The Waves by Lara Alonso Corona
There is the taste, still pungent in a world so often dulled. The names, all Old World and wonderfully obsolete, rolled down your tongue just like their juices: Sweet Cluster, Costoluto Genovese, Azoychka, Monserrat.
The world was always ending, one time after the other, so that was nothing new. But someone had to start the generator every morning so that the neon lights of the WKW Snack Bar could flicker and come alive when the market opened. By the time the eel merchants had delivered their stock and were about to take a break for coffee before going back to the port, Tita already had the cafetera—the coffee machine that was her uncle’s legacy from before he split for the interior—up and running, and the extra electricity allowed her to play a beloved tune in her CD player.
Today she was trying out a couple of new finds that she’d play in the afternoon: Roxette’s greatest hits, kind of sappy and cheap but easy to enjoy, and one of those chillout compilations they used to sell in coffee houses back when people bought that kind of stuff.
No one made CDs anymore, but there was still a good market for them. And every Friday after passing on the torch to the night shift waitress Tita went to the other side of town, the side with churches and the beachfront, and paid a meager admission price to get into a long room that smelled like sawdust where the so-called Music Collectors Fair happened. Rummaging through boxes and boxes of old CDs was the highlight of Tita’s week.
It smelled of sawdust because the place was an old sidrería, or cider bar, the kind that used to have its floors covered with the stuff so that the inevitable splashes of cider wouldn’t leave the tiles sticky and gross.
This used to be a city of greengrocers, orchard dwellers, earth-stained fingers.
No matter how early she came to the covered market in the mornings, Tita was never the first one there.
There was Ilo, who acted as security for the market. She once found a police uniform somewhere and, even though the city had no official authorities anymore, she decided to don those clothes and protect the building. As a place where people brought food daily it was quite exposed to thieves, but even thieves and lowlifes had abandoned the city at this point. Just in case, Ilo made the rounds. She was only a few years older than Tita but Tita admired how responsible and solid Ilo looked with that blue uniform perfectly pressed (she washed it often and used rows of books to press it—it would be foolish to waste generator energy for something books could perfectly take care of). Ilo was always WKW’s first customer: coffee with just a spoonful of powdered milk.
There were still cows, of course, deep in the mountains, and plenty of milk up there. But since the authorities had cut off the paved roads to stop anyone from leaving the county, the city folks had it hard to reach the peaks where cows and goats and their owners lived. Many from the city had gone up to live in the mountains. It was a hard life, but at least you didn’t have to deal with huge, murderous waves. Sometimes the mountain people came down to trade, but mostly the city was left alone.
Ilo always took her time with her first coffee of the day (she’d be back), savoring the luxury before continuing with her rounds around the market. Ilo loved Dumont, the person who brought vegetables they grew themselves in a DIY hothouse on their rooftop. Dumont had learned about things that grow late in life—they thought 47 was too late to start an orchard, but after the second end of the world they decided they were fed up with waiting for the authorities to bring some fresh supplies and asked Magda to take them in her bike to the old library. There they found books on the matter, while Magda searched for manuals to repair her hearing aid now that the hospitals had closed down, and picked the ones which were least rotten. The first year had been a disaster but now Dumont was the grocer with the most beautiful tomatoes in the whole county.
“It’s that time of the year, fresh garlic,” Dumont announced today, arriving with their boxes of vegetables while Ilo was still enjoying her coffee, and she frowned, like she needed to go back to paying attention to her self-imposed job, like Dumont or the market itself was as fragile as those tiny, delicious bulbs of garlic.
The garlic attracted everyone’s attention, even the old guys who did nothing but play dominoes and eat Aminata’s soup all day. Even old man Dario, who came back from Cuba two months before the end of the world and would normally take this moment of confusion among his rivals to cheat, was more interested in the vegetables than in the game.
Aminata was Dumont’s first customer, of course, grabbing a bunch of garlic first and asking questions later. Dumont’s chest puffed with pride at how far they’d gotten as amateur greengrocer in just a couple of years.
Aminata had been a good friend of Tita’s uncle, and her shop and the WKW snack bar weren’t in competition. Aminata didn’t offer coffee and the WKW only had cold snacks, not proper lunch and dinner. Most restaurants in the city had moved into private flats, always on the top floor of buildings and hoping to weather the next big wave, but Aminata stubbornly kept the old market food going—the stove always on, making her famous Tiéboudienne every week, thanks in part to the help of the fishermen.
Fisherman was by far the most dangerous profession in the world right now, always exposed to the inevitability of the Big Waves, but there was still a group of them who went out to the sea every couple of days, if not every day. They were mostly weird ones, Tita figured out when she came to live in this city. People like Benita, or “Bene,” who had been fishing as part of a rehabilitation program for drug addicts when the end of the world hit and left the town…well, like this. The woman had refused to give up fishing. Mostly they were old fishing families who never did anything else, but thanks to them, they were the only town in the whole county with fresh fish, even if it was mostly just the humble local black seabream, la chopa. Though Tita was the newcomer in this market, even after two years, the fishermen and fisherwomen always treated her like an extension of her uncle— bothered Tita at first, until she realized that meant they treated her like family. That didn’t stop when her uncle had to move back to the capital, leaving the snack bar in Tita’s hesitant hands.
Bene came to WKW for generous cups of decaffeinated tea, “no drugs, no drugs” was her motto now, happily showing the marks of her past addiction to friends and strangers alike. She was open and loud and sometimes she drove Tita mad with her noise, and with the way she always wanted to mess with Tita’s CD player. She was very fussy about her player, especially since the scare she got half a year ago when it mysteriously stopped working and Tita had walked like a zombie for a couple of weeks, until Magda’s nimble fingers and an old electronics textbook managed a miracle and brought the thing back to life.
Which, speaking of, the only thing that drowned out the rowdy fishermen was the revving engine of Magda’s powerful and completely self-made, self-reliant monster of a motorbike. It had taken her years to finish, scavenging parts from bikes and cars alike, improvising, improvising, but weren’t they all?
“Hey, it’s Friday,” Magda said, going directly to the bar, as if she had trouble keeping up with which day it was. “You wanna go somewhere?”
Tita nodded and prepared to close shop early, like every Friday, for this now-ritual between them. She was already counting on the bike ride to get to the collectors fair.
They were early and Magda asked her to help with some impromptu scavenging.
“Art gallery then Indian restaurant,” she decided.
The art gallery had been tucked away behind one of the three churches facing the sea and had been left pretty much untouched except for the damage done by the water.
“It’s kind of sad,” Tita let out, looking at one of the paintings on the wall. It must have been something at some point, now it was just a mess of water damage like an eruption on skin. The little plaque read mountain landscape #3 and you could still see a smudge of green paint on one corner. Someone had painted and loved this once upon a time. Tita thought, after four years of end-of-the-worlds, that she no longer had the capacity to feel sad about something so small and irrelevant. It was comforting, in a way, a warm-water kind of sadness.
“We can still use the wood of the frames,” Magda, who didn’t like reflection, proposed instead, already dismantling the thing with her nimble hands.
“Careful,” Tita said, then decided it didn’t matter, and that the painter, whoever she or he was, would probably be happy to know that the frame to their work would help sustain a group of good people through autumn and winter.
Magda put the pieces inside her backpack and they moved on.
The Indian restaurant, beachfront, had been one of the first to go. Every shop in that street had been basically destroyed by the great waves. But Magda knew they had a storage room upstairs and some of the tins of food might have survived the first waves, and then the first wave of salvaging by the locals. They went away with a couple of cans of coconut oil Magda could probably trade with Aminata.
“You never get anything good,” she protested as Tita was browsing through the CDs half an hour later.
Magda and Tita didn’t agree on music. Magda, as per her spiky-haired leather-wearing persona, liked heavy metal, things of noise and darkness, but also, surprisingly, classical music and soundtracks and “that sort of relaxing crap” as she called it, running her fingers through her hair in amused embarrassment.
You couldn’t be picky after the end of the world.
Tita remembered there hadn’t been music in the capital, even though they had electricity in some neighborhoods, even phone lines. The capital was only for useful things, and old tunes had no use, and new ones were a waste of work. It was only when she moved to this ruined, damp town to help with her uncle’s bar that Tita found music.
One could find everything here, it was always so. There were always mountains cutting the population off from the rest of the country, and the sea, la mar, was dangerous even before the Great Waves started appearing. They had to farm everything they needed, hunt everything they needed, live on the assumption that the rest of the country was going to eventually forget about them.
The Old Town, built by the Romans, was the first to go, of course. Victim of the first end of the world, if you will. They didn’t call it “first” then, they thought that was it. But you get used to all sorts of things. Like having the Old Town underwater.
“Are you sure this thing works?” Tita asked, examining the scuba equipment, worried it was just another of Magda’s inventions.
“Of course,” the other woman replied. There was a carelessness to her that Tita found troubling—the way she went through life like it was such an easy thing. Troubling, or maybe Tita was jealous. “Found it in one of those shops that used to have surfboards and Hawaiian shirts.”
She helped Tita get into a clearly oversized wetsuit, closing the zipper herself.
“Uh…thanks,” Tita said, awkwardly, only too aware of Magda’s close presence and the usual mysterious smirk she was flashing her.
The undefined nature of the relationship had begun to itch, all through this long summer where Magda had started to treat Tita almost like a girlfriend. The other woman was always driving her around in her bike, showing her “cool places” as she called them, bringing her to her salvaging expeditions but only if they weren’t dangerous. And Tita did the same: she always talked to Magda excitedly about her new “finds” and played songs, loud, for her. She was always giving her snacks, especially those mints the other woman favored, and Magda sometimes looked at Tita like she wanted to kiss her. Or maybe Tita was projecting a bit, there.
Tita couldn’t remember how she did this stuff before the end of the world. When it had mattered in a different way. Before she moved here and took charge of the snack bar and started living day to day, and collectors fair to collectors fair, bike ride to bike ride. She wished she had asked her uncle more about Ilo’s long courtship of Dumont before her uncle left for the capital. Tita didn’t know how one went about these things in the ruined seaside city.
“Maybe this time I can go down to the Roman baths,” Magda said, excited, while she took out her hearing aid and tucked it away safely.
The Old Town had well-preserved Roman baths in the tunnels underneath it. Before the end of the world left the whole thing underwater there had even been a little museum local school children used to visit.
Tita hesitated, but she was curious about going down there. Each year the Old Town sunk a couple of inches into the ocean floor. Now only the top of the church was accessible through regular diving, without oxygen.
It turned out the Old Town was underwater, but not too deep. Easy enough for an amateur, Magda had told her, and she hadn’t been lying.
It was one of those rare times when Magda wasn’t interested in salvaging or foraging or whatever she wanted to call it. They were just sightseeing.
After the first panicked moments of feeling like she was doing something unnatural, something her body didn’t want to do, Tita relaxed. The ocean was so pleasantly cold. She remembered, from visits when she was a kid, how people always said this sea was particularly cold even in summer, and it was true. Madga was quick and elegant in her diving, a pro, and she had to stop trying to catch up with her if she wanted to enjoy the view.
Under Tita, the town looked like a plastic model at first, unnaturally shrunk by a matter of perspective.
A thin film of moss or algae or whatever grows in the bottom of the ocean had already started covering the walls of every building and Tita flattened her hand against them, feeling the pleasant softness of those walls. The impressive portico of the old art museum, and the restaurant where Tita remembered having come to celebrate her uncle’s birthday when she was a kid…all the buildings were beginning to take on the same shade of green.
It was beautiful.
The people were always home-focused. The weather meant long stretches of time spent inside one’s house, in the company of one’s family. That’s why myths and legends surrounding the home—el llar—abounded; tales of cheeky little demons disrupting housework with their tricks, playing small, petty games on you. Hiding that sock you just mended, frightening the cows, adding sugar to the soup. These demons could, on occasion, be bribed to act as helpers instead. They could be bought with apples, turnips, wild onion, or a good rubbing of their fat bellies.
The latest CD collectors fair had been suspended due to storm warnings. The coming of winter in a city that used to be known for its gentle, mild winters. Not now. Now there was the usual catastrophe in the air. Nothing to fuss about. Next week or the other. She didn’t even bother going to the WKW; she knew nobody would come to the market today.
Sometimes the worst thing wasn’t the waves—it was the strange, maddening weather just before. This time it was hail. There had always been hail storms in this city; Tita remembered she was surprised by it as a kid, because otherwise the place, pre-apocalypse, had some of the mildest weather in the country. It felt like some cruel irony that the waves had come here. And now hail was a very serious problem, so much that Tita was spending the afternoon nailing wood boards against the windows, in case some of it broke the glass.
The first and greatest wave, four years ago, had destroyed the power plant, leaving that whole patch of coast without electricity. It had also cut the city off from the rest of the county, miles and miles of phone lines lying like fallen giants on fields where grass rotted under saltwater.
So communication had gone back a couple of centuries, and couriers like Magda were often the only way of sending messages to other people.
To say that Tita, in this pre-Waves weather, wasn’t expecting anyone to knock on her door was an understatement.
First, she saw the big droplets of water falling from Magda’s short hair, right before she shook them off like a cute puppy.
“What are you doing here? Are you crazy?”
Tita knew the answer to that last one, though. She wasn’t even sure Magda had heard her, because she knew that rain messed with her aid sometimes.
“We need to go help the tomatoes,” Magda said. Not Dumont, the tomatoes.
Two years ago, when her uncle put her in charge of the WKW bar, all Tita had wanted was to be left alone. The world had ended—and a couple of times—so why would anyone want to hang out and talk to other people?
Today, Tita wasted no time in shouting “Coming down” into the interphone and grabbed her thickest jacket and a hat and run down the stairs.
“You are crazy!” she shouted into Magda’s ear as they sped through the empty streets on the woman’s bike. The sky was spewing murderous balls of ice at them and the pavement was either wet or starting to freeze over.
When they arrived at Dumont’s place, thirteenth floor, just under the roof, Ilo and Bene and Aminata were already there, carrying the tomato vines inside. Even the old man Dario was there, not quite helping, but overseeing the whole thing, ordering people around in a way that made Dumont narrow their eyes, because “we know what we’re doing.”
The hail storm threw rocks of ice almost as big as a fist and they easily punctured the plastic roof of Dumont’s makeshift hothouse up there. They were probably very dangerous to people, too; Tita guessed that if one of them hit your head you were a goner, but that didn’t matter to any of the people who had hurried to answer the alarm. Ilo took off the shirt of her police uniform—the blue, perfectly pressed, beautiful shirt—and threw it over one of the tomato plants to protect it as she made her way to the staircase.
Without realizing it, Tita had herself caught one of the boxes between her arms. As was traditional, Dumont had reappropriated fruit boxes for growing vegetables and Tita could read “naranjas turia” on the side of one of the boards. Her hands, numb from the cold, could not feel the rough, cheap material. She suddenly thought what a fragile thing this was, this little tomato plant in her arms. She could smell the pungent, sweet scent of it, and the sharper smell of the fertilized earth. It felt like something defenseless that Tita had to protect and she ran toward the door, deciding to get as many plants out of the rain and freezing cold and ice as she could.
“That’s enough,” Dumont shouted for everybody to get back, and Tita warned Magda, who had her back to the door at the moment.
They brought in the last of the vines and locked up the place religiously, all of them knowing they were stuck in the flat until the storm and the Big Waves were over, probably in a couple of days. That wasn’t as inconvenient as it would have been in their old lives, as now people were used to sudden explosions of weather that would leave them stranded and counting on the kindness of strangers (strangers were kinder these days). Tita recalled a couple of times even the fishermen had to spend the night in the market, sleeping under empty potato bags.
After the mild disaster with the tomatoes (averted only in that it was milder than it should have been) everyone made way, pushing the many boxes with tomato vines to one corner of the room, and gathered around the wood heater while Dumont made coffee with condensed milk in the fire above.
“They like sweet things,” Ilo commented, kissing the top of Dumont’s head with familiarity.
Dumont smiled, pleased. No shame in it. No shame in liking sweet things.
Tita thought about that too, and while Dumont and Aminata argued with each other to see who made some sauce from the damaged tomatoes and served the guests some pasta as reward for their efforts (“I am the host,” Dumont pointed out, but the woman was more effective: “I am Aminata”), and while Ilo and Bene were fighting for a place near the window so they could see the Big Waves from a vantage point, Tita wrapped one arm around Magda’s shoulders and pulled her toward her, kissing her cheek.
Magda looked at her, surprised but also relieved, and Tita finally knew she hadn’t been imagining things about the two of them.
“What was that for?” Magda asked.
Tita smirked, paying back all those cocky mysterious smiles the biker had given her for the last two years.
“I like sweet things too,” she said.
Behind then the roar of the ocean was a low murmur, drowned out by friends chatting and the fire crackling and the safety of height, and Tita knew it was going to bring destruction with it, but it was the usual kind of destruction, and from here it sounded more like the static noise of her CDs: the blank space after a song ends and before the next one begins.
Lara Alonso Corona is a queer writer from the north of Spain. They studied Film and TV in Madrid before making the decision to write in a second language and move to London. Their fiction has appeared in venues like Literary Orphans, Whiskey Island, FIVE:2