ONE SALT SEA
He was nine today, nine and breathless with anticipation.
The ground was cracked and dry beneath his feet, and sand swirled around his face. The wind brushing against his skin was harsh and gritty, and he pressed his face to the violet silk of his mother’s shawl. Her kohl-rimmed eyes were fixed on the distance, at a rising fort of brown sand and caked dirt.
“Just a little longer,” she said, mussing his hair, pulling him close. Her lips were dry from the heat, like his, and he wondered if her throat was as parched as his- his was sandpapery and hot.
To either side, salt-embrittled boats lay on ground that had once known water intimately. They were still moored, tall poles sticking into the ground like anchors on a sandy sea.
“This was a river once,” his mother said, her voice wistful and scratchy from disuse. They didn’t speak unless it was necessary, their throats were raw without water, and speaking made it worse. “Water everywhere, beautiful clear water, sweet as anything.”
Sweet water? The only water he knew was brackish, salty, and it came from hosepipes out of trucks. Sometimes the tanks leaked and water sprayed from the trucks as they moved from village to village. If it wasn’t too hot, the children would run behind the truck, screaming and laughing as the spray doused them head to foot. Yesterday, a similar truck had rolled slowly past his home, but he’d been too busy with the men in the village, burying his father.
He understood death, had understood it intimately since he’d been six and the last wells and ponds had run dry. All his little brothers and sisters had perished, and so had a hundred children in all the little villages that surrounded his. And then the adults had started to give up.
The fort was looming closer now; dark hieroglyphs on its walls were the villagers had scrawled unanswered prayers. Shadows of tiny insects and lizards skittered across its walls, distorted by the angle of the sun into monstrosities. His mother ascended a few tall stairs and held out her hand, her skin dry and hanging from the bones but still beautiful with her long tapered fingers and shiny, shapely nails. He clambered up, and thus they went, all the way up the stairs and into an open courtyard bounded by crumbling walls.
“Look,” she said, running towards the walls, her voice a wistful kite rising high, higher. “Look! Look at the sea!”
And he followed after her, tiny feet pattering against the century old brick and stone, drawn by the sound of his mother’s voice, the new clear soprano ring of it.
“Look!” she said, again, salt tears running down her skin and leaving glistening tracks through the grime.
And there it was- the sea. So much water, rolling forever into the distance, smashing against the foundations of the fort. Relentlessly whipping the stone, weathering it slowly down, frothing against the boulders lying half-submerged where parts of the fort had crumbled.
Water. Water; he had never imagined there would be so much of it, so much of it in a world where drought reigned supreme.
“It’s all salt,” his mother said, her tears adding salt to the sea. “It’s all salt and no use. No life, no life in it.”
She climbed atop the walls and stared down into the sea, the sun glistening on the water, reflecting off her eyes.
His eyes were wide with the discovery of the sea. Her violet shawl fluttered in the wind and whipped against his face. He climbed up beside her, and the sun was so hot. His throat was so dry. There was no moisture in the air. Time was dry as a desert, each second enclosing within itself a parched eternity.
“Wouldn’t you like to feel it? The sea? All that water…,” his mother said, her eyes glittering coins, too unreadable, too impassioned.
He swallowed, it hurt to swallow; he looked at her again, and now she turned to him, and he didn’t know what to say. Perhaps he should nod, but it was so high up here, and in which direction would they swim? There was nowhere to swim. Maybe the mermaids would adopt them, like in her stories.
“Would you like that? The water? The sea?”The ruthless sun slowly sank into the one salt sea, as he gazed at her in frantic surmise.