AI-generated artwork of California dry lake

The Memory of Water

By Elizabeth Erbeznik

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I-5 runs up the length of California like a curved backbone. We drive north, past nut trees and cows, and stop at a gas station for coffee. Beyond the cracked asphalt of the parking lot, crops wither in dusty fields. I point at the weeds and tell Patrick that we’re standing on the shore of an extinct lake. We are close, but not touching, as we wait for our coffee to cool.

The landscape is arid, with a history of fish: salmon, perch, sturgeon, and trout. There were mussels and clams. Terrapins too. Restaurants served turtle soup in San Francisco. But Patrick isn’t from California. He thinks that winter brings rain and that I’m crazy for watering trees.

“There’s nothing to see here but dirt,” he says, his eyes drifting down to his phone.

I could tell him about the elk. The herds of swift antelope. The migrating geese that darkened the sky. How there were tall reeds called tules and people who used them to build their canoes. Before dams were built. Before the water was diverted to grow crops. 

“This used to be the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi,” I say. “And then it disappeared.”

Diesel fumes fill the air as a semi pulls into the truck stop across the street. “Pray for rain,” reads a handwritten sign planted in the dead grass by the curb. On the other side of the freeway, tractors rumble and kick up plumes of dry dirt. Fields are being plowed to grow more almonds while California waits for water.

Patrick takes a sip of coffee and shudders.

At the start of the Gold Rush, the lake was a shallow expanse of snowmelt, reeds, and birds. A depression of mud, filled by rivers. The lost lake is big on old maps. But how big depended on winter, on rain and distant snow.

“Emptiness for miles,” Patrick says, turning to walk back to the car.

I could tell him that water remembers. That floods shape this landscape as much as drought, and rain knows where it needs to go. A little rain can fill dry riverbeds and a lot can revive a lost lake. But he’s not from California, so he has never seen trucks that float, steel canoes, over water as brown as dirt. He’s never seen ibises roost on submerged telephone poles, or people fish from boats rowed across farmland.

“Sometimes crops don’t get all the water,” I say. “And after a wet winter, even the desert will bloom.”

I drink my coffee quickly while a seagull flies over our heads and lands on a trashcan by the gas pumps. It pulls a half-eaten hamburger out of the trash, which disappears in a few quick snaps of its beak. With a gravelly squawk, it regains the air.

Patrick picks up my hand and squeezes, then he starts the car. There are clouds in the distance, too far to tell if they’re water or dust.




Elizabeth ErbeznikElizabeth Erbeznik is an educator with a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. Her fiction has appeared in Los Angeles Review, Split Lip Magazine, EcoTheo Review, Two Hawks Quarterly, Fiction Southeast, Artwife, and Best Small Fictions 2020. Originally from Northern California, she lives with her husband and daughter in Austin, Texas. 

Header image generated by AI using Adobe Photoshop. Photo of Elizabeth Erbeznik by Robert Reichle. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.