Aja watched the island float for just a single heartbeat, and then it sank. Like the others before it, reeds and grasses swallowed in greed, by the waters of the bog. Beside her Diana heaved a sigh of frustration.
“We’ll try again,” Aja said, but Diana was already shaking her head.
“If it hasn’t worked yet, it won’t work at all.”
“That’s not helpful!” Aja resisted the urge to kick the planks they had stacked by the wayside. They would need them to build another island. Diana bared her teeth.
“Well, what else do you want to do? Wasn’t there someone who once said doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is madness?”
“But we’ve been trying new things! We’ve been…” Exhaustion crashed over her mid-sentence, and Aja trailed off, shoulders slumping. It was noon; they had gotten up so early to set up the last bits and pieces before getting the floating garden in the water. This was their fifty-ninth attempt, or maybe the sixtieth. In her tired mind the numbers blurred together, the times she’d ended up in the mucky waters bleeding into each other. These days she was always damp, always accompanied by the smell of the bog, no matter how much she washed it off.
“We’ve been trying,” she repeated, voice faint.
Diana’s jaw was clenched, but she, too, was swallowing back her anger. “I know. But we have to start considering other options. I heard Norway is building actual ships that…”
“Won’t work,” Aja interrupted her, uncaring of how rude it was. Diana should know better; this had been her idea, after all. “The bogs don’t have the same depth necessary for a ship or boat big enough for both people to walk around and gardens big enough to be useful. The boats would be too big, and we can’t move them enough.” It would be easier if the ground was stable, if landmasses hadn’t fallen into the ocean. A hungry mouth, Diana had called it, when the southern shore of Greenland had been eaten up, all in one go. The ocean was hungry, and she was swallowing the lands incessantly, could not get her fill. She was tired, Aja thought, tired of being filled with trash and tears and oxygen-crushed corpses of whales down on the bottom.
“We have two weeks until the deadline,” Diana said. “Do you really think we’re going to come up with something in that time? They’re going to take our funding. They’re going to decry the whole project, say floating gardens would have never worked anyway. We should have focused on new landmasses, on draining the water or making artificial soil or anything. But floating gardens? Might as well be flying gardens, for all the good it’s going to do. No one will ever pick it up again, no one will ever listen to us…”
“Quiet!” Aja hissed, and that was it, Diana was turning around and storming away, each of them reaching their breaking point. Once, such arguments had been rare between them, but stress and isolation had picked at their brains until all that was left was raw exposed nerves. The heat didn’t help, making them sluggish and slow. The sun left a red tinge on the dark skin of Diana's left shoulder, a red deepening with the afternoon. In their hurry, they had forgotten to be careful. They had stopped caring about it, out here all alone.
It was illegal to work during the noon-hours now; everyone was required to stay inside with their shutters closed. Aja remembered laughing the first time a friend had told her that UV-rays traveled through the thick panes of her window, that sitting there in the sun, directly or not, would harm her. That was when she had been young, when the ocean had seemed inevitable but somehow not quite as threatening, when the sun had still been a friend. And she remembered the first time she’d broken curfew to set up tomatoes on their second attempt at the island, and she had stayed out long enough that the skin beneath her work coverall and sleeveless tank had gone red, too.
“I’ve tanned through my clothes,” she’d told Diana, and Di had laughed and then grown quiet when she had seen the light brown just on the edge of still being red. It had hurt, the skin peeling off like those summers when she was a child and had been out just ten minutes longer than the sunblock would work for. Her mother had scolded her back then, voice harsh, speaking of cancer and cells breaking down. When it happened out in the bog, years later, Diana did not scold her. They both knew they would break curfew again to make this work, no matter how much it burned.
In the privacy of her mind, Aja tried to blame the bog. The sun reflected off the water, no matter how murky, and intensified it. This damned bog that they had made their home now, supposedly teeming with life it could hold onto like no other waters. While the ocean swallowed everything, the bog seemed quiet, content instead. Diana had put her faith in its stillness and Aja had put her faith in her wife.
The floating gardens had been Diana’s idea, presented to her the first time they met in a café in Copenhagen. She sketched out crude designs on a napkin, talking a mile a minute, and Aja had not felt the need to interrupt though she knew she should be perturbed at not getting a word in edgewise. I know about this stuff too, she could have said, but Diana’s enthusiasm was infectious, her need to speak coming from a teacher’s, not a braggart’s, heart. She left the napkin behind on the table when she realized she’d been late for her train, and Aja almost threw it out. She spilled the last bit of her coffee on the table and reached for the napkin to clean the mess. And then she saw the number scrawled there, alongside a name and a promise.
Their calls had been few, their texts short, but two years later they met again at a conference in Madurai, and Aja had it ready, the plans sketched out properly with an architect’s eye to aid the ecologist. When she presented them she had thought for a moment that Diana would kiss her, right then and there, in front of everyone else at the conference, but she kept it in and waited until after the panels, after the halls had emptied, after their dinner date was over. Aja remembered, even now, how she thought of sunshine when Diana kissed her. Back then, sunshine had still been a good thing to her. Back then, this project seemed achievable.
“The old Aztecs did it,” Diana used to say, almost like a holy mantra. “And others, too. So why can’t we make it work?”
She hadn’t said that in over a month, Aja realized, as she stood there staring at the now still waters of the bog. The soil would dissolve into it, the weeds used as props for proper vegetables collected once they floated to the surface. If it had worked, the island-garden would have been a slim but long thing, with modular sections for added portability. It could be transported through any relatively calm waters and arrive at the farmers now needing to move and relocate every five years or so, as the earth beneath them changed or disappeared at a rapid pace. Similar systems had been set up in Venice already, designed for their once-canals, now-rivers. But Diana’s designs, Diana’s idea, were different. It depended on the bog’s ability to be a natural freezer and preserver, and on the bog’s own need for decayed plant material. It would be a give-and-take if this worked: the bog would feed the gardens and the gardens would feed the bog. Move them, install new ones, plant what you wished. Use what little land was left to keep the greediest parts of the sea away — dirt was no longer needed to grow crops. They had the bog. Diana claimed that with the proper tools, they could grow anything on these gardens, though Aja thought the islands would need to be larger to accommodate proper trees or even very big pumpkins.
But a floating garden was one thing; making it harmonious with the natural environment of the bog was another — not to mention getting it to move without destroying its tiny ecosystem or, quite plainly, having the whole thing break apart. People had been skeptical from the beginning and getting funding had taken years. When Aja and Diana finally had it, it was only the two of them in a bog for two years and Tala, an intern who came in every Wednesday and Friday. Tala had been a blessing at least; she often stayed the weekend over, leaving early Sunday morning and breaking curfew alongside them during Saturday noon-hours to work outside, building and measuring, planting and testing. At some point, Aja stopped being able to follow the scientific jargon, and she let Tala and Diana lead the way, helping where she could, following directions where she couldn’t. She gained more muscle than she knew she could, hauling planks and reeds, digging and pushing, planting and carving. She could pick Diana up by the waist and swing her around now, whooping in joy while Di protested and blushed, and held tight to her shoulders, held tight around her neck.
It had been two years of hard work, and now it would be taken from them. It wouldn’t be wasted, Aja refused to believe that; if nothing else, Diana had discovered better ways of transplanting roots through minimal space, of making beets and zucchini grow where it shouldn’t have room to at all. She published a short piece about it last year, one that had received a lot of attention, but Aja knew it mattered little to Diana. Not in the face of her bigger failure. Their bigger failure.
The one thing she couldn’t understand was why it wouldn’t float when they moved the pieces apart. The problems with the first islands had been a lack of growth, a tendency to crumble when detached from each other, and the bog making the plants wilt just before harvest. It was almost as if the bog was cruelly mocking them, giving them just enough hope before taking it away again. That had not deterred them for long; they found the problems and fixed them. But this time, Aja couldn’t figure out what was wrong. The last few models, though heavier, should not be sinking as rapidly as they did.They should not be sinking at all.
That thought kept turning over and over in her head as she laid in their bed that night. Diana was already asleep when Aja made it back to their small house, hidden away in the middle of nowhere. It was nearly 2 a.m. at that point, but that wasn’t unusual. Losing the midday hours meant working into the night, and often in the early mornings too. They used to spend their lunch time napping, but now that too was devoted to working. If the sun beat down on them too heavily (as it often did), they sat on the wooden floors inside, poring over schematics and graphs, trying to calculate where they went wrong. They had yet to find a precise answer.
They didn’t talk before going to bed that day, didn’t settle their argument, didn’t apologize. Once, they had made a virtue of never going to bed angry, but as so many other things, that rule had fallen to the wayside in face of their small, private disaster. Listening to her wife’s quiet breaths now, Aja couldn’t find even a remnant of the anger she had felt earlier. She wanted this to work, not only for the betterment of humankind, but for Diana as well. She needed it to work.
Aja slipped out of bed as quietly as she had gotten into it. She put on her coveralls and took her heavy rainboots in hand, walking barefoot outside. The bog had crept closer to the entrance of their house, and her heels and toes sank into the soft not-quite-mud as she walked forward. It was a quiet night, the heat almost bearable. She could hear crickets, and to her relief, mosquitoes as well — incessant pests that wouldn’t stop annoying her, but she knew they were integral to everything they were trying to do here. More and more mosquitoes had appeared since they first settled in this place. Aja liked to imagine that they were their small cheer squad, here to support them as they worked for a new future.
Aside from the bugs, it was quiet. She put aside her boots, realizing almost too late that she would not need them, and she shucked off her coveralls soon after, standing only in a top and underwear. The ground sucked at her feet as she walked, and as she got in deeper, the water rushed around her ankles, knees, her waist. Perhaps, she thought, the heat had gotten to her, nestled in her brain and made her think that this was a good idea when it so obviously wasn’t. It was her last thought before she dove into the waters of the bog.
It was cold. That was the most shocking part of it. Aja could not remember feeling cold in the last six months, if not more — the sun always beating down, the remnants of its rays warming the air even at night. But this bog was cold, and it was deep, deeper than Aja thought it should have been. Or perhaps it was just the night, the fact that she could see nothing down here, that made it seem so vast. She walked out, water lapping at her knees, at her thighs. She took a deep breath before diving in and starting to swim.
Decay was ridiculously slow in a bog. Aja knew that already, but she did not realize it fully until she saw the human skull; it took her a shocking beat to realize it was a dead yellowleg instead, the tiny creature almost fully preserved. Tala once told her of how they had pulled up the Tollund man and the Lindow man from bogs, how many more had been killed and sacrificed or simply fallen in and drowned. They had taken a break from their work for a moment to sit and watch the stars, glittering in the sky, as far away from the bog and their work as anything could be.
“I am named after a goddess of the morning and the evening stars,” Tala said, weaving stories with her words and with her hands. Diana had come to join them later, sitting still and quiet like a child hearing their favorite bed-time story. “I am both the sun and the moon,” said Tala, and Aja could see it now, in this moment, the moon reflecting at the bottom of the bog, startling the dead and the even deader, and the rest of the corpses who lived down there.
The faint moonlight was just enough for her to see the remnants of their island, sunk only a few hours past. There were, she knew, the remains of many other gardens just like it, lying in the soil below, but it was too late to save them. Aja reached down, fingers grasping at the light reeds they had used for this one. She pulled.
It came free of the soil almost too easily, and then she was pulling it upwards, over her head, and she watched through the black-as-night waters as it floated upwards, breaking the surface. She was still submerged, but the garden was free, their work restored to the world above. It had not been for nothing after all. She had always known that some things required a little extra; she had learned the lesson over and over since that day in the café. Some things were worth diving down into murky waters for, pulling until your body ached to heave it to the surface.
Aja closed her eyes, her arms feeling like lead. Already she knew she did not have enough air to swim to the surface.That, she thought, delirious on too-little oxygen and too-much heat, that was okay, it would be alright. The island floated above her, and it would grow cherries and blueberries and whatever they needed, and there were plenty of bones at the bottom for her to join. She would be in good company.
The breaking of the surface was a faraway sound, and her brain did not register it before strong arms circled her waist, and then the world was going too fast, and it was upwards, and Aja knew she had already breathed deep, black, peat-filled water into her lungs, knew that it was nestling there and making a home, but her back was on the ground now, the only somewhat denser-ground, and her lungs were being pushed, her ribs were cracking, and a wheezing cough turned into water-vomit as she rolled over and spat onto the ground. Aja imagined bones and peat and viviparous lizards spilling from her mouth onto the ground, but the air had come from Diana herself, and Aja could breathe again.
“You idiot!” She was shouting above her, as Aja still stared into the soil and wondered where the lizards had run off to. “What were you thinking? You nearly died!”
“The island is floating,” she said. “I pulled it up, and it…”
Diana pulled her close, her embrace nearly crushing, but Aja was not complaining. She was too busy contemplating the fact that she was alive, and that her skin still felt cold from the bog, and how nice that was. From the embrace, she could see the island, dripping water, the weeds on it ruined. They would have to pull it back in and replant it, but from here, with the moon shining down, Aja could see the exact engineering error, the place where the mold between parts broke off and made it take in water and sink. Yes, she thought, with Diana’s comforting arms circled around her; she would be able to fix this. It wouldn’t sink again.
Nikoline Kaiser (she/they) writes short stories and poems focusing on feminism, family and queer themes. They live in Denmark and have a Master's degree in Comparative Literature. When not writing, they work on a project communicating information about women authors.