Toni Oswald

Beauty in a Drowned World (2020)

Content warning: rape


All Ruin Children must answer the questions below for the Ministry of Death at the end of their 29th year. Upon your death in the Big Thirty, the Falcons (who always know where you are, even in death) will collect the form for inclusion in the Historical Library (GISELLE). It is your duty as a citizen to participate in the historical census, for as you know, after the Earth catastrophes of 2062, the New Society lost its entire written history.

Failure to complete the form will cost the Wetlands a decrease in funding for its basic infrastructure, and impact or reduce grain rationing for its citizens for up to one year.

1. Name and date of birth:

Macon Sunflower Freestyle. March 2, 2105.

2. Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would your dream dinner guest be?

Always and forever—Love Bones.

3. Would you like to be famous? In what way?

Me and Love Bones are famous, baby. Nah, I’m just kidding. But we do got the hottest act in the Wetlands. People pay top crawfish to hear her on the trumpet and me on the mic rapping my poems about the mysteries of the cosmos. Otherwise we too busy surviving the bayous, not that any of y’all would understand what it’s like to live out here.

4. Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?

Phones been gone since Hurricane Brad and the Great Tsunami of 2077, so that’s a shit question. In fact, these have got to be some of the most ass-backwards questions I ever seen. But hey, we all know this ain’t nothing more than one of y’alls science experiments.

5. What would constitute a perfect day for you?

Ain’t they all perfect when you got Love Bones by your side?

That said, I reckon I could tell you about the most perfect day with Love Bones so far in the thirteen years we’ve had together. It was the first day of May in the year 2122 and we were crabbing east of Goodbye Algiers when Locust Boy Slim pulled up in his canoe to converse with us about a strange island he’d discovered that very morning down near Goodbye Vermillion. “Y’all know I be fishin’ down there every Sunday, every Sunday,” he said, repeating the last two words like he often does. “And I tell you ladies right now, I ain’t never before laid eyes on this partic’lar islet. ‘Round about twenty pontoons long and thirty wide —a genteel place with thousands of roses burgeonin’ forth like heaven on earth, on earth.”

After he paddled away to catch the Drunken Boat, we dispensed with our crabbing and headed down to the coordinates Slim had given us, and sure enough we found this isle of wonder. Roses everywhere! Red, pink, white, yellow, lavender, even blue. The smell was intoxicating and sensuous as a body after lovemaking, but sweeter, almost creamy. Made our heads bloom and our thighs shake. Must of picked a thousand flowers that day, our hands bleeding from all those thorns— inexplicably deep cuts that wouldn’t stop weeping red. Strange to say, but there weren’t no pain. Love Bones brainstormed a bandage from petals littered across the ground, covered her hands in yellow ones, mine in blue. The soft pads adhered like a second skin, and within minutes the cuts sealed right up as if nothing had ever happened. That’s when we made a bed on the ground with some of them, rolled around naked in their perfumery, each petal baby-bottom soft.

In the waning light of dusk we filled our pontoon up to the brim with as many flowers as it would hold and made our way to the Widow Red’s as night fell. She’s the only known person to live past thirty in the Wetlands, now crippled and blind. “That’s the price for livin’,” she always loves to tell us. She didn’t just outlive thirty, she did so three times now. Ninety years old! Anyway, we arranged them flowers all around her body since she spends most of her time in bed these days, and she wept at the smell. “I be flyin’ high tonight, children,” she said.

It was as me and Love Bones were just getting settled in the boat, about to head home, that Love Bones’s jaw dropped down and her mouth made a big O. She pointed back at the Widow Red’s, and I looked and seen a sight to behold. There was the widow herself, walking on the water in the tradition of Jesus, rose petals swarming around her like bees, the moon rising to light her way. It seemed like a private moment, tears rolling down her cheeks and all, so as not to disturb her, we used our oars instead of the motor to get back to the main channel to head on home. Later she told us she could see again that night, and move around some too, but only for twenty-four hours. She said it was sure worth it to see her great-grandson one last time. We dried the rest of the roses and made them into medicine pouches for anyone suffering heartache—five hundred and twenty-two pouches we made, one for every single person living in the Wetlands. We kept one for ourselves, hung it above our bed to catch the nightmares and turn them into sweet dreams (and to remember that glorious day). A week later, Slim stopped by our houseboat to tell us he’d tried to go back to that isle of roses. “But it was gone as gone could be,” he said, and Love Bones replied, “Sometimes magic only last a day.”

6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose?

As you well know, except for Widow Red ain’t nobody in the Wetlands live past thirty, and she’s what folks call a mystification.

7. Do you have a secret hunch regarding your death?

I know for certain. Just like all the other Ruin Children, I’ll lie down and the cat will steal my breath.

Only thing I don’t know is when exactly. Could be the first day of my thirtieth year, like what happened to Slim’s big sister Twisted Ginny. They say she was mid-sentence at the supper table talking about needing to fix a leak in her canoe when her eyes rolled back in her head and she fell over dead at exactly 7:37 p.m.—same time the midwives stamped on her birth certificate the day she was born. But it could be on my last day of being thirty like the Siamese twins, Flora Belle and Fauna Lee. Or it could be anywhere in-the-between.

And just so you know, y’all are trying my patience with these fuck-off questions.

8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common (if single, skip to question #9):

First things first: we’re Ruin Children, born on the bayous—her black body covered in scales, my white one carpeted with golden fur. Second, we both good at music. And third, we’s psychic. Some folks say it’s because our mommas drank from the Hoodoo Lagoon when they was pregnant with us. After all, we was both born with our itty bitty baby bodies still inside the blue caul God wrapped us in—a gift for our parents. Visions come to Love while she’s drumming, mine when I’m dreaming. Last year I dreamed all these black birds were on fire, flapping and burning in the smoke sky, and sure enough a week later there was that big explosion down near Goodbye Biloxi. Everyone within a fifty mile radius, including all the wildlife, died in a conflagration of orange thunder and periwinkle lightning. Ash rained down on me and Love’s houseboat—a gray and fluttering snow—and for ten whole days the birds hid in the cypress, silent and forlorn, mourning what happened to their brethren.

9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

My ability to see the bright side. I learned it from from my momma, who died on the forty-fifth day of her Big Thirty. “Macon,” she always told me, “there’s still a lot of beauty in a drowned world.” And she was right. Showed me the gorgeousness of two-headed blackbirds. Pointed out the rainbows oil makes on water, said it weren’t natural but weren’t it pretty. With binoculars we took turns one day watching a unicroc basking in the sun at the end of our dock, back when I was six or seven. Focused in on his horn—a spiral of green like it’d been covered in the brightest jade. She taught me how to condition my fur with fish oil so it shines like polished amber. And also the glory of trees and the way sun sparkles across the water. And of course all things moon: the way it grows bigger, then smaller every month, teaching us about the tides and the secrets of women.

10. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?

To discover the cure for living past thirty.

11. Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

You people have reached new levels of madness with this question, but that ain’t surprising, so I’ll go ahead and indulge you. Perhaps someone with more sense than a snake’s turd will actually read all these questionnaires and use them for something good.

My biggest dream is to hear one of them vinyl recordings because music be me and Love Bone’s main reason for living (‘sides each other). Music lifts you up and makes you wonder if joy is the real birthright—despite the ways of the world. Ain’t but one soul who could make my dream happen: Clovis Big Heart. They say he’s got a house on stilts shaped like a bird, fifty feet above the trees just to catch the sun’s light. He uses that golden fire to power the generator for the one and only record player in all the Wetlands. He’s got himself a music library too—filled floor to ceiling with those round records from the Old World. I ain’t yet seen his place because I still never been south of Goodbye Houma on account of the treacherous waters that’ll flip a pontoon as easy as tossing a coin.

My favorite bedtime story as a child was Momma’s tale about her own daddy taking her to listen to Clovis’s spinning disc (it weren’t a dangerous trek back in them days). The one she loved most was a man by the name of Louis Armstrong who played a coronet. She used to hum a song of his called “What a Wonderful World” to me as I fell asleep. That’s when the poems started filling my head, as if they came to me on the waves of that pretty melody.

We’d go to Clovis’s in a heartbeat if it weren’t for them New Society poachers out there hunting freaks like us in the shadows of the Tupelos. I hear they’re particularly thick beneath his tree house, where they lay real still in shallow water, down where the hyacinths grow and the nutria swim, ready to spring on a Ruin Child looking for music. They don’t mess with Clovis because he ain’t a Ruin Child. He chose to live in the Wetlands after the New Society executed his sixteen-year-old son for calling the Great Renewer a clown in public. He won’t say what happened to his wife.

Fact is, in our Big Thirty, me and Love Bones ain’t got nothing to lose for the love of song. And even if they capture us and turn us over to the New Society zoos for millions of social points, we’ll be as dead as ash soon enough.

12. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

I’m not usually one for bragging, but I did help burn down the New Dawn Lab, and since I’m due to die, I don’t need to hide my pride anymore for fear of getting caught. After they pumped all that poison into the Wetlands following the Great Tsunami and all the Ruin Children started dying in their thirtieth year, the New Society began testing all kinds of whack chemicals on them just to see what would happen. Everyone knows the one story about Snow White Gutenberg, whose eyeballs popped out their sockets, followed by liquefied brains gushing out the color of plutonium. Or the one about Cricket Peabody, whose core temperature heated up and melted him alive from the inside out. They killed some of them in the process, but worse than that was how the experiments broke those poor souls’ minds. Because there are some things worse than death, who could blame them when they started jumping into the alligator-filled waters surrounding the lab? Round-the-clock guards in metal diving suits rescued most of them and the experiments continued, even on the Ruin Children now missing limbs. My cousin Tuletta got sent there at age ten, when both her parents died within a month of each other. I seen her in my dreams, saw what they were doing to her. At thirteen she gave birth to a baby born without eyes. She named him Forever Mine, begged the doctors to let her keep him, but they took him away for more experiments. The day after I turned sixteen, Tuletta came to me in another dream with instructions on how to build a bomb. I can’t say much else, but let’s just say I got to see Tuletta rise above the lab in blue flames, surrounded by white doves.

That’s the day I met Love Bones, also sixteen. It was her boat the seven of us took to go set the lab on fire. I remember her tiger eyes burning bright as we fled. She said her baby brother lost his life at six from living inside a radiation chamber for three months. That was the day I fell in love and learned the meaning of bittersweet.

13. What is your most treasured memory?

The first night Love Bones made love to me beneath the stars. A comet shot across the sky—proof we was meant to be. I’ll never forget the way her scales sparkled rainbows under that full moon, the way her mouth tasted of rice wine and the succor of a new day. How she held me afterward like a rare rose, anointing my fur with her own distillation of sweet almond and magnolia. Momma once told me about the vows people used to make, how folks would promise to love and protect one another ’til death did ‘em apart. How lucky her grandparents were to live into old age, my great-grandfather going at seventy-seven, my great-grandmother following him a week later. I think the most perfect day I could dream of would be seeing Love Bones with a crown of gray hair and her scales all wrinkly. But we all know that ain’t going to happen.

14. What is your most terrible memory?

I’ll tell you what, I was already as mad as a one-legged man in a kicking contest by the time I got to the end of answering your last question that when I read this one I had to take a break and go to the Drunken Boat to wrestle their mechanical alligator until I cooled off a little. Obviously you people have us by the balls with this Ministry of Death fuckery, seeing as what happened back in 2110 when folks decided to rise up and refused to answer any of your questions. Y’all starved us into submission by denying our rations, but that sure as shit don’t mean we have to answer honestly. I know a lot of folks who flat-out refuse, Love Bones included. (I seen her questionnaire yesterday, and she just answered every question with the same riddle: “I don’t have eyes, but once I did see. Once I had thoughts, but now I’m white and empty. What am I?” The answer is a skull, but she didn’t put that part.)

But it was my momma who said we might as well use this platform to tell the truth—given we never get a voice in anything else. She told me this story about this girl, her name was Anne, who lived centuries ago and was murdered by people as awful as you and them poachers, but how she kept a diary, and how that diary got published and almost everyone read it. And just the reading of it, knowing she’d been a real person, and a good one, helped folks be better versions of themselves. “That’s why I for one ain’t tellin’ no lies,” Momma said when I saw her filling hers out one morning after she turned twenty-nine. “I’m tellin’ those bastards the whole kit and caboodle in hopes some day someone who cares will read about our sufferin’ and never let this kind of thing happen again.” So in honor of the one who gave me life, and to raise up hope like she did, I’ll tell you my worst memory now.

It was on the last afternoon of June in our twenty-fifth year when me and Love Bones were on the deck of the houseboat practicing our act for the upcoming Show Us What You Got Crawfish and Music Festival. We’d started to arguing about costumes—Love Bones thought my idea of us dressing up as crawfish was way too obvious, and downright embarrassing to boot. I thought she was taking herself way too serious and needed to have a little fun. That’s when a poacher snuck onboard and zapped us both into abeyance with one of them stun guns. Felt like someone had lit a match at the base of my spine before I fell into leaden oblivion. I woke up chained to the rails while he violated Love Bones six feet away, had to watch him burning parts of her body just to see what would happen to her scales. I’m still haunted by the way he laughed when it was my turn and I wet myself. If it weren’t for Frogman Houston arriving to trade eggs for fish oil, we’d either be dead or delivered to the zoo men across the border. But Frogman climbed the side of the houseboat just like one of them ninjas I’ve read about, and before I could even blink, he’d bit the poacher’s nose clean off. Soon after, he tossed him overboard into a tangle of cottonmouths. The poacher screamed for mercy but found none.

I can only hope that whoever’s reading this is feeling the horror and shame we felt that day.

15. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?

See #13
Better yet, fuck you.

16. If you could choose the sex and physical appearance of your soon-to-be-born child, would you do it?

Me and Love Bones both be women, but if it was possible for us to reproduce, I’d wish the child to look just like Love Bones. Ain’t nothing as beautiful as iridescent scales casting light across the bayou at night. But the other real truth is demons were born in the both of us the day the poacher came. They’re still inside us, made of rage, and I don’t think y’all want me to birth them anymore than they already are.

17. Is there anything else you would like to say for posterity?

A Song for the Ruin Children: The Rules Are, There Are No Rules.
We are not what you say we are
We are more than even what we believe we are
We shine with infinity
We talk to trees
We rest in the breeze, we shinin’ like a million suns We pick up the pieces, make masterpieces
We are made from the matter all ‘round us
We are nothin’ and nowhere
We are everythin’ and everybody
We will not be enslaved by your words
We are glory
We are truth
We are love
We are beautiful and free
We are stillness, fury, and speed
We might be lost but then we are found We are born and we will die at thirty Repeat repeat repeat
We are the true path on a crooked road We are wonder and horror both
We are perfectly flawed, artfully awed We are inimitable
repeat it
repeat it
We are unexplainable
And we ache with the sorrow of birth
We are all the moments that have ever been
repeat repeat repeat
repeat repeat repeat
Shake shake shake
We are all the moments that will ever be Boom boom boom
We are you


The Ministry of Death questionnaires for Macon Freestyle and Love Bones Gerrard were picked up from the home of Clovis Big Heart on May 22, 2135 by the Falcons. Mr. Big Heart reported both women arrived one week prior to their deaths and spent the entire time listening to his rare collection of vinyl recordings. (He also reported two poachers chained to the dock below his house, both with their heads missing.) Miss Freestyle passed from the Wetlands at exactly 11:00 pm on May 21, with Miss Gerrard following her seven hours later at 6:00 am on May 22. Neither Miss Freestyle nor Miss Gerrard had any next of kin, so their home at Moon Dock 10 is available to any citizen of the Wetlands according to the Squatter’s Rights Ordinance 2082. Because Miss Freestyle confessed to the 2021 New Dawn Lab arson, and identified Miss Gerrard as her accomplice, their names have been added to the records. (Without any living family members, there is no one to punish in their place.) Both bodies were delivered for sky burial at sundown of May 22.

About this work

During the COVID-19 lockdown, Oswald became involved with a group of writers working on dystopian stories. Finding this challenging given the dystopian state of the world around her, Oswald eventually concluded that she could present something dystopian yet filled with beauty, humour, and hope. Beauty in a Drowned World steps out of the traditional narrative format to instead take the form of a questionnaire, with the mundanity of bureaucracy crystallising the story to evocative effect.

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