Chapter 1: Escambia Bay, Florida
Raiah let the malformed infant slide from her hands into the warm bathtub of the Gulf. It was a blue and white day, sharp in contrasts. What was left of the white sand beach behind her stretched thin to the south. The other two figures wading in the water were only silhouettes against the sea’s flash and sparkle. The infant, confused at first, churned the water, then righted itself, crooked dorsal fin hooking the surface.
Even with her eyes closed, she felt dazzled. The only respite from the glare was the dark-shaded entrance to the bayou, small with distance at the other end of the bay. She kept looking back to give her eyes a break, wanting to be done with this last sampling trip, done with the community dinner later that night, done with everything here. Done and already living whatever possibilities awaited her out west. Raiah didn’t do well in transitional periods.
Her dark curly hair was simultaneously heavy with humidity and charged by the electricity of the incoming hurricane, still miles from landfall. Here on this clear day, she waded in the vacuum before the chaos of the storm—nothing was damaged yet, nothing broken; there was only the pent-up potential for raw power. The air was heavy-breathing, as Jerica would say. It was a painful feeling, one Raiah had contained in the tightness beneath her ribs for most of her life. She needed a storm to release it.
“You should have worn them shades,” her daddy said as he moved toward her in the waist-deep water, pulling a small netted basket.
Even though he didn’t shout, his words carried. Raiah had never heard her daddy raise his voice, yet everyone always managed to hear what he had to say. For today’s trip, he wore sand-colored waders over a green shirt, his face shadowed by a wide-brimmed hat, eyes covered by dark glasses—similar to the ones Raiah wished she’d remembered, though she would never admit that mistake. She used her hands to shade her eyes as she looked across the horizon for signs of the coming storm.
“What did you catch?” He gestured toward the place where she had let the infant go, the dark skin of his forearm sun-dried tight over his muscles and bones.
“Shark. Small, sickly.”
“Shame.” He gave a deep cough, then spit thick mucus into the wavelets. “Seems like the hypoxic zone’s getting bigger every year.”
A crooked smile pulled Raiah’s skin across her temples. “People’ve been saying that since 2005.”
“Lord help us, and there’ll be people to keep saying it. And the poison still won’t cover the Gulf. Maybe one day what you’ll learn out west about how they manage Monterey Bay will let us start remarking how it’s getting smaller each year.”
“A bay isn’t a gulf, Daddy.”
Raiah didn’t need to remind him. Joe Cropperson was a leading expert on meta-ecology in hurricane zones and a general expert, it seemed to her at least, on everything else that had to do with Gulf waters.
“Sometimes what we learn can be useful in places it doesn’t seem to fit.” His voice remained low, and his hand on her should was soft. “Now, I know you tagged that creature. About finished up here? It’s time we head back to the community before the feast starts.”
They began wading to their small boat, beached on the sand bar. Raiah had tucked her skirt into her waistband, but the dip and rise of the waves had soaked the material, and now she slogged through fabric as much as water. Her hair was clinging to her forehead; she dipped her hands into the salt water, then smoothed the loose curls back.
“What did you note?” Joe called to the other figure, who, at their retreat, had left his sampling to intersect with them.
Ansel waited until he had come a bit closer before responding. He was a slight, white man in his late fifties, and his voice didn’t carry. “Not much, boss—pH levels seem within expected for this time of year. Low microbial abundance, but I took a sample so we can verify and see what sort of viral dynamics are going on. Based on what I measured in field, it looks like it’ll be a big storm.”
Joe nodded. Big storms were commonplace on the Gulf Coast, but they were now predictable in their strength, thanks to his research. Raiah’s daddy was a bona fide national hero, discovering and developing a way to predict storm severity using the shift and ebb of viral and microbial interactomes and populations in the Gulf waters and along the Atlantic coast. Big ocean-science organizations like NOAA had even started adapting his research to the cooler waters of the Northern Pacific, though hurricane-strength storms were still rare along California and the Pacific Northwest.
His success lay in his persistence, which he’d passed down—whether as a heritable trait or through nurture—to Raiah. You don’t quit on the thing you most love. And Joe loved the Gulf. In the early years of the federal government’s collapse and the shift to university-run free city-states, he had continued his research even without funding and supplies. As more and more university governments called on his ecological expertise, he’d earned a small grant to monitor Escambia Bay after it became a Federal Wildlife Refuge—the only management the federal government still did now. This grant had made Milton—where they lived, just up the river—one of the wealthier communities on the Gulf Coast, able to buy things they couldn’t grow, make, or scavenge. It had also made him a local hero.
Raiah’s daddy was valuable. A national treasure, one femme told Raiah at one of the many conferences Joe made her attend. The words were followed by a long hug meant for her daddy. The femme didn’t care about Raiah except that she belonged to Joe. To be Joe Cropperson’s child gave her value. She’d had her pick of universities before finally settling on her daddy’s top choice: the Hopkins Marine Institute on the Monterey Bay. Raiah didn’t mind. Monterey was near San Francisco. She could go up to the city anytime she wanted—and Joe wouldn’t have to know.
“Raiah found a shark,” Joe told Ansel, after a few moments of silent slogging back to the boat.
Ansel took his ball cap off and ran some salt water through his thinning hair. “You don’t say. Shark’re coming back?”
“I don’t know,” Raiah said, shrugging off the expectant faces. “It wasn’t healthy. Probably just lost.”
“Pretty far north to be lost.” Ansel repeated Joe’s earlier words: “You tagged it, of course.”
As their small boat puttered up the bayou, the almost-tunnel of trees eased Raiah’s sun-tensed muscles, soothing her sun-baked skin. Skinny spines of mangrove roots tangled along the edges—trees that had migrated up from southern Florida, a place now long dead, sensitive to the poisons in the water and the increasing salinity as the sea level rose, pushing out the freshwater lens across the entire state. Spanish moss draped across the bulbous-burled arms of live oaks and waved in false breezes; the crack of a falling branch sounded in the still air. They passed hurricane-gutted houses, their roofs long collapsed, the sidings melted to mold and other fungi, the copper and other useful elements long scavenged. Only rebar and cracked concrete testified to one-time human occupation. They made another turn along the swampy bayou channel and reached the Milton dock. Home.
Jerica was waiting for them, her hips swathed in an apron stained with boil spices. “You bring me fish?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Joe passed a small cooler across the space between the boat and the dock.
“I thank you.” She gave him a mock curtsy, her smile wide. “I still can’t believe we’re saying good-bye to our baby. The Destin Community even brought up a gator.” She grinned at Raiah, then rushed up the dock with the cooler.
The feast was a boil, but there were no shrimp, no crawfish, no clams—no filter species exposed to toxins from the Gulf. Most of these populations had crashed anyway in the warmer sea temperatures. Instead wide mushroom tops, various fish, bits of squash and okra, potatoes, and the promised gator brought from Destin all stewed in boil spices, making a rich, viscous broth that could be sopped up with coarse bread. The big hangar of the abandoned Milton airbase, which served as a hall and a dining room for large gatherings, filled up with the smell of the boil as more and more people from the communities spread along the remains of the Gulf Coast arrived. On Jerica’s orders, the two working aircraft that also resided in the hangar had been pushed to the far end, and the space was now occupied by rows of long tables, brought up from the barracks.
The communities from around Milton, north Pensacola, drowned Mobile, and gutted Destin rarely came together. These were tough people, determined to make a life on the Gulf Coast despite the effects of climate change and the aftermath of the federal government’s collapse. As the university-run city-states filled the government vacuum, those who could afford it had moved north or else to the city-states of Orland, Tampa, Jacksonville, and the long sprawl of Beach Town to the southeast. Those who couldn’t hunkered down in abandoned air bases or fortified buildings, creating independent communities—not quite free city-states, but also not quite under university control, since the Florida State University government didn’t care about land that no one with any money wanted. FSU was too busy trying to maintain and reclaim what it could of a dangling peninsula that was being drowned by sea water and eaten by hurricanes.
“You got a lot on your mind. Are you worrying about going to a university?” Joe’s hands felt heavy on Raiah’s arms, the lumped and twisted knuckles familiar and full of strength.
“Not so much worrying as wondering how me studying out west is going to help us here.” Raiah said what she knew Joe expected. Even though he hadn’t mentioned anything, Joe had revealed in many small ways just how nervous he was to have his daughter leave—so now Raiah gave him the opportunity to reassure himself that this was the right decision. That she wouldn’t become lost forever like her mama. Knowing he wanted her to, she leaned into his chest, and he hugged her close.
“You’ve got a brain, girl. Better than mine, I think, maybe even better than your mama’s. If she were alive, she’d want you to take that brain out of this swamp and fill it with things you can’t get here. I want that too. The Hopkins Institute in Monterey is a good place. And the University of California has money—money that will help you learn, and maybe money you can use back here for our research someday.”
“I know, I know.”
She was happy to let him think that her going away was something helpful and necessary, not the escape she’d been planning for years. Snugged against Joe’s chest, face hidden in his flannel shirt, she thought about how she would visit the Free City-State of San Francisco, maybe even go to some of the places her mama had gone to when she was stationed there. So long ago, before she’d come to Milton and met Raiah’s daddy—before she’d left Raiah with him and gone off to die in one of many identical wars.
“Here’s Cody, come to say good-bye proper, I’d guess.”
Joe released Raiah with a sigh as Cody Dawes from Pensacola limped over. His uneven gait somehow made him seem powerful, his stooped shoulders accentuating his muscled strength.
“Joe.” Cody shook her daddy’s hand before he turned to Raiah. “I’ll sure miss you, sugar.”
At that, Joe nodded at both of them and moved to the tables, calling over his shoulder, “Don’t spend too long talking. The gator won’t last. It’d be a shame if the guest of honor missed out.”
“We’ll be there soon, Daddy.” Raiah took Cody’s rough hand and led him outside, into the thick night air.
“Whoa, it’s sure muggy here,” Cody called out, for the benefit of all the people watching them but pretending not to. “How’d you get the mosquitoes in hand? We’re having an awful time in P-Cola with them.”
“Daddy thought of it. We started seeding the standing water with a microbial cocktail that turns their eggs to goop. Keeps the fevers down for sure, since there aren’t enough mosquitoes to carry viruses. I can’t believe the people here used to shoot poison fog into the air.”
Raiah hoped she sounded light, but her throat was tight. She didn’t want to talk to Cody, who at thirty-two was ten years her senior, her lover for three, and the father of four of her children—all miscarried before they’d even begun to look human. She didn’t want to answer the question he meant to ask her tonight.
“I’ll have to talk to Joe before I leave, get some of that culture.” Cody pulled her into his arms, his muscles contracting and relaxing as he worked out what he wanted to say. “You be careful out west. I hear there’s a new superbug starting to go around. Got all the researchers stymied.”
“I’ll be fine.” She reached up and ran her fingers though his sun-bleached hair, looking hard into his eyes.
“I just need you to come back safe. And bring back our child?” The last part was a question.
She shook her head, and his eyes went dark and sad. “It didn’t take—again,” she said, choking on the last word despite how often she’d practiced telling him.
“Oh, sugar, I’m sorry.” He squeezed her close. “We can try again tonight if you want. Or when you get back,” he added when she tensed. “I don’t understand it. You’re young and healthy, and Melissa conceived off me.” Melissa had been his spouse—now dead seven years, killed by Hurricane Eula, the same hurricane that had taken his only child.
For a moment Raiah broke her disciplined cool, letting herself feel how nice it would be to be comforted. She was tired of this obsession for a child, both Cody’s and hers. Tired but still in its thrall. Maybe out west it would be different. Maybe away from the swampy humidity and storm-charged air of the Gulf, her body would be able to hold onto a fetus. Or maybe she’d stop caring. Maybe she needed someone different from Cody. Away from him, maybe she could forget her fear that there was something wrong with her—her womb—something that rejected the new life she so wanted.
She had barely bled this last time, as if her uterus couldn’t even bother to create the rich lining needed to sustain a pregnancy. She’d never tell Cody or anyone how she had held her baby’s snailed form, oyster-slimy and small. She’d swallowed it as she had the others. Held it for a moment cradled in the curl of her tongue, its heme sharp and bitter.
“Sugar?” Cody held her at arm’s length, looking over her face, reading any twitch that might reveal what Raiah was keeping inside. She knew that her reserve both attracted and frustrated him. He sighed, then pulled her to his chest. “Okay, okay. You be safe. When you come back, we can try.” His voice told Raiah that he didn’t expect her to want to try; perhaps he even doubted that she would return at all. “Go inside to your party, sugar. I’ll see you soon.”
She crossed the edge of light into the hanger, not looking back at Cody.
“There she is!” Jerica rushed over, wiping her hands on a bleached flour sack. “I saved you some of the gator. It’s on a plate by your daddy.” She nodded across the room, then stopped and really looked at Raiah. “You okay? It’s hard to say good-bye.” She swooped Raiah into a tight hug.
Raiah stayed quiet. Let Jerica, let them all, believe what they wanted.
In the blue-white glow of the LED lights, Raiah was finishing her packing when Joe rapped on the door to her barracks room.
“It’s early yet for you to go, but I think it’s best in case this storm does something we don’t expect. You get up to the airport in Atlanta, then you’ll be fine.”
Raiah nodded. She didn’t need to answer—he was just talking to fill the silence until he got to what he really wanted to say. She folded and rolled her down coat, pressing it firmly into a corner of her mama’s sea bag. Even in the long summers, Monterey wasn’t warm like the rest of California. Best to be prepared for anything.
Outside the cicadas screamed good morning.
“Jerica said that Cody’s not taking you?” Joe asked finally.
“Nope. He had to go back to Pensacola—figured it would be best to be there and help the community get ready for the storm.” She didn’t look up from the books she was considering taking.
“There ain’t any good news in your heart, is there, darling?”
Joe’s voice was gentle, and Raiah felt her tears rise up, stinging her eyes. This wasn’t good. If she broke down about the baby in front of her daddy, who knew if she’d ever get control again? She looked up at the ceiling, willing the tightness in her chest to dissipate.
“It’s for the best.” Her voice was tight but controlled. “It’d be hard to leave if I were carrying his baby.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” He shrugged and put a hand on her head. “When your mama left for her first tour with you inside, it gave her a reason to come back.” He paused. “I’d like you to have a reason to come back.”
Raiah tensed. How much did he know? How much had he known before her mama left?
Joe was musing: “Maybe it’s the poisons here that’s blocking wombs. I’ve been thinking hard about it. There’s some sort of change happening. I saw it when I went to that conference. We make healthy kids with the new inoculations but aren’t making a lot of new babies. Some folks are starting to worry.”
Raiah wiped her eyes on her sleeve, finally looking at her father.
He sat on the bed and gestured for her to join him. “I was hoping our community might not be affected by all these changes, since we’re so far off from that University stuff, but it seems like maybe it floats with the current, bringing the consequences whether you will or no. I’m thinking that while you’re at Hopkins, maybe you should look into some of the other things they’re doing in the UCs.” His lined face folded further as he smiled, and he pulled her in for another hug, tucking her head under his chin. “Will you accept this impossible mission?”
“Yes, Daddy, I’ll accept your mission.” She smiled into his shirt, memorizing his smell of brine and cloves.
“Good girl.” He shifted her away, then reached for something tucked behind his back. “Now, this cost a pretty penny, but we wanted the best for our girl.”
“What!” Raiah held the new iPC gently, as if too firm a grip would crack the screen.
“Ansel’s got it all hooked up to our satellite monitors here. You can talk to us day or night—whenever you need a good dose of home.”
“Thank you, Daddy.” Raiah turned to pack the device under many protective layers of clothing in her sea bag. “I’ll test it at the airport.”
“Great. Now finish up here. Since Cody’s not going, I’ll see about Ansel going with you and Jerica north. We need a few supplies before this storm hits anyhow.”
Alone, Raiah finished packing, her stomach knotting with fear and excitement. As she stepped out into the chill, humid air, she watched her breath make fantastic shapes that spun out, then broke apart. Promises or forebodings, she didn’t care.
It’s become clear over the course of my life that I am equally a scientist and an artist. I love scientific study because it explores the mysteries of our world and suggests explanations—stories, if you will—for how these mysteries may work. However, in my science writing I discovered a serious challenge: often the explanations and qualifiers that make for good scientific research divorce the information from our physical experiences. Our ancestors attributed many things that we now know to be microbial influences to spirits and gods. These explanations, though inaccurate, got at the truth of their lived experiences within their bodies. The conundrum is how to reconcile truthful experience with scientific accuracy. I believe this can be done through the art of story-telling.
We cannot escape the fact that information is processed in and through our bodies. Thus, fundamental to my novel is the grounding of information and knowledge in the human body’s experience, an important strategy for conveying complex scientific information accurately in a work of fiction. Based on current research—particularly on the human microbiome—my novel is set in a future where optimal health and a long life are available only for those who can afford regular microbial inoculations, begun at birth. In this fictional world, fertility rates have dropped and epidemics have become common. Five protagonists—who are diverse in their genders as well as their cultural, educational, and racial backgrounds—must work toward forgiving and trusting each other as they resist the machinations of a wealthy and politically powerful owner of a fertility clinic, who wants to exploit their bodies for her illicit research. The opening pages introduce us to Raiah, who wants a biological child more than anything else.
THE DESERT BURNS CLEAN is my attempt to portray accurately the facts of our complex scientific reality while still accessing the truth of the human body’s experience, as well as telling an artful story that delights and entertains.
Breeann Kyte, a biologist and creative writer, is firmly grounded in both science and the literary arts. She works in both fields, facilitating collaborations between scientists, writers, and visual artists. While this is not her first rodeo, this is her first novel. She lives in San Diego, California. Her website is www.sciencereasoncalifornia.
Embark, Issue 18, April 2023