AWW Best-in-Show Fellowship: Ashely Adams’ short story “What the Water Told Us”

Fiction: Ashley Adams

In 2017, Antioch Writers’ Workshop entered into a partnership with the University of Dayton, and is formally known as The Antioch Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton. The University of Dayton provides in-kind space—a physical office, mailing address, and space for the Spring one-day seminar and Summer week-long event. Other benefits include availability of the summer program to students at institutions in SOCHE (Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education). The availability of on-campus lodging is a bonus for participants coming to the summer full-week program from out of town. Continuing to foster beginning, intermediate, and advanced writers, the workshop proposed a new, biannual fellowship opportunity with Heavy Feather: “What the Water Told Us,” by Ashely Adams, was awarded the inaugural AWW Fiction Fellowship Best-in-Show prize.

What the Water Told Us

March 28
The residents of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin woke up that day much as they always did. Coffee makers whirred gently, alarms and birds whistled their morning chorus, and everyone turned to greet the sun cresting over Lake Michigan.

Except, that morning, there was no lake.

There were no glistening waves to rub awake the residents’ eyes, just a light hanging over a pit. A pit much like that one that sat near Wawa, Ontario, full of shattered ice, or the one that gaped open next to Chicago, Illinois; Oak Harbor, Ohio; Buffalo, New York. All the joggers, taxi drivers, students, and construction workers of the Great Lakes stood before a sudden emptiness and uncovered silt gathering at their doorsteps.


The First Message
One day after the lakes’ disappearance, a woman claiming to be the manifestation of Lake Ontario declared she would hold a press conference later that day in Rochester, New York. Many people criticized WJDU Channel 27 News for giving a platform for someone clearly trying to take advantage of the situation for attention. Most people, however, tuned in, eager to listen to anyone who could provide answers.

The press conference was held in a hastily decorated room, potted plants and a socially-mandated number of patriotic flags around a wooden podium. At the podium stood a woman with steel-gray skin, hair unevenly streaked black and white. She wore a set of coveralls, though carried herself as if she were wearing the finest of suits. She gripped the podium, just tall enough to be seen over it. If the woman noticed the reporters giggling around her, she gave no indication of being bothered. She spoke in a booming voice, silencing the room, “Greetings, humans.”

The reporters straightened, winced as the voice struck them like a hammer against steel. The smell of sulfur rested heavy in the room. “I am the being you call Lake Ontario of the Great Lakes. We can’t live following your trajectory. But we want to give you an opportunity to change. Here is my message.”

The plants in the corner withered and the flags curled against an unseen weathering. Lake Ontario pulled a chain out of her pocket. She let the end fall to the ground with a clang and tugged. The reporters in the front row leaned back, expecting to be smacked across the face with the chain. Instead, it held taut, hooked on something, but the cameras revealed no hint of what came next. Lake Ontario pulled again and the floor burst open.

The reporters pressed themselves back into the walls, just missing being lifted up on a rising structure of twisted metal, fragments of tugboats, bulldozers, bikes, paint cans, fences, and all the minutiae of life. As the mass settled, at least a dozen feet tall and covering a third of the room, the journalists gathered themselves, launching a barrage of questions. Lake Ontario merely waved before disappearing in a bubble burst, leaving only a watery ring to mark where she stood.


April 13
For the next few weeks, everyone scrambled for firsthand accounts of what became known as the Draining (other names included: the Great Lakes Crisis, the Disappearance, Water Watch, and Lakemageddon). While many people had been on the scene of the incident, nobody could say what happened. Anyone looking over the lakes at the time of the Draining said that there was no warning. There was water and then there just wasn’t. Even those sailing on the lakes couldn’t offer any insight. One moment they were traveling along fine, the next they were falling into the lakebeds below. This, of course, was if the sailor were in shallow enough water to survive the trip down. One unlucky vessel, the Whitefish, held the unfortunate honor of being the world record holder of “Sea Vessel to Fall the Greatest Distance,” over one thousand feet in Lake Superior.

Theories abounded about what happened. Government agencies blamed included the typical characters, CIA, FBI, though the National Park Service, NOAA, and USDA Food Safety and Inspection had also been fingered. Senator John Lithrow of Iowa demanded a formal investigation of several countries. Dale Gibbles, a popular radio host out of New Mexico declared the Draining an act of war by Canada, though the idea went no farther than his most dedicated fans.

As for the messenger, keyboard cowboys battled over several theories she was an alien, an angel, a rogue environmental terrorist, and at the very bottom of the idea pile, that she was actually Lake Ontario. Her message lingered in the room it’d been raised in, warping the floorboards with its weight and wetness, wrapped in police tape as, if anyone was going to disturb it.


The Second Message
There was much paper shuffling and mumbling on the first day of the Twenty-Third Annual Midwest Agricultural Research Symposium held in Toledo, Ohio. Symposium attendees receiving their welcome bags noticed a change in their itinerary: a black marker line was scrawled over the keynote speaker’s name and replaced it with “Lake Erie”. Attendees demanded an explanation, but the volunteers could only shrug. Nobody claimed credit for the change or could even recall seeing anything different before the bags were handed out. A harried organizer assured everyone that the perpetrators would be caught and offered a tray of lukewarm pastries to the complainers in appeasement.

Controversy rarely stirred up the symposium, so everyone was packing into the room, eager to see the keynote speech. Colleagues swapped speculation over donuts. Perhaps the speaker had been kidnapped. Or, maybe, he’d joined with a cult. They all agreed he’d never been on the up-and-up. His views on soybean rotation were ludicrous.

There was no announcement for Lake Erie’s entrance. She walked in up to the speaking platform in front of everyone and waited for the crowd to fall silent. Lake Erie clasped her hands in front of her, a look patient contentment on her face. Her hair was braided, long and golden against her apple-red skin. She wore a blue dress and apron stained with dirt. Everyone in the room sighed, heavy with a warm nostalgia and noses full of the smell of sunbaked grass. Lake Erie smiled at the crowd. “Thank you for coming. I know many of you are concerned about our absence. If you will pardon my interruption for a few moments, I will deliver my message.”

The attendees would have given her all the time in the world. Her words washed over them like summer days until she added, “Though I advise anyone with health problems should exit the room.”

Lake Erie pulled up her apron as if she were holding a bundle of fresh produce. Suddenly, sludge ran over the edge of the fabric. Blue-green pellets fell out of her sleeves, rolling under the attendees’ feet. People screamed, throwing themselves out of the room. Others clutched their chairs and their mask, frozen in fear. Lake Erie walked amongst the crowd, pouring chemicals. “Come now, there’s no need to cat out this way. It’s only algae, fertilizers, run-off; you act like you never saw this before.”


May 15
While nobody was injured in the aftermath of Lake Erie’s visit, that did little to stop demands for justice. Proposals were brought forward to lock up and interrogate the figures, though Lake Erie, like her accomplice, had disappeared without a trace, wilting away like a dying flower until she was no longer there.

All other bodies of water continued churning away, untouched. Observation revealed that water was unaffected until it touched a spot where a Great Lake had been. Cities diverted rivers and inland lakes only to find all the water draining away as soon as it struck the lakebeds.

Scientists struck out to solve the mystery. Despite the pressing need for information, funding opportunities remained as tight as ever. Researchers ended up carrying their research out of their personal vehicles with the ragged seasonals and unpaid interns, all taking turns at jabbing sticks into the muck and hoping to find some hidden aquifer.

The world waited for a breakthrough, but every night the crews came home with no answers, mud, bones, and the stench of dead fish clinging to their boots.


The Third Message
There was no warning for the arrival of Lakes Huron and Michigan. They simply appeared in Mackinac City, Michigan. Without the lakes, tourism had dropped, though there was still a fair amount of families lingering around the reconstruction of the colonial settlement, Fort Michilimackinac. Next to the shoreline stood the lakes, arm and arm, indistinguishable from each other except for their eye color, one green and the other blue.

Visitors watched the pair stroll along, movements perfectly reflecting each other. Their dark hair clung to their heads, dripping with water. They wore simple clothes, chewed full of holes, their skin the hard and crusted like a crayfish, though it did little to slow them down. Eventually, they stopped, waiting as a small crowd gathered around them.

“I am Lake Michigan,” said the woman with the green eyes.

“And I am Lake Huron,” said the woman with the blue eyes.

“We are part of those who have left you,” they continued together. Their voices sounded far away, as if coming up from deep underwater. “You have heard our sisters’ messages but haven’t heeded their words. But we are not without pity. So we will speak again.”

The pair moved around the fort, touching the cannons and wooden frames of buildings. Some police arrived on the scene, but could not be compelled to give orders, let alone harm the two. All they could do was watch as the pair tapped their firearms, hands caked with mud.

Once they had paced around long enough to satisfy themselves, they darted off, weaving in between structures. The spell over the law enforcement was broken and they took aim, but when they tried to pull the trigger, clumps of Eurasian milfoil plopped out of the barrel with inept squelch.

Onlookers huddled together as zebra mussels bloomed from the logs. Out of the cannons oozed lampreys, carp, alewives, and host of gaping fish. Children cried and clutched their parents as goby eyes rolled up at them. The biological detritus rolled out up to their ankles, tangling their feet as they tried to move away. The lampreys moved their many-teethed mouths, gasping out a silent plea as heels pressed their faces down into the sand.


July 2
The height of summer season had come for the Great Lakes region. While some continued studying the Draining, others did their best to keep up business as usual. The glass bottom boat tours of Bayfield, Wisconsin turned into shipwreck history driving tours. Many of the guests hailed this as an improvement, no longer having to combat motion sickness. Rock hounds hauled up buckets of previously unexposed agates. It was the best thing that could have happened to them, no longer leaving them at the mercy of the waves to expose their precious stones and gems.

For those missing the water, the inland lakes and rivers became the de facto option. The Au Sable River in Michigan was so popular that a reservation system had to be put in place for anyone who wanted to put their boat on it. People packed themselves into ponds during an intense heat wave across the state of Minnesota, shrugging at the disappearance of the Great Lakes. After all, they still had their thousands of lakes to choose from. That was not the case in Ohio, where one small lake near Sandusky was rumored to be so full of people you couldn’t move without nudging someone else.

To help the ease the burden on towns, regulations on sand dune recreation activities were slashed. People raced their buggies up and down Sleeping Bear Dunes area in Michigan while sandboarding picked up steam as a sport in Indiana. When interviewed, one surfer said, “Yeah, the Draining is bad and all, but what else did we really have going on anyway?”

This seemed to be the general attitude across the Great Lakes region. Sure, it was bad and they were definitely going to keep working on a solution. In the meantime, they’d use what water they had and keep living the best they could. It wasn’t as if they’d never faced setbacks before.


The Final Message
Almost a year passed with no more messages from the Great Lakes. The news turned to overseas conflicts, clashes in Congress, the latest celebrity gossip, when nothing new and exciting emerged about the Draining. The public agreed the Draining was important, but there were bills to be paid, chores to be done, a life to be lived. Perhaps, because of this, very few people ever heard of Lake Superior’s visitation.

She only ever appeared to one person, Abigail Jacobs, who ran a small lighthouse on the near the Canadian-Minnesota border. Though Abigail shared the story with anyone who asked, it hardly received any press, the story rarely leaving the small town where it happened.

Abigail was a volunteer who kept up the lighthouse for a small stipend. A retiree, she’d always had a fondness for maritime culture and had a weakness for flaunting her knowledge in front of eager tourists. Interest had definitely dropped after the Draining, but there were still enough field trips to justify her presence.

On the day that Lake Superior visited, Abigail was shoveling out a path through the snow, careful not to pick up too many pebbles that made up the rocky coastline. The snow fell in lazy, thick clumps, clinging to her eyelashes. Any other winter Abigail would have said it was a lake effect storm, but that was impossible now.

Something moved behind her. She turned around expecting to see someone lost from the highway. “I’m sorry, we’re closed—”

Abigail told everyone that she immediately knew the woman was Lake Superior when she saw her, something in heart shouting the answer. The woman towered over Abigail, muscles rippling with each deliberate movement. Her body was an iridescent, deep blue, shimmering white specks captured in her flesh. Abigail could only tell where her body and clothing different by the fabric catching on the snow at her feet. She looked around for a good minute before saying, “I told my sisters it would do no good.”

“Are you here to deliver a message?” Abigail asked, eyeing the tower behind them. She’d seen the destruction wrought by these women and waited for some rubbish monstrosity to destroy her work.
Lake Superior laughed, a deep rolling sound pounded against Abigail’s chest. There was another extensive pause. It wasn’t a silence of uncertainty, Abigail was sure, but that of someone taking their time.

“That’s what my sisters did. I told them that you would never listen. But they wanted to try; they loved you so much they wanted to help you, even after you hurt them.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Abigail felt compelled to say, even though she mostly knew it wasn’t aimed directly at her.

“Yes, I suppose so.”

They stood together, the wind picking up. Abigail shivered, desperate to escape back inside away from this force, but afraid of what would be done to her, what she’d miss. “Why are you here?”

“I guess I love you humans too. I’ve been traveling, hoping to see something had changed, but ….” She swept her hands across the empty landscape. “Here, this is my message.”

There was no change in the landscape. Instead, the body of Lake Superior crumbled against the oncoming storm, leaving behind only laughter, slow and heavy against the ancient stones.

Ashely Adams (she/her) is a swamp-adjacent writer whose work has appeared in Paper Darts, Fourth River, Permafrost, Apex Magazine, and other places. She is a founding editor of Lammergeier Magazine. Send bonez pls.


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