"Water Master" by Carol Emshwiller: An Appreciation by Jack Mierzwa
Even as a writer, Emshwiller is a master of negative space--of details left unseen and unsaid.
I ought to mention that "Water Master" is the story that hooked me once and for all on both Emshwiller's writing and SCI FICTION. Which might seem like an odd assertion, given that the story's narrator reminds me so much of my mother-in-law . . .
Well, she does.
So what it is about this quiet story and its two lonely, aging protagonists that's so compelling? Honestly, it's difficult to even pinpoint what makes this story a fantasy. It certainly feels like fantasy . . . but there's nothing magical or superhuman about the characters, nothing otherworldly about the setting. There's no reason why the Water Master couldn't easily be making his living in the desert, right now, just over the mountains from where I'm sitting. Even today there are places like the Gila Mountains, places that can only be reached on foot or on horseback, where bathtubs are a rarity and the only hot water comes from thermal springs. But then, by the same token, the story could just as easily be set in the Old West of a hundred years ago, or in a barren, post-apocalyptic future a hundred years in the future. There's no particular detail which definitively places the story in either time or space; the story is set in the desert, but the desert is never named. The river that flows with the Water Master's water is simply referred to as "the river." The water comes from a man-made reservoir called "The Lake of the Mountains." This eponymous ambiguity gives the story a sense of both ubiquity and isolation, and I suspect that this is what makes "Water Master" feel slightly fantastical--like something happening a great distance from the here-and-now.
In this dislocated void of information, the nameless narrator acts as a contextual lifeline. Her happenstance remarks provide the only clues about the desert community, the Water Master's status within it, and the growing, murderous resentment of the drought-stricken farmers. Oh, and did I mention that she sounds like my mother-in-law? Emshwiller's narrator has the same tendency to fill up empty spaces with a constant stream of disjoint observations:
Water is what's on his mind and rightly so. Nothing is better, how it bubbles up and sparkles, silvery in the sun, frothing, foaming as it rushes, roaring down from way up there to here. How it leaps so high over rocks. How it trembles in backwater pools. How it tastes. Cool . . . Cold . . . How dangerous it can be.
This incessant, think-out-loud commentary--which is typical of what I've seen of Emshwiller's first person voices--makes the narrator seem almost simple. Harmless. Possibly even irrelevant and dismissible.
Which is not to say that Emshwiller or her narrator--let alone my mother-in-law--are actually harmless or irrelevant. The rambling streams of consciousness distract from the formidable intelligence controlling the flow of words. In the case of Emshwiller's narrator, her internal monologue is woven out of some very pointed remarks, such as her reaction to seeing the Water Master's house for the first time:
Is nothing they told us down there true, not one single thing? It seems that what we believed was true isn't and what we believe isn't might well be.
A little later, sitting with the Water Master under a tree, she adds:
He knows how we blame everything on him. Especially anything bad. Maybe he knew that one of these days we'd hate him.
These key sentences, embedded though they are in a thread of other observations, act as thematic Rosetta stones for the rest of the story. I said earlier that "Water Master" is a quiet story, and it is, but it is also one framed by two acts of violence. The first, which happened long before the story began, installed the Water Master in his current position; the second removes him from it. Emshwiller has altered the fable of the killing of the Divine King, switching around the details to make it read:
Those who let their hate turn to violence risk becoming the thing that they hate.
In the end, however, Emshwiller isn't really out to club her readers with lessons, and "Water Master" is more concerned with the quiet interludes in between--with starkly beautiful landscapes and the budding relationship between its two weathered, self-reliant protagonists. I mentioned negative space? This is a story with a lot of negative space, in which many of the usual details have been included as omissions--as outlines in the surrounding story. Emshwiller takes her limited first-person narration very, very seriously, and any information outside of the narrator's immediate point of view is completely off limits. Instead of providing temporal, spatial, or cultural context, she focuses our attention on a scattered handful of objects: mesquite trees. Muddy ditches. Porcelain teacups and stone mugs. Blue sky reflected in water. A hillside of golden aspens. The reader never finds out where the desert is located, or when. The reader never learns out the name of the narrator. But the reader doesn't really need to be told any of those things. Trees, teacups, blue water, blue sky--and all of a sudden you know everything you need to about the narrator, the Water Master, and the world they inhabit.
Link to story.