You know how westerns often start, with a stranger walking out of the desert into an isolated community. Well, this isn’t a western. It takes place in the near future, where the lakes and rivers have been drained or diverted, and the desert is the remains of Oregon.
The protagonist is Jeremy, a boy who’s grown up on a farm eking a few scrawny plants out of the soil, never knowing a time when water didn’t come from a strictly rationed pitcher. Rivers have always been sandy ditches to him. His family, and the few nearby families, are almost getting by, every year praying their pumps won’t fail. Nobody can see any long-term future; nobody dares look. They still go to the church on Sundays, but after the Reverend had died they’d moved the pews outside. […] There weren’t any more sermons, but people still came to eat together on the church-Sundays.
Into this the stranger comes: a man named Dan Greely wearing the uniform of the Army Corps of Engineers. He’s here to survey the area, to make maps and measurements in the search for new sources of groundwater. He’s greeted and offered all the meager hospitality they can afford. Even though he tries to dampen their expectations, he can’t help but be seen as a figure of hope. They know that he might not find anything, and even if he does, it would be many months before he walks back to the remains of civilization and many years before the Army Corps would do anything. But his presence alone raises their spirits. Jeremy’s mother even gives him a few wizened apples, the ones usually saved for birthdays.
As you might imagine, this does not end well.
While Dan Greely inspires hope in the future, Jeremy is reviled for his ability to remind people of the past. He has a unique psychic ability to project holograms of creatures, making long-extinct birds and fish appear in front of him. He keeps this secret from the rest of the village, and the rest of his family as uneasy in his presence. Not only is it a painful reminder of what life used to look like, but he’s proof that more children nowadays are being born mutated. The old reverend used to preach against them and advise the visibly deformed ones be killed at birth. Jeremy’s another sign that change is inevitable, from within as well as without.
Mary Rosenblum was my first week teacher at Clarion West 2012, and this post is part of the 2013 Write-a-thon. See here for more details.
Water Bringer by Mary Rosenblum
Word count: 8,000
First published: Asimov’s, March 1991
Where to find it: Water Rites, collection, 2007, Fairwood Press
Synthesis and other Virtual Realities, collection, 1996, Arkham House
The Loch Moose Monster: More Stories from Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, edited by Sheila Williams, 1993, Delacorte Press
Isaac Asimov’s Earth, edited by Sheila Williams & Gardner Dozois, 1992, Ace