“You’re quite good at that.” The voice behind him was tinged with a French accent. Miles pretended not to hear her, hoping she would lose interest and leave him alone. She didn’t.
“Do you know what this is?”
He turned, only mildly curious. A thin grey face wrapped in a tightly wound scarf peered up at him. Her tiny frame was bundled in a heavy, multicolored coat and she held a tree branch, a forked rod that jutted from her tiny hands like an arrow. She continued without waiting for him to answer.
“It’s called a dowsing rod, or a diving rod, depending. Something used for seeking precious metals. Often used for seeking underground streams.”
“If you’re looking for water,” he said. “I don’t think you need a magic wand.” The river gurgled and splashed, not fifty feet from where they stood.
“Not magic,” the woman corrected him. “Just a focus. And you should learn to be more respectful. I’m an old woman, and I know when I’m being made fun of.”
“Sorry,” Miles mumbled, narrowing his eyes. The woman was silent a moment, so Miles turned back to the river. Skip, skip, splash.
“So... not many people just stop in Battle Mountain to look at the fucking river. Not exactly a tourist attraction.” The words escaped him before he realized he had started speaking. He immediately regretted saying anything that might encourage her. The whiskey tickled his fingertips and weighed heavily in the back of his head, and he desperately wanted to be left alone.
Though he could feel her color change as he spoke. The white light shifted and shimmered, changed in hue to a cold blue, and then corrected itself. White. Nothing.
“The river is a looking glass, a portrait of the future and the past. It is a precipice over a great chasm, a view from above, a balancing point between two worlds.”
“Look. lady. I’ve been drinking since about noon, so if that was supposed to make any sense–”
“The man builds a machine; it shakes the bowels of the earth. You can feel the tremor, the great earthquake that will swallow the world.”
He stopped skipping rocks. Something bothered him about the woman. He momentarily considered returning to the bottle of whiskey by his side; his buzz was slowly wearing away. There was a funny copper taste in his mouth, and a low thrum began to pound behind his eyes, and was slowly building.
“The bottle will not save you from drowning. Just because you cannot hear the voices does not mean they have ceased to speak.”
Miles glared at the woman. He picked up the bottle and – partly just to spite her – took a long pull. Licking his lips, he edged slowly away from the woman, looking for a polite opportunity to walk away. She stared at him, an uncomfortable, beady stare. He met her eyes a moment, then broke his gaze and stared again at the water.
“I know you have felt him; his eyes are ever watching. That is why you hide. You stand at the water’s edge, watching the sea boil and tumble around you, but you are afraid to swim. You are afraid to drown. But he watches, from the top of tower and from the bottom of his cave, and he would cut open the earth just to hear it scream.”
“Oh fuck, lady. You’re hurting my head.” He took another swing from the bottle. “Is there a reason you’re telling me all this? Or do you make a habit of accosting strangers?”
“Do you know why you are here?”
“Cos I fucking walked here. Is it a trick question? You going to guide me from my evil ways of sin? Bask me in the love of Jesus or some shit?”
“Neither.” Miles felt the smile in her voice, and it disturbed him. “But faith is as much a part of this as anything. Do you know what’s significant about this place? Why you chose this in particular to take your rest?”
“I came here for peace and quiet, not to play twenty goddamn questions.” Whatever had passed for curiosity awe was swiftly evolving into irritation; Miles was growing tired of the old woman and her bold sense of familiarity.
The old woman smiled again. “You came here for absolution; peace is a natural byproduct of that. But you found neither.”
Miles opened his mouth to speak, but found he had no words, and closed it again. He pursed his lips, not sure if he should be more startled or angry.“When people used the dowsing rod they sought underground streams, not for drink but for fulfillment. They believed that the water a source of power, that currents flowed under the surface of the earth like currents of electricity, and that power could be drawn up from them. Someone with a particular gift, a sensitive, could seek out those underground currents and draw the power into themselves. It was also believed that these currents were connected, like a great net or web, joining the powers of the earth together.”