Originally published in The Stonecoast Review, Issue No. 8
Surfacing: Three Voices
March 12, 1928
A few minutes before midnight
When the dam breaks, the camp is asleep. In the lean-to tucked into a bend of San Francisquito Canyon, under the roof of cut-and-spread tin cans, María Elena is dreaming. In the dream, she is back home, reunited with her twin sister Liliana. Papá is carrying them into the clear blue ocean, a girl under each arm, as they kick their legs and squeal with laughter. He smells of fish blood. A few silver scales cling to his forearm.
In the dream, María Elena smells like the babies. It’s unavoidable, since this is the time when she seems to spend half her waking hours over the laundry tub washing the endless parade of dirties that her twin brothers produce. Six months after their birth, Mamá is still too weak to do it. But she’s not too weak to argue with Papá, to tell him he ought to go north, cross the border and bring back some decent money. Papá doesn’t want to go. But his resistance is waning. Soon, he will give up. He will leave, taking María Elena and her older brother Carlos with him. She and Liliana will be separated, the first set of twins broken apart for the sake of the second. The time is coming closer. It is like a wave on the distant horizon, barely visible but moving steadily toward shore.
María Elena knows this because it has already happened. A part of her even knows she is dreaming. She wants to stay in the dream.
Papá lowers the girls into the water. She feels her body go light. The water is the same temperature as the air. It is liquid air. She is floating in the rocking air, Papá’s sparsely bearded chin above her, his hat a dark brown curve against the violet sky. The lowering sun flashes in her eyes. Her ears are filled with water. Liliana reaches over her to grab onto their father’s arm—corded with muscle, criss-crossed by veins, the geography of home.
A sound like wind in the trees wakes Lisl in the night. A storm must be coming up. If it rains, Lisl will find lots of earthworms when she helps Mami in the kitchen garden. She’ll collect them for Benji. They both used to play with the worms, cut their pale little bodies in half to make more. Lisl doesn’t do that now. Mami says it’s childish. But she still likes to dig her hands into the soil. Da says it’s a good thing. He says there’s no point in raising a farmwife who’s afraid of the dirt.
She burrows into her quilt. If it rains a lot, Benji will have to tramp through the mud to get to school. Lisl doesn’t miss that. This year she stopped going to school. Mami said now that she knew how to read and do numbers, she could stay home. The new house is much bigger, so there’s more housework. Lisl doesn’t mind. She still gets to see her best friend Marjorie. Mami and Marjorie’s mother are cousins, their only family in California. Lisl and Mami go visiting nearly every week. They walk the mile into the hills to Marjorie’s house, so Lisl still gets to see the seasons work their way across the valley—the hills growing green in the rains, the poppies bursting out along the roadside, then everything turning brown as the summer sun bears down. From the oak-dotted hills, she loves to look back into the valley, at the dry riverbed that snakes south from the narrow mouth of San Francisquito Canyon, curving through the wide Castaic Valley, heading west at the Junction. The neat patchwork of the valley floor pleases her—the straight lines of farm fields and orchard rows and irrigation ditches. Da says the dam is going to make them rich. It’s been up less than two years, and already he used credit to buy a truck and put up the new house. Its peaked roofline rises out of a grove of orange trees halfway between the river and the hills.
A tree branch cracks. Now Lisl remembers. Tomorrow she and Mami won’t be working in the garden. She feels a thrill of excitement. Tomorrow is her birthday. Mami’s hosting an afternoon tea, and Marjorie and her mother are coming along with some of the church ladies from the Junction and their daughters. It’s their first party in the new house, and she and Mami have been cleaning—scrubbing the plank floors, beating the carpet in the parlor, and washing the windows until they’re so clear it seems like the trees are sprouting their spring buds indoors.
They’re going to get up early to start baking shortbread and spicy ginger cake. Ginger cake is her favorite. Mami’s making it special because thirteen is a big year. It’s the year you become a woman, Mami says. While the cakes bake, Mami is sure to brush Lisl’s blonde hair one hundred strokes and pull it back tight, though bits always manage to escape and frizz out around her face. Mami will likely cluck her tongue at Lisl’s freckles and how the tip of her nose is always red from sun or cold. But then she will certainly pause, put her hand on Lisl’s cheek and tell her how pretty her eyes are. Lisl has Da’s eyes, green streaked with brown, but hers are framed by long, fair lashes.
Lisl sighs and shifts in her bed. Marjorie’s a woman now. She’s only five months older than Lisl, but it happened fast. Lisl first realized at Christmas Eve dinner. In the entryway of Marjorie’s house, the air was warm and heavy with the smell of roasting meat. She remembers the deep boom of the fathers’ voices, the boys crashing into her as they herded Benji away to play. Mami told her to take the potatoes to the kitchen. The crowd shifted. She saw Marjorie standing by the Christmas tree in a red velvet dress that traced curves of breast, waist, and hip Lisl hadn’t realized her friend possessed. Marjorie was talking to an older boy. Her hair was swept into a bun, the pins glinting in the light thrown by the candles in the tree. Lisl’s best friend, and she was nearly unrecognizable.
They had sworn to do everything together. Arms linked, they had laughed when Mami told them that one day they would grow breasts. They had run off to the far pasture and hidden behind a bush and unbuttoned their dresses. The skin was white and flat against their ribcages with two pink puckers staring out like eyes. It would never happen. They would never have big soft pads like their mothers. They had buttoned their dresses back up and run off to pet the mares’ noses.
But now! It was as if the softness of Marjorie’s chest had spread outwards and made her soft all over. Marjorie said it hurt her hands to climb trees, and it hurt her feet to walk out to the far pasture. Marjorie wanted Lisl to stay inside and help work on the quilt she was sewing on a half-size frame. Lisl could mend and knit, but she was no good at quilting. The tiny straight stitches seemed to slide away from her as she was working, and the fine threads caught on her hands.
Just a few days ago, Marjorie took hold of Lisl’s hands and said, This is what comes from all that tree climbing. Don’t you think that no man will want a girl with hands as rough as his? Lisl looked down at her fingers, a fine line of dirt under the nails no matter how hard Mami scrubbed them, and felt her lip quiver.
That night at supper, she sat staring out the window above the kitchen sink. In the dusk she could see her favorite tree, a big cottonwood only steps from the window. She climbed it every day, even when she had to wear shoes for the cold. Benji never went up there. Cottonwoods were hard to climb. But her tree had a sloping main trunk that she could scramble up. There was a thick branch that split low off the main trunk and formed a criss-cross with smaller branches. She could climb up easy as a ladder to her secret place. She had her drawings there, folded up in a jar in case of rain. From her spot, she could see all the way to the Junction, where the church steeple poked up above the orchard trees. She could never give up climbing, no matter what Marjorie said.
With his mouth full, Benji announced that Lisl was looking at herself in the window.
Lisl felt her face get hot. Am not, she said.
Da’s mouth was twisting into a smile under his thick beard. Something got you, Lil?
Before she knew what she was doing, she was telling him what Marjorie had said. And before she was even finished, she knew she shouldn’t have.
Mami put her fork down. Isn’t that what I’ve been saying about the tree climbing? But you always let her do everything.
Da said, She’s too young for this kind of talk. He stabbed at his potatoes.
Lisl looked back and forth at them. Da, please, she whispered. I’m very careful.
I know you are, Lil. He took a swallow of beer. That Marjorie’s getting too fine for her own good.
Mami stood up and went to the sink. Start clearing, Lisl. She ran the water high.
Lisl collected the plates. As she passed Da, she couldn’t help snuggling into his shoulder. He smelled like tobacco. He gave her waist a brief squeeze. Go on now, he said quietly.
She understood. He was on her side, but she shouldn’t go running her mouth.
Except for Helen, they are all asleep when the phone rings. The clipped burr of the ring startles her out of her book, and with one swift movement, she slips it under the covers and turns off the light. It is late. She was sent to bed hours ago, but she read by the bright light of the moon, only switching on her lamp after it seemed clear that Mother, Father, and Grandfather must all be asleep. She is reading her new Blythe Girls book; but earlier, when Grandfather came in to kiss her goodnight, she pretended she was looking at one of the books he has given her—like them all, a book about rivers.
No one is answering the phone. Helen puts on her dressing gown and opens her bedroom door. The hall is dark except where the moonlight comes flooding in the tall, uncurtained window. Ever since Grandmother died and Grandfather moved in with them, he has made a point of telling Mother that the uncurtained window is indecent, here in the middle of the city. But Mother still doesn’t buy curtains. Helen is not sure whether this makes her embarrassed or proud.
Helen is not allowed to answer the phone, but here it is, its heavy black body nearly leaping off the little table, its ring indignant. The clock on the wall reads 1:20 a.m. What would Helen Blythe do now? Mother says that Helen was named after her great aunt, but Helen prefers to think that her true namesake is Helen Blythe, the artistic, sensitive sister in the Blythe Girls series. Helen Blythe always knows the proper thing to do. Helen takes a step towards her parents’ door.
But then there is Margy Blythe, the practical sister. Just the other day, Grandfather told her that if she was going to read those silly books, she should at least follow the example of Margy. At least that girl can think for herself, he said.
Margy is a businesswoman, and though Helen has always found her character bracingly unfeminine, she pauses now in the hall and thinks what Margy Blythe would do. Margy would take action. Helen steps into the patch of moonlight, bright on her lavender dressing gown, and reaches for the phone.
Just then her parents’ bedroom door opens, and Father comes out. He strides past her and picks up the receiver. Helen can hear a man’s voice on the other end, loud and urgent.
Father says, “Oh, God.” He puts a hand over his eyes. “Right away.” He sets the receiver down and knocks on Grandfather’s door.
Helen’s heart is beating fast. Perhaps someone has died. She thinks who it could be. Grandmother has already died, and she doesn’t know anyone else who is old.
Grandfather comes out of his room, rubbing his gray-streaked moustache and muttering, “I’m here, I’m here.”
At the same moment, Helen smells Mother’s perfume—jasmine, her spring scent—and feels the silk of Mother’s dressing gown brush the back of her hand. Mother touches Helen’s shoulder. In the last year, Helen has grown almost as tall as Mother and even has the beginnings of breasts. Every morning before school, she examines them in the hall mirror. She pinches her cheeks to bring out color, runs a moistened finger along her thin eyebrows, and considers her eyes—a light blue, striking, if not particularly charming. She sees herself now in the glass, and out of habit, smooths her hair. It is dark and thick, with a nice sheen and a natural wave that is the envy of the girls at school. Helen wishes Mother would let her cut it to her chin. She has thought about doing it herself, but she knows it would turn out badly.
Mother tightens her grip on Helen’s shoulder. In the mirror, Mother’s face is gray and shadowed. “Jack?” she says.
What would the Blythe girls do now? Helen Blythe would make tea for all, to buoy their spirits in the face of the news, whatever it might turn out to be. Margy would listen in. Helen stays in the hall, her bare feet rooted to the cool wood floor.
Father is talking in Grandfather’s ear, and Grandfather looks at him and says, “No, Jack.”
He doesn’t sound like he is arguing, just stating a fact. Grandfather never argues, not even with Mother about the curtainless window in whose harsh sheath of moonlight he now stands. He simply states the truth, like when he tells Helen that those Blythe books will rot her mind.
The books he buys her have titles like How Rivers Form and Water in the American West. Evenings in Father’s study, she looks through the books, though mostly at the illustrations, while Grandfather reads the newspaper. Grandfather thinks Helen should be sent to University. Father says it’s ridiculous to send a girl, and Mother says secretarial school would be just fine. But Grandfather says, As long as I’m paying for it, she’ll go to University, thank you very much. He says Helen has as good a mind as any man.
Helen is not at all sure she wants to go to University—she’s heard the only women there are dull, and it seems such a long way off—but she doesn’t want to discourage him.
Grandfather takes the receiver and brings it to his ear. “What’s this, some kind of joke?”
Helen can hear the rising waves of the man’s voice through the receiver.
“Not possible,” Grandfather says. “I was just there yesterday. Nothing out of the ordinary for a dam this size.”
Yesterday they went forty miles north to the St. Francis, Helen’s favorite of all the lakes Grandfather has made. Two years after he finished the dam, the lake had finally filled.
Mother didn’t want Helen to go, but Grandfather liked to take her on trips. Once, he took her to the aqueduct and let her write her initials with a stick in the giant slabs of concrete drying in the sun. Yesterday they had a beautiful drive. Lawrence, Grandfather’s assistant, left the car windows open, and the wind whipped Helen’s hair out of its braid. She found white poppies growing along the lakeshore. She had wanted to swim in the lake—from a distance the water looked so pleasant, and after a gentle rain cleared, the sun was warm. But Grandfather said no. He let her put her feet in. Up close, she found the water colder and darker than she had expected.
“No danger,” Grandfather says. “I certified it myself. Maybe it was those damned Owens Valley dynamiters.”
Now he is angry. Helen cringes; she hates to see how his face turns red, the veins swelling. Just the day before, he got angry at Riley, the dam keeper. Riley was worried about the water seeping out from the west side of the big concrete wall. The water was brown, and it made a little stream that looked like chocolate milk running down the riverbed. But that wasn’t what made Grandfather angry. Riley told him that the Castaic farmers were asking for irrigation water again. Grandfather shook his head.
They know this water is for the city of Los Angeles, he said. I didn’t build this dam to grow trees. He put a hand up to shade his eyes and looked out over the expanse of shimmering lake. I built it to grow a city.
Helen can feel Mother’s hipbone jabbing her. “What’s happened, Jack?”
Father rubs his knuckles into his eyes, the way Helen does when she doesn’t want to wake up.
“Jack?” Mother’s voice is getting higher every time she says his name.
“The dam went.” He says this quietly, as if someone else might hear.
“The St. Francis.”
Helen hears a gasp, and her throat constricts.
Mother says, “But weren’t you just—”
Father gives her a look.
Grandfather says into the phone, “Call Lawrence. We’ll be there.”
And then Mother says, “All those people—”
Helen thinks of the drive—the pretty little farmhouses, the horses grazing along the dirt road, the sweet smell of orange blossoms, the children with dirty faces she saw playing in the orchards as the rows of trees flashed by. She stops herself. She must stay calm. There is sure to be some kind of warning system for this type of thing. Doubtless no one was harmed, and the Blythe girls, like all respectable young women, wouldn’t go getting hysterical.
Grandfather sets the phone receiver back down on the base. The sound of metal hitting metal makes Helen bite her lip. They all stand silent, looking at Grandfather. He is swaying slightly, the nightshirt hanging off his broad shoulders a blinding white in the moonlight.
Father takes charge. He guides Grandfather into the hall chair. “Go get his church suit,” Father tells Mother. “And mine, too.”
Mother releases Helen’s shoulder and flies off down the stairs, running as she never lets Helen do.
Father kneels down beside Grandfather. Neither of them seems to remember she’s there. “Bill,” he says. “How many casualties can we expect?”
Grandfather takes a ragged breath. “That kind of leaking is normal. I’ve seen it before. I tell you. Doesn’t mean a thing.”
Father says, “We’re going to get you dressed. The car will be here soon.” He puts a hand on Grandfather’s elbow and leads him into the bedroom.
Helen stands alone in the hallway, the moonlight making her cold feet glow. She cannot pretend any longer that she doesn’t understand what has happened. She was there; she saw it herself. She remembers that chocolate-colored water trickling along the stepped white concrete of the dam. It reminds her now of blood oozing from white skin, and she feels like she might get sick.
No one has scolded her for nearly answering the phone. No one has told her to go to bed. She goes into her room, climbs into bed, and stares up at the lace canopy suspended from the posts high above her. The covers still hold the warmth of her body. She didn’t know then, when she lay here reading. It seems unbelievable. The thing had already happened, but she didn’t know. And now she can’t go back.
The door is still open; she can hear Father’s muffled voice in Grandfather’s room. She takes the book from her nightstand and, in the semi-darkness, reads the title: Rivers of the World. She rests the book on her chest, places her hand on its smooth, hard surface, and hopes that sleep will take her.
The water makes a deafening roar as it charges down narrow San Francisquito Canyon, scouring the steep walls that trace the twisting course of the nearly dry riverbed.
In the camp tucked into the last curve before the canyon widens into Castaic Valley, everyone is asleep. The men who live here work downstream in the valley. Every morning, they walk along the riverbed to the neat farms and orchards of the gringos. María Elena tucks her hair up into one of Papá’s old caps and goes with them, she and Carlos working alongside the men in the orange groves. Late afternoons, she slips away and walks back to camp to start the evening meal.
She is always relieved to come back into the canyon after a day out in the wide-open valley. The canyon is private, its walls like the walls of a house. While she walks, she thinks about Liliana. At home, they went everywhere together. Sometimes they fought, but now María Elena doesn’t remember why. All she remembers is how her sister would get her to put down whatever they were carrying—buckets of water, baskets of maize, strings of silvery fish—and jump and turn like dancers along the empty path.
Without Liliana, she has no one to tell that she is in love. They haven’t ever spoken, but he always manages to be near her in the fields, or to stand where she will pass, and she knows he loves her too. He is beautiful, with thick, glossy hair long enough to pull back and fasten at his neck. She never allows herself to smile at him, but he always smiles at her, and the sight of his lips parting to reveal the white of his teeth never fails to startle her. She turns away, but she knows his eyes linger on the place where her braids end, the small of her back, her narrow waist curving into new, lovely hips. She wonders if Liliana has hips now, too. She’s certain her sister would love how they sway when she walks.
If Papá knew, he would send her back home. The boy is indio. He came with his family, and the whole camp shunned them; they had to make their own camp a little upstream. But María Elena doesn’t care. She knows one day they will find each other. Walking home through the cool canyon shadows, her eyes land on all the little nooks where it might happen. She knows each one of the sand eddies along the riverbed—some sheltered by brush, some flaming with poppies. She puts a hand up to her face and feels the flutter of her eyelashes on her little finger. She can’t fully imagine the joy of touching him. She thinks her belly might burst with it.
As the wall of water rips the cottonwoods out of the riverbanks, the old trees do not relinquish their hold on the earth without a struggle. The rumbling and cracking are loud enough to wake those in the camp. Carlos sleeps beside María Elena on the mat. If he were to wake, he would know instantly what was happening. He has heard men talking about the leaks on the dam, the brown water. Yesterday, a few of the young men from the camp, their bravado loud as rattlesnakes, hiked up-canyon to see for themselves. But then the engineer came out from Los Angeles and said it was okay. The young men told Carlos, El ingeniero walked on the dam, and he said it was bueno, buenísimo. Carlos loves the young men with the fierce adoration of adolescence. Now, if he were to hear the trees splintering, he would think they had betrayed him.
If Papá were to wake, he would reach for his children.
But María Elena cares nothing for the dam. Were she to wake, she would not understand what is happening. Even if she could somehow stand on the rim of the narrow canyon and look down at the indio camp, she would not believe that the water hitting the makeshift houses could puff them apart like that—an ocean wave scattering a handful of sticks. She would not trust her own eyes. She is young and in love, and she has nothing if not hope.
Lisl sits up in bed. She has a feeling that what happened with Marjorie is just the start of it, that there is a whole world of things she won’t like about growing up. She thinks about the girls in the magazines she pages through when Mami takes her to the store at the Junction. She knows they are women, but they still look straight up and down like her. They wear their hair short, in curls at their temples, and their skirts at their knees. They look like they could do anything, and no one would try to stop them. Mami calls them shameless, and closes the magazines if she finds Lisl looking at them. That sort of get-up might be found in Los Angeles, she says. But not here.
Lisl knows she won’t be able to sleep, but it’s too early to get up. It must be the middle of the night; the moonlight makes the white curtains glow. The wind seems to be getting stronger, wilder-sounding. The house creaks. Lisl slips out of bed. She wants to see the trees in the moonlight. She goes to the window and opens the curtains.
For a moment, she cannot understand what she is seeing. There is a strange white mist in the air, and in the fog-dulled moonlight, the ground glints like it’s wet. But she hasn’t heard rain on the roof, and the ground is much higher than it should be. It is nearly at her window, and it is moving—peaking and rolling and churning. Water has swallowed the ground. How is that possible? Lisl thinks she must be having a nightmare, but just then a surge rises onto the glass. A spray of water shoots out from where the closed window meets the sill and soaks the front of her nightgown.
Lisl’s bedroom door opens, and Mami comes running in. She grabs Lisl’s hand and drags her away from the window, into the dim hall. Da is standing with her brother in his arms—Benji, a big boy, being held. Lisl feels cold and shivery. She wishes her father would lift her up into his arms, too.
Da says, “We’re going to the hills.”
“But the children can’t swim,” Mami whispers, as if her lowered voice will keep Lisl and Benji from knowing this about themselves.
They used to go to the river every summer. There was only ever a trickle of water. She and Benji would splash, but Mami would sit on the shore, fanning herself and telling them about the river in the town where she grew up, in Sweden, where the swimming holes were cool and deep in the summer. Da, who grew up in Illinois, would say, There’s water here in the winter. And Mami would say, What’s the use of having water in the winter, when no one wants to bathe?
Now Da says, “Grab onto the trees as you pass.” He heaves his shoulder against the door, but it won’t open.
Mami takes the shawl off her shoulders and wraps it around Lisl. It is heavy wool and smells like Mami—burnt sugar and soap. Suddenly, Lisl feels a tugging on her ankles. Water, running cold through the hall.
“It’s the dam,” Mami says. “Isn’t it? They said it was fine.”
When the dam first started going in, Mami was excited. Finally, she said, a proper lake! Da said, That’s the beauty of this state. Anything that’s not here already, they build it. But then word got around that there would be no swimming allowed. Mami said, Los Angeles is awfully far away and How will they know if a few children are swimming in their water? But Da said, As long as they’re giving the Castaic folk some, I won’t go complaining. They didn’t go back to the river after that. Not even after Da found out that none of the water from the dam would go down the irrigation ditches to his trees. Once the dam was done, the river was always dry anyway.
Mami pulls Lisl close. She says, “We can go to the roof. Wait for help.”
Da says, “Who knows—” but then his voice is cut off by a new sound. A rumbling that Lisl feels more in her chest than in her ears.
Mami is holding Lisl too tight. Lisl feels dizzy, like she might sick up on Mami’s nightdress. Against her chest, Mami’s belly feels wobbly as pudding. Lisl puts her hands on Mami’s hips and pushes away.
“I’m not going to die,” Lisl says. Da is pushing against the windowframe, Benji holding on to his thigh. The house shudders. “I am not going to die!” Lisl shouts. Mami stares at her, lips pressed tight together, her eyes huge with fright, like a startled cow.
Da’s got the window next to the door open. He climbs out nimbly, puts his hand out for Mami. She goes obediently. She hefts herself over the sill, and he puts Benji into her arms. Benji’s clinging to Mami’s neck and crying. Lisl takes a step toward them. Mami’s hand is gripping the windowsill; her fingers are white. Mami opens her mouth like she’s going to say something, and then a look of surprise crosses her face, and she and Benji are gone.
Now it is just Lisl in the hallway. The water surges up around her shins. It catches the corner of the shawl and drags it off her shoulders. The rumbling gets louder. The house groans with the effort of staying rooted. She feels like she can’t breathe, like the noise is pressing the air out of her. Da is leaning through the open window, bracing one arm against the sill, the other held out for her. He is talking to her, though she can’t hear what he is saying.
She will go to him. Right now, she will go. But she does not move, and she sees something pass over his face. His eyes are wild, desperate, like the eyes of a mare she and Marjorie once saw in the last moments of birthing a colt. He wants her to come to him. But she cannot. Behind him, the water is a boiling black cauldron. She is sure it will suck her away. It will take them all away. He yells something. Her name. The moment is over, her certainty vanished, and she suddenly wants to be safe in his arms. She steps toward him, but he is gone.
He is gone, and her feet are moving, in the opposite direction down the hall, toward the kitchen. Her nightgown twists around her legs. She falls into the water. The cold surrounds her. But then her hands touch the floorboards, and she pushes herself up. Her hair drips into her face; she coughs but keeps moving, as fast as she can, her hands fumbling across the wall. She feels a doorjamb and opens her eyes. On the far wall is the sink, shining white. And beyond it, through the window, her tree.
The water, now at her hips, thrusts her into the room. The kitchen table bangs into the stove. Chair legs grab her knees. Water pours in through the slightly open window, straight down into the overflowing sink. Lisl climbs up on its white enamel edge. She opens the window as high as she can and puts a foot on the sill. Past the trees, the water pulses and shifts, a river alive. She sees the top of a car borne by the current pass quickly out of sight. She ducks onto the narrow sill, grips the underside of the window frame for balance. A cool, misty wind hits her face. She pauses, crouching, for just a moment. Did he leave her, or did she leave him? The question is already surfacing. Her nightgown is heavy and cold, weighing her down. She rips it over her head. She feels the night air touch her skin. She stands up.
The cottonwood is close. She thinks she can make it.
When she hears the car pull up, Helen runs downstairs and says she wants to go. No one pays any attention at first, so she says it louder.
Mother says, “Absolutely not.”
Father looks at her standing in the front room in her nightgown and bare feet, as if he is surprised to remember that he has a child.
But Grandfather is the one she wants. She stands in front of him. He is an old man. She sees it suddenly and for the first time. The skin droops in fleshy pockets beneath his eyes. Their pale blue color seems to have blanched in the electric light. He doesn’t speak to her. His gaze slips over her head, to the window behind. He stares for a long time, as if he can see over the sleeping houses, past the hills, north to the land beyond.
“Please, God,” he whispers. “Don’t let anyone have died.” And then his eyes fill, his head drops, and he is making a raw, choking sound that Helen hardly recognizes. She takes a step back, and her calf bumps the edge of the sofa.
Helen hears a clink and looks to the breakfront where Mother pours amber liquid into a glass. She brings it to Grandfather. Father says, “The car is here. It’s time to go.”
The choking sound stops as abruptly as it started. The front room seems to echo with it. Grandfather holds the glass in a shaking hand. Lamplight glints off the crystal. He pours the drink into his mouth. A droplet trembles on his moustache.
Father and Grandfather walk down the steps to the curb, where Lawrence idles the car. In the doorway, Mother grips Helen’s hand. Helen can hear the hum of the engine. The parallel bands of the headlights illuminate the empty street, the neat sidewalk, the trimmed lawns. Father opens the front passenger door. Grandfather folds himself into the dark interior. The door shuts.
Mother says, “We’re going back to sleep, and then we’ll have as normal a day as possible.”
Father gets in the back seat. The car pulls slowly away from the curb. At Helen’s back is the warm air of the house; before her is the cool damp of night. There is so much she wants to tell Grandfather. That she wants to go to University, she’ll be a businesswoman, she’ll stop reading the Blythe Girls. She’ll try to make him proud. Helen runs down the cold concrete stairs. She crosses the sidewalk in a few steps and bangs on the front window of the car. She runs alongside, sharp pebbles bearing into the soft bottoms of her feet. The car stops. She opens the front passenger door.
“Go back up, Helen,” Father says from the rear seat. His voice sounds tired.
But she doesn’t. She crouches down next to Grandfather, breathing in his sharp scent. She knows they won’t let her go. But she’ll find out anyway. She’ll steal the newspaper. She’ll sneak the radio on. They can’t keep it from her forever. In fact, doesn’t she already know? Water moving like an immense wall, carrying rock and metal and chunks of concrete. The little canyon below the dam carved bare by its force. The beautiful valley ravaged, trees torn from their orderly rows. Houses, schools, churches, barns, horses grazing, children with dirty faces playing. The white poppies by the lakeshore. Gone as if they never were there. And Grandfather, gone from her, too, into a world of impenetrable silence, a new world of his own making. She climbs up into his lap, like a little girl would. She puts her arms around his neck and kisses the soft flesh of his cheek. She holds onto him, tight, until she has no choice but to let go.
When it is all over, Lisl’s body and hair are so stained by river mud that the boys who find her think she is Mexican. The two boys are searching along what used to be the riverbed and what now looks like the site of some long, rippling explosion—tree trunks interlaced with metal beams and the turned wooden legs of kitchen chairs. In the debris near where they find Lisl, they also find a cloth doll with a painted porcelain face. The doll is in perfect condition, nearly dry already. If the boys stopped to think about it, they would realize that the doll is not Lisl’s. The water has left no one’s possessions in such convenient proximity. But this is not the day for such realizations. They give Lisl a sip of whiskey and water from their flask, place the doll on her chest, and go for help.
On a rise near the hills, the Junction Bar has been turned into a hospital. It’s a morgue, too, and the dead lie side by side with the living, both waiting for someone to claim them. A doctor from Los Angeles is in charge. He mostly stays with the white people, even though the smell is worse indoors. Lisl is outside, under the trees with the Mexicans. When the doctor comes outside, he examines her. “Broken ribs,” he mutters to himself, though he doesn’t talk to her. He must think she won’t understand him. Lisl does not have the energy to speak; all she can do is focus on breathing, each inhale and exhale an effort. The Mexican women are kind. Sometimes as they hurry by, their skirts full of the smells of blood and vomit, they press a cool hand to Lisl’s forehead. A little girl brings her a handful of bruised poppies and chatters at her.
In another day, a woman with long, thick braids will give Lisl a bath with a rag and a bowl of water. Then they will discover that she is white, and she will be brought inside to wait for her family. When she goes, she will give the doll to the little girl, and the girl will clutch the doll to her skinny chest. Lisl does not know this yet, just as she does not yet know the inevitable result of her waiting. But she does sense that something has ended. What will surface in its place she cannot imagine. The person she will have to be to meet it will be unrecognizable to the girl she was when she looked out her window and saw water where the ground should have been. There are so many things she will have to try to forget. How the water grabbed her out of the cottonwood as she heard the groan of the house breaking apart, and how she clung to a piece of roof until it splintered away. How the water slammed her against a chunk of concrete and held her there until she thought her lungs would burst, and how the current suddenly switched and carried her away, finally depositing her in an eddy. How she stayed there, slipping in and out of dreams, as the water receded and an eerie mist crowded low against the ground, obscuring the whole world beyond the criss-cross of ripped-naked tree branches. And she could not be cold and she could not be scared and she could not be in pain. All she could be was alive. She wasn’t sure if anything else was in the whole world. The moon could not penetrate the fog. She heard no birds, no rustlings of small animals, nothing except the sounds of water—rushing and swishing and pounding—which seemed to have moved inside her, not just into her ears, but inside her veins, running there instead of blood. All this will need to be forgotten, over and over again forgotten, in order for her to live.
Her new story starts here, under the oak trees. She watches the shifting patterns of light falling through the branches, taking comfort in the sounds of the Mexican women talking—the rise and fall of their language, the rhythm of a river of words she does not understand.
María Elena does not wake. She is already in water. She is swimming, in the ocean, back home. She is underwater, pulling with her arms the way Papá taught her, her forehead aimed low, her legs lifting up behind her, her eyes open to the smeary blue. The sunlight dances on the shifting sand. She has never seen it so beautiful. She stops moving her arms. The water holds her for a moment, then sends her back up to the surface, to her sister. She and Liliana swim around each other, again and again. And then María Elena is tired, so Liliana holds her up. Her sister’s hands under the small of her back, her body light in the warm water, her eyes running with salt.
This is a fictional rendering of a real-life event, the collapse of the St. Francis Dam north of Los Angeles, a fascinating but relatively unknown event in the history of my home state. Though I grew up 100 miles from the site of the dam collapse, I never knew about it until I was in my late 20s.
Just before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam broke apart, sending a 140-foot-high wall of water down narrow San Francisquito Canyon and into the Santa Clara River. The St. Francis reservoir had been complete for less than two years and had filled to capacity for the first time only days before it failed. The dam, built by the self-taught engineer known as the father of Los Angeles’ water system, William Mulholland, was designed to store at least a year’s worth of water for the growing city.
The catastrophic failure of the 195-foot-high concrete dam sent 12½ billion gallons of water on a 54-mile journey to the Pacific Ocean, likely killing 450 and possibly as many as 600 people in its path. Exact numbers are not known, as many undocumented laborers were never accounted for. The disaster was the worst American civil engineering catastrophe of the 20th century and is second only to the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 in terms of loss-of-life disasters in California.
The collapse of the St. Francis Dam ended Mulholland’s career, devastating a man who had become legendary in Los Angeles, and had a worldwide impact on civil engineering and dam construction. Mulholland initially thought the dam might have been blown up by Owens Valley residents who had previously dynamited sections of the infamous aqueduct he constructed to transport Owens Valley water to Los Angeles. However, he ultimately took responsibility for the collapse, famously quoted as saying, “I envy the dead.” Many have blamed the extent of the disaster on Mulholland’s engineering misjudgments, including his last-minute decision to raise the dam height by 20 feet without increasing the size of the base. They have also pointed to his hubris, especially his decision that the new leak at the west abutment was not an immediate concern, when he came to inspect the leak approximately twelve hours before the dam collapsed. Recent technologies have shown that the dam was built on the site of an ancient landslide, a fact that engineers in the 1920s could not have known.