by Richard Pitaniello © 2003

Max pushed the shovel in and out of the soil, digging up the rows of potatoes as he went. He sighed. They had planted much this year, just like every year. Every summer was like this, every summer the same. They worked like mad trying to get their garden to grow, hoping to have a good harvest. Long ago, it had worked. In recent years, it hadn’t. The deer kept getting in and biting down the greens, no matter how high the fence was, and sometimes the plants wouldn’t even grow in the first place.

The potatoes were in bad shape. None of the other food was doing much better. Especially that patch over in the center. They had tried something different there. In an effort to fertilize the soil they had planted a dead fish with each seed, a Native American trick Max had heard about in history class. It hadn’t worked.

Of course, maybe that was because they were cursed. He smiled. He had caught the fish out of a pond that sat deep in the woods. It was so lush with fish that the schools of fish looked like clouds billowing underwater, but nobody fished there. That’s what they said, and, as far as Max could tell, that was the truth. Max was all alone as he fished, and it wasn’t until after he had caught many, eaten some, and buried the rest that his grandfather told him why nobody fished there.

“The pond is sacred,” he had said. “Some Native Americans thought that the fish in it were nearly immortal, that they had existed since the creation of the world. They had been what formed all the rivers and lakes in the world. Well, them and the Undae: water demons who controlled all the moisture on the planet. They weren’t worshipped so much as feared. The Native Americans would do anything to appease them.

“Anyway, the sacred fish and the Undae had the same father, a nameless god who created the seas and then died, leaving his spawn in control of them. His body became salt, which dispersed into the water, and nourished the sacred fish. The fish soon grew too abundant for the seas, and they would leave the ocean, jumping onto land, flapping around. The Undae made saltwater spring up wherever the sacred fish touched. The fished moved farther and farther inland, and the Undae kept creating more rivers and more lakes to house them.

“But eventually the sacred fish grew too abundant for even the rivers and lakes. There wasn’t enough room for them anywhere. The Undae felt that the fish had become out of control, and needed to be subdued. They stripped all the rivers and lakes of salt that the fish needed, making the water poison. Most of the fish died--I did say they were nearly immortal--but the Undae left the ones in the sea alone. They could have the sea, but not the lannd, except for one lake deep inland. That’s why that pond in the woods smells of salt.” If that were to be believed, Max had made a pretty big blunder. Oops.

Max finished the potatoes, and rested for a second. Then he walked over to the barren patch and began digging there. He wanted to see if the seeds had sprouted at all, or if they had just rotted. He dug where he knew he had planted, but he couldn’t find any of the fish. Had they rotted away so quickly?

He dug deeper. He pressed down as hard as he could. Then there was a splashing sound, and the shovel slipped out of his hands, disappearing into the earth.

Max stared down at the place where the shovel had disappeared. There was an oval-shaped hole and beneath it water, apparently deep enough to consume the entire shovel. He stepped closer to it, but the piece of ground he was standing on broke and sank, dipping his leg in the water. He pushed himself away from it just as more broke off. He realized that there must be a lake underneath the dirt, and he was about to fall in.

And he did fall in. His feet didn’t touch the bottom, and he floundered for a few seconds, but he could swim. Around him more and more of the dirt broke off and fell into the water, making waves that pushed at his face and flooded his mouth. He spit out the water as quick as he could, noting that it tasted of salt.

After a few minutes there were no more splashes and no more waves. He looked around. The lake filled the space where there had once been a garden. The dirt had all sunk to the bottom, which couldn’t be seen since the water was so murky. He couldn’t see anything, but he could feel things move all around him. Max swam over to the side, and pulled himself onto land. He wondered what he’d ever tell his parents--and his grandfather. He also wondered what this meant. Why had the Undae created this new lake for them? Were the Undae nno longer confining the fishes to just one lake? Was the march of saltwater across the land going to begin again?

Max stood there for a few minutes before he started to walk back towards his house. He tripped after a few feet and cut his hand. He never got back up. At first it was because he was too surprised at what leaked out of his hand: not blood, but water. He felt bile rising in his throat, and vomited on the ground, vomited a stream of saltwater. As more and more leaked out of his mouth, he finally remembered and understood.

He had eaten the fish.

And that is how he drowned ten feet from a lake no one could remember seeing before.

x x x

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