Flooding the Sundarbans

by Mason Schoen

That day, when the Sundarbans flooded, schools of pythons swam up the delta like sunken canoes, their noses dark periscopes above the surface. Taxiboat drivers sang morning prayers and drifted down current. They held umbrellas so black it seemed as though the “kheya nouka” sprouted hard, human-shaped mushrooms atop their plywood decks. When the drivers passed the snakes curling through the mangroves, some men bowed to them, some slapped the surface with hardwood paddles.

Earlier that week, Zakir moved the tin roof his family sleeps under farther from the saltwater tides. Ibrahim helped. When they walked the great, corrugated metal down the sand and through the marshlands, Nadia watched with infant wonder, curious about the possibility of giant woodlice. We wait for Samir to return home from Dhaka. I can see him when I close my eyes at night, our older brother stretched against the tops of trains long as foreign horizons, searching for known stars in a sky sick with monsoon clouds. He rolls through green rice paddies fed by clean water, but soon, as he nears us, those fields will be poisoned by the rising sea, and the rice once promised to us will feed the hungry crabs instead.

Last year, when the river rose to our chests and the fins of bull sharks sailed through the murky water, we climbed atop age-hardened bamboo scaffolding tall enough to make the trees jealous. Ali lost them that year, their brown faces suspended momentarily in the water. Later, we found his family’s limp and water-swollen bodies in the mudflat we use as a football pitch, half-eaten as though their muscles weren’t fresh enough to finish.

When the water recedes, we are left with tidepools that try to hide their innards by mimicking the sky. Once, Samir waded through a flooded pit and caught the reflection of our missing father in the sky. When he looked up, his discovered angel disappeared. When he continued forward again, his shin bumped a dead man’s shoulder, and Samir pulled out our drowned father, stinking of provenance once lost, flesh soft enough to unravel in the heavy weight of mortal worlds. In this way, Samir rooted himself as the next source of our family, but the water waiting at his feet is tainted by the sea. He asks me now, before we face toward Mecca to pray, “Do you think the saltwater comes from the sea, or from so much sweat, the product of laboring Bangladesh?” I do not answer him. I touch my forehead to the floor.

In the evening, we watch Zakir and Ibrahim rebuild. Nadia giggles on the saddle of my knee as I guide her toward consciousness, the moment she can trap and hold memories. This day, she will forget. What she won’t forget: Samir jumping the border to find work and instead finding a soldier’s bullet. Zakir’s boat tipping in the open ocean, his digested bones decorating the sunken wreck, pylons facing toward eternity. The pythons around our mother’s sleeping throat, her lips brown and heavy, stained with the salt of unknown origin.

-Mason Schoen is a creative writing graduate student