Authors: Chang-Rae Lee
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Dystopian, #Literary
ALSO BY CHANG-RAE LEE
A Gesture Life
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2014 by Chang-rae Lee
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Grateful acknowledgment is made to Hal Leonard for permission to reprint lyrics from “Only the Young” by Steve Perry, Jonathan Cain, and Neal Schon.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
On such a full sea / Chang-rae Lee.
1. Regression (Civilization)—Fiction. 2. Social stratification—Fiction. 3. Chinese Americans—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3562.E3347O5 2014 2013036600
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.
In the shadows of a golden age
A generation waits for dawn
Brave carry on
Bold and the strong
Only the young can say
They’re free to fly away
Sharing the same desires
Burnin’ like wildfire
JONATHAN CAIN, STEVE PERRY, NEAL SCHON,
“Only the Young”
FOR EVA AND ANNIKA
It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore. We think, Why bother? Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone. You can search it, you can find pix or vids that show what the place last looked like, in our case a gravel-colored town of stoop-shouldered buildings on a riverbank in China, shorn hills in the distance. Rooftops a mess of wires and junk. The river tea-still, a swath of black. And blunting it all is a haze that you can almost smell, a smell, you think, you don’t want to breathe in.
So what does it matter if the town was razed one day, after our people were trucked out? What difference does it make that there’s almost nothing there now? It was on the other side of the world, which might as well be a light-year away. Though probably it was mourned when it was thriving. People are funny that way; even the most miserable kind of circumstance can inspire a genuine throb of nostalgia.
The blood was pumping, yes?
Weren’t we alive!
You can bet that where we live now was mourned, too, in its time, and though it may be surprising to consider, someday this community might be remembered as an excellent place, even by those of us who recognize its shortcomings. But we don’t wish to dwell on the unhappier details. Most would agree that any rational person would leap at the chance of living here in B-Mor, given what it’s like out there, beyond the walls. In the open counties. And even those relative few who’ve secured a spot in the Charter villages might find certain aspects of life here enviable, though they would definitely never say so.
We, on the other hand, will offer this: you can rely on the time here, the tread of the hours. If you think about it, there’s little else that’s more important than having a schedule, and better yet, counting on that schedule; it helps one to sleep more soundly, to work steadily through one’s shift, maybe even to digest the hearty meals, and finally to enjoy all the free time available to us, right up to the last minutes of the
evening. Then, if the stars are out—and they do seem to be out most every night now—we can sit together in our backyards and wave a hand to neighbors over the fences and view our favorite programs while sitting in the open air and authentically believe that this stretch of sky sings its chorus of light for us alone.
Who would tell us we are wrong? Let them come forward. Let them try to shake our walls. Our footings are dug deep. And if they like, they can even bring up the tale of Fan, the young woman whose cause has been taken up by a startling number of us. She’s now gone from here, and whether she’s enduring or suffering or dead is a matter for her household, whatever their disposition. They are gone, too, transferred to another facility in the far west, the best scenario for them after the strife she caused.
We can talk about her openly because hers is no grand tragedy, no apocalypse of the soul or of our times. Yes, there are those who would like to believe otherwise; that each and every being in the realm is a microcosm of the realm. That we are heartened and chastened and diminished and elevated by a singular reflection. This is a fetching idea, metaphorically and otherwise, most often enlisted for promoting the greater good. But more and more we can see that the question is not whether we are “individuals.” We can’t help but be, this has been proved, case by case. We are not drones or robots and never will be. The question, then, is whether being an “individual” makes a difference anymore. That it can matter at all. And if not, whether we in fact care.
Did Fan care about such things? We can’t be certain. We know much about her daily life but that still leaves a great deal to be determined. She was perhaps brighter than most, certainly less talkative, but otherwise, in terms of character, not terribly distinctive. Nor would anyone have thought that she could do the thing she did. Such a lamentable action!
She did stand out physically, and not because she was beautiful. She was pleasing enough to look at. She was tiny, was the thing, just 150 centimeters (or not quite five feet tall), and slim besides, which made her the perfect size for her job in the tanks. At sixteen she had the stature of a girl of eleven or twelve, and thereby, when first encountered, she could appear to possess a special perspective that one might automatically call “wisdom” but is perhaps more a kind of timelessness of view, the capacity, as a child might have, to see things and people and events without the muddle of the present and all it contains. Perhaps Fan truly had that kind of clarity, and not just a semblance of it.
But if we may, let us picture her before the trouble, just as she was, clad in black neoprene, only the pale gleam of her bare feet and hands and face to indicate her humanity. Once she pulled on gloves and flippers and her eye mask, she looked like a creature of prey, a sleek dark seabird knifing into the waters. Of course, that’s not what she did in the tanks, where her job was to husband and nurture the valuable fish that allow our community to do so well in this mostly difficult world. She was one of the best in her function as a diver, easily able to hold her breath for two minutes or more while she scrubbed and vacuumed and replaced tubing and filters, and patched whatever tears had formed in the linings, a half-weight vest to hold her beneath the surface. Even that was almost too heavy for her and she would have to bend her knees while at the bottom of the two-meter-deep water and propel herself upward to breathe, before descending again, her various tools attached to her work belt.
Once submerged, a diver is not easily seen. Given all the fish in the water—naturally as many healthy fish are raised as possible—she is a mere shadow among them, trained to do her tasks quickly and unobtrusively. That is why she uses no special breathing apparatus aside from a snorkel, compressed gases causing too much of a disturbance. Fearful fish are not happy fish. The diver is not “one of them” but is part of the waterscape from the time they are hatchlings, and they see her customary form and the repeated cadence of her movements and the gentle motor of her flippered feet that must come to them like a motherly lullaby. A dream-song of refuge, right up to the moment of harvest. The diver is there at harvest, of course, and sees to it that the very last of them finds its way into the chute. And it is only then, for the span of the few hours while the tank is being cleaned and filtered before the next generation of hatchlings is released, that the water is clear of activity, that the diver is alone.
How somber a period that must be. The constant light from the grow bulbs filtering through the canopy of vegetables and herbs and ornamental flowers suspended above the tanks throws blue-green glints about the facility walls, this cool Amazonian hue that suggests a fecundity primordial and unceasing. The diver inspects each aquarium, which is roughly the dimension of a badminton court, and by the end she is exhausted not by the work or holding her breath but instead from the strange exertion of pushing against the emptiness. For she is accustomed to the buoying lift of their numbers, how sometimes the fish seem to gird her and bear her along the tank walls like a living scaffold, or perhaps lead her to one of their dead by swarming about its upended corpse, or even playfully school themselves into just her shape and become her mirror in the water. At the pellet drop they are simply fish again and thrash upward, mouths agape, the vibrato of the water chattering and electric, as if bees were madly attempting to pass through her suit. And wouldn’t it be truth enough to speak of those bristling hundreds as not only being cared for by the diver but as serving to shepherd her, too, through the march of days?
For who is she, given the many hours she and all the other members of her household spend at their jobs and how generally sparse their conversation is during downtime or when they’re having their morning or evening meal while watching a vid or game? All around B-Mor it’s much the same, which is happy enough. But maybe it’s the laboring that gives you shape. Might the most fulfilling times be those spent solo at your tasks, literally immersed or not, when you are able to uncover the smallest surprises and unlikely details of some process or operation that in turn exposes your proclivities and prejudices both? And whether or not there is anything to be done about it, you begin to learn what you value most.
For Fan, more than the other divers, took to the tanks with a quiet abandon, rarely climbing out at the ending hour to peel herself of the suiting in the changing room with the others. She would appear just as they were leaving for home, or if she didn’t and they grew concerned, someone would go to her tanks and check that she was still working. For divers have perished from time to time, as they can believe too well that they are one of the throng. But Fan would be there, simply swimming about, scrubbing or patching, and the other diver would splash the water and wait until Fan surfaced with a thumbs-up. She once told us that she almost preferred being in the tanks than out in the air of B-Mor, that she liked the feeling of having to hold her breath and go against her nature, which made her more aware of herself as this mere, lone body. In the hour or so after the shift, with no more tasks to be done, she would pull her knees to her chest and drift to the bottom and stay there in that crouch until her lungs screamed for forgiveness. She wasn’t inviting oblivion or even testing herself but rather summoning a different kind of force that would transform not her but the composition of the realm, make it so the water could not harm her. And we would say, Please, Fan, please, you cannot truly believe this, and she would almost smile and mostly nod but the impression you were left with was that she did, in fact, believe in such a possibility. And if that is an indication of her instability, everything else that happened makes sense and no more needs to be accounted for.
But let’s suppose another way of considering her, which was that she had a special conviction of imagination. Few of us do, to be honest. We wish and wish and often with fury but never very deeply. For if we did, we’d see how the world can sometimes split open, in just the way we hope. That it and we are, in fact, unbounded. Free.
Not that this means Fan was wholly in the right. Though we will not say this of her boyfriend, Reg. He was just anybody else, in most people’s view, except perhaps that he was tall and had the most beautiful skin one might ever see. This sounds silly, but this was Reg, in a phrase. His skin was the color of a smooth river stone, though one that’s lighter than those around it, a wheat-brown, buttery hue that seemed to glow warmer in the pale illumination of the grow facility. That’s where they met, as he took care of the deck of vegetables that perched over her tanks. His long arms could easily reach the inner sections to plant and pollinate, prune and harvest, and it’s a fetching image of the two of them, he standing high on his ladder that rolled side to side on a track, she paddling in the cool waters below, both at labor for the good of our community like any responsible pair.
Workers in the grow facility regularly become romantically involved, there’s no rule or code against it, and there are probably dozens of families in our part of B-Mor originating from such unions; we ourselves derive from two of the first generations of growers, this well before the fish tanks were laid in. Stability is all here in B-Mor; it’s what we ultimately produce, day by night by day, both what we grow for consumption and how we are organized in neighborhood teams, the bonds of blood or sexual love relied upon equally to support our constitution. In this difficult era the most valuable commodity is the unfailing turn of the hours and how they retrieve for us the known harbor of yesterday, and in this sense, too, there was really nothing to alarm about Fan and Reg, who were just another estimable couple, if almost comically mismatched in height as they strolled the neighborhood on the more pleasant evenings.
But one day, toward the end of the shift, Reg was told to go speak to the manager. Fan didn’t even notice him leaving; there was no reason to. People are called in all the time to be informed of some minor change in schedule or procedures. This is likely what one would assume as you took off your gardener’s gloves and ascended the stairs to the manager’s mezzanine office filled with screens and controls. For example, there will be a switch-out of this fish or vegetable for another, depending on what’s in demand in the Charter villages. Recently there was a call for Japanese knotweed because it supposedly prevents certain blood Cs, so now at each meal every Charter adult and child eats Japanese knotweed, kilos of which anybody can easily pull from the ground beyond the walls but which, of course, being out there, no one would ever touch.
Reg was summoned from his ladder the day before his free-day. On free-day, Fan was seen sitting by herself in the park, listening to music through her earbuds. She didn’t appear distraught; apparently Reg (or else somebody posing as Reg) had messaged her to say that he was occupied, no further explanation, and would see her the next day. His family was unconcerned; Reg was known to wander, sometimes even beyond the walls. It’s not that he was reckless or dim-witted, though it must be said that Reg was never going to ace the Exams, not in a millennium. In fact, he didn’t even bother to take them. He was the sort of kindly, dreamy boy who is prevailed upon by whim and instinct, and if he sometimes found trouble, it was always the charming kind, such as when a dog gets his muzzle stuck in a jar of peanut butter. We all recall the time he decided to rig his harvest tray directly onto his back rather than filling it and bringing it down and then lugging an empty one back up, and at first it seemed to be working, despite the ungainly appearance, as he’d gently drop the tomatoes over his shoulder while he stood on the ladder, filling it steadily. But it got much heavier than he anticipated, and when he momentarily lost balance on the rung, the fully laden tray tipped him backward. It was a ridiculous mess and the floor forewoman was furious over the ruined fruit and Reg, his kinky head of hair pulp-sopped and dripping, was lucky his neck wasn’t broken, for how he landed on that bin. You could only chuckle and think, Reg, you especially are one fortunate young man for being born inside B-Mor!