Falling Off a Cliff Holding Hands
As the Earth gracelessly paraded towards its own demise, what Mia resented most of all was the goddamned pollen. In those days, the sun hung particularly low. Every morning was languid, for people didn’t have much to do or much of anywhere to go. At around nine o’clock when the light hit her bare walls, Mia would shuffle downstairs to make some tea before getting back under her blankets. On that day in February, pollen tickled her sinuses and she crinkled her nose with anticipation. There was more pollen in the air than a pair of lungs could handle. Allergy season was getting worse and worse every year as the trees, dazed in the scorching heat, released their desperate hopes for continued generations. Mia wished humans had that much forethought.
She used to eat spoonfuls of Tupelo honey from a nearby farm, sometimes licking clean a whole jar while sitting in bed. She told herself it would help her adjust to the pollen, but she really just craved its sticky comfort. It offered a relief only sickening sweetness could provide. She felt somewhat of a kinship with the honey, as both of them hailed from the muggy swamp lands of the Panhandle. The Tupelo tree was distinctive for its swollen base specially adapted for stability in wet, moving soil. The roots were shaped like short waves, and Mia used to think they looked liquid as she passed them in her kayak, their arms fluidly draped into the copper waters of the Suwannee. Pure Tupelo honey mimicked the aura of its namesake with a slightly green tinge that she thought was repulsively enticing. She stopped eating honey the day she noticed that the Tupelo strain had disappeared, replaced by the too sweet, too bright, too golden “honey” from China that she swore was actually rice syrup. She missed her swamp sap.
The little blonde hairs on her arm stood on end and her head went back like a taught sling shot. Yet, nothing. Like the static summer heat, her sneeze was just an idea, hovering in the thick air. She lay back onto her bed and glared out her smudged window. The sky was brazenly clear. Sometimes it felt like people she knew had been replaced by rice syrup. Everyone was warm, dripping in kindness in a way never seen before. But yet softer, lighter, farther away. Not uncaring, just detached. It reminded Mia of how people in college towns act when they know they aren’t sticking around, except it was friends, her family. “I just don’t know how to deal with this feeling,” her sister sighed to her over the phone three months prior, “of course I want to see you, but I’m simply too depressed.” Mia felt her heart bursting at the seams with affection, but yet there was no glass for it to fill. It was like the world was like the air was like the sneeze. Everyone and everything she knew was suspended between it all, mists shaped like people, ideas in waiting.
* * *
Walking to the store, Mia considered how no one told her the world was ending. No one talked about it either. They didn’t have to. She felt it in the impenetrable quiet, the white noise of the world completely muffled, muted, and subdued into submission. The breeze would brush golden treetops, yet nothing would stir. She didn’t watch the news anymore, but she knew from passing flashes of screens and magazines that the end of the world was simplified for the public, dispersed in brief vignettes. Headlines like BIRDS FALL FROM SKY and MAJOR HIGHWAYS MELTING were occurring weekly with increasing redundancy. Even vague attempts at journalistic probes like WHERE ARE THE FISH? or WORLD’S LAST SQUIRREL? met her with numbed repetition. She recalled how her father and his friends kept repeating the phrase “brave new world,” as if it really meant a thing. As far as she knew, Aldous Huxley never had to watch the lakes dry up.
The sun’s hovering presence glared down at her, pounding her back. She only had to step outside for a few seconds before heavy beads of sweat rolled down from her forehead, back, and legs, leaving a trail of droplets on the sidewalk behind her. She gave up makeup over a year ago. Suddenly, a great sneeze burst out of her at full force. Her teeth came down on her tongue, hard. Pausing, she gently poked her finger inside her left cheek, feeling the dents left on her tongue. Her fingertip came out warm and red. “Ow, God!” she shrieked. She heard an older woman’s laughter. Embarrassed, she took off down the sidewalk.
If the world was striding towards the edge of a ravine, then the steps it took were lumbering and lackadaisical. She had known it was coming for a long time. There was that day last year she saw a couple walking three identical Golden Retrievers. Two days later, on the other side of town, she saw a woman walking three German Shepherds. Just a week after that, she passed a sullen old man sitting on a bench with three stoic black mutts. The dogs stood together like Cerberus, watching the rusted gates of the underworld open wide. After that, she knew it was inevitable. It gave her the same buzzing irritation in her stomach that had warned her when her dumb ex-boyfriend was lying or when she was in danger. Mia figured that everyone must have the same bug in their gut and they simply didn’t want to name it or admit it. Beau was the first-person Mia had met that not only seemed to feel the writhing truth but had the eloquence to give it words.
“Well damn,” she exclaimed with a wrinkled grin as they stood in line at the check-out. Mia looked up and followed the woman’s gaze out the front windows of the store, where a bright day had turned into a mass of black clouds. Mia looked back at her and made a scrunched-up smile before turning back to the register. She paused. That’s who was laughing. She snuck another look at her. Beau was staring back at her, beaming.
After checking out, Mia stood under the green and white awning, considering her options in the pouring rain. As the wind howled fiercer, making the rain into sharp daggers, she realized she was trapped in a hellish kind of flash flood. The door chimed behind her and Beau stepped out, pulling her loose jacket up over her ears. “Let’s gooooooooooo girl!” she roared as she ran straight into the storm. She danced with glee, flicking the brown water with strained kicks. She stopped just long enough to raise her wilting arms to the sky and howl in time with the thunder.
At night Mia dreamt of a rocky, sand colored cliff side. No one she knew was ever in her dreams, in fact there were almost never people at all. It was like her subconscious was preparing her for the inevitable, the blanket of inactivity that had begun to settle on her world. She walked along sagebrush and boulders in the dreamscape, barefoot. Growing up in the South comes with a dedication to nasty feet. Shoes are either for Walmart’s linoleum floors, or when you have to wade through tall grasses and can’t watch for ticks. As she staggered around, she looked down at the shoreline and watched the cobalt blue water shimmer. It was tranquil but overwhelming. Her vision skimmed the water like a bird in flight. She saw prehistoric whale sharks and giant squids swim just below the surface. She was a part of what had come before her and everything that was to follow. Unstoppable, untouchable evolution. Her mind drifted into the flat horizon just beyond, blue and white and so incredibly clear. If she stared long enough, the blue would expand and hum and pulsate beneath her eyelids. The white sky would roll and dissolve into itself like the static of an old VCR. She was afraid if she didn’t wake up, it would fold around her and she’d be lost in it forever, a blip of a boat in an endless sea.
She woke up with clam shells at her feet.
* * *
The first time they spoke, Beau was sitting in a tired rocking chair on a dusty front porch. The air hung heavy and sweet, revealing another storm soon on its way. The usually blistering sun was diffused into a white glare that shone across the entire sky. Mia remembered seeing skies like that before everything went quiet. She would be at a café with friends, or walking through a bustling downtown, and the carrying sounds of music and voices would fill the blank sky just fine. But now, the emptiness reflected the stores, houses, farmlands, and oceans with vanity. She couldn’t look at it.
Beau’s voice carried like a boom of thunder in a canyon, except the sandstone walls were rows of abandoned homes. “HEY LOOK it’s SNEEZY!” she hollered and burst into a deep-bellied cackle. The chair creaked. Mia crossed her arms. Beau’s reputation went way back to when Mia was in grade school. Mia and the other kids would sit on a grassy hill at the edge of the park and watch her from afar. Over the course of an hour at a park bench, dozens of pigeons would fly to Beau’s arms, shoulders, and the top of her head. They pecked at the feed in her hands and at her wild, untamed gray hair. Crazy pigeon lady. Beau knew the kids were watching and was glad to provide some entertainment amongst the towering live oaks. It made her sad to think breaking into the old brick Coca-Cola factory the town was built around was the only thing for them to do.
Beau patted the rail next to her. Mia climbed up the steps and leaned against it, unfolding her arms. They both knew the house didn’t actually belong to Beau. The first year that the storms came and the Feds didn’t warn anyone and the floods filled kitchens and the trees fell through bathrooms and people were trapped in the muck and no one came to help, the town had to make a choice: stay or go. Mia’s family and her friends and the rest of the town chose to go. Beau, Mia, and a handful of other stubborn, sentimental folks made the choice to stay. There were beautiful 19th century shotgun houses left behind, built by the original immigrants that had come to work at the factory. Now they stood like long, vacant seashells covered in jasmine vines, waiting for hermit crabs to pick them up and try them on. Mia and others stayed at their own homes, but Beau liked the thrill of new couches and new porches to sit on. Today, she was the proud resident of the McMillan family’s house. She imagined herself cutting a red ribbon at the stoop and cracked a crooked smile.
“I reckon the next storm will be another bad ‘un. Maybe it’ll even be the One. I like riding ‘em out, watching the clouds roll through all destructive. Wiping out that evil goddamm’d pollen in its path.” Beau said evil with the same rising fury as an evangelical preacher in a pulpit. “For some godamm’d reason, Mother Nature keeps on lettin’ me off easy. She thinks I’m one a hers,” she slaps her arm, “ever since I got that goddamm’d branch stuck in my arm, I been safe.” Beau leaned back in her chair. “I reckon she thinks I’m part plant, yeah? Protective woman if I’ve seen one, a real mama bear. To her, all the rest a us are snakes.”
They watched dried bunches of hydrangeas roll by. Clothes shivered uncomfortably on the line beside them. Mia remembered watching her mother pulling clothes down before they all left, refusing to look at her. Her cold, elegant hands had moved jerkily as clothes pins snagged. Her father sat in a lawn chair on the patio, Yuengling in hand, watching the sky with a grave shadow across his brow. A molding white-washed statue of the Virgin Mary watched them all from the grass.
Beau suddenly looked over curiously and leaned in real close. Mia smelled rosemary and cypress. She thought she saw a little copper beetle climbing through her hair. “You drink whiskey?” Beau whispered. Mia blinked.
* * *
They were a quarter of the way through the Tennessee Honey and a game of rummy when Beau started sharing stories. “Our house growin’ up had a great, big ol’ orange tree in the back. Plopped down in the center of the yard. I was the only ‘un that could properly climb the thing. I used to go up to the very top and just sit there, lookin’ ‘round, imaginin’ I was a lil’ bird. Then my grandad cut the limbs.”
“Why was that?”
“The tree hadn’t produced any oranges for a long time. None of our neighbors’ trees were either. He want’d cut the branches… for a better view. Thought the thing was useless at that point. But I knew it was from too much rain. All the goddamn’d time, and no sun. The tree was mad, didn’t wanna grow anymore. I can’t blame it.”
Beau took a sip. “When he burned the limbs up in the yard, it filled the whole house with smoke. Vengeful thing. Filled all us with smoke too. My grandad couldn’t swallow nothin’ to cool his throat. Claimed his tongue was too sour, couldn’t even drink water. Figured he was cursed. I loved that tree.” She clucked her tongue and looked out the window, grimacing. “Man gets what he deserves when he ruins a bless-ed thing.”
By now the breeze outside had picked up. The frame of the house trembled as the wind swept through, whistling. Mia felt restless in the tepid wood chair. She imagined going back up to her room, closing the curtains tight, and lying in bed, alone. Beau suddenly slammed both hands on the table and stood, “Listen now! Let’s go to the coast!” She started rummaged through cabinets, throwing about pans that clanged as they hit the tile.
“How do you have gas?” Mia raised a brow.
“I been saving it for a rainy-day girl, don’t be askin’ me questions like that.”
The closer they got to the beach, the more the wind snapped at their windows. Beau had to squint close to the muddy windshield to see in front of her, but the slow moving made it less likely for the enraged gust to throw them sideways. Mia watched empty houses pass by as hair whipped against her face, sharp as pine needles. Her face felt fresh and cool. Beau’s frizz surrounded her visage in a manic halo.
By the time they reached the shoreline, dusk had draped them and the horizon in a somber blue. The sand in these parts was scratchy and too rough. Mia took off her shoes anyway. She used to visit the shore with her family as a little girl. She got accustomed to running across hot sand at full speed before launching into the waves, laughing and wheezing saltwater from her nose. Her sister would stand at the shore with her feet barely in the water. “Mia come baaaaaack, it’s too cold!” Tiny Mia would run back to the sand like wild, strands of hair matted against her cheeks, and wrap her sopping arms around her sister. She would scream and squirm, but it had become one of those unsaid jokes between them. Her sister would then shrug, “guess I might as well go in,” and charge into the pressing waves with her, hands clasped. One summer when the family made the weekend drive, the beach was empty. Mia saw the image in her mind, her family standing on the side of the road outside their car, buckets and coolers and umbrellas and towels and toys and snacks and inflatable dolphin in hand. Caution tape had torn off a post and hung in the breeze. A freshly painted sign read “Closed: Contaminated.” A woman grazed by, collecting shells in two massive 1-gallon Ziploc bags. Mia remembered thinking she had an entire beach worth of shells. The woman saw they were confused. “It was another spill. They said the water was fine, but a neighbor watched too many brown… globs… wash ashore. He made the sign,” she nodded towards the ocean, “don’t let your kids in there.” Mia could still remember the stench. Raw, putrid, dead.
It didn’t smell anymore, but now it also didn’t move. The horizon was a line drawn into infinity and as silent as the rest of the world. Beau grabbed a worn bag from her truck, and they walked along the water, collecting dried up twigs and branches. The houses stretched along the coast barren and white, the color licked off their walls from many storms. The dunes and their grasses had crept into the frames, like skeletons left in a pasture. Black peaked out in patches beneath Mia’s feet. She realized the sand they were walking on used to be a road, but the water hugged it just like any shore. Beau was nimble on her old feet and strode silently. Mia saw that her eyes were clear and serene.
“The wind’ll pick up ‘gain, let’s pitch up in that ‘un.” Beau motioned towards a house with an open mouth fronting the ocean. A dune had crashed into its face like a wave, and they couldn’t see the floors through the tangled brush. They climbed into the cool darkness and threw the sticks together. Mia saw plastic chairs toppled over and trapped in the sand, ambushed by the wave. Beau brought out some lighting fluid, a matchbox, and a pack of Newports. She flicked the lighting fluid across the wood and held a lit match to it until it took. Beau sat down with her legs crossed and lit her cigarette. With it dangling out of the side of her lips, she gleamed at Mia and patted her wrinkled dress. Mia rested her head on Beau’s lap. They dug their feet in the sand and listened to the fire pop and crackle. Beau hummed and scratched Mia’s head gently until the ocean became a blur of blue to black.
Mia dreamt of the rocky, sand colored cliff side again. She found herself walking along the same sagebrush and boulders, barefoot. She looked down and watched the water, but something was wrong. It was darker this time and didn’t shine. Her vision skimmed the water just like before, but something wasn’t right. There was nothing in its depths, no shapes shifting beneath the surface. She looked up. The dry heat melted the edges of her vision. A colossal red sun stood in the center of a pale white sky. She reached up for it. It was light enough to hold and it fit in her palm. As she brought it closer to her face, Mia felt she was looking at something very private, naked in a way. It was weak. It was the sun and it was dying.
* * *
She woke up with a start. Beau was snoring with raspy breath beside her, arms spread wide on either side of her head, her chin resting on her chest. The fire had calmed to embers. Mia watched as the glow pulsated in the dark. In the center, both part of and separate from the embers, was a still burning red ball nestled beneath the fire’s remains. She reached in and, though she felt the heat emanate against her skin, she grasped it tenderly from the ash.
Mia staggered out into the night with the radiating orb in one hand. The stars blazed brilliantly overhead, illuminating the entire beach in a silver glow. She shuffled across the dunes before falling, still clutching it tightly, and began fervidly digging a hole in the sand.
Big tears welled in her eyes and she felt the dam holding back her spirit give way. How could such a powerful thing be rendered quiet and raw like the rest of us? The tears streamed down her face as she placed the delicate thing in the earth. As they fell and hissed on its hot surface, the roaring of her heart’s waters rushed through her being. Each heaving breath Mia took pulled the tide closer to shore, and each exhale released it back towards the horizon. She started to sob. The tide swelled to waves, ever larger as they retreated and grew and crashed against the shore again and again. She filled the hole and sealed the top with patted sand. Her rolling crying hit the earth and dissolved into the unknown spaces beneath the ground.
As the sea began broiling, reaching further for Mia and her place in the dune, a bright green sprout popped out of the sand beneath her eyes. She stopped crying. It grew taller before her and within seconds became a young sapling. Mia turned and watched as the sea rose above the road of sand, submerging the tires of Beau’s truck. She ran inside the house and shook Beau awake.
Beau coughed and looked out towards the rushing water. She cackled with a smirk and looked up at Mia, “What’d ya do now girl? I reckon that’s it for us.”
They ran out onto the dune, into the moonlit night, and found the sapling had grown even more. Now it stood tall as a young tree, light tan with a green sheen embedded in its trunk. Beau watched the water engulf the tires and body of her old pickup and rock it around in the current. The water was inching towards them by the second, rising up the dunes. Beau stared at the submerged pickup, examined the tree (now branching with maturity), and then met Mia’s gaze with hardened eyes.
“We’re gonna be just fine okay? Grab onto this here branch and I’ll push ya behind up.” Just as Mia grabbed the branch, the trunk extended another foot. Beau stumbled back with surprise, then eyed the rising water. It had reached the base of the dune. She shoved Mia until she gained footing, then pulled herself up onto a branch, using her bare feet to push against the trunk’s smooth surface until she was hanging over either side of its arm. The tree trembled and launched towards the sky. The branches stretched at all ends, radiating twigs, uncurled leaves, and buds. Mia grabbed Beau’s hands as they hugged the thing, jumping when the tree shook and lurched again. Their feet dangled uneasily above the sea now encircling its base. Twigs grew through Beau’s hair and leaves tickled Mia where she clung. The tree shot up another foot, then two, then three. The crown was vast and full now. Mia and Beau watched as blossoms expanded, unfurling into small white flowers. Other green buds grew round and heavier, filling with the stuff that makes them. They enlarged and the green transformed to a bright shade. Beau broke one off its branch and scratched it to smell. Oranges.
The tree and the ocean did not stop rising. Soon, Mia and Beau could no longer see the truck or the dunes or the skeleton houses in a line. In fact, all they could see for miles was the sea itself, a roaring expanse of blue. When they looked down, they spotted massive shadows shifting beneath the surface of the water. Creatures they could never even name. Tails broke the surface, and blow holes spouted with reverence for this brave new world. Flocks of pink and gold birds skimmed the splashing waves. Mia, Beau, the others who stayed, and the ones who left were all part of what had come before them, as well as everything that was to follow. Two birds perched in an orange tree. Unstoppable, untouchable.
Alexandra is a graduate student that grew up along the muck of the Gulf of Mexico. Her surreal experiences in Florida shaped her love for magical realism, and now uses the genre to frame the existential threat of climate change.