Photograph courtesy of Noah Rabinowitz
Entire island nations were not supposed to sink into the water in the space of minutes, no matter how hard the earthquake or immense the flood, but it seemed that this was what her home had done. And as far as Arcadia could tell as she bobbed on the water, clinging to the torn-off branches of a fig tree, she was the only survivor.
“They’ve landed, they’re heading straight for us! Run for the walls!”
“But…so many people…”
There should have been debris. She had seen shipwrecks before and eventually, things popped up. Bodies, too. But it had been at least an hour, probably more, and the sea was its usual bright blue self. Arcadia felt mocked. Had Poseidon decided to suck the island into the sea and leave her to whatever fate might yet come? Despite her known distaste for him, that still seemed extreme.
At least the water is warm.
There were plenty of ripe figs, so she wouldn’t starve too soon. She was alive. Those were the sum of her blessings.
Arcadia knew it was important under adverse circumstances to count her blessings, but hoped the gods would forgive her lack of enthusiasm. Still, the water was warm and the clutch of branches that had broken off formed a perfect cradle. There were plenty of ripe figs, so she wouldn’t starve too soon. She was alive. Those were the sum of her blessings.
They always say: “worse things happen at sea.” And they’re right.
She considered her options. Dying of thirst, hunger or exposure was certainly up there. Getting eaten by some sea creature. Getting picked up by an Athenian boat, which would mean slavery at best. Or she could be rescued and be given a nice new home somewhere.
Because that happens so frequently. With any luck, I’ll go insane or it’ll turn cold and hypothermia will set in.
Favored by Poseidon Atlantis might be, but even a blind half-wit could see that it had spent decades, centuries even, setting itself up for trouble. It had once been a sylvan island, with grasses that cushioned bare feet and an array of fruit trees to delight both eye and palate. There were carpets of flowers and the bees that pollinated them made the most glorious honey. There were sheep and goats and a sea full of fish. It was no wonder Atlantis was considered a kind of paradise; its people exalted just for living there.
Athenians. Hacking at whomever they saw. How had they breeched the border? They were breaking down the walls. A tremor. So many feet, so many weapons. No. The earth. Shaking. Arcadia tumbled to the ground, tasted gravel.
Poseidon had started the building frenzy, turning his beloved Cleito’s mountain home into a palace and building three moats around it, which could not have been good for stability. But if Poseidon did it, how could it be other than right? So the Atlanteans built and built—meadow and forest and field falling to an expanding city, and bridges to reach every corner of the island. Walls and towers were built to guard the city, as though anyone would dare attack them. And then there was the Great Canal, dug down to the sea, and all those many tunnels, all designed to improve shipping—bring rich goods to the citizens that much more quickly. Who cared that a few geologists insisted the ground was weakening, that undersea plates were being disturbed? This was Atlantis, fast becoming an empire, and it had to look the part.
Empire. Well, it only made sense. The land was already rich, so why not extend further and see what else could be gained for little trouble or expense? Besides, the vast building effort meant Atlantis was not quite as self-sustaining as before. Easily rectified, though. A few wars waged, some smaller nations turned into colonies and the people enslaved; and then the good food came in by the shipload. There were a few who tried to suggest that Atlanteans, privileged as they were, might try being a bit more diplomatic, if not benevolent. But who wanted to hear them? Tedious, although nothing the odd de-tonguing couldn’t resolve.
A dolphin leaped up and dove back under the water, splashing Arcadia without a glance.
Is no one around here bothered by this?
Why she should expect the marine life to care, she didn’t know, but the extent of the phenomenon seemed to demand interspecies recognition. There had been an earthquake. There had been a flood. A land and all on it had been swallowed whole. There should be attention.
“No, turn back!” Stones were falling from the towers. People crushed. An unending earthquake. Or just a flood of Athenians? Arcadia screamed for them to run to the hills. There, they could hide. And fight.
Her leg was falling asleep. She wanted to shift position, but worried she might lose her balance. She had never been much of a swimmer.
Put that on the list of “had I but known.”
Through squinted eyes, one might believe her garden was not a smallish allotment bordered by walls, but instead sprawled out for miles.
Arcadia distracted herself by visualizing her garden. With so much of Atlantis turned to stone and marble, those who treasured the verdant had to create it where they could and then stand guard like the towers surrounding the city. Arcadia had a gift for greenery, her plants seemed to grow just from a whisper. Through squinted eyes, one might believe her garden was not a smallish allotment bordered by walls, but instead sprawled out for miles. The flowers tickled her legs as she walked by them, as though she were wading in the sea she had never liked. She tended the herbs and vegetables carefully, but the flowers she let grow wild. Small consolation for not having a meadow of their own. At least here, in this protected, cherished space, they could grow as they would, joining her in the game of pretending that all was as it ought to be.
I guess we all lost.
But losing the game was nothing. All of Atlantis, its people and animals, had died in terror and agony. Her brother, her nieces, her few friends. The smiling brown-eyed boy to whom she’d never had the courage to speak.
That’ll teach me.
Swallowed, destroyed, gone, and here she was, left alone to . . . what, exactly? It was a fair question. There had to be an answer. Something more than that Poseidon wanted to punish her.
Killing the earth-loving girl slowly by sea? Bit prosaic, I think.
Yet there must be a reason why, at the exact moment the earthquake and flood wrought their final destruction, she was atop a tree, on the island’s highest point. Torn off to survive, while Poseidon, presumably in a fit of pique because the empire was falling, decided to pack up the land and take everyone on it home with him. Except Arcadia. She could just find her own way.
It was a small comfort to hope her family, friends, and the brown-eyed boy, despite the horror, were now safe under the water in a new Atlantis. Knowing it wasn’t true didn’t stop her from enjoying the thought.
“It’s all right, I know the way, just follow me!” Arcadia screamed, seizing an abandoned scythe. The waves of earth kept coming and coming, she could only look forward, urging her legs on, finding the still places between the masses of shaking land. She had to trust they were following her. She had always been so quiet. The shock of her battle cry must be greater than the shock of the Athenian attack and the massive earthquake. They had to follow. What else was there?
It occurred to Arcadia that it might have been Athena who kept her safe. She’d always secretly worshipped the goddess and thought the Athenians were right to try to free the colonies from the oppressive rule of Atlantis. Being attached to her tongue, even though she rarely used it, this was one of many opinions Arcadia kept to herself. But she wondered if perhaps it was Athena who made sure she was on that tree, that the branches tore off as easily as they did, and that she was swept clear of the disaster. Which meant there might be a grander plan in store and she should not fret.
Or I’m already dead and the Elysian Fields leave a lot to be desired.
Arcadia plucked a fig and sucked it with slow, judicious care, not wanting to waste a single drop. She thought one of the stupidest things about the sea was the way the water was undrinkable. Not that she had given it much thought before, but now that she was at leisure to contemplate such things, it was ridiculous. Whomever had come up with that plan ought to be made to reconsider. Or whipped soundly.
And if they need a volunteer, look no further.
She supposed she should be weeping, not turning so much nonsense over and over in her mind. But liquid was now precious. Something that must be hoarded. Besides, she had cried for Atlantis many times.
Screams, screams, a sea of screams. A rush of water. Legs burning as she ran. A man’s heavy breathing behind her.
Arcadia’s life felt wide and monotonous, a wave of tears. One of her earliest memories was of Cleito’s Meadow, a space long since paved over. It had felt enchanted—filled with so much lavender, it was almost as blue as the sea, and far more fragrant. She’d been allowed to run there. Sometimes, there were other children and it was as though they commanded a kingdom, each of them a little Poseidon, but safe and dry. The bridge that bisected the meadow was a murderous thing, and Arcadia cried for weeks at the death of her sea on land.
Again and again and again, Atlantis gave her reason to weep, although as she grew older, she often laughed. What choice was there, in a world increasingly growing ridiculous?
“Why are you crying?” people would ask. “The Empire’s strong and getting stronger. That’s a reason for cheers, not tears.”
“Tears of happiness,” Arcadia always assured her accusers. “I’m just so happy for us.”
Did they believe her? It didn’t matter. Long before she’d managed to reach her late twenties and remain unmarried, she had achieved the status of “oddity,” thanks to her obsession with flowers and fruit. They ignored her. They granted her trees.
She reached the trees and looked back. But there was nothing to see. Water swelling over everything, continuing to rise. Dotted by white hands. Hands, waving like anemones, then disappearing. She clambered up the tree. Inexplicably, an Athenian soldier was after her. Or the tree. She hacked at the trunk with the scythe, but he nocked an arrow, and aimed. The water was coming for him, but not fast enough. She flung the scythe. His scream lost in the cracking of the branches, tearing her away.
It had not escaped general notice that plants thrived so well under her care. There were those who thought she might have some witchy way about her, what with everything she touched blooming almost overnight. These days, she was the sole purveyor of Atlantean figs.
They ought to have given me a state position.
Many times, Arcadia wanted to hint that the island was ailing, even dying, under the weight of all that stone, but she knew no one wanted to hear it. Instead, she nurtured what she could and prayed for the crush of the Atlantean empire. Perhaps then, under a new government, they could recover some of what they had lost.
That didn’t exactly go as planned.
Despite the fruit, Arcadia was getting thirsty. Though it was hard to be certain, it felt like late afternoon. Which meant she had been bobbing along for seven hours. Her body was throbbing in pain. She wished it would go as numb as her insides. Something. Anything.
And then there was. At first, she thought it was just another dolphin, or perhaps a hungry whale. But gradually, it became clear it was a ship. A ship. Rescue, or something worse? The closer it came, the more Arcadia thought there was a certain dignity to dying alone on the waves and half-hoped they might not notice her. Her heart pounded even harder when she saw the massive painted eye glaring down at her. An Athenian ship.
This is just not a good day.
She closed her eyes, deciding that if she couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see her.
The shouting of the sailors told Arcadia that this was yet another plan shot all to hell and a few minutes later, she could hear the grunts of sailors pulling a small boat up beside her. A man leaned over and she smelled sardines on his breath.
Does it have to be seafood?
“Lady,” he murmured in a much sweeter voice than she expected. “Lady, can you hear me?”
So there it was. Arcadia opened her eyes. The sailor was ruddy and grizzled as expected, but his eyes were wide and worried. They softened on seeing her conscious and he waved to the men on the ship, who cheered. The sailors were clumsy but respectful in their attempts to help her into the boat, which was no small feat. Her fingers were locked around the branches and she had forgotten how to move them. Nor could she speak—her tongue felt like a giant bottlebrush.
But soon enough, she was in the boat, then the ship—where she tried to stand and collapsed onto the warm deck. She liked its solidness, though. It was possible this was an upturn in the day’s events. The drink the captain brought her only fueled that notion.
“Sip it slowly, now, there’s the girl,” he encouraged her, and she managed to get it down without being sick. Arcadia felt the goodness of the liquid rushing through her whole body, even her fingernails and hair.
“Nowhere. I belong nowhere. Not anymore.”
“There you go, that’s all right now, isn’t it?” the captain said, as though she were a tiny child. She rather liked that. “Can you tell us what happened? Where you belong?”
Arcadia tested her mouth. It seemed to work.
“Nowhere. I belong nowhere. Not anymore.”
“She’s an Atlantean!” someone yelled, recognizing her accent, and she heard the sound of swords being drawn. Which seemed a bit excessive, considering her condition, but unsurprising. So back into the water she was soon to go, only this time full of holes.
The captain held back his men.
“We were en route to Atlantis, for what we hoped was a final engagement. But there are no ships. We should see the high mountain from here, but there’s nothing.”
“Exactly,” she agreed. “Nothing. Atlantis is…gone.”
As soon as the word came out, something seemed to stab her more than swords. Pain in her stomach, arms, thighs. The men whooped and cheered, but she heard none of it.
The captain glanced at his men, then helped Arcadia up and guided her to the bow. He pointed.
“It should be there.”
“Yes. But it’s gone.”
“Can you tell us what happened?”
“Yes. And no. No.”
And in the arms of a would-be enemy, she wept and wept and wept, the tears blurring the beautiful, empty sea in front of her.
Sarah-Jane Stratford is the author of the historical vampire thrillers, The Midnight Guardian and The Moonlight Brigade. She is working on a new (non-vampire) novel and a play. She also blogs at Historilicious and can be reached on Twitter as @stratfordsj.