Underwater

(translated by Toshiya Kamei)

An image of skyscrapers, taken from below looking upwards. The camera is assumedly placed underwater, causing the skyscrapers to distort through the water's surface.

While we tackle proof problems in math class, a shrill alarm pierces the air.

“Oh no. Not again,” I mumble under my breath. Even so, things aren’t too bad in this world.

I glance toward the watery expanse outside the windows. The rays of the afternoon sun flicker across the waves. Still out of sight, a whale casts an enormous shadow over the curtains.

“Listen up, ladies!” the math teacher yells in a half-hearted tone. “Hey you, Sasa! Get back to your seat!” He glares at the girl. “Hey you there. Don’t even think about it. Everybody, stay in your seats. There’s no need to look toward the windows! It’s just another whale warning. Type K-33280. Danger level 3. You know the drill. You can go home, but make sure to check the AR bulletin board for today’s homework later today. Go home in groups!”

The girls get up, pushing away their chairs.

“Bye!”

“See ya! Bye!” the girls singsong loudly as usual. They stream out and join their friends in the hallway. A whale warning? We’re so used to it. Nowadays, nobody bats an eye. Seated next to me, Sakura mechanically puts her things away in her pencil case.

“Sakura, let’s get out of here.”

“Uh-huh.” Sakura nods without looking at me. A soft breeze ruffles her chestnut brown hair. Poor girl, our teachers keep pestering her, ordering her to dye her hair back. Still, this color suits her. When we were little girls, I admired her smooth, jet-black hair. One day, she showed up with this hair, but I still like it.

“What are you sneering at, Tachibana? What’s so funny?” she asks as she puts her backpack on and turns toward me.

“Nothing, Sakura. You’re not gonna dye your back, are you? I know you.”

Sakura chuckles, her dry laugh echoing off my eardrums. She twirls a bit of her hair around her finger and holds it in front of her face.

“Maybe I should cut it, huh?”

“Maybe about time,” I second, nodding.

“I mean, may as well cut it short,” Sakura says with a faint smile, shaking her head.

I hold my breath. Then I take a deep one.

“Seriously?” I, at last, manage to utter.

“Seriously!” she parrots me. “Tachibana, let’s go,” she adds and passes me by. Sakura is always unattainable. My Sakura. My childhood playmate. Sakura never lets me in on her decision-making. I’m always left behind.

***

They say our world has been like this since several decades ago. But my classmates and I are only eighteen, so we know no other way than this. According to our history textbook, sea levels rose incessantly, gradually swallowing up land until nothing else much was left. At first, a nameless, deserted island disappeared from the map. Then a well-known island—a popular tourist spot—followed suit. Soon countries one by one vanished. Some attributed this crisis to global warming. Others disagreed. But that mattered little. Humanity prioritized finding places to live. Scientists racked their brains. Mars? Too many unknown factors. Super skyscrapers? Not enough time or space, not to mention adequate technology. Thus, our ancestors decided to live underwater.

In the end, the sea swallowed the entire world, and we now live in an underwater city. They say Japan sank a long time ago, leaving no trace whatsoever. Parts of Eurasia and North American still remain, but only the filthy rich can afford to live there. I couldn’t picture what it is like to live in a world without whale and shark warnings. My mom thinks the land folks are on their last legs, their houses could sink in any minute. On the other hand, Sakura opines the sea level has stopped rising.

“The vast majority of people now live underwater,” Sakura once said, “so global warming ceased to be a problem. That’s partly why.”

After our ancestors settled in our underwater city, they missed real plants. Artificial trees and plants don’t really count as greenery, do they? Anyway, many parents name their babies after plants. Sakura, Sasa, and Tachibana, just to name a few. Sakura, cherry blossoms, once symbolized spring in Japan. Sasa, also called broad-leaf bamboo, was fed to giant pandas. My namesake bore mandarin oranges when humans still lived on land. But none of us has ever seen our namesakes because we’ve lived under the water all our lives.

Even so, I love this world. Because I get to be with my Sakura.

***

“Let’s grab some crepes, Tachibana.”

“Hmmm. Sounds good to me,” I reply.

Thanks to the appearance of the K-33280—relatively small compared to other whales—we’ve been liberated from school earlier than expected. The girls crowd the rows of shoe-lockers to take off their indoor shoes and slip into their outdoor ones. We insert ourselves into gaps between other girls and reach for our shoes.

“Let’s go, Tachibana. The K-33280 is small, so it’s no biggie.”

“Totally,” I agree. “It’s not a shark, after all.”

A stray whale or a shark frequently wanders into our city. That’s one of the drawbacks of living underwater, I suppose. We live in a designated area fortified by glass fiber-reinforced acrylic resins, so no physical harm will ever come to us. That said, nobody knows what happens next in this few-decade-old submarine city. For that reason, when a shark or a whale wanders out of its territory and strays into our city, one of the sensors will trigger an alarm. And we will be notified of the danger level based on its size and kind.

It’s been a long while since we last ate crepes together.

I’m fully aware that those crepes aren’t real deals. They’re made of substitute milk and eggs. They don’t taste like real ones. But that will do. I’m just delighted to eat out with Sakura. Nothing else really matters.

We slip into our outdoor shoes and put on AR contact lenses, which leads us to the crepe shop. Nowadays, nobody knows how to get to their destination. In other words, everyone relies on gadgets for everything.

“A long time ago, it was only possible in science fiction, right?” Sakura chuckles as she leads the way.

“We can see anything we want with contact lenses on. We live in a submarine city. Fiction has turned into reality. It can hardly catch up with reality.”

Lately, Sakura tends to bring this up often. Science fiction. Greg Eagan. Asimov. Stanisław Lem. Project Itoh. They’re her current obsessions. Sakura doesn’t seem to see me even though I stand so close to her. Instead, she looks afar and rattles on about old stories written when our ancestors lived above water.

“Hey, Sakura.” I hold her hand as she walks a half step ahead.

“What’s the matter?” she says, a bit annoyed, turning halfway.

Despite having spent much of my life with her, I don’t understand her. She’s supposed to be my childhood playmate and best friend. Even though I’ve been with her as far back as I can remember, I don’t understand her. She remains a puzzle to me.

“Sakura . . . You’re not going anywhere, are you?”

She says nothing. But a hurtful look in her eyes tells me everything.

***

Inside the crepe shop, Sakura remains quiet.

“Chocolate banana crepe,” she mumbles to the server who attends us. The she falls silent again. She stands still next to the counter. A book sticks out of her backpack. I glare at its white cover in resentment. I know which one. It’s Project Itoh’s Harmony. A story about consciousness, it centers on a girl who’s supposed to be dead and another girl who has escaped death. When we were in the ninth grade, she brought the book to school. And she feverishly raved about it as if she were possessed.

Sakura hasn’t changed much since then.

Maybe we never understood each other to begin with. In a true sense. She’s been a Sci-Fi fan since we were in junior high. She wants to find out about this world more than I do. When she’s got her nose buried in a book, nobody can go near her, not even I. She knows better than anyone else what it means to be alone. Who am I? I’m just a girl standing next to her.

I envy Sakura.

Maybe she has her mind set on a certain set of goals.

***

When our crepes are ready, we pull out chairs quietly and take seats at a table.

“I want to work for the submarine city research center,” Sakura opens her mouth for the first time in a long time.

I see. She wants to learn about this world. That’s been her dream ever since she was little.

“I’ll have to go to college above water for that,” she adds.

Things aren’t that easy. But Sakura can get into any college she wants. Then someday she will save those of us living underwater.

“So, I can be with you only until graduation. Sorry.”

As Sakura keeps her gaze down, her bangs cover much of her forehead. In contrast to her bright hair color, a shadow hovers over her brow.

Isn’t she afraid of saying goodbye?

We’re supposed to be together forever. I’ve always been next to her. We’ve headed in the same direction. Now this.

“Sorry,” Sakura repeats in a trembling voice.

I envy her.

Once above water, she will gradually forget me.



An image of Yukari Kousaka, a person with short black hair looking into the camera and smiling slightly.

Born in Osaka in 2001, Yukari Kousaka is a Japanese poet, fiction writer, and essayist. Translated by Toshiya Kamei, Yukari’s writings have appeared in The Crypt, Hundred Word Horror, and New World Writing, among others.