The Storm Ferries by Jenny Wong
Published November 29, 2020
On the night of Aunt Cassava’s wake, the guests gather outside on the fresh-clipped lawn, unable to bear the stuffiness of the little white chapel that sits along a dusty prairie road. I stare up at the sky, watching the stars prick their way through the dark shroud of cloudless night, trying to ignore the barbs and stings my mother tosses through the air. She drifts between clumps of black-clothed bodies, speaking ill of the dead, encouraging others to think less of her sister. Reckless. Careless. Childless. Her intentions are obvious by the words she uses. The syllables crowd and jostle in the air, their presence uncomfortable as unwanted strangers.
I return to the chapel hoping to find more breathable space beneath the single steepled room. There is no one left inside except Mr. Arabica. He stands up at the front with his head bowed. There is a heaviness to him now. His thick knees and belly bump up like tree roots beneath a suit the color of potting soil. A green tie loops around his neck, the old-fashioned Windsor knot puckering below his Adam’s apple.
I first met him when I was six. My childhood summers were spent shipped out to Aunt Cassava’s cottage on the cold rainy Madagascar Plains, while mother spent delicious warm months at a beach house with friends, recovering from the aging effects of single-parenting. I was moody and homesick until Mr. Arabica came to visit one afternoon. Back then, he was called Captain Arabica. I thought he was handsome, quick and flashy as lightning, looking more like a dashing pirate than the captain of a storm ferry. He taught me how to play “Go Fish” that afternoon and I still remember the sounds the cards made as they rubbed against the hard calluses on his hands.
“We’re just friends, not spring chickens,” she would say.
“Autumn acquaintances” might’ve been a better term for their interactions. Even when they came together, their circumstances caused them to drift apart like leaves caught in a bitter wind. Aunt Cassava could never give up the storms, and his heart would always be bound by one moment of earthly transgression.
I never told my mother about that night Aunt Cassava stole into my room. It was the year I was ten, and the first and only summer my mother agreed to accompany me to the Madagascar Plains.
“Wake up, little Rice,” Aunt Cassava said as she shook me awake. She flicked on the light, her face as shiny and smooth as a red adzuki bean. “I’ve got a last minute delivery, and I can’t wait for your mother to get back to watch you.”
“Mom?” The little cherry clock by my bed blinked 4 A.M.
Aunt Cassava sighed. “She’s in New Paris,” she said. “With Captain Arabica.”
“Why?” A yawn threatened to widen my mouth.
“I guess they’re friends too. From a long time ago,” Aunt Cassava rustled around my room, opening drawers and closet doors, gathering clothes for me to wear.
“A long long time ago?” I asked. I picked a crust of sleep from my eye.
“Before you were born, little Rice,” Aunt Cassava said. Her next words were almost drowned out by the sound of pants, socks, a shirt and a rain slicker falling on my bed. “About nine months before. Now, hurry and get dressed. We’ll catch the next shuttle.”
“Ferry Terminal 4, Tempest Barrier 3. Please exit on the right,” the shuttle’s voice was bright and cheery despite the dark and cold of the hour.
Aunt Cassava told me all about the Tempest Barriers. They contained the bad weather, gathered up and stored pressure and wild energy into a single area so that the rest of the country could remain in perpetual paradise. Tempest Barrier 3 was one of the first successful Tempest Barriers, but there was very little foresight into its creation. The completed Madagascar Storm bisected the entire country in an angry jagged strip that occupied a third of the land. In the beginning, it was almost impossible to ship goods from one end of the country to the other, but both sides of the country needed to share resources to survive. To go around the storm meant wasting precious time and money. So, the storm ferries were born. Aunt Cassava was one of the proud few that flew up and over Madagascar Storm’s swirling mass, bringing supplies to either side.
We disembarked from the shuttle and walked down a long corridor to a black polished double door labeled “Storm Ferry Launch Bay”. Aunt Cassava was dressed head to toe in an old-fashioned flight suit. She looked beautiful in brown. My red rain slicker squeaked as I fidgeted beside her. She reached out. The doors hissed open at the touch of her fingertip.
“Hoods up, little Rice,” Aunt Cassava said as she stepped through.
Wind whipped around, greeting us with frigid displeasure, spitting wetness and stinging bits of ice into our faces.
“Casualty of the job,” she smiled, noting my annoyance as I wiped from forehead to chin. She adjusted the aviator goggles on top of her head. “That’s why I have these,” she winked.
I squinted up into the sky, past the fat raindrops that threatened to rinse out my eyes. Madagascar. The largest permanent storm in the world. I’d never been this close to an actual storm before, the endless chaos of living cloud. A few storm ferries were navigating the clouds like little pearls of color tossed into a universe of stormy darkness. In the distance, a family of tornadoes whirled between lightning bolts, roaring with graceful fury, panthers caught in the chase of their tails.
“Whooee. Madagascar’s looking pretty riotous tonight,” Aunt Cassava said with a grin.
“That’s bad, right?”
She laughed and swung her arms out wide, embracing the weather around us. “On the contrary, madness breeds a beauty only few can see, my dear.”
We stepped onto a long wooden dock that jutted straight out into the storm, its end fading into the clouds. Storm ferries lined either side, tethered to posts, their shiny oval bodies hovering and bobbing in bright jelly bean colors.
I clung to Aunt Cassava’s hand as she headed down the dock to the Lime Rider. The storm ferry’s name was written in white cursive script across the green candy-glossy shell. A little man with bristled black hair and a soft round belly was waiting for us. He saluted my Aunt in his yellow rain slicker. “We’re ready to board, Captain. Cargo is secured and pre-flight checks completed.”
Aunt Cassava nodded. “Thank-you, Commander Haricot. This is my niece. She’ll be joining me on my flight.”
Commander Haricot rubbed his chubby hands together, maybe from chill or glee.
“Excellent. Excellent. Good view,” he said. “Good view.” He turned and walked towards the rope tethering the Lime Rider to the dock. I think he might've clicked his heels together as he went.
Aunt Cassava bounded up the skinny gang plank with me in tow, oblivious to the winds that shoved and snagged at our clothing like invisible monsters. We stepped onto a little balcony atop the Lime Rider’s roof, and then down a narrow hatch.
The cockpit was a dark smooth avocado green lit by tiny little lights, reminding me more of the inside of a Christmas tree than the command center to take on a storm. A smell of grease and the sencha tea Aunt Cassava always drank lingered in the air. “Welcome to Madagascar Air, your best choice of flight through the Madagascar Storm. Please secure your baggage and take a seat,” Aunt Cassava joked as she pulled on a flap of padded metal that folded down from the wall. She motioned for me to sit. I obeyed and watched as she pulled up two leather straps and secured me in. My seat belt looked suspiciously like a repurposed men’s clothing belt. Aunt Cassava took the much sturdier Captain’s chair that sat in front of the viewing window. She whipped a strap of leather across her shoulders and buckled it down by her hips.
The helm was a checkerboard of dials, buttons, switches and lights. Some were underscored by thin pieces of masking tape covered in words, pilot shorthand, such as “GRAV”, “ALT”, “DIP”. The only label I could understand was under a bright red cinnamon heart-shaped button that read “SOS”.
Aunt Cassava flicked a few switches and the Lime Rider began to hum.
“Take off’s gonna be a bit rough,” she called back to me. “But, I’ve flown worse.” She motioned down to Commander Haricot still standing by the rope, his yellow rain slicker bright as a rubber duck in dirty bathwater. “Let’er fly, Commander!” The little man nodded, and with a deft tug, undid the knot that tethered us to the dock.
The Lime Rider wobbled as we rose, light as a balloon on a gentle updraft. We hovered in stillness for a moment, then Aunt Cassava’s fingers began to fly across the buttons and dials on the helm. The sound of thruster fire exploded around me and we launched upwards and into Madagascar’s deep angry heart.
A blinding white tooth of lightning stabbed down inches from our right. Electricity danced on my skin, sending the hairs of my arm up in a buzz of static. The Lime Rider dipped and dodged, halted and darted, a lime green point of color ratcheting through a great stormy pinball machine. We bumpered against great rumbles of thunder, slingshot around cyclones, and rolled through hailstorms, the ice pelting against the window in a furious machine gun patter. We bucked a blast of squalling wind, tilted along the sides of hot air currents. My stomach flung against the fleshy walls of its confinement, my throat pinching tighter and tighter as Aunt Cassava steered us through, her fingers dancing across the dashboard to the storm's maniacal pulse.
“Well,” I heard Aunt Cassava say. “That wasn’t so bad now, was it!”
I opened my eyes and squinted at the warm golden glow of morning sun flooding through the cockpit. Aunt Cassava unbuckled herself with a click.
“Come, let’s go take a look,” she said to me before stepping up the ladder and popping the roof hatch. I wobbled up after her. The surface of the Lime Rider glittered with rain. I made my way over to the railing at the edge of the little rooftop deck where Aunt Cassava was standing.
“Welcome to the surface of the Madagascar Storm,” Aunt Cassava said with pride.
“Holy…” was all my ten-year-old brain could muster.
The sky was the palest wisp of cotton candy pink, edged in a gentle suggestion of blue. Above us, the stars winked through a thin veil of cloud. The storm roiled beneath us, a soft purple sea, lightning flickering in peaceful ripples below. This was the world above the storm. All softness and light. I reached out. A cloud passed through my hand, cool and misty to the touch.
“Has mom ever come with you?” I asked, peering down, hoping to find a remnant of cloud tangled between my fingers.
Aunt Cassava laughed. “Your mother thinks this is too dangerous.”
I nodded, recalling mom’s stories. “Because so many pilots go missing.”
Aunt Cassava smirked. “Everything disappears eventually. Even those things that are supposed to keep us tethered to the ground,” Aunt Cassava looked away. I knew by the tone of her voice that she’d forgotten she was speaking to a ten-year-old.
“Enough of that,” her voice once again suitable for children’s programming. “Let’s go tune the lighting dampener.” She beamed at me as she disappeared back down into the green humming sanctuary of her ship.
I walk up the narrow chapel aisle towards the long box resting in front of the altar. Mr. Arabica nods and swallows. I reach out, entwining my fingers in his. He retired from storm ferry service the summer after he went to New Paris with my mother. His hands are soft now, callous-free, almost fragile, kept safe behind computer screens and office doors.
Together, we stare down.
The casket my mother chose doesn’t feel enough to hold someone who’s challenged eighty-three-years of storms. The edges are straight and simple, made out of a colorless shade of dark mahogany, and about six inches too short. But all that is okay. The casket is closed, which means it’s empty.
Just as well.
I prefer to remember Aunt Cassava as she was that night, floating high above all the mess and sadness, the storm clouds shifting below, grey sleeping beasts, rumbling in their nightmares.
Jenny Wong is a writer, traveler, and occasional business analyst. She resides in the foothills of Alberta, Canada and tweets @jenwithwords. Lately, her writings have been more about indoor things, but she still dreams about evening wanderings around Tokyo alleys, Singapore hawker centres, and Parisian cemeteries. Recent publications include Truffle Magazine, Split Rock Review, Burnt Breakfast Magazine, Parentheses Journal, and Crow & Cross Keys.