So begins the story of Tillion d’Swasey, a young man who fishes the Bonneville Sea two-hundred and thirty years after a coronal mass ejection destroyed the world’s electricity.
Tillion donned his slicker and hustled down the path to the beach where their boat lay bellied above the surf. Near it lay his father, eyes glazed, stringy hair hiding his features; a clay jug sat half-buried in the sand.
The boy had woken with that familiar hunger, a knot in his belly like a knurl of sun-dried rope. His young body cried for more, more food, more nourishment. Today he would once again see to filling that constant hole. But more than packing his gut with baked fish and boiled grains, he ached to taste a righteous life. For the one he’d lived so far, among the struggling fishermen and ground scratchers of Swasey, allowed him to survive, yes. Yet he hungered beyond his body’s needs, he hungered for a sense of belonging. An insatiable hunger that nagged forever at his belly, at his soul.
Stepping through the low dunes, Tillion soon stood over his father. “We missed the leaving! And I find you like this?” The boy’s sharp words left no mark upon the man’s addled mind. “Now, I must fish alone.”
“You spent too long dozin’,” the man slurred. “Wasn’t my doin’, I been here since, since las’ night, fixin’ the net.”
“This?” The boy reached into the boat and yanked out the snarled net. He shook it in the man’s face. “You’ve been fixing this?”
“Don’t you raise your voice to me, boy! Tain’t my fault you be lax.” The old man sat up and watched his son now struggle to shoulder the boat into the water. He wagged a finger at the gray skies above the sea. “Them clouds look to be draggin’ a storm. I doan… I don’t care how rough it treats you. You fill them barrels, boy.”
Tillion spun and glared at his father. “Leave the fishin’ to me.” With a final shove, the boy freed the skiff, setting it afloat. “You! You treat Dallia kind while I’m out.” He leapt into the craft and pulled the main line snug. The vessel’s canvas snapped taught, and he grabbed the tiller. The boat heeled in the rising wind, and crashed through the breakers. Tillion twisted about and yelled at the old man. “You be kind, I say!”
His father’s last words were lost to the wind as the youth settled in to ride the waves out to the fishing grounds at the southern end of The Bonneville Sea.
Tillion searched for the fishing boats from the village, but they had either turned back in the rising seas or headed east toward the Watchers. He debated whether to take their lead or sail out to where he was certain he could fill the barrels. “Damn these barrels,” he spoke to the wind and kicked the nearest with his boot. He let his anger fester in the gale building swiftly around him. But thoughts of his sister soothed his angst. Her sad eyes and thankful ways would suffer if he surrendered to his temper. “Dallia works too hard for me to complain.”
The young sailor worked the tiller, tacking back and forth to seek the shoals of silver darters that provided their trade. A bright, erratic fish, the size of his hand, darters could be caught by the hundreds, even in Tillion’s ancient tangle of a net. And where darters swam, stripers followed. These were big fish, as long as his arm, that chased the darters, often sending the frantic bait skipping over the surface running from the serrated teeth of the stripers.
He remembered when a whole school of darters jumped to nearly fill the boat. “Dallia was along then. How she squealed to see them flying at her, like a fire’s sparks, dancing in the night.” The lad’s attention wandered as he reminisced of better times. Times before their mother had vanished.
“Where are you Maddur? Dead, they say…” The boy gazed into the sky. “Or do you watch for us? Do you count our Dallia’s tears?”
The line to the net he’d been dragging snapped to the side jolting him from his nostalgic dream. The ‘Our Boat’ tilted and the net’s sudden weight heeled the small boat over. Tillion leaned against the tilt, eyes wide with shock. He glanced at the rusty knife embedded in the bench beside him. To cut the net away would lose them precious weeks of fishing while they worked to make a new one. He let the knife be. The boat righted itself as the school of fish that had slammed into the net thinned and swam past.
Looking up, his chest tightened to see how close the storm had come. The waves around him now rose above his head. Tillion’s dedication had taken him farther north than usual and doubt teased at his mind. “I must follow the fish,” he said, justifying his decision to stay his course.
He wound the net’s line around the primitive wooden spool that served as a windlass and hauled up the snarled mess of net. He tumbled it over the side, spilling a bushel or more of spastic fish into the rain water that sloshed around his ankles. Trapped, the fish flailed about dashing themselves on the planking and ribs of the small craft.
Tillion shook the stragglers from the tangled net, straightened it as best he could, but flung it over the side with a curse. “Bah! ‘Fixing the net’ he says. The man couldn’t fix a hole by falling in it.” He grinned at the image.
He let the net’s line slip through his cold, numb hands until he judged it to be deep enough and tied it off. Setting an open barrel between his legs he scooped the darters, filling it. When the dulled fish brimmed the top he took a lid from behind, centered it and gave it a twist. “Two, two filled and four to go.” He shook his head in defeat. “Maybe I could catch a sturgo or a thief shark, cut it up and fill these barrels, fill ‘em in a single go.” Large sturgo, deep-sea bottom feeders, lurked in the shallows during breeding season, sucking fresh-water shrimp and clams. Thief sharks, Before-time Bull sharks, had been released into the waters of the inland sea ages ago and thrived on stripers and silver darters.
Having ignored the seas while he worked, the storm rose fully around him and the boat’s sail, now furled to a third, proved too much in the growing wind. Tillion leaned forward and scrambled to take down the rest of the ragged canvas. Swells, more than twice his height, heaved the small skiff up to tilt precariously in the gale. Once there, the boat slid down the face of the waves, burying her bow deep in the troughs. The motion drove panic into the boy and he held fast to the gunnels while she slid, his face stretched tight in panic.
At the crest of each swell Tillion searched to the east where he sought the familiar peaks of the Watchers. But storm clouds fouled the view. He scanned for any signs of land, but the heaving horizon showed only sea. To head home he would have to fight the storm’s southern winds. He shook his head in disbelief, how he had ignored the intensity of the storm for so long?
The waves stacked and quickened. Barrels, freed from their lashings, rolled and bumped in the boat’s hold, bashing Tillion’s knees. Just then a wave twice the size of any other, a looming green monster, sent the skiff high into the storm winds, the boy’s stomach lurched as it went. Poised at the top the net’s draw line tugged again to his left and wrenched the ship, tilting her edge into the churning water. Dread and simultaneous clarity gripped him. He reached frantically for the boat’s high side, grabbed the crude blade with his free hand and slashed the net away. But the boat’s edge sucked in deeper, and as she slid down the backside of the giant surge, her stern pierced the bottom of the bowl. Barrels pummeled the lad as the vessel shuddered and capsized, tipping him and all its contents into the sea.
Gasping for breath, Tillion could feel his clothing begin to drag him below the surface. He kicked off his rough hide boots and struggled from his slicker. Waves conspired to fill his mouth and choke him. He spat brackish water as his skills as a swimmer kept him afloat. Spying the upturned hull he swam near, but could not heave himself upon it. Hand under hand he rounded to the upturned bow where he embraced the wood planks and rested his head against the yellow painted name. He bobbed there, inconsolate. “I’ve done it now.”
A froth-capped wave fell upon him and nearly scraped him from his grasp. He shook the water from his face and noticed the empty fish barrels drifting away. Tillion recalled using one to play on as a toy in shallow bays near his village. Reluctantly, the lad released his grasp and swam out to retrieve one of the half-submerged barrels. He knew that staying with the capsized boat would not save him; yet, surrendering to the open water both scared and tempted him. “If I just quit, gulp this cursed water, slip down and down, I wonder, would I see Maddur again?” A bump from behind prodded him from his desperate thoughts. One of the paddles had remained near and like an old friend had tapped his shoulder..
With one barrel now secure, he had an idea. Retrieving a second from the tormented sea, he put the ends of the paddle into the separate barrels and found he could suspend himself by sitting on the middle of the shaft. With one arm shouldering each wooden float he decided he wouldn’t yet drown. However, he soon realized he had no control over his drift. As the waves drove into his back and the swells rolled beneath him, he turned to look; with a sense of aching loss he watched as he drifted away from the lap-planked hull of his family’s precious Our Boat.
The storm, the first major of the season, drove Tillion and his barrels farther across the Bonneville Inland Sea. It drove him farther than he or any of the local villagers had dared to travel.
For generations, storms like this had raged across the Western half of North America. During the winter, the ice would form at the edges and the ever-rising levels of the sea would drive it thick into the shoreline where it ground stones to sand and shredded the trunks of inundated trees. The water of the sea rose and ancient buildings and artifacts from Before also succumbed to the grinding power of the ice. Generations ago, the ice collapsed walls and toppled homes and buildings. But more recently, the sea warmed and great shoals of fish could be caught.
Night came and went, and then twice again. As he drifted, Tillion imagined all the sunken towns and villages that lay submerged on the bottom of the sea. Unschooled, but keen to view maps and learn the names of places, he’d listened and watched as elders of his village displayed yellowed, decrepit charts in their primitive attempts to understand the inundated land. Nearly a thousand feet below him the ancient towns of Salt Lake and Wendover, Provo and Dugway rotted in their sodden graves.
On this, his fourth day at sea, the storm abated, but the relentless wind continued to drive him northward. The overcast dawn came, and with no heat from the sun to warm the nearly comatose youth, Tillion struggled to remain conscious. Fortunately, the sea, its water only slightly brackish, was drinkable, and he’d sipped and pissed it throughout his ordeal.
Great smooth waves undulated beneath him; the winds, a steady pressure, nudged the barrel-bound lad along the vast surface of the sea. In this lull, a spastic commotion started up around him. Hundreds of flashing darters leapt from the churning water, a few jumped so high as to slap at his head and chest. Even in his groggy state he knew that this meant large dark predators would be swimming underneath his unclad feet. The fear shocked him from his stupor. He thrashed about in confusion, seeking some nonexistent weapon. Then, as he flailed, his eyes focused on a spit of land before him. A low beach appeared to be connected to a set of rocky hills and they, in turn, to a few rounded mountains.
The sight pushed the threat of undersea creatures from his mind and he choked out a muted whoop of relief. Given the weather patterns and storms, he realized this must be the North land. He’d drifted all the way across the sea. He tried to picture the distance he’d traveled, but he blinked repeatedly, mystified.
A heavy thump against his leg startled him. He glanced about. The water was now filled with dozens of sleek, striped bodies lancing out of the sea in pursuit of the silver darters. He spun his head around in worry. “There, damn.” He could see two large fins cutting toward him. With the shore still some distance away he maintained a bare grip on the paddle, slipped down into the water and flipped into a pushup position. With all the energy left in him, he kicked toward the beach.
In hot weather thief sharks entered the shallows in search of food, often lazily weaving between swimmers and bathers. Tillion recalled that one older man had lost a leg below the knee to a large shark, a shark that had been nearly a third as long as one of their skiffs. He kicked in frenzied activity as bumps from below spurred him on.
A maniacal laugh burst from his raw throat. “All this way, and now sharks.”
But the fins headed off to follow the roiling bait and the youth relaxed, exhausted and nearly spent. The wind continued to help his progress and soon his barrels ground onto a sandy beach. Crawling up to the highest surf line, he freed and dragged the paddle with him and once there, collapsed into unconsciousness.