When the lake chose Els, everyone was surprised. So was Els. She was nothing aquatic, barely anything at all — Aries-born, Capricorn ascendant, a mishmash of air and earth, a harsh dust storm, the one they feared would not be chosen by any of the Family of Landforms. They had shown Els to lonely deserts and old mountains and they all said no; they all said, “what is that?” And those were the dregs of the Landforms. The lake was a healthy, preening, fluid and majestic blue, and they thought for sure he would not want something like her. But of all the cousins in the Family of Spouses, the lake chose Els.
She was visiting the cabin with her lover Sam, a boy from a cattle town near where one of the Uncles had settled down long enough to let Els go to school. The lake watched as they walked nearer to the shore, holding and swinging hands. They were collecting pink shells and it was when Els momentarily stepped in and out of the water and the lake felt her feet and the roundness of her toes that he drew up to surround her, embrace her, engulf her completely. She would need to learn to breathe underwater, after all, to breathe through him. He would give her gills, no problem. He showered his intended bride with mussels and ran through her mud-colored hair, whispering to her how happy they would be. She’d go down into the great depths of water, with the dead men’s ghosts, but he would clear the cobwebs out for her. He had a palace waiting, an old cruise ship with vintage silverware. He was sure she’d like it, and if she didn’t, well, he’d sink one she liked better.
Els didn’t dive into him. Instead she ran out of the lake’s hug, wet and shaking and unaccustomed to downpours. She’d grown up in a very arid state on land that was mostly clay. Sam found it funny–“it looked like it was trying to eat you,” he said. “It scared me,” said Els.
The Family of Spouses saw this and knew. After they recovered from the shock, and the Aunts and Uncles who thought their own mermaids might have the privilege of marrying the lake were told gently that the Landforms want what they want. They told Els’ cousin Avis to go invite Sam in, hoping Els would stay outside and make peace with her future husband. Avis, a slim sprite of a girl with wind in her hair, went outside, extended her dove-like hand, and offered with a smile to make Sam a drink at the cabin. Els followed but fell behind, distracted by the lake’s serenades.
“Here, take this fish,” he was saying, tossing the thing up to the shallows, where it glimmered in the ruby-red afternoon and made sucking, kissing motions. “It sings, listen, listen. It sings for you.”
Els shook her head and whispered, “No!” low enough so Sam wouldn’t hear. “I have someone already!”
The Uncle who raised her had only let her be with Sam on the condition that she would leave him once a Landform chose her. Els was confident this would never happen because she was so very misshapen, elementally speaking, and she had allowed herself to love Sam with a full heart. But as their week at the cabin passed, surrounded by the clucks and cookware of the Aunts and Uncles, Els could tell that something was not right. Sam and Avis were always whispering, and Avis’ hand was always flitting to his knee.
Els knew Sam was fickle. He yearned for anything that pricked his fancy and his fancy got pricked a lot. She’d been told it was a miracle that he had stayed with her this long, and she knew he had dalliances, at bars when he thought she wasn’t looking. He responded to women like they were bells and whistles at an arcade. What could she do? Tell the Aunts and Uncles? They’d only berate her for placing so much hope in a weak and regular human man. At night when she waited for Sam to come to their room she made crop circles in the bedsheets where his body should have been to try and call him home. It didn’t work — the sun was always glowing behind the mountains when he crept in with a murmur of excuses, the same excuses he made when he came home late smelling like fruit perfume and poker room smoke. She told herself the same things she always did: at least he came back at all.
But the lake loved Els, and when he found Sam and Avis knocking galoshes in the fishing shed, in one of the old dinghies, he seeped in under the wood panels and slowly filled their love nest, gently rocking fishing poles. By the time they noticed the water level the lake had too much momentum, and neither the champion swimmer nor the whitewater rafter had the time to swim out of the dinghy and reach the door that they themselves had bolted. The lake pulled back afterward, slipped over the bank the same way he had come, and left the Family of Spouses to find their drowned bodies, Sam on the leather seat and Avis on the bow. He gurgled and waited for Els’ grateful smile.
Instead Els vomited on the grass, and when the lake’s waves lapped up over the sand to reach around her ankles and comfort her, she shrieked. The lake retreated unhappily and while Els was inside the cabin with the Family of Spouses, occupied himself with making sudden upsurges on his California side and toppling over yachts.
“The lake did this because he wants you as a wife,” said an Aunt, wiping off Els’ mouth as she sat on the couch hiccuping her tears. “You have to go to him.”
Els looked up at their emotionless, cratered faces. A few were shrugging. One Uncle was looking at his glass of whiskey instead. “The lake killed Avis and that’s all you’ve got to say?”
“We can’t do anything about it now,” said the Uncle who raised Els. “They get this way sometimes. We all express anger in different ways, and they’re just so powerful, they tend to overkick, you know. There was a river I knew once that couldn’t have a child, and so she took a human child instead. It died of course, it didn’t want to go. We sent the parents some flowers, peace lilies. There’s nothing to do but mourn the dead and move on, Els.”
“Besides,” said an Aunt, brushing back her hair, “Sam was cheating on you. The lake did you a favor, really.”
The others mumbled their agreement and told Els that the lake was really an exceptional Landform if he was willing to defend her honor by killing Sam and Avis before she even belonged to him, really a bastion of chivalry, this one, and judging by how mixed up she came out when she was born, just a dust storm really, she should be happy to be chosen by someone so noble. She could’ve gotten stuck with a mesa in Oklahoma: dispassionate and stale, wanting little more than a servant for a wife. Or, shame be to say it, a cliff.
Els blew her nose and shook her head. “No, I have to bury Sam.”
“The lake will get restless waiting.”
“I have to take Sam home first.”
They asked her before she got in her hatchback where Sam lived, but she refused to say. With her own face the color of a corpse, she set off down Interstate 80, with Sam in the trunk packed in dry ice.
The Uncle who raised her had the feeling she wasn’t coming back, but he would tell the puzzled lake later in the evening that Els just needed time to think. If she didn’t go willingly the honeymoon would kill her, and the Uncle knew from watching Els draw concentric circles in the dirt that her stubbornness was brutal.
* * *
At first the lake tried not caring. He preoccupied himself with the same things he had done for his first million years: tossing trash and debris on his shores, upturning silt and fish bones nestled on his floor, sunbathing, unsettling flies. He reminded himself that the Family of Spouses had given him other wives — he could not remember them now, they had long since become foam and ascended into the sun — and they would come back with others, in perhaps a century. He could wait as long as he had to, until the sun burned out.
But Els was human, and every day was another day closer to her death. This frightened the lake for reasons he did not understand. He could extend her life but he had to be with her to do so, and he spent every moment acutely aware that Els was not there, and their potential time together was running low. He thought he saw her in the pine trees, he thought he heard her car on the highway. When he realized he was hallucinating, his violence escalated. He spit plastic bags and fish alike at fine polished wood houses on the lakefront, two lovesick teenagers drowned during a midnight swim, and his skin became too rough for boating. He said to the startled fish inside him that if he made enough of a fuss, Els would realize how badly they needed each other and she’d have to come back.
She had to, but didn’t. She stayed away as the colors changed and the snows ran up and down the mountains, until finally the lake could not take it and rose out of his basin, taking the fish with him, and ascended into the sky. There he sat and looked about. The animals begged him but he refused to come down, and made hiking treacherous because it was always so dark and cold under his shadow.
The Uncles, dressed in the subzero parkas they bought to give away a Nephew to the ice-mountain Lucania, climbed to one of the mountain peaks with flashlights and backpacks filled with batteries and granola bars. They stood their flashlights up in a circle and petitioned him to come down, to be calm.
“I want Els,” said the lake, and now his voice did not gently hiss and swish but roared by way of thunderheads. “No substitutes. If she will not come then I will chase her.”
“No, no, you can’t leave your basin!” the Uncles shouted up to the lake-cloud, heavy and burgeoning and barely able to contain his ire, no longer the crystalline blue painted on the billboards on the highway but a dark slate gray, the color of pollution. “What about the mountains? They’ll dry up and turn to stone without you!”
“The mountains what? They’ve got the streams and the hot springs, and the last I checked rain hasn’t been canceled,” said the lake, “just another seven hundred years and you’ll have a new lake for your precious water polo.”
One of the Uncles, Els’ brave one, cupped his mouth with his fleece gloves and shouted, “But Els doesn’t want you… you’ll drown her.”
The lake spit an ice-encrusted salmon down at him, from such a height that it nearly gave him a concussion upon impact. He was lucky to be wearing snow-goggles. The other Uncles crowded around him, shaking him and shouting, “Jon! Jon!” while the ice on the salmon melted and it came back to life in a bearberry bush, its gills flapping open and closed and its red-orange tail slapping the frozen fruit.
“I want Els,” the lake said, louder. “Tell me where she is.”
“Els ran away from us,” they told him. “We don’t know where.”
At this the lake began to storm. His anger set small patches of the mountains that had nursed him since his conception on fire, and then he rose higher into the atmosphere and began to move inland, figuring a woman of air and earth would want to be in the thick of continents, not their edges.
* * *
Not until after she found a place neither she nor Sam knew did Els park her car longer than twenty-four hours and lease a house, in a small green town with soil so soft it was starting to swallow building foundations. No one mowed their lawns, and no one asked where she’d come from. By the stains in their eyes and their faded clothes, she doubted they felt they had the right.
She took a job as a secretary for a construction company and made a few friends. Her house came with a small heap of land that was really just a labyrinth of weeds — some of them were flowered, yellow and white, but most of them were simply raw and serpentine. She repainted the mailbox and subscribed to the local newspaper. She began to settle. Sometimes she still heard Sam’s voice, and the lake’s, and in her dreams they mixed in together; when she saw men in town wearing fedoras, or women wearing cloches, she thought about disobedience and ached for the Family of Spouses -– their marinara sauce and their brandy, and the sound of laughter at night.
So she made more friends. She tried to fill her house with them, and when they were over she opened all the drapes and turned on all the lights to make her house glow like a firefly. And after they all went stumbling home, she washed the dishes in her gleaming house and packaged leftovers and tried to feel happy. It was one such night when she was joyfully scrubbing the grease off a frying pan that she noticed the sound of rain on the bed of weeds in the backyard — she reached over the kitchen sink and stuck her hand out the window, open because two of her new friends were smokers. She felt drops. They were colder than rain. Then mackinaws fell out of the sky.
All Els could think to do was get her umbrella. Of course the flood did not work that way. It came in a downpour that did not stop to breathe, like a bottle of milk spilled by a child. As the lake water submerged her house in under a minute and burst her walls open, Els recalled his embrace when they first met and all the sweet talk promises he made. Except this was no flirtatious splash. This was a taste of her life as his bride: a small unanchored mass in a sea of chaos, driftwood.
The lake found her in her kitchen amid the coffeepot and other floating appliances. He gave her a squeeze, pulled her out through the window above the sink, and brought her up for air, her gasping head just above the surface. She saw her uprooted mailbox go floating past, bobbing on the lake’s turbulence.
“Love me!” he shouted, shaking her nearly to the point of whiplash. “Love me, love me, love me!” He paused to hear her answer — she spit out parts of him that had gotten in her mouth. “Why won’t you love me!”
“You have to ask?” she screamed back. “Look at what you do!”
The poor cursed town was buried beneath his goliath body. Trees and a few rooftops protruded his skin, and none but a few tabby cats on branches perched above the water. It was hours before dawn and her friends who’d been walking home had managed to swim to the surface and were crying out, reaching for something to hold.
“It’s because I love you.” He dunked her, but she refused to grow gills, and after he felt her flailing in hypoxia, lifted her up again in frustration. “Breathe underwater! Be mine! Live forever!”
“This is not love,” she panted. “Let me go.”
“I followed you all the way here. I’m not giving up now.”
Eventually, and it took a while, helicopters came and so did emergency inflatable rafts. The rescuers extracted Els with ropes and though the Coast Guard had her tight and she was rising up into wool blankets and white search lights, she still heard the lake thrashing beneath her. He was crying, “I’ll follow you, Els, I’ll follow you! I’ll find you!”
* * *
The first time had been by accident. She paused too long in a small town, tired from driving and out of gas money, and the lake had come crashing down upon the township in half an afternoon. But there the soil had been dry and the cattle had resorted to sucking water out of grass blades, and there were no rescue helicopters, no crying cats in trees. There was rejoicing. The town of Gullkirk searched for what could have caused the boon and they found Els. They paid her. They called her a drought doctor. She counted the old leather bills and shrugged and accepted the job.
For a long time Els squatted barefoot in Harborough, so that her palms and the balls of her feet were smeared in the dirt, and the sun was burning the back of her neck, so the lake could find her. She had already told them it might take a while for him to catch up to her. She had no idea how far back he was but he had gotten lost in Tucson, and he nearly died in Denver. She wasn’t surprised he was a few hours behind.
“Are you sure it’s coming?” asked a farmer.
“He’ll come,” said Els with her eyes on the empty basin the little town of Harborough had spent a great chunk of their treasury digging. The land belonged to a man who had died years back and they had had to buy it off his recluse son to turn it into a home for the lake. “He always does.”
His little boy had other doubts. “You sure it’ll fit in there? At school they said it was a hundred million acre feet in total volume.”
“He’s a lot smaller now, he should.”
They waited another moment, listening to the last insects in the dying fields, until Els looked heavenward and sighed. “There he is. My money. Please.”
The farmer who was also the mayor dawdled with the checkbook, painstakingly writing out five thousand and no cents, refusing to sign because when he looked up he saw nothing but the same dull haze.
“I can drive him back if I want to,” Els said, which was not true. He had seen her and he was hanging too low now to hold back and remain airborne. If she started to drive away now, when he was about to condense, she’d only flood Harborough. The lake would miss the basin and go teeming over the thirsty cornrows, and there would be her car tumbling in a deluge with a thousand cui-ui pounding on the windows, and there would be the farmers who hadn’t come to the rain ceremony wondering as they drowned if they had missed a flyer about an ark. “I’m gonna drive him back if you don’t sign that check.”
“Right, all right.” He ripped the check out and held it out for her – it flapped in a rare breeze that the mayor of Harborough could have sworn had a moistness to it. Els snatched the check out of his chubby fingers. “Say, what’s that rumbling sound?”
“It’s him,” she said.
In the time it had taken for the mayor to write the check and give it to her the sky had become dark with a monstrous and asphalt-colored cloud. The breeze became a stiff wind and blew hats away — the mayor’s slight and towheaded son stumbled and his father had to catch him. Suddenly cold in the middle of summer and shadowed by a cloud that hovered above them looking like the Devil’s portal, the small gathering of Harborough’s farming families looked at their mayor with confusion and contempt. There were questions raised of what plague he had brought upon them. The mayor told them to be patient and held his little son and looked at Els, who had her hands on her hips and her eyes zeroed in on the sinking cloud’s center.
There was no gentle rain, no dancing. When the cloud let loose and became a lake there was a rapid and violent burst of sunshine, and the smash of sudden water on the basin’s dirt made Harborough’s cornfields shudder, and disrupted crows a county over. Everyone standing around the basin was soaked, and at least a quarter-mile of crops were spattered. Then the lake settled in the basin — he stretched it a bit, but he had lost volume as Els predicted. He’d also picked up a lot of methane circling the heartland; it had turned him gray and layered. And to think he’d spent such an extended time as a lush young Landform. Except for a chronic overabundance of nutrients that flared up from time to time, the lake had never known disease, much less decay.
She saw no movement inside him.
“You have no fish.”
“They fell out,” said the lake. “It’s easier to fly without them, anyway.”
She thought of what she had heard on the news –- trout falling onto cars as they barreled down highways all over the western states, causing accidents. Some were saying it was the end-times. Others blamed cargo planes with faulty doors.
“Will you stay now?” he asked Els in what was now a croak of his former voice, as the farmers set up their irrigation pipes. They were small, and nothing like mosquito pricks to the lake, but there were many of them and they began their intake all at once. The lake curled up a bit and had to stay curled for a few beats of Els’ heart until he could exhale again. The farmers were shouting blessings. The children carried pails. One baby fell in during all the fracas, but the lake did not notice, and she was retrieved.
Els squatted down at what was now a shore. “I’ll stay a while in Harborough. Until their crops grow back.”
“I’ll be in town.”
There was a sound of churning from the lake and then several irrigation pipes were dislodged and went flying through the air. The dogs chased after the metal tubes thinking they were sticks, and farmers hollered at each other to watch their heads as the lake hurled more pipes out of his body like buttons popping off a vest. What kind of Godforsaken lake is this, the farmers asked. Els assured them the lake was fine, it was just ill-tempered — then she lowered her voice and narrowed her eyes and hissed at the lake, “You don’t feed their crops and I’ll have to leave, understand?”
The lake grumbled. “I’m tired of you leaving. I’m tired of waiting.”
“Then don’t wait! I’m tired of you following me! I’m tired of you!”
This made the lake uneasy, and then morose. The waters retreated. Els sighed. He had made himself her only companion, and some perverse backwardness in her did not want to drive him away. She pushed her foot toward him through the top inch of dirt, already darker and healthier with his presence. “Look. Just let their crops grow back. Let them grow in. I’ll be in town. It’s not far away.”
This time the lake took Els’ advice. He let the farmers reinsert their irrigation pipes and let the crops grow in, then watched as the farmers reaped the spoils using large machines. There were celebrations, and he was renamed the Harborough Reservoir. This life in the open fields was very different from the brisk mountains of his long adolescence. Here the animals weren’t allowed to drink from him, and there were no boats or sunken pin-striped dead. There was just the long rolling day and quiet sweat and patient irrigation, and although it gave him tingles he did enjoy seeing the corn and the human children mature. Theirs were whole lives that he’d facilitated. The lake imagined fondly that they were his and Els’ children, thousands of their children.
He knew she was in town but he couldn’t feel around for her. He was too weak, and too shrunken. It ached to not have held her for months now, but at least he knew she was nearby, laying the groundwork for their prairie household. He thought that perhaps this was as close as she would come to him. She did visit — she called them check-ups, and some of their children came with her — and every now and then he could sneak bits of himself through cracks in the piping system and get into the residential plumbing, and on rare occasion he could find himself boiling in one of her pots, cooking her rotini pasta, or washing dirt from her hair. It was brief and shallow but he told himself it was enough; it was all she wanted. By then he’d begun to wonder about other places he had not seen or had skimmed past in a hurry to follow Els around the continent, so after a few seasons and ten thousand progeny, the lake evaporated into a cloud, then began to move north.
Els was brought out to see the empty basin. The farmers were more bewildered than concerned, for the moment. “It just happened overnight,” they said.
She had been to see him once in the past week, and he had said something about the completion of a rich life, but she wasn’t sure whether he meant he had already accomplished this feat or was going to. Maybe he was going to. Either way, Els could not help them anymore; she could not help anyone anymore, not as a drought doctor. Well, three good years for Harborough. He’d lasted longer than he had with Jackson County, Princeton, and Gullkirk.
They wanted her to pull down another lake. They suggested Erie and Superior. “I seem to have lost my magic touch,” she said to the farmers, who had never really understood in the first place, because they were not part of the Family of Spouses or the Family of Landforms.
“I have to go,” she said. “But good luck. Good luck.”
* * *
It was many years later that Els, at last the old dustdevil her cousins had always pegged her to be, noticed a pond had gathered in her backyard. It had been months since any real rain and at first when she saw him in the midst of the yellow flammable grass, at noon, she thought he was a mirage.
She barely recognized him. He was no bigger than a baby, and so shallow that blades of grass were sticking up through him. In him she saw her reflection, and not much else — her gray hair, she saw that. The sky behind her, a blistering off-white. In this heat he was not long for the world.
“Where have you been all this time?” she asked, resting her chin on her fist.
“I’ve been seeing the world,” he said — his voice now high-pitched and earnest. “It’s amazing how much I missed sitting in the Sierra Nevadas for a million years.”
“But it’s drained you.”
“I know. It’s a fair trade. And you? Where have you been?”
“I’ve been drifting. Now I’m here.”
“In the desert.”
“Yes.” She could already see steam rising from him. Her body would have been burning too if it weren’t for her sunsuit, but as a reflection in him, she was evaporating. “I hope you didn’t come here to see me.”
“Of course I did. You set me free. I owe it to the life I’ve had to see myself off with you.” He paused, wanting to touch her. But he could not extend himself anymore; there was too little of him left, and he’d spent the last of his energy propelling himself to this flat house of hers from the city of cacti.
“I could save you,” she said quickly. “I could get a cup. I’ll take you in my house. It’s air-conditioned.”
The lake, now a puddle, laughed. “Please don’t. I love the sun, no matter how hot it gets. Can you imagine, on the sun’s surface, it’s still a thousand times hotter. But you almost can’t feel the heat when you fly. Have you ever been flying?”
“In airplanes,” she said.
“Oh,” said the lake, vanishing. “Well, really get yourself into the atmosphere, Els. No one belongs to anyone up there. Really something.” His last words were sizzles, and Els quickly leaned down and pulled her visor off, and kissed the hot dust.