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.”