Water is a shape shifter.
It changes yet stays the same, shifting its face with the climate. It wanders the earth like a gypsy, stealing from where it is needed and giving whimsically where it isn’t wanted.
Dizzy and shivering in the blistering heat, Hilda shuffles forward with the snaking line of people in the dusty square in front of University College where her mother used to teach. The sun beats down, crawling on her skin like an insect. She’s been standing for an hour in the queue for the public water tap. Her belly aches in deep waves, curling her body forward.
There is only one person ahead of her now, an old woman holding an old plastic container. The woman deftly slides her wCard into the pay slot. It swallows her card and the light above it turns green. The card spits out of the slot. The metre indicates what remains of the woman’s quota. The woman bends stiffly over the tap and turns the handle. Water trickles reluctantly into her cracked plastic container. It looks like they have another shortage coming, Hilda thinks, watching the old woman turn the tap off and pull out her card then shuffle away.
The man behind Hilda pushes her forward. She stumbles toward the tap and glances at the wCard in her blue-grey hand. Her skin resembles a dry riverbed. Heart throbbing in her throat, Hilda fumbles with the card and finally gets it into the reader. The reader takes it. The light screams red. Her knees almost give out. She dreaded this day.
She stares at the iTap. The dryness in the back of her throat rises to meet her tongue, now thick and swollen. She gags on the thirst of three days. Just like her mother’s secret cistern, her card has run dry; no credits, no water. The faucet swims in front of her. The sun, high in the pale sky, glints on the faucet’s burnished steel and splinters into a million spotlights …
• • •
Hilda read in her mother’s forbidden book that water was the only natural substance on Earth that could exist in all three physical states. She’d never seen enough water to test the truth of that claim. She remembered snow as a child. How the flakes fluttered down and landed on her coat like jewels. No two snowflakes were alike, she’d heard once. But not from her mother; her mother refused to talk about water. Whenever Hilda asked her a question about it, she scowled and responded with bitter and sarcastic words. Her mother once worked as a limnologist for CanadaCorp in their watershed department, but they forced her to retire early. Hilda tried to imagine a substance that could exist as a solid, liquid, and gas, all in the same place and same time. One moment flowing with an urgent wetness that transformed all it touched. Another moment firm and upright. And yet another, yielding into vapour at the breath of warmth. Water was fluid and soft, yet it wore away hard rock and carved flowing landscapes with its patience.
Water was magic. Most things on the planet shrank and became more dense as they got colder. Water, her textbook said, did the opposite, which was why ice floated and why lakes didn’t completely freeze from top to bottom.
Water was paradox. Aggressive yet yielding. Life-giving yet dangerous. Floods. Droughts. Mudslides. Tsunamis. Water cut recursive patterns of creative destruction through the landscape, an ouroboros remembering.
She’d heard a myth—from Hanna, of course—that Canada once held the third richest reserve of freshwater in the world. Canada used to have clean sparkling lakes deep enough for people to drown in. That was before the unseasonal storms and floods. Before the rivers dried up and scarred the landscape in a network of snaking corpses. Before Lake Ontario became a giant tailings pond. Before CanadaCorp shut off Niagara Falls then came into everyone’s home and cemented their taps shut for not paying the water tax.
When that happened, her mother secretly set up rainwater catchers on her property. Collecting rainwater was illegal because the rain belonged to CanadaCorp. When Raytheon and the WMA diverted the rain to the USA, her cistern dried up and they had to resort to getting their water from the rationed public water taps that cost the equivalent of $20 a glass in water credits. It didn’t matter if you were rich—no one got more than two litres a day.
Hilda and her mother hadn’t seen a good rain in over a decade. Lake Ontario turned into a mud puddle, like Erie before it. The Saint Laurence River, channelized long ago, now flowed south to the USA, like everything else.
One day the water patrol of the RCMP stormed the house. They seized her mother’s books—except Wetzel’s Limnology, hidden under Hilda’s mattress—and they dragged her mother away. The RCMP weren’t actually gruff with her and she didn’t struggle. She quietly watched them ransack the place then turned a weary gaze to Hilda. “We were too nice … too nice …” she’d said in a strangled voice. She didn’t clutch Hilda to her bosom or tell her that she loved her. Just the words, “We invited them in and let them take it all. We gave it all away …” It took a long time for Hilda to realize that she’d meant Canada and its water.
CanadaCorp wasn’t even a Canadian company. According to Hanna, it was part of Vivanti, a multinational conglomerate of European and Chinese companies. When it came to water—which was everything—the Chinese owned the USA. When China finally called them on their trillion dollar debt, the bankrupted country defaulted. That was when the world changed. China offered the USA a deal: give us your water, all of it, and we’ll forfeit the capital owed. And they could stay a country. That turned out to include Canadian water, since Canada had already let Michigan tap into the Great Lakes. That’s how CanadaCorp, which had nothing to do with Canada, came to own the Great Lakes and eventually all of Canada’s surface and ground water. And how Canada sank from a resource-rich nation into a poor indentured state. Hilda didn’t cry when her mother left. Hilda thought her mother was coming back. She didn’t.
• • •
A tiny water drop hangs, trembling, from the iTap faucet mouth, as if considering which way to go: give in to gravity and drop onto the dusty ground or defy it and cling to the inside of the tap. Hilda lunges forward and touches the faucet mouth with her card to capture the drop. Then she laps up the single drop with her tongue. She thinks of Hanna and her throat tightens.
The man behind her grunts. He barrels forward and violently shoves her aside. Hilda stumbles away from the long queue in a daze. The brute gruffly pulls out her useless card and tosses it to her. She misses it and the card flutters like a dead leaf to the ground at her feet. The man shoves his own card into the pay slot. Hilda watches the water gurgle into his plastic container. He is sloppy and some of the water splashes out of his container, raining on the ground. Hilda stares as the water bounces off the parched pavement before finally pooling. The ache in her throat burns like sandpaper and she wavers on her feet.
The lineup tightens, as if the people fear she might cut back in.
She stares at the water pooling on the ground, glistening into a million stars in the sunlight.
• • •
Hanna claimed that there was a fourth state of water: a liquid crystal that possessed magical properties of healing. You could find it in places like collagen and cell membranes where biological signals and information travelled instantly. Like quantum entanglement. The crystalline water increased its energy in a vortex and light. Hanna seemed to know all about the research done at the University of Washington. According to her, this negatively-charged crystallized water held energy like a battery and pushed away pollutants. She told of an experiment in Austria where water in a beaker, when jolted with electromagnetic energy, leapt up the beaker wall, groping to meet its likeness in the adjoining beaker. The beaker waters formed a “water bridge,” like two shocked children clutching hands.
Hilda’s mother had dismissed Hanna’s claims as fairytale. But when Hilda challenged her mother, she couldn’t explain why water stored so much energy or absorbed and released more heat than most substances. Or a host of other things water could do that resembled magic.
Something Hilda never dared share with her mother was Hanna’s startling claim about water’s intelligent purpose. She cited bizarre studies conducted by Russian scientists and some quasi-scientific studies in Germany and Austria suggesting that water had a consciousness. “What if everything that water does has an innate purpose, related to what we are doing to it?” Hanna had once challenged. “They’ve proven that water remembers everything done to it and everywhere it’s been. What if it’s self-organized, like a giant amoebic computer? We’ve done terrible things to water, Hilda,” she said, sorrow vivid in her liquid eyes. “What if water doesn’t like being owned or ransomed? What if it doesn’t like being channelized into a harsh pipe system or into a smart cloud to go where it normally doesn’t want to go? What if those hurricanes and tornadoes and floods are water’s way of saying ‘I’ve had enough’?”
None of that matters now, Hilda thinks rather abstractly and feels herself falling. They are all going to die soon anyway. Neither water’s magical properties nor Hanna’s fantasies about its consciousness are going to help her or Hanna, who disappeared again last month.
• • •
“I can’t do this anymore with you,” Hilda ranted. She paced her decrepit one-room apartment and watched Hanna askance. Hanna sat on Hilda’s worn couch like a brooding selkie. Like a sociopath contemplating her next move. Waiting for Hilda’s. “This is the last time.” Hilda kept her voice harsh. She wanted to jar Hanna into crying, or something, to induce some kind of emotional breakdown. In truth, Hilda was so relieved to see her itinerant friend, alive and well, after her lengthy silence. Hilda went on, “It’s always the same pattern. After months of nothing, you come, desperate for help … water credits or some dire task that only I can perform … then you disappear again, only emerging months later with your next disaster. I never hear from you otherwise. I don’t know if you’re dead or alive, like I’m a well you dip into. Like that’s all I mean to you. Where do you go when you disappear? Where?”
She dropped back in the lumpy chair across from Hanna and watched her gypsy friend, hoping for some sign of remorse, or acknowledgement, at least. She knew Hanna wouldn’t answer, as though every question she asked her—particularly the personal ones—was only rhetorical in nature. Hanna just stared at her like a puppy dog. As if she didn’t quite understand the problem. She could barely speak at the best of times. Hilda had decided long ago that Hanna was partly autistic. Maybe a savant even; she was inordinately clever. Too clever sometimes. Maybe she’d been traumatized when she was little, Hilda considered. Apparently, the emergence of sociopathic behaviour was created—or prevented—by childhood experience. She knew that Hanna’s childhood, though privileged with significant wealth, was terribly lonely and troubled. Her parents, who both worked in the water industry in Maine, spent no time with her and her sister. Like obsessed missionaries, they were always travelling and tending their water business. When Hanna was in her late teens, her parents perished in a freak accident.
Hanna had avoided any cross-examination, but Hilda’s uncompromising research on Oracle uncovered a strange story—a common one in the old water wars. Hanna never revealed her last name but Hilda guessed it was Lauterwasser, the name of a known water baron family in Maine: John and Beulah Lauterwasser owned a large water holding of spring water near Fryeburg and sold Apa Fina all over the world. They’d refused buyout offers by the international conglomerate Vivanti. Soon after the Lauterwassers drowned, the holdings mysteriously came into the hands of Vivanti. Hilda suspected foul play. Not long after that, Hanna appeared in her life.
From the moment Hilda saw her, seven years ago, she’d felt a strange yet familiar attraction she couldn’t explain. A bond that commanded her with a kind of divine instruction, a déja vu, that bubbled up like an evolutionary yin-yang mantra: you two were born to do something important together. Hilda felt a strange repelling attraction to her strange friend. Like the covalent bond of a complex molecule.
Like two quantum-entangled atoms fuelled by a passion for information, they shared secrets on Oracle. They corresponded for months on Oracle; strange attractors, circling each other closer and closer—sharing energy—yet never touching. Then Hanna suggested they actually meet. They met in the lobby of a shabby downtown Toronto hotel. Hilda barely knew what she looked like but when Hanna entered the lobby through the front doors, Hilda knew every bit of her. Hanna swept in like a stray summer rainstorm, beaming with the self-conscious optimism of someone who recognized a twin sister. She reminded Hilda of her first boyfriend, clutching flowers in one hand and chocolate in the other. When their eyes met, Hilda knew. For an instant, she knew all of Hanna. For an instant, she’d glimpsed eternity. What she didn’t know then was that it was love.
Love flowed like water, gliding into backwaters and lagoons with ease, filling every swale and mire. Connecting, looking for home. Easing from crystal to liquid to vapour then back, water recognized its hydrophilic likeness, and its complement. Before the inevitable decoherence, remnants of the entanglement lingered like a quantum vapour, infusing everything. Hilda always knew where and when to find Hanna on Oracle, as though water inhabited the machine and told her. Water even whispered to her when her wandering friend was about to return from the dark abyss and land unannounced on her doorstep.
Hilda leaned back in her chair with a heavy sigh. She always gave in to Hanna. And Hanna knew it. “OK,” Hilda said. “What do you need this time?”
Hanna’s face lit with the fire of inspiration and she leaned forward. “Oracle told me something.”
Hilda slumped deeper in her chair and rolled her eyes. “Of course Oracle told you something. It always does.”
Some cybergenius created Oracle after the Internet sold out to Vivanti. The Oracle universe was the last commons, Hilda considered. It had brought her and Hanna together, bound them into one being with a common understanding. Hilda discovered one of Hanna’s sites. It turned out to be a code for what was happening to water. To Hanna’s obvious delight, Hilda decoded her blog and like two conspiring teenagers, they shared intimate secrets about water. Hilda shared from her textbook and Hanna embellished with facts that Hilda’s mother reluctantly confirmed or vehemently denied. Hilda never discovered how Hanna got her information, how she managed to cross the Canadian/US border or who Hanna really was. Whether she was a delusional charlatan, the itinerant daughter of a murdered water baron, a water spy for the US, or something worse. Hilda realized that she didn’t want to know.
“I was right but I was wrong too,” Hanna said, beaming like an angel. “Mandelbrot has the last piece of the puzzle. It’s right there, in Ritz’s migrating birds and Scholes’ photosynthesis.” She lifted her eyes to the heavens then grinned like an urchin at Hilda. “… In Schrödinger’s water.” Seeing Hanna this way, lit with genuine inspiration, Hilda knew she would totally give in to whatever plan the girl had concocted. She wasn’t prepared for what Hanna asked for.
“I need a thousand water credits.”
“What?” Hilda gasped. “You know I don’t have that! What the chaos do you need it for?” Hanna had inherited a hoard of water credits in the Vivanti settlement but had lost them all, through various wild ventures and a profligate lifestyle. Over the years, Hilda, who had barely anything, had given Hanna so many water credits for her wild schemes during their strange friendship. She’d funded Hanna’s Tesla-field amplifier, her orgonite cloud-buster and anti-HAARP electromagnetic pulse device. Hilda had never once gotten any proof of them having amounted to anything, except to keep Hanna hydrated.
Hanna inched forward in her seat and her eyes glinted like sapphires. “You know about the nanobots that keep the smart clouds in the States from coming north over the border?”
Hilda nodded, wondering what Mandelbrot’s fractals—and photosynthesis—had to do with weather control and cloud farming. It was part of the deal the US made with the Chinese, who had first perfected weather manipulation with smart dust. Vivanti owned the weather. Canada, which had been mined dry of its water, was just another casualty of the corporate profit machine.
“Why do you think water lets them do that?” Hanna said.
Hilda squirmed in her seat. What was Hanna driving at? As though water had any say in the matter.
Hanna wriggled in her seat with a self-pleased smile. “What if those nanobots ‘decided’ to let the clouds migrate north?”
Suddenly intrigued, Hilda leaned forward and stared at her friend. “Are you talking sabotage?” she finally said in a hoarse whisper and wondered who Hanna really was. “How?”
Hanna grinned in silence. A kind of conspiratorial withholding look. She always did that, Hilda thought: looked reluctant to say, when that was precisely why she’d come. To spill a secret. The two women stared at one another for an eternity of a moment. Hilda struggled to stay patient, understanding the hierarchy of flow.
Hanna finally confided, “Not sabotage. More like collaboration.” She leaned back and her mischievous grin turned utterly sublime. She looked like a self-satisfied griffin. “Like recognizes like, Hilda. Have you ever noticed how children going for walks with their mothers notice only other children? The most successful persuasion doesn’t come from your boss, but by a trusted colleague … a friend.”
Hilda shook her head, still not understanding.
Hanna leaned forward and gently took Hilda’s hand in hers. She pressed Hilda’s fingers with hers in a warm clasp. Smooth hydrated fingers that were long and beautiful, not like Hilda’s selkie hands. “It’s ok, my friend,” Hanna said. “Just trust me. Trust me one more time.”
• • •
The faucet swims into a million faucets. Hilda understands that she is hallucinating. People generally stay away from the public iTap when someone in her condition approaches. People don’t want to share, but they also don’t want to feel cruel or greedy about not sharing. In today’s blistering heat, urgency overrules decorum and they simply ignore her away. They know she is close to the end. She’s seen others and has shied away herself. She feels the water guardians hovering. Waiting. If she doesn’t get up and walk away, they will come and take her—probably to the same place her mother was taken. Someplace you never came back from.
It is a month since she gave Hanna everything she had in the world. A month since Hanna disappeared with Hilda’s thousand water credits—worth a million dollars on the black market. Credits she borrowed off her rent. In that month, Hilda’s entire world collapsed. Her research contract—and associated meager income—ended suddenly at the Wilkinson Alternative Energy Centre, with no sign of transfer or renewal. Three weeks later, the Co-op wiped most of her bank account clean then locked her out. She found a piece of shade from the relentless sun under an old corrugated sheet of metal in the local dump, and set up camp there.
Nothing has changed with the water. No clouds have come. No rains have come. And no Hanna has come.
This time, Hilda knows that Hanna is really gone. That whatever fractal scheme Hanna had conjured, she’s failed. Since they flowed into one another, they always seemed to know when the other was in trouble … Strangely, Hilda feels nothing. No presence, no absence. Just nothing.
Hanna is probably dead. Or worse. Since meeting her, Hilda has learned to monitor Oracle for signs of her elusive friend. Small blips of signature code on certain sites. Anonymous tags. Like ghosts, they wisped into existence, whispered their truths, then disappeared like vapour in the wind. Even they stopped. Hanna too has turned to vapour.
Hilda is alone. Doomed by her trust, her faith and her gift … All gone with Hanna …
No. Not all gone.
• • •
For every giver there must be a receiver in the recursive motion of fractals. Everything is connected through water, from infinitely small to infinitely large. Like recognizes like. Atom with atom. Like her and Hanna. Like water with water.
She’s fallen recumbent on the dusty ground. She is dying of thirst metres from a water source. And no one is coming to help her. They just keep filling their containers and shuffling away in haste. She doesn’t hate them for it. They aren’t capable of helping her. She squints at the massive sun that seems to wink at her and chokes on her own tongue. Perhaps her vision is already failing, because a shadow passes before the sun and it grows suddenly dark. It doesn’t matter.
She’s given all of herself faithfully in love and in hope. Through Hanna. To water. She is two-thirds water, after all. Just like the planet. Water and the universe are taking her back into its fold. She will enter the Higgs Field, stream through spacetime, touch infinite light. Then, energized, return—perhaps as water even—to Earth or somewhere else in the cosmos.
Her mother was wrong in her angry heart. They weren’t too nice. It is simply the way of water. They are all water. And water is an altruist.
It starts to rain.
Huge drops spatter her face, streaming down, soaking her hair, her clothes, her entire body. It hurts at first, like missiles assaulting her with suddenness. Like love. Then it begins to soothe as her parched body remembers, grateful.
Dark storm clouds scud across the heavens like warriors chasing a thief. She’s vaguely aware of the commotion of people as they scatter, arms and containers pointed up toward the heavens. She smiles then feels her body convulse with tears.
Is that you, Hanna? Have you come to take me home?
Copyright © 2016 Nina Munteanu. Originally published in English and Italian (as “The Way of Water” / “La natura dell’acqua”) in Future Fiction (Francesco Verso, ed., Fiorella Moscatello, translator; Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Reprinted with permission of the author.
Image credit: Pixabay.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories, and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Her latest book is Water Is… a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher, and environmentalist. Water Is… was recently picked by Margaret Atwood in the NY Times as 2016 ‘The Year in Reading’. www.NinaMunteanu.ca; www.NinaMunteanu.me