Thursday, June 09, 2011

Fish of the Drought Land

Most signs of the rain are gone by now. The grass is dry again, except for half an hour of dew each morning; the sogginess of the ground has turned to steam and vanished in the sky. The only water left is in the streams.

To most of the rest of the world, the streams of the Scalps would barely be worthy of the name. They only hold water for a few weeks in every year. The rest of the time, they are simply dry channels, wrinkles in the Scalps, empty except for dust and cracked earth.

One of these streams runs beside the road I'm on. The water was low this morning, barely halfway to the grassy edge of the stream bed, but it was still there. The sound of it woke me up in the morning. It's been a while since I last heard running water.

There were little fish in the stream.

I have no idea how they survive in such a temporary place. Three days ago, the silt they were swimming over was a cracked desert. There has been no water here for months. Where did they come from?

It's different for other creatures. Periodic frogs and lungfish, for example, spend most of their lives waiting underground, sealed in the thin layer of moisture under dry stream beds. They emerge only in the floods after rain, released from their dark confinement for a few days, briefly free to swim and mate and eat ravenously. Unlike their cousins in more permanent waters, they don't lay eggs; their children are born fully mobile. They have to be. Before they're three days old, they have to burrow down into the mud with their parents to await the next rain.

These were not lungfish. They moved more like tiny salmon. It was hard to make out their shapes; the surface of the stream was shattered with the ripples of water going somewhere in a hurry, and the fish never stopped moving. They were like flames in the water, quick flashes of bronze and scarlet and electric blue. They were mesmerizing. These were not the kind of fish who burrow and spend months sitting in the mud.

I had no idea what they did plan to do. I sat and watched them while I ate breakfast. By the time I finished, the water was barely half as high as it was when I started. Mist rose around me as the dew on the grass returned to the air.

The water kept sinking over the morning. I watched it as I walked. The fish grew fewer as the stream shrank; every few minutes, there were fewer flashes of color beneath the surface. They must have been following the water downstream to wherever it was going.

There were still far too many when the stream dried up at noon.

I missed the exact moment when it dried up. I had gotten distracted for a few minutes, trying to remember the third verse of a song by Chellery Hewer. (It still hasn't come to me.) When I looked back at the stream, the water was gone. Only a few puddles remained. The bright fish were flopping in them, gasping as the water drained away into the ground.

I don't believe I was really thinking when I picked up the nearest one. When something is dying, the instant, automatic response is to do something - anything - to try to save it. It's a reflex. It keeps working even when there's nothing you can actually do. The fish continued to flop in my hand, just as doomed there as in the puddle I'd taken it from, a puddle that was gone already. The fish's mouth worked uselessly in the dry air. It was one of the red ones. There were tiny freckles of yellow down its side.

Still running mostly on reflex, I dropped my bags and fumbled one open with my free hand. The small glass jars I use for painting were on the top. With my feet sliding in the mud, I half-stepped, half-slithered to the bottom of the stream bed and filled a jar with as much muddy water as I could take from the largest remaining puddle. Two fish came along with it, blue with pale green spots. I dropped the red one in with them.

As the brown water cleared, I realized that half of it was mud. The fish swam in tiny circles in the inch or two that was left. There was barely room in the jar for them to turn around.

I stood there, looking down at the tiny, fragile lives in the little jar, and wondered what exactly I thought I was doing. Water is not abundant on the plains; only the very wealthy can afford to keep fish. It could be days before I found more water. I didn't even know what kind of fish these were, or what they ate, or how big they were going to get.

There were still dozens of them flopping desperately in the mud.

The sheer impossible hopelessness of the whole situation overwhelmed me a little at that point. There was really nothing I could do for most of the fish. They had fallen behind, unable to keep up with the water and their faster siblings, and they were doomed for it. Things die in nature all the time. It wouldn't work otherwise. I was probably crazy to try to intervene with something like this, but those three little fish were still swimming in the pathetic amount of water I'd managed to save. I couldn't just let them die.

I was standing there, staring blankly at the confused little circles of the fish and feeling like much the same thing was happening in my head, when I noticed something sparkling at the corner of my eye. I looked up. A sinuous, glittering shape was coming down the drying stream bed. As it got closer, I could make out a long body with a flat-topped head - a great snake, or possibly an eel. It must have been ten times as long as I was.

It was made of water. I could see the ground through it.

The snake meandered back and forth across the stream bed. I couldn't tell what it was doing until it got closer. It glided from fish to fish, sliding over the sad little flopping shapes and gathering them up into itself. I don't think it missed a single one. Its back was covered with the crossed ripples of a stream; on the snake, the pattern looked surprisingly like scales. When it reached the spot where I was, standing in mud halfway down the bank, it turned to look at me.

Its eyes were pools of liquid black, the color of cave pools or the ocean at night. Small fish swam in its face. Its whole body was full of them, a flashing rainbow of rescued colors, but all I could look at were those eyes.

I've only seen two other river spirits in my life. They don't often show themselves. The rest of the world seems to fade when they're around; everything else is simultaneously too solid and yet not real enough, depressingly static and ridiculously transient, too old to care and too new to understand. Nothing changes so constantly as a river. Nothing is so utterly unchanging. Nothing except, perhaps, the ocean.

This was only the spirit of a small stream. If there's a spirit for the ocean, I hope I never see its face. I would drown from looking.

The snake made an impatient gesture with its head, somehow managing to indicate the jar I held, and the spell was broken. My brain started working again. Quickly - there were fish still waiting in the mud - I held out the jar and upended it over the snake's transparent body. The surface absorbed the water with a small plop, sending ripples over the shining back, and the fish darted away to join the rest. I lost them immediately in the bright school of colors. The snake gave me a nod that seemed approving, somehow, then turned and continued down the stream. The wet trail behind it steamed in the sun.

I didn't try to follow it. There was no help I could give to a being like that, not beyond the well-meaning but useless little bit I'd already done, and I'm not sure I could have handled another sight of its face. I'm used to looking at rivers. I'm not used to them looking back at me.

Instead, I just watched until the shimmering tail had vanished in the glare of the sun. The mud in the jar had already dried to a thin, flaky crust when I put it away and picked up my bags. The road stretched into the distance. Cracks were appearing in the empty stream bed beside it.

I wonder where the spirit was going. I suppose I'll find out soon enough.

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