Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

The War Between the Water and the Road

Oliver’s father told him that the park across the street used to be a lake. The entire park, including the baseball field, the sledding hills, and the playgrounds, used to be underwater—everything except for the two sets of swings at the top of the hill. He said that highway construction had cut into secret, underground places and wounded the lake. It drained down to a small pond with hills on all sides.

“Why did they do that?” Oliver asked his father, who was cooking.

“Why did who do what?” his father asked, because he had already forgotten the topic of the conversation. He got very focused on his cooking. He kept the TV on in the kitchen, but he never watched, never really listened to what it said. He also never worked in a restaurant, at least not for very long. He didn’t like to be rushed.

Oliver tried again. “Why did they drain the lake?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Oliver’s father said. He closed the oven door and stood up. “I don’t think they meant to. But people who make highways don’t care very much about lakes.”

“They should,” Oliver said.

The park across the street was one of Oliver’s favorite places. He thought about what it must have looked like, all filled up with lake. He thought about the fish that must have died surprised when it drained away. Oliver liked fish. He had goldfish named Donkey and Hodey. They were serial goldfish. The fish changed, but the names remained. Right now Donkey was silver and Hodey was orange.

Oliver decided to find those responsible for draining the lake and visit justice upon them.

He tried to think of suitably watery punishments. His cousins were known for filling pillowcases with ice cubes, or putting the hands of their enemies in small buckets of warm water while they slept, which would make them wet the bed. Their enemies were mostly younger cousins, all of them except for Oliver. Nobody played pranks on Oliver.

“Who built the highway?” he asked his father. He tried to ask it like it didn’t really matter, but at that moment it was the only thing that did.

“Don’t know,” his father said. “It was something like eighty years ago. More, maybe. Anyone who worked on that thing would be a hundred by now.”

Oliver only knew one person who looked like they might be a hundred. Old Louisa spent most of her time sitting on a bench in the park, right next to the pond. Maybe she remembered the days of highway construction.

He got down from his kitchen chair and went to his room. He took a pirate coloring book from inside his pillowcase. The pillowcase had fish on it. So did the sheets. He flipped to the very back of the book, which was an old birthday present. None of the pirate pictures were colored in. None of the pages were marked at all, except for the last. He kept his list on the last page.

Oliver wrote “the lake” at the bottom of the list with a crayon. Then he returned the book to his pillowcase and went to find his coat and boots.

“Going to the park!” he shouted from the front door.

“Don’t harass the ghost,” his father called from the kitchen, like he always did.

The afternoon was cold and clear. There wasn’t any snow. Halloween had only just happened, and already it felt too cold for snow. Most kids in Oliver’s neighborhood had dressed up as pirates for Halloween. Oliver had worn a miniature navy uniform. He didn’t like pirates. They were thieves and oathbreakers.

The park had two swing sets at street level, before the slope plummeted down to the pond. One was smaller and set up for younger kids. The younger swings looked like armored underwear, impossible to fall out of. A more advanced swing set jutted up against the smaller one like a pirate ship bearing down on a weaker vessel. Three older girls were on the swings. Two older boys boarded the younger playground. They loomed over its only occupant, who held on to a ball as big as he was. The older boys looked like pirates. Oliver didn’t know their names, but he recognized them. They had not dressed up for Halloween, but they had still gone door-to-door expecting candy.

One of the pirates kicked the kid’s ball, hard. It sailed over the edge of the slope and hung there for a moment, held up by the wind—it was a windy day—or else by the air remembering where the surface of the lake used to be. Then the ball dropped down and out of sight.

“Stop it,” Oliver said.

The pirates looked at him. Either one was twice Oliver’s height, so the two of them together had the collective mass of four Olivers. They might have even been teenagers, technically. But he had said stop it in a way that wasn’t a threat, a whine, or any other kind of complaint. He said it with the conviction that they actually would stop, and Oliver’s was a contagious belief. The older boys caught it. They glared down at the intense eight-year-old who had given them the order, and then they moved aside.

“Come on,” Oliver said to the smaller kid, taking his mittened hand. The two of them walked to the hill and down the switchbacking trail. This was Oliver’s favorite sledding hill, whenever it actually snowed. The retreating lake had created excellent sledding hills on all sides. But Oliver refused to let accidentally positive consequences influence his conviction that the wounded lake required justice.

The ball had rolled out over the surface of the pond. The little boy started crying when he saw how far out of reach it was, but he cried quietly. Oliver approved.

Thin ice covered the pond. Ducks swam in one unfrozen corner. Crows stepped lightly on the ice and looked around. One walked up to the ball, pecked at it, and walked away.

Oliver couldn’t find a stick long enough to reach the ball, so the two of them went around to the other side and threw rocks to knock it back onto shore. The rocks made holes in the ice. The little boy got tired of missing all the time, so he started to throw rocks at the ghost instead.

The ghost stood where it always stood, knee-deep in pond water. Its overcoat moved around it, even when there wasn’t any wind. One thrown pebble passed through the ghost’s head and scattered the shape of it like candle smoke. The ghost’s head came back together, sputtering and confused.

“I’ve seen it cold!” the ghost shouted, but not loudly. Even its shouts were quiet. “So cold that fires went walking to find some place warm!”

“Don’t harass the ghost,” Oliver said, and the little boy stopped.

Oliver picked up a stone that felt good in his hand. He took aim and threw. The stone knocked the ball across the ice. It rolled within reach of the far shore.

“There,” Oliver said. “Go get your ball.”

The little boy ran around the pond for the ball, and then took the long, switchbacked sidewalk to street level. Oliver lost interest in the kid as soon as he had his ball back. A wrong had been redressed. Oliver’s work was done.

He looked around. He had been to the park hundreds and hundreds of times, but without knowing that it had been underwater once. He looked up and pictured leaves floating high above him, where the surface used to be. He looked at the ghost and realized why its overcoat moved.

“That’s where he sank down to,” said old Louisa. She sat behind Oliver on her usual park bench. She looked like a permanent part of the bench. “He drowned when the lake was large. When this was the bottom of it. He sank this far. Once the water drained down to small we could finally come and visit him.”

“Did you help build the highway?” Oliver asked. This was what he’d come here to know.

“Women didn’t work road crews in my day,” Louisa said. “But I knew some of the boys who built things, back then. One of them might have been a highway.”

“You don’t remember?” said Oliver.

“Not especially,” said Louisa, but she said it with a smile.

“How can you not remember?” Oliver asked, not smiling. He had a very good memory, and he took things seriously.

“I remember more than he does.” Louisa nodded at the ghost. “And maybe I remember the highway. The boys always shouted, ‘Hurry up! It’s going to explode!’ when they put down concrete. It wouldn’t really, but they all rushed around and smoothed it out like it might, because if it wasn’t ready by the time it all set then the concrete might as well have just blown up. All of it went on right outside my door.”

“Didn’t they know what it’d do to the lake, when they built it?”

“Do to the lake?” Louisa leaned forward. She poured a little more of her voice into the words do and lake. “Do to the lake? More like what the lake did to them, boy. They cut into some kind of river, down underground. I saw it happen. I was tending to things outside when the water lashed out at them, down in that trench, and it carried some of them away.”

The ghost spoke up. “I’ve seen it so cold the sun came out at night, just to keep the moon warm.” The ghost faced away from them, toward the middle of the pond. It always did. Oliver had never seen its face. “Moon couldn’t make it across the sky otherwise. It was that cold. That cold.”

Most people in the neighborhood said the ghost had fallen in by drunken accident, so Oliver had not written “the ghost” in the back of his coloring book. He didn’t write down accidents.

“Do you know what his name was?” Oliver asked.

“Of course I do,” Louisa said, “but he doesn’t remember it, and if he can’t remember then I won’t say. But he was one of those who worked on the highway crew, before this happened to him. I’ll tell you that much. Now get going.”

Oliver frowned. He had justice on his mind, but he didn’t know where it should fall. The highway hurt the lake, and the lake hurt the highway. He wasn’t sure whose fault this was.

He would have to investigate further.

“Bye,” he said. Louisa waved goodbye. The ghost went on saying the sorts of things it usually said.

Oliver walked home. He walked steady and slow, pushing the air in front of him like it was lake water.

• • • •

Dinner wasn’t ready yet. Oliver’s father kept tasting and adding things. “Just a pinch,” he said to himself. He didn’t notice that Oliver was back. “Just a simmer. Almost there.”

The news was on, but both Oliver and his father continued to ignore it. Oliver went over to the kitchen table and boxed with Bats the cat. He tried to touch the cat’s torso without getting swatted. It took a lot of duck-and-weave to accomplish this. Bats seemed to like the game, and she never drew blood when she parried, but that wasn’t self-control on her part; she had no claws.

Oliver’s father said that a declawed cat was like a human with no fingers, or at least someone who went through life without ever taking their mittens off. Oliver had worn his own mittens for three days after his father said that, to express solidarity. Then he wrote “Bats” in the back of his coloring book and set out to find those who had declawed her so that he might visit justice upon them.

He hung flyers with pictures of Bats all over the neighborhood. Was this your cat? She had walked into Oliver’s apartment one day, already a well-fed adult, and never left. Someone must have fed her before. Someone must have taken her claws.

Oliver found the former owner eventually. He was white, and tall, and he looked a little sleepy when he opened the door on a Saturday afternoon.

“Hello?” the man said.

“This used to be your cat,” said Oliver, and held up a picture.

“Yeah,” said the man. “Looks like.”

“Did you declaw her?” Oliver asked.

“Had to,” said the man. “She ruined the couch.”

Oliver fixed the man with a look, one that could take an apple off someone’s head from a hundred paces. “You have to wear these for the rest of your life,” he said. Then he handed over a pair of mittens and walked away. It didn’t even occur to him that the man would question the rightness of this order and refuse to obey.

Bats wasn’t allowed on the table, but this rule was never actually enforced. Oliver tried to touch the orange spot on her side. She swatted him away on the first two jabs, but then he faked left and tapped her with his right.

“Perfect!” Oliver’s father announced, loud enough to scare the cat down off the table. Oliver and his father finally sat down to eat. The food was good.

“Dad,” he said, “tell me more about the lake.”

“Okay,” his father said. “The water in your fishbowl overlaps with the water in the lake. It’s all the same. It’s how your goldfish swim away when it’s time to change color.”

“You’re making that up,” Oliver said.

“I am not.”

“How can Donkey and Hodey swim out of a fishbowl? It’s a bowl. It’s glass all around, and air all around the glass. It doesn’t connect to anything.”

“It does,” his father said. “It’s just that some of the water in the bowl is the same water as some of the stuff in the pond. And the ocean. And everywhere else.”

“Is that why one corner of the pond takes so much longer to freeze over? Because it’s really part of a lake that’s also somewhere else, somewhere warmer than here?”

“That’s right.”

“What about fresh water and salt water?” Oliver asked. “Some fish live in salt water. Wouldn’t it mix if it’s all the same water?”

“Hydrodynamics are tricky, I know.”

Oliver did not want to talk about hydrodynamics. He wanted to talk about the lake that was not a lake anymore. He wanted to be sure which side to blame. “Tell me about—”

Oliver stopped, because his father had stopped paying attention. He heard the news over the sound of his own chewing. He looked at the TV on the kitchen counter. He watched a news clip of a highway bridge collapsing. It happened very fast, so they kept showing the same clip.

Oliver hated that bridge, so he wasn’t actually sad to see it go.

He did not write accidents in the back of his coloring book. He did not write down the names of those who were simply unlucky, only those deliberately wronged. He had “Toyota” written down because somebody broke the windows of his aunt Bess’s car in the middle of the night, and that was the name of the car. He had “Bats” in his book, because of her claws. He had “the lake,” even though he was no longer sure that the lake was the wronged party. But he had not written his cousin Marcus in the back of his coloring book, because a patch of ice on a very tall bridge was an accident. It was just unlucky. Everybody said so. But everyone in Oliver’s whole wide family still avoided crossing that bridge, so Oliver wasn’t sorry to see it collapse.

People on the TV talked about ice getting into seams and cracks, expanding. “Ice,” Oliver said. “Again.” He watched the bridge hit the river below in the same repeated clip.

Maybe the river took down the bridge as vengeance for what the highway did to the lake.

“Is all water really the same? On the same side?”

His father looked at him sideways. “Why talk about sides?” he asked, suspicious.

“Because the water hates the road,” Oliver said. “And the road hates the water.”

His father got up and stacked dishes. “If there’s an old feud going between them, it’s no business of ours.”

“What’s a feud?” Oliver asked.

“A feud is a war on a slow simmer. It’s two sides looking for the wrong kind of justice.” His father’s tone meant that he did not want to discuss this topic any further, not at all. That tone never actually worked, not with Oliver. He saw the bridge hit the river, again, right before his father turned the TV off.

“That’s not a slow simmer,” Oliver said. “It took down the whole bridge. And it is our business because Marcus slipped off that bridge. Was it the road’s fault, or the water’s fault? We have to know.”

Oliver’s father turned away from the sink and gave him a long look. Oliver expected him to say some infuriating, dismissive thing, like he always did whenever Oliver took his leg-pulling too seriously—which was often.

“There is no right or wrong in a feud,” he said instead. “That’s why we’re not in it. That’s why we don’t choose sides. Don’t you go choosing sides.”

This was intolerable. Oliver needed to know who to blame. He said so, several times, but his father washed dishes and refused to answer.

Oliver stormed into his room, took his coloring book out from inside his pillowcase, and stood poised with a crayon hovering over the back page.

He didn’t know what to do. It didn’t feel right to put the highway or the bridge on the same page as the lake. It didn’t feel right to cross out the lake. He wasn’t sure whether or not to add Marcus, whether or not he could blame that death on water itself.

He put the book away without writing anything.

Oliver did not sleep well that night. He could feel the edges of his coloring book through the pillowcase.

• • • •

The next day Oliver still had justice on his mind. He went down to the park, down the switchbacking sidewalk path, which was made out of concrete and was therefore a kind of road. He circled the pond at the bottom and stared at it. Was it wronged, or had it done wrong?

He picked up trash as he went by. Littering was wrong, but he could fix it by gathering it up and throwing it away. He could almost fix it. Picking up trash helped keep the park clean, but it did not bring justice to litterers, so it wasn’t satisfying.

“I’ve seen the wind blow so hard it blew a cookpot inside out,” the ghost said when Oliver came near. Louisa waved hello from her favorite bench.

Oliver marched up and demanded to know about the war between the water and the road. She gave him a long look. One did not demand anything of old Louisa.

“Did your father tell you this?” she asked.

“Yeah,” said Oliver. “Sort of.”

“Your father is a legendary bullshitter. Pay him no attention.”

The ghost spoke up. “Seen the wind blow so hard it blew a crooked road straight and a straight road crooked.”

Oliver would not be deterred, but Louisa would not speak of it further. A clash of wills built up between them—and then rain broke it apart.

Louisa turned her glare on the sky. “It wasn’t supposed to rain today,” she complained, “and here I am without my hat. This breaks the rules. They’re breaking all the rules.”

“Cold!” said the ghost in a muted shout. “Cold as witch tits! Cold as iron!” The ghost railed against the sky. Rain scattered the substance of its limbs as it waved both arms around.

A mist came down with the rain, and froze on impact wherever it touched. Louisa tried to stand up, slipped on the newly icy sidewalk, and landed back on her bench.

“No good,” she said. “Not hardly any good. I’ll break both my hips again, trying to get home.”

“I’ll help,” Oliver told her, his ire forgotten. Something needed doing, and he was there to see it done.

“Might work,” said Louisa. “Come here, let me lean on you. We’ll keep to the grass, away from the sidewalk. Away from the road. That’s where they’ll fight hardest.”

She leaned on him as they trudged up the steep, grassy slope. Frozen grass blades crackled underfoot. Oliver stuffed a handful of gathered trash in his coat pocket—a pink plastic lighter, a candy wrapper, and a greasy napkin that smelled like French fries.

“Supposed to be a truce,” Louisa muttered. “Supposed to be a cease-fire these days, but first the bridge goes down and now we get bombarded. This will put potholes in the road like impact craters. This is full-on ugly. There was supposed to be a truce.”

“Who called the truce?” Oliver asked. A truce wasn’t justice. It was not satisfying. But if it ended a feud then maybe it was something close.

Louisa didn’t answer for a good long while. Oliver was about to ask again, and again, however many times it took, when she finally spoke.

“Your father,” she said, “after that sad business with your cousin. Handsome boy, that one. Your father stepped out, straight from the funeral, and he brokered a truce. A bullshitter can be a decent diplomat. He’d be furious at me if he ever found out I told you, so hush just as best as you know how.”

Her apartment building stood on the opposite side of the park from Oliver’s home. They made it to the top of the hill, where they stood and looked across a long stretch of street. Cars parked by the side of the road were already frosted over, every inch of them encased.

Old Louisa looked down at the slick road surface. She ran one hand through her hair, breaking up a layer of accumulated ice. “Nothing for it but to try,” she said.

Oliver remembered some of the rules of war. He had a very good memory for rules. A medic could walk through battlefields unscathed. A medic could tend to the wounded. Both sides were supposed to honor that.

“Medic!” he yelled at the road.

Louisa jumped, startled. “Don’t you have a pair of lungs,” she said.

They inched across the road while ice fell from the sky and built up in layers underfoot. Oliver escorted Louisa onto the sidewalk, up to her steps, and safely underneath the awning at her own front door.

“Thank you,” she said. “Very much. You’d best come in and drink something warm before you try to brave it back home.” Oliver shook his head and gave her a crisp salute. He had practiced his salute for Halloween. Then he turned and made his way back across the road.

“You come back here!” Louisa called after him. “It isn’t safe!” But he didn’t come back, and she went muttering inside. He should have gone in with her. He should have circled around the park rather than cutting straight through. But he didn’t. The ice stood thick on every surface. The hillside all around the park made excellent sledding hills. Oliver slipped, and slid all the way down.

Oliver moved in a world without friction. The pond moved toward him like someone had thrown it. Then he caught hold of Louisa’s favorite bench before his momentum threw him out over the paper-thin ice. He got to his feet. He fell again, a hard fall, a hammer blow against the ground. His ankle twisted.

He lay there awhile with his eyes closed. He heard blood going about its own business inside him. He also heard the strain, the struggle, and the screaming as crystalline water pried bits of gravel apart. He had his ear to the ground over ice-covered sidewalk, where the fighting was thick. He lay there and listened to the war. It surrounded him. The cold violence of it would claim his fingers, his ears, and the tip of his nose if he stayed there—whether or not he chose sides.

• • • •

He had once watched his father break up a hallway fight between Bats and another apartment cat.

“Who started it?” Oliver had asked at the time.

“Doesn’t matter,” his father had said. He held spitting Bats over his head and kept the other cat back with one foot. He wasn’t wearing shoes. The other cat wrestled with the foot and stuck claws through the sock. Oliver’s father winced, but he kept at it.

“Who started it?” Oliver asked again. It mattered. It was the only thing that mattered.

“They’re both in it,” his father said. “They’re both in, and we want them both out of it. First thing to do is separate them, give them a chance to catch their breath.” He sucked in his own breath when teeth found his toe. “This was a stupid way to do it, though,” he admitted. “Run fetch me a blanket.”

Oliver ran for a blanket. His father dropped Bats. The two cats lunged for each other. Then Oliver’s dad tossed the blanket over both. They yowled, surprised, and fought with the blanket rather than each other. The two cats fought their way out. The blanket lay still, defeated. Bats smacked the inert fabric once more, for good measure, and then both cats marched off to their respective apartment doors.

Oliver glared at the neighboring cat, certain that it had started the uneven fight—it had claws, and Bats didn’t. He wanted to prove it. He wanted to punish it. He wanted to bring justice down upon it.

His father saw and recognized the look on his face. “Doesn’t matter. Let it go. They were in it. Now they’re out.”

But it still mattered. Oliver didn’t know how to let it go. But he also had no evidence, no real knowledge of which cat started the fight, so he was forced to leave the incident out of his coloring book.

• • • •

Oliver wondered about the ghost. He should have been able to hear it shouting from where he lay on the ground, on the ice, at the bottom of a lake that wasn’t there anymore. He felt the heaviness of the water that used to be there pressing down on him. He wondered what would happen if it suddenly came back, all of it pouring down over the sides of the park in a surrounding waterfall. He wondered if he could swim to the top in time, or if he’d be stuck right where he was, looking up at the sky through four fathoms of lake water and trying to remember how fish are supposed to breathe.

He tried to open his eyes, but the eyelashes had frozen together. He pinched his lashes between fingertips to melt the ice, and then looked for the ghost. It stood frozen, the smoke of it roiling and agitated under a vaguely person-shaped coating of ice.

“You worked on the road and drowned in the water,” Oliver said to the ghost. “Tell me which one is wrong. Tell me which one is wronged.”

The ghost remained stuck in the cold that was all it ever talked about. So cold. Oliver wanted to do something for it, something warm, something hot and blazing. He wanted to set fire to the pond, to burn away the ice around the ghost, to make it stop wailing about the cold. In that moment, he didn’t care who had hurt the ghost, or why it died, or whether or not it was an accident. In that moment it no longer mattered. The ghost was cold. It needed to get warm.

Oliver found a rock, got to his knees, and tried to get to his feet before stumbling back to his knees. Then he threw it, hard. The ice broke around the ghost. The smoke of it rolled, sputtered, and raged.

“Cold!” it yelled out once it could yell, but the yelling still sounded like a whisper.

Oliver found a stick. He dug the trash out of his pocket and wrapped the greasy napkin around the end of the stick. Then he used the pink plastic lighter to light up the napkin. It took awhile. There wasn’t much fluid left, but there was a bit. The little torch blazed. It smelled like French fries.

He threw the little torch at the ghost. The ghost caught fire. The smoke of it burned blue like a gas stove. It soaked up the warmth and burned itself out. The ashes of it swirled through the air as though the air were water, way down at the bottom of a lake. Then the ghost-ashes seemed to notice that the air was air and no longer water. They drifted down, settling on the pond ice, melting the ice where they fell.

The rain stopped, just as surprised as Oliver to learn that ghost smoke was flammable.

Oliver took advantage of the pause in hostilities and put his hand to the sidewalk pavement. “Everybody just take a step back,” he said. “I call a truce.” He said it like he meant it, like he knew the water and the road would listen and do as he said.

He got up and stumbled across the crunching, frozen grass. He made it around the pond, across the park, and as far as the foot of the opposite slope. He sat back and stared at the hill, his favorite sledding hill. In his calm estimation, he knew it would be impossible to climb, so he started screaming. “Medic!”

He kept shouting. His father finally came.

“Your dinner’s getting cold,” Oliver’s dad called down from the top of the hill.

Oliver laughed. He rarely laughed, but now he couldn’t stop laughing. “Cold as iron!” he tried to say, since the ghost wasn’t there to say it.

“Just hold on,” his father told him. He went away, and came back with a sled tied to a length of clothesline. Oliver’s father believed in clothesline, and not the clothes dryer, even in weather like this when he had to string wet wash across the hallway and the living room. The dryer agreed with this belief, because it was broken. They never got rid of it, though. Bats loved to sleep inside the broken dryer.

Oliver climbed aboard and went sledding, slow and in reverse. His father hauled him up, picked him up, and carried him home. Oliver held the line, and the empty sled followed behind them. Ice shattered under his father’s feet where Oliver would only slide over the surface. The ice respected his father, or else it was afraid of him, or else it respected his office as a medic and a diplomat.

“They agreed to another truce,” Oliver said.

“Good,” his father said. “Just make sure you don’t choose sides. Can’t stand back and call a truce once you’re in it.”

Once home he put Oliver in the bath, and then in bed. He tied a towel filled with ice cubes around Oliver’s swollen ankle. Oliver kept his leg fully extended, kept his eye on the towel, and reminded the ice cubes about the truce.

On the last page of his pirate coloring book he wrote “road” beside “lake” and drew a square around both, cutting them off from the rest of the list and each other. It wasn’t justice. It was something else, but it would have to do for now.

He still felt the edges of the coloring book through his pillowcase, but this time it helped him sleep to feel it there.

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William Alexander

William Alexander

William Alexander won the National Book Award in 2012 for his first novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. His second novel, Ghoulish Song, was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Award. He recently published Ambassador, his third novel and first work of science fiction.

Will studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at Clarion. He currently teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.