The Water Bearer

Submitted into Contest #160 in response to: Set your story during a drought.... view prompt

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American Fiction Contemporary

Steam rises from an iron kettle and begins to whistle. A man watches the water-vapor for several moments in a state of deep contemplation before dawning a protective mit to grab its handle. He pours the steaming water into a bluish cup. 

Outside it's dusty and hot, and the stillness of the air is torturous and stale. The man pushes open the creaky screen door letting loose a scraggly mutt. He follows it outside and the heat makes his face tingle like stepping into a sauna. The door slams shut against the darkness where the man lives alone with his dog. The animal finds a shaded spot under a bench where it curls quietly and waits. 

The man’s hair is long as his face is long, and there is no juxtaposition that is different, only the sameness in dullness and gray. He looks out across the street at the emptiness and the waves of heat that rise from the ground and shimmer distorting the world. The rain that has fallen this year has been minimal, not enough to fill the natural reservoirs. Each passing year the drought has continued without relief. People have gone East or West, sometimes south and often traveling up north to where it's typical to find more rain. But even there, over the last several years something is different. The wells which used to be easy to bore are now hiding somewhere beneath the parched earth, waiting to be found or drunk up by whatever vegetation can find them. It's hard to find anything green and there are barely any souls left to wander in search of any. 

The man’s house is equipped with an assortment of water capturing devices and he has over the years outfitted his neighbors’ homes with barrels and pipes to harness the resource. Underground are several larger cisterns which hold the water that is captured through an intricate network of piping. Many of the abandoned homes are also connected into the larger water capturing system and funnel the water to the holding devices. The top of his home is covered with solar arrays to capture the sun for electricity. 

He sets off from the porch toward a house far down the street, and when he gets halfway there, the dog, who has been watching the man carefully, rises and follows. 

The man knocks on an old green door and steps back as his dog catches up, his tongue hanging from its mouth, and above them there is a wisp of cloud floating overhead. The man examines them and puts his nose into the air where the tiny hairs that are curled up inside vibrate against any sign of moisture. He is looking to the west when the front door creaks open. 

“Well, if it isn’t the water bearer himself,” the man at the door says. 

“Maestro, how are you?” 

“Thirsty, hungry, lonely. Should I go on?” 

“So it's another day, I see.”

“That it is, that it is,” Maestro says. “What can I do you for?” 

“Oh, nothing much. I guess I’m just bored is all.” 

“Feels like I’ve been bored all my life. Come on in.” 

Maestro opens the door and the Water Bearer enters the dark house, the dog walks up the steps and finds a shaded place on the porch and lays down. 

The house smells of age and dust. The light from the outside is held there by dark and dusty curtains. A small round table is in the corner of a breakfast nook. 

“You still have water?” the Water Bearer asks after they sit at the table. 

“Not a lot but I have it. Makes me nervous when it's this hot out. I’m scared to sweat. How are the reserves?” 

“Still have water.” 

“That’s good news.” 

“Yes, but like we always say--,” his words fall away. 

“We need rain,” Maestro finishes. 

“Yes, and what else is new?” 

“I've been working on a new song.” 

“I’d like to hear it.” 

“I must warn you that it's not made of sunshine. It's more dirge than anything. My mind lately has sunk deeper into the depths of despair.” 

“I’ve only known you to be a man of the depths.” 

“Fair enough,” and he rises from the creaky chair and walks to fetch his instrument. 

In the shadows, Maestro sits on a stool near the stove and he loops the strap of his old guitar around his shoulders and rests it upon his knee. And he begins to strum the strings in a slow and sad way, and his voice is an instrument of its own kind. He sings.

Oh, the rain falls down, but I can’t see it.

for it falls while I sleep.

And where I lay I can’t dream.

And the hours creep along and sing

Of the days that are lost in time…”

While the song plays the Water Bearer stares at the faucet of the sink. There's a kettle on the stove and it reminds him of the water waiting for him at home. There is barely enough light in the house to make out the contorting face of the Maestro as his dirge continues. 

When the song ends the quiet consumes everything. Not even a clicking clock survives, only the sudden jarring creak of the stool when Maestro rises. 

“What is it called?” The Water Bearer asks. 

Maestro sets down his guitar, a dark shadow swallows it up in one gulp. “Oasis,” he says.  

There is then a knock at the door. 

When the door creaks open they walk out onto the porch and a young woman is petting the dog, its tail wagging lazily against the porch boards in a steady dull beat. 

“I’m sorry to bother you, but I went over to your house,” the young woman looks at the Water Bearer. 

“Water,” he says. 

“I hate having to ask, but you know it isn’t for me. It isn’t,” her eyes drop to the ground in some kind of secret shame. 

“I’ve just boiled some. Let's walk.” 

The three set out down the barren street back to the Water Bearer's home, Maestro lingering in the back with the dog. 

“How is she?” the Water Bearer asks the girl. 

“I’m afraid she has a fever. She’s always wanting more water. It's too hot for her in the house. She won’t stop sweating.” 

When they approach the Water Bearer’s home there is a young man sitting on the porch in a plastic chair fanning himself with his round brimmed hat. 

The Water Bearer sighs as he steps up onto the porch, the man looks over but keeps fanning himself. 

“What do you want now?” The Water Bearer asks. 

“I need more water.” 

“I gave you some yesterday,” he says angrily. 

“You can’t expect a man to survive out here with a single cup of water?” 

“It was more than that and you know it.” 

“It's hot out… and you know it.” 

The Water Bearer looks at the three sets of eyes around him, then at his dog and says, “come on in all of you.” 

He pours three cups of water and hands them to his guests. The dog watches patiently, and when the lukewarm water fills his bowl he goes to it and drinks. 

“You got anything to eat?” The young man asks. 

“Don’t push your luck.” 

“You got all the food and water, what do you expect?”

“Yeah, well I got all the work too, so unless you’re going to put in more than you take, you get what I give when I give it.” 

“I’ll help you harvest, I'll sew, whatever you need me to do.” 

“Nothin left to harvest and it's not time to sew. What you can do is set some traps for whatever you can get out there.” 

“I saw a rabbit.” 

“A rabbit? Where?” 

“At least I think it was a rabbit…” 

Maestro looks up at the Water Bearer, “if he saw a rabbit then that thing is surviving on something green out there. I haven’t seen nothin. But I also don’t go nowhere.” 

“I was near the old mill when I thought I saw it. It scurried away.”

“Rats scurry,” the Water Bearer says. 

“I don’t think it was a rat. Looked too big.” 

“Have you seen a rat? They get big.” 

“This ain’t no life,” the young man says abruptly.  

“I’m sorry to tell you son, but this is your life whether you like it or not.”

“I’ll pour you all some jugs and take it home and stay inside. Sarah,” The Water Bearer looks at the young woman, “can I trust you to take a jug to Lynette on your way home?” 

I’ll take it to her,” the young man says.

“I didn’t ask you.” 

“Yes, I can take it to her,” Sarah says. 

In the coming days the heat begins to wane and on the fourth day a procession of low clouds from the west forms across the sky. The Water Bearer watches them parade from the fading darkness as the sun rises from the East. 

“A good sign,” he tells his dog. An hour later a crack of thunder shakes the windows releasing a downpour. 

The Water Bearer is outside his home in a rain jacket checking all of his barrels and devices to make sure they are capturing the maximum resource. When he returns to his porch, Maestro is there with a big grin. 

“Well, Water Bearer, it seems now you can rest assured your reservoirs will be filled.” 

“So with yours.” 

“Yes, my system is full bore and brimming with gold. And it seems our young fella is taking a wash,” he nods in the direction of the young man who is nearly naked, washing himself with a bar of soap. 

“Don’t you have the privacy of your own yard to do that in!” the Water Bearer yells over the roar of the rain. 

“It's been a long while since I’ve washed!” he yells back. 

“Yeah, well cover yourself up, there's children present,” Sarah and her child are walking towards him in the downpour. 

“Can you believe it?” Sarah says when she is standing in front of the Water Bearer. 

“It's a beautiful thing. We need to capture as much of this as we can. Did you check to make sure your setup is working?” 

“Yes, just like you told me. It's all working, we’ll have plenty of water soon enough.” 

“How are you making out young lady?” Water Bearer says to the little girl. 

“I feel better,” she says. “And I’m thirsty.” 

“I’ll get you a drink, you just hold on.” 

The Water Bearer goes to get a cup of water for the little girl and the dog goes to her to receive his pats. 

The rain falls into the gutters of the homes all around the small town. Filling underground cisterns and jugs and barrels and anything to capture the water. The dry beds of the creek and the river accept the rain and it begins to pool and trickle over rock and dirt. The Lake bed up north sits like a giant empty bowl, where craters from the falling water explode in miniature impacts. And the sound is like a thousand snare drums. 

When the Water Bearer returns from the house he is holding a cup full of water for the girl. The young man is done bathing and he has taken a seat on the porch under the overhang and he is shivering. Sarah and Maestro are watching the little girl twirl in the rain where she stomps her feet in a childish dance. She trains her eyes to the sky above her and opens her mouth to catch the drops. They all watch her and know that this moment will not last forever. 

All across the land the cracks and crevices that feed the natural system bulge with water. And the sky is open with no signs of closing, and it's like the world is crying in unison with the children who have inherited this new landscape. Wailing against the change and its difference. Ahead there will be harder days and the children hold the future upon their small and tender shoulders. They cry but don’t know why. 

August 27, 2022 01:21

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