Repatriation

WRITTEN BY
Nalo Hopkinson

ILLUSTRATED BY
Carolina Rodriguez-Fuenmay

Incredulous, I looked up at the vast white steel bulk of the ship that was docked in the harbour. “A cruise, Jerry?” I said. “You really taking me on a cruise for my birthday?”

“Yes, Carlton. Stop fretting, nuh man? You going to like this one. I promise.”

My husband had lost his goddamned mind. We both grew up as boys watching the cruise ships dock at our island, stinking up the port with the smell of tarry bunker fuel, disgorging tourists from foreign who would party for a few hours before jumping back on their travelling hotels for the next port of call. We would stare at them, our fingers clenched in the diamond-shaped holes of the chain link fencing that prevented us locals from accessing our own port unless we were working for the cruise line and could show papers to prove it. Grew up witnessing the fierce competition for much-needed tourist dollars that encrusted the port: hundreds of stalls selling the same tired tat, cheap plastic dolls and brightly-coloured clothing mass-produced in factories a-foreign and stamped with our country’s name; the bars inside the protected cruise ship zone where the drinks had cutesy names and DJ’s put on their best American accents to spin the same twelve pop songs that had had any reference to race or class edited out. Play that funky music, bleep bleep. So why the rass he thought I would want to join the Empire side of the Force for my 40th birthday? Become one of those heedless, spendy foreigners who worked hard all year and just wanted a week of vacation with everything done for them? Who thought they were seeing the “real” Caribbean from their sheltered enclaves? Who kept parroting on about how beautiful the weather was, not seeing the pollution choking the harbour and the poverty and globalisation choking the islands they visited?

I couldn’t even hate them. They were just people, making what choices they could in the belly of the same old shitstem beast that’s devouring our planet. Instead, I hated what they represented. Just because we were living a-foreign now didn’t mean we were like them. We’d had to move to America because rising water levels and global warming were destroying our region, stealing health and hope and life. Didn’t mean we had to parade around like…

Hang on. The people in the line all around us, waiting to go through the Florida Customs checkpoint to walk onto the ship. Their skins; black and brown like ours. Their voices; the same accent as ours. Their faces; alive with excitement, joy.

I tapped Jerry on the shoulder. “Wait. Where exactly we going?”

He smiled his secret smile. “You’ll see. It’s a surprise.”

I hated surprises. He’d been making me more grumpy with every passing week leading up to this birthday. Filling suitcase after suitcase with things he said we would need for this mysterious trip. Grabbing the mail from the mailbox before I could see it.

We were getting close to the front of the checkpoint, a bank of tall desks behind which people in uniforms looked down on the crowd, frowned at our papers, peered at our faces, asked intrusive questions, stamped our passports. The usual apprehension that came with crossing official American borders as a Black, gay man was making a knot in my belly. I fumbled in my wallet for my passport. “My ticket! Where’s my ticket?”

Jerry patted my arm. “I have it, lover.”

“But we each have to hold our own tickets and identification! That’s how it always is!”

“Relax, nuh man?” Over my protests, he marched right up to the white-looking woman behind the desk, put both our tickets down on the desk in front of her, indicated me with his thumb, and said, “His 40th birthday present. I trying to keep it secret as long as I can.”

She favoured him with a generically stern gaze and reached an upturned palm to me, beckoning impatiently. “Come on. Your passport.”

I handed it to her, made my smile friendly. She looked us both up and down, stared at our passport pictures, shone her little blue flashlight onto our tickets. I tried to see what destination was written on them, but Jerry leaned a little closer towards her, blocking my view. She handed Jerry our documents and waved us past to a row of xray machines.

I put my suitcase onto the conveyor belt. I took off my shoes and belt and put them there, too. I wondered, not for the first time, how many old Jewish people had PTSD flashbacks over that particular ritual. All around us, our fellow travellers were laughing and joking. I saw more than one large cardboard box bursting at the seams go through the scanner, held together by rolls and rolls of tape. You know when you live a-foreign, you haffe bring back plenty goods for the people back home when you going to visit. “Jerry? Where are all those suitcases you been filling up for the past month?”

He pecked my cheek. “Waiting for us in the hold. I sent them on ahead a few days ago.”

Once we’d both made it through the scanner and facial recognition, I relaxed a bit. Before we moved on, I kissed him back. “I’m dying of curiosity,” I said.

“Soon.”

We and the other passengers bustled up a covered, switchbacked walkway, higher and higher, pulling/carrying/dragging our luggage with us. Pretty soon, I was breathing hard, thankful my suitcase was a hoverdeck that glided along behind me, keeping pace like a loyal dog. “This an exercise vacation?” I joked.

“You know me too love seeing you sweat.”

The climb seemed endless, but it was probably only ten minutes later that we were on a long steel gangway beside the floating mountain that was the cruise ship. Up close, I could see its hull wasn’t as pristine as it had first appeared. There were patches of rust here and there. Women and men in black slacks and short-sleeved white shirts greeted us and herded us along. “Welcome, welcome. Glad you’re taking this beautiful trip with us.” Seemed they all had our accent. I bristled at the benign re-enactment of centuries of Black servitude, shamefaced at how comfortable I found it to be on its receiving end. As much to identify myself as a countryman as for the pleasure of it, I let myself relax into the familiar speech rhythms and manners of home as I returned the servers’ greetings: “How do, Ma’am? Me? I deh-deh, you know how it is.”

They checked our tickets, directed people to berths via elevators and stairs fore and aft, port and starboard. Now Jerry and I were navigating a narrow corridor flanked by numbered doors of individual berths. Looked like the corridor used to be panelled. Now it was exposed steel piping, painted the same flaking white as the ship’s hull. Jerry saw me frowning at it. He said, “So, there’s this stuff called biorock.”

“Sounds like a tween band from the Children’s Television Network. Skin-teeth grins, watered down street dance. Bad rap about the ABC’s and not judging people by their looks.”

“Wow. I can see you going to be big fun on this trip.”

I was being an idiot. “Sorry, sorry.”

The uniforms were different in this part of the ship. Now, every few metres we were greeted by a smiling brown person in black slacks and a Hawaiian-style shirt emblazoned with hula girls, coconut trees, and  the name of the cruise line. I muttered to Jerry, “I just feel like I’m on a seagoing plantation.”

“I know. It grinds my gears, too. I keep reminding myself that these people are employees, not slaves.”

“A seagoing tourist resort, then.”

“And we are in the 21st Century, after all.” He sighed. “At least they don’t whip the help any more.”

“So why you bring us on this nightmare cruise, then?”

“I had a good reason. Soon tell you.”

We’d reached our berth. The door scanned our faces, bonged a big red X on its screen facing Jerry, with an image of a dancing top hat. Jerry sucked his teeth impatiently. “To rass. They still can’t make them smart enough to recognize someone wearing a hat?” He took off his baseball cap. The door rewarded him with a big green checkmark, tinnily chimed the notes of a soca tune, and clicked open for us. Matilda, you take me money and gone with a bleep man.

Our room was compact, clean, if the white sheets on the bed were a bit thin. We even had a sliding glass door facing the ocean, and a little Juliet balcony we could step out onto. We started unpacking.

The ship’s horn sounded from outside, loud and deep as a kraken’s call. The ship began slowly pulling out of port. Excited despite myself, I grinned at Jerry. I held my hand out to him. “Come for a walk on the main deck with me?”

 

Blasted ship was so big its main deck had streets. With names. And shops on those streets. Bakeries. Cafes. Jewellers. Pharmacies.

Something wasn’t quite right, though. More than half the shops were closed and boarded up. And everything looked just a little bit, well, shabby. I said to Jerry, “This ship name The Banana Boat, or what? They keep the worst one in reserve for the Black people?”

“It will be better soon.”

“Yeah? Something to do with the thing you were talking about – what it name? The prog rock? The gyp rock?”

He chuckled. “You getting closer. They use it for building marine structures.”

From far above our heads, speakers blared out two tones. “This is your captain Hazel Joiner speaking.” I could hear the same message echoing from berths up and down the corridor. “Our cruising speed will top out at 30 knots to cover the distance of 964 nautical miles in just over a day. Please join me at 8 bells – that’s 8pm – in the Admiralty Ballroom, where Chef Gaetan Boitano and his staff will be pleased to serve their last official meal here aboard The Cetacean of the Seas en route to Falmouth, Jamaica.”

“Their last meal? The whole kitchen staff quitting en masse?”

“Biorock is a marvellous thing, you see?” He was leading me to an elevator. “Come. Up to the top deck.” In the elevator, he continued, “If you put up a steel framework underwater, and run a light, harmless current through it, the current will unrust any rusty parts. Then the fence will go white from calcium deposits.”

The view from the open upper deck was insane. Who puts three massive waterpark-style freshwater pools on a ship? With 3-metre tall water features in neon colours? Scores of children waded, screeching in glee, through them.

I looked at the vast pool deck, at the ocean below, rushing by at 30 knots per hour. “So much water, and they make a fake beach. No more beaches at the edge of Falmouth Town, though.” Global warning brought supertornados which had eroded the sand away. Polar ice cap melts had raised water levels enough to permanently flood so many of our coastal cities.

There was a raised runway stage with an aerobics class in full progress on it, complete with boom-ch music issuing from the chest of the class instructor, one of the newest generation of nimble robots-that-can-do-parcour. No, not one of the newest. Every so often a rotor somewhere in its body jammed, and it got stuck for a second.

“Why we going Jamaica, Jerry, in this bucket of bolts? I thought cruise ships didn’t land at Falmouth any more?”

People reclined everywhere in deck chairs, while smiling staff brought them snacks and umbrella drinks.

He took me to the railing, as close to the bow as we could get. The giving sea, the killing sea, floated under and around us many storeys below. “After the electrical current lays down calcium on the steel frame,” he told me, “coral and marine plants grow on it, faster and healthier than before. The coral resists bleaching, even if the water gets too warm. Oysters that grow on it are fat, their shells thick and healthy. Starfish stop melting.”

“Starfish are melting now?” I asked, horrified.

A little boy careened past us, laughing to beat the band and chased merrily by a woman who looked to be his grandmother.

Jerry continued, “If you create a floating biorock reef in front of a dying one and an eroded beach, it will help filter pollutants out of the water. And it acts as a brake when storm surges come through. It mutes the wave action and deposits sand. It builds the beach back up, Carlton! New, clean beaches and coral reefs. Best part? It only takes months to see the difference. Scarcely a handful of years to restore the damage, clean the seas. We going to have Falmouth back!”

“We going on a working vacation, then?” I joked. “You going to have me laying down chicken wire in the slimy water outside Falmouth?”

He leaned out and pointed. His face was as alight with joy as those of our fellow passengers. “Look, Carlton.” Stretched out in a diagonal line beside us was a row of rusting cruise ships, all heading the same way we were.

“Is what a gwan?” I asked.

“These ships all old,” he replied. “Old steel. Time for them to get decommissioned now. When we disembark at Falmouth, the ships going to back off and moor just past the dead reef; the reef the cruise line pulverized in the first place to make a port here. They going to sink the ships to just below the water. And start running a harmless electrical current through them. You understand what happening now?”

I breathed in wonder. “They restoring the waters off Falmouth!”

“Yeah, man.”

“But if our ship sink, how we going to get back?”

“I had everything we value packed into the hold. All these passengers did. Sweetie, we not on a cruise.” Gently, he took me by the shoulders and turned me to face him. There were tears in his eyes. “If we want to stay, we can stay. We going home.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nalo Hopkinson is Jamaican Canadian. Her 1998 novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, won the Warner Aspect First Novel contest. Her 2013 novel, Sister Mine, won the Andre Norton Award. She's also received the Campbell, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards, and the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside. She is currently writing House of Whispers, a serialized graphic novel for Vertigo Comics, set in Neil Gaiman's Sandman universe.