A SCIENCE & LEADERSHIP SCHOOL

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Emily Comeaux

 We Live Here Too: A Collection of Stories from a Ruined Ecosystem

The day the black river appears, my mother is hunting seals near the shore. I have seen a cold, white, ice coat spattered across the surface of the sea eighteen times, but never have I seen the dark blanket that spreads over it now. The black border of the slick is separated from the shore by a strip of windblown, green waves. This is how my home has always looked… why should it change now? I call my mother’s name into the water. I can’t see her through the green murk, but I can hear my little clicks bouncing back to me from her sleek sides. The pod glides back from the edge of the land, breaking the surface around me in the kooof, koooooof, koof of breath: my mother, her sister, my grandmother, my little sister. I call out to them, questioning, but their tones are just as confused. They must not know what the black river is either.

We do not know what it is, or why it is there, so we avoid it. We hunt seals in the clean, green strip near the shore and rub our bellies on the stony floor. Each sunrise the wind and water drives the black river a little closer to us, narrowing our space a little bit more.

One day we swim into a large, open bay. Here there is no evidence of the black river, but the water has other things in it: floating tubs in all colors, shapes and sizes, draping nets full of swarming fish, tall wooden poles, thick and soggy from the water, covered in barnacles and wrack. Here in this busy harbor, there is no black river. We could perhaps stay here for a while. We glide up near the netted schools of fish. Seals like to eat these fish; perhaps some will come by? We lift our heads above the water. Sadly, there are no seals lounging above the surface on the wooden planks.

There is a human, though. It is holding a stick. Suddenly, there is a loud noise and something explodes from the end of the stick and shoots into my mother’s sister’s dorsal fin. She screams in pain, but for now it has not done much damage. The wound has the potential to be dangerous, though, it could swell and make her sick. We leave the bay and the men with the shooting sticks.

Out in the ocean again, the black river has drawn much closer to the shore. There is nowhere to go anymore. We have no choice…we dive below the black water that is not water after several long breaths at the surface.

We have been swimming for so long. My lungs ache and I struggle to keep myself low, beneath the black river. I cannot swim any further. Is there no end to this strange coating on the ocean? I can’t keep swimming endlessly. Even a whale must breathe. I surface, slowly, and the dark, slippery stuff coats my back. As I open my blowhole to take the much needed air into my lungs, I can feel the drops of the river slipping and sliding, dripping slowly into my lungs. I have to dive again, keep going. The pod has surfaced with me, now. We have to move. As I dive below the water, the oily river clings to me, coating my back and dorsal fin. Eventually, though I have to surface again to breath, and again, and each time, a bit more of the black river slides into my lungs.

By now, I have no idea where I am. I have lost the pod and I can’t hear them through the water. I turn to search for them but I can’t tell which direction I am swimming in. The sun has set and it is so dark. Normally that doesn’t bother us; we see with sound, not light, but everything is blurry and strange, distorted. My lungs shriek for oxygen but the more I gasp for air the less flows in through my blowhole. Everything is fuzzy and confusing. I don’t know which direction I have been swimming in, nor where the rest of my family is­­I can’t tell anymore where the surface is–it feels as if my back has broken through it, but my inhale draws liquid into my lungs.

I let the current take control of my body. It’s no use fighting now, no use fighting to get somewhere when I have no idea how to get there or where I am. I float off through the slippery black river, rising to draw an oily breath when I need to.

Sunrise brings a quiet scene; I am alone, the only sound is the dark waves, lapping softly against the pebbles of the shore, against my drying sides. The tide has left me here, pushed me to the edge of the ocean, then slowly, slowly, drawn back to expose my skin to the drying heat of the sun. But the sun isn’t the real threat. The dry skin cracks painfully, but it won’t kill me, and neither will the seabirds pecking at it. It is harder than it was even after the slick to breathe now. I can feel my chest slowly compressing without the water to hold my weight. I am collapsing from the inside. The waves lap at my flukes now. The water is too far back; I do not have a chance of reaching it. My pod is gone. These waters are unfamiliar. I could not find my way back to my family if I tried. Without them, I have nothing. No hope of survival on my own. There is nothing I can do. So I wait.

*       *      *

As I dive under the salty, glittering waves and flap to the surface with a little silver fish in my beak, the water forms droplets on my back and rolls off my feathers. I soar over the sea, swallow my fish and shoot down, back into the school, then up, again, free in the beautiful sky. Feeling my feathers cup the air, I glide through the drafts, up and down, the cool wind teasing the down around my eyes and whipping past my face. Today, the water looks strangely dark from up here. I don’t have much time to wonder, though, because I have spotted a school of fish! They are churning just below the surface, in a giant ball. There are probably dolphins under there using the air as a wall to corral the school against, which makes snatching fish from above the surface so easy. I drop down at a sharp angle, beak first, and break through the surface of the water. Instantly, I can feel the water dragging me down. I flap my wings but they are soaked in a thick, dark substance. I flounder my way to the surface, only to find that the water is coated in the same stuff that covers me. I flap my heavy wings desperately, barely able to keep my beak where I can breathe. I never knew how cold the water could be… My feathers are normally waterproof and insulating, but they do nothing for me now.

By sheer luck, the waves push me up against a little beach before my strength to keep my head up gives out. Sprawled on the beach, I reach my beak back to clean my messy feathers. I slide them through my beak, but there is too much of the glop all over me, and all the preening does is make me swallow the stuff. I must preen myself–a bird cannot live with dirty feathers! But it’s no use. And it’s so cold. The sun is beginning to set, decreasing the temperature more, and I struggle against my instinct to sleep when the darkness comes. I can’t fight it off for more than a few minutes though.

The next morning brings waves, lapping closer to me than before. They are clean, but they don’t help to clean my feathers. I collapse on the beach in a sopping mess.

I don’t know how long I lie there. Two days, three days, maybe four? Something is walking down the beach now. Large yellow rubber boots stopping next to me. Yellow rubber gloves lifting me up. Putting me in a dark box. The darkness makes me sleep.

I wake up in a strange place. It is all white light and square walls. There are lots of yellow rubber gloves. The pry my beak open and push something down my throat. It isn’t slippery like a fish; it’s smooth but it is rough and blunt on the end. I gag and choke and try to keep breathing through my nostrils and keep myself from panting. Not long afterwards though, my belly is full and the strange thing is no longer in my throat. I fight nausea as my shrunken stomach protests being stretched to its normal size. I had barely even noticed the hunger before it was replaced with this sick feeling.

The yellow gloves put me in a tub of water and fluffy white foam. They hold me down and scrub and scrub and scrub at my feathers for hours. The water is warm and though they move me around, putting me in different tubs and roughly cleaning my body, I begin to feel the warmth soaking slowly back into my body.

Afterward, my feathers are still not waterproof, they are strangely dry and fluffy, but the black glop is gone and I am warmer than I have been in days. I stay in the strange, walled place for a long time, slowly preening the oils back into my feathers. 2016 Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Student Contest fromthebowseat.org High School Prose Winner Middle School Prose Winner Then one day, I am in the box again, and then the door is open and I can feel the cool, salty air, and at last, I am free.

*       *      *

Ever since the oil spill, my children have been hungry. I used to go out in our little boat every day to catch fish, but not anymore. When the tanker sank and the oil began leaking, a government ban on fishing soon followed. All I had was my fishing gear, my boat, and my three children at home. But now, I cannot fish, nor do I have the means to do it anymore. I’ve been paying off the boat since I bought it five years ago, after my husband moved out and I needed a way to support our children. Growing up, I had always helped my father on his fishing boat, so I reverted to the only thing I knew. I bought a boat and began catching fish. Now, though, I don’t have the money to continue paying off my loan on the boat. I had to prioritize so many things.

We don’t have a lot of money, and I had to make the decision that buying food and keeping the house was more important for now than the boat that I am no longer allowed to use. We don’t have heat in our house anymore; it got too expensive to pay for. Each night we light logs from the woods in our fireplace and wrap up in blankets to sleep around it instead. My children are being forced to grow up too fast. The oldest, fourteen, is teaching the youngest, age eight, how to chop wood. I’m terrified that he will slip and hurt himself with the ax. I told my girl, the oldest one, not to let him touch it, but there was too much work to do and I can’t watch all of them at once. I have to walk into town every few days to buy food, each time decreasing the money we have by a little bit. Gas for the car is too expensive, and I have no idea when I will be able to find work again. Hopefully I will find someone to buy the car, but for now it will remain parked in front of our house. The large amount of oil lost in the slick isn’t helping gas prices either. I hope that they will be able to clean up the ocean before too long. I will be back at the beginning when they do–no money, no boat, no gear, and three children to take care of–but I’ve been there before and all I can do is hope it comes before we lose the house, too.

People know that fossil fuels hurt the environment, but they choose to ignore it. Who cares about a bunch of fish or whales or birds, they say. I care. And even if you don’t, if you can’t make yourself care about what happens to them, you have to care about yourself. We are affected too. It starts low down, with poor fishermen like myself, and most of the time, it gets fixed before it visibly reaches those higher up. But we live here too. “The Environment” or “The Earth” is too often thought of as a forest with cute little bunnies and fawns frolicking in the golden beams of sunlight filtering through the leaves, no people in sight, and then BOOM: the trees are chopped down, and everyone thinks oh so sad the poor bunnies have lost their home but oh, it doesn’t really matter because we’re building a shopping mall. And yes, we should feel bad for the rabbits and the deer; in a perfect world we would have enough empathy to be fixing it just for them. But we live on the earth just like the deer and the rabbits and every creature whose extinction we’ve casually brushed off because that one organism didn’t affect our lives personally. If we ruin this place, we don’t have anywhere else to go. Wake up and take a look at the world around you! I’ll only be the first to go if we don’t fix things. Well, me and the fish and my children. Everyone lives here, including the important people that could make things change, but disasters like this never reach them. They can just import their fish from another ocean. Someday, though, if things keep going the way they are, we won’t have another ocean to import fish from. We don’t get another chance. For me, that chance has already been used up by someone else who let tons of crude oil dump into the sea. For me, and everything else that lives here, this little strip of ocean is our earth—there is nowhere else we can go—and it is dying.

Perhaps it is already dead. But maybe, maybe, there is still a chance at life left.

Bibliography

International Bird Rescue.” How Oil Affects Birds International Bird Rescue, 2015. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.

Morton, Alexandra. Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us. New York: Ballantine, 2002. Print.

Oil Spill Affecting Fishermen in Affected Area.” Oil Spill Fishermen. Environmental Pollution Centers, 2009. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Reflection

I chose to write from the perspective of the animals affected by ocean pollution because their side of the story is not often told. While I obviously have not had the experience of being a bird or a whale, we do know how oil spills can affect them, and it is not unreasonable to guess that being covered in crude oil, an unfamiliar situation, would cause them to feel panic and fear at the very least. With the first section of the piece, from the perspective of the whale, I wanted to give readers a sense of the devastation and destruction created by this disaster. In my second section, from the bird’s perspective, I aimed again to give a sense of the destruction, as well as to end with a sense of hope. I used the final perspective to share some of my own opinions as well as broaden the shown impact of the oil spill. I also hoped that it would make people realize that they could be affected by it, too. Again, I attempted to work hopeful notes into that section.

The overall goal of my piece was to inspire action and activism, and to do that I needed to make readers feel that there is something they can do, that they are capable of making a difference.