Water for Everyone
‘What did that boy say?’ Daniel looked across at his uncle who was tethering their horses to a wooden post.
‘Dunno, lad,’ mumbled Uncle Luis.
‘I think it was rude,’ persisted Daniel. At ten years old he wasn’t completely naïve.
His uncle stopped what he was doing. ‘Don’t worry yourself about what other people say. It’s not worth the effort. And neither are they.’
‘So it was rude,’ said Daniel. ‘But why? Don’t they like me being here?’
A gust of wind blew dust into Daniel’s eyes. It was mid-summer, the wind scalding hot.
‘It’s a change that’s all. Some people don’t like change.’ Uncle Luis took Daniel’s hand and pulled him into the shade of a tree. ‘They’ll get used to you. They just need time.’
From where they stood Daniel could see the boundaries of his farm. Fields and paddocks stretched in every direction. There were plump cobs of corn hanging from tall green stems, fat papayas and rows of succulent pineapples. Under the soil lay sweet red potatoes. Daniel loved to dig through the earth until he felt their firm shapes beneath his fingertips.
When his parents died he had been brought home from the city. Back to the valley. His family had owned the land for hundreds of years, a wide patch of green in the centre of a barren plain deep in the heart of a desert kingdom known as Qarthe.
‘This land belongs to you now,’ said his uncle on the day he’d arrived. ‘But I’m here to help you manage it. Until you’re old enough to take over.’
That had been three months ago.
Since then Daniel had worked hard. He’d learned how to ride the horses. He’d helped plant the vegetables which now fed their table. There was nothing he hadn’t tried from digging the earth to watering the crops. And they needed a lot of water. The summers were dry here – frighteningly so. Daniel only had to look east to see how bad it was. Beyond the valley, the land was dying of thirst.
‘It’s a good job we have the river,’ he said.
The river curled around the base of their hill and along the edge of the valley, its water feeding the ditches that surrounded the fields. Birds fluttered and dived amongst the reeds and bushes shielded its wide banks.
The gardens around their rambling, lemon-yellow homestead were filled with water too; in fountains and ponds. Sleek golden bodies slid beneath their clear waters and the air was drenched with the bubbling sounds they made.
‘Is it because they’re poor?’ asked Daniel over dinner. He spoke through a mouthful of fresh ripe papaya. ‘Is that why the villagers don’t want to talk to me?’
Uncle Luis glanced at his aunt.
‘The villagers can’t help being poor,’ said the old lady.
‘But is that why they hate me?’ said Daniel.
Aunt Clara paused. ‘They don’t hate you, but you can’t expect them to love you either. Can you now? Not when their lives are so hard, and it is you that owns the land.’
Uncle Luis pushed back his chair. ‘Enough. I think it’s time for someone to take a bath. There’s a smell in here, and it’s definitely not coming from me.’
Twenty minutes later and Daniel was easing his body into warm soapy water. He kicked away from the side of the huge marble bath and swam to the other side. A slight noise spun him around.
‘Your aunt said to give you this.’ A small boy was standing in the doorway. There was a white towel draped carefully over his left arm and an odd expression beneath the curls that half-hid his eyes.
‘Thanks,’ said Daniel.
The boy dropped the towel and turned to leave.
‘Wait!’ called out Daniel. He wasn’t sure what to say next. He almost never got to meet any of the house servants. ‘Are you from the village?’
The boy nodded. He seemed transfixed by the steaming water.
‘Haven’t you seen a bath before?’ said Daniel. An angry expression flitted across the boy’s face and was gone.
Daniel smiled shyly. ‘You can put your feet in if you like.’
A horrified look crossed the boy’s face.
‘It’s OK,’ continued Daniel. ‘I don’t mind.’
The look of horror on the young boy’s face turned to rage. ‘I hate you!’ he yelled then turned and fled.
Later that night, Daniel lay in bed listening to the distant sound of singing. The valley was good at collecting sounds and delivering them into his window high up in the mansion’s single tower. There was a loud shout followed by a roar of laughter. It sounded like the villagers were having fun.
Daniel let out a frustrated sigh. Since coming to the farm all he’d done was work; weeding, digging, planting, watering, fertilizing, pruning, harvesting. A second shout brought him to his feet. He could just see the lights down in the village. It wasn’t even that far. He put on his pants, a T-shirt and leather boots. Fifteen minutes there and back at the most. His legs took him to the door.
No-one would notice, he thought.
He ran all the way.
The villagers were gathered around a small child standing high upon a brick wall. Daniel was startled to see that it was the boy he’d met earlier.
‘You’re making it up?’ shouted a girl in a bright yellow shirt and pants.
‘I am not,’ shouted back the boy. ‘On my honour. He was up to his armpits in it. Even said I could put my feet in.’
Daniel realised they were talking about him. About his bath.
When all the kids jeered and laughed an elderly man held up one hand. ‘It’s true,’ he said gravely. ‘They wash in it.’
‘What’s wrong with them?’ shouted out someone at the back of the crowd.
‘Selfish,’ muttered another.
‘Criminal,’ cried a third.
‘Enough,’ bellowed the old man. ‘We’re here to celebrate Anna’s birthday not waste words on the fools down in the valley.’
‘We are not fools!’ cried Daniel angrily.
There was a stunned silence during which Daniel gulped.
‘That’s him!’ screeched the little boy on the rock. ‘The one I was telling you about.’
A loud silence rose into the hot summer night.
Daniel was pushed into the centre of a stone-walled courtyard. People with angry faces crowded around.
‘I was only having a bath,’ he said quietly. ‘What’s so wrong with that?’
There was uproar. People screamed and roared, their faces made ugly by the wobbly light from a large bonfire.
‘Quiet!’ shouted the elderly man. ‘Can’t you see he doesn’t know?’
‘Know what?’ asked Daniel. His legs felt weak and shaky.
The elderly man kneeled down in front of him. ‘The water, lad. It’s running out. Can’t you see? Our creeks are empty. The wells we dug have virtually dried out.’
‘Our crops are dying,’ said another.
‘Our children will die next,’ muttered another.
Daniel thought back to his garden with its still ponds and bubbling fountains, the ditches that surrounded his fields and the rushing river that curled around the hill. None of it made any sense.
‘But there’s lots of water,’ he said. ‘The river’s full of it.’
Someone grabbed him by the wrist. It hurt.
‘Let him go!’ His uncle’s voice was hard with controlled anger.
The fingers around his wrist tightened.
‘It’s OK,’ said Daniel. ‘We were only talking.’ He twisted his hand and the fingers let go.
When his uncle took a step towards him, Daniel stepped back. ‘They were telling me about the water.’
His uncle frowned.
‘How it’s running out,’ finished Daniel. He narrowed his eyes in confusion. ‘Is it Uncle? Is the water really running out?’
Uncle Luis avoided Daniel’s eyes. ‘I think it’s time you went home,’ he said quietly.
Something inside Daniel made his face burn with a rising shame. ‘No,’ he said.
Someone put a hand on his shoulder.
‘I want to know,’ he said angrily. ‘I want to know what you don’t want to tell me. What you and Aunty have been hiding ever since I arrived.’
So they did.
‘My father owned the river?’ said Daniel slowly. ‘How’s that even possible? How can anyone own water? That can’t be fair.’
‘No,’ agreed his uncle, but your father owned the land and the river runs through that land. I don’t expect you to understand. It’s a complicated situation.’
It didn’t seem complicated to Daniel. There was a river running across his land, a river that contained enough water to supply everyone in the valley. If they were careful with it, if they respected each other’s needs and shared, they would all benefit.
‘I’m afraid my brother, your father, wasn’t one given to sharing,’ said Uncle Luis.
Daniel remembered only too well. His father had been too selfish to share anything, even with his own son. ‘We could divert some of the river into the village,’ he said after a pause. ‘Enough to water their fields. And maybe even build a dam.’
‘You’d have to lose the fountains,’ said Uncle Luis. ‘And at least half the ponds.’ He sounded serious but there was a new look in his eyes.
It was a look Daniel had never seen in his father’s eyes; a look of pride. It made him feel warm inside. ‘We could get rid of the bath,’ he added, hopefully.
His uncle smiled. ‘Is that so?’
Daniel shrugged. ‘Wouldn’t it be worth it?’
‘Aye, lad,’ agreed his uncle. ‘I think it would.’
That night, for the first time in many years, the villages celebrated two births, the birth of a young girl called Anna and the birth of a future shared by the people of both valley and village. A future that now looked bright. For everyone.
‘Do you think they’ll mind if we visit again,’ said Daniel, during the long walk home.
Uncle Luis wrapped an arm around his shoulder. ‘I think they’ll welcome it,’ he said.
And they did.