An Excerpt from Lagoonfire

I was on my way to visit the retired gods of Sweet Harbor District when I received a communication from Decommissioner Five, my superior at the Ministry of Divinities. Large seawater incursion at Daybreak Ventures development site: potential engineering failures dismissed, ditto active deities. Please confirm it’s not Laloran-morna.

I don’t think it’s my own sensitivities that made me sense frustration in the message. I’m not the Ministry’s favorite decommissioner of deities, to put it mildly. It’s not that I’m bad at my job. I have a fine work ethic—Five acknowledges that—and above-average performance. It’s just that for some reason my assignments often end up being complicated cases, and when a case is complicated, the solution may be unorthodox. The Ministry hates unorthodox solutions.

And all right: I’ll admit that Laloran-morna’s decommissioning wasn’t my most stellar performance. I should have petitioned to decline the assignment. Laloran-morna—the god of the warm ocean waves of the rainy season—was the last of the Sweet Harbor gods. When my grandparents were children, they had worshiped those gods—the last generation to do so. I grew up with stories of the Sweet Harbor gods’ exploits and rivalries: in a sense I grew up with Laloran-morna. That connection made my heart soar when the job came to me, but it’s exactly why I ought to have turned it down. It’s hard to decommission gods you have a relationship with, even an indirect one. But it was my first year in the field, I was overconfident, and the results, well… It turned out to be easier to divest Laloran-morna of his divinity than of the sea. The old man who remained when the decommissioning was complete had salt in his eyebrows and thin streams of water trickling down his spine and legs, and the odor of the ocean clinging to him. The dripping-wetness went away after a day or two, but even now, eleven years later, seawater finds its way to him when he’s distressed. Shopkeepers hesitate to welcome him in, and drivers of courtesy vehicles have been known to ignore his attempts to flag them down—which ensures an inconvenient tidal pool or waterspout at the curb where he’s left standing.

So I could understand why the Ministry suspected Laloran-morna might have something to do with Daybreak Ventures’ flooding. The consortium plans a luxury hotel, a high-end shopping district, and a rainforest park for land reclaimed from what once was the northern edge of Lotus Estuary—waters the Sweet Harbor gods and their worshipers wrangled and fought over in legend and history. Diverting a river, filling in an estuary, and then building on it? You can see how that might offend a retired Sweet Harbor god. But none of the gods had mentioned it to me even in passing, and I visit them once a week.

But with Five’s communication logged on my unicom, I was going to have ask some questions—first to the remaining retired Sweet Harbor gods who were up and about, and then to Laloran-morna himself. He wasn’t up and about. To be blunt, he was dying. People don’t like to think about it, but as soon as deities are decommissioned, they enter into mortality, which means eventually they die.

Honestly, I couldn’t believe he’d be spending his energies fuming about a development project, even one where Lotus Estuary used to be. But I’d see what the others thought and take it from there.

The other Sweet Harbor gods were in the long, narrow park behind Promise of Unity Primary School and its associated childcare center, at one of the park’s concrete tables for games of tiles. Mr. Tamlo, the canniest of all the juice vendors in this area, had pulled his cart alongside the tables. The cart has a sunshade made from real palm leaves—like the thatch that was common for houses centuries ago. It makes the retired gods nostalgic, and Mr. Tamlo knows it. He also knows their favorite juices—mangosteen for Malirin, pomalo-and-lime for Anin, exotic strawberry for Nakona, guava for Kadiuk. Laloran-morna, I recalled, always had passionfruit. Judging from collection of discarded cups in Mr. Tamlo’s trash bag, the gods had been there a while. And it was hot—only a little past midday. There was a bit of a breeze, but even so, the air felt close and steamy, like exhalations from a dragon.

“Sweeting!” exclaimed Nakona, calling me by the nickname my grandparents gave me. At work, I’m known by my decommissioner number—I’m Decomissioner Thirty-Seven—but with the retired Sweet Harbor gods, I’m Sweeting. When they call me that, it makes me feel like I’m part of a family in a way I never do, otherwise—not since my grandparents passed away.

Nakona’s the only woman in the group. She was a goddess of tides; now she’s a stocky matron who pulls her iron-grey hair back with a tortoiseshell clasp and wears black sunglasses to protect her pale blue sea-glass eyes—so startling in her deep brown face. Kadiuk was decommissioned longest ago—back when I was still a child. Other Sweet Harbor gods who were decommissioned after Kadiuk have passed away, but Kaduik carries on, more bent over, fewer and fewer hairs clinging to the sides of his shiny bald head, but eyes as sharp and bright as ever.

After we’d all exchanged hugs, Nakona ordered Mr. Tamlo to fix me a strawberry juice, prompting the others to order me their favorite drinks, whereupon I suggested the compromise I always suggest—a mix of all the juices. The gods always look horrified, and Mr. Tamlo always gives me whatever’s most plentiful. Today that was mango.

“Who’s winning?” I asked, looking at the scattering of tiles on the table. They don’t play with ordinary tiles; theirs are painted with shallow-draft boats and outriggers, boats with crab-claw sails and tilted sails, and warriors armed with spine-tipped spears, powerful bows, and blowpipes. They play out the battles they and their followers fought, but the rules of the game mean, as Anin grumbled, that the outcomes aren’t historically accurate.

“You’re just a sore loser,” Nakona said, smiling like a well-fed cat, which answered my initial question.

“If Lolo were here, things would be different.” Anin sighed. “Lolo” was what the others called Laloran-morna. Anin had been the god of storms, storms that swelled Laloran-morna’s warm waves during rainy season. The two of them fit together like two halves of a clam shell. Since Laloran-morna’s decline, Anin has grown morose.

“You have to learn to stand on your own,” said Malirin, patting Anin’s hand. Of course Malirin would say that: as god of the cool breezes that blow down from the continent during the dry season, he had been more a divinity of the land than the sea, aloof from the others.

“Speaking of Lolo,” I said, “I’m going to call on him next, and I was wondering if there’s anything I should know—any changes in his condition, or mood, or…?”

“We should have insisted on bringing him out this morning,” said Anin, looking away abruptly and blinking rapidly.

“We have to trust the medics,” Nakona replied. “They know how these mortal bodies work.” She raised her arms, as if for inspection, then let them drop. To me she said, “They told us the air quality was too poor,” and then to Anin, “You wouldn’t want to bring him out and have him collapse.”

Anin didn’t reply.

“But he hasn’t said anything about anything particular bothering him—nothing new, I mean?” I pressed.

The retired gods exchanged glances.

“Is it—” Nakona began.

“Lagoonfire season,” Anin said, nodding.

They had lost me.

“Lagoonfire,” Anin repeated. “Back in our day, the lagoons and estuaries used to glow with it at this time of year. Put your hand in it, walk through it, you’ll glow too. Glow, but not burn.”

“Oh! Some kind of bioluminescence,” I said.

“Lolo always steals away for a day or two during lagoonfire season—private business,” Nakona said. “You never noticed?”

I shook my head mutely. I was imagining lagoonfire. I’d never seen it, and with all the land reclamation going on, I wondered if I ever would. The sun glinting on my unicom brought me back to my task.

“So you don’t think he’s angry over, for instance, the Daybreak Ventures development?” I asked.

The former deities looked at me blankly a moment.

“Oh—she means all that work going on where Lotus Estuary used to be,” said Malirin.

“I’ll never understand why the recent generations love land so much more than sea,” muttered Kadiuk.

“Daybreak Ventures,” Nakona repeated. Then her face broke into a smile. “I’ve heard about that development—there’s going to be a rainforest park with a maglift train running through it. I want to ride that when it’s done.”

Kadiuk snorted and Malirin rolled his eyes.

“Lolo won’t have heard of that project,” Anin said heavily. “His heart’s elsewhere.”

“He wouldn’t have any business getting riled up even if he had,” put in Nakona. “I had way more worshipers in Lotus Estuary than he did. If anyone has business throwing a tantrum over that development, it’s me, and I—”

“Hold up. Hold up one minute,” said Kadiuk, pulling his curved spine surprisingly straight. “Lotus Estuary was my followers’ fishing grounds.”

“With those little shallow-draft, shore-hugging fishing boats?” Nakona taunted, a wicked smile on her lips.

“Your followers were always so busy chasing the waves in those ridiculous outriggers that they missed the catch close to home,” Kadiuk retorted. “My devotees would watch yours and laugh.”

“Now, now, now,” said Malirin, raising a hand. “There’s a way to solve this dispute.” And in a graceful gesture, his hand swept down to the tile table.

“Huh. It’s practically settled already,” Nakona muttered. She turned peremptorily to Mr. Tamlo. “I’m going to need another strawberry juice if I have to indulge this nonsense through another round.” Her pleased face belied her grumpy words. Mr. Tamlo handed her a cone-shaped paper cup filled with a thick, red juice. The other retired gods put in their requests, and he filled those too, and soon the four were deep into the next round of tiles. I watched for a while, then excused myself and set off for Sweet Harbor Community Apartments West Branch. The retired Sweet Harbor gods live in Building 2, on the fourth floor, high enough up to catch a glimpse of the sea glinting silver on the horizon, out where the coastline is now.

Ms. Bama, one of Laloran-morna’s Compassionate Care attendants, answered the door when I knocked. She dropped her head respectfully, then led me to an inner room where a hospital bed had been raised as high as it would go so that the mattress was level with an open window. A mat woven of rushes—traditional bedding—had been laid on top of the sheets, and Laloran-morna reclined on that, his face toward the window and the sticky breeze that nudged the brass wind chimes hanging there. At my approach he rolled round. A thin, clear tube snaked from an oxygen concentrator beside the bed up over his left shoulder and into his nostrils.

“Ah, Sweeting. Good to see you,” he rasped. “You have to talk some sense into the mortals at Compassionate Care. They haven’t let me go down to the park for days, and—” He paused, breathless, made the joke he always makes—that somehow when I decommissioned him, he ended up with gills instead of proper lungs—and then continued. “—And besides that, I really need to get to the water’s edge.”

Ms. Bama clasped her hands. “I’ve tried to explain about the air quality, and about the difficulty of taking all this downstairs and outside,” she said, clearly torn between a desire to accommodate Laloran-morna and her duties as Compassionate Care team member. “There’s only ever one—at most two—of us here at a time, and the holy one doesn’t have the strength to walk…”

I was touched that she called him “the holy one”—it marked her as from the area: back in the day her family must have been among the faithful.

“I can walk. Just watch,” insisted Laloran-morna, struggling to sit up. Ms. Bama hurried to his side, providing an arm for him to grasp as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. He paused again, his shoulders—wide, yet so skinny now—rising and falling with each effortful breath as he recovered from even that exertion.

“Maybe I’m not quite up to it, after all. Not at the moment,” he muttered, and seawater bloomed like a sweat stain through the fabric of his pajama shirt, puddling briefly on the rush mat before sinking through the weave and into the mattress below. I took his free hand in mine, squeezed it tight.

“We’ll find a way,” I assured him, sending what I hoped would be a reassuring look Ms. Bama’s way, too. I’d talk to the people at the Ministry, see if there was any discretionary funding that could pay for some extra staffing.

“Could you do me a favor?” Laloran-morna asked abruptly. “In the meantime?”

“Of course.”

“The cup you made me.” He indicated with his chin where it sat on the window ledge, next to a glass pitcher of water. I felt equal parts embarrassment and pleasure, as you might if a parent or grandparent proudly brings out ancient schoolwork from your childhood. I hadn’t made the cup, had merely painted a glaze pattern on an unglazed piece which the shopkeeper then fired, but the pattern was the various knots associated with Laloran-morna—knots that his followers in past eras had woven into their fishing nets to assure a good catch. I had given him the cup on the first anniversary of his decommissioning.

“Can you take it out to the water? And bring palm wine. And say a prayer. Dedicate it to my love. Tell her I’m sorry not to be there. This separation—” He shook his head. “It’s a bad thing. I miss her.” Then, more forcefully, “Always.”

Ms. Bama’s eyes widened and met mine. She must have grown up with the same stories of Laloran-morna’s stormy love life as I had—mortals, divinities, even the occasional voluptuous cloud or great fish. But that had been in his days as a god. Could he have kindled a romance since retiring? Was this what Anin had been talking about—was it the reason why Laloran-morna always stole away at this time of year?

But then again, don’t lovers want to see their beloved more than once a year? Not that I’d know from experience. I’ve kept pretty fiercely to myself all my life. I prefer the company of divinities—decommissioned or about to be decommissioned—to that of most people.

And Laloran-morna said to say a prayer and to accompany it with wine—that’s a ritual for the dead. So was the remembrance for a past lover? If so, which one?

“What name should I speak?” I asked.

“Ehh, we have so many for each other. Sometimes she calls me Lagoonfire because I bring her that soft fire on my warm waves. And I call her Goblet because she receives.” His wheezy laugh became a cough.

At the mention of lagoonfire, my fingers and toes tingled. So this dedication was indeed the secret business Anin had mentioned.

“All right,” I began, but Laloran-morna wasn’t finished.

“Lotus Estuary,” he said, handing me the cup with shaking hands. “Do it there.”

Now my whole body was tingling.

“Lo-Lotus Estuary is—there isn’t an estuary anymore,” I stuttered. “It’s gone—part of a new development.” I held my breath, watching him.

“What? No Lotus Estuary? No. No, no, no.” He shook his head, back and forth, back and forth, with each negation. “I knew it was changing. I saw the river move and land appear here and open sea there—places change over time. But it can’t be gone entirely…” Another sheen of seawater formed on him, becoming spray in a gust of wind that pushed in through the open window.

So he hadn’t known.

“But she still is,” he said, suddenly still. “She still is. So please. Find water someplace near—near to her.”

Gripping Ms. Bama’s arm more tightly, he lifted his legs onto his rush mat and lay back down.

I kissed him on the forehead.

“I’ll do it now,” I said. “Rest well, Grandfather.” It’s presumptuous, but I do call him that. Ms. Bana and I exchanged a wordless goodbye, and I headed out.

This is an excerpt from Lagoonfire, by Francesca Forrest.

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