I’ve been having this dream, where I’m holding my breath because I’m underwater. My legs are kicking and for sure I’m moving, but the surface is swallowed wave after wave, higher on. My ears are simultaneously popping because of the altitude and the water pressure. It’s impossible, impossible, impossible… I live in what is quite literally the center of the desert.
“Ryssa!” My eyelids stuck on their way open. “The deck’s flooding!”
There was never even any rain.
The water was shipped to us; we opened cactuses, coconuts. All the water we had was already underground. We should’ve known, we should’ve asked why the plants were impossible.
We are the desert and our plants are impossible.
Why didn’t anyone ask why?
The waves came in slow at first. For weeks we called it a mirage even when our shoes got wet. Soon enough I was standing knee-deep in water on the deck, looking out. A hand on a hip and a hand on a forehead. I stood there like that before the first impact, watching the wall of water closing in like a booby trap in one of those movies with a secret cave and a secret treasure.
The water was angry.
I know because when the tidal waves increased their frequency one punched me right out of the boat. Rude.
“We should’ve thanked it! We should’ve thanked it!”
That’s what the humble preached after the flood. They lived on the monument. We stayed away from them. The caretakers were— you know the type. Standard government officials who’d by then forgotten what they were founded for. They controlled the water. They had the power. The rest were the thirsty. Except us. We became the mice.
“They said the boat would be ready a week ago!”
“They lied. We barely paid ‘em shells, we’re not high on the list.”
“It’ll only be a rower too, they’re rushing.” Wishing I were a shipbuilder right about now.
“We should pull the rest of the stuff up a floor.”
“Yeah. Leave the paper trail, take the booze.”
“The coins too, they’ll be the stuff of envy when this is over. The checks won’t live.”
We witnessed the birth of the garden. It was a damn good thing I had contacts with the maze commission, or we’d have been thirsty too.
“You’ll be the waterbearers, and you’ll harvest our water.”
“Or?” She fell, mummified, then sat up re-fleshed as if all she’d done was faint.
They’ll suck us dry.
“I think you know I need a beer.”
I pulled one and popped the top on the corner of the table. “This is the best I can do, no more of the other.” He was a regular. We didn’t have his regular. He shrugged a well, it’s still a beer shrug and tapped the bottom of his bottle against my glass by the register (it held the ringed remains of a gin and tonic that couldn’t quite escape it’s adhesion to the sides, if you were interested). I nodded my head, went into the back room (my bedroom, since the bar was moved up to our living room) and stuck my feet under my quilt, standing. I braced my arms against the wall across my bed, ears by my elbows. I breathed.
A hand was on my wrist. I didn’t want it there. Willa still calls me the suicidal one even though it was Spinner who committed suicide. We don’t talk about him much anymore. But Willa fought to keep her hand on me and she pulled my angry 75%-oxygen-starved self out from the underneath and hauled my ass into a rowboat that really shouldn’t have been able to keep 5-8 people from drowning.
“Ridin’ the waves Ryssa.”
“An improvement from beach bums.”
“I used to hate the sand.”
“I need a drink.”
They all chorused: “Here, here.”
“Here,” I was still coughing up saltwater at this point; I spit some into my hand. The rest scooped a handful each from outside the boat (although the water was def in the boat too).
“Where’d you get the bruises?” Sojourn pointed to my upper thigh.
“I don’t know how to dive properly.” I’d dropped the bucket once. Followed it off a cliff. Maybe it was when we snuck in the caretaker’s pool.
“More than surface, now really.”
“I hope Chardonnay comes soon.”
“The maze girl.”
“We need Masha to find something for us.”
“Oh, you know her name. That’s better than who usually looks for her.”
“I’ve met her.”
“Everyone wants her to find something. Is your proposition really worth asking Masha for? There are plenty more finders.”
“It’d have to be her.”
It was a marathoner’s dream— perpetual hydration. Only Masha was good enough to find a myth. “We would joke about it before the flood.”
“…I’ll have her here in two days. Prepare finder’s tools.”
“That’s all we have. The story.”
“Yes, but Masha will need string.”
“All of it. Beans too.”
“All kinds. Catching on yet?”
“What else, snacks?”
“Yes, actually. Peanut butter crackers. And orange juice. In a bowl. With pulp. And nail polish. Periwinkle. A beach towel. Three rubber gloves. A gently-used doorknob— doesn’t have to be detached from the door.”
“What about… maps?”
“She’ll bring the maps. You provide the sex on the beach.”
“Uh, I mean if i—”
“The drink. You had a bar, yeah?”
We had to make the runs daily, but we could choose when. As long as we met the quota. Enough for the caretakers to stay cared for and the thirsty to stay alive. You know, the same old story of corruption. They didn’t even have to be near you to take away your water you know? They could drain a whole area dry, because you were in it. If you weren’t, well that’s another warning. Deserts weren’t meant to be bountiful I guess. But yeah they could do it— as long as they could see.
We just needed one. One drop, one volunteer.
“But there’s a catch.”
Chardonnay never looked up from painting her toenails.
I was drowning again, but in the best possible way. It wasn’t my lungs, it was my cells— osmosis not needed. I would always be drowning in the perfect balance of water. I was eternal equilibrium. Do you know how I did it?
“How should we do it? There are plenty of ways when they can’t touch you.”
“Sand.” I said, louder.
“That would be the most beautiful shade of suitability.”
Other than the garden, (which was really a maze), the desert was the same desert we knew before. All the water was just in the garden instead of underground. We, the mice, had to find it and bring it back to the caretakers. It was always in the places we didn’t expect, which is how we learned where to expect it. Sojourn was a cartographer; he mapped it. Too bad we blew it apart, when we blinded the caretakers. The walls, I mean. And yes, I mean I. When I blinded them. A fistful of sand can be quite impressive.
Without their abilities, they were not strong. And I had the wind on my side. But when the walls went down the water did too. I wish we’d known before it was so easy.
“The garden will return! The garden will return!” The monument was always chanting. Chanting and sacrificing. Chanting and sacrificing and thirsty.
A handkerchief delivered the water to my tongue when wrung. It had come from the belly of a frog. I’d eaten frogs before, this did not bother me. I went promptly to the caretakers. I bowed politely. I gave them one hell of a sandstorm.
Once a mouse, the maze commission has you in one way or another, so we were never quite free of the flood in that way. That was fine, we didn’t much mind the work. Pays well. Good on the mind, if you don’t overdo it. “But there’s a catch.” “Please just say it already.” “Once you have it you have it…”
“Ryssa, you sure?”
“I don’t need it. I don’t want the burden.”
“It’s a gift!”
“It’s not natural. It’s…”
“I’ll live in it but I won’t live as it.”
“Cheers, then.” We chorused. We clinked.
Years later we saw that the humble found the favor of a god. They’d sit outside the monument in varying figures of geometry cross-legged in the sun. They never burned. They never died. They never drank.