High Tide

Emmanuela Carbé

Illustration by Florinda Pamungkas


When I won a position in the Academy of Ancient and Modern Humanities in Milan25, right after having finished my studies in Simple Humanistic Acculturation with a concentration in information sciences, 3.7 out of the 10-point scale of public usefulness established by the government at the beginning of every academic year, a scholar of Mega-Ancient Studies took me under her wing and told me the rules: if you want to survive in here first of all you need to talk about yourself as little as possible, second don’t expect anything from anyone, third don’t be needlessly rude to the students in the Foundations of Computerized Humanistic Acculturation course. If someone drops it, the government won’t send funding for the new software and the Council of the Supreme Nine will find a way to suspend you. Remember that the government doesn’t allow you to fail a student more than twice, and at the second time you need to let the parents know and invite them to meet with you: if you don’t want to dirty up your Career Card try to never get to that point.

If you have a chronic condition or academic depression, ask to manage your vacation time by yourself: you lose ten days off per year but you can go away at any time as long as you send in the completed form to the Absence Management Office twenty-four hours in advance. I’m not even going to talk to you about dealing with pregnancy, but remember to declare > 10 as the estimate of the years in which you ensure you won’t get pregnant; no, that’s nothing if you think about it, keep in mind that you need eight years for the Academy, one year of free, socially useful work to show that you’re not just an academic just in case, four years of a visiting fellowship in an institute that isn’t your own, two years of third-level specialization to get into the humanities companies providing grammatical assistance to the government, for when they get rid of you here. I’m not going to hide the fact that after the Great Reform it’s practically impossible to get a position. In the best possible scenario you’ll ask to join the Real Women group and you’ll do a VTHB night course, as long as there’s room. There’s nothing to laugh about, in ten years you’ll regret not having become a Happy Bride right away.

I had specialized in Conservation of Digital Literature, a subject considered to be dirty by DRS purists. The section I was working in was exclusively dedicated to the Digital Memory of the Humanities: the DMH sign, in red LEDs that needed to be changed by now, welcomed visitors at the entrance. I thought my work was interesting: I dealt with literary data on the hard disks of late 1900s writers and saved it for the Museums of the Modern and Postmodern Novels. We had to take every binary code out of the old carcasses and transform them into Fluid Digital Code. Every DMH specialist was assigned an author: if they were dead one would immediately pass to the historical research phase; if they were still alive the specialist would first go to the author’s house, photograph them and x-ray them. The specialist needed to collect data that would then be processed to construct the special features for the digital versions of their novels. The XML system for marking up texts had been superseded by three-dimensional graphic reconstruction: the reader could enter into a 3D textual room connected to a database of elements taken from EEG scans of the author, if alive, or reconstructed thanks to rigorous historical research. All this was, of course, peppered with special features: texts of anecdotes, interviews, photos of the author in their daily life, discount codes to get into the Museums of the Modern and Postmodern Novels. This was the only way to get necessary research funding from the government.

At the end of my eighth year in the Academy, despite my high empathy points from my activities in student assistance and seven positive reviews from the Council of the Nine, my Career Card had one, permanent mark in the middle: six days and eight hours of in-patient care at the Institute for Academic Depression; and before that a suspicious twenty-one day absence: it was legally permissible because I hadn’t checked the box for the vacation package, but I had forwarded the completed form to the Absence Management Office too late, without even filling out the blank “please specify:” line next to the “health” box

Mom had gotten sick during my sixth year at the Academy: due to a rare genetic anomaly her body’s cells sometimes sent information to other cells and sometimes didn’t, sometimes they didn’t know whether they should send it, and so maybe they sent it or maybe they didn’t. In this last case the cells would attack other cells and destroy organ tissue, or at least that’s what I had understood from the Subscription to Knowledge database the day that my mother first talked about the illness that was eating her liver and that later would maybe attack her heart, her lungs, her kidneys, her skin. Who knows what else of me it’ll eat, she said, chuckling.

There were three waiting lists: one with dead patients’ organs, one with lab-grown organs and one with live donors’ organs. The patients with degenerative diseases could only aspire to the worst waiting list, the dead patient one. The best-equipped transplant clinic on list number one was Bologna20. Mom’s prognosis, considering her medical history, was fifty-fifty. Sometimes, when I thought about it, I would observe the back of my hand and then my palm, fifty yes fifty no, and I would turn it up and down, looking at nails and fingerpads.


I get on the High Speed Shuttle in the Milan25 station, the conductor moves aside to let me get in through footboard number 8. Six pm, the doors close, excuse me (to the man in front of me, striped tie, business attire) is this the shuttle to Rome3? Yes, shuttle AV2230 for zone 3, thanks, I thought it was leaving in ten minutes, oh no! No no! You’re thinking of another shuttle, AV2240, departing at 6:10pm and stopping at Bologna21, Florence10, Viterbo6 and Rome3. It hadn’t left yet, my brain was telling me, get up now, move now, go to the door and press the button, right away, right now, but what if it leaves while I’m trying to get to the door?, comes the other thought. Press the button, stop everything and explain why, get down, the conductor’s there, he’s there, the footboard is still there, he’s closed the others, what if he’s closed them all? Press the red button, pull the handle, pay the fine, they’ll mark the fine on your Life Card, you’ll pay in full, now get up and do it, do it miss (business attire says) you’re on the wrong shuttle, you should have taken the one at 6:10pm, shut up, I think, you’re talking about the one that takes two hours and thirty-five minutes because it has four stops, yes I messed up, thanks, I say, because you see (business attire) this one on the other hand gets there in a flash, an hour and fifteen, you probably went into the passage for the wrong track or your digital tablet didn’t localize it correctly. I looked at him, I mentally mapped out all the steps, get up, get my suitcase, run, try to open the door, it’s still stopped, I have a Reason, I have a Reason for opening the door, now or never, it moves, I get up, business attire is still talking, he’s still explaining, be quiet, thank you, I look toward the door and the conductor is in the aisle, I’m in the middle, I look at him, I feel everything move, and so do my internal organs, my hair moves back, I feel myself break, I feel myself collapse to the ground, but I’m on my feet, made of stone, he comes over to me, are you all right? She got on the wrong shuttle, business attire says, she should have taken the 6:10 one for Rome3, I’m not going to Rome3, I say softly, they look at me, where were you trying to get to miss?

This is how it works: you don’t know when it’s your turn, you know that at a certain point they call you and you don’t have much time. For months you know they’re going to call you, and at a certain point you know that the moment is drawing near.

“I didn’t want to get on the right shuttle, right doctor? It was a subconscious slip-up, right?”

“You got on the wrong shuttle, that’s all.”

“Is it a Freudian slip?”

“You were very agitated, but here you can only talk about your problems as they relate to Academic Depression.”

“It’s a Freudian slip, I read it in the Subscription to Knowledge database.”


You know that it’s your turn, you knew for many months that they would call her, that in a brief period of time you would have to stick something in a suitcase, you had put some clothes in a drawer for that day, but weeks passed, then months, and you forget that thing, and you put three unmatched socks in your suitcase.

The day before the missed shuttle we knew that mom was high on the list. I was in the Institute’s café, I was reading the first page of the Milan25 Bulletin, terrible car accident, mixed multitransplant, doctor blank’s record-setting, Bologna20 hospital, seven organs on one patient, two synthetic ones and five from list number one, hi mom how are you? So so, did you read? Yes, it won’t be much longer, they did a mixed multitransplant (nothing but numbers: this many livers, this many hearts, this many kidneys, for now we want a liver, do you need anything else? Yes but for now a liver is enough, thank you and goodbye). Is it our turn?


She did everything, suffered everything, she gave herself her IVs, she was the one bombarding herself with medication, she was the one unable to drag herself to the bathroom, she was the one dragging us all. I had grabbed onto her with my hand at her right foot, dad at her left foot, all three of us on the ground, she was in front dragging herself with her arms, we were letting her drag us, behind her, dazed by Anxiolan, then by Dreamolen, then by Benzoten. For two years everything had become ours, mine, hers and his. Imagining the pain was the only way we knew how to be close to her. I don’t know who decided this: she stayed home and took care of herself, dad went to work and brought her to the clinic every fifteen days, I stayed one hundred and fifty kilometers away observing the sickness from the outside, trying to finish the Academy without dirtying my Career Card. One thing exists, in the midst of sickness, and that is that all the rest, all that, if you were outside of sickness, you would say “if it doesn’t work out it’s not a big deal,” in sickness it becomes essential, a priority: if you don’t do something in the pre-established chain of events then everything will break. If I don’t finish the Academy mom won’t get a liver, for now a liver is enough, thank you, but if I can’t go on she will definitely die.


The conductor takes me out of economy and brings me to luxury. He has someone bring me a bottle of water and he offers me an oxygen mask to assist my breathing. I make a gesture of no thank you and I say that I need to stop at Bologna21 because I need to get to Bologna20 within three hours. He gives me the obvious response, I tell him that if my mother goes into the operating room and doesn’t come out alive I’ll never see her again, nails and fingerpads, he says wait here and he disappears. I don’t have the courage to tell mom that I won’t see her in time. I cry like the fussiest of children and I’m ashamed of myself, I look at myself from outside myself, I observe my crying profile from the window. Dad calls and asks me where I am, I sob. Mom calls me back and chuckles, you’re a goof, she tells me, you’re such a space cadet, and she laughs more, my little space cadet, you have to go to Rome5 and take a Nightly Local Shuttle to Trieste2, it’ll take you at least four hours, don’t fall asleep or who knows where you’ll end up, I told you to stay at work, you stubborn girl, look how many hours of travel now, but come on, don’t worry, don’t cry my little space cadet—and she chuckles—I love you.

“It’s a Freudian slip, right?”

“Do you know when you started to feel a certain repulsion for the academic environment?”

“I don’t feel any repulsion, I feel fine.”

“So why did we find a resignation letter at your house?”


The conductor comes back: I tried to talk to the Bologna21 station but they won’t give me the platform, we’re going to go right through two platforms and we can’t stop, not even to let you get off on the fly, I’m sorry, I also tried Florence5 and even Florence20, if we let you get off without a platform we’ll all get fired, I’m sorry. The conductor had asked to stop to let me off. No stranger, in all my life, had ever done so much for me. I was sobbing because of his kindness and then I’d go back to sobbing about mom and then about the fact that I was sobbing and I couldn’t control myself. Mom calls me again when I’m about to get to Rome3, there’s a problem, you’re lucky—and she chuckles—they don’t know whether to give the transplant to me or to another patient, can you believe it, they called her too and they’re running analyses on both of us to see who’s more compatible, apparently it’ll take another couple hours. I sob and lean on the window. The shuttle for Trieste2 is full of soldiers going back to the barracks. They sing and unwrap salami sandwiches, a boy offers one to me and I keep sobbing. I don’t know how long the trip was, I can’t remember, I only know that an entire lifetime’s supply of tears was depleted in a night, the conduit was dried up, whatever tragedy would happen later, whatever more tragic tragedy than this one, would take place without display. When I got to the clinic, mom was still in her room trying to stop dad’s tears. I thought there was nothing left in my eyes. Come here—and she chuckled—let me hug you.


They had decided that the liver was for her. When mom entered into the operating room dad and I chose two different paths: he, Cultured and Advanced Scientist, left the clinic and went to church to pray to the Holy Mother of Mystery in Bologna5. I went to the Palombari ward, which specialized in psychological and physical support for atheists or not-enough-believers, and I asked to get into one of the BATI available for use by close loved ones of patients classified as A (serious, very serious, terminal). BATI were scuba suits that were immersed in a pool of salt water. The ones at the Bologna20 Clinic were among the most advanced and only weighed twenty pounds. They were white with red screws and they had mechanical hands to make the experience more complex and gratifying. A tube connected the BATI to the surface: from there came the supply of oxygen (but there was a reserve supply on the scuba suit’s chest in case of emergency), feeding liquids, and medications to provoke temporary hallucinations to take the mind off of the pain. An ascending cannula brought waste to the surface. Each loved one’s vitals were monitored and therapy was stopped in the case of anything out of the ordinary. A modern BATI could be autonomous for almost two months. You could decide to stay immersed only for the duration of the operation, or you could preventively ask to stay in the water for the next few days to avoid intensive therapy. I chose the most natural path and of course I signed, I signed to stay there for the duration of the operation and even longer if necessary.

They sat me in a waiting room. Then into the decontamination room: 1. put on disposable shoe covers; 2. tie up hair; 3. put on disposable white smock; 4. scrub hands and arms all the way up to the elbow with soap (and I scrubbed a ton, out of the fear that some bacteria could infiltrate mom’s new liver, if you do everything right your mom will live, I repeated to myself, do the procedures like the doctor told you, space cadet). Raise your arms and let the nurses put your gloves on. Go into the sound room and choose the playlist for your immersion. Out of hurry and agitation I only chose Alta marea by Venditti. They injected me with a liquid, they put a rubber helmet on me and a heart monitor on my finger, then they helped me get into BATI. As they were lowering me down I calculated that mom’s operation would last at least eight hours. How the hell could I?


“Maybe it came to mind because when I was little my mom had a tape with all of Venditti’s biggest hits.”

“Can you explain why you never sent your resignation letter to the Council of the Nine?”


Instead it lasted fifteen hours due to a kidney failure, to which twenty days of intensive therapy were added in which the medical personnel preferred to keep me in BATI because mom seemed not to react, she was on the edge of not making it, then she seemed like she would make it, then no again, and I was waiting in BATI, without knowing anything.


Inside BATI you’re in a state of semi-consciousness, like when you fall asleep. People who have tried BATI report having seen sea monsters, enchanted castles, devils with tails, glowing disco balls and even God. God knows what isn’t under there, people would say. As I sank to the bottom I couldn’t see anything, I only heard my heart, louder than this engine / our cigarettes are never out / on the radio that’s playing / I drive pursuing the light of the dawn. I started walking, there were pebbles on the ground, I tried to grab them but I couldn’t. I learned to use my mechanical hands after a few hours: my mechanical hands and Venditti were my only pastimes. I moved the pebbles from one side and piled them on the other. Then a school of fish came along, I tried to grab one, but they swam away. Then came a shadow that looked like my mother. She had an octopus helmet instead of hair. She was talking to a little girl and she was telling her: when I go away you’ll have to be good, and if you’re good you’ll go far, you’ll study, you’ll find a great job and you’ll marry the right man, not a spacey one though. Then I lost my sense of time and time didn’t exist. Frames in which things happened existed, the frames disappeared and we went on through themes. Movements were slow and there was no need for the present. I knew that I needed to wait and be good but I didn’t know why, mom kept talking to little girl, don’t put off till tomorrow what you could do today, treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated, laugh always, be kind to others, honor your father. Little girl was moving her mouth but no sound came out. I nodded and then went back to piling pebbles. Then there was a storm of pebbles, and my pile disappeared. One rock, bigger than the others, was getting close to BATI, I tried to move but it was as if a current kept pushing me back into its trajectory.

I know / you know / time flies / but how much road is left / before I see you again. I felt a jolt and water started flowing into BATI’s joints, I pulled on the tube to give the signal to bring me up but maybe no one was there. Maybe it was nighttime, but water kept coming in, or at least that’s what it seemed like, it was coming into the scuba suit, it was cold, at my throat—the dawn is born—and then I lost consciousness. When I woke up I couldn’t remember anything, not even that they had operated on my mom. I was slapped awake, I focused—the immense fear that you aren’t mine—good morning, do you recognize me?, get up slowly, when you’re ready I’ll bring you to semi-intensive therapy, your mother is waiting for you.


To transplant means to transfer, to take something from one point and transport it to another. A hole with pieces of torn roots is left at the starting point, like when you uproot a plant, a sunflower. At the end point, every old root needs to attach itself to the transplanted piece and regenerate together. Then you wait to see if the plant survives, if the earth holds, if the chlorophyll flows. It takes patience.

I don’t remember exactly when I passed into complete disenchantment. Maybe there was never a phase of enchantment. Maybe I had found my natural habitat in my Institute, where I now survived on eight months with a stipend and eight months without. No defeat could ever disappoint me. I had done my part, now I just needed to go on and do my duty without aspirations. I didn’t feel hate if someone behaved rudely, I wasn’t disconcerted by any kind of policy, any of the government’s idiocies, I didn’t ask myself any questions at all. If there was less funding it seemed normal to me, we were in a recession. I attended courses on business opportunities in the humanities and I cleaned up my Career Card by accumulating points. I did what everyone else did, I shut up: complaining was unseemly for those, like me, who belonged to the terrible generation of complainers. Know that you’re lucky, kissed by good fortune: always. Be grateful. Every day someone left the Institute, and even if the next day it could happen to me it didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered. I didn’t resent anyone and I knew that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, it was just the sick system, it was the economic juncture. I was happy to be young and not to have the responsibility that fell to the Council of the Nine. I was grateful to everyone for all they had been able to teach me in the decadent years. I had arrived at the stage of Total and Unconditional Loyalty. When will I leave: I had asked myself that during my Simple Humanistic Acculturation, and then in the Academy. When mom died, two months after her transplant, I stopped asking myself that, because it was an irrelevant question. I had become an adult, the protestors yelling under the windows of the institutes and in front of the government’s seat provoked only tenderness in me.

According to psychologists, processing a parent’s death takes eighteen months. I don’t even remember the beginning of my mourning. If, in an exam, the students told me “I studied by watching a videolesson by some professor with a long beard” and they couldn’t remember the name of the professor, now dead, who had been an illustrious scholar of Humanistic Acculturation, universally known, I would answer “now really think about it,” but the truth is that I just wanted to hug them, because their life went on even without knowing that name, because they were happy even without knowing when the Modern and then Postmodern Novels were born, because they didn’t worry about how to save literary texts for the conservation of the Digital Memory of the Humanities. The younger generations knew less and less and I was part of the chain of decay as much as the Council of the Nine, of the Twelve and down the line. Every day the Subscription to Knowledge database became more and more the one source for copypasting ideas. And yet I didn’t care at all, I wasn’t in the ranks of the opposers, of the scandalized people against this new world that possessed the instruments of memory, and yet was without memory. I had become the new world. I only wanted to get drunk off of the special features in the novels saved in DMH, and I wanted a new tablet for ebooks, a bigger one, and I wanted to save money to buy dad the most advanced models of dustbusting and fatmelting robots. I knew that soon it would be my turn and I would leave the Institute. I didn’t harbor any resentment, it wasn’t anyone’s fault. I wanted to forget why I had gotten there, how I had gotten there, forget mom and her encouragement, become the tamest and most inoffensive scuba diver in the world. In my wallet was my Real Women member card. In three months I would complete my training.

translated from the Italian by Isabella Livorni