Copyright © 2020
All Rights Reserved
By Michael Conniff
The first time she walked on water they called her a saint. The second time they called her God—had she been a boy, they might have called her Jesus. Because her name was Christelle they called her Christ.
The Savior has arisen! The Second Coming has come!
The island still had many Christians with no reason to listen to disbelievers saying she walked in the water, on a small spit of land, instead of on the water like a God. The disbelievers said the photographs and video of her were a hoax conjured by digital witch doctors. They said she had no powers, no way to save their island, because not even God could save Madagascar.
Speaking Malagasay they would say she was just a girl. Because their small island was drowning from the last cyclone they said no God, no girl, was going to save them.
The island was nothing but puddles. Tens of thousands of islanders had moved away after the disease spread through the water from one town to another. The ones who stayed, like Christelle and her sisters, were living in the middle of the ocean off the coast of Africa with no place to go. Like all the people on the island, Christelle walked in the water even in her own hut. She and her sisters went to bed with their feet wet and so their beds became forever wet as well. The wetness was everywhere because of the melting so many thousands of miles away, because of the death of the ice she would never touch or taste. The oceans of the world were overflowing, and the only place Christelle had ever known was vanishing, swallowed up by the same water that gave her people everything until it was too late to stop.
The island was drowning. There was no land left to leave.
The third time Christelle walked on the water the only fishermen left on the island fell to their knees on the shore and pulled her hands to their faces. The men began to babble and to cry and to bless themselves in the face of a savior. Christelle looked at the angry red scars on her hands—scars like the stigmata on Christ’s own hands from the Crucifixion. Even disbelievers would soon be calling the markings on her hands climata, for they bespoke the magical powers of a handful of teenagers to save the world from itself before everyone drowned, choked, burned alive, or simply disappeared.
Sander was a boy who could have been anything but instead he was the boy who used to be a boy. Some days he liked girls, some days boys, other days both, but most days they were neither here nor there. Sander was smart and athletic and intellectually curious and considered adorable by his friends who were girls. Most of his friends were actually girls. Guys wanted nothing to do with him. Sander could have cared less.
“I don’t understand,” his father said to Sander the day of the fire.
The bell was ringing for the first class on the first day of high school when Sander told his father, the Malibu High School principal, who he wanted to be, though his father said whom.
“I’m not Alexander anymore and I’m not going to magically become Alexandra. I’m not taking hormones or drugs. I’m not having surgery. I’m not doing anything yet. I’m just Sander Case—not he or she or it. It is what it is.”
His father was a good man, a simple man in the same way Sander had once been a simple boy. Mr. Case looked very much the way Alexander looked as a younger boy before his son began his transition to whatever came next.
“I thought I should call you ‘they.’ The way they’re doing now.”
“But there’s only one of me, Dad. So just say ‘one.’ That’s enough. I don’t care what everyone else is saying.”
“You have to help me, you know. I love you.”
“I know,” Sander said.
“What does all of this mean, Sander?”
“How should I know?” Sander said.
Becoming one as of the first day of high school was just Sander being Sander. For one thing, Sander was going to high school without knowing how anyone was going to feel about the new and weirder former Alexander—not to mention the kids who had always hated his guts to begin with. Sander was already starting to like this person one was becoming. Sander thought one could even learn to love the person one was becoming even before one became that person inside and out. The best thing was Sander felt no need to ever cut himself again or to wear long-sleeve shirts (to hide the cuts) even in summer. Not even his mother knew he had cut himself.
After the fish sticks for lunch in the cafeteria, Sander was standing alone on the steps of Malibu High School, because this one thing was already playing out for the worst. The guys were freaked though some of the girls were taking it better, with Rosalyn the best of all because of her two gay fathers in the business. She sat down beside Sander on the front steps and handed over her cigarette.
“Assholes judge everyone but themselves,” Sander said. “That’s what makes them assholes.”
“I can only imagine how you must feel,” Rosalyn said.
“No you can’t,” Sander said.
Sander was ready for what was going down that day and even that year—even with his own Dad as the principal of the high school. It would suck, more or less, more than one expected high school to suck under the best of circumstances when your father was principal. Even so Sander was ready to put up with the teasing and the bullying, the cursing and the comments in the cafeteria that really sucked.
One had to play it out, to play along unless one wanted to end up in the principal’s office for playing hooky—or in a dust-up with some dirtbag.
As Sander shared the butt with Rosalyn, the fire was blowing down Sweetwater Canyon Drive like a damn Reckoning. Wildfires that burnt whole towns to the ground were nothing new in California, but this fire was hotter and faster and the flames bore down the hill without warning like a blow torch. The cool kids out front screamed louder than anyone but there was nowhere to run. Sander’s father made it to the entrance of the school but he had no time to do anything except stand in front of Sander in the face of a natural disaster. Safety drills went out the window. The kids, even the ones with famous parents, were going to be toast, burnt down to their remains in a matter of seconds or minutes at most. In the time it took to snap your fingers, the Malibu High School Fire was going to be one of the worst high school tragedies on record in the state of California, worse than any of the mass shootings with assault weapons.
Sander stood up on the front steps and threw the cigarette away the way gunslinger might in a dusty town on television.
“Stand behind me,” Sander said to Rosalyn. “You too, Dad.”
They both moved behind him without knowing why. Sander held up both hands with the flames getting so hot one’s frosh peach fuzz could have lit up like kindling.
“What are you doing?” Rosalyn said.
“I have no idea,” Sander said.
Sander came forward with both arms in the air like a preacher, pushing back with his hands and unraveling the fire like a rug you could roll back—until the fire, starved for air, lost its force and most of its heat and died a quiet death without exploding a single yellow bus in the driveway of Malibu High School.
“Your hands,” Rosalyn said to Sander.
On both hands Sander had dark angry marks never there before, not even when Sander had been cutting himself those awful mornings before middle school.
“Jesus Christ,” Rosalyn said.
No one saw Arseni climb the nunatak at the edge of Cape Flissingsky on the island where Europe ended. No one—not a soul—knew what you might find beyond the glaciers, and the glaciers were everywhere in the waters of the Arctic. Arseni was simply a teenage boy in Siberia with a strange need to see Cape Flissingsky on a trip with his classmates from Belushya Guba: he wanted to stand where the largest nuclear bomb ever, the Tsar Bomba, had been detonated during the Cold War, to watch the square sun magically rise—and to see a polar bear in person before he croaked.
He knew of Cape Flissingsky because schoolboys in Siberia read about the square sun you could see across the water in the Arctic before the real sun rose into the sky. In school he heard about the sun and the nuclear explosions and the polar bears prowling round the glaciers on the North Island in the Arctic Circle as if they owned it. This all sounded like a fairy tale to Arseni—like a story the Government made up when it needed to. For hundreds of years, Siberia had been the place where the Government sent people who deserved to be alone and shivering because they were enemies of the state. Arseni believed in these enemies because his own great-grandmother had been one of the worst before she died in prison.
Arseni had always been different. Even his parents said he was cold and distant, like his great-grandfather, without the normal feelings of the other fellows. In truth, Arseni did not seem to care about anything aside from polar bears. He read about them and watched the videos online. He tracked them all over the world on the computer. He told his parents he was not trying to protect wildlife in any form—he was not that kind. For Arseni, the simplicity of a white bear coming alive in a world every bit as white had a purity he could not quite say out loud.
Polar bears were the one surefire thing that made him smile.
Even so he had never seen a polar bear with his own eyes until that morning on Cape Flissingsky—and then he could not believe his eyes. Of course he hoped to see one or two or he never would have signed up in the first place for this trip with his classmates. But from the top of the nunatak he could see polar bears everywhere against the square sun that morning, coming up out of the water and ice floes like a school of fish. The whiteness of snow and ice and polar bears played against a golden light from a sun literally not of this world.
Arseni—a boy who never cried—began to cry as this explosion of polar bears ripped out into the water as far as he could see, until the square sun stopped and the blackness of the Arctic sea began. Then Arseni heard hissing and champings and chuffings from up out of the sea even before he understood the sounds a polar bear could make in anguish and despair.
Because he was a teenage boy, because no one had ever come to this nunatak at a moment like this, Arseni was seeing and hearing things no one had ever seen or heard before. As the square sun threw off more light he could see polar bears scraping and scratching their way onto shore but many more falling off into the water as the ice broke away from the land in blocks. In the goldness of the false sun these polar bears were drowning or about to drown on an ice shelf letting go of the shore for good.
Had Arseni seen polar bears before he would have understood their sounds of pure panic. Because he loved polar bears both in his imagination and now in real life, he could not just stand there in the cold and the horrible wind and do nothing.
But what was a schoolboy from Siberia to do?
Under his gloves he felt something, like a burning on his hands. He took off his gloves and raised his hands, now bleeding, into the air. Just like that sheets of air and water turned to ice and attached the broken-off ice shelf back to Cape Flissingsky like a bridge no longer under construction. From there the polar bears could skate their way across to the land and surround Arseni on his nunatak as if he were a prophet.
They were alive because of Arseni as the real sun rose above the earth. Had they been seals there might have been applause—but in the first light of day the polar bears supplied a sound closer to laughter.
The air was everywhere Wang Yong looked. He knew the leaders said you were not supposed to see air in the sky in China but how could you not? On his last walk, from Tiananmen Square to The Forbidden City, he could see nothing but air and very little of the Beijing he lived in, as if buildings and towers saved face like ghosts with a life of their own.
He wore the mask every day, everywhere he went, but it made no difference to him or to the other students in Beijing Number Four High School, one of the best in all of China. Wang Yong was easily the best coder in his class and had already won a national robotics award for his work with a team from Beijing Number Four. Had he been able to breathe like a normal boy, other rewards and awards would have awaited him. The doctors found nothing wrong with his lungs that clean air could not cure, but they also had no way to help him from slowly choking to death.
He would be taking the test for university soon but breathing for him was growing harder, as if his breath were dying faster than a lit match. Wang Yong could no longer walk all the way home through the Imperial City after school, and his bicycle had not moved from his home for months. He had given up the Model United Nations at Number Four for the same reason, as if his life were running out of breath.
Soon Wang Yong was sure he would not have enough air in his lungs to get out of bed. He had to live every day, almost every moment, with the awful coughing, as loud and hacking as the coughs of men like his father who smoked themselves to death. Wang Yong’s father had smoked since he was his son’s age, and he was no different from the other men who mined coal every day and came home to their only children black as night to smoke cigarettes until the day they died. But his father was smart enough to see Wang Yong and his computers as a way out of his own life. He loved his son well enough, but he also knew his son was the living, breathing equivalent of a winning ticket in China’s Sports Lottery.
As the only child in his family, this was not the time for Wang Yong to fall by the wayside even though every breath in the Forbidden City was hell for him now. He stooped over to catch his breath on the way home from school, between the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union, then again before the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. Outside The Forbidden Palace, he made it through the Hall of Supreme Harmony to the Hall of Central Harmony and even the Hall of Preserved Harmony before he collapsed onto his hands and his knees. Suddenly Wang Yong could see the air in a way no one had ever seen before, as if all the particles had been broken apart: the coal dust, the exhaust from the city’s five million cars and trucks, the grit from the construction that never stopped.
As he pushed up with his hands they hurt even more than what was left of his lungs: his hands were bleeding all over his clothes for no reason.
Wang Yong pushed up onto his feet with his aching hands and inexplicably swung his arms back and forth in a “wave” as they did in sports stadiums during football matches. The motion washed back and forth like windshield wipers, cleaning the air of all foreign matter until it seemed so pure and pristine he could drink it down with a straw.
The pain was finally gone from his lungs, but Wang Yong now had blood all over his face from a bloody circle around the edge of each palm with a bleeding square carved into the middle. In that moment he could breathe again. He had never felt so happy.
The water belonged to Adelaide Cross. As a girl, her mother called her my little guppiness because her daughter was always happy splashing in the water. Adelaide took to the water in all forms as she grew up—as a swimmer, as a surfer, then as a diver. Living in Queensland by the Great Barrier Reef meant she could float in paradise every day.
Adelaide had become the youngest of all the guides to the Reef in the summer: she loved nothing better than a day spent on and under the water, taking tourists to witness the unimaginable beauty in her backyard pool. As you might imagine, Adelaide wanted to be a mermaid when she was still a guppy, long before she saw the cartoons and movies that made that a thing for guppies everywhere; as a girl she could swim among the thousands of fish and trillions of Reef creatures as if she were just another fish along for the ride. All she wanted as a girl was to be someone who lived underwater without becoming a mermaid.
The older guides called her the Princess of Agincourt Reef and Adelaide felt like she was living with royalty underwater. She had given names to different fish but most of all she loved Sweetlips with the rubber bumpers on her head like a bumper car and the fat lips like the American actress had in the movie about the bad witch. Adelaide had a big smile and big full lips like Sweetlips, and she felt no girl should do without an extra set of rubber bumpers on her head.
Who could argue with that?
The males of the Sweetlips species were beautiful and bright—spectacular in every way—but Adelaide always felt like the females would prevail. She had always felt that way about herself, too, thanks to her mother after she left her father for what he did to her. Adelaide was saving the money she made to become a marine biologist, because she was not about to become just another fish in the sea, not with her beloved reefs dying a thousand deaths every day.
The water was everywhere and everything to her, and Adelaide wished every girl in the world could know the dead-silent peace she found beneath the waves. She took her clients to the famous ribbon reefs of Agincourt, because she did not want them to miss the early signs of death by a thousand cuts. She had a Japanese family of four from Hiroshima——a mother and father with a small son and a teenage girl her age—all carrying underwater video cameras: Adelaide showed them parrotfishes, rabbitfishes, surgeonfishes, and even damselfishes feeding on the algae found in the glorious coral courts of Agincourt. But she kept swimming until they could also see the worst of it—the ribbon reefs dying beneath man-made draperies of plastic. Adelaide almost choked at the sight of such waste in her beautiful underwater world, but she also knew (from the internet) the worst was still coming to bear all over the planet. She had to get educated fast to do something about it. Adelaide almost felt she should apologize to the family of four from Japan and to all the underwater tourists for what we had done to our world.
But then something astonishing happened—and the Japanese family, even the little boy, caught every bit of it on video underwater. As the princess of Agincourt swam by, the ribbon reefs gone dead came alive in the thousand trillion ways of the Great Barrier Reef. As Adelaide swam by, with her big lips and her long blonde hair flowing behind her, one coral reef after another suddenly flashed to life, as if she alone had the power to raise the dead. Adelaide swam to the surface, unaware of what she had just wrought in her own wake.
The family from Japan caught every moment of these miracles on their four underwater cameras, including the blood in the water leaking from Adelaide’s hands.
In the rainforest, right from wrong is a lose-lose for Pablo, a rancher’s son.
If his father were wrong for wanting to clear the jungle outside Iquitos City, then Pablo would lose because his father would do it anyway and banish his only son from the family business.
If Pablo’s father were right to develop the rainforest, then the family would have more hectares to raise more cattle to make more money—but they would also be killing the lungs of the planet.
Pablo knows he can’t win because of what they are learning in the secundaria. And he knows people like his father now have the blessing of the new Presidente so no one can be stopped when they try to burn down the villages of the native people. Pablo knows people like his father consider development of the rainforest to be a matter of time—when and not if—and so the sooner the better.
His father thinks the native people are doomed to begin with, so why bother? But Pablo feels the rainforest in his bones, since he was a small boy who fell in love with insects and animals a boy could not find anywhere else in the world. His father encouraged these visits at first because ranchers must learn to love the land to understand it. He wanted his son to have this knowledge the way a rancher knows the dirt beneath his fingernails—knowledge very different than the ideas Pablo is now bringing home from the secundaria. Pablo is learning about science, and in science class everything is climate, climate, climate—with special credit earned for learning why rainforests are the lungs of the world.
In the secundaria, Pablo is a superior student who will do anything for extra credit so he reads about the science of the rainforest without thinking twice about his father. The scientists said the rainforest could absorb carbon dioxide—2.2 billion tons every year—from greenhouse gas heating the planet and producing the oxygen we all need to breathe. And the rainforest leaves Pablo breathless in the vace of a lush Garden of Eden where everyone belongs, especially the most beautiful plants and most exotic animals, a repository of so many living things, including the villages of the people there from the beginning of time.
Why would anyone want to destroy such beauty?
Because they hate science, Pablo’s science teacher says. Because they don’t care about any of you or the future of our planet.
Pablo has never seen the science teacher so angry, and so he becomes angry too. Who would do such a thing? Why would anyone deny the science staring you right in the face for the love of a hamburger or a steak cooked rare.
When Pablo asks his father about the science for the third time, his father slams his hand so hard the steak knife jumps off the dinner table. No one says another word, but Pablo knows all the arguments from what he reads in English on the internet, where you can find anything and everything in the world. Some scientists say the warming of the planet is an overblown hoax or a conspiracy of those who would do harm to capitalism. They say it will kill business and end progress like the kind Pablo’s father wants for the family business.
Pablo’s father has heard enough from his son. He takes him from school in the middle of the day so he will understand the future of the family begins with burning rainforest to the ground.
What of it?
In the rainforest, after his father’s employees set fire to the jungle with torches, the rain comes only when Pablo raises his hands above his head. Then the rain pours hard enough to splash the blood away from the scars on his hands, to put the fire out, and to save the rainforest, at least for a day.
His father looks at Pablo and then at his son’s hands like he has seen a ghost.
Pablo made it rain. There is no other way to put it.