art by Agata Maciagowska
by Lavie Tidhar
Tel Aviv, six months later.
Shell remembers the first day. Alma Beach, with the view of Jaffa's mosque rising out of the Old City to the south. The beach quiet, a few families, young people--the expensive restaurant had only a few people sitting at its tables this time of day and the beach bar adjacent was doing better trade. They were playing chill-out music--Bob Marley, with the sound of the waves. Somewhere down the beach someone was smoking a joint. The smell wafted over. A few seagulls cried over the rocks, where a group of tawny cats lay, almost undistinguished from their surroundings.
Then it happened. Shell remembers it only in confused snatches of recall. Turbulence rising out of the sea. A man rising high in the air, his face contorted in--what? Agony? Ecstasy?--he looked silly and pitiful hanging there in his Speedo, his hairy back still glistening with sea water. The man's head exploding, like a ripe watermelon like they sold, here, by the side of the road. Red rain falling down.
Her mind recoils from the recall. The fancy sky-scraping hotels along the promenade--a rain of glass falling down from thousands of windows, the screams--the buildings twisted and turned impossibly, revealed trapped secrets frozen within their aching-belly rooms.
Later: the gunships and the helicopters, tanks driving down Herbert Samuel Road, all along the beach.
And then the whirlwinds came....
It wasn't so bad. Even the language issue wasn't that bad--most everyone in Tel Aviv spoke English.
They got along. They had to.
There wasn't much left of the old Tel Aviv. From the beach it always looked the same. A desert vista, the brownish-white buildings collapsed at weird angles, a hush over a once-too-loud city. There were people there, in the city--not many, but they were there. Three times now city factions had tried to muscle in on their beach area. Twice they lost people. Good people. And even if they weren't good people, still, they just couldn't afford to lose them.
The Republic of Alma Beach.
It started as a joke, back when everyone still thought it was all somehow going to end and rescue teams would show up, and CNN and UN jeeps, and it would all be all right.
But it wasn't.
Now they had a flag and everything, and a court, and a constitution. And if anyone broke one of the rules... she hugged herself, rocking on her heels in the hard, yellow sand. It was very fine sand.
You couldn't break the rules. They were there for a reason.
To start with, it wasn't so bad. You still had to watch out for the whirlwinds, and for city folks. Slavers, looking for people to mine the city for tinned foods and other hidden treasure, biker gangs, unaffiliated hunters and all the rest. And all the while your eyes would be drawn, again and again, to that strange mountain that had risen, on that first day, out of the thin and sandy ground of Tel Aviv. Impossibly-tall, it bent dimensions, skewered perspective. It hinted at things beyond, at other mountains, at rivers, lakes, savannahs, hills--a world beyond this world.
Or perhaps they belonged to that world, now, since their own was gone.
From time to time one could see a creature flying high up, which must have been the size of a freighter, with large leathery wings... and get the sense of eyes, cold, slow, giant eyes watching, from the mountaintop. Watching and waiting.
No one knew. Though there were always rumors, theories, ideas... from black holes to temporal storms, from nuclear weapons to mass hallucination. And there were stories about a messiah, a crazy man who went up the mountain, the only human to have done so, a fireman, and that one day he would return, and bring the fire back to them.
Other stories, too. She didn't pay them too much attention. Stories were dangerous. They never came true. The hero never saved the girl, or the plane, or the planet. People died. Innocent, not-innocent--those things meant nothing to the beings on the mountain, and to the silent, deadly whirlwinds.
No hero ever came for her, after all.
There was plenty to do, that day, every day. But this day was different. It was special. She did her chores.
The citizens of the Republic of Alma Beach had found fishing to be their main source of nourishment. The luxury restaurant had been pilfered and cleaned out mere days after the event. The alcohol from the bar had been rationed for a while, but it too was gone. Now, they traded for home-brewed alcohol from some of the city folk. As for the fishing...
It had not taken long, for Shell and the others, to find that the sea just beyond the shore was no longer the same sea. At the same time as the city's dark barrier had risen, engulfing the whole of Tel Aviv from north to south in what appeared, sometimes, to be a dark and impenetrable bubble, a viscous membrane of no material anyone could understand, and at the same time that the mountain had risen in the heart of the city, so too the sea had changed.
The mountain had risen at the very heart--geographical as well as spiritual--of the city, tearing through the Dizengoff shopping centre and casting away with it almost two decades of knickknacks, bric-a-bracs, books, computer parts, food, tables, diners, cinema chairs, movie reels, rock band posters, plants, and juice stands. The sea, on the other hand, metamorphosed almost unnoticed, remaining--by looks, if nothing else--the same: a gentle trap for the unwary.
For the sea was different.
Doing her chores. Waiting for later. Anticipation welled inside her. Later, later, the wind whispered. It was hot on the beach. It was always hot on the beach. She donned her fishing gloves and the rest of the protective armor and stared grimly at the horizon.
Though there wasn't one, not really. The same thick membrane surrounding the city in a dark fog, like dream stuff gone bad, terminated some distance from the coast. This far, and no farther, can you go, it seemed to say. The republic had a couple of small boats. The warships that had appeared that first day, crewed with navy sailors, armed with missiles and machine guns and God knew what else, well... their remains had floated, some had sunk, and most simply... disappeared.
Gone into that other ocean, perhaps.
Bodies had washed up on the beach for a month after the event.
Pulling them out, moving them away from republican turf had taken its toll, not just on Shell. The others, too--everyone was different after the event. Everyone who survived.
But to live was to change. Shell always took comfort in that sentiment.
Particularly the to live part.
It was great being alive.
It was so much better than being dead.
They went fishing in two-person teams. Shell had been assigned to fishing the whole of that week. She was buddied up with Mikey G., who despite the name was an Israeli, not a Yank: he was a skinny Yemenite Jew who had grown skinnier and darker as the months passed, growing his hair into dreads and still practicing his human beat-box routine, a remnant of the days that had gone forever. He was great with the gun, and the spear, so she was glad to have him.
She was the catcher.
He was the shooter.
They both waded into the sea. It was a warmer sea than the Mediterranean had been. Things... lived in it.
They weren't quite fish.
In fact, they weren't fish at all.
She tensed, as she always did when she got into the water. Her eyes scanned the surface of the water, searching for movement. Her net was edging along the bottom, edging, waiting, hoping....
She tossed a handful of bait into the sea, dried ghost-fish caught the week before. Ghost-fish were not fish, nor were they ghosts, exactly. They were a sort of intelligent fungus, white, at times translucent, which moved about in the water and attached itself to the larger creatures who lived there. One had attached itself to Ben's leg, once, in the early days. Slowly the ghost-fish solidified, filled with a milky-white substance, and grew, as Ben lost his color and sank, gradually, into a stupor until he was enveloped by the expanding amorphous blob of the ghost-fish and subsumed entirely.
They had been horrified, had tried to pull the creature off Ben, but it was no use. When the ghost-fish had finished feeding it had floated onto the water, a large milky-white raft and then, quietly, burst. Tiny, thumbnail-sized pieces scattered over the surface of the water, each baby ghost-fish sluggishly moving, growing bolder, until they darted this way and that underwater, searching for a meal.
Of Ben there had been no sign. Not even bones--the ghost-fish sucked in calcium the way a diner sucked marrow from a stewed bone.
Now they used the fragments of dried ghost-fish for bait. There were bigger fish in the sea....
But it was not the same sea. Where before the sand had extended outwards, so that one, entering the water, could simply walk into the sea for quite a distance, now the sea floor curved down into a steep well. There was depth down there--an unseen, hostile world a hand-reach away.
Shell was scared. She had been scared for a long time. Fear didn't stop you functioning, though. She had thought she'd lost the fear that first week--with the event, with the whirlwinds, with the looters and the dying and the way fear piled upon fear until it was numbing--but she hadn't.
To be afraid was to be alive, and to be alive was all that mattered.
The shape rose out of the water suddenly. It was the size of a dead baby. It was a dead-baby-fish. Of all the aquatic life forms of this unknown ocean these were the worst, haunting dreams, upsetting stomachs.
But they were food.
Had they always looked this way? Or was it a sort of learned camouflage, a way for the fish to avoid capture?
Two pale-white eyes stared at her from beneath the water. A pale, deadly-white shape, small fins where fat chubby fingers should have been. The dead-baby-fish gurgled and smiled.
Mikey G. pressed the trigger on the Uzi and the dead-baby-fish became a dead dead-baby-fish. Chunks of white flesh flew. Shell bit down on a desire to throw up. It would do no good. Her puke would merely attract other creatures to the surface.
Some considerably bigger and more dangerous than a DBF.
She scooped up the still corpse of the fish with the net, making sure to trap the bits that Mikey G.'s enthusiastic shooting had thrown about. They needed food, not more bait. Mikey G. fired silently, face furrowed in concentration, sweat forming on his dark face. There had been plenty of firepower, at least that was easily available in this new Tel Aviv. They looted from the immobile tanks and the thousands of dead soldiers--AKs, Uzis, grenades, mortars--fuel was hard to come by, guns and bullets were cheap.
A moment of quietude. She stood in water up to her chest. She turned to look south. You could no longer see Jaffa. You could no longer see the Old City perched on top of its hill, nor the mosque rising from the embankment. There was Alma Beach, there was a part of the promenade still--a strip of grass and parking lots--and there was the border: that black, writhing mass of--what? A thin membrane separating this world from their own. Back there, on the other side, was home--London, and mum and dad, Sainsbury's, Boots, Indian take-aways and public libraries, pubs and Stella in pint glasses--her home so far away even the Israelis she was stuck here with did not understand it. One or two had visited London, before. But they had not lived there, did not understand it--no more than she understood their country, their language, their curious and frightening rituals and manners.
London was only there metaphorically, of course. London was far away, six hours by flight from Tel Aviv, back when Tel Aviv was in the other world, not this one. What had been on the other side was Jaffa, a city of rundown streets and Arabic street signs, a city that had once been the progenitor of Tel Aviv but had since been subsumed by it, most of its Arab citizens expelled in the first of many wars, the city since then growing more and more dilapidated. Houses were falling apart at the seams. Abandoned houses, their former owners trapped in refugee camps far away. They were not allowed to come back, and the city was an eyesore for the Tel Aviv population, an uncomfortable reminder that the absent landlords might still, one day, return.
Instead, the mountain had risen and the whirlwinds had come, and no one knew what was happening outside.
But Jaffa had not--as indeed it never had--been a part of the Tel Aviv bubble.
Was it happening? Was that a shimmer through the black, a thread of ruby shuddering in the membrane of the world?
Her heart beat faster.
Then a disturbance in the water. She pulled the net, screaming, letting it all out, a cry of rage or joy or fear. "Got one!"
From Mikey G.: "Fire!"
A giant shape rose out of the water, long white neck ending in a giant head with giant teeth. Shell screamed--her net broke--Mikey G. ululated as he fired, emptying a magazine into the Nessie.