The city was drowning. We all knew it. We packed up our apartments, taking with us sleeping bags and cans of food and our remaining water, whatever medicine we still had left; looted hatchets, tents and camping gear from cavernous box stores. There was so much we left behind, too: pictures on walls, abandoned to better forget the dead in them, armchairs, sun dresses, enough books to line dozens of library shelves, televisions, microwaves, desks and sideboards, coffee tables and cabinets full of bone china, all luxuries for a population that didn’t have to live with disaster on this scale.
We left the city echoing with the sound of waves early one morning, when the sky bled scarlet and dark clouds gathered over the tall buildings that huddled together in deep water. When we crossed the bridge to leave, some of us turned back for one last look. The tops of the empty, distant buildings reached up and up, like they wanted to pierce the clouds and usher in the city’s final rain. Like they were ready to be done.
We were the last group to leave. For so long we clung to the life we used to have, before the war, before the sickness, before the famines and then, finally, the flood. Seawater was the only reliable graveyard we had, so we left our old lives to be swallowed, to warp and bloat and become unrecognizable. Others had left the city before us. They gave us a radio, one with a hand crank. They told us they would call when they found a place where we could all be together again. We tried the radio every night before and after we left, but it only spoke to us in pops of static.
We walked for a long time. Collapsed suburbs and broken roads gave way to tall, green trees and thickets filled with brambles that tugged at us, like they were asking us to stay a while, tell us where we came from, where we were going. Our food ran down to crumbs, the soles of our shoes thinned under every step. We were used to wandering and the quiet, when suddenly there it was. The river flowed out from the mountain swift and strong, grey and deep. It carved into the cliffs we’d been navigating for days, wearing the mountain’s boulders down into pebbles that were small and round with white streaks shining through the gray.
We gave up our wandering for the river, for the shallow beaches that ran along its banks, for the fat salmon that rushed up its stream. We’d been looking for the ones who left before us, for the paradise we thought they’d made. When we gave up this dream for the river we took off our thinning shoes and never put them back on. We pitched our tents in the forest, near enough to hear the rushing of water while we slept.
We were different people out of the city. Together, we ran nets across the river to catch fish spawning there. We made canoes from split trunks of fat evergreens we felled together. The oldest among us, a woman who’d lost her whole family, taught us how to cure the meat from the fish, how to dig into this life and make it one we could survive. At night, beneath stars too many to count, with the quiet breathing of the river behind us, we sat around fires and listened to the radio. We turned to station after station and caught nothing but static. We had to admit we were alone. The idea didn’t bother us as much as it once did.
The first night the dream came, we could feel autumn rushing to meet us. We curled up in our sleeping bags and hoped that sleep would take us from the cold. In the dream, we were drowning. It was a familiar fear, something that had stayed at the backs of our minds even while we shrugged off our old lives. The whole world was returning to water around us; who could say when the shoreline would rush to meet us even now? But there was something different in this fear. In the dream, it wasn’t the water we were afraid of, but the thing in the water. The white slip of a creature, streaking around the dark under us, smiling with a mouth full of sharp teeth. A thing that looked human, but wasn’t.
No one spoke about the dream, at first. It was easy enough to forget in the warmth of day. We looked around at the trees and the solid boulders and the mountain in the distance and buried the fear deep within ourselves. The river’s shushing eased what fear of sleep we still carried from the night before. When we slept, the dream returned. It came that night and the next. And the next.
On the fifth morning, the eldest woman gathered us where the tree line met the beach. She dug her toes into the rocky sand, as if to steady herself, and then she told us about the dream she’d been having. When she was done describing the darkness beneath the water, the white creature swimming in circles beneath her, we knew the truth: it was a dream shared by every man, woman and child.
The dream split us down the middle. We should leave, argued one group. We should move further up into the mountains, away from the river. But we already had a home here, others argued. They didn’t want to go back to wandering. All day small groups of us gathered. Sometimes one person would walk away from a group, shaking their head, and join a different group. That evening we ate together, gathered on the beach, quiet except for the sounds of the river in the darkness, unseen.
Maybe, we thought, the dream wouldn’t come back. But we were wrong. That night the dream ran through us like wildfire. The deep blue of the water, the thing beneath, circling closer and closer, reaching out at us with long, white fingers. The group that wanted to leave had grown by morning. They were led by a tall man who wore his long hair loose around his shoulders. They would leave that day, he said, travel up river and settle further up the mountain. The group promised to leave a trail behind, should anyone follow. The eldest woman shook with anger. There was a flood before, she said. A long time ago. The righteous survived that, too. The man looked at her. You are not Noah, he said.
By midday their canoes were in the water, paddling hard against the current. From shore we stood and waved until they paddled around a bend and then were out of sight. The settlement felt empty. We spent the day sitting on the beach, watching the curve of the river, wanting them to come back. We were eating dinner when the clouds rolled in. They came quickly, tall and full. The river mirrored them, turning dark like metal. When the wind started, the usually smooth surface went choppy with rough waves. They crashed onto our tiny beach.
We huddled in the tents farthest from the river, but still cold water rose until it lapped at our ankles. The wind howled outside, threatening to pull up the stakes holding our tents into the earth. No one slept that night. The dream is coming true, we all thought. But the water didn’t rise higher than our ankles the whole night. When dawn came, it showed little damage to our settlement. Empty tins, notebooks and other small belongings were caught in the edges of the tents, rushed there by the rising river, but everything else looked untouched.
We gathered waterlogged sleeping bags and spread them out on flat boulders to dry. Weak light was already making its way through the trees above us, the rain had stopped. Maybe we were the righteous ones after all. It was when we went to investigate the tents closest to the river that we saw the wreckage on the beach.
Shattered canoes dotted our beach along the water line. We thought they were our canoes, but all of our own canoes were still tucked into the shallow tributary where we had left them the night before. Only then did we realize that the wreckage was all that was left of the canoes taken by those who left. The river was full of survival gear. Backpacks and clothing and shards of canoes rushed passed us.
On the opposite shore we could see the tall man who had led the group away from us. He was caught in an eddy between two boulders, face down in the water, his hair floating around his head like a misshapen halo. Eventually the current worked him free, like you might eventually free a seed from between two teeth, and his body swept away and out of sight. Though we saw no more bodies in the river, we didn’t hold out hope there had been survivors. By noon the rushing water was clear of debris.
This was a sign, the eldest told us. She wore a thick row of beach pebbles around both of her wrists and wore her hair pulled back into a loose braid. How many of those who stayed did the storm take from us? We looked at each other and answered: None. And how many of those that left did the storm punish? We said nothing, but the understanding was there: All. If we’re going to survive, she said, we need to stay together.
We dragged what supplies we could from the river. We were able to capture a canoe that beached itself on the opposite shore, near where the body of the man had been caught. We patched the rip in the frame and stored it with the others. Between this and cleaning our own homes free of mud and branches and thick piles of evergreen needles, we were tired when night finally came.
When the dream came, it hit us hard. Maybe it was because we’d spent the previous night with no sleep, with a reprieve from it. Or maybe it was because we expected no dream to come, that the destruction of the previous night meant those that needed punishment had been punished and the rest of us would be spared. Whatever the reason, the coming of the dream shocked us all. We woke up broken.
When we gathered on the beach in the thin light of morning we looked at one another with wide and panicking eyes. Maybe we should have left, we started to say. Maybe we should leave. We were fracturing again, splitting into “us” and “them” shouting “told you so” and obscenities, at the very edge of a fist fight, when the eldest came to us.
Her hair flowed freely down her back and her face was empty of the fear we saw in one another. I know what to do, she told us. The river is angry, she said. But we can soothe it, make it so things go back to how they used to be.
We said we would do anything to make that happen.
The girl she chose was very young. She had brown ringlets that fell from the crown of her head. She looked up at us, eyes wide with innocence. Her father was one of those who left. He said he would come back for her when they settled on high ground. She didn’t have a mother anymore. We led her down to the waterline. We stripped her of her clothes. When she went into the water, she smiled at us. This did not stop us. We held her until her chubby legs stopped kicking, until her eyes looked at us from beneath the water, empty and reflecting the sky above us all.
The eldest pushed her little body away from shore. Tears ran down her lined face, but she was smiling. She released the girl’s body to the river. It was strange, we thought, how the current didn’t just sweep her away, how, instead, she floated straight to the center of the river. There, we saw two white arms come out of the water. Slender hands gripped the girl around her shoulders and pulled her down, headfirst. When the surface was smooth and calm we knew that the dream wouldn’t come that night.
When the dreams came again a year later, we knew what to do. We knew what had to be done the year after that and the one after that. For years we were safe from the floods. The girls that went into the river were our guardians. At first, they would fight. It was sad to see it, to see one of us become one of them, when they wouldn’t consider the needs of the we. But after a number of years the girls that were chosen started to feel special. They understood that they were protecting us. This made us proud and we wreathed their wrists in bracelets made from gray and white pebbles. We cried happy tears while we held them under in the shallows of the river, as we watched them try to breathe water, as the panic left their eyes and their faces became smooth and peaceful.
We flourished. We built homes from the evergreens around us. Kept detailed accounts of who we were, of births and deaths and those that went into the river. We had to remember them, the eldest explained. It was the least we could do for those who gave us everything. They were like the saints of old, those ancient people who had once contended with lions and whales, a flood, too, one that remade the world into our own. We taught our children on the pebbled beach—how to lace together pine boughs for roofing; the safest mushrooms to eat; how to smoke trout so it would last all winter. They thought the city was just a story. After some time, we began to think that, too.
Then one day, when the eldest was very old, we heard something some of us had never heard before: the low blowing of a boat horn. It echoed along the exposed bones of the mountain, warping into something like a roar. We turned to the river. It seemed unchanged, at first, and then we saw ripples slipping upstream. A boat, bigger than any of our canoes, followed the ripples around a bend. When it reached our beach, it slowed and then stopped. A group of five climbed into a rowboat and came to shore.
They seemed happy to see us, at first. It was the radio, they said, the one we carried with us out of the city. It was still giving off a signal, a signal they followed until they found their way up our river, to our shore. We found it buried in the corner of an old hut, the silver and sharp edges of the thing dulled with age.
They smiled white teeth at us until they saw the drawings of the girls on the boulders by the river, saw the crude white hands gripping bare shoulder after bare shoulder. They asked us what the pictures meant. We were silent, at first. It was the eldest that told these strangers the story.
Her explanations were not good enough. They put handcuffs on her thin wrists. They told us to bring only what we could carry. That we would go with them to the new city. None of us could stay here. It’s time we become whole again, one of their young women said. She would not look anyone in the eye but kept her sight on the trees just behind us.
She was very young. We thought: Is she old enough to remember the rising water? Had she ever seen a skyscraper slip into the new ocean? Does she know how quiet that destruction could be, and then all at once how loud?
We did not say anything.
They led us away from our homes, empty shells now in the thick forest, and ushered us in small groups onto the boat. We stood on deck and tried to memorize the hills around our home, the exposed boulders elbowing through the earth along the shore of the river. The soft smell of the pine needles, the carpet of which we would never feel beneath our bare feet again. We did our best to see it all—crisp white paint of each girl on the dark, wet rock; the whine of the cicadas, the looping flight of dragonflies; the sun on the surface of the river, the dreamlike quality of that light, sharp and soft at the same time—all of these things that made up the place where we had been us, where we had been a we.
The others dredged for the remains of those given to the river. They didn’t think it was appropriate to leave them. We told them they wouldn’t be there. There were no bones to find. It wasn’t their fault, that they couldn’t understand. The strangers hadn’t been there, hadn’t seen how the number of white, white arms had grown year after year. How those wrists were heavy with bracelets made from river stone. The daughters could survive any coming flood, now, righteous or otherwise.