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Editor’s note: The Water Sustainability and Climate project at the University of Wisconsin–Madison collaborated with other groups to launch the Our Waters, Our Future Writing Contest in January. The group—including the UW–Madison Center for Limnology, Sustain Dane and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters—sought short stories reflecting visions for positive futures for the watershed. This is the winning piece. To read the entry chosen as the runner-up, see the June tablet edition of Madison Magazine.
Soon enough her nights would be filled with the drumbeat of the harvest—humming pollen catchers; rattling truck engines; the slash and fall of vines ripped from their trellises and hauled to the autostripper.
The sound and the fury of a farm, signifying everything.
But for now she would relish the silence. As she walked deeper into the jungle of hop bine, the noise of the harvest party receded farther and farther behind her. The bonfire had become a flicker in the distance, though the scent followed her into the darkness, clinging to the humid air.
Feelings of loss and loyalty dueled inside of her. All she knew was that she had thrown the letter into the flames when no one was looking, then started walking.
Her hands unconsciously brushed the pale green leaves, which seemed to reach out and touch her back. Unconsciously she let her fingers caress the ripening cones, testing their suppleness.
It was a universe to her, these three and a half acres of her father’s land. Amid the heavy lush vines, strung upon cables 13 feet in the air and thick enough to obscure the stars, she walked in beauty. The September moon stained her white dress ochre.
“Found you,” said a voice. “Artemis in overalls.”
Riley Cruz whirled around. Her sister’s smile appeared in the halo of a flashlight.
“I put on a dress,” glowered Riley.
“I’m just kidding,” said her sister, Christian. “Come back to the party. It’s lonely out here.”
Silence roared between them as they turned for the house. Neither wanted to acknowledge the seed of discord growing between their father and Christian’s husband. The disagreement had festered since the referendum last April. Unsurprisingly, it had reared its head again over bonfire beers, sending Riley roving into the vines to ponder her own secrets. But she could still hear their shouts in her head.
“First you parch the trout streams, now you invent borders around the lakes?” growled her father.
“Cities have different needs,” countered her brother-in-law. “We swallowed the tax hikes to remediate Mendota and we can’t let those pig farmers spoil it again!”
“Developers. You always forget where your dinner comes from.”
“Remember who won the referendum.”
“Think about who will pay for it!”
Riley felt her sister’s hand on her shoulder.
“Well, I guess this is goodnight,” said Christian.
“You’re leaving?” asked Riley.
Christian looked at the ground. “I wanted to stay a couple days to help with the harvest ... ”
“John needs to get back up to Madison. A meeting tomorrow.”
Christian couldn’t meet her eyes.
“I can handle things if Dad’s not feeling good,” Riley said.
Christian bit her lip. “Call me if anything comes up. The crop inspector is coming any day now.”
“I’m old enough to sign the paperwork,” said Riley.
Muted, they walked back to the house. Horses and a few pickups crowded the driveway. The sounds of laughter and a hundred conversations seemed to spill out of the open windows.
“Flash rain coming,” said Dr. Morrison. “Any week now.”
“They say it won’t hit ’til after equinox,” replied Mrs. Stone, a neighbor. “Crops will be in by then, if we have to evacuate.”
“The weather models are all over the place,” someone else added. “They say Monona might freeze for the first time in a generation.”
“I don’t need a model to tell me winter’s coming,” retorted the doctor.
The warm, familiar talk only added to the weight on Riley’s heart. All the girls’ lives, the harvest had been a time of celebration, neighbors, music and grass between their toes. Dreams whispered and burdens shared.
Not this year.
A horn blared and Riley looked up to see Christian’s husband sitting in the front seat of their city car, arms crossed and impatient.
Christian sighed and kissed her sister good-bye. “Why can’t Dad just admit he’s wrong about the water?”
Late that night as they walked together up the stairs, Riley’s father paused on the landing to catch his breath. His thin hand rested like a feather on her shoulder.
“Twenty years,” he said. “Twenty years it took us to reclaim the aquifer. We made it a priority and we did it, together. Now they want to break up the watershed for politics?”
At the sound of the propellers Riley wiped the salt from her brow and emerged from the oast shed, where the first batch of hops lay drying in the late summer heat.
She leaned on the bumper of her truck, watching the helicopter hover overhead, preparing to land beneath a rainless sky.
She fought to control her racing heart. A failed inspection would spell ruin.
“We’ve done everything right. Everything right,” she chanted in her head.
The helicopter landed like a dragonfly on the driveway. The door opened and the inspector jumped to the ground. He was followed by two assistants sporting ties and carrying test kits.
At least they’re wearing work boots, Riley thought.
The inspector walked up and jutted out his hand.
“Borchardt,” he smiled.
Borchardt looked down at the yellow-haired girl with pale eyes and the flannel shirt peeking beneath the collar of her hypoallergenic white suit. She had a spade-shaped face, lined. He had watched her grow over the course of the 15 years he had been coming to inspect their farm. Ever the sunburnt specter, glued to her father’s side.
“I’m sorry your daddy’s not feeling well,” said Borchardt.
Riley nodded curtly. “He says hello.”
“I know this is your first time handling the inspection,” said Borchardt, as he and the assistants pulled on their own anti-contamination uniforms. “But the tests are pretty standard. We’re looking for toxins and pharmaceuticals in the well, genetically modified pollen and any inorganic pesticides in the soil.”
Riley stepped toward her truck.
“Wait,” said Borchardt. “I have to check you first.”
“Sorry,” said Riley, who paused and spread her hands above her head. “It’s my first time.”
“I know,” said Borchardt, pulling a wand from his satchel and waving it around Riley’s body. “Any signs of avian flu, radon; anyone sick in the house?”
“Nope,” said Riley. “Just Dad and his heart.”
The wand seemed to agree.
“OK,” said Borchardt. “You’re clean. Let’s go.”
The truck rattled as they drove through the hop yard. They paused to watch one of the farm’s four rusty autoslicers toil down a line, assaying the lupulin content of the cones. Sufficient powder meant the flowers were ready for harvest.
As they watched, a sharp fin extended from the machine and sliced the mature vine at its crown. A second claw reached up and yanked it from its cable. It fell with a dull thud and was raked into the machine’s bin.
“It takes a brave soul to keep a farm going, even with bots,” said Borchardt, making small talk as the assistants mixed air and soil samples on microfluidic plates that resembled watercolor palettes. “It’s fallen on you pretty fast.”
Riley said nothing. They had driven to the far side of the hop yard, the side that faced the north wind. She watched an autoslicer move down the line, cutting none of the vines. These plants were always the last to mature because they faced the brunt of the winter cold.
Hurry up, she thought. The rain is coming fast.
“How about school?” said Borchardt, breaking her reverie. “Going to the university?”
Riley shook her head. “Didn’t get in,” she lied.
“Good news for your pop, I guess,” shrugged Borchardt. “He couldn’t make it alone now.”
Riley said nothing. The image of her father, bedridden upstairs in the house, gripped her chest. The pressure of running the harvest had brought her to her knees more than once in the last few days.
Alone. So alone.
Blonde Atlas—popping caffeine drops and carrying an ailing father and a farm on her back, with a sister who hadn’t called in two weeks and the ashes of a college acceptance letter blowing in the dust.
Riley wanted to wail all of these things at the inspector. But all she said was, “As soon as we save enough we’re going to invest in pellet and packaging equipment. Keep it all in-house.”
They had a dream. And as her father would say, that was more than a lot of folks.
Peddling local hops to microbreweries in Madison, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities was proving to be pretty good business after all. Especially at a time when high ethanol prices were crushing the Bavarian importers, and aphids and drought ravaged the competitors on the Pacific coast.
And yet all it took was one flash rain scorching the leaves and drowning the crowns. One night’s storm could mean years of poverty.
Riley tried to banish the thought, and kept driving.
By 4 o’clock they were standing in the kitchen, going over the paperwork. Borchardt was leaning on the table, signing the certificate of pedigree when his hand paused.
Riley’s blood ran cold. “Is everything all right?”
Borchardt was frowning at a sharp black line on his tablet screen.
“The levels of atrazine in the well have spiked since last season,” he said. “You’re going to have to invest in a new carbon filter before a pellet machine.”
“Atrazine?” Riley was confused. “Isn’t that banned?”
“Since before you were born,” said Borchardt. “But it’s still in a lot of the cornfields, and when it rains it leaks in through the abandoned wells and contaminates the groundwater.”
“All the dead wells are capped,” protested Riley.
Borchardt shook his head. “Down here around Stoughton, sure. But there are hundreds north of Madison that haven’t been rehabilitated since the last Depression. Nobody wants to foot the bill.”
Riley heard her father’s voice in her head.
“Think who will pay for it.”
As the helicopter rose from the dust, one of the assistants leaned over to Borchardt.
“Mr. Inspector, how did her hops get that name?”
“Antigone lupulus? Cruz named it,” said Borchardt. “He was a classics student before he got drafted. When he came back, his folks and the dairy farm had fallen into ruin. Got washed out.
“All he found was a hop vine growing in the back of the nursery. Didn’t know where it came from. Probably the daughter of a recombinant and a wild type. Thrives in the heat. Smells like cat piss. Brewers love it.
“Cruz likes to say agriculture is hubris. Keep praying and the gods may take pity.”
Riley climbed the stairs to her father’s room, two pale ales between her fingers. He looked up from his bed as she walked in.
“Did we pass the inspection?” he asked.
She handed him one of the bottles and collapsed in a chair at his side. Nodded.
“To you,” he said.
With fuel prices so high the trip to Madison was a treat.
“Merry Christmas,” said Christian, stopping the car and leaning into the backseat to untie the blindfold from her sister’s face.
Riley gaped, not believing her eyes. “It looks like ... ”
She had never seen Lake Monona this way—so pale and still. Squinting across at the shining white dome and the building with the curving green windows, a smile overspread her features.
“ ... glass,” Christian said. “Just like Dad remembers.”
Laughing, the sisters opened the door and ran to the edge of the beach. Hesitated a moment, cautious.
They clasped hands and took a first step onto the ice, then a second and a third.
Sally Younger is the first-place winner of the Our Water, Our Future writing contest. She is an award-winning science writer and by day a technical writer at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Her work has appeared in Popular Science magazine, National Geographic and the Saturday Evening Post. Her first short story received Great American Fiction honors and was published last year.