Meadow-Wisp was conceived on the Cerne Abbas Giant. Her Dorset hippie parents, who believed in unfiltered communication, recounted every detail: hiking up the hill through dense fog, their torches reflecting chalk outlines (foot, calf, ribs, elbow), grass slick beneath them, concentrating on an energy focal point. In the final weeks of pregnancy, her mother cross-stitched a representation of the event. A constant through Meadow-Wisp’s childhood, it hung over her bed until she abandoned it for college.
Tired of mud and recycled clothing, she left the family organic farm for university in London’s urban sprawl. A ₤15 deed poll changed Meadow-Wisp to Melanie. With an MSc in Data Science and a Stateside job, she shook off the last neo-pagan taint. Melanie floated through life, determined to keep nominal ties. However, her precisely planned two-year stop in San Francisco melded into three, then four, became indistinct – a pleasant moneyed haze obscuring life goals of travel and multiculturalism.
Melanie met Joe at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market one winter morning. (She couldn’t help but buy organic.) At the Fairtrade coffee stall, she found herself ten cents short for a latte. Joe gave her a dime saving her from breaking a twenty-dollar bill. She thanked him, asked if he lived in the city.
‘Just for the harvest season,’ he said.
‘You’re awfully clean for a farmer.’
‘It’s a clean business.’
She didn’t usually date farmers. Grimy nails and an eau-de-rotting-manure she could detect from several metres away reminded her of what she had left behind. However, Joe’s fresh scent and earnest smile softened her resistance. That evening, he brought Melanie into the hills to show her the collection system. They walked along a double wall of black netting that shimmered in gauzy twilight. Fog crept into her blonde hair, pasted strands across her pale face. It seemed to reach inside her jacket and penetrate her bones. She shivered and buried her chin in a cashmere scarf.
‘An international research project,’ he said. ‘There’s drought here in California, so good funding, but in the Third World this technology could be transformative.’
Melanie smiled at his enthusiasm. She folded her arms, motioned for him to continue alone. In the thickening mist, his lanky frame flickered like leaf-shadows in a breeze. He moved from net-to-net, checked drip funnels and troughs, made adjustments. Solid and dark, he seemed to belong to the earth. Joe paced the line several times before rejoining her.
‘Can you taste it?’ she said. ‘Sea mixed with moss.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The fog. It tastes like carrageen moss with sea salt.’
Joe unzipped his backpack and pulled out a mug. At a trough he scooped, sipped the concentrate.
‘Unbelievable. You’re right. How did I not notice this before?’
‘Some oenologists, you know, wine nerds, say grapes take flavours from the air. I suppose it’s the same thing.’ Melanie peered at the black netting. ‘This all seems very high tech. I remember seeing prehistoric dew ponds in Sussex: hollows with a bit of grass in the middle.’
‘We’ve progressed a bit since then. The big advances happened in the mid-1980s, but new materials and techniques come on-stream all the time. We’re good for tonight, so now we wait.’
Joe pulled out a plastic sheet and sat down. He patted the space next to him. She folded her legs, held two mugs as he poured hot chocolate from a thermos. The clotted cream fog clustered around them. She lost sight of the black netting. A trickle of sweat ran down her back beneath several layers of clothes.
‘So how often do you spend the night here?’ Melanie said.
‘It’s not strictly legal to sleep in the park, but security generally turns a blind eye if I don’t do it all the time.’
Joe stared at Melanie. She looked down, traced her mug edge.
‘Wow, I haven’t seen it condense like this before. I wish you could see how it swirls around you,’ he said.
‘It’s awfully quiet. Reminds me a bit of Dorset. That and the moss taste. Mum thinks it’s the original super food.’
They sat with their hands wrapped around mugs, shoulders touching. Melanie closed her eyes and focused on the milky warmth that flowed down her throat.
‘Thanks for bringing me,’ she said.
‘I used to be in snow condensation, you know for the silence, but it’s even better with a good heavy fog. No visibility, nothing moves.’
‘Not being able to see, to get your bearings. Doesn’t it bother you?’
‘When the world shrinks to this one spot? That’s the best part.’
Joe set aside her empty mug and unfurled a down sleeping bag over both of them. Snuggling against her, he stroked her cheek, licked the drips from his fingers. Melanie watched him savour her taste. She reached out and traced his bushy eyebrows, the uneven bridge of his nose. His lips surprised her with their delicacy, but inside his mouth she found hints of stronger flavours: mushroom, carrot, turnip, rosemary, thyme. Previous men fell somewhere on the Bland Scale – from factory white bread up to vanilla pudding.
Melanie didn’t mind that every date with Joe ended in the hills. Like him, she grew to hate urban noise, to crave vapour’s pervasive stillness. Soon she spent entire nights with him under the damp sleeping bag. She relished his sturdiness. He grappled with poles and nets, bent and flexed his way through pre-collection tasks. If a ray of moonlight cut through the mist, they’d watch fog curls dance over them. Each dawn broke the spell; they left the ethereal for the concrete.
However, Joe’s invitations were erratic. On the days she went into the office at One Embarcadero, Melanie began to leave her mobile next to the keyboard, eyes straying to it as she entered data. Phone in hand she went to the break room for nettle tea, paused at windows overlooking the Bay, and searched for low-level cloud creeping across the water. The mobile remained silent. A call dry spell of nine days left her jittery. She dialled his number as soon as she got home.
‘Listen Joe, I am so not one of those girls.’
‘You’ve lost me, Melanie.’
‘I mean ... I’m calling because ... would you like to come over for dinner? That is if you’re not busy.’
Why Joe? Why did he disrupt her routine, muddy calculations? Was some underlying desperation seeping into her psyche? Her mother’s voice cut into her thoughts: Inner Engineering. She scribbled a note on a yellow post-it to look up yoga/mediation retreats in Big Sur. On the phone, Joe’s disconnected panting breath and footsteps crushing vegetation stopped.
‘Sure, sounds good. Tomorrow okay?’ he said.
Melanie crumpled the post-it.
Joe arrived armed with chocolate truffles and a decent Petite Sirah. Melanie handed him the corkscrew and two wine glasses. As she finished grilling venison steaks, he wandered through the apartment, glass in hand.
‘A bit spartan,’ he said.
‘Minimalist. I like good clothes, nice food and wine, but I don’t want to be weighed down with stuff.’
‘I hear you. Everything I own fits into two duffle bags and a backpack.’ He shrugged.
‘I never expected to be here seven years,’ she said.
At her desk he paused, leafed through Excel printouts.
‘This is what you do?’
Melanie nodded, suppressed an ache to snatch the printout in his hand and neaten the stack.
‘Cool.’ He tapped his scalp. ‘No head for numbers. It takes me forever to get through the budget section of a grant proposal. The fog collection volume analysis drives me crazy.’
‘Well, I could help you. I’d be happy to do it.’
Joe emailed figures each day and she replied with trend charts once a week. In-between emails, they exchanged flirty texts. He began to spend more time at her apartment than in his own, but many nights he checked the collection system solo. When she suggested coming along, he made excuses. She imagined him enfolded in clouds and wished she could be there to share it, holding his arm as an anchor. Were other women loitering by the netting on the nights he went there alone? No, she’d checked his phone. Why did Joe infiltrate her independence? Unable to sleep, Melanie checked fog density statistics, tried to find a pattern to his invitations. Yet, he took her to the hills on predicted weak fog nights as often as heavy, but each time within fifteen minutes of arrival, the mist became a white wall around them. (So much for meteorological accuracy.) Joe took pictures of her, whispered ‘surreal, amazing, incredible’. Before Joe, such descriptions would have deleted him from her contacts, but the way he said them seemed almost scientific.
After a boozy meal, she suggested he give up his place and use her apartment as his base for the rest of the season. Waiting to hear his key in the lock, she spent hours searching San Francisco weather links and comparing long-term forecasts. Winter moved into spring. Fog decreased. One dawn as they lay entwined beside the collection nets, she smelled the ground warming. When he asked if she was free for a weekend away, she suspected bad news.
In their room, she read the lodge brochure: Bodega Bay is the perfect setting for that romantic weekend. A couple grinned up at her, their orthodontic smiles reflecting candlelight. Melanie grimaced and tossed it into the bin. Joe suggested a walk along the beach before dinner. A foghorn bellowed in the distance, measuring out time like a metronome. They skirted along the incoming tide. White foam trembled and reached for her canvas runners. Waves smacked firm sand. A heavy mist crept across the water, through jagged rocks towards the beach.
‘Ideal setting for a horror film,’ she said. ‘Soundless, an alien pestilence slinked in from the sea.’
Joe sighed. ‘With the Advection Season winding down in ‘Frisco, I’m moving on.’
‘Chile, maybe Argentina. I’m expanding the research into Ice, Freezing, and Hail Fog. It’s exploratory stuff, a lot of yield analysis. I’ve proved I’m pretty good at providing reliable data thanks to you.’ He took her hand, ran a thumb across her knuckles. ‘Easiest university grant approval I’ve ever had.’
Melanie floated to the navy sky above the clouds, her body dispersing into millions of particles. ‘Congratulations.’ She counted six breaths. ‘I’m going to miss you.’
‘What if you come with me?’ Joe squeezed her hand.
‘Go with you? Like leave my job and everything?’
‘I know it’s a lot to ask.’
‘Joe, I have to earn a living.’
‘I can pay you as my assistant. There’s funding for that. Melanie, your yield data analysis is fantastic. I depend on you.’ He tugged her hand. ‘You say that you’ve been stuck in the same place. Here’s your chance to travel.’
They walked to a bend in the beach. Basalt boulders clustered in a circle like Neanderthals around a fire. Melanie dropped his hand and sat down. She dug her runners into the wet sand. Joe stood behind her and rubbed her shoulders. She adjusted her breathing in sync with the foghorn blasts, began calculating.
‘What if you hired me as a subcontractor? I don’t want a career gap,’ Melanie said.
‘We could do that.’
‘I’d want a legal agreement, everything above board.’
Joe knelt in front of her, slid his arms around her waist.
‘No problem. It’s going to be great,’ he said.
They travelled across countries and between continents. Radiation, Pogonip, Steam, Advection, Hail, Upslope Fog – Joe gathered them all. Melanie produced statistical data, edited the papers he submitted to peer reviewed journals (‘Effective Hierarchical Structure Design for Fog Harvesting’, ‘Optimal Drip Systems in Heavy Concentration Fog Harvesting’, ‘Superhydrophobic Patterned Surface Netting for Fog Harvesting in Semi-Arid Regions’). Lecture invitations began to flow in. She prepared his PowerPoint slide decks (her multi-colour, animated graphs always a hit) and coordinated the schedule. At an Oxford college reception, she left him leaning on an oak bar in discussion with meteorologists, chemical and mechanical engineers. Moving past them into the grand dining hall, she hovered at a buffet table filled with platters of tiny morsels. Melanie read the elegant descriptions of the food. After a few minutes, Joe appeared beside her.
He bit into a canapé and moaned. ‘Why do they have to put coriander in everything?’
‘It’s on trend. A couple of well-placed food articles and bang a certain thing is in vogue. You don’t remember the quinoa shortage last year? Bolivians couldn’t afford it because of western demand.’
‘That’s business, Joe.’
‘Let’s go get some real food. A couple of profs want to talk collaboration on a Moroccan project.’
‘But we’ve got Spain and the follow up in Scotland for the next six to eight months. Then there’s that offer in south-western Oregon.’
‘We’re committed for Spain, but Melanie, Morocco! It’s where we could really make a difference.’
She sighed, put her empty plate on a side table, and let him tug her towards the door.
Two months later in a Montserrat cottage, near Barcelona, Joe carried his laptop to the table where Melanie was working. She clicked on an internet tab as he approached. Tattooed warriors filled her screen. Joe leaned over her shoulder.
‘Vikings? And I thought you were crunching numbers,’ he said. ‘Hey, take a look, this water analysis invoice seems high.’
‘Oh yeah, I asked for additional analysis.’
‘Ok, could you write up a justification to include with the next progress report? You know, the McGlucken Foundation is a bit anal on costs.’
Melanie nodded. He kissed the top of her head and grabbed a granola bar off the table. Did he have to wear those old jeans and worn out fleece all the time? She watched two retreating calluses peek through his wool socks. When Joe was out of the room, she pulled up the analysis results, continued to add them to a new Excel sheet.
They were near Aberdeen when Melanie mentioned their first anniversary. She suggested a week in London to celebrate.
‘The crowds, pollution?’ Joe said from the couch. ‘No way. How about the Hebrides?’
‘Come on: sleep on 500-thread count sheets, eat in restaurants with a decent wine list.’ She sat next to him, leaned her head on his shoulder. ‘And we could take care of some business too.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘My contract is up. I’ve made an appointment with a lawyer so we can renegotiate terms.’
‘You mean renew.’
‘Joe, this year has been great. I’m happy to continue taking care of the data, but I need to do something for myself.’ Melanie walked to the kitchen table, opened her messenger bag, and pulled out a fat plastic folder. ‘I’ve registered a flavoured fog water company.’
‘What?’ He sat up.
She explained that with the unique flavours each fog created she saw an opportunity for a luxury water range. He’d handle the technical side; she’d do the rest. Her parents had been working on the purported benefits of various botanicals and offered an empty stone barn for her HQ.
‘So I can visit you, and of course I want to see some of those amazing locations where the water is sourced, but I’ll be based in Dorset from now on.’
‘Haven’t you been busy double-jobbing.’ His voice sounded taut. He gripped the edge of the couch with both hands. ‘I thought you hated Dorset.’
‘I never hated Dorset, just needed to see the world a bit I guess. Last time we visited my parents I realised how peaceful it is there. With the right funds, I could renovate, modernise my parents’ place.’
‘And be exactly the kind of bourgeois bitch you used to make fun of in San Francisco.’
Joe stood up, snatched a couch cushion and flung it against the wall. He paced the room, one hand rubbing his chin. Melanie backed into a corner. She had often teased him, calling him ‘Mr Zen’, as nothing seemed to upset him. She didn’t recognise this flush-faced, panting man. At last he stopped, palms flat on the table and shook his head.
‘You can’t. You just can’t.’
‘Joe, what’s wrong?’
‘You’re my talisman,’ he said. ‘You’ve logged the data. Yields increase 500 to 700 per cent when you’re with me. That’s why they’ve sent us to the most challenging spots.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘You’re the data analyst. You know it’s true.’
Melanie went to an open window and looked at the sea. Waves rolled in and out, pulling pebbles and sand, flinging them back onto the shore. An abrupt shower cloaked her view.
‘So that’s what I am to you? Part of a collection system?’
It didn’t take long to pack her things. As she gathered and folded, he followed her around the cottage, stumbling over words, pleading with her. She tossed her bags into their rental car, slid into the driver’s seat, and gave a final glance in the rear view mirror. He slumped against the cottage doorframe, sheltering from billows of horizontal rain.
Reaching the west coast, Melanie went across the Skye Bridge, found a guesthouse in Kyleakin. After a cod and chip takeaway, she walked towards the harbour. Fishing boats clustered together near a headland. Sea smoke tendrils rose from black water that encircled a grass hillock. The split ruins of Caisteal Maol stood at its centre. She picked her way through tumbled debris, settled on a flat stone, and watched the fog drift, silvering ship bows. Melanie frowned, then closed her eyes. When rivulets began to run down her face, she opened her lids to a bank of white.
Joe answered her text in less than a minute. She sent the lawyer’s London office address and appointment time, then switched off her phone. Three weeks later, she met him outside the lawyer’s office with two Fairtrade coffees.
‘I miss you,’ he said.
He took the paper cup and leaned in to kiss her. She stopped him with a palm against his chest.
‘I miss you too.’
Joe looked at her hand, his face creased.
‘I’ve thought about it: my life before, after, what could be. I can pull the fog, but it feels empty when you’re not there,’ she said. ‘Can’t we work something out?’
‘The research sponsors can’t subsidise a luxury fog water company, Melanie.’
She leaned forward, aimed the words at his face. ‘Sure, go back to the yields without me and see what grants fall into your lap.’
Joe steadied himself against a lamppost.
Melanie sighed, reached out and stroked his arm. ‘Taking a little off the top, just until the company is in profit, would that be so wrong?’
‘Selling rich people flavoured water isn’t what I want to do with my life.’ He stared at the pavement as if he expected a sinkhole.
‘What if a percentage of the profits went towards a fog harvest charity? You know, to set-up collection systems in underprivileged drought areas? I’ve put together a proposal.’ She handed him a folder. Joe’s altruism was admirable and endearing, but a year on the university lecture circuit must have softened his world view.
Melanie took his cup and watched him read. That first night in the San Francisco hills, Joe had told her water’s polarity pulled molecules together; the negative and positive charges naturally attracted to each other. She concentrated. The gritty taste of the city filled her mouth. Her hair grew damp, clung to her scalp. A swirl of mist encircled them, blocking out crowds and traffic noise. A single cloud created for them alone.
‘The Fog Harvester’ was commended in the 2017 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.