Moonlight drenches the lacuna of each ripple her paddle feeds to the salty mouth of the Cotton Bayou.
Eyes bloodshot, she searches the dense stands of pine trees on the inky shoreline dilating before her. Saw palmettos quaver in sugar-white sand on the desolate island’s cusp. Wading out of her bow wave, a woodstork abandons the agile twists of a baby bluegill beneath shoaling waves.
The percussive lacerations of sand scraping a boat’s keel: the triage nurse, in camouflage scrubs, has been waiting for this. She pushes her body lithely through a swaying colony of golden sea oats, “La Femme X?” the words leave her sun-chapped lips in an exhale.
“Yes. Guardian?” X draws herself out of the cockpit of her ruby-colored kayak with trembling limbs.
“Yes,” the nurse answers, “I’m Guardian.”
The ocean soaks X’s jeans, pulls at the frayed hem of her black hoodie.
They lift the boat into a pre-dug rectangle and slide a waiting piece of plyboard over the hole. Guardian drops to her knees and pushes a layer of sand over the surface of the flimsy wood.
The thrum of a helicopter fades into the sky as soft rain tangles through the canopy of pines above them.
X’s heartbeat darts, reverberating in her dry throat as Guardian begins to sprint. X follows this soundless command as the acidic tang of her dinner, a grapefruit, pushes up into her mouth. She swallows it down. Water sloshes in her pink All Stars.
The path systemically veins the island to its main artery: the concrete atrium of a Cold War bunker.
Helicopter fading off, they slow to where the path delivers them down mossy slate steps to the fluorescence of Gilchrist Island’s underground admitting room.
Clipboard resting on the wet knee of her drying pant leg, the grain of the intake form brays against her fingertips.
Saltwater drips from her matted auburn hair as she crosses the polished concrete floor, pushes the form over the stainless steel counter to Guardian.
“No,” the nurse pushes the form back with her sunburnt arm, skin flaking. “Your name should match the alias you had to use to book online.”
The whirl of the bunker’s ventilation system clicks. Guardian puts X’s form through a shredder and hands her a new one.
X sits again and moves her ballpoint pen over the form slowly, deliberately:
Name: La Femme X
Date of birth: 02/01/1994
Date and time of arrival: 8.31.2022, 10:02 p.m.
Gestational week: ≈4 / Start date of last menstrual cycle: ≈7.20.2022
Previous surgeries: wisdom teeth pulled
Prior hospitalizations: none
Known medical conditions: none
How did you hear about us?
☒ Dark web
☐ Word of mouth
☐ Other, please explain: ____________________
How did you arrive?
☒ Boat, make and model: Pelican Bandit 100 NXT 100
☐ Jet ski
☐ Other, please explain: _____________________
On a scale of 1 (difficultly) - 10 (easily) how easily did you find Guardian? 10
This time when she passes the form back the nurse opens the waiting room door, and X steps inside a shadowy aquamarine hallway. A muffled sob palpates out from under a door down the long hall. X tilts her head back to the concrete ceiling. A series of lights on an extension cord, the same used to illuminate a deep cave, pours a glassine orange glow over her.
“I’m ready,” she whispers; Guardian holds a steel door open.
There are two postoperative realms X succinctly inhabits. A chemical mist, her consciousness settles over a place where her past, whiplike, lashes evenly against her future. In the vibrations of this pain, the neutral molecules of her soul split into charged ions.
An IV plunging into the center of her left arm, morphine drops blossom into the lilac streams of her veins. The hum of the fluorescent lights above fades into a lullaby; their rays transmute to moonbeams.
A deep stillness takes over the earth at dawn, and it is in this peace that X wakes on a sinking cot. Surrounding her are the sleeping bodies of other women, girls—ten—fifteen—she can’t tell in the milky, aborning light of the 5 a.m. A gritty voltage crackles inside the marrow of her bones, propelling her up onto her elbows.
13A-13-7—–two voices flutter around the numbers of Alabama statutes,
laws—13A-6-1—she smells the sea salt in her hair, the coppery scent of her own blood. Her bladder, overfull, aches. Knees giving out beneath her as she tries to stand, X falls back to her cot. The voices grow closer as two women in the same white gowns as hers approach. Except one is not a woman. She’s a teenager—thirteen? But the girl’s bleached out look of worry makes discerning a thing like age almost impossible.
The older woman feels X’s trembling and lifts a blanket to wrap around her. X’s starched hospital gown sparks static electricity that cracks between the threadbare fabric and the cotton blanket. The teenager watches the voltaic discharge, like the metallic snaps off a sparkler, flicker off X’s shoulders. X tells them she needs a bathroom. The woman briskly drops the blanket, shakes out her hands and gestures for X to follow.
The only plumbing on the island belongs to the bunker, and an outhouse is the only option once the clinic closes: the teenager explains this to X as the two lead her down a sandy path.
Buoyant on the horizon, the sun churns each leaf over to its shimmering shadow beneath their bare feet. The bellied out calls of magnolia warblers trace fluidly around what they want and what they are worthy of.
When X steps from the slatted floor of the outhouse, the two are still here, waiting in tree-filtered sunshine.
“I’m called Rainbow here,” the younger one says, shyly averting her eyes from a spot of blood on the hip of X’s gown.
“I’m Snow,” the older one says, tying her silky black hair up into a knot that hangs loosely behind her knotty spine.
“La Femme X,” the name tumbles out, raw and unready.
A ringlet of the path back to basecamp twists out in a tight curl toward a stretch of intertidal marsh.
Rainbow looks back at X, watching her freckles smattered face blanch in the earthen glare of the sun, “Don’t worry,” she says in an airy whisper, an unhinged look in her small hazel eyes, “we’ve been here all summer. We know what we’re doing.”
All summer—the words hit X in an overtaking whoosh; her heart takes the blow.
Rainbow looks into a swirl of confusion turning inside X’s emerald glinted irises, their small light-soaked pupils.
“She doesn’t know,” Rainbow quips to Snow.
Snow turns back and freezes in the drifting spin of her lost focus.
“You didn’t know about the ones that stay . . . our Lord of the Flies island out here,” Rainbow states.
“Except we’ve been successful at governing ourselves,” Snow announces, slowing as the path gives way to an enclave.
“Queens of the Cotton Bayou,” Rainbow declares with a nod. “That’s us.”
A wall of sea oats hiding her from the ebbing ocean beyond, Snow skips across the powdery sand. Rainbow flays her arm out, gesturing for X to hurry.
In an enclave guarded by mangroves, a claw foot bathtub has been dug into the beach, propped up on cinder blocks inside this deep recession. The tub has caught the high tide and now that it has receded, left the porcelain tub full in its wake.
“Guardian brought it over on her skipper—should be warm by now,” Snow plucks a stipe of seaweed out of the water.
“You’re new,” Rainbow tells her, “you first,” pulling out a sea sponge and a gallon of shampoo from an oversized mailbox chained to an anchor which has given way to the turquoise patina of unstable corrosion.
Rainbow heaps a startling myriad of pastel shells just past the frayed, cresting edge of the morning’s tide, explaining how they can use them to tile a floor around the tub.
X’s fever-spiked body slides back against the tub’s cold porcelain; she fills her lungs with air. Lukewarm salt water pours in over her face as she presses her eyes shut to dampen the cloudless Kodachrome of the sky in a simmering blackout of its ultraviolet rays. In this subaqueous state, she can hear Snow’s voice: firm like the veneer of scratched-up mahogany, deeply roughed up by imperfection but still polished.
When X brings her head up, she hears Snow singing behind a rippling of a line of drying sheets strung between two windmill palm trees, her body obscured by the clean plumes of their cotton. Her lyrics pin down how she’s worked hard all her life without help from her friends.
When Snow belts out a prayer for a Mercedes-Benz and a color TV, X realizes it’s a Janis Joplin song she’s singing. Snow’s opacity reminds X of a story her mother told her, how when she’d been a little girl herself in Paris, she’d watched Petula Clark in black and white on television.
This was before her mother’s family moved to Bon Secour, Alabama in 1961, before America unearthed the roots that had grounded the Bellefleur family. She’d sat entranced by Petula Clark singing “Romeo,” because the producers had hung a large rotating screen around the star’s stomach, like a giant lampshade descended from the television studio’s ceiling. And they’d made Petula sing inside it. On the rotund screen, the clothes of French royalty were printed. When a dress lined up with Petula’s neck, she was a paper doll cutout of Marie Antoinette. A corset
cinched her waist. A billowy skirt flooded out to disguise her condition.
The still slightly swollen convex curve of Snow’s belly shows through the sunlit fabric. Who the woman is and who she is becoming twist together in a rippling current of time to obscure her from who she could be if she weren’t hidden here. X takes in this quiet pulse of existence snapping out in the space between them. She thinks of how her mother told her Petula had defied the shade they’d hung over her, daring the powers that be to change her voice, to stamp out the culling burn of the fire inside her.
“Elle et son enfant à naître qu’ils l’aient forcée à cacher, ils ont chanté avec
enthousiasme: un océan de flammes, brûlant de colère, de vengeance. Vous pouviez entendre ça.”
[“With her unborn child that they’d forced her to hide, she sang out a sea of flames, searing with anger, with revenge. You could hear this,”] her mother had said, rocking on their front porch swing, between sips on a Marlboro.
Taking her small hands inside hers, her mother had said, “Ils essaieront toujours de vous cacher: peu importe ce que vous êtes, ce que vous faites, ce que vous dites. Dis le quand même. Vivez quand même.”
[“They’ll always try to hide you: no matter what you are, what you do, what you say. Say it anyway. Live it anyway.”]
[“Live what?”] she’d asked, a bluntly perplexed expression growing across the cherubic shape of her seven-year-old face.
[“Your truth,”] her mother had instructed.
In the seaweed spiked tub, sand gritting against its bottom, X searches around for the stopper, pulls its chain. Water circles the drain in a micro-tornado, flows out past the cinder block stilts and absorbs into the dark sand below. She swallows as the sun begins to dry her tanning skin; X grips onto what she has, what is hers alone and throws it up into the air. Her voice joins Snow’s and Rainbow’s now, fused in an impenetrable vine that coils across the space between them and bridges the temporal trenches in the hollows of their shared reality. The tendrils of their voices join sharply, hitting barbed notes like thorns ready to draw blood, lifting toward the cerulean sky and blooming with life.
I read a 1921 Camp Fire Girl’s guide—influencing how the women of “2022” are written as living off the land with toughened resiliency. While I personally have not made the choice they do—I was able to create a synesthesia of this experience through speculative realism grounded in our political climate.
Jordan Faber is a writer based out of Chicago. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her fiction has most recently appeared in: Parhelion, Chaleur Magazine, K’in, Prometheus Dreaming, NUNUM, The Esthetic Apostle, FIVE:2:ONE’s #thesideshow, Deluge [Radioactive Moat Press], Bull & Cross, Dream Pop Journal, Lunch Ticket, and TIMBER. Jordan received an MFA from Northwestern University.