Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams

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Fiction

The Metamorphosis of Marie Martin


This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, the first climate-fiction contest from Fix, Grist’s solutions lab. Imagine 2200 asked writers to imagine the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, and the winning stories feature intersectional worlds in which no community is left behind. Read all 12 stories in the collection at grist.org/fix.


When her eyes were at her knees and Mama was teaching her how to swim, she told her that drowning is easy and staying alive is the realest struggle. But she was a pickney then, so the words did go through one ear and fly out the other. They fly back in again when she got pregnant at almost 15 and drop out of high school. Now, they come back, wheeling around in her head like John Crows.

So this is what it feel like fi dead.

She’s a rock, sinking. Part of her know she mustn’t drop asleep.

— Sleep is the sister of Death, Boysie did say.

Swim back to the shore.

She has to go back home. But her body not cooperating at all. It behaving like a hard ears pickney, just like what Mama used to call her.

Something not right. How mi feel so light, like mi weigh likkle and nothing?

Mama used to boast about her: “Yuh see my Bubbles? Don’t watch her size. She can do anything — climb coconut tree, kin pupalick, do splits — even though she fat. She better than seven sons. Heh! Bet oonu never know she was swimming like fish before she could walk.”

She can’t feel her legs. She looks down.

They’re not there. Like the rest of her body.

• • • •

She drew Precious into her arms, ran her hand over her hair with its neat canerows, straight and smooth, unlike the roads in Ackee Town that full of potholes. Once, a taxi man told her that if your vehicle make mistake and drop into one, you would end up in China.

“Precious, stop cry now. I soon come back.” She held her at arm’s length, brushed stray tears away.

“Miss Cunningham said eagle fishing —”

“Illegal.”

“Illegal fishing is wrong, and overfishering —”

“Overfishing.”

“Overfishing is bad ’cause there won’t be any fish left.” Precious stopped, trying to remember. “And the crawls need the fish to keep them clean and healthy.”

“Corals.”

“Yes, Mummy. Mummy, you nuh ’fraid fi go prison?”

“Precious, what ah tell yuh ’bout speaking patwah?”

“But you do it all the time.”

This chile. “Yes, but I know when to speak it. Nothing is wrong with patwah, but I want you to practice speaking standard English because,” she glanced at Sweets as she approached and stood at the entrance to the bedroom, “I want a better life for you. This is 2032, but some people will still judge you by how yuh talk. Don’t make your mouth hold yuh back in life. And yuh auntie and me not going to prison, so stop worry. We not hurting anybody, baby. We trying to survive. Listen, sometimes you have to do things that people say are wrong for a good cause.” She kissed her forehead. “You are my good cause.”

“Come, Bubbles.” Sweets clicked her tongue, patted her speargun. “We haffi go now.” She headed toward the front door.

Precious started bawling again. “Mummy, don’t go. Please.”

“Marley, stop it! Yuh finish yuh homework?”

Precious’s tears slowly dried up like the taps during water lock-offs. Her eyes round like a dinner plate, the way she surprised. “Mummy, you said my name.”

Same time, Mama rushed into the room as if she heard bad news. “What happen to har?” She moved closer to Precious and rested the back of her hand against her neck and forehead. “She never use to behave like dis when you go fishing.”

She stood up, smoothed away the creases her backside made on the bedspread. “I don’t know, Mama, and I haffi leave now.”

“Come, putus.” Mama gently led Precious out of the room.

In the kitchen, Mama took a jar of nutmegs out of a cupboard and put one in Precious’s mouth to soothe her nerves. She screwed up her face, but obeyed Mama when she told her not to spit it out and to sit at the dining room table.

Mama handed her a clean sheet of loose paper and her box of crayons. “Draw somet’ing nice fi yuh Mummy.”

Precious nodded and set to work. Mama pushed out her lips to indicate that they should go outside.

In the front yard, Sweets was sitting on the concrete staircase beside the house.

“God go wid oonu. Remember de offering fi Boysie.”

Sweets shook her head, sighed. “Mama, why yuh must say the same t’ing every time we go fishing? We always do it.”

“He was mi only son. I want him to continue rest in peace.”

“Mummy, wait.” Precious ran toward her, waving the loose sheet of paper like a flag.

“How yuh finish draw so quick? What yuh do wid de nutmeg?” Mama pretended to look stern.

“It on de,” she stopped, remembering, “it’s on the table. I’m okay now, Grandma.” She turned to her. “This is for you, Mummy.”

She took the paper, grinned at the drawing of a silver, blue, and pink fish with her name under it. “Thanks, baby. It’s really pretty.” She handed it back to her. “Ask Grandma for a magnet, so yuh can put it on de fridge.” She squatted to give her a quick hug. “Auntie and me going to bring back nuff parrotfish and snapper, okay?”

“I’m going to stop eating parrotfish.”

“Why? It’s your favorite.”

“Miss Cunningham said not a lot of fish are left.”

“Miss Cunningham is a teacher, not a fisherwoman.”

“She invited a marie blygist to class last week.”

“Marine biologist.”

“Yes, Mummy. The lady said parrotfish can save the beaches and crawls — the corals. She said sand comes from parrotfish doo-doo.” Her expression changed, as if she had the whole world balancing on her 6-year-old shoulders. “Mummy, please don’t catch any more parrotfish. You can help them.”

“Precious, I …” She pinched the bridge of her nose, let her hand fall into her lap. “Behave yuhself and listen to Grandma. We soon come back.”

As she shifted to straighten herself, Precious grabbed her arm and pulled her down to her level again. She whispered in her ear, pivoted like a ballet dancer, and sprinted like Usain Bolt inside the house.

“Bubbles! Bubbles!” Mama’s voice echoed as if from inside a tunnel. “Sweets, move fast and bring de bottle of white rum mek mi rub some on har face. She look like she gwine collapse!”

• • • •

She want to scream, to put down a piece of cow-bawling and roll on the ground, but her new mouth feel like it belong to a stranger. No, Jah. This can’t be real. In the broken glass bottom of a boat that cotch on a damaged coral reef, her shattered reflection make her feel like she going mad.

Mighty God of Daniel, as Mama would say.

Her silver and gray parrotfish reflection stare back at her.

How dis happen to mi? Why it happen to mi? Mi can turn back into miself? How mi going to get back home?

Tears and rage building up inside her like a Category 5 storm, but she have no way to let them out. Every time life kick her down, she kick back as good as she got.

Now, mi can’t even give it one good kick, to rahtid.

The words Precious whispered to her fly back in her ear.

No, she can’t give up. Her body is different now, but she’s still Marie Martin, Melba’s daughter, Sweets’s sister, and Precious’s mother. She’s a hustler. A survivor. Tough and stubborn to break like Jackass Corn. As much as she want to bawl her eyes out, common sense is taking over and telling her she has to survive in this new world. What would Mama say?

— Bubbles, if yuh know what good fi yuh, yuh better think like a fish.

Is nighttime, so moray eels are hunting parrotfish. Instead of being the hunter, she’s now the prey. She need to find somewhere to —

What is this now? Trouble always set like rain.

Ten, 15, likkle more than 20 parrotfish coming toward her. Right off the bat, she know which one is the Don. Living in Ackee Town teach you these things. He’s full-bodied, and look boasy in pink and electric blue. Something jump inside her like it frighten. Guilt seize her. She wish she could tell him sorry. His eyes walk all over her while the others circle her like they investigating a crime scene. Next thing she know, they nudging her. She gear up herself to fight, bite, until she sense they want her to follow them.

Jah, where them taking mi?

All of them moving like one body. She in the middle, somehow managing to keep up. Even though she shooting through the water faster than Alia Atkinson, and feel water leaving her gills to merge with the sea, she not thirsty. The seawater feel smooth like cocoa butter as it slide over her gills. The liquid air in this blue-green world is sweet like ripe Julie mangoes bursting in her mouth, the golden juice running down to her elbow, now a memory.

Her new eyes allow her to see all around her at the same time. They not burning or watering, no matter how long she stare because she don’t need to blink. The seawater is as invisible to her as the air when she walked on land. She and the other parrotfish moving like colorful light over a field of waving seagrass. Around a bend, she almost collide with a bleached coral reef squatting like a tenement yard. The corals stare back at her like the discolored faces of misguided young men and women in her community, who believe that lightening their dark complexion is a ladder out of the pit of poverty.

Two-twos, they reach a healthy reef. She and Sweets never dive in this section. It’s like a brand-new world, full of color and life. A clownfish hide among some staghorn corals when it spot her. Wait! Is a sea turtle dat? Can’t tell when last mi see one. The baby fish peep at her from the reef’s crevices. Some more parrotfish, along with a handful of snappers, watching her.

Dem know mi different? Why dem help mi?

She’s an outsider. Before her change, she was their enemy. A predator.

Something happening to her again.

Is what dis slimy substance on mi body? Yuck!

It’s on the other parrotfish, too. They settling down for the night in the nooks and crannies of the reef.

Ohhh! The slime hide us from predators.

She find a crevice, slip into it, and watch them. Sleep biting her, but she fighting it. She look to her right. The leader’s eye and her own make two.

Is like him read mi mind and know mi don’t plan to stay here.

Quick-quick, she form like she sleeping.

Maybe mi will turn back into miself once mi reach de shore.

First chance she get, she out of here.

• • • •

The sea, so quiet, unlike inside her. Precious’s words tumbling over and over in her head like when she kin pupalick. The sky was a black sheet that the moon hiding behind. Sweets’s mouth moving as she poured libations into the seawater. When she finished her ritual, she lit a spliff and blew perfect Os toward the black sheet above, just like Boysie’s habit before he began fishing for the day or night. He used to say that was how him feel the power of their ancestors guiding him. She always wondered if he smoked that day when he died.

Sweets nudged her foot with hers. “Your time.”

She leaned over the side of the Empress of the Sea and placed a calabash containing trimmings from their hair and nails, along with another calabash filled with white rice and curry goat, on the back of the seawater. Ripple by ripple, the water carried them away.

“Mikayla, promise me somet’ing.”

“Whatever it is, it must be serious. Can’t tell when last mi hear yuh call me by mi Government name.”

“Promise me you’ll look after Precious if anyt’ing happen to me.”

“Stop chat faat. Me an’ Mama not doing dat a’ready?”

“I mean … be her mother. You.”

“What happen to yuh tonight? How yuh sound like yuh spooked?”

“Just promise me an’ done, nuh?” She kissed her teeth.

“All right, all right. Nuh bodda get ignorant pon me. Of course. Yuh never haffi ask.” She outed the spliff between her thumb and forefinger and sucked them. “Yuh ready?” She put on her mask and fins, and took up her speargun.

“Right behind you.” She attached a dive flashlight to the lanyard around her wrist, and turned it on. “Ten minutes?”

“Nine.” Sweets slipped beneath the skin of the seawater like a whisper.

She ignored the needle-prick in her conscience when they reached a no-take zone.

Suppose de wardens catch you and Sweets?

What yuh expect we fi do? Look how much wages we lose sake o’ de sanctuary’s restrictions. How mi must help put food on de table, plus pay Precious’s school fees an’ buy her holo-textbooks if mi nuh do dis?

So what you going to do when no more fish are left?

Sweets’s hand signal distracted her just in time. She squashed the whispers in her head. Then almost forgot to keep holding her breath. A flash of the brightest blue she ever saw. The water can play tricks on your mind when your body doing its best to conserve oxygen. But she wasn’t seeing things. A pretty electric blue and neon-pink parrotfish side-eyeing them like him want to know what their business is around these parts. The speargun suddenly felt heavy in her hand. Her fingers curled around it tighter than usual. She needed the money bad-bad. Sweets gave her the thumbs-up sign. She aimed at the pretty parrotfish. Before she could shoot, it darted away.

Too late, she understood why.

A giant moray eel.

Before she or Sweets could react, it latched onto Sweets’s leg. She started doing the one thing she shouldn’t do.

— Panic kill first before de drowning, Boysie did say when he was teaching them to free dive.

Alarm bells like police sirens in her head. She turned her head just in time to see a goliath grouper charging toward her.

— Sometimes dem work together, Boysie did say. De enemy of mi enemy is mi friend.

Sweets taking in more water.

Nine minutes.

Boysie used to hold out until 11 minutes. But she and Sweets not that good.

She aimed at the grouper.

• • • •

What she did expect? Going back didn’t change a thing. She’s still a parrotfish. The taste of disappointment is bitter in her mouth as if she swallowed cerasee tea.

By now, her family must think she dead. She can’t imagine what they going through, especially Mama. She and Precious took it extremely hard when Boysie died last year. Now, they going to have to deal with the pain of losing her.

Something inside her like a long piece of rope is pulling her toward the reef with the fish. The other end is hauling her heart toward Ackee Town and her family. After dillydallying in her mind, she make a U-turn with a heavy feeling inside. Might as well go back. It not safe to be out here alone.

The bleached coral reef still look an old tenement yard. The last time she saw a forest of beautiful, healthy reefs was when she was 8 years old. Precious isn’t that fortunate. She has to depend on her science holo-textbook and visor to see moving 4D images of coral reefs when they were in their glory.

But stop! Why she so focused on the past? She was always a person to look forward, to plan for whatever was waiting around the corner. Just because she’s a fish now don’t mean that part of her change. She was just sleeping in a healthy reef, which means that there’s hope for this one and others like it. She could help the other parrotfish restore the reefs and beaches. Precious and the children in Ackee Town could get to see a thriving reef for real and play on a beach one day. She couldn’t change back and return to her family, but she could do something for them and the land she left behind that would benefit them now and throughout the coming years.

You have to say goodbye to your old life and accept your new one. You can do that?

I can do anything fi mi family. Mi want good fi dem, so mi nose haffi run.

Your new family waiting for you. Hurry up.

She sense it even before she reach. Not one of them is sleeping. They move as one toward her and form a circle around her. Sound waves sliding off their bodies. She understand them. They wondering where she did go. If she could bawl, she would. She only experienced that kind of care and concern from Mama, Boysie, Sweets, and Precious.

Inside her feel like knots unraveling. Instinct take over and she start to vibrate just like them. She going to tell them everything.

She could almost hear Mama’s cheerful, hoarse laugh.

— Come, mi dear. Mek we lap frock tail. Mi have one story fi gi’ yuh!

• • • •

The air never tasted so sweet. She gulped it, choked, gulped some more. Her eyes burned like when you make mistake and take your hand that have Scotch bonnet pepper juice on it and rub your eye.

She could barely feel her arms as she hauled Sweets toward the Empress of the Sea.

“Sweets. Sweets! Yuh hear mi?”

She coughed. Nodded. Cried out when she tried to climb into the boat.

“After three. One, two, three.” She strained to push Sweets up and over into the boat.

Sweets coughed again, sat up. Pain all over her face as she looked at the wound on her leg.

“Yuh going need stitches. No clinic is open at this time o’ night.”

Sweets rummaged through the first-aid kit. “Mi will ask Mama to sew it up when we reach back.” Her hands trembled as she cleaned the cut.

“De timing bad, but mi soon come back.”

Sweets’s head snapped up. “Where yuh going?”

“To get de spearguns.”

“Leff dem. It nuh worth it.”

“How we going manage without them?”

“Mi a beg yuh. Nuh go back down there. Mek we go home.”

“Yuh know how much money fi one speargun, not to mention two?”

Sweets coughed, spat.

“Mi nah tek long. Three minutes max.”

She slipped beneath the rippling seawater before Sweets could form another word.

Two minutes.

The spearguns were right where she and Sweets dropped them.

Her flashlight flickered.

No no no!

She knocked it two times. The light jerked on, off, on …

She dived quick-quick, grabbed the spearguns.

… off.

A cramp shoot up her right leg like a lightning bolt.

She forgot to breathe, dropped the flashlight and the spearguns. Pain forced her mouth open.

Four minutes.

She should’ve listened to Sweets. Her tired muscles felt like a rubber band that stretch out till it slack. She fighting the water and reaching nowhere fast. Only losing air like a tire with a leak.

In her ears, her heart was a slow drum beat from far away.

She’s a rock, sinking.

Her body jerked once, twice.

She landed on something rough. Dimly, she realized it was a dying coral reef.

So this is what it feel like fi dead.

Her body sank into the bed of corals.

Before everything went black, her last memory was of Precious grabbing her arm and whispering in her ear, “You’re not coming back, Mummy, but you’re not going to die.”

• • • •

What is time now? It fly like a hummingbird. She learn to mark it by the shape of the moon. Thirteen moons show their round faces since the last night she walked on two legs. The feeling of missing her human body is a memory. Everything from that time is a dream now.

The little girl in a blue dress with pink flowers is running barefoot to the beach’s hairline. What she name again? Precious. She used to miss her. That ache is lost in a distant memory. She get taller, but she still skinny like bamboo. Well, that not changing. She get her size from her father. She holding a sheet of paper close to her chest. Her eyes searching the water. Six moons she been doing the same thing.

A fat woman with hair like thin ropes the color of the rainbow is heading towards the little gi— Precious. Try remember her name. It won’t be long before she’s just another little girl on a beach. The woman … she name … Sweets. She say something to Precious that make her face light up a bit, like when a cloud can’t hide the sun’s smile.

Some people are arriving in twos, threes, fours. Not the ones she have to be careful of. The ones who try to catch her and her family. No, these people, some with dark faces, others paler, come to swim or eat or lie down on the beach, now that there are beaches on the island again and seafood restaurants are back in business. She don’t spot the ones who came a whole heap of times to examine and test the sand on this beach. They were excited can’t done, as if it was the first time they were seeing sand. Sand that came from her and her family. Special sand that she helped to create.

An older woman is coming toward Precious and Sweets. Mama. Her hair is more salt than pepper. Her body look like it’s holding up her dress. That face used to know belly-laughing and smiles. It’s strange to see her here today. The last time she step foot here was when the sand returned, six moons ago.

Movement beside her. She never have to look to see that it’s the electric-blue and neon-pink parrotfish. He started joining her whenever she came to check if Precious, Sweets, and Mama on the beach. She wonder if he remember them. She wonder how long it took him to forget that he was Boysie.

Is the sand did make her realize he was her brother. The same sand on the beach that caused those strangers to get excited. Her and Boysie’s doo-doo is different. Boysie smart, so she feel he figured it out, too.

Precious step into the seawater with purpose, her eyes seeking something. Finally, she bend down and let a gentle wave carry the paper away. Six moons she been doing the same thing. Each time, her face would screw up and water would spill from her eyes like rain. Same thing happen again. She turn and run to Sweets, who kneel down on the sand and hug her. Mama trying to stand up strong, but she look like she going to keel over any minute.

She wish she could tell them that the sea gives more than she takes. That what was lost is found. That in her previous life, she took more than she gave, but everything is balanced now because she gave the biggest gift of her entire existence, past and present. She, Boysie, and their offspring helped to restore this beach, and others on the island, better than it was before. She wish she could tell them that what was given up as dead is reborn. She wish she could show them the coral reefs, stronger than before, like underwater rainforests filled with countless fish and other sea creatures. She wish she could say, “All is not lost. Dat sand oonu standing on is hope. It will bear oonu up today, tomorrow, and for the rest of oonu lives.”

The special sand is the greatest gift she, Boysie, and their offspring can offer them from their bodies. When her and his time come, they will leave behind a strong and lasting legacy. This island and others in the Caribbean can finally exhale in relief.

More people show up, spreading over the beach like ants. She can’t see Precious, Sweets, and Mama anymore. By the next ripe moon, she might forget the blood-tie she once shared with them and think of them as strangers she recognized. Even Boysie would become just a pretty parrotfish to her one day.

As if he read her mind, he nudge her to make her know is time to leave. For a moment, as she look at him, Boysie’s shoulder-length dreadlocks and a smile like pearls on his long, dark face flash behind her eyes. Somehow, she know she would never see it again after today. But it’s okay. They’re together again, even when they won’t remember who they were to each other in a yesterday life.

The flash behind her eyes fading like when the evening sun slowly dipping into the sea. But not before Boysie grin and say in his husky voice, “Come, Bubbles. Mek we go home now.”

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Nadine Tomlinson

Nadine-Tomlinson-Writer-Speculative-Storyteller

Nadine Tomlinson is a Jamaican writer and speculative storyteller. Her short fiction and poetry explore themes that include the natural environment, and African and contemporary folklore in Jamaican culture. Her writings are published in adda, The Gold Anthology, and elsewhere.