Featured Story • September 2014
Hold Back the Waters
Virginia M. Mohlere
The floor falls out from under her. Annabeth sinks into a mile of water, ears popping and chest straining against the crush. Michigan has seeped through a crack in her boundary; although her hands rest flat on the counter in front of the cappuccino machine, she is overwhelmed by the deep dark.
“Step it up, Clausen, you’ve got a line.”
Annabeth blinks at the rim of the stainless steel milk jug. She shakes her head and pours the milk into its waiting mug and ladles foam on top. She focuses; she pulls empty mugs from the right and shoves full ones to the left. She does this until Holy Joe’s brief mid-morning rush is over. Caught off guard again. The damn water always knows.
“Hey, are you okay?” Jasper touches her arm. “Aw, Annabeth. You are not okay. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
His hands are like a warm bath after cold rain. His voice sounds muted through all the water that surrounds her. His eyes are the green of sunshine through spring leaves, speckled with brown, nothing like the lake.
“I’m all right,” Annabeth says, because words are the only defense against falling all over him—a bad idea for a list of reasons starting with: 1. He’s her manager.
She nods, hating this stupid lie. Jasper squeezes the pressure point at the base of her right thumb. She wonders whether it helps an actual headache.
“Guess I’ll start carrying my umbrella, weather witch,” he says, and Annabeth can smile a little at that. “Do you need to go home?”
She takes inventory: pressure is building, but there are no actual storms on the horizon, just the drag of undertow. “I only have an hour left. I’ll stick it out.”
Of course he sends her back to the kitchen to fold napkins with a towel full of ice perched on her head. The ice feels good, and philosophically she’s a fan of water trapped in stasis.
“You should sleep more,” Primo says from behind the griddle (one Croak Mister, one grilled cheese). He pokes her ice hat every time he passes and changes the ice without fuss.
“I know it.” She breathes down into the ancient Illinois bedrock. The wave is coming; she can’t predict what it’ll wash up.
The next day, Jasper brings her two more of his miniature jam jars (from the tables at work) filled with weeds or oil, accompanied by pages torn out of notebooks and covered in his square printing. He’s studying to be a naturopath.
“You look so tired,” he says to her as she struggles to clean the espresso machine.
“It’ll pass,” she tells him. She’ll sometimes drink a cup of Jasper’s remedies—if the twigs and flowers don’t smell too bad. Her bathroom cabinet is full of them. Mostly she empties a few and returns them every few months. She takes the latest two jars home.
* * *
The dreams start that night: pressure, feeling trapped inside the dark. Annabeth wakes night after night swaddled and choked by her covers. The dreams are so cold and the covers so hot.
In the dreams, she’s worn out by 1200 cubic miles of water. Know me, the lake whispers in the background of her dreams. Make my bed yours. She lies to Jasper about why she can’t work when the weather changes. The dreams magnify her guilt until Annabeth feels squashed, like a flounder, by her own deceit.
Let go, Bethie, her brother Danny says in the pressure-dream (or worse, the pressure-awake), standing in his Spider-Man bathing suit with a skipping stone in his hand. Show me how to do it, he says. He holds out the stone.
Annabeth’s chest aches with the desire to take her little brother’s hand and help him skip rocks across the Milwaukee Reef, but slow weight squeezes her arm to her side. Danny, her great-grandfather, and the others tug at the place in her heart where the barriers stand. There is no light at depth, only a bitter loneliness that her relatives grasp and haul at like lines. She has to dig her feet in, resist the pull, keep the barriers firm.
When her water family stands in front of her, beckoning, she can see only lake in their eyes. She knows the temptation to which they surrendered. They make it look easy to embrace Michigan, to feed a storm—to let water roll through her until she dissolves in it. They make water seem a true kind of home from which she could never be separated, where she will exist as long as the lake does, nearly eternal.
But these are not the family who know her. Not the ones who call her on her birthday, who send boxes of knitted socks and mix CDs with goofy names like “How To Find Mr. Right” that consist of woeful country songs. Even Danny is an unknown quantity now. The shell child from the bottom is the lake’s son, not her mother’s.
The frigid embrace of deep water clogging her ears makes it difficult to hear anything other than the skitter of her own heart as she struggles at the hands that try to drag her down: family hands with freckles, raised veins, and cold, cold fingers.
Those hands give her the clarity to kick free. The water cannot reproduce how Gran’s coconut cake tastes at the end of a barbecue, or the satisfied laziness of Aunt Patty sprawled in a hammock in the sun with a paperback romance novel tented over her face.
Annabeth, tangled in her covers, wonders what her great-grandfather was like when he was alive. She wants to imagine Ryszard as loving and hilarious, with a particular way to mix the potato salad or a talent for the bonfire. She wants to think he would have played bocce with Mother when Mother was a little girl. Annabeth wants to think even she might have known him. They’re a long-lived family—if they can stay out of the water.
We’re always here, at the bottom, Ryszard calls from the deep. This is the cruelest weapon the lake can throw at her. Michigan is a cold, deep enemy. All of the lakes are vicious. They resent every building, every incursion on their shores.
Michigan seethes. It’s a sign of great trust from the family that Annabeth has been given this charge so young. It’s a hard thing; the lake’s constant, fierce embrace, the struggle every minute to hold the water back. It’s harder to know she cannot even trust her own grandfather.
Ryszard let Michigan get him in 1913 in that great, deadly storm. Fewer people might’ve died if he (along with Cousin Clare up on Superior) hadn’t let go. And now Ryszard smiles at Annabeth with eyes the milk-glass-green of Oak Street Beach on a July afternoon.
The cold don’t bother you when you embrace it, child, he says in his heavy Polish accent. The water feels warm—it’s the air that stings. You come down, with us. It’s family all the time, not just one week a year. Let Michigan have the land.
Once, in a moment of temptation, Annabeth had said, “Even Danny?”
Grandfather had grinned like a shark; that was the first time Danny had stood beside him, still the three-year-old swept away on a family visit to the Indiana Dunes. Annabeth had been six.
Danny’s absence was a crack in Annabeth’s dam, where the water could always get in. She wouldn’t be a long-timer. But then, Mother was never put on duty at all.
Annabeth weeps her way through deep water, crying the cold freshwater tears of her family. She dreams, heavy as a keel beam, of lying crushed under shipwrecks. Then, always, Michigan diverts its attention. It looks toward the dunes, the vast implacable sky. The lake turns its hate to its conjoined brother Huron, and Annabeth breathes deep, feels her spine uncurl upward into decent posture.
* * *
There are stretches of benediction when Michigan lies quiescent, rolling its own wrecks over and over, water turned in on itself to gentle waves that lap at the shore. When this happens Annabeth exhales all over. She opens all her windows, takes off her shirt, and lies on a folded blanket in the rectangle of sun. High water makes her feel bloated; it’s a relief to dry out.
First thing every morning, Annabeth sits quietly. Her mind flies around the border of the lake, from Chicago to Grand Rapids and back around. She slows at Aunt Beata’s border with Huron; it’s never a weak spot, but Annabeth enjoys the daily reminder that she shares her burdens. On calm days, she thinks of it as “the morning swim,” when the water smells cold and clean, the boundary holds firm, and the tug of the waves seems friendly and familiar. It’s a pleasure on these days to simply love the water.
Annabeth lives for a little while like a normal person. She goes to work, makes coffee, refills sugar canisters, and unwraps muffins from the bakery. She sasses customers, pockets tips, tells herself very sternly not to flirt with Jasper, even though he stares at her with goo-goo eyes and his dark sandy hair flops over his forehead. No flirting until she’s serious.
Sometimes she thinks she might be a little serious about Jasper—that since he lives in St. Bran’s and plies her with jars of weeds, maybe he wouldn’t take off running if he knew about the lake and her family. Or at least, maybe he would come back afterward.
She wanders the long way home from Holy Joe’s, midday after the lunch rush or late after closing. She watches her neighbors strolling around and wonders how many of them know they’re really under water?
Some do: Annabeth can almost smell it on them, people who could be family, not in the way they look but in the way they carry themselves or watch the air. The Big Tipper at Holy Joe’s only comes in at night, only orders coffee, and is patently in love with a spectacularly clueless girl. Mr. Hong at the farmer’s market won’t sell dumplings to regulars on “bad luck” days. St. Bran’s is an eddy where all the strange ones wash up.
* * *
Stillness never lasts. Michigan is too angry, and the winds conspire with it to spin up blink-fast storms. October through January is the worst: cold, wind, snow. It’s all Annabeth can do to stand up as the lake sloshes back and forth, confine the water to waves gaping up over Lake Shore Drive. Every traffic fatality on such days crushes her.
“Not your fault, Bethie Bee,” Aunt Liza says when Annabeth calls Gran’s number on the evening after a seven-car wreck. “You can only keep the water back. You can’t make them drive safely.”
“But if the road had been dry—”
“People die on dry days.”
Annabeth cries, hard and ugly, because this is not the comfort she wants. Liza is a rougher woman than Gran. The water hasn’t yet softened the edges of Liza Jr.’s drowning. But after a minute, Liza sighs.
“I’m sorry, honey. It’s just that your job is big enough without adding to the load. If you try to make it even bigger, you’ll crumple.”
Annabeth knows this. She can feel the water testing the limits she has put on it, she knows that vast spirit can feel the edges soften in her upset.
“Do you need a break?” Liza asks when the pause has been too long.
Annabeth considers it seriously. Aunts and uncles will step in when they have to. She’s not trapped. But going off duty is a slippery slope—easier and easier to feel in need of help, if you let that crack form. Water erodes.
“No,” she says finally, and she can almost hear Liza’s suspicion over the phone line. “But I could maybe stand some help for a few days.”
It’s a concession. Not a crack.
“That would make me feel better,” Aunt Liza says. Also a concession, and Annabeth grins through her snotty nose and tears. Gran might make something of Liza yet.
“Maggie or Ludo?”
Annabeth blows her nose to hide her laugh. This is another concession. Cousin Maggie is only a few years younger than Annabeth, purple-haired and sarcastic, in art school for print-making. She loves Chicago. Uncle Ludo is Michigan’s retired keeper and was the previous tenant of Annabeth’s apartment. Some corners still smell of old tobacco, and once in a while, one of Ludo’s many romantic conquests—in the late stages of dementia—phones, determined to speak to him. He smells of cherry brandy and mothballs, and he holds water back by insulting it into submission. He and Maggie are two of her favorites.
“Ludo snores,” she says finally, and Liza laughs.
“I’ll call Maggie.”
The minute she knows Maggie is on the bus, Annabeth feels better. The deep water pulses loneliness, but she can float above the pressure knowing her family surrounds her.
Maggie steps off the bus and barges in as if she’s at home and in charge; Michigan is so shocked that it withdraws into a week of calm, frigid days. Ice builds up over the deep water; at the shore the revetments look like snow forts.
While Annabeth works, Maggie tramps around the Art Institute or sits at Holy Joe’s in a ratty tweed armchair sketching patrons all afternoon.
“You’re not going to let her mooch free dinner on top of all those cappuccinos, are you?” Jasper asks toward the end of a shift.
Annabeth, who has in fact been planning on a couple of apple and brie paninis, freezes.
Jasper laughs. “You dink. You should see your face! Go eat!”
Annabeth punches him in the arm.
“Hey! Assaulting your manager is not an acceptable form of thanks.”
“Scaring me half to death is not an acceptable form of entertainment.”
Jasper rolls his eyes at her. She likes him best like this, when he seems like someone who would match Uncle Ludo pun for pun, or whip Gran’s butt at dominoes.
Annabeth scores her paninis and little salads. It’s early for dinner so they sit by the woodstove; Jasper takes his dinner break with them, three plates crowded on a small round table with a checkerboard painted on its surface.
Jasper is 900 watts of pure charm. He pulls out every story of Annabeth saving the day, like the time a drunk woman brought in her kid and stuck him under a table. Annabeth had spent an hour drawing dinosaurs on order slips on the floor while Social Services and cops rushed in and out. Or when an ice storm knocked out the power for a four-block radius and Annabeth had cobbled together a frightening setup with stock pots and grouped cans of sterno that fed soup to the neighborhood for two days without actually burning the place down. Or the day she’d broken an entire box of plates, one by one. That had not been so much a save, but Jasper makes it so hilarious Maggie weeps with laughter.
“I can’t believe you didn’t fire me that day,” Annabeth says.
Jasper’s eyebrows shoot up toward his hairline. “And give up the precious opportunity to hold it over your head forever? Guilt is only slightly less valuable in an employee than punctuality.”
Maggie and Annabeth walk out of Holy Joe’s arm in arm, still giggling. The night is bitter cold—too dry to snow—and still. A blue ring glows around the moon.
“He’s fantastic,” Maggie says.
Never lie to family, Annabeth thinks. Lying makes a crack. “Yup,” she admits. “Pretty damn.”
Maggie laughs again. “Cuz, let me finish art school. Eighteen months and I will be jumping at this post. You can take your man and run off to Death Valley or something.”
Halfway through Maggie’s visit, Michigan rises. It is a windy day in the 20s, grey water slapping up over limestone barriers, balls of ice spitting in the air. Delayed trains. Misery at every bus stop.
Maggie and Annabeth sit on the floor of Annabeth’s apartment, cross-legged, knees touching, and deep into themselves to hold back the storm. Together, this is as easy as a calm summer day. Neither of them is taller than 5’5″, but they tower over the fury of the lake; their youth and confidence can snuff out the water’s power.
That’s a myth, and they all know it: Annabeth, Maggie, Michigan. These two women barely past girlhood are temporary dikes, fingers plugging holes, and yet they keep back the storm. After midnight the pressure rises, wind dies, and Maggie and Annabeth sag into their turtlenecks. A couple of mugs of hot chocolate with butterscotch schnapps are in order before they collapse into bed.
By the time Maggie leaves, Annabeth feels human again, rested and strong enough to get through the winter.
* * *
It stays cold. Dirty white wafers of ice layer over one another. The days are so frigid Annabeth’s nose hairs freeze on the inhale and thaw on the exhale. The kitchen at Holy Joe’s turns out gallons of soups and anything that can be covered in cheese. The lake shivers and seethes.
When Annabeth had first started training, her instinct had been to stand on the stone blocks of the shoreline and wave her arms. Uncle Ludo had said, “You wanna look like a crazy person?” He’d guarded Michigan for twenty-five years. He’d told her about all the various cousins snatched off beaches and piers by rogue waves. And of course she didn’t need to be reminded about Danny.“You’re strong enough to hold back thirty miles of water. But six feet of it, all reaching for you? Not one of us can stand up to that.”
Annabeth would like to tell herself that she’s too smart to get complacent. But feeling the lake down inside itself, trapped inside its own vast surface, makes it easy to feel smug. She wanders over to the shore and sneers at the ice. At least she’s smart enough to stand back, to keep her head clear and not let the lake see.
Michigan can guess. For generations her family has fought it and its brothers. Michigan never forgets, never stops hating.
* * *
One afternoon, as she’s slinging lemon scones and peppermint brownies, late afternoon snacks with just a few soup-and-toasted-cheeses for early dinners, she feels a tightening behind her sternum, like adrenaline that doesn’t rush so much as fidget in the corner, staring.
The barometers in her sinuses go a little insane—she can feel the back of her face expand and contract. A tall blond man (almond latte, Joe’s Giant Gingersnap) sneezes. Jill’s baby Sam starts to cry; Jill, a regular, pours her chai into a to-go cup and hurries out. Annabeth feels the bridge of her nose pinch on the inside, as if it’s pulling her eyes closer together.
Annabeth makes it through her shift, but her anticipation of wild water grows, so it’s difficult to take a proper breath. She brushes off Jasper’s concern before she practically runs home.
Of course the lake had waited—for Maggie to leave, for Annabeth to drop her guard. That’s how it always is. Michigan waits for them to be human, and they always are. They can’t be anything else.
The solid world is like a mirage, less real than the liquid.
“This is the water,” she repeats to herself. It is harder to resist wild water at the beginning; it’s an urge in the corner of her mind to throw open all the boundaries she has set. Not a destructive urge as much as an alive one, like the first sunny day of spring. It feels exciting, at first—fast heartbeat, panting breath, a sensation like expansion in her chest. She is strong enough to keep back an entire lake. How powerful would it be to join with the water? Together they could flood the world. She would become the release valve rather than the dam. She has to work hard to remember what would come after that rush of freedom: Michigan rising, dank water filling her lungs, a cold existence at dark depth with relatives who have had all the love washed out of them.
Annabeth gets home and locks her door. She sits on her futon with her eyes closed, phone and lights turned off. Anyone not related by blood would never know the desperate fight she is waging in her heart. The water builds. It spreads like a leak through her until she shudders with the chill. The smack of waves in her head is a drumbeat of temptation.
“Set me free,” the lake whispers. It would be so easy to say yes. Michigan wants to rise, it imagines itself as carbon-colored waves that rip Lake Shore Drive to pieces and quiver over the Hancock building. Annabeth shakes her head at the destruction, and so Michigan shows her the image of a shoreline– white sand, green water, tall grassland rising into trees. Birds everywhere and tiny, calm waves. The black forms of gulls bob in the water. Killdeer cry. This image is beautiful. No more traffic and concrete, no oil puddles in the gutter. She could live at home in the water and never have to keep the secret from anyone she might want to tell. Like Jasper.
Michigan draws back; it has no cipher for “Jasper,” no rebuttal for warm flesh, jars of chamomile flowers, or white chocolate–espresso muffins straight from the oven on a gloomy day.
Annabeth will hold the lake. She’ll hold the water back from Holy Joe’s, with its burgundy walls that glow in lamplight, its wood-burning stove and board games with missing pieces in a pile on a green bookshelf. She’ll hold the water back from Primo. From the Generous Tipper and the painter moms. From the cabbies who always get lost in St. Bran’s and all the millions of people who think the far northeast side was swallowed long ago. She will hold it back from Jasper, so he can keep on baking gingersnaps.
The lake withdraws with a creak like wind in icy branches. Annabeth is new to her post, but she is savvy enough not to relax. A tsunami will suck back the sea halfway to the horizon, leaving reefs and fish gasping, before it rushes up and engulfs everything in a roaring gloat and death too quick for drowning.
She breathes, deep and slow, and pulls an afghan over her cold legs.
Michigan regroups. Annabeth can never tell whether time works the normal way in the lake. But when it withdraws, her sense of time lags, as if some of the fizz has gone out of everything.
She sits, and the lake is quiet, just out of hearing. She takes the risk of getting up to pee, to drink some water. After an hour, Annabeth sighs and goes to the kitchen to make some (decaf) tea. She’s cold from the inside out, tired more from the vigilance than from Michigan’s little tantrum.
Play with me, sissa, Danny says from behind her as she stands over her mug, dunking a teabag. She’s caught. She is ungrounded, easy to knock over, unprepared.
I want to play, sissa bee.
It is so damn unfair every time he calls her that. Her heart folds in on itself to hear the name.
“You play too rough, Danny,” she says. Michigan laughs through him. Waves crash in that laughter.
It’s fun, Bethie. You like to play with me.
Annabeth remembers what it was like to be five years old and have a little brother, pest and object of adoration. Except for summer trips with the family, they spent all their time together, playing mermaid and pirate, explorer, water babies.
“What’s in the water, sissa?” he had asked on the day he died. He’d been staring out over the green water, the water that made Annabeth’s tummy feel cold.
“Bad things,” Annabeth had said. “Things Uncle Ludo keeps away.”
“What if they’re nice?” Danny had said.
Annabeth looks at the green-tinged eyes of the pale little boy in her kitchen. The years have leached most of the color out of him. “I don’t like your games anymore, honey.”
Danny’s smile spreads slowly across his face. You would like it, Annabeth, if you’d give it a try.
The voice coming from his mouth is deep as fathoms, dark and liquid. She thinks that if she stares long enough, it won’t just be the lake’s voice coming through him—its face will show too. Could anyone look on such a face and not go crazy, not end up like Ryszard, or Danny?
“No,” she says, and pushes hard.
Danny’s face pinches into rage, and the wild water is all around her, steel grey and foam, cold as metal, stronger than stone. Her body tells her she can’t breathe, that water is all around her and there’s no air. She tries to remember that she’s standing in her kitchen, blocks from the shore. Her lungs strain, and she flaps her arms, struggling against water that isn’t there.
Come play, sissa bee, Danny says again.
You’ll see how wrong they all are. Now it’s Ryszard. Why protect all those dry things, those shell-less crabs? We’re family, child. Not just me and Danny. Michigan, too. The brother lakes. Our water is part of the blood pumping through your heart.
It’s the pull of that water that tempts them all—the water that forms their tears. Ryszard is right. Annabeth keeps her own ancestor caged by holding back Michigan. The lake can’t help being what it is, its shores towered over and bulldozed, its marshes clogged by fill and limestone. There are reasons for the lake’s hatred.
Suddenly she can breathe, as if she’s grown gills. The water feels warm.
Ryszard smiles. Danny claps his hands and laughs.
See how much nicer, Bethie?
She can see: how the water will wash through her, strip her of all her equivocation, her complications. Water will infuse her blood until it’s the only thing in her veins, blue tracings turned pale green. She will be eternal, down in the deep, waiting to rise up and reclaim land, or to pull more of her family into the fold.
The water clogs her lungs again at the thought of Maggie gone pale and cruel. Of disappointment shadowing Gran’s dark eyes. Of Jasper crying his hot, salt tears.
Michigan’s embrace is cold, and its strength flows around her.
It only hurts if you fight, Danny says.
The more she fights, the more it hurts. The wild water wraps around and around her. She can’t move or breathe. The world goes black around the edges as she struggles to hold the barriers, to force the water down.
The water tries to sneak around the outside of her barriers, under them, through any cracks. Annabeth strains against the agony of pressure in her chest. No air, miles of water pushing her, but she holds. Her lungs feel shredded and her vision has shrunk to a small point of light, but she keeps the invisible walls standing. While her ears throb with the frantic pounding of her heart, she holds Jasper’s smile like a lantern in her mind and stands still under the water. Her standing—her choice—means the strength of her death will hold her barriers for a little while after, long enough for someone to feel it, for one of the cousins to race over.
They’ll read her name at the reunion. In praise and not in warning.
Annabeth stands tall and watches that small point of light go out. Water and blood have been rushing in her ears, but now everything is totally quiet and dark. Pain recedes with light and sound.
And then she hears the sigh of a small wave rolling in and sliding back out.
Light and pain flow back all at once, and she drops to the floor, choking up what seems like a swimming pool’s worth of water. She coughs and retches until she’s too weak to do anything but sit in the pool of cold water and bile, praying that the lake has worn itself out.
Finally she’s so cold that she forces herself to crawl to the bathroom and into the tub to sit under a hot shower. She holds the tame water back from her face until her muscles uncramp and she stops shuddering. She lurches into bed still mostly wet, and pulls all the blankets over her. She sleeps hard and without dreams.
* * *
The morning is bright and still. Annabeth can feel the lake, withdrawn in itself and sulking, in its own way as weak as she is.
The kitchen floor is too revolting to put off—she doesn’t even want to try to step over the mess to make coffee. She mops the floor twice, stops for coffee, then mops again. The kitchen reeks of pine cleaner, which is an improvement. Later, she will apologize to Jasper for leaving without explanation. It was another migraine, she’ll say, but he’ll already know.
Annabeth aches from scalp to sole and knows she’ll have to do it all over again sooner than she’d like. She guards Michigan.
The wave rolls out. It will always roll back in.
Virginia M. Mohlere was born on one solstice, and her sister was born on the other. Her chronic writing disorder stems from early childhood. She lives in the swamps of Houston and writes with a fountain pen that is extinct in the wild. Her work has been seen in Cabinet des Fées, Jabberwocky, Lakeside Circus, Goblin Fruit, Strange Horizons, and MungBeing.
As for “Hold Back the Waters,” she writes that the story “started in the dark, driving up an unfamiliar mountain road outside Knoxville, Tenn., with Lisa Mednick’s song ‘Wrecker’ on repeat in my head. It’s a love song to my dream-Chicago, whose streets I regularly swim.”
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