Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world

Conversation 20

Underfolk
David Huebert

Mum asked what I wanted to be for Halloween and I told her one of the underfolk, the creatures who live in the tidal flats. We were walking around the waterfront and there was a cruise ship pulling in, a big white top hat on the black still sea.

“Underfolk?”

“Yeah.”

“What are they?”

“Sea creatures, sort of. Amphibians. They’re like household sprites, but with tongues made of seaweed and barnacle eyes.”

“Household sprites?”

“Yeah, sprites. You know, like gnomes. But helpful.”

“Well. Seaweed and barnacle eyes. Very imaginative. Where’d you learn about these underfolk?”

“Sam told me about them.”

Mum frowned. It was a frown I knew well. A frown related to Sam. A frown that meant she thought I was acting “troubled” again, that she wore when Mr. Humphries said I was still in the denial phase. 

We left it at that. Stood together looking up at the cruise ship. Seventeen stories of white and on top a climbing wall and a crane with a viewing bubble and a big green inflatable giraffe. In the summer the cruise ships come and go and the locals sell them fish and chips, beads and bracelets. I’ve often wondered what it’s like to be that high out over the ocean. So high up you can’t even see the waves anymore, just the flat endless blue. Sam and I used to talk about climbing up the balconies and stowing away on board.

Harbour St. was full of women tanned bright orange, men in colourful shirts and white running shoes. It was high tide, as it had to be for the cruise ships to come in. On the other side of the harbour tankers were picking up payloads from the refineries. We stood at the railing and Mum spoke towards the ocean. 

“So how serious are you, about dressing up as an underfolk?”

“There’s no known singular for the word ‘folk.’”

She grinned, and meant it. “That’s my little Dictionary.” 

“I just say ‘an underperson.’”

“Couldn’t you just be a TV again? We still have the costume. Or remember last year, when you were Garth and Sam was Wayne?”

I watched Mum realize she’d made a mistake. A foghorn sounded in the distance, and we stood holding the guardrail and staring out over the black sea. A pop bottle bobbed against the jetty, kissed a cube of Styrofoam. Mum once told me she used to see seals and porpoises in the harbour, but I’d never seen anything but trash and seagulls and diesel rainbows.

“Maybe I’ll just stay home.”

Mum sucked her teeth. A tanker slumped across the calm harbour, slid through the breakwater and on through the blameless black. 

Sam had just been diagnosed the night he told me about the underfolk. We’d biked down to our spot—a little cave nestled into a cliff, the slab of the walkway jutting overhead. Sometimes we would take our bikes over the hill and into the refinery through the train tracks. If Mum was on night shift, she’d be in the Alkylation Unit and we’d ride up to the fence next to the rusted-out “Do Not Enter” signs and imagine her climbing the stacks to inspect the gauges and pipelines. Mum said it wasn’t glamorous but she was responsible for a lot of lives. She had to wear coveralls and no matter how much she showered and did laundry she said she still smelled the oil in her hair and on her clothes. 

So sometimes we biked around but mostly we just sat there and talked. We liked watching the refinery lights at night. Even though they’re toxic they’re the most beautiful thing in the world at night, glimmering off the harbour water or the flats. 

It was hard being at the spot when Sam was sick, even if he didn’t really have any symptoms. The doctors had said he shouldn’t push it too hard, that there was a chance of him getting confused or getting lost again. Sam was the opposite of sick—all smiles and promises. But I could see that he was sad. He wasn’t ready to leave, and I wasn’t either. With Mum I was always “precocious” or “gifted.” With Sam I was just me—a little nerdy, a little gassy, maker of seismic snores. He called me “Pipsqueak” or “The Calculator” or “Snora Pakora” but there was nothing mean about it.

I didn’t have much to say that night and I guess he could tell the diagnosis was weighing on me because he asked if I was alright and I cried. Just a little, which was so stupid and unfair because I didn’t want to make it about me.

He grabbed my shoulder. “It’s alright,” he said. “I’m still the big brother. And I always will be.” And then he was sniffling too, refinery lights gleaming in the corner of his eye.

Then I blurted out a stupid question. I knew the answer but I asked it anyway: “Will we ever see each other again?”

“Yes,” he said, totally confident. Sam usually didn’t talk about Heaven or anything like that so I stared back at him, not following. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going far.” I kept staring, so he pointed down to the tidal flats, asked if I’d heard of the underfolk. I said no, so he told me about them. Creatures that lived in the sand, too small for the human eye to register. He told me about the barnacle eyes and seaweed tongues, said they fed off microscopic life forms. He said they always spoke in doubled words, like “it was warm-warm, and wet-wet.” During the day they came up into people’s houses and they did small, secret things to make them feel better. Like replacing the toilet paper or installing updates on their computers. And he told me they were in the refinery too. That they were doing their best to help the workers with maintenance, what with Streamline wanting to do the bare minimum. They wanted to help keep the harbour clean. But right now they were sick. Maybe they were sick because the harbour was. 

After all this, he looked over at me, completely serious, and said in a way he was looking forward to becoming an underperson. “Weird right?”

I shrugged. “Not that weird.” You don’t tell your terminally ill brother when he’s talking crazy. “All they do is good things. They make people happy. I can believe it.” I wanted to.

Sam smiled, showed his big front teeth.

A fifteen-foot flare shot up out of the refinery and he jumped up and pointed at it, nearly smacking his head on the overhang. “There!” he shouted. “That’s them. That’s their torch. That’s how they send signals to the other underfolk in different harbours.”

For a moment I thought he’d gone full bats. But he looked so sure I had to trust him. 

I reached up and tugged on his septum ring and he shot back, hands on his face, screaming: “Ow, oh no, my nose, my nose. It’s been defenestrated!”

I laughed and sniffled and wiped my eyes, knowing I was too old for this and not caring. “That’s not what ‘defenestrated’ means,” I told him, cackling. When my smile faded I realized that I felt a little better, and that he had been right: he was still my big brother and always would be. We stayed there for a long time, watching the lights throb and shudder in the flats and thinking about all the creatures living down there, too small for the eye to see.

 

Mr. Humphries pushed his glasses all the way up his nose, which I’d started thinking was some sort of code. Then he asked what my plans were for Halloween. I told him I thought I’d stay home, that I might be too old to trick-or-treat.

“At twelve?”

What was I supposed to say? “Yes. I am twelve.”

Somehow, the glasses kept going up. “I know you’re still working through the denial stage, and I’m proud of your progress. But at times like these it’s important to try to cultivate joy. Social rituals can help us move on.”

When Mum had said I needed to talk to someone I knew what she meant. Talking to “someone” never means talking to someone you like. Talking to “someone” means talking to someone who takes notes and uses terms like “processing” and “companioning.” And maybe you get what they’re trying to do but you just don’t like it because you’re not ready to move on. Maybe all you want is to see Sam, talk to him, tug on his septum ring and have him pretend you ripped his nose off.

The floor in Mr. Humphries’ office was laminate hardwood. Like a stomped-on world of Jenga. I stared deep into it, willing an underperson to appear. No luck. The clock said one more minute.

“Can I go?”

“Promise me you’ll think about it.”

“Promise. Can I go?”

Mr. Humphries took his glasses off and wiped them, which I took as code for yes. Outside, the air was thick and salty and it was nice to be alone. Rotting leaves whispered under my shoes as I walked home for nut loaf and brussels sprouts.

 

After dinner I rode down to the spot alone. Mr. Humphries had told me this was not a good idea but right then I didn’t want good ideas. I wanted the quiet of the harbour, the memory of Sam’s septum ring catching the streetlamps as he hopped a curb on his BMX. It was already dusk when I got there. Mum was on nights so it didn’t much matter how long I sat there thinking about the underfolk and looking back and forth between the flats and the photo on my homescreen – a selfie Sam took of him and me at the spot, the ocean peeled back to reveal the wet sand and a mountain of seaweed, refinery stacks like the lairs of robot supervillains. As I looked at it, I wished I could crawl into the tidal flats myself, submit to the salty cool. 

The tide was almost half-way in. The thing about the tide is it’s asymmetrical. Twice a day the sea peels back like a great wide lip, but it’s never the same two times. Sam used to say it was the asymmetry that made it beautiful. He said that most people saw symmetry as perfection, in faces and architecture and the world. But Sam said the way he made his drawings and photographs appealing was by putting everything just a little off centre. “Crookedness is interesting,” he had said. I couldn’t think of anything more interesting than Sam’s photographs and drawings. He had one triptych of photographs he’d taken of the refineries during sunsets, flares towering over the drums, the stacks rising up like rusty busted fence posts. Like ladders to another world where no one would want to be. A dark and jagged beauty that only Sam could have seen and brought to life. Mum had them up in the kitchen and sometimes after breakfast I’d stare into the depths of them, the way you’d stare into the embers of a campfire. 

I gazed out to the refinery, lights slurring off the tidal flats. I thought about Mum on her panel in the Alkylation Unit, drinking coffee after coffee but never really waking up. A large flare shot up and I watched it burn, remembering what Sam had about underfolk messages. The gas was maybe ten feet high and it was shooting out a little crooked, like a bent Roman candle. I wondered if there was someone else watching it somewhere. Maybe someone tiny, with barnacle eyes and a seaweed tongue. I wondered if such a creature could tell me what the torch meant, if it meant anything at all. The flare slanted and sputtered and hissed away. Like a snake retracting into the shadows.

 


Originally published in Rising Tides: Reflections for Climate Changing Times (Ed. Catriona Sandilands, Caitlin Press, 2019)
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