“Hi,” Nathan said, insisting, because she was dark-skinned and pretty and he felt the need to know why she was trespassing on a golf course. “Excuse me, but… what are you doing?”
“I’m following the water.”
As soon as she said “water” Nathan heard it and felt it: the sound of liquid flowing, dripping, moving through the air, causing oxygen molecules to shift and cool. Looking behind her, on the other side of the fence, he saw a stream. About three feet wide and four inches deep, it curved around some bunkers near the seventh green, and then fell sharply, broadcasting a steady, metallic sound as it disappeared into a concrete orifice beneath Nathan’s feet.
Many years ago, in a world of virtual mountains, I knew a wizard named Ninjalicious. His hobby in the “Real” world was urban exploration: “going places you’re not supposed to go”, that aren’t direct routes from here to there, that live behind formidable doors and around ominous corners and up abandoned staircases. He and his urban explorer friends had a zine and a website and a guide book for the curious. His interest in these places started as a way to amuse himself during a childhood hospitalization, one of many he would have throughout his too-short life; he was about 30 when he died. I still remember him from time to time. He had firm principles rooted in a core belief expressed with respect and upheld with consistency, so I respected him. We weren’t close, or even friends, barely even acquaintances; I communicated with him perhaps twice on those mountains far far away, but something stuck. And now this story about two urban explorers unsure of what they’re looking for has brought his memory back to me again.
But urban exploring is just the beginning of what this story triggered for me. Like any recent convert, I’ve been a bit obsessed with ancient Chinese philosophy lately, and it so happens that water had a position of importance from the beginnings of Chinese history. The third Sage King, Yu, was so proclaimed because of his success at taming the Yellow River, preventing the floods that had devastated so much of the countryside for so long; thus controlling water, as I recently learned, became a metaphor for civilization. Laozi, Mencius, Xunzi, Zhuangzi all used water as metaphors for various forces: human nature, qi, dao.
Sofia was her name and she described herself as a “river geek.” She said she was mapping the creek that ran through the golf course. Also its “tributaries.” It was ancient stream, she told him, born from a spring at the base of the Hollywood Hills, “bubbling up from the underworld”. She showed Nathan her map, a series of blue pencil lines over a street grid she had pasted into her notebook. “It’s groundwater,” she said. Before reaching the golf course, the stream flowed into downtrodden Hollywood proper, around assorted industrial buildings and parking lots, and also through a junior-high campus and the television studios of KTLA. Sofia described all these things with a reverence that Nathan found disturbing: he sensed that she’d been doing this mapping expedition of hers alone, for weeks, and had never talked to anyone else about it until this moment.
When it comes right down to it, I can’t really say why I was so captivated by this story. Like Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence”, it just struck something in me. I mention Ninjalicious and water because that’s what it brought to mind, but I don’t really know why I was crying by the end. Maybe it’s because, as Nathan admits toward the end, he can’t get out of his own way – “he preempted disappointment” – even when the water shows him the path. I know someone like that, too, another wizard from the Mountains. I’m a lot like that, in fact. Or maybe, as ZYZZYVA editor Oscar Villalon says in his introduction, it’s because it evokes a sense of something that can’t last, a sense I feel very strongly in this time when nothing seems like it can last much longer.
I’m a little haunted by the story even now, and I’m a bit embarrassed by that, since I can’t explain it, can’t talk about the structure of the plot or the language or any of the other technical places to hide from talking about feeling. Maybe that’s what the beauty of art is: it defies analysis and simply touches us.