From the author: Five vignettes about water in dry places, with all the oddities that go with it. May or may not cause heat stroke, hallucinations and tumbleweeds. Tumble, ye weeds.
Five Tales of the Aqueduct
By Spencer Ellsworth
Southern California exists on borrowed life. Four hundred miles of water, sucked from the Sierra Nevada into a river of steel and rebar and concrete. It plows through hot basins of Joshua trees, up barren hills dusted with scrub oaks, through sunblasted pumping stations that roil and hiss. It traces a line along the edge of Lancaster, California, springing tract homes and strip malls, green lawns and chlorine-wet children. It is a thing that does not belong, and like all such things, there is an old story at its heart.
A tired old woman decided to catch catfish in the aqueduct. She’d been sitting in front of her house for the last week, in hundred-degree high desert heat, reading mystery novels, drinking tequila and orange juice. She mourned her son, who became a Mormon when he was a teenager, served a Mormon mission in England, and moved back there to marry a girl he had baptized. He never had enough money to come visit her, or so he said. Now, when the Mormons rode by on their bicycles, she would throw rocks at them. They never noticed.
It was noon and well over one hundred degrees when she got to the aqueduct and set her rod. By the time the sun went down, turning the sky above the brown hills pink, she was thoroughly drunk.
Something yanked on her line. The woman grabbed the pole. Her hands turned the reel and pulled, turned and pulled, as if she were a puppet being moved. Somewhere in her brain a thought fluttered and died, a thought that said this wasn’t normal.
A catfish the size of a Great Dane hauled himself out of the water by his sucking mouth, slurping his way up the concrete. At the top, he spit out the lure, along with a fat gob of blood that splattered across the cover of the old lady’s mystery novel.
“It’s about time,” the catfish said. “Why didn’t you come sooner?”
The old woman giggled nervously, unable to think of anything else.
The catfish grunted, sounding irritated. “You have something to ask me?”
“You know.” The catfish looked around. “Old story. You pull a giant fish out of the water, he offers to answer any question you have—or grant a wish, though there’s no way I’m doing that again, so don’t even try—in exchange for his life.” He sighed. “Quite frankly, I’m tired of living. I don’t really mind if you don’t ask. I’ve been swimming this aqueduct since oughty-nine.”
The old woman said, “A question.”
“You really are sloshed, aren’t you?” the catfish asked. “You won’t even tell me that the aqueduct wasn’t really here in oughty-nine. Which means I don’t get to tell you I wasn’t a catfish then. You won’t even play along. Go on, just eat me.”
The catfish sighed.
She wanted to ask him if her son really loved her anymore, even though he told her over and over that he did, even when she made international calls drunk at two o’clock in the morning. She opened her mouth to tell the catfish how much she missed her little boy when he snapped, “Ask already!”
She felt ashamed and looked down at the blood-spattered paperback. “That book. What . . . what happens at the end?”
The catfish had quickly gotten over being shocked by the stupidity of this woman. Still, he had his pride. (Even if the answer was easy—it was the nanny, not the first nanny, but the other nanny, who had killed the little girl.) “No,” the catfish said, and accepted his fate. “Nope, not going to answer. You have to eat me.”
The woman looked around, as if hoping for help. “I don’t really want to—” A moment later she found herself lugging the enormous catfish to her car, wheezing and sweating alcohol.
He stayed in her freezer for three months, until the Mormon missionaries knocked on her door and she felt so lonely that she actually let them in. They brought her pamphlets and videos her son had already shown her, and one day one of them, who was an avid fisherman, saw the massive catfish in her freezer. He covered it in cornmeal and cooked it up with fries.
After dinner, the missionaries and the woman fell asleep on the couch. They dreamed of an immense tunnel, stretching through the hearts of purple suns and deep, briny black water. Pumping stations rattled in the background as they fell through pipes made of light and time. For the rest of their lives they would dream homesick dreams.
Seventy-nine million, five hundred thousand, three hundred and twenty years ago, give or take a few months, a pterosaur flew the length of the aqueduct, which was underwater then. She had a vision of an immense fish whose flesh tasted of the sun. The other pterosaurs envied her when she came back and cawed that she had found the fish and eaten it, but most of them suspected she was lying.
A few months passed before any of them realized that it had been the first time they conceived of lying. There were no Huck Finns among the pterosaurs.
This complicated things. The weak little pterosaurs, normally relegated to low, wet nests near the water, started to tell the high-nested ones, the strong but foolhardy, that there was better fishing further out on the water. While the high-nesters were gone, the low-nesters took over their spots. Curiously enough, she who had flown the length of the aqueduct was fooled by this very strategy, and her eggs sank beneath green algae-rich waves.
The high-nested pterosaurs were infuriated. Determined also to battle with the mind, they created a code of pterosaur conduct that declared the low-nested pterosaurs inferior and not worthy of breeding, and justified violence in throwing them out. The low-nesters refused to leave, organizing protests atop the high cliffs. A young fiery speaker arose among the low-nested pterosaurs, demanding rights to high nests. He died under mysterious circumstances, wings torn and bloody, drifting in the surf.
A new generation grew up in this strife. The children of high-cliff pterosaurs began fraternizing with the children of lower-cliff pterosaurs. They started to build a monument of calcified pterosaur shit to their infamous speaker. Had that infamous comet not hit, who knows how many monuments they might have built.
With ancient eyes, she who had flown the length of the aqueduct saw the circle of light burning, coming closer in the sky. She tasted sunlight and sweet fish flesh.
Kevin has a song in his head. It is four minutes long and every four minutes it repeats. It is as annoying as the number sixteen—two to the fourth power, ugh. As annoying as when people tell him that all woolly mammoths are dead when they haven’t looked in Kamchatka. As annoying as the fact that he wants to kiss a girl, and he probably never will.
He had never heard it before today. But now that the aqueduct is drawing near, he hears it over and over. It goes like this:
Kevin, of course, knows that it translates to “My sweet, I will give you the meat from the gannengfish’s head, my spawner so sweet.”
But Dan, his tender, doesn’t know. “Wait up, man,” Dan says. “You walk so fast.” Dan looks up. It’s well into the hundreds in Lancaster today. The high hill of the aqueduct ripples in the heat ahead of them.
“Do you know how annoying it is to have a song stuck in your head like this?” Kevin asks. “It is probably as annoying as getting your small intestines entirely ripped from your body, which would stretch twenty-three feet, which is how long I think I can stand to have this song stuck in my head.”
“Twenty-three minutes?” Dan asks, wishing he had brought water.
“Twenty-three seconds,” Kevin says, after a dramatic pause.
“We need to drink from someone’s garden hose or something,” Dan says. “Otherwise I’ll jump into the aqueduct.”
“I am not thirsty,” Kevin says. He feels plenty of water around him, like a mild shallow ocean. That is all the heat of the day is, really. He imagines a girl swimming through the water toward him. It sounds nice. He just needs more water for it.
The high ridge of the aqueduct grows closer to them and Kevin sees the drainage tunnel that they will take to go under the aqueduct: round, black, set into a trench of concrete. The drainage tunnel speaks of seas and stars; sucks at him like gravity wells. Kevin steps into it. Frgmg. He turns, spinning through the dark on an accretion disk. Hrglglglg.
The tunnel spits him out into the hot Lancaster sun.
Dan pops out behind him. “Jeez, Kevin! You hurry so much! You need to wait for me in weather like this.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Kevin says. “It doesn’t matter. I . . .” He couldn’t remember what he was going to say. A video game score? A fact about internal organs? The beauty of the number twenty-seven? All he says is, “I want to see what kind of fish are in the aqueduct.”
Kevin walks up the steep side of the aqueduct, bouncing from tuft of dry grass to tuft of dry grass.
At the top, she is waiting for him.
She is a little tall, a little blonde, a little brunette. She wears running shoes, gym shorts, and a black sports bra. She looks a little bit like Katie Tucker, from church, and a little bit like Mya Hernandez from school.
Kevin has tried talking to those girls. He has told them that their eyes could probably make as many winks as extinct species in the K-T Event, which was probably seventy percent of all species on Earth, and they should see if they could wink at him seventy percent of all winks ever winked. It didn’t work. Not a single wink.
She smiles and says, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“How long?” Kevin asks.
“As long as it takes,” she says, “to get from Betelgeuse to this very planet.”
“That’s six hundred and forty-one light-years. Did you travel at the speed of light?”
“Oh no,” she says, and steps closer. He can smell her sweat, mixed with the dust. There is another smell underlying it, like a beach covered in old seaweed on a hot day. “I crawled.”
“Here’s the aqueduct!” Dan calls from behind as he crests the hill. “Do you see the fish?”
Kevin stares at the girl. Unlike every other girl, she doesn’t seem to care that his gaze lingers on her breasts. Sweat-marked dirt hangs, like the frond-arms of nebulae, right above the line of her cleavage.
“How long have I known you?” Kevin asks, not taking his eyes off her breasts.
“As long as it takes a star to reach supernova.”
“I don’t think I have known you that long,” Kevin says.
“Old story,” she says. “A man meets a girl in the woods who grants him his heart’s desire. He feels like he has known her for ages.” She steps closer to him. “What do you dream about, Kevin? Do you dream of a girl who is like a video game? Back, A, right, right? Or do you dream of a girl like a woolly mammoth, who would be the greatest treasure alive if only people looked for her in the right place?”
He is aware that she is standing very close. He looks behind for Dan. Dan is staring at the aqueduct, his tongue hanging stiff and dry and white from his mouth. “Dan, I think you should ask the girl what she wa—”
She hooks her fingers under the elastic of her sports bra and pulls it off. Her breasts are perfect and round, nipples like little black holes that draw his gaze, spinning on whirlpools of cosmic matter.
“Which girl, Kevin?”
He finds his voice. “Mammoth.”
“Right answer.” She lays a finger on his neck. She takes his left hand and guides it up to her right breast.
“Can’t—” Kevin stutters. “Can’t. Can’t. Cannot.”
“You can,” she says. “You’re just a polynomial and I’m simplifying you.”
With that, Kevin realizes that it is okay to lie down. His T-shirt and his shorts and her gym shorts and his sandals and her running shoes are all simplified and gone. Their position—two people separate—is simplified and they are stuck together. The tightness of three cubed instead of the sprawl of twenty-seven.
Her breasts hang over him, red, radium-rich stars. His sperm comes flooding out of pumping stations, rattling and shaking pipes, and swims into a dark sky. He groans,
Edmund G. Brown, who went by Pat, was the governor of the Golden State from 1959 to 1967, and he was determined to irrigate the brown lands of California. He watched the aqueduct rise, threading its way through four hundred miles of brown dust, a blue ribbon tying up the state.
He remembered being seven years old, cranking an old water pump on his grandfather’s ranch in Colusa County. Creak. Creak. The water slurped its way out, shimmering in the sun, faintly brown like milky coffee. Young Pat grimaced. He hated drinking muddy water. His mother had suggested that he make it better by imagining it was the red-dust-choked water of the canals on Barsoom. Pat did not appreciate the way his mother was appropriating his imagination for her own.
Creak. Slurp. The water beat against the sides of the bucket. Pat turned the crank and looked down into the water.
Three curtains of shining, clear water rose from the dim mucky stuff. Wet, cold, ice-clear, catching the light, it formed into the fins of a beta, its black eyes staring up at Pat out of the clear water.
“Pat,” said the fish, “I have to wonder why there are so many canals on Mars and not in California.”
“Pat,” the fish said, “imagine canals that could wrap around this world. Constrict it like rubber bands. Keep the world from expanding too much.”
This made perfect sense to young Pat. He would question, much later in life, why it never stopped making perfect sense.
A few days later as he pumped the water, a koi slipped out of the faucet, torpedo-sleek, mouth questioning in a perfect O, “Pat? No canal yet? The red planet will be blue soon! This blue planet is brown, really!”
“I don’t know how to build a canal,” Pat said, in the manner of all fools chosen to do great things.
“Follow the path,” the koi said. “Walk the entire path. You’ll see it.”
The third messenger did not come for years, not until Prohibition, when Pat was watering the whiskey they sold out of the back of his father’s cigar store. The faucet was new and shone, and it put clear, cold water into each sinus-clearing jar. Pat poured himself a glass of water after he was done, took a sip, and stared at it.
Enormous and tumescent, a catfish birthed itself from the jar, beard of water trailing to the floor and soaking it. The catfish fixed him with eyes that gleamed dark and deep. The catfish’s mustache raised itself trembling into the air and traced a wet tentacular path along the map of California on the back room wall. “Canals, Pat!” he said. “They were too late to save Barsoom. Would you see California descend into that kind of anarchy? Canals! Wrap the world up like a present.”
Later, Pat Brown never did walk the entire length of the aqueduct, but he would draw it in on maps and globes. “Just like the canals on Mars,” he was heard to mutter.
“You know, sir,” one of his gubernatorial assistants said after many muttered statements, “there are no canals on Mars.”
That assistant was an idiot. Of course there are canals on Mars.
Seventy-nine thousand, four hundred ninety-eight years from now, give or take a few weeks, an explorer will die in what was once California.
Its ship will lose orbit, hit the curve of the Earth just wrong, descend just too quickly. Its fronded tentacles, worm-fingers, will scramble over switches and levers, seeking to arrest its descent. Its dark, old eyes will open wide in panic. A tiny crack will tear in its fuselage. The soft, warm water in its cockpit will boil in the heat of the atmosphere. Its gills will burn and it will burp cries of terror.
Its ship will crash on a dusty, wasted world we would hardly recognize as our own. It will tumble and break, tracing a path among thousands of useless, waterless miles, among the few survivors who try to cling to life on the world their ancestors used up.
In its last moment, it will remember dark, warm seas, the sweet meat of a gannengfish’s head, and of spawning with a bearded mate, their whiskers drifting in seed-rich water.
That thing will not belong, as water does not belong in the desert. And like all things that do not belong, it will be the heart of an old story, a story of catfish, koi, a girl unique in all the sea. Stories of water in dry places.
This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.
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