths of his sister and Mr. Taylor.
Mr. Law said there had been a young woman in the water. Mr. Taylor offered to bring her aboard. She said she was not in trouble.
She was naked and she invited the people in the vessel to join her in the water “for a frolic.” Mr. Law admitted that he had not opposed the idea but he felt unwell because of the alcohol. He went below deck to rest. When he woke up some hours later he was alone.
Law enforcement considered Mr. Law a suspect. They dismissed his story about the woman in the water while noting that one month earlier a similar story had been told by the lone survivor from a boat from which a man and two women had vanished. Subsequently they were found, in a similar state and also having been forcibly drowned.
The old man from the island who read about these events agreed that Mr. Law’s story was absurd. But he missed his home and his daughter, and he had been reminded of them. Mr. Law had described the woman in the water: brown skin, black hair, beautiful. The old man shut his eyes upon his tears. He conjured the image of his daughter. Kalani had also been beautiful.