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from the October 2020 issue

The Water Man

A father and daughter’s strained relationship comes to a head in a world devastated by drought in Spanish writer Ariadna Castellarnau’s dystopian short story.


Father wants to teach me to conjure water with his staff, like he does. This is his gift, and he wants it to be mine. Every morning, the same thing. The scene is reiterated on the slope in front of the house: “Take the staff,” he tells me, “trust me, it doesn’t bite, now lift it and stroke the earth, don’t think about water, if you think of what you want to achieve, the thing will slip away from you.” But the thing always gets away from me. We’ve been doing this as long as I can remember. Once, I made a worm peek out. Father stepped on it and killed it with his shoe. “The worm doesn’t count,” he said.

I’ll tell it straight: in this parched terrain, Father is the Water Man. That’s what they call him. The Water Man. Father has the gift of making water well from the earth. It’s very easy, very simple. If you saw it with your own eyes, you’d understand right away. His miracle is this: they call him, he goes there, he beats the ground with his staff. He says: Rise! And the water rises, I don’t really know from where. What matters is it does come out and spills across this soil, which is hardly ever touched by rain: dead earth, earth so devastated by drought that if you dig in it deep enough to plant your seeds, all you’ll find down there is a black and worm-eaten crust. Father is the Water Man, and he wants me to learn his calling. He doesn’t say it’s a gift or a miracle, he says calling. Learn our calling for once, girl! As if it were that easy.

But it isn’t, not at all, not for me, at least. Look at me. Let’s be reasonable. I’m eighteen years old and an indifferent blonde, it was easier for me to be born this way, with this hair the color of dry barley, than with another, brighter, prettier color, like the old gold of the pages of the Bible or the leprous white of the withered fields. My body is slender, and I have bad posture. I walk hunched over. When I remember, I try to imitate Father’s majestic stride, precise and measured, but I soon return to my original position, as if I were a puppet and someone had let go of the string that held me erect. Father no, Father is tall and imposing. His head is the summit of a mist-capped mountain and his body the rocky cliffside rising toward the summit. That’s why I’m telling you it’s impossible for me to ever develop that gift and carry Father’s staff with dignity. Maybe it’s not the rod Moses used to turn the Nile to blood or separate the waters of the Red Sea, but it is a lovely staff: not just some stick he picked up around the way, but a real proper staff, sturdy and at the same time smooth from so much handling. I sewed him a leather sheath myself so he could carry it around. I worked my fingers to the bone to make it.

When Father isn’t teaching me, he takes me with him. Tonight, he’s woken me up, and he says, “We’re going.” They just called him. It’s a desperate plea: in a village––it doesn’t matter which––the wells have dried up, and the swamp is little more than a mud flat full of agonizing fishes. I barely have time to pack provisions for the road. Father is rushing me. In the car, he passes me the staff.  “Hold that,” he tells me. I fall back to sleep, and when I awaken, dawn is breaking over a landscape as still as a cat lying in the sun. “You slept a long time,” Father tells me. It must be true, because I have the feeling I am far from home. The lack of water is so evident here that I wonder if even Father can do anything about it. If the people who called are still alive when we get there. If they aren’t already ghosts.

“See?” Father says to me, pointing to the expanses on the other side of the windshield. “Every day is worse.”

“What did it used to be like?” I ask him. I like him to tell me. For his voice to reveal for me this paradise lost.

“There’s no point in remembering. You’d be better off focusing on not ruining it.”

Father’s not in the mood. He looks straight ahead while he drives, as if trying to find some reference point amid the exasperating aridity.

“What?” I ask. “What shouldn’t I ruin?”

“The earth, honey. The earth.”

“The drought’s not my fault.”

“But you refuse to learn the calling of water; you’re set on ignoring what God expects from you.”

I get bold and I say to him: “You mean what you expect from me.”

For the first time during this whole journey, he looks at me. There is no contempt in his eyes. If anything, he is observing me, looking me over with the tender affection a creator reserves for his crippled creation.

“Get it through your head: God and me, we’re the same person.”

Father never told me how he got his gift. He tells me now and then about when the drought began, about when we lost Mama and he went to the mountain and screamed and screamed and screamed. He never goes into what or who he was screaming at or what happened when he was on the mountain. He doesn’t say which mountain he climbed, but there’s none around here, around here there’s nothing but flatlands. All he says is: hard times demand hard men. Never: hard times demand hard women. That’s why I often ask myself if I might not have been a bad deal for Father, since I’m not a hard man but rather a woman who isn’t hard.

“Do you believe in me, Father?” I ask him.

“Do I believe in you? Of course, honey. You’re like a walnut, I don’t know if what’s inside the shell is going to turn out to be good or bad, but you should know I haven’t lost faith.”

Father’s car is ancient, so it’s no surprise when it leaves us stranded in the middle of a deserted road. Father opens the hood, and the motor is smoking. I stay standing there beside him, the staff in my hand. Father’s long gray hair floats around his head like a pale, weary aura, blown up by the suffocating air. On the other side of the road is a path leading to a house in ruins, surrounded by a fence that was once covered in ivy, where strips of leaves now hang.

Father looks up from the hood. His face is burnt from the heat.

“Go over there and ask for help,” he says, pointing at the house.

“There? There’s no one there. Not a soul.”

“Go. But give me the staff, first.”

I hand it back to him. I notice the palm of my hand is red from how tightly I’ve been grasping it. No one seems to be living at the house, just as I told Father. I call at the door once, twice, three times, and I’m about to go back and tell him See? I was right, but a man comes out and asks what I want, what it is I’m looking for. I tell him and he looks me up and down, like so, taking my measure the way he must do with a cow or calf, I suppose, any animal you can quarter and sell in pieces. He decides to pass, and utters his verdict wearily: “Get out.”

Father furtively approaches the house to see if I’m doing my job correctly. When he sees him, the man’s expression changes: his eyes glimmer with greed.

“Is it him?” he asks me, as though Father were something intangible and incapable of speaking on his own. “Is it really him?”

“Of course it’s me,” Father says.

Father’s name gets around. Thirst has made him famous: he’s a king in rags of a dusty realm of which he is both founding member and last descendant because his gift, I can promise you, will die with him.

The man’s mood brightens. If he had a tail, he’d wag it in joy. He says he knows a thing or two about engines and he can maybe help us. But he’ll need a little time to fix the car. Father answers that we don’t have time. The man insists: if that’s how it is, he’ll take us in his truck wherever we need and he’ll bring us back afterward. All he asks in exchange is a little favor: “I’d like a little water for myself.”

At first Father is silent, offended. He doesn’t like wasting his gift. But since we don’t have any other options, he gives in, and starts looking for the place, feeling the soil with the tip of his staff, tentatively, like a blind man.

“What’s he doing?” the man asks.

I tell him to be quiet. Father goes on looking, and this perplexes me, because he never takes this long. I think he’s delaying just to raise the man’s ire. Eventually he finds the right spot and stops.

“What now?” the man asks.

Father strikes the ground with his staff, at the same time shouting: “Rise!”

This part, I have to tell you, is always the most disappointing. He strikes it like it was nothing, without magic or some song and dance, even, when he’s tired, reluctantly, and the response always takes a little while to come. More than a few people lose their faith by this time and break down and go pale, the children sigh, deceived. People have even jeered us. Father says it’s these moments of uncertainty where a soul shows you what they’re made of: scrap metal for the incredulous and gold for those who have faith. But whatever Father says, the part I like is when the water starts to well. I can’t explain it to you. I can’t explain to you the wonder of water flowing abundantly from the soil, right there where Father has struck the staff, growing, spiraling, and then spilling in a generous torrent that splashes, soaks, drags away with it all the parched filth: a precious, ephemeral Lethe that everyone eventually bathes in, forgetting their grief, like the man is doing right now, only I don’t like him, because he’s pulled out from god knows where countless plastic jugs and is filling them up with boundless greed, and at a certain point, as if he didn’t have enough, he asks Father, raising his voice to be heard over the sound of the water: “Can she do it, too?”

And Father answers, “No, she’s sterile.”

We’ve tried everything. When I was a girl, Father sometimes kept me whole days without eating so my body wouldn’t get distracted with digesting, so I wouldn’t doze off like a lizard. Other times he fed me with animal protein.

He’d raid the chicken coop and feed me freshly laid eggs and chickens he himself killed and slaughtered and then stewed, seeing if that way, the thing I’m missing, that I don’t have, would grow: the guts to impose my will on the earth and get water from places that don’t have it. He left me out hours in the sun, whole nights under the moon, unsheltered. “Take the staff,” “Raise the staff.” But neither moon nor sun rained blessings down on me. I was the same as always: useless for Father’s purposes.

There were lots of signs of my lack of talent, my ineptitude for the extraordinary: I was a fragile baby, whiny and sickly. As I grew, I failed to show the least bit of beauty or intelligence. Take the staff, raise the staff, bring the staff and I’ll show you one more time. We never celebrated Christmas, and for my birthday I received one dead rose covered in thorns. “Learn to make water and you’ll have lush roses of your own,” those were Father’s words of congratulation. When I turned thirteen, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I ran away from home. Where we’re from is almost a wasteland, but in the east, life is better; the desert hasn’t yet made it that far. And so I headed east, not knowing how far away it was. I walked a whole day, drinking Father’s water, which I carried in a canteen. A few cars passed, but I didn’t bother to try and stop them. Night came, and I was surprised to find myself in the middle of a bare plain, with no house and no lights, and so I sat there by the side of the road and waited for day to come. By morning, I knew I had made a mistake: I was almost out of water and surrounded by a wasteland. Lost in the heat, which followed me like a noxious scent, I held out a few hours before I fainted.

I woke up in my bed. Father was seated next to me, studying me with sorrowful frustration.

“My precious fugitive, what did I do to you to make you run away from me like that?”

I didn’t know what to tell him. I hated disappointing him, and at the same time, I was happy he had found me. Or maybe it was other way around: I was happy I had disappointed him and hated that he’d found me. Sometimes it’s hard for me to figure these things out.

“Nothing, Father,” I said. “My curiosity got the better of me.”

“What good’s your curiosity though if it just brings us both problems? Look, you burned your skin,” he said softly.

That night Father made a little river for me to relieve my burns. When its water caressed me, I gave up, for a time, any thought of going away.

The man has kept his promise of taking us to the village and that is where we are going. Father is sleeping, lying down in the backseat. He’s snoring. I turn around to look at him and I see his face is pale, bluish, the way it always is after he uses his gift. The man is driving fast. We are barreling forward as if someone were chasing us down this empty, orphan road, this thread from a torn tapestry. The car climbs a small hill and, when it reaches the summit, I see the vast horizons of these oneiric barrens, parched as I am, I suppose.

I don’t mind Father calling me sterile because I’m incapable of making water, but I’m angry about what he did in front of the man. I’ve never had secrets. Father is the one with all the secrets, and he’s made sure of keeping them for the two of us. But now the man has my secret and he thinks he knows me. He can size me up in a glance and throw me out like a maggoty piece of fruit. “She’s no good,” he’ll say. He can air his thoughts about me, actually I think he’s about to, but then he changes his mind and puts a hand on my knee, which is another way of airing his thoughts to me. He leaves it there a few moments, then moves it up my thigh. His hand is hot and doughy. It sits there for a time, then it slowly starts moving again in the direction of my groin. Father is still snoring. I’d like him to open his eyes and see what’s happening. If he told him, “She doesn’t belong to you,” the man would stop. But Father doesn’t say anything, and I’m the one who has to do something. So the man squeezes me between his fingers, smells me, and then discards me.

When we reach the village, I realize something isn’t right. There are more than two hundred people gathered in the square, but I don’t see any bottles or buckets or anything that would suggest their yearning to receive the miracle. Just faces in despair, bulging, breathless eyes.

We get out of the car. The man struts beside Father, his thumbs in his pants pockets, arms akimbo like the wings of a peacock. It hurts where he touched me, and I wonder if Father’s water will cleanse me. But that’s not my biggest worry, worse is the feeling of menace I notice in the air. No one is talking. No greetings, and that’s strange, because wherever he goes, people greet Father with enthusiasm: they crowd around to touch him, and he opens a path with his staff, august as though he were wearing a purple cape and crown and bearing a scepter. But none of that happens here. The villagers, crowded in one corner of the square, observe us with mistrust, and it even seems we’ve shown up here against their will. Someone coughs, a baby cries. Behind them, the crowded façades of the houses swell with heat. You’d think they were about to collapse and bury those assembled and the rubble would ascend to heaven in a great jumble of whitewash and bone dust.

Finally a woman breaks ranks and comes forward.

“We’ve been waiting,” she says.

The heat makes the silence expand until her words sound minute. The woman’s voice is barely audible.

“Well, here I am,” Father responds.

“People have died here,” the woman says.

Father isn’t one for losing time with empty chatter. So he gets to work, feeling the terrain with his staff, just as he did at the man’s house not long before. It’s pleasant to watch him. He moves with determination, obedient to an inner rhythm.

“It’s not here,” the woman says.

Father stops searching.


“It’s not here.”

“I’m the one who says where it is.”

“Well, I’m telling you, this isn’t where we want you doing it.”

Then something happens.

From the back of the square, where the villagers are gathered, the first sounds of cacophonous music rise up, the ceremonial funereal notes from what might be a hymn. Three cornet players and two drummers are standing at the head of the group, and the mass of them, immobile up till then, sets in motion. It’s a strange scene we’re party to. Chilling, to tell the truth. The procession advances in lockstep, a pilgrimage running from one end of the square to the other, and when it reaches our side, I notice, beneath the racket of the music, a second current, a murmur of overlapping whispers, as though the villagers were praying or casting spells.

The multitude pushes us and we are obliged to walk with them. The man hurries to remove two more jugs from the trunk of the car. His greed sickens me, but before I can say anything, the procession is at my heels and I have to walk.

Father and I are in the lead, a little in front of the man, who has stayed with the musicians. They drive us out of the village, pushing us toward the plateau. Three times I turn around, and three times I realize there’s no escape. The villagers are a compact, articulate mass it is impossible to elude. Seen up close, their faces are pale paper masks with a stiff rictus painted on. Even the children who hold their mother’s hands have that hollow but determined, martial expression.

We reach the village swamp. The music stops abruptly.

“The swamp,” the woman says. “That’s what we had you come here for. We want you to fill it.”

“Impossible,” Father answers.

The woman looks at him irritated, and a sigh of horror rises to the lips of all present. I ask myself who she is. She gives off an air of importance, and her voice rings with authority, though not so much as Father’s.

“What do you mean? Fill the swamp.”

Father shakes his head. It’s too big. He can’t fill the swamp alone, he says.

“So what kind of power is it you have, if I may ask?”

“I can give you water.”

“We don’t want a little water. We want you to fill up the swamp.”

“We want you to fill up the swamp,” one of the villagers shouts, and immediately this anthem is repeated and magnified into an explosion of threats and insults. The man joins into the chorus, too, banging on the two jugs as if they were two cymbals. “We want you to fill the swamp! We want you to fill the swamp!”

Father looks at me eloquently. With that I understand what it is he expects from me. This is the final test, the moment of revelation and truth. I’d like to say a few words, defend myself, shirk my task, but it is as if someone is holding me there. My mouth fills up with air. It’s too late.

“She’ll do it,” Father says, imposing his voice over the cries. “My daughter will fill the swamp.”

I should flee. Maybe the villagers will let me go, since Father is the target of their rage, not I, but my legs don’t respond. How could I just leave him? And where would I go? Everything stands in the way of my will; nothing can escape Father’s great ambition. Take the staff. Raise the staff. He’s already decided my fate. He looks back at the mob and betrays me three times: “My daughter, my daughter, my daughter,” he repeats.

The man grasps the two jugs as if they were extensions of his hands and points at us accusingly.

“He’s lying. The girl’s no good, she’s useless.”

“She can do it if she wants,” Father hisses.

The villagers fall silent and turn their attention to me. Father hands me the staff. I can see his figure blurry, an effect of the tension of the spectacle. “You’ll do it, right?” he asks me. “I’ll do it,” I respond, though I have no idea how to and even less why I am saying yes, accepting this fate that might mean my end. I feel a bit dizzy and want to raise my hand and ask their pardon before leaving the scene. Then I see the face of the man, his mockery, his scorn, how he sticks his tongue out and licks his lips savoring my failure in advance, and then I see Father’s face, without a drop of pity for me, and I think with terror that this day could last forever and that if it does, I will never be free of them. I will never be free of Him.

Sweat swells in my armpits and slips down my ribs while I clasp the staff. I try not to look at the swamp, at its insistent emptiness.

Don’t think of the water.

I close my eyes and, in the darkness within me, concentrate on something that lies in the depths of my being. I believe it’s there. Somewhere. Up to now, I’ve been too scared, and I’ve ignored it, but I think it’s time for us to meet. And so I call to it. First it seems it’s sleeping, but then I feel it quiver and wake up slowly, delicate fingers tickling my stomach, like a greeting or a nod between two old reunited friends. It’s dark, and it’s been waiting for me a long time.

I’ve just awakened it.

The air changes around me, I can sense a slight change in the atmosphere.

I remain still and wait.

Finally, the soil we are walking on begins to tremble, like the approach of a thousand armies, though we all know in truth the noise is coming from within the earth. The people shout, and some start to run: no one will make it far. I believe it’s rising already, and I must tell you that when it does, it may have a form distinct from the one we are hoping for. It may be red, like the bloody Nile, or black, black water clotted with rage. Or perhaps it will be something else, not water, who knows. Father’s voice asks me: “What did you do, you fool?” I open my eyes to see his panic, his profound rancor framed against a violet backdrop, a backdrop of disaster, and I feel neither grief nor satisfaction. Only peace.

© Ariadna Castellarnau. By arrangement with Editorial Planeta. Translation © 2020 by Adrian Nathan West. All rights reserved.

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