“Nobody wants to see my sketches,” Liliana whimpered, tears flowing down her cheeks. It was pathetic to converse with a kitchen sink, but no animated creature was listening, and the sink was always supportive. Of course, she could fling herself on a sofa and wail at the unfairness of her life, but she had to cook dinner before the kids got home. She might as well simultaneously cook and indulge in a fit of hysterics.
She skinned a chicken thigh and swallowed a tear, but another one wasn’t far behind. “I want to work for a theatre again.” She sobbed noisily. Tears almost blinded her, and she had to stop cutting for a moment. Sometimes, the constant rejections made her life so unbearable she wanted to kill herself. Strangely, she never wanted to cut her finger while deboning a chicken. That would hurt, and nobody would notice. She had no husband, no friends nor relatives on this side of the globe. Only a friendly sink.
“You’ll get there,” the sink whispered in her mind.
“Yeah, I know, but when?” The tears wouldn’t stop coming. It was so hard to stay positive, when only a sink boosted her morale. The second chicken leg landed in the pot. Liliana sniffed and wiped the tears with her sleeve. “I’m such a freak. I can’t help that I’m an immigrant. I don’t have a portfolio. Everything was destroyed in the war, but they think I’m lying. I am not. I’m telling the truth. I’m a wonderful costume designer, I am.”
“Of course, you are.”
“Whatever friends I have at the community centre think it’s a whim of mine. Theatrical costume design is not a job for a poor immigrant, they say. Some friends. Theatre is my destiny, I know.” She could blabber anything to her kitchen sink, even the drivel about destiny. The sink never disapproved.
“You’ll find your dream job. Your dream theatre.”
She didn’t listen. “Everybody hates my drawings. They say I should be more serious, more realistic, more, more, more…” She sobbed again while separating the breast fillets, but the tears were subsiding. Good. Now she would start on potatoes. She turned the water tap a bit more, and the water rippled.
“Your son doesn’t hate your sketches.”
“I love you.” She smiled through her tears. “You’re so understanding. But my son is just nice. He says what he must to make me feel better. He doesn’t like my drawings either. Never had, even when I worked for the best theatres in the country. Those theatres are no more. My country is no more. Damn the war!”
“Dimity Echo Studio hasn’t rejected your application yet. They’re considering it. They might accept you.”
“Don’t be a fool. It’ll never happen. The best costume design studio in Hollywood would never hire a designer with no portfolio, from a non-existent country. They have too many applicants without me.”
She stopped crying, sighed deeply, and peeled the last potato. She was a mess. She talked to her sink and even imagined that the sink answered. A psychotherapeutic sink. On the other hand, underemployed as she was, working for peanuts as a seamstress for a tiny T-shirt company, she couldn’t afford a human therapist. The sink was better than nothing. It helped her deal with depression. It calmed her down.
“Even my daughter considers me delusional, when I talk about my costume ideas.” Liliana took a deep, hiccupping breath. “She advises me to get a real job, so we would have more money. I don’t want a job. I want to design theatrical costumes, but nobody wants my costumes. Too funky.”
“That instructor from the community centre loved you. He said so.”
“That instructor was a polite man and a good teacher. He said I was good, but he didn’t mean it. He said that to everyone, and they were not good. Not even okay. I’m probably delusional, my daughter is right. I think I am a better artist than most who design costumes for blockbusters. Alas, I’m the only one who thinks that.”
“You don’t believe when people say you’re good. And you don’t believe when they say you’re bad. What do you believe? What do you want?”
What did she want? She wanted to design costumes again. Not necessarily for blockbuster movies but definitely for the stage. For opera and ballet. She wanted to make a living with her costumes, as she did before the freaking war. Arranging the chicken pieces and the potatoes on a baking sheet, she set the oven temperature and stuffed the sheet inside.
As she washed her hands, the warm water caressed her palms, bubbling cheerfully. She didn’t want to turn it off.
“I can help.”
“Right, my kitchen sink can help.” Her fingers touched the tap to turn the water off.
“I’m not your kitchen sink. I’m a water elemental.”
“Huh?” Liliana’s hand froze. Had she read too many fantasy novels lately?
“You can help me too.”
“How can I help you?” she asked automatically. Maybe she should visit her family doctor and complain about hallucinations. First, she should turn off the talking water.
“Take me to the sea. I don’t want to live in your water pipes anymore.”
Was someone playing tricks on her? Liliana’s eyes roamed the kitchen, finally settling on the sink. Droplets covered its gray steel sides. One of the droplets was bigger than the others and bluer, not transparent as water should be. It seemed denser too, as if it was preparing for a leap. Liliana jumped back, collided with the oven, and hissed when her hand encountered the hot glass of the oven window. Her kitchen was too small for two, even if one was… a water elemental. Blowing on the reddening finger, she turned on the cold water again and plunged the offended hand under the stream.
“Nice. I like to flow. Take me to the sea.”
“Say please!” she snarled.
Great. She was teaching a water elemental to be polite. She was certifiable. But what if she wasn’t? What if there was a water elemental in her pipes and it wanted to go to the sea? It was plausible, at least for a fantasy reader. If she were a water elemental, living in the rusted pipes of a cheap apartment building, she would probably want to go to the sea as well. What would it hurt if she took this thing to a beach? “How can I carry you to the sea?”
“In a jar.”
Of course. Stupid question. She pulled out a clean empty glass jar, which had once upon a time contained raspberry jam, and stuck the jar under the cold water. When it was half full, she turned off the tap. “Are you there?” She leaned over the jar.
The water in the jar seemed bluer than it should be. Even the raspberries on the label acquired a purple tint. A small blue wave rose in the middle of the container, licked Liliana’s nose with a cold tongue, and settled back. “To the sea!”
It felt like a kiss. Wiping her wet nose, Liliana smiled for the first time that day. Perhaps she should bargain a little. “Look,” she said. “You said you could help.”
“I can get into the shower of the Studio director and whisper your name.”
“Right.” Unable to constrain a hysterical giggle, Liliana put the jar on the kitchen counter. “That’s my dream—a whisper in the shower of the Studio director.” What a bright idea to bargain with water.
She checked the chicken, found it ready, and turned the heat off. When the kids came home from school, they would serve themselves. “To the sea,” she mumbled, rummaging in a drawer for a lid. Before she fastened the lid, she leaned over the jar again.
“Hey. Can I talk to you after I close the jar?”
“Yes. To the sea?”
“In a moment. Do you have a name?”
This time instead of talking in her head, the water in the jar gurgled furiously.
“I probably can’t pronounce it,” Liliana acknowledged and screwed on the lid. “Especially with my accent.” Her lips twitched but she suppressed her insane smirk, put the jar in a clear plastic bag, and the bag into her purse. Grabbing her umbrella, she headed for the door.
On the bus, she took the plastic bag out of the purse. The blue water lapped at the insides of the jar. No words manifested, only a sense of anticipation. Once or twice, a tiny wave leaped up towards the lid, but Liliana wasn’t certain whether it was the water elemental celebrating its upcoming freedom or the bus stopping too abruptly.
The park along the waterfront was almost empty this late in October. The gray rain didn’t as much fall as permeated the air, creeping under the umbrella, under the jacket, under her skin, making everything damp and gray. The umbrella didn’t make any difference.
She snapped it closed. Listening to the dead leaves rustling under her sneakers, she hurried on, past the gorgeous houses, past the flowerbeds abloom with winter pansies and chrysanthemums, towards the bay.
Only a few locals walked their dogs in the park. Liliana ignored them. She stalked purposefully to a small pier, crouched at its end, and opened her raspberry jar. Glancing around to make sure nobody witnessed her folly, she poured the water elemental into the bay.
“Thank you.” A small wave splashed under her feet, its white curly cap almost like a curly head of a child.
She could see no other waves under the thick mash of clouds. The dark and smooth waters of the bay swayed gently, but the little wavelet wouldn’t go away. It swung back and forth, dancing joyfully, and the frothy bubbles sparkled bright-blue despite the gray autumn drizzle. Maybe if she dived in there after the azure wavelet, her mood would lift too.
No, the kids were waiting for her; to cook tomorrow’s dinner if nothing else. Besides, all these neighborhood dogs and their owners would probably drag her out. And that would be a shame, with the additional complications of the police, the social workers, the ambulance, and whatnot. She’d better get home. Her little fantasy was over before it started. “At least one of us is happy,” she murmured, swallowed a lump in her throat, and went home.
She didn’t talk to her sink again. As the weeks passed, the strange trip to the autumn beach had become increasingly hazy in her memory. She had probably imagined the entire story and the water elemental whose name she couldn’t pronounce. She had applied for two more seamstress positions and got one. She was becoming resigned to her gray life.
Her phone rang three months later. When she lifted the receiver, a deep male voice asked for her name.
“Speaking,” she said.
“How do you do, Liliana? I’m the director of the Dimity Echo Studio. My name is Peter. I just noticed your application and the sketches. It’s a pity about your entire portfolio being destroyed in the war, but I’ve talked to a couple of people who saw the shows with your costumes. We’d like to offer you a commission. Would you fly to LA for a personal meeting?”
No words came out. Liliana could only pant, her heart somersaulting madly.
“Hello? Are you there, ma’am?”
“I’m absorbing the news,” she croaked and plopped down on the carpet. “Yes, thank you. Of course I’ll fly to LA. When and where?”
Long after they discussed the details and ended the conversation, she sat on the floor in front of her telephone, staring at it and licking her lips. Insane questions beat inside her skull. Had the water elemental fulfilled its promise? Had it whispered her name in the director’s shower?
Original cover art by Naum Osyno