The sea is rising faster than the walls.
The young scientist read the report’s summary to the island council without hesitation, though tears gathered in his eyes, and his voice broke on the final paragraph.
All I wanted to do was wrap my robes around him and whisper reassurances.
I did not. As Elder Priestess, I represented Cymopoleia, Daughter of Poseidon, and must comport myself with dignity and grace. In that moment, though, I fervently wished I could express Her anger at the graybeards behind him.
Cowards, I thought. What took you so long?
Anyone who lived on the coast already suspected the truth. On an island small enough to cross in a week, you’d be hard pressed to find someone without personal experience of the sea change.
For each of the last five hurricane seasons, I’d watched our favorite beaches shrink or disappear completely. Mangrove forests sought by lovers had become inaccessible as the ocean turned paths into streams, then bogs. Brightly plumed shorebirds had flocked to town after crabs invaded their traditional nesting sites, eager to break open eggs full of rich yolk.
Even the monks who dwelt in meditation huts along the great swamp had laid siege to the temple. It was difficult to pursue inner peace, they explained, when brackish water seeped through the floorboards at high tide. They intended to live at my temple, their robes stinking of mold and rot, until the Goddess saw fit to intervene.
Thus petitioned, I’d fasted and thrown myself into the five secret prayer dances, listening for wisdom, for guidance. I’d given my entire life to the Goddess, turned aside potential husbands to better serve my patron, but my efforts yielded only silence.
So I buried my doubts and filled my days with confidence befitting my station. My nights, however, were plagued by dread and uncertainty. Should I have offered up more sacrifices? Spent every waking hour praising Cymopoleia?
The full council reviewed the academy’s report. When they publicly supported the findings, I found an odd solace in having my suspicions confirmed.
The council ordered the engineers to make the flood walls wider and higher.
Within two months, the construction scaffolding surpassed even the tallest date palms. But it wasn’t enough. We merely delay the inevitable, the engineers reported.
The council considered this and voted to leave the island. Finally, I thought. Who can fight the sea? She was your lover, and while you dove deep into her bosom or danced across her skin with sails unfurled, your hair whipping in the salt spray, ultimately, she carried you into the deep, cold depths, leaving behind only your kin and the stories they told over the night fires.
The shipwrights built twelve vessels, cannibalizing homes, schools, workshops, even the temple, scavenging precious lumber and even more valuable iron. Almost every able-bodied man, woman, and child worked from dawn until late evening, directed by carpenters, weavers, and smiths. Poets and musicians raised their voices above the construction din, belting out working songs, ancient couplets, and ribald insults to distract the workers from their fatigue and fear.
The elderly took themselves to elevated platforms, where they chanted and pulled the diamond-hitch knots of prayer strings with gnarled hands, releasing blessings.
I sent my virgins and attendants to the shipyards. For my part, I moved with light steps among the crews, stopping whenever someone needed to vent their anger or grief or simply weep. I tried to accept it all. Prayed the Goddess would give me strength to bear my people’s sorrow.
I forced myself walk the shipyards until my feet stumbled and my head swam with sleeplessness.
I knew we couldn’t save everyone. Or everything. It was a useless wish, one unworthy of my station. While the ships took shape, the council asked the people: what should we bring to our new home? In response, they offered music, stories, recipes, dances, flowers, birds, and poetry. At the same time, the scientists gathered practical wisdom: the forging of knives, the making of paper and ink, and the curing of illness.
The wisest teachers drank sacred meditation tea that brought intense focus and banished sleep. With bright eyes, they disgorged a lifetime of memories to the scribes, who laughed as they recorded secrets they thought long forgotten. The scribes distributed those scrolls among the ships, sealing the fragile vellum in clay tubes that became part of the ballast.
As the first dark clouds covered the horizon, we finished the last ship and passenger lottery. But there were simply too many. I did what I could to balance skills and family ties.
And knew I failed.
When the storm clouds closed in, we gathered the last fresh meat and fruit for a final feast in the largest public square. Everything else was packed for the journey.
Between cups of sour palm wine, I gifted each captain a lantern. These ancient and clever devices had guided our forebears here when mountains vomited fire and choking ash covered the skies of our ancestral home.
The lights would guide them again.
Then I gave the captains their charge.
Sail in all directions, I said. Look for the whale hunters. Offer praise and songs and honeycomb. They will lead you to other ports, someplace to call home.
Our island may drown, I whispered to them, but our people will live.
The next morning brought a storm surge that breached the walls. As the tide lifted the ships from their cradles, I stood with the remaining people and the few animals we’d allowed ourselves. When the last ship safely reached open water, I raised my hand in final blessing to the young priestess who now wore my robes of office.
It was a small fleet to carry our future, but it was better outfitted than the one that had brought us here all those generations ago.
My grateful tears mingled with the rain. Cymopoleia had heard our prayers and given us another chance.
We would not waste it.
This story previously appeared in Sudden Fictions podcast, September 2023.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Karl Dandenell is a graduate of Viable Paradise and a Full Member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association. He and his family, plus their cat overlords, live on an island near San Francisco famous for its Victorian architecture and low speed limits. Follow his occasional posts and read more of his fiction at www.firewombats.com.