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Illustration by Dev Murphy

NATIVE UNDERSTORY

a Cc interview with Sarah Souther

It becomes one story of many, one legend: her lemonade, it is poison. Not the lemonade really, but the water it is made with, and all the concentrate powder cannot not hide the corrosion. The neighbors have been complaining of rashes, hair loss, muscle stiffness and the shadow woman, who is not yet a shadow but is on her way, picks her nail and waits for her family to start scratching themselves tender too. But still somehow it is the shadow woman’s lemonade that becomes the culprit. She flips through a calendar, finding scrawled playdates: Evan, 3:00 PM, our house. Sam+Sam, pick up afterschool. The shadow woman moans. She lists all the times she served the lemonade and how much of it, to her son, age seven, and to how many boys, how many other people’s children. Her husband rips July out of the pages and advises her to tell herself and all the rest that even their ice came from bottled water.
       The tellers and retellers say she quenches the town’s children with the sickness. They say she is the reason people seem crazy in town now, hunching over diner pancakes and black coffee breathlessly whispering about a grief that compels them, that compels them, until one day they disappear. They don’t tell the other part of the story. They don’t say that the shadow woman needs clean water for cooking, for washing hair, for drinking, for doing the dishes. She loads up her car, taking four or five trips to water stations, but even then, the water seems to trickle away in hours. She, like the whole gray town, conserves, as they have for years, since the water went wrong. Since the swelling, raging river that cuts through the desiccated town went toxic. 
       The shadow woman’s son hates to go without washing in the tub, especially after he has spent an afternoon crouching the dirt, smoothing together perfect mud pies. She forbids him from doing so much—cupping his hands together to drink from the sink in the middle of the night, washing an apple to eat—so she never forbids him from playing however he wants. But then he pleads with her to let him wash off the grime that burrows in the grooves of his palms, and she always agrees. 
       One night the shadow woman pulls the shower curtain open and sees her son standing as close to the showerhead as he can. He wobbles on his little toes. His mouth is open; he is drinking, though she doesn’t know why he even wants to. It all tastes of copper. When she yells, he slants his pupils towards her, but he doesn’t move away from the spray, not until she pulls him away, so hard that he knocks the back of the tub and strikes out looking for a handhold. The soap clatters. 
       The next morning, she takes him to the diner, hoping he’ll open to her, reveal what led him to break the rules. But the shadow woman’s son just eats two lumpy sausages and half a slimy omelet. He repeats old warnings the shadow woman remembers from her own childhood: your skin’ll turn blue if you wade in the water, and the veins under your skin might heed the call to become snakes, and dead bodies rise straight out of the water during the last quarter moon, edging up the banks, looking for appendages to rot. 
       The shadow woman rips every calendar page out. The shadow woman dumps the lemonade concentrate into the garden. The shadow woman knocks against the shower tiles until one hairline fractures. The shadow woman takes her son to the diner every day, because he asks. She is a spoiled egg, that neglects to float to the top of a bowl of water, meat accidentally chopped on the vegetable cutting board, bra underwire shaped and reshaped to fit a curb, nightly doses of Benadryl taken to coax sleep, the first scrape on a set of china, blood from a gum, filling the crevices between two molars while the floss moves up and down up and down again and again. When the boy finally dies, the shadow woman becomes a shadow. The tellers turn her into one. 

Who would’ve thought of Sam here, in Guanacaste? But then again, since seventeen, since the acceptance letter with the big red seal of scrolls, she wanders unfamiliar places with a copied confidence. Her family once joked that that all the ivy and brick would ensnare her, never let her come home for Christmas. A pretty, centuries-old trap. In a way, they were right. She hates it at school, between the boat shoes and technical theory terms people throw out to intimidate, and she hates it back home where dead ghosts of people she once knew threaten to usurp any peace her family cultivates over Easter ham and creamy strawberry-studded Jell-O. That town is gray and desiccated with a cruel, toxic river that rages straight through. Sam signed up for the Costa Rica trip for spring break to study biodiversity instead of her own solitude, her own proposed escapes. 
Now, a professor with a clever gaze pushes her glasses up against the humidity and leads them down a muddy path where the group’s boots suck into the earth. Everyone calls her Jeanie, but Sam thinks of her as the professor because it feels humbler. One of the white girls, maybe Jillian or Sarah, tries to climb a wooden viewing tower and tumbles down the slick stairs. She crashes hard, laughs sharp and shocked. A pair of birds—Crested Guans, the professor says, from an ancient group called the Cracidae—cackle back. The professor calls for a water break when Jillian or Sarah rubs at her hip, even though the long flights of stairs down to the Rio Celeste waterfall are only meters away. 
Most of the students carry chunky reusable water bottles covered in stickers from bands they call unmissable and breweries where their parents tout saisons versus brown ales. Sam carries her own slim bottle, plain. One of the white girls, Jillian or Sarah, uses a half-crumpled plastic bottle with its label ripping off and the other students stare. 
Sam walks to the edge where she can see the iconic view from blogger’s photos: a crackling shower of white, spilling into clean cerulean pool. The kind of water anyone would want to float in for hours, with the intention to let sin—if one believes in that—wash away. There is a legend about this place, the professor told them on the walk up, that god dipped a paintbrush in the river after coloring the sky. She turns away; the water prompts a strange whisper inside her, like a lonely spirit reminding her of another history and she balks. 
       “How many of those did you bring?” one of the other students, Javi, asks. He smacks a mosquito against his brown neck and then wipes off its guts with her thumb. He’s talking about the white girl’s plastic bottle. 
       “Enough for the trip. Mom got me one of those big packs from Costco,” the girl says. 
       Sam imagines the girl and her mother, so proudly coiffed it looks like a Halloween costume in a warehouse department store, swinging their hips and throwing provisions into an overfull cart. Bug repellent, a few extra pairs of sunglasses, new socks to prevent blisters and then cases of water. Maybe they bought an extra few for the house too. Why not? Anointed as they are, they can collect it and let it keep for years if they want. Their sink will still run. 
       “They said the water is potable here,” Javi reminds her. “That means drinkable, if you didn’t look it up. You can just fill up at the hotel.” 
       “Duh, chill. I read the guidebook, obviously,” the girl replies. She tosses her plastic water bottle up in the air and misses the catch. It crashes to the ground, collecting mud and little bugs that she has to brush away with a squeal. “It’s just, it’s not America, you know.” 
       Despite her better judgement, Sam looks back out at Rio Celeste, surging on, even if no one cares to see. The professor reminds them again that Costa Ricans care immensely about the environment—an easy, exotifying stereotype that half of them will probably use in a paper this semester—and that most residents have access to decent water facilities. But it’s not America, of course, not the America this Jillian or Sarah dreams of returning to: where anything and everything drops into her hands, without her wondering what it costs. 

In a desert city, where cacti sprout from sidewalks, Javi never expects the flowers, pink handfuls of petals that drape gracefully over succulent spines. Monsoon season brings flooded streets, stranding rickety cars under bridges, and burnished rainbow beetles that putter on stucco. Javi came for the music, not the rain. Hardcore music in do-it-yourself venues, not quite mainstream in this not-so-big place, but still rising above and around a crowd that launches into a joyous, vindicated mosh. Some afternoons, he wakes from a nap, thinking he must be at the front of a stage, but it’s only the lightning-bringing storm. 
       On the night of his first show in Tucson, Javi stops by fold-out table with coolers of ice. 
       “Can I get a Coke?” Javi says, finally, after staring at the beer for too long. He hasn’t had a drink since a bad night in college when the cops cited him and only him at a fraternity party. For a moment, though, he imagines himself at the forefront of the stage, launching into a riotous scream, drunk, drunk, drunk because nothing really matters anyway, does it? “What is that, like a dollar?” 
       “Two,” the man behind the table says. He shuts the cash box. “But you’re playing, right?” 
       He passes the soda over. It’s supposed to be cool to be straight-edge here, but as Javi presses his lips to the dewy metal, he has a sense he’s losing respect with some of the crowd. His red can stands out as if he’s a teenager at his parents’ suburban barbecue, waiting for the hot dogs to char. It isn’t very punk.
       The bartender—he’ll introduce himself as Axel a few hours later when they’re unchaining their bikes from curb and then somehow kissing—clicks his tongue at Javi to grab his attention. There’s a line forming and orders coming in. Axel passes out tallboy after tallboy of something called MURDER JUICE. The can, decorated with bleeding skulls and halos, gleams dented metal under the fluorescent lights. Javi imagines an IPA, bitter and aching on his tongue. He can’t, but he is seduced by all of them, throwing their heads back, drinking in tandem. 
       “On the house,” Axel says, handing him one too. “It’s really just water, but everyone says its better. Now go kick ass.” 
       Javi vaults to the front of the house, just as the band is being introduced. People, none of whom he recognizes, filter towards him on the first chords. He remembers the rain and how everyone but him seemed to know it was coming. So Javi cracks open the MURDER JUICE right on stage to buy time. The tab pops in the mic and a few people shriek in approval, holding up their own MURDER JUICE in solidarity. He spills it back into his throat. They’ve all been paying for the can, he thinks with new clarity. They’ve all been paying for the label. 
       In a way, that gives him courage. He plays: harsh and barking into the microphone. He sings of a suburb he once knew, of a girl he once fucked who would never understand why he sat in the shower to cry, of a chaotic power play that could be between him and his father or him and god, of a disintegrating ocean of blood and obscurity, of how space—the kind with stars—isn’t the answer, but they all think it could be. He sings, mostly, of watching the world self-destruct and being the only one who notices. He sings of being above it all while being in it. 
       After the set, Axel gestures to the empty can of MURDER JUICE, asks “You like it?” 
“Tastes velvety,” Javi replies. A strange fuzz has settled onto his tongue, one he can’t scrape off with his teeth. The water, apparently from a mineral spring, lacks the stratums of flavor—of cloudy fluoride and whatever else never gets filtered out— he remembers from a regular glass. Axel tells him how MURDER JUICE became a bestseller in the last six months, marketed to these straight-edgers who’ve been shamed into thinking they’ve got to dress up their sober drinks to look cooler, more adult so they fit in. It makes them more comfortable, Axel claims, with what they consider their flaws. 
       “Don’t they know water’s just a human right?” Javi says and Axel smirks and asks who said so? 
       They’re on their way to that moment where they know they’ll be together past sunrise and Javi knows it, so he just takes a second MURDER JUICE for the hell of it. He drinks the water, flat and polar cold, imagines it reshaping and repumping his veins, hydrating him, marking him with some language of a generation at odds with itself, so obsessed with not buying in and yet. He grazes Axel’s knuckles. How lonely is everyone? Honestly, he just wants to kiss. They all probably do too. 
       He drops the can, but the water swells in his stomach, seeking a boat to buoy. 

Axel, better known by his given name—James Isaiah—in his parents California home, prefers wine tasting, but his parents are obsessed with the water sommelier’s lounge. Axel dresses in a cream button-down as his mother demands. He brushes his hair out of his eyes when his father asks, not through speech, but by handing him a metal comb out of his pocket. They huddle over the menu at the bar, craning their necks to read about twenty flavors of water, some claiming to provide the whiff of a tiger’s breath, some sure that they contain the fruity mist of Michigan. 
       Tonight, they are out with Axel’s parents’ friends, the Townsends, and their daughter, Hanna, who is graduating from a journalism master’s degree. James—not Axel—is pursuing artistic pathways, his parents claim, and Mrs. Townsend fingers her pearls and asks if he is at all interested in pottery since he has been living in the Southwest these days. The sommelier takes their orders before Axel has to answer her. 
       Hanna and Axel let their parents order the little flights of water. Axel wishes it was beer, at least, but his parents order with practiced jargon that he can’t decipher. Something about TDS levels affecting the salinity. The Townsends ah and ooh at that and Axel’s father mentions he listened to a segment on NPR about how the quality of what you drink could prolong your life by up to eighteen months. 
       “And what you could do in that time!” Axel’s father jokes. “How many rounds of golf could you play?” 
       Meanwhile, Axel’s mother reaches for the flight a little too quickly and almost tips over one of the waters. She steadies it, but it sloshes over her fingers and she quickly sucks at her fingernails and then her wrist, as if desperate to preserve every droplet. Axel wonders, uncharitably, if she drank any bourbon before she came here. He knows he shouldn’t stereotype his mother, but then she is the one who suggested coming out here for a pre-dinner aperitif. Plus, his parents on the cusp of divorce, as they have been for the last seventeen years. It’s all to be expected. 
       To the sommelier’s chagrin, Axel’s mother—probably drunk and feeling awkward after her blunder with the flight and also thrown by Hanna’s success in the face of what she perceives of as Axel’s failure—guzzles the entire drink. This one was from Slovenia, metallic and burning. The little asterisk pointed out that it would provide a heightened, clashing experience, perfect to pair with a mild Gouda and stone wheat cracker. 
       “Madame, you mustn’t!” The sommelier snatches the glass up so tightly, Axel wonders if he’ll break the stem. The sommelier wipes at the lip, transferring Axel’s mother’s sundaze gloss make-up to the white towel, a streak of dusky peach that doesn’t even look sensual. “Sip, madame. Take it slow.” 
       “I was thirsty,” Axel’s mother says with a little, embarrassed shrug. “Too much pilates this morning.” 
       “Never too much, dear,” Mrs. Townsend says. “You could quite use it, I’m sure.” 
       Never, Hanna mouths. She checks her phone and Axel wants to laugh, but he doesn’t want to create an alliance just yet. 
       “Let me try one,” Axel says. He chooses a more common water, collected in Java. It should have a “smoky, exotic” mouthfeel to it, with a rush of mountain flowers boosting the aftertaste. Axel drinks and wishes he hated the taste more. Though he has never tasted a mountain flower—only scented one, probably in some badly-labeled shampoo or drugstore deodorant—the quiet growth of flavor on his tongue stuns, feels never-ending. 
       “So?” The sommelier leans forward, gauging every reaction. Axel is absurdly aware of his Adam’s apple bobbing, as if the sommelier might critique his swallow. “That’s one of our most popular ones. Good for newcomers.” 
       “We’ll work on him. This isn’t quite his scene. You know how kids can be,” Axel’s mother compensates, when Axel doesn’t say anything. 
       But Axel is caught by the little note on the menu that he never noticed before, at odds with the strange thoughts that percolate like bubbles in his bloodstream, a sensation that feels unsafely pleasant, launching him outside of this wood-paneled enclosure, loud with businessmen’s laughter. The note, he reads it over and over again: You came here because you treasure the water. Because you know you must honor it. Because it is part of everything we do and you will not allow yourself to parch in the drought. Thank you, to you, to the water, to the miracle. 

The shadow woman had her own legend years before she became one. Far before the wildfires came and ignited the hillsides into devilish pyres, forever impressed into the shadow woman’s memories. Far before those same wildfires coaxed sediment and debris into the river, turning the water into something unclean. Far before the shadow woman would ever become a shadow. 
       The shadow woman had a mother then, who calls from the front of the house. Rainwater mingles in the shadow woman’s hair, her skin, her sweat. The shadow woman is only little, little. Back then, she soaked in a tub until her toes turned to prunes. Back then, her father filled up a wading pool for her and she drank apple juice with ice cubes clinking against the glass. The shadow woman’s mother calls again and the shadow woman scrambles from the kitchen, wearing only her fraying spandex training bra. When her mother calls, she knows to come. 
       The tellers and the retellers, they never tell this legend, this memory, the one that fluttered inside the shadow woman like hope. Outside, the shadow woman is cold, although she secretly likes the way her skin goosepimples, living and evolving without her conscious thoughts. But she does worry a neighbor kid will see her, gawky-limbed and half naked with humidity hair, and laugh at her from behind a curtain. Worries they’ll call up the other neighbor kids to ride bikes by and point. She tries to stammer this all out to her mother who just asks her why any of that matters at all? 
       The shadow woman’s mother spins her around in circles while the dark clouds drift by in big tumultuous tufts. Thunder bellows high above them, echoing between unknown, invisible cities owned by angels and gods. Or so the shadow woman imagines it. She follows her mother’s suit, finding a rhythm in that beating. It is impossible not to when a whole other secret world opens up to her and invites her in. 
       Mother and daughter spin in circles in the front lawn, feet slipping on blades of wet grass. If someone laughs, the shadow woman could not notice. The two of them are in the midst of swerving their hips left to right when the shadow woman’s mother clings to her daughter in a wet hug. Her mother whispers of how this was what they did when they were just kids in storms, learning to celebrate. 
       And, as the story goes the shadow woman kisses her mother’s cold skin, right at her collarbone, and then pulls away, opens her mouth right up and drinks trickles of water that make sleek, clean patterns down her throat. 
   

surya.jpeg

eshani surya

is a writer and educator located in Philadelphia, PA. She is a Flash Editor at Split Lip Magazine, a food writer at Philadelphia Weekly, Operations Coordinator at Blue Stoop, a game writer at Crazy Maple Studios, and a writer at Health Union, working on health-specific content and moderating user forums and pages. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also taught undergraduates. 

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