I put down the mallet and stepped back. Stood looking at the skeleton of the boat I was building. My heart sank. I didn’t know what I was doing and the only men who could help me wouldn’t be around again for a day or more.
The children came out quietly and stood beside me.
“Can we help you?” Marcus said.
I shook my head.
“We want to,” Annie said.
“I know you do,” I said. “Thank you. I’m at a place right now where there isn’t anything for you to do. Why don’t you go play and I’ll call you when I can use you.”
“We don’t feel like playing,” Annie said. “All the kids are helping.”
“I know,” I said. “Thank you again. Maybe you can help Mom instead.”
They went inside again. The day was beautiful. All the days were beautiful in the summer season, until the storms began. The air felt like silk, warm, calming. The air felt like a friend. Palm fronds vibrated in the onshore breeze, almost purring. A day to savor. A day to savor life.
I sat down on the sand in the shade of my straw hat and counted to ten, to give my urge to drink a chance to pass. It didn’t. I pulled the flat bottle from my back pocket and took one long swallow, to hold me and to keep me balanced.
The surf boomed beyond the palms. After hearing the surf every day of my life, I react to the sound like I react to the clouds in the sky. Like the clouds, the surf tells a story, predicts. The booming warned of heavy weather to the west, up to a thousand miles away. Long rollers in lines made the ground vibrate as they broke on the beach. The rhythmic thump and hiss of the surf at night reminded everyone on the island that time was running out.
I walked away from the boat, or the wood pieces screwed and glued together that would never become a boat. I took a second swallow and followed the sandy path that led to the Johanson home. Sven looked up from his boat but kept working.
“I’m wasting my time over there,” I said to him. “Can I help you instead?”
He didn’t answer at first. Then he stopped and straightened up.
“One boat instead of two?” he said. “You know what you’re asking.”
“There’s only going to be one boat between us whether I help you or not. I’m hopeless at this. And one boat won’t be big enough to hold both families, so I won’t be in it. I know that.”
“I’ve never built a boat either,” he said.
“At least you’re Swedish,” I said. “Maybe you have some Viking blood in you. Were the Swedes Vikings?”
“Sure,” Sven said. “They went east instead of west like the Norwegians and Danes. Some say the Swedes founded Russia. In fact, the word ‘Russia’ comes from the Vikings.”
My first job for Sven was to go home and gather up my allotment of screws, nails, and glue, and bring it all back to him. Despite his claims to the contrary, Sven’s boat, much further along than mine, looked sturdy and well-made.
That night, June and I walked over to the progress meeting held every week for the island’s residents. June didn’t argue with me about giving up on our boat. She was a realist. Even if I could manage to stay sober, I was a man with ten thumbs, and our boat looked like it.
The meetings were held in the school cafeteria. All the adults were there. The teenagers were home taking care of the children.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard by now,” Anastasio said. “We still haven’t raised anyone with our communication equipment. No radio signals. Nothing. The world remains silent. We are alone. No one is coming to help us. As you probably also know, the rise in sea level is measurably accelerating.
“We’ve advanced the deadline for departure. A number of you have reported that your boats won’t be finished. As it stands now, there will be space for all the children and about half the adults. We need to decide how to choose who goes and who stays behind. How do we decide? Who decides?”
Most of us believed, or hoped, that the little fleet would make it to the Marcousa island chain east of us. A long trip, but the current was right for it. As long as a storm didn’t catch the boats.
We discussed the question of who would go, but in the end, couldn’t agree. The question was left open.
“We’ll have to tell the children in the morning,” June said to me as we walked home along the beach.
“I wish we could wait.”
“So do I, but all the kids will be talking about it tomorrow. Annie and Marcus should hear it from us first.”
We sat down with the children in the morning. Once they understood that only one of us would be coming with them, there were tears. I held mine back until later, while I lied to them about the chances of those who would stay behind, and about the trip to another, safer, island.
In the following days, I worked on Sven’s boat. When it was finished, I helped a widow named Naomi. Her boat seemed even stronger and more seaworthy than Sven’s. Everyone met again the night before the morning of departure. It was a quiet group. Handshakes, hugs, low voices.
“It’s time to decide who goes and who stays,” Anastasio said. “As I told you last time, there is room on the boats for all of the children and half the parents. Should it be women and children first, or half moms and half dads, with one parent from each family? Should we take special skills into account, or how well someone gets along with others, or how brave and resourceful a person is? Or should we use a lottery? Who will make such decisions? Who could?”
We voted by raising our hands. Most chose the half-moms and half-dads proposition, and a lottery. Then we waited for the board to write down each family name on a separate piece of paper.
“All the names go in this basket,” Anastasio said. “We’ll pull half the names at random and those will signify the moms who go. The remaining half will be the dads who go.”
One by one, Victoria pulled pieces of paper from the hat and read off the names. When half the names had been drawn, she stopped.
“If your family name hasn’t been called,” Anastasio said, “Dad is on the boat.”
“I’m sorry,” Sven said, loud enough to be heard by everyone. “I’m not going.”
His family name hadn’t been pulled. Neither had mine.
“Nor am I,” I said.
“We agreed,” Anastasio said. “We voted. We’ve drawn the names.”
Another father called out that he wasn’t going either, and soon, all of them did so. Husbands and wives argued.
“Listen,” I said, “we all understand that we need a mix of moms and dads on the boats. Every family must have one or the other aboard. That’s just common sense. But I couldn’t build our boat. I’m part of the reason we’re not all going. I’m not good with my hands. I have a drinking problem. I would never take a place when we have men with all sorts of skills that might be needed later on the new island. I wouldn’t take June’s place, either. That would be nuts.”
“None of us want to leave the mother of our children behind,” Sven said, “to drown.”
A storm of argument broke out. Anastasio held up his hands.
“We’re adults,” he said. “I agree that leaving this to chance was not a good idea, but no one wants to play God. I agree that we should look at each couple and choose the most proficient member of that couple to go, husband or wife, whatever ‘most proficient’ means. I propose that we do this right now. All of us together.”
Another burst of voices.
“Baker family,” Anastasio called out, holding up a slip of paper. “If the wife goes on the boat, hold up your hand. We vote.”
A long pause and then some hands went up. Victoria and Sophia Geraltos counted them.
“If the husband goes, raise you hand.”
“The Baker husband goes. Next, the Cooke family. If the wife goes, raise you hand.”
The vote was accomplished, couple by couple, with shouts and cries at first, and then deep silence. Most of us were in shock at what we were doing. June was voted onto a boat. So was Sven.
June and I walked home, to be with Marcus and Annie. I was satisfied that in our case, at least, the right choice had been made. June insisted that writers and artists were needed, but in the end agreed that a good carpenter would be welcome in the beginning.
In the morning, the boats all floated in the bay, sails furled, provisioned. Gustav and Clark, our two seafaring experts, such as they were, met with all of the ‘captains’ of the fleet. The boats looked so small, so insignificant. I wished again for one or two large ships, the kind we had neither the equipment or the expertise to build.
Marcus and Annie, and June, stayed close to me until Anastasio held up a red flag. I gave each child a final hug, kissed June, told them all that they would find a safe harbor at the end of their adventure, and managed a smile of some sort as they walked away. The beach was full of children with one parent, walking away from the other.
They were ferried out to their assigned boats in rowboats. Finally the beach was empty save for those of us left behind. The morning was perfect, of course. The boats would head east, away from the bad weather to come. Did we believe that our families would find a better island? They couldn’t stay here. That was enough.
Everyone was waving. Everyone on the beach was crying, now that the children couldn’t see them doing it.
After the boats were out of sight, I walked to the highest point on the island, a modest hill. I climbed to the top. From there I could just see the white sails on the horizon. I had a bottle in my pocket, which I pulled out and flung away from me. Once the sails were gone, I turned to face the west and sat down on the ground. There were clouds building and I watched them until the setting sun disappeared into them.