Unlike the usual Word Association, this time the pitch-phrase had to fit as the title of the piece.
At low tide, the crosses all break the surface, and the ocean becomes a graveyard. We steer the boat past them, paddling now to keep from using the motor. The sun is overhead and I can see down twenty feet into the warm water to the tops of parking garages and the roofs of tall houses. Ironically, the wood structures have held up better in the salt water than their concrete and steel counterparts, the low office buildings and supermarkets now collapsed and disintegrated by the action of tide and current.
Jeremy steers us towards a dingy old cross that juts a little further than the others from the waves. “The medical center,” he says. “They built a church attached to the maternity ward. Most of the people here were extremely Catholic. The doctors thought that the cross would remind them of the Virgin Mary, that it would keep their spirits high and have a psychosomatic effect on their recovery. Pretty clever, huh?”
“Very,” I say. “I was born under that cross, you know.” I am already fastening my weight belt and inflating my BCD as Jeremy ties us to the tip of the steeple underneath the medical center’s cross. I have been waiting to see this place my entire life, to see the city where I was born. The ocean took it when I was still too young to remember.
I slip on my mask and scan the water around us. There must be at least thirty crosses standing like silent sentries over the mausoleum of the city. No structure in the city higher than a church’s steeple. A religious people indeed.
“Remember Cass,” Jeremy tells me, looking stern. “Capture net first, then into the bag. Never with your hands.” I nod, half paying attention. This is not the first time we’ve gone after memory-worms, and I don’t need a lecture. “Over we go, then,” he says, flopping backwards into the water with a splash. I smile around my regulator and dive in behind him. The water closes over my head and a momentary instinctual panic floods through me and passes, as it always does.
The water is warm at the surface, but quickly grows colder as we sink away from the golden light. The entrance to the medical pavilion is at ground level, a good fifty feet or more from the surface. The glass doors, once opening so swiftly to human movement, so eager to please, are now firmly shut forever. One of them is broken, a ragged hole that tells that we are not the first to come here. Jeremy nods towards the sharp glass and we swim away from it. Tiger sharks have been known to prowl in these waters, and I would rather not give them anything to pique their interest.
We swim around the outside of the pavilion gingerly, our eyes glued to the sandy ground beneath us, looking for any sign of the worms’ tell-tale glow. We have just passed over the rusted-out hulks of two old cars that mark the beginning of a parking lot when Jeremy motions to catch my eye. He taps his fingers under his own eyes telling me to look, then touches the tips of his fingers together into a point against his forehead and moves them outward like an explosion. Memory-worms.
I follow his pointing finger to a spot on the ground twenty feet from us. A soft bioluminescent glow reveals the location of our prey. I look to Jeremy and he puts one hand out to indicate caution, then nods in my direction. I turn and swim over towards the glow, and as I approach, it resolves itself into a soft grub-like creature, no longer than my middle finger, multi-segmented and spined, pulsing out light as though it were a star fallen from heaven, its fire still burning against the onrush of the water.
I pull out my capture net carefully and swoop it over the brightly glowing creature. It tumbles in without a problem and I cannot help but smile. I quickly secure it in the mesh bag at my waist and turn back to Jeremy, placing one hand into the silt to pivot effortlessly.
There is a sharp pain in my finger. I look down and see a second glowing worm, just inches from where the first had been. And here I was, so confident. Suddenly, my arm burns, and the cross over by the maternity ward is all white in the afternoon sun. I have to smile at it. Jesus looking out for the little babies.
“How you feeling, Jimmy?” Stan asks.
“Better,” I say. “A lot better. They got me goin’ on that dialysis... it ain’t fun, but it helps. Helps a lot.”
He grabs me by the arm and supports me as I shuffle out onto the sidewalk. “Can’t go too far,” he says. “Doctor’s orders.”
“I know,” I say, staring up into the veil of rose spreading its fingers across the sky. “Can’t go too far at all, anymore.” The street is a little lower than most places, here in front of the hospital, and water fills it, a good ten foot stretch of water that the cars all splash through, kicking up a mist that settles into the lines on my face. “What you think’s going to happen to this city?” I say.
The orderly shrugs. He’s a good man, I know that. Maybe not too deep a thinker. “Who knows?” he says. “I’m sure they’ll figure something out.”
“You are, are you?” I say.
“Well, I reckon they will, huh?” he says. We both know they probably won’t.
I turn back to the cross. “I got a great-grandchild in that ward, you know?” I say. Stan nods. He’s heard it a thousand times. “She may not get to see me too long. But I guess that’s okay, you know? Because she’ll get to see someone else.”
“Don’t say that,” Stan says. He’s a good man.
I nod. “Same with this city,” I say, pushing myself to my feet and stumbling over to the edge of the water-logged street. “It may be evening for us here, you know, but the children will move on. See places we never dreamed about.” I reach down and dip my hands in the dirty water.
“I guess so,” Stan says. I start to say something else, but there’s a sting, and my fingers go numb.
“Cass, pay attention.” Jeremy snaps his fingers sharply in front of my face. “Do you think this is a joke?”
I smirk at him. “Maybe,” I say.
“Well, it’s not.” He’s trying to be angry, but it isn’t working. “Look, love, do you want to come with me out there or not?” He leans back against the kitchen counter, his eyes searching the ceiling for something I can’t see.
I roll my eyes. “Of course I do. I want to see the city, I really do. I want to see where I was born, and the crosses and the worms and everything.”
“Then start paying attention!” he says sharply, but his mouth can’t help but twist into a smile. “It’s dangerous under there. There are sharks, sometimes barracuda…”
“Oh, tell me again how you bravely fight the tiger sharks every time you go down, honey. You know that gets my motor running.”
“For all you know, I do,” he says. I try to look credulous. “I have seen a shark once,” he follows up. “But listen!” as I start to break into laughter. “The worms really are dangerous, baby. One prick and you’re gone, stuck in your own head, and you’ll drown like that, so fast you don’t even know.”
“What are they?” I ask. It isn’t the first time. Then again, none of this is the first time, is it? I am overcome by a powerful since of déjà vu.
“Goddamn it, Cass!”
He shakes his head. “Just worms,” he says. “Funky little worms with powerful toxin. That’s it.”
“I don’t get it,” I say.
“Come on, baby!”
“Why are you yelling?”
He shakes his head. “The weird thing is,” he says, “how they give you things. And take them. The people we sell them too, they grind them up and eat the memories. But when they sting you, well, they take a memory from you, too.”
“Maybe you gotta give something to get something?” I say.
“Just wake up!” he says, and strikes me hard across the face.
I am gasping and staring into Jeremy’s eyes. A boat is gently rocking beneath us. The sky is painted in deep hues of carnelian, trailing into purple velvet at the edges of night.
“Oh, thank god,” Jeremy says. He sounds exhausted. He pulls me to him and I can feel his heart beating against me. “You nearly died, Cassy,” he says. “I nearly lost you.”
I can’t remember anything except that day standing by the drowned roadside, and talk about catching worms. “You didn’t,” I whisper to Jeremy, pushing my face into his hair. Then it strikes me that I have no idea where I am or how I got here. “Where are we?” I ask.
“Nowhere,” he says, sitting up, pulling me with him. “Nowhere. Now let’s get out of here.” Behind him, I can make out the tip of a great tarnished cross disappearing into the water. The city. My city. We’re there. And now it’s gone. I’ve come here, I’ve seen it and now I’ve lost it.
Jeremy smiles back at me and I watch the end of the cross sink beneath the waves as he paddles us back away from the city. My stomach shakes and I want to cry. In the rose-colored light, I can’t help but thinking that I had been there, that I had actually been there, that I had seen everything there ever was and it was gone now, a faded memory, with nothing left to look forward to but tomorrow.
The children will move on, though, I think, and I don’t know where the thought comes from. And see places we’ve never dreamed of. And then the sun hits the sea, and the cross sinks away, and it is night time.