By Nine Reed-Mera
This is a story about liquid love.
Two hydrogens and an oxygen fell in love, a little bit after the beginning of time. And this allowed for everything else, ever after.
As with most relationships, one party was slightly more positive and the other saw the glass half empty. Half-empty of a polar molecule. Water, H2O, shaped like the V of a bird on the horizon, is constantly fighting with itself. And the fact that there is a push and pull in all things creates the imbalance and the imperfection that drives our universe.
We were on a school field trip to a waste water treatment plant, which is the worst kind of plant. I prefer ones that photosynthesize. But it was so much better than the classic zoo field trip because you could find just as many species in one inch of that water as you would find in an entire zoo. Amoebas, Diffulgias, Naegleria, Pelomyxa. Organisms that had been around for many blinks of historian’s eyes. And they were beautiful and serene under the microscope, twirling in the waste water like ballerinas in brown tutus.
Proales were the largest of the microscopic- the blue whales of the waste ocean. They could grow up to four hundred micrometers long. That’s as big as four hundred micrometer-sized boats, or smaller than half a millimeter.
And there were Homo Sapiens in this zoo too; heroes trapped in not by cage bars but by low wages and hope for a world where H2O was a little bit less sludgy, and where rivers could be lived by. Where water didn’t equate to poison.
This one’s name was Bill. I knew this because it was labeled on his body, which is the cage of most humans. It was neatly labeled in a very intestinal brown near the collar of his waste water treatment bomber, which was also intestinal brown, making the “Bill” hard to read. Bill was not anal-retentive at all, despite his job. I squinted at the label as he continued to tell one of the most scary stories I have ever heard.
The story starts on a petal of a wildflower, in 1955. The wildflower sat on what had once been a canal but was now the site of the brand new 99th Street School in Niagara Falls. It had only opened a year earlier, and 400 children attended the school.
The town of Niagara Falls was growing. The falls were high, and their hopes were higher. Things were new here, and fresh. Until it literally started to crumble. That same year, a twenty-five-foot area of school ground fell.
The ground fell, which is only supposed to happen if you are: 1) in creative mode on Minecraft; or 2) going to hell. And then it rained, a lot. And the huge, gaping craters filled with water, creating large puddles that the children enjoyed playing in. But something was wrong.
It wasn’t too obvious at first; the slight fumes perhaps; the headaches. The sickness. It was just seasonal, they thought. But then one day, doors opened to black rain. It’s death at the door, don’t answer.
Command Z. Go back, all the way to the 1940s, all the way back to when the Hooker Chemical Company was searching for a place to dispose of a mind-bogglingly large quantity of chemical waste. They chose Love Canal’s sparkling banks, where the wildflowers grew. They placed 55-gallon barrels down into the soil, and the sixteen acres were made into a secret landfill, over which flowers and schools grew.
The townspeople didn’t know, but when the ground caved in, the schoolchildren swam in puddles of toxic chemicals. Rapid onset leukemia was confused with fatigue.
And then there were the births: a lot of miscarriages, and children with abnormally large hearts, which seems appropriate since, after all, it is Love Canal. There were babies born with many more fingers than were needed to count to ten but far too few to enumerate the assortment of chemicals their mothers had been exposed to while they built homes and tried to grow flowers by Love Canal.
Thousands have lived without love, but no one can live without water. And without blue, there wasn’t any green. The flowers died almost as quickly as the people did. And so the story ends with the drop of our wildflower’s last petal, and the terrible lack of closure found in real life—in a seventeen-line caveat on the sales form, releasing the Hooker Chemical Company from all legal obligations should lawsuits occur in the future.
Sometimes people fall in love. Sometimes people fall in Love Canal.
Sometimes stories just end that way. But this one didn’t.
Bill’s story was interrupted by his ringtone, birds by the ocean. They sounded like seagulls dancing through the waves. He let it ring for a while, even though it was right there in his pocket. It was an interesting ringtone, stuck to a man who worked exclusively with oceans that came from the digestive tracts of land-locked Great Barrington. But for a moment, Bill was in that sunset sound, watching the V-shaped birds bounce into the pink horizon over the pushing and pulling waves of V-shaped molecules. And for a moment we forgot about the choking smell of human excrement as we watched him let the ring tone go on and on, bouncing off the sludge pumps and the clariflocculator.
And as we left, I couldn’t help but realize that what had been a literally shitty field trip had somehow escaped from being a figuratively shitty one. As the smell of sewage slowly faded, I thought about Bill, and how much he just wanted to find clarity in the liquid zoo. And he did. When Bill closed the lid of the sampling cup, on the very last part of the purification process, the water was crystalline, like ringtone oceans. He smiled.
Nine Reed-Mera is a Spanish writer and scientist studying at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.