Don't drink the water...


by Larry Calvert


The climate was good for his wife's arthritis, so they had come south and settled in a place with orange-red buttes of sandstone and silver-gray high voltage wires, not too far off the main highway, and their electric bill was ungodly but her constant moaning was reduced by about half. Mr. Frauden had balked at the move but the latter point soon won his heart and, though he had no feelings for the desert, he loved the improvement it had thereby brought to his blood pressure.

She liked to explore the tourist traps hereabouts, collecting plastic pseudo-Native American junk, wooden scorpions, rubber saguaro and the like, until the new tract house was as cluttered with crap as their Detroit apartment had been. When she "traveled," as she referred to it, he had merely to drive long and straight, perhaps an hour or two, through the barren pumpkin dryness of this slab of America, and she would be lost in shops for hours spending his pension from Ford, and then he could commune with a nice frosty stein of beer or two or more.

Came the day that she wanted to visit Gorge and he was only too happy to get her there. They passed through a place called Caustic Valley, and Frauden thought this sounded much more interesting but there was nothing there for her. With regrets he sped through the town, past The Dusty Amigo saloon, over a dry wash, and set the air-conditioning of the Mercedes to max-cool.

About five kilometers later the radiator exploded.

* * *

She turned on the nag: You should have got one of those cellular phones like I told you! You shouldn't have turned up the A/C so high! You shouldn't have been driving so fast! We should have come a different way! It's hot and we don't have any water. There won't be a trooper along for God knows how long. Why didn't you bring along some water? Herman! Herman! You get back in this car!

But he explained through clenched teeth that he would go back to the town and get help you feeble old bat! He was thinking it was not too far and it did look like a nice saloon. He could make it. For some reason his mind aimed to a time long ago, back to that dark early morning in a Normandy bunker, ship silhouettes on the horizon, the wet- cold of the coast.... He shivered inwardly even in the blistering noon. You are about to embark on a great crusade, he told himself wryly, and smiled. He marched down the highway into the desert.

As her racket fell behind his ears he noted as he wiped away the sweat that he wasn't in the same shape he had been half a century ago. But what the hell, there was nothing else to do. He wished he'd brought a hat as that white dome of his was bound to wind up severely sunburned.

The road bent around and he noticed that if he just cut across this little spit of arid ground he could save several kilometers. The land sunk a meter or so and he lost sight of the road but he knew right where it was. As he trundled across a dry creekbed he noticed its banks became steeper and then very tall a ways on down, almost polished, high and sheer. They would provide him with ample shade probably for the rest of his walk. There were clouds in the distance. He crushed a centipede with his foot as he wandered on down the channel.

A few hundred meters down, the creekbed took a bend and put the sun right in his face between the cliffs and the cloud-speckled horizon. But as far as he could tell through the ripples coming off the land it was a straight shot into town from here. The sun was almost blinding so he walked with eyes partially closed. He was thirsty.... Town can't be that far off. He slipped on an unnoticed rock and fell to the ground in a puff of dust, narrowly missing a plant with sun angled appendages like praying machetes. God-damned Allies couldn't kill me, I'll be damned if I'll die here! He righted himself and sat on a boulder. It was, though, a rather beautiful place he admitted as he panted and began to swelter.

His chest tightened then eased. The rocks were different here than where he lived. They lived, he inwardly corrected himself. The rocks on either flank seemed glassy maybe, others were hard and gouged and did not possess that almost felt-like quality of the stone back at the house. On the bed itself, dry mud-encrusted debris stuck up against many of the boulders though he didn't know what this meant. He tried to catch his breath.

He caught it. ssssssss....

He'd never really cared too much for reptiles, devious as Jews they were, and now a gray rope of scales was moving by his loafers. He picked it up, grabbing just behind the head, and the body twisted around his arm, the tail rattling at his elbow. Be damned! A rattlesnake! He broke the head and threw it against a barbed plant. Sure is hot. Need a drink. And some water too. Thunderheads loomed desperately where the earth met the sky and he flicked a scorpion off his leg with a smile. Little swine.... Ha! He was starting to enjoy this!

* * *

A kilometer further his growing affection for the desert was making him giddy and he wandered drunkenly over the wide creekbed, sweat staining him everywhere. Look at those cactus! He'd never known or noticed them before. They had flowers! Beautiful! A squadron of hairy pigs, like boars, came pushing down a crag in an oxidized bluff and he called to them. They didn't seem like the nicest of animals but he'd have loved to have seen them close up. Strong creatures, superior. He went up the path that they had come down, a two-foot sidewinder that climbed up a steep thirty meters. At the top he felt exhausted but he surveyed the landscape and could quite definitely see the town not half a kilometer away. His short-cut had saved him hours. He swiped the sweat from his forehead and thanked God for eyebrows. This was just like being a kid soldier again. But, damn, he sure as hell was thirsty.

He wandered over to the windward side of the bluff and his scant hair blew back a trace. He started to descend, using gullies in the rolling and rocky terrain. The path jigged and jagged and he saw a mist coming over the ridge to his right and the town of Caustic Valley was just across a spit of sandy desert that sloped down under the music coming from The Dusty Amigo. His adventure was over and he felt a little sad. But did he indeed need a drink and some water, yes?! He was drenched with sweat and the salt stung his eyes. He was pretty badly sunburned he guessed, but what did it matter? He had had a perfectly wonderful time this last hour or so and the sight of the town brought him almost back to his senses and he laughed as he had not laughed since Poland nearly three-score years ago.

The desert seemed now to be a part of him and he sensed its purity and power and, alas, its frailty. He knew its beauty and strength could not endure against the infuriating tide of ignorant mongrel hordes, Americans with their technology and sheer numbers swelling up to engulf it. He had great empathy for the doomed and parched landscape and vowed to explore the land, these beautiful places, in times to come as his wife explored her damn shops.

* * *

He heard a, what was it? a trickling sound? to his right and he stopped with crystal-cold thoughts swirling down from Bavarian memories. Yes, there was something of a gurgling and he opted to diverge right a moment to end this perfect pure day and drink from an unsullied desert spring. But as he came around the edge of a smooth and sanguine erosional remnant his jaw fell wide.

A deep blue pool some ten meters across.

Ah, yes!

A smile came to his face and he stripped off his clothes. He balled up all the strength he had left and ran toward the cool water as fast as he could, yelling a word he had come to like. Whoop! He thought then he noticed that the edge of the pool seemed to be ringed with yellow salt crystals or something, and he noticed a strange smell, like rotten eggs. From the top of his leaping arc he could see little wisps discharging from bubbles bursting on the surface of the water. What a strange, wonderful place!

The Whoop! turned into a scream just beneath the surface. *


Story copyright © 1995-1996 by Larry Calvert <>

Art copyright ©1998 by Romeo Esparrago <>


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