Back to Michael McNeilley's Artist PageTo the Artist's Page     Back to the Unlikely Stories home pageTo our home page
Another Way of SingingTo Michael McNeilley's previous piece


The camels sway in their own strange rhythm, so far from side to side they seem likely to fall over, to the left or to the right. They race across waves of sand, picking up speed as we spot green at last, just on the horizon.

Palms rise in the nearing distance: the smell of water is so clear we can taste it now, as the camels have tasted it for miles. The oasis is not such a large one, but the lake is big enough to draw us down from our mounts as they shove their heads into the water, and we fall into the shallows, splashing. Omar laughs, yells "Look, a fish," and throws his shoe at me: falls backward, arms spread.

* * *

I push my shopping cart down the aisle, turn the corner and there is Jane. Jane was a regular at the bar I used to go to, five years ago or more...could it have been that long? Still, strange as always in her dress and manner, she is also unchanged; it's obviously Jane.

She's wearing a peasant blouse and a flowing skirt, Birkenstocks, an earthtoned headscarf knotted to one side. She looks different, just like she always did.

I walk up to her: she's reading the small print on a box of something. She jumps to hug me and we talk for a moment about people we knew, where they went. We saw one another socially for a year or two, had a lot of friends in common, never slept together, but with Jane it always seemed as if we had, some long time past.

"Blue, or green?" Jane asks me.


"Blue, or green? Which would you prefer, if you were looking into one?"

I look at last at the box in her hand: the letters are large and hard to read:

"Oasis Bowl Colorizer and Deodorizer." It's some sort of toilet cake; apparently it comes in blue, and in green.

"Blue." I tell her. "Whatever happened to Ron?"

"Moved to New York, I think. Last time I saw him, we went to a Jaws festival. He always loved those movies. I hated them. Except for the music. Why blue?"

Jane had a way of synthesizing conversations, as though any idea that had ever fit into the conversation before fit perfectly still, automatically, with any other idea there now. This always made her fun to talk to.

"Get blue," I said, "and you can have blue, and when you want to, you can have green."

Jane considered this for a moment. "Odd there are no other colors. Purple might be nice. Or red. Then again..."

We talked of people mostly, at first, then talked of ourselves, over Perrier and lime, in the place next door, out under an umbrella, inside a picket fence set up on the sidewalk, under the dull orange of a DC summer sky; then moved inside to gin and tonics, at the beginning of what turned out to be a fine, cooling rain.

* * *

As they have for thousands of years, two rivers meet some 20 miles from the ocean.

In the larger river red fish abound, ranging in size from tiny darting red minnows through large salmon. The river seems to carry a red undertone during spawning season.

The waters run slowly here, but upriver they fall sharply from a northern mountain range; dash through canyons, over whitewater rapids and around boulders the size of pickup trucks. Here the river deepens as it nears its end, tame enough now to be accompanied by sailboarders and rowboat fishermen, companioning, moving on down to the sea.

The other river, the smaller of the two, rises in a southern mountain range, winding slowly through pastures, farms and wine country. The fish in this river are mostly blue in color. The trout, bluegills and other fish have perhaps adapted to the clarity and lack of depth of the river water, and hide in their protective coloration even in the shallows. Here near the end of its course the river speeds up over a wider but shallow bed. Here the waters run fast, clear and cold.

The rivers meet at a place the Indians called "matee sontara", or "birthing waters." The current owners of the land have renamed the spot Point Diablo, and have built a nuclear reactor, containment unit and cooling tower on the point of shore just past which the two rivers meet.

Downriver, toward the sea, in recent years an unusual purple fish has been discovered, and become plentiful. Dorsal fin measurements, average lengths and weights, dentition, gill development and other factors, while each well within expected small fish parameters, seem to make no sense taken together. In their combination of features, and especially in their color, these fish are like no other fish known. More of the strange fish appear each season. Only the tourists will eat the purple fish. "Sontara" they are called on local restaurant menus. "Devilfish," the locals call them.

The rivers have met here for millennia, since before there were men and women to name them, but these two rivers are not old as rivers go. The idea that comprises the rivers is not nearly so ancient as the idea of the fish that swim in them.

The idea of men and women is a much newer idea still, only a blink in the season of a river, only an instant in time since the idea of fish first formed.

Tourists themselves, the rivers accept the gift of the purple fish without judgment. To the north and to the south, the fish swim upstream.

* * *

I wake, dreaming I am in a tiny bathroom, shocked to find that warm water covers the bed. I pull at the covers, angry and embarrassed at first, and find myself floating to the ceiling, pulling myself up while trying to tug the sheets down.

At first I shove my feet toward the floor, unable to grasp the situation beyond a need to treat its symptoms: if I can return to the bed, things will go back to normal. I open my mouth to curse, and watch as bubbles float up toward the ceiling.

I rush, half run, half swim to the door. The knob turns, but the door will not open. I sink into the room, breathing water like air, tasting a hint of mustiness, of cedar, of perfume. I move to the window, and by now am not surprised to find I cannot open it.

As I think to find something to break my way out, I float downward to the floor, calming at last, and realize I should not break the window. I look outside; clouds slide past a blue afternoon.

* * *

The apartment was expensive, but it was what we wanted. It was good somehow, the huge tedium of carrying, carrying, lifting and carrying, box after box, pieces of furniture, lamps, books and more books, sporting goods, bicycles, my weight set, computer stuff, more boxes. The weight of it all masked the enormity of what we were doing, combining our things irretrievably this time, moving in together.

I set up the cinder blocks, assembled the frame on top of them, hooked up the heater and spread out the waterbed. I'd bought a hose at People's just for this job. I hooked it up, ran it for a few moments, added a few chemicals to the bag and turned it on to fill, knowing it would take some time. Dragging the last few boxes in from the elevator, I looked at the white bag filling, wished it were warm and ready, and fell out on the sofa. Alice was already at one end, and we leaned together and were asleep almost immediately, just a short nap, the only possible reaction to the fatigue and the sweat and the pressure.

I awoke to a crack like a gunshot; Alice did the same. We looked at each other in wonderment: we both knew we had both heard it, but what the hell?

Bang...again. Then a deep groaning...creaking.

I stood up, bent and crept toward the bedroom door. Alice peered around the end of the sofa, watching me. The groaning sound was louder, then softer...strange. I stepped into the bedroom.

I jumped back at another CRACK-POP, followed by a thud, as the side of the waterbed frame fell off and hit the floor, the "L" brackets at both ends bent crazily, pulled from their screws. The waterbed loomed like Moby Dick, spouting streams of water on all sides like fireboats in the bay on the 4th. I felt Alice behind me.

"Shit." we said together, and ran to the bathroom. I turned off the water, unhooked the hose from the utility faucet under the sink, and stuck the end in the bathtub. The water pressure was amazing...I had to put the bathroom scale on it to keep the hose end from whipping around the room. From the other room, Alice was calling.

"Listen," she said as I slid to a stop next to her on the slick polished hardwood floor. She stood, mop in hand, listening. The groaning, again...deep and weird.

"What the hell is that?" Alice asked.

"The floor," I said, amazed at it myself. "From the sound of it, it was getting ready to go." From up here on the fourth floor, it could have been pretty impressive.

We mopped carefully at first, still afraid to trust the floor. The screws that had held the sides of the frame to its base had broken, puncturing the waterbed in a dozen places along the edge, and little rivulets continued to run. It was a mess, but on the waxed floor, in the empty room, it was not a bad mess, and we cleaned it up as best we could, and put most of our towels on the floor to catch the last leakage. By the time we were done, only a few minutes had passed, but the groaning had stopped.

"I won't feel okay again until this thing's emptied out," I said. "No telling what a thing like that weighs."

"Tons." Alice said, covering the mattress with an old quilt, then lying down on it. "Come here," she patted the bed. It wobbled like a big white belly.

I climbed on, and we kissed, then lay back holding hands, then put our hands behind our heads and our ears to the side, and listened to the water running. It was a hot summer day, but after a while I felt chilled to the bone. We looked into each other's eyes, then out the window, didn't say much.

But we feel asleep again on the large cold mound of waterbed, which emptied as we slept, and we woke on hard wood, the bed emptied out during the night. We warmed ourselves together under a warm stinging shower spray, just enough hot water left... one of my best memories of that time.

We bought a bed together the next day, not a waterbed, a very standard-looking, innerspring sort of bed. Queen size. It was never, as it turned out, what we wanted. When we split up, we left it behind.

* * *

The room is strangely familiar, but at first I can't place it at all. The walls are covered with bookcases; the cases full of paperbacks. There must be thousands of them. Jane.

Water runs in the bathroom, there is the sound of flushing, and a white cat scurries out around the door, lopes to the bed and jumps up, approaches me, purring. I laugh at his blue beard.

The cat ignores me, and I turn to admire the purple fish in the tank on the headboard behind me as Jane begins to sing, the shower running.

* * *

The smells of caravans are as interesting as their hues, textures and tastes, and I spend the day immersed in exotic renewal. Trade does not go well: it seems everything I have is the wrong color. Perhaps tomorrow will be better.

That evening, the camel sticks his nose into the tent again, farther than last night: Omar leads him away with a bowl of water.

To the top of this pageTo the top of this page