This story originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Worlds of Possibility. You can listen to me narrate an audio version of this story on Spreaker as part of the OMG Julia Podcast, and you can also read the full text below.Listen to "After 10pm - a story by Natalie Anai Nowo Lydick" on Spreaker.
Content note: This story mentions colonialism and the oppression of indigenous people.
by Natalie Anai Nowo Lydick
I smudged the apartment as soon as Felix and I moved in, smoke rolling around the living room before becoming an invisible vapor. It smelled thick and clean. Although Felix wasn’t interested in most of the native practices we were raised on, smudging was one that even he didn’t let go. When the space had been imbued with the hearty smell, we sat down on the living room carpet to face each other. I handed the sage to Felix and closed my eyes as he cleansed me. He handed it back as I opened my eyes, and I returned the favor. Before Felix opened his eyes again, I took a good look at his face, reveling in how entirely different we looked. He had taken after mom, with a broad nose and the complexion of a willow tree. I, quite literally, paled in comparison. But we sat together on the carpet with the smoke ribbons tying our heart strings together. It was our first apartment—small and crappy and spectacularly ours.
It was Devynn’s idea to go night swimming, but I was happy to go along with it. Felix had been less than enthusiastic, going on and on about apartment regulations. I don’t think the regulations mattered to him as much as Devynn’s involvement, truth be told. Admittedly, Devynn wasn’t always my favorite person to hang out with either, but she was the only friend we had managed to make here so far. She showed up the day we moved in, made some comment about neighbors sticking together against a common foe, and then she was always around.
As it often did, the moment came when Felix knew that I wasn’t backing down and he reluctantly agreed to come.
We met up at midnight next to a derelict sofa, long abandoned by some other tenant, and now covered in twigs and dirt, primed to be overgrown by the nearby vines. When Felix and I trotted down the stairs from our apartment and down the walk toward the dumpsters, we were surprised to find Devynn waiting for us. It wasn’t typical for her to be early to anything, but there she was, lying on the filthy, once-yellow couch, as if the skin peeking through her bathing suit was impervious to the dirt.
She was picking at a hole in the couch when she looked up to meet our gaze. Her bright blue eyes struck excitement and a hint of regret into my heart.
Devynn turned her attention to my right and squinted. “Are those Scooby Doo trunks?”
Felix covered his thighs as if to protect them from scrutiny. “Yes. I’ve owned them since I was 16 and have no intention of getting rid of them.”
“Aw, lighten up, Scoobert!” she chuckled as she rose from the couch. She raised her eyebrows. “You two ready to get criminal?”
I flashed her a devilish grin, “Every day.”
Devynn led the way, giving me the opportunity to whisper to my embarrassed twin, “Don’t worry about the trunks, Semu. I love them.”
Mom gave us each two names: one for the world and one for us. Felix was for people like Devynn. Semu was his name for home, for family. I used Semu for gentle moments, personal ones.
He nodded at my reassurance. We needed each other a lot in those days. It was our first time off The Rez since we were kids and it was strange to be away from it, but although we were surrounded by city noises and indoor plumbing, many things were the same. The croaking of hundreds of little baby frogs echoed around us, a familiar sound for a humid California night.
I took my brother by the arm and followed after Devynn, my flip flops snapping the concrete. We made for the far end of the complex, sulfur lamps guiding the way.
The sign on the fence read:
KEEP GATE CLOSED
It was a harsh reminder of all the nonsense involved in our lease at Ivory Eden Apartments. We were only allowed one parking spot and there were no guest spots. They charged for owning pets and reserved the right to disallow the more inscrutable mutts. And of course, my least favorite: all facilities closed after 10pm. Perhaps the pool was understandable—after all, that could be a safety issue—but between school and work, I never caught a free moment in the daytime hours. I found myself wholly unable to start a load of laundry before 11pm, and therefore unable to do laundry at all. Bullshit.
The week before, I’d marched myself over to the leasing office to complain, ready to give the property manager a piece of my mind. Once inside, however, I was quickly lulled by the kind receptionist who urged me to explore the rec room while I waited for the property manager to finish a phone call. The rec room was sparse, speckled with a few tables, chairs, books, and board games. Most of it hadn’t been altered since the ‘70s, save for the feature wall, which was a freshly painted mural. They’d decked the otherwise plain beige wall in a frame of their signature calla lilies. Crisp white flowers pristinely bordered a historical timeline of the area, reaching back all the way to the 19th century.
1969 – IVORY EDEN ESTABLISHED
1965 – LAND ACQUIRED FROM BUSINESS MOGUL WHITAKER JOHANSON BY PETERSON PROPERTIES & CO.
1881 – THE JOHANSON FAMILY TAMES LAND FOR REAL ESTATE DEVELOPMENT
1850 – NEIGHBORHOOD INCORPORATED INTO CITY OF SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA INDUCTED TO THE UNION
I glared at the timeline, seeing that it lacked even a single nod to the Kumeyaay people who had lived here since at least 10,000 years before. I wanted to rend their stupid lilies stem from stem. They weren’t even native flowers! I turned on my heel, knowing that a rant about laundry, flowers, and colonialism wasn’t likely to go over well with Ivory Eden, even if it came out of my white face. There was no point in arguing with these people.
I stomped out of the leasing office and back toward our corner of the complex. The stucco mocked me, the building threatening to collapse at a moment’s notice. Semu had joked that we were better off in an ‘ewaa, though even our grandmother hadn’t lived in one. Now I was thinking he might be right. I stopped to take in the view of its horrid, squat rectangular shape. The façade was popcorned, a rough brown surface to match its interior tan walls. Once bright white accent trim gleamed gray and sagged to boot, as if the building was disappointed in itself.
I passed the pool area on my back to the apartment. I had never been inside, of course. I slowed my gait, derailing my path to peek through the bars. I resolved then to take Devynn up on her offer. A forbidden night swim wouldn’t make up for hundreds of years of oppression, but it would be a start. Damn their regulations.
It was 12:06am when we hopped the fence. Devynn eagerly and swiftly clambered over and I followed suit. Convincing Felix to hop was a bit of a chore, but a few minutes of pleading through the bars to overcome his doubt were entirely worth it for me. I’m sure some incredibly tight-laced part of his gut was rolling just thinking about the consequences, but an equally unhinged part of my psyche was panicking at the thought of going somewhere without my twin.
Truth be told, it wasn’t much to look at. The pool was large and clear, but the surrounding fence and deck chairs did not exactly inspire beauty. The Ivory Eden brochure had boasted of a pool constructed from a natural spring, but whatever was natural about it had been long subdued. Still, we were determined to enjoy ourselves, so Devynn promptly cannon-balled into the pool. I watched Felix’s eyes go wide with terror at the thought of being caught. Feeling sympathetic, I took the steps into the pool.
Gliding into the cool water, I glimpsed the ripples struggling to form a clear reflection of my face. With the lights dim and the water disturbed, all I caught was a vague shadow blob that darkened as I strode in. In a completely expected move, Felix opted to only stick his feet in.
The tiles caught my eye—a thousand or so hexagonal blue and white ones geometrized the floor. They formed a large, perfect calla lily in the pool’s center. I could tell that it had been well cared for. Some underpaid pool boy scrubbed it pearly white on the regular.
Devynn was a picture of glee. The moonlight winked at me as it glistened off her skin, the glint of chlorinated water twinkling down her calves. I waded about for a few minutes before I sat next to Felix, rubbing my legs where the pool water had already dried me out. There was no algae in the pool, but Felix looked green.
I don’t think we stayed very long, maybe an hour. The appeal of breaking the rules seemed to dissipate as soon as we were over the fence. I finally understood why people escalated their crimes. Boredom.
We slinked out from the water like slugs, leaving little pools as we walked along the deck. Towels on, we sauntered out the gate and sat on the warm parking lot concrete to dry off. The night was hot and the air sticky. I shot one of those glances at Felix that felt like an hours-long conversation. We missed home, and not just because we were struggling to scrape rent together. There was an ache in my heart that only the howls of Rez dogs would soothe. I needed a dust devil to whisper a secret to me on its way to blow leaves into someone’s face. Semu smirked. Dust devils didn’t talk here, but if they did, they’d cackle at my unease in this place. At this place’s unease with itself.
I forget if I heard the sloshes first or Felix, but once we heard them, they couldn’t be ignored. It sounded just as we had when we’d started emerging from the water. At first, I assumed the frogs were hopping in the pool deck puddles, but each impending splash confirmed a much larger beast. When the culprit revealed itself, we were all stunned into paralysis. The water in the pool sloshed itself against the sides, and then seemed to rise right into the air. The entire concrete fixture stood up, tiles and all, revealing the dark soil underneath. A network of twisted roots spun themselves together, forming two sturdy stalks, and the pool began to walk.
It lurched about with the caution of a creature that isn’t used to legs and isn’t eager to try them. Blue and white hexagons cracked as it staggered about the enclosure. It stood too high for me to see them snap, but I heard the distinctive pops of the wilting calla lily.
I felt my legs stumble backward on the asphalt while my heart swelled itself into a stitch. The ache in my heart danced outward, grabbed my brother, and then sucked itself into my mouth. I spluttered, “It’s sad.”
Devynn had apparently had enough adventure for the night, immediately darting across the parking lot for her apartment unit. Felix stood stock still in sheer awe. I grabbed his hand, scrambling to pull him behind a now puny-seeming Toyota Tacoma.
The pool stepped over the fence, chlorinated water splashing everywhere as it went. Beneath the bowl, soil wanted to crumble but held fast. The thing lumbered at first, getting used to its land legs I suppose. I swallowed hard when I saw a long, determined, stream of water running through the open gate and up its legs, back into the concrete bowl.
Keep gate closed.
Now outside the fence, it bended the gnarled legs. It struck me as frog-like bending that way, but what it proceeded to do I never would have expected from a frog. It stood tall, lifted one leg, placed it, and then took off at a sprint. It didn’t seem to regard its surroundings whatsoever, tearing everything down as it ran for the street. Water splashed as it went, quickly swimming back up its legs. It barreled over three cars, clipped a unit balcony, and absolutely demolished the brand-new sign that designated the apartment complex. “IVORY EDEN APARTMENTS” now simply said
“ V E N T ENTS.”
The symphony of croaking crescendoed. I turned my head back toward the gated area and caught a glimpse of the small green parade. One by one, members of a tiny amphibious army scampered across the pool deck and plopped down into the hole. The sound was abysmally loud, but it quelled that part of me that yearned for howling. Suddenly, I felt sleepy.
“Let’s go home, Semu,” I ventured, not even pretending I could offer sound advice or an explanation for what we’d seen. His eyes lingered on the path Legs had taken on its way out, sullen and serious. “It’s not sad,” he said, “it’s angry.”
Semu straightened, leveling his eyes at me. “Like you,” he added.
The next morning, I skipped class. Something listless and weird slept in my stomach and hunkered me down. I left the apartment in a daze, squinting at the early morning light. I walked around for too long before I realized that I was back at the pool entrance. Looking now, I saw that the gate was dented and the damage from last night was worse than I had expected.
No one had yet called the apartment complex or police to report the incident, but I imagined that within the hour they would all be here with caution tape and accusations. It was a risky move, but I walked through the open gate.
The hole was massive. Pools are always deeper than you think they are, but the gap really struck me now. I can’t explain the compulsion I felt, or why I listened to it, but I walked to the hole’s edge, crouched down, and climbed in. The edges were steep, and I quickly found myself at the bottom of the pit with no conceivable exit. The frogs were unfazed, after all I’d only done just as they had, hopping in with no further plan. We cohabitated. I laid down, staring face up at the clear sky from the dirty chasm.
Suddenly, there they were again. This time, slow and steady, almost tired, the sloshes returned. I tried to scale the walls but was unsuccessful. With limited visibility out of the hole, all I could do was listen to the impending sloshes.
A strong wooden leg appeared overhead and planted itself on the deck. Another. The concrete fixture tipped itself toward me, splashing water on the dirt below. The tumult of soft croaks once again became a cacophony of ribbiting. Legs moved slower now, not even half as quick as when they had first emerged. The anger seemed to have subsided, its fury either placated or simply tuckered out. The deliberate moves of the pool struck absolutely no fear into my heart; somehow, I felt sure of my safety around it.
It squatted again, like it had before, now at the hole’s edge. I watched it slide in, much like I myself would have slipped into the water. Before it had made it halfway in, it stopped, tipping the concrete edge down once more. I got the message, grabbing the edge, and climbing into the bowl. All of us did. Frog after frog sprang into the basin, an act of some organic solidarity. Now entirely sure of itself, the pool rose slowly up again, readjusted, and laid down into its nest.
Fully clothed and uncaring, I let myself float there. The water kissed my arms and legs, an aquatic collective holding me up. The tiles were cracked in all the right places, delightfully rearranged in a collage of blues and whites all their own. The pool hadn’t forgotten its calla lily, but it no longer floundered under its constraint. I felt a Rez dog howl in my heart, right where it was supposed to be. I plunged lower to let the water take me in, and it welcomed me home.
About the Author
Natalie Anai Nowo Lydick (she/her) is an emerging writer and graduate of UC San Diego’s Literature program. When she isn’t furiously shoveling spaghetti into her mouth, she writes speculative fiction and poetry. Her work has also been featured in Eye to the Telescope and Third Estate Art.
I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I did. I felt the whole image of this pool just getting up and running away, and then coming back and rearranging itself and reclaiming that specific form, and that land, and those resources was really interesting and affirming.
It also gave me the chance to do some research into the Kumeyaay people. I grew up not far from their territory, but not actually in it, so I didn't learn about them in school, but I was familiar with a lot of the area that they traditionally inhabited – and still inhabit today. It turns out there are plenty of online resources, including some really cool videos, where you can see the history and the lives of the people, and also how those people are still using their traditions today. There are people trying to keep the language alive, trying to pass down traditions and knowledge to younger generations, and even sharing them with people like me, who aren't part of their society. You can find videos about, for instance, how they use local plants to make tools, food, and medicine. I never realized, growing up in Southern California, that I could find those things right around me and do that myself – if I knew how. There are a lot of really cool things to learn, and I am linking to a few videos below so that you too can learn about the people who inhabited the area in and around San Diego, California before a bunch of white people came in and took over and eventually built hideous stucco apartment buildings.
First People: Kumeyaay is an overview of the Kumeyaay people's history and the ways modern Kumeyaay are keeping their traditions alive. This video is about 50 minutes long and features many Kumeyaay voices talking about their experiences. I recommend starting here.
Kumeyaay Language Taking Steps to Secure Its Future is a short (under 5 minutes) news segment from PBS that originally aired in 2014. It documents some of Professor Margaret Field's work on what would eventually become a trilingual book of Kumeyaay stories. In this video you can hear some fluent Kumeyaay speakers. You can find out more about the project, including a link to the finished book, on the San Diego State University American Indian Studies news page.
Kumeyaay Uses of Plants is a 25 minute video made by the Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center at Pauwai, an educational center focusing on how the ancient Kumeyaay lived. It is open to the public and was originally founded in partnership with the City of Poway, the Friends of the Kumeyaay, and the San Pascual Band of Mission Indians.
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