***Content warning: story includes child death.***
22nd April 2051
My daughter, Tereva,
Journeys begin with the first fathom. But in which direction? And how fast?
When I was a child, those questions were answered for me by adults battling to conquer a land reclaimed by water.
We lived on an island until I was five. Then came the Great Flood of ’26. Just about everything we owned was lost. Most of it we soon forgot, but I mourned our cat Fermín for a long while. I still think of him sometimes, with his black nose and scratchy meow. We no longer have space for pets, or the means to feed them.
With our territory gone, the elders commandeered shells of absent foreigners’ yachts, defending them bitterly from each other. One by one, they began to founder. With less opulent refuge in reach, the crews chose to go down with their ships, clinging to belligerent, decadent ways as though that could keep them afloat.
Our tribe of youngsters steered a different course. We fashioned rafts at first. From the flotsam of our wrecked homes, we built a rickety metropolis powered by the glorious, restless wind. I watched and learned my science from the older children and began to understand the Great Flood was human made.
We caught fish and shallow plankton for food. Cold nights brought lurching shadows. The smallest of us wept for soft toys and warm baths; for someone to tell us it was bedtime. Little by little, we cried less and slept more peacefully. It was decreed that past terrors, our part in creating them, would remain unspoken. We would start afresh. Such was the wisdom of our short lives.
My name, Mahana, means sun. At my birth, the Long Rains were new, and I was named for the island’s dearest wish, that light would return. But wishes cannot alter science.
Today, three decades later, we welcomed you to our world. You will be known not for blind faith, but for what you already are to me. Tereva: beginning.
If we are fortunate, with longer life comes deeper wisdom. To avoid the terrible mistakes of the past, we must understand them. You will know our story. That is my promise and I record it here with this precious pen and paper, salvaged from the days before. I will keep it close in this tiny heart-shaped box, the only thing my mother’s clever hands made that remains. Its mother of pearl lies cool and sharp in my pocket, so that I will never forget my vow.
Your mama, always,
19th October 2077
My beautiful baby Vaheana,
You’ll need to be more than beautiful, dear daughter. You must be fierce like your name. Though I’m broken now, I will heal and stay with you. You’re all I have, and I’m all that you have. Everything else has been taken from us.
E Painu, the floating island where I was born, was a haven destined to fail. Dissatisfied with wind power, the community began to rebuild from the debris of the old rigs. While Mahana, my mama, carried me inside, they drew up haphazard plans to drill the seabed. Mama warned them what would happen with urgently scored drawings on balsa wood.
By the time I could toddle, many of the old civilization's possessions had ridden the continental currents and washed up on our rocking shores. Still determined to make people hear, Mama built a scale model. In a found aquarium tank, she demonstrated how they risked releasing gases that would pollute the water and air to eventually destroy all they’d built. Though I was too young to understand, I remember the putrid, eggy stench of the vapour that drifted in spirals from that tank.
Damn them, they wouldn’t listen.
Ignorance is an affront. Wilful denial of fact is unforgiveable. Three short decades after the Great Flood, they’d learned nothing.
Mama’s dissent led to our banishment from E Painu. Its creaks and undulations, which had rocked me to sleep at night, were snatched away. I was young enough to need them yet grown enough to grieve them. By small mercy they allowed Ariihau, your grandfather, some basic materials to build a craft and a fishing net before we were set adrift. That day, I wept as E Painu receded, bobbing on the waves while I watched from the bow. No one came to say goodbye.
Truth had destroyed life as I knew it, but it remained truth in all its indifferent majesty. The poison our former community released from the ocean floor would have its way. It infected the air, disturbing the fragile balance.
The storms began when I was six. They ripped through the water, killing Papa in the first month. Mama and I clung to broken masts and prayed to Gods I’d been raised to question. Each time the calm returned, we rebuilt in Papa’s name. We’d breathe the sulfuric air, so reminiscent of Mama’s model, like the sweetest tonic. Ignoring our stinging eyes, the tight wheeze in our chests, we’d enjoy temporary peace. As we ate our meagre daily meal, Mama would often say, ‘Tereva, we may be alone, but at least we are free.’
Months passed until one day, not a week after I turned seven, we floated upon another community who took us in. They’d built great barricades of rock against the storms, which were monstrous to my young eyes, but kept us safe. Further away from the drilling, the air was less corrupted, and our health improved. Mama’s science was better understood, even welcomed, and so we settled there.
I grew, and though my status as a stranger remained, it was a fascination for the local boys. One of them—Haunui—caught my eye. He was lithe and handsome, but kind and not conceited like some. I loved him instantly, though I never let on. In the time remaining to us, I promise to tell you everything about him, so you will know the beauty from which you came.
Yet the Earth hadn’t finished with us. The squalls became wilder, their fury murderous. The ocean took many, Mama included, and finally devoured the community itself.
I was adrift again, this time with my Haunui. We made our life between the storms. Then we made new life in you. The happiest accident was followed by the most terrible when, like my own father years before, Haunui was taken by the sea. It was just weeks before you came.
Dear Vaheana, I’m crying as I write this, yet resolute as ever. Mama began a new tradition with me, one which I intend to honour. You will appreciate the veracity of science—first in your name. It means storm, because that will be your life, for now at least. Every morning, I beg the Earth to end this tumult. But reason, not hope, will determine our future.
Soon, I will roll this tear-stained seaweed paper and place it with the letter Mama wrote for me, snug inside Grandma’s heart-shaped box. I’ll keep it safe, sweet one, until you’re old enough to clutch it.
Your loving mama,
31st December 2099
Sweet, tiny Tereva,
I give you my own mother’s name. She was called Tereva by a grandmother I never met because it means beginning. That is how I know, despite fervent instructions to her young daughter, Grandma still hoped beyond reason. For our troubles to be over, for humankind to learn the lessons Mother Earth tried to teach.
The brutal storms that blighted my first eleven years gave way to droughts that have prevailed for another eleven. The water abandoned our corner and fled far away. Some say it flowed to the poles. I have no heart to understand that talk. Land lost to the sea by our ancestors was regained before even the scientists had forecast. Mama forgive me because I, for one, never had any faith in their prophecies.
We live now on the briny plains left behind when the waters receded. The ruins of the floating cities that once towered in their splendour have become our refuge from the relentless, soul-sapping heat.
When she was a child, my grandmother wept for a bed that wouldn’t rock, for night-time shadows that didn’t lurch. Now we have ground that stands firm, but fresh water is so scarce. In thirst, our species has become harsh and unforgiving as the sun. I’ve learned the hard way to keep to myself.
My precious daughter, born to the salty air for so brief a time. My parched body could never sustain life. I knew this to be true, but still I yearned. Still, I loved. Some things cannot be wished into being. Why must we humans learn this over and over?
You are called Tereva because it also means departure. The salt flats will be your cradle.
I write this on the eve of a new century which promises no joy for me, on the last of the seaweed paper. My letter will join those of dear Mama and her mama before, who both await you with arms outstretched. Three thin sheets in an array of yellow and green hues. I will kiss all three and squeeze them inside this cracked and tarnished shell box that I have so often defended from thieves. The pages will curl tight, like you were inside me hours ago.
Hold it as closely as I hold you now. Take it with you as your guide while you seek your final rest. Keep it with you until we are together again, pray that will not be long.
Here I must end. The tears that run with my ink are joined by raindrops. Both blessed and damned because they come too late. May they herald a deluge. And see? Even now, I still endure hope.
Farewell, my beautiful child.
Your mama, always,