Floating Rugs

WRITTEN BY
Mohale Mashigo

ILLUSTRATED BY
Cornelia Li

Zuko grew up on land but I belong in the ocean. I fall asleep surrounded by it; I wake up to it and spend my time picking thorns out of it. We moved here when I was only two years old. He was twenty-two when I was born and twenty-four when our parents died. “You don’t fear the water enough, Ella.” He’s right but that didn’t mean that I don’t have a healthy respect for the place I call home.

 

Journalist Man was allowed access because he swore he would keep the where of our home secret. Instead of a name, he opted for “somewhere after Hermanus and before the Eastern Cape.” I saw him write that in his notepad, when he first arrived. Neighbours and elders alike were concerned – the memory of the Swedish man was still too fresh. We didn’t want to hide but it was necessary if we were going to protect our way of life. Journalist Man called it “an in-between that could very well save our future.” His handwriting was messy and his laptop and camera were shiny new. I tried to avoid him for as long as I could.

 

Journalist Man was surprised by my height. Great. His eyes are now stuck on my flat feet.  Zuko said I had to show him around and answer whatever questions he had. I was already in trouble for going on an NRM (Net Removal Mission) by myself. When Zuko found out that I had been deleting Journalist Guy’s emails, it was over for me. The NRM really wasn’t my fault; Shireen’s ear infection meant she couldn’t do it. She was sleeping in the main station, on land, until the infection cleared. Whale season meant the radar machines were constantly sending alerts. I knew what the problem was almost immediately when I looked at the whale radar screen in the bottom right hand corner. It was a whale caught in ghost net and there was no saying how long it had been struggling for. The rest of the pod was moving but it was moving sluggishly behind. Shireen and Zuko had built the software that made it possible to observe marine life without being invasive – kind of like Underwater Big Brother. It also made the conservation work safer for us. There was always somebody in Main Station making sure we were safe. That’s what made my solo NRM so awful in my brother’s eyes, despite the fact that I was a great swimmer and whales were generally laid back. Bigger sea mammals seem to love my bedroom window, I sometimes fall asleep to one watching me.

Zuko was waiting in, what we jokingly called, Ugly Cave when I emerged from water with a long net and my scuba gear behind me. Nobody really used Ugly Cave, it never would have made it onto any tourism ‘must see’ lists. It was small and quite frankly looked like it was covered in stone acne. I like to hide out there  “Ella, this is not cute.” I didn’t answer so he continued, “we never go out there by ourselves. You know the rules.” That evening he came into my room while I was watching a whale that kept swimming up to the window. I was convinced it was the one I helped free from Ghost Net a few hours earlier. Zuko told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had to co-operate with Journalist Man. Before he walked out of my room, he hinted at knowing about the emails I had been deleting from his inbox. “Please don’t go through my emails. It gets confusing when I don’t know what I have or haven’t read.” I nodded and covered my face with the duvet to hide my embarrassment. I deleted the emails because I didn’t want someone writing about us like we were some ‘lost conservation tribe.’ We are so much more than that.

 

 

There are many underwater attractions around the world: hotels, cabins, underwater aquariums, abandoned ship tours etc. But our neighbourhood is different because it wasn’t supposed to be. An underwater community is an anomaly but our conservation work makes us even more unique.

The Elders really think having a stranger from National Geographic is a good idea. ‘Ella, this could help people understand. We could make a huge difference.’ I didn’t want to be disrespectful so I left the conference room in the main building and made my way to the beach, where Journalist Man was waiting.

“You’re shorter than I thought you would be,” Journalist Man said. It was a joke, I didn’t laugh. He tried again,” your brother Zuko’s exact words were ‘Ella is a better swimmer than those wrinkled by time and water.’ Poetic”

‘Did you bring your swimming stuff?’ I asked.

“Uhh. Yes, I did. My name is James, by the way.”

“I told the elders I’m against you being here. This is some kind of punishment.’

James gave half a smile. ‘I understand. Hopefully you’ll come to trust me.’ We both knew that was highly unlikely.

Strangers ended our old way of life with a few popular words. Words that were a lie and accusation: poaching. “Poaching plunders marine resources,” was what the people in suits kept repeating. The lies were followed by police and soon after came the Swedish Man and his big dreams. He brought bulldozers in the name of tourism. Abandoned beachfront houses were already up to their shins in water and private security was patrolling day and night to “keep the site safe.” ‘Safety’ meant unemployment and hunger for those who were never a threat. Swedish Man, in the meantime, had allowed a few commercial fishers to work nearby “for a price” until his underwater resort was a reality. Most of the unemployed adults accepted construction jobs because it meant they were back in the water and food was not a distant memory for their children.

 

“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” He was winded from the swim. We sat on the stoep above our house, so he could rest. My eight-year-old neighbour, Zandi, swam the same 500 metres half asleep most mornings and here James was shaking and out of breathe. “How does it feel to live under water?”

“I don’t know, James. This is the only life I know.”

“Ha that was a silly question. What do you understand about this way of life?”

It’s a story our elders tell us from when we were young enough to understand. It’s about greed, corruption, tourism and righting wrong. Poaching was just an excuse for powerful people who wanted to keep us out of the water and hopefully drive us away from our homes. The government was cracking down on poaching. Rhino poachers were being jailed, if they were found alive. Perlemoen poachers chose death by water, rather than going to jail.

A lot of The Elders worked on the underwater resort project. In the evenings they would dive and catch fish for their families because they weren’t making enough money. The beachfront homeowners had given up on salvaging their fancy houses – there’s nothing you can do if the ocean claims your land.

 

“What do you think happened to the developer?”

Some say it was sharks – got him while he was admiring the cabins covered in kelp, others say he lost a fortune building the resort. I like the story abut his wife stealing from him and leaving him penniless. James found this funny. “So people just moved in?” He had finally caught his breath. He knew the answer – adults pretend they are not smart when they want you to like them. I didn’t answer him, instead I pointed out all the buoys in the water. “When you see them in twos like that, it means you are approaching someone’s home. Some people come out here on boats, so it’s like road markers.’”

My land living schoolmates ask how we can tell each other’s homes apart. When I was younger, I used to tell them that we rode dolphins that had underwater GPS guiding them. Not only do the buoys have house numbers on them but each stoep is painted a different colour. It’s actually really pretty. For my tenth birthday, Zuko took an aerial photo of our neighbourhood and framed it for me. From above it looks like rugs floating in the water but if you look closer, you’ll see the details. Zandi lives at number 20 and their stoep is painted yellow with white railing around it. You can sort of make out the staircase that leads to their door.

 

James waited for me to scan my fingerprint and iris. He gasped and said something about living between both worlds. I ignored the comment and hurriedly picked up clothes that Zuko had left lying around the lounge. James was quiet from what I assumed was shock and sympathy because I had to live with a slob. When I returned from dumping my brother’s clothes and damp towel on his bed, I realised why James was so quiet. The dark blue ripples, from outside, were reflecting back on his face. “I will never get used to this. You live in the ocean,” he said quietly to himself. The family of whales was showing off for him, it looked like a show when some of them kept disappearing and reappearing in front of the window.

Over a cup of tea, I explained the conservation part of our lives. Every day there are diving teams that are collecting plastic, ghost nets and pollution from the water. We dismantle the ghost nets and collect the metal from that to sell off or to use for the upkeep of our cabins. James cut me off, “why would you want to keep this place a secret?” I didn’t have to answer; the answer would soon show itself to him.

 

The homes were already built but it took a while for my people to move into them. It’s not as simple as I’m making it out but it was certain curiosities that lead us to the water. Perhaps it was that the sea had stopped giving to them or that they had seen how much was taken from it but they decided to stay and fix what was wrong. Like a visiting family member, we kept going back until the underwater cabins became our homes. You stay away from a place too long and you begin to see it’s ugly. Land living is ugly, it’s too steady and it’s arrogant. I don’t remember it but collective memory tells me that it was wilfully ignorant. The Elders think that sharing our knowledge and experiences could possibly slow down the decay of oceans. Shireen and Zuko share what they know online and sometimes they leave and give talks to conservationists at conferences and universities all around the world. Surely that’s enough? Before we lived underwater, there were many who had the same ideas as us. Before the snow far away melted and made beach living a disaster, there were warnings. James gets it now; I can see it in his eyes. Those who read his work won’t though. They will want to turn this into a destination where they get drunk in the ruins of beach front houses and take selfies ‘with the tribe.’

There are many terrible things in the ocean that shouldn’t be consumed. It would be a shame if something wound up in James’ next cup of tea. Maybe I can still convince him not to publish his article. Enough has been said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mohale Mashigo (also known by her stage name "Black Porcelain") is a South African award-winning singer-songwriter, novelist, and former radio presenter. Her debut novel The Yearning won the 2016 University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Debut Writing and has been longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2018.