The Boat People


I remember when I was a child and my Great-Great Aunt Clarabelle came to visit. She was well over one hundred at the time and as we sat on the deck of Mavis’s wooden sailboat, she told stories of a time before the rains of 2013 and the great floods that followed.

She was in her 30’s in 2013, with three decades of dry land living already under her belt. She grew up in the desert, a place I read about as a child but thought was imaginary, like the end of a rainbow or the land of nod or Manhattan. I couldn’t imagine that such a place had really existed. Roping cattle on her father’s ranch, everything in her life was dependent on the land.

In place of water, she grew up on dry, cracked earth, surrounded by cacti and plants that knew how to survive on less than an inch of annual precipitation. She told us of things like baseball and camping and roads. As a child, she and her sister would hike and climb trees and they never even learned to swim. She told us that the smell of rain in the desert is the most beautiful of all the smells. Better than bread baking or things called roses.

As Clarabelle grew older, she knew the world was changing. Years went by with no rain at all, wildfires followed, and then rain fell too fast and couldn’t be absorbed. She said it became extreme and unbalanced. People discussed what was happening, but no one really knew what to do and nothing changed. The droughts became longer, the tornadoes stronger, the winters colder, and the summers hotter. We tried to imagine the world she described, but having water as our only reference, it was difficult.

Sometime in the 20’s, after the floods of 2013 began and it became clear they wouldn’t end, corporations began buying all of the land over 8,000 feet. They built their headquarters and factories on the sides of mountains, with homes for the executives in the back. Replacing things called continents, these small islands stick up here and there, but for over 90% of the world, life began to be lived on and in the water.

Great-Great Aunt Clarabelle’s generation had to adapt quickly to these changes, or be swept away. Her days as a cowgirl were over. Her parents wanted to give up, too tired and old to learn an entirely new way of life, but with two thirds of her life ahead of her, Clarabelle knew she had no choice.

After the rains started, they did not stop. The lowlands disappeared and people abandoned their lives and headed for the hills, literally. Then, the hills disappeared, followed by most mountains. In the course of a decade, the world became unrecognizable. Horseshoers turned to boatbuilding, as did carpenters, bankers, and farmers. Life became about boats, fish, and water purification tablets.

As children, we fashioned snorkels and flippers from found pipes and old tires. We dove for fun, making our way down to swim amongst submerged skyscrapers, neighborhoods, and abandoned amusement parks. Islands were fashioned from old car doors, railroad ties, and tree limbs, taking the place of land. People with money constructed floating villages, haciendas, villas; small self sustaining communities. The rest of us did what we could, inflatable inter-tubes orbiting around a sailboat nucleus, fishing lines extended. And it became the way it was.

Nothing ever dried and the sun was something spoken of by poets but never seen. Scientists predicted toes disappearing, evolving into a more useful fin, possibly in the next million years or so. Sleeping on our rafts, bobbing in the waves, we dreamt of prairies and cars and of running.

Great-Great Aunt Clarabelle adapted well. Instead of clinging to her previous life, she forged ahead, becoming the lead mermaid in Poseidon’s Great Circus. Traveling the world by submarine, she and her fellow mermaids tried to lighten their fellow human’s load with laughter and joy. Later, living in a pink houseboat, she sailed the world, eventually making her way to us when I was ten.

Original photo by Helga Ancona

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