by Victoria Miluch
It began in the aftermath of the hurricane, when the air smelled like wet earth and D felt like he was drowning in it. For two days, the wind had uprooted the rainforests and levitated the mangrove trees. Crabs ended up where birds lived, and jellyfish lay pulsating on the highways, humming with purple electricity. The lagoons swelled with rain and burst like berry aneurysms, and a tyrant ocean colonized the beach. Sea lice floated dead on the crests of waves in a briny, rolling filth. In the cities, the scene was more prosaic. Because the pipes had burst, the streets were rivers, and the offshore islands had been evacuated by the military. Paradise, though, had miraculously missed the worst of it. D had braved out the storm holed up in one of the rooms of the unopened half-finished inn. When he emerged, blinking like a mole, the country he’d barely just returned to was foreign all over again. His legs sank knee-deep in mud when he conducted a reconnaissance around the building. For days, he wandered around the inn in a silent daze, picking up a chair here, straightening a naked piece of plywood there. He felt like his entrapment was a kind of punishment, a purgatory. He thought he hallucinated an angel of death floating among the jungle’s trees, but it may have been a dream. It was clear that he was losing it. So it was more than a relief when one day a black Cadillac drove up to the restaurant, and a real person, the man who introduced himself to D as the Bureaucrat, stepped out of the car and into D’s primordial paradisiacal world.
The Bureaucrat had come from the flooded city. He was sick of it. No running water. Nowhere to buy toilet paper or pineapple or cornflakes or chicken. His wife spent her time checking the phones. His daughter had been out of school for weeks. His son was studying at a boarding school in Florida, so that was fine. The Bureaucrat mused that it was possible his son had seen the news and thought his family dead. But improbable; the son was an idiot. D relaxed. He offered the Bureaucrat a beer.
It became a routine, the Bureaucrat driving up to Paradise every other day and buying a Salva Vida. Even after places started reopening in the city, the Bureaucrat preferred the silence of the out-of-the-way inn that was now, thanks to D’s renewed efforts, three-quarters of the way finished. The ocean had receded, and so had the wet-earth smell that had made D think of a watery grave, perhaps his. D told the Bureaucrat that he had bought the inn with his wife Tiffany, who had been planning to join him, but instead ended up filing a restraining order against him. The Bureaucrat told D about his new plane, the one he bought because getting around on the roads was still, in most of the country, unthinkable.
The government might be at a stand still, but business continued. D didn’t ask about the Bureaucrat’s business, and the Bureaucrat, more discreet than D’s future guests would be, didn’t boast about the details. But maybe a week after the Bureaucrat told D about his plane, the Bureaucrat asked D if he wanted to accompany him on a trip. D was thinking, instead of answering, that the sun that afternoon was preposterously slippery. From the sky, it slanted off the building’s support beams and fell onto the table where D and the Bureaucrat were sitting, then spilled off the table quick and clean as a blob of mercury. Gold-white glinted off a glass bottle. Light like stinging insects. D shielded his eyes. What was he looking for? The Bureaucrat said he wasn’t going a great distance.
The thing about rainforests, D thought when looking down on one from twenty thousand feet on the return trip, was that you couldn’t see the livid danger living in them, the jumping vipers and malarial mosquitoes, you just saw green. You didn’t know the dengue fever until you were the unlucky bastard that caught it and then you were on your deathbed of fire ants and leaves, then dead and the danger hushed up, and the rainforest was just the trees. D shivered. He was starting to think morbidly again. Maybe he was getting sick. Next to him, the Bureaucrat sat lording over the airplane’s controls, his posture relaxed. When packing the last of the cargo into the back of the plane, the Bureaucrat had admitted that he hadn’t had his flying license long, but D saw clearly that the Bureaucrat was a natural at this.
Green stretched flat and green undulated beneath them. Trees and trees and trees. Some still felled from the hurricane’s rain, but not one now levitating. D felt better enough to think now, glibly, some sightseeing. And then, as if he hadn’t seen enough: a postscript. A white flash. Down there, square shapes. He leaned forward, straining to make the white bird into the sail of a ship. And then, blinking once, twice, he saw it, the city.
He would have missed it if he hadn’t looked out the window at the bright point that the plane’s altitude crisscrossed the sun’s angle at the to-the-millisecond moment that it did. Perhaps the hurricane had contributed too, clearing away some vegetative debris. Such luck. What D saw was the flash of a lost city illuminated from underneath clots of vines and trees. Tall walls surrounded the ruins, and the stone temple was as white as a carcass picked clean. The plane moved forward, the geometry reconfigured, and acres of trees slid past beneath. The white city sank back into wet shade. The sighting felt illicit. And so as the Bureaucrat continued north, D was already second-guessing what he’d witnessed.