The Dragon Quartet – THE BOOK OF WATER



He thinks he’s safely away, then he hears the rubble shift behind him, and again, to the right. He shrinks into the hot shadow of the shuttered doorway, thinking fast. His hands are wet, his breath too loud for comfort. He has not expected pursuit.

N’Doch quiets his breathing and awaits their next move. He considers his alternatives. Deeper into town would provide the most cover, but no strategic advantage. His pursuers – her brothers, no doubt – know the maze of alleys and junk lots as well as he does, maybe better, and though he thinks he has the advantage of speed, they’re sure to have the advantage of numbers. He tries to recall how many brothers the silly girl has still living. He stops counting at four and wonders instead how likely it is that all of them are out of work at the same time and therefore at home, too bored and idle to sleep soundly through the midday heat like everyone else in town. He can’t remember if she’d said. He was too busy being charming.

Now he also wonders if it was a set-up. Too easy, maybe, those five plump globes glowing in the sun on the girl’s unguarded window sill, their green-orange ripening towards red, their warm tart juice almost a sure thing in his parched mouth. N’Doch cannot remember the last time he’s eaten a ripe tomato. Especially a safe one. He feels them now, inside his t-shirt, bunched up against the waistband of his shorts, as smooth against his skin as the girl’s firm brown breasts.

N’Doch grins, feeling her again in his hands. Silly, but pretty. She’d almost distracted him from his purpose. Maybe he should have taken her first and then the tomatoes. Maybe she wouldn’t have set her brothers after him so fast.

Around him, the quiet is unnatural. Even the flies and crawlies are waiting to see who’ll break the stalemate first. N’Doch squints into the hazed white glare at the end of the street. The market square wavers and dips, intoxicated with the heat, reminding him of his mama’s old video in a brown-out. He decides that if he actually escapes with the tomatoes, he’ll bring her one. Maybe the promise will bring him luck. For now, he’ll head for the market and hope for the best. Lately, the stalls are shutting down during the day, to open again in the faint cool of dusk. Still, some shelter might be found among the thicket of carts and canopies, enough at least to double back and lose his tail.

Across the hot street, a skin-tight alley cuts between two crumbling stucco facades. The windows are high and barred, boarded with corrugated plastic, pairs of faded green squares in a bleached flamingo wall shedding old campaign posters like dying skin. No entry there, but the alley is shaded and promising. A few sharp bars of sunlight drop through the dust to spotlight piles of litter scattered along the left-hand wall. Briefly N’Doch is speared with envy. It should be him in that hard bright spot, singing his songs for the eager multitude. He catches himself surrendering to the familiar reverie and hauls his attention back to the alley. Halfway down its length, some squared-off bulk makes the narrow darkness darker. But N’Doch counts no obstacle as impassable. He is younger than most of Malimba’s brothers – taller, but thinner and lighter. He’s got no one at home raising safe food to fatten him up, no walled and locked courtyard in which to grow it, and for once, he’ll consider that an advantage. He’ll go around that darkness, or over it.

He shifts his weight soundlessly. Wedged into the shallow doorway, he has no view of the street behind him. He leans forward, his head cocked sideways like a wary bird. His bare arm scrapes the peeling shutters, and chips of dry blue paint tickle his toes. He’s sure it’s a rat, probably a sick one if it’s out in broad daylight. He doesn’t flinch but his reflex gasp sounds to him like a vast sigh across the white-hot silence. Up the street, the rubble stirs again. N’Doch readies himself. He’d gladly wait forever in the safety of this doorway, eating his tomatoes in peace, just like he’d planned. But he can’t risk a rat bite. Besides, his pursuers won’t wait out there in the rubble forever. He must gain that crucial survivor’s one step ahead.

He coils his muscles, then springs across the street into the alley. The sun is a breath of flame across his back as he sprints sideways into the shadow. The brothers erupt from hiding, but they lose a step or two, blocking each other’s way, so eager to be after him down the narrow passage.

N’Doch risks a lightning backward glance. Four of them, no, five – yes, indeed there are, one for each tomato. They are thick and muscled. They wear only the light briefs they sprang out of bed in when roused by their sister’s outraged squeals. The dark obstacle midway down the alley is a pile of discarded plastic crates. N’Doch leaps, grabs, and climbs like a cat. The crates sway, threatening to buckle, and a voice squawks vague curses at him from inside. He slaps the tops and sides as he scrambles over. Maybe he can roust out the denizen of the boxes enough to slow down his pursuers. With luck, there’s a whole family in there. He doesn’t wait to find out. He leaps to the ground on the other side and pounds away down the alley. No point in stealth now. Almost more than fear, hunger propels him. He bursts into the glare of the market square, scattering a flock of scrawny hens that rise up around him in a flurry of grit and feathers. Heat and sun engulf him. He cuts sideways down an aisle of bread stalls into the gauzy shade of the canopies. The smells make his mouth water but every stall has its razor-edged grillwork locked down tight. Halfway to the end, he swerves left, hoping his pursuers won’t see him turn.

Next, it’s a hard right past the software carts. The vendors doze behind tinted plexiglass shields, only their bright arrays of solar collectors left open to the air. Normally, N’Doch would linger here, longingly, trying to bargain for what he cannot afford. But not today. He makes a few more sharp zigs and zags, and then he’s across the square, free of the stalls and racing down the wide main boulevard toward the town gates. The black tar is soft and steaming. The heat is like a weight. It doesn’t occur to him until he’s well out into the open to wonder if the brothers took the time to grab their guns. He’s seen no flash of sun on metal in his quick looks backward, but a big enough hand can conceal all the firepower necessary to blow a grown man away. The thought makes him shiver. The drab blighted trees that line the boulevard are his only possible cover.

But no spray of bullets comes after him, only the steady rhythm of multiple bare feet slapping against pavement, still a ways behind him but gaining. N’Doch speeds past the tall steel mesh gates. He wishes they still worked, so he could slam them in the brothers’ faces. But no one bothers to fix anything anymore, especially something in public use. Now the scorched peanut fields spread white and brown to either side of him. Ahead, the red latterite road snakes through the palm grove toward the port. Tall trunks are down everywhere, uprooted or snapped off by the last big storm. There’ve been a lot of those coming through lately. The tv guys blame it on global warming and try to tell you what to do about it, but N’Doch zaps the channel when the weather comes on. He doesn’t see how you could fix anything that big, and he’s got more important things to worry about, like right now, saving his skin. He stretches his rangy legs like a thoroughbred and runs for all he’s worth. But he notices the pressure inside his ribs, the merest hint of a cramp in his side. He begins to think maybe he won’t get to eat any of these tomatoes after all. But that can’t be, all this risk and effort for nothing. Still, if he drops them now, the brothers might let him go. He wonders if they’ve counted them, decides to take the chance. He yanks his shirt out of his shorts, lets the round red fruit roll free but catches the reddest, the ripest one as they fall. The soft thud of tomatoes hitting the dust behind him is the saddest sound he’s ever heard.

The road through the grove is as dry and slick as flour, and danger hides in the ankle-deep red silt – shards of metal, rigid scraps of plastic waiting to slice up the unwary foot. N’Doch follows the track of a dune buggy, wishing such a vehicle would come along right this moment and spirit him off to safety. But he’s managed to pick the only time of day or night when the road is empty, another in what seems to be a series of miscalculations. The bidonvilleunder the palms is mute and motionless, everyone napping out the worst of the heat except a mangy young dog who bounds from the shade of an oil drum, sure that N’Doch has come to play with her. She leaps up noisily, tangling in his legs. N’Doch does not kick her away. He had a puppy he loved, back when he was a kid in the City, and he knows it won’t be long before this one too is somebody’s dinner. But her leaping and yapping gets in his way, so he snatches up a twig from the road and tosses it behind him. With luck, she’ll chase after it and tangle in the brothers’ legs instead of his own. Through the scythe-curves of the palm trunks, he sees the smoky glare of the water, drawn up against the yellow sky in a fuzzed line of haze. He thinks if he can make it to the beach, he’s safe. Malimba’s brothers don’t hang out at the beach. They won’t know their way around the wrecks like he does. He can lose them there.

But he is slowing, and the cramp in his side is harder to ignore. He risks another backward glance. The brothers are slowing too. One has dropped back to rescue the lost tomatoes from the dust. The other four pound after N’Doch, fists clenched, blinking sweat and grit from their eyes, and snarling. The brother in the lead trips over the panting eager dog as she scrambles to retrieve the stick. He lashes out, kicks her sideways. She tumbles, yelping, into the red gravel along the verge and lies there, stunned.

N’Doch’s soul rebels, the way his stomach would against rotten food. He’d pull up short to help the pup, could he do so and live. He’s had nothing against Malimba’s brothers so far, except their understandable urge to chase down the thief who stole their supper. But the pup’s only crime is being innocent enough to think that humans are her friends. N’Doch’s nostrils flare. He surrenders up his luscious vision of eating the remaining tomato slowly and with great ceremony once he’s gone to ground. Instead, he’ll eat it now, while the brothers watch, while the sweat pours salt into their angry eyes, and their bodies strain to match his stride. And then, his final act of revenge, when he’s safe and alone again: he’ll make up a funny song about it and sing it all around the neighborhood, about the pup and the tomatoes and the stupid mindless viciousness of Malimba’s brothers.

Anticipation makes him grin, and the notes are already stringing the words together in his head. Sure, his friends will think he’s weird, singing about dogs and tomatoes, but hell, they already do. N’Doch wipes the tomato on his shirt as he runs, then takes a bite. The skin is taut and hot but the juice is cooler than his tongue and so tart-sweet that he groans with pleasure and forgets to savor it. Between gasps for breath, he devours it in great gnashing gulps. His mouth and throat vibrate with sensation, and then the precious fruit is gone and all he can do is taste the sour regret that he dropped the other four along the road.

He’s past the last shanties and lean-tos of the bidonville. The palm grove is thinning. Ahead, he sees the gray stretch of water and the long bright arc of sand, littered with the black hulks of the wrecks. N’Doch is glad he’s eaten the tomato, though it sits like a cold acidic lump in his empty belly. He can afford no distractions now, for the beach is even more treacherous than the road. Shoals, entire reefs of debris lie submerged in its deeper sands, ready to cut off a toe or slice through a tendon, leaving you hamstrung. N’Doch thinks the beach is like life, full of hazard. He negotiates it very carefully. He’s written a bunch of songs about it, like the fact that there’s less of it each time he comes here, as the sea level rises. As he breaks out onto open sand, he hears one of the brothers curse and fall behind, hopping on one foot, stopping short. N’Doch crows silently. Score one for the mangy pup.

He dodges right and left, his eyes fixed on the pocked ground. The first wreck southward is a burned-out sea tug. N’Doch knows the family living in the aft section above the high water mark. He’s sung at their hearth on more than one occasion. It’s low tide now, so he chooses the farthest-away path through the pieces of the wreck, right along the water’s edge. The old man is just up from his siesta, taking a piss from the rusted rail of the mess deck. He waves.

“Yo! Waterboy!”

N’Doch grins breathlessly and returns the wave as he passes. He doesn’t mind the nickname. Water seems to him a fine and precious thing to be named after. Had he been named ‘safe water’ or ‘pure water’ or even ‘cold water’ instead of merely ‘water’, he’d have liked it even better. But his mama preferred names that could be yelled quickly and easily, so ‘N’Doch’ it is, or ‘Waterboy’ to the old geezer who lives in the tug wreck.

But Malimba’s brothers haven’t heard this nickname before, and when they pick up on it, it doesn’t sound so fond or playful. It’s mockery pure and simple.

“Water boy!” they screech in coarse falsetto. “Waaater boyh! Come heah, boyuh! Yah, boy, yah, yah, yah!”

N’Doch knows what they’re up to, trying to rile him, slow him down with a little extra burden of rage, maybe even goad him into turning and standing for a fight. But N’Doch has learned to be slow to anger. Fighting’s not his thing. Speed is his strength. As for Malimba’s brothers, let them ask their silly sister if he’s a boy or not.

Already he thinks of the girl with the same regret as the lost tomatoes. Silly, perhaps, but pretty enough, clean and healthy and a virgin, he’s sure of it. Not so many of those around, though at almost twenty, N’Doch has had his share. It would have been nicer to lie down with her a while instead of just snatching the fruit and bolting. She might have given him some, if he’d pleased her well enough, and then there’d be no need for all this sweating and racing about. N’Doch knows he has a gift for pleasing women, even those he doesn’t take to bed. It’s one reason he hasn’t had to fight so much. Whatever trouble he gets into, he can always find a woman or two to take his side. In groups, he has found, women can be very powerful allies. This is maybe his worst miscalculation this time – to attempt such a serious snatch when the aunties and grandmothers and the satisfied widows who might have hidden and protected him are all shut up in the shade of their houses, fast asleep.

He clears the last chunk of the sea tug and cuts shoreward to skirt the sand-filled hulks of two landing craft left unclaimed after the most recent failed coup. Together, they form a solid wall of rust and bullet holes and peeling camo paint, half in, half out of the water at low tide. N’Doch considers whipping around the hind end and climbing the far side to drop down onto the wash of wet sand inside. But the brothers are too close behind to fall for this ruse. They’re sure to see him fling himself over the top, and then he’ll be trapped and done for. But he can use the great bulk of the landing craft to cover his sprint to the next wreck down, one of the really big ones, a storm-grounded supertanker whose half-submerged stern juts into the water for the length of several soccer fields. N’Doch has a long run over open sand, but if he can reach the tanker before the brothers pass the landing craft, he’ll be home free. He can hide himself forever in the dark and complex bowels of that derelict giant.

But as he rounds the end of the landing craft, his next disastrous miscalculation is revealed. This time, N’Doch curses himself out loud. The fishing fleet is in, as he’d have known it would be, if he’d given it a moment’s clear thought. Hauled up on the sand between him and his refuge are thirty high-sided, high-prowed, brightly painted boats shaped like hollowed-out melon slices, heavy old wooden boats with galley-sized oars pulled by four men each. They’re as tightly packed as a school of tuna. N’Doch can see no alley through them. A path around will take too long. Over the top, then, it has to be, though even at midships, they’re half again his height. He races at the nearest, leaping to grab for the gunwales. He misses, catches a strand of fish net instead, then flails and falls back, pulling the load of netting and floaters over on top of himself. By the time he’s struggled free of the web of slimy, stinking rope, the brothers have made it around the landing craft. They slow and walk towards him, with nasty grins on their faces.

“Hey, water boy…”

“D’ja eat good, water boy?”

“Time to pay up now…”

They fan out in a semicircle as they approach, cutting off his chance of a last minute end run. The shortest and lightest skinned of them has picked up a ragged scrap of metal. He swings it casually, like a baseball bat, but there is nothing casual in his eyes. N’Doch shakes off the last of the netting and backs toward the water. Maybe he can outswim them. He knows this is folly. He has hardly a full breath left in his body. His chest is heaving like a bellows, but then, so are theirs.

The surf pounds. A long wave foams up around his ankles. He hopes there’s nothing too lethal hiding in the sand behind him, or in the water. The beach slants sharply. It drops off fast here, so the waves crest and break close to shore. The undertow is already pulling at his calves, sucking the gravel from beneath his heels, tipping his balance. He feels not so much driven backward into the water by the brothers’ approach, as drawn inexorably into its depths, like he’s being inhaled by the ocean, as if the water itself was alive. A peculiar sensation. It makes him lightheaded, and now he’s thinking he hears music in the crashing roar of the surf. He thinks maybe this is how you feel when you know you’re about to die. He doesn’t understand why he isn’t terrified.

A particularly big wave breaks loudly behind him. The spray flings needles at his back. He braces himself against the hard swirl of water, the boil of foam around his knees. Another big wave coils and crashes, then throws itself at his thighs. And another. N’Doch backs deeper into the water, wondering if there’s a new storm off shore that he hasn’t heard about.

Two of the brothers are wading in after him now. The short one is in the lead, brandishing his metal club. He lashes out suddenly. N’Doch ducks. It’s a near miss. The short guy has very long arms. Another monster wave breaks. N’Doch knows he’ll have to swim for it soon. He can’t back out much further in this high rough surf and keep his footing. The very next wave knocks him off-balance, and the club-wielder lunges after him with such a splashing and buffeting of metal and limbs and water that it isn’t until the swell is pulling back and N’Doch has his feet under him again that he feels the sear along his upper arm. A thin trail of blood slips out with the wave like a coil of brown kelp. He claps his hand to his bicep. The bastard’s cut him!

Finally N’Doch begins to feel afraid. An open wound in this water? Any number of nasty things he could pick up. And then there are the sharks that cruise the beaches, for lack of prey further out. The merest whiff of blood will bring them in, and a starving shark is more fearsome than any number of Malimba’s brothers.

The biggest wave so far thunders into its curl behind him. N’Doch waits to be engulfed. No, he’ll dunk fast just before it hits and let it pummel them into the gravel. He scans the brothers’ faces for a measure of the wave’s size and sees instead a stark and uncomprehending terror. The short one has dropped his club. Suddenly, all three of them are backstepping through the surging water as fast as they can, heading for shore. N’Doch is sure the sharks have come in with the wave but he cannot bear to look. He throws himself after the brothers, paddling frantically with his hands. Briefly he worries that it might be a ruse to draw him within range, but he doesn’t believe they’re that gifted as actors. Their terror is convincing. The minute they’re out of the water, they’re pounding away up the beach. They seem to have forgotten about him entirely.

N’Doch struggles against the pull of the undertow. He expects jaws lined with razors to clamp onto his thigh and haul him back again. As he stumbles into ankle-deep water and regains his balance, two of the brothers halt, high up on the beach. The short one is yanking on the taller one’s arm. The tall one shrugs him off. He’s yelling, and pointing toward the water. With his feet safely under him, N’Doch can resist no longer. He turns, and sees a thing beyond his wildest imaginings…