Emergence Magazine

Illustration by Juan Bernabeu

Be Dammed

by Laia Jufresa

Translated by Sophie Hughes


Laia Jufresa was born in Mexico City and grew up in the cloud forest of Veracruz and Paris. She is the author of El Esquinista and Umami. In 2017 she was named one of the Bogotá39, the thirty-nine most promising young writers in Latin America. Her fiction has appeared in Vogue, Words Without Borders, and McSweeney’s, and her nonfiction in El País, Netflix, and BBC Radio.


Sophie Hughes has translated over twenty books by Spanish and Latin American writers, including Fernanda Melchor, Alia Trabucco Zerán, José Revueltas, and Enrique Vila-Matas. She has been nominated for the International Booker Prize four times and is the recipient of the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute Translation Prize.


Juan Bernabeu is an artist and illustrator trained in Valencia, Berlin, and Italy. He communicates through line and drawing, using patterns and color to bring images to life. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Smithsonian Magazine, This American Life, and elsewhere.

I WAKE UP and the first thing I do is look at the hinge. That’s my job. It looks as splendid as ever. Just as polished and inert. I’ve been keeping watch over the hinge since before I could talk. Since before I could walk. It’s my calling. Or so I was told by the people keeping watch over me.

I SLIDE MY FEET over toward my partner’s warmth but find only an empty space, cold sheets. I turn over. Leon isn’t in the cabin. A bluish light filters through the cracks in the ceiling. Dawn light. There’s still time before I have to get up. I close my eyes. Leon must be in the kitchen making me porridge and tea. He’ll come and wake me up for first service.

THE PORRIDGE OATS grow up on deck. The hydroponic garden is Leon’s pride and joy. It’s his calling. Sometimes I tease him about those plants, calling them the siblings of our future children. In response he makes the sign of the diagonal at me and whispers: Shh, don’t say that. We eat the plants.

I’M TOO HUNGRY to get back to sleep. Leon must have bumped into someone and stopped to chat. Unlike me, Leon talks to everyone. Except Hans. No one talks to Hans anymore. He’s too far gone in the head. We leave food out for him on a tray. Or rather, the aunts do. They leave it by the door then race back to ring the meal bell so they don’t have to see his naked body or listen to him philosophizing. I’m worried they’ll throw him out the day he can no longer make the calculations. A mobile ship needs a captain, an immobile one, an engineer.

I GET UP, dress, and strip the bed, folding the sheets very slowly then smoothing them out with the palms of my hands. Any moment now Leon will walk in with my breakfast. I like this new obsession of his to feed me properly. It’s a bit like having my mother back. When I’ve folded everything and he still isn’t back, I give the cabin a good sweep, even though it’s not my job.

MY CABIN isn’t really a cabin. It’s an entire boat: my parents’ old boat. It’s tied to other vessels, which together make what we refer to as our “ship.”

My cabin is my home, but it’s also the temple, the chapel, the place people come to see the hinge. We don’t let them touch it. Only I can touch the hinge.

I walk over, curtsy, then gently place both hands around it. Technically speaking, the bascule’s hinge is taller than me and runs the length of the northerly wall of my cabin, but on it there’s a bolt, roughly the size of a human head, which sticks out prominently, and that’s the part that everyone, myself included, has come to think of as “the hinge.” It also stands out for its shine, very unlike the rest of the bridge’s opening mechanism, which has tarnished over time. The hinge is shiny from so much touch, so much care, so much adoration. After I’ve paid my respects, I hide the bedsheets, roll up the mattress, and even put out the folding chairs, which technically speaking is the aunts’ job. First service is at 10:00 a.m., but we always prepare the space with time to spare, because the most desperate among the believers tend to arrive early.



There’s a believer here to see you, one of the aunts calls through the door.

It’s not even light yet, I reply.

It’s just overcast, she says.

Tell them to wait for first service.

She clears her throat. I open the door and she whispers: She’s brought seeds.

Show her in, I reply.

Where’s Leon?

Already left.

Ah, she says, looking over my shoulder at the perfectly arranged cabin, all set up for service. She makes the sign of the diagonal and goes to fetch the believer. I smooth down my dress with the palms of my hands.

MY JOB IS to pray to the hinge.

In the beginning I would pray for it to turn.

But now I pray for whatever people ask for. Depending on what they’re offering in return.

THE BELIEVER is a petit woman with long, straight hair. When I open the door, her arms are already crossed at chest-height, one forearm resting on the other, the tips of her fingers touching the opposite elbow. On seeing me she lowers her gaze, and keeping her right elbow on her left hand to serve as a hinge, she traces an arc until her arm is at a forty-five-degree angle. This woman has only recently learned how to do the diagonal, the sign of my believers. I can tell because she performs it slowly, awkwardly, trembling. She’s one of the desperate ones, and she’s come a long way to be here.

IF THE HINGE turned, the bridge to which we’re attached would open, creating a right-angled triangle and freeing us from the open-air prison that is our settlement.

Which is why I’m called Hypotenuse.

Which is why we greet each other making the sign of the diagonal.

I OFFER the believer a seat. The aunt serves us tea. I hope my tummy doesn’t start rumbling. This woman has traveled from another continent in the hope of reaching the one just beyond our bridge. She wants me to pray for the hinge to turn. I mask my surprise. Almost no one comes to me with the original petition anymore. Few consider themselves worthy of a miracle; they only ask for their lot to improve. The aunt stays put near the doorway. I take it from this unusual surveillance that I’m expected to put on a good show. The believer brought something of value to us: seeds from a new plant, which Leon can cultivate for all of us aboard the ship to eat. Fine. Here goes.

WHEN OUR BRIDGE stopped opening, people still managed to pass under it in inflatable dinghies. Some even swam, even though the river’s current is strong and many died trying. Later on the waters rose, and now there’s nowhere to go. We’re dammed up. To the east and west of us are the walls the continent raised to protect itself from floods. To the north, the bridge, guarded against trespassers day and night. To the south, the long line of vessels that keep on coming, lured by the myth of a border checkpoint, which in reality hasn’t existed for a long time. They join our settlement for lack of another option. The ones who reach my cabin have traveled many miles. They come to make petitions to the hinge. I listen to them all. I pray on their behalf. I’m their bridge.

I don’t know how far back the line stretches. Whenever I ask, they tell me: All the way to the sea.

THIS BELIEVER has come all the way from the sea. Her voice trembles. I listen to her, and when she’s finished talking I kneel down, place my hands on the hinge, focus all my attention on my knees, and imagine they’re sinking into the floorboards. The first step is always to dissolve. It’s my job.

WHEN THE BRIDGE stopped opening, my parents’ boat was just about to cross. Quickly, a line of all the other vessels that wanted to pass started forming behind them. When it became apparent that the bridge wasn’t going to reopen, people started taking matters into their own hands, but my mother was too heavily pregnant to risk crossing in a dinghy. With so many abandoned boats around them, there was no way to back up. The crew on the next boat over ended up swimming their way under and out. They left everything behind, including their chief engineer, Hans, who only has one leg and wouldn’t have made it. Hans then agreed to secure his deserted trawler to my parents’ small sailboat. He also assisted my mother in labor, and explained to my father that the huge piece of steel beside our boat was the hinge mechanism that raised the bridge bascule.

My father quickly made a shrine of that hinge. He constructed our new home around it. I was only five the first time I placed my hands on its cool metal and felt, in this order: my knees sink into the floor, my head empty out, my whole being dissolve, the round bolt start to rotate between my hands.

It’s turning! I screamed, right before fainting.

When I came round, the hinge hadn’t budged. Not one millimeter. But I had been converted. I’d seen it turn. I’d felt it.

Now I think perhaps I was just running a fever.

By the age of seven I could conjure the illusion at will. I knew how to dissolve, hyperventilating my way into a trance until I felt the big iron bolt rotate. More often than not I fainted. I still do, but not before I’m able to confirm: It’s turning!

There’s no doubt in my mind, I’d mutter on coming round, convinced that this time it truly had turned, this time it had been for real. It always feels so real.

IT’S TURNING! I shout, releasing my hands and collapsing to the floor. The little woman makes the sign of the diagonal and slips out of the room, overcome with emotion and nudged along by the aunt who’s telling her I must rest now. Once they’ve gone, I sit up. I feel light-headed. Time for breakfast.

WE NAMED the parts of our ship—which is actually a number of smaller boats fastened together—after the parts of a large vessel: a cargo carrier, a cruise liner, something that could actually sail. Our ship was cobbled together by hand. It can’t move, but it does float. For now, it floats.

The individual boats were named cabins, and their roofs—now connected—became known as the deck. The bow is a platform where we’ve erected a watchtower. There’s a second one at the stern. For building materials we dismantled boats that were past their prime, or whose owners were past their prime. Others joined us for protection, or out of faith, because we persuaded them with what my parents called “plans” and “missions” but what I now understand to be desperation, the power of suggestion.

At the center of it all is the kitchen where the aunts never stop working. If the chapel is the ship’s heart, the kitchen is its hands. No other part of the settlement produces as much food as we do. The second I walk in, the aunts sit me down and put a plate down in front of me.

But Leon isn’t in the kitchen. He wasn’t at breakfast, when I ate alone and uneasy; and he’s not at lunch either, to which I arrive tired after the ten o’clock service. I sit down with the aunts.

How was it? one of them asks.

Rammed, I tell her. I stayed behind for an hour and a half praying.

She serves me some more water, feels my brow with her hand, and makes the sign of the diagonal as she leaves.

I don’t spell out to the aunt that the extra hour and a half was spent in prayers of compensation. She’s an old-timer. She already knows. And she knows, too, that we never discuss that out loud.

I eat as slowly as I can, but Leon doesn’t come for lunch. He must be having issues with the crops. The damp, the gulls, some sort of infestation. I’ll tease him later. I’ll say: All this fuss about me eating well and here you are skipping meals. The father also needs to stay healthy, you know.

He won’t crack a smile, so I’ll make it up to him by cupping his cheeks in my hands and giving him the longest kiss.

WHEN THE BRIDGE stopped opening and my parents got stuck, the banks on either side of our river measured two meters high. They were extended to six meters in a hasty, violent operation, an emergency response by the continent to protect itself from the rising water, to try to counteract decades of denialism in a matter of weeks. It’s understood that it all went rather badly. Many people died, but—and I suppose this is what the people at the top tell themselves—more were saved. And yet, from down here it’s hard not to feel that walling themselves in was also, in part, a way to keep us out. We have it on good authority that they could have rescued us.

With the extension of the banks, all the progress my parents had made over the years—all the hard-fought negotiations, all the planning—was lost. We went from being lawless to hopelessly lawless. The only way we will be reintegrated into the continent is if the bridge opens. But the bridge runs on gas. And the gas ran out ages ago.

Our one remaining hope is for a miracle. My job is to pray for that miracle.

Or rather, that was originally my job. Now I also pray in reverse, to compensate.

I’VE NEVER BEEN one to nap, but these days my body demands it. I dream in my sleep, and when I wake up, I’m smiling. But my smile soon fades when I look through my porthole and read the sundial that the aunts defiantly hung on the eastern bank: it’s almost 4:00 p.m. Time for second service.

I GIVE THREE services a day: one at ten, one at four, and another at eight. Six times a day on the weekends. Private sessions only if the pay is excellent. There’s space for about forty people at service and we pray as a group. If anyone asks for the bridge to open, I have to do the ritual, and then, once they’ve gone, I have to do compensation prayers while the aunts sweep around me, cleaning away all trace of the believers.

THE FOUR O’CLOCK service is less busy than the ten o’clock, but one of the believers stinks. He’s in the first row. The others keep their distance from him, but I can’t. I do everything in my power not to vomit during my sermon. One of the aunts gestures at the guard to bring me a chair. Once the believers have left, someone burns an incense stick, but that only makes me feel queasier. It frustrates me to be in this state. We sea dogs aren’t used to feeling nauseous.

Where’s Leon? the aunt asks me.

I’m sure he’ll be back soon, I reply.

From now on, she says, you’ll lead service sitting down.

I feel myself relax into the chair—ashamed, but also grateful.

THE AUNTS are businesswomen, but their hearts are in the right place. They convert the widows and rehabilitate the kids. They take those idle, angry young people and turn them into peaceful workers. Peaceful but armed. Always armed. Just as the aunts are. They teach these recruits to shoot, to pray, and to appreciate the satisfaction of a job well done, which is the only thing we have.

When Leon arrived, he was just as vulnerable as the others, but far more defiant. Incendiary. Literally. As a boy he was obsessed with Operation Phoenix, an absurd and suicidal plan involving setting fire to the settlement in the hope that the smoke would attract the attention of the continent. He grew out of it, of course, but even today he sometimes talks about trying to pass under the bridge with oxygen tanks. I remind him that this is how I lost my parents, at which point he settles down. My parents led that mission. We never saw them again.

THE AUNTS CHOSE Leon for me. He’s the poster child for their efforts: a man who was lost and found himself, who went from being a hopeless case to a preacher of our cause. Leon runs the garden and trains the newcomers. He screens all of the recruits. I’ve liked him since the first time I saw him take off his sun veil. The aunts chose him for me, but they arranged all our meetings regardless. I’m their most precious commodity. Only when my monthly bleeds stopped did they let him move in with me. And still, neither they nor I would ever dream of telling Leon about the compensation stuff.

IN THE AFTERNOON I make my way to the hydroponic garden. I rarely go there. The deck is an assortment of metal sheets and timbers. It’s sturdy enough and they keep it well maintained, but even so I always feel like I’m going to slip and end up in the river’s treacherous waters.

When I reach the garden, Leon’s team all look away. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they were hiding something, but the truth is they always avoid my gaze. I don’t like looking at them either: smirking behind their sun veils with their hands deep in a grow tray and their machine guns slung over their backs. A necessary evil, the aunts tell me when I protest.

I decide to go and see the only person who will look me in the eye.

HANS TELLS ME he hasn’t seen Leon all day.

Very strange, he says, because Leon usually brings me a portion of seagull wings.

He must be confused. Leon hasn’t worked frying seagulls for ages, since we became vegetarians. He’s confused, stark naked, and very, very thin. The stump at his knee looks whiteish, like the skin is peeling off. His eyes, too. Whiteish. As if each pupil had been wrapped in cheese cloth. They well up when I tell him I’m pregnant.

But then he frowns, suddenly suspicious, which makes me laugh.

I really am pregnant, I assure him. It’s not suggestion.

IT WAS HANS who showed me what psychological suggestion is. I didn’t believe him, but he proved it to me with a cabbage. When I was twelve, he took me up to the hydroponic garden and, when nobody was looking, made me steal a cabbage. Back below deck, he told me to kneel down, cup the cabbage in my hands, and perform my usual ritual. The same thing happened with the cabbage as with the hinge: I could leave my body, dissolve, and make it turn—there was no doubt in my mind.

When I came to and saw the cabbage on the floor, I was inconsolable.

Hans let me cry, then said softly in my ear: Understanding you’re not magical only makes you more powerful.

LATER ON, as night begins to fall and Leon still hasn’t shown up, I return to the deck. To the watchtower at the bow. The guards are like statues, but they greet me making the sign of the diagonal, and when I inquire, one of them tells me they haven’t seen him all day. The others go on studying the view. An incredible, terrifying view. Boats as far as the eye can see. So closely bunched together you can’t see the water. People like larvae. Shouts, laughter, music, people trading all sorts. I make my way below deck, and I’m midway down the stairs when it hits me that there were only three of them on watch. We’re supposed to have seven guards at the bow at all times.

WHEN THE AUNTS took command of the ship, they threw off everyone except Hans and me. They established a new order and explained it to me very clearly. Now I was to pray for whatever the believers wanted. Never for free. And what’s more, after each ritual, I had to pray in reverse to compensate.

I accepted. I had no choice. But deep down I also knew that it makes no sense to pray to destroy the only world you know. That’s why I agreed to pray out loud for the hinge to turn and then, in silence, to pray for it not to move. For nothing to change. For our settlement to prosper and stay out of harm’s way. We also, in our own way, have erected solid walls around us. And now we must protect them. Protect ourselves. And grow. We must.

Any widow or spinster living in the settlement can request to join the order. Once they’ve gained our trust, I personally take them through their induction. I explain it all to them clearly. This hinge, I tell them, is just a replica. The real one is underwater, and has been since the waters rose. This one wasn’t designed to turn. But if you join us and keep the secret, this fake hinge will save you.

That’s a lie, too. My hinge is the original one. It was designed to turn, to open the bridge three times a day, six on the weekend, thus allowing boat traffic to pass. And it remembers its origins just like we remember ours on dry land, even if we’ve never set foot on dry land.

But for the hinge to turn, it needs 4,800 liters of gasoline. This is the very first thing we learned at the makeshift school at the settlement. Opening the bridge requires 60 tubs of gasoline. A tub is a kind of large bucket that was used on the continent to take baths before the water became contaminated and was privatized. It’s hard to imagine such a carnival of waste, but they did exist. It’s well documented. Each tub could hold around 80 liters of water. That is, our bridge requires 60 × 80 liters of gasoline to open.

We were also taught the history of moveable bridges. The first one was built two thousand years before Christ, in Egypt. Later they became all the rage in medieval Europe. Rolling bascule bridges like ours were invented by da Vinci. Since no one in the settlement has identification papers, strange names abound. My own, for a start. But there’s also a marked overrepresentation of Leos, Leones, and Leonardos. Leonarda comes up, too, and even the odd Leonarde. I’ve met at least one young man named Forty-Eight Hundred.

And we learned all the types of moveable bridges by heart. Folding bridge. Curling bridge. Ducking, retractable, submersible. Swing bridge. Drawbridge. Tilt bridge. What makes a rolling bascule bridge superior is that it doesn’t require counterweights. Or that’s what made it superior back when there was gasoline. Now it makes it inferior because it can’t be forced open. But that’s not old Leonardo’s fault. Nor Hypotenuse’s.

We have it on good authority that the continent could, if it wanted to, get hold of 4,800 liters of gasoline. But they’re not interested. Sometimes they throw over huge sacks of extinguishers, medicine, condoms. The continent is only interested in ensuring that we don’t become a breeding ground for new diseases, that we don’t set ourselves ablaze, and above all that we don’t reproduce.

WHEN I GET back to my cabin, I think I can feel the baby kicking. But I might have imagined it; I’m only at twenty weeks. What I’m feeling is a racing heart. I’ve been shaking ever since I counted the guards. Something’s not right. Or is this autosuggestion? I try to breathe the way one of the aunts showed me. The same one who explained to me that the paranoia I feel whenever Leon isn’t around is connected to my parents’ disappearance. She says the traces of trauma are real, even for privileged demigods. What I must do, she tells me, is breathe deeply.

WHEN THE AUNT confirmed my pregnancy, she also explained to us how the placenta works, using the roots of a hydroponic lettuce. Leon and I looked on in amazement. I still find it hard to wrap my head around it. Inside of me there’s a large balloon filled with water where the baby floats. For now, it floats.

IN MY HEART I know I shouldn’t have told Leon about the baby. Not so soon. He’s regressed. Now he’s talking about reaching the continent again. I remind him that’s not possible unless the bridge opens. He says he has it on good authority that if you enter by air or make it over the wall, they separate you from your children. I tell him that’s all the more reason not to go. You don’t understand, he says, what we need to do is get a move on, find a way across while the child is still inside you.

DEEP BREATHS, Hypotenuse.

HANS TAUGHT ME that the phrase “on good authority” usually hides a lack of solid proof. If your “authority” is “good,” you quote them and that’s that.

I have it on good authority that there’s gasoline on the continent.

I have it on good authority that they take your children from you on entry.

I have it on good authority that nobody considers Operation Phoenix to be a viable or desirable course of action.

BUT WHEN I breathe deeply, I hyperventilate.

I faint.

I’M WOKEN by a stinging sensation up my nose. One of the aunts is shaking me by the shoulders. Light streams through the cracks, but it’s not daylight or moonlight. It’s something else. I sit up and straightaway start coughing. Two aunts are now dragging me to the door, but I kick myself free. I stand up and try to find my way through the smoke. The aunts tug at my waist. I shove them away and run to the sacred wall. The smoke is denser here, they don’t dare come nearer. Eventually they leave, screaming threats, and I drop to my knees. I reach up and place my hands on my hinge and immediately recoil. It’s hot! Could it be grinding into action? I make myself place my hands back on it and let my knees sink into the floorboards. The first step is always to dissolve.

I pray with everything I have. Not in reverse but the right way. Like I did as a child. Like I did before Hans made me forget I’m magic. I pray that on seeing the settlement up in flames the continent will take pity on us and open the bridge at last. I pray for my home to sink. I pray for my child to be spared.

I pray and I pray and it works. For the first time in my life the hinge moves between my hands. There’s no doubt in my mind. This time it’s for real. It’s turning!

Read More Stories from Shifting Landscapes

Step further into the changes enveloping us with Vol 4. Shifting Landscapes. The voices gathered here bear witness to the Earth’s changing face and offer ways to orient ourselves in this time of great loss, possibility, and transformation. Spanning 275 pages, this issue is our most photographic to date and includes a special practice insert.


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