From the top of her redwood by the creek, the owl watched several well-dressed women drive off fast in late-model BMWs and Mercedes. Each had a child beside her. A flat morning sun sucked dew off the unshaded lawns. Except for the gardeners grooming the fastidiously spaced properties along the dry creek, only one person, a woman, still moved about. Silently the owl dropped down onto a bench beside her. Several chickens bumbling around her feet scattered.
“Come for breakfast, grandmother?” the woman said. “Old cannibal.” She had coarse, gray-black hair hanging loose around her shoulders, a dry leathery face, a waist thicker than it had once been. One eye was brown, the other the same tawny gold as the owl’s eyes. Bare muscular toes curled into the dust of the yard, pecked bare of grass. She wore jeans and a T-shirt.
A dead chick lay on the bench.
“Take him,” she said to the owl. The owl grasped the chick in her talons and flew back to the tree.
The woman made a swift circuit of the yard to scoop the eggs hidden in the weeds into a wire basket. Chickens swaggered in and out of their coops, clucking in their throats. When she lifted a sack and emptied feed into a trough, they screeched and boiled around her feet, trying to shoulder their way in where the crowd was thickest, ignoring the unoccupied side of the trough. She shook her head. Looking up at the owl, who was tearing at the chick, she said, “Sure isn’t brain-food, is it?”
While the chickens shoved and gobbled, she tipped the water out of a second trough onto the earth, and refilled it from a hose. The dumped water lay on top of the dust, its curving edges gleaming silver.
“Dry,” she muttered, turning away from the water and wiping her hands roughly on her jeans. “Got to practice.”
A power mower on the other side of the fence shredded the silence. Through the cracks of the fence she glimpsed a figure moving back and forth. She smiled, thinking of the gardener’s rosy cheeks and knees, his platinum-colored curls, all of him as juicy as a Georgia peach. A movement from the front yard distracted her. The din of the mower had masked the sound of her daughter’s BMW. Annabelle was already picking her way gingerly from one flagstone to the next around the side of the house, wobbling on stiletto heels and carrying a little girl of five on her hip. The little girl clutched an egg carton which she offered to her grandmother with a serious air.
The woman glanced once more at the gardener, then reached out to the sturdy, dark-haired child and eased her onto her own hip. “Thank you, my love. See all the eggs? Gram Olga will let you fill the carton with them this morning.”
Annabelle smoothed the damp creases where the little girl had straddled her cream linen suit. “Having your early-morning communion with the earth?” she said, glancing with distaste at her mother’s dusty bare feet. Her voice was nasal with disapproval. She eased her honey-colored hair behind an ear.
The older woman replied with a wry half-smile. “Just feeding my chickens.”
“Could you take her today?” asked Annabelle.
“Would I turn her down?”
“She’s complaining again, and I’ve got a really big meeting —”
Olga tightened her grip on the child and said, “Does my gypsy have chickenpox?” She squeezed the child’s muscular leg and looked up at her daughter. “It’s going around, you know. I had Blair Hatton’s girl yesterday with it. She’s fine now.”
Annabelle said quickly, “I don’t think so. Just a tummy-ache. The wart on her hand. That sort of thing. Frankly, I think she’s malingering.”
“I’m not lingering,” the child said firmly.
“No, dearest, I know you’re not,” her grandmother answered.
“Who’s Blair Hatton anyway?” asked Annabelle.
Olga nuzzled the child’s neck before answering. She could remember when firm knots tied the people in the neighborhood together. “Blair Hatton is your next-door neighbor.”
The young woman’s cheeks reddened. “Well, you know. I’m at work all day, and weekends we’re on the boat. . . .”
“I’ll introduce you to her at the market this Saturday. Come early. She’ll be there, and you’ll still have time to go up to the marina.”
Olga sidestepped swiftly. “Or don’t. I’ll expect you if you come.”
Annabelle’s face relaxed. Olga knew she wouldn’t be there. It had been going on since long before Annabelle left home at sixteen, showing up several days later at her father’s door. Annabelle had always wanted a father, and had gone and sought him out herself. A bachelor, he’d been quite gracious and taken in this precise and elegant young woman, so unlike her mother. In all the years since, through Annabelle’s marriage, college, career, she met Olga only on neutral ground. The farmer’s markets where Olga sold eggs, the house — shabby, smaller, and older than the others in the neighborhood — these smacked too much of her mother: this person who raised vegetables and chickens and let her hair hang loose and talked to animals and went barefoot.
Nor had Annabelle ever approved of the lovers. Child and woman, she was conventional to the bone, just like Olga’s own mother, dead now, but still oppressive, the other half of the bracketing of her life. Why the sisterhood had to build this pain in, with the Power always skipping a generation, the mothers and daughters always a loss to one another, she didn’t know. She had yielded to it until Annabelle became pregnant. Then, something with the fineness and power of a spiderweb had drawn the young woman, along with her husband, back to the neighborhood where she was born. Shortly before the child came, they bought one of the big, newer houses, lavishly decorated a room for a nursery, put in a new kitchen. The fact was, Olga had summoned them. She needed her granddaughter close by. This, too, was part of the plan: the first and gentle initiation of a child into the sisterhood; and simultaneously, a harsher second one for the woman who at the half-century mark, was to take on the vocation of her maturity.
“Look, mother. I’ve got to go. I’ve got a meeting at 9 that I can’t miss.”
“Don’t rush to leave work early, sweetheart. She’ll be fine here.”
The younger woman kissed the child, still in Olga’s arms, and with more formality, her mother. She turned and picked her way over the flagstones to her car. That kiss — as if she had been expecting an electric shock. Olga knew that a touch could blow them open to each other. Annabelle would go to any lengths to prevent such revelation. Olga watched her drive off, like the others, following the bends of the road with swift precision. When she was out of sight, Olga gave the child an affectionate squeeze. The child returned it — so natural and easy! Olga put her down.
“Susan — see the old grandmother owl up there?” she said, squatting next to her granddaughter. In its tree, the owl rumbled faintly, digesting. Its eyes were closed. “She has just eaten. She’s dreaming now. She’s dreaming of water. Watch.”
The child raised her eyes, of the same tawny gold as her grandmother’s left eye and the owl’s two eyes, and all three saw the dream. It made a pattern of dark and light from above: the creek, rushing with the ghosts of all its past torrents, speaking water even in its dryness. Then the gray street, the front yard with its sage-green native shrubs; and the house itself, pinned to earth by its dark vine. And beyond it, the desiccated, clay-colored dirt of the chicken yard. But over the yard’s paleness hung a dark mist, as if the sun were drawing moisture out of some underground cavern in which water had secretly lain for centuries.
“Is it the rain?” the child asked, gazing intently at the owl.
“Yes. Rainy season’s coming. We’re going to make the water from above and the water from below come together. Like the rainbow. Did you know that every rainbow has a mate below the edge of the earth? If you go high enough, you can see them come together in a full circle.”
“Yes,” the child said gravely. She laced one arm under the thick hair that lay across her grandmother’s shoulders.
“Now,” Olga said, standing abruptly and giving Susan a brisk pat on the bottom. “Go put all those eggs from the basket into the carton you brought, so we can put them in the fridge. And then we’ll go see the fish with the ruby eye.”
The child quietly did as she was told. Olga shaded her eyes and looked toward the place in the fence where a woodpile on the other side and a chicken coop on her side made it easy for the gardener to vault over. This was about the time he usually came. She would have to tell him the child was with her.
His head appeared over the top of the fence, and before he noticed Susan squatting beside the egg basket, he was saying, “Olga, today I can’t. . . .” He saw the child and a look of annoyance passed over his face.
She read him. Not quick enough, huh, Dicky? Now you’re kicking yourself it wasn’t me that made the excuse.
As he watched her, she caressed her own flank where the white threads showed through the taut denim. It was not that he didn’t hunger after her, for the silky, dusky flesh under the worn T-shirt and jeans, the rich, brown-nippled breasts, the mounding of her belly and the smaller thatched mound below. He knew the secrets that belied her sun-leathered face and hands and feet. But it was getting so dry in the season. Last time after she had engulfed him, emptied him out, he had lain still for fully half an hour, his eyelids paper-white, the color drained from his cheeks. He certainly looked luscious enough now, in his confusion, with the sweat smearing a streak along the flat of one cheek and making a gleam on the curve of bare shoulder that showed above the fence. But the fact was, he hadn’t it to give this late in her season. He was emptied out and — she could see it — a little afraid.
She sighed. Maybe he didn’t hunger for her so much after all. Maybe by now he was eager to try all she had taught him on a succulent young thing his own age. They were getting fewer and farther between, these gardeners and handymen and sales assistants who sold her the sacks of chicken feed over at Brenner’s Feed and Fuel. He was good for another few months, off and on, she knew. But then. . . .
“Go finish your mowing,” she said. “My granddaughter and I have work to do.”
The gardener smiled in relief and ducked down on his side of the fence.
“Gram Olga. The eggs are all in. Peel me a kiwi first, and then let’s go down to the grass world.”
“Just what I had in mind, love.” Olga brought the child to the front porch. Male and female vines twisted together. The thick black growth overhung the length of the veranda. Hidden among them were hundreds of the fuzzy brown fruits. She lifted the child high enough to pick one, and then peeled it for her with a pocketknife. Susan curled her palm and fingers around the slippery green fruit and ate it bite by bite, licking the juice as it ran down her wrist. When she was done, they took the eggs inside and put them in a large refrigerator which already held dozens of cartons. Then Susan glanced up at her grandmother. Olga nodded. The child opened a narrow door in the kitchen from which rough concrete steps ran down into darkness. Before following the girl, Olga took the time to close the door behind her and throw the bolt.
As their eyes became accustomed to the dimness, they could see the fossil of the coelacanth as it swam imprisoned in the stratified layers of the wall. It was nearly five feet long; from its back, several spines arose. Its eye glowed, a red jewel.
“Let me see how your hand is today, my love,” said Olga. The child held up the hand with the wart. “Yes, it could use another touch.” She picked up the child and pressed the wart to the glowing eye.
She cured all the neighborhood children’s bruises and warts and minor ills this way, a way she had practiced since childhood. Cured a steady trickle of adults, too — blacks and Mexicans from the other side of the freeway who paid with crumpled bills or hand-woven scarves or free repairs to her van. It had grown comfortable. Maybe too much so.
The mothers, free now to join the men for meetings, deadlines, and success (but not free to discard their anxiety over their children), had begun bringing the children to Olga when they were ill and couldn’t go to school or day care. They paid, too, and well. Supplemented the home-grown vegetables and egg-selling and healing. Though the mothers met only briefly while dropping off or picking up children, the children knew each other from spending time by twos and threes at Olga’s house, by other mysterious ways that children have of knowing the life of a neighborhood. Olga fed them gleaming gumdrops and rocked them in her lap and took them down to visit the fish. When mothers returned, the harassed stink of the office still clinging to them as they opened their arms guiltily to embrace their sons and daughters, the children were always well again. As the mothers lifted them up, they seemed heavier, placid, and a little sleepy. The mothers inhaled their smiling sweet temper as they went home. And so they always came back to Olga.
Now she set Susan on her feet and the child continued down the remaining steps. These led to a short tunnel, the walls of which were also stratified and almost solid with small fossils. Boxes of bulbs that the neighborhood women had given her for winter chilling lined the narrow path. The child threw open a hatch-door that led to a green glade of the same shape and dimensions as the chicken yard above. No sun shone on the grass, but it glowed as if underwater in a rich, deep green. Trees surrounding the lawn added to the jeweled shade. No other color showed but the impossible green of the deep grass and the leaves, and the wet blackness of the trunks. A tiny stream, shaded by the trees, made a semicircle at the edge of the glade. Where the water cascading over pebbles confused the eye, a whitish smudge materialized into the familiar shape of the owl. She flew into a branch at the child’s eye level and began to preen.
Kicking off her rubber flip-flops, Susan hurried to the middle of the lawn. There, she planted her feet and seemed to grow into the earth. Olga followed more slowly. She drew the child close to her. For a long time they were silent. The woman felt the Power, like icy lightning, course through them and her body trembled until she thought she would be shaken to pieces. The years of scratching for a living, the lovers, the wrenching apart that is both daughterhood and motherhood, had made her body opaque and stubborn against the Power. But the child, as luminous as the Power itself, was a purer conduit, and stood pressed against her grandmother, undisturbed. She gazed out at the owl. Almost imperceptibly, water began to rise from the earth until it stood shimmering well above the grass; it reached as high as the child’s belly.
“Let it down, now, grandmother,” Susan said. Her voice was deep and old, fearless. “We don’t need any more today.”
Olga gasped, then exhaled with a long shudder.
“You’re right, love.”
As they watched, the water sank gradually back into the earth. The owl flew to a high branch.
“It’s well primed,” Olga said. “It’s nearly ready.”
“Yes, not too many more days,” said Susan.
She turned and ducked into the hatch-door and went quickly back up the stairs, stopping only to jump up and give the coelacanth a friendly pat. The woman followed more slowly.
Standing at her post at the market, Olga watched with amusement as three women she recognized from her neighborhood tried to get the farmer’s attention. He was a holdover from the hippie days, with long, graying hair in a ponytail, a tie-dyed T-shirt, overalls. Discreetly they vied for the last bunch of radicchio wilting in the noonday sun. Instead of pushing or shouting, they slipped in sideways, keeping their elbows tucked. But they sweated.
Somewhere in the crowd, Susan was snatching grapes or cajoling the dried-fruit man to pop an apricot into her waiting mouth. Delectable beggar. Olga rejoiced that Annabelle had let her bring Susan to the market today, instead of taking her out on the boat as on most Saturdays during the summer.
The day had started out with a light cloud cover, but now the sun beat down from an oily yellow sky.
She put her few remaining cartons of eggs in the back of her van. John Childs, the honey man, and Ben Tanner, the walnut man, who flanked her every Saturday morning, were packing up too. She had had them both. She caught a whiff of Childs’s polleny scent as he lifted a flat of honey jars with a grunt into his waiting pickup.
“You did pretty good today,” he said grinning at her.
“Not bad. You sold quite a few jars, too.” She smiled back and reached over to dip a sampling stick into his eucalyptus honey. As she placed it on her tongue, she was back at that afternoon last summer when she had first enfolded him; could feel again the drowsy hum and fur of him, gentle and blurred like his bees; his sweet polleny essence. Not quite her type — her humor was clear and thin like maple sap before the boiling. But certainly nothing to complain of.
On the other side, Tanner lifted an eyebrow. It was his usual invitation. He was older, astringent, more her match in temperament. They often met after the market in the underwater light of her bedroom. Touching his hands, dyed brown by the walnut husks, and his limbs, spare and hard and acrid-smelling from the leaves, was like touching familiar furniture in the dark. There was something reserved about their lovemaking. Befitting their age, she thought with a bitter twist of her mouth. That sort of thing never happened with the young gardeners and plumbers. With them, when she made love, she drank of their youth, and her young self floated to the surface. But they were drawn to her less and less often and the thirst was growing in her.
“I’ve got my baby here,” she said in answer to Tanner. This time, it was she who was relieved.
She cast her strong eye amongst the crowd and summoned her granddaughter. Susan came running under the table to butt up against her grandmother’s hip. Olga had kept out one carton of eggs and gave it to the child. Together, they crossed the emptying parking lot to old Bobby, who sang at every fair and market, even though all he could remember were the titles — “Chattanooga choo-choo, da dum de da dum.” Occasionally someone would toss a coin into his guitar case, but most people averted their eyes. The tattered gray shorts he wore year-round revealed eczema-reddened knees and shins. They followed him to his lair in a thicket of bushes outside the post office and Susan slipped the eggs under a sheet of plastic that protected his few possessions. Then she touched his knees and shins where the red sores were angriest. Olga hadn’t had to teach her not to flinch. “That must itch a lot,” she said.
“Hurts, too, honey, except when I’m playing and singing. It’s bad now. Prickles. Always does before rain.”
They looked up. The sky was still clear, but the light was even thicker now, as if it were trying to penetrate syrup.
“Your rash will feel better when the rain starts,” the child answered. She passed her fingers lightly over his skin once more.
By the time they got to the marina, the sky had misted over and the air had a chill to it. Instead of going for an afternoon sail, Susan’s parents tied up their boat and decided to go home.
Olga went home, too. Considering the sky and a sort of electrical prickling in the soles of her feet, she went inside and made a phone call. Half an hour later a pickup pulled into her driveway and Richard the gardener slid to the ground before he even cut the engine. She smiled to herself. She was beginning to feel like a bird of prey homing in on a juicy young morsel.
The gardener loped down the path like a puppy, his earlier reluctance forgotten. After all, she was going to pay him.
“I want you to help me put the chicken coops up on the roof,” she said.
“It’s going to rain.”
“It won’t be any drier up there —”
“Come on, let’s get busy.” She felt impatient of explanations.
People were out and around in the neighborhood. First, the Hattons, and a little later, the Margolises pedaled past with their children on bike carrier seats. They looked curiously at Olga and the gardener sweating and grunting with the chicken coops, carrying them up using two parallel ladders. Meanwhile, the clouds were thickening, and little gusts of cold air eddied around the corners of buildings, while people squinted up at the sky.
All the chicken coops were up. Now the air stood stagnant. Hours remained of the afternoon. Olga looked at the gardener, who was glowing with sweat.
“Come in for some lemonade,” she said. It was his favorite. They went inside and stood in the kitchen, drinking. When he was done, she wordlessly unbuttoned his shirt and passed her fingertips over his chest, noting the difference between his baby-pink skin and her brown, calloused fingers. This would be the last time, she thought.
She took him into her bedroom. Outside, the ovate blackish leaves of the kiwi vine and the furry dark fruits swayed in the wind that had come up again. For once, she held back with a kind of regal courtesy, drew their lovemaking out into a long, arcing flight, balanced on a wingtip, endless. The white owl flew with them.
They settled back into the bed, entangled. She looked at his finely veined eyelids with the golden fringe, the slight smile on his face. Her courtesy had left her thirstier than ever. But he’d remember. And miss it.
Indeed, she had to shoo him off. She stood on the porch and watched him hoist himself slowly into his pickup with a last lingering look. The instant he was out of sight, she called to the owl. “I need her now,” she said. The bird flew down and out of sight beyond the bend of the creek. As she stood waiting, horizontal purple gleams from the sun pierced through the clouds. The air eddied sulkily past her upper arms, now covered with goose bumps.
Ten minutes later, Susan emerged from an opening in the hedge. She had slipped out of the house and followed one of the paths that earlier generations of children had worn, connecting all the secret places of the neighborhood. Somehow, her generation had managed not only to find them, but to learn them intimately and add to them.
“It’s time to close the circle now, love,” said Olga, taking Susan by the hand. “I did it with my grandmother forty years ago. I wasn’t afraid then.”
“I’m not afraid now,” the child answered, surprised.
They went down the cellar steps again, out into the luminous green glade. The owl sat high in the redwood, watching. Olga braced her bare feet in the moist grass. Even with the girl standing beside her, still clasping her hand, and the white bird above, the glade felt bleak and lonely. She stood silently for so long that the child began to squirm.
Olga chanted shakily at first, then more steadily. She gripped the child hard and thought of all the boys that she had drunk down without any quenching of her thirst because the thirst was elsewhere; of her own daughter’s aloofness, of their silent struggle. Could the flood perform this other miracle of joining? Her throat, her whole chest and belly burned with thirst.
The child chanted with her grandmother. As if it were filling a bowl, the water rose evenly, silently, its surface shining silver. The coelacanth swam by, beckoning with its ruby eye, its scales flashing like coins. Looking out over the brimming glade, Olga felt as parched as a desert rock.
“Gram Olga. Your hands are too tight.”
“Oh, my love, I’m sorry.” She loosened her grip. Behind them, the owl made a liquid sound in its throat. It was not concern for the child’s safety, but her own private anger that had caused her to grip Susan too hard. The glade had filled, but not she. Bitterly, she led Susan out of the glade.
Above, the rain had just begun. A drop plastered a feather against the child’s cheek, white gleaming on brown. Her face shone with joy.
“Go now,” whispered Olga, and Susan ran home by the same path while her grandmother watched the drops fill in the dry spots on the flagstones. Out on the street she saw the Hattons bicycling homeward. The children squealed as the raindrops chilled their scalps.
Olga stood in front of her porch. The rain steadily increased. Muttering under her breath, she climbed the ladder to the roof and stripped off her now thoroughly soaked clothes. “What’s your next trick, grandmother?” Her voice was hard.
But the owl, who had squirmed its way ridiculously into a chicken coop, was asleep with its head under its wing.
So Olga lay down, too, beside the bedraggled chickens, and dreamed. All night she dreamed of cataracts and oceans. Her body was on fire and the rain sizzled as it struck her skin. Then toward morning, she and the lakes and seas and rushing torrents became one. She awoke, streaming wet, her limbs shining. The paperboy, bicycling past with his load of Sunday papers, was startled to see a naked woman climbing down the ladder from the roof of the house. Her hair was as white as the wings of a large owl that flew near her.
Climbing down the ladder, Olga stood in front of her porch and considered the still-falling rain. She no longer felt the burning thirst that had been tormenting her for months. Instead, she had a huge appetite. She went inside and ate a hearty breakfast, after which she curled up on the living room rug and slept again.
In their houses, people ate pancakes, dried the Sunday funnies on open oven doors, neglected to get dressed. It was Sunday, after all, a good day to give in to the weather and hibernate. Afternoon would be soon enough to go out and do errands, take the children to the playground.
But it rained through the afternoon, too. By evening, they were sitting in front of their television sets, waiting for the weather forecast. The rain fell as hard as ever. The announcer drew curves on the weather map and spoke of a confluence of cold air from Alaska and warm air from Hawaii. “Predictions are for a letup of the rain by the early hours of the morning.” Olga, awake again, smiled when she heard. Still naked, she went outside, climbed the ladder with a sack of feed, and sprinkled some meal inside each coop. The soggy, miserable chickens huddled together a dozen to a coop for warmth, but the food set them squawking and gobbling.
Down at the edge of the creek, an excited group in boots and slickers gathered, waving flashlights and drinking brandied coffee. They stamped their galoshes, pointed importantly at the height marker which showed that the creek was up to ten feet. Olga smiled to herself. Flood stage was twenty-five feet. At this point, excitement was cheap. One man, sensing something, looked up and saw the naked woman on the roof and whispered to the others. Then, as if their own whispering embarrassed them, they started loudly swapping flood stories.
“The person I bought my house from said that before they remodeled in ’64 they had water three feet deep in the basement.”
“I read an article about how before they put in the flood control dam, the creek flooded one year out of three.”
Little by little, people drifted back into their houses. When they went to sleep, it was to dream fitfully of soggy carpets and muddy sofas.
The next morning, Monday, people drove to work as usual, but not without stopping their cars to look at the saturated banks where the bridge crossed. The water whirled brown and white where it slammed against the vertical supports.
All day the neighborhood lay quiet. The rain did not pelt or thrash, but streamed matter-of-factly from a leaden sky. No one brought children to Olga today. She had only to sit under the eaves looking out past the kiwi vines at the rain. Overhead, the chickens muttered in their throats. When they returned from work, people gathered again alongside the bridge. The street was submerged half a foot deep. A man ran out and said that water was pouring into his basement. Downstream from the bridge, waves sloshed over the banks.
They stood silently together, avoiding one another’s eyes. A woman said, “Can’t they do something?”
“No, they can’t do something, not anymore,” said a middle-aged woman with glittering black eyes, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “But somebody knew something Saturday night. Somebody was already putting her filthy chicken coops up on the roof. And somebody was climbing down yesterday naked as the day she was born, exposing herself to the whole neighborhood. My boy came home talking a mile a minute about it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Blair Hatton spoke up. “Be reasonable. How could she know in advance? And as for that naked business, maybe Gerard is making it up. I’m sorry, Molly, but he is that age.”
“My Gerard’s an honest boy,” said the paperboy’s mother. “And besides, how long have you been in the neighborhood? A year? Two years? Well, I’ll tell you something, she’s never done that before. Not in any other rainy season. She’s kept them on the ground in her yard. I tell you — she more than knew. She made it happen.” Her black eyes gleamed with conviction.
At that moment, they saw Annabelle sloshing across the street to join them, and Janet Margolis hastily added in a low voice, “This is ridiculous. I think everybody’s jumpy. Come on, we’ve got work to do, all of us. Who has a truck for hauling sandbags? It said on the radio that the city has laid in a supply of them.”
The group broke up and someone passing Annabelle said brightly, “We’re going out for sandbags. You and your husband might join us, since you have a van.”
“So does my mother,” Annabelle said. But the person who had spoken to her hurried on without answering.
The rain continued steadily all night. Shortly before dawn it stopped, but the creek, fed by the runoff from the hills, continued to rise. With a terrifying suddenness, every house bordering its banks flooded in the dark hour before sunrise. Records slid out of their jackets, books tumbled off the shelves and turned to pulp. VCRs shorted out and were ruined by silt. The mattresses swelled with mud, and the sheets and blankets floated into the middle of dark bedrooms. Children cried when they couldn’t find their stuffed animals, and then they cried from the wet and the cold. As for the adults, only their numbed disbelief at having the substance of their lives dissolve into its elements — that and the need to care for their children — kept them from hysteria.
The day dawned clear. The sun illuminated the vibrant reds of the liquidambar leaves and the pyracantha berries, the trees and shrubs seeming to float on velvety brown water. People emerging into the monstrous beauty of the day headed toward higher ground, carrying their children on their shoulders, holding dogs and cats and bird cages. Three houses, slightly higher than the rest, were spared by the flood. Those families took in the others. On the radio they heard that the Red Cross was offering shelter in school gymnasiums, and the neighborhood people felt a surge of unfamiliar pride. They didn’t need help; they were helping each other.
The children ran around crazily until the carpets looked as muddy as those in the flooded houses. When all the milk and cocoa were gone, and all the fuel from the Coleman stoves, the parents began to organize. By afternoon, most of the water had retreated between the banks of the creek, and the children had run out of energy and lay heavy and relaxed on any available lap. People ventured out and found that they could slosh back and forth between the houses to forage for supplies, using the routes the children had carved. They pushed the doors of their houses open against the thickened, slimy carpets, and then they wept, out of sight of the children, at the waist-high mud marks on the walls, the bloated, uniformly brown furniture, the nameless objects strewn about on the floor, each with a slowly drying wake marking the flood’s retreat. The late afternoon sun shone brilliantly through the windows. Men and women stumbled out of their ruined houses, saw each other’s tears, and embraced. The paperboy Gerard, embarrassed at all this adult emotion, shrilled out, “Look! You can see the high-water mark on this redwood tree!” The adults gathered around and looked, and then someone took a salvaged length of TV wire and tied it around the tree at the mark. “So we’ll remember a year from now.”
“We’ll have a block party next year.”
“Hell, we’ll have one every year.”
Someone spotted the coelacanth, playing and leaping in the creek. Its ruby eye flashed, and its open mouth made it look as if it were laughing. They were glad of the diversion.
“Must have come in from the bay with the high water.”
In the houses they found tools, lumber, wire; food intact on high shelves. They found firewood from the top of a stack that someone had covered with a tarp. With the wood, they built a fire; a salvaged bag of rice became the basis for an enormous, ongoing stew. Cans, their labels gone, were opened and tossed in. For three days they lived together like that, until the utility companies could reconnect the gas and electricity, until people could muck out their houses, wash and dry some bedding, rig up ways to eat and sit and sleep.
Once Annabelle picked her way through the mud to see if her mother was all right. Her eyes flickered when she saw Olga’s white hair, but she did not comment. Olga shooed her daughter off, and Annabelle posed no objections. The young woman’s position was too shaky, her new connections too precious to jeopardize. So Olga spent those days alone. She shoveled out her house, slept on the roof with the chickens, looked out over the neighborhood. Bobby, his knees now healed, had taken up a station by the marked redwood and sang his awful songs until someone finally invited him in for stew to shut him up. Knots of people worked together, hammering, scrubbing, hauling. When Olga momentarily heard her daughter’s and granddaughter’s voices mixed in with the others’, her heart lifted as with the sound of a lover.
And whenever she was working outside, she could feel tingling and itching on whatever cheek and shoulder faced her daughter’s house. She knew that Annabelle felt it too, struggle though she might against it. Annabelle was compelled to define herself by defying her mother, just as Olga had done, endlessly repeating. Only with the third generation could one gaze into the other’s eyes and find there the comfort and ease both of recognition and discovery. She thought with a smile of her granddaughter’s earthy brown solidity, of her ability to accept things as they were — so like and so unlike herself. But as for mother and daughter, they were like two sides of a coin. Inseparable. Condemned to face in opposite directions.
She looked out over the neighborhood and saw that what had been torn and broken had come together. She had knitted them, like a garment, like bones: warmth and strength. Woman’s work, after all. For now it would have to be enough.