From the Land of Hunger and Thirst

Genyen’s men and children swished around cracks between the shacks surrounding the main road. Daniel Hardy had to squint his sixty-year-old eyes against the muggy mid-afternoon and the Haitian sun, but he saw the marks. Etched on each shoulder, by tattoo or marker, was a year that matched its owner’s date of birth, and the youngest’s read 2030. 

They poured in, a mass of black limbs, T-shirts, shorts, sweat from work in the fields, and bare feet. Women emerged from the shacks, many suckling babies, and joined the rush to the Red Cross station. Daniel and two other volunteers awaited the rush at the station, an abode of aluminum slats and red paint.

Daniel tore into the two duffel bags slung over his shoulder and took out three short measuring cups and dozens of thin, tall plastic drinking cups. He split the two sets of cups between himself and his colleagues. He set his cups down on the ground next to his reservoir tap, one of three that sprouted out of the station’s wall in parallel.

Facing the growing crowd standing in the center of the road, Daniel shouted, “Males, numbers 1990 to 2010, take first, women with children next, women and children 2011 to 2020 take third, and all numbers before 1990 are back of the line. Wait for a Red Cross serviceman or volunteer to provide you with your water. Return vessels when finished.”

The Line

Black hands catch water.
Credit: Saur

He straightened the edges of his purple windbreaker and turned to the woman on the tap next to him. “Shawna?”

“For a third time? My throat’s getting sore,” said Shawna.

“We’ll repeat it every time. That’s regulation for ad hoc rules.”

Shawna ran a hand through her red hair. “That’s silly.”

“It’s an inspector’s convenience. I suggest you redefine your idea of stupid before he gets here. For the record, I agree.”

Shawna stepped forward and called out the line order in immaculate creole. After a little pushing and shoving, the villagers flowed into three lines.

Daniel winced as he watched the women help the elderly to the back of their lines. On the Red Cross’ arrival, the village had insisted on the numbering system. The Red Cross brought water, the village elders had said, but coffee brought food, and the young hands servicing the black bean must be served first. He didn’t argue. He never forgot that the Cross was a stranger here and tolerated only for the water it bore.

Taking up his measuring cup, Daniel slid it under his tap and flipped the switch on the head of the spigot, sending a stream of water into the cup. An automatic shutoff stoppered the stream at two liters with a squeak and a groan. A teenage boy, his hair arranged into neat hedgerows, gave a gap-toothed grin and stepped up. Daniel transferred the water from the measuring cup to the drinking glass and handed it to the boy.

“I’m willing to teach you,” said Shawna.

Daniel kept his head down, passing out water and trying to ignore the suffocating musk of sweat. “What’s that?”

“How to say ‘you’re welcome.’ “

“This is your first post. You’ve been here three days. Do you know how many ways of saying ‘you’re welcome’ I’d know if I’d taken the time?”

“If you’re living in a coun-“

“Twenty-six.”

From his vision’s periphery, Daniel saw Henry Irving, the station’s counsellor, waving from the third tap. “Twenty-seven,” Irving shouted over the crowd. “You always forget that stint in eastern Europe.”

“Thanks, Irv,” Daniel yelled back. “Twenty-seven. My profile doesn’t list me as that good with languages. Besides, I don’t have the time.”

“How long have you been with the Cross?” said Shawna.

Daniel returned the smile of a middle-aged man as he handed him water. “About twenty years. Me and Irv together. Hopping around. Five weeks here, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Dear God. What’ve I signed up for?” Shawna said so that Daniel barely heard her.

Villagers who’d received water gravitated toward the rusted cylinder that bordered the road. It was the head of a defunct well, a relic from another relief project and from a time when groundwater hadn’t been an anomaly.

A tug at Daniel’s sleeve drew his attention to an ancient matron next in line. At first, her gender was indeterminate: loose folds of skin and baggy clothes hid her feminine form, and the wool cap crowning her head suggested masculinity. The high pitch of her creaking voice was the only confirmation of womanhood. After speaking a few terse sentences in creole, she pawed at her rags and extracted a wide clay bowl.

Daniel nodded and called out, “Shawna? Help?”

Shawna put out a hand to stay the next person in her line and went over to talk to the old lady. After a short chat, Shawna turned to Daniel and said, “She lost the glass you gave her, so she’s going to use the clay bowl her daughter made. Does that break any rules?”

The Argument

Daniel shrugged and took the bowl. “Probably does.” He ran it through the water procedure and offered it back.

The old lady examined the bowl, the lines of her face tightening with a frown. Daniel’s neck grew hot under that gaze. Then he felt his skin sting as a hand, a young hand, slapped his wrist and sent the clay bowl tumbling to the ground. Then Daniel noticed the faces of the old men behind the old lady, the hard glares and half-open mouths, and the clenched fists of two younger women suddenly standing before him.

A riot erupted. Animated faces and hands swung unintelligible condemnations at him like two-by-fours. One child hurled his water glass at him. Shawna screamed at the top of her lungs, trying to overpower the crowd and not succeeding. Above it all, the old lady barked a single word over and over again.

“Stop!” Irving bellowed.

Daniel jumped. Irving had appeared next to him as if by magic. “Hell, Irv, they don’t speak English,” Daniel said. He realized that he could hear his voice, that everyone had gone silent.

Irving’s massive belly ballooned and contracted with a sigh. He whipped out a white hankie from his jeans’ back pocket and patted down his bald pate. “One point for the psychologist. Whew, it’s hot out here. Shawna, please dismiss this.”

Shawna rasped out creole and slunk over to her post.

The lines began again, although this time in an extended silence. Daniel’s line was significantly shorter, and a few faces from that line cropped up in Shawna’s.The old lady stooped to pick up her bowl. She crucified Daniel in a single look and shuffled off.

“Shawna?” Daniel said.

“Yes?” Shawna answered, voice hoarse from shouting.

“Do you know what the hell went on there?”

“I don’t have a clue. You’re using a measuring cup. Of course, all the portions are fair an-“

“What are you talking about? Slow down.”

“Sorry. I keep on forgetting you don’t speak Creole. Do you know what that witch called you?”

“Are you kidding?”

“A thief. She called you a thief.”

Life in the Village

Filthy water surrounds a grouping of aluminum shacks.
The shacks of Cite Soleil, Haiti – Credit: ThomasBlack57 – Site: Wikimedia Commons

Daniel endured the general discontent for an hour longer. When work was done, he went around to the back of the station, where an attached shed containing the separated R.C. staff and village water tanks stood, and fetched his collapsible chair. On schedule, boys gathered around the old well, one of them carrying a misshapen sphere made of rubber bands and a stretched condom. He propped his chair up at a distance and began to watch them play soccer.

The game itself was like any pickup match in North America, albeit with more dust and a smaller field and a lack of cars. Women passed by every once in a while, some shaking their heads at such childishness, at play done in the face of labor, before continuing on. When no other adults were looking, older men, middle-aged and the aged, would peek their heads out of doorways, talking to each other and watching. Daniel imagined arguments between them:

The lad’s got great legs, one man might’ve said.

Nonsense. I coulda walloped him in my youth, another would respond.

Neither of us were that good.

Nonsense.

And so on.

Daniel heard light footsteps behind him. “I was wondering when you’d join me in my little Paradise hours.”

 “It didn’t seem right before now. I figured you’d take questions today, and I didn’t want to come off as fresh,” Shawna said.

 “Don’t say that. I was more dismayed you didn’t come to me before now. Maybe approach me first, though, if you want anything. Irv’s a little impatient.”

Shawna’s frame loosened and her stance shifted to a relaxed cant. “Good to hear. May I sit down?”

“Sure. Anybody’s welcome in Paradise.”

“That being?”

Daniel smiled. Shouts of triumph and frustration reached his ears. One of the boys had scored a goal. “It’s here, in watching them. I’m amazed they go through so much and can still carry on like this, like a set of kids living in houses with driveways.”

“And you call that Paradise?”

Daniel’s sight softened. The boys’ playing became a blur of kinetic joy, a dance of spirits intent on ignoring the frailty of their bodies or the condition of the ball they kicked around. “Yes,” he told her, “I do.”

“On his favorite subject, huh?” Irving said. He’d snuck up behind them and sat on the ground to Daniel’s right. “I think he’s going to retire here, honestly.”

If I retire,” said Daniel.

“Good point.”

“Thank you. Now, shush. I’m trying to keep score.”

 “Are you actually keeping track? What’s the score now?” Irving asked.

“Shush!”

The three of them silently watched the soccer game, which continued until nightfall. The teams scurried inside soon after, leaving the three Red Cross members alone.

A Private Conversation

Shawna broke the silence. “Can I ask you something, Daniel?”

“Feeling brave?” replied Daniel.

 “A little. What are those little networks on the huts?”

“I can’t really see what you’re talking about.”

“He’s a little old to this madness, m’dear,” Irving said. “You’re going to have to spell it out for him.”

Shawna pointed to the tin-shingled roof of one building. A brown plastic gutter brimmed its eaves, contrasting with the rotten wood and scrap metal of the rest of the structure. One side of the gutter curved inward, like a clamshell on its side. As the gutter lines ran to the roof’s corners, they formed tubes connected to gallon-sized boxes.

“Collects rainfall,” Daniel answered.

“That makes sense, but what’re the boxes doing so high off the ground?” said Shawna. “Not particularly accessible.”

“Not worth changing it. Around here, you’d be lucky to get a mug in a month.”

“Doesn’t every little bit count?”

“Port-au-Prince isn’t too far from here. City fellas love their coffee. Which reminds me: do you have an allergy? I haven’t seen you drink coffee yet and a truck comes by next week to pick up the stuff-“

“Stop changing the topic. We could use that water.”

  Daniel bit his lip. The folding chair rattled as he crouched forward. “You see that old well?”

“Yeah.”

Poison

“Go over and look at it. Tell me what you see. Pay a little special attention to the base. It’s concrete.”

Shawna rolled her eyes, stood up, and skulked off to the well.  When she returned after a few minutes of investigation, she simply said, “Acid rain.”

Daniel got up and stretched. “City fellas love their concrete. All that pretty smoke and mercury.”

“But don’t they know their own water is bad? What’s the point of putting it out of reach?”

“Desperation can push a man to be stupid.”

Shawna opened her mouth to speak, then closed it.

Daniel headed into the station. “We don’t like to dwell on it.”

Any agitation that Daniel weathered at mention of Port-au-Prince was salved by the habpanels and tailored comfort of the station’s interior.

Life for Volunteers

Overcast sky, clouds lanced with sunlight. Shacks sit on rent, rocky ground.
Haiti in 2012 – Credit: Meghan Dhaliwal

The station lacked most of the staples of daily life in America: the lights couldn’t be dimmed mechanically and didn’t tailor themselves to each member’s psychological profile as the habpanels did; chairs matched profiles, but didn’t have the mechanical wiring or computers necessary to accomodate more than one profile. Habpanels used neon and possessed limited processing capacity, meaning that they couldn’t layer colors or create patterns and each member had to either undergo color therapy within the solitude of their own room or tolerate a hue repugnant to their profile.

That was the rub for charity workers: in normal life,  a person’s living space, job, and co-workers would be vetted to accommodate their psych profile for a healthier, happier worker, but volunteer services couldn’t provide that much.

Thankfully, the computer had determined that blue was a common preference between the profiles, so they kept that running continuously in the kitchenette and mingling area, which comprised everything outside the individual living quarters.

Shawna jostled Daniel as she slid inside. “Wow, that feels nice. It’s amazing how great a little cool is when you’ve been out there so long.”

Irving headed to the kitchenette and removed brine preserved food from the fridge.

Shawna yawned. “So, what’s the cooking order around here?”

Daniel took spices out of a cupboard and onto the counter next to Irving. “Cooking order?”

“Cooking order. Who’s preparing the food next? Is there a list or. . . .”

“No need to worry about that,” said Irving. Pots and pans clanged together as he rummaged beneath the stove.

“He likes doing it,” said Daniel.

“But-” started Shawna.

Irving gave Shawna a frosty smile. “Gratitude would suit you better, m’dear.”

Shawna shook her head and went to fetch her chair. “Sorry. You’re right. That tussle this morning must have set me on edge.”

“Most people would like someone to do their cooking for them,” Irving groused as he returned to the pots.

Daniel wandered over to Shawna as she left Irving’s earshot. “Sorry about that.”

“This is kinda the reason why I didn’t say a lot until now,” said Shawna.

“Don’t be that harsh on him. There are just a few things he’s particular about,” Daniel said. “The Cross doesn’t have as much control over co-workers as some places, so you’re going to have to learn what those particular things are.”

Shawna rolled her eyes. “Okay, but a little warning would be nice.”

“I’ll try.”

Irving chimed in. “Dinner’s ready.”

Dinner

Dinner was reheated beans and vegetables in a salty broth concentrate – food arguably composed more of salt than anything else – with a glass of water. They arranged their personal chairs into a sort of wagon circle and conversed while clutching  white plastic bowls.

Conversation centered primarily on Daniel and Irving’s new collection of bodily grievances: Daniel had an ache in his heel today which resulted in a limp; Irving complained of a sharp pain in his side and fretted that he’d never had his appendix removed.

Shawna didn’t speak for a long time, but eventually interrupted. “How much water do you drink?”

Irving and Daniel turned to stare at her.

“A measured two liters,” said Irving. “Same as Genyen gets.”

“Why do you ask?” said Daniel.

Shawna looked down and became preoccupied with her feet. “With all due respect, and I’m not a nutritionist, it seems like all your problems could be solved if you hydrated yourselves a bit more.”

“Same as Genyen gets,” Irving repeated. “What’s good enough for them is good enough for us.”

“Isn’t there a totally different water tank for us? You aren’t stealing from anyone if you drink more than normal.”

Daniel chuckled. “You selfish, spoiled princess.”

“Not called for,” said Irving.

Daniel waved Irving’s objection away. “Look, do you know why I joined the Cross?”

Shawna pursed her lips and didn’t speak.

“Lunchtime at school. This was before your profile picked your school for you. I was the kid who peered into cafeteria trashcans. So much tossed bologna, cheese, crackers. . . .” He thumped his chest. “It hit me right here every time a kid said he was starving. Couldn’t take it.”

Shawna’s eyes remained downcast.

“And you know what? I bet those kids thought they were just taking good care of themselves.” Daniel pointed at Shawna. “You know how the world got here? How we got to water rations and pickled food?”

“I was trying to help,” said Shawna.

“It wasn’t a catastrophe, even though politicians would have liked it to be: no tanker or climate change. No. We ran out. We just ran out. It’s all in the trashcan, now.”

“Enough,” said Irving.

Daniel suddenly felt the wind leave him, as if a halter collared his throat.

“I was trying to help,” said Shawna.

Daniel tried to respond, but that invisible halter tightened. Fingers turning white from gripping his bowl, Daniel went to his room, engaged his habpanel, and used color therapy until Irving and Shawna went to bed.

Later That Night

Daniel fidgeted with the antenna of the R.C. computing unit, a white plastic communicator with a streamlined operating system ungenerously labeled “the lunchbox” by some. It was simplistic compared to some toys on the market, but the Cross wasn’t invested in anything above bare minimum.

He dialed up Inspections Officer Monroe with the communication suite. Chatter and the cackle of discharged party streamers overwhelmed the unit’s tiny speakers.

“Hello?” yelled Daniel, cupping his hands around his mouth even though he knew it wouldn’t help. “Hello! Move away from the noise, please. Away from the noise!”

The tumult faded amidst a barrage of static. “Better?” Monroe said.

After reducing the audio to levels appropriate for midnight calls, Daniel settled back into his seat. “Paperwork sounds fun.”

The static ended with the clatter of plastic against wood as Monroe put his unit on a desk. “Sorry. A little celebration.”

“I gathered as much. It’s the ‘why’ I’m driving at.”

“Oh, nothing you’d care about. A little project off the fair coasts of Britain.”

Daniel interlaced his fingers and rested them against his brow. “You’re not yanking my chain?”

“I’m not. Nuh-uh, mister. They finished the distillery yesterday. Soon we’ll all be drinking seawater. Well, what used to be seawater.”

“Is it making as much as they said it would? And as fast?”

“Even better, Dan. Gallons of the stuff in an hour. Shame about the harbor view, though; they’ve got ten more factories coming. But if you want beaches, you go to Maui.”

“Maybe now,” said Daniel, “you can spare a little more water for Genyen.”

Monroe cleared his throat. “So this is why you called?”

“Yep.”

“I’m not so sure about this, Dan.”

“If this factory really works-“

“Then,” said Monroe, “it’ll drive prices down. Maybe. We buy water, Dan. We can’t spend it like it’s a grant. We have to ration it out-“

“It didn’t stop you before. Or the time before that,” Daniel said.

“Quiet!” There was another barrage of static as Monroe took his unit farther away from the party’s ruckus. “I paid for this week’s extra liter out of my own pocket. I can’t afford this.”

“These people need a half-liter more. They’re worn out. Port-au-Prince wants more coffee every time, and the crops are taking up most of the water they get from the local government.”

“Take it up with Port-au-Prince.”

“Trust me, I would if the Cross meant anything to them,” said Daniel. “Monroe, if I told the Cross about these talks, there could be trouble.”

“Trouble for you, too.”

“I don’t mind a little ruckus.”

A pause surfaced and was vandalized by the mirth of a partygoer. Monroe coughed. “I’ll see what I can manage.”

“You’re a good man, Monroe.”

“Threats must bring out the best in me.”

The Next Day

Plastic garbage and refuse create a trash island in the river. A kid stands on one "bank" and looks over the trash heap.
Cite Soleil, Haiti – Credit: ThomasBlack57 – Site: Wikimedia Commons

The sullenness from the day prior bled over into the next. From the steps of her own dwelling, the old lady observed everything with a scowl knitted around her mouth. As if in solidarity, the villagers piled in on Shawna’s line. Eventually, Shawna was forced to ask some to join the other lines.

“I’d give anything to figure out what’s gnawing her bones,” Daniel muttered, glancing at the old lady. He was still clueless as to yesterday’s furor.

Shawna stopped serving, took a booklet out of her pocket, and tossed it to Daniel.  “Then ask her.”

Daniel caught the book. A Beginner’s Guide to Creole. He shook his head and crammed it into his pocket.

“It’ll blow over,” said Irving. “Besides, I got just the thing to cheer you up. You notice we got three players?”

“Dammit, Irv. Really?” Daniel spat.

“What’s wrong?” said Shawna.

“Poker tonight,” Irving exclaimed. “Paradise’ll have to play second fiddle, my friend.”

“Dammit,” said Daniel.

Once evening struck, Irving devised a poker field out of conjoined wooden end tables and writing desks. He’d staked out the interior of the station, obsessively shuffling a deck of cards and waiting for Daniel and Shawna to come in. When the two relented and joined him at the table, he kept shuffling his cards. He infrequently asked them whether or not they’d like to get snacks from the station’s kitchenette or blankets from their cots.

“Come on, are we going to start?” said Shawna.

Irving didn’t reply.

“I’m going to bed if this isn’t moving anywh-“

She was interrupted by the creak of the door opening and the sight of a village woman and her child entering through it.

Shawna rose to her feet and her tongue began to move in creole gyrations.

“Sit down, Shawna. He invited them in,” said Daniel.  “You’re a brother to me, Irv, but you can be an asshole sometimes.”

“How did he…?” said Shawna.

“We had a translator before you. Irv, him, and the girl worked out this show,” answered Daniel.

Irving continued shuffling with one hand, and with the other he slammed a line of pennies down on the table. “In the 1930s, a Swiss psychologist named Piaget postulated a theory on how the mind develops. M’dear, request that the boy examine the coins.”

Shawna did so. The boy leaned over and squared his vision on the pennies.

Irving splayed the pennies apart, leaving an irregular space between each. “Now ask him if there are more or less coins than before.”

“More,” said Shawna after conversing with the boy.

Irving repeated the test. He received the same results as before. He counted the pennies aloud and made sure that the boy understood the count. He repeated the test. He received the same results as before. He waved the mother and her son away, like a rajah would gesture for a handmaid’s dismissal, and they left.

“He is six years old. He is in what Piaget called the preoperational stage and won’t comprehend things such as perspective or matter conservation for at least two more years. Note his confusion,” said Irving, “how he believes-“

“How he believes that the more space covered in an area equals more matter,” said Daniel. “Are you done?”

“What are you trying to prove?” said Shawna.

A grin spread across Irving’s face. If he didn’t know better, Daniel could have mistaken that grin for good humor. “Nothing but the way things are. I know how you think. It means I got a degree in knowing how you think, and I’m betting you: can you win a single game tonight?”

They didn’t.

Morning After

A black worker picks cherries from coffee plants.
Credit: Perfect Grind.com

Daybreak was a twilight hour for Daniel. When Shawna prodded him awake, he felt like King Tut rising from his crypt. 

“What?” he croaked.

“Sorry,” Shawna said, “but it’s urgent.

“You realize this is the first time in ten years I’ve been up this early?” Daniel swung himself out of bed.

“Got a call from the home office,” Shawna said. “Inspection’s coming early and I can’t find the Doctor anywhere.”

“Back to title basis, huh?”

“After that asinine little display last night? You bet. Was that some sort of hazing?”

“We’ll talk about that. Now hand me my pants and we’ll hunt down Irv.”

The Coffee Fields

The walk to the coffee fields was a desolate one. The land was naked. It had been for so long that nothing marked where deforestation had begun and where it had ended. Without landmarks provided by crop water silos, guidance to the fields wouldn’t have existed.

Eventually they saw the field’s trenches. They could make out lines of waist-high coffee shrubs and rows of arched backs that shone like greased ebony. Irving strolled around the field’s perimeter, a wide-brimmed straw hat sitting on his head.

“Keep up the good work, Jonas. Hey, don’t sup that water – for crops only,” Irving said.

A man near the end of the second row threw up a rude gesture at Irving. Irving had certainly seen the gesture, but kept moving. He spread encouragement, chastised workers who used water for anything other than the coffee, and barged in to point out areas that the gatherers had missed. Some workers seemed to appreciate it, but most didn’t.

“Is he supposed to be here?” murmured Shawna.

“No. We’re hands off when it comes to village business,” said Daniel. “Or we’re supposed to be.”

When they caught up to Irving, she said, “Doctor, I’d be happy to relate their real Haitian names to you.”

“Didn’t we have a talk about languages?” replied Irving. “They don’t know mine anyway, so it goes both ways.”

“Monroe’s waiting back at base,” said Daniel.

Irving glanced at the gatherers. “I’m not done here. We’ll keep the good Inspector waiting.”

“I’m not taking heat for this, Irv.”

“You won’t.” Irving paced off to haunt the rows.

Daniel and Shawna found a comfortable patch of ground on the edge of the field and sprawled upon it.

“So he’s been doing this?” said Shawna.

Daniel stared at the sky and didn’t look at her. “He’s his own man.”

“I’ll just add this incident to the report I’m writing, then. What’s another bullet point?”

After a long while, Daniel said, “You know he always wanted to get married?”

“Him?”

“Yeah. It isn’t as unlikely as you think. He came close a couple times.”

“So why didn’t he?” Shawna asked.

“He cares deep about things, and . . .”

“And?”

“When it came time, he couldn’t give up the reins.”

Back at the Village

Four smiling kids stand in front of a wasteland of detritus.
Cite Soleil – Credit: ThomasBlack57 – Site; Wikimedia Commons

The monolithic chug of an R.C. “travel truck” greeted both the villagers and the R.C. staff when they got back to Genyen. A ruddy, greasy-haired adolescent in a suit of white mesh leaned against the door to the truck’s living space.

Daniel tapped Shawna’s shoulder. “Get the spigots ready and I’ll see what’s going on.” He walked over to the truck.

 “I’ve got your water shipment and stuff over here,” the youth said.

“Where’s Monroe?”

“I’m Alec.” The youth’s tongue stumbled over the words, running them together.

“Where’s Monroe?”

“I’ll stay in the vehicle while I’m here if you don’t mind. I’ve kinda gotten used to it. It’s, you know, lived in.”

Daniel concluded that this nervous idiot was the new inspector. “Well, Alec. Do you want to take notes? Monroe usually had a pad.”

“A pad. Yes. For notes. Notepad. I’d… I’ve had a trek, you understand.” Alec backed up as he talked. “Maybe I could nap for a while?”

“Certainly, sir.”

“Um, thanks.” Alec darted into the nether reaches of the truck.

Daniel shook his head and departed to orchestrate his tap.

The scritch-scratch of metal on metal wormed into Daniel’s ear while he slept, coming from the direction of the water shed.

When he reached the shed, he found its gate open. The padlock had been tossed aside and lay in the dirt. He pocketed the padlock, picked up the folding chair that was stored back there, brandishing it like a club, and ventured into the shed.

The whirr of an electrical generator resounded within the shed. A single bulb was suspended by a line between two gigantic oblong cylinders – the village water tank and the smaller one for the R.C. staff. The lighting was sufficient to silhouette a figure crouched at the side of the village tank.

Daniel snuck up to the figure, raised his weapon, and roared. The figure fell to the ground instantly, writhing and emitting a treble yowl. A transparent bag fell from the figure’s hand and broke open, spilling a white powder.

Daniel crouched and seized what he guessed was the figure’s hair. “Alec.”

“How did you know?” said Alec.

“You feel as greasy as you look. What’s this white crap?”

“I don’t know.”

Daniel feinted a swing with his folding chair. “I should bash your head in just for tinkering around in here. Or throw you to the people you’re trying to poison.”

“Easy! I’m under a lot of pressure-“

“The powder. What does it do?” Daniel started to twirl Alec’s hair, to form a tight grip.

“I’m just a temp. Please.”

“I’m going easy on you. I don’t envy you if anyone else in Genyen catches wind of this. Tell me everything.”

Confronting Irving

Three panels. First panel: child looks at two identical glassess of water. Second panel: an adult pours one glass into a tall beaker. Third: the child smiles and points at the beaker.
Piaget, child psychology, and the conservation of mass – Credit: Practical Psychology

Irving had taken far better to being rousted out of bed than Daniel had projected. In fact, despite the bloodshot eyes and rainbow-hued bathrobe, he was calm enough to look like a diplomat in an embassy. He sat at the table while Daniel stood and fidgeted.

“Where’s Shawna?” Daniel said.

“No idea. Why do you need her?” said Irving.

“I need to have everyone here. I don’t want to explain this twice.”

“Explain what twice? Sit down and stop pacing.”

Daniel remained on his feet. “Everyone needs to be here.”

Irving’s belly ballooned outward with the time-honored sigh. “Then we ought to get Alec in here too.”

That drew a grimace from Daniel. “That isn’t going to happen.”

“Why not?”

“I locked him in the shed.”

“You what?

“I locked him-“

“I heard. You need to tell me what’s going on. Now.” Irving’s voice assumed the harsh tone of command.

Daniel sat down. “If you weren’t my friend, Irv, I wouldn’t be talking to you about this.”

“I don’t like being yanked around.”

“Neither do I,” Daniel said, “and that’s kind of what this is about.

“You see, Alec told me something interesting. He’s apparently the son of an R.C. big wig, so he knows a few things. The state of the Cross budget, for one. He told me it’s not much. He also told me about the drug in the village water supply.”

Daniel paused and looked expectantly at Irving, who said nothing.

“They’ve been doing it for months. Everywhere,” Daniel continued. “And the little  procedure they told us to do a while back? Pouring water into those thin beaker things? I didn’t think about it when they told us to do it. Remind you of anything?”

Irving fingered his robe’s sash.

“Pennies, perhaps? Small to long? Fat to thin?” Daniel asked. “They call the drug a ‘second childhood.’ That stunt when we played cards. You knew.”

Irving spoke. “You’ve made your point. I get it.”

“Don’t sass me. I’m coming to you directly because we’re buds, Irv. How long have you known?”

“I didn’t know. I suspected. The human body needs one liter a day, and that’s for a sedentary lifestyle.”

“For someone working in a field?”

“It needs much more,” said Irving. “More than two liters, anyway.”

“Why the hell didn’t you tell anyone?”

Irving bit his lip. “Hell, I don’t know. I only suspected. Besides, you know how strapped we are. Maybe a little false plenty is what they need.”

Daniel stood, gripping the table. “Irv, they believe they’re nourished and cared for. They’re getting half the water they need. They trusted us and we conned them. Why would that ever be right?”

“I don’t know! I didn’t say anything. I don’t know why.”

“You say you don’t know. I think you do. It’s the same reason why you kept parading the secret in a damned poker game for months. What did you look like when you were out at the field with that silly straw frisbee on your noggin? A plantation owner. And you loved it.”

Irving leapt up. End tables and writing desks, uprooted by Irving’s girth, tumbled and clattered together in a heap. “That’s not fair. They’d drink their own crop water if they could, and where would their coffee go? They’d be starving. Their workers are first in line every day for a reason. They asked us in, Daniel.”

Daniel stared at the ceiling, his arms held apart. “Do we have to lie to get it done?”

“We never lied. They’re patients. They’re on the operating table. They’re sick, you have to cut them open, and they have to be unconscious for it. If you told them about the powder, the trick wouldn’t work.”

“There are options-“

“We can’t put the genie back in the damn bottle, can we? You’ll let that teenager out of that box and send him on his merry way. And you’ll kiss his ass if he wants you to.”

A sound that began as a groan wended its way into the station, intensifying into a wail. Irving and Daniel froze. Daniel looked at Irving. Blue habpanel illumination hid Irving’s features, but an unease was there.

A group of villagers clustered around an object shuffled into the station. They brushed Daniel and Irving aside and set down their burden on the tables.

The Old Woman

 Before them lay the old woman’s corpse.

Daniel started to touch the body, hesitated when he considered those present, and went ahead anyway. The skin beneath the eyebrows and ears was scabrous and flaked off in chunks when he brushed it with his fingernails. The lips were striped with gnarled, black patches – signs of where flesh had cracked, spewed blood, and sealed itself. When Daniel pinched and lifted the meat of the body’s elbow, it hung suspended and sluggishly sagged into place. His medical training was rudimentary, but it was enough. Dehydration. Most of the symptoms weren’t new.

When he turned his attention to the villagers, he could pick out similar details: a tightness around the cheeks; a continuous licking of the lips; quavering steps from some that suggested lightheadedness.

Daniel turned to face Irving, whose mouth was ajar and who was resting his weight on the soles of his feet. His forehead knotted and flexed in the habpanel light, hinting at the emotional calculus running underneath.

Irving said finally,”Are you all insane? Get this woman out of here.”

A rumble from the throats of the villagers intoned a familiar word.

“Thief,” whispered Daniel.

Irving jabbed a finger down on a table. “She didn’t drink her water. We’re not responsible for that.”

The villagers invoked the word once more.

“Shawna?” Irving called out. “God, what a mess.”

 Shawna pushed through the crowd and struggled to Daniel’s side. Her face was awash with tears. “What’s going on? I don’t know what to do and I can’t find Alec and-“

“Shush, girl. What’s all this about?” said Irving.

“Where’s the Inspector? They were yelling at me earlier and-“

“About what? Come on.”

“Their matron is dead. The old lady’s dead.”

Daniel gestured at the table. “No kidding.”

Irving grabbed Shawna by her shoulders. “Don’t crack on me. What do they want? A lynching?”

“No,” said Shawna. “They want us to take responsibility.”

“What?” said Irving.

“I know it sounds stupid, but there it is. She didn’t drink her water on purpose. They want us to say we’re sorry.”

“No, you idiots,” said Irving. “Their matron didn’t take her water. Tell them it’s her own damn fault.” He turned to Daniel.

“They aren’t asking for much. If that’s all it takes-” said Daniel.

“Do you think that’s all they want? An apology? No, they want someone to hang, and if they start with questions-“

“Questions about what?” said Shawna. “Did we really-“

Irving’s upper lip quivered in a faint snarl. “No. Nonsense. All of it.”

Like stone statues, Genyen’s people waited to judge a decision that wasn’t theirs. Like a saint, the matron stood between the two parties.

For a moment, Daniel considered the possibility of riding a rebellious impulse and seeing how far he could push it, but the impulse died by the act of consideration alone. He couldn’t gamble against the consequences: if the villagers forced them out, then there wouldn’t be a drop of water between them.

“Go ahead, Shawna. Do it his way,” he said.

Epilogue

Two Red Cross workers evacuate an injured man from a dilapidated set of houses.
Red Cross workers evacuating a man shot during a police raid – Credit: China Daily

He convinced Irving to keep Alec in the shed for one more day – with the proviso of supplying a blanket, food, and water. In return, he gathered up the remains of the powder and mixed it with the village water supply. He flung the white granules over the surface of the water, peered into the depths of the churning fluid as water pumps dissolved the drug and blended it seamlessly with the liquid. Paradise melted with it.

Daniel surprised himself by waking up early – without Shawna’s prodding. He checked Irving’s room. The psychologist still slept. He flashed his middle finger at the unconscious form.

He backed out of Irving’s room and caught Shawna emerging from the restroom. Once she saw him, she shifted something on a strap to hide it behind her.

“Did I ever mention how much I hate cleaning solvents?” Shawna said. “You come away feeling like you’ve molted.”

“You can look forward to hot showers once you’re back in civilization,” Daniel responded.

Shawna bit her lip and let her messenger bag fall to her hip. “I wanted to leave a message.”

“But you couldn’t?”

“Yes.”

“How are you getting home?”

“A truck from the city. The village says it’s coming to pick up coffee. I’m hitching a ride.”

“You can at least tell me what you were going to say in the letter.”

Shawna opened her mouth, then closed it. Opened it. Closed it. She said, “I never thought I could grow old doing this. It’s just charity work, right?”

“I’m not sure it was charity work for me,” said Daniel. He felt a tingle along his spine, as if he was waking up. “In fact, I’m sure it never was.”

Shawna gingerly paced forward, then broke out into a run and crushed Daniel with a vise of a hug.

He breathed into her ear, “How did you find your stay, miss?”

“I found two of the most racist, misogynistic old coots I’ve ever met,” said Shawna, “but. . . .”

“But?”

“I think one of them could grow out of it.”

“Funny you should-” Daniel stopped as he heard the splutter and shake of an ancient combustion engine. He released Shawna and spun her around toward the door. “Hurry. And if you want to help me out, load up some coffee before you take off.”

Shawna bolted out of the station and into the dusty morn.

Shawna Leaves

Daniel breathed deeply and exhaled. He fetched a book from his room. He prepared breakfast for Irving and himself from the replenished stores Alec had provided: two liters of water, waffles with syrup, and rye bread.

Irving ambled into the room almost immediately after Daniel had finished, clad in his bathrobe. “Morning.”

“Morning,” said Daniel.

Irving’s eyes narrowed when he sighted his breakfast. “Don’t do this ever again.”

Daniel sat at an end table and began to eat.

Irving took a large swig of his water, gargled, and downed it. He held his glass up to the light. “Tastes off today.”

Daniel waited a few minutes, eating in silence, and called out, “Hey, Irv.” He presented Irving with three fingers and oscillated between holding them together and apart. “More or less? Make sure to count them.”

Irving’s shock and realization played out as a slight stiffening of posture. Daniel reclined in his seat and awaited retaliation, luxuriating in the opening volley of his private war. He flipped open A Beginner’s Guide to Creole and began to read.

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