This contributed piece is a part of our Featured Voices series, which invites writers, poets, artists, and creators to explore the various intersections of Blackness and Greenness. This story is a work of climate fiction by Akhim Alexis, a writer from Trinidad and Tobago. “The Lexicographer and One Tree Island” is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, the annual climate fiction contest from Grist Magazine. Imagine 2200 asked writers to imagine the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, and the winning stories feature intersectional worlds, generational healing, and community-based solutions. Read all 12 stories in the collection.
The sea was the lone ossuary, and as such, there lay no headstone or visible cemetery to draw forth constant mournfulness, just the big, beautiful blue and its new attendants. It would only be the monoecious mango tree that would last, both male and female, one tall unit of green flourishing smack in the middle of blue waters. Tonie was perched on the largest branch, positioned at the highest angle, his full head of thick brown hair brushing the sky like cloud kissing cloud. He shared the tree with one corbeaux that would rattle across the sea every few days to bring back news and sometimes food. The Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Paria, and the Columbus Channel all coalesced into one vast expanse, taking with it the Caribbean island formerly known as Gahara, swallowing the coastline bit by bit, devouring the capital city, munching away at roadways, year after year taking fragments of Gahara out into the sea until one tree surrounded by a fertile mound and reef was left. It was the corbeaux that informed him that many of the birds, such as the kiskadee and the scarlet ibis, which was the former national bird, had migrated to New Conland. In the past, Tonie had watched the last moaning agouti tremble under the moonlight and disappear the next morning, only to find it tangled in seaweed by afternoon, tugged away into the sea like so many other things. The corbeaux fretted the treetop, then took rest on a branch next to Tonie and spread its black wings, billowing like a flag in the wind, drying itself off after scouring the seascape, bringing his friend fresh fish, which Tonie would cook under a fire as the sun went down. Tonie had a leather notebook of 1,000 pages and three pens. Adamant that the Gahara language should not be lost, he took note of each word that fell into his memory like ripe fruit. This filled up the hours of each day. After observing Tonie write down word after word, the corbeaux would give him the title “lexicographer.” It was a word that the bird had heard across the ocean, as people from all different cultures and lost countries were scrambling to document their dying languages. Each culture elected its own lexicographers to make tangible the specter of the past through words. The robots could only do so much, already occupied with rebuilding the new world through artificial intelligence. They were working to constitute a world that won’t lose its balance, so they seldom focused on language revival, leaving the humans to conduct any archiving of their linguistic past.
Tonie walked around the mound of earth that surrounded the tree and wrote down any word that jumped out of scenes rooted in his memory, like the great tsunami. He was but a child then, homeless and languishing, when a wave blanketed the sky like God’s robe on judgment day. People ran through the streets like erratic ants scampering north, everyone shouting, “Allyuh, look, look, run!” And as the episode ran through his mind he wrote:
“Allyuh” — meaning all of you; you all; everyone
While the wave molested the city, people ran straight ahead past buildings and took off up the highway in their cars, but Tonie ran up toward the sky. He aimed for the tallest tree and held on for dear life. He would go from tree to tree as the island dissolved over time, holding on with the power of a sloth or flying snake. He would look down from the branches of a mango tree and watch as the rich fought over yachts and people broke into banks to grab money as the water rushed in, swallowing the first floor, then the second. He heard someone say, “All this commesse! Everybody fighting for money! But the way things looking, we should be fighting for flights out of here before everything gone and all ah we dead!”
“Commesse” — meaning confusion, disarray, and gossip
Some people would spot him up a tree peeking down at them and shout, “You big maco, you just macoin everybody from up there. You will drown when the waters swallow that tree! Watch and see!”
“Maco” — meaning someone who intentionally minds other people’s business; an eavesdropper
But he would not drown, not like the others. For he was always in movement, always in flux. And just like the corbeaux, he watched death happen around him, peering down from branches all around the island as people killed people for money to buy boat tickets, as luxury yachts disappeared beyond the horizon, as planes left the airport to hide behind clouds, threading the skies to destinations unknown. As time elapsed the trade winds brought with them harsher waters and took with them hundreds, then thousands, then millions. Soon enough, Tonie would find solace at the center of Gahara Island with a small bag of collected gems he saved along the way; jewels he grabbed floating in the rivers that were once roadways; hundred dollar bills with the face of President Lara, the first man to declare the island “a diminishing entity,” heralding the mass exit; a leather notebook with a thousand pages along with three pens that he seized from an abandoned bookstore; some articles of clothing, which he washed and reused; eight lighters and some fruits that he ate only when they started getting too ripe to last any longer. He waited until the banana turned the color of his skin before consuming it, stretching the lifespan of the fruit as long as he could because he thought he may never have it again.
But he would not drown, not like the others. For he was always in movement, always in flux.
It was at the center of Gahara where he first met his friend the corbeaux.
“Corbeaux” — meaning a black vulture
Tonie would wipe the yampee out of the corbeaux’s eyes before it ventured out across the seas.
“Yampee” — meaning mucus found around the corner of the eye
Tonie and the corbeaux made a new language for themselves, a pidgin of caw-caws and vowels, a vivid understanding. Their ancestors spoke through them. What was lost in translation was found in the echoes of waves crashing against the small barrier reef that had developed around One Tree Island, protecting the last two inhabitants from further devastation. Conversations between Tonie and the corbeaux unraveled into past ruminations and future ideas. They spent many hours on nomenclature. After looking down into Tonie’s notebook of Gahara words, the corbeaux caw-cawed assertively.
“You are the only one left, so you should begin naming things. What do you want things to be called after a hundred tomorrows?”
“It don’t have much things left to name anyway.”
“I reject that statement.”
“What you seeing around here that need a name?”
“For starters, this place is no longer Gahara. Gahara has long been destroyed. So what do you want me to call this place when I fly to the other distant lands and I tell them about my friend Tonie? What is this new island called?”
“Is just one big tree and some sand and grass around it … and well, the barrier reef.”
“It’s still a home, our home.”
“Alright, corbeaux. When people ask where you fly from, tell them you come from One Tree Island.”
“Sounds good. Not as creative as it could be, but appropriate.”
And so the corbeaux would tell birds in New Conland and other lands of One Tree Island, and of Tonie. Soon would come the naming of unfamiliar sea creatures that visited the island, like snakes that had grown three times their usual size since the island shrunk. It was an overcast afternoon the first time the waters rumbled as though a submarine were afoot. The tree shook and the Earth trembled as a heavy terror rattled the edges of the reef. Tonie emerged from his slumber atop the tree to look down at a colossal snake that had wrapped itself around the island twice. The corbeaux had told him that some animals had adapted to the rising temperatures and even doubled or tripled in size, especially with an absence of land predators. This snake had migrated from a land unknown and took the night to rest at One Tree Island. The corbeaux flew down and landed on the back of the sprawling and impossible snake to get as much information as it could to take back up to Tonie, whom he now considered the protector of the island. The corbeaux spent around half an hour with the snake, who spoke through soft rattles that traveled through the air like rhythms set to the waves, making music under moonlight. When he had gotten an earful, he flew back up to Tonie.
The tree shook and the Earth trembled as a heavy terror rattled the edges of the reef. Tonie emerged from his slumber atop the tree to look down at a colossal snake that had wrapped itself around the island twice.
“She said that she was once an inhabitant of Gahara but was carried away with the currents during the great devastation,” said the corbeaux, perched on a branch.
“So she come back to live?” Tonie spoke to the corbeaux in whispers, not wanting to offend the snake that was just a few feet below him.
“She would like to stay. She thought the entire island had been swallowed, but she heard from the birds about my tellings of you and the two-gendered mango tree. How we’ve been here thriving for some time. She’s brought some seafruit with her, for you.” The corbeaux tilted his beak down to show Tonie the seafruit. Large and round. A rare fruit that the sea vomits up every now and then. It sometimes took months before he saw one tucked between rocks and corals on the reef. But down below, a dozen seafruit lay like golden eggs near the head of the snake, glimmering and wet. Tonie climbed down and approached the snake, her head the size of a car, moving slowly with each turn.
“She says that she is grateful for your warm welcome,” said the corbeaux, translating her vocables for Tonie. “She says that she has grown tremendously, which is no fault of hers, but she is able to swim to the deepest parts of the ocean where seafruit is abundant and grows in minutes. She’s happy to share.”
Tonie smiled at the snake, soft to the touch and friendly to the ear. Who knew what else lurked out in the open, out there in the otherworlds that had become so far removed from the Caribbean? The arrival of the magnificent snake brought with it something familiar to Tonie, a sense of community and motherliness that he lacked while living alone on the streets of Gahara, and on the tree of the island.
He looked into her eyes and said, “You doh have to ask permission to stay anywhere anymore. I own nothing here. If I am a Gahara boy, you are the Gahara snake, and if I am the boy from One Tree Island, you are the snake from One Tree Island. Be at peace. We will understand each other soon.” And he took a seafruit with him back up to the top of the tree, as the corbeaux flew out into the darkness to tell of the arrival of the Gahara snake.
The eternal glare of sunlight beamed on One Tree Island and the corbeaux flew down onto the back of the snake hot and heavy, calling Tonie to come down and hear the news. After some nights away, the corbeaux returned with a glimmer in its eyes, and as Tonie climbed down the tree and the snake twisted her head to face her island mates, the corbueax’s wings grew fussily thunderous.
“There’s someone who speaks our language,” said the corbeaux. “A woman. I flew west of the island for the first time and found her. She speaks the way you do, and I’ve even heard her say some of the words you have written in your notebook. Words like ‘jusso’ and ‘leggo.’ She has hair like yours, full and buoyant. Perfectly smooth, velvety black skin that glimmers under the sun and shines under the moon. I call her Gipani, for her beauty reminds me of the frangipani trees that once framed the parliament of Gahara Island. She reminded me of our home before the oceanic rapture.”
Tonie’s eyes, keen and deep-set, moved between the snake and the corbeaux, analyzing the information he had just received.
“You talk to her?” he asked. “You ask how she end up so far west of the island?”
“We spoke briefly,” replied the corbeaux. “During the rapture, she snuck onto the yacht that left with the remaining members of the Jewel family, the last of the aristocrats from Gahara. She was their housekeeper. They have all died, but she washed up on an unusually mountainous island. She said that she has been in communication with those of the Coral tribe from New Conland. This tribe is genderless, both fish and homosapien. They move in unison, an underwater shoal half the size of our friend the snake. This Gipani woman told me that when a shoal rippled through the water singing songs from yesteryear, that’s when she knew it was the body of someone swallowed by the relentless waters during the rapture, split into a hundred fishes, living new life under the sea. They communicate through calypsos that boom through the waves, ending their sentences with the refrain, ‘Santimanitay!’ One day they sang to her in fragments, telling her that they had spotted the hull of a ship threading the waters. They believe that New Conland is picking up stranded people like her and you, Tonie, hoping to bring them back to the last known country, facilitating the creation of a diasporic nation. They are coming for you, Tonie, you and Gipani and whoever else is out there alone in their humanhood. You have only to wait, they will find you!”
“They are coming for you, Tonie, you and Gipani and whoever else is out there alone in their humanhood. You have only to wait, they will find you!” the corbeaux
The snake bowed its head, making a large impression in the sand. “So does this mean that Tonie will be going away to the new nation, leaving me here all alone?” she asked.
“Not ahtall!” shouted Tonie, his chest heaving with anxiety. He was excited to learn about the existence of Gipani, a woman who, just like him, had rooted connections to Gahara, but on the other hand, he had grown content with his life here on One Tree Island with the corbeaux and the snake. He had become accustomed to the sea now being rich and ambrosial with no debris or turtles strangled by plastic in sight. He wondered how the temper of the waters changed across the horizon and how well he would fare among the new nation. He looked at the corbeaux and the snake, looked beyond their eyes and toward the impossible reef that circled their island, a surprisingly resistant barrier formed from disturbed waters, refusing to deteriorate even after the snake slithered over the back of a thousand corals, mollusks making a home on her marvelously smooth skin in the process. There was no vanishing language or unfamiliar paralysis here, everything was well and safe, a healing was taking place through the reef and the roots of the mango tree, through the branches and the warm snake, through the pages of his notebook that held the words of the only nation he knew. He was the lexicographer, the last documented preserver of his nation’s language. He had made up his mind that if a ship were to come, he would refuse to go. He tore a piece of paper out of his notebook and began writing a letter to Gipani.
“Make haste, corbeaux.” Tonie called the corbeaux over to his shoulder. “Come take this letter for me. I want you to carry this westward to your friend Gipani.”
“What are you going to propose to her, Tonie?” asked the snake.
“I going and ask she to come stay here with we. I not leaving you all here. I not leaving my home. So she have a decision to make, I already make mine. This is the last touchstone of the Caribbean, I think she’ll want to be part of protecting it.”
Tonie folded the letter and sent the corbeaux off toward the mountainous island, hoping that Gipani would still be there by the time he arrived. This time, he asked the snake to go along with the bird, so the woman would have a ride to the island if she so needed.
The woman slept between a village of rocks tucked into the harsh, craggy mountains. She felt them before she saw them. The turquoise waters lashing against the mountains like waves covering a cargo ship at night. A sea snake was approaching. She had spotted only one white snake months ago, but it had never stopped, it just threaded the surface, depositing some seafruit along the way. But this was not the same snake, this one moved more purposefully, the mountains trembled moreso, this one was coming up on land. She looked up as the wind whipped under the corbeaux’s wings. “What a way to make an entrance,” she thought. The letter dropped near her legs as the corbeaux greeted her with thunderous caw-caws. This was only the second time she had the pleasure of the bird’s acquaintance.
“What is all this?” she asked, her head shifting between the bird and the snake.
“Hello, Gipani,” said the snake. “Our friend on One Tree Island has a message for you.”
The woman looked at the elongated, limbless reptile, whose tail she could not find for it had wrapped itself around the mountains, the rest of its body getting lost in the edges and cracks of forest. “My name is not Gipani, who tell you that is my name?” The snake raised its head toward the corbeaux. “I’m very sorry,” he said. “It’s just that I never got your name, and you reminded me of a beautiful flower from Gahara, the frangipani. So I told them that I call you Gipani.” She released a small smile and said, “Well, that’s kind of you, but my name is Sahoora, so you can call me that.” The snake and the corbeaux repeated her name in unison: “Sahoooora,” the sound reverberating through the lush green of the mountains all the way down to the sea. She took the letter, read it quietly, then folded the letter back in two and said to the corbeaux, “I’m sorry, but I can’t come with you. I’m going with the ship when it comes.” The snake sighed. The corbeaux flew down closer to Sahoora.
“Please reconsider, you will be returning to your home. I know the island sounds very small considering that it’s just one tree surrounded by reef, but it’s bigger than you think. And I have flown to New Conland. I have listened to the songs of many shoal tribes from the outerworld, and it’s true, they are building again, but we owe it to these islands to protect them. You may not have noticed but your skin is becoming tougher, the soles of your feet as rugged as the mountains you call home. Island homosapiens are adapting too. Soon you won’t have to ride a ship or a snake to get around, and you’ll be able to spend hours in these sacred waters breathing through your skin like a salamander. Tonie doesn’t see it yet, but he is forming gills, small ones on his cheeks and his back. The people of the new nation in New Conland won’t be able to adapt, and robots are incapable of such. In the turn of time, only the small islands will last. They just don’t know it yet.” The snake nodded in agreement and said, “I’ll take you home safely, Sahoora, but the decision is yours.”
“Soon you won’t have to ride a ship or a snake to get around, and you’ll be able to spend hours in these sacred waters breathing through your skin like a salamander.” the corbeaux
Sahoora released a long sigh. She missed Gahara. She missed how the sun treated the island like a special child and the rain watered the souls of the people just enough to keep them hopeful. She was not surprised to learn that some piece of the island had remained, because Gaharians always said that God was a Gaharian, and will spare them the full wrath of whatever woe was to come in the future. But she was curious about the outerworld, she imagined the robots and the mixing of cultures, the beauty there might be in being welcomed to new beginnings.
“I will visit your One Tree Island, only so to feel some familiar earth again. Just to break off a branch or something of Gahara, so I could carry it with me to New Conland when the ship comes.”
Tonie sat in the tree and watched the corbeaux scan the sky while the snake zoomed into One Tree Island with the woman on her back. She wore a swirly sable dress, covered up with a gray jacket, clothing which seemed to have withstood the years. Tonie saw himself in her silhouette, he saw his hair in hers holding steady against the wind as the snake sliced through the waters. He felt like he knew her, her face as familiar as the seasons. The snake caressed the reef with her body and wrapped herself around the island as Sahoora jumped off into the sand. “Geez and ages, well look at this nah!” she said, exclaiming at the tree, which worked its way up into the clouds. Tonie grabbed his book and quickly wrote down:
“Geez and ages” — meaning an expression of shock
Then Tonie climbed down and approached while the corbeaux introduced her. “Tonie, this is my friend Sahoora from the island out west. I’ve been calling her Gipani all along when she had a much more wonderful name.” Sahoora looked down upon Tonie, a mere teenager, maybe 19 or 20 to her 50-odd years, “but you is just a small man, how you make it here alone all this time,” she said.
“When the sea did take back the land I just followed trees, now I here, but I real happy here,” Tonie said. “You could be happy here too, yuh know! The tree real big and you could sleep anywhere yuh want.”
Sahoora’s ears perked up at his voice. “It real nice to hear another Gaharian talk again,” she said. “I real miss hearing another voice like mine. But I must tell the truth, I only staying here until the ship come for me. I sure your friend the corbeaux tell you about the shoals and their song, about the new nation and how they coming to save we.”
“Yes, Miss Sahoora, he does tell me everything, that is how we live, nothing is secret between us here. That is how we thrive. But I don’t think you should go to New Conland. The shoals have a human element to them that tricky, and I trust the corbeaux and his sightings. He went to New Conland plenty times, and he even tell me that I am a lexicographer for the Gahara language, just like appointed lexicographers over in the new nation.”
“Well, Mr. Lexicographer, I hear you, but I already make up my mind. I see enough hurricane and tsunami, enough death and destruction, enough wrath right here on this island. It have betterment across the seas. The people not living like before.”
“We not living like before, either, we right here living different, and the earth in and around this one tree moving different too! Miss Sahoora, we have a whole new world right here, we could make so much more from it. The color of the sea changes all the time, it keep getting clearer and clearer. The reef keep expanding under moonlight with sightings of new mini islands by the corbeaux every few months. Yesterday, I take a swim and realize I could stay underwater for much longer than ever before, it was like the water shapeshifted into air and then the air shapeshifted into sky. I could breathe free and look into the deep blue. The other day I swim down to take a look into the never ending abyss and nothing was there, Miss Sahoora, no evidence of time before time. No wreckages or vehicles, no cell phones or debris from buildings that crumble and clatter under the waters. It was like the sea rid itself of the loathsome and offensive disease of human industries and vice. Time like it reset itself. But who know what still lingering in the outerworlds?” He paused and pulled out a large, succulent mango from his hair and began peeling it. “Who know if they even have good food in New Conland?”
Everything he said was true. The water never tasted better. Fruits were plump, and the sea provided all the information she needed.
Sahoora’s memory of her time on the mountainous island leaked into her present. Everything he said was true. The water never tasted better. Fruits were plump, and the sea provided all the information she needed. This island with its one tree and the snake and the corbeaux seemed even more prepared for the future. Every time she blinked she felt like the reef expanded and the branches of the tree stretched before her eyes. And although she still wanted to see the outerworld, she would put up no resistance to the boy’s efforts to make her stay. She would bide her time and stick to her instincts, waiting for the ship to arrive, escorted by shoals and sunlight singing “Santimanitay!”
It is midday and the snake hisses heavily with her head cocked to the sky. Something is coming. Sahoora and Tonie rub their eyes and look down at the trembling waters. She had made herself comfortable on a branch near the canopy of the tree, stretching her legs and embracing the breeze. It’s been months since she last spoke about the ship, in fact she was enjoying herself here on One Tree Island so much that the idea that some ship was coming to save her had momentarily slipped into her forgetfulness. But the corbeaux came flying in at top speed caw-cawing, and the singing shoals could be heard all the way to the emergent layer of the tree. The ship was coming! Tonie and Sahoora climbed down and stood near the barrier reef as the snake hissed louder than before. A raucous, modern ship could be seen breaking the horizon. It was as large as a cruise ship and as loud as a train, speeding across the ocean similarly to the cars that existed before the rapture. It didn’t take long for the four inhabitants of the island to notice the strangeness that accompanied the ship. It had been years since they had seen it or smelt it, the smoke, the clouds of blackness that messed up the air. And the flashes, what were those flashes? Cameras! Click-click-click could be heard as loud as the shoals. The people crowded the front of the ship to take photos of the island, of Sahoora and Tonie, of the snake. Different languages could be heard spilling out into the air. Congested accents thick like algae fighting for room to untangle their sentences. It was mayhem. The ship approached and parked, barely touching the reef, then a tall and seemingly anthropomorphic robot came forward.
“We are here to collect you and bring you into future-modernity.” The robot spoke melodiously, reaching out its hand, which kept extending and extending out of the ship over the reef over the snake and toward Tonie and Sahoora, waiting for them to shake it. With furrowed eyebrows showing his discontent, Tonie stepped backward, closer to the tree. The snake would not stop hissing. Sahoora stood flummoxed, stuck between Tonie and the mechanical hand reaching out to “save” her. She grew despondent. The people on deck grabbed hold of her memory and put the past back in front of her; the ship was a microcosm of smeared history repeating itself. These people perched garishly on the ship were not free, they were regressing, becoming past versions of themselves and their ancestors who sang beneath the sea. They were at the genesis of building catastrophes at the outerworld and Sahoora wanted them gone, gone back to where they came from.
“I not going. I not leaving this island. Take your ship and your people and your smoke and your mechanic hand away and go. And anybody on the ship who tucked between mayhem and disaster, come off and come home, who want to stay here could stay.” And as Sahoora spoke the branches of the tree extended, the roots roped themselves deeper into the sea, the earth stretched itself further, pushing the barrier reef out, pushing the ship back out to sea. The robotic arm retreated as the ship shook from left to right and the island expanded while the shoals sang calypsos that turned the waves into a commanding force, pulling them back out into sea. The mounds on the island were flung wide open and new soil sprung out like fountains. The land swelled, the mango tree thickened, and new trees sprung up near the reef. And as the ship retreated, a dozen people jumped off into the waters and swam to the reef shouting, “We want to stay, help us, please help us.” And Tonie listened to the shoals closely, and realized that it was a keening, a warning all along. They were deceased islanders wailing through song, and he remembered what an old gentleman had said before Gahara was gone about the foreigners causing problems in the Caribbean; he had called them invaders. “Any mess dem do does come back to we, them so don’t care ’bout we, they just want to use we, Santimanitay!” Tonie had asked what the word meant and the memory of its meaning hit him like a headache. He climbed up the tree and grabbed his notebook, holding on for dear life as the island made a country of itself, and wrote:
“Santimanitay” — meaning without humanity, without mercy
And the island expanded tenfold as new snakes and shoals surrounded the barrier reef, watching the ship get cast back to the outerworld by the waves.
Akhim Alexis (he/him) is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago who holds an M.A. in literatures in English from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. He is the winner of the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival’s Elizabeth Nunez Award for Writers in the Caribbean and was a finalist for the Barry Hannah Prize in Fiction and the Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize. His work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Transition Magazine, Chestnut Review, and Moko.
This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, the annual climate fiction contest from Grist Magazine. Imagine 2200 asked writers to imagine the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, and the winning stories feature intersectional worlds, generational healing, and community-based solutions. Read all 12 stories in the collection.