The skies are seldom friendly these days. It is a time of predictable unpredictability, a season of forewarned extremes and unwanted miracles, when storms from beyond the straits roll over the city in swift, sullen clouds, inflamed cushions of grey, growling moisture, cloaks on the warpath that drag the day to a premature close, curtains of precipitation on a downward march from heaven to earth. When the pressure finally dips, the drop is far longer than it used to be, and much harder – the payload, more often that not, hits a tower or three, a bank, a flat, a court, a yard, a plaza, a park, strikes not wet soil but stiff walls, splatters on pools of cold, cruel emulsions before losing its way in a maze of urban passages, narrow channels with no mind for ancient floodplains and little regard for zones of percolation consumed by shrinking lots and subterranean lairs, for signs of overkill and underthoughts that raised the stakes – cassandras of a land planned just for man.
The skies are so fiendish these days. After a week or two of late morning outbursts, lashes of rain that sweep the streets clean of humanity and spoil plans for an early lunch, the city drips with pleasure wanting, as suits tread on stained sheets, mirrors of filth on polished tiles in which scrapes of sky shudder and shake with every passing foot, as shoes enter ponds too wide to be forded, too deep to be crossed without risk of damage to fragile fashion senses, as forgetful soles rediscover the sensation of walking in the wake of their ancestors, feeling their way through streams of muck, puddles of invisible dangers, a swamp of eww things. But respite comes soon enough, in a sustenato of unwelcome blues, a spell of light, heat and scorching hews, a wish quickly denied and sorely decried, dawns of bare skin, noons in conditioned retreat and nights of warm sweat, unrelieved by squalls that taunt the masters of tropical homes, teasing, touching, tapping sealed windows in futile attempts to tell those within that there is no escape from a climate of change, an age of innocence repealed, an industrial revolt against costs external and death by credit and consumption.
The sky seldom fails to stir a sense of impunity, a feeling of exemption from the elements, carte blanche to think what you will of the world beyond the coast, this archipelago of unreliable stories and unmourned settlements, each with a name enshrined in myth and shrouded in memory, vernacular tributes to long-dead warriors and their battles, to pirates, pilgrims, sisters and spirits, totems of an era ruled by half-truths and living legends, when a long line of green and gold, trees in a nigh unbroken belt with trims of sand, guarded the northern rim of the straits, a barrage of wood and wilder things, creatures that spread fear and aroused flimsy notions of leonine glory, whose remains fell into tidal rivers, flowing, fading, flickering into renewed existence as free-floating particles and dismembered fibres, fodder for pelagic cells near the bottom of the larder, for roots in estuarine waters, rhizoids in salty beds, the two-stage manufactories of sweet and starchy chambers, leaves of grass in jelly, long beans stuffed with sprouting germs, saplings infected by the urge to grow before their time, before the sea is done toying with their vessels and tosses them, bud and shoot, amid wracks on the edge of reefs, onto the broad fringes of shallow isles ever on the verge of submission, zones of contention where the waves seek, with every hungry lap, to gain ground on lands that fail to coalesce, consolidate and hold captive a rising film of silt, ingrained hostages to a war of attrition in which continents have drowned and seas have succumbed to dust.
The skies have given up, ditched all hope, shed every semblance of resistance to modesty, to majesty, skirting utter damnation with shreds of vapour, teasing, tantalising, yet too thin to offer relief from seduction, from sunny pecks and sweaty backs, tattered wisps of cirrulean on blue, a canvas fading to white as one blinks westwards and sees, half-burnt by flares and still hazy drifts, a new point of anchorage, a harbour of resurrection for shores condemned by trade, consigned to oblivion, carved into contours straight and true, where pots were kept at bay, hills levelled, swamps filled and villages defeated, piers of mercantile pressure that fuelled the town and powered the horses of men unwatchful and unwatched, builders of empires, bullies of kings. Islands of second choice lie farther to the south, their breasts and bellies still largely bound by natural seams and nautical limits. The boat, a craft dedicated to leisure and amply stocked with rod and vine, cruises between the dragon's teeth, past ferries, tankers, ro-ros, reefers, dredging platforms, cast-off launches, barges and tugs, swings by Pulau Sebarok, hugs the eastern flank of the landfill before a tight loop brings the yacht away from the sights of maritime patrols, around the southern curve of the dump, where it crosses a gap marking the end of the road for casual visitors, who brave sunstroke and skin cancer to immortalise their ride to the tipping point.
The sky is falling, the seas are rising. A brace of terns, too far to tell if they sport black napes or see swallow but little, rest on a buoy placed to mark the personal space of cells filled with junk. The enclosing bund, a layer cake of dry stones with a darker underlay of biotic sediments, two bands separated, or joined if you will, by a tidal stain, is guarded by a lone brahminy kite, a bird of wastrel lands and herald to the lord whose colour is infinity, who skims over the shrubbery on chestnut wings, saving its strength for the weaker hours, when cool drafts offer no lift, less light, slow pickings. We arrive in an inflatable tub, manned by a sailor new to these parts, the heir of an older hand, who was a master of landings on murky flats, overseer of flips and flops with neither ceremony nor grace, a trooper deprived of honest labour by sentiments as thin as the papers they desire, a victim of true blue flavours with an aftertaste of bitter twits. Still, every crash on the surf, against rubble in disguise, rocks incognito, such shores of reefer manners, that spills no blood, suffers no loss of life or limp, is reckoned a blessing, an invitation to cast aside soiled footings and sprout legs at sea, the better to brave singular monsters that bob in gentle swells, hunters with squiggly arms with eyes fixed on deccapods, stars in barely concealed nebulae of silt, which cap their crowns even when they rise from the dirt and streak across the universe, helter skelter over worm holes and eventual horizons, losing their way in strawbury fields, forever trapped in an archasteroid belt betwixt the beach and the bloom.
The sky is bleeding, the weed is seething. Sargassum drapes sponge, coral, mound and trough, as shadows grow to invade frames of mind that remain uncomposed, indisposed, in a state of flagrant refusal, as the sun issues a brief groan of languor, of wavelengths that survive the scattering of deeper hues, rays of soft, warm colours calculated to throw the senses off-balance, turn green to gold, bark to bread, mead to roast. The fronds form a canopy that traces the shoreline and is thickest where the world plunges and the water peaks – they smother and shield, hide and sit, sparing their neighbours the worst moments of the day but stealing from them a dose of solar power, a tribute imposed by layers of filaments that mock the vascular branches of the tree of life, with flattened blades and fleshy stalks assembled from mucilage and joined at the base by a colloidal fastener, the only part of the organism to outlast the fervour of each season, at the end of which the foliage, stretched taut by its own unconstrained exuberance or gnawed off by rabbitfish and sea hares, breaks loose and rafts to oblivion.
The sky is brooding, the stars are hiding. It is becoming harder to see what lies just a few yards ahead, to take the measure of shifting perimeters, where unpolarised beams, hitting the water at increasingly oblique angles, turn fluid glass into cloudy mirrors, framed by ridges of sargassum, too dense to be probed by soggy feet unwilling to take the chance of crushing innocent polyps or crying foul over pierced toes, and outcrops overrun by marine spiders, minute crabs and minions of larger beasts. In this scene of criminal ambiguity, there are no clues, no field good guides, no runs of bloody colours – random stumpleupons alone betray the icons of the landfill, bruisers with five left hooks and a battery of hard knobs, blind juggernauts of shoal business, who gather in leagues of extraordinary gentleness to patrol the seagrass for lesser particles, lurching and lounging under a seasonal robe that preserves their modesty of emotions, pretends to devotion, peters to naught.
Protoreaster commands the front-, or rather, the topline of the sea bottom, the eight inches or so of liquid goo that grazes the tapes, spoons, needles and noodles of coastal lawns, clutching and cleansing the epilayers of prodigal macrophytes, devouring in situ the contents of immotile skeletons, skintight tunics and velvet discs. Below them, burrowing, bulging, belching, breaking cover when the mercury slips, labour hollow cukes, ersatzworms in perforated hides who shuffle the sediment, displacing buried goods and releasing entombed flavours, sucking in juice from both poles and sharing the spoils with lodgers, lurkers and losers happy with sloshy seconds and scrappy hours. Sticophus and scabra share their haunts with other diggers: streamlined shell-swallowers, depressed urchins and grey lovers-in-waiting, in precoital couplings, prickly hugs, occupants of an intersection between the water column and a bed of tossers, where it is impossible to tell what lies beneath pale, powdery sheets, between the loins of invisible bodies, impotent pairs – carapaces, coils and cancers trespassed by feet in tubes, in tatters, limbs on joints, legs with feathers, benthic assemblies tethered to indiscrete messages and unsafe words, the amoral hazards of discourse with sloppy endings, of pillowed talk, of the art of making everything out of love and nothing count.
The sky is sinking under the weight of denser colours. Azure fades to cobalt, baby to denim, and a streak of vermilion simmers behind a low cloud, a photon bomb that obliterates the sun, sends pixies into overdrive, skews the slow drop of a crystal day. We plough under an arc of growing longitude, between a rainbow bridge and the gravest of blues – moods indigo, plush life, passion flowers, a sunset belle, diminished heavenths in a key of alternate modes, mostly flats, never resolved, probably minor but ever lust. A crab ambles by, stops short, sounds the alarm and makes a run for it – too thick for shrimp holes, too tough for stoned cracks, it tumbles under a loose sponge but finds no respite from filling strobes. In desperation, the beast, one of the few large xanthids to venture onto intertidal reefs, clings to soft, green straws, swings its forearms in a bid to fuck with its spoons, finds to its dismay a spot blind to nips, resorts instead to bubbly incantations against the duck arts, acts of parsimony doomed to flailure, done to deaf.
The shore is stirring, swashing, tired of basking wails and cutty sharks, anxious to reclaim its damp fringes before last light, before the magic hour consumes, bleeds dry, the rugs, fronds, leaves, valves, pores and tubes that are losing their senses to the tide and lie in dishabille on the lap of a mangrove island, off the butt of an old flame, a belt of rare asters, a garden of hidden tripes, hollow types. The shore is stirring with creatures seeking to bed down, wake up, draw upon their reserves when the sun don't shine, while the sea runs amuck with haywire figures, hyperactive swarms that gather wherever there is room to spare, space for manœuvre, hell to pay – there is no abstaining from a game of chicken where everyone loses, eventually, and privilege is fair play, the upshot of simple gifts: organelles that blow hard and tissues with friends in hand, in arrangements with mutual benefits.
Come twilight, the reef's bolder elements, starved by the stars, succumb to a madness that turns boulders, brains, bushes and plates into battlegrounds between colonies, between polyp and plankton, calcite factories moonlighting as offensive magazines, miniature medusae in poised chalices, mostly mild monsters in walls with teeth. More massive discs, petallate columns glued to lower bluffs or rising from sandy plains, double as cots for shrimp, cradles for damsels, folding traps for dazed wanderers, for whom a step too close is a brush with destiny. Other cnidarians languish in skimpy basins, baring their orifices or flaunting their bottoms up, the latter with branches ajar, bells tipped – free-wheeling rebels come lately on a turf of anchored gains. The sky is dimming, the tide is dying. A dozen kites that gathered on a dead tree to survey the flat and launch dummies at each other have scattered, collared kingfishers have silenced their cackles, plovers, whimbrels and redshanks coast in from sinking regions of the bund for a final bite of the cherry, of the spice of islands far to the west of a garden city, south of a power plant, habitats in the line of fire, the next to fall on a board where every player is a pawn, every plot a plan, all is game and nothing, including the worst of human natures, is left to fate, to chance.