Catherine Carberry


Catherine Carberry serves as Assistant Editor of Mid-American Review and Bartleby Snopes. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including North American Review, The Greensboro Review, Sou’wester, Cream City Review, and Indiana Review. She writes for The Rumpus.

There Is Land Everywhere

When I see the wall from the airplane, I know there is something my husband has neglected to tell me. Our daughter is five, a year younger than our marriage, and she reaches over me to look out the window. From above, the wall looks like sea-foam ringing the shoreline, casting long shadows on the sand. The wall is set high on the beach amidst dry grasses. There are no tall resorts or hotels on the island, no bright beach towels or discarded plastic toys. The sand is white and vast and empty.

My husband explains that two hundred years ago, a hurricane ravaged the island and left the islanders terrified of water. They built a wall surrounding the entire island to deny the water, to comfort themselves.

Why don’t they leave? I ask.

They know how to adapt, my husband says. Think about your parents staying put despite tornados.

Before he met me, my husband tried to kill himself twice, once as a child and once again as a young man. I am the only person who knows this secret. We are moving to this island because my husband wants to learn about limits. He is a researcher, though when I ask him the goals of his research, he looks at me as if I should already know. He tells me limits, walls, coffee plantations, resources, drugs.

I am from a town of cornfields and prairie, born from generations of moon-faced Swedish immigrants who baked hearty breads and would prefer any life at all to an unknowable death. I am not interested in understanding fear or limitations.

When our plane lands, everyone applauds from their seats.

Look how happy they are to be back, my husband says.

When we boarded the plane, I could have sworn there were tourists, other people who looked like us. But as we disembark, I see I was wrong. They are all from the island. Their polished shoes match their hair, black and bright and gleaming. The islanders are better dressed than we are, dressed as if air travel still means something glamorous. The men wear suits and the women wear nylons and sensible skirts with blouses that bloom with color. But even though they clapped, they do not look happy. They look the way my parents do when tornado sirens shriek over the plains.


My husband has purchased a two-story, lime-colored apartment a block from the ocean. When we arrive, the apartment is already filled with gleaming mahogany furniture and garish oil paintings of split mangoes and papayas, of overripe plantains and clear pitchers of water.

From the second story balcony, I can see only a narrow strip of ocean beyond the white face of the wall. I take my daughter for a walk and think of prairie winters, the vast stretches of dried grass. I remember a grey-scrubbed January and the gratitude for a bright square of color from a neighbor’s tie-dye curtain.

The narrow buildings of this city are painted the saturated colors of sunsets and tropical fruit. My daughter tries to name all the colors she sees, but her vocabulary is limited: Pink-red, pink-green, pink-blue, she says. These are colors that do not exist in the place we lived before.

When it rains, there is a chorus of shrieking from the streets. The first time I hear it, I think earthquake, gunshot, bomb. But it rains every afternoon. When it starts, the islanders duck under awnings. They cover their heads with newspapers and briefcases. I sit on the balcony and watch them run into storefronts, into bars, into tobacco shops. And when the rain stops, they return to the streets as though the horror never happened. As if the inevitable--the rain that begins at two and stops by three thirty, as if released from a clock that pours water--is some terrible miracle to deny. They go home and dry their socks, iron their pants, and then they go to bed, husband and wife beside each other, and ask, where were you when it happened?

On the island, my husband is immediately a different man. Now, being married to him is like being married to the president of an imaginary nation. He speaks of unfamiliar politicians and celebrities. Every night, his new friends come over for drinks on the balcony. Some of them are islanders and wear linen pants and loose cotton shirts. The tips of their fingers are stained from their cigars. Others come to our apartment dressed in crisp suits that seem immune to the humidity. Everything they say seems like a joke from a prior life. This is, to my knowledge, my husband’s first trip to the island.

I try to find my place. Sometimes I mix drinks and bring the men bowls of plantain chips, cloth napkins to wipe the salt from their fingers. Other nights I sit with them and ask my husband’s friends about the wall and climate.

So you’ve never swum in the ocean? I ask the kindest of my husband’s friends, a fat man who performs magic tricks for my daughter.

I’ve only seen the water from above, he says. From airplanes or balconies. I prefer a safe distance.

The man points to the slice of water we can see from the balcony, then he pulls a silk rose from his sleeve. Without even thinking, I lean close to him. I let him push it behind my ear.

I want to go to the ocean, I say to the men. They are easily scandalized. They gape at me as if I’ve announced a death wish.

It’s impossible, my husband says before the men can answer. The wall surrounds the whole island. Only researchers are allowed on the beach.

Aren’t you a researcher? I ask him.

Not that kind, he says.

I’m embarrassing him. Once his friends have left, I ask him again. I tell my husband this fear of the ocean is absurd, but he tells me to respect the local superstitions.

They need to pretend they don’t live on an island. So what? Let them do what they need.

Then why did we move here? Why can’t we live on an island that wants to be an island?

Isn’t it more interesting this way? My husband says. We’re still on the balcony, and the smoke from his cigar curls and pulls me in.

Some things come easier to me than to you, he tells me, and I cannot argue with this.


My husband takes me and my daughter on a trip to the rainforest. It takes us only thirty minutes to drive inland, to the island’s lush center. The rainforest is vast and wet and green, with waterfalls that roar and muddy hiking trails that swallow our footsteps. I wonder why the islanders are afraid of water when they have this pocket of wilderness so close to the capital. There are thousands of shrill, singing frogs that perch on tree bark and glossy leaves. My husband tells me to look up, and he points to a snake watching us from a branch. I want to scream.

My daughter tugs at my hand and says, Mommy, mommy, I hope it falls on us.

My husband laughs and tells my daughter a joke I do not understand. She smiles at him and recites a rhyme about a tiger. I do not find the joke funny or the rhyme amusing.

My husband nudges me. Says, walk on the wild side.

There’s nothing thrilling about snake bites, I tell him. I hunger for ocean, for sunbathing on the sand. But my husband and daughter are not interested in the beach, want only snakes and jungle flowers.

Who needs the beach when you have all of this? my husband says.

An island, I say. An island needs the beach. An island cannot fool itself.

My husband does not answer. He lifts our daughter so she can touch a high branch. She shakes out two neon frogs that fall to the ground and writhe.

I am aware that for the past six years I have bent my life around my husband’s habits. Our daughter takes after him. Every day with her is a new, dreadful discovery.


After two weeks on the island, my daughter begins crying at the sound of rain. She covers her ears, wants me to draw the curtains so she can’t see the clouds.

She’s adapting, my husband says.

I don’t want her to be afraid, I say. What’s the point of a fear of water, a fear of what surrounds us?

I think it’s good. It shows she’s flexible, my husband says. She can empathize.

But it isn’t empathy, my daughter’s new fear. It is the rabid compulsion of a believer. My husband respects the islanders’ fear, but he does not adopt it himself. He smirks when he sees the wall, calls them fascinating, jots notes. But our daughter is impressionable. Our daughter could fall in love with this island and never leave, never hunger to go beyond the wall.

Our daughter is obsessed with the notion of a secret weapon. With the curtains closed against rain that slams the cobblestones outside, she tells me the wall is her weapon.

Before we came to the island, I took her to be vaccinated for tropical diseases. In the waiting room, she asked me, Mommy, what’s your secret weapon?

I wanted to tell her that she was my secret weapon. Instead I said I didn’t have one. Mothers aren’t supposed to have weapons. When she asked the doctor, he joked with her.

Mine is flight, he said, and then he laughed the way doctors laugh.

I do not know what my husband tells my daughter about walls and weapons. When he comes home from work, he takes her on driving tours of the city while I stay home and study a new grammar. He speaks in riddles and weapons with her, and then when they return, he puts his hands around my shoulders, rubs them as if to thank me for carrying something heavy, something that burdens my arms and neck.

My hands are always slippery with sweat and cocoa butter. I break three glasses this way; they fall out of my hands like water, as if they hunger to crash to the floor. How many objects of our invention crave their own ruin? Do the islanders somehow wish their ocean would rise above their wall? Is the wall, in a way, an invitation?


We’ve only lived here for a month when my husband tells me he is leaving for a three-week tour of the island. He will visit coffee plantations for research. He will go to the slums and either buy or sell drugs. He is vague on this point, and I do not question further. I do not invite more answers.

My husband is a scientist or a gangster. I cannot distinguish between the two. I have forgotten why we are here. I try to remember a familiar phone number but I have forgotten the area code for my hometown. I write a postcard to my mother. It says: what am I supposed to do now? I wait a week for an answer, and then I find my card, still unmailed, swept under our bed.


My daughter thinks it is spelled Eye-land, or I-Land. I point to her schoolbook and I say here, think of it this way: There is land on an island. I take her pencil and write it correctly in my midwestern script.

There’s land everywhere, my daughter says.

What about the ocean?

What ocean? she says.

Remember, I say. We saw it from the plane?

When my husband leaves, I tell my daughter I am taking her to see the water. We will find a crack in the wall. We will find someone to open the door, to show us the abandoned, sweeping beach that should belong to anyone who is unafraid.

I don’t want to see the ocean, she says. I want to see the rainforest again.

Mommy doesn’t know how to drive there.

I can tell you, my daughter says.

We walk the cobblestone streets down the sloping hill towards the water. My hair grows salt-licked and heavy. My daughter skips beside me. I have never seen her fall or scrape her knees. Other children have bruises and band-aids from climbing trees, from running too fast. My daughter is measured even in her playing. She has inherited a sort of precision I’ve never known.

A woman waters her plants on a third story balcony, and it drips dirt-clodded water. My daughter steps to the side, nimble, and the dirt catches in my hair. We walk downhill and when we reach the wall, the whitewashed concrete is so bright that it blinds. My daughter could stand on my shoulders and still she would not be able to see the water.

Between the wall and the city is a strip of sand. We kick off our shoes and leave them beneath a palm tree.

This wall feels like jail, I say to my daughter.

I occasionally say things I know she’ll only remember years from now, when she’s looking to her childhood for answers about why she has become the way she is.

It could at least have a window. Don’t you wish we could see the ocean? I say, but my daughter seems content and I know when to say when.

I don’t like the beach, my daughter says. Let’s go to the rainforest.

The wall pulses with heat. It is a tall stretch of sun, like a mirror. On the other side, the waves crash without anyone to see them. There is no ocean in my hometown, no ocean for miles of country. Without the sight of waves and horizon and children with sand castles, the ocean sounds are a thrashing, persistent fury. I think maybe the islanders are correct in their fear. I think maybe I have lived an ignorant and reckless life.


I begin to research remote islands. There is an island that killed all of its settlers’ babies, one by one, without cause. There is an island named Possession that looks as cruel and cratered as the surface of the moon. There are islands with lakes in their centers, islands that are more water than land. I find an island made of ice, an island once inhabited by only two men after they murdered and cannibalized the third. An island called Lonely, where there is nothing but frozen research equipment and a peeling photograph of Lenin in a forgotten office.

But ours is the only island that does not wish to be an island.

My daughter and I walk to the national archives, where I find photographs of the two-hundred year-old hurricane. I see how it made a tropical swampland of the old cities, how it flooded the colonial buildings and flattened the sugar cane fields. I see a woman’s arm bent out from beneath a collapsed hut. I see men swimming through the streets, babies in baskets balanced on their heads.

At night I sit on our balcony and listen to the island yearn for the mainland. I think of my husband sleeping on a coffee plantation. My body pulls towards him, towards our shared hometown. If my body were an island, I start to think, but then I go inside, and with the windows closed I can no longer hear the hidden waves behind the wall.


The hurricane begins with a pocket of warm air that hovers over our balcony, where I sit outside with my daughter. My husband is still on his research trip. The warm cloud seems to hug us, to cling to our skin. The sky is egg-yolk yellow, then quickly dark. I cannot tell if the wind or the rain comes first, but soon the palm trees below us are bent, nearly touching the ground. I push my daughter inside and bring in the table and chair from the balcony. The rain is falling in a thick white sheet.

Someone is banging on our door. It is the neighbor woman, her hair tied with a white kerchief. Her eyes are wide and bright, and she is yelling at us to follow her. She does not want us to be alone. I pick up my daughter, and we push against the wind and follow her downstairs and into the apartment next door. Outside, I nearly slip, and in another life my daughter flies from my arms and is carried up, up into the hurricane. But I clutch her tight and then we are in the neighbor’s basement, which smells like the sea and is painted like the sea. The walls are sponge painted foam and ocean. The lightbulbs are blue. The walls waver and pulse as if we are underwater. The floor is spread with damp sand.

She says, she says our apartment is not good for hurricanes, my daughter translates. She says we should stay here.

I look to the neighbor woman, but then the lights click off and I only hear her breathing below the whip of wind. The basement is closed and dark and wet, and then the neighbor woman lights candles. The painted wall sways.

She says are you seasick? It’s a joke, my daughter says. The neighbor woman is braiding my daughter’s hair. I hear the underwater sounds of current and fishbreath.

How long have you lived here? I ask. And why is your house the ocean?

The neighbor woman understands me.

I love the water, she says. I love the ocean. I even love the hurricanes.

My husband told me you are all afraid of water.

I’m not afraid, the neighbor woman says.

I sit on the concrete floor, and I hope the hurricane is strong enough to pound at the city wall, to topple it over and allow us the sea. The neighbor woman hands us warm glass bottles of Coca Cola, and the three of us sit there sipping as outside, above us, the ground is thrashed with rain. My daughter trembles in my arms.

It’s just rain, the woman says.

What if the wall is destroyed? I say. The neighbor woman smiles.

It will not fall. That is why I have brought the sea here.

When it’s over, the sky turns a pale blue as if embarrassed, asking for forgiveness. We squint in the light, my daughter and I, and we return upstairs. In the glass door leading to the balcony, there is one long crack, straight up the middle. I stand in a puddle and see the island’s wall still standing. I feel guilty for having hoped for ruin. I think, What right do you have?

In the days after the hurricane, my daughter begins spending her afternoons with the neighbor woman. She no longer wants to visit the rainforest. She no longer shrieks at the sight of rain.

She comes home smelling of salt water, cupping a conch and telling me Mommy, listen. It isn’t water in the shell, she tells me. It’s just air.

I see how she is proud to know the difference. I think yes, this is my daughter. Yes, I see you.

In 2010 I fell in love with Judith Schalanksy’s Atlas of Remote Islands, a stunning book that presents lyrical but precise vignettes about the history, topography, and ghost stories of the world’s most isolated islands. Schalanksy opens her atlas with a bright orange page that screams in large font: 'Paradise is an island. So is hell.' This began a fascination with literal and metaphorical islands that informed my writing for years, and led to 'There is Land Everywhere.' The islanders in the story resist their geographical truth, and deny the aspects of their island that a tourist would fetishize. They challenge the narrator’s perception of what an island should be, and force her to confront her own contradictions and fears.