The Algae is Always Golder on This Side

Jennifer Jeanne McArdle

Illustration by Dante Luiz

Dr Nacht, a state ecologist, is sent to Shermanville to assess the health of the town’s lake. On her first visit to the unhealthy lake, she notices the surface is thick with bright green algae. She dips her hand briefly in the water and pulls it out, the green dots covering her pale skin, like new beauty marks. The water drips from her fingertips but leaves a grainy slime with a weird glint. She angles her fingers, so they catch the sunlight better. There is something shining and gold in the water. She’s never seen algae that leaves a gold dust before.

Dr Nacht is nervous she will get more resistance than usual in Shermanville. The whole department feels bad for Dr Nacht and her assistant. Shermanville doesn’t like state employees.

Dr Nacht has to drive around town several times before she finds a parking space, far from the town hall. There are no sidewalks in most of Shermanville, so every time she visits to talk to town officials, she is forced to walk along the side of the road as cars speed past her, a little too close for comfort.

The population of Shermanville keeps getting bigger, but the lower income part of town has voted not to build a new sewer system despite receiving a grant from the state to do so. Dr Nacht is frustrated: the septic systems aren’t sustainable in the long run, and a sewer system here will help funnel clean water to the city, a two-hour drive south of here.

‘Building a sewer system will just encourage this town to grow faster than it can. We want to keep this a small town, like it’s always been,’ is what one of the town officials tells Dr Nacht.

‘But the towns already changed and grown exponentially in the last fifty years, looking at population statistics.’

The official finds other things to talk about without answering the doctor’s questions. Shermanville is supposed to build more low-income housing per regulations from the state. The town has decided to build more homes for retired people to meet this requirement. The retired people complain about the high school taxes.

Dr Nacht visits the lake each day for a week. There is an aged red brick path around a park on the southern shore of Shermanville Lake. The park has benches facing the water with small gold plaques with the names of fallen veterans. The park has a baseball field, and empty green space, and a butterfly garden popping with pink, purple, and orange flowers. From the bench, Dr Nacht can watch the swans float, the feathers of their wings fanning behind them. They swim closer to the north shore, which meets the forest. The whole park seems to have its own shimmer from a distance, even if the water is unhealthy up close. Tears well in Dr Nacht’s eyes as she looks out at the lake. The park could be so much more beautiful.

Dr Nacht’s first talk with Shermanville residents about the lake is at the last few minutes of the monthly town hall meeting.

‘Over the next few weeks, my team and I are going to assess the health of Shermanville Lake to see if it could be cleaned up enough to help the town’s environment. A cleaner lake will help prevent flooding. Maybe we can clean up the lake enough that people can swim.’

‘That lake hasn’t been good for swimming in fifty years,’ someone older comments. ‘How much money is this going to cost us?’

‘The project would be using state funds.’

Dr Nacht doesn’t feel like her meeting with the townsfolk went well. She walks to her car in the dark, unsure what she said to offend them. She didn’t even bring up shaking swan eggs.

Once in her car, she has to clean her windshield. She notices that flecks of gold in the pollen are catching the moonlight as the wipers glide over the glass.

Early next morning, Dr Nacht, her assistant, Eliza, and a Shermanville town official, Glen Harby, hike through the woods to get to the lake shore opposite the park.

Glen Harby frowns when they get to the water.

‘I haven’t been out this way in a few years. The water used to be clear over here. We used to go fishing on this side of a lake.’ Among the algae floats a dead fish, belly-up, gold dusting its scales. Dr Nacht can see the swans more closely here, a mother and father with a group of gray cygnets trailing behind them. One of the big swans raises herself up high, stretches her neck as far as it can go, and opens her wings, flapping them several times in the direction of the humans. The gold is in her feathers, too, but it only makes her look more glorious and regal, like an ancient lake dragon, her stance a challenge to those to who might end her dominion.

‘When the algae is this thick,’ Dr Nacht tells Glen, ‘the fish can’t survive because not enough sunlight or oxygen gets to them. The whole lake needs to be cleaned out.’

Glen shakes his head and tries to skip a stone, but it sinks the first time it hits the water.

‘General Sherman never even set foot in Shermanville.’ Glen tells Dr Nacht and Eliza as they walk away from the lake. ‘It was a trading post for fur traders and loggers. Later, some wealthy folks bought land so they could keep horses and exotic animals,’

‘Ah, hence the thriving population of European swans,’ Dr Nacht comments.

Glen nods. ‘Most of the original rich families lost their money or moved on. In the late 1940s they dug the lake there, small summer homes popped up, and the swans eventually found their way to the lake and became wild again. Big homes for wealthy newcomers grew up along the edges of town. Permanent residents who couldn’t afford big, new homes bought up the summer homes and stayed here year-round.’

Glen takes Dr Nacht and Eliza to a local diner. The waitress gets annoyed when Dr Nacht asks if they can remove the bacon from the eggs Benedict they offer on the menu.

‘Don’t worry about her,’ Glen says after the waitress leaves. ‘A lot of people around Shermanville get grumpy around outsiders.’

‘I’m hardly an outsider,’ Dr Nacht counters. ‘I grew up just an hour east of here. Now I live in the city, just a two-hour drive south…’

Glen shrugs. ‘If she doesn’t know your family, you’re an outsider.’

‘If people are so against outsiders, how does the town keep growing?’ Eliza asks between sips of her coffee.

‘Well, we get some moving in anyway – but usually retired people. But mostly the young people always come back. We have pretty good schools here – despite the recent loss of the marching band – and the kids go to good colleges, but most of them move back here and never want to move away. They come back to live here even though nowadays a lot of them can’t find jobs or afford houses. So many young people are living with their parents. I mean, I live with my parents. But it’s because they need the help around the house, you know.’ Glen looks out the window for a moment and back to Dr Nacht. ‘Nacht is German for night?’

The scientist nods. She notices gold dust under Glen’s fingernails. ‘Why don’t you think people will want to clean up the lake? It doesn’t seem so controversial. They have to have noticed how bad the fishing has become.’

‘They like to think they can fix our problems themselves. You’re from the outside, telling them to do something. They just got riled up about the state wanting to make sewers. They’re closed off to anything right now. Maybe try again in a few years, when people have calmed down.’

‘Or you could spearhead the project. You’re a local. They respect you, right?’

‘We’re so busy.’ Glen shifts his weight, his chair screeching as it moves back a few inches . ‘I’ve got other projects to worry about than the lake. The biggest thing we’re trying to tackle is the drug problem at the high school. We’re bringing some local police over to the schools to talk about the dangers. Kids are driving into the city and bringing back some pretty hard stuff. Last month a sophomore overdosed in the school bathroom – people want to do something about it. I guess there isn’t much for the kids to do around here.’

‘Would be nice if they could go swimming or fishing?’ Eliza pours sugar into her coffee.

Glen laughs. ‘Kid don’t care about fishing nowadays.’

‘You know…’ Dr Nacht toys with the ring pull of her cola. ‘Data suggests that those programs where officers talk to kids about drugs don’t really work—’

‘I do have a degree in public health.’ Glen’s pleasant face suddenly twists into something unfriendly. ‘Anyway, I have to go.’

Eliza and Dr Nacht walk to a different part of the lake that afternoon. Eliza touches the doctor’s shoulder and quietly points. A female wood duck, iridescent wing feathers glittering, leads some ducklings through the algae of the pond. They watch the animals swim and dip under the green and gold, in search of food. The mother clicks at the ducklings. A swan moves swiftly towards the family, its orange beak down. Mother duck jumps and splashes, her small voice trilling. The swan grabs a duckling in its orange beak and swings it back and forth, snapping its tiny neck as the others scatter and the mother continues to splash. The swan drops the baby’s corpse and floats back in the direction it came.

‘Jeez,’ Eliza says after a few seconds. ‘If only we caught it on video.’

Doctor Nacht feels sick and guilty, as though she should have done
something – although most scientists wouldn’t interfere. ‘They’re not native,’ Dr Nacht could tell the townsfolk about the swans. ‘They hurt the water quality by digging up the seaweed and other plants that hold the bottom of the lake together. Other, native birds can’t survive with swans around. They help algae grow.’

‘How dare you suggest killing a creature as beautiful as a swan!’ they would spit back. ‘The swans have always been here.’

Dr Nacht has been given a small office to work from in the town hall. She notices some brownish-yellow spots on the papers she’d left on the desk the night before. She picks them up to shake them out, and decorating the desk itself are what looks like gold snowflakes or something vaguely lichen-shaped. They weren’t there yesterday.

Glen appears in her doorway with a blue spray bottle of generic cleaner in one hand, paper towels in the other. The afternoon sun is coming in bright streaks through the large, dirty window. The air between them sparkles and Dr Nacht has a hard time seeing Glen’s face clearly. She realizes that if she wanted to describe him or any of the other people she’s met in Shermanville to her wife back home she would have a hard time going into detail about their facial features. All their faces seemed to blend into one, which is a rude thing to think, she tells herself.

‘Sorry. I guess you’ve noticed our mold problem.’ Glen’s voice broke the silence after a few moments. ‘I keep these in my office to keep it under control. It helps if you clean the desk.’ He gently places the bottle and towels on her desk. ‘If you let it grow too much, it’ll rot out the furniture.’

A few days later, Shermanville holds a small craft fair in the park in front of the lake. Glen Harby has been talking about this fair and how much it means to the town. The wind brings the smell of the lake into the fair grounds. Dr Nacht and Eliza find it musky, rotten, and unpleasant, but no one seems to notice as they weave through the booths of home-made candles and cheap jewellery, pieces of license plates cut up and nailed to wooden planks, books of pressed flowers, and local vegetables. Closest to the lake is a woman dressed in clothes from the Civil War era. Kids with their faces painted like different animals are sitting near her feet. The women make their way to her. She’s telling a story.

‘Isabelle Tandy was a young lady whose family had a home here during World War II. She used to live right over there.’ The woman points to an empty lot just down the street. ‘When she was in high school, her parents bought a summer house up here to enjoy the lake every summer. Isabelle had a boyfriend, but he got drafted into the War and sent to Germany where he fought the Nazis. Isabelle waited for him to come home. All she ever talked about was her boyfriend who was a soldier and how brave he was. She was pregnant, too, but her parents were sure her boyfriend would marry her.’

Eliza gives Dr Nacht a look. The story seems a little adult for children, but the kids don’t seem to react.

‘He used to send her letters and in one of those letters, Isabelle had told some local people, he included a packet of seeds he’d found over in Europe.’ The storyteller isn’t too engaging, but neither the doctor nor Eliza feel like they can stop listening. ‘The seeds came from the prettiest flowers he ever saw. “I’m gonna plant them in front of this house,” is what she’d tell people. “Momma and Daddy are gonna give us this house in Shermanville, and we’re gonna live here year-round once he gets home from the war.”’

The storyteller stands up and crosses her arms over her chest. Most of the children have stopped listening. Perhaps they’ve heard this story before. She continues: ‘After the War, he didn’t come back to Isabelle. People were afraid he’d died. Isabelle took a boat onto the lake one night during a fair just like this one. There were fireworks bursting overhead, and people were distracted, dancing and eating ice cream and celebrating the end of the War; it took them a while to notice she’d rowed out toward the middle of the lake. People said she dumped all of his letters and gifts into the water. Then she rowed to the other side of the lake, over to those woods over there, and left her boat. But no one could find her after that night.’

‘She died?’ one of the children, butterfly on her forehead, asks.

‘Nobody knows.’ The storyteller shrugs. ‘Years later, Isabelle’s aunt, who also had a house up here, admitted that Isabelle’s boyfriend didn’t die in the war. He fell in love with a nurse and told Isabelle he wasn’t going to marry her. But it was after that night, the night Isabelle threw everything in the lake and disappeared, that the bright green algae that makes the gold dust started blooming.’

‘So it’s true,’ Dr Nacht interrupts. ‘There is a strange gold dust here, and people acknowledge it?’

‘Huh?’ The storyteller responds and shakes her head.

‘The gold dust! I’ve noticed it since I came here. I don’t know what it’s from. I don’t know how it gets in the pollen and the mold, too—’

‘Weren’t you listening to my story,’ the woman answers and sits back down. She turns from Dr Nacht and begins a new tale of a headless ghost of a Hessian soldier killed in the Revolution, this one not on horseback but brandishing a bayonet instead.

‘But algae doesn’t even grow from seeds, or make flowers. What you said about the seeds doesn’t make any sense.’ Dr Nacht runs her fingers through her hair, a few strands of which get caught on her rings and rip from her head as she pulls her hands away from her head. The storyteller ignores the scientist and continues with her new story.

Eliza touches her supervisor’s shoulder. ‘Let’s get ice cream.’

A few months later, Dr Nacht presents her final proposal for the lake clean-up project and the town brings the issue to a vote. Dr Nacht isn’t hopeful about the pending results and goes to a local bar to wind down. Over the last few weeks people had become so angry about her proposal, writing about her on local Facebook pages, taking what she said out of context, writing weird rants with nonsensical projections about what her plans meant for the town.

‘Ultimately this whole thing is just about state control,’ someone yelled at her during her presentation. ‘The governor only likes city people. He wants to tell us what to do.’

Why is a simple lake clean-up project so controversial, especially when the state would pay for it! What was there to debate?

‘I wouldn’t have pegged you for a beer drinker,’ Hermie Conner, one of the men that spoke against her proposal says as he sits down next to her. His hair has thinned and he styles it straight up in spikes. She can see his red, shiny scalp.

‘We all contain multitudes,’ the state scientist mumbles. Hermie has his own beer, half-drunk.

‘What?’ he asks her.

She shakes her head.

‘Anyway.’ He shrugs. ‘Sorry if I said anything insulting back there. I’m just a passionate guy.’

Maybe it’s the cheap beer, but Dr. Nacht feels suddenly very warm. ‘I don’t get what there is to feel passionate about. Since I’ve been here, all I hear about is how much this town loves its traditions and history. What history? Nothing happened here of any importance. Drive to the next town over, it looks nearly the same, except maybe they aren’t too lazy and pigheaded to help themselves, so they have nicer parks and lakes.’

Hermie coughs loudly. ‘Maybe we just don’t want some fucking gay hippy telling us what to do.’

Dr Nacht holds her breath. Part of her wants to slap him. Is it that simple? No. Glen wasn’t a homophobe. Not all the townspeople she met were as conservative as Hermie. Though, regardless of what most people thought, men like Hermie have so much voice, so much sway. Why? He’s loud? He’s big. Other people don’t care enough.

Homophobia aside, she supposed she did call him lazy and pigheaded first.

‘I’m sor—’ he begins, but Dr Nacht puts her hand up, stopping him. She looks down, gathering herself, noticing gold flecks that have been polished into the grain of the wooden bar counter. The light shining through Hermie’s beer glistens on some gold dust and other debris that has sunk to the bottom of the beer.

‘Oh please,’ she says, forcing a pleasant tone, ‘if my conservative, Fox News-loving father went to my gay wedding and had a great time, you guys can clean up a damn lake.’

Hermie suddenly laughs, his face redder than ever. ‘Honestly, Mrs— Dr Nacht, with all the shit my buddies and I dumped in that lake when I was a kid, I don’t think it’d ever be clean enough to swim in again.’

‘It’s not just about swimming, we went over this many times—’ she starts to say but Hermie is distracted already, his eyes on the football game on the TV over the bar.

Was that it? All that bluster gone in moments.

The scientist runs her fingers over the counter and cringes at the sparkling dirt in the whorls of her fingertips.

The votes are counted and the town rejects Dr Nacht’s final proposal for cleaning up the lake. Dr Nacht and Eliza lose their office and stop making the long commute to Shermanville from the city.

A couple of years later, a hurricane reaches farther north than usual, and Lake Shermanville floods over, cars and submerged basements glazed in green and gold.

The water recedes, but the streets are not cleaned. The benches in the park near the lake rot, and the red bricks crack and are left unrepaired. All that remains of the butterfly garden is a rusted, gold-encrusted metal fence laying brokeback in dirt, and the baseball diamond and open field become overgrown bogs. People go the old park to drink at night and leave their empty bottles in scattered piles. The locals decide they don’t need to bother with craft fairs anymore.

In time, a swan couple builds a nest in the weeds growing near a lamp post. Blue thread from the veteran banners weaves through the grass of the eggs’ bedding. When the cygnets hatch, feathers speckled with gold, no one gets close enough to the lake to notice them. They starve to death before they can grow to full size, the water finally too stagnant even for their diets, and the parents fly elsewhere. When Glen Harby takes his son fishing at a pond a few towns over from Shermanville, the boy sees swans floating in the water and asks his father, ‘Do you think they’ll come to the lake near our house?’

Glen laughs at the thought of such majestic birds visiting that dump. ∎

Jennifer Jeanne McArdle lives in New York State with her partner and an agent of chaos (her dog, pictured). She works in animal conservation. Previously, she taught ESL in Korea and Indonesia and also worked with nonprofits in Asia and the US. Jennifer’s story, ‘The Mules’ was a 2022 Brave New Weird award winner. More info on her website.

Dante Luiz is an illustrator, art director for Strange Horizons, and occasional writer from southern Brazil. He is the interior artist for Crema (comiXology/Dark Horse), and his work with comics has also appeared in anthologies, like Wayward Kindred, Mañana, and Shout Out, among others. Find him on Twitter or his website.

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