Introduced by the author, Kat Asomua
The Sea is Falling is an except from an extended work in progress, set in Samoa. The piece revolves around a man and his mother beginning to come to terms with rising sea levels around the island, in both literal and mythological contexts. Global warming, the loss of homes and changing climates is a real concern for many people living in the Pacific, and over the last five years islanders from this region have become the world's first climate refugees as their homes are overcome by the sea. I wanted to explore this in a very real conversation with mythological undertones.
* * *
“It’s all falling, ah?”
I look out the seaward side of the fale. First at the siapo flapping gently in the tropical breeze. Then at the aged poles holding up the roof of sugar canes and coconut husks. Past the graves of my grandparents, in giant concrete tombs on the front lawn, standing sentinel over the fales on my family’s land. Down the grass and over the dirt road - the only road on the island - which winds its way gently around the circumference of this rock. My eyes pick their way over the rough hewn black volcanic rocks that both litter and frame each stretch of beach. I squint and focus on the glistening bright turquoise of the sea until I can rest my eyes on the giant palms swaying in time with the trade winds on the white beach.
“Not those. The island. It’s all falling into the sea. Ah.”
A statement more than a question from my mum, who is lying over by the stairs to the fale’o’o on a pile of siapo which covers the cool concrete. Her black hair, restrained in a braid as always, has begun to relax in the humid afternoon and a few lonely wisps are allowed to make their way across her forehead to stick to her skin there.
I look again. At the actual shore this time, and the cliffs in the distance off down the coast. I can’t make out any signs of the beach, reef or cliff falling or crumbling into the sea. Nothing really looks too different at all from any other day. But, still. There is something different. Something that tickles the back corners of my brain about that scene that I have enjoyed and neglected in equal parts every day of my life, since the moment I was born here on other siapo that are long gone, over where mom is now on the concrete trying to stay cool.
“No mum. There’s nothing.” I say back to her. I go and pick up an ili to fan her with. It’s starting to get to the hot part of the day, and that pacific sleepiness is settling into my eyelids and bones. She feels it too. Time for a sleep.
“Or the sea is falling up to the island. They’re falling into each other, son. “
I look over at mum. Her eyes are nearly closed, so I begin to think that maybe she’s just rambling out loud, talking me through the end of the daydream and beginning of the midday-sleep-dream that she’s about to have.
“No son. No dream. It’s real. Look at the palms. The big ones.”
I look again, past the palms making a window frame to the beach, to the big ones, the ones that fell over last year in a storm. During the wet season there are always storms. Giant raindrops that hurtle themselves to the earth, as the sky throws a massive tantrum over who knows quite what. The air before the storms is heavy. So heavy it’s hard to walk, or even talk. As a child I used to try to reach out with my dad’s machete and chop through it for some relief. As though cutting through that dense air would somehow release its tension and allow all the moisture to pour forth.
That storm was a little bit different. The rain flew down like coconuts, pummelling everything and everyone that was caught out. Getting hit by a flying coconut is no good – a kid will die by accident pretty much every year from a coconut falling from one of the big trees, so rain hurtling down like coconuts is no laughing matter. The roofs of the fales shuddered with every thud, and the ground was left pockmarked with scars from the onslaught. With every giant sized drop that splashed down into the sea, the ocean herself reached back up to the sky with tendrils of spray.
Oh, we cannot forget the wind that came just as the rain was stopping. Usually the rains come straight down. Straight as a rock sinks to the bottom of the ocean. But that storm was different. Just as the giant coconut rain began to ease, a howling began. It pierced our ears, and screamed through the night challenging anyone to leave their families and come outside to witness all its fury and glory. The wind forced the downpour nearly completely sideways, so that it looked like the storm was coming from an army of ghostly warriors pushing forward with great force.
The wind must have spotted the giant divots the rain had made near the base of the great palm trees, and decided to have some fun. It scooped up those trees, yanking out their 80-year-old roots, and tossed them over like twigs. Looking out there now, they lay like fallen soldiers that no one had tended. Half submerged, half exposed to more elements. One side peering down at the reef below, and the life teeming beneath. One side staring up at sea birds that stop to rest on their trunks. Great branch arms reaching blindly out to both the bottom of the sea and the sky with equal desire. Corpse trunks half above and half below the water line, as the sea caresses the bark now covered in a soft layer of mossy green seaweed.
A giant clump, a great ball of roots ripped out of the sand, the hole no longer showing from where they were pulled, only the roots lying there as though some giant had carried them to the beach and was out somewhere scouting for a good spot to plant them.
And that is it. That’s what’s different. You can’t see the hole where their roots used to be buried before last year’s big storm. It’s all part of the beach now. And as I look closer the water line is up past the next lot of palms, the picture frame bunch. The sea is winning an arm wrestle with the trees.
“They fell over last year, Mum. The tide has just filled those holes in over the year.”
Mum sucks her teeth a little. It pulls her cheeks nearly inside out and makes her face look even more skeletal than it is already.
“No.” she says. “No, those holes where there till two, maybe three months ago. Then over two weeks, gone. The sea filled them right in. The island is falling into the sea."
I am taken aback. Her coal black eyes are bright and wide open now.
“Fai ili” she says. “Fan me”
I move a little closer to her spot, but not so close that I share my body heat and coconut sweat smell with her. The flax ili feels almost waxy in my hand, the handle worn with so much use and damp from sweaty palms.
“The ocean is falling up," she goes on. “They are coming back together just like they have always wanted to be, the two lovers: the sea and the sky. Like the beginning of time, before they were pushed apart. Before time began, before we came into the light, when the missionaries came and taught us about God. The sky and sea were married. Until they were forced apart. The islands were pulled out of the sea. And some came down from the heavens. And all the world was born and put upon the lands that were there now.” She wheezes a bit. “Fia inu, Son.”
I pass mum a cup of water, and she takes a sip. She sighs.
“I prefer a niu, Son. Later. After our sleep. You go out back and get me a coconut to drink, ah?”
“I can go now?” I say. But secretly kind of hope that she says not to worry about it till later. It’s too hot to be climbing coconut trees right now.
“No, later Son. Later is fine.”
Mum sips on the water and a few drops drip down her chin. She catches them in her palm and wipes them away on her ielavalava. They soak into the fabric as though they never existed.
“When the land and the sea fall into each other, where will you stay?” she asks me.
I nearly laugh out loud, but that would be disrespectful. Instead I say, “Mum, I will always stay right here with you. The islands have been here for thousands of years, they will not be gone so easily.”
Mum looks at me, onyx eyes glittering as she squints and looks me up and down again.
“No son. We will not be here. I will be gone, and you? You will need to go too. Better start using your fai'ai to think up where you will go to before it’s too late and someone else decides for you.”
There is nothing else to say. Only, “Yes mum.” Because that is the right thing to say. She has closed her eyes by the time I look up to meet them again, and has slumped down a little. Collapsing in the heat.
I fan her as her breathing slows and softens, while listening to the sound of the breeze in the siapo hanging over the window spaces. When she is asleep I lay out a mat for myself and lie down to sleep too. Imagine that. Being somewhere else. Where else is there but here? Where else would you want to be but here?
I allow my head to loll back and stare at the space where the frame of the roof comes together in the middle. It’s my favourite spot to stare at when it’s so hot, I can’t get to sleep. It’s like the centre of the universe is in the top of a fale, the whole word coming together in that small round point that both keeps things out, and shelters those within. As my lids finally grow heavy, I feel a dream beginning before I have even fallen entirely asleep.
My granddad is there singing. He sings a song that is at once familiar and foreign. He sits on top of his own concrete grave. Bare-chested and barefooted, dangling his dark brown weather-beaten feet to the beat of his music. He looks up and nods at me without stopping his tune, and I get up to wander over to greet him. As I walk though, the ground turns to muck, and it begins to get hard to walk. My feet stick deep, and as I look down, I see that the beach has moved. The waves have crept up on us, and are lapping softly at the steps of the fale, at the bottom of my granddad’s grave.
He lifts his feet a little to keep them from getting wet, but keeps on singing his strange song. There doesn’t seem to be any immediate danger. No tsunamis, no hurricanes, no giant rain. Just the gentle lapping of the waves, caressing places that waves have never touched before.
I stand just in front of him, not wanting to disturb him or seem cheeky. But I can’t help it. It’s been so long since I’ve seen him. I have to say something.
“Malo Tama” is all I can think of to greet him. He just nods again, raises his eyebrows rapidly in unison to acknowledge the communication. And then he stops. He looks squarely at me, a hard stare right into my face.
“O fea oe?” he says. “Where are you?” Which makes no sense because I am where we always are. But before I can answer, I am suddenly under the water. Under the water with salty sea up my nose and in my mouth. I swing my head wildly around trying to see past my hair shrouding my eyes, and what I can see is astonishing.
The village. The island. The entire thing. Every rock and tree. Every fale, every church. Submerged. And there is no one. There is no one there. They are all gone.
I have only one thought. Mum. Where is she? Is she in one of the fales? The church? Or looking for me? Where would she be? Think. Think. Use your fai’ai as she would say. But I can’t, and instead I start to panic and gulp in mouthfuls of seawater rather than air . . . until I wake up, drenched in my own sweat, which smells so strongly of coconut water that I need to go and shower before mum notices the strangeness of it and wakes up too.
I stand and tighten my ie around my waist, preparing to slip out.
“O le niu, Son.” She has woken, and lifted her head to remind me about her earlier coconut request. I wonder if my smell aroused her taste for one.
“Ioe Mum, yes. On my way.” I slip out to go to climb one of the coconut palms out the back and up the hill before she can say anything else.
Kat Asomua is a Canadian who has been living in New Zealand for the last 14 years. She is married to a Samoan man and lives in Auckland with their two children and large extended family. She is a teacher by trade, but has recently taken some time off to finally pursue her own writing interests.