The Mountain that Walked Away

Submitted into Contest #233 in response to: Set your story during a month of drought — whether literal, or metaphorical.... view prompt

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African American Drama Sad

I tie the Jerry Can to my back with a cloth belt, which hugs my thin shoulders like a noose. The morning commute to the riverbed is a test of endurance. At eleven thousand feet, the half-hour journey down to the river with the smelly, miserable cows and goats crowding along the roadway is my least favorite part of the day. The dry air and oppressive ninety-degree heat smother me. After school, in the afternoon, I will have to go back for more water, but the weather will be cooler by then.


My mother, Nima, is caring for my little brother, Junior, who has another fever. He lays on top of the cot, his dehydrated limbs soaked with fever. Nima fans him with a wicker lid and clucks and makes soothing noises until he stops squirming. Junior is severely malnourished. The Doctor has prescribed him to take RUTFs—a paste like peanut butter that comes from UNICEF in a plastic pouch and is rich in protein. The Doctor says it is magic. Junior has been doing better since he got the rations, but he has gotten sick again this week. And with the fever, he cannot keep anything down.


The cruelty of disease is it robs the body of needed nourishment while the body exhausts its resources and starves the sickness. It is a war of attrition in the sub-Saharan. Does the host have enough reserves to outlast the bug? Before both die? If we can get him well so he can feed, and keep getting down the RUTFs, he can gain weight.


Then, if the measuring tape on his arm says Junior is doing better, I will be able to keep my little brother. Junior sits up, unable to rest in the stifling heat. Nima hands him the last of the silty water from yesterday, which she has salted with minerals, and tells Junior the story of the Mountain that Walked Away to distract him.


Nima says, “The mountains were fighting something fierce. Some big rocks were crashing together. The sound of the crashing rocks was terrible, with shaking rocks raining down on the people, like an earthquake. The land in our village rumbled, and the dust of the street rose up like a cloud. The great Imatong Mountain looked down south from Torit. It saw that the land was plentiful to the south. And so, the Imatong lifted itself up and walked down here, away from the fighting to the north. The mountain set itself down, right on top of an evil village, full of greedy herders that were always fighting and hoarding all the food. Killing them all. And ever since, the mountain range stands over our village, its home, to keep the peace.”


Junior sips the liquid, his parched and cracked lips burning from the salt, and he grimaces as he swallows, his dry, parched throat pained by the swallowing. “But Nima,” he says, “Will the Imatong walk away again?”


“No, Junior, the Imatong will stay put, to watch over us. The spirit of your brother Akib has gone into the mountain, and is bonded to our tribe. Akib protects us from the peak of the mountain. He cries out to Alwet for her to unchain the rains and wet the land.”


Our neighbor, Aisha, visits on her way to fetch water, to offer Junior her daily cup of porridge. She leaves it on a stone table by the cot because Junior is too weak to eat it now. The hungry among us are constantly giving up our food to starving people. There is an unexpected deluge of grace and mercy from those of us who live in death’s shadow—when all are close to death—everyone has charity for suffering.


Junior looks up at me and holds out his hand.


"What is it Bareedak?"


"Be safe, Nagat."


"I will."


"And if you are killed, promise me, Habob, that you will go to Alwet and bring down the rains."


"I'm not going to die Bareedak. But, I promise. If I do, I will become the Hujan."


"Yes, Habob. I love you," Junior says as I leave.


The silty drinking water from the river makes us sick. But we must drink it anyway. This is our life in Sudan. Women and girls bear the heaviest burden. We must sustain the family while the men find ways to make money to trade. They are constantly away from home and dare not show their faces unless they have been successful. And all day long, we have no protection. Neither from the elements nor from the other warring men, or from any who might do us harm in our daily travels. We are like the cattle. Expensive and expendable creatures storing up value for someone else to consume.


January is only the beginning of the dry season for us. And there has been no rain for thirty days. As the eldest daughter, in Wuluturu, I must do my chores and collect water before I can attend my classes. My duty to my family gives me hope for better days. But by the time I reach the schoolhouse, I will be exhausted and will have difficulty concentrating. All the time, I will be thinking of Junior. Thinking of how the same thing happened to Akib and how the men in our family fade quickly with the fever. Worrying for Nima. Worrying for myself. Worrying over everything under heaven.


As I ride along with the train of girls carrying their Jerry Cans on cloth belts or balancing them on their heads, I see a snake on the roadside, stranded and dying. The yellow snake sits motionless, no thicker than a twig, occasionally twitching, but too weak to scramble away from the danger of a hoof or a cartwheel, which would mean its end. I have named the snake, Squirt, and I have seen it all these last five days. Day by day, Squirt has shriveled, growing thinner, until now he is hardly as wide as a lead pencil, like the ones in the schoolhouse. On the return trips, I douse him in a puddle of water, to give him a chance.


I live in a world where the flanks of cows look like thin rugs draped over jagged rib bones. The herders who own livestock are rich, but they must find grazing pastures and water. Desperate to keep their hard-won possessions, the men will fight and kill over land and animals. On these dry mornings, people hobble about, zombie-like, coated in dust, drained of energy and hope, stubbornly clinging to routine and duty. Rising defiantly against nature’s curses.


Even when no rain comes, it falls on me to travel to the well and try my luck. We are lucky to be in River County near the mountain runoff where the water is more plentiful, and the valley is more productive than the barren plains to the north. For that, we are grateful.


From the ridge, we can see the IFAD center in the far valley. No one is congregating there today in the bustle of the early morning. IFAD has conflict resolution centers near every roadway, where men in white robes and button-downs can meet and sit at real chairs in circles in the shade, talking out their differences. And their verbal agreements can avert bloodshed.


The agreements are confirmed by many witnesses and the truces are binding. The consequences of a breach are too severe for any to pay. But what do you do when it is bloodshed or death? What penalty has meaning then?


From the ridge, we can also see the white tents of the refugee camps and the black reflection of the reservoirs scattered along the pathways that hug the riverbanks.


Watering holes and reservoirs are spaced out every few miles, to provide a chance to water the livestock on the long journeys from pasture to market. But these reservoirs are still dry this time of year and the conservation pits drain out in the dry season, leaving the animals in a state of predation.


We can see the men traveling with their parades of livestock, further up the river, to where the reservoirs are still full. But to go that far is to risk being robbed or losing animals to the dry heat.


Boog, our donkey, whuffles and grunts with thirst, as we head down to the riverbed.


“Wake up, Nagat,” Elma says, jabbing my shoulder. Elma is an older girl who always walks by my side. And we are always together, always talking. Divining the moods of the gods. “Wake up, Nagat!”


“I’m not sleeping,” I say, as my eyes close and my body rocks back and forth to the drowsy rhythm of Boog’s bouncy gait.


“Nhialic must be angry with us,” Elma says, “There is no other explanation.” Elma wears only a white thobe, wrapped around her head, covering her thin, bony body from head to toe. Only her black-dusted feet are uncovered and her comforting cheeks protrude like small hills from the flat valley of her face.


“Nhialic frowns on us and has cut the cord between heaven and earth, sealing up the skies,” I say. “Only if we reconnect with heaven and make amends will the connection be restored.”


“Our wars against each other are an offense to Nhialic. Ayum’s winds blow, buffeting Alwet and keeping her in her cave, locking away the rain.”


“Our murders offend. It is right we should be punished.”


We try not to talk politics openly. But the politics are there, inside the myths and legends, and in the way we tell them.


A group of young men in fatigues, driving a military jeep, armed with Uzis and AK-47s drive down the ridge, and everyone crowds the cliffside to let them pass. They whistle and snicker and spit at us when they pass.


"If you don't give the young men a place in the village, they will burn it down to feel its warmth," Elma says.


I nod my head, wondering if it isn't on fire already.


Atop the ridge, the river tributary from the great Nile River looks like Squirt, a dehydrated snake, thinning in the dry season. Lazily awaiting death. Helplessly suffering predation. It gives its life as a living sacrifice to the bold and smoldering sun, which roasts its shores and burns its rocks to a dusty blood red.


We crest the ridge and travel down the path to the riverbank. Then, we wait for the others to fill their cans. Finally, we take our turn. I make sure to fill my can to the brim. Then I use a rope to tie my can to Elma's and balance the two 5-gallon cans on Boog’s back, placing a small towel underneath the rope.


Boog whuffles and snorts at the weight.


I pet Boog’s haunch and walk beside him, as we head back.


I return on foot to ease his load. Without Boog, these travels are almost unbearable. Carrying the heavy jugs by hand is too exhausting for one my size.


In Sudan, the things we carry with us are all unbearably heavy.


* * *


When I return, Nyaguey is preparing the water lilies. The green bulbs and red, furry roots are sharp and thick and not fit for eating. Aunt Nyaguey expertly cuts off the corky rind of the dried plant. And begins the process of grinding the petals to flour. She pounds the petals against a rock mortar and uses a wooden pestle to mash down the contents and make the flour.


“There had been goat meat,” I say to Nyaguey.


“Mira, the she lion, came last night and got the meat,” she says.


“Didn’t Nia make a sacrifice to appease her?” I ask.


“There was nothing to sacrifice,” Nyaguey says.


If I die, my kujur will reincarnate into a goat, a great gray Khaya tree, with its branches opening like an umbrella, to soak in the sun as it travels the sky, or maybe I will return as rain or fire, or another great lion. And if I reincarnate, these elements will be bonded to my family. Will protect them.


Us Dinka believe that the she lion that scavenges in our village is our family member, Medina. We must sacrifice to her spirit, so she will stay away from our livestock, will not hunt our little ones, or steal the little meat we have to sustain us.


If I am faithful to my duty, one day my soul will remain and watch over my people, and they will honor me with sacrifices, so that I can mediate with Nhialic, and with luck, coax Alwet from her cave, unleashing the life-giving rains.


Walking back on the path, I look for Squirt, but she is gone now. I wonder whether a desperate scavenging bird has taken her, or whether she has become grease for the wheel of a donkey cart.


* * *


Salva gathers the villagers, and our teacher, Hanan, brings us all out to see this momentous event. There are rumors that Salva will bring a team from overseas to make us a proper well, to bring clean, clear water to Wuluturu. But it is too much to hope for.


If they build this well, will it be too late for Junior? Will the soldiers come and take all the water for themselves? Will they charge us a fee for what we need to live? There are so many questions.


Dep is one of the elders. Jonah is another teacher from the local school. Dep and Jonah gather everyone around for a serious meeting. Salva was one of the “Lost Boys” who had emigrated to the United States. He arrives with an entourage and strides into the clearing like a celebrity, walking around the circle of onlookers and speaking with sweet words about how everything will go and what it will be like when the water flows from the ground.


When you bathe once a week, the drying wind and dust, and even the shade of trees help with the pungent odor and gritty, filthy feeling of being cooked in your own juices.


In the brick schoolhouse, the pungent odors stew, and we keep the windows open so that the breezes can give relief.


Now, as we all shuffle out to the meeting, into the hot midday sun, we can smell Salva’s aftershave all the way from the door. A musky strong chemical scent that is like perfume. It smells like money.


After the meeting, we return to our studies. But everyone is talking and passing notes. Everyone is excited. They are distracted. Mesmerized by the promise of change. All smiles and giddiness. I do not dare to put my faith in such promises.


All I can think of is returning to the riverbed to fetch more water so we can give Junior back his strength before it is too late for him.


* * *


When Elma and I return to the village, there are many women outside our hut. My stomach feels like it is filled with rocks and a surge of electric storms through my arms. I clench Boog’s leash and grip it so tightly that I can feel the thinning skin of my palm rip apart where the leather digs into it.


Nima runs out to me and hugs me, just like she did before when Akib went ahead of us.


“Oh, Nagat,” she says. Precious wet tears drip down her face.


“What is it, Nima?”


“Junior rose up and walked away to the south,” she says. “He tried to wait for you, but his kujur wanted to find peace in the mountains.” This is just what she had said with Akib.


“No, Nima. I just saw him this morning, sitting up,” I say.


“He was too weak, Nagat. He closed his eyes and lifted up his soul to inhabit Imatong. To watch over our people.”


“No!” I say. And I pull away from Nima and look back over at the Imatong Mountains. I curse Nhialic. I curse Alwet. And all the other gods. I curse the Sudan. I curse the drought. The dust. The pardonless sun. As my eyes burn with rage and burst with a single salty tear, I clench my fists and I stomp my feet in the dust.


And then I hear a rumble above me.


The gray, groaning clouds open.


A torrent of cold rain pelts down.


It rolls down my face and back. It mixes with my tears. I feel as if steam will rise from my head, as I feel the burning fever in my limbs. A well of anger as deep and broad as the agonies of the sub-Saharan plains.


Nima and Elma and all the others hold up their hands in gratitude and utter prayers. They dance and sing.


What had I done that Alwet could not have unshuttered the skies a day earlier?


I know that this is my brother telling me it will be alright. I know that he is watching down over me.


But somewhere in my kujur, the last drops of stagnant hope evaporate and heave upward into the tormenting skies.

January 13, 2024 21:30

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12 comments

Timothy Rennels
21:22 Jan 21, 2024

Excellent Jonathan! "There is an unexpected deluge of grace and mercy from those of us who live in death’s shadow—when all are close to death—everyone has charity for suffering." and so many more passages wonderfully written.

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Jack Kimball
04:12 Jan 21, 2024

Hey Jonathan. My favorite line, “ The hungry among us are constantly giving up our food to starving people. There is an unexpected deluge of grace and mercy from those of us who live in death’s shadow—when all are close to death—everyone has charity for suffering.” What a positive message in a story taking place where, “stagnant hope evaporates”. Well done. Jack

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James Lane
18:30 Jan 20, 2024

Another impressive entry Jonathan. It's inspiring how much story you can pack in to the format within such little time (and the research that goes into it). That paragraph that compares the river to the snake was just *chef's kiss*. Well done

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Stella Aurelius
11:12 Jan 20, 2024

"There is an unexpected deluge of grace and mercy from those of us who live in death’s shadow—when all are close to death—everyone has charity for suffering." What a line ! My goodness ! Jonathan, you truly have a way with detail and imagery. It's as if I'm there with Nagat and the villagers. Such a riveting story too. Amazing job !

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Hazel Ide
02:15 Jan 15, 2024

Really beautiful. I’m surprised how much detail you’re able to fit in, like a novella in so few words, impressive as always.

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Jonathan Page
01:27 Jan 18, 2024

Thanks, Hazel!

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Mary Bendickson
02:59 Jan 14, 2024

How do you write with such wisdom on so many topics?

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Jonathan Page
17:55 Jan 14, 2024

I just keep trying to come up with fresh ideas for the prompts! I'm not going to lie, I have to do some research on a lot of these ideas-especially this one.

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Jorge Soto
02:45 Jan 14, 2024

"He cries out to Alwet for her to unchain the rains and wet the land.” Beautiful, I want to write as clearly and vividly as you do one day! How long have you been writing?

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Jonathan Page
17:55 Jan 14, 2024

Thanks Jorge!

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Trudy Jas
01:04 Jan 14, 2024

It's humbling. Another story we need to hear. You tell them with such painful detail.

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Jonathan Page
17:55 Jan 14, 2024

Thanks Trudy!

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