I stand at the window of my small hut, staring at the tall hill that looms over the valley. It rises above me, covered in scrub brush and stunted, wind-twisted trees. A single path cuts to the top, stretches of bare, hard earth with worn stone steps carved into the steepest parts. It is a hard climb, even for a man unburdened. And every day I have carried water to the top.
I don’t know quite what I feel when I look upon the hill, and think about what I do to earn a living. Do I resent it, resent my life? No. It is what I do. My place in the world. No, what I feel is more like acceptance. Resignation. I wall carry the water, for as long as I have the strength to do so.
With a sigh, I turn away from the window. My wife sits at the table, two bowls of steaming porridge sitting next to her. I smile as I sit beside her to break my fast.
“Where is our son?” I ask, nodding at the other bowl.
“He was gone when I awoke,” she says.
“Must have wanted to get an early start,” I reason. Though I am old, well into my sixth decade, my son is still young, with a young man’s energy. “That’s a good thing. The longer he works, the more water he carries.”
My wife looks troubled, unable to meet my gaze.
“What is it?” I ask, setting a gnarled hand atop hers.
“There were some men nearby earlier,” she says. “Down by the river. I couldn’t see what they were doing, but they were working on something that made a lot of noise.”
“Were they from the village, or the farms?”
She shakes her head. “I didn’t recognize them.”
Strangers don’t come often to our valley. It’s small, out of the way. But when they do come, it usually doesn’t bode well. I force a smile. “Probably has nothing to do with us. I’d better get to work. Wouldn’t do for the boy to carry so much more water than his father.”
She nods, smiles back at me. But still looks worried.
I try to push the conversation out of my thoughts. Either it will be something bad, or something good. There’s not much I can do about it.
Instead, I finish my porridge and leave. Outside the hut, next to the door, sit four large water jars, and the pole I use to balance the load upon my shoulders. The jars are full already, and I smile, a genuine smile this time. My son. So thoughtful. And a bit of a show-off. I slip the pole through the jar handles, crouch low to get my shoulders under it. With a deep breath, I stand. It’s not easy, and it seems to get harder each day, the jars heavier. Oh, well. That’s just part of getting to be so old. All I can do is carry on as I always have.
With my burden in place, I head for the hill.
Before me lies the river, a swift-running stream, carving its own path through the lowest part of the valley. Following the path of least resistance. Now that, I resent. Seems like such a sad way to exist. And because of its lowness, I have to carry the water all the way up the hill, to the cistern that feeds the channels that will carry it to the rest of the valley, to the wells for drinking and washing, to the fields to irrigate the crops. But here at least the water is low enough that I can cross and barely get my feet wet.
On the other side, however, I hear a strange noise. Curious, I follow it, though it takes me a short way off the path I normally tread. I find the source: a strange box of metal, set on a pedestal of stone. It throbs and chugs, emitting a low grumble of noise, and a thin trail of black smoke. Knobs and dials are set into part of it, and I realize that this is some sort of machine, some new thing. It certainly wasn’t here yesterday, when I carried water past this spot at least a dozen times in the day.
Then I notice that a thick hose of some sort runs from the machine and into the swift-flowing river. Another hose, much like the first, comes out the other end and runs up the hill, following the trail, visible here and there through the scraggly underbrush. Very strange. But, again, I push it out of my mind. Most likely it has nothing to do with me. I won’t concern myself with it.
But as I climb the hill, struggling under the burden of the water I carry, I see the strange hose again and again. It runs alongside the old trail, over rocks and around trees. Here, away from the sounds of the river and the machine, I hear a gurgling, rushing noise coming from the hose. It seems to be… carrying water. The same way I’m going. Up the hill.
Now I can no longer help but be concerned.
It takes me a little longer to reach the top than usual, my mind now full of a heavier burden than my shoulders. I arrive at the summit, stepping out of the last copse of gnarled trees. The cistern lies before me, a low rim of stones surrounding the hole dug deep into the hilltop. As I worried, the hose goes straight across the clearing and right into the cistern.
A small crowd of people surrounds the opening, talking and gesturing to one another. All of their faces wear smiles; clearly, they are happy with what they see. Off to one side, I spot another set of water jars and a carrying pole; they lie discarded, the jars carelessly overturned, the pole dropped on the ground.
Then I see my son, standing with the others, smiling and chatting. He catches sight of me at the same moment, and hurriedly extracts himself from the crowd.
“Father,” he says, coming towards me. “Come look. Look.” He takes my arm and tugs me over to the cistern, through those gathered around it.
I look into the hole. The hose ends here, and from it gushes water. Somehow, the machine takes water from the river, carries it up the hill, and deposits it here. From here, the water will go where it always does; it doesn’t need anyone to carry it back down the far side of the hill, to the village and the fields. It never has. Now, it seems, it no longer needs anyone to carry it up the hill, either.
“Isn’t it wonderful, Father?” I look at my son’s face, lit with a joyful expression. “When I was leaving to start carrying the day’s water, I found some men from the government. They were putting in something called a ‘water pump.’ Right there by the river. They said that it will help make our lives easier. Help get more water to the village and fields. Help grow more food.” He looks down at the water pouring out of the hose. “I think they’re right, Father. Don’t you see? We won’t have to carry water anymore. No more trudging up and down the hill with heavy jars on our shoulders.” He sighs in contentment. “Wonderful.”
I just stand there, staring at the water. I am no longer needed to carry water, nor is my son. What will this do to us? What will it do to our lives? Now I feel… sadness. This machine, this pump, can do my job, so much faster than I can, and with so little effort. What does that say about me? About how I have spent my life? I’ve carried water every day, for decades. Now I am no longer needed.
Anger enters my thoughts. I don’t like this change, this machine. It seems… like a weakness. Like it will take something away from me. My purpose. Meaning. All so that we can have easier lives. So that we can grow more food. So that no one will have to work to carry the water we all depend on.
But what can I do? Break the machine? That will make everyone hate me. And they will just make it work again. No, there is nothing to be done about this. The change has been made, and it cannot be unmade.
I look around at all the happy, smiling faces. I wonder how they would feel if a machine came along that could plant their fields and reap their crops, to build their homes and cook their meals. Would they still be smiling? Or would they feel, as I do, that something has been lost, taken, and there is a hole in our lives left by its loss.
Slowly, I lower the pole from my shoulders. I take the first jar and upend it over the cistern, pouring the water into the hole. Moving like a machine, I empty each jar in turn.
“Father?” My sons looks at me, his expression showing concern. “Are you all right?”
I don’t answer him. I can’t. Instead, I slip the empty jars onto the pole, shoulder it, and straighten. Then I turn and walk away, all without a word said.
“Father? Where are you going?”
I pause, glance back at my son. “I am going to get more water, my son.”
I have to. It is all I know to do. I will simply carry on.