I began writing this short story a month or so after moving to Montreal in August 2013, so it is my most recent one as I have been occupied with writing a novel, poetry, and a lot of freelance work since then. I think this may be my best one yet, although I have not found a place for it. One editor did give me a personalized note, however. In it he said, “It’s obvious you’re a professional writer.” He also gave me some useful feedback that helped me improve the story to its current state which I’m now posting below. Please read, enjoy, and comment.
The Water in the Wild
By C.R. Riddell
In the dust fields of Doh Lo Yahn Medina planted the seed of a kasai tree. Her brown cloak whipped around her in the dry winds that blew across the flats, and her respirator mask protected her from breathing the dirt. She dug a hole with a hand shovel six inches deep, dropped the tiny seed, scooped the dirt back over and packed it down. Standing up she frowned. It would only end up like the hundreds of others. To her left the distant mountains stood as they had for thousands of years, unchanging and eternal in solitude. She made a silent wish to draw their strength, to stand firm as their foundations, and went home.
The wooden door of the hut banged shut as a gust of dry wind rushed in behind her. She shook the dust out of her cloak and hung it on the rack with her respirator mask. Amber lamplight shone through the room where her mother lay on a cot against the wall underneath thick blankets.
The old woman coughed. “Is that you, dear?”
“Everyone is gone. Who else could it be?” She sat on a stool next to the bed.
“That was the last one. Pray the gods are willing.”
“It hasn’t rained in years. Why do we keep doing this? It’s no use. You say pray, but I fear no one is listening.”
“Don’t say these things,” she coughed three times. “The Earth will live again. You must tend the seeds. It’s all that we can do.”
“Listen, Medina. Even though it is hard to believe the gods have not left us long ago it’s all we can do to hold on. Maybe tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after. We do not know.” She was in a cold sweat and began uttering words under her breath clutching frail hands together. Used tissues speckled with blood were scattered on the floor.
“Be calm. Save your energy,” Medina patted her mother’s forehead with a damp washcloth.
“If your father were here, he would know what to do. He would make everything right.” She closed her eyes and turned her head to the side, filled with exhaustion. “I remember when you were young. When you were just a little girl and he taught you the blade and then… outside he…”
Medina smoothed her thinning hair damp with sweat. “Shhh. Be calm,” she said. And her mother fell asleep.
Medina threw her dust cloak over her shoulders, strapped on her mask, and took a water can into the arid heat. It was midday and the sun was high, showering blistering light onto the dry planet. The wind blew weak but enough to sweep small waves of dust across the plains. She went around the house to the well pump and dropped the canister beneath the steel nozzle. She thrust the handle up and down but only a few small drops came out. She pumped it again, but there wasn’t any more. Medina shook her head and went back inside.
Setting the canister down, she looked at her sleeping mother through the plastic pane of her mask. Closer to the bed she watched her slumber, heard the steady rasp of her breathing. She left a note on the bedside table and returned to the hot, dusty wind with a backpack carrying the canteen.
She walked. Across dust flats and sand fields she walked. With the Red Mountains far off in the west and the stone reaches of Maeng Da Po past the horizon in the east she walked. The sky was pale orange and the sun never relented. Her legs burned, her arms weakened, but she kept going. The oasis was a day’s hike away, but it was the only place left for her to go even though she might not return.
When she was a child her father took her to the edges of the sand dunes and pointed to the oasis. It looked like an aberration on the landscape. He said, “That is the last place we know of with living trees, but danger lurks within. People live there—people who will do anything to protect it. No one who has gone in has ever come out. It’s said they eat all who trespass, or take them as slaves.”
By the time she reached the oasis a pallid moon hung in the night sky and she beheld the deep green of the tree line contrasting the desert. Thick leaves and branches hung from heavy trunks and she could hear rhythmic biomechanical noises sounding in the darkness.
Medina descended the final sand dune and entered the oasis. When her feet touched the soil it felt soft and cool. Thick foliage surrounded her. A deep hooting sound came from above and she spun around to see the shining circular eyes of an owl, its small curved beak like an iron hook as it bobbed its head curiously. She had never seen one except in the books her parents made her read when she was growing up. It was much larger than she imagined with shining, penetrating eyes. She stepped closer to get a better look but it took flight and disappeared into the dark on slow, majestic wings.
She pulled back the sleeve of her cloak to check the air quality indicator strapped onto her arm. It was a device with a small coloured screen and normally it would show deep red indicating the air was hazardous, but in this place it shone brilliant green. She pulled back her hood, grabbed her mask and took a deep breath of the richest air she had ever tasted. It rejuvenated her tired body and tasted more delicious than chocolate injecting her with pure energy.
Moonlight splintered through the canopy and lit everything with an ethereal glow as she walked on wondering what gave the oasis such resilience against the black smog and tar sands that ruined the planet before she was born.
A rush of white noise came to her through the gloom. She picked up the scent of fresh water and followed it to a waterfall which cascaded into a shimmering pool. She ran to it and scooped a handful of water into her mouth. Nothing ever tasted so sweet to her lips. She removed the cap of the water jug and pushed it down into the pool.
Noises in the dark. People calling out. The jug was almost full and the voices grew louder. Wild snickering like hyenas and jackals. She screwed cap back on. Threw the jug inside her pack. Then—
“Now how about this. Seems we have a visitor, boys,” a man said. He came into the moonlight and an argent gleam shone over his face revealing a wolfish grin and ragged hair. A chorus of tittering voices behind him.
“She looks like a nice one, doesn’t she?” another said.
“So good of you to come,” said a third. “It’s been so long since we’ve had guests.”
They surrounded her. Eight feral faces in patchwork clothing, no shoes, and feathers tied into dreadlocked hair. Some of them knelt down, others leered, but all of them gawked or licked their lips like hungry dogs eying a fresh cut of meat.
She drew her blade. Cold steel glinting in silver moonlight. “Get away from me,” she hissed.
“We haven’t even been acquainted yet. It would be so rude to leave already. Wouldn’t you like to know our names?”
Medina steadied herself. “Let me go. I must take this water.”
“Water?” one of them blurted. “She wants our water? All right, let her past. Go on now. On your way now.” They snickered and tittered. The leader didn’t move.
She lunged and slashed, slicing his arm. He howled and reeled, blood flowing over his fingers. She stabbed and missed. Red streams froze her and rough hands grabbed her from behind. She thrashed and struggled to get free. Another grabbed her wrist so tight her fingers became numb and the knife fell with a clang.
“Just how stupid are you?” the leader growled. He reached out to grasp her chin with his bloody hand. His footsteps like drum beats. His breath sour as acid. Medina could feel it on her face like a blindfold. “Shame,” he said and struck her down by the moonlit pool with one savage swing.
Medina woke in a damp cave with a chain locked around her ankle. The sound of water dripping on rocks echoed from the depths of the cavern and her head pulsated as she sat up. When her grim surroundings came into focus she realized that all of her gear was missing. Panic set in. She tugged at the chain. It was bolted to the wall. She pulled harder and the metal links rattled as she pulled with greater ferocity until her hands ached.
“Glad to see you’re awake now,” a voice said. “Oh, I didn’t introduce myself. How rude of me. My name is Barrick.” He walked into the cave carrying a blanket. “I brought you a little something to make your stay more pleasant.” He set it down next to Medina and gazed at her with intent. A bandage was wrapped around his arm, blood soaking through.
She withdrew. “You have to let me out of here. The well was dry. This was the only place left with clean water. You must let me go.”
“Is that it? You don’t even know do you?”
Medina was silent as stone.
“It’s much more than water you tried to steal. Why do you think this place is what it is? The only spot of green left on this whole rotten planet.”
She still said nothing.
Barrick slowly approached and brushed a lock of hair from her face. He became enamoured with her coppery skin. Her full lips. Her black hair. “We can talk about that later. You’re so pretty, but not very smart.” He pinned her down, climbed up, and forced himself inside.
Medina opened her eyes. She could remember clawing and struggling but wasn’t strong enough to fend him off. Shame overtook as she remembered her father and the training he gave her. When she sat up, immediate thoughts about her mother emerged. She would be coughing and wheezing in her sickbed, wondering and hoping and praying for her daughter to come home. She would not survive long.
She searched the floor of the cave and rummaged through the dirt and rocks around her vicinity. Her hands found a slate rock and smashed it against the wall until it broke away to form a triangle. Its grey edge was jagged and hard and she pressed her fingertip into the point. Sitting against the wall Medina watched daylight pour in through the mouth of the cave, turning yellow and white in the morning air. Before long, Barrick returned.
“You must be hungry.”
She didn’t reply.
He loomed above her and looked down, cocked his head to the side. “What’s wrong? Is it me? Did I do something?”
Medina kept the stone hidden underneath her dirty rags.
“C’mon. Let’s go. Up. Up.”
She didn’t move.
“What’s the matter with you? Get up. We’re going somewhere. Somewhere nicer than this. You’re going to like it, understand?”
Medina nodded and slowly rose to her feet.
He unlocked the iron clasp around her ankle, grabbed her wrist with a savage thrust and pulled her into the daylight of the jungle. They were in a small camp with huts constructed out of massive leaves, shoots, and stalks. One of the wild boys was hunched down next to one of the structures and when they passed he gazed upon her like he were casting eyes upon a radiant angel. Barrick led Medina into his tent, the largest in the camp. Her bag rested against the wall with the water jug and all her survival gear beside it and she touched the place where the sharp stone was hidden underneath her clothing.
He told her to sit down and offered more food. “We aren’t monsters. We’ll take care of you. It’s just been a long time since we’ve had any women around here, especially one so pretty as you.”
She sat down and said nothing. The food was irresistible when he offered a plate of exotic fruits and charred meat. She examined it closely and picked up one of the pieces like an archaeologist with a new specimen. It smelt sweet and dripped citric juices on her finger with a powerful tang when she bit into it. She began devouring everything on the plate with ravenous hunger.
Barrick laughed like a buffoon. “You must have been starving, poor girl. Plenty more where that came from.” He grinned like a wolf and watched with flashing eyes.
She scowled and finished her plate. When he asked if she wanted any more, Medina said with a coy glance, “No. Maybe we can do something else?” and spread her legs slowly exposing herself.
“Such a sweet girl,” he said and crawled over to her, grasping her chin for a kiss.
Medina resisted, reached for the stone and slashed with a primal scream striking and swiping and slashing. He tried to push her down but with swift evasion she continued the vicious assault with a flurry of blows. Strings of dark blood sprayed against the leafy walls and she lost herself in a relentless craze. Barrick stumbled. He fell on his back and Medina pounced with a brutal thrust to the jugular. Her fist stiffened and burned. Her head thumped and pounded. She was soaked in sweat. When she opened her fist to drop the stone it fell like a boulder.
She poked him with her foot. He didn’t move. Standing over his corpse she watched the spreading pool of blood beneath him. Her heartbeat pulsed in her ears and a fearsome heat burned in her brain when footsteps stampeded towards the hut.
Three hunting spears stood against the wall and she grabbed one of them. When she turned around the wild boy saw the mutilated corpse of his leader. His breath turned to ice in his mouth. He drew a knife from his belt and menaced her with the blade. Medina swatted it away with the tip of the spear. He jabbed and darted. She parried and defended. He growled, cursed, and lunged with a slash but Medina evaded and thrust the spearhead deep into his neck. Blood spurted and he made a pathetic gurgling sound as he collapsed.
With great speed she retrieved her things and put everything back on. Flexing her hand she couldn’t move two of her fingers and the cuts were deep and dirty with stone chips so she removed the jug from her pack and poured some water over her hand. It stung like iodine and light wisps of steam rose from the wound. She went back to Barrick’s corpse and tore a strip of cloth from his pant leg to wrap around it as a bandage and vanished into the jungle to begin the long journey home.
Medina burst through the door and went to the bedside where her mother lay. All throughout the trek across the desert she hoped to find her mother waiting up for her but it was silent in the hut, the hearth was cold, and the candles burned down.
She shook her mother not wanting to believe it was true, but the old woman didn’t awaken. Her face was a dried husk. Her bones stiffened with rigor. Medina wept on her knees in the bleak realization that she was the last of her people and all other groups of civilization had dispersed on the wind like parched soil. She didn’t know if there were any more cities beyond the dust fields. She had never been that far.
Weakness and nausea came over her. Medina made a vow to give her mother a proper burial alongside her father and she clenched her bandaged fist tight in her misery, but her fist didn’t ache and she thought that strange. Medina flexed her fingers and they moved with nimble dexterity. Unravelling the bandage, it came away from her bare flesh bloodstained but didn’t stick as it should to a healing wound. The gashes were fully healed without a scar.
An idea came to her. If she couldn’t give her mother the water, there was one more thing left to do. She took the water jug and returned to the dust fields of Doh Lo Yahn where she planted the kasai seed, knelt down, and poured a generous portion over it.
The soil turned dark and, at first, nothing happened. She watched a small green shoot emerge from the desolate soil with two small leaves. Darkness emanated from where she poured the water and that darkness, strange and wild, turned green as blades of grass came up from the ground spreading from where she stood turning the dust field into a pasture. The seedling kept growing, gaining height and thickness and more branches reached out from its trunk which grew a thick layer of bark and a shady crown blossomed above. She plucked a green kasai fruit from a branch and removed her mask to see it with her bare eyes. All around her, the great verdure continued expanding, everything turning lush as the rolling fields of spring. Medina could hardly believe her mother was right. The earth will live again.