Dead Sky Morning by Karina Halle
“Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight”
From 1894 to 1924, D’Arcy Island was the site of a (primarily Chinese) leper colony run by the Canadian and British Columbian governments. Over the years, the lepers were left to fend for themselves, save for the supply ships that came in every three months to drop off food, opium and…coffins. On the virtually escape–proof island, at least forty souls lost their lives to Hansen’s Disease. Though difficult to access, today it stands as a park as part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. A commemorative plaque plus a few leftover ruins and makeshift graves are the only reminders of the travesties that occurred there.
My mind reeled awake like the slow wind of undeveloped film. Everything was black. Very black. A shade of coal darker than anything behind closed eyes. But my eyes weren’t closed at all. They were open and squinting against a light mist that burned them like salt.
Where was I?
I couldn’t bring my mind around fast enough to remember anything concrete. But there were thoughtless flashes. The reel in my head spun wildly, more shady images skittering past the spokes. There was a forest. I was running. I was hunted down by hounds. Or humans on four legs. Their grotesque figures flickered in the woods like a waning pilot light.
“My watery grave.” The phrase floated around in my head.
I lay still. I was on my back, on top of something awkward and bony. I told my limbs to move but nothing happened. I concentrated, desperately finding some light my retinas could latch on to, to give some meaning to where I was and what was happening to me.
There were sounds, suddenly, like ear plugs were plucked out of my head. I heard muffled cries, like someone was yelling from far away and the sloshing sounds of water encompassing the space around me. I had the distinct feeling that I was floating as my inner ear rolled and swayed inside my heavy head.
All my senses were coming to me now. I could smell seawater and a putrid, decaying odor, like rotted fruit and mold. I felt dampness at my back and, bit by bit, the sensation that my hands were emerged in ice cold water.
I tried to move my arms again and this time they responded sluggishly. They had been in water all this time even though the rest of me was dry. I moved them out to the sides and they struck barriers with a force I barely felt through my numbed skin. The sound of the impact echoed around me. It told me I was in some sort of box or…or…
Panic swept through me. I moved again, feeling like I was balanced precipitously on top of something very peculiar. Whatever it was, it was smaller than the length of my body and I noticed my legs had dropped off below at an angle. I kicked them up. A spray of ice water fell up on top of my shins and my waterlogged boots thunked against something solid.
I felt all around me, wildly placing my hands and feet on whichever surface they could reach. I was in a box after all. The space above my head was only about half a foot before a damp wooden ceiling cut me off from the rest of the world.
I tried to catch my breath but the fright inside my chest was overpowering it. I was trapped, trapped in a box. A mime’s worst nightmare.
Not only that, but a box that was filling with water. I felt the liquid fingers crawling up my legs and arms and saturating my back.
I started writhing and fighting. I couldn’t keep it together any longer. I was in a box and I was going to drown in here.
I started pounding my hands against the top, hoping to break through. They were tired and without much feeling. I felt a gush of warmth flowing from them. It was my blood. It seeped freely from my tender knuckles and from the wounds at my both my wrists. I didn’t care. I had to get out. If I didn’t, I would die.
The water came in faster now and it wasn’t long before I was slightly buoyant, rising above whatever was below me. In seconds it would come over the tops of my pants. My pants, where my front pocket felt tighter than usual.
I quickly slipped my hand into the pocket on a hunch. There was the lighter in there.
I pulled it out and started to flicker it. My fingers were cold and clumsy and I almost dropped it but after a few awkward attempts, the flame came alive, the spark catching hold. I held it up and away from me. The weak, orange light illuminated the space around me.
I was right. I was in a box.
It wasn’t just a box though. No it wasn’t. I knew what it was.
My watery grave.
I swallowed hard, feeling my world jar wildly with the incoming waves. I was in a coffin, set adrift in the sea.
“Your ship has come in.” A man’s voice echoed inside my head.
Amidst all the commotion, among all the confusion over what had happened – I knew where I was and why I was here. I wished I was alone. But I knew that wasn’t true either. I knew that awkward, protruding, lumpy shape beneath me spared me of that luxury.
My left hand slipped into the water, gingerly feeling the bottom of the casket. Maybe the only way out was through the bottom. I was careful now to avoid what was directly beneath me.
The water was up to my chest now. I was running out of time and fast.
I placed my hand on the bottom and tried to stabilize one part of me while I planned to kick out with my legs, hoping that the splintery walls would give way.
Tiny, slimy fingers made their way around my submerged wrist.
I screamed but it escaped through my lips like a wordless gasp. The fingers tightened like a tiny clamp and held my wrist down, drowning it.
Something shot out from the water beside me and knocked the lighter out of my hands, enveloping the casket in darkness again. My arm was seized by another miniature grasp. It yanked me down into the water.
I tried to move, to yell, to fight, but the water’s chill had seized me like poison. I was being held down; the water was rising and almost to my face.
Something moved beneath my head. It came up close to my submerged ear. Someone whispered into it.
The voice was distorted and muffled underwater. But it was unmistakable.
“Mother!” it cried out, cold child lips brushing my earlobe.
I opened my mouth to scream again but only found water. I took it in instead of air and let the liquid saturate the life out of me.
“Mother” it said again and again until we were floating together and the world closed its eyes.