Terrain.org 11th Annual Contest in Fiction Finalist
Ten-thousand people on this square mile of Earth, patrolled by stars and armed guards.
“This is 1942. Or is it 1492?” – Luis Valdez, Zoot Suit
“It won’t do,” she said, “that water they bring on trucks. Not for the melons.”
She pointed her jaw toward the mounds in the dirt patch—blind, deaf, mute, and dry. Then lifted her mask to spit in the gray dust. Ten-thousand people on this square mile of Earth, patrolled by stars and armed guards. No, this place was not home. Still, she shot her eyes toward the five-gallon bucket, and Norito knew it would be his, now, to go out and carry from the antelope springs. That was the evening, in the cool and cricket song, when they pried up the fence. Under the barbed wire scraped Norito and his bucket through the deep grass. Little jackrabbit, away he bounded, between patches of moonlight, through the creosote, and from cover to shadow of greasewood he went.
She was not surprised to see he knew the way, but it did please her. This child, sneaking off, always. And with his stories, each of them bullshit, fantastic prayers for her to ask no further about where he’d gone and what he had seen, played at, or collected there on alkali flats, or in the Drum Mountains: knucklebones, marbles, spent brass, slag glass, trilobite fossils, all kinds of shells, and once: an obsidian point. Things she’d found in his pockets at the laundry barracks. And so she was sure he would find the way there, and that he’d come back.
First, he smelled the spring. Soon after, he could hear it, saw the shine of it, and then he approached to taste it, once, and again, splashing hands and face. Norito laid down to sleep in the grass beside for a while. An hour, maybe less.
Then waking, he felt under his shoulder, something, a hard shape like glass. But not so: topaz, large as his thumbnail, a thing to be cleaned and kept. He went to place it in his jeans pocket. No, things got lost that way. But there in his mouth, under his tongue, it would stay.
Now for the bucket, its fading label Oleomanteca, gold letters against blue. Norito plunged it down and the toad song came full stop—a deep silence, a hole punched through that night—then drew it up full. In the quiet there was a drumming, or thunder far off. He stopped there, listened, felt the stone hard in his mouth, set down the bucket, a bit too full to carry. He knelt. Let the topaz drop from his mouth into the bucket, and lowered his face to drink off the top before going back. Still kneeling, he looked, saw his stone there at the bottom, five gallons deep. Norito peered in, blinking, his eyelashes brushing the surface. Now holding his hands open at his ears, he blocked out the moonlight with his palms.
Then something happened.
A wide, dark oval, there near the bottom, a glowing ring, then a gold crown, was opening toward and then into the boy’s face. That’s when he fell through.
Norito found himself, now standing, but the moon was no more. Earth, instead, sat over the horizon, a fat gibbous hanging: one melon, no vine. Had he seen—or come to—this place through the vug behind his eyes, the jewel in his head?
There was another child now, walking toward him, carrying two canisters, yoked and hanging on the ends of a pole: ALUMINIO embossed on the side of each one. She stopped and watched his eyes.
“Just water,” she said, hefting the containers, “for them,” her eyebrows motioned out, past Norito.
The boy looked and saw nobody else. “They’re hidden. You won’t see them now. I’m Noria,” she said.
Neither spoke for a while, each holding their water. At first all he thought was to ask her the Question. But how to put it? How is it you came to such a place? Was it as we did? Fleeing some tremendous Crime? Or rather having authored the Enormity, slow as It may have seemed then?
But he didn’t ask. No need to; of course he saw, answers held in her hands as well as his own. Their shadows ran parallel in the faint earthshine.
A hard wind came up lifting white dust to the air. Both put on their masks, closed their eyes. Then Norito’s vision had gone, and so had Noria. Time to go home now.
Anyway, that’s it. You asked why melons grow here? That boy brought water.
English Brooks’s creative and scholarly work has appeared in Dark Mountain, Green Letters, ISLE, MELUS, Pacific Coast Philology, Saltfront, Sunstone, and Western American Literature. In the summer, he directs Birch Creek Service Ranch, where teens come to the high desert to live in yurts, work local farms, hike slot canyons, play music, chase jackrabbits, eat grasshoppers, and howl at the moon! For the rest of the year, he teaches at Snow College in central Utah.
Header image: New Moon from the Chiura Obata collection of the Topaz Museum, Delta, Utah.