This week’s story, opening our 2011 line-up, is “Thirstlands” by South African author Nick Wood. We apologise for the erroneous posting earlier of another story.
By Nick Wood
One thing I knew for sure; the rains were late here too.
I scanned the ridge of grey rock towering off to my left – there was no vast, unified surge of water pouring over the edge as I remembered only five years ago – just sparse, thin water curtains dropping from the escarpment into the sludgy green river over a hundred metres below me. Gone was the towering spray of vapour above, no water-cloud sweeping overhead. Deep in the wooded Batoko Gorge, the sluggish river struggled on through the trees. Good old Queen Vic – although she was long dust, her namesake waterfall here in Zambia was drying quickly too – this was no longer ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ either, no ‘Smoke-That-Thunders’.
‘Record,’ I said reluctantly, closing my right eye simultaneously to activate my neural cam. Du Preez is going to hate this.
A black-uniformed guard with an AK strapped across his shoulder stood nearby, clicking on his digital palm-slate. The payment request bleeped in my cochlea; with a muttered command, I sent the amount in Chinese yuan from the Office account in my head.
No, Du Preez is going to go absolutely mad, absolutely bedonered about this.
The guard moved on, accosting a young black man with an antiquated mobile phone cam. There were only five other people circling the viewing platform; none jostling for a view. I licked my lips, ever thirsty as usual.
<Is that all it is now? What a fokkin’ waste of time and money!>
Hell, I had no idea the Boss had joined me, watching through my eyes like a mind-parasite, tickling my cochlea with his electronic croak.
So I closed my eyes. In the reddish darkness of my interior eyelids I could make out a green light flicking on the right, virtually projected by Cyril ‘the Rig’s’ neural cybernetics. The Office was online, the bloody Boss in.
But there was still only a dull red glow behind my left eye-lid. Where are you, Lizette? What are you doing right now…and are you okay? You must know I hate having to leave you; but I’ve got to pay the bills, especially the damn water.
<So what happened about the fokkin’ rain forecast and the Vic` Falls deluge that we flew you out for?>
“Blown away, I think, gone.”
I spat the words out with resentment, each one drying my mouth further. Eyes closed, a faint tingle of water from the ‘Falls sprayed onto my cheeks – a tantalising tickle onto my dry protruding tongue. I pulled my tongue in before the sun could burn it into biltong steak. The water from my hip-flask sizzled sweetly for a brief moment as I swigged greedily, but then the ever-present tongue-throat ache was back.
Always thirsty, I took a final frustrated gulp and opened my eyes. I stretched my arms and fingers across the wooden railings of the viewing platform, but I couldn’t feel any more faint spray. The sky was becoming darker blue – still clear, the bloating red sun dropping onto the horizon.
No, there was no ‘smoke that thunders’, no constantly roiling crash of water anymore – all that’s left is an anaemic spattering of water, me, and a few other tourists scanning the ridge for a riverine surge that would never come.
Beyond, the surrounding green GM bio-fuel fields stretch to the horizon, leeching the river. Over the horizon, in slums on the outskirts of Livingstone, I’d heard there were crowds of desperate thirsty, probably starving, people gathering to watch their food shipped overseas as bio-fuels for SUVs and military tanks. I had taken the long way round to avoid the sight, so I don’t know if that’s the case for sure – or if it’s yet another web-myth. I’m not sure if even Cyril could tell me; I’d heard FuelCorps had censored the overhead sats. Anyway, there’s no market for video clips of that sort of thing anymore, not even from the last of the official news agencies.
<Hell man, I’m off to ask Bongani how we can jack up your visuals on your clips to see if we can get any of our online Avatar subscribers to pay for them. Not even our Chinese Stanley will want to meet Livingstone with the crappy shots you got there. Du Preez out.>
Ach ja, shit, and the Boss too, of course. I winced at the sharpness of his tone in my ear. I had no energy to reply – he never waits for one anyhow – and swigged another guilty sip.
There was a bleep in my cochlea – a wifi neural kit was requesting contact. I ignored it; it wasn’t Lizette.
“Hey – have you got the latest C-20 model?”
I looked at a man in the khaki Smart safari-suit, skin reddened by the sun, despite the generous smears of what looked like factor 100 white sun-block. His accent was vaguely Pan-European, the wispy greying hair underneath his dripping pith helmet disguising its original colour. He grinned at me and tapped his head. I’ve had the latest C-20 model inserted, no need for vocal commands, it’s all thought operated.”
“Mine’s an old C-12 model,” I said, scanning past him, along the escarpment and eastwards to the vast maize fields below, which looked as if they were encircling and attacking the shrinking strip of green riverine bush and trees. Perhaps I’d edit the clip later; momentarily too embarrassed to audibly cut my shoot.
The man went on talking, breathing hot meat and beer onto me and I wondered briefly whether he’d heroically Safari-Shot drugged game before eating it: “My Rig’s compatible with the latest web-designs from China and is wired into the optic nerve for six-factor zoom capability.”
“That’s good to hear, I’m afraid mine just does a job.”
It was then that I saw them, scattered on the edge of the trees, as if they’d died seeking cover from encroaching razor-wire. I knew the Boss would kill me, but I had to keep filming – it was the biggest elephant graveyard I’d ever seen and it had been months since anyone had last seen an elephant. Huge piles of bones, like stranded and stripped hull-wrecks of ships, some of them arching their white curves in neatly laid out patches – as if their death had been calm, deliberate and careful to acknowledge an individual, elephantine space for dying.
Jan du Preez may only want Live Game – me, I take what I can get.
The man turned to follow my gaze and grumbled with disappointment: “Bugger – just bloody bones, I thought you’d seen some real wildlife for a change. Did you know the C-20 also has full amygdala-hippocampal wiring that allows synchronous ninety three percent recall of emotion?”
“Really?” I looked back at him. For the past few years it felt as if my own feelings were desiccating; the barest husks of what they had been – what must it be like to pull out old video clips saturated with the original feelings, rich and raw with young emotional blood? It’s been over two decades since Lizette and I had watched hand-held video-clips of us and baby Mark, now three years gone to an accountancy career in Oz. Three years on from the hijacking that left him without a car outside our gates, but crying with gratitude he was alive, physically unharmed. Three years since I’ve been too scared to walk outside the house but weirdly okay to travel to so many other places. It’s been only two years though, since Du Preez contributed to the Rig in my head – to ‘Cyril’, who has helped to sharpen and hold my most recent memories.
Still, I’ve been thirsty ever since. I’m sure they buggered up my thirst centre at the same time they did the Rig neurosurgery – but the insurance disclaimers had been twelve pages long, the surgeons in denial.
The man opened his mouth again; sweat dripped off the end of his nose, as if his Smart Suit struggled to adequately regulate his temperature. I couldn’t resist a brief smile at the sight, but turned away, not wishing to say goodbye. Maybe old feelings should be left alone after all, left to dry and wither like fallen leaves.
“Command – cut!” I muttered.
So his Rig was better (bigger) than mine…big bloody deal. He’s not an African, just an effete tourist in a harsh land his skin can’t deal with, filtering it through his foreign money, fancy implants and clever clothes.
Red blinked behind both my eyelids when I shut my eyes, so I let Cyril randomly cycle a babble of blogs over me as I headed back to the car-park, the public toilet, and the chilly airport hotel, before the early morning flight home.
Home… and Liz.
The last kay home is always the longest, so I tried to coax more speed out of the car’s electrics. The time, though, seemed to drag on for an eternity, inching past corrugated iron shacks. There were people milling on the right of the road on the approach into Dingane Stad – mainly men, concentrated near a bridge overpass, no doubt jostling in hope to be picked up by passing bakkies or trucks for a desperate day’s work.
One old man near the road held out pale palms to me – but I’ve always avoided paternalistic gifts and dependency; this is Africa. I kept my windshields up, my doors locked.
The fields on the hill were brittle brown and eaten to dust by scraggly herds of cattle, watched by boys with sticks in hands, with shoulder-strapped and cocked Chinese P.L.A. T-74’s, that looked in danger of blowing off their legs.
No, still definitely no rains here either – shit man, we’re lucky we have our secret back-up, Lizette; a hedge against the soaring costs of privatised water
My eyes blinked heavily with the alternating early morning sunlight and the spidery-web shadows of overhead pirate cables snaking down from Council Electric grids and pylons into the shacks along the roadside. The cables will be cut by officials come sunset tonight and will have sprung-back magically by tomorrow morning. Crazy, man, absolutely bedonered, holding an impoverished community to electric ransom, when there’s so much sun for free.
My car was on auto as it turned into the long and bumpy drive past neighbouring sugar-cane fields up to our small-holding, an old disused farmhouse we’d bought at a financial stretch called ‘Cope’s Folly’…in search of a ‘simpler’ semi-rural lifestyle. Hah.
I closed my eyes and sent yet another desperate message, almost a plea: <I’m home, Lizette.>
The red light under my left lid continued to ache for moments.
And then flickered green: <About bledy time, Mister Graham bledy Mason.>
Relief flooded me. So she’s still pissed off with me. That’s something, at least.
The black electrified gates swung open to the car’s emitted password.
Liz was waiting, arms crossed, gum-booted and dishevelled in loose and dirty clothes, glowering. There was a barrow of carrots next to her – a good looking bunch, so no doubt due to go to the neighbouring township Co-op, as she’s done ever since we moved here and she started growing food.
We pecked cheeks warily, eye contact tentative, and I’m awkward with a complex mix of feelings. Lizette’s a big-boned woman, dark of skin, with wild woolly hair that she shoves back with a red Alice-band. Her black hair was greying quickly now, which she almost flaunts with a twist of her band – her brown eyes are lovely, I gave her a furtive glance, even when she’s angry. But the anger seemed to have dimmed, she was almost…anxious?
It’s not like her to be fearful – she still drives herself alone into the township when I’m away, despite what I always tell her about the dangers. Nah, I must be wrong. She can’t be nervous, not Lizzie.
She wheeled the barrow off to pack the carrots away in the shed. I stepped inside and through to the hot sunken lounge, with its big AG (‘almost green’) Aircon against the far wall. My presence tripped the air-conditioner switch with a ‘click’; whirring on. The web-portal was tucked away discreetly in the corner as she’d insisted when I’d had it installed for her, but the controls were on red, as if constantly locked, unused. But she’d sent me that response just before I arrived – and a new decorative screen-saver spiralled, a fuzzy grainy floating picture, hard to make out as I walked through to the kitchen to make cheese sandwiches for us and to grab a drink of water.
She was waiting on the single chair when I came back and she took the plate with thanks, putting it on the side table, as if not hungry. I sat on the couch opposite. She looked at the floor. Oh no man, was this going to be another rehash of the argument we’d had before I’d left? ‘Why can’t you demand to stay on local assignments, you’ve never been able to stand up to Du Preez, blah, blah, blah…’
“It looks like the garden’s been productive despite the lack of rain,” I said, breaking the silence, but putting my cheese sandwich down, suddenly not hungry myself.
She looked up at me and smiled. “Yes, our solar well-pump has helped, although I’ve been careful not to let the well drop below three quarters.”
I smiled back, relieved to see her relax. “A bloody God-send that was, you calling in the surveyor – you’ve always had damn good intuition, Lizzie.”
She grimaced and stood up, pacing restlessly over to the web-portal. What the hell did I say? Must be the swear words – she hated me swearing, never gets used to it, keen Church-goer and all – ‘bledy’ was the worst of it from her and even that had only arrived these past few years.
Her dark eyes brimmed with tears when she turned to face me. She leaned against the thin computer screen and the floating screen-saver froze and sharpened beneath the touch of her fingers. It was a picture of a little barefooted black girl in a broken yellow grimy dress, looking up at the screen, face taut with pain… And it looked like it had been snapped from the CCTV on our outside gate.
“Her name’s Thandi,” Lizette said, “She came here yesterday morning after you left – her tongue was so thick she couldn’t drink. She was dying of thirst, Graham. Dying, man, vrek, out on her little feet, true’s God. I didn’t know things were this bad! She’s just seven years old, Graham, but I had to dribble the water down her throat; her tongue was almost choking her.”
“So you gave her tap water, or water from the fridge,” I said, standing up.
She shook her head: “Nee, Graham, I gave her water from our emergency supply and called the village Traditional Leader to tell him about it and to find her mom – there are others like her, just down the bledy road, man. So I told T.L. Dumisane and said we could spare them ongoing three-quarters of our well supply…”
“Ach shit man, Lizzie, you didn’t, did you – that’s ours! Why the hell didn’t you ask me first? You’ve had free access to my head for three years now. And why didn’t you return my calls or let me know you were okay at least?”
“It’s hardly free,” she snorted, “I can only hear what you choose to tell me – and what would you have done and said, Mister Graham Mason?” She stood up tall and focused, as if suddenly sure of herself.
I hesitated, but just for a moment: “I’d have given her water from the fridge and told you to keep quiet about the well – you know we have to keep this a secret for our own safety, otherwise we’ll be the target of every Water-Bandit and tsotsi in Kwazulu-Natal!”
“See, I knew you’d say that and I hate arguing when I can’t see your face. I knew calling you would end up in a fight – I’m sorry I ended up saying nothing and worrying you, but I had to make this decision on my own. Dumisane is a good man, hy sal niks se nie… and there’s no way I can live here with children dying just down the road…no ffff….” She clamped her mouth with her hand and took a breath before releasing it and finishing through clenched teeth: ‘No… way!”
Lizette never swears – and only reverts to Afrikaans when she’s absolutely distraught – she seemed to crumple slightly, clutching at herself, sobbing. The little yellow-dressed girl fuzzed over and spiralled randomly across the screen. Of course… she’d always wanted a little girl too.
My anger emptied into a desperate sense of helplessness. I hovered for moments and then stepped forward to coax her to turn towards the screen. I could send her comforting emoti-messages from LoveandPeace Dotcom that should help soothe and calm her.
Her eyes froze me though – her dark, lovely, lined but frighteningly fierce eyes. I knew then with some weird certainty that if I tried touching her, turning her towards the computer screen, she would scream, hit and kick me towards the outside door and gate. Beyond that, I could see that there was no returning in her eyes.
My arms hung in frigid confusion as tears streamed from her blazing eyes.
Shit, what else was there to do? I could only reach out to hold her, awkwardly wrapping my arms around her taut, trembling body.
Her arms were rigid, almost pushing at me for moments but then she seemed to suddenly let go and the sobs strangled in her throat; her hair was thick and tickly in my face; my own eyes stinging from a sudden bite of emotion. I could smell the coconut fragrance in her hair and remembered it had been her favourite shampoo when we’d first met almost thirty years ago. Hell man, it must be years since we’d last really held each other.
Since Mark had left.
“Come,” she said, pushing me away but then taking my hand in hers, my shirt sleeve wiping her wet face.
She pulled me forwards.
Oh…right…so she’s not taking me out to see how the veggie patch has grown.
Dear God, I’d almost forgotten how much of a woman she was.
And, in the end – despite my constant thirst – I wasn’t nearly as dry as I feared I might be, either.
I left her sleeping.
Face relaxed, serene, dark hair thickly splashed over an oversized yellow pillow, she lay on her back, a soft snore issuing from her nose. It hurt to watch her and I felt strangely guilty to stare – weird man, we’d been together so long – so I rolled over quietly and pulled on trousers and shirt, making my way through to the front door.
The door flickered and dallied while it de-armed, so I toyed with the idea of getting a drink of water from the kitchen… No, a dry mouth never killed anyone in the short term. I scanned the weapon rack behind the door, eventually inserting a taser-rod into my belt, before clicking the electric gate open in the outside wall.
The dry mid-afternoon heat carried little of the past summer humidity in the air. I breathed a set of ten deep breaths to quell my panic and then stepped with jellied legs through the gate, clicking it closed behind me.
As the gate clanged shut, I noted a red sports car parked beneath an ancient oak across the road, its driver in shadow. No time to re-open the gate – it would just expose the house and Lizzie. So I deactivated the fence charge, rammed the hand-panel deep into my trouser pocket and backed against the gate, hauling out the taser. Shit, I should have gone for the gun instead.
The car door opened and a young black woman stood up, her arms akimbo, hands empty – dressed in workmanlike blue overalls, duffle-bag strapped over her shoulders, hair cropped squarely close to her head: “Kunjani, Mister Mason, I’m here about your water.”
They certainly hadn’t wasted any time; things must be pretty desperate in the township.
“Ngiyaphila, unjani wena?” I replied, easing the taser into my belt.
“I am well too,” she smiled with a slight twist to her mouth; I wondered whether she toyed with the idea of testing my paltry isiZulu – but thankfully her next words were in English: “I’m Busisiwe Mchunu, a hydro-geologist for the FreeFlow Corporation. However, I reserve room for a little private freelance work in the services of my community; strictly off the record, you understand.”
“Oh,” I said, with an African handshake of palm, thumbs grip, palm again: “Graham Mason, pleased to meet you – and of course I understand.” Wow, strong grip.
“I’m here to survey the underground water on your land – of course, before the white man, all of this land was ours anyway.”
Oh,” I said, “Is that a…veiled threat?”
She chuckled: “Don’t be so paranoid, Mister Mason, we amaZulu don’t veil our threats. It’s just an historical observation. Your wife looks out for us, so we’ve looked out for you.”
“Hello!” Lizette leant against the inside of the gate, back in grubby track-pants and shirt. “Who’re you?”
“I’m Chief Dumisane’s water rep, Mizz Basson,” said Busisiwe, walking across: “Just call me Busisiwe.”
“Pleased to meet you, Busisiwe, I’m Lizette”. They shook hands through the gate.
Lizette smiled as I gave her the controls. She rattled off a fluent phrase of what sounded like welcoming isiZulu for Busisiwe, who responded with obvious delight. I could tell they’d probably get on like a shack on fire.
“I’m just going for a walk,” I told them.
Lizette looked surprised as the gate opened: “Be careful, Graham.”
Yes, I do remember this was the path on which Mark was robbed and stabbed in the face; I have replayed his scarred face so many times in my head. But I know I need to do this, if I can.
It’s a short walk, but every step felt heavy, my legs stiff in anticipation of someone leaping out at me from behind the tall stalks of sugar-cane densely spearing both sides of the foot-path. The path bent sharply to the right as it had when I’d last walked it with Lizette four years ago, dipping down into the valley with an expansive view of the city, skyscrapers strutting their stuff against the clear sky; no fires today.
There, beside the path, lay the cracked and uneven boulder Lizzie and I had rested on, after we’d agreed to buy the small holding. My bum warmed as I sat down, the disarmed taser-rod stabbing into the small of my back. Around the city lay blackened Midland hill-tops, informally marking the southern perimeter of the Umgeni Valley. Dingane Stad, ‘Sleepy Hollow’ as it had once been known, or Pietermaritzburg by the white Afrikaners.
‘Switch off.’ The Rig fell absolutely silent, no lights blinked inside my eyelids, just the red constant heat of the mid-morning sun filtering through my eyelid blood-vessels.
It’d been two years since I’d been absolutely alone. Two years since the implant and I’d last been quiet in my head, cut off from the electric pulse of the world. Here, there were no hovering voices, no Cyril, just my own solitary thoughts.
My shirt trickled with sweat and with my thumb I killed the black Matabele ant biting my shin. It gave off an acidic stink as it died and I stood up quickly, but there was no nearby swarm, no nest hiding under the rock.
This is a hard place to be, but all I know right now is that this is where I want to die… this is where I want to lay down my bones, just like the elephants. Why? I have no bloody idea. Maybe it’s to do with the light on the hills, or perhaps just the bite and smell of an ant. The thoughts circled my brain, trapped and private, no place to go.
Still, as I walked the path home, my steps felt somehow lighter, looser, but never quite tension free.
‘Switch on,’ I said, as if re-arming myself for the world.
<Hey, where the hell you been? You must upload your video-clips from Vic’ Falls for the day!>
That bastard Du Preez. I glanced at my watch, it was after four. <Work’s over, I’ll do it tomorrow.>
<You’ll do it now! Jeez man, I’ve heard of sleeping on the job, but you just took the bledy cake on that one earlier with your wife.>
Shit, I must have forgotten to switch off, swept up in the day’s events and he had just…watched?
<Did you?> I asked.
No answer, but he must know what I was asking. <Damn you, Du Preez, cut Office.>
I stopped to take several slow and deep breaths, thirsty as hell.
Around the last bend, Lizette and Busisiwe were standing in the shade by Busisiwe’s car and turned to me as I approached.
Lizette shook her head.
I looked at Busisiwe. “It’s a shallow fresh-water aquifer,” she said. “It’s also pretty small – I don’t think it will last long, unless we get more rainfall.”
Lizette looked at me.
This is Africa, I wanted to tell her, doing this may salve our conscience in the short term, but will solve nothing in the long term.
I could tell in her eyes she knew what I was thinking, even without the direct link with Cyril that I’d pressed her so long to get, in the hope that it might bring us closer. I could also see resignation and uncertainty – for us; and all we had tried to build – and, despite this morning, I could also see a fear of the end for us in her eyes.
I opened my mouth, knowing my next words could finish everything.
I turned to look at Busisiwe. “Okay,” I said, “We’ll help.”
“Ngiyabonga,” she said.
Lizette put her arm through mine. Skin on skin will do me.
I’ll take this moment. I couldn’t be sure how long it would last. All I knew for certain was that I wasn’t ready for some endings and that the rains were late. Bloody weird, but I’m not quite so thirsty anymore either. Long may this last too.
Thirstlands (c) 2009 Nick Wood. First Published in Subterfuge, ed. Ian Whates.