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Lindy’s yard was studded with containers of rainwater: buckets, trashcans, a red wagon, rubbery industrial barrels that once held Greek olive oil. Already, blossoms were budding on the nectarine tree. Winter in California is a brief affair. One day as Lindy was putting her kids in the car, she glanced at the wheelbarrow half-filled with water. It was glassy, and the part of her brain that noticed inconsistencies told her to move the water to the rain barrel before it stagnated. The sun beat on her hoodie, and she wished, as she got into the SUV, that she wasn’t wearing a long-sleeved shirt. She forgot about the water as she drove onto the highway.
The hills finally turned from yellow to the brilliant green she looked forward to every winter. Every year, Lindy filled four double-sized redwood garden boxes with tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini for her family to eat. She didn’t have to do this; her husband ran a tech start-up that had gone public. When it rained, she put out every container she could find to collect the water. The year before, the hills hand’t turned at all and time seemed frozen in perpetual summer, though it was cold outside and leaves fell from the trees. “I’m really enjoying this natural disaster,” her sister kept saying, but Lindy didn’t think it was funny. Sometimes, on the sides of the hills, there were curious sheens of purple, and she couldn’t tell whether they were bald spots or not. They filled her with anxiety.
When she watered the plants, she worried what her neighbors would think. Furtively, she crept out in the morning light and held the hose close to the roots, hoping no one would shame her like she’d heard on the news they were doing to people who washed their cars at the wrong time or watered the sidewalks with sprinklers. She wanted to plant flowers, but the desire for beauty felt frivolous. Still, Lindy loved the neighbor’s palm tree, planted by a pioneer in 1886. In her neighborhood, fennel from Italy sprouted in the gutters, mistletoe from England devoured the oak trees, and Afghan ivy swallowed entire cars. Lindy herself was from Michigan. Behind the garage, she had a compost bin the size of a washing machine where she threw her coffee grounds and banana peels. It was teeming with spiders. She liked to watch the remains of red peppers she bought on sterile foam trays rot away, leaving behind vinyl stickers with barcodes on them.
But she didn’t move the water into the rain barrel, and it continued to change. In one tub, buckeye seeds dropped down and dissolved into ink. In another, something small and black, a parenthesis with a head, swam through the water. Then there were hundreds of them. Animals came from all around to drink from the buckets: rats from the neighbor’s vines, raccoons from the thicket near the high school, a fox that lived in the graveyard, hundreds of crows. A skunk marked the barrel as his territory, and so did a dozen cats. On the ground, mushrooms sprouted gray tendrils like bean sprouts. Something between an animal and a plant that looked like vomit appeared, browned in the sun, and disappeared again. Sow bugs, related as they are to shrimp, dug under the bowls where it was wettest and disappeared in the loaming depth. A neighbor saw a fox standing in the yard in the early dawn, lapping from a plastic bowl, and worried about her chickens. (Later, one did die mysteriously while still inside the coop.) Ants ran in lines to the containers and came back again, carrying nothing.
Then, as the sun beat down, spores bloomed in the water. The tops of the containers turned the green of swamps, the green of hot, humid places. It’s a color that rarely occurs naturally in California, at least not since the native perennial grasses were eaten down by sheep and overrun with European annuals. The spores may have been brought to the water by ants from Argentina or the rats from Finland or the bullfrog from Scotland that sat in the wagon for most of an afternoon. It’s hard to say. When Lindy came outside one morning, all the containers had bloomed, giving her yard the sense of having been turned into a swamp. She walked among them, looking at a film on top of the water, like floating islands of puss. The water had been spoiled.
Joy Lanzendorfer‘s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Smithsonian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Mental Floss, and others.