By Mario Reinaldo Machado
“Remember to hold the staff firmly,” Doh’s father instructed, “And when you strike you must use your whole body, like this,” and he demonstrated several graceful, powerful thrusts with the fishing spear. Doh watched, anxious for her turn. Her father held out the spear and she curled her fingers around the handle, surprised at its texture, an artifact of many years and much use. It felt powerful, definitive, even in her small hands.
In the deep waters, in the rainy season, there are monsters in the Volta.
“You will not need to use this spear often, for most of the fish the net will do, but in the deep waters, in the rainy season, there are monsters in the Volta.” Doh practiced the technique, burying the tip of the spear into an old stump while her father watched.
Doh was an only child who lived in a small wooden home which her father had built on a steep hill along one of the many serpentine bends of the Lake Volta. The farming families in the community lived just north where the shoreline leveled out, allowing them to take advantage of the seasonal rise and fall of the lake to plant vegetables, potatoes and rice. Doh and her father worked their cassava farm from time to time, but were usually more preoccupied with fish. She helped her father haul in the catch each morning and smoke and salt the fish in the afternoons.
“Ewe people are a fishing people,” her father would tell her as they worked, “even though some of us have forgotten. But so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
From an early age, Doh’s father taught her how to fish with traps and lines and spears, how to read the lake’s underwater topography. He told her the stories about the lake and its people and its fish, always finishing by saying, “There are many things I can teach you, but there are many things that you will need to see for yourself,” which would leave Doh with an uneasy feeling.
“But not to worry,” he would quickly add, sometimes brushing the hair from her face so he could look into her eyes, “there are many things you already know.”
Doh had her reservations, and thus always paid careful attention to her father’s lessons, lest she not know quite as much as her father thought she did. She learned to be patient and determined, necessary qualities for any fisherman, and certainly any Ewe.
As the rains continued, it soon became clear that there was nowhere else to go, not here, not anywhere: the world had become water.
Doh was a small girl when the rains began. At first, the soil was dry as dust and it ran off towards the lake in great sheets until it stained the shallows like red-red stew. Soon though, it became evident that these were not just passing storms. Pools of water began collecting in the divots between houses and in the fields like lost children, asking any passerby where to go. But as the rains continued, it soon became clear that there was nowhere else to go, not here, not anywhere: the world had become water. Only in the few remaining refugia was land a thought to be had, and even then, it was land so logged with water as to make the distinction between ground and lake and sky rather arbitrary anyway.
As the heavy skies became a regular feature of every horizon, the elders in the village recalled the old days when water had once before reshaped their world. Only then, the water had come from below, creeping up behind the walls of a great dam until there was no other choice but to retreat to the hills. Thousands had left, abandoning the valleys, their homes, communities, and ancestral cemeteries to the elemental forces of both water and progress. A few had stayed, seeing no point in beginning again somewhere else. Whether stubborn or heartbroken, they were only ever heard from again by the fishermen who claimed you could find them still, wallowing in the deepest parts of the lake as fish.
This time, however, it was not the steadily rising dam waters that threatened to undo their world, but the deluge from the clouds that daily baptized this lonely refugia. The climate had changed from the steady, seasonal rise-and-fall that had cradled the quiet fields of groundnuts and yams to the oppressive drumming of raindrops upon every imaginable surface forever. The rains simply would not stop, and the waters everywhere just kept rising.
The villagers guessed at the reasons, though some claimed to have heard on the radio before the rains began that some distant humans had hurt the earth deeply with their poisons. In all their zeal and ardor and reckless hope, they had broken the sky, broken the seasons so that the only thing left for the earth to do was flood the world and begin anew. Doh had heard about these sorts of things from the Bible, which her father used to read by candlelight every night. But he had stopped once the rains began.
“God is no longer here with us,” he once said, blowing out the candle. “Humans have fashioned themselves into gods. Creators, destroyers of worlds.”
In the darkness, with the smell of smoke and wet earth surrounding her, Doh’s father leaned forward on his wooden chair and spoke quietly:
“For those who refuse to be humble, the earth has a way of insisting upon humility. Remember: so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
The rains continued to fall, but the sound had become invisible, like background static at the edge of everything in this new universe in which they now found themselves.
She could not see his face and his voice did not betray much emotion. But she imagined him with a smile lifting up the corners of his mouth, though she was not sure why. The rains continued to fall, but the sound had become invisible, like background static at the edge of everything in this new universe in which they now found themselves.
Doh’s father passed away after the first few months of the rains. A fever had taken to the village, killing many. Their passing was eyed enviously by the increasingly hungry few that survived. In this disfigured world, it had become impossible to live as a human anymore. It soon became clear that it was impossible to die as one as well. The ground proved too water-logged to bury the bodies and the wood too wet for the fires with which to cremate them. The few bodies that the surviving villagers had managed to cover with earth soon washed out only to tumble down the hillside. With few other options, the community decided to dispose of the bodies in the lake, allowing the newly deceased to join the ancestors, who themselves had long-since been interred beneath the waters of Lake Volta.
On the morning of his passing, Doh’s father, weak from fever, had gotten into his canoe, insisting on going out on the lake to fish. There was almost no salted fish left in the house, almost nothing left to eat. Doh was hungry, she could feel the tumble of nothing inside her stomach and could see the same feeling on her father’s face, despite the sickness.
“I should be back before long,” he said, before pushing off and sliding quietly onto the lake and into the rain. He did not return that evening, or the next. The villagers assumed that the fever had taken him while on the lake, a fate befitting a fisherman and an Ewe. It would save Doh the trouble, they remarked, of taking her father’s body out to be buried beneath the lake. But Doh thought better of it. Instead, she imagined him, far out on the lake, riddled with fever on the floor of his canoe as it slowly filled with rain, slowly began to sink. Doh waited on the shore most of the second day, looking out onto Volta for any sign of her father, but saw nothing except water in every direction.
When she returned home that evening, Doh sat down in her father’s wooden chair under the thatch-grass awning in front of her home. She lit a candle and opened her father’s Bible. The pages hung idly from the worn binding. Inside the book, she found the words illegible, meticulously blackened-out by a piece of charcoal so that each page contained heavy soot lines where the word of God had once been. She flipped through the thin pages with care, finding each one as dark and inarticulate as the last. Finally, she came upon a single un-blackened verse, a lone rhetorical fish in the sea of carbon.
She lifted the candle to illuminate the page and read:
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’
The engulfing waters threatened me
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
She wondered at the lines, like bags of tea steeping in her mind, reading them over several times before she noticed, scribbled in the margins, between these lines and the blackened ones that followed, her father’s handwriting:
“So long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
She found the phrase, such a common refrain of her father’s, out of place, curious. Was he trying to send her a message? Did he perhaps believe he might still find salvation, if not in this world, full of water and ruin as it was, than in another? Is that why he had spared this story, of all stories, in a book he had otherwise abandoned?
She pictured her father’s body, floating somewhere among the raindrops on the surface of lake Volta. Or maybe he had already sunk below the surface towards the old cemeteries that had long ago been consumed by the rising dam waters as the rest of the village would soon be. Or maybe he had been eaten, eaten by a fish, some great, monstrous ancestor of their people, in anticipation of being spit out onto dry land.
Her father did not recognize this world anymore, he could no longer live in this loss, so he had gone on the only way he knew how.
The thought of dryness excited her. She closed her eyes and tried to remember dirt and how it felt when baked into her skin. She imagined a warm fire, a warm sun, simple pleasures that these rains had stolen. In that moment she understood: her father did not recognize this world anymore, he could no longer live in this loss, so he had gone on the only way he knew how.
Doh looked out into the forest and across the lake at the endless curtains of falling water and let herself speak aloud what she already knew: “Even this place too will soon be underwater.” The thought was heavy, but she felt light, hopeful for the first time. Maybe she was crazy with fever, or maybe the rains had just logged her mind as it had the land, but either way, there seemed few other options. Tomorrow, she would seek her own salvation.
It was a steamy morning on Lake Volta, though the rains were not as persistent. Doh had set out early. Water lapped at the side of the wooden canoe and spilled through the cracks between the boards, uneven as they were, cut by hand from the hardwoods that grew along the shore. Doh dipped her paddle below the surface and drew it across her body lengthwise, sinew and muscles straining silently. The sun pulled itself through a rare break in the clouds, rupturing the sky with splinters of yellow. The light clung to the droplets of sweat and water on Doh’s arms and torso, and she savored the hedonism of a fleeting sunshine. She realized how she had missed that star and every other since the rains began.
The heat rose as she paddled, drawing mist off the water. Soon, Doh could not tell whether the clouds had descended or the lake ascended, but she found herself embraced by walls of moisture and drowning in an impossible fog. Her lungs struggled to digest the viscous air until each breath became timid and shallow. The water continued to rise, or fall, she could no longer tell. The repetition of the paddle strokes, the sound of the rain, gradually pulled her into a lazy intoxication.
She came to with a start and a magnificent inhalation that made her chest stretch to the point of rupture. Something large had struck the boat with a dull thud, causing the hull to toss small waves across the water. She sat up straight and peered into the mist in time to see the fins of a massive fish drop below the surface.
Out of instinct and without much thought, she fixed her line with bait before moving on to ready her harpoon. The bait stunk like carrion and was warm and soggy from the long morning on the boat. Doh swallowed another lungful of watery breath and pierced the bait on the hook, burying the metal completely. She then lowered her line into the water and watched her bait descend until she could no longer see it and kept lowering it until she had no more rope, then fastened the line to the boat. She cradled the spear in her right arm as her father had showed her many years ago, tying off the loose end to the opposite side of the boat and coiling it loosely in her left.
She knelt on the floor of the canoe, careful not to tangle either line, and waited, unsure of exactly what she planned to do next.
“Will you deliver me from this world?!” she yelled, not sure if her words had landed anywhere in particular, nor if there was anywhere for them to land.
She felt a small tug on the baited line and the boat bobbed gently. Doh grabbed the line and when she felt another few bites, jerked it quickly upward, hoping to sink the hook deep in the fish’s throat. Then for a few moments, she felt nothing, saw no movement, and heard nothing but her own breathing and the rain, always the rain. She waited, patient and determined, a good Ewe, a good fishermen.
Time passed, she did not know how long, with the fog in air melding seamlessly with the fog of her thoughts.
When the water finally erupted with the fish, her senses rushed back into the front of her mind. Suddenly, she was leaning hard against the full weight and will of a massive animal, rope digging into her palm. It was the largest fish Doh had ever seen and she knew that neither herself nor the boat stood much of a chance against a creature of this size for very long.
“Use your whole body,” Doh implored herself out loud, and thought back to the lessons with her father. She closed her eyes and let loose her spear with all the intention she could muster from her tired muscles and tired mind. She did not hear it strike the fish, but immediately, blood billowed on the surface. The raindrops off the lake and the waves on the surface washed water into the canoe as she struggled with the dying animal. Soon Doh was standing up to her shins in bloody water. The spear must have struck the fish’s heart or bladder, because gradually the animal calmed and bled heavily and did not dive. Instead, it writhed half-heartedly on the surface before Doh could draw it up alongside the bow.
“Have you taken my father?!” She called to the animal, “Have you delivered him from this world onto dry land?”
No response, but an empty, black eye stared back at her not without recognition. It was inhuman, she thought, but she did not feel misunderstood. The fish blinked, its mouth half submerged grasping at the water as if searching for words. Then slowly, deliberately it spoke with the cadence of her father: “But I will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good.” and its voice trailed off, mouth still slowly articulating on the surface of the water.
She would not miss this place, she thought, but she would miss the place it was before.
The huge eye shuttered and opened again. The smell of blood and the weight of moisture in the atmosphere hung from Doh like a net that had been draped across her arms. She glanced once more at the world around her. The rains had picked up again with droplets like stones rising to a deafening pace. She would not miss this place, she thought, but she would miss the place it was before. But that old world was as much of a dream anymore as the salvation she sought, however foolishly and desperately.
As she stood in the canoe, she remembered her father from many years ago, before the rains, when he was still strong, a student of god, before the fever and the lake had taken him. “Remember:” she imagined him saying, with an unhurried smile crawling across his lips like a caterpillar, “so long as there are fish, there will always be Ewe.”
She leaned off the boat into the water and swam up to the front of the fish, prying its massive jaws open with her hands. The animal offered little resistance. Using its teeth like the rungs on a ladder, she pulled herself up until she was seated on its tongue. Doh wiped the blood from her eyes, turned, and began to squirm head-first down the creature’s throat.
It was quiet and warm as she made her descent. For the first time in many months, she could no longer hear the rain.
Mario Reinaldo Machado is a doctoral student in Geography at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and fellow editor of Not Afraid of the Ruins. His research focuses on sustainable agriculture, landscape ecology and food systems in Cuba. He is also a musician, photographer and freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets including the Huffington Post, National Geographic, and Organic Gardening Magazine.