There was water in every direction.
It fluttered around her calves, licked at her knees.
The hairs along her arm lifted and tingled with a warm gust. The breeze scuttled across the surface of the water, then disappeared.
She looked at herself. Shoulders, breasts, arms, ribs, belly, hands, hips, thighs, calves, feet. Twisting her foot, she watched her toes curl beneath the water, felt the broad, smooth stones under her heel.
When she woke up, she remembered none of it.
Moaning faintly from the morning light in her eyes, she twisted. The water bed undulated beneath her in gradually diminishing waves. A pounce, and the bed began rolling again. Weight descended on carefully balanced paws beside her, onto her thigh, her butt, then a heavy circle of fur curled into the small of her back. A tail flicked against her side.
“Mhaih,” she said. Out of the eye not pressed into her pillow, she saw the cat survey the room serenely. “Uh-up.”
She pushed herself up on her hands, and the cat leapt to the floor, then paused to lick under a hind leg.
To her feet, onto her toes, hands reaching upward.
Sinking into the warm depths of the water bed, she blew out a breath. A strand of her hair flipped to the side and the rest stayed in her face. She lay on her stomach until the bed stopped moving, then scootched onto her back, making it rock all over again. She tugged out a crease in her t-shirt. The bed rolled. She turned onto her side, tucking her legs up.
The water stretched from her legs to the horizon in ever direction.
A fish as bright as blood wound past her calf, trailing fins and whiskers. The sun glanced down clear and hard on her left side. The breeze whispered, then fell silent.
She twisted and looked around. Clouds formed in the distance behind her. Nothing but a blue dome above.
She took a step, stopped to watch the ripples spread around her. A tiny, translucent plant rose from between the smooth stones, waving gently. She looked around. Far off, something broke the surface of the water, but she could not see what.
She waded until the sun was high, and her back hot. A golden bird with wings like sharp eyebrows drove into the water, bobbed briefly, then took to the air with something clutched in its talons. Once, a school of fish swam through her legs, gold and grey and blue and red, bumping her shins, slapping her ankles, whiskers and fins entwined.
The water grew shallower, so that it no longer fountained around her thighs, but splashed around her calves. The endless fabric of water broke, a grassy atoll sitting on a flat, bright plane. Suddenly weary, she waded toward it, and clambered onto its heavy bank. She stared into the layers of long, fine grass, and then at her wrinkled toes. She felt the sun, hot on her shoulder and face.
She opened her eyes.
Scratched the neck of the cat over the edge of the bed.
“I want bacon,” she informed the cat. Dragging one flank against the edge of the bed, the cat flowed the other direction, scraping against her dangling hand.
“And icecream. That is such a good combination.” Clambering to her feet, she hooked her fingers in the back of her underwear and pulled it into place. The cat preceded her from the room.
“Yeah,” she agreed into the phone. Tucking it between her ear and shoulder, she poured a carefully pre-measured three-quarters cup of milk into a hot saucepan. It boiled immediately with a loud rush of steam and she hastily stirred.
“Yeah, Judy,” she agreed, carefully pulling one bare foot over the cat, who was sniffing the air speculatively. “Yeah, Lindsey came by the day before yesterday. We talked a lot. Well, she made me talk.”
Ripping open a foil packet she dumped the powdery contents into the bubbling saucepan and jabbed the spoon back in. She listened to the voice on the other end of the line for several moments, stirring idly.
“Uh, yeah. I’m gonna spend some time in the yard tomorrow. I think I want to plant some morning glories around the mailbox.” She listened patiently to the reply. “Hm-hm. Uh-huh. Yeah, I thought it would be nice.” A pause. She glanced at the clock on the stove, then consulted a slim cardboard box on the counter.
“Oh, you know, a good old-fashioned, traditional breakfast…” She ripped open a paper packet this time, and deposited the crumbs in the mix. The cat crunched cat food loudly, grinding. “Uhh…” she snatched up the cardboard box again, reading. “I am having rice, some chicken with spinach, with… some kind of… cajun seasoning… I got at the store. Yeah,” she agreed. “No, I’m feeling pretty good. It’s nice that the neighbors are coming out now that its warmer. I’ve been keeping pretty busy, but you know, resting too.” Turning a knob on the stove, she shut off the heat.
“Uhh… you do the same, Judy. I will. Yeah, I will. See you on Tuesday. Yeah. Bye.”
Without looking at the handset, she hung up the phone on the wall. She scraped large spoonfuls of her meal into a bowl. As she passed the catfood, she sprinkled some onto the kibble. The cat sniffed, then partook delicately.
Flopping down on the couch, she hooked a leg over the fat armrest and ate slowly. Blowing on each bite, she stared at the dark TV screen. When she was finished, she set her bowl aside on the floor and stared into the darkening room. Curling up, she shut her eyes.
Long strands of grass formed a nest in front of her nose.
She sat up. Got up, walked to the bathroom, grabbed a toothbrush, smeared toothpaste on it and stuck it in her mouth. Scraped it across her teeth, her tongue, the roof of her mouth, then spat in the sink. She flipped on the light when she couldn’t find the toothbrush holder. In the mirror a reddened corduroy pattern lay embossed on her cheek.
She rolled onto her back in the bed. Turned her head to the side. Slipped into what was not a dream.
Water lapped at the edges of her feet. The air was cool on her skin. She stared through her lashes at the nest of grass in front of her nose. The water lapped at the legs. She heard a plop, then a splatter. The water rubbed her knees. A breeze tumbled by.
When the water splashed her stomach, she sat up.
The wave came again, higher, washing over the grass. The water was rising, and she quickly stumbled off the atoll. In a moment, only a few blades of grass poked above the surface. Just under the skin of the water, swarms of shiny black pellets surged toward where the atoll had been swallowed. Looking away, she gazed out, and in that direction began to wade.
When she was thirsty, she drank. The water tingled under her tongue, and felt warm in her belly. Sitting in the water, she dug her fingers under one of the broad, flat rocks. Scores of tiny creatures, each topped with a shell like the depression of a fingertip, skittered away from the air to plip back into the water. The iridescent shells, in blues and greys and reds, turned the reflected sunlight into muted beads. She carefully replaced the rock upside-down so they would not be crushed.
As she waded she passed two of the golden birds floating on subtle waves, their slender, curved beaks turned toward her as they watched her pass. Water weeds brushed her legs, sometimes sending up plumes of bubbles, sometimes dispersing clouds of shockingly orange minnows that launched out of the water.
She kept wading through the high-sun heat. She drank more. She saw wide, furry backs floating like flat atolls, drifting together, then disappearing.
As the light faded and the air cooled, she spotted another little atoll, one end higher than the other. Climbing onto the grass, she sat with her elbows around her knees, watching the patterns on the surface of the water.
She woke to strengthening sunlight. Still, and warm, she closed her eyes again.
Someone was standing in the water in the distance. Staring at her.
She jolted awake to the obnoxious crash and beep-beep-beep of the trash truck backing up. Yawning into the living room, she watched it move down the street through the blinds. Picking up her bowl from the evening before, she spoon rattling inside, she stopped.
The front door stood open.
She had come in with the groceries yesterday, and kicked the door shut. The screen door didn’t close tightly, it always stayed open just a crack, and the spring wasn’t strong—
“Braaandy! Brandy! Shit-fuck-shit.”
Under the dresser, in the bathroom, in the bathtub, behind the TV stand, in the nook between the couch and the wall, in the kitchen, all of them again.
Jamming her feet into sneakers, the heels folded down, then— She froze. Maybe a sound. She waited, holding her breath, and when it didn’t come again, she pushed open the screen door— then let it bang against the frame to check one more time.
The kitchen the dresser the bathroom the kitchen the living room the kitchen a cat, calmly eating dry kibble.
“There you are.”
Swooping, she gathered the cat to her chest, smelling the calico fur.
“Ugh. Cat.” The cat purred as she scratched behind an ear.
Waves crept up the bank of the atoll in the starlight, and she climbed down. By the time the tiny island had shrunk in her vision, it was almost gone. Something called, a trill, a peep, a long upward note. A moment later something answered in clacks.
When the water lay still and smooth, she could actually see the stars reflected upward. Something the size of her hand skated along the skin of the water, breaking the stars into ripples. Even as she waded, she could hear something large moving, surfacing, taking loud breaths before slipping underneath again.
The water was growing deeper, then deeper, up to her ribs, and she stepped back, finding a shallower way. Once, the sky darkened, and she sat in the water because she could not see, waiting. When the stars emerged, she waded again, passing an atoll because she was not tired.
Someone stood in the water, staring at her.
There was a long shadow, but she could only see its eyes.
The call spread across the night.
The figure made no reply that she could hear.
She waded forward a few steps, but it made no move. She sloshed closer, and the starlight picked out features she could recognize. Arms and legs, hips, torso, and head. But it was the eyes that held her fascination.
The irises burned. They shed a light of their own, glowing orange and black, like embers. While she watched the patterns shifted, crumbling and expanding, the light changing density and brightness.
Who are you? she asked.
Just one idea. She did not know what it meant.
Who are you?
The question was soft.
Staring into the shifting eyes, she replied, I am moving.
A smile spread the shadows on its face. She heard the water ripple, then a peep, quickly swallowed by the air.
Why are you here?
I don’t know.
The sound of the doorbell crashed through the house.
She stared at the clock on the window sill, recognizing the glowing green shapes with disbelief.
“Lindsey,” she groaned, “I am going to kill you.”
“Yeah,” she said into the telephone, swinging the dangling cord in front of the cat. “Uh, no, I haven’t yet. I was pretty busy the other day, uh, cleaning up around the place. And today Lindsey hauled me out at the crack of dawn to some neighborhood fair thing. I think I’m going to plant them tomorrow, or the next day.”
The cat batted for the plastic spirals of the cord.
“Yeah, that’s fine. Wednesday works for me. Uh-huh. Yeah. Yeah, I feel fine about it. Okay, sure. Yup. Bye.” She hung up the phone without looking at the receiver. Batting at the cord for a few more seconds, the cat abruptly spun around and trotted after her as she switched off the kitchen light. Brushing her teeth, and found herself staring at a bottle of generic ibuprofen tucked under the mirror. Her hand slowed.
Suddenly she snatched the bottle off the counter and jammed it into a drawer, and went back to scrubbing her teeth.
You fell asleep.
She found herself looking up at a blue sky, hung with a twist of cloud. Sitting up, she found someone else beside her on the atoll.
Looking over, she studied the figure in the sunlight. Broader in the shoulder than her, flatter in the chest, narrower in the hip, longer, overall. She found the face, framed by hair without color, and gazed again into its glowing eyes.
Lips pulled back, lifted, closed over teeth.
How long have you been here? she asked.
I have always been here.
So have I.
The smile broadened, and creased the corners of the burning eyes.
Do you remember?
I remember wading in the water.
So do I.
Then we are the same.
Do you want to move again?
Scooting off the atoll, she splashed into the water, which was already warm with light. A few steps out, and swarms of tiny black specks rushed through her legs, and she turned to see the atoll being engulfed by gentle waves. Symon moved closer, and the way the light played across skin not her own fascinated her. She could not tell what color lay underneath the light.
She squatted to drink, pulling her hair out of her face, and sipped from the surface. The water rolled warm and vital through her mouth, down her throat as she swallowed, suffusing her belly with life. Turning toward a throaty call that skipped across the water, she took Symon’s hand and began to wade.
Symon followed her.
They let go of each others’ hands soon; they moved at different paces, always changing. But they were together.
Symon stopped, and seemed to listen, eyes staring at a horizon. She stopped to listen too. She heard nothing.
The burning of Symon’s eyes did not fade in the light, only changed. She waded on for a little bit, stopping to feel the green weeds curling around her legs, brushing her with a purpose of their own.
When the water grew deep under the high sunlight, she waded into it, up to her ribs, up to her collarbones. She could feel the water moving around her knees, tugging her, flowing. She had to stiffen her body to stay upright.
A hard splash, and she caught a flash of skin disappearing into the water.
Another splash, farther out, moving through the deep water.
She did not move, not sure what she wanted, then she pushed off from the stone beneath her toes, and swam. It was like something she did not remember, and never would. The water below her tugged at her toes, her fingers, wanting to carry her away. Something swam beneath her like a shadow that she could not see.
When she lifted her head to breathe, or looked around her, she would see a froth of water, or the point of an elbow. Her body began to grow heavier, started to tire, and soon the water became more shallow, and her feet could reach the bottom again. She looked around, twisting her body.
Wading forward, trickles running down her body, her eyes sought a shape like hers. She found a pair of eyes just above the surface, staring at her.
The water erupted, heavy weight knocking her down.
She was laughing, so hard her ribs hurt, and it was good, and Symon was laughing too, without sound, laughing with its whole body as they tumbled through the water. They were gasping, making enough noise to be heard whole nights away.
They sat in the water for a long time, knees poking out, breathing deeply and grinning at each other and the sky, droplets exploding with color in the fading sun.
Tiny dots of light burned afterimages into her eyes, clusters of colored specks that formed pictures, which moved in two dimensions. Her spoon scraped across her bowl methodically, the cat stretched out on the back of the couch behind her head, eyes fixed on the television screen without moving.
The world smelled of life, and of fading evening, wetness.
Symon stood hip-deep in the water, looking outward. She did not follow, and lay on the atoll, watching.
The sun sank, turning the water red, almost like the embers of Symon’s eyes.
A pale smudge appeared across the distant night, and as it grew darker, it clarified into a wavering thread of white light. It was brighter than the starlight. There was a chorus of piping calls, then a scent, spicy, warm.
Clouds rushed in over the sky, a field of patches. Between the cracks, the ribbon of light shone through. A breeze swept up her side, blowing the hairs on her body and the grass on the atoll. The air was cooler than the water, but she stayed.
All night she stayed, and Symon stood in the water.
Before the sun lifted behind the atoll, she fell asleep, her face in her arms.
“Hi Judy,” she slurred, propping herself up on an elbow on the couch. “Yeah. Caught me napping. Sorry. Wow, it’s dark now. Totally lost track of time. Yeah.” Dragging herself up sitting, she stared with glazed eyes at the carpet, the phone receiver jammed against her ear.
“Sorry, just let me wake up a little more, uh, actually can I get you on the other phone? I’m really thirsty, wanna get something to drink. Okay, just a sec.” Balancing the receiver on the armrest of the couch, she stumbled into the kitchen, picking up the phone off the wall as she jerked open the refrigerator door.
“Hi Judy. Yeah, um, milk, I think. Definitely milk.” Tugging out a gallon jug with a red screw cap, she swung it up on the counter. “Oh, she’s fine. Good company. I don’t think she likes her food. I’m gonna try a different brand. Yeah, I’m doing good too. Just stayed up too late watching TV. Oh. Um, some basketball.” She made a face, a wince, invisible through the phoneline. “Uh, yeah, occasionally. And some soap opera. It was weird. No, not yet. I don’t know why I keep procrastinating. I bet they’ll be real pretty when they bloom.” Slurping the top off the glass she filled to the brim, she turned and leaned against the counter.
“Yeah, I think maybe I’m getting ready.” She listened to the other end of the line, and hesitated slightly before she answered, quickly. “Oh, sure. That sounds great. Yeah, sounds perfect, a little way to ease in, you know? I can get over there, or I’m sure Lindsey can give me a ride. Okay, five. Yeah, I’m writing it down.” She stayed with her back to the counter, inhaling her milk. “Same building? Sure.”
There was a sharp clatter, the other phone receiver slipping off the armrest. She left it, eyes staring through the spot where the phone sat on the floor.
“No, no. Not at all. Kind of surprised, actually. Sign of hope, right?”
They sat in the sun on an atoll with no grass, a slab of rock resting above the water. They drank in the sun, and she drank the water.
They waded sometimes in circles, wandering from weed to fish to bird, or a particular dapple of sunlight.
One side of the horizon turned grey, darker, and darker. The air smelled heavy from that direction, floating to the top of her nose. Eventually jagged streaks of white and purple began stabbing the sky, sharp flashes that left floating color in her sight. The sky spread blue above them, filled with towering clouds.
Something stung her shoulder, then again, a multitude, water flung from the sky.
The beads beat into her skin, suddenly consuming her sight. They drenched her hair, sluicing down her body to the water, roaring in her ears.
She stared at where Symon had been, where Symon had suddenly melted away with a smile of amazement.
Standing there, she let the falling water pound her senses, until it overwhelmed her. Then she sank into the water over her head, the world suddenly quiet. Rivulets poured off her eyebrows as she surfaced enough to breath.
Bodies twisted past her, slick and strong, tiny mouths nipping at the hairs along her body. Something jumped out in the downpour, then another. A long cry pierced the water in her ears, sending a burst of sensation up her spine. The water rose, and she had to sit straighter.
The water fell, and fell, and fell.
Without a warning, without a sign, the sky opened up, clear and shining.
There was an atoll that had not been there before, and she waded to it, warming herself in the light. The water seemed empty, quiet.
Her eyes caught a shift in the light bouncing off the surface. The light seemed to curve, move in a way she had never seen.
A form took shape, slowly, resolving into reclining shoulders, burning eyes, and a tired, exultant smile. She watched the form become solid, opaque, fill with color.
Symon glanced over at her, smiling.
She did not smile back, and sat in thought, feeling everything around her.
You do not live in the water, she said.
You are the water.
The cat stared her in the eyes. They both crouched bellies against the carpet, this close revealing tiny crumbs of dirt and sprigs of cat hair. Propping her jaw in her hand, she dangled the pronged end of an electrical cord above the cat’s ears. Kneading the carpet with a ripping sound, the cat didn’t look away from her. Then she swung the plug to the side, and the cat leapt, caging it with her claws.
She fell asleep there on the floor. Sniffing her fingers briefly, the cat padded over and slumped against her back, tail flicking idly.
A stripe of wavering gold limned the distance ahead. She stared, arrested. Symon turned toward her, between her and the sunlight.
Do you want to move there?
As they waded they passed three of the furry humps that had always disappeared whenever she drew close. A fat, whiskered face on a long neck ascended out of the water, and flicked a forked tongue, letting it hang. The face and neck descended, and then with a flash of broad tail the backs swooped under the clear surface and wavered away.
The stones changed as they moved toward the shifting line of gold, became smaller, rounder. New plants sprouted among them, not green but blue, succulent and many-lobed. A long-bodied thing of scales with no limbs wound through the rocks. Bright flowers like red hands floated on the water, buzzing with tiny, wing-flickering dots.
When it dimmed to night, she kept wading for a while, then stopped. The water stirred gently against her skin.
I can’t see it.
I know where it is.
So she followed Symon by the shape of shoulders in front of her and the eddies around her feet.
Morning broke pink and yellow over the lip of the world. She heard it before the light touched it. A rustling that stretched so far it seemed to never end. A dark line lay before them. As the sun climbed, she found the gold was close, a texture she had never seen, moving with the air.
They halted together in front of a round bank topped with high, golden grass. The wind sifted through, turning the air into a hushed whisper.
It was the end of the world.
A hand touched her back, and she turned.
Two droplets condensed on the tip of Symon’s finger.
Take this, and I will always know where you are. If you ever need me, ask.
She stared at the droplets, and Symon gently tilted her face and held back her eyelid with a thumb. The drop splashed on her eye and made her blink, spreading like a cool wave. Symon held open her other eye, and let the droplet fall.
Blinking several times, she looked at Symon, then smiled.
I am glad you are with me.
She stepped out of the water and into the tall, golden grass. Turning back she smiled at the water again, and walked into the prairie.
When she died, abruptly, violently, a vacuum formed in her absence, a hole that shouldn’t have been; and there was nowhere to go except to fill the void.