Margaret has stuffed her left index finger in a hole in the wall of a cliff to keep out the surge of water that will destroy her world.
In a small city at the center of a valley closed in on all sides by vertical cliffs, the days are short. It is a cold desert landscape, stark and isolated. There are no cracks in the sheer walls. If you were to stand at the base and look directly up, your insides would shift, knowing that the wall was lurching down to crush you in slow-motion like a stone wave. There are shadows everywhere in the canyon city of X; it only takes four hours for the sun to slither across the scab of empty sky visible from the ground. The rest of the day is twilight. There are no cracks in the perpendicular cliffs enclosing it except for one.
Margaret is a quiet orphan. She stands shivering in the twilight of her tenth hour of protecting the city. Her eyes are slits as she watches the nicotine-yellow beard of her “uncle,” the old man, bobbing up and down toward his hollow chest as he sleeps. His head hangs low, and the bent aluminum chair looks like it could crumble under his slight weight.
Ten hours ago, she stood at the cliff celebrating her thirteenth birthday, the age where most people in the town are tall enough, and considered responsible enough to guard the city. The old man had lit a candle on a stale cupcake that he had carefully decorated with small blue stars. He didn’t smile, but his face was less cold than usual when she looked up at him. She blew out the candle and ate the cake. Her face was a tombstone. Then she carefully put her finger into the crack as Nate the butcher removed his.
His family came to greet him and marveled at the huge blister on the tip of his finger. They laughed as they went home, proud and relieved. Nate would fall asleep that morning with a smile on his face. His family would bathe him in warm gazes, watching him as he slept.
Margaret’s arm burned with numbness. In order for her to reach the hole, she had to fully extend her whole body. The old man had fallen asleep almost immediately. Next to him sat the cold thermos of soup that he was supposed to have given her hours ago. She begged him under her breath to wake up, but he didn’t. She sighed, and her face burned with patience. Her stomach was eating itself. Only two more hours.
She looked up with closed eyes at the patch of sky and traced the constellations from memory. When she opened them to check her accuracy, her ribs sank. She was wrong. She closed her eyes again and imagined the flood. She could remove her finger and the whole city would be under water. She saw the old man’s beard floating like magic in the water as he did the breast stroke past the library and he’d tip his hat to fat old Josephine and her five pink poodles. Bubbles would emerge from his pipe instead of smoke. The poodles would swim by and lift their legs to floating trees.
She opened her eyes. But really, of course, everyone would just drown. Of course, everyone would just drown. She imagined everyone just drowning and felt her finger tingle.
A week later, it was the mayor’s turn, but he had enough money to pay the old man to take his place at the hole. The mayor congratulated the old man on his bravery, his sense of patriotism. People cheered. The mayor was doing a great job. All the people knew he was the right man to take over the immense duty passed on through the centuries of keeping the city safe. He smiled and patted the old man on the back. The old man was past being proud of this duty; it was his hundredth time plugging the hole.
There were 99 photos of him in the town library, and in each one he smiled less and less. Now there would be one more picture. There were millions of photos. All the way back to hundreds of years ago, one person for each 12 hour shift. Smiling faces. There were plans in the works to add a new wing to the library. It was already full to the brim in pride. There were no books; the book library was at the other end of town.
There was one picture of a woman named Joan that hung in the entrance of the library. She scowled at the camera in black and white stillness as she held a sign over her chest that read, “Traitor. Idiot. Whore.” Everyone in town had heard of her, and some, including the old man, actually remembered her. She had ignorantly suggested that they use a cork to keep the flood at bay. She was hung immediately following the mugshot. They kept her image at the entrance to the library as a reminder to the citizens that they were doing their duty, and to watch out for traitors like her.
The old man woke up at eleven the next morning, stirred some sugar into his weak coffee, and drank it as he smoked. He looked down at his blue veined hands, remembered for the millionth time that he was very old, and he pulled up his pants. He walked out of his small but warm home, closed the screen door behind him, nodded at Margaret who was just waking up, and walked slow and hunched past the town hall, the bakery, the park, and the bare dirt patch over to the cliff.
He arrived at noon, right on time to take over for Paloma, the school teacher. Her students had all come to walk her home. They cheered. They couldn’t wait until they were old enough to save the city. The old man coughed and leaned his back against the cliff, holding his finger in the hole as if pointing to a map he knows so well he doesn’t even have to look. Margaret, his niece, came a few hours later with a sandwich for him, which he ate in silence.
Again it was twilight, and the old man’s head began to sink toward his chest. He was barely awake and began to dream. He removed his finger from the hole in the dream, and out flowed the water. It filled the canyon, and all the town’s people were being washed away, bashing against the sides of the cliffs with the torrent. The water rose and rose, and he found a rowboat. It was difficult for him to climb in because of his sore bones, but eventually he got in and began to row.
He found Margaret floating around merrily, diving into the water from rooftops. She got in his rowboat as well, and the water kept rising. It rose until it began to seep over the top of the canyon. They rowed to the edge and got out of the boat, walking through the mud into real daylight. They saw the horizon for the first time. It was orange and beautiful.
When Margaret came back in the evening with the old man’s dinner, she found him asleep, curled up where the wall and ground met. She dropped the sandwich and walked up to the hole. It gaped. It winked at her. It was fingerless. A few drops of liquid pathetically dripped to the ground.
She put her eye up to the hole. It was a simple, small hole. Her face was bare. She put her hand on the old man’s shoulder, who grunted and rolled onto his back. He looked up at the stars and pulled himself up into a sitting position. Margaret nodded at the hole. The old man got up, put his eye to hole and cleared his throat. He wiped the dirt from his trousers, and took Margaret’s hand. Nothing happened.
They began to walk home.