A Dying Grin

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

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Coming of Age Inspirational Speculative

It’s been twelve weeks. 

I used to worry about angry men breaking into my house with machetes, holding me down and taking me for everything that I have, everything that I am. I used to worry about windstorms, kicking up the surrounding sand and enveloping my helpless body in darkness and grit. I’d even worry about the animals, with their raw and God-given strength, breaking down my feeble door and snatching me with their almighty teeth and dictatorial talons. 

I’d worry about these things, these same situations that nightmares were made of, but I’d also worry about the fears that were all too rational, all too plausible in just a matter of time. I used to stare at my grandmother, hair greying, fingers moving far too slowly to peel plantains, clothes fraying at the bottoms from being too weak to invest in new ones. I’d stare at her and I’d picture myself at her bedside, too frail and too sick to look me in the eyes, wishing I’d have cherished the moments with her before she’d gotten so debilitated. I was afraid of my grandmother dying. I thought maybe it’d be some disease, a virus, perhaps old age. 

I was never afraid of the water running out. 

It stopped raining about three months ago. Where we live, it was always sunshine interrupted by short spouts of drizzle, maybe a few thunderstorms here and there; some trees would go down if we were really unlucky. One minute I’d be out picking fruit and vegetables with my mother, beads of sweat dripping slowly and carefully down our temples. Maybe I’d be complaining about the heat, restlessly pulling on my clothing to stop it from sticking to my syrupy skin. The next minute we’d be running in from the rain, both of us smiling and giggling and trying to salvage everything that we’d picked before it got too heavy for us to even carry our baskets back. 

Before we knew it, we stopped having to run in from the rain. We’d pick our fruit and vegetables in silence, both of us waiting patiently in anticipation for the rain to cut our harvest short. For weeks we went out picking like this. Neither of us said a word about walking back to the house in the broad sunlight. Neither of us said a word when we stayed out far later than usual, begging the rain to relieve us of our task. We didn’t even say a word when grandmother started rationing the water, filling our cups with just a little less than usual. 

I remember letting my lips go white. I had been sitting on our little wooden steps at the front of the house, waiting for the sun to paint me with its treacherous rays, hoping to somehow summon a droplet of water from the sky as a result of my very human, very inadequate sacrifice. My grandmother watched me from afar, from her permanent spot inside the house, too weak and too delicate to waste any energy on screaming at me to come inside. Even so, even as my lips began to crack and my eyes began to roll back towards the house, even as my mother howled and raced to rescue me from my devotion with what little strength she still had, the rain never came. 

We’d witnessed multiple deaths by this point. Elders, babies, the weakest of our tragedy-stricken village. We never had to picture what their skeletons would look like; their skin draped tightly over the framework of their bones even before their spirits were relinquished from the earth. It wasn’t a secret that we’d most likely all be subjected to the same fate, our small and ramshackle village the only indication that somehow, at some point, there had been life here.

For the first two months, we exhausted all of our resources for water. We sent the strongest of us all in teams to search for the nearest source. They’d pack their things in hand-woven baskets, cover themselves with traditional cloth, and they’d set out at night. For the first while, they’d bring back a cactus or two from their travels. The expert of our village would perform somewhat of a biopsy, carefully extracting the negligible droplets of water. It seemed as though we’d reached somewhat of a temporary solution. It wasn’t much, but it was water. We saved what little we had in a little jug in one of the elder’s homes, as the small sum of water was only to be used for emergency purposes.

One night, one of the men who embarked on the journey had made his way into the elder’s home. Looking back, I don’t blame the poor man. This was survival. He lifted the jug to his lips and he swallowed every last drop. He spent the next morning hunched over a little divet in the sand, regurgitating far more than he could have ever consumed. Once night fell, he draped his most treasured traditional cloth over his frail body on the edge of the village. One of the elders found his lifeless body the next morning.

We had saved a large cylinder of water under our floorboards from before the drought ensued; this was what we were using to stay alive. I was sure most other families had done the same, otherwise our bodies would never have made it as far as we did. We’d give grandmother the biggest share, though this was still a dreadfully pitiful amount, and we’d ration the rest for my mother and I. 

Today, on the first day of the twelfth week, our last share of water finally ran out. My mother and I just stared at the empty cylinder, half-willing water to appear merely out of pure necessity. We all knew what this meant. As the sun shone outside, taunting us and playing with the broken strings of our hearts, all three of us sat on the rickety floor of our house, holding hands and praying to the same God who made the rain stop. 

As we sat in silence, able to feel the devastating sinking of our spirits but unable to cry, my grandmother began to sputter. My mother and I rushed to her side, knowing the protocol with certainty but unwilling to accept it. I just stared at my grandmother, her fragile hand in mine, refusing to process that one of my only fears had finally been realized. We lowered her to the ground, watched her as her eyes started to lose the only life they’d ever known. 

Before her final grip on life slipped away forever, my grandmother looked my mother and I in the eyes. We knew she was only staying in this world for these few seconds out of pure determination. As her last moments on life began to run out, grandmother did what we believed she was utterly incapable of doing. She did what we believed anyone and everyone in this village was incapable of doing, something we hadn’t seen for months and something I believe I’d frankly forgotten about. 

As her eyes went blank and the light behind her gaze flickered out, grandmother left this world with a faint yet unmistakeable smile on her face. 

I could only stare. I could only keep my eyes fixed on the slight curvature of her lips to believe what I’d seen. After all this suffering, after withstanding what no human should ever have to withstand in an entire lifetime, my grandmother made her exit from this life with a smile. 

I stayed like this for hours. I could feel my own body weakening, my own death encroaching, though it didn’t stop me from honouring the selflessness of my grandmother. The mere act of smiling, something that might’ve put the nail in her coffin, reminded me of life before the drought; of a life where I wouldn’t go a day without smiling, a life where I’d prioritize a giggle over a mere cup of water. 

I can’t remember exactly when I got up, exactly when I decided to use my brittle arms to open our door, but I do remember when the first droplet of water hit my face.

August 26, 2022 21:29

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1 comment

Theresa Tiller
22:03 Aug 31, 2022

Love the ending lines of this story. There is beautiful use of imagery throughout; I particularly liked the description of dodging rain while harvesting from the garden. Very nicely done!

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