The stranded submarine sits, slightly canted, where it came to rest when the seas receded, in the sunstruck center of a vast expanse of sand. Salt and birdslime whiten its sides. From a distance it is almost invisible against the sand. Close up its sides loom above the crusted desert floor like the ice of a long-departed glacier.
Quietly maddened by the furious sun, the old prospector capers in front of the stranded sub that serves as his abode. Lizards scurry out of his path, only to come to rest again a foot away. They know it's too hot to move much, even if he doesn't. He dances with utter abandon, surrounded by skulls and sand and rusted machine parts, not suspecting that he is observed. Well back in the shade under a flat rock, unwinking eyes glitter, ophidian and dark. They do not move. Nothing else moves in the heat. Just the dancing air, and the dancing man.
Wrinkles craze his old brown face, miniature models of the sun-blasted landscape. He had a name, long ago, but he does not use it now. The old prospector has no living relatives, no friends in town, no acquaintances or names in a book or on a bracelet around his wrist for emergency contact. There are a lot of people like that nowadays, though. When he has to go into San Guano to barter for groceries, the store clerks call him John. It's a name he gave them when he first arrived, because he'd forgotten his own. His memory has not improved since then.
But the old man remembers how to dance.
He picks up the three-lobed skull of some unearthly beast and, cackling, tries it on for size over his own bald and reddened head. Similar skulls sit on an uneven row of gnarled cactuswood poles in front of the salt-streaked submarine. Several of the skulls spin, slowly and in nothing like unison, on their crooked posts.
He cannot know that he is observed, but something now fills him suddenly with foreboding. He stops dancing, drops the naked skull with its whimsical third socket, and peers intently out at the desert.
The dancing air is now his enemy. He shades his sun-bleached gray eyes with one gnarled hand, turning in place to scan the horizon. He does not pause as his rotating gaze passes the flat rock, one of several strewn about, each with its tiny pool of impenetrable shade. He does not see the glittering lenses of the watcher in one of those shady pools.
Finding nothing, he turns back and, muttering, flings open the door crudely cut into the bulging side of the submarine. The door slams shut on its own behind him.
All is still for thirty seconds, perhaps more, long enough at least for the lizards to decide that the old man is not coming back. Then there is movement again. From under the flat rock, the observer scuttles, enough like a scorpion to fool the corner of the eye. In the pitiless sunlight and head-on, though, it does not look much like any desert creature; it looks much more like something from the bottom of the vanished ocean.
The observer moves fluidly, extending pincers from underneath its reflective coppery carapace to grasp the discarded skull by one horn. Its legs are thin and long. Their complex interplay leaves no clear tracks, only indecipherable marks in the sand.
Though the skull is both longer and wider than the observer, it is sun-dried and much lighter. The scuttling mechanism has no difficulty holding up the skull so its tracks in the sand will not betray its hiding place. The observer and its prize vanish into the shadows beneath the rock.
The observer works in darkness. A glittering, spindly attachment rises from it, point spinning, and darts forward like an insect's proboscis, performing precise and delicate adjustments until the spinning tip rests deep within the socket of the skull's third eye. A haze of fine dust arises from the infinitesimal point of contact between the skull and the drill. The dust sparkles oddly as it falls in a thin stream, landing directly upon a well-worn river stone gleaming dully and incongruously amid the shade-cooled desert sand. The stone seems to shift and swell as the sparkling bone dust strikes it.
The observer finishes its task and retraces its steps, returning the three-eyed skull outwardly unchanged to its bed of sand near the ghostly white and whale-like derelict sub.
The sun lowers and shadows lengthen, but the baleful yellow orb overhead never disappears altogether, and the heat of a thousand days continues to blast and enervate the landscape. The old man emerges again from his dusty metal cocoon, no longer dancing. He picks the discarded skull up from the ground, not noticing or not caring that it is subtly lighter, and grayer, than before. He places it gently on the last cactuswood pole in the row, where it wobbles for a bit before becoming still. The old man wobbles a bit, too, before he becomes still in front of the row of skulls. The pattern they make now seems complete - there are no obvious gaps - though whatever the old man seems to be expecting to happen as a result does not occur. A few of the skulls still spin fitfully, though there is no wind.
The observer watches, eyes glittering.
The old man shakes himself and looks around. He still cannot see the observer, which has moved back, farther under the rock, to stay in the shade as the sun's fingers have lengthened. The smooth stone, with its dusting of bone, is now only an inch or so from feeling the full late-afternoon rays. Soon, the light will reach it. The observer waits.
The old man disappears inside his submarine again, comes out moments later with a jar of canned beans, purplish and oily, in a thick fluid that looks like formaldehyde. He twists off the cap of the jar, tilts back his head to gulp the first few inches of the mess. His grizzled throat works visibly as he swallows.
The sun's rays touch the stone.
She appears in front of the flat stone, her back to the old man. Mermaid, naiad, some sort of river spirit, he cannot tell, but she has pale greenish skin and hair of a darker jade, and anyone could see that she is terribly, disastrously out of place in this landscape of dust and death.
She makes a choking sound that carries over the dry sand to where the old man stands. He drops the jar. Beans and juice ooze out to be absorbed by the thirsty ground. The ground under her feet - for she does have feet, not fins - seems to reach up for her as well, as she crumples to meet it. Her skin already seems dustier, a crackling gray-green porcelain glaze. Her breath rasps in her dry throat.
The old man has dropped to his knees and now he crawls forward towards her, arms outstretched. He is to be forgiven for thinking that she has come to him, for him, for all that he was expecting nothing of the kind from the pattern he had completed with the skulls.
She is very light in his arms, light enough that even his old muscles have no difficulty lifting her up and over the gap between the hulls and into his submarine. She gasps for breath in his ear. If she mutters anything in her agony it is in no language he can understand. He mutters his own incoherencies back to her, trying to reassure, his diction fractured by decades of living alone. He knows he can save her, if he is given the time.
Once they are inside the sub and the door has swung shut with a clatter behind them, the observer scuttles away, switching after a short while to a smooth levitation that allows it more speed and a different kind of grace. It could almost be swimming. The observer may return - it may be directed to return - but for now its function has been performed.
The submarine does not, of course, contain anything so wasteful of space as a bathtub. It has a shower, but it's tiny and, truth be told, the old man does not even know whether it still works. He has been using it as a closet for several years. Collected bones and lizard skins are stacked in it halfway to the dusty showerhead.
He takes her into his own quarters, the former captain's cabin. He sweeps clutter onto the floor, and lays her out gently on his own bunk. She stirs and squirms as her body touches the arid sheet and its ineradicable remaining burden of crumbs and human detritus.
The old man knows that what she needs most is to be immersed, preferably in some unspoiled woodland pool, but he has no means of providing that. He is, however, not entirely bereft of resources. He can help her.
Large as it appears to be from outside, the sub is far too small for him to have lost what he's looking for, but it has numerous nooks and crannies, and there are layers of accumulated filth that he must move aside or dispose of, before he can get to the older things, the things he'd had when he had first moved out to the desert.
It is fully dark outside, and the desert moon is peeking through the skylight set into the sub's upper deck, when the old man finally straightens up from his search with a dented metal canister clutched in one stained and wrinkled hand. Tenderly, he unscrews the cap. The fluid inside sparkles, like bone dust, though he thinks only of moonlight.
He puts the cap aside and gently lifts her head, opens the mermaid's mouth. He pours the sparkling draft past her sharp teeth.
Healthy and brown-skinned - no hint of jade remains - the old man's beautiful companion hangs on his arm as they walk down the dusty main street of San Guano, heading back out to the submarine in the desert. He has been taking her to the town - the village - a hamlet, really - to see its only doctor, to confirm his suspicions about her lack of womanly cycle. San Guano's doctor is an old and uncertain mechanism, missing the latest attachments available in larger and more affluent territories, but its diagnosis is easy enough in this case.
She is pregnant.
The doctor's human nurse stares enviously at the old man when he tells them the news, his assumptions obvious but mistaken. The prospector looks younger than he did, it's true - possibly just from having bathed - but his intimacies with his young charge have been confined to those of nurse and provider.
The old man has been feeling much better of late as well, though. He sees no reason to correct the nurse's error. The proximity of a beautiful young woman has a rejuvenating effect, is what he tells himself... but never yet has proximity alone put the black back in a graybeard's chin. Something else is happening. If he had taken a swig of the sparkling dust he'd fed her from that metal canister, he'd ascribe his newfound youth to that - but he hadn't done that either. He poured the whole canister into her without a second's second thought, and was overjoyed but not in any way surprised at its effect.
What is happening to him, on the contrary, is a mystery, now and perhaps forever, and the old man is not about to let contemplation of it diminish his enjoyment of his lengthening stride, or of the disappearance of aches which had become constant companions, so constant that he had ceased thinking about his body in any other way.
The old man's submarine, too, is showing a better face to the world than it has in decades. Polished to a gentle gleam from bow to diving planes, the sub sits in the middle of a garden of hardy flowering plants. Only a few of the largest rusted machine parts remain, immovable, to provide a rustic accent. The skulls on their cactuswood poles are long gone, all but one, and that one spins constantly and quietly.
The woman did the planting, somehow calling water up from deep underground to nurture seeds gathered from somewhere in the surrounding desert. She has an affinity for things liquid. A clear, cold spring now bubbles in the center of what is a growing oasis. The old man has tapped the spring's flow for the sub's water supply, restoring systems unused in his memory. It is still cramped in the submarine itself - many nights he sleeps under a canopy outside, listening to the frogs cheeping around the pond, rather than intrude upon her further than he must - but it is starting to seem like a more suitable nest.
A swelling brown globe, her belly presses out the front of her thin, cheap cotton dress, all she can stand to wear now in the desert heat. It is nearly time, she can tell, and as the doctor confirmed the last time she walked into town on her man's arm.
She is in her garden. Not weeding - the seeds she chose and nurtured, the ones that sprouted and burgeoned here, are all beautiful in their struggle to survive. She would not cull even one of them. No, she is merely gathering a few blooms to place in the blue glass jar on the small folding dining table in the sub's galley.
She straightens, her basket of cut flowers in her hand, and stretches. Her vast golden belly thrusts out before her. She confronts the observer.
The observer's return does not surprise her in the slightest. She stands perfectly still amid her garden blooms, as still as the observer itself, and watches it as it watches her, both from their own dark and mysterious optics. The observer does not speak, or communicate in any obvious way - it has no discernible mechanism for doing so - but its silent, watchful stance is expressive enough.
The old man, not nearly so old now, somehow senses the intensity of her attention. He emerges from the submarine, stumbling a little on the sill as he keeps his eyes on the stranger in his garden. He is not as sanguine, not as trusting as his companion. He listens for the small clicks and whirs of the observer's movements, its internal workings, hoping for a clue to power over it, if the worst should happen and he has to try to fight it off. He carries a broom, with which he had been sweeping the sub's interior, but he has no more fearsome weapon.
A gush from beneath her thin cotton dress and she crumples to the soft soil of her flower bed. The young man realizes that the observer's timing was not coincidental. He drops the broom and moves towards her, but the observer smoothly interposes its coppery carapace between them.
She stretches out comfortably in her flower bed and gives herself over to the pangs. The observer moves into position between her legs. Appendages appear from hitherto invisible ports in its shell. Her dress is cut away, its drier portions reserved for later use. The observer is also an obstetrician.
The man watches the crisp efficiency of the observer's many attachments as they make ready for the birth. He is enormously relieved that the responsibility for the birth has been taken from him by this last-minute reprieve, but convinces himself that his presence is necessary to prevent the observer from performing any nefarious acts upon his companion, or upon the child.
He has, in the back corners of his mind, begun to think of it as his child.
The details of the birth are unremarkable, a routine miracle that occurs thousands of times a day even in these much-shrunken latter days, though they do not always go as smoothly as the observer's calm, quick motions have made this one. The only surprise for them is that there are two births instead of one - the prospector's companion has been carrying twins.
Mother and children survive. There are three where once was one. Gleaming blades snip the umbilicals and strip the blood from them into clear tubes which are capped and stored away. The observer takes the afterbirth and makes it vanish as well, into a compartment whose opening vanishes likewise without trace.
The Madonna and her children are resting peacefully, and the man is drowsing himself in the predawn light when he starts, looks around, and notices that her mechanical medic is gone.
No one in San Guano or the surrounding desert would use the phrase "nuclear family," any more than the prospector's family would themselves, but that's what they are, the five of them - the not-so-old man, his beautiful brown-skinned wife, their tall, capable twin daughters, and their adorable bit of a son, who takes after the prospector more than a little. They're a tightly-knit clan, and they love each other almost all the time. They've come up with a second structure from somewhere, a bit of airplane fuselage sandblasted to a buttery sheen, and they've connected it to the submarine by a tube of gray plastic that absorbs the relentless sunshine and spits out electricity to augment the power they get from the spring.
They have a pretty good life, and if the man still wakes up sometimes in the quietest part of the night and wonders when the other shoe is going to drop, it hasn't so far, and he usually gets back to sleep before waking up anybody else.
This story is a rough prequel to my as-yet-unpublished "The Octopus Rides Free" - at least, it's set in the same desiccated world. Its working title was "Heatstroke." The final title "A Girl Enough, and Time" came to me in a dream; I decided to use it after Google turned up NO hits on the phrase. The name of the town also went through some changes - from Tierrasaridas (dry lands) to Maressecos (the dry seas) to my daughter's suggestion, San Guano (Holy Bat Poop!).
©2007-2009 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated July 17, 2009.