Queen of the Sunken City

by Susan DeFreitas

The King of King Street poled his skiff across Calhoun, looking for his queen. Sometimes in the mornings she could be found around Market, meeting her day’s appointments with “dem tourists from foreign,” as his granny used to say.

Tourists had been coming to the Sunken City of the South since long before it had
sunk—coming to see the Rainbow Row and the Battery and the grand old churches
built upon the backs of slaves. Coming to take the tours, most of which omitted
such distasteful details.

Tours such as this one here on Calhoun Street—which, like all of the streets downtown, was no longer a street at all, but a glittering canal, reflecting the half-submerged
historic homes and churches that appeared on all the postcards. A fellow in a
flat hat at the helm of a water taxi steered it slowly into the mangroves of
Francis Marion Square, telling stories to white folk made whiter by their
reflective nanoscreen, which made their whiteness gleam.

“Here to the south side of the square, just beyond the Lindsey Graham Memorial
Mangroves, you’ll see the statue of John C. Calhoun,” the guide said, stilling
the motor. He gestured to the bronze statue on high, which the King always
thought of as the white man in the sky. “Calhoun was one of the state’s most
illustrious citizens. He served as a senator and US Vice President in the years
leading up to the First Civil War, and he was an prominent advocate of states’
rights.”

King almost laughed as he poled on past, his dark skin bare to the sun. The only reason the white man in the sky had escaped being sunk was because the city fathers had
seen fit to raise him up so high. And why? Long ago, any Black folks who
happened to pass would do their best to deface him. Rumor had it the statue of
John C. Calhoun was missing the pinky finger of its left hand, which sat
casually upon the man’s hip, as if he were disciplining a dog.

“King,” came a voice from down the way. “How you going, boss?”

“All right, all right.” King shaded his eyes from the sun. There upon the wrought-iron
balcony of the Floating Flophouse stood Nestor, tying up his catch. “How you
keeping, Nesta?”

“Fine, man, fine. You see?” Nestor held aloft a glistening magenta fan from which dangled
strands of blue.

“Man, you crazy,” King told him. “You eat that thing?”

“You en eat jellyfish chop chop?”

“I eat saltfish chop-up.”

Nestor laughed. “Saltfish? You try. I en able with shark, man. Shark got teeth.”

King just shook his head. Like King’s granny, Nestor hailed from the islands to the
south—what was left of them now—which is why he talked so broad. He’d made the
harbor last spring on his cunning Third World raft, a riprap of sea trash,
slipped in under the guard, and promptly installed himself amid the rotting
grandeur of the Floating Flophouse. (Which did not actually float, though rumor
had it, upon occasion, the air mattresses of its inhabitants did.)

“Nesta,” said King. “You seen the queen?”

The man smiled, showing teeth. “Queen Street way she dey.”

King lifted his hand in thanks and poled past.

Past Society, Wentworth, Hassell, and down by Market, where the boardwalks of the
city converged—where tourists stepped up from sleek water taxis to wander the
stalls of the New Market, which sat atop the roof of the old.

Altogether, a pod of scuba divers dropped off the promenade, their airbreathers affixed to their faces. Even as one group dropped, a barker stood at dock, rustling up the
next. “See the Sunken City in all its grandeur! Shipwrecks, pirates, and
Blackbeard’s Revenge! Opulent marble malls, mausoleums, and museums! Swim inside the Circular Church!”

King sucked his teeth in derision as he poled past. Of course, he had taken such a tour
himself once—who could resist the invitation to see the Sunken City from below?
But just like the water-taxi tours, the scuba tours were full of hokum. The
mall, museum, and mausoleums were real enough, as was the Circular Church,
which really was a wonder—much of the stained glass was still intact, and when
the sun shone through it, illuminating beds of kelp swaying in your wake, and
the headset played “Amazing Grace,” it was enough to make the Devil himself get
religion.

But the Queen Anne’s Revenge was no more than a rich man’s yacht from the 2040s worked over by crafty hucksters. It had been
picked up from the Ashley River by Hurricane Yvette and dashed against the Old
Slave Mart, as if in recompense—and the skeletons of those so-called pirates
were no more than the city’s poorest citizens, whose bodies had lain so long
under the sodden trash, awaiting emergency management, that they’d never been
claimed or buried.

King knew that now—knew too the real reason the seas had risen, the heaviest buildings
had sunk, and the great storms had grown so fierce. All of this he knew because
of the queen, and today, he’d decided, was the day he would present to her what
it was he knew. A humble craft, but an old one, in which he might find favor.

King stopped to drop his dipper in an eddy that had formed near Jacob’s Alley and
fished out a bright yellow bag—#4 plastic, good quality—and added it to the
pile at his feet. Soon he’d have enough for another basket, like those tied up
on display to the fore of his craft, which would fetch a good price at the
market.

When King reached Queen Street, he anchored his pole and turned his skiff in one smooth, practiced maneuver. From a nearby rowboat, patched up with cheap nanobond,
three boys were watching him, but they looked away when he caught them. Their
plastic roses were loosely folded, their sea baskets slack and lopsided. King
lifted his chin in their direction, in dismissal, and away they rowed down
Queen.

And there she stood, a vision in yellow beside St. Philips Church. The tourists she was
addressing bore only superficial resemblance to those he’d seen in the water
taxi, and to those strapping on scuba gear at the market; some were white and
some were black, and some murmured to one another in a language King thought
perhaps was French, but all of them were attired in such a style that his
finest sea basket would not have fetched a price sufficient, he suspected, to
purchase even one of their shoes.

“In 1835,” the queen was saying, “the original church burned to the ground. Three years
later, the church that stands before you now was built, in the Wren-Gibbs
style, common in the churches of Charleston.”

The queen’s immense yellow sunhat bobbed as she spoke. Her manner and bearing bespoke a lineage stretching back to Nefertiti, and her elocution, her various degrees
from good Canadian colleges. But she was not above dressing the part of the
guide, in anachronistic style—in that full, flowing sundress that brushed the
tops of her sandals, in that beribboned hat so broad a brood of children could
have gathered in its shade, all of it as yellow as the #4 plastic King had just
fished from the canal. The color gleamed against her blue-black skin.

“Two years later,” the queen was saying, “the statesman and outspoken advocate of slavery John C. Calhoun was buried in the West Church Yard here, and then, during the
First Civil War, moved to the East Yard, for fear his grave would be desecrated
by Union troops. However, efforts to protect Calhoun’s grave would ultimately
prove in vain, as the massive tomb built by the state legislature in 1880 would
in fact be desecrated, in 2054, just before Hurricane Yvette. Unbeknownst to
the elders of St. Philips Church, a crafty activist would carve his own
epitaph—or should I say, epithet? ‘Here lies John C. Calhoun, a real motherfucker.’”

The group tittered; this was, after all, as advertised, “The Truly Troublesome True
History of the Sunken City of the South.” King could have listened to the queen
all day. Which in fact he had, more than once, though he’d never approached her
so boldly.

“John King,” she said, turning to him. “What can I do for you today?”

Floating there at her feet, the king felt a fool—what, after all, had he expected,
interrupting her this way? He stood there on his skiff for a moment tongue
tied, all his troubles doubled: the great tower of St. Philips rising above and
rippling below, the tourists in their fine clothes, and in the center of it all
the queen, lemon yellow and blue-black in her immense beribboned hat. He may
have been the King of King Street, but here, he could see, just two blocks to
the east, he was no more than riff raff, sea trash.

Finally, he lifted that yellow #4 plastic bag. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and then, in his best
approximation of the Queen’s English: “My apologies for interrupting. I thought
perhaps your group might be interested in a traditional African American
handcraft dating back in this region nearly four hundred years. Might I offer a
demonstration?”

Under her hat, the queen lifted an elegant eyebrow. “Please,” she said, “by all means.”

King explained the way peoples from West Africa enslaved in the Sunken City—long
ago, before it had sunk—had woven baskets of bulrush. Their descendants had
carried on the tradition with sweetgrass, and now, in modern times, folks made
such baskets with sturdy recycled plastics, deposited daily in the canals of
the historic peninsula—likewise the city’s iconic roses, prized as souvenirs,
once folded from the fronds of the palmetto.

Now the fine tourists listened to John King speak, as if he really were a king. Now the
queen watched him from beneath the benevolent brim of her hat—in such a manner
as to suggest perhaps, in time, she might grant him a private audience.

By the time he turned, lifted a hand in farewell, and poled his skiff down Queen Street, one perfect yellow rose lay folded at her feet.


Susan DeFreitas has never been able to choose between fantasy and reality, so she lives and writes in both. A first-generation American of Caribbean descent, she is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, the Huffington Post, the Utne ReaderStory Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, High Desert Journal, and many other journals and anthologies. In 2017, The Oregonian named her “One of 25 Oregon Authors Every Oregonian Must Read.”