The Memory of Water
By David Moles
13 October 2003
They say that water has a memory. The homeopathic healer my Irene went to, after the doctors in Lincoln sent her home for the last time, she said that the waters remember. That in a solution of arsenic, perhaps -- diluted and diluted and diluted again until it might as well be pure distilled water -- in the vibration of its molecules some ghost of the original poison lives on.
But they also say the memory of water changes things. The ghost of the poison becomes a remedy. In the memory of water things are changed into their opposites.
My name is Carl Holtzmeyer. I am an American. I am eighty-six years old. I am sitting at my desk, in the furnished basement of the house in Clarence, Nebraska, where I lived with my Irene for more than fifty happy years. I am typing this on the IBM Selectric that I brought home twelve years ago when I retired from the insurance business.
It is important for me to remember these things.
My Irene has been dead for two years now and with each week since her passing it has become harder to remember who I am, where I am. Last week my great-nephew, George, called from Boston, and when I answered the telephone I spoke in German. The keys under my fingertips might be the keys of an Enigma machine. The light that comes from the little window near the ceiling might be the light coming through a machine-gun slit into a bunker in the Libyan desert.
And the trickle of water through the pipes behind the wall, when the Price boy from next door, who takes care of the yard for me, turns on the sprinklers, might be--
But I will come to that.
In 1943 my name was not Holtzmeyer but Ohlmeier, Karl Ohlmeier. I was German. I was a captain of intelligence in Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. I was twenty-six years old.
My father had been in the foreign office under the Weimar government, and several years of my childhood had been spent in England and America. I was seconded to Joachim Eistaucher's desert expedition because I was fluent in English -- the language of most of the expedition's pre-war maps -- and because I had studied geography at Heidelberg.
The intelligence group was sorry to lose me but I was not sorry to be gone. I had joined the army to fight, not to assist in the questioning of prisoners, and if the expedition was not the front, neither was it the interrogation cells.
To thank for getting me out of those cells I had the expedition's archaeologist, Professor Gotthard Leber of the German Academy of Science. Professor Leber also spoke English. He had been a member of the Royal Geographical Society, before the war, and he knew this part of Africa as well as anyone alive.
But he did not know what Eistaucher was looking for.
I asked him, while we were loading the trucks.
"Officially?" Leber said.
"Unofficially," I said. "I know the official answers."
Our goal was the oasis of al-Hijr al-Khannâs, known to Pliny and to Ibn Battuta, but long lost to Western geographers. A distinctive rock outcropping was said to mark its location, a ridge like a sinking ship, its prow facing southwest. Lenox and Nagy had claimed to find it in '36, and then to have lost it again. Their expedition and others had, however, narrowed the blank spaces on the maps, enough that we knew within fifty or a hundred kilometers where the oasis had to be -- too far from the front to have any strategic value.
Leber smiled. "The pursuit of knowledge is not enough for you?"
"We're at war," I said. "I don't think Himmler is twisting Rommel's arm just so that Eistaucher can add a footnote to Delbrück."
"Ask Eistaucher," Leber said. "It's his expedition."
"I did ask," I said. "He won't say -- just smiles and taps that little book of his."
Leber glanced over at Eistaucher, who was sitting on a packing crate in the shade of a camouflage tarp, leafing slowly through the pages of that book.
"I asked, too," Leber said. "Nothing. I wired some friends in Berlin, but they didn't turn anything up, either."
He looked back at me.
"The Holy Grail?" he suggested. "Thor's hammer? Wotan's missing eye? You tell me."
He was quiet for a moment. Then he shrugged.
"Who knows what these Ahnenerbe people believe?" he said.
Eistaucher was an SS Oberstleutnant, a lieutenant colonel. Rommel's opinion of the SS in general was no higher than Leber's of Eistaucher, and there were no regular SS units in the African theater; but Eistaucher was in the Ahnenerbe-SS, the Ancestral Heritage Division. The Ahnenerbe were the official archaeologists of the Party, dedicated to unearthing -- and, some said, fabricating -- evidence of German historical greatness. To Leber, they must have represented everything that had gone wrong with Germany since the Party took power.
The English classicist Housman said that in scholarship, accuracy is a duty, not a virtue. That was Leber, a truth-seeking scientist of the old school. But for the Ahnenerbe, both virtue and duty resided in telling the Party what the Party wanted to hear.
I am sure it never occurred to Leber that Eistaucher might believe the things he said. I am sure Leber thought no one but a fool or a madman could believe in something like the Welteislehre, and Eistaucher was neither.
As a man, Eistaucher was personable enough. He was in his early forties, and not uncultured; he spoke French and Turkish as well as Arabic. He had a degree in history from the University of Bremen and had spent much of the time between the wars in Turkey and the Balkans, searching for Greek antiquities.
To Leber, of course, that only meant that Eistaucher should have known better.
We had a squad of ten riflemen, disciplinary cases from the 999th who were relieved to be anywhere the fighting was not. We had three trucks, one for the troops, one for equipment and supplies, one for fuel. We had an old French-built biplane for reconnaissance, and a young Luftwaffe pilot, Fiedler, whose own machine had been destroyed on the ground by a British commando raid.
The trucks were loaded; we were waiting only for the mechanics to finish checking out Fiedler's plane. I had taken the moment to add a few lines to my letter, the same letter I had been trying to write for more than a year.
"Writing to your sweetheart?" Eistaucher asked me.
"My parents," I said.
"I could have it delivered for you, if you like," Eistaucher said. "The army's mail isn't always reliable, but I have connections."
"No, thank you," I said. "Perhaps when it's finished."
The letter was thick as a pocket Bible now, a loose bundle of papers bound up with string. Its earliest pages dated from January 1942; mere days before the news had come of my brother's death on the Eastern front. Since then I had not known what to say to my mother and father, but I kept writing anyhow, unable to finish the letter and unable to give it up.
"I can see it's giving you trouble," Eistaucher said.
I gathered the pages together and found the piece of string. Instead of answering, I said: "Oberstleutnant -- what are we looking for?"
Eistaucher smiled. "In a word, Ohlmeier? Salvation. The salvation of the German people."
I must have looked very dubious. Eistaucher's smile widened.
"You don't believe me?" he said. "Well, I didn't expect you to." He tapped the breast pocket where he kept his little book. "But it's all in here. You'll see."
Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the aircraft mechanics waving. I stood up.
"I'll have to trust you on that, Oberstleutnant," I said.
"Trust yourself, Ohlmeier," Eistaucher said. "Just keep an open mind; that's all I ask."
Each day Fiedler would fly ahead, taking photographs. Without a darkroom we could make no prints, but we developed the negatives and compared them against the pictures Lenox and Nagy had taken, and against the maps. The rest of us had to struggle along in the trucks, over roads that gave way first to dry, rocky ground and then to trackless dunes. We fitted the trucks with air wheels -- balloon tires, we would say now -- and kept going, navigating like mariners, by sextant and compass and dead reckoning.
"Let me borrow your binoculars," Eistaucher said, as we were pitching camp at the end of the third day.
I handed them to him. "What is it?" I said.
Then I followed his gaze, and saw a dark figure atop a dune, stark against the yellow haze of the southern sky.
"Here," said Eistaucher. He handed the binoculars back. I looked through them and the figure gained shape and color: blue robes, blue turban, and the long line of a rifle, not slung barrel-down in the Arab manner, but upright.
I lowered the binoculars as Leber came up next to us. I offered them to him but he waved them away.
"Tuareg," he said, squinting.
"Working for the British, do you think?" I said.
Leber shook his head.
"No," he said. "But they won't want us here. Even at the best of times, getting information out of these tribes is like pulling teeth. Each one has its own body of desert lore, which they keep secret even from one another. The caravan guides can talk in circles all day and not tell you anything."
"What will they do?" asked Eistaucher.
"Maybe they'll do nothing." Leber said. "Maybe they'll kill us all." He shrugged. "An oasis -- any oasis -- is a secret treasure, out here. But there's something special about al-Hijr al-Khannâs."
The buzz of an aircraft engine became audible, and we looked up to see Fiedler's plane. He was shouting something as he came in to land, but it was impossible to make out his words over the sound of the engine.
The propeller spun down, and now, as he climbed out, I could hear him:
"I've found it, I've found it!" he called. He pulled off his helmet and goggles as he came up to us. "A rocky ridge two hundred meters long, in the shape of a sinking ship. Just like Nagy's sketches." He opened his map case to show us.
As Eistaucher and Leber bent over the map, and Fiedler traced his course, I looked again to the southern horizon, but the Tuareg was gone.
Whatever one might think of the SS, they did at least have useful connections. Eistaucher had two bottles of plum brandy that a friend had sent him from Croatia; we gave one to the men, and the four of us -- Eistaucher, Leber, Fiedler, and I -- shared the other around the campfire.
Eistaucher was delighted with Fiedler's success, of course, but more than that, something about the sight of the Tuareg tribesman seemed to fire his imagination.
"As for half-breeds like the natives here," Eistaucher said, "sterilization is enough for them. Once the unfit stock has been culled from the herds, so to speak, there'll be no more danger of miscegenation. The race will purify itself in a generation." He took a mouthful of brandy. "But then, do we rest on our laurels, gentlemen?" he said. "The Führer talks of permanent struggle, but eventually all our enemies will have been defeated. What happens once our civilizing mission is over?"
Leber muttered: "When you've strangled the last Negro with the entrails of the last Jew, you mean?"
I was young. At the time the phrase final solution had not yet entered the language. The news coming out of Poland and the General Government talked only of new "model ghettos," of resettlement, and I thought Leber was being unfair. But Eistaucher was oblivious.
"Peace, I suppose," I said.
"But what of the race?" Eistaucher said. His voice became low, conspiratorial, though there was no one to overhear but the desert night. "Are you familiar with the idea of 'devolution,' gentlemen?" he asked. "People who call the Negroid races subhuman don't know the half of it. The Negro is an animal, yes, a transitional form of ape. One treats him as one treats a weed in the garden. But they are to be pitied, not feared. Hottentots!" he scoffed. "I've seen far worse things; in Romania, in the Carpathians before the war -- even in Germany itself, in the Black Forest and the foothills of the Alps. I've seen what even the Nordic race can become."
"What do you mean?" asked Fiedler.
Eistaucher's eyes gleamed in the firelight. "Imagine an ape, Lieutenant," he said. "But not merely an ape. Imagine an ape that remembers being human -- remembers it in the blood, in the bone. Imagine its cunning, its resentment of those who still have the humanity that it has lost. Imagine its hatred!"
Leber stirred. "I don't have to imagine it," he said. "I've seen it." He stood up. Looking directly at Eistaucher, he said: "One doesn't have to go to the Carpathians. One can see it in the streets of Berlin." He turned to go to his tent. Over his shoulder he added: "One can also see it here in Africa. Good night, gentlemen."
The next day Fiedler's plane did not return. Most likely it was a mechanical fault, we thought, but he might have been taken ill, or made an error in navigation. He might even have run into a British patrol -- though that seemed unlikely, this far out into a desert that suddenly felt very large, and very empty.
I thought of my mother and father back in Berlin. If the expedition never returned from the desert, perhaps I would not even be posted dead, but only missing. My parents might never know what had happened; might not even know whether I was alive or dead.
We conferred; but Eistaucher would not hear of turning back, and Leber and I could think of no better plan than to press on.
It was on the third day after Fiedler failed to return that the Tuaregs came.
Contrary to what television and film may have led you to believe, a tanker truck filled with gasoline does not explode easily, even when the tank is ruptured and the leaking fuel catches fire. But it will burn, and that is what our fuel truck did, stubbornly and with thick billows of oily black smoke that would have prevented us from smothering the blaze with sand even if we had not been too tired to lift our shovels.
Six of our ten riflemen were dead, including their sergeant. Another was badly wounded and would die later that night. I myself had a metal splinter through my left hand, as long as the blade of Eistaucher's SS dagger. While the able-bodied soldiers did what they could for the wounded man, Leber cleaned my wound and bandaged it.
As for the Tuaregs, they had vanished as suddenly as they had appeared.
The fuel truck burned through the rest of the night. The morning sun revealed a black pillar of smoke that must have called out our location to anyone within a hundred kilometers.
But the sun revealed something else as well, something that had been hidden the day before in the evening haze: on the horizon, an outcropping of rock that thrust out of the sand like the bow of a foundering ship.
We found Fiedler's plane in the lee of the great rock. Of Fiedler himself there was no sign.
Close up, the rock did not look so unnatural. Sand gave way gradually to small boulders and then larger ones, tumbled against the slopes of the ridge. Some distance from the rock the sand was mostly clear of rubble, and that was where Fiedler's plane sat, below what would have been the ship's prow, on the edge of a gully perhaps five meters across and two meters deep.
"It's a dry riverbed, isn't it?" I asked Leber.
"A watercourse, at any rate," he said. "A channel for flash floods."
"But that doesn't make any sense," I said. "The ground here slopes down to the northeast, and what rain this place gets comes from the northeast as well. This channel's on the southwest side, it can't have been formed by rainwater."
"That's because it wasn't, Ohlmeier!" Eistaucher called. He scrambled down to the floor of the gully and took his little book out of his pocket. Opening it, he consulted the pages, seeming to compare something he saw there with the landscape in front of him. "Yes," he murmured. "Yes, this is it." Then he put the book away and looked up. "Do you want to see what formed this channel, Ohlmeier? Come, and I'll show you!" And he started up the channel, towards the jumble of boulders at the base of the rock outcropping -- where there was, I saw now, the dark eye of a cave entrance.
I looked at Leber.
"He's mad," Leber said quietly.
I ordered the riflemen to tie down Fiedler's plane and then take up positions on the slopes of the ridge, to keep watch in case the Tuaregs returned.
"I don't know how long we'll be in there," I said. "If we're not back by dark, you fire a shot. If those Tuaregs come back, you fire a shot." I looked around at the blank horizon. "If you even think you see something," I told the riflemen, "you fire a shot."
Then Leber and I followed Eistaucher into the rocks.
For more than forty years I sold insurance, here in Clarence, first with my father-in-law Joe Faber and then with my niece's husband, Ted Ross. We were honest men. We didn't sell useless, overpriced life insurance to fearful old women; we sold crop and fire and auto insurance to farmers and small businessmen.
I was never a great salesman. On a good day, if a man already knew he wanted something, I could usually sell it to him. My father-in-law was better: he could sell a man what he needed, whether or not he wanted it. But the best salesmen -- the ones I met at conventions, the ones who won awards -- they could sell earthquake insurance to a Minnesota farmer and hail insurance to a Maine lobsterman.
Honesty is a strange thing. A man who lies to you is dishonest, yes, but what about a man who also lies to himself? A man who has convinced himself that your family is in grave danger, that you desperately need the protection of whole-life policies, catastrophic injury riders, prepaid legal coverage?
I am not sure why the question of Eistaucher's honesty is so important to me. Perhaps the honesty I am actually questioning is my own.
It is late. I will finish this tomorrow. There are some things I do not wish to think on in darkness.
The cave entrance had been triangular once, a sharp gash in the rock, but -- it was obvious, now that we were up close -- years of flowing water had smoothed it, widened it, until it was almost round, a meter and a half tall and nearly as broad. Eistaucher had already gone ahead, bent nearly double. I switched on my electric lamp and followed him. Leber came behind me, dropping to his hands and knees.
A little past the entrance the cave opened into a wider chamber, tall enough that we could stand up. The walls were something like white limestone, sculpted by the passing water into organic shapes like polished coral, though the air still tasted of dust and the floor of the cave was strewn with desert sand.
We found Eistaucher there, standing over Fiedler's body.
The body was grotesquely bloated, the flesh straining at the fabric of the Luftwaffe uniform, the exposed face and hands white and swollen. There was a rank smell, not the smell of dead flesh but something older and colder, like something prised out of a shell in the shallows of a tide pool. And despite the desiccated air, the dry rock around us and beneath our feet, the body was damp, too, the uniform cloth dark with moisture, the hair matted against the skin.
There was no escaping the conclusion: surrounded by ten thousand square kilometers of desert, Fiedler had drowned.
"Well," Eistaucher said, looking almost as pale as poor Fiedler. He wiped his mouth nervously on the back of his hand. "Well," he said again. "We'd better go on." He started to turn away, and I grabbed his shoulder.
"No," I said. "Not until you tell us why we're here."
Eight men had died, and while the deaths of the seven riflemen were no worse than those they might have met in the Western Desert, what had happened to Fiedler was something else, something terrible.
All I could think was that I was responsible; that I would have to write a letter to Fiedler's mother without even knowing what lie to tell her.
Something of that must have showed in my face, because Eistaucher did not protest or pull himself away; he only stepped back, from me and from the corpse, and lit a cigarette.
"Tell me, Ohlmeier: what do you think made that channel out there?"
"The dry riverbed? Water, I expect."
"Really? But we're in the middle of a desert -- where did the water come from?"
I shrugged. "Down here?"
He smiled. "But doesn't that strike you as odd?" He turned to Leber. "Professor Leber -- perhaps you could explain the water table to Captain Ohlmeier?"
Leber scowled. "It's the level of water in the underground aquifer -- cracks in the rock and such. Water seeks its own level underground just as it does on the surface."
"Very good," said Eistaucher. "Now how far below the surface would you say the water table is here? A good fifty or a hundred meters, wouldn't you think?"
"Normally I would, yes," said Leber.
"But obviously here it was much higher," said Eistaucher. "It was much higher when that channel was made. What forced it to the surface?"
"How should I know?" said Leber.
Eistaucher laughed. "I'll tell you what it was, Leber: ice."
He might have been talking about ice cream, the way Leber looked at him. "Eistaucher -- what on Earth are you talking about?"
"Ice!" Eistaucher said. "Subterranean ice, forced to the surface by volcanic forces." He made a squeezing motion with his hands. "The ice is forced through underground channels like a glacier, don't you see? And when it reaches the surface it bursts through -- melts -- and the meltwater erupts from the rocks!"
Leber and I looked at each other. Then Leber turned away; he must have been one step ahead of me.
"So" -- I began, carefully -- "you think this is one of those channels?"
"And where is this subterranean ice supposed to have come from?" I asked.
Eistaucher knocked the ash from his cigarette. "You are familiar with the Welteislehre of Hans Hörbiger, the World-Ice Theory?"
"Something about the moon being made of ice, isn't it?" I said. What little I knew of Hörbiger's ice cosmology was enough to tell me it was pseudo-scientific nonsense, on a par with the hollow-Earth theory; but like the hollow-Earth theory the Welteislehre was highly popular with the Ahnenerbe and even the upper echelons of the regular SS, and so I held my tongue.
"Not just this moon, Ohlmeier; all the moons."
"What?" Now I was completely baffled.
Eistaucher sighed. "You're an intelligent man, Ohlmeier. You should read Hörbiger's book. Suffice to say that the current moon isn't Earth's first, or its last. The geological history of our planet is the history of ice moons being captured by Earth's gravity, where they gradually spiral closer and closer, creating tidal floods and earthquakes, and finally breaking up into a world-ending ice storm. We remember the last time this happened, the breakup of the Cenozoic moon, in legends and folklore: the Fimbulwinter of Nordic myth isn't a prophecy for the future, it's a record of the past!"
I glanced at Leber to see how he was taking this. He did not even appear to be listening; his eyes were on the floor of the cave, his hands in his pockets, and his lips were pursed in a tuneless whistle. I turned back to Eistaucher.
"So what does the Cenozoic moon have to do with us?" I asked.
"Don't you see, Ohlmeier? The Fimbulwinter that followed the Cenozoic moon was the cradle of the Nordic race! Imagine a new Fimbulwinter -- glaciers erupting from the Earth, marching across Asia and Africa -- scouring the land clean! The mongrel races fly before us, or freeze in the snow -- it makes no difference." He waved a hand. "Oh, I know what you're thinking, Ohlmeier: the Wehrmacht can win the war; why do we need the ice?"
Actually I was thinking of the ice, trying to imagine Eistaucher's glacier world, war in Eistaucher's glacier world, bleaker than the North African desert, colder than the Russian winter. Was it this dream, I wondered, that had sent my brother to his death in the snows of Leningrad?
"I'll tell you why," Eistaucher went on. "Remember when I asked you what happens after the war? The ice made our race strong, Ohlmeier; we need the ice to keep it strong. We need it to keep us from devolving into something worse than apes."
He turned and ran his hand along the smooth surface of the wall.
"It's near," he said. "I can feel it." He looked over his shoulder. "Just a little farther, gentlemen."
I looked at Leber, who shrugged; and we followed Eistaucher into the next chamber. As I passed Fiedler's corpse I stumbled, and looked again, involuntarily, at the dead man's face; and this time I saw that it was smiling.
The oceans have, on average, a salinity of about three point five percent. The salinity of the human body is lower, less than one percent. Once the theory was that when the first living cells formed, the salinity of the oceans was lower; and those cells -- fragile bubbles of water, little more -- captured the seawater of that ancient time and preserved it, carrying it unchanged down to the present day.
In our blood, it once was said, is the memory of ancient oceans.
I do not know what I expected, when we passed into the next chamber, or what Eistaucher expected. An ice cave, perhaps, or a glacier-carved tunnel leading deep into the Earth, down to the ice layer that preserved the remnants of Hörbiger's Cenozoic moon.
All we found, though, was a simple round chamber, only slightly larger than the first one, with no other outlets. The only difference was the surface of the rock. It seemed mottled, as though crawling with tiny shadows. Eistaucher was kneeling against the far wall, scratching at a crack.
I held my electric lamp higher. Not shadows: painted shapes, thousands of them. Most of them were simple human figures, but there were other things as well: plants, fish, wavy lines to represent water, and something like the prow of a sinking ship, that must have been the rock over our heads.
Leber laughed. "Ah, yes," he said cheerfully. "I've seen something like these before. At Zerzura. In the Cave of Swimmers." He turned to Eistaucher. "There's no ice here, you fool. There never has been." He gestured at the largest figure, where the waving water-lines emerged from beneath the rock. "Once there was a spring, perhaps. Maybe just a channel for rainwater from the top of the rock. A little river. People drank from it and swam in it and fished it. Until the spring dried up and the river went away. That's all." He turned away. Over his shoulder he added: "I'll see you outside, Ohlmeier."
And he left.
"No," Eistaucher said. "No, there has to be more." He stood and took my arm. "Ohlmeier -- you know there's more, don't you?"
I shook off his grip.
"We're leaving, Oberstleutnant," I said. "You can stay or come as you please." And I turned my back on him.
From behind, he called: "What about Fiedler?"
But I no longer wanted to know what had happened to Fiedler. I only wanted to be away from here, away from this madman, away from this desert.
I stopped, then, but not because of Eistaucher. I stopped because I heard the murmur of water.
And in it, the murmur of voices.
come to us
The words were not in German, or Arabic, or English, or any other language that I knew, but I understood them.
come to us, minnow
There was a smell in the air, an ocean smell, not the tide-flat smell that had hung about Fiedler's corpse but the clean scent of a sea-fog just before dawn.
I turned and saw Eistaucher's eyes wide in the electric light. He heard the voices too, and he was afraid.
come to us
I was not. There was nothing in the voices for me to fear. On the contrary, they were soothing, reassuring, familiar, like a childhood dream remembered. Women's voices, the sound of a lover's whispered lullaby.
Something cold touched my feet, and I looked down. Water was pooling around my ankles. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.
I was suddenly conscious of the sand in my clothes, of the dust ground into my skin by my time in the desert, not just the few days of the expedition but the weeks and months I had been serving in North Africa. I wanted nothing more than to slide into cool water and rinse myself clean.
the brine sweet on your lips
Eistaucher jerked as if something had stung him. A reflection moved across the silver fittings of his SS uniform, a ripple of blue-black like the wake following a shark's fin, gone so quickly I couldn't be sure I had seen anything at all. The water was over my calves.
Eistaucher took a step towards me and stumbled; abruptly he was knee-deep in water. He took another step, and fell full-length.
"There's no bottom!" he spluttered as he came up. His lamp had gone out.
The floor of the cave seemed to be tilting, sliding away. I kept my footing as the water rose over my waist.
the sea grass rustling
"Christ, Ohlmeier!" Eistaucher cried. "Help me!"
the long waves singing
But I wasn't listening to Eistaucher; I didn't need him, or his pseudoscientific explanations. I wasn't even seeing him.
I was seeing the world of the voices.
The underwater world.
I saw phosphorescent coral that glittered in the darkness like the lights of cities.
the kelp that caresses your fins
I saw real cities of the surface world, lying in ruins under a thousand fathoms of water. I saw fish like birds and fish like the living spirits of night.
the current that rushes through your gills
I saw, with senses no more like sight than taste is like touch, great artworks, sculptures made from standing waves, patterns of sound in the water like the dreams of dolphins. I saw the beauty that fills the empty spaces of the deep ocean.
the tides that run in your blood
And I saw the sirens whose voices whispered to me, lovelier by far than anything that ever walked on land.
and come to us
This is where we came from, I thought. Not out of the ice, or the African plains. We came out of the sea. And we can go back. We have forgotten, but the water remembers.
come to us
I hardly noticed Eistaucher as he splashed past me, fighting his way back toward the cave entrance. My electric lamp went out.
come to us, little fish
The water was at the level of my chest. I dropped the lamp and slipped under the surface, my eyes open on darkness.
And then, just as I was about to take my first breath beneath the surface, through the water, through the singing, I heard the sound of a gunshot.
And hearing that sound suddenly I remembered who I was, and why I was supposed to be here. The pull of the voices was no weaker, but I had recovered my self-discipline and the voices now warred with my sense of responsibility. With an effort I lifted my head above the surface and took a breath of air, my lungs protesting, yearning for water. I swam until my eyes found the light of the entrance, and my feet found the cave floor. It seemed awkward and unnatural to stand and walk, but I did it; I clambered out of the cave, into the harsh sunlight.
All three riflemen were there, at the bottom of the dry riverbed -- which had, now, a trickle of water running through it; and even in that trickle I could still hear the siren song.
Eistaucher was there, too, his pistol drawn; and there was something on the ground at his feet.
I came closer; and saw that it was the body of Professor Leber. He had been shot in the chest. That was the gunshot I had heard.
"I had to stop him," Eistaucher was babbling. "He was trying to go back into the cave; I had to stop him--" He looked up, and saw me. "Ohlmeier! You're alive!"
I didn't look at him; I looked at the riflemen, and tried not to think about the water already pooling around Leber's corpse, or about the way my own body ached to return to the cave, or about the music that I could still faintly hear.
come to us
I kept my voice level and tried not to think of anything at all as I said: "You will place the Oberstleutnant under arrest."
The riflemen looked at Eistaucher, a madman with a gun in an SS uniform, and at me, a regular officer who appeared to be in control of his faculties, and made the correct decision. Two of them raised their rifles, and the third reached to take Eistaucher's pistol.
"What? Ohlmeier, you can't -- you have to understand--"
But my own pistol was out now, and I didn't have to understand anything. I pointed it at Eistaucher's left eye.
"You've killed nine men already on this expedition, Oberstleutnant," I said. "Don't make it ten."
His eyes widened, but he was not looking at me; he was looking at something over my shoulder. Surely, I thought, you don't expect me to fall for that -- but the riflemen turned, too, crying out; and as I turned my head to look the foaming waves crashed over me and bore me to the ground.
More people drown in the desert than in the sea. They drown from lack of imagination. They simply cannot imagine enough water to drown in.
A Swede wrote that. Sven Lindqvist. Quite recently. He is an old man now, only five years younger than I am. While I am no longer able to do my own yard work, he thinks nothing of driving across half of Africa in a broken-down Renault, with nothing but a battered portable computer and a copy of Conrad or Saint-Exupéry for company.
When Lindqvist wrote those words he was speaking of flash floods. I do not believe he has ever written about al-Hijr al-Khannâs; I do not know if his travels have ever taken him there. Most likely they have not, as he is not so interested in the desert itself as in its people, and al-Hijr al-Khannâs has none, now.
When Lindqvist wrote the words they drown from lack of imagination I do not think he understood how literally such an event could take place.
It was near nightfall when I came to, perhaps a hundred meters downstream; the streambed was already dry, as dry as it had been when we arrived. I pulled myself to my feet, coughing; my mouth tasted of sand. I stumbled back along the streambed toward the rock, red in the sunset.
I found Fiedler's body first -- the pilot no longer looked drowned, but rather mummified, desiccated, as if by a hundred years of desert winds. I found Leber, looking much as he had immediately after Eistaucher had shot him; blood still stained his shirt, though much of it had been washed away. I found the three riflemen, one by one, desiccated as Fiedler, the last of them right up against the wall of the cliff -- where the cave was no longer a cave, but a mere slit, a mere crack in the wall, visible only to those who knew it was there -- or, perhaps, only to those who imagined it.
Of Eistaucher there was no sign.
The men were all dead.
I had no responsibilities here, after all.
I threw myself, then, against the crack in the rock of al-Hijr al-Khannâs; but though I clawed at the stone till my fingers bled, there came from it nothing but a trickle of sand, which soon stopped.
But I could still hear the whisper of the sirens.
little lost fish
Water, I thought -- not as a rational man lost in the desert thinks of water, but as a man long abstinent thinks of a beautiful woman. Without water I shall die.
And I started walking north, toward the coast.
How I survived the journey, I do not know. I came across Eistaucher's corpse perhaps a kilometer from the Tripoli road. He had made a wide circle and fallen facing away from the road, back toward al-Hijr al-Khannâs; unable, in the end, to resist the call.
When I rolled Eistaucher over to see if he was alive, his eyes had turned to pearls.
By the time I reached Tripoli, some of the madness had been burned out of me. Some, but not all. I stood on the crest of a hill half a kilometer from the moonlit water, with the city lights in the distance. I watched the waves coming in, and listened to the call of the surf.
I started to strip off my clothes. I struggled with buttons and tore at the fabric with trembling fingers. As I kicked at my trousers one of the pockets ripped and something fell out.
A sheaf of note paper, the size of a pocket Bible, bound with string.
I picked it up. I thought of my mother and father in Berlin, still waiting for news. I ruffled the pages; the water had soaked them through, and the words were illegible.
I buttoned up my trousers, then, and turned my face toward the city. I fixed my eyes on the road and marched, step by weary step, away from the waves. My nerves screamed and more than once I stumbled as my legs attempted to disobey me, to change my course, to take me back.
come to us
I was almost grateful when the Allied patrols found me, grateful to have my free will taken away, my responsibility for my actions lifted. I am told, though, that when they shipped me to Italy -- along with a number of other German prisoners in need of medical care -- I had to be heavily sedated, as the sight of the waves and the motion of the ship made me hysterical. For my part I have no memory of the voyage.
In Italy, in the prisoner-of-war hospital, I received a letter from a cousin I hardly knew, in Bremen. The letter said that my parents had been killed by an Allied bombing raid, in Berlin, while I was still in Africa.
I wept then; not for my parents, but for the chance I had lost on the beach at Tripoli.
Later, after they had moved us up into one of the hill towns, away from the call of the water, I remembered those tears, and wept again, for shame.
There were twenty of us in the ward. I was the only one who spoke English. It was not long before I asked the pretty, dark-haired nurse on the morning shift for her name.
"Irene," she said. "Irene Faber."
"My name is Karl," I said. "Where are you from, Irene?"
"Nebraska," she said.
I rolled the unfamiliar syllables over in my head. "Nebraska. That is not near the sea?"
"The sea!" She shook her head and laughed. "No, it's not near the sea. It's in the middle of the country." She smiled, not unkindly, and patted me on the shoulder. "Smack-dab in the middle."
I laughed with her. I had no idea what smack-dab meant, but I was charmed even so.
Two months later we were married.
We had a good life, my Irene and I. We never had children, but there were our nieces and nephews -- her sister's children -- and their children. We did many things together, while her father and I worked together and after I retired. We traveled a great deal: Europe, South America, China.
But inland -- always inland.
In her last years Irene started nagging me to go with her to Florida, where our great-nephew George had -- has -- a vacation home. But even at the very end, when I would have done almost anything for her, I refused. Chicago, on the shore of Lake Michigan, was dangerous enough, and even in Omaha, on the banks of the Missouri, I did not trust myself. Florida was out of the question.
When Irene asked why, I put her off with made-up reasons. She knew that I was lying; she knew that it had something to do with the war, and she forgave me. But she never guessed the truth; how could she?
I loved Irene more than -- well, it would be conventional to say I loved her more than life itself, but that implies a stronger love for life than I think I can lay claim to. For all the years of our life together, I loved Irene absolutely and unconditionally.
So long as I was well inland.
This morning I called George. He was delighted when I asked if I could use his beach house.
"Becky and I have been worried about you," he said.
They have been worried about me. They will worry more, in a few days, but that cannot be helped. If I stay here, my death will come soon enough, and will surely be no less painful than my disappearance.
There comes a time in a man's life when he is responsible for no one, to no one, but himself. It came to me on the beach at Tripoli -- if only I had known!
Few men are fortunate enough to have that time come more than once. I do not begrudge the years. I do not begrudge the life I had, with Irene. But now that Irene has gone, that time has surely come to me again.
Tomorrow I will fly to Florida. I will stand on the beach, and listen; and when I hear the call, this time, I will walk into the waves.
Copyright © 2003 David Moles
David Moles has lived in six time zones on three continents and hopes some day to collect the whole set. His work has appeared in Say. . ., Polyphony, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. His favorite color is blue and his favorite Murillo is Abraham and the Three Angels. For more on his work, see his website. His previous appearance in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.