Alta Journal is pleased to present the third installment of a five-part serialization of the opening section of Properties of Thirst, the new novel by National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Marianne Wiggins. The book is a multigenerational saga of California in which rancher Rocky Rhodes battles the Los Angeles Water corporation against the backdrop of World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the death of his wife.
Each week, we’ll publish online the next portion from this first section, titled “The First Property of Thirst Is an Element of Surprise.” Visit altaonline.com/serials to keep reading and sign up here for email notifications when each new installment is available.
—he had tried to save this land for what was now the greater part of his life—tried to save it, first, when he was young, from the course he reckoned Nature had set it on:
What a young turk’s cocking venture.
What he’d learned: Don’t fuck with Mother Nature.
—don’t fuck with her, don’t underestimate her superior logic, don’t think that you can improve upon her grander something, you are a nameless nothing in her cosmic mojo.
Second lesson: You can’t save what you don’t love but loving, simply in and of itself, is not enough to keep death out.
Only so much one man’s love could do.
Surrounded by the pencil pushers. In the face of so much Punch.
Between what this place had been, once, in his dreams and in its history, and what it was now was a lifetime—lifetimes: his, hers; the family’s. It was a losing proposition, he knew, only a matter of time before the last remaining well ran dry, what then:
He was sure that Sunny knew (how could she not?), sure Cas had suspicions, too. When they’d started losing legal recourse, started seeing nothing but postponements, stalling in the courts, Rocky had told his sister not to bring the subject up before the children, he’d put everyone on notice not to speak the words Los Angeles inside the house. He had told his sister he was willing to spend his half of their fortune to have their water rights restored but he’d be damned if he’d waste another evening, morning, goddamn minute talking the damn thing to death.
Once the sheep were gone (he’d turned them over to the Basques, no charge), he had let the fences go unmended and three years ago, when he’d first suspected that the wells were being robbed, he’d dug up a dozen cedar fence posts and replanted them in a straight line above what he knew to be the one remaining water dome beneath his soil; fed, underground, by springmelt from the Sierras. If the posts began to shift, he’d know the water table, too, was going down. Granted, water tables ebb and flow (with the moon, like tides), but he’d notched a high and low on every cedar post to mark the normal range. Twice a month for three years, on the mornings of the half-moons, Rocky had registered the heights to determine if the watershed was sinking and the news, so far, had provided cause to hold out hope.
Not so, this morning:
Even for the season, first week in December, when the underground supply of last year’s snowmelt was the most depleted, the posts above the well had sunk two inches deeper than they’d been this time last year. Rocky checked the data (handmade, such as it was) twice: looked at the vapor rising off the Valley floor, then let his gaze lift slowly up the mountains into the warming sky. Snow, you sonofabitch, he breathed. His version of a Sunday prayer. The dogs were halfway to the house, beading a straight line on breakfast and by the time he joined them at the kitchen door they were raising hell from habit. He fed them from the pail of scraps Sunny had brought back from the restaurant, and while they dug in he took off his boots and entered into warmth.
Across the room Cas faced him leaning on the cool side of the stove, cup of that black foreign tea she preferred each morning in her two large hands.
Room smelled of coffee, carbon fire, fresh-baked dough.
Cas was dressed in characteristic monochrome (she favored charcoal greys), a fashion “trick” she’d picked up years ago: supposed to make her look “less large.” She was his twin in every way, six-three in her stockings, and sometimes when he looked at her he saw, instead, himself.
Other times, he thought she looked like Spencer Tracy.
She took a sip of tea and asked him, “World intact?”
“Sun rises: Jesus walks.”
He poured a cup of the strong coffee Sunny brewed all day.
“I made it twenty-seven. Thermometer claims twenty-eight.”
“How’s the new Jack Russell?”
“Puppyish. Jane Eyre’ll teach her a few things.”
“—‘the governess.’ ”
“How’d you sleep?”
“Sound woke me up. —around two?”
“Dogs found some rabbit fur this morning.”
“Must have been it I heard screaming. —a coyote?”
“No—no trace. I’m guessing owl.”
Cas began to finger something in the pocket of her sweater with her right hand: piece of paper, perhaps, or an envelope. He knew his sister, knew this thoughts-gone-elsewhere look, she was itching to make note of something, write a thought down, probably this thing about the rabbit, the sound, he could see her wondering how it had been made, that panicked noise, what hand in evolution had produced no rabbit language, as such—except a scream to express its terror. He knew that Cas’s distracted look meant she was making a mental note to get Sunny to find her one, next time she dressed a rabbit: find Cas the bone or bones—the pipe, the cord—inside the rabbit’s neck that had produced that sound.
Maybe she could use it. To make music.
Rocky tried to lift her from her reverie by asking, “What’s Sunny into?” He raised the corner of a towel over a baking tray set out on the center table.
“Spatchcocks,” Cas said. “And that pheasant you brought down on Friday.”
He calculated servings. “We expecting guests?”
She shook her head.
“Music group ain’t staying?”
“Group’s playing at an Advent concert, up the road.”
Rocky sent a look that asked her, You’re not playing with them? and she sent back a look that answered, You know how I feel about the yearly birth of Christ.
“Cards later?” he proposed.
“Counting on it.”
He topped up his coffee and moved toward the double doors that opened out to the portales.
“Where’s the girl?”
Cas pointed: “Creamery.”
He raised his hand to signal say no more. A couple years ago his daughter had started keeping goats and talked him into building her a free-standing north-facing hut where she could try her hand at making cheese. (The cheese was pretty tasty but he couldn’t stomach going near the goddamn place because—to his nose, at least—the smell reminded him of retch.)
“You know where to find me if you need me,” he said and entered the portales.
—favorite indoor place, even more than the kitchen or his marriage bedroom with its views of the Sierras. This is where he liked to sit, under the slanted roof, sound echoing down the long arcade, its four sides enclosing the open courtyard (zócalo) where he still kept a barbacoa for outdoor roasting. Visitors presumed this was an added space, a patio or porch, an afterthought, but the portales had preceded everything, its rooms on all four sides housing the first brazos who’d hired on with him to build the place, housing their wives and children; the first kitchen; the workshops. There would have been twenty to thirty people here (pueblito, a small village), infants, chickens, earthy tang of masa, epazote, carne asada. He had welcomed his bride here that summer night—white roses, white bougainvillea blushing pink (as if it, too, had grown flush in anticipation of the marriage bed). He’d taken her to Yosemite for the wedding and when they’d come back they’d found the Mexicans had unloaded the bride-doctor’s medical equipment and whitewashed one side of the arcade (opposite the house). Above the door of what would be the entrance to her examination rooms someone had painted the words PREVENCION Y TRATAMIENTO in blue, in an arching script over the red cross—words still there, though faded. Thing about the Mexicans—well, first: they know how to throw a party. Second, they could take the simplest thing—a tile, say, or a display of fruit—and make it beautiful. He’d find some flourish in the house’s finish, unrequired decoration that he hadn’t ordered—a scroll carved in the cornice of a viga, recessed oración sunk into a bedroom wall. No reason, just to please the eye. No function, just the joy of it. And she had got that, his wife had, from the start, which is maybe why they’d trusted her, had kept coming to her for her help. There were other docs around—hell, the City of Los Angeles had sent a mobile hospital to minister to the men who built the aqueduct—but his wife was unique not only in being the only woman physician practicing in Inyo County but as the only practicing physician to employ a curandera, a Mexican partera to work with her and to archive traditional practices, the native apothecary, superstitions about the body, the Paiute and Shoshone foods. (Brine fly larvae, he remembered. Acorns. Pandora moths. Crisis food.)
LA GENTE NO PUEDE ESTAR SANA A MENOS QUE TENGA SUFICIENTE QUE COMER
They were going to do great things, the two of them. Back then.
AYUDE A OTROS A PENSAR EN AL FUTURO
All the slogans on the clinic walls had faded and he’d finally had to padlock the doors and windows to keep people from ransacking for drugs. He had wanted to preserve what she had started but once word of her polio had taken hold people had stopped coming even though the curandera stayed and tried to help. Eventually the county came and took the records (and the medical supplies) and he had turned the equipment over to the health authority in Lone Pine. Now the clinic’s rooms were moldering, littered with domestic stuff they couldn’t part with (player piano; kites; a train set)—and standing in one room by itself under a drop cloth—like a casket—her iron lung. Stryker hadn’t let him touch it for what seemed like months and when he’d finally agreed to let him move it from the dining room (where she had had a good view to the kitchen), the boy had refused to let him cart it off the property, as if the thing, itself, the apparatus, still contained her.
Things families do:
When she was still alive Stryker used to sit on the floor beneath the apparatus, sometimes lying on his back and lifting his feet to touch the underside of the machine. They looked like whales, Rocky had thought: the two of them: mother and her calf.
—weight of water on the skin; weight of memory.
What sadness there had been had been brought in by outside forces (her infection; the destruction of this ranchland by the city in the south), but he had to confess, now, to a dolor, a daily sadness laying siege to him from inside, from what he knew to be a place in his mind, a place that he had made himself.
—yes, busy hands are happy hands, all that self-motivating shit, Emersonian outline for a useful life, a life of programmed purpose.
—yes, he knew how to keep his body occupied, even an amoeba could do that: this was a working ranch (struggled to be one), there was always something needing fixing, something needing to be done.
But on Sundays what he liked to do was sit in the portales and make chairs.
He had a lathe (had several) both electric and hand turned, but what he’d recently been trying to achieve was something turned entirely by hand—spindles, slats, the rockers (in the case of rocking chairs); the works.
—take it back to when the world was young.
When the craft had been a man, his hands, the wood, a saw, an awl, a knife, the plane.
Like a lone voyager, what he missed most was the noise of human conversation—not just talk, he had plenty of that from his twin sister and his daughter (and the dogs), but the improvisation from a crowd, from a community, the way when you get a bunch of human beings in one place all hell was bound to break loose in one form or another on a daily basis. He missed that—the unexpectedness built into the routine, pan fires, interruptions, outbursts of opinions, laughter, singing; dance. When he sat out here, now, truth was he was sitting all alone. People dropped by but there were fewer neighbors since the water deals and most of the other ranchers had gone north. Movie people came, seemed like the place’s reputation had become a kind of legend, that you couldn’t make a movie in Lone Pine without riding out and visiting Three Chairs, as if he was just another eccentric codger, the place another Xanadu, some kind of Castle, like Hearst’s ornamented pile or Scotty’s weird mansion in Death Valley. He had entertained the best (and worst) of them from Fatty Arbuckle (worst) to Cary Grant (jury was still out). Bogart had showed up earlier this year—Rocky had opened the door and found him standing there, this familiar face with that familiar lisp, saying, “I’m told this is the place to come for a good meal.” They were shooting something they called High Sierra with Bogart in the lead as Mad Dog Earle, villain on the lam who buys it in a final shootout up the Whitney Road. On his last night at the place for dinner Rocky had given him a rocking chair: the actor had almost cried. “Nicest thing anyone has ever done for me,” he’d kept saying. Rocky couldn’t tell if he was acting it, that was the thing with actors (screen actors, anyway): they may have made a seriously flawed life choice in picking a career but most of them (the best, anyway) knew how to please, how to assume the coloration of the person they were talking to, what to say and do to make themselves attractive, as a companion, like a well-loved dog, a man’s best friend. No wonder Stryker thought he’d heard the siren’s call, the boy had always sought to please all comers—except, of course, his father. But especially the women.
Movie star material:
—another bullet dodged.
Overhead the sun was hitting the cold roof tiles, loosing their foaled steam. He could hear a faint refrain from Sunny’s radio inside the creamery, o christ dee-vine, exhausted Christmas carol urging him to fall on his knees. He turned on the shortwave in the workshop to drown the nonsense out. With the shortwave he could usually bypass the religious jukebox-of-a-Sunday—soon enough he found a frequency broadcasting opera out of San Francisco, not his favorite choice but it would tamp the Christmas noise and keep him company.
—it didn’t take him long to recognize Madama Butterfly: what a story. A commentator whispered, sotto voce, a description of the action and the names of all the leads: a Russian singing Butterfly; Spaniard singing Pinkerton; libretto in Italian on a stage in California decked out to be Japan.
What a world we live in.
He liked the music, and it passed the time even though the story, like most opera plots (as well as Shakespeare’s) seemed outdated. What sounded modern, though, was the emotion, and just at that part in the Second Act when Butterfly’s presenting her son by Pinkerton to Sharpless (Sharpless, Rocky couldn’t help thinking: good name for a dog)—right when Butterfly is telling (singing to) her half-breed son to tell (sing to) Sharpless that his name is Sorrow (Il mio nome e Dolore), there was a clatter on the roof—something running—and a roof tile hit the ground in front of him and shattered.
—they insinuated themselves into the tunnels of the rounded tiles and wreaked havoc on the underlying structure.
Squirrel, likely. Pocket rats.
Have to get up there and see (actually: he welcomed the distraction). He went around the back side of the portales and set a ladder solid on the earth, shouldered to the eave. He shook the thing to test it, steady, before starting up. Stepping on the bottom rung he could feel it hold beneath his weight but halfway up he thought he might have set the thing too steep and as he stopped to reconsider, the music stopped and everything went silent before a voice, different from the opera commentator, started talking in a sudden way, a rush of words that sounded, almost, like a foreign tongue. Rocky froze. He could not make out the words but he’d heard that cadence, most recently, in the reports from Britain and, longer ago, in the Hindenburg disaster when the newscaster had kept repeating oh god, oh god as if the gates of hell had opened up in front of him.
The man speaking could not control his voice and by the time Rocky had climbed down the drama had hit home:
Who in his Wright mind would use an airplane as a weapon?
—coward’s option, coward thing to do, to drive a triggered fuse into a sitting target, at civilians for christsake—who in his Wright mind?
He stood at the threshold of the workshop and stared at the radio.
Hawaii, jesus. One thing for the Germans to fly bombs across the Channel but these sonsofbitches had to have been flying over open ocean for christ- knows how many miles, how many hours—
—where the hell was that? He thought of going in and getting out the map but the news kept building up and pinning him to where he stood, the growing certainty, the fact acquiring its shape. Oh shit, he knew: we’re in it now. We’ve got ourselves another War.•
TO BE CONTINUED
Properties of Thirst by Marianne Wiggins. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.